Published by the Berkshire Eagle
By Clarence Fanto, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Tuesday January 17, 2012
LEE -- It was a textbook case of down-to-earth, grass roots democracy.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, fielded questions from more than 30 constituents in the Lee Library Gallery during the first of his 10 scheduled "Coffee and Conversation" road shows this year.
As audience members peppered Downing with queries ranging from insurance concerns, immigration policy and higher-education spending to the National Defense Authorization Act, the state senator pivoted smoothly from topic to topic.
"The best ideas don’t originate from Beacon Hill but they come from listening to one another," Downing told the friendly crowd at the recent midday event. "We can learn a lot, appreciate the differences we have and find ways to work together."
To residents who questioned costs and penalties for late enrollment in Medicare’s Part D prescription drug program, Downing explained that health-care issues "are personal to me."
He recounted his experience with genetic heart disease -- hypertrophic cardiomyopathy -- that can cause heart attacks, which were fatal to both his grandfather and to his father, the late Berkshire District Attorney Gerard D. Downing.
The state senator has a defibrillator on advice of his physician.
"I can’t imagine having to make that decision based on whether I could afford it or not," he said.
Answering a question on 10 to 15 percent increases in health care premiums coupled with golden parachutes for deposed insurance-company executives, Downing stressed his support for a single-payer system in Massachusetts and vowed that rising medical costs "will be the No. 1 issue" on Beacon Hill this year.
A lifelong Pittsfield resident who identified herself only as Cande questioned soaring homeowners’ and auto insurance premiums -- "it’s one of those ‘Occupy Wall Street’ issues; I feel really ripped off."
Downing responded that the state does not oversee rates for homeowners’ insurance but does monitor auto insurance premiums. Before regulations were eased by Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, the state controlled and approved those charges.
The state senator pointed out that insurance company rates are based not only on driving records but also on credit scores, the number of paved roads and the economic profile of a community, as well as the distance to a hospital.
"I don’t think it’s fair that auto insurance rates are driven by anything other than your driving record," he said, adding that state lawmakers are considering new restrictions on "some of the most egregious" practices.
To a person who alleged that state policies allow state-subsidized health insurance for illegal immigrants, Downing explained that programs offering coverage for residents in the process of obtaining legal status were curtailed or eliminated in order to hold down costs.
But the state’s highest court has ruled that discrimination is not legal based on immigration status for people in the process of obtaining green cards or citizenship, a ruling that he said he supports.
Downing declared that long-time residents who were brought to the United States by their parents or were born here "have become part of the fabric of the community, so we ought to treat them with the same respect as everyone else."
Elmar Schmidinger, a legal immigrant who said he arrived in the United States from Vienna, Austria, in 1962, complained that illegal immigrants obtain false Social Security cards and gain benefits "by taking advantage of the system, and they don’t pay their dues."
"It is easy to talk about, but a far more difficult problem to solve," Downing replied, adding that "the amount of time that we dedicate to talking about it is far bigger than the actual problem."
While he called for more border protection and repairs to a "broken system, the idea that we would round people up and say ‘you’re here illegally, even if you’ve been here 15, 20, 30 years, you need to go home now’ -- I don’t think is good policy or the best of who we are."