Sessions Watch received some of the rare tickets for the event, which was co-sponsored by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP. We were invited to submit questions ahead of time to the co-sponsor's website, and our questions were compiled and presented to Mr. Sessions and Ms. Johnson in turn by Cal Jillson, professor of political science at SMU, who moderated the panel.
Our Sessions Watch group sat together in nervous anticipation, wondering, "Will this be the day Pete Sessions surprises us with rational thought, coherence, and statesman-like brilliance?" We all secretly hope that one day, Pete Sessions will dazzle us with some really great ideas, that one day we'll finally see what the slim majority of people in the district see in him when they faithfully cast their votes for him every two years.
But today wasn't that day. Pete Sessions was his usual self, delivering a few catch phrases--most notably "free market"--without any new ideas, and without acknowledging what most people feel across all party affiliations, that the free market has done a poor job of delivering access to health care to all Americans.
Cal Jillson began the panel discussion by giving a brief bio of each Representative; in his introductory remarks about Pete Sessions, he mentioned the Family Opportunity Act, but that never came up again in the Q&A portion (Sessions Watch submitted a question that came up in our comments section, asking if Pete Sessions would support allowing the uninsured to buy into Medicare, since he sponsored a bill allowing those with Down's Syndrome children to buy into Medicaid; our question was not one of the ones picked).
Following Cal Jillson's introduction, both Representatives gave a brief statement about health care reform.
Eddie Bernice Johnson went first, talking about the rising cost of insurance premiums, which, she said, are rising three times faster than inflation, and how we have a moral obligation to provide access to everybody and keep people from "falling through the cracks of a broken health care system." She gave a brief overview of the three sections of the bill currently in the House, and assured the audience that she has read everything in all three sections.
Pete Sessions used his time to talk about what the GOP has accomplished over the past 12 years, including expanded funding for the National Institutes of Health, the Medicare Part D drug plan for seniors, and Health Savings Accounts, which allow people to save for their own health care in a tax free savings account.
(Sessions mentioned the Health Savings Account in glowing terms, several times during the course of the panel discussion. He sees it as a way for people to "own" their health care and keep it from job to job, but doesn't seem to realize is that even if a person who pays into it regularly might not have saved up enough money for "surprises"--an emergency heart bypass, for instance, which runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.)
He went on to outline what he sees as problems with the proposed House bill, but soon became bogged down into his own tangled logic; on the one hand, he worries that the bill focuses too much on what's working--employer-based health coverage--instead of the real problem, covering more people. But in the next breath, he started talking about how there aren't enough physicians to cover everybody who's not currently insured, and got sidetracked talking about how specialists would have to leave their practices to become primary care physicians in order to accommodate all of the formerly uninsured. (A lot of health care advocates think that would be a good thing, to have more primary care physicians diagnosing and treating illness early, instead of waiting until a specialist is the patient's only option). Pete Sessions also expressed concern about people not being able to choose their own doctor under a Public Option plan, without addressing the problem of PPOs, where your favorite doctor may not be on the list provided by the insurance company.
The first question presented by Cal Jillson was about portability; both agreed that people should be able to keep the same coverage when they change jobs, with Eddie Bernice Johnson talking about the benefits of the proposed House bill, which would offer a range of plans in an "insurance exchange marketplace," which would offer low group rates to participants. Pete Sessions countered with his plan for everybody to be able to buy into "bigger pools," where every association, church group, business, etc., could buy into a group insurance plan. "The free market should have a chance," he said, without acknowledging that the free market has been delivering health care for decades without coming up with a streamlined, cost-effective system where everybody has coverage.
The second question focused on what to do about people who are denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Cal Jillson addressed the question first to Pete Sessions, asking him if the market would provide health care to those with pre-existing conditions.
"The market should," he said assertively, "move towards covering pre-existing conditions." He suggested that people with pre-existing conditions could be covered by "coming in to fill out some paperwork" and "paying a little bit more." (That comment elicited the first groan from an otherwise silent audience). He went on to repeat what he had said before, about getting more people to buy insurance by creating "bigger pools" (which, incidentally, sounds a lot like the House plan for an "insurance marketplace").
