Congressman's town hall meeting stirs up emotion, debate

It was a somewhat contentious crowd Saturday afternoon during a town hall meeting with Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th District) in Shelton.

Most of the hour-and-a-half-long town meeting at the Huntington Branch Library was spent taking questions from constituents that appeared to have strong opinions on both sides of hot button issues like health care reform and abortion.

People in the crowd heckled some speakers, either because they disagreed with the person’s position or, at other times, thought the person was speaking for too long.

Despite some occasional uproar in the crowd, Himes answered every question raised on a number of topics, like student loans, genetically modified organisms and innovation. But health care came up most.

Himes made an effort to correct what he referred to as inaccurate information brought up by some speakers.

“What you read in emails and hear on the more aggressive cable shows, you need to fact-check this stuff,” Himes said.

The Affordable Care Act legislation, held up by the Supreme Court last month, came up several times during the meeting. Himes said it isn’t a perfect piece of legislation but it was, overall, a good thing.

“Would you support a repeal and replacement of Obamacare?” Chris Blake of Stratford asked Himes.

“No,” Himes said.

Himes said the reform means that someone who loses a job won’t be shut out of insurance coverage because of a pre-existing condition, which can be anything from diabetes to pregnancy.

He also said the mandate requiring Americans to have insurance is about personal responsibility and he can’t understand why many conservatives are against it.

“I get why people are uncomfortable with the government telling you to buy insurance,” Himes said.

But, he argued, without the mandate, a 23-year-old who doesn’t want to buy insurance can step off a curb and get hit by a bus, and the burden to pay for that will fall on everyone else.

“If you can afford it, you pay into the system that can fix you,” he said. “If you don’t, you are assuming everyone else will pay for you when you get sick.”

Himes said the legislation is not strong enough when it comes to bringing down the cost of the system, encouraging Americans to be healthier.

A ‘thank-you’

Sharon and John Foley of Shelton received a largely positive reception from the crowd when they came to thank the congressman for his role in helping their daughter get medial insurance coverage.

Their daughter, Claire, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 6, and her parents have been unable to get her covered by insurance for the last two and a half years. John Foley is a bricklayer and Sharon Foley is a special education teacher.

Their daughter relies on an insulin pump to stay alive. Since hers was labeled as a pre-existing condition and the cost exceeded $3,000 a month, the family was locked out of getting their daughter coverage.

They said they are grateful their daughter won’t have to worry.

“I want to thank you for your work in securing the necessary coverage for my daughter’s type 1 diabetes,” Sharon Foley said, fighting back emotion. “We are so grateful for all you have done.”

Claire hugged the congressman and gave him a thank-you card.

Health care wasn’t the only contentious topic. When speakers brought up abortion there were a few outbursts from people in the crowd, who had strong feelings on both sides of the issue.

“Close your legs and say no,” one man shouted during an abortion discussion. Another said, “This isn’t a Right to Life Rally.”

Asked to state his position on abortion, Himes said he was pro-choice but respected the opinions of those who are pro-life, particularly the Catholic Church. He also asserted that the ACA explicitly exempts churches from providing insurance plans that cover abortion, though it does require hospitals and those affiliated with the churches to provide that insurance. He said he understands why that would be troubling for those who are anti-abortion but he believes there should be a practical accommodation for someone who may not be Catholic and working at a Catholic-affiliated institution.

“I believe very strongly in the First Amendment right to conscience and I told Biship Lori this,” Himes said.

Leading by example

Himes said he works to listen to all his constituents, but with a district as diverse as the 4th District, there are many conflicting ideas about the right way to do things.

He also said he would try to lead by example when it comes to civility and that’s why he didn’t bash the other side.

“I believe profoundly that we should have two parties arguing about issues,” Himes said, “hopefully, more politely than we did today.”