Crowds riled on health care

[UPDATE] More video footage of the emotional Alhambra town hall meeting has been posted on our main news blog, There’s also more observations from our reporter who was at the scene.

ALHAMBRA — Angry faceoffs erupted Tuesday between activists on either side of the debate on health-care reform hours before Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff had a chance to take the stage at an Alhambra town hall meeting.

Some pushed and shoved demonstrators with opposing views. Others tore signs and screamed through red-faced exchanges that often jumped through discussions about funding for public schools, medical malpractice costs and military spending before circling back to the topic at hand.

When Schiff stepped to a podium on one end of Second Street, behind City Hall, a crowd of more than 1,000 threw a storm of boos and cheers his way.

Schiff supports a bill moving through committees in the House of Representatives that would create a government-run public health-care provider, in addition to requiring insurers to meet a series of practical reforms that they have supported.

“I believe a public insurance option would provide greater choice to families,” Schiff said, to a mix of exuberant supporters and furious opponents who frequently chanted “read the bill” and questioned the cost of the plan, estimated to top $1 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Schiff tried to quiet the concerns of the politically charged crowd by hammering home his perspective with a set of panelists — including representatives of major medical, consumer and nonprofit organizations — who agreed with his stance. Introductory addresses from Schiff, panelists and town hall moderator Bruce Hensel of KNBC took up more than 40 minutes of the event, which began after 7 p.m. and was slated to finish about 9 p.m.

The barrage of information from speakers about the competitive market advantages of a public health-care option, or the downside of incorporating preexisting conditions in insurers’ decisions to deny coverage drew frustrated boos from much of the crowd, which frequently chanted, “Questions! Questions!”

When the questions began, Schiff hoped to dispel what he characterized as “one of the popular myths about the bill” when an audience member expressed concerns that she would have to give up her current insurance plan if a government-run insurance option was created.

Dissenters chanted “read the bill” when Schiff insisted that a public insurer would simply be another option for consumers to choose from.

Although he did not address concerns raised by some Republicans that a public plan might encourage some employers to stop paying for coverage, some protesters were stunned when Schiff finished his response by saying, “if you read the bill — and I have — there is nothing that forces you [to give up your insurance plan].”

Schiff drew the ire of hundreds in the crowd when answering a question about why he felt the government could run a public insurer when Medicare and the U.S. Postal Service are running at deficits.

“The answer is we have to do both better,” he said.

Groups of demonstrators chanted “health care now” and “no socialism” in yelling matches that lasted for hours before the town hall began.

Some opponents of health-care reform considered the effort an affront on the nation’s values and began singing “God Bless America” and denounced President Obama’s proposals for overhauling health care as “Obamacare.”

Supporters of the Obama plan chanted “Yes we can!” reminiscent of fall’s election campaign for the president.

“I don’t agree with the government controlling our insurance and taking away your insurance for other people to decide,” said Long Beach resident Vincent Tumeo, who carried a sign that read “Just say no to Socialism!”

Altadena resident John Mischo sat in a reserved seating area for people with disabilities wearing a special mask with an air filter to protect him from harmful bacteria.

In 2002 he was diagnosed with a type of connective tissue disease, an autoimmune disorder that requires chemotherapy and leaves him sensitive to infections.

Mischo has an employer-provided PPO health-care plan and benefits from Medicaid, but still has to pay up to $15,000 annually to support his treatment.

He said he hoped that reform would help bring down those expenses and force insurers and health-care providers to become more efficient.

He rarely ventures out of his home for fear of getting an infection, but his struggles with insurance costs were too problematic for him to miss the chance to express his concerns to Schiff, he said.

“Unfortunately, I do spend a lot of the energy that I do have fighting with my insurance companies for better coverage,” Mischo said.

Pasadena resident Don Nores, who listened from a nearby chair, broke in as Mischo explained his situation.

“Who’s going to pay for it?” he said.