Eddie Bernice Johnson spent her time talking about how a good health care plan should cover wellness, saying that current insurance plans only cover catastrophic expenses instead of the cost of managing chronic illnesses. She highlighted the success of community clinics, which educate people on managing such chronic illnesses as diabetes. People using the community clinics see a doctor regularly, which, she said, is more cost effective than waiting until a chronic condition gets out of control.
The next question covered Public Option and/or Co-ops to compete with private insurance.
Congresswoman Johnson talked about people unable to get coverage, due to pre-existing conditions, as well as those who have been "priced out of the market" for health insurance; she stressed the need to get them into a group plan where they can't be turned down.
Congressman Sessions loudly proclaimed such a plan "Socialized medicine," and seemed startled when the audience erupted in laughter!
At this point, the two members of Congress actually had an exchange, without the help of the moderator. Ms. Johnson reminded Mr. Sessions that when people go to emergency rooms, we all pay. "We taxpayers pick that up," she said.
Pete Sessions agreed that quality health care is important, saying "People don't get healthcare through insurance like they should. We want more and more people to have insurance!"
Just when it was getting good, the moderator stopped them in order to finish the questions attendees had submitted. The audience responded with calls for them to continue their exchange, but Cal Jillson asked for everyone to settle down and proceed with his list of questions.
Sessions said of Eddie Bernice Johnson, "We have a great relationship."
"Sure we do," said Eddie Bernice Johnson, which got another huge laugh from the audience.
Back to the question of co-ops, Sessions said no to that idea, saying, "We don't need to create anything new." Then, he went off on one of his famous circuitous tangents, on the topic of personal responsibility. He went off on a wild hypothetical situation in which someone would enter the emergency room after getting drunk or doing drugs on a Friday night, "Then," he said, "Somebody has to call an ambulance." He concluded his missive by saying that people need to exercise "personal responsibility," a statement which got weak applause from about 10 people.
Eddie Bernice Johnson looked at him and said, "I don't know how to respond to that." Just about everybody in that room erupted in laughter and applause! Then, she went on to explain that ambulances don't just come on Friday night, they come every day, reiterating her point about people avoiding wellness care because it's not covered by their insurance plan. "If insurance would cover people at a reasonable cost, we wouldn't be here," she said. Congresswoman Johnson went on to tell of the history of Medicare, and how it took twenty years to get it passed, saying "anything for people is hard to come by."
On the question of cost, Eddie Bernice Johnson talked about tax incentives to businesses who provide insurance, and stated one problem with the current system is that insurance companies don't want to take any risk, preferring to insure only healthy young people who don't get sick.
Pete Sessions told us about Health Savings Accounts again, saying "The free market works and works well."
The final question was about physician-owned hospitals; both Representatives agreed that in Texas, at least, physician-owned facilities are working well. (In other parts of the country, there have been problems with physicians ordering too many unnecessary tests to get more money from insurance companies, but both assured us that the Texas delegation is satisfied with the physician-owned facilities in our state).
"I'm all for creative financing," Eddie Bernice Johnson said, "because the last administration really made us broke."
The panel discussion with the members of Congress ended at 10:00 a.m., and was followed by a community panel discussions, with people representing hospitals and insurance companies talking about the need for reform. Sessions Watch didn't stay for that portion of the event, but if any of our commenters stayed, please feel free to share your thoughts about it in the comment box.
Before the event, Cal Jillson told us that this town hall is the only one in the country where a Democrat and a Republican have held a joint town hall; despite what appeared at first to be an overly-controlled ticketing system, it went very smoothly and there's no reason why this town hall couldn't be a model for others across the country.
The need for health care reform affects everyone, regardless of party affiliation. When your insurance company drops you because you got sick, they're not going to ask you if you're a Democrat or a Republican. To them, covering your illness is a "loss" that they have to cut. So isn't it time we stopped the screaming and started working together?