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Turbulent town meetings raise interesting questions

This August has experienced record-breaking heat and turbulent conditions ... and the weather was hot. Health-care reform, cantankerous town-hall meetings, government-subsidized auto purchases, and accusations that our African-American president is a racist and wants to kill grandma are dominating national headlines. These political thunderclouds raise interesting questions:

Why have the Utah town meetings been so quiet when compared to other gatherings across the country?

Webb: Utahns are nice.

Pignanelli: "There must be a shortage of nuns. Anyone raised by nuns would not behave like the protesters at the town hall meetings." — Cokie Roberts, ABC News. Congressman Jim Matheson conducts his town hall meetings electronically and telephonically to ensure greater participation (over 10,000 "nice" Utahns participated this month — an amazing amount). Left- and right-wing extremists hate this modern approach, because they are itching to scream and shout at Matheson for the benefit of media. (Congressmen Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop utilize traditional meetings, but apparently no one wants to yell at them.)

Are the much-publicized problems with the proposed health-care reform real or just manufactured by the opposition?

Webb: Some conservatives have adopted liberal tactics in making extreme and outlandish arguments about components of Obamacare. But the problem for Obama is that elements of truth exist in all the criticism. For example, rationing will happen, despite Obama's protests to the contrary. Any health-care system (including our current system) has rationing, either by insurance companies, by government-appointed panels (Obama's preferred method) or by individuals self-rationing by choosing what they will and won't pay for. In reality, rationing has to be part of any realistic reform plan, especially one that will reduce costs.

Obama promised that we could have it all: reduced costs, great quality, universal insurance coverage and Cadillac health-care services. Everyone wins; no one loses. In reality, that is fantasyland. And when citizens learn the details, they're disappointed.

There will be winners and losers. Sacrifice will be required. Health reform isn't easy.

Pignanelli: There are a number of legitimate concerns with the existing health-care proposals. But you will not hear them articulated from the right-wing media blowhards who utilize misrepresentations to scare the public. For example, the concept of Medicare providing a counseling session with your doctor on end-of-life options (originally developed by a Republican senator) was manipulated into "death panels" to slaughter the old and infirm. Furthermore, a number of Republican lawmakers are behaving like liberals, fighting attempts to streamline Medicare — a needed exercise.

What is not discussed in a rational manner by opponents is the most troublesome aspect of the proposed health-care reform: the failure to resolve increasing medical costs.

So far, who is winning and who is losing?

Pignanelli: Everyone loses. President Obama deserves commendation for initiating a national conversation. But his message is garbled. Legislation crafted by congressional leaders was incomplete and included a DOA government option. Democrats are fulfilling the critiques of their detractors as disorganized and unrealistic. But Republicans are not gaining at Democrats' expense. A number of national polls demonstrate that less than a quarter of Americans support the Republicans, and a majority dislike their antics in the media. Saying "no" is no longer enough. Politicos are now ruminating if Sen. Edward Kennedy had been in better health, he and Sen. Orrin Hatch could have constructed bipartisan comprehensive reform.

Webb: Obama is losing, but we'll all be losers if meaningful health reform can't be passed. My fear is that Obama and the Democrats have so bungled reform efforts that the American people won't accept even common-sense proposals. It's terribly disheartening to see a conservative group, The Club for Growth, attack Sen. Bob Bennett's excellent market-based reform proposal. I'm afraid the debate is so poisoned that nothing that requires major change or sacrifice, even if for the better, will pass in this toxic environment.

Truth is, we do need comprehensive reform. The current health-care system is a disaster. Try getting insurance with a pre-existing condition. Lose your job and you lose your insurance, and if a family member has a health problem, good luck getting decent coverage at a reasonable price. Many people are one accident, or one major health problem, away from financial disaster.

We can't go on like this. The current system is unsustainable. But the reform environment is so tainted that even good reforms are suspect.

What is likely to happen after the recess?

Webb: I worry the Democratic Congress will pass a weak, watered-down version of reform that won't accomplish anything. We need to do health reform at the state level, making progress incrementally with a lot of education.

Pignanelli: The Republican health-care plan will not pass ... because one does not exist. Democrats will suffer through their mangled messaging and pass some needed reforms. Insurance companies will be required to accept all applicants,. and some form of state cooperatives will be incentivized. Baby steps, but at least in the right direction.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.