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Arlen Specter Holds Town Hall Meeting in Pennsylvania Today; President Obama Travels to New Hampshire for Another Town Hall Meeting on Health Care; New Chevy Volt has Impressive Gas Mileage; Is Taliban Leader Baitullah Mehsud Dead?

Aired August 11, 2009 - 10:20   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Once again, one of the attendees, that's Senator Arlen Specter's town hall meeting that's been going for quite some time here now. You continue to see those live pictures once again, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The senator taking more and more questions from the audience there. We'll stay on top of this for you and make sure we bring you any more information as it comes to us here at CNN.

A quick break now. We're back in a moment.


COLLINS: Very quickly. We want to get back to this as we continue to monitor Senator Arlen Specter's town hall meeting, live pictures coming your way out of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and let me tell you the sparks are flying in Lebanon. People standing up asking their questions. The senator will, apparently, be taking 30 questions that have been previously written down and he's handling them one at a time from the audience members there.

Meantime, we want to get out to our Ali Velshi who is actually traveling around on the CNN Express. He is joining us now. I understand, Ali, that you are in Manchester, Tennessee. Sort of holding your own town hall meetings, if you will. What are you hearing from the people that you have come across so far about their concerns about health care?

ALI VELSHI, CNN SENIOR BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're rolling towards Manchester and points north in Tennessee and Kentucky, so I've actually been monitoring this hearing, this town hall meeting, as you have.

I have to tell you, Heidi, what we're hearing from people has a very different tone. In fact, I'm beginning to think that having been out here that this tone that you're hearing is limited to these town hall meetings.

We are hearing real concerns from Americans. There's no questions about that and the concerns seem to revolve around three issues. We're hearing concerns about the cost of health care reform. Number two, we're hearing concerns about access and choice to doctors and the ability to choose your health care.

And we're hearing concerns about quality. Will health care quality be affected by health care reform. But very civil conversations as opposed to the yelling that we're hearing at these town hall meeting. The other thing that was interesting at the town hall meeting is that very few people seem to agree that health care reform is necessary.

And I think maybe this is something the administration is going to have to tackle. The fact that one in six or seven people does not have access to affordable health insurance in this country. I heard one of the critics at the town hall meeting saying to Senator Specter, you know, don't force this on us. Those people who don't want him to pay for health insurance, leave them be. Don't force it on us. So there does seem to be a lot of misinformation that's going on, that is feeding the heat more than the light in this debate, Heidi.

COLLINS: All right. We know that you're going to be doing quite a bit of traveling actually, Ali. So we will continue to stick with you and hear more of what people are saying. But absolutely, I'm hearing a lot of the same thing coming out of these town halls regarding costs and access and choice and quality. So, we will certainly stay on top of all of it because people are talking and speaking their minds.

Ali Velshi in the CNN Express.

Thanks so much, Ali, as he rolls towards Manchester, Tennessee.

Also, I want to let you know that we will have live coverage of the president's town hall meeting coming up in New Hampshire. It is scheduled to begin at 1:00 Eastern. If you're away from your TV, you can see it live online at

Also, want to get out to Jessica Yellin, our national political correspondent because she is actually there in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and has been able to walk around and talk a little bit with the people who are outside. There is no room at the inn, if you will, Jessica. So tell us what people are saying to you outside those doors.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: There are many hundreds of people out here, Heidi. And it's getting quite heated. People are saying - the same messages we've been hearing for a while. On the one hand those who were worried about the reform proposals are deeply concerned that it will be dangerous for business. There is a lot of concern that the talks about a euthanasia panels are real. There is quite a deep conviction here that no matter what people say to tell them it's not in any of the legislation.

There is a certainty that the government, in some cases, will decide who lives and dies. A lot of passionate feeling and I also have to emphasize a sense on both sides that they're not being heard. When you talk to somebody who's for reform they get mad at you that there is nobody speaking to the people for reform.

When you speak to the people who are critical of the proposals, you get the same message. People just feel that their point of view is somehow not getting out there, even though the decibel levels clearly suggest otherwise. In a number of cases, the police have had to walk up to folks and no fist fighting or altercations, just a lot of tension and police had to walk up to folks and say, let's cool it down. They have quite a tense environment, Heidi.

