Inside the city's convention center, nearly 400 Anchorage business leaders gathered over chicken and ribs Monday to hear U.S. Sen. Mark Begich detail why he believes Congress must reform the nation's health insurance system.
Outside the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, a crowd of at least 100 was hopping mad and loud about "the government." They had split off from a big group of protesters at the nearby Egan Center, where the Legislature was meeting in special session to accept federal economic stimulus money.
The national debate over health care reform was playing out on the streets of Anchorage.
"Sen. Begich, this is your boss speaking," proclaimed a man with a bullhorn whose T-shirt defined him as a gun owner. "You are our representative. How can we support you if you won't even talk to us? Find out what we want and do what we want because we will fire you if you don't."
Begich said he's interested in what people have to say about health care reform, but is growing tired of the lies, myths and fear tactics.
"Now the media are talking about the 'swift-boating' of health reform over the recess," Begich told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce in a lunchtime speech. He said he's seeing evidence of a political smear campaign in television ads.
Health reform protesters have been hijacking town hall meetings around the country. There's controversy over whether the dissent is real and grassroots, or a sophisticated attack intended to bring down President Obama and the health reforms he seeks.
The Anchorage protesters say there's no grand plan. They came from various groups. There was The 912 Project, a Mat-Su based group that says it wants to bring government to heel. The Anchorage Second Amendment Task Force was there. One of the protesters, Nick Brockett, wearing an American Patriot Tea Party shirt, got kicked out of the Egan Center for having his Glock 9mm on his hip. Others found out about the protest through the Alaska Prager Group, fans of conservative syndicated talk radio show host Dennis Prager.
"It pretty much organized itself when our government decided that it was time to start doing a health care program that was going to screw this country over. People got pissed off. And they just wanted to find a way to go and voice their opinion," said George Hines, part of the Anchorage Second Amendment group and one of the men on the bullhorn Monday.
The protestors called for Begich.
"Town hall! Town hall! Town hall!" they shouted.
Begich said he's already held town hall meetings on health care in Anchorage and Juneau this summer, and also had a telephonic town hall meeting that 8,000 people participated in. He's having another town hall meeting in Fairbanks. He doesn't plan to add more to appease protesters.
On the other side, the Democrat-funded Organizing for America, an offshoot of the Obama campaign, called a press conference Monday morning in support of health reforms in Congress. But the event was overrun by the anti-crowd, who heckled the speakers: a man with lung cancer, a mom with a special needs child, a Republican small business owner.
"They clearly don't have any manners. They were shouting the whole time that people were speaking," said one of the speakers, Lisa Rogers, owner of Rogers & Company, a certified public accounting firm. She said she was bonked twice on the head by a sign-waving man.
Rogers, a long-time Republican, voted for Obama and supports health care reform. Health insurance premiums for her three employees are rising astronomically, and she believes health care could be delivered more efficiently. Her doctor recently ordered $20,000 worth of tests when it turned out all she needed was iron supplements that cost $6 for a 100-day supply.
Outside the Dena'ini center, protestor Sherry Shears faced off against health reform supporter and sometimes political candidate Desa Jacobsson.
"Tell me, if it's not going to be socialized medicine, what is it going to be?" Shears asked.
"It will be medicine! It doesn't have to be socialized. People have the human right to be healthy!" Jacobsson said.
"So they are going to collect more tax dollars for everybody and then they're going to dole it out to people who they think deserves it?" Shears said.
"Baloney," Jacobsson answered.
Another protester, Lucy Bishop, said no one really knows what Congress is proposing, but she's read about one alarming element, which she thinks would require her to get approval for her pacemaker from a panel.
"Obama don't even know!" Bishop said. "What I've read online is after you reach a certain age, you are not productive anymore. Now by reading it online, I get the impression that they will have a panel set up, probably (U.S. Rep.) Barney Frank or (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi, so that means I'm doomed already."
She thinks they would tell her the government can't afford a pacemaker for her "but we could help your ending be better."
Former Gov. Sarah Palin warned on her Facebook page of an Obama "death panel" that will decide who gets care.
There's no evidence Congress is considering such a thing.
Begich said that's just one of the myths about the reforms.
"The issue that you're going to have some government panel decide what kind of health care you get, or determine whether you get any health care, is just absolutely incorrect," the senator said after his speech.
He told the Chamber crowd that reform is needed because health care spending is out of control, premiums are soaring and still 46 million Americans are uninsured. If nothing is done, thousands of small business workers will lose their jobs because of dollars diverted to health care, he said.
There's not yet one bill to be for or against, but the measures in the works would stop insurance companies from denying coverage to people who are ill, he said. No one would be forced to switch doctors, or health insurance plans.
Among the myths:
• The bills support euthanasia. Not true, Begich said. But reform bills would allow Medicare to pay for consultations with doctors over living wills.
• The reforms will require the federal government to pay for abortions. Again, not true, Begich said.
• It's also a myth, the senator said, that the reforms will lead to rationed health care. "Truth is, it will expand access and improve the quality of care, not ration it."
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER