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McCollum listens to concerned crowd at health care forum

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Long lines
People stood in lines at Macalester College hoping to get one of 350 tickets to enter the chapel where DFL Rep. Betty McCollum's town hall meeting on health care reform was held.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

Fourth District DFL Rep. Betty McCollum's health care forum drew an overflow crowd last night, but it was a cooled-down version of other, more contentious, similar events.

About 350 people filled the chapel at Macalester College in St. Paul and about 300 more were outside of the chapel listening to the forum on speakers. 

Before last night's town hall forum on health care reform, members of Rep. Betty McCollum's staff said they've never had more than 200 people turn out of one these events. But when several hundred more than capacity for the chapel at Macalester College showed up, the staff had a plan. They had loud speakers pumping the audio from the event to those who listened closely outside in the quad. 

Several town hall meetings across the country have been contentious, drawing passionate responses from those who both support and oppose the plans for health care reform being debated in Washington. 

The heat was turned down at this forum. In her opening remarks, Rep. McCollum said she had no interest in having a repeat of those gatherings, even as many in the crowd were applauding her statements of support for reform. 

"I want to hear from people," Rep. McCollum said. "It's nice to have the applause back and forth, but I want to hear from you."

There was no speakers' list for last night's event; instead, people were invited to speak by a raffle-like system. Numbers were drawn from a basket that contained one-half of the ticket that each person used to enter the chapel.

Signs
Supporters and opponents of health care reform express their opinions with signs at the forum.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

When Tom, a self-described entrepreneur, had his number called, he accused Democrats in Congress of trying to ram the bill through without any discussion. Then, he said he's been hoping for health care reform for years, but he's not sure this is it. 

"Reform would result in lower cost, competition," Tom said. "This bill is more of the same. It's more government, higher cost and less choice. So, I'm for reform. This is not reform."

But there were others who were more supportive of President Barack Obama's plans to change the nation's healthcare system, including Dr. Ken Englehart. As a physician who was in private practice for 25 years before taking a position in the VA Medical system three years ago, he said he's experienced both the private and public sectors of health care -- and he believes something has to change. 

"I think our health care system is dysfunctional," Englehart said. "One-third of our premiums go to marketing, competition, paying the multi-million-dollar salaries of CEOs and scouring our medical records to find reasons why we should not receive health insurance."

For the most part Rep. McCollum just listened to the speakers during the 90-minute session. She did say that she plans to take the comments and concerns she heard last night and at a similar forum in July back to her colleagues in Washington.

When Congress returns later this month, the heated debate over plans for health care reform will pick up again. But before McCollum heads back to Washington, she'll appear at another gathering on health care reform hosted by DFL State Reps. Erin Murphy of St. Paul and Tom Huntley of Duluth. That's tonight at 6:30 at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul.