By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
KIOWA — Elbert Road unfurled like a black ribbon over hills offering views of weather-beaten barns, pristinely painted homes and lush green pastures where beautiful quarter horses and cattle browsed lazily. A car zoomed by on this lonely stretch in rural Colorado — adding a contrast to the impression that most folks were gathered around their kitchen tables as the sun set.
On Kiowa’s main drag, Commanche Street, the Homestead Café and Bino’s Pizza appeared vacant — despite the OPEN signs illuminated in the windows. The action was around the corner at the Elbert County Fairgrounds. There, the parking lot was full, forcing some drivers to seek space in the adjacent field or easements along the dirt road.
They were drawn to the Sept. 4 Health Care Reform Town Hall meeting hosted by Republican 6th District Congressman Mike Coffman. The proposed government-run health care option has sparked interest — as well as vicious verbal sniping — at similar forums around Colorado and the nation.
This exchange was different. It was civilized.
Not one person accused the Democrats of being “fascists” or “Nazis” — and no one waved posters with defaced pictures of President Barack Obama or hand-drawn swastikas. If there were any signs, they were politely left outside the building.
It didn’t seem that there would be any outbursts to quell, and Elbert County Sheriff William Frangis and a deputy stood casually at the back of the room, looking more like neighbors than enforcers. The population of the ranching and farming county hovers at 23,000, with about 1,271 folks in Kiowa proper.
Coffman and his staff greeted folks as they entered the fairground’s County Health Building and offered sign-up sheets for anyone who wanted to speak for or against controversial House Resolution 3200 or who wanted to receive e-mail information from the congressional office. The staff added more and more metal folding chairs to accommodate a crowd that eventually surpassed 150 people.
The freshman congressman avoided hot-button phrases, such as “death panels,” as he described the provisions of HR 3200, which were also printed on massive posters propped on an easel. Some folks popped open cell phones to photograph the boards.
“It is down the path of a single-payer system,” explained Coffman, adding that the intent was to stimulate competition among health coverage providers.
“It’s so unrealistic,” moaned Coffman, who predicted that a government-backed system would drive private insurers out of business and would be funded, in part, by a “fee or tax on small businesses” that can least afford it.
His staff called up each of the 18 individuals who signed up to speak about HR 3200. Only two posed questions. The others related their personal experiences with health care coverage and their opinions, mostly in opposition to the health care measure.
“I’m not opposed to government-run health care,” declared Suzanne O’Neill, a small business owner from nearby Elizabeth.
She said the cost of private health care premiums has climbed to the point that payments threaten the viability of her business, Transit Plus, Inc.
When opponents of HR 3200 groaned, grumbling that O’Neill had exceeded the three-minute speaking limit, Coffman calmly urged her to continue sharing her thoughts.
Those groans sounded like whispers in comparison to the furious noises that emerged at two other recent El Paso County forums.
“Shut up!” and “Quit lying!” were frequently heard at recent meetings in Colorado Springs and Woodland Park hosted by Colorado’s other Republican Congressman, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of the 5th Congressional District.
In Kiowa, the most eye-popping remarks were communicated silently on shirts worn by Jim Kenfield, a fiction writer who lives in Kiowa, and Shawn Hannick, founder of Front Range Teenage Republicans of Lakewood.
Kenfield’s T-shirt broadcast the popular Republican message, “RECESSION is when your neighbor loses his job, DEPRESSION is when you lose yours, and RECOVERY is when Obama loses his.”
Hannick’s shirt warned, “Obama care is hazardous to your health.”
Kenfield suggested to Coffman that it was time to resurrect former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” campaign.
“In 1994, voters voted in fiscal conservatives to keep (President) Bill Clinton under control,” recalled Kenfield. “We need to do that next year to keep this guy (Obama) under control.”
Hannick complained that he doesn’t know “what it takes to get it into the Democrats’ heads that we are in a recession right now.”
“I think what we need to focus on right now is getting the cost lowered — not the whole system changed, because we have one of the best systems in the world,” he declared.
Hannick said he adamantly opposes government-run health care and related the story of his friend, a Vietnam veteran, whose knee was injured during the conflict. The veteran had to wait more than 30 years before he finally received authorization for an operation.
Diane Varner, of Elizabeth, plunked a huge binder on top of Coffman’s two binders of HR 3200, each marked with hundreds of pastel plastic tabs.
“This is my health care,” said Varner. “I’m a cancer survivor.”
The room erupted with applause.
Varner’s binder contained a history of her battle with cancer, including insurance claims and payments. She lauded her private health care insurer, and doubted that she’d have received any medical care under a government plan.
Bruce McQuaid, chairman of the Deer Creek Water District Board of Directors, said that a proposed provision for insurance cooperatives is “a lure” to trick members of Congress into supporting the government plan.
“It’s another bait and switch,” said Coffman, nodding in agreement.
Some folks asserted that the federal government has extended its power beyond its purpose as stated in the United States Constitution. Others demanded federal term limits to get rid of career politicians in Congress.
Joy Overbeck, a freelance journalist who lives on a ranch in Kiowa, said she fears that the government system will be patterned after Great Britain’s health care operation.
Citing an article in the London Daily Telegraph, Overbeck said doctors there have complained of being forced to sedate patients to death.
Coffman listened and shared most of the concerns expressed by opponents of government-run health care. He also complained that Democrats have thrust such bills as HR 3200 and Cap-and-Trade at members of Congress at the zero hour.
He recalled the frustration he felt at receiving a 1,022-page e-mailed copy of HR 3200 at nearly midnight, knowing that he would be asked to vote on the measure the next day. The lower chamber of Congress postponed the vote and will resume the debate this month.
“You know, I’m a combat veteran. But for the first time in my adult life, I fear for the future of the country,” Coffman confessed. The audience applauded wildly.
Coffman said it should be a wakeup call “when you have somebody like China express their concern — their nervousness — about being the largest holder of American public debt and what’s going to happen to the value of the American dollar.”
“What is so distressing right now is this sense of recklessness,” he added solemnly.
Echoing many of his constituents’ sentiments, Coffman said the election in 2010 “will be a referendum” on the future of the country and the policies set forth by Obama and both of the Democrat-controlled chambers of Congress.