FRISCO - Finding consensus on health care reform won't be easy if the wide range of opinions voiced at a Frisco Town Hall meeting Friday with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is any reflection of the national mood.
Bennet spent a little more than an hour fielding questions and outlining his position on the issue at the packed community center on Third Avenue, listening to local residents express their support and concerns about plans to revamp the nation's health care system.
The freshman Colorado senator's appearance in Summit County came amid a flurry of similar town hall-style meetings across the country by senators and members of Congress. Many of the meetings have been characterized by rancorous outbursts and even arrests, although Frisco's event went off with only a few boos from the crowd.
Before opening the floor to questions, Bennet outlined the problem, explaining that runaway health care costs are part of what's crippling the U.S. economy. While income levels have remained static during the past decade, health care costs have spiraled with double-digit annual increases. In Colorado, Bennet said, premiums have jumped 90 percent during that span. The U.S. spends 17 to 18 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, more than double what most industrialized countries spend, he explained.
"Reforming health care is a big piece of getting the runaway national debt under control ... If we put our heads in the sand and protect the status quo, we're going to hit an iceberg," he said.
The audience appeared to be split about 50-50 along partisan lines. Some critics of the current reform proposals said the plans would limit personal choice. Other residents said the U.S. has a moral obligation to address the issue to make sure all Americans have health care coverage.
"I think we need to cover everyone, partly because it's the right thing to do," Bennet said. "I have supported the public option part of the discussion," he added, referring to elements of the reform proposal that would add government-sponsored coverage as an option.
Bennet said the public option would increase choices for citizens, pointing out that one factor in high costs is the lack of competition. In Colorado, more than half the coverage is provided by only two companies, he said, adding that there are workable nonprofit and co-op models that need to be explored.
But bringing the government into the picture could lead to unintended consequences, some audience members said.
Using her own medical condition as an example, Silverthorne resident Lisa Knobel said parts of the reform plan could lead to a situation where government-run commissions determine what levels of illness warrant treatment and determine which medications are appropriate.
"This is what happens under universal health care," Knobel said.
"No one here is proposing a U.K. system," Bennet replied, acknowledging that Knobel posited a great argument against a fully centralized health care system, as practiced in the U.K.
"People think there's a bunch of Bolsheviks in Washington who won't be satisfied until health care is delivered by doctors who speak with a British or French accent. It's just not true," Bennet said.
Some citizens offered specific suggestions, including tackling health care costs by taking on insurance companies and allowing consumers to choose health care options across state lines. Others expressed concern about what they perceived as a rush to make changes.
"Sit down with all segments ... the drug companies, insurance companies, and hash this thing out," said Ken Gansmann, adding that tort reform (limiting malpractice damages) also needs to be part of the solution.
That sentiment was seconded by a local physician, who said he could lower his charges for health care by 40 percent if only he didn't have to practice defensive medicine 100 percent of the time. He used the example of treating a simple ear infection in a youngster, saying that, because of the threat of potential lawsuits, he has to run a battery of tests just to protect himself against future lawsuits.
Other people in the room said the skyrocketing federal budget deficit is their biggest concern, and worried that new costs associated with health care reform will add to the debt.
Those comments led to a round of finger pointing, with Democrats blaming the previous administration for creating the deficit, while Republicans defended the Bush tax cuts as measures that stimulated the economy and boosted government revenue.