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Town hall meetings turn violent

US town hall meetings intended to create a forum to sell healthcare reform have instead dissolved into a political battle between an increasingly divided American public.

Police stand near protesters outside Portsmouth High School in New Hampshire, where Barack Obama is holding a town hall meeting.
Police stand near protesters outside Portsmouth High School in New Hampshire, where Barack Obama is holding a town hall meeting.

DENVER // Town hall meetings intended to create a forum for the President Barack Obama and the Democratic party to sell healthcare reform have instead dissolved into a political battle between an increasingly divided American public.

US legislators who travelled to their home districts during the August Congressional break have been shouted down in emotional public meetings that have been more circus than reasoned debate. Police in Michigan had to escort an angry man out of a meeting after he charged the stage as the congressman John Dingell spoke. Members of the crowd chanted, "Shame on you," at the Democratic legislator. Meanwhile, protesters hung an effigy of Frank Kratovil, also a Democratic congressman, outside a meeting in Maryland, while there were arrests at a St Louis forum and a brawl at a session in Tampa, Florida.

When Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the house, visited Denver last Thursday, she was greeted by dozens of protesters from both sides of the political divide who taunted each other across police lines. "Health care can't wait," shouted a person in the reform camp, to which another replied: "We have health care now." A woman walked among the demonstrators singing God Bless America. Mr Obama and some Democrats in Congress are pushing plans that would offer Americans the option of purchasing health insurance from a government-run programme. They would require all citizens and residents to get cover and slap new restrictions on insurers, who are widely blamed here for the rising costs.

Republicans say the plan will increase healthcare expenditures and limit medical choices. They have offered alternative plans to save costs by reducing paperwork. Mr Obama initially pushed hard for a healthcare reform bill to be passed before the August recess, and then backed off, calling for more discussion with the American public. On Tuesday, he flew to New Hampshire for the first of four town hall meetings he will preside over in the coming week, to try and convince a sceptical public that his proposed reform package would provide cover to more people and simultaneously bring down spiralling costs.

"I don't need to explain to you that nearly 46 million Americans don't have health insurance," he told the crowd. "But it is just as important that we accomplish health reform for those who do have insurance." Americans already spend more on health care than any other nation, a staggering 15.3 per cent of GDP. Citizens here plunk down 53 per cent more than Switzerland, the next most expensive country, and 140 per cent above the median industrialised nation, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Some Democrats have accused conservative lobbying groups of dispatching the noisy protesters. Indeed, right-wing talk show hosts have called on listeners to "join the mob", as one radio host put it, and a handful of conservative strategy papers have emerged on the internet. "You need to rock the boat early," read a message distributed by the group Right Principles. "Don't carry on and make a scene - just short intermittent shout outs."

The website Politico reported on a conference call between leading conservative groups in which the moderator stated: "Any bill coming out this year would be a failure for us." On Friday, the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin leapt into the fray with a controversial posting on her Facebook page suggesting Mr Obama would require the elderly and disabled to appear before a bureaucratic "death panel" to qualify for medical care.

In fact, no such "death panel" has been proposed. However, a provision in the plan would allow Medicare, the government's health insurance programme for the elderly, to reimburse seniors who seek information and counselling on end-of-life issues. In New Hampshire, Mr Obama responded to the Palin accusation saying it was preposterous to think there would be "death panels that will basically pull the plug on grandma".

Meanwhile, the White House posted a counter-attack on the internet called "Reality Check" to debunk common myths, reaching out to the public directly, as Mr Obama did during his presidential campaign. The website addressed issues such as healthcare rationing and explained that Americans would still be able to choose their doctors if the reform bill passed. But analysts say the discourse has veered far off course, leaving many Americans alarmed and confused by what Washington is planning.

"The conservatives are playing on people's fears and the Democrats are having to deal with this," said the Democratic strategist James Carville in a debate on CNN. A recent Gallup poll indicates that a slim majority of Americans support health care reform (56 per cent) but they are not enthusiastic about the expected US$1 trillion (Dh3.67 trillion) price tag over the coming decade. Proposals to pay for the cost of healthcare reform include raising taxes on the country's wealthiest five per cent and taxing employee health benefits.