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Hundreds air their opposition to Democratic proposals to revamp health care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 28, 2009 - Opponents of the Democratic efforts to revamp health care turned out in force Monday night, with hundreds packing the cafeteria at Forest Park Community College -- and shouting their objections -- as the staff of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., quietly listened and took notes.

"There's nothing in the Constitution about providing health care for everybody,'' said Steve Nowels, 36, of St. Louis -- one of dozens who lined up for a chance at the mike.

The crowd shouted and hissed its dismay when McCaskill regional director Michelle Sherod said early on during the two-hour-plus session that the senator believes "health care reform is needed,'' and supports some sort of public option.

The event was organized by the Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a critic of the Obama administration's attempt to expand health insurance coverage and control costs. McCaskill had agreed to the meeting, although she remained in Washington for Senate votes, to defuse the tensions displayed during two recent protests outside her St. Louis office.

But even state Americans for Prosperity executive director Carl Bearden was blown away by Monday night's turnout.

"It exceeded our expectations,'' said Bearden, a former legislator from St. Charles who occasionally chastised the crowd to be respectful to the senator's staff and to her allies in the audience.

To a degree, the event was a larger version of the spirited, and sometimes free-for-all, exchanges over health care witnessed by U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, during his town-hall gathering last week on the same campus to discuss the same topic. (Most of the disruption, his staff has noted, came from opponents who disagreed with Carnahan's support for healthcare changes.)

But unlike that event, where the crowd generally supported change, the bulk of Monday's audience did not. Most of the speakers were of the same mind as Bearden: that the Democratic proposals would mean the end of private insurers, reduce health care choice for Americans, and eventually lead to higher costs.

"The only people who say health care is broken are the politicians,'' said James Donahue of St. Joseph, Mo.

Some alleged that President Barack Obama was pushing a plan that would require physicians to perform abortions, and require the public to pay for them. Others complained that expanding coverage for mental illness, as some Democrats have proposed, would shortchange care for physical ailments.

Jim Dale of Valley Park was among several who said they feared that greater government involvement would lead to medical rationing. "At what point does the government say it's your patriotic duty to die,'' Dale said, igniting cheers.

Terry Coffman of Sullivan drew deafening applause when she asserted that most of the 46 million Americans without health care coverage chose to go without, either because they didn't want to pay for it, didn't realize they qualified for existing federal programs, or because they were illegal immigrants.

After listening more than a hour from critics, McCaskill's staff allowed time for comments from the smaller group of supporters who favored changing the current health care system.

Joe Squillace, a former social worker, told of numerous clients -- some with good incomes -- who couldn't get insurance because of pre-existing conditions, and found themselves in financial trouble after suffering a serious illness.

Sarah Felts, a recent college graduate from Oakville, said critics were wrong to say Congress was being "rushed'' to act on health care. "This began when Harry Truman was president in 1945,'' she said, referring to the Missouri native's unsuccessful push for universal healthcare after World War II.

Because of a communications snafu advanced by some liberal blog sites, a number of pro-McCaskill people in Monday's audience thought the event was to be about energy issues. So, they had shown up wearing T-shirts declaring "Stop Global Warming" and carried signs that focused on climate change and the need for alternative fuels. They attracted attention only when a few critical speakers sought to lump the health care proposals with the recent controversial vote in the U.S. House in favor of cap and trade.

(Vanessa Crawford, climate change coordinator for the Missouri Votes Conservation Education Fund, said her group was aware that the meeting was going to be about health care. Members were encouraged to attend anyway, she said, because "we're trying to influence McCaskill, who's considered a swing vote on cap and trade.")

Amy Blouin of the Missouri Budget Project, which has generally sought for more access to health care, said she feared that many of the critical comments at Monday night's event reflected "a lot of misinformation'' about what Congress actually was considering.

Bearden disagreed, and says his camp's effort will intensify. A rally is to be held Tuesday night in Cape Girardeau, and a petition called "Hands Off My Health Care'' is circulating the state. A statewide bus tour is soon to be underway, he added.

Meanwhile, McCaskill regional director Sherod-- careful to avoid fueling any discord -- said the senator's staff was pleased to get so much input and would pass it on to McCaskill.

Bearden's staff was filming videos Monday of critics who were unable to address the crowd because of lack of time. The senator was expected to watch some of them, he said.

Jim Durbin, a conservative blogger and among the speakers, predicted that all the anger and angst exhibited by riled-up conservatives over proposed health care changes would influence politicians in Missouri and Washington.

"They've never seen this before," Durbin said of the elected officials. "They're being forced to pay attention. And they're scared -- which is good."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.