Seaside, Oregon, is about as far away from Washington, DC, as you can get in the continental U.S. Not quite 3000 miles, but almost (2860 to be exact). And it seemed very far away from the sound and fury of the health care debate in the nation’s capital when I attended a Town Hall meeting last Friday. Sen. Ron Wyden was the speaker at the event, which was attended by over 400 people crowded into the Seaside High School cafeteria.
As we waited, the crowd was calm and polite, but there was a murmur of anticipation and an undercurrent of tension. We had all seen the stories about disruptions and threatened violence at similar Town Hall meetings across the country. Would it happen here? We could see people standing at the back with signs opposing health reform. Would they interrupt the proceedings and cause problems? We all respect freedom of speech, but somehow it wouldn’t seem like “freedom” if someone else was shouting us down and disrupting our attempts to learn about the health reform proposals.
To my pleasant surprise, everyone behaved well; the process was orderly, and the tone was respectful. People asked Sen. Wyden some tough questions: Why not simply expand Medicare for all? Will there be enough doctors to take care of everyone? What will happen to the federal deficit? How can we reduce the administrative hassle for doctors? Why do you take campaign contributions from insurance and drug companies? Sen. Wyden is very knowledgeable about health care and answered the questions thoroughly, but – more importantly – he didn’t speak down to anyone. He explained the issues clearly and tried to help people to understand the complexities of the challenges we face. I overheard him talking afterwards with a member of the U.S. Army color guard who said, “I learned a lot from what you said and what the people were asking today.” Isn’t that the basic idea of a Town Hall meeting?
The scene reminded me of the well-known Freedom of Speech painting (one of the Four Freedoms series) by Norman Rockwell. A man in a flannel shirt and leather jacket is standing up to speak at a Town Hall meeting, and the people around him are looking up with interest and curiosity. Many people think Rockwell was just a talented illustrator who painted sentimental themes. They may be right from an artistic perspective, but I think he tapped into something important about us – something we often forget. Big issues like health care are too important to leave to the special interest lobbyists, the experts and the cable television commentators. We need to have conversations in every one of our communities around the U.S. We need to listen, share our ideas, learn from each other, move toward consensus, and trust the wisdom of the people.
During the past few weeks we’ve heard about the disruptive and abusive tactics used by opponents of health reform at some Town Hall meetings. We haven’t heard, however, what happened at the hundreds of other Town Hall meetings across the country. I suspect that most of them are like the one I attended in Seaside, where people are struggling to find common ground to address one of the biggest problems we face – providing access to affordable, high quality health care for everyone. Seaside may be far from Washington, DC, but it’s close in spirit to Stockbridge, MA – the home of Norman Rockwell – and thousands of other communities in the U.S. My faith in the American people is being strengthened, one Town Meeting at a time.
Bill Kramer is an independent health care consultant, focusing on
health care management, finance and public policy. Bill served as a
senior executive with Kaiser Permanente for over 20 years. Most
recently, he served as Chief Financial Officer for Kaiser Permanente’s
Northwest Region. More information about Bill may be found at