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Virginia Voters Examine Health Reform

April 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the second of two reports on the implications of the new health care law, Betty Ann Bowser reports from Virginia as Rep. Tom Perriello meets with constituents.

JIM LEHRER: Now to our second look at how voters see the new health care law.

Last night, Spencer Michels reported on what a Republican House member is hearing in his Northern California district.

Well, tonight, “NewsHour” health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser follows a Virginia Democrat.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Charlottesville business owner Mimi Hyde is glad her congressman backed the new health care reform law. In fact, she recently volunteered to be his poster girl for the overhaul because of her skyrocketing health insurance costs.

MIMI HYDE, owner, The Needle Lady: For me, it is just getting insupportable. And I really could have put two kids in college, what I paid in policies vs. what they paid out for me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hyde, a single mother of four, is self-employed. She runs a knitting and needlepoint store on the historic Downtown Mall.

MIMI HYDE: For myself and four kids, all healthy, it was $400 a month. Three years later, nobody’s sick, no medicines, no chronic illness, it was $1,300 a month.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what is it now?

MIMI HYDE: Fifteen — just under $1,500 a month.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So, what do you think of this new health care reform law?

MIMI HYDE: I would have liked to see it go a little further, but, you know, I am happy to have a beginning. I think I am tired of hearing everybody talk about how they don’t want the government running their health care. Well, Anthem has been running my health care for eight years, and doing a lousy job of it. And it’s expensive. And I get less and less for it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hyde’s representative in Washington is Democrat Tom Perriello. The 36-year-old Yale-trained lawyer from Ivy, Virginia, won one of the closest congressional races in the nation in 2008, winning Virginia’s 5th Congressional District by just 727 votes.

Voters here have mostly leaned Republican in recent years. They backed Republican Senator John McCain in the presidential election. Perriello has found himself the target of conservative ire in the health care reform debate.

There have been small protests at his Charlottesville office. And vandals attacked his brother’s home shortly after he cast his vote in favor of the overhaul package, which became law last month.

Perriello says the new law will help many of his 700,000 constituents like, Mimi Hyde.

REP. TOM PERRIELLO, D-Va.: Health care, for some of us, was not an ideological fight. It was about economic relief to working and middle-class families, seniors who are struggling. If we can save them a little money, that’s a really big deal for people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Perriello’s district is Virginia’s largest. It stretches from the liberal city of Charlottesville in the north, east to the edges of metropolitan Richmond, and south to the more conservative and economically-challenged areas like Danville, near the North Carolina border.

Opposition to the new health care law among conservatives in the 5th is so strong that seven Republicans have lined up to run against Perriello this fall. And political observers suggest it could be a tough race for him.

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: A small, but vibrant crowd here in Charlottesville

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So, while home from Washington, he’s set out to explain to voters what he thinks are the overhaul’s good points.

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: We are extending the solvency of the Medicare trust fund by about a decade. We’re closing the prescription doughnut hole. We’re trying to further reimburse primary care docs for being part of the Medicare system. And we want to reduce some of those out-of-pocket expenses that our seniors pay.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While many seniors in nationwide surveys have expressed concern about the new law, Perriello didn’t have to work too hard at a town hall meeting at the senior center in Charlottesville. It’s a city where 80 percent of the voters backed him in the 2008 election.

MAN: A real step in the direction that we all need to go.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As Perriello fielded questions — some over the telephone — it was clear many simply didn’t understand how they would be affected by the law.

DARLENE DOSS, Business Owner: We run a small business of six to eight, sometimes 10 employees. Where are we going to gain anything from the new health care plan?

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: Start retroactive to January 1 of this year, your company would be eligible for a 35 percent tax credit to cover the premiums that you’re paying for your employees.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Head south outside of Charlottesville, and the political landscape changes dramatically.

Much of the 5th Congressional District in Virginia is made up of areas like this, rural areas. And, as you move away from the population centers in the north near Charlottesville, towards the North Carolina border, the new health care law becomes increasingly unpopular.

Along the banks of the James River in Lynchburg…

THOMAS JOHNSON, owner, Thomas A. Johnson Furniture Company: How’s it going?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: … Thomas Johnson has plans to expand his furniture company, in spite of the economic downturn.

THOMAS JOHNSON: The big plan is that I want to establish a manufacturing industry, at a time when that industry is dying.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Johnson, who settled in the U.S. from Ghana nearly 20 years ago, currently employs about 10 full-time workers. But he doesn’t offer health insurance, because he says it’s too expensive. He thinks the new law will hamper his plans to hire 100 workers.

THOMAS JOHNSON: We are today in global market system, which means that somebody else is doing somewhere very cheap, sending them to the United States. So, if I am going to compete on a global market, then we have to level the playing field and make it in a way that I can make profit, to be able to afford health care. But if I am going to be forced to provide health care, with no profit margin, I think the company will crash.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Johnson says he’s not happy his congressman voted yes for health care reform.

THOMAS JOHNSON: If he had listened to his constituents, I think he would have made a better judgment.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Perriello’s theory is that the political left and right are no longer so engaged on health care as they were during the debate.

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: And I think that those who are really passionate on either side have faded a little bit, and now the people in the middle are getting their turn to say, all right, walk me through it.

This is the law of the land now. And people get pretty excited when you go through things like extending the Medicare trust fund and bringing the cost of drugs down, allowing people into these exchanges to get cheaper health care, tax credits to small business. So, what you see is sort of a revival of the moderates in this debate. And I think people are liking what they see so far.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That remains to be seen. But Perriello has his sights set squarely on motivating what he thinks is crucial: the political middle.