After meeting on health reform, Specter expresses surprise at public's outrage

Luis Fábregas
| Friday, Aug. 14, 2009

By the time Sen. Arlen Specter set foot inside the Belmont Complex in East Franklin on Thursday afternoon, the crowd wanting answers was red-hot.

About 1,500 people waited for hours near Kittanning under the beating sun for the town hall meeting on health care reform. The 200 or so allowed into the hall greeted the Republican-turned-Democrat with rounds of thundering jeers reminiscent of a Jerry Springer show.

Some stood up and applauded, and so began a 90-minute showdown marked by passionate pleas for action, interruptions from angry hecklers and incessant chants that drowned out Specter's call for civility.

"Read the bill!" the crowd roared. "We will be taxed!"

Specter, in his fourth statewide town hall meeting and the closest to Pittsburgh, tried his best to remain calm, even when a man called him a liar and a war veteran questioned his morals.

"I'm here to listen to your concerns," Specter said. "The whole picture is open for discussion and that's why I'm here, to hear your views."

He took 30 questions from previously chosen individuals, who came from as far as Punxsutawney and arrived as early as 9 a.m. The crowd included retirees, registered nurses, union workers, a born-again Christian and a man who said he had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some were dressed in shorts and T-shirts; others, business attire. They wore ball caps and American flag pins.

"What's the rush, sir?" said Trish Hamel of Mt. Lebanon, a lifelong Republican who expressed concern about Congress passing a bill before having time to examine it.

Specter kept most answers short and to the point. A cancer survivor, he said he wants every American to have health insurance and believes people should have annual examinations so they can be treated long before they develop chronic conditions.

He said he will not support a program that precludes doctors from deciding the type of care patients should have. Under the proposed plan, he said, those who have private insurance could keep it.

Taunts followed many of his comments. When he said he wouldn't support a bill that would increase the deficit, many laughed. And when he said he wants to encourage people to stop smoking, one person yelled: "What about Obama smoking?" President Obama has said he struggles with an on-and-off smoking habit, reportedly for two decades.

The audience stood and cheered when Diane Aul of Penn Borough questioned why Congress can't create "an easily readable synopsis of this bill for the people."

"Whether people are for or against universal health care, they should be against this bill," Aul said. "It's a lousy bill."

The temperature in the packed room rose when John Phillips of North Apollo stood up and directed vein-popping outrage to Specter, standing a few feet away.

"You have great income, power and prestige, and you are using that on the backs of the American people," Phillips said as the crowd erupted in cheers. "You are talking down to the American people if you think we are that stupid."

Specter rejected the man's suggestions that he has lost touch with the American people. He said he hosts town meetings in Kittanning every year and tries to respond to constituents' concerns.

"I know how much anger there is," he said. "It's about 231 degrees Fahrenheit in Kittanning."

After the meeting concluded, Specter told about two dozen reporters that he has been surprised at the rising anger and the number of people attending the meetings. As Democrats on break hold similar town hall meetings across the nation, the angry crowds have garnered headlines and some live TV coverage.

"I've never seen anything like this," Specter said.

Outside, hundreds of people expressed disappointment the event was held in such a small venue. Specter staffers said the meeting was planned for two weeks and they did not expect a big turnout. They said it wouldn't have been possible to switch the meeting's location to a nearby arena that holds about 3,000.

"This is obviously not a representation of the people," said Celeste Wilson of Upper St. Clair. "The people in there are supporters. There's normal people out here, and we're not being put in."

Those who didn't get in included Paul Ambrose, who drove two hours from Canonsburg and stood in a line that snaked around a large parking lot. Ambrose, who said he has adequate health insurance, thinks the bottom line isn't about health care but about power.

"All it is is a big power grab to make the American people dependent upon big government," he said. "I don't think they give one darn thing about health care and the American public."

Hundreds of people, however, disagreed. Among them was Pat Feodman of Squirrel Hill, who lost her son a few months ago. Feodman, 75, said her son committed suicide after he could not get psychiatric care because he lacked health insurance. Her son, Scott Bruder, was 48 when his paint and construction business went into bankruptcy.

"It's horrible," she said. "There are no words."

Kevin White of Lawrenceville said he doesn't understand why people are so angry.

"It's really overblown," he said. "It's a shame that so many people are against this and they don't want everyone to have health insurance. What do they want, for people to just keep dying?"

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