Behind the Rage at Healthcare Town Hall Meetings

Healthcare reform is merely the latest grievance in a long line of complaints for some protestors.

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Hagerstown, Md.—This healthcare town hall was only nominally about healthcare. It was really about something else. It was about anger and fear. It was about a trenchant sense of disillusionment, resentment, and powerlessness.

Like so many other town halls during the past several weeks, this one was boisterous and unruly, full of shouting and accusations and handmade protest signs that began to run when it started raining.

[See photos from the meeting.]

The topic, of course, was healthcare. The audience's questions for Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin were, for the most part, about healthcare. But the emotions begin somewhere else, somewhere deeper. For many of the people who showed up at Hagerstown Community College earlier last week, healthcare reform was merely their latest grievance in a line of complaints. Healthcare reform, in other words, was just the alcohol on an open wound. "This goes back to the issue of the bank bailouts," says Colleen Kolobow of Frederick, Md., standing near the front of the line. "This is an issue of the stimulus. This is an issue of cap-and-trade. It gets to a point where enough is enough."

Whether these crowds are representative of America is one question perhaps best answered by polls. But they are certainly representative of a particular slice of America, a group of Americans who, justified or not, are distraught by the country's direction, are distrustful of the Obama administration, and see themselves losing control over their lives and being forced to cede that control to the federal government.

The recession, their comments suggest, is partly responsible for the intensity of their emotions. The evaporation of money has created a feeling, voiced repeatedlyat this meeting, that the code by which many Americans live—work hard, get ahead—is not respected by Washington, which they see as spending wastefully. "I've had to be fiscally conservative just to get by," says Stephanie Robinson, a self-described senior who's raising a 2-year-old grandson. "I'll be damned if the federal government goes about spending however they want to."

Cardin, when questioned, said he would not support a bill that raises the national debt. But his listeners were skeptical. "This bill will be paid for," he told them. "How?" the audience retorted. Through changes "within the healthcare system itself," he said. "How?" the audience shot back. Cardin pointed to Safeway, the national grocery chain, as an example of a company that has successfully started programs to reward people for living healthy lifestyles. "Oh, great," a woman muttered. "Now they are going to tell us what to eat."

Meeting with reporters beforehand, Cardin (in response to a question about whether he agreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's contention that protesters' tactics at other town halls are "un-American") said he considered town halls a "very valuable part of the democratic process," a way to spread information and dispel rumors. "There are people putting out information that's just totally false," he said. He opened his public remarks by noting that healthcare costs for the average Maryland family have ballooned in recent years, from $5,000 to $11,000 a year, and will rise to $23,000 in the next 10 years if nothing is done.

But the response from the audience, which was split about 20 percent in favor of Democrats' healthcare reform and 80 percent against, suggested that most of those present didn't trust the government to take care of the problem, regardless of the size of it. "I see this not as reform but as pure government takeover," one woman told the senator. The audience stood to applaud her.

Cardin showed restraint. At times, he raised his voice to speak over the din inside the room. He never spoke angrily, but he was evasive. Asked about whether he would support tort reform, he replied, haltingly, that tort reform "clearly is an issue that may be in the bill." He was booed. "You can tell some of those answers are legitimate, and some of them are snake oil," says Yorke Flynn of Frederick.