My First Town Hall as a Congressman

After an exciting week in Washington, I returned to the 10th Congressional District this week to host my first town hall as a Congressman. More than 100 constituents were in attendance for the event, where we emphasized economic development and job creation opportunities in Livermore. “It’s about jobs, and that’s what I really want to focus on here,” I told the assembled crowd.

California has a 12.2 percent unemployment rate (up from 7.8 percent this time last year), and there are many opportunities to create new jobs at the national labs and through the federal stimulus package and local transportation and clean technology investments. But while I would estimate that two-thirds of the crowd was interested in the job creation discussion and supportive of my actions as a Congressman to date, a minority of the crowd was more interested in using the opportunity to criticize my vote on the House health care bill.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen of the Contra Costa Times and Randy Shandobil of KTVU 2 have good coverage of the event, including partial video. While there was a brief moment where the crowd got a little rowdy, once I respectfully asked everyone to stop shouting and clapping, we were able to continue with a constructive back-and-forth dialogue.

More of the town hall’s health care discussion over the flip…

I wanted to share with you what I told the audience after a gentleman made the claim that the House health care reform bill is somehow a threat to our economy (video by Lisa Vorderbrueggen):

“What’s happening to the American economy? You take the American economy and look at how we are spending our money. We spend a vast amount on war. We also spend an even larger amount on health care.

In 1991, when I become Insurance Commissioner for the State of California, we were spending about 10 percent of our total wealth, of our GDP, on health care. The inflation rate in health care was at that time running about twice the general inflation rate.

In the intervening years, 19 years of them now, we have seen the inflation rate in health care running at about two or three times the general inflation rate of the economy. The result of which is we now spend over 17 percent of all of our wealth on health care. The result of that is the money we need for education, for transportation, for research, for economic development in manufacturing or sales or any of the other activities, is crowded out, pushed aside by the health care sector.

And the unfortunate fact is that the more we spend, the worse the result. The more we spend, the more uninsured we have, because people can’t afford it. And simultaneously, the results are not good.

The status of American health care, population health care, the number of our children that die at an early age, the morbidity of the general population, the illnesses that occur in the state of California and across the nation would rank the United States at the very bottom of all the industrialized nations of the world, and in fact, rank us below the country of Columbia in our health care status. So it turns out that the more we spend, the worse our results. This has to change. It simply cannot continue. I had the privilege of voting on Saturday, and I voted yes on that reform proposal.

[crowd cheers, claps, boos, and jeers]

Now that everybody has had an opportunity to express their opinion on both sides of this issue, let’s not do it again. Otherwise we’ll just develop into an unfortunate and a rather useless waste of our time. So if you can accommodate that, we’ll let everybody state their view at the podium, and we’ll hold clapping and cheering on either side of this question, and move along, hopefully with an exchange of information.

Now let me just complete this point. The health care reform proposal that did pass Congress has many elements in it. There are essentially three parts to those reform proposals, one of which is the reform of the insurance system itself. I’ve spent eight years as your representative as Insurance Commissioner, and during that period of time, I had as my task the regulation of the insurance companies.

And there are numerous problems in the private health insurance system today. Things such as what we call cherry-picking. If you have an illness or if you happen to be at the age of 55, you don’t get insurance, because you have a pre-existing condition or you might become ill and expensive. There’s such a thing as post-event underwriting, so if you present yourself at a doctor or hospital and the insurance company comes back later and says, “Oh my, we can’t cover that because you didn’t fill out the form properly and didn’t tell us you had acne when you were a teenager.” Now that happens to be a real story, a real fact.

There are numerous other ways the insurance industry makes it really tough on people. Like not paying claims. PacifiCare, one of the major companies in California, denied 39.6 percent of all the claims they received in the first six months of 2009. There are very real problems.”

I continue to intently watch events unfold in the Senate, and I know you do too. I encourage the Senate to think big and pass a comprehensive health care reform bill that includes a robust public option. I also strongly encourage them to make it explicitly clear in their legislation that women’s reproductive health coverage will not be taken away. If the Senate approves a bill, it will go into conference to be merged with the House bill, and we want to make sure that the pieces that form the final puzzle are as comprehensive and effective as possible. I stand by my pledge to vote against any health care bill that does not include a public option.

I will be hosting four additional town halls in the month of December, and at least one will be virtual. We will continue to promote these open forums as opportunities for the public to ask questions and offer suggestions on economic development and job creation. There are many opportunities in the 10th Congressional District and neighboring communities to work with research labs, colleges and universities, and private sector employers to create good jobs for people of all levels of educational achievement. I’m ready to rebuild our economy, and I remain proud to say that I cast one of the decisive votes for health care reform. Indeed, health care reform makes rebuilding our economy all the more possible.