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Health care debate brings thousands to downtown Phoenix

People march in downtown Phoenix on Monday, Aug. 17. (For the Capitol Times/ Laura Segall)

People march in downtown Phoenix on Monday, Aug. 17. (For the Capitol Times/ Laura Segall)

Tom Jenney stood near the Phoenix Convention Center on Aug. 17 with a small square patch of Astroturf hanging around his neck. He wore the unusual accessory in an effort to lampoon U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has derided high-profile protests of federal health care reform as orchestrated events void of grassroots authenticity.

Jenney, director of the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity, was winding down a protest of President Barack Obama’s plan to expand the federal government’s role in health care in order to provide coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

By his own account, Jenney estimates he has an e-mail database with the names of an estimated 12,500 Arizonans. And his recorded “robo-calls” hit the homes and businesses of 2,400 residents over the weekend, he said.

And he believes his group helped lured hundreds to demonstrate against national health care reform while the president addressed members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars inside the nearby Phoenix Convention Center.

In other words, he’s exactly what Pelosi had in mind when she spoke of the “Astroturf” activism that has dogged the president’s goal of federal health care reform.

While the speaker chastised the demonstrations as artificial, Jenney, equipped with a Radio Shack bullhorn, a backpack, hiking boots and an American flag, said the outpouring is anything but a sham.

“There were over 800 real people in downtown Phoenix with real concerns over what the government is trying to do with health care,” he said, while shaking hands with similarly-minded protestors.

While Jenney seems to rule the roost among the president’s detractors, across the street stood hundreds of supporters – some estimates put them in the thousands – calling for universal health care coverage. To be sure, much of the support also was organized, and many who showed up to support the health care legislation were clad in shirts bearing the logos of the State Employees International Union and the community activist group ACORN.

“It’s getting too expensive and it’s not covering enough people, and with the expected costs in the future it is going to bankrupt us,” said Joey Brenner, a Tempe resident and SEIU organizer. “We have too many people shackled to an inefficient system.”

Brenner attributed opposition to the federal health care agenda led by Obama to an innate fear of change and resistance to new ideas. Government changes that ended child labor and cut back on working hours also were historically opposed, he said.

LeRoy Eschelman, a 71-year-old from Mesa, said he joined the rally in downtown Phoenix because he supports Obama and, by extension, his health care plan. Eschelman said the money it would cost to pay for a public health care system is a high-dollar amount, but it’s not totally out of reach considering other national expenses.

“In two years, we’ll have spent more than the $1 trillion they’re talking about to pay for the health care plan – we’ll have spent that just on foreign oil. We’re basically funding both sides of the war,” he said.

Eschelman, an organic farmer, said the debate about health care rages even in his own family. He has nine children and 19 grandchildren. His progeny includes a physical therapist, a Ph.D., a military veteran and others who are serving overseas.

“With that many grandchildren, you can believe that I get a lot of feedback,” he said.

Doug Ryan, a 55-year-old from Tempe, said he supports the health care reform effort, although he is “farther to the left than the plan.” He said the Obama administration “gave up too much ground early on in the debate.”

“We need a public option,” he said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say the current system is a form of corporate welfare. The big drug companies charge the insurance companies what they can bear, and the insurance companies turn around and bill the government.”

What’s needed, Ryan said, is closer scrutiny and regulation of Medicare and Medicaid and the elimination of Medicare premium plans. He said part of the cost of public health care could be covered by allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.

“The only people this system works for are those running the big health insurance companies,” he said.

Back on Jenney’s side of the street, though, fears of a diminished health care system were palpable. Among those was Fred Bailey, a gaunt man whose closely shorn white-gray hair seems out of place for a 44-year-old man with a fairly dark complexion. The Morristown resident said he is terminally ill, and he credited his survival to state health care services provided by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

Standing in the punishing heat, Bailey explained that an experimental round of medications had damaged his nervous system, and his current daily dosage leaves him “drunk” and “dysfunctional” until noon.

Bailey is protesting the president. He puts the health care debate into personal terms, stating he believes that the president’s health care reform plans would predictably lead to a rationing of services that would leave the terminally ill with few options.

“They’d just send you home with a pill and say, ‘We can’t really do anything with you because you are terminally ill and it’s not going to help you because you only have a few years left anyway,’” he said. “It’s morally wrong.”

Still, Bailey said the nation’s health care system needs to be reformed as he notes his medication costs the state $900 a month. The price, he said, likely far exceeds the costs associated with the drug’s production.

“We need reform, not just this way,” he said.

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