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Across the U.S., All Eyes on Health Reform, Economy

August 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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At the end of an especially eventful August recess, Jeffrey Brown speaks with reporters and analysts from around the nation about how the economy and health care debates are shaping up.

GWEN IFILL: Now, in what’s turned out to be an unusually restless August when it comes to debates about the economy and health care, we turn to reports from around the nation. Jeffrey Brown has our survey.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, we’ve asked four journalists and hosts of local PBS public affairs programs to join us: Frederica Freyberg of “Here and Now” on Wisconsin Public Television; Gene Grant of “New Mexico in Focus” on KNME in Albuquerque; Nell McCormack Abon of “Smart Talk” on Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s, WITF; and from Tampa, Rob Lorei of WEDU’s “Florida This Week.”

Well, Frederica Freyberg, we talked earlier on the program about Ben Bernanke, his recent pronouncement that the economy appeared to be leveling out, even as he cautioned about some continuing problems. How does that jibe with where you are?

FREDERICA FREYBERG, Wisconsin Public TV: Well, that’s what they say kind of on the coasts. Here in the heartland, job loss still really hurts. Just this week, we learned that Mercury Marine, a company in Fond du Lac, expects to move 2,000 jobs out of the state of Wisconsin.

Now, our unemployment rate is at 8.7 percent, but there are some pockets in this state, particularly in the region where the G.M. plant closed this summer, where the unemployment rate is at 18.5 percent. So if this recovery is coming, I think we here in Wisconsin say, “Bring it on.”

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Nell Abom, what’s happening there?

NELL MCCORMACK ABOM, WITF-TV: Well, Governor Rendell this week said, as a matter of fact, that business expansions are growing at a greater rate than business closings. For the very first time in a year, we have more job openings than we have jobs being lost.

But at the same time, he cautioned this is not a prediction for the future. Right now that looked pretty good. But at the same time, we have an unemployment rate of about 8.5 percent. And similarly, we have certain pockets, like the Philadelphia area, that’s 10 percent unemployment. We have State College, which is where Penn State University is. That’s at about 5.8 percent.

But there are pockets all around the state where it’s 9 percent, almost 10 percent, and those people are really hurting. Since December of 2007, the beginning of this recession, Pennsylvania has lost 183,000 jobs.

So it’s significant to the people who’ve lost those jobs or who are on the cutting edge. Harley-Davidson, a big employer here in central Pennsylvania, 2,000 jobs they’re talking about leaving. That would be a substantial hit both to the psyche and to the reality of people being unemployed.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And moving west, Gene Grant in Albuquerque, any signs of a leveling out, out there?

GENE GRANT, KNME-TV: I’m not so sure about leveling out. I think what we’ve got going on here is a couple of things. We’ve got some very significant revenue shortfalls coming up with our state coffers to the tune of about $450 million-plus. We’ve got Medicaid cuts being proposed at about $300 million. We’ve got an unemployment rate still hovering around 6 percent, so we’ve been pretty steady.

Housing, it’s been interesting. One of the local realtor groups here is predicting or were saying that they’ve got about 1,000 homes in the Albuquerque area that have come off the market, and they’re hoping that that’s going to have some hope for increase in price at some point soon.

But it’s always interesting when you talk about things like economic confidence in a place like New Mexico. We have some very serious economic challenges. I mean, we’re talking about the 45th state in per capita income.

So, you know, when you talk about confidence and, you know, signs of things either rising or falling, you’ve got to look and you’ve got to — you’ve got to really root around the nooks and crannies, but it all seems to come out to a bit of a wash right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And, Rob Lorei in Tampa, what are you seeing?

ROB LOREI, WEDU-TV: Well, Jeffrey, I feel like I’m playing “Top This,” but, you know, Florida has a 10.7 unemployment rate. Florida was always golden in that, in the last 30 years since I’ve lived here, our economy has gotten better and better and better.

In the last two years, with the recession, we’ve seen that our unemployment rate is outpacing the national average by a percentage. The pillars of Florida’s economy include tourism, construction for both housing and commercial, and also agriculture, and two of those pillars are in the tank, and we don’t see any sign that they’re going to recover.

One economist said this week that, when Florida recovers, it’s going to take a year beyond the national recovery.

Effect on the health care debate

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Rob, let me stay with you. This competition that nobody wants to win, I guess, that you're referring to, right?

ROB LOREI: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tie it now to health care, because that, after all, is the most contentious debate of this month and this summer. How do you see that playing out where you are and tied to some of the factors we've just been talking about?

ROB LOREI: There's a vigorous debate here in Florida about health care, as there is nationwide. All the town hall meetings, whether they're staffed or held by Democrats or Republicans, are packed with people. Floridians want answers.

Here in Florida, 27 percent of Florida's population is without health insurance. The numbers here in Florida are the fourth-highest in the country. We've got a huge number of kids that are without health insurance.

I was at the town hall meeting that was hosted by a local state representative. And one of our Congress members, Kathy Castor, attended it a few weeks ago. And the big question from the protesters outside is, "We want details. We want an explanation." And they got no explanation.

