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Town-hall meetings: facing voter wrath on healthcare

Healthcare forums evoked anger, but there was constructive dialogue, too.

By Staff writer / September 4, 2009

Mike Engles, of Easton, Md., center, and others who attended a health reform town hall meeting led by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., express their disapproval in Walfdorf, Md. on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Washington

The shouts and clashes at August town-hall meetings were a blow to President Obama and his allies in Congress, who had hoped to return to Capitol Hill next week with a strong, fresh mandate for health care reform.

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Instead, 2 in 3 Americans say they are confused about the healthcare options being discussed in Congress, according to a new poll released this week by CBS News. Only 36 percent of those polled said that government would do a better job than private insurers in providing medical coverage, down from 50 percent in June.

But supporters say it's not too late for President Obama and Democratic leaders to make a mid-course correction and rebuild momentum for "meaningful" reform.

"This has been a summer of necessary wakeup calls," says Ralph Neas, CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care, which is lobbying for reform. "While the ideological right won the month of August, this is going to toughen up the administration ... to address these anxieties, as it should."

House Democratic leaders report that the great majority of their members did town-hall meetings on healthcare over the August recess and often faced tough crowds. But they say that President Obama's speech to the nation next Wednesday is a chance to regain ground.

"A lot of our members got spooked by the disruptive crowds at these meetings," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "But I do believe we're reaching a turning point here. Some of the claims of the opposition have been such total fabrications that they discredited themselves."

"There's a big opportunity here with the president's speech to go back on the offense on this issue," he adds.

Addressing misinformation

Representative Van Hollen, who also chaired the House Democratic campaign effort in the 2008 election cycle, attributes the drop in support for reform in public polls to a huge disinformation campaign.

"It's like Whac-a-Mole: Every time you dispel one myth, another one pops up," he says.

In a conference call on health care Wednesday night, Van Hollen assured his Maryland constituents that the proposed law won't mandate "death panels" or provide coverage for individuals in the country illegally, and it won't cut Medicare benefits.

Taken out of context, a few paragraphs in a 1,000-page draft bill can be misleading. Exhibit A is the claim that a provision to compensate doctors for consulting with families on end-of-life issues is, in fact, a death panel empowered to "pull the plug on Granny."

"There are websites and personalities that get attention and money by being in a perpetual state of outrage," says Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. "Now, they're encouraging people to echo things they're saying at these town meetings."