Tensions were high Saturday morning as controversy over health care and President Donald Trump’s administration took center stage during a town hall held by Rep. Vern Buchanan.
More than 1,700 people, mostly Manatee and Sarasota residents, packed into the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota for the opportunity to voice their support or opposition to proposed plans to repeal Obamacare, the new administration and to question Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, on his stance.
For the few hundred who were unable to make it inside the building, speakers were set up outside the Van Wezel, and many stayed to listen.
“If you vote for the proposed Republican American Healthcare Act, how do you explain to your 36,752 constituents that you voted to repeal their subsidies, thereby making the ability to get affordable health care impossible?” one woman questioned Buchanan.
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The bill still needs more work, Buchanan said. More support is needed for seniors, he added, after assuring the crowd that making sure Medicare and Social Security are solid programs is a priority.
Concerns about how the U.S. is being viewed around the world were raised when Buchanan was asked if he was embarrassed or frightened by some of Trump’s actions.
“I don’t agree with everything the president says or does,” Buchanan said. “But my focus is in my committee, Ways and Means. I am focused on saving Medicare, Social Security. I’m focused on jobs.”
But hundreds in the crowd didn’t think Buchanan had addressed the issue raised and began chanting, “Answer the question.”
Buchanan was so focused on women’s health care in his days as a businessman in Sarasota, one woman recalled, so she asked why he would vote to defund Planned Parenthood.
“Most of what Planned Parenthood does is provide health care to women who would otherwise not be able to afford it,” the woman said to him.
Buchanan replied, “We still support a lot of organizations.”
One woman, who identified herself as a former Republican, brought up Buchanan votes in favor of repealing Obamacare.
”The Democrats gave us Social Security. The Democrats gave us Medicare. The Democrats gave us Obamacare. The Republicans did everything they could to undermine Obamacare, every step of the way,” she said. “I think Obamacare should be fixed, not undermined.”
Buchanan responded to the question, the final one in his 90-minute town hall meeting, despite the shouting from the crowd.
“Health care, in the last 20 years, I think is one of the big reasons financially that’s hurting our middle class and our families,” he said. The skyrocketing price of health care is the reason for that, Buchanan added.
After the town hall, Buchanan told the Bradenton Herald it had definitely been larger than any of his previous 74 town halls. Both sides had “ a lot of passion” and “a lot of energy,” Buchanan said.
“People need to be heard,” said Buchanan, who maintained his calm demeanor despite the boos and shouting during some of his responses. “I tell people I’m humbled to be a congressman, but at the end of the day it’s about being a representative, and you can’t represent someone if you’re not listening.”
The only other time Buchanan has held a town hall meeting at the Van Wezel was seven or eight years ago, he said. Health care had also been the main subject at the time. But concerns over the new administration were what was driving the crowd, just as much as health care concerns, he acknowledged.
“In a nine-inning baseball game, we’re in the third inning,” Buchanan said regarding concerns over health care.
The biggest issues Buchanan is concerned with regarding to health care, he said, is affordable coverage for senior citizens ages 55 to 65, and Medicaid.
Buchanan said people need to give President Trump a chance to see what he can do, adding that a lot of people didn’t like President Obama.
“(Trump is) not a career politician. He’s trying to put his team in place. Let’s see what he can do in the next year or so, and then weigh in aggressively one way or another,” Buchanan said. “I’m going to hold him accountable for results on health care, taxes, reducing frivolous regulations.”
Trump was elected, so people needed to give him the benefit of the doubt now, Buchanan said.
“It’s not about Trump or Barack Obama, it’s about the American people, in my opinion,” Buchanan said. “He’s been there less than 60 days.”