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McCaskill booed at health-care forum in Hillsboro, but senator stands her ground

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2009 - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., often was drowned out Tuesday by her audience packing a gym in Hillsboro for a public form on health care.

But the frequent roars of disapproval didn't curb her resolve to listen to them -- and have them hear from her.

At one point, McCaskill told the crowd tha a law enforcement officer asked if she wanted to leave and end the noisy session early. "Not on your life," she said, touching off cheers.

Later, as tensions -- and the tenor -- abated, the senator observed, "By and large, this was a good meeting."

The audience gathered in the field house at Jefferson College -- the third such forum McCaskill has held so far this week -- and was made up largely of opponents to changing the nation's health-care system.

McCaskill's staff estimated the crowd at between 1,500-2,000, but the college pegged the size at 3,500. 

In any case, the crowd enthusiastically booed the senator when she made her pitch for changing the current system, and even when she agreed with some of their concerns. To demonstrate her commitment to listen, McCaskill said, she randomly chose two health-care critics in the audience to draw the audience's written questions from a jar.

McCaskill said that changes must be made to curb the rapid increase in the cost of insurance premiums. The average premium, she said, is now about $12,000 a year for a family, and it is expected to double to $25,000 a household by 2016. She maintained that such a rise would put health insurance out of reach of many families if changes aren't made.

The crowd rejected her repeated denials that any provisions in the existing Senate versions would force Americans to pay for abortions or deny treatment to senior citizens. McCaskill added that if such provisions did end up in the final bill, she'd never vote for it.

The audience also cheered when a woman rose rose to tell the senator that "I don't want to see our government involved in health care, period."

Then the crowd booed, when McCaskill asked for a show of hands of how many had Medicare. A large bloc of the audience was elderly, and raised their hands. She then asked how many of them wanted to get rid of Medicare, and asked those folks to keep their hands up.

Only a few remained.

McCaskill's point: "We have a whole lot of folks here who have a government program, and they like it."

The crowd booed some more.

Later McCaskill returned to the topic of health coverage for the elderly when yet another questioner alleged possible rationing.

Aside from the obvious moral and ethical reasons to oppose rationing, McCaskill told her audience there was also a clear political one: the elderly tend to be among the most dependable -- and largest -- bloc of voters in the country.

As a result, she asked, "Do you think politicians will kick seniors in the knees?" The crowd shouted in the affirmative.

McCaskill was prepared for the focus on senior citizens. She brought along her 81-year-old mother Betty Ann, who also addressed the crowd.

The audience was also leery of some of McCaskill's comments on the insurance companies. She pointed out that the 10 largest private insurance companies have increased their profits from $2.4 billion in 2000 to $12.9 billion in 2007. She implied that was the result of higher salaries for their executives and less coverage for the insured. Annual salaries for the CEOS of the 10 largest companies is $10 million a year, she said.

Those numbers did not seem to impress the crowd.

Even with her concerns about the insurance companies, McCaskill told the crowd she supported keeping the health-care system largely private but that she also favored more consumer protections so that people didn't lose their insurance coverage because of pre-existing conditions or because they got sick. She also said that she may support a public option, or may go along with a "cooperative'' proposed by some fellow senators as a compromise, but emphasized that her mind was not made up. 

She also emphasized that the people with insurance already are paying for those who don't have insurance and show up at hospitals to treated, and put that extra cost at $900-$1,300 a year tacked on to each insurance policy. 

McCaskill pledged to the crowd that she would not support any final version that would result in the public having fewer options than those provided to members of Congress.

The atmosphere was most charged at the beginning, when ;the senator signaled her frustration with the boisterous shouts. "This can't be about who's the loudest," she said, while emphasizing that she respected all the people in the audience.

At one point she tried to quell the jeers by pointing out that their shouts made it difficult for people to ask questions and for her to respond.

"I don't get this,'' she said. "Don't you want to be fair to your fellow patriots?" 

The crowd quieted down as the two-hour forum progressed -- and by its end, even some of the critics in the audience praised her for how she handled the event. "I didn't vote for the lady, but I thought that she did a good job today," said Jim Amos, a retired dentist from Webster Groves.

Although Amos is generally happy with his Medicare, he expressed the view of many in the audience when he observed that he's against a government-run health care program. 

Medicare was different, he said. "It is governnment run, but it's done very well." 

April Womack of St. Charles held up a small, yellow "Don't Tread on Me'' flag throughout the forum. (Although signs were barred, the small yellow flags weren't challenged.)

Womack explained, "I do not favor this plan. There's nothing in our Constitution that says health care must be provided for individuals."

Mary Watson, of Des Peres, was among the minority in support of a public option. Watson who works at a hospital, explained that a public option would provide coverage for "working Americans" who can't get coverage through their company. "The people who don't get health care in this country are the people who work." The people who get coverage, she said, are often those who don't work -- the poor on Medicaid and the elderly on Medicare.

As an example, she cited her hairdresser who couldn't afford health insurance, then got cancer and couldn't get coverage because she was ill. She died. 

Security at this forum appeared tighter that at previous ones held by other area members of Congress. Highway patrol cars were stationed along the road leading to the college, and all bags were searched upon entering the field house.

At one point, one man and two women were escorted out of the gym. The women had brought in large signs, which were banned. That touched off a brief altercation in the gym. The man was arrested, according to Roger Barrentine, the college spokesman. McCaskill said she feared that the altercation would be the only thing featured on TV.

After the forum, McCaskill told reporters that she was generally pleased with how the event had proceeded.

Did she learn anything from Tuesday's encounter? McCaskill replied that when she returns to the Senate after the recess, she would press harder to "making sure we don't incentivize employers to drop health-care coverage.

She also offered her views on one point that she she wasn't asked during the forum: "I'm opposed to taxing health-care benefits that go to the middle class," which she defined as households earning less than $250,000 a year.  

Even with the shouting and the occasional disruption, McCaskill said that such a forum was "a healthy thing for democracy." She added that she would encourage other members of Congress to hold them, and she was disappointed with those who have opted not to hold forums, or to cancel them.

Members of Congress facing angry crowds need to recognize "this isn't personal,'' she said, observing that many of the loudest in the audience were just venting their general frustrations with government.

"I don't think we should shy away from public discourse," she said.

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.

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