At the State Capitol Saturday, a health care reform crowd cheered as the Rev. William Barber declared their cause "the moral issue of our time."
"Socialism?" the state NAACP president boomed, repeating the opponents charge. "If health care for all is socialism, then Jesus Christ, the nonprofit healer, was a socialist."
Across the street, a small throng of reform opponents was having none of it. "Take care of yourself," one woman shouted in Barber's direction. "No free ride. We don't want socialized medicine."
David McCurdy was wearing a red, white and blue T-shirt that said "Jesusavior." The middle letters were enlarged to spell out "USA".
"It sounds harsh," said David's wife, Barbara McCurdy of Raleigh, another foe of universal health care. "But I believe in tough love."
The couple agreed: Health care isn't a right, but rather, it's something that people should decide for themselves whether—and how much—to buy.
They worry, too, that a reform bill may force doctors and Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, in spite of their religious beliefs. While none of the leading reform bills goes that far, the abortion issue has emerged as a major headache for Democratic sponsors, due to language in the House bills at odds with the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment.
Enacted in 1976, the Hyde Amendment bars Medicaid and other federal programs from paying for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk. Under reform, though, federal money could be used to subsidize people who buy private insurance plans that cover abortions.
Thus, the battle lines were drawn as Congress' August recess ended and members prepared to resume the debate in Washington over health care.
But after allowing opponents to frame the issues and dominate the airwaves in early August, reform supporters were pushing back hard. At the Capitol, those supporting reform numbered some 600, the opponents about 60.
And President Barack Obama's organizers, working under their Organizing for America banner, are predicting an even bigger turnout Thursday night for a reform rally. The event will feature WakeMed CEO Bill Atkinson, an increasingly outspoken proponent of reform, and Rhonda Robinson, profiled in the Independent's recent cover story about reform.
Robinson, a Durham mom and former state employee, has epilepsy. She lost her insurance coverage—and the ability to afford critical medicines—when she became unemployed last year because of state budget cuts. With her pre-existing condition, she's virtually uninsurable in the private market except at exorbitant rates.
Within a few days of our story, Robinson suffered a serious seizure and was rushed to the hospital.
She's recovering well, she said this week, adding she was thrilled to meet Obama and quickly tell him her story when he spoke at Broughton High School in Raleigh in early August.
"I shook his hand," she said, "and I held onto his hand and told him that I'm one of the faces of the uninsured, and have grand mal seizures. I just talked very fast and told him everything, and I told him, 'We're praying for you.'
"He said, 'Wow.'" She repeated the word slowly. "Just like that."
She's since spoken in Charlotte to a statewide Democratic Party gathering and will reprise her performance Thursday night at WakeMed.
"Reform is going to happen," Robinson declared confidently. "I am just so encouraged."
Yet it is unclear what kind of reform Congress will pass.
When U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan visited SAS corporate headquarters in Cary last week, she didn't predict whether there will be 60 votes in the Senate (enough to break a filibuster) for a reform bill that includes a new public insurance option. Nor did she know if Democrats will decide to push a bill through using a budget maneuver (called reconciliation) that would allow passage with a 51-vote majority.
"If I knew that," Hagan said, "I would have a crystal ball, which I don't."
Hagan visited SAS to underscore a noncontroversial part of the reform package that hasn't received much attention.
"Medical homes," shorthand for strengthening the role of frontline or primary care doctors in the health care system, would eventually ensure that everyone not only has health care coverage but also is linked to a "home" doctor or doctors.
At SAS, Hagan noted, "they really have a medical home for their 5,000 employees," supplied by the company itself in the form of in-house doctors, nurses and other staff.
North Carolina's Medicaid program for the poor is another good example, she said, with its Community Care Centers operating in low-income communities.
Linking patients to medical homes, Hagan argued, will reduce health care costs in the long run by boosting early detection and wellness programs and reducing and preventing costly hospitalizations.
Patients won't be left wandering around a complicated medical system without a guide, in other words.
With more frontline doctors charged with managing patients' care, the "massive" fraud, abuse and waste perpetrated within the currently uncoordinated health care system will be cut dramatically as well, Hagan said.
The Senate bill she's supporting invests $10 billion a year in training and equipping more frontline doctors and personnel, Hagan said, a necessary first step if medical homes are to replace insurance companies as the arbiters of coverage.
"This is something that needs to be replicated across the country," Hagan said.