Alaska Sen. Murkowski brings health care town hall to Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS — A town hall meeting about the national health care plan proposals proved more like a rally for less government, greater personal responsibility and the need for real system changes, than the confrontational, sometimes hostile forums taking place in many cities around the nation. 

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski found a receptive audience to her position — the health care system is a mess and must be fixed, but the proposals now on the table will saddle Americans with tremendous debt for generations and could have unforeseen consequences that cripple small businesses and many individuals.

“People are frustrated. This is an issue that drives 17 percent of the nation’s economy. It affects every American regardless of race, gender, vocation,” Murkowski said. “It impacts us all. This is too big to get wrong, and right now, I think we’re going down the wrong track.” 

The state’s senior senator said her office has received more than 5,000 letters, e-mails and phone calls from constituents with passionate feelings on the health care issue. Many people are concerned about the speed with which a health care plan is coming together. President Barack Obama wants one on his desk, waiting a presidential signature, by Oct. 15, Murkowski said. Others were troubled by massive federal spending and the potential to saddle future generations with even more debt. 

“I believe the health care system in this country is broken and needs to be fixed,” Murkowski said. “But, I am not committed to an arbitrary date that will make somebody be able to check the box and say we’ve passed health care reform. We need to be taking the time as a nation.” 

Concerned people filled the 384 seats in the Pioneer Park theater, then another 150 or so sat in a nearby room with a live audio feed. Comments were cut off at two minutes, and signs and standing were banned.

“This is very real,” the senator said. “People are angry.” 

While several health care proposals are in various stages in the nation’s capitol, a House plan is advancing through committee hearings and drawing both heavy fire and enthusiastic support from various constituencies. Murkowski said she is troubled by the firm, party-line voting on amendments to the plan that she said would offer some of the protections worried Americans are asking for. 

People at the town meeting applauded speakers who argued for less government involvement and less government spending. At the same time, a few comments urging universal health care also drew audible support. 

Rick Sikma of North Pole asked why the federal government thought it ought to be involved in health care in the first place. 

“I don’t see that in the Constitution,” he said, applause drowning out the rest of his remarks. 

“You’re going right to the core of the issue,” Murkowski responded. “Is this a right?” 

“No,” people returned. 

Others spoke of the troubles they’re encountering with current federal systems, including Veterans’ Administration care and Medicare. 

One North Pole woman, who has undergone chemotherapy twice, talked to her doctor about moving to Anchorage to be closer to her grandchildren, she said. Her doctor warned the 65-plus-year-old that she wouldn’t find a new doctor there willing to take on a new Medicare client. 

“I think it is unconscionable people over 65 are not being ... there is no option. Are not being given the right for medical care,” she said.

People called for tort reform and more individual responsibility, for greater government attention to unsafe food that they said makes people sick and overweight, and for boosting preventative care and wellness options. They talked about a “sense of helplessness” watching the national debt climb into the trillions, yet wanted basic primary care for every American. 

One call to impose a “reasonable” tax on the rich to help fund universal coverage was booed and applauded all at once. 

Murkowski is planning similar town hall meetings in Southcentral and Kenai later this month.

“We must act,” she said. “Failure to do so is not going to make the problem go away; in fact, it’s just going to get worse.

By:  By Rena Delbridge. Originally published by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on August 14, 2009