UNMC shines during wild day of health reform activity

by Tom O’Connor, UNMC public relations | August 21, 2009

Photos from the whirlwind


A photo slide show featuring images from Wednesday's health care reform town hall meeting with U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson. (Photos: Vicky Cerino/UNMC public relations; Peter Iwen, Ph.D.)

UNMC was confronted with a plethora of logistical issues on Wednesday as an estimated 1,200 people swarmed the Durham Research Center for a town hall meeting on health care reform with U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson.

And to borrow a sports cliche, UNMC "came up big" as personnel from parking, security, audio visual, media relations and several other units mobilized to handle the crowd.

"It was spectacular. It was over the top," said UNMC Chancellor Harold M. Maurer, M.D. "It not only provided important information to the public, but it also showed UNMC at its best. I'm very proud of everyone who made this happen on very short notice. It was a tremendous team effort."

The effort didn't go unnoticed by Nelson.

"I can't tell you how much I appreciated the way everyone rose to the occasion to handle an overflow crowd of interested Nebraskans and made sure everyone, inside and outside, was able to see and hear what went on," he said. "The UNMC venue set the standard that should be the hallmark for all town halls nationwide."

The town hall meeting at UNMC was the first of six such events Nelson will conduct across Nebraska over a seven-day period.

UNMC efforts facilitates productive discussion

He said the first meeting "came off better than expected -- thanks to UNMC and its highly professional staff, and Nebraskans who once again made me proud because we had a civil and thoughtful discussion about a tough issue, health care reform."

Jim Fagin, deputy director of communications for Nelson, said the senator wanted a health setting, and he really appreciated having so many people from the medical community in attendance.

Fagin himself was especially pleased with the behavior of the huge crowd, which included a mixture of people who brought with them a wide variety of opinions on the issue of health reform.

"This was a productive session, not a shouting session," he said.

A flood of people and cars

While health reform questions were plentiful inside the DRC Auditorium, a whole different set of questions were dealt with outside the DRC, where about 600 people were unable to get inside due to space limitations.

"It was like Woodstock," said Keith Swarts, director of business services. "We didn't know what was going to happen. Traffic was incredible."

Nelson on reform

"How many of you believe nothing needs to be done with our health care system?" Nelson asked to start his meeting. His question caused only a handful of people in the overflow crowd to raise their hands. Here are some other comments made by Nelson during the meeting:

"If we make it better for you, doesn't mean that we have to make it worse for someone else."

"There's a lot of mental trauma going on (with this issue)."

"Bipartisanship will help us come up with a better piece of legislation for Nebraska."

"It's not rocket science. It's actuarial science." (When asked what needed to be done to fix Medicare.)

"I have no problem with the public option as a fallback."

"There are a lot of people with solutions in search of a problem."

"The only pressure I feel is to get this done right. If pressure is applied, it will not work."

"I'm a Nebraskan. I just live in Washington during the week."

Gridlock occured at 42nd and Emile, Saddle Creek Road and Emile, and at the Durham Outpatient Center circle drive as people flooded the campus for the meeting.

Swarts himself directed traffic in the street along with several members of a beefed-up UNMC security staff.

"I called in four additional staff, so we had a total of 12 people working the event -- both inside and outside," said Gary Svanda, director of security. "At first, we started directing people to Lot 50. Once it was filled, we started directing people to three or four other lots. We were just filling pockets as we could."

Taking the message to the crowd

The hundreds of people lined up outside the DRC were at least able to hear the town hall meeting, thanks to a public address system that was run outside the building by the ITS video services staff.

"We had all hands on deck," said Max Thacker, associate director of video, ITS video services. "We were doing all the A/V inside the auditorium, plus we were pumping audio and video into two overflow rooms and the lobby of the DRC. We just did the best that we could."

Forum attracts intense media coverage

A throng of media covered the event, including:

  • All Omaha and Lincoln television stations;
  • The Omaha World-Herald;
  • The Lincoln Journal Star;
  • The Associated Press; and
  • Several radio stations and weekly newspapers.

"From a media relations standpoint, it was some event," said Vicky Cerino, media relations coordinator in public relations. "Several of the TV stations sent two videographers to capture video inside and outside the building. I've never seen anything like it. It was almost like two events in one."

'Health Care Reform' Day at UNMC

The town hall meeting culminated a health reform doubleheader on Wednesday, as UNMC hosted a health reform conference in the morning attended by more than 225 people.

"It was quite a day," said Mark Bowen, director of government relations. "It was a true team effort with every one doing the right thing to make it happen."

He wasn't surprised that Nelson tabbed UNMC to be the first site for his town hall meetings.

"They look to us for our expertise in health care," Bowen said. "They know we are a 'can-do' place."

Gratitude for respectful crowd, hardworking staff

John Benson, M.D., professor, internal medicine, and an organizer of the conference, moderated both the UNMC conference and Nelson's town hall meeting.

He was pleased by the strong interest in health center reform, the widespread dissemination of the conference by televised streaming and the desire of the audience to learn the facts of health reform.

He also was surprised by the emphasis placed on prevention, pleased that the audience was respectful during Nelson's meeting and grateful for the UNMC staff who helped the day run smoothly.

"The many UNMC people who worked behind the scenes deserve notice of their substantial roles in assuring the success of the conference and town hall," Dr. Benson said. "They made UNMC look very good."

Look on UNMC's health care reform Web page for in-depth information.