Congressman Lee Zeldin held a telephone town hall last Thursday, answering 12 questions from constituents while more than 9,000 voters listened in on the hour-long discussion.
The questions ranged from concerns about health care reform, veterans affairs, gun control, climate change and LGBTQ issues to questions about President Donald Trump.
Some residents who have called for a face-to-face town hall with Mr. Zeldin continued to do so after the phone event, which also streamed online.
Eileen Duffy of Quogue has participated in several protests, including a demonstration at Mr. Zeldin’s office in Riverhead earlier this month and created the Facebook group “Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin,” calling for an in-person town hall meeting with the congressman.
She said she was disappointed in the telephone event.
“It was very unsatisfactory,” she said Friday. “I don’t think the congressman did himself any favors. If 9,100 people phoned in, according to his office, and he only took 12 questions, that means he answered 0.13 percent of people’s questions.”
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Ms. Duffy and Kathryn Casey Quigley of Greenport met with Mr. Zeldin last Wednesday to reiterate their request for an in-person town hall meeting and said the congressman expressed concern that he would not be able to answer questions in that format. Mr. Zeldin noted during the event that he has been holding telephone town halls since he was in the state Senate.
The congressman has met with small groups of constituents in the last week and plans to hold mobile office hours at the Hagerman Fire Department in East Patchogue Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There, visitors will have the chance to speak with Mr. Zeldin himself or a member of his staff.
“These outreach efforts with the public have proven to be extremely effective and allow him to productively reach the maximum amount of constituents who are interested in constructive dialogue,” Mr. Zeldin’s spokesperson Jennifer DiSiena said last week.
John Fischetti of Peconic, who joined the Facebook group that now has more than 2,000 members, said he’d hoped to ask a question on a local issue, regarding the status of the Federal Aviation Administration’s North Shore helicopter route. Others in the group claimed they had registered for the event but did not receive a phone call and instead listened to the live stream online. Approximately 100,000 homes in the 1st Congressional District were called, Ms. DiSiena said.
Southold Town Councilman Jim Dinizio, a vocal supporter of Mr. Zeldin, said he thought the event was productive and orderly.
“I don’t think that the alternative, which is the live one, would have been any better,” he said, adding that he thought Mr. Zeldin answered all the questions asked and covered a wide range of topics.
The town hall included a number of survey questions for constituents from the congressman, and those participating by telephone identified health care as the issue that’s most important to them, according to survey results.
Out of 1,341 poll respondents, 308 people, or 23 percent, chose health care as the issue that’s most important to them, according to results provided by Ms. DiSiena. Behind that, with 242 votes, was the environment, followed by immigration or border security and taxes. Other options were education, economy or jobs, infrastructure, foreign affairs or terrorism, veterans and spending debt.
Mr. Zeldin’s office did not release the results related to the remaining four questions his survey posed: Do you approve of the job I’m doing in Congress? Do you approve of the job President Trump is doing? Do you believe our country is on the right track or the wrong track? What do you believe should be done with the Affordable Care Act?
“We are only publicly releasing the results of the first survey question,” Ms. DiSiena said by email Monday. She declined to say why.
Constituents want to talk health care
Mr. Zeldin fielded questions about several topics during last Thursday’s telephone town hall, but four of the 12 questions tackled the future of health care, Medicare and Medicaid under President Donald Trump’s administration.
A survey taken during the event found that most constituents who participated in the phone call viewed health care as the most important issue.
“How will you make sure my lower-middle-class family will be able to afford health insurance, especially since my job doesn’t provide me with health insurance?” one person asked via an online form.
Mr. Zeldin said the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid in New York.
“No one wants to pull the rug out from anyone who’s currently covered,” he said. If there were an outright repeal, the state would lose billions of dollars, he added.
Mr. Zeldin said the New York Republican Congressional delegation has been working to reduce the financial impacts of potential changes on the state’s Medicaid costs so no one will lose their coverage.
Another person asked what the plan is to replace the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Zeldin said this can be looked at in three different parts or “buckets.” The first is the budget reconciliation bill, which he said he hopes will be introduced in the next week or so.
“You can’t repeal all of Obamacare even if you wanted to in the budget reconciliation bill, but you can repeal and replace a lot of it,” he said.
Mr. Zeldin said what’s been getting “vetted out” behind the scenes is the “Tom Price repeal and replace legislation.” Mr. Price, now secretary of health and human services, introduced a 2015 bill aimed, in part, at making it possible for individuals to receive tax credits to help them pay for medical coverage.
The second part is for the secretary of health and human services to ensure a smooth transition by working with and getting feedback from states and insurance providers.
The third “bucket” of the process is “whatever else needs to get done legislatively that can’t get done in budget reconciliation or if there’s a lesson that’s being learned after the fact, that we need to pass through statute,” he said, adding that legislation would require bipartisan support.
The congressman was also asked about the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that those without health insurance or an exemption must pay a tax penalty.
“Without the mandate, how are we going to ensure that healthy people will sign up for health insurance and not just wait until they get sick and then try to get health insurance?” a constituent asked.
The congressman first noted that he supports the provision that guarantees coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, as well as allowing children to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies until age 26.
“As far as healthy people goes it was an issue before the ACA and under the current law and it will be in the future,” Mr. Zeldin said. “People who are healthy think they can save their money, but that can hurt you.”
Another constituent on the call wanted to know if there would be cuts in Medicare. Mr. Zeldin said the goal is, and should continue to be, to strengthen Medicare for seniors who rely on it.
“By no means should we be pursuing any policy that is going to weaken Medicare for those who are either retired or close to retirement,” he said.
File photo: Congressman Lee Zeldin at The Emporium in Patchogue on Nov. 11, 2016. (Credit: John Griffin)