IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

NM freshmen Democrats get an earful on health care

Across a table, Rep. Harry Teague faced a doctor who issued a warning: If you vote for health care reform, it will drive my practice out of business. Ahead of another meeting with the congressman, an Alamogordo woman said she believes Teague will do the right thing and vote to support it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Across a table, Rep. Harry Teague faced a doctor who issued a warning: If you vote for health care reform, it will drive my practice out of business. Ahead of another meeting with the congressman, an Alamogordo woman said she believes Teague will do the right thing and vote to support it.

"You get it from both sides," Teague said minutes before meeting with constituents at a tension-filled forum in southern New Mexico.

Candid conversations like these confronted New Mexico's three freshmen congressmen — Democratic Reps. Teague, Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan — during the August recess as the nation's health care debate gets up close and personal.

Their votes will be crucial for President Barack Obama in his push this fall to enlist Congress to pass legislation that would overhaul the nation's health care system.

But it's a dicey matter for Heinrich and Teague, who serve in districts that were represented by Republicans for decades. They'll cast a difficult vote on reform, taking a position that could mean trouble at the polls in 2010.

With three first-term members, New Mexico is something of a freshman incubator. Teague is one of 13 new Democratic House members elected in congressional districts carried by Republican presidential candidates John McCain last year. Lujan holds a seat considered safe for Democrats.

New Mexico's three representatives are balancing the divided opinions of their constituents, the goals of Democratic higher-ups whose help they want for re-election and the "guy out there waiting who has a really good shot at your seat and could pull out the ammunition," said Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico political scientist.

"The issue is such an important one that they need to be very, very cautious about all the different pressures there," she said.

Teague, who serves southern New Mexico's sprawling 2nd District, already has drawn an opponent. Republican Steve Pearce, who gave up the seat during his third term to make an unsuccessful run at the Senate, wants his old job back. He doesn't support the House bill.

The representatives have been cautious in their support, talking about specific proposals or concerns rather than backing the bill as a whole.

Teague hasn't declared a position on the bill. During the Alamogordo event, he repeatedly declined to answer questions about the 1,018-page House measure, which he said he had read cover-to-cover.

The lack of specifics frustrated many who attended.

"I didn't hear any answers. I heard a lot of 'I don't knows,'" said Richard McWhirter, who says pending reforms will put his auto parts store out of business.

Teague was guarded during an interview beforehand, saying he has questions about cost containment, providing options for people and making sure reform won't overburden small businesses.

"I don't know that I have a bottom line," Teague said.

Heinrich, who supports a public insurance option, said more needs to be done to contain health care costs and increase Medicare solvency.

The congressmen denied feeling pressure from lobbyists or party leadership, but they're hearing loud and clear from constituents, who are lining up to attend overflowing town hall meetings.

Last month in Santa Fe, Lujan held back-to-back meetings to accommodate a large crowd but still had to turn away people. In Albuquerque, almost 2,000 people showed up for Heinrich's forum although only 900 seats were available.

Typically, Heinrich said he's never worried about security, but people had to pass through metal detectors to attend his town hall. In July, someone carried a sign opposing health care reform that depicted a swastika and the congressman's name spelled "Heinreich."

In Alamogordo, two armed sheriff's deputies sat in the back of the room for Teague's event.

Lujan and Heinrich have tried to diffuse tension by having attendees write and submit questions, rather than allowing them to directly challenge the lawmakers.

During Teague's recent visit to Alamogordo's hospital, more than a dozen doctors and administrators told him their small-town medical community is strained by low reimbursement rates from Medicare and Tricare, the federal insurance program for military members. Alamogordo is home to Holloman Air Force Base.

Doctors and administrators warned that more federally funded insurance, especially at low reimbursement rates, would be devastating to small towns and rural areas.

"Our concern is by Congress moving toward more control of government and more control of the insurance industry — not reform, but direct control — then you are taking away my part of the American dream and my ability to take care of my patients, my ability to continue practicing," Dr. John Anderson told Teague.

Teague said comments like Anderson's are why he asked House leaders to hold off on a vote on health care reform until after the August recess.

"You also have things like the woman standing there and telling you that if we don't have a public option with a single-payer, 'I'm not going to be able to have health care,'" Teague said.

Asked how his position on the bill may play out for next year's election, Heinrich said he tries "not to get too caught up in that," but failure to reform health care will reflect badly on Congress.

"I think the worst thing we could do is nothing," Heinrich said.