The Star-Ledger

U.S. Rep. Pascrell's Healthcare Town Hall Draws Heated Crowd Reactions

The Star-Ledger — Thursday, September 3, 2009

By Nic Corbett / For The Star-Ledger

MONTCLAIR — Both cheers and boos rained down on U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr., at his town-hall meeting on health care reform today, days before Congress reconvenes to tackle the issue.

Pascrell (D-8th Dist.) faced a tough and adoring crowd of nearly 1,000 at Montclair State University as he discussed reform and a version of the bill he helped craft as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. About 200 more people waited in a spillover room.

The passionate gathering mirrored other town halls hosted by Democratic legislators across the country during Congress' August recess. The meetings were intended to drum up support for the proposed reform legislation and combat falling approval ratings. Many have gotten media attention for the vocal outbursts of those who oppose the bill. President Barack Obama is expected to make a speech to Congress on Sept. 9 to give his proposals a stronger push.

Pascrell is a staunch supporter of the proposed government-sponsored insurance plan, which would compete with plans offered by private insurers.

"Our current health care system is broken and all sides of the fence agree to that," the veteran congressman said. "We spend more money than any other country on health care, and costs continue to grow as health care threatens to consume our economy."

The country spends more than $2.2 trillion on health care each year, making up about 16 percent of the economy, Pascrell said. Health insurance premiums have nearly doubled since 2000, about five times faster than wages rise in New Jersey.

Questions from the audience were selected at random from three boxes labeled support, undecided and oppose. Ushers carrying wireless microphones roamed the auditorium as names were called. Shouting matches broke out intermittently between individuals in the audience, but security officers were on hand to make sure no fights erupted.

The crowd was a diverse mix of young and old, black and white. Speakers at times could barely get in a word edgewise before they were drowned out by the crowd's noise.

Residents who oppose the bill voiced concerns about the steep cost of health-care reform. One plan under consideration would cost an estimated $1.6 trillion over 10 years. Supporters worried that without a bipartisan compromise in the U.S. House and the Senate, attempts to overhaul the system will fail.

"This is frustrating business," Pascrell told a Montclair State student. "We've been discussing health care reform for 30 years. This didn't just happen 30 days ago."

Scott Weber, a 26-year-old Livingston resident, told Pascrell he's worried the public option would put private insurance companies out of business.

"It is clear that the ultimate goal of Barack Obama and the Democratic party is to achieve a complete government takeover of health care," he said, his words muffled as the crowd erupted. "They do this under the belief that health care is a right, or that they have a right to give it. However, in America there can be no such thing as a right to products and services created by the efforts of others."

It was Pascrell's first and only face-to-face gathering with constituents on the issue. In the last few weeks, he hosted two telephone town hall meetings, which his spokesman Paul Brubaker likened to a radio talk show. Nearly 4,000 people phoned in to the first, on Aug. 11.

Virginia Citrano, a single mother in Verona who works as a freelance writer, said she had hoped for a civil discussion at the meeting. She said she pays $926 a month for health coverage for herself and her two children, who are 8 and 10 years old. She wishes she had more options.

"I only had two plans to choose from — expensive and more expensive," she said.

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