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Rep. Peterson to hold 'public roundtable' on health care Monday in Bemidji

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson plans a health care town hall meeting Monday in Bemidji. Well, sort of.

Members of Congress who are using their August recess to hold town halls on health care have found disgruntled citizens and boisterous protesters.

Some, such as that held by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., have resulted in pushing and shoving matches.

Peterson, DFL-7th District, is holding a "public roundtable discussion on how to control health care spending while improving access to quality care."

The roundtable, slated for 1 p.m. Monday in the Beltrami County Board Room at the County Administration Building, mostly features a discussion of experts, with time allowed for audience questions.

"The events will begin with a panel of local stakeholders and experts who will make brief statements that will be followed by a moderated panel discussion," says a statement on the event, "with questions from the audience to begin at that point."

Peterson had a warm-up Friday, holding a roundtable with the same format at Willmar. Earlier this month, he met with health care professionals in Alexandria.

More than 300 people packed a Willmar community room Friday night and another 100 were sent to overflow rooms to talk about health care in a panel that included former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., an expert in health care policy.

The crowd was mostly civil, absent the polarity seen in other Democratic town halls across the country. People expressed concern over how health care reform would be paid for and said reform was needed, especially insurance reform.

The Detroit Lakes Democrat created a stir about holding town hall meetings when, in an interview on holding town halls with Washington, D.C.'s Politico, he alluded that the forums are often disrupted and controlled by people with out-of-the-mainstream ideas.

"Twenty-five percent of my people believe the Pentagon and (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld were responsible for taking the Twin Towers down," Peterson told the Web site Politico. He said it's a reason why he rarely holds town meetings, and then only on specific topics.

He later apologized for the remark, issuing a statement that "if anyone was offended by my off-handed comment, I sincerely apologize -- I certainly wasn't trying to make fun of anyone,"

The Minnesota Republican Party, however, made hay out of the comment and ran radio ads in the 7th District about Peterson's gaffe and that it showed he was out of touch with his constituency. The state party is targeting his re-election bid, even though he's captured recent elections with 71 percent of the vote.

While health care may seem a bit out of Peterson's expertise -- he is chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee -- Peterson in the past has been an advocate of rural health care and has fought to bring entitlement reimbursements, such as Medicare, to rural hospitals more in par with metro hospitals, and Minnesota more in line with other states receiving higher reimbursements.

As it is, Peterson is leaning toward voting against the House's proposed health care reform bill, which should hit the House floor when members return to Washington after their August recess.

"Frankly, I just don't think this is sustainable," Peterson said on Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Edition on Aug, 5. "[The Blue Dog coalition] made some changes, but I read the bill, and there are just things in there I think are problematic."

Peterson is a founder of the Blue Dogs, a coalition of about 50 conservative Democrats in the House, although he's stepped back from the front line since becoming Ag Committee chairman.

The Blue Dogs successfully stalled a vote on the health reform package before the recess, and have become a force to negotiate with before the Democrat-led House can pass the bill.

Peterson told MPR that one of his biggest concerns is that the Medicare system pays less to doctors in Minnesota than it does to doctors elsewhere in the nation.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-4th District, hopes to change that with an added provision calling for a one-year study of geographic variation in Medicare expenditures, and requires the secretary of Health and Human Services to "implement a payment rate that takes into account this study," MPR said.

"I don't think it's got the teeth," Peterson told MPR. "I don't think it requires that at the end of the study that it be implemented."

Peterson also said he doesn't think the federal government should put more money into the health care system at this point.

"There's enough money in the system, I think, to extend coverage, get rid of pre-existing conditions, all of those kinds of ideas that I think have bipartisan support without putting more money in the system," Peterson said in the Morning Edition interview "I don't think we ought to put more federal money into this health care system until we get the underlying problems fixed."

Peterson is flying into Bemidji on Monday morning, where he'll be met by Mayor Richard Lehmann and taken on a tour of American Recovery and Reinvestment projects in the city as well as the Bemidji Regional Event Center construction site.