Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Rep. Visclosky draws a crowd at town meeting here

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By VICKI URBANIK

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 care reform.

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 first district.

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 out” seniors.

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 home setting.

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 forums.

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 beings.”

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.”

 

 

Posted 1/15/2010

 

 

 

 

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