COLLINS: Yes, once again, you know, as we see what's going on in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, today, Jessica. We have seen other town hall meetings that have been a very different nature. Just yesterday Claire McCaskill held one. We had it live on our air. And lots of concerns, lots of questions and she did her best to answer them in a completely mild mannered way and the crowd handled themselves totally differently. So maybe it's just people who are saying hey this is my chance to talk with my representative and this is how I'm going to handle myself.

YELLIN: Absolutely. It's always the most vocal people who end up getting the most attention. Or it's often the most vocal people. So that's what you're seeing here. There is some frustration that such a small portion of the crowd was actually able to get in to see Senator Specter.


YELLIN: There are many more people on the streets than inside. So that is a measure of the frustration here.

COLLINS: Yes. And apparently quite a few people called ahead to the senator's office to see what the process was going to be? Whether or not they'd be able to get the microphone, if you will, and that was sort of the outrage that we saw earlier from one of the attendees who ended up leaving.

So once again, we are glad you're there, Jessica. We'll keep checking in with you and of course, continue to monitor what's happening with Senator Arlen Specter in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Those live shots still coming in as he continues to take those questions.

For now, a very quick break and we're back in just a moment right here in the CNN NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: I quickly want to remind you what we are monitoring here out of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, this morning. Some very heated moments, they do continue as Senator Arlen Specter is holding his town hall meeting, hearing from quite a few people in the room, even more people outside according to our correspondent on the scene, Jessica Yellin.

So as they continue to ask their questions and the senator tries to answer them, we will monitor it and bring you any more of that meeting just as soon as it becomes available to us.

Meanwhile, many of us have faced this -- going to the hospital. It's traumatic enough, as you know. And then you come home and you get the bills.

Well, our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks at what's behind all of those hidden charges.


DEBBIE FRAZIER, PATIENT: And all the x-rays, there's a rotation tool for 119, there's a wrench kit.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: On its face, it looks pretty straightforward. But your hospital bill is anything but, something 56-year-old Debbie Frazier found out the hard way when she had surgery in March.

FRAZIER: I just had to have the battery replaced on my defibrillator. I was there two days and it was $196,000.

GUPTA: $196,000. That's because once you strip away what you pay for your actual care, there are layers of charges that have nothing to do with your hospital stay.

Take a look at Debbie's bill. Nearly $3,000 a day for room and board, $72,960 for the pacemaker, $44 for two Lipitor pills. But the key is what you don't see on the bill.

JAMES BENTLEY, AMERICAN HOSPITAL ASSOCIATION: And I think it would help if they understand that bill represents really four tiers of costs.

GUPTA: There's the direct cost of your care. Then there's the overhead cost, the cost of running the hospital, things like administrative staff, the utilities.

There's also the operating margin. That goes toward things like new medical technology, replacing worn equipment.

And finally subsidy costs or uncompensated care. Insured patients help pay for the uninsured and underinsured who can't pay their bill.

RON POLLACK, FAMILIES USA: It's a significant part of the bill you'll never see it written in the bill, but it's sure there. It's a hidden surcharge.

BENTLEY: If the costs weren't passed on to consumers, we wouldn't be able to care for people who have no insurance, we wouldn't be able to train physicians and doctors for the future, we wouldn't be in a position to maintain the facility.

GUPTA: The American Hospital Association's James Bentley admits it's a complicated system and it's almost impossible to look at a bill line by line and pull out the direct cost of your care.

FRAZIER: That's not the generic. That's not the generic I take anyway.

GUPTA: Frazier says it's time hospitals got creative. She's even got a suggestion.

FRAZIER: They need to use generic medication. That would keep their costs down.

GUPTA: And hopefully, those savings would be passed on to you.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.


COLLINS: All right, once again, Senator Arlen Specter there, live pictures for you, as he continues to take questions about health care reform. Lots of questions about the cost, lots of questions about access and quality and then a couple of other questions, really, quite frankly, that had nothing to do with health care.

So he's trying to take it all in and, again, several people outside of that room, hundreds in fact, we are told by our correspondent there on the ground, really hoping to get some answers as they say about health care reform. So, we will continue to monitor this. I believe that question and answer session is beginning to wrap up because we've understood from the beginning here that the senator would be taking 30 questions and last we checked he was on about 28. So again, we will continue to monitor how this all wraps up.