I think some people were there to disrupt it, clearly, but some people had legitimate questions. They wanted the federal government, they wanted Obama, President Obama, to give more details about what he was proposing. And I think people want to have that discussion, and they feel like they're not getting it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frederica, are you seeing something like that where you are?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: Well, certainly, there are these town hall meetings being held by members of Congress all across the state, and the one that I attended was raucous, to say the least.

And people do want details. The people that I saw at the meeting I went to -- it was in a Republican district -- and I would say better than half of the people there were opposed. And they worry about things like how much any health care plan, particularly the public option, might cost. They worry about mandated care. They worry about all the kinds of things that we've heard.

However, there were plenty of people there, particularly the unemployed, that were very interested in some kind of a public option and very much wanting health care reform.

I should say, though, as opposed to Florida that we've just heard, Wisconsin has a very high rate of people who are insured, in fact, second only to Massachusetts. Less than 5 percent of the people in the state of Wisconsin do not have health insurance.

And that's because we have these state programs that get federal waivers whereby people of certain incomes can have access to health care. So in Wisconsin specifically, this debate comes around much less access and more about the cost of health care, which everyone is concerned about, from small businesses to large businesses to governmental entities.

Concern among seniors

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Nell Abom in Harrisburg, what are you hearing? Is it uncertainty? Is it fear over what change might bring?

NELL MCCORMACK ABOM: I think that's certainly it. You've seen Senator Specter at his town hall meetings has been jeered and booed, whether they're in Philadelphia or right here in central Pennsylvania. But it was in Lebanon County which, of course, went for John McCain by 20 points, so he shouldn't have been surprised that the president's plan ran into some trouble here.

Don't forget: Pennsylvania has the third-highest percentage of seniors, people over the age of 60. So these folks have insurance. They're happy pretty much with what they have. They fear the unknown. They fear some of the things that have been said out there about maybe they would be last on the list of getting services. So there's a great deal of uncertainty there.

The other thing that you have to consider in Pennsylvania, we are one of only two states that still does not have a state budget. That fact, that government seems not to be able to perform its core function, the one function our legislature and the governor really have, is to pass a balanced budget every year, they haven't been able to do it. We're in day 57.

People don't think government can function. And if you're coming to them and saying, "We have a government plan to provide health insurance, to change fundamentally the health care system we've had for those last 60, 80 years," people are not ready to buy it yet.

And that's, I think, what these elected officials are experiencing all across this state. I should say, Bob Casey has held a forum on health care. He didn't get that kind of reception. So that was more recently than Senator Specter's. Joe Sestak, who's going to be taking on Arlen Specter, is planning one in Harrisburg at the end of this week. We'll see what kind of reception he gets.

But I think those are some of the factors that are underlying uncertainty and concern about this plan.

Favor for government in New Mexico

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Gene Grant, you're in a state where the federal government has a fairly large role in the economy and in many people's health care, I guess, through veterans, Native Americans, and so forth.

GENE GRANT: Indian Health Services, absolutely, it's huge, like to the tune of 40 percent of working New Mexicans are under some kind of government-run health care plan. So you don't see a lot of seniors with signs talking about getting the government out of their pocket while they have their Medicare cards in their wallets. That doesn't quite play here.

However, it's an interesting situation. You've got, gosh -- like I said before, Medicaid is an enormous part of New Mexico's health care picture. And Senator Bingaman, interestingly enough, who's one of the gang of six, a Democrat, senior senator here in New Mexico, had a town hall meeting yesterday that was anything like Arlen Specter's town hall meetings. It was rational and calm, and people had some very interesting questions.

And I want to echo what the other folks were saying. The big push here now is for details. A lot of the town halls here, we have three freshmen congressional members. Senator Udall has his first town hall starting tomorrow in Ruidoso, down to the southern part of the state.

Details. Everyone is still talking in the broad strokes of it, and folks have been tracking this closely. They get it. They're not ready for platitudes. They're ready for details. So you could imagine what it would have been like to have an actual gang of six member.

Now, one of the things that was interesting about the Senator Bingaman's town hall was the fact that he said a couple of interesting things. He quite calmly, in his own interesting way, said he would be, you know, somewhat considerate of the idea of going to reconciliation to get this done, as a matter of fact. And I'm not quite sure on this, but I believe he might be the only gang of six member to date to go on the record to talk about reconciliation as an option.

Other things that came up, the senator made it clear that he would prefer to see some other things that, you know, were problematic, but public health care option is the big issue, of course. And all three House members here are supportive of it, so the House side is not that big of an issue.

He has made it clear that, if that is what it's going to take -- meaning not having a public option as part of the final bill coming out of Senate Finance and coming out of the Senate -- he could go there, but his preference would be to have a public option, which, of course, played very well here.

Because, again, we've got so many folks here in this state who are under some kind of public plan, if you will, for their health care coverage now, so people are comfortable with it. They understand it. They get it. It's not demonized. Government health care is not a demonized entity here. And I think that might be an interesting thing for the country to watch as this moves along.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, we will leave it there. Gene Grant, Rob Lorei, Nell McCormack Abom, and Frederica Freyberg, thank you all very much.