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Protesters air frustration over health care at raucous Collins town hall
Congressman meets with constituents at Gainesville event
town hall
Local residents listen to U.S. Rep. Doug Collins during a town hall held Wednesday at the Gainesville Public Safety Center. - photo by From DCN regional staff

Frustration over health care was front and center at a raucous town hall held last week by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

Right out of the gate, Democratic protesters jeered and debated Collins on congressional Republicans’ failed attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. President Donald Trump was none too popular with the group, either.

The Public Safety Center on Queen City Parkway, where the town hall was held Aug. 9, was overflowing and late attendees were turned away at the door.

Democrats and progressives, many of them present at a May protest outside Collins’ Gainesville headquarters, shouted Collins down early in the town hall, calling for single-payer health care, federal investigations into pharmaceutical companies and for further probes of Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia.

Their demonstrations prompted more shouting from Republicans and conservatives in the audience, who called for quiet to let Collins take questions.

The climax of the protests came close to the end of the town hall, which lasted about 80 minutes. Protester Marisa Pyle, who at various points argued health care points with Collins, stood and unfurled a sign proclaiming “Collins voted to kill me.” The sign was seized by local law enforcement and Pyle was escorted out of the courtroom.

At this point, the rest of the protest group walked out of the town hall in solidarity with Pyle, who was present at the May protest in Gainesville. She has met with Collins and his staff to talk about health care in the past.

To those remaining in the room, Collins left on a positive note.

“I’m just glad that they were here, and I’m glad that you were here,” he said, noting to loud applause that America’s best days are ahead of it and that disagreements along the way will happen. “But I do not believe evil on anyone who was here who disagrees with me and I would pray they would not believe evil on me because I disagree with them.”

The event followed the same theme seen in other town halls held by Republican lawmakers across the country, many of whom have been grilled by constituents nervous about changes to the nation’s health care insurance system.

But in the ruby-red district covering Northeast Georgia — the most conservative in Georgia and one of the most conservative in the country — Collins has brushed off protests as coming from a vocal but tiny minority.

“We’ve gotten to know them a lot in our district over the past six months. We knew they were there; our district is an 80-20 kind of district,” Collins told Georgia media after the town hall. “This was their opportunity in our district to come out and express their concern to their congressman. The district dynamics haven’t changed. The district is still very, very conservative and will continue to be conservative.”

Collins has historically held a town hall in August.

Despite national polarization over health care and the recent collapse of legislation to replace Obamacare in the Senate, Collins said he thinks Congress should keep working on reform to health care.

“I think we need to keep working on health care,” Collins said. “It’s a promise we made.”

Some Republicans have argued that the House and Senate GOP should instead move on to tax reform after their health care fix had trouble clearing the House and then stalled in the Senate.

Collins said Republicans have run for seven years on replacing Obamacare and the party should not give up on a solution.

“We should still be finishing that up,” Collins said.

Questions posed during the town hall were written ahead of time and chosen at random by Collins’ spokeswoman, Jessica Andrews. They covered issues ranging from the nuclear threat posed by North Korea to the Russia investigation of the Trump campaign.

On Russia, Collins said the congressional and special counsel investigations into what role Russia played in the 2016 elections should run their course. He said Trump should not fire Robert Mueller, the independent prosecutor appointed by the Department of Justice to investigate possible collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign, and that there would be “repercussions” if he did.

As tensions escalate between North Korea, its neighbors and the United States, Trump said this week that if the nation continued to make threats it would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Collins said Wednesday that Americans “need to be concerned” about the threat posed by North Korea.

“I think it’s something that our Defense Department and the administration are very keenly aware of. You’re dealing with a petulant dictator in North Korea who simply doesn’t want to play by the norm and the standards,” Collins said. “I think we need to be concerned about it, (but) I think we’re taking the proper steps.”