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Health care dominates Tom Reed's town hall in Allegany County

Many came to grill Tom Reed over the Republicans' plans for health care reform.

Others came to show their support for the congressman from Corning, President Trump and their GOP allies.

The give-and-take at Reed's town hall in rural Allegany County was spirited and for the most part civil.

But when the two opposing sides did clash, interrupting or talking over each other, Reed stepped in to rein in the vitriol. The divide exposed in this Belfast fire hall Saturday morning isn't unique to this congressional district, and isn't necessarily unhealthy, he said.

"This is the debate we're having in America today," Reed said.

The session lasted 65 minutes, and health care was the dominant topic. Nearly all of the questions were critical of Reed or the Republicans' efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But many in the crowd clearly supported Reed and asked the questioners to give the congressman a chance to speak.

The Belfast forum was the first town hall Reed has held since the shootings in Alexandria, Va., last month that left four people, including Rep. Steve Scalise, who remains hospitalized, wounded by a gunman who was later killed by police.

A somber Reed said at the start of Saturday's meeting that the shooting reinforced for him the importance of having sessions where he can meet with his constituents. He is the only local member of Congress who holds town hall-type forums.

"We can't stop doing what we're doing," Reed said, "and being a democracy, a participatory democracy."

The town hall meeting Saturday drew about 110 people to the Belfast Fire Department, where they filled folding chairs set up in the empty bays of the fire hall and lined the rear and the sides of the space.

Many held pro-Obamacare or anti-GOP health care reform signs, such as the placard carried by Carol Jones of Jamestown, which read, "Under Trumpcare, everyone loses. Yes, this means you! (You should read the bill)."

Jones said in an interview before the meeting that she drove 90 minutes to the forum because her daughter has cystic fibrosis and is awaiting a double lung transplant. Her insurance coverage is threatened under the repeal and replace plans, she said.

"That's where my concern is," said Jones, who was attending her fourth Reed town hall.

Others brought pro-Reed or Trump signs in a visible effort to respond to the Reed critics.

Dale Smith, who runs the Rock City Park tourist attraction in Olean, had a Tom Reed for Congress sign on a stick.

"We want to show support for him," Smith said. "I like what Tom Reed does, Donald Trump does."

People in the audience raised concerns about the financial effects of the legislation on consumers and about how many people would lose coverage if the legislation becomes law.

"I want you to think about how this affects poor people," Marty Sabato of Rushford said, after telling Reed at length about her disabled son, who relies on health insurance he receives thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

"You let him speak," said a man named Joe, who wore a Trump "Make America Great Again" hat and declined to give his last name, believing Sabato had talked for too long instead of Reed.

"You shut up," Jones said, pointing at Joe.

At another point, Jones said, "A high-risk pool is a death pool," referring to one provision favored by Republicans.

"That is not accurate," Reed said. "That is completely false."

When Jones then referred to placement in a high-risk pool as a "death sentence," Hendrik Merison, of Belfast, shouted, "Everybody has to die someday."

In one piece of discussion, a member of the audience asked Reed about the refundable tax credits that the House version of health care reform would use in place of the ACA's subsidies that help those with low incomes buy insurance.

The Affordable Care Act subsidies are based on income, but the GOP tax credits in the House bill are based on age only, and critics have said they will not go as far in providing financial support. Reed said he wants to see that changed and wants to see the tax credits made more generous for the working poor.

"It's a fair criticism," Reed said.

Most in the audience listened in silence, but Reed occasionally reined in the cross-talk to keep it from overwhelming the meeting.

In addition to health care reform, other topics included the Russian government's ties to this country and its efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, trade, growing the economy and preserving Social Security.

"There's some serious questions there," Reed said of the well-publicized Donald Trump Jr. Russia meeting, but he wants the various investigations to take their course.

The questions on other topics were far less contentious.

Reed said he supports tax reform as a way of growing the economy, and believes there is opportunity to enact legislation this year, and he highlighted the need to trim the federal budget in light of the rising deficit.

Reed said after the meeting that he's held other town halls earlier this year with more "rhetoric" that made it harder for the people attending to talk to him and each other.

After the meeting, Sarah Horne, a social studies teacher from Belfast, waited to talk to Reed. Horne brought her 2-year-old daughter, Edith, to the town hall.

"She was the best-behaved attendee, wouldn't you agree?" Horne said.

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