In the raging debate about health care, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite agrees with President Barack Obama on one issue: The nation's health care system needs reform.
But when the Brooksville Republican holds a public forum on the topic this week, don't expect to hear more harmony.
As the lawmaker with the most Medicare recipients in her district, Brown-Waite is taking a vocal stance against the health care reforms promoted by Obama and the Democratic Congress.
Her incendiary remark on the House floor that the Democrats' bill "essentially said to America's seniors: drop dead" drew widespread attention and rebuke.
Her words are taken seriously as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of three committees drafting legislation, and a GOP health care task force, which produced its own plan.
But as she blasts the Democrats' legislation, Brown-Waite is saying little about where she stands on the most pertinent issues.
Brown-Waite's staff refused to discuss health care or grant the St. Petersburg Times an interview with the congresswoman, despite at least a dozen requests in recent months.
What is known about Brown-Waite's position is gleaned from a handful of prepared statements from her office, published reports and speeches on the House floor.
It's unclear whether Monday afternoon's forum at Minneola City Hall in Lake County will dissolve into chaos like those seen in other congressional districts. The time of day and remote location could diminish the crowds.
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Brown-Waite's most substantial comments about health policy came a year ago on the campaign trail.
In a Times questionnaire, the congresswoman said the United States had the "best health care system in the world" where "the vast majority of low-income Americans get the care they need."
To reform the system, she suggested creating health savings accounts, allowing people to purchase plans across state lines and authorizing tax credits for health care costs. She also promoted measures to curtail excessive medical malpractice lawsuits.
Her recent positions about the various health care bills in Congress similarly don't offer many specifics about how she would reform the system.
She has said she supports the doctor-patient relationship, favors regional federal health centers and promises to protest any measure that she feels would hurt the Medicare system. On July 17, she voted against one health care bill, H.R. 3200, which passed the Ways and Means Committee on a near-party-line vote.
More than anything, Brown-Waite is spitting barbs at the Democrats' plans — and catching heat, much as she did with her rhetoric about the economic stimulus and the Iraq war.
Her "drop dead" statement drew a quick retort from the Democratic congressional campaign committee, which labeled it a "reckless accusation that Democrats are deliberating trying to kill seniors by reforming the health care system."
The congresswoman later explained that she meant the plan would "push aside" seniors, but that didn't stop MSNBC's liberal firebrand Keith Olbermann from blasting Brown-Waite for the remark and her cozy relationship with the health insurance industry in a segment earlier this month.
Olbermann noted the $369,255 she received in campaign contributions from the health industry in past years, citing figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent nonprofit organization in Washington.
In the first half of this year alone, Brown-Waite has received $20,250 from health-related interests, nearly 90 percent of which came from political action committees, according to a recent Times analysis of federal campaign finance data.
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Brown-Waite's now-infamous remark is often repeated by those fostering the falsehood that the reform bills promote euthanasia of the elderly. But in a recent interview with an Orlando radio station, she rejected any insinuation that the legislation contains such provision.
"It doesn't say that they're going to receive counseling on euthanasia; that's not what it says," she said, according to WDBO-AM's Web site.
On the topic of end-of-life counseling, she said the bill would not make it mandatory and suggested it is a worthy practice. "First of all, everybody should make those decisions whether you're in Medicare or not," she told the station.
But Brown-Waite isn't above scare tactics that now cloud the debate.
In letters to constituents, she claims the proposed legislation would force doctors to comply with "rationing protocols to save money for the government and insurance companies."
It is a misleading statement because the bills contain no specific provisions to limit care, according to Politifact.com, the fact-checking Web site affiliated with the Times. Also, rationing is a practical part of all health care systems, in determining who gets what care.
In other letters, statements on her Web site and prepared remarks, she makes what Politifact.com labels misleading claims about the how the bills raise taxes and cut payments to hospitals.
Yet her argument to protect Medicare from budget cuts is hitting a particular chord.
In an editorial published in the Orlando Sentinel, Brown-Waite warns the Democratic health care proposals cut Medicare Advantage by $177 billion.
That figure is accurate, but Brown-Waite distorts its meaning, which health experts said is debatable, according to Politifact.com.
Medicare Advantage pays doctors more than the Medicare plan. It was developed to target rural areas where Medicare was not available but became popular elsewhere.
The Obama administration believes that Medicare Advantage increases costs and amounts to a giveaway to private insurers. A reduction in Medicare Advantage spending would put recipients in line with those under the original Medicare plan.
Any change in this system worries many senior citizens, which account for a large portion of voters in Brown-Waite's eight-county district.
Times staff writers Connie Humburg and Catharine Richert contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.