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Tea in Fortuna 

Frightened patriots attempt to make sense of health care reform

click to enlarge Dr. Charles Rigney. Photo by Bob Doran
  • Dr. Charles Rigney. Photo by Bob Doran

The Fortuna Vets' Hall was decked out in red, white and blue from top to bottom last Wednesday in preparation for the Humboldt Tea Party Patriots' big to-do, a town hall meeting on health care. A banner with a flag background announced the Patriots' "Declaration of Independence from Tax and Spend Politics."

As a growing crowd waited for the forum to begin, a senior citizen near the front decided she'd take a look at the thick copy of H.R. 3200 placed for effect on a nearby podium. "I don't understand it," she said after reading a bit of the 1,000-plus page bill known as America's Affordable Health Choices Act.

That simple statement set the tone for the evening, as one speaker after another (with a few exceptions) expressed anger and dismay at the health insurance reform proposal.

Dorice Miranda, a willowy blonde who heads the local Patriots group, welcomed the crowd and described the evening as "a warm-up" for Rep. Mike Thompson's health care forum, which would be held a week later. (The Patriots had invited the congressman to their meeting, but he declined and announced his own.) Miranda also laid down some ground rules: No signs, no profanity, be respectful, don't interrupt, limit comments to one minute.

She then introduced a "panel of experts." Lined up on the stage were Santa Rosa CPA Lawrence Wiesner, a perennial Republican Party candidate who has run for Congress and the state legislature. Fortuna insurance broker Jeff Miller would offer the industry perspective. Dr. Charles Rigney, a family practice physician from Scotia, was there to speak for the medical profession.

First panelist up was Chris Hanson, regional director for advocacy and government relations for St. Joseph Health System. Hanson said he wasn't there to speak for or against H.R. 3200, but rather to identify "troubling trends" in health care, from St. Joe's perspective. "What we've seen is an increase in demand and need for Medical and Medicare," while the compensation for program services has dropped. The hospitals have also seen more demand for charity care, an increase in bad debt and more people coming in who simply don't have health insurance.

"And if they don't access care through a clinic or a private doctor, they wind up at the E.R.," said Hanson. Medicare reimbursement, he said, is making recruitment of doctors difficult for areas like ours. "Because of all these things, we definitely see the system as being broken and in need of some sort of fix, so on a grand scale we support the concept of health care reform."

He turned the mic over to Dr. Rigney, who began by announcing that he'd brought along a copy of his birth certificate -- drawing a round of applause from the birthers in the crowd. Rigney gave a wide-ranging speech that touched on his fondness for Glenn Beck, the general decline of the once-great state of California and his dismay that the birth rate in the U.S. isn't keeping up with other countries. He spoke about how much he admired the free Shriners Hospitals for Children. He summed up with his opinion that medical service is a "privilege" that "works best when it's private."

Miller spoke of the insurance industry's two main concerns with H.R. 3200 -- first, that it "does little if anything in terms of arresting skyrocketing insurance costs," and second, a repeat of Manson's concerns about Medicare reimbursement. In Miller's opinion, what's needed is tort reform, prescription drug reform and Medicare reform, since "providers are losing money on patients."

Wiesner said that he does not buy health insurance; he figures he doesn't need it. To illustrate this, he told a story about his son swallowing a dart. While removing the dart ultimately cost him $13,000, he reckons he came out ahead since insurance premiums for a year would have added up to more. He blames the problems with health care solely on the government -- Medicare, he said, is an elaborate Ponzi scheme.

At that point the meeting was turned over to the audience. One speaker after another decried the "government takeover" as "socialism." David from McKinleyville, who sidestepped the no signs rule by wearing a "Comrade Obama" bumper sticker on his back, added on a Nazi reference before announcing that change would come "over my dead body."

Bill from McKinleyville choked back tears as he spoke of fighting to defend the Constitution, then turned angry as he read from a news story on the rising tide of illegal immigration. He concluded by saying he knows that H.R. 3200 will provide health care for everyone "regardless of their citizenship. That is wrong!" Thunderous applause followed. (In fact, Section 246 of H.R. 3200 says specifically that no federal funds will be spent "on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.")

Carolyn Campbell from Fortuna wondered how the bill could be stopped since there's a Democratic majority in Congress. Dr. Rigney reassured her: "The Senate is in disarray because Ted 'The Swimmer' Kennedy has gone to his glory," he said.

There were those who did not toe the anti-reform line. Mary from Fortuna stepped up to the podium, noted that the discussion seems to be "all over the chart."

"Nobody seems sure that they're upset about," she said. She turned to the crowd asking for a show of hands: "How many are on Social Security? Medicare? Government pension?" Hands went up all over the room. "That's what I thought," she continued. "Socialist programs every damn one of them," she said, twisting the knife before suggesting that they should send all those checks back if they want to "stand up against socialism."

Amy Wahlberg of Arcata read a quote from Kennedy in which he spoke of "new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American -- North, South, East, West, young, old -- will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege." The crowd responded with boos and jeers.

Note: Amy Wahlberg, also known as Amy Wahlberg-Doran and Amy Doran, is married to Journal staff writer Bob Doran, who wrote this piece.

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Bob Doran

Bob Doran

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Contributing photographer.

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