Medford City Councilor Robert Penta shook up a town hall meeting in Arlington on Monday night, asking Congressman Edward Markey if he'd sponsor an amendment in the health care reform bill pending in the US House to require members of Congress to follow the same rules as everyone else in a system that may include a public insurance option.
Penta told Markey that under current federal guidelines, "you have 300 options that no one else in this country has."
Markey - whose district includes Malden, Medford and Melrose - said that under the House bill, the government is "not going to tell any member of Congress or any member of the public that they have to give up what they already have."
Rather, he said, the bill would create an insurance exchange for all Americans that would include a public option and private plans to choose from, and he encouraged the crowd at Arlington Town Hall to attend a Medford Council meeting.
"They have an animation coefficient that is higher than Arlington and Lexington's [city panels]," Markey said.
He told the crowd that hundreds of families in his district went bankrupt last year trying to pay their medical bills, and that while fighting terrorism remains a top priority in Washington, “the real terrorist” for many constituents is a costly, hereditary condition, such as diabetes or Alzheimer's, which a public option could mitigate.
"For many Americans, the public option will be the only option, and we just have to be realistic about that," he said.
Though Markey touted the reform plans pending in the House and Senate, he fielded tough questions on the insurance exchange and children's coverage, among other issues.
Abby Vigneron of Arlington asked if the reform package would allow her to keep her insurance plan whenever she switched jobs.
"I don't want to have to change health plans every time," she said.
Markey told her that the exchange would improve quality of care across the board.
"The national health insurance exchange is like a health care supermarket," he said, adding that under terms of the plan, a family of four earning less than $88,000 per year would be eligible for a public option subsidy.
Dr. Carole Allen, president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wondered if reform would limit coverage currently offered under the federal Children's Health Insurance Program for middle and low-income families.
"Many of my pediatric colleagues are worried that kids will be worse off after health care reform," Allen said, since the House plan would roll CHIP benefits into the exchange.
Markey pledged that the House - which voted to expand the CHIP program this year - wouldn't let kids slip through the cracks.
"I can give you my absolute guarantee that we will not compromise those programs," he said.
Markey also fended off critics who said reform would put private insurers out of business and provide coverage for undocumented workers. He said the latter was impossible under terms of the plan, and that insurers would have to improve their practices to hang onto customers.
But Arlington resident John Deyst said he doubted a public option would come to pass, since the reform bill in the Senate has no government plan.
"The debate between the Senate and the House should be between single payer and the public option, as opposed to the public option and nothing," Deyst said.
Markey insisted that the public option would pass the House in about two weeks, and that supporters would "fight it out" in the upper chamber. And no matter what happens, he said, health care will improve.
"It'll be a giant, historic step forward," he said.