Video: Health debate reaches fever pitch

updated 8/14/2009 2:04:03 PM ET 2009-08-14T18:04:03

Congress' longest-serving member and a fierce health care advocate vowed Friday to push ahead with Democratic-led efforts to extend coverage to all, saying he won't be intimidated by protesters who disrupted his town-hall meetings.

"I am eager to talk about the bill with anyone who wants to discuss it. That doesn't open the door to everyone who wants to demagogue the discussion," Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said in a statement the day after holding back-to-back sessions that got so raucous police had to escort people out.

Dingell's response to the furious crowd came as the Obama administration stepped up its efforts to dispel what it called myths surrounding the president's campaign to overhaul the system. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius held a Webcast in which she dismissed suggestions that the government will ration care or cut Medicare benefits.

The boos, jeers and shouts of "Shame on you!" at the events in a gym in Romulus, Mich., mirror what other Democrats are encountering around the country but are particularly striking because of Dingell's stature.

Dingell, 83, has introduced universal health care bills every term since 1957, and is the lead sponsor on the health care bill currently before the House. Dingell's father, whom he replaced in the House, first co-sponsored legislation in 1943 to add health insurance to Social Security.

Books and catcalls
Footage of Dingell's events Thursday shows him interrupted by loud boos and catcalls as he tries to answer questions from the large, unruly crowd. So many people showed up at the first town hall that he convened a second one immediately after it.

Video: Congress advised to stay cool under heat In his statement, Dingell described being confronted by a father who feared legislation would prevent his son who is has cerebral palsy from getting care.

"Unfortunately, he would not allow me an opportunity to respond to his concern," Dingell said. "I'm sorry that Romulus Police had to escort them out, but he left officers no choice. We had 200 people in the hall, more than 200 people outside, and we could not let one person take over that meeting."

The town hall protests are becoming widespread around the country as local activists, sometimes helped by national conservative groups, spread the word and encourage people to attend to challenge Democrats on President Barack Obama's plans. The activists make accusations including that Democrats are trying to socialize health care, ration care or even euthanize the elderly.

"As long as I have a vote, I will not let shouting, intimidation or misinformation deter me from fighting for this cause," Dingell said.

Support for Obama's approach to health care has dropped in the polls, and the White House sought to address some oft-repeated claims.

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Among them: Will Medicare benefits be cut? Will government bureaucrats ration care? Will the elderly get progressively less care and then have euthanasia presented as an option?

Sebelius answered: No, no and no.

She said the administration wants to save money in Medicare by eliminating unnecessary procedures and hospital readmissions, among other things, but that there was no desire to eliminate needed benefits. She contended that insurance companies already ration care and that Obama wants to give doctors more control, not less.

As for the euthanasia claim: "Nothing could be less true ... that is just not part of the conversation," Sebelius said.

The rumor has become widespread and seems to stem from a provision in the House bill that would require Medicare to pay for direct consultations with health care professionals. Sebelius noted that no one would be required to use the benefit and said it would help many families.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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