HHS Secretary at Library

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hold the “Web Sites for Dummies” book handed her by State Senator Brian Kelsey. (Photo by Brian Kelsey)

When I arrived at the Benjamin Hooks Central library the lot was so full you’d think they were giving something away! To see HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius I had to park in the next door lot in front of Pier 1 because no spots were left at the library.

Lots of people had turned out to hear what she had to say on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Some were not the people she’d like; there were protestors out front against smart meters, pro life supporters and a woman waving a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.

Inside the library, tables with pamphlets lined the hall on the way to the meeting room along with signs that read “Get TN Covered.” The meeting room was SRO. A raised platform held the podium behind which “navigators” for the ACA stood. Sebelius came in the room flanked by Steve Cohen and Mayor AC Wharton. A woman named Lisa, associated with Seedco (more on this later) spoke first and commented that “if you’re healthy you work” and how that meant that everyone benefits from your work (like a commune) so everyone should get health care. Suddenly, I felt like I was standing in 1933 Moscow. “People are embracing the ACA and have waited a long time,” she said, and then introduced Wharton.

Wharton thanked Cohen and Sebelius for “the valiant fight.” He asked people to stand up in approval. They did. Wharton launched into a flattering speech, beginning by dismissing the importance of numbers. Yes, numbers. “I always tell people that the first four letters of that word spell numb,” he said. Although that seems a perplexing comment – is he not interested in facts and data? – he went on to say that now 88,000 people in this city need the ACA. Now they’ll get it. He likes those numbers.

(What about the hundreds of thousands of Memphians who will lose their current good insurance?) I guess they don’t count in Wharton’s numerology.

Wharton continued. “It’s been just one month in a six month process,” he said about the disastrous rollout of Obamacare. “This is not a doomsday scenario.” He then asked the audience in a sing song manner if they want to be “on the wrong side of history. The people who said the earth was flat were …” “Wrong” the audience chanted. The Republicans who were against Social Security were… wrong,” he continued. Wharton said Social Security is the model for the ACA because it is so great and anyone who wants to change Social Security is…”wrong.”

“Our course is right and we have the right soldier lead it,” Wharton commented. He called Sebelius our general in the battle.

Sebelius then took the podium. She referenced “transformation of the country” echoing Obama’s 2008 statement that he wanted to fundamentally transform the United States of America. She harped on the talking point that the ACA was passed by both houses, legitimized by the Supreme Court and validated by Obama’s 2012 election win.

In Tennessee, she said that 60,000 young adults now are insured thanks to the clause of including offspring up to age 26 on their parents’ insurance; that 1.5 million now get free health screenings; 353,000 kids with preexisting conditions now get insurance; and that 16% are still uninsured of under insured in our state.

As for problems the website has had, Sebelius said “the website is getting better every week.” There are four ways to enroll she said, listing the website, phone calls, paper applications and community groups. In Memphis she referenced Seedco, an umbrella group that apparently takes tax money and spends it however they want to.

When she yielded to Cohen, I was suprised at the faint applause for him. He was undeterred, however, launching into his own work on health issues, touting his work in building the Med.

“In the fall of 1954 a five year old boy had polio,” he said in a kind of verbal selfie. He spent time in the hospital and he knew “since he was 5 years old that insurance companies were wrong.” Cohen acknowledged that the ACA was not the perfect bill for him. “If it had been up to me, we’d have a single payer plan,” he said. Cohen lauded Sebelius’ appearance before Congress. “With what the Secretary had to endure in front of Congress, well, she stood tall.”

Cohen also mentioned that the ACA gave $5 million to the Christ Community Health Services and $5 million to the Church Health Center. No wonder they have fallen in step so thoroughly.

After these speeches, which lasted less than half an hour, there was tepid applause and the crowd dispersed. Most were confused that there wasn’t help right there. “I thought we’d get some information,” said one attendee. “There was nothing to learn,” said another. “It was just cheerleading,” commented a third.

Some Republicans did show up, among them Dr. George Flinn and State Senator Brian Kelsey. Kelsey told me he had managed to give Sebelius a copy of the book “Websites for Dummies.” A great idea! Others were shaking their heads at the proliferation of untruths, shall we say, promoted in the half hour.

Interestingly, the event mirrored the emptiness of the whole act. No one seems to understand it, give specifics about it or engage in it. There is more passion on our side. We’ll check back with these folks in a few years, eh?

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