U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky found himself fielding sometimes pointed questions
over war, Congressional ethics, and even Asian carp, but the one recurring
topic that put him on the hottest seat Thursday in Chesterton was health
An estimated 150 people gathered for Visclosky’s town hall at the
Westchester Public Library Service Center Thursday morning. The event was
the congressman’s 18th of 24 town halls he is now hosting throughout the
Media reports have suggested that Visclosky has faced angry, unruly crowds
at his other forums, but the audience in Chesterton was more polite. While
there were several harshly worded questions and an occasional outburst,
Visclosky was also applauded a number of times.
Near the end of the 90-minute town forum, Visclosky thanked the
approximately 150 people in the audience by saying he appreciated their
courtesy and attentiveness.
Health care was clearly the topic on the minds of most audience members.
Of the numerous questions written on cards from participants, several
presented a highly negative view of the health reform legislation now
pending in Congress, with one comment suggesting that Vislcosky has “sold
Visclosky said he wants to see a positive change with health care, noting
that health care premiums have increased an estimated 76 percent from 2000
to ‘07, with the high costs a “crushing expense” to businesses, particularly
small business. He also pointed out that discussions of a major overhaul of
the health care system date back to at least 1948.
But he also said that neither the House-passed or Senate-passed versions of
the health care legislation is perfect, and that he cannot yet say how he
will vote on the final version since it’s still going through major
revisions during the final negotiations.
Visclosky said there are some positive attributes to the House version --
such as a public option plan intended as a last resort for people who lack
health coverage, annual lifetime caps on out-of-pocket expenses, and a
prohibition on insurers denying coverage to with pre-existing conditions.
But he agreed with one questioner that Congressional leaders made a mistake
by keeping the final health care bill deliberations behind closed doors. He
also said he does not believe that the public option language will survive,
at least not in its original form. Visclosky said he doesn’t care what name
is given to the measure, as long as it achieves the end goal of providing
all Americans with health coverage.
Visclosky won some applause when he spoke against the Senate proposal to tax
the so-called Cadillac health care plans, saying that he feels that the goal
should not be to tax existing plans but to give more protection and more
coverage where health care is lacking.
One question concerned the potential for a “rationing” of health care.
Visclosky countered that in most cases, large private corporations are now
controlling who gets coverage. He said he “absolutely” agrees that no one
should be denied coverage due to age, medical condition or other factors,
and that, as someone who spends a great deal of time in nursing homes
visiting his own father, he sees a need for improved care in the nursing
One audience member asked Visclosky why people should trust him, since he
made a comment last year suggesting that seniors would get a cost of living
adjustment, which didn’t happen. Visclosky acknowledged that his comment,
made at a forum in Schererville last year was “stupid,” based on his
perception that rising prices would certainly lead to a COLA for Social
Security recipients, even though the formula that’s been in use since the
1970s turned out otherwise.
Visclosky tried to set the record straight on a number of other questions.
One comment, for example, said that taxpayers should get a cost-of-living
adjustment since Visclosky and other members of Congress did; Visclosky said
Congress specifically voted not to give itself a pay raise or COLA, which is
“as it should be.” He also disputed that he gets free health coverage,
saying that he pays $352 per month for his family plan. He also corrected
one comment by saying that on each of the three bank bailout bills, he voted
against each one.
Another comment, which prompted applause, indicated that the national budget
was balanced with a Republican controlled Congress. Visclosky said the
Balanced Budget Act of 1993, with its mix of tax hikes and spending cuts,
was largely the reason the deficit was erased under President Clinton, but
that many members lost their seats as a result and that the GOP didn’t take
back Congress until the 1994 elections.
Another audience member asked about continued involvement in Afghanistan.
Visclosky said he was surprised by the question, since that was the first
time an Afghanistan question has been raised at any of his previous 17
Visclosky didn’t back down when asked about his connection with The PMA
Group, a non-defunct lobbying organization currently under federal
investigation. Visclosky received applause when he said that he has never
taken “one penny” from lobbyists for personal gain, and that it is the
lobbying firm, not him, under investigation. He acknowledged having had much
interchange with PMA but said that all contributions made to his campaign
from PMA have been publicly reported and that he has governed himself
ethically. But he also added: “I cannot control the actions of other human
Visclosky opened his forum with a summary of where the nation stood a year
ago: 142,000 troops were in Iraq with no end in sight, an estimated 59,000
Northwest Indiana residents lacked any health insurance, the national debt
stood at $4.9 trillion, and bankruptcies and job losses were continuing to
spiral upward. Today, the troops in Iraq have declined to 115,000, and
President Obama has goal of reducing the number to 50,000 by August. The
economy is showing signs of some hope: In Northwest Indiana, 40 major
infrastructure contracts were let by Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning
Commission last month, steel inventories are down, and several other
projects, such as a new I-65 interchange in Lake County, are moving forward.
“We have made some progress,” Visclosky said, while acknowledging economic
progress has been slow. “There is still much more to be done.”