Emotions ran high Saturday as hundreds of East Bay residents packed town hall meetings to discuss President Barack Obama's health care plan.
Some people shouted angrily. Some jeered. Others applauded. And at times, some even engaged in actual debate.
The boisterous events in Fremont, San Leandro and Alameda, hosted by U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, mirrored the passionate displays that have occurred at town halls across the country.
They also highlighted the widespread confusion that exists about what is contained in the complex proposals now under consideration by Congress.
Stark fielded numerous questions about whether people would lose their Kaiser Permanente coverage, be required to undergo end-of-life counseling, have the government mandate what types of procedures they can receive, and watch their taxes jump dramatically.
Stark, who as chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee helped draft portions of the legislation, attempted to set the record straight, but occasionally struggled to be heard over shouts from the crowd.
"There are conservatives in our district who are scared, for example, that they won't be able to select their own physician," Stark said. "That's not true. There are some fears by Medicare beneficiaries that their Medicare will disappear. I hope today we can put some of those to rest."
More than 600 people gathered at the Fremont Senior Center, but only about half could get inside. The rest stood outside holding signs such as "I love my health care. Don't mess with it," while others chanted "Health care now."
Inside, Fremont resident Clark Denning, an unemployed electrician, said his insurance will run out in October and he is worried that he will be excluded from getting new coverage because of a pre-existing condition.
Stark noted that under the proposal, both public and private insurance plans could no longer exclude people because of pre-existing conditions.
When Stark mentioned the 47 million uninsured people in the United States, most of whom would eventually be covered if the plan is enacted, one man shouted, "How many of them are illegal?"
Stark responded that the bill states that undocumented immigrants will not be covered.
One misconception that continues to circulate is that the bill would set up "death panels" in which bureaucrats would determine which seniors are worthy enough to receive life-sustaining medical treatment.
One person with an 84-year-old mother angrily told Stark, "I'll be darned if I wait for a committee to decide whether she's productive enough to receive health care."
Stark stressed that the bill would merely authorize Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, if the patient wishes. There are no "death panels" and nothing is mandatory, he said.
Several speakers expressed fears that private insurance companies would not be able to compete with the public plan that would be established as an option under the proposal. Some said they are worried they would lose their Kaiser coverage.
"It looks to me like this is going to go away and all 97 percent of us are going to be covered by this garbage in this (public) plan," one woman said.
Stark stressed that people who are happy with their current coverage will be able to keep it.
"There's no chance that Kaiser won't be available to you," he added.
When one man complained that many members of Congress have not read the entire 1,600 pages of the bill, an audience member said sarcastically, "Thanks, Rush Limbaugh." A woman in front of him then turned and said, "Yes, thanks, Rush Limbaugh," expressing her support for the conservative commentator.
Several speakers angrily chastised Stark by saying, "Remember, you are our servant." When Stark discussed the rising cost of health care in the U.S., one man shouted, "Fix it."
As she left the meeting, Fremont resident Erminia Leask shook her head.
"My 9-year-old grandson has more manners than some of these people that came," she said.
Calmer in San Leandro
A smaller group at San Leandro City Hall engaged in less yelling and had more concrete discussions about the proposed health care reforms. A capacity crowd of 140 gathered inside, while several dozen people stood outside.
San Leandro family physician Bruce Robinson disagreed with critics who have argued that government bureaucrats would interfere with health decisions under the plan.
"It's the insurance companies that are getting between me and my patients," he said. "It is not the government."
Rome Aloise of the Teamsters said his members support the plan because they believe it will enable them to keep the "Cadillac" benefits that they have obtained from employers. If nothing is done, he said, companies will find it harder to pay the rising cost of premiums.
"Without some type of national health care, our employers cannot survive and compete," he said.
In response to speakers who voiced fears about rising taxes, Stark noted that a proposed new health care surcharge would apply only to families making more than $350,000 a year.
Stark ended the sessions by promising to return next month for another round of town halls.
"I think there are some misunderstandings about the bill," he told the crowd. "We will try to straighten those out."