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Unlike many town hall meetings about health care held recently across the country, Rep. Eliot Engel’s was a pretty calm affair.
He took about a dozen questions, in order, and one or two follow-ups. No one spoke over one another. No one came to blows, which has reportedly happened at least once elsewhere. There was no sign waving or angry chanting. Like many town hall meetings, not everyone could get in, and he certainly couldn’t have taken every question that constituents wanted to ask.
But there were also no doors, no chairs and no microphones. In fact, Mr. Engel’s town hall meeting was not actually held in a physical space. His first general interaction with constituents on the subject of health care was what he called a “tele-town hall,” essentially a teleconference his office says included at least 2,447 participants. His office called 21,958 phone numbers in his district, compiled through Board of Elections records and his own constituent database, according to his chief of staff, William Weitz.
On the call, Mr. Engel refused to pledge to vote against a health care bill that did not include government-run health insurance that would compete against private insurers.
“[Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi has told me that she will not let a bill without a public option be on the House floor,” Mr. Engel said.
The question, he said, would be whether the U.S. Senate’s version of the health care bills now being deliberated would include government competition with private insurance companies. The aim of such competition would be to compel insurers to lower their rates, he explained, but whether or not it will be included will depend on what kind of a deal representatives reach with leaders in the Senate.
President Barack Obama’s administration has in recent weeks vacillated in its support of a public option as a necessary ingredient in health care reform.
“I am dubious that we can do it without a public option but I don’t want to slam the door,” Mr. Engel said.
He restated many of the positions he has already taken in television and radio appearances, including support for a “single-payer” system, where there’s a single source — like the government — paying for the care of all Americans.
The system Mr. Engel now supports, the public option, would be “the next best thing,” he said.
Mr. Engel also heard from at least one detractor of the plans he supports: Charlotte Swift, of Nanuet, who asked about the effects on small businesses of a provision that would penalize businesses that did not provide health care for employees.
“How do you expect to pay for this plan when the rich have taken their money and gone elsewhere and the small businesses have shut down … because they cannot afford this coverage?” she asked.
Mr. Engel said the House version of the bill would likely give tax credits to businesses with fewer than 25 employees and exempt businesses with small payrolls.
In response to a question from a Suffern constituent, Mr. Engel refused to go beyond what the constituent called “rhetoric” and place a dollar price on what a health insurance plan might cost if the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act, the House health insurance bill, is passed.
“There are many different variables,” Mr. Engel said, “I don’t want to put a dollar figure on what’s affordable.”
Prior to the Aug. 19 teleconference, Mr. Engel had made appearances at several senior centers and met privately with groups of constituents from throughout his district. However, concerned that an in-person town hall would be disrupted, he had not hosted an event for all his constituents.
Thousands of e-mails
The teleconference was first announced on Aug. 18, in an email blast to 40,000 people and in automated phone calls, Mr. Weitz said.
People who received an email had only a matter of hours to sign up to participate, a problem Mr. Weitz blamed on delays caused by the federal process congressmen must go through to vet mass communications with constituents.
Some people who received calls and wanted to participate, thanks to a technical glitch, weren’t able to, but it’s unclear how many people were affected.
An audio recording of the full town hall is available on Mr. Engel’s Web site at engel. house.gov.
The “tele-town hall” format has become popular with many members of Congress as a way to avoid confrontation with detractors of the House bill. Mr. Engel and others say these detractors rove from district to district intending to disrupt meetings.
Zane Khan of iConstituent, the provider Mr. Engel used to provide the teleconference, says business among his 150 congressional clients has been booming, apparently thanks to that concern.
“We were expecting to do absolutely no calls in August,” he said. “But then the health care issue came out, and we essentially did maybe 60.”
Mr. Engel and his colleagues in the House must merge three separate bills, each of which passed a separate committee, into a single bill.
The U.S. Senate must conduct a similar process. Should bills pass both houses, they will meet in conference to come up with a bill both the Senate and House can agree on. After that, it’s up to President Obama.
Lawmakers hope to complete this process before the end of the year.