Sen. Cardin hears an earful on healthcare

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Four hundred fifty Maryland residents and a lot of anger filled the Hagerstown Community College theater Wednesday afternoon for Sen. Ben Cardin’s third town hall on health reform.

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The Maryland Democrat’s 75-minute town hall, held in a conservative stronghold in the state, was peppered with boos, jeers and catcalls, though a minority of attendees who support health reform efforts made it a bit calmer than past events in Laurel and Towson.

Officials estimated up to 600 citizens, most of whom appeared to be opposed to healthcare reform, lined up outside the theater. Some audience members said they arrived as early as 8:30 a.m.

Cardin remained nonplussed throughout the forum, even as constituents sometimes screamed at him, drowning out his explanations. The senator stayed an extra 15 minutes and took several extra questions, but appeared to win over few listeners.

Most of the 23 questions from the audience were hostile, with questioners most angered over the cost of health reform, the role of the government, whether illegal immigrants would be offered insurance and whether tort reform would be included.

“Washington has buried my family in debt,” yelled one audience member in a typical question. “How are we supposed to have any faith in you or the administration with our healthcare?”

“This government has lost faith and trust. You all are not getting it,” screamed another woman.

Town halls across the country continued to make headlines and fill chatter on the cable news networks on Wednesday. Democrats charge the protests are orchestrated, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday called those disrupting the town halls “un-American.”

Those expressing outrage at the events say they are acting spontaneously, and that they are upset with runaway government spending.

At the Cardin town hall on Wednesday, one of the loudest and angriest questioners, Cindy Maguire, a retired nurse from Hagerstown, told The Hill she became “unglued” because she’s passionate about the issue.

“I give a lot of credit to Sen. Cardin — I really, really do. He knew this would be a hostile group,” Maguire said. “I came a little unglued because I’m very passionate. But a lot of us conservatives are displaying justified anger because we feel our country is being taken in a wrong direction.”

Cardin repeatedly stressed that differences over health reform can be distilled into basic differences over the role of the government and whether the private insurance industry should be allowed to operate without regulation or competition.

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“There’s going to be a fundamental difference here on the responsibility of government,” he said. “I think government needs to provide protections so that the system can work … I understand some of you have already made up your minds, and I certainly respect your right to express your views. But I come to a different conclusion. I’ve been to Baltimore and I’ve seen some healthy babies that wouldn’t be here without prenatal care provided by the government. We just disagree on that point.”

Cardin also repeatedly emphasized that there is no formal healthcare bill before the Senate. He said he was open to tort reform and insisted that illegal immigrants aren’t included in reform efforts and that reform would be fully funded.

As he has at past forums, Cardin laid out the Democratic case for health reform based on the “cost of inaction.” The senator noted that health costs increased by 78 percent between 2001 and 2008, and that last year $2.4 trillion was spent without covering 47 million Americans, including 760,000 Marylanders — raising costs on those who have insurance.

Health reform supporters were numerous in the audience, but not nearly as loud as opponents. After the event, supporters told reporters they were frustrated with the behavior of critics.

“I thought it was very distressing and extremely rude, because I was here to learn about the bill,” said Carol Austin, a Hagerstown antique dealer. “I came here at eight-thirty in the morning and I was in the second row, and I had a hard time hearing him. I think he was very brave to deal with it."

Louise Dawson, 77, also of Hagerstown, said she worries that her husband’s insurance from his years as a rail company employee will be jeopardized under the Democratic-led health efforts.

“If the government is allowed to have a plan, we won’t be able to have our own options,” she said. “This forum was what I expected, because we have more opponents than supporters.”

Outside the college theater, those who couldn’t get in were just as opinionated.

Gwen Hall, 56, of Damascus, Md., a former editor of a medical newsletter, stood in the rain with a small, white sign that said, “Support Health Reform.” She said she was surprised at the amount of anger at Wednesday’s event.

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“There isn’t a lot of information out there about what it is yet, so I don’t know what people are so upset about,” she said. “I just came basically to show my support for moving forward on reform. From the news, I’ve seen that the other side is coming out, so I wanted to come out too.”

Amy Taylor, 28, an antique business owner from Hagerstown, also held a sign outside the theater: “Stop ObamaCare.”

“I have a lot of issues with the cost and how we’re going to pay for it, and whether it’s going to take away our choices,” she said. “If people didn’t start stepping up and taking notice of this, it would have already been passed and it would have been last month’s news.”

Signs weren’t allowed inside the theater, but dotted the landscape outside, as far as the exit into downtown Hagerstown from Interstate 70. Signs read “No Socialized Medicine,” “No To ObamaCare,” and “Don’t Take Away My Health Care.” At the entrance to the college, one man stood with a small, handwritten cardboard sign that read, “Death To Obama.”