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Health care town hall meeting brings fears, concerns to the surface

Jerri Linke doesn't consider herself a political person. But there she was on Friday, at the microphone in front of close to 500 people at a town hall meeting on health care reform.

"I just could not keep myself from saying my piece," Linke, a retired educator who lives in Spicer, said afterwards. "I just have been so concerned about what I'm seeing."

She said she sees a 1,018-page document with no specifics about health care reform or about its cost. "Nothing is spelled out. Everything is generalities. They're asking us to trust the powers that be and the czardom to just fill in the blanks."

After Friday's meeting, however, Linke believes lawmakers are listening more closely to the fears and concerns of their constituents.

"I think their voices are starting to be heard a little bit," she said.

The town hall, hosted by Rep. Collin Peterson, was one of two in Minnesota's Seventh Congressional District.

There was little of the shouting and rowdiness that have taken place in other cities across the U.S. when town hall meetings have been held on health care reform.

But it wasn't a passive crowd either.

Health care has become the hottest issue of the summer. From coffee klatsches to online forums, it's under intense debate.

"It's the first time in my life I can remember the general citizenry being so universally concerned," Linke said.

On Friday, the community room at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building began filling up an hour before the forum was scheduled to start. As the outdoor temperature hit 90 degrees, people continued to file in. When all the chairs were taken, people stood at the back of the room.

Some brought small home-printed signs. A petition opposing President Obama's health care reform plan and cap-and-trade legislation circulated through the audience.

Minnesota Rep. Al Juhnke, a Democrat who represents Kandiyohi County at the state Capitol, saw people who came from as far away as Fergus Falls and Glencoe.

"It did draw people. It was a wide diverse group from other areas of the district," he said. "As I looked around the room, I recognized a lot of faces and there were probably just as many from one party as the other."

Juhnke called it "a phenomenal turnout."

Why has the prospect of a health care overhaul stoked so much passion?

When it comes to health care, it gets personal, said Stacey Roberts. "There could be a health care crisis right around the corner for any of us. It's scary for everybody."

Roberts, the executive director of the United Way of West Central Minnesota, didn't manage to get a chair, so she stood for the entire meeting, "all the way to the bitter end."

"I wanted to hear what people's needs were, what their thoughts were," she said.

On the other side of the room was Fred Cogelow, who brought a sign that read "Vehemence does not equal veracity." He held it up only once, when insurance agent Glenn Gruenhagen of Glencoe took the microphone to denounce abortion.

Cogelow, a wood-carving artist by profession, said he's frustrated with how emotional the health care debate has become.

"There are so many tenets of faith that are accepted but not analyzed... We just can't have a rational debate and that's what ticks me off," he said.

Although he waited in line after the meeting to speak to Peterson, he decided not to speak during the forum "because I didn't know where I would have ended... There's all this misinformation. We have that raw nerve about government and it just sets people off in a totally irrational way."

During almost two hours of testimony, the discussion grew heated at times. There were shouts about illegal immigration, euthanasia and the Wall Street bailouts, and a few testy exchanges between Peterson and some of the crowd.

"I heard a lot of mistrust for the Congress," said Loren Corle, a Willmar business owner who testified about how his company managed to save money by switching to health savings accounts for its employees.

He thinks the anger was defused, however, by how Peterson ran the meeting. The inclusion of former Republican senator Dave Durenberger on the introductory speakers' panel may also have helped, he said. "It was a good strategic move."

Roberts also was impressed with Peterson.

"I think he was very forthright and honest. I think he answered people's questions," she said.

Juhnke thinks there was a benefit in providing factual information and giving the public a chance to say what they think.

"That's probably the most important. People want to be heard," he said. "That's what the forum was about, to listen."

"I think everybody appreciated the opportunity to get heard," Corle said. "By and large, I thought there was just a great number of articulate and well-spoken and well-educated people that spoke on the topic and had something constructive to say."

Seeing several small-business owners in the audience reinforced how important the health care debate is, he said. "They don't typically have the time for this but they took the time to be there Friday."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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