Goal of forums is to quell distrust
District town halls help correct misinformation on health care reform as much as allow input, says U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who held a health care roundtable Monday in Bemidji.
"There's a level of distrust out there, I don't know what it is," Peterson, DFL-7th District, said in an interview after the roundtable that brought nearly 400 people to the Hampton Inn & Suites.
"Is it because of all the spending that's been done?" he asked. "I think there's people who don't like Obama, and they aren't going to believe anything he says."
He got a round of laughter when he said President Barack Obama has yet to announce a position.
"Listen to what I'm saying," Peterson said over the din. "The president has not come out with a bill that you have in writing that they have endorsed. They are just working off of these House and Senate bills."
Peterson said that "if I have one criticism of the president, it's that he needs to do that; he needs to come out with what he is for so we can focus on that so we can try to get this done."
Even though the mood in Washington is to drop provisions that would have a government-run health insurance program, people in Bemidji still underscored their dislike for such a system.
"I think maybe we made some progress," Peterson said. "I had some people come up and say they learned things they didn't know. Some of the folks, I don't think it's going to make any difference. They're apparently against whatever comes up."
The Detroit Lakes Democrat got a lot of heat for a bill that the administration is pushing through in short order, and urged Peterson to read the massive bill. He did, he said, and isn't totally in agreement with it.
"I read the bill, that's why I'm against it," he said.
"We held up the bill and didn't allow it to come up for a vote," Peterson said, referring to the Blue Dogs, a group of conservative House Democrats that he helped found. "I don't think it would have passed anyway. We got 7½ of the 10 things that we asked for in changes in the bill before it passed on Friday night."
A lot more needs to be done, with Peterson saying it must include provisions to end a Medicare reimbursement geographic disparity and also serious insurance reform.
Currently, Minnesota is reimbursed about $5,300 a patient from Medicare, while Medicare patients in more populous states, such as Florida, New York or California, are reimbursed $16,000 each, he said.
"If we don't correct it in this bill, it won't happen," he said.
"They aren't going to pass this bill without our support," Peterson said of the Blue Dogs' role. "A lot of our guys believe there needs to be significant changes in this bill is where we think it needs to be."
He notes that while there are four bills currently being debated, it's the one that emerges from the Senate Finance Committee that will serve as the vehicle for health care reform. Crafted by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that bill will call for cooperatives to provide competition to private insurance, not a government-run insurance program.
People are too wrapped in versions of bills that are nowhere near to become law, Peterson said.
He had an exchange with Ken Cobb, a Bemidji insurance agency owner who is also the chairman of the Beltrami County Republicans. Cobb sited pages and sections of House Resolution 3200, the bill supported by Democratic leadership.
"There seems to be some provisions that will eliminate many of the types of private insurance that we have now," Cobb said. "Our president has said we'll be able to keep our current insurance but only those plans that are grandfathered-in and only until they make a change, and at that point they will no longer be able to stay in them."
"That's not true," said Peterson. "I'll guarantee you, there's not going to be any kind of a bill that passes Congress that says that insurance companies have to issue this kind of policy."
What will happen, he said, is that an insurance company will have to sell policies that cover pre-existing conditions. "It will say that, and it should say that, and there's no disagreement on that. ... We're not going to dictate policies."
Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson said people were telling him to slow up, and yet it took three years to craft a nearly 1,800-page bill.
"At some point, you've got to move," he said of health care reform, which the president first wanted done by Aug. 1. "If you've got controversy, it's easy to just put it off. But I think we should take our time to make sure we get this right. We should know what's in there, we should get time to debate it. We should get all the information out."
The bill should be bipartisan, and he accused House Republicans of sitting on their hands, hoping to use the Democrat-passed bill in next year's elections, he said. The Senate is considering health care reform in a more bipartisan manner.
"The medical geographic disparities in Medicare are the biggest problem," Peterson said when asked what he considers a bill killer. "We don't get that fixed, Medicare is not sustainable. That's my biggest issue. ... I want a rock solid deal in this bill that they can't undo."
Peterson said he attended a four-hour briefing on HR 3200, but left after an hour "because I had heard enough, because 6they were trying to prescribe too much control. Government was trying to control too many things, in my opinion. We need to set the broad parameter, but we shouldn't get down in the weeds and start telling people specifically what to do."
Peterson said he will serve on any eventual conference committee, and will work to include provisions to equalize Medicare reimbursements geographically.
Considering the high tension at some town hall meetings, such as in Pennsylvania and Texas, Peterson said he was pleased with the forums he held last Friday in Willmar and Monday in Bemidji.
"Some people were pretty stirred up, but I've been to town meetings that ... back when I was first in the (Minnesota) Legislature, I went to town meetings on the statewide building code that were more wild than this."