Crowd packs town hall meeting to discuss health care reform


WILLMAR -- Mary Buckentine drove almost two hours Friday from her home in Plato to ask Rep. Collin Peterson a question: If one of the goals of health care reform is to lower the cost of health care, how can this be done without rationing or limiting care?

"How can government promise to do more with less?" Buckentine wanted to know.

Marcia Neely, a former nurse from rural Benson, sees a system that needs fixing and worries that time is running out.

"We can't continue and continue to wait," she said.

The two women were among more than 30 people who stood in line -- some for more than half an hour -- to get a chance to speak at the microphone Friday at a town hall meeting on health care reform, hosted by Peterson, Democratic congressman for Minnesota's 7th District.

Although the debate was spirited and occasionally noisy, it stayed orderly.

More than 300 people packed the community room at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building for the panel discussion and question-and-answer. At least another 100 filled three overflow rooms, and the parking spilled over into the Law Enforcement Center lot across the street. Larry Kleindl, Kandiyohi County administrator, said some people had to be turned away because there was no more room.

The forum was one of two organized by Peterson in his rural district, which sprawls across the western half of Minnesota. A second town hall meeting on health care reform is scheduled for Monday in Bemidji.

Peterson told the crowd in Willmar on Friday that he was there to listen and to get people's ideas on how to fix health care.

There was applause when he said he wants the solution to be bipartisan.

"I think this is too big of an issue for us to not have some bipartisan support," he said.

Peterson and his staff put together a panel, among whose members was former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, to give an introduction and rural perspective on the current system.

Durenberger, a Republican who has been involved in health care reform at the state and national level since the 1980s, said there's likely no answer that all Americans can agree on.

"But we have to agree on what is our goal and objective," he said.

The audience applauded loudly when Durenberger said insurance reform is "desperately needed."

Most of the two-hour forum was devoted to questions and comments from the crowd, some of whom drove for miles to attend.

One of the fears that has erupted at other town hall meetings around the U.S. is the potentially spiraling cost of health care reform. Those fears were evident in Willmar too, as several people voiced concern about the cost of adding a public option for health insurance.

"I'm sure everyone in this room is here because they care about health care," said Dean Urdahl of Grove City.

But Urdahl, a Republican who represents District 18B in the Minnesota House of Representatives, is worried about the tax implications.

"How is this going to be paid for?" he asked.

"I do not believe we need to put more money in the system," Peterson responded.

He said he's not willing to vote for a health care reform bill that doesn't also address underlying problems of Medicare reimbursement disparities and provider payment systems that reward procedures rather than results.

"This will be part of how I make my decision," he said.

Others spoke of the urgent need to make health care coverage more accessible and more affordable.

Rebecca Thoman, of the American Cancer Society's Minnesota office, said she sees some cancer patients whose insurance has a lifetime cap of $10,000. "We know families are going bankrupt," she said.

She asked Peterson to keep the momentum going. "The status quo is just not working," she said.

Peterson said health care reform is needed. "We're not spending our money wisely," he said.

But he said Friday that he doesn't support any of the current bills. He told the crowd in Willmar that he will hold out for a provision that would end the geographic disparities that penalize Minnesota and other lower-cost states with less Medicare reimbursement.

Including it in a health care reform bill "is our only chance to get this fixed," he said.