Hundreds attend town hall meeting on health care

Nearly 600 people came to Medford’s Abraham Lincoln Elementary School Thursday to hear Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., talk about health-care reform in a town-hall meeting.

A spirited crowd questioned the Oregon Democrat about many of the issues in the national debate, including how to make health care available to more Americans and still affordable. Some worried about possible cuts in Medicare spending. Some didn’t want the federal government to get more deeply involved in the health-care system. Others asked Wyden to support a public option that would be managed by the government.

Wyden repeatedly turned the conversation to his own health-care reform proposal, the Healthy Americans Act, which he said has support from both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

He said health-care reform will require everyone to compromise on one issue or another and he challenged his listeners to do their part.
“You can’t change American health care if you say everybody’s got to change, except me,” he said.

He acknowledged that his own bill, which was five years in the making, has plenty of opponents because it calls for fundamental changes in the health-insurance business and tort reform. It also would guarantee private health-care coverage for all Americans.

“Every bit of what I say (in the bill) is controversial,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been working on (health-care reform) for 60 years.”

The angry outbursts that colored town-hall meetings in other states in recent weeks mostly were absent. People who wanted to ask a question were given a numbered ticket when they entered the school auditorium, and a stub with the same number was placed in a box. Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long drew the numbers that determined who asked questions.

Lillian Haston of Medford told the senator she feared proposed cuts in Medicare spending might mean her husband would not get the surgery he needs.

Wyden said he would not support any proposal that calls for across-the-board cuts in Medicare spending. He said Oregon already is penalized by low Medicare payments to physicians. He said reform proposals in the House that call for across-the-board Medicare cuts “could hurt Oregon even more.

“I will make sure all the under-reimbursed areas do not take an across-the-board hit,” he said. “I’m standing here today to tell you I will fight that with every bit of my strength.”

Wyden fielded several questions from people who wanted to know why they should pay taxes to provide health care for people who can’t pay their own way.

He explained that everyone who has insurance already pays for the care of those people when they visit a hospital emergency room, because a federal law requires hospitals to treat them. Hospitals pass those costs on in the form of higher premiums for health insurance.

Glenn Miller of Medford told Wyden there is no way that a health program can cover everyone without raising the cost of care and increasing the federal deficit. Miller said he works in the insurance business, and his Medicare clients are “scared to death” about reform proposals.

Wyden said any reform measure will have to change the way health insurance is provided, because for-profit insurers try to maximize profits by “cherry-picking” healthy people who cost less to care for. He said there’s a need for “competition based on price, benefits and quality,” and larger insurance pools that spread the costs of care among more people.

As the meeting wound down, one woman demanded the right to ask a question even though her number hadn’t been drawn, and complained that the questions seemed stacked against those who opposed a bigger role for the federal government.

“I deserve the same amount of time,” she chanted repeatedly, while some called her “cheater” and others cheered.

Wyden asked her if she had a number, and when she said she did not, he said he would not abandon the ground rules for the meeting.

Other observers in the meeting countered the woman’s statement, saying the majority of questions came from people who appeared to oppose an increased federal role in health care.

The final questioner, Alden Moffatt of Ashland, however, drew loud cheers from the crowd when he thanked Wyden for supporting a public (government-managed) option for health insurance.

Wyden said proposals now in the House would deny the public option to 80 percent of all Americans.

“No particular kind of coverage is going to drive down costs unless everybody has choices,” he said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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