WALLA WALLA - The bleachers were packed, but the tone was mostly calm at a health care town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in Walla Walla on Thursday.
McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, aired her concerns about health care reform proposals to about 500 people at Walla Walla Community College's Parent and Child Center.
Her Fifth Congressional District covers much of Eastern Washington, from the Canada and Idaho borders to Walla Walla.
Unlike other town halls across the country, which have drawn health care reform opponents showing up with colorful signs and angry rhetoric, the crowd McMorris Rodgers faced remained civil even though numerous people asked questions challenging her position in the debate.
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The congresswoman said she thinks health care reform is needed and believes in access to health care for all, but wants the nation to approach reform in the right way.
To her, that means providing consumers with more options and not letting government-run health plans dominate the insurance market.
She said a public option would drive private insurers out.
She pointed out that government options - Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare and the Veterans Health Administration - make up about half of the medical coverage in the United States, with the other half falling to the private sector.
"I get concerned when either the government or private companies get too much of the market share," she said.
She'd like to keep a balance that offers more choices, such as individual health insurance that's portable as people migrate from job to job or association plans that let small businesses band together to offer coverage.But some audience members challenged her notion that market forces can solve America's health care crisis.
Several people who identified themselves as recent college graduates - a demographic that reform opponents have claimed don't want insurance - said they don't have insurance because they either can't find jobs because of the recession or have chosen lower-paying jobs they think will benefit society, such as working for nonprofits, but those jobs don't offer coverage.
They said they liked the idea of a low-cost public option they could buy into.
Others were worried about what a public option ultimately might cost, and how the nation will pay for it.McMorris Rodgers said she can see only two options to pay for a public option: Raise taxes or ration care. She described the second option as "scary."
A few audience members said private health insurers already ration care and intervene in the doctor-patient relationship by letting bureaucrats decide who and what gets covered.
McMorris Rodgers responded that's why consumers need more choices.
"I believe competition would be healthier and companies would be more responsive to us - more responsive than the federal government ever would be," she said.
She held up Medicare as an example of government inefficiency and rationing of care, saying the system will be bankrupt by 2017 because money coming in from premiums can't keep it going.
That leads to the government cutting reimbursement rates, which leads to doctors refusing to accept Medicare patients, she said.
McMorris Rodgers would like to see an eventual reform bill encourage preventive care and tackle medical malpractice tort reform.
Congress is expected to resume debate about health care when members return to Washington, D.C., in September.