U.S. Rep. James P. Moran, Howard Dean Appear at Health-Care Town Hall in Reston

Former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean encountered angry protesters Tuesday at a health care town hall sponsored by Congressman Jim Moran in Virginia. Video by AP
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A raucous crowd of about 2,500 people jammed a high school gymnasium in Reston on Tuesday night to hear U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. offer a robust defense of Democratic efforts to reform health care.

Several hundred other people crowded outside South Lakes High School, barred from entering the full town hall meeting, where seating was first come, first served. Accompanied by physician and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Moran (D-Va.) told the crowd that he thinks reform efforts must include a public option.

Moran called the public option the piece of reform that "could do the most to bring down long-term medical costs and to adequately insure every American."

"Everyone is still free to purchase private insurance," he said. "The private insurance companies, we think, will want to be more competitive, and so insurance premiums will probably go down, hopefully to the point where they don't rise anymore."

Groups on both sides of the health-care debate had urged supporters to attend the Northern Virginia event because of Dean's guest appearance. Unlike at many town hall meetings that have received attention across the country, the crowd in the Democratic-leaning district was dominated by reform proponents, many carrying signs distributed by President Obama's political action group Organizing for America. "Standing Together for Health Care Reform," the signs read.

But there were hundreds of opponents, and they were often equally vocal. Several attendees waved yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags. Moran and Dean pushed through their remarks, often talking over a dull roar of supportive cheers or angry protests.

At times, the atmosphere in the gymnasium took on the air of a pep rally. Before Moran arrived, the two sides took up competitive cheering, with opponents shouting "We can't afford it!" and supporters shouting back, "Yes, we can!"

In response to questions submitted by audience members as they entered the town hall, Moran said he did not think that private cooperatives, now being discussed in Congress as a possible alternative to a public option, would provide the same benefits. He said cooperatives would require prohibitively high start-up costs and require hundreds of thousands of people to join to be competitive.

He dismissed as myths the ideas that the Democratic efforts would force Americans out of their current coverage, extend health insurance to illegal immigrants or establish "death panels" that would halt care for the elderly.

"Liar! Liar!" a man shouted as Moran ticked off each point. "Despot!"

The event was briefly interrupted by antiabortion activist Randall Terry and his supporters, who stood and shouted from the gym floor as Moran introduced Dean.

"Now, these people aren't from the 8th Congressional District. They don't belong here, and I'm going to ask them to leave," Moran said before offering Terry the chance to remain and ask the first question of the evening if he would then remain quiet.

After Terry continued shouting, he was escorted from the gymnasium by several Fairfax County police officers. "Howard Dean is a baby killer!" Terry shouted repeatedly as he exited, surrounded by cameras.

"Last time I was in front of a crowd this size, it was me doing the screaming," Dean joked as he took the microphone, referring to his infamous 2004 concession speech after losing the Iowa caucuses. That incident was thought by many to have dampened his chance at the presidency.

Like Moran, the former Democratic Party chairman endorsed a plan that would maintain private insurance but include a public option.

"A lot of this debate is about change," Dean said. "One thing any doctor can tell you about change is that you never make real changes until the pain of staying the same exceeds the fear of change."

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