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First Person: Fear and Anger in Staten Island

Laura S. Boylan Sep 17, 2009

“There better not be any illegal aliens at that meeting,” said a message left for organizers of a community healthcare forum on Staten Island. The forum took place Aug. 12 and was sponsored by the Staten Island Family Health Care Coalition.

Dr. Vincent Calamia, president of the Richmond County Medical Society, presided over a panel that included medical professionals, hospital and social service program administrators and a representative from the local Chamber of Commerce. Police were on hand because of the menacing call. I was one of the panelists, representing Physicians for a National Health Program, a group that supports single payer, or Medicare 2.0, for all.

The church where the forum was held was packed with 150 people. Most of the session consisted of audience comments. Dr. Calamia asked audience members to line up and limit statements to two minutes. Audience members were jeering panelists and interjecting comments throughout the discussion.

The first audience member on line commented on the weight of Rev. Terry Troia, a forum organizer and executive director of a nonprofit group that aids the poor. “This lady over here, she talked about preventive medicine, but she could lose some weight.” He then challenged a physician on the panel who worked at a federally subsidized clinic, asking, “What is the percentage of your care going to people who are not citizens of this country?”

Anti-immigrant sentiment ran high. “There are 14 million illegals in this country getting healthcare without taxes. Tell me, why are they getting the same healthcare that we are?” was one comment. In response a healthcare administrator read from the text of the health reform proposal the section that excludes undocumented immigrants from subsidies. The proposed House bill, “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act” (HR 3200), includes mandates to purchase insurance, insurance regulation, public subsidies for the purchase of private insurance and a limited “public option” that would be offered to the uninsured in 2013.

The panelist stood holding the bill aloft as audience members raised a ruckus, insisting she was lying about the bill. “That’s not the language and you know it,” one woman accused. A man stood up and jabbed the air with his finger angrily, “You know that’s elsewhere in the bill. You know it. You know that’s nonsense.” “Don’t abuse our intelligence” called out another.

Order was restored and comments continued. One woman said, “Why give people who don’t work at all everything for free? Everything: education, housing, healthcare, food, clothes.” Another woman seconded her views. “I’m tired of everything falling on the workhorse. At some point the horse is going to lay down and say, ‘Screw you, I’m going over to the other side to get free healthcare.’ Why should I work if I’ll only be penalized? Get government out of the way and we’ll take care of ourselves.”

The issue was as much worldview as healthcare. One man declared with passion, “This goes beyond the healthcare of Staten Island. We are looking at the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic of the United States.”

The absence of Rep. Michael McMahon (D), incited considerable anger. Other politicians were not spared either. One man proclaimed to cheers, “Let Sen. Schumer and his wife use the same damned doctors that they want to push down our throats.” Another issued a call to vote out current leadership: “Let’s get the self-serving, lying, hypocrite, thick-skinned politicians the hell out of there.”

Many called for an end to government programs, but there were also calls to expand them and much fear of reduced Medicare services. Several expressed anger about the exclusion of “hard-working Americans” from Medicaid, and another said, “I don’t want the government to be involved in anything I’m in. I worked hard all my life and now I’m in Medicare and Medicare is going bankrupt and I don’t know where I’m going to end up.”

Eventually someone yelled out questioning Obama’s citizenship. Right after that, one of the few African-Americans in the audience got up and left. In response to a story Rev. Troia told about a diabetic who had to have her foot amputated because she could not afford healthcare, someone called out, “Come on, she really couldn’t afford the $200 podiatry visit?” Someone else said, “Shame on her. She should have gone to the doctor.”

A soft-spoken young man working with the forum organizers volunteered to give me a lift to the ferry when it was over. In the car he said he was for socialized medicine rather than single payer.

Laura S. Boylan, M.D., is a board member of Physicians for a National Health Program Metro NY and a New York University professor.

Check out all of The Indypendent’s healthcare coverage in this issue:

What’s Left Is Right by Arun Gupta

Conspiracy Nation: Right-wing demagogues reach out to a supposedly beleagured white middle class, telling them they are being squeezed by parasitic traitors from above and below by Chip Berlet

The Myths of Canada Care by Susan Rosenthal

First Person: Fear and Anger in Staten Island by Laura Boylan

Healthcare Glossary by Jaisal Noor and Arun Gupta