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Romano: Ignoring the death panels, and listening to legitimate concerns

Sometimes, we get lost in the drama. Sidetracked by fools, or distracted by invective.

And so the new narrative is not about health insurance and not about Medicaid, but instead how the angry middle class is forcing Republican politicians into hiding.

A congressman in California had to be rescued from a town hall meeting by a wall of cops. A congressman in New York canceled a similar event.

And a former sheriff now in the U.S. House of Representatives was recently asked to give a tutorial to his GOP colleagues on how to fortify offices and beef up security in crowded settings.

Even here, a week ago, a constituent gathering in Pasco turned into national news when the microphones went live and the conversation went brain-dead.

Yet if you were willing to tiptoe through the noise and the nonsense, there was a message to be heard. And, fortunately, the man in the front of the room was listening.

"People are concerned, and rightfully so,'' said U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who arranged for town hall meetings in Pinellas and Pasco on back-to-back weekends. "Their fears are genuine.''

Bilirakis was not there to win over a crowd. Not with Obamacare on the agenda.

Republicans may have the numbers on their side in Washington, but they do not have anything close to a mandate when it comes to the possibility of taking insurance away from tens of millions.

And that puts politicians such as Bilirakis in a bind.

Republicans got the implicit approval to repeal the Affordable Care Act from voters in November, but it's a lot harder to do when you're staring into the face of worried patients and parents in February.

That's why a lot of politicians have taken safer routes. They're conversing with voters on Facebook, or on teleconferences where speakers can be screened. Some have dropped the pretense altogether and aren't even bothering to check in with the folks back home.

Bilirakis said he couldn't, and wouldn't, go that route. He had seven town hall meetings in 2016 and wasn't going to avoid health care just because it had become an uncomfortable topic in 2017.

Before the town hall began, cops suggested to the congressman's staff that he enter and exit the building through a back door. Bilirakis declined. Instead he showed up early, and stayed late.

"More than likely, there will be a repeal. After all, we campaigned on a repeal,'' Bilirakis said. "But I feel like it's my duty and my obligation to listen to what my constituents have to say about it.''

Listening is one thing; agreeing is another.

Like the rest of the GOP, Bilirakis has been conditioned to paint Obamacare as a disaster. And yet he acknowledges the law's supporters have valid arguments on a lot of issues.

For instance, pre-existing conditions should be covered. And there should be no lifetime caps. And children up to the age of 26 should be eligible on a parent's health coverage.

Where the law goes from there is less clear. Are tax credits the answer? Will states still get enough Medicaid funding for poverty-level residents? Will we return to emergency room treatment instead of preventive care?

Bilirakis said he is confident congressional leadership will have a strategy in place soon. Until then? He will continue to listen. Another town hall meeting is planned for eastern Pasco County in the coming weeks.

Tom Timcik, center, claps during U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ town hall meeting at the West Pasco Government Center on Feb. 11.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Special to the Times

Tom Timcik, center, claps during U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ town hall meeting at the West Pasco Government Center on Feb. 11.

Romano: Ignoring the death panels, and listening to legitimate concerns 02/17/17 [Last modified: Friday, February 17, 2017 6:15pm]
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