ITHACA, N.Y. — Despite the bitter wind and below-zero temperature, more than 500 people lined up outside the Southside Community Center to hear Congressman Tom Reed speak at a town hall early Saturday morning. The first people to arrive assumed their post on the front steps by 4 a.m. – by 7 a.m, the line stretched around the block.
Concerned constituents in Ithaca initially began calling for a town hall Q&A with Tom Reed after the presidential inauguration. It was questionable whether or not Reed would make an appearance to speak at a town meeting, but was confirmed last week that he would be arriving Saturday morning.
Attendees began filing into the gymnasium at the community center around 7:20 a.m., and it was nearly full ten minutes later. Those who were not able to fit into the gym gathered outside on the front steps of the center and listened to the Q&A through a sound system.
Dr. Nia Nunn, Southside Community Center Board President, was the first to address the crowd of people anxiously awaiting Reed’s appearance. “It is critical to know, for you to be informed, that you are standing in a space of greatness,” she said in opening remarks. “We model solidarity in a very unique way.”
When Reed addressed the audience, he said he was surprised by the number of people who did not believe he would make an appearance in Ithaca.
“I am here today because I care. I want to listen. I want to engage and I want to make sure all your voices are heard,” he said.
Reed started off the meeting by addressing the largest issue at stake – the Affordable Care Act. This was one of the biggest issues of the morning for most people in attendance. Reed supports the repeal of the ACA while many Ithaca-area constituents do not.
“We took up the bill last week in our committee. We have the structure in place that will be going to the floor in two weeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “We are going to replace it – these are reforms that I support that are part of a 3-part process which will happen over the next 13-24 months – maybe longer.”
The statement was met with a resounding chorus of “boos” and the flashing of red “disagree” signs, as the audience demanded particular details of Reed’s reform plans. He said the replacement of the ACA would be filled in with refundable tax credit programs, health savings accounts and Medicaid expansion.
As the uproar continued, Cynthia Henderson, an Ithaca College professor, rose up from the audience. “If you truly have a plan, maybe that can be worked in coordination (with the ACA) so we don’t lose the insurance,” she said to Reed. “I’m afraid of people who have existing conditions, and what I’ve been hearing that the mental health aspects may be lost.”
“If you truly have a plan, maybe that can be worked in coordination (with the ACA) so we don’t lose the insurance,” she said to Reed. “I’m afraid of people who have existing conditions, and what I’ve been hearing (is) that the mental health aspects may be lost.”
Reed said the plans in place will continue to support those with pre-existing conditions, will allow people to stay on their parent’s health plans until they are 26, and will continue to support mental health. As he defended repealing the ACA, he said, “There are hundreds of millions of people that have been adversely affected.”
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton also spoke about the ACA, voicing her concerns with the state of funds if the ACA were to be repealed. She estimated that the state of New York could potentially lose $37 billion dollars over the course of 10 years. She said the likelihood of the state being able to fill in the funding gap was low.
“We’re basically losing the funding for all these programs,” she said. “People will lose their health insurance. Our hospital will lose $3 million every year. Our county will lose 1 million plus every year and there are 8,000 people in this county alone who depend on Obamacare for insurance.”
Lifton said her fear that people without health insurance were more likely to delay care, and more likely to rely on emergency rooms, where the quality of healthcare is much lower.
As the discussion focusing on healthcare became more heated, local activist Walaa Maherem-Horan brought up the potential de-funding of Planned Parenthood. She said Reed had admitted at a previous town hall to supporting the de-funding of Planned Parenthood because he didn’t believe in federally funded abortions — despite the fact that federal funding does not go toward providing abortions.
“Planned Parenthood, for those of us who need it, does so much more than that,” she said. “They do mammograms, birth control, they offer mental health assistance, they support the LGBTQ community.” Maherem-Horan said she believed Reed aimed to de-fund Planned Parenthood based on his personal beliefs rather than focusing on the overall needs of the community.
He said that he understands her concerns, but that he represents a diverse constituency who do not all agree on the topic.
While some other questions regarding social security, President Donald Trump, the environment and the Environmental Protection Agency, city funding and taxes, and LGBTQ rights came up, the conversation was primarily dominated by the issues surrounding healthcare and the Affordable Care Act.
Around 9 a.m., Reed left the crowd indoors to speak to the people who had been waiting outside. He spoke for an additional 20 minutes before heading to his next stop, Ovid, for another town hall meeting.
After the meeting, Nunn, who helped organize the event, said she was happy with the way the meeting went and the role the community center was able to play in bringing people together.
“It’s always a joy when people come together and there’s a powerful collective energy,” she said. “While there’s so much sadness and shock to the system for some people, there is an appreciation for the ways in which some people are waking up very differently right now.”
Nunn said she hoped Reed’s appearance at the community center would help spark a change in his decision-making.
“I could see him engaging and it seemed authentic,” she said. “I feel like if he can connect with people more regularly, does that impact any taste of potential transitioning in his decision making?”
She said that as she sees these changes become realities, she becomes more motivated to make sure the community center is able to help others through these changes.
“These are decisions that potentially carry a death sentence – not just for small groups of people but entire communities, and there’s so much of this stuff that is going to hit black and brown people first, particularly if they’re low income,” she said. “You’re putting out a cultural death sentence of people and that’s so scary – we can be here at a different level for families as we’re learning the realities.”
All photos by Alyvia Covert/The Ithaca Voice