Health care town hall contentious, but polite

Tim Walz
Second term Congressman Tim Walz has held a number of forums on health care reform. His next town hall is set for sometime in September in Rochester.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

The health care debate continues to be contentious, with town hall meetings across the country devolving into shouting matches. Things were just as noisy but slightly more polite Thursday night in Mankato, where hundreds of people packed a high school auditorium to participate in a town hall forum on health care sponsored by Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn.

The auditorium at Mankato East High School holds more than 700 people and reached capacity well before the start of the town hall. The line to get in snaked through the school lobby and outside to the parking lot, which was full of cars and charter buses.

All the way at the back of the line was Richard Melarvie. The retired teacher says he likes Medicare and would like to see something similar that would cover all Americans. As Melarvie spoke, people around him in line nodded their heads. Melarvie says he's concerned the debate has been distorted by misinformation about health care reform and he wishes people would focus on covering the uninsured.

"I just want something that is workable that everybody can be covered and not lose their shirts over it," he said.

More than 45 million Americans have no health insurance. In Minnesota, 8.5 percent were uninsured in 2007, lower than the national average. The US Census reports that of those who do have insurance, about 59 percent get it through their employer.

And 83 million people are covered by government health insurance plans. Some people at the town hall would like to see that number increase. Joy Johnson was impossible to miss in a purple sweatshirt and matching purple eyeliner. The 76-year-old also supports a single-payer system that would cover everyone.

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Joy Johnson
Joy Johnson, 76, from Mankato, supports single payer or an alternative public option.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"Single payer is the one I want," she said. "I'll go with public option but I really like single payer. In fact, that just might be on the agenda."

Johnson says she came to the town hall in hopes of hearing more about a public option.

Once the forum finally got under way, Walz warned people that none of the plans being debated in Congress are without cost. But he says the current system is too expensive and needs to be reformed now.

"The status quo is not maintainable," he said. "That's what brings us here tonight -- to find out what is the solution to get systemic change in double digit costs of delivering health care and how do we do it in a manner that is fair."

Cost is one of the biggest problems facing the health care system.

The United States is projected to spend over $2.5 trillion -- more than 17 percent of its gross domestic product -- on health care this year. States and the federal government are struggling to meet the rising costs of public health programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

To bring costs down, many Democrats in Congress are calling for the creation of a public plan. The plan would compete with private insurers in a new insurance exchange, where people could compare prices and shop for plans. Some Democrats have also proposed using private nonprofit health care cooperatives to compete with private insurers.

Health care reform is expected to cost around $1 trillion over the next decade. President Obama says savings would come from measures to improve efficiency and eliminate waste from existing government health care programs.

Many Republicans have come out against a public option.

A man who identified himself as Casey confronted Walz about the public option, eliciting some of the loudest applause of the night.

"I'm not for the public option," he said. "Not because I don't think it's important because I believe that everybody should have health care. It's because I don't trust you."

He says he doubts the government would be able to manage a public health care system in a way that would keep costs down.

Many Americans feel the same way.

While a majority of people feel the health care system needs reform, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only about 24 percent feel reform will result in better quality care.

Walz cited the VA and Medicare as two popular and well-run government health care systems.

He says any federal health reform should include an electronic medical records system like the one used by the VA. He says that will go a long way toward reducing costs.

While a public option drew strong opposition, it also drew strong support from this man, who identified himself as Paul.

"I would like to see national health insurance that is free to every human being that is a citizen of the U.S.," he said. "We pay twice as much as any other country for our health care, we are 37th in infant mortality. We have been brainwashed to think that government is the enemy. I'll tell you who is the enemy -- profit blood sucking insurance companies. Thank you."

Walz says he needs to see more details on a public option plan before he would support it.

No matter what happens, the health care debate is far from over. More town hall forums are scheduled through the end of the summer, and then Congress plans to take up the issue again in September.