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Health care town hall draws diverse crowd
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Congressman Hank Johnson (D, Fourth District), center, held a town hall meeting Aug. 10 on proposed health care reform legislation. - photo by Nick Margiasso

Folks are passionate about health care reform – and aren’t afraid to show it.

Monday night, hundreds of area residents poured into the Clarkston campus of Georgia Perimeter College for Congressman Hank Johnson’s town hall meeting on proposed health care reform legislation. While audience members may have put a dab of Southern hospitality on a the nation’s top hot-button topic as of late by refraining from fisticuffs, there was still plenty of cheers and jeers to prove that citizens refuse to stay silent on the issue.

A beefed-up police presence monitored lines that wrapped around the building and people on both sides of the issue held up signs outside during the meeting. The crowd filled the auditorium and spilled into multiple overflow rooms with closed circuit televisions.

The town hall featured the congressman, was moderated by Larry Johnson of the DeKalb County Commission and featured a seven-person expert panel that included Dr. Patrice Harris (a member of the American medical Association’s Legislation Council), Dr. Arthur Kellermann (Professor of Emergency medicine and Associate Dean, Emory School of Medicine) and Michael Young (President/CEO, Grady Health System).

After roughly one hour of speeches by Johnson and the expert panel – during which people applauded, booed and argued with one another – the diverse crowd jockeyed to line up and speak in the Q&A portion of the night.

Rockdale resident Josie Deen, who lined up to speak, said she felt there were a lot of misconceptions about the bill. “A lot of people don’t know what’s in the bill and they just assume,” she said. “It’s all a scare tactic.”

David Shipp, chair of the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce governmental affairs committee, watched the meeting from an overflow room and said he left with unanswered questions.

“If you are denied treatment by one of these government sponsored programs, what is the appeal process? I say that because my mother who has pulmonary hypertension was denied treatment from Medicare because they said her prognosis was bad. In other words ‘we’re not going treat you because you’re going to die.’” An audience member did ask about the appeal process, said Shipp, but he felt the question wasn’t answered. “They went to the question of how the care is set up. But that wasn’t what she asked.”

Chairman Richard Oden also attended the meeting and reported at the Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday that he was struck by the weight health care issues the district faced.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got some very serious health issues. It was indicated that the fourth congressional district is number one in HIV. The number one trauma center in Georgia (Grady Hospital) produced $65 million in services they will not collect for,” said Oden. “We have doctors that can’t afford to get insurance anymore.”

The most contentious point of the evening came when Johnson, after being jeered while stating his support and ideas about the reform process, pointed his finger and accused Republicans in government of doing “absolutely nothing” on health care for the last eight years.

That drew a standing ovation from supporters, while detractors booed, threw their arms up and many walked out.

Despite the passions on both sides of the issue, local attendees said they found the overall event generally respectful.

Stanley Williams, chair of the Rockdale Democratic Party, attended the meeting and said he was impressed with the diversity of views. “What I liked about it was that it was balanced, in terms of content for healthcare and balanced in terms of audience response,” he said. “There were only a couple of occasions that I noticed potential unruly distracters being asked to leave the forum audience.”

David Shipp said he felt that diversity was key to the event staying under control. “I think the best thing was that the panel expressed a lot of different viewpoints. I personally believe where other events have broken down is because people feel frustrated that their views are not being heard. This particular one did not do that because all viewpoints were expressed.”

Michelle Kim contributed to this article.