Also ahead this morning, straight talk from two members of Congress. Why are these town hall meetings becoming such noisy affairs, if you will? We'll hear what they have to say coming up, right here in just a moment.


COLLINS: Town hall meetings, forums, discussions. Well, on the topic of health care reform that is the least of what we are seeing across the country. And this morning in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, sparks are flying and we are looking at a couple of different live shots there you there.

One from inside the town hall meeting that is being held by Senator Arlen Specter. That's on the bottom. And the picture on the top is what's going on outside that meeting because there just really wasn't enough room for everyone who wanted to attend this town hall on health care reform inside the building apparently.

So, the senator is getting ready to wrap up, I believe he's got just one or two more questions left because he had said that there would be 30 questions that he would attempt to answer from all the people who have gathered there in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. And we have certainly seen some fireworks this morning for lack of a better word.

But we want to talk a little bit more about this. I think we're going to be doing that for quite some time, quite frankly, while Congress is in recess here. And they're going back to their town and their state and hearing from their constituents.

Joining me right now, two congressmen who are certainly no strangers to town hall meetings. Congressman Steve Cohen, he's a Democrat from Memphis, survived a rowdy town hall meeting of his own this past weekend. And thank you, Congressman, for being here.

And also Congressman Phil Gingrey a Republican and long-time physician, in fact, right here in Atlanta, who has five town hall meetings coming up on his schedule.

So, we wish you luck before you even have those, congressman. And again, thanks to the both of you for being with us this morning.

Congressman Cohen, first to you because I believe that you experienced at least a little of what Senator Specter is experiencing right now in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

I, in fact, want to show our viewers some of what happened in your town hall.


REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: Please don't yell out. This is America, this is Memphis, Tennessee. Take two aspirin and come back in the morning.


COLLINS: Were you surprised, Congressman Cohen, that you sort of had to play referee or disciplinarian because we saw Senator Specter sort of having to do the same thing today.

What was your take?

COHEN: Well, I was a little surprised at the crowd. We had, I think a fairly successful town hall. We had over 1,000 people. But a lot of the people came there with their minds made up. They had a lot of misinformation that are the same misinformation that you're seeing nationally that people are putting out stories that this has to do with euthanasia or this has to do with abortion or this has to do with Congress (INAUDIBLE) out of the program or socialism. All of which is false. And the people didn't really want to have information. And that was unfortunate --

COLLINS: Well, now, hang on a minute Congressman. I think that after everything we have done here to try to cover this issue, I think there are more questions than answers really on any of that. Isn't a lot of the frustration that we're seeing coming from the fact that nobody really knows what's in this?

I mean, you heard Arlen Specter himself, time and time again during this very town hall meeting right now that there is no bill in the Senate.

So, aren't people just confused at this point?

COHEN: Well, there's truth to that and one of the gentleman there asked me how are going to vote on the bill? And I said, there isn't a bill yet. Wait to see where it comes up. But there is a bill that has gone through the three committees in the House, HR-3200, that is a framework. And that framework -- what the people against it are saying is that it contains certain things that it doesn't. And so when they're throwing out at all these town meetings around the country that it contains certain information that's false, you see this misinformation is to kill any attempt to have health reform.

This wasn't spontaneous generation that all these town halls because people are asking the same questions, limited purview and putting up the similar type of signs and talking about socialism, which is what people talked about in 1965, when Medicare and Medicaid came about and certainly that's not socialism. That's a good thing and it's helped seniors, low-income people get health care. Our system needs reform. There's no question about it.

COLLINS: Well, Congressman Gingrey, I want to let you get in here.

From what you're seeing across the country and as we had mentioned in the introduction, you have several town hall meetings of your own coming up.

Is this a good show of democracy, or, is this something that should not be occurring at this point?

REP. PHIL GINGREY (R), GEORGIA: No, Heidi, I think it is a great show of democracy and it should be occurring. I mean, that is the American way.

People want to ask questions. They don't have an opportunity. My good friend Steve Cohen said that the bill in the House of Representatives was just a framework. Well, in fact, it was an amended bill, an 1,100-page bill that was amended and passed out of the Energy and Commerce Committee pretty much on a straight party line vote, 31 to 28. But that is the bill that when we go back in September, it will be presented to the entire House, including to Steve and myself and others. I do happen to be on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

But people, the (INAUDIBLE) public, they're showing up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and Steve's district in Memphis, and mine in Rome, Georgia, coming up this week, they don't have an opportunity to read the bill and they want to know.

