1,000 join Corker's health care debate

Senator talks, then listens to opinions at Loudon town hall

By Kristi L. Nelson knoxnews.com
Around 1,000 people packed the Loudon County High School auditorium Wednesday for the last of 23 "town hall meetings" that Sen. Bob Corker held to discuss health care reform during the Senate's August recess.

Every seat was filled, and people lined the walls on both sides and filled the back aisle, representing both sides of a complex issue.

The audience was a mix of ages and ideologies, although Corker was largely playing to a home crowd. A hand-lettered poster reading "No Cap Trade/Nurses Against ObamaCare" drew heavy applause, similar sign-waving and only a few half-hearted "boos," while preprinted signs urging "Health Care Reform" and "Public Option = Affordable Health Care" were smaller in both size and number.

Corker entered to a standing ovation and spoke for roughly 40 minutes before opening the floor to about 20 audience questions, although far more hands were up. Many speakers made statements rather than asked questions on topics other than health care, including the "cap and trade" emissions bill, term limits, education, immigration, Fair Tax, student loans and individual freedoms.

Among those who did urge health care reform was cancer survivor the Rev. Marcia Free, whose nonprofit employers didn't provide health insurance and who was unable to find an insurer that would sell her a policy because her cancer was a "pre-existing condition." Free's statement that a public option plan wouldn't "take choices away" was met with boos and groans.

But Dr. Mark Green of Blount County got applause when he presented a 26-page health reform bill, written by area doctors and nurses, that he said could be funded with no more money than is already being spent.

Corker implied he would read the proposal, which Green said was a response to becoming "disgruntled" after decades of "plead(ing) with insurance companies to get the services my patients need."

Corker outlined his own ideas about health care reform, which include insuring people with pre-existing conditions "through the private sector;" tort reform; cross-state competition; tax code changes allowing individuals to purchase insurance with pre-tax dollars, as employers do; and "exchanges" that would allow customers choices of plans beyond what their own employers offered. Audience reaction was mixed.

"These town hall meetings are always better when we have a diversity of opinion, and I see we have that today," Corker said.

He called the current House and Senate bills on health care reform "not a serious effort" and didn't "waste time" discussing them. He did say that he told President Obama - "respectfully, since I respect the office of the president" - that he would not vote for a public option plan and suggested Obama spend this term piloting various programs among states before drafting a national plan.

Wednesday's meeting was by far the most-attended, although each drew several hundred attendees - quite a change from the usual difficulty of generating interest in "town hall" meetings, Corker said earlier this week.

He said he hoped the civic action is an "awakening" that will continue.

"I think it's going to affect the debate in a big way," he said.