By Joel Hall
For the past four years, U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) has used his annual 13th Congressional District Health Fair to bring free health care services to the Southern Crescent. This year, the health fair served as a stage for a national debate over health care reform.
Scott's fifth annual health fair on Saturday at Mundy's Mill High School in Jonesboro also was a health care town hall meeting.
While more than 1,000 people came to the school's cafeteria to receive a variety of free medical screenings, more than 600 crowded into the school's gymnasium to hear Scott's views on health care, and to vent their own frustrations and concerns.
Much of the debate over health care took place before many stepped inside Mundy's Mill High School.
Ignace Lacott, of Decatur, said he was inspired to come to the meeting after vandals spray painted a Nazi swastika on the sign of Scott's Smyrna office, a little more than a week after Scott got into a heated exchange on health care during a meeting in Douglasville.
"Our congressman is being attacked with hate speech," Lacott said. "I think a lot of the fear is coming from ignorance. There's absolutely nothing wrong with disagreeing. Debate is healthy. I think this can be constructive as long as people are civil."
Rose Swoboda, of Lithia Springs, said the health care debate has less to do with racism and more about government intrusion.
"I condemn the markings on the congressman's sign," she said. However, "We need to keep the government out of this. It's very emotional for us because we feel like the government is trying to control our lives and they need to stay out. What they need to do is send this out to the vote of the people and let the people decide."
Those passionate on both sides of the issue carried signs, wore pro- or anti-Barack Obama T-shirts, and sported patriotic costumes.
Grace Hawkins and her daughter, Hannah Hawkins, both of Stone Mountain, held a large banner in support of the president's plans for health care. The elder Hawkins, a survivor of breast cancer and an administrator of a Montessori school in Decatur, said the country can't wait for health care reform.
"I had a baby in England, I worked in a Swedish hospital ... I know what kind of health care they have," Grace Hawkins said. "We have the cruelest health care system in the world. Everybody wants to see health care reform, except a few people."
Rex Reid, of Marietta, came to the forum dressed as an 18th-century patriot, holding a sign saying, "Please honor the oath we took." Reid suggested deregulating the health care industry and allowing people to take their insurance plans across state lines as ways to lower health care costs.
"The government doesn't need to be making these decisions," Reid said. "The deregulation of the airline industry is a perfect example of how the market can solve problems."
Scott opened the town hall meeting by dispelling the idea of "death panels" and other "myths" about health care reform proposals, defending the "public option" and asking people to speak their minds.
"There are 147,000 people in my own district without health care," Scott said. "Our health care needs are going to explode. If we don't do something to change the status quo, our country is not just heading to the cliff, but off the cliff. The public option is simply a mechanism to make health care companies more competitive. You are going to be able to go into a system where you will not be at the mercy of health insurance agencies.
"Feel free to boo as the spirit moves you," he added. "We are not all going to agree, but we can agree to be respectful."
More than 100 people got up to speak during the four-hour town hall meeting. The crowd cheered at times, and occasionally booed.
At one point, the crowd turned on Brian Hill, a urologist who gained national attention for his exchange with Scott during an Aug. 1 transportation project meeting in Douglasville. After taking about five minutes to argue for compromise on health care reform, the crowd stomped the bleachers in unison and chanted, "Next! ... Next!"
Cynthia Jenkins, director of the Southern Regional Medical Center Foundation, said the conversation inside the gymnasium did not distract from the health fair held in the school cafeteria from 10 a.m., to 2 p.m. Hundreds of people were able to receive free medical examinations for conditions such as high blood pressure, sickle cell anemia, diabetes and high cholesterol, she reported.
"I think if anything, it [the health fair] has heightened with all the interest in health care reform," Jenkins said. "It was very well attended. We've had lines all day for screenings. We were able to meet our goals in terms of helping people."
Kim Siebert, director of the Clayton County Cooperate Extension Service, believes the health care town hall meeting added to the health fair, rather than detracted from it.
"I think it was necessary" to have both the fair and the town hall meeting, Siebert said. "It was a good thing ... People need to express their opinions and feel like they have a say in the outcome and this is the perfect setting. I was able to attend the town hall meeting, so I think I benefited as well."
Scott said Saturday's health fair "had its moments" of contention, but said he was satisfied with the outcome.
"It was very productive and very beneficial," he said. "The opinions are important. We kept the peace and did what we have done for five years ... provide free health care."