With the U.S. Congress on a month long break, lawmakers are returning to their home districts where they are meeting voters who are sharply divided on the subject of health care reform. Some of these meetings have erupted into heated arguments and shouting matches. One of those meetings was held in in Pontiac, Illinois, part of Republican Tim Johnson's Congressional district, where he faced a largely supportive crowd opposed to current plans for health care reform.
Mindful of the headlines such town hall meetings have been generating across the United States, Congressman Tim Johnson's chief of staff, Jerry Clarke, promised a packed room of hundreds of voters this meeting would be different. "If you came for theater, you are probably not going to get it here," he said.
But several minutes into the meeting, while answering the first question about health care, Congressman Johnson, who opposes the current health care plan, became impatient with an audience member supportive of government-run health care.
"Let me point out, sir. I am not here to debate you. You have asked me a question, I am going to respond to it, but this is not a back and forth debate. A lot of people in this room have questions, and as soon as I get done answering them, we are going to let them ask their questions," he said.
"But the bill is not even written, how can you ..." (interrupted the audience member)
Congressman Johnson responded: "You want to respect the other people in this room, who also have questions. This is not a debate between you and I. You asked me a question, and I am going to answer the question as best as I can and let somebody else ask additional questions ... the only way you are going to deal with this."
As the night wore on, it became clear the crowd generally supported Johnson's concerns that government-run health care would raise taxes. Many like Ray Henry feel there is a lack of representation by the Republican Party on this issue in a House and Senate controlled by the Democratic Party.
"The worst of Republicans is on this: you never hear the Republican minority coming out on TV and speaking against this in order to get people rallied up for this. The only thing you are hearing is the Democrats saying that we are all Nazis coming to these meetings," he said.
"From my perspective, you are not Nazis, any of you on either side of the issue, not Astroturf constituents, you are people who really care, and in every case, that has been the case with me," the congressman said.
Judy Henderson had a different take on health care. Her adult son has lived with disability his entire life, and she has relied on charity donations to help pay for his care. She became emotional as she appealed to Johnson to consider her circumstances when he votes on health care legislation.
"I have been looking for health-care reform to give him what he needs, and he does not have it, and he falls through this loophole and that is why I am in favor of health care reform," she said.
Johnson explained that he supports health care reform, but says the current proposal falls short. Johnson says he is concerned about the quality of service, the time it would take to get needed care, and the cost of the overall program to taxpayers, which Johnson says would increase the federal deficit to unsustainable levels.
Charles Merbitz believes a government insurance option, expanding on current programs that cover the elderly and the poor, would actually save money in the long run. "It will not be perfect, God knows that. However it will be so much better than what we have. We are going to spend way less money in taking care of people in emergency rooms and taking care of conditions that could be caught early if we would do that," Merbitz said.
Reaching a consensus on health care has proven to be difficult, with advocates on both sides of the issue passionate about different options. Congressman Johnson expects the passion to continue as he prepares for the next meeting in his Illinois district.