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No pistols at Bay Ridge health care town hall

Bay Ridge resident Kirsten Firminger listened quietly through the entire event. Rep. Michael McMahon, who had called the health care town hall, spoke first, going through a slide show of charts and graphs outlining the primary prospective reform bills — HR 3200 in the House and the recently-passed Senate finance committee bill — before opening the floor for questions with two caveats: no signs, no yelling.

Like most of the participants, Kirstin stayed in her seat. The 33-year-old research assistant and CUNY graduate student listened as the speakers — union members, clergy, doctors, nurses, retirees, students; employed and unemployed, in-district and out — lined up to take their turn at the microphones. Some speakers spoke out against things like the public option; many applauded it. Everyone was passionate.

The event lasted two hours and everyone who wanted to speak was given the opportunity. On her way out, Kirsten put a green jacket over the Obama shirt she’d worn with a piece of tape attached that said, “I vote live in Bay Ridge.” Halfway to the door she was asked about the meeting.

“I’m surprised at how it went,” she said. “It was very civil.”

It seems that the Summer of Rage has turned into the Autumn of Civility, in southwest Brooklyn at least. This was the first town hall the congressman has had on the Brooklyn side of District 13. Last month’s forum in Staten Island was, by all accounts, more raucous. Which isn’t to say those who made it down to the Shore Hill Community Room in Bay Ridge weren’t fired up. But the forum was a far cry from the shout-down, pistol-toting town halls that have made the nightly news these last few months.

In contrast,those that packed into the Shore Hill Community Room were restrained, respectful, and mostly in favor of a public option, that bugbear of those opposed to health care reform. The fears of rationing, socialism and death panels that drove so much of the furor this summer were replaced with demands for higher taxes on big corporations and the wealthy, eliminating the exclusions for pre-existing conditions, and, for some, a push beyond the public option towards a single payer, Medicare-for-all type system. At one point, when a speaker forebodingly predicted that a public option would destroy the health insurance industry, a healthy portion of the crowd applauded the industry’s potential demise.

Doug Biviano, until very recently a Democratic candidate for the 33rd City Council District, fell on the applause side. During his remarks, the 40-year-old Biviano held up a thick stack of papers: 2,400 petitions collected in the final days of his campaign, all in favor of a single-payer system. The bills in Congress right now, he said, had the potential to create a “health care Frankenstein.”

“There will be no leadership, Obama will acquiesce,” he said, describing the worst-case scenario for reform. “What we will have is tax-payer subsidized corporate profit. That is fascism if I’ve ever seen it.” Biviano supports the passage of HR 676, which would establish a Medicare-for-all system.

On the other side were Bay Ridge residents like Charles Scheffold, 64, a retired technician and Medicare recipient. He had concerns of his own, like tort reform, opening up health insurance plan competition between states, and eliminating fraud and waste. He wasn’t alone; a significant minority cheered and applauded when these issues were raised.

“I am for health care reform,” he said at the microphone. “I’m not for a single-payer option. I am for trying to cure some of the problems in a different way.”

Scheffold later said he “empathized with everyone in the room” but had no faith in a government-run system. “These bills are so loosely written, they can be manipulated to do anything, at any time,” he said. “Once it’s in place, there’s no removing it.” For Scheffold this sort of uncertainty in legislation, in light of the fraud and waste he saw in other government programs like Medicare and Social Security, was a recipe for disaster. He vowed to actively work to unseat any politician who voted for “the wrong thing.”

For his part, McMahon worked to highlight the need for change and the common ground he felt everyone in the room shared — eliminating the exclusions for pre-existing conditions, for example — while trying to distinguish between what the public option is and isn’t. It is, at least in the house’s HR 3200, a health insurance that would be run by the government, and one for which participants would still pay monthly. This is a far cry from the socialized medicine that either side of the issue often invokes.

McMahon spoke in broad reform terms, saying, “How that particular issue — the public option — fits into that greater context is more critical in my mind as to whether I support it than in and of itself.” What is absolutely certain is that the congressman does not support a single-payer system, stating, “I do not believe that the nation is ready for or that our budgets can sustain a public option which is Medicare-for-all.”

Given the attention the health-care reform debate has been given, Ann Reson, a 65-year-old representative from the United Federation of Teachers, reminded the assembled of an often-forgotten reality: “There is no bill as of yet to be voted on.”

“There are several bills out there, that’s why discussion is so important,” she continued. “There will be a bill eventually, to be voted on, and I would urge that we have these kind of meetings at that time so we all have a chance to look at it.”

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