The battle over healthcare reform hit home in Sylva last week.
A crowd of more than 50 people gathered on Main Street at the foot of the historic courthouse Wednesday evening holding signs in support of a public health care option.
“We are in a critical time for trying to provide health care for all Americans,” said Carolyn Cagle of Sylva, an organizer of the event. “This debate is about real people. We can’t afford to wait any longer for real health care reform.”
Across the street, a small counter protest set up on the sidewalk. A handful of people waved signs denouncing the health care reform bill, equating it with communism and raising alarm bells over euthanasia.
“No one is saying there shouldn’t be some reform, but the answer is not a government public option,” said Carol Adams, the public relations chair of the Jackson County Republican Party. “The answer is not this bill that will cost trillions of dollars. The whole thing is out of control.”
Those in favor of a public option held candles to honor the millions of people across the country who are suffering because they can’t afford the health care they need. Several people stepped forward to share personal stories of suffering and financial ruin. Their ranks included those who lack of health insurance, but also those with insurance who were denied coverage by insurance companies or faced astronomical co-pays.
Karen Rice of Franklin described losing everything she owned to pay for her husband’s cancer treatment.
“Now I live as a Third world person in a singlewide mobile home. I’ve taken to washing my clothes by hand,” Rice said.
Rice challenged the fear mongering of opponents who suggest euthanasia will be imposed on the elderly.
“Who are the true death squads? The insurance companies,” Rice said, citing the refusal of their insurance company to pay for her husband’s pain medication in his final days of life.
Being let down by insurance companies was a recurring theme by those sharing stories.
“If you have something catastrophic in your life, it can cost you a whole lot of money,” said Martha Yonce of Franklin. Yonce, whose husband was a teacher for 35 years, faced $80,000 in out-of-pocket expenses in a single year despite having good health insurance.
“It more or less prevented us from retiring. We never have been able to catch up,” Yonce said.
Yonce sees competition from a public option and the only way to reform the modus operandi of capitalist-oriented insurance companies.
“I don’t see how insurance companies will ever be pushed to do the right thing,” Yonce said.
Lack of access to preventative care, particularly early cancer screenings, is a glaring failure of the current health care model, according to Marsha Crites of Sylva. Crites shared the story of a friend who couldn’t afford regular colonoscopies and is now dying from colon cancer. Crites shared the story of another friend who is divorcing her husband of 40 years so she can qualify for Medicare.
“These are crimes my friends,” Crites told the crowd.
Crites is still paying off hospital bills of her own that were accrued following a stroke eight years ago. The owner of Harvest Moon Gardens Landscaping in Sylva, Crites is self-employed and didn’t have insurance at the time.
Saddling employers with the burden of health insurance doesn’t work, according to Dr. David Trigg, a part-time emergency room physician at Harris Regional and volunteer medical director at the Good Samaritan Clinic in Sylva.
“We are the only industrialized country where employers have to pay for their employees’ health insurance,” Trigg said.
For Allan Lomax of Sylva, the inextricable link between employment and health insurance creates a scary gap every time he’s between jobs.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Trigg chastised Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, for his opposition to a public option in the health care bill.
“Don’t forget about your Christian ethic you cited when you were elected,” Trigg directed toward Shuler.
Too much government
Meanwhile, those against the bill waved miniature American flags from the other side of the street.
“I feel strongly socialism is coming into our country,” said Ron Gamble of Sylva. “It is not just health care. The current administration is taking over everything. I’m afraid we will lose our personal freedom and personal choice.”
Gamble is self-employed and pays $700 a month for insurance for himself and his wife.
“The health care costs are astronomical. They have to do something,” Gamble said. But the bill currently on the table is being rammed down people’s throats with not enough deliberation and input, he said.
Gamble’s grandchildren are among those who lack insurance, but have had their health care paid for by the government, thanks to either being on unemployment or their status as a veteran. Gamble said it was their choice not to have health insurance, as is the case with many young people, which skews the number of the so-called uninsured.
The opponents argued the number of people who don’t have health insurance is quite small compared to the overall population.
“You don’t change 90 percent of the people’s health insurance to accommodate 10 percent of the population,” said Ginny Jahrmarkt of Sapphire.
Ralph Slaughter, first vice chair of the Jackson County Republican Party, said the bureaucracy needs to be weeded out of the current systems before adding another huge program.
“Before the government tries to add on another social program, we need to effectively and efficiently run the programs we have. Once the government figures out how to do that, this bottom group could be absorbed into Medicaid,” Slaughter said.
An impromptu debate sprung up when a supporter of the health care reform bill strayed across the street to challenge those in the counter protest. A light drizzle fell on and off through the evening, forcing protestors on both sides of the street to don umbrellas at times.
An interesting show of unity emerged between the two camps when health care supporters gathered on the steps of the courthouse with their candles in hand and began singing America the Beautiful — prompting protestors on the other side of the street to join in the song.