BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Foreign affairs, health care and the national debt dominated the list of concerns expressed by citizens during Tuesday evening's teleconference with U.S. Congressman Phil Roe.
Roe, R-1st, of Johnson City, hosted the teleconference as a form of "Town Hall" meeting to hear constituent concerns.
The congressman spent the majority of his opening remarks focused on the national debt and federal spending.
He gave an analogy of the fact that the federal government borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends, comparing that borrowing rate with a hypothetical family of four that earned $60,000 per year but spent $100,000 every year.
Roe praised the federal Budget Control Act and the sequester as having worked to lower federal spending.
He said that simply holding government spending to three-percent growth per year over the next eight years would balance the nation's budget, if only the federal government would find the discipline to do so.
Continuing on the current spending path will result in the country's rapidly approaching a debt that is 250 percent of the gross domestic product, he said, adding, "We will collapse as a nation."
Throughout the conversation, he was highly critical of the Democratic Party-controlled U.S. Senate's role in not acting on the federal budget for several years, even though adopting a federal budget each year is a responsibility of the two houses of Congress.
The U.S. House of Representatives, which has a Republican Party majority, routinely adopts a budget, but the Senate has not done so in several years.
When that occurs, no federal budget goes to the president for his signature or veto.
CALL FROM BULLS GAP
A woman from Bulls Gap opened the citizen comments with money matters, criticizing the role that Republicans played in the recent government shutdown and the resulting multi-billion-dollar cost to the country.
She called on Republicans to work with Democrats to solve issues with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.
"I agree with the premise that we should increase health care and lower cost," Roe said. "The problem is, this plan isn't doing that. This plan is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars."
He noted that he recently chaired a Republican Study Committee that wrote a replacement health care bill.
In order for the ACA to work, he added, three million or more young, healthy individuals will have to sign up for health care and pay more than they did previously so that the older citizens with health problems do not have to pay as much.
HEALTH PLAN CONCERNS
Many who called in expressed concerns about the financial penalty the federal government will charge, under the ACA, to those who do not obtain health insurance.
One man, age 30, said that he is unemployed, and questioned whether there are any exemptions to keep the unemployed from having to purchase health care.
A woman from Johnson City said she did not have health care because she was unable to afford it and did not want it now.
The caller said she has requested information from the federal exchange to purchase one of the now-mandated insurance products, but has not yet received a response.
Roe requested contact information so that his office can check into both situations.
CALL FROM GREENEVILLE
A woman from Greeneville questioned what the government will do if the federal insurance exchange website remains down and citizens are unable to obtain health care before the deadline for having a policy arrives.
"I don't believe there's any way we're going to fine people if they can't sign up," Roe said.
He further noted that to sign everyone up before the March deadline would require a rate of at least 50,000 per day to cover the 7 million uninsured.
"In basic fairness, I don't see how it can be," he said.
POLL: DELAY START-UP
A poll question conducted during the call found that 78 percent of those participating felt that the penalty for not obtaining healthcare insurance should be delayed.
A woman from Johnson City questioned the credibility of the IRS, which is responsible for determining if each individual has obtained health insurance.
She questioned how citizens can be assured the IRS will not act against those with opposing political views, referencing the recent scandal in which the agency gave increased scrutiny to Tea Party organizations.
"I think most of the people at the IRS are honorable people," Roe replied. "If I didn't, the foundation of our country would be shaken."
Roe went on to note what he described as the near-impossibility of the task put before the IRS.
He said that, even with a lot of additional employees, the agency would not be able to audit everyone to determine if health insurance had actually been purchased.
Furthermore, he noted that the IRS has no civil or criminal penalty the agency can place against those who do not purchase health insurance or pay the fine for not doing so.
"The only thing they could do is keep your [federal income] tax return," he said.
An earlier question revolved around the "scandals" of the last 12 months -- from the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to the very extensive surveillance being conducted in the U.S. and abroad by the National Security Agency.
Roe said investigations remain ongoing, with much of the information presented to Congress continuing to be classified.