Steve Schlich and Mark Atkinson on the front page of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat August 31, 2009!!
Better quality photo from newspaper website
Sher Sheldon, 57, of Novato told the Petaluma crowd Monday that she supports a health overhaul
as she can't get insurance because she has multiple sclerosis.

1,200 fill 'raucous' health care forum

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
An overflow crowd of about 1,200 people attended a boisterous town hall meeting Monday night in Petaluma on the national health overhaul, many expressing support for a proposed government-run program and others shouting it down.

The two-hour meeting, run by Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey, was the first and only chance for many Sonoma and Marin County residents to ask questions and air comments before Congress reconvenes after Labor Day to consider the pending legislation.

Dozens spoke on both sides of the debate amid constant jeers and chants from an audience that filled every seat in the hall and spilled out into a second room and the front lobby.

Exasperated by catcalls, Jason Davies of Petaluma, who supports a public option plan, told health care overhaul opponents they missed their chance to control the discussion under the Bush administration.

"You guys had your way!" the software executive yelled into the microphone, drawing waves of cheers and boos. "This is our time to take our country back. We won!"

Opponents such as retired Novato veteran David Nusser countered that most people are satisfied with their current health insurance. Liberals are trying to force a socialist system that would create more taxes, he said.

"Mrs. Woolsey," said Nusser, "you and your group of thieves should go back to the drawing board."

People began arriving at the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Hall about an hour before the meeting. A line snaked out the front door and around the building into a back parking lot.

Many carried signs or argued their positions with others in line. Some filmed the scene with video cameras.

About a half-dozen Petaluma police officers, some in plain clothes, looked on.

There were no arrests, Lt. Mike Cook said.

Woolsey took the stage to polite clapping and some heckling. She fended off vocal opponents as she made arguments for changes she said would improve the efficiency of the medical system while controlling costs.

An opponent in the back blurted out, "That's crap!" and supporters chanted, "Let her speak!"

After getting booed when she asked people to lower their signs, Woolsey lightened the mood by citing Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, who said in his own town hall meeting that talking to opponents was like arguing with a dining room table.

"I promise not to label anyone as dumb as a dining room table, and I have confidence you will do the same," she said.

Despite the circus atmosphere, many people had serious concerns and questions.

Some wanted to know if they would be covered under the proposals if they lost their jobs and medical benefits. Others wanted to know if they could get medical insurance with a pre-existing health condition.

Others asked who would pay for it. Woolsey said the most wealthy Americans who earn more than $250,000 a year would pay a surcharge.

Sher Sheldon, 57 of Novato rolled up to the microphone in a wheelchair. Multiple sclerosis has prevented her from getting coverage, and she has a prescription drug bill of $1,000 a month, she said.

Woolsey said her problems would be solved under the plan.

"Isn't medical coverage for all a moral issue?" Sheldon asked to applause.

Lela Landman, 63, of San Anselmo said health care should be treated like any other government service that is funded by tax dollars. The current system is arranged to benefit private companies, she said.

"We pay for public safety. We pay for fire," she said. "Health care should not be for profit."

But opponents were out in force.

Robert Klag, a Mill Valley accountant, worried an overhaul would make him change a doctor he has had for 32 years.

"My health care coverage is something I understand and know how it works," Klag said.

Rod Hug, a retired enginer from Santa Rosa, said three-fourths of American don't want "Obama-care."

And Catherine Bragg, 50, a Novato business owner, revved up the crowd by accusing Woolsey of elitism.

"Reform is being rammed down our throats," she said, throwing her arms in the air. "If you let the free-market system work everyone could have insurance."

Woolsey hadn't planned on hosting a town hall meeting.

The former Petaluma city councilwoman presided over a telephone conference and attended smaller forums scattered across her 6th District, which encompasses all of Marin County and most of Sonoma County.

But last week, amid criticism she was denying the public a chance to speak, she announced the Petaluma meeting.

In a brief interview afterward, she called the meeting productive. She said she would consider the remarks before returning to Washington.

"That was a raucous meeting," she said.