Town hall meeting in Ohio - Guest blogger Ernie Boyd

On Tuesday, August 25, Ernie Boyd was one of four panelists at a local health care reform town hall meeting sponsored by AARP in Wintersville, OH. Below is an excerpt of the report from Ernie, who is executive director of the Ohio Pharmacists Association. I thought it captured the spirit of the debate that this past month has witnessed.

Wintersville is a small town on the eastern border of Ohio, a beautiful area of hills and lakes. A herd of deer crossed the road at 5 am as I made my way to the meeting. I had spoken previously at a town hall meeting in the Congressman Charlie Wilson’s (D-OH) 6th District after he introduced legislation to correct the tamper-resistant prescription problem. That meeting was attended about 60 people, and there were some questions, with the Congressman handling a wide range of issues. He has recently moved to Congress from the state legislature, where we interacted rather often.

I assumed that the meeting in Wintersville would be about the same size, although the topic was health care reform. I was wrong. AARP had arranged a luncheon, and they sold out the more than 360 seats. I arrived early, but people with signs on both sides of reform debate were already gathered in the parking lot. During the luncheon, cards were distributed for the people to submit questions. The moderator introduced us, and the fun began. The format consisted of an opening 15-minute presentation by Congressman Wilson, followed by 5-minute presentations by each panelist. Congressman Wilson, very well-liked by his constituents, is a conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat. His remarks covered the state of health care reform and the impact he felt change would have on the district. A national board member of AARP spoke, followed by the exec of the state medical association. Then the representative from the Service Employees International Union spoke, followed by me. I was given excellent background on pharmacy’s national position by Twlug's Kristina Lunner, and I covered MTM and our general views on reform. I also expressed Ohio’s concern with reimbursement issues, since the Governor just cut our reimbursement far below cost.

The crowd politely listened to our presentations, but it was obvious that they were chomping at the bit to get to questions. The moderator began by posing one of the written questions, and the Congressman answered. However, an audience member stood up and emphatically asked his question. That was followed by a number of others. The questions ranged from the cost of the program —especially given all the other money Congress has spent this year. How will the funds be found? Some answers were followed by relatively loud sounds of disbelief. One person quizzed the Congressman on the concept of abortion being paid under the bill. Another brought up veteran benefits. It was a bit unnerving to be the focal point of 700 eyeballs, with the crowd pretty activated. It was extremely interesting to watch this microcosm of grassroots involvement. The crowd was polite, never interrupted, listened, but was very dedicated to getting answers.

I gained a lot of respect for Congressman Wilson for meeting with some relatively upset constituents face-to-face, and having strong answers for their questions. I’ve lobbied for a lot of years but had never seen a time when constituents were as informed, aware, and involved as they are in the health care reform debate. The information is shaky, but that’s understandable with the speed that Congress is trying to get this done. It was good to have a chance to provide pharmacy’s position, and I did have a few comments following the meeting. This meeting, however, was about what the participants wanted the Congressman to hear, rather than the other way around. Interesting politics.

After thinking more about this meeting, I also realized that our Ohio pharmacist membership is more activated than I’ve seen in my 21 years here. During August, we had at least six interactions of our members in small groups or in pharmacies with members of Congress. Over the past 6 months, I can think of dozens more, including a meeting of Congressman Zack Space with pharmacist John Coler and me in Zanesville, OH. John was incensed with the DMEPOS accreditation, and brought out the book of material needed, and discussed the hours of work his staff had to do. Being in the pharmacy, seeing what we are up against, and being face-to-face convinced the Congressman to introduce legislation on DME. It is gratifying to see our members understanding the issues, and conveying our messages effectively. That’s the value of Twlug and OPA: bringing the facts to the pharmacist, and hopefully, shaping the debate on health care so we are not only included, but are a key player.