Sanders put on the hot seat as hundreds turn out to debate health care
By Josh O'Gorman
and PATRICK McARDLE STAFF WRITERS | August 16,2009
PHOTO BY ALBERT J. MARRO
U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, center, works his way through a crowd assembled at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rutland Saturday for one of his town meetings on health care reform. Sanders held a similiar meeting in Arlington later in the day.
While people debated passionately sometimes with raised voices the discourse mostly was civil when independent U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders held a pair of public meetings Saturday in Rutland and Arlington to champion health care reform.
By 9 a.m. in Rutland, a line stretched from the doors of the Unitarian Universalist Church, down West Street and around the corner to Cottage Street, with many in the throng holding signs, most in favor of overhauling the nation's health care system.
Perhaps in anticipation of the hostile crowds at similar meetings nationwide in recent weeks, police officers with Vermont State Police, Rutland City and Rutland County Sheriff's Department kept an eye on the crowd.
"We've been monitoring the situation since Monday," said Officer T.P. Tuttle with Rutland City Police, one of 20 police officers at Saturday's event. "People have the right to say what's on their mind, and we have to expect that and just absorb it. We're not expecting any violence, but if there were violence, we'd have enough personnel to handle it."
Shortly before 10 a.m., the doors opened to the church and the crowd filled the 200-seat sanctuary, with about as many people left outside to sit on folding chairs in the sun or seek shade beneath trees or beside adjacent buildings. During the nearly two-hour meeting, Sanders raced back and forth taking questions from people inside and out, with the public address system allowing both crowds to follow the debate.
"You've all seen the TV and the meetings and the people trying to shout down other people, but that is not what the state of Vermont is about," Sanders said as he attempted to set a civil tone for the debate.
While the debate was mostly calm, many in the crowd appeared to be convinced that the proposed health care bill advocates the creation of "death panels" to decide what sort of health care the elderly should receive and how and when they should die.
"Let me tell you a thing or two about the so-called 'death panels.' They can't take it out because it ain't in there," Sanders said, a statement that drew outraged shouts from the audience. "I understand you're angry, and you should be angry, but do you really think that in the United States of America we would have a president who would say we should kill off old people?"
Many in the crowd immediately shouted back "yes!" and "he said it!" with other members of the crowd shouting them down. Sanders said the provision of the House bill that some refer to as a death panel would have allowed people in a voluntary way to get information about filling out a living will.
Dr. Deborah Richter, a physician from Cambridge, said there is "mistrust in the process" of health care reform.
"People say, "Don't touch my Medicare." Well, the single-payer system is about Medicare for all," Richter said. "The American people are putting in more than enough money into health care to pay for everyone and now we know the majority of the American people are in favor of it."
If the people at the meeting who were opposed to a single-payer system were a minority, they were a very vocal minority as they shouted "no!"
"I have heard people in Vermont and around the country say, 'Get the government out of health care,'" Sanders said, a remark that drew cheers from those who apparently supported such a position. "How many people here think we should abolish Medicare? Medicare is a single-payer government program."
Things had heated up both figuratively and literally by the time Sanders, shirt dark with perspiration, met the sweltering crowd outside, including a man who identified himself as Charlie, a taxpayer from Rutland.
"I've been paying taxes my entire life, and every year they get higher and higher and higher!" Charlie bellowed. "Tell me that this health care plan is not going to cost me more money. How are you going to determine if I don't have health care right now what my health care tax is going to be?"
Sanders said that since President Barrack Obama has been in office, Charlie's taxes haven't gone up, eliciting a brief shouted exchange of "no, they haven't" and "yes, they have!"
While voices were raised, both sides did listen to each other, a stark contrast to public meetings nationally that have resulted in arrests and an overall breakdown in communication.
"I think what we showed the country is that in Vermont we can have a civil good discussion without drowning out anybody and without trying to disrupt the meeting," Sanders said before he left for the afternoon meeting in Arlington. "I feel like we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, which was allowing people to discuss their point of view."
Sanders encountered a similar tone in Arlington.
Staff members from Sanders' office estimated about 450 people attended the meeting there.
While many people joined a line that was designated for critics of health care reform, there were none of the loud disruptions.
Sanders kept his cool during the questioning, quickly shutting down one man who tried to talk over his early remarks, and deflecting a pointed question about why he hadn't read all of the 1,100 pages of the health care proposal prepared by a House subcommittee.
"No, because I'm not in the House," he retorted.
The senator told the same questioner that "Sarah Palin notwithstanding," there was nothing in the bill about a "death panel."
Sanders said following the Arlington event that he thought things went very well with even health care reform opponents remaining "very respectful" and asking good questions.
"In this state, people respect other people's points of view. It's just not a Vermont value to be drowning out somebody else and disrupting a meeting," he said.