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Groups for and against health-care reform press their cases before Congress resumes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2009 - As President Barack Obama and members of Congress continue debating health-care in forums across the country, groups on both side of the issue in the St. Louis area are pressing for their side to be heard.

Those in favor of health-care changes, including religious leaders, business executives and health officials, made spirited pleas at a news conference at the Family Care Health Center in south St. Louis for passage of a bill that would provide comprehensive insurance coverage for everyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions, at a cost that is affordable.

Edward Lawlor of Washington University noted that when Medicare first passed in the mid-1960s, the consensus was that the United States would have national health insurance by 1967.

"This is the time," said Lawlor, who is dean of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and director of its Institute for Public Health. "We can't afford to get sidetracked."

With a group of their supporters urging them on with "amens," a succession of speakers talked of the number of uninsured Missourians -- 729,000 in 2007 -- that is increasing with the tough economic times. The growing group includes not just low-income families, they said, but middle-income families that have lost coverage and cannot afford to get it back.

"We need to make sure that people can get care when they need it, particularly those who are most vulnerable," said Connie Brooks of Access Ministries at Ascension Health.

Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation called for an "end to the lies and the myth" about the supremacy of the American medical system.

"When people say we have the best health care in the world," she said, "we don't. Shame on us. Shame on us. We don't lack resources. What we lack is the moral vision to do what is right."

Eric Friedman, a small business owner, noted that for people in his position, health insurance premiums have been rising far more quickly than for large businesses, to unsustainable levels.

"Health care is strangling our country," he said. "It is strangling our economy.

"This is not just about saving lives. This is about saving our country. This is about saving our economy."

Amy Blouin, executive director of the Missouri Budget Project, said the timing of Thursday's event had nothing to do with protest planned by the so-called "tea bagger" groups who have called for demonstrations outside congressional offices on Saturday. Instead, she said, it was simply the best time to get all of the speakers together.

But the increasingly vocal protests against health-care reform were noted by several of the participants who were concerned that raised voices and regular confrontations would deflect attention from the original goals of the effort.

"Let's pull the attention away from fear and back toward health-care reform," Talve said.

Small-group Discussion

Friday morning, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan held a small gathering on health care at a private home in south St. Louis. Carnahan spoke at length with three people who related their own experiences with the current health-care system and the problems they've confronted.

Dr. Stephen Radinsky of Clayton contended that the private insurance companies already ration care and cancel coverage for people who get sick. "It's called cherry picking," Radinsky said. "If you're just taking care of well people you don't have many expenses."

Radinsky asserted that that approach has helped the insurance companies amass the profits they've used to give huge salaries to their top executives and are driving their opposition to changing the system. "What this debate is about is money," he said.

Deborah Castillo told of her adopted adult son and the family's battles to get him treatment after he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In the end, they were forced to put him on Medicaid because there was no way to get him any private coverage. As a result, to stay under the income restrictions, he can't work.

Carnahan contended that groups or corporations opposing reform "want to make money from a broken system." The vocal opponents are disruptive at the forums members of Congress are holding, he said, because "they fear the public getting the facts."

But Carnahan says he remains optimistic that the U.S. House will approve a health-care reform bill by the end of September. He says the spirited forums are helping bolster the commitment of Democrats and others supporting change. The protests, he said, "are beginning to backfire."

Tea Parties with a theme

Meanwhile, a regional coalition of critics of the Democratic health-care proposals plans to stage themed rallies at noon Saturday outside the offices of several area members of Congress.

The St. Louis Tea Party, as the coalition is known, tells activists planning to go to the St. Louis office of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to "think American Revolution and what it stood for."

For like-minded U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, "think gratitude."

Leaders save their biggest jab for the rallies at the Brentwood and Crystal City offices of U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis: "think 5th-grade boy humor,'' their website announcement says.

Carnahan and McCaskill generally support the Obama administration's plans to revamp the nation's health-care industry, making both prime targets of opponents.

McCaskill and Carnahan each have faced packed, and vocal, audiences at their recent forums on health care and other issues.

Tea Party activists are particularly upset over a melee that ensued after Carnahan's forum in Mehlville a couple weeks ago. Six people were arrested, many of them members of the Service Employees International Union, which sides with Carnahan. The county police have referred the charges to the county counselor's office to determine whether any charges will be issued.

Saturday's events are the last major local anti-health-care rallies slated before Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day.

But local Tea Party leaders already are preparing to attend a Sept. 12 event in Quincy, Ill., which coincides with the end of a two-week tour around the country by the national Tea Party Express.

The Express is holding rallies against the Democratic health care proposals in a number of states -- but surprisingly, not Missouri -- between Aug. 28 and Sept. 12. The tour's final event is in Washington, D.C., where organizers hope that 1 million opponents of the Democratic health-care proposals show up.

Missouri's exclusion is somewhat surprising since local Tea Party activists say that some of their side's largest showings this year have been at rallies and forums in the St. Louis area.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says that both sides are becoming more visible -- and he predicts they'll get even more active in the coming weeks -- because the stakes are so high.

"This is the signature issue of the Obama administration,'' Robertson said, noting that Democratic presidents since Harry S Truman have sought to expand health care.

Meanwhile, opponents see the debate over the scope of government in health care as "the major battle in the war against the liberal tide,'' Robertson said.

As a result, Robertson said, it shouldn't be surprising that "an awful lot of passion has been unleashed."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.
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.