Maybe some of their information is misinformation but all they can get is off YouTube and television and what they read and what they hear. So it's our obligation to stand on the breach and explain to these people so they understand what's in the bill. They have great fears and they're legitimate fears.

COLLINS: Well, I have to ask you because you have quite a unique perspective in all of this. You are a physician, a gynecologist of 26 years.

Has that experience sort of shaped how you look at health care reform? I don't know how it couldn't.

GINREY: Well, Heidi, absolutely. And of course, I do hear from a lot of providers. Physicians I practice with, physicians across the country, nurses, owners of nursing homes, hospice care, home health care, everybody.

But, you know, really, the people I'm hearing from the most -- they're the seniors. They're the 25 percent of seniors that get their Medicare from Medicare Advantage and that's going to be gutted. $550 billion is going to be taken out of Medicare program.

These seniors are -- and these are the ones that you're seeing at the town hall meeting. They're not a bunch of radical red necks. They're intelligent, they're concerned and they're compassionate about their Medicare and they want that to be fixed first and foremost. They don't want to be thrown under the bus because 4.5 percent of the people in the country don't have health insurance.

COLLINS: Well, Congressman Cohen, I want to get back to you, as well, here.

Obviously, we have very limited time and I wish we could talk about it forever until we all understand it quite frankly.

But do you have any advice for more congressmen, representatives that are going to be holding town halls? I mean, what's the best way to go about this? Because I imagine you want to hear from your constituents, yes?

COHEN: Well, Heidi, the first thing I'd like to do is to tell seniors they don't have anything to worry about. Medicare Advantage takes a lot of money from seniors and puts them at profits and executive salaries that should go into health care and we're going to see that that doesn't happen --

GINGREY: That's not true.

COHEN: -- and those monies going to the seniors. And the doughnut hole will be closed. There will be an attempt to close that doughnut hole that hurt seniors and seniors won't have to make co-pays for preventative programs and wellness programs that they shouldn't have to so that they get those treatments.

There's a lot of benefits here to seniors and there's so much that's been put out as misinformation. What happened at my town hall was that we had doctors presented. Some doctors were for the health care reform and some were for single payer and some were totally against it. And while I respect Phil Gingrey, he's my friend, we travel together, there are doctors that differ with him in the Congress. Dr. Jim McDermott is a doctor. Because you're a doctor doesn't mean that there's a monocle (ph) on thoughts. And doctors can go both ways as lawyers can go both ways.

COLLINS: Sure. And I didn't ask him that. I asked him if it shaped his own personal view on health care reform.

So Congressman Gingrey, I'm going to give you the last word.

GINGREY: Well, again I want to say, watching that town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. If Miss Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, or President Obama want to suggest that that's a bunch of radical Republicans, those people speaking out may very well be supportive of the Democratic opponent to Arlen Specter, Joe Sestak. And maybe these Democrats want to know which of the two are going to support this crazy government takeover health care before they decide who to vote for in November of 2010.


GINGREY: It's not a government takeover of health care.

COLLINS: All right. You know what, gentleman, unfortunately, we do not have any more time. As I said, we would love to have you back another day to talk more about this because I think the conversations are only beginning.

And as we say that, we thank both representatives. Phil Gingrey and Representative Steve Cohen.

GINGREY: Thank you, Heidi.

COLLINS: Thank you gentlemen, very much.

COHEN: Thank you, Heidi.

GINGREY: Good to see you, Steve.

COHEN: Thanks, Phil. Good to see you.

COLLINS: And as we are wrapping this discussion up, we're understanding -- niceties-- nice niceties, gentlemen -- we are understanding that Senator Arlen Specter has also wrapped up his discussion with those who were able to attend his town hall meeting there.

There you see the crowd that was able to fit inside the room there in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, exiting now with the hundreds gathered outside still. So once again, Senator Arlen Specter taking about 30 questions from that audience and some definitely heated moments that I think you'll see throughout the day in the news media today.

