Reid talks, hears about health care

A town hall meeting without tea bag tossing and rifle-toting protesters makes for a sedate event, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., proved Friday.

Reid hosted a teleconference, or tele-town hall, with an estimated 10,000 Nevadans to discuss health reform, without having to worry about talking over protesters who have disrupted live town hall events around the country.

It was an opportunity for Reid to reiterate his support for the so-called "public option" version of reform and share some sobering statistics about health care in Nevada and around the country.

The call lasted an hour and Reid, speaking from Reno, interacted with about 17 people during the event.

"I'm in favor of the public option," Reid told a caller identified as Joe from Las Vegas. "What we need is to make sure we have a way of keeping the insurance companies honest."

He characterized such a public option not as a government run program, but as a program that could be privately run with direction from the government.

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said 2,000 people signed up to participate in the event through Reid's Web site. Just before it started, another 48,000 randomly selected Nevada phone numbers were called and people who answered were offered a chance to join the call.

"I think it went really well," Summers said. "Clearly you had people who were for and against" health care reform.

Almost as soon as the call ended, Sue Lowden, chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party and potential challenger to Reid in 2010, sent an e-mail criticizing Reid's statements in support of reform.

Lowden wrote: "Harry Reid made his health care confession -- during a pre-screened, tele-town hall meeting -- saying he wants to implement a radical change in health care; one that will punish seniors, small businesses and private insurance customers with higher taxes, fewer choices and more bureaucracy in their health care decisions."

A caller to Reid identified as Lenore from Reno said she had four adult children, and none had health insurance.

She said three of her children were unemployed and the one who is working can't afford the insurance offered by his employer.

"Will they be able to get help with dental and eyes and other stuff though this bill?" she asked Reid.

Reid asked Kate Leone, his senior health counsel, to respond. "No one should have to say, 'I can't afford to have coverage,'" Leone said.

She also mentioned a program that helps people struggling to make payments to COBRA, a program that allows newly unemployed people to maintain their old employer coverage, albeit at a higher cost in most instances.

Another caller, identified as Shirley from Gardnerville, referred to health reform as something Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wanted.

Reid said polls show as many as 70 percent of people in America say they want some sort of reform and about 50 percent approve of how it is developing in Congress.

"It is not Pelosi. It is not Reid. It is the American people," he said.

In response to another caller, Reid defended the teleconference format by saying rowdy protests at live events have distracted the news media from covering the substance of the health debate.

"They would rather see on TV a fight that takes 30 seconds, people yelling at each other," Reid said.

It isn't just Democrats who have been supportive of replacing live constituent interaction with teleconference events. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., recently said he, too, prefers teleconference events to in-person meetings.

"We are able to reach a lot more people and have a nice, civil dialogue," Ensign said Tuesday.

A caller identified as Shirley from Las Vegas urged Reid to press hard to make a reform program happen.

"I think we need to be non-partisan, we need to do what is right and not worry about whether we are appeasing the Republicans."