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Raucous Crowd Greets Cardin at Health-Care Town Hall in Hagerstown

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 5:38 PM

President Obama's call for civility in the health-care debate fell flat Wednesday in Maryland's first congressional town hall meeting after his plea.

An increasingly rowdy crowd of 450 packed a community college auditorium in Hagerstown and repeatedly shouted down Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), even screaming at questioners who did not quickly make a point.

Near the end of the hour-long meeting -- with scores of questions unanswered and an overflow crowd of hundreds still lined up outside -- a cacophony of boos and hisses congealed into a chant of "just say no" when a Frederick resident asked if there was any use in voicing opposition, since it seemed to be a forgone conclusion that Democrats would ram through health-care reform as they see fit.

"Your government has lost the faith and trust of the American people," one woman said to a standing ovation by reform skeptics, who appeared to outnumber supporters in the audience by roughly 2 to 1.

Twenty or so people got a chance to address Cardin, and their comments ranged from questions about the minutiae of a 1,000-plus-page House draft of the bill (such as whether retirees from companies that received federal bailouts would end up dumped in a public option) to angry complaints about slippery slopes leading to rationed care and socialism.

Running through almost every question and comment by constituents on both sides of the debate was fear of the unknown.

"We don't even know what it is, because it's not done yet, and there is no agreement," Barbara Clary, 66, a Medicare recipient who supports reform, said in one of the more measured comments of the afternoon,

Outside the gathering, Marjorie Cartwright, 61, who said she had never before been motivated to get involved in a political debate, held a placard and said she fears losing her option to pay for the most flexible of three health-care plans offered by the school where she teaches. And she worries that under reform, she'll have even less say about her care in retirement.

For her and other skeptics, layered on top of the fear was an assumption that a government deep in debt and mired in partisan politics could never effectively manage something as complicated as health care without massive and unexpected costs.

"Flushing the whole system is not the answer," said John Campbell, 43, a real estate broker from Frederick who brought his young son to the debate. "We have failing VA hospitals, failing education, and Washington is just burying my family in debt," yelled Campbell, who said he came to the event after receiving an automated e-mail invite from the Obama camp because a friend signed him up for the campaign mailings last year. "I've got my 9-year-old son sitting down here, and I'm going to have to tell him, explain to him, how he's going to have to pay for your bad decisions."

It was the second time Cardin was blasted at a town hall meeting this week, and he responded by hewing closely to Democratic talking points: Skyrocketing costs, the growing burden of the uninsured and the need to restructure Medicare necessitate an overhaul, he said repeatedly.

"We need to move forward. The status quo is not acceptable," he said to polite applause early in the meeting.

Later, as the crowd became more raucous, he pledged that he would not support reform without clear, full funding, but he acknowledged that he and the majority of the crowd would continue to disagree about the government's role in health care.

Hagerstown is more liberal than surrounding Washington County. Last fall, the county gave McCain 55.4 percent of the vote to Obama's 42.6, while the city went for Obama. It was clear that many had driven to Hagerstown for the chance to attend Wednesday's meeting; town halls have been rare in Maryland while Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) recovers from surgery.

"It's a whole problem of distrust," said Helyn Bartlett, 65, who traveled from Montgomery County. "I guess it started with the stimulus, but I just really don't trust that Obama tried to push [health-care reform] through before the August recess, before anybody could figure it out."

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