Meanwhile, President Obama takes his health care message on the road again. He leaves the White House next hour, heading to a high school in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He is holding his own town hall meeting there this afternoon. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says he doesn't expect it to be as out of control as some of the other health care town halls we have seen. But you certainly don't want to miss it. Make sure you stay with CNN for live coverage of that event. Again, happening at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

We're back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COLLINS: Well, one month after coming out of bankruptcy, the new General Motors is touting the electric Chevy Volt and it's eye-popping gas mileage.'s Poppy Harlow has our Energy Fix now this morning.

Hi there, Poppy.


We've never seen a number like this.


HARLOW: GM saying its Volt will get 230 miles per gallon in the city. How did it get to that number? Well, the company's been working with the EPA to measure the Volt's fuel economy. And we should note the EPA still has to confirm that number.

Look at the smiley face on that big banner when they unveiled that number this morning. The CEO Fritz Henderson, saying he's confident the highway number -- because that 230 is only for the city -- the highway number will also be in the triple digits when you look at fuel economy. That could mean a much-needed boost for General Motors.

Take a listen to the CEO.


FRITZ HENDERSON, CEO, GENERAL MOTORS: BPA labels are yard sticks for customers to compare the fuel efficiency of different vehicles. Having a car that gets triple-digit fuel economy, we believe, can and will be a game changer for us.


HARLOW: All right, still up in the air, Heidi, though, despite that fuel economy, will people buy this car? We talked about it time and time again.


HARLOW: I just spoke with a spokesperson from GM last night. He said the price range in the high 30's, so near $40,000. They've also the lack of charging stations. That could be an issue unless you have a garage where you can charge it, Heidi.

COLLINS: Yes. And let's talk for a second about that number. The 230 miles per gallon rating.

Where exactly does that number come from?

HARLOW: All right. So, it's complicated, right, because this isn't just a driving test. The Volt works differently than the other cars. You've the Prius, for example, that hybrid. That gets 50 miles per gallon. But ultimately all of the energy from the Prius comes from burning gasoline. Also, when you break the car, when the wheels are turning in the city, that also helps power the Prius through an electric charge.

The Volt, however, you plug in overnight and then you can go 40 miles straight without using any gas. But after that, that's when the gasoline engine kicks in. So, you're not going to get 230 miles per gallon if you're driving long distances. Let's say you drive 80 miles straight. Half of that will be on the battery and then your fuel economy is going to be reduced to about 100 miles per gallon according to the calculation. If you go 300 miles, you're fuel economy is going to be about 62 miles per gallon, Heidi.

So, it's all an interesting calculation to get to that number.

COLLINS: Yes, yes, very. All right, Poppy Harlow, appreciate that.

Our Energy Fix this morning.

COLLINS: Chasing the Taliban leader. The U.S. thought they hit the target last week, but new claims by the Taliban put that victory in question.


COLLINS: A new attack on Taliban fighters in Pakistan. Happening in the same region where the Taliban leader in Pakistan, was reportedly killed last week. But there are now questions about that this morning.

CNN's Cal Perry has more now from Islamabad, Pakistan.


CAL PERRY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The second U.S. drone attack in less than a week, occurring today. At least 10 people have been killed according to Pakistani sources. The location -- the very same as that strike that occurred on Wednesday, that reportedly killed Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

Now, the Pakistani government at this point sticking with their line saying they are confident that he's been killed. But they are not 100 percent confirming. They are waiting for that key DNA evidence.

Now, CNN was able to speak to a Taliban spokesman who is challenging the government claims saying that Baitullah Mehsud is actually alive but that he is ill, suffering of diabetes. The spokesman added, as soon as he's better he will give a statement.

The government for their part, challenging everything the Taliban is saying, saying to the Taliban, prove it. Show us some proof. In this day in age, they say, with technology the way it is, it should not be hard for Baitullah Mehsud to make some kind of a statement.

Regardless of who was killed in these air strikes, what seems to be important when you speak to officials here on the ground, they tell you the amount of air strikes in such a short period of time has the Taliban on the run. The government claiming that the group is literally disintegrating from within and that is it these air strikes that are keeping this group on the run and unable to carry out attacks. The Interior Ministry telling CNN over the weekend, the Taliban has only two choices -- surrender or death.

Cal Perry, CNN, Islamabad.


COLLINS: I'm Heidi Collins. Thanks for watching, everybody.

CNN NEWSROOM continues now with Tony Harris.