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Carolyn Jacobson, left, and Alice Fuglestad were among more than 380 people who attended a town hall meeting on health care reform Monday afternoon in Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bemidji health care forum split on government involvement

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Jane Erwin drove to Bemidji on Monday from Hoffman, Minn., to tell U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson that government shouldn't expand its role in health care.

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Unemployed, Erwin said Congress should have done more for jobs than for health care.

"There have been times in my life I haven't had health insurance, I do not believe that government owes me health insurance," she said to a health care reform roundtable which drew applause.

"I grew up in a family with eight brothers and sisters -- we all feel the same way," Erwin said. "We do not believe that government owes us anything. We are responsible Americans, and we want to have control over our own lives, and that includes health insurance."

Peterson, DFL-7th District, held the second of two health care roundtables Monday at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Bemidji, drawing 350 people in one room, and another 40 people listening from the hallway.

The crowd waved no signs, with a few people holding small signs in their lap, and the only animosity came when speakers spoke too long. A Kelliher man was booed for calling the president "the boy king."

The 2½-hour forum saw 44 people testify before Peterson's staff signaled an end due to prior commitments.

Still, Peterson stayed another half hour to talk one-on-one with people.

A man from Greenbush set the tone for what most people felt about health care reform that is too government-centered.

"Do I want to trust my wife and my liberty into the hands of bureaucrats and politicians in Washington?" he asked. "Washington wreaks with corruption. ... In Medicare, you don't burn down the house to get the mouse, but that's what it sounds like you're doing."

Congress is spending its August recess polling the public on health care reform that President Barack Obama had wanted by Aug. 1, but now must wait. Peterson said he would vote against a bill that doesn't correct Medicare reimbursement disparities between geographic areas.

"How are we going to pay for it," asked Tom Bartholomy of Pinewood. "I'm in favor of health care reform ... we should be regulating the insurance companies at least as much as we do automobile insurance companies."

Peterson said he would have the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., write the health care reform bill.

"The cost at Mayo Clinic is half of what it is in other places," he said. "There's plenty of money in the system, if you just start paying for outcomes and for quality instead of paying for fee for service."

Many testified in favor of the Veterans Administration health care, and the Tri-Care insurance provided veterans by the Department of Defense.

Harry Hutchens of Clearbrook, Clearwater County's veterans service officer, praised the efforts of the VA and asked Peterson if the pending health bills would affect VA care.

Peterson was on the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this decade when major changes were made "that got us to where we're at, and I'm not going to let them screw that up. ... We got those changes through, and now you see every veteran come up and brag about how great the VA system is in five years."

Peterson asked for a show of hands of those who would delimitate Medicare, and got one hand.

Many people said they didn't like the current bill getting the most traction in the House, as it includes a public option to create a government insurance pool to compete with private insurance.

Peterson, however, said it was one of four bills in the House and he thought the eventual vehicle for health care reform will come out of the Senate Finance Committee, where talk is of establishing cooperative insurance companies to compete rather than government-run.

"If this bill has abortion in it, it will not pass," Peterson said to applause. "Anything like euthanasia ... it will not pass. ... There will not be a government option in this final bill. There may be a co-op, and we all know co-ops -- it would be a publicly owned cooperative like the REA or your credit union."

Asked if members of Congress would drop their federal insurance for the new program, Peterson said he just received his Medicare card, and held that aloft.

Until he sorts out Medicare and supplemental insurance, he has Blue Cross Blue Shield, one of nearly 30 plans members can choose from for their coverage.

"That's what we want to do with reform, have people able to choose the best plan," Peterson said. "We also need to remove state borders and let people buy the best plan, even if in another state."

Near the end of the forum, Lil Spilde of Bemidji gave a summary of what she believes are the eight points reform ought to contain -- a list immediately embraced by Peterson and many in the audience.

"We should flush the bills we have now," she said. "We should throw them all out and these are the eight provisions I would like to see in a health care bill ... That should take about 50 or 60 pages."

She listed:

- Tort reform, to lower the cost of malpractice lawsuits and limit awards.

- Insurance companies need to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

- "We should work hard and smart on Medicare and Medicaid fraud."

- Insure all U.S. citizens unable to provide their own health insurance, similar to MinnesotaCare for poor working Minnesotans.

- Eliminate interstate restrictions on purchasing policies.

- Allow insurance to follow an individual or an employee, called portability.

- All insurance should cover preventive care.

- Equalize Medicare payments throughout the country.

"I agree with every one of your points," Peterson said.

Peterson opened the forum with a half-dozen local medical professionals who gave their perspective on health care reform, as well as a history of reform from Greg Linden, vice president of information services and CIO of Stratis Health of the Twin Cities.

Peterson's only verbal exchange came off topic -- after getting criticism for his vote on the climate change energy bill in the House, a bill he compromised to benefit agriculture in carbon capture policies and penalties.

After pointedly explaining his efforts to ease the bill's restrictions on agriculture, a woman from Thief River Falls said, "I'm sorry, I don't believe a thing you tell me. Thank you very much."

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