PHILADELPHIA - The spirited crowd that filled the First Unitarian Church in center city here this morning to hear about the new health reform law came with mixed emotions.
Many had worked for the bill (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) and were proud of their achievement. Some were not satisfied with it or came with questions about the details. Many, including most of the speakers, showed both a determination to educate their fellow citizens about the bill's benefits and an understanding of the need for further struggle to implement the bill's provisions and to win further gains in the future.
Kathleen Stoll, deputy executive director of Families USA, told the crowd in her opening remarks that 829, 000 uninsured Pennsylvanians will now be covered under the new law. John Dodds, executive director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP), caught the mood of the gathering when he said, "We did it. Now it's important to maintain it. There are a lot of people who want to roll this back."
Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak, a strong supporter of affordable health care, told the crowd that the health care issue was the primary reason he had run for Congress, saying, "I went to Congress to work on health security."
During his career as an admiral in the Navy, Sestak said, he "never had to look over his shoulder and worry" about his wife and daughter having quality care. His daughter survived brain cancer at the age of four; during her treatment he saw families of children with similar conditions stressed and worried about whether they could afford the needed care.
He emphasized the benefits the new bill will provide to millions including the 3 million children in the U.S. who have pre-existing conditions who will now be guaranteed care. He noted that "fee for service" health care has encouraged quantity rather than the quality of care and that his father might have survived a post-surgical infection with the new bill's emphasis on quality.
The congressman also alluded to the struggles ahead when he said, "Is there more to be done? You bet!" He said, in answer to a question about "death panels," that private insurance companies, not the government, come between the doctor and the patient in making sensitive and difficult health decisions.
Theresa Mansell, program director of the nonprofit Childspace CDI, said that many child care providers are small businesses which have been unable to afford health care for their employees and that, since child care workers are predominantly women, this was a widespread form of gender discrimination which is addressed in the new law.
Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, president-elect of the National Physicians Alliance and a physician for the Philadelphia Health Department, also emphasized the need for continued and determined activity, saying, "The bill is the first step."
Bettigole told the People's World after the meeting that the health care law provides $11 billion for the construction and staffing of new community health centers across the country. She felt that making these a reality will require protracted effort. She expressed optimism on this point since, she noted, this is one part of the law that did have bipartisan support.
The meeting was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network and Families USA. The Network is a coalition of some 50 groups including unions and health care advocacy groups.
There was no mention of the fact that Congressman Sestak is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in the fall election, but Stoll of Families USA did remind the gathering at the end that "this fall's election outcome will influence how far we are able to move on improvements in the law and implementing the law." Then she added that there was one candidate present who had been a strong supporter of such health care issues. Her message was hard to miss.
Photo: Participants in the packed Philadelphia town meeting. PW/Ben Sears