Health & Science

Lawmakers say they're not ducking health debate

WASHINGTON - Despite not scheduling any in-person town hall meetings during the August recess, Washington's two senators and Rep. Norm Dicks say they aren't ducking constituents. They say voters have had, and will continue to have, opportunities to discuss health care issues with them.

None of the three traditionally has held town halls.

But even as Dicks, D-Belfair, and Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell scheduled other events, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, has had to move his Aug. 25 town hall meeting in Lakewood to a bigger location because of the number of people who say they will attend.

An earlier Smith town hall in Lakewood grew a little unruly, but Smith said he will continue to hold them.

Over the past several days, congressional town hall meetings across the nation have been disrupted by protestors upset with Democratic health care reform efforts. Some of the protests have turned near violent.

"We aren't going to be putting a big target on Norm and let people take potshots," said George Behan, a spokesman for Dicks.

But Behan said the congressman has a full slate of public events scheduled in his district, including the opening of a new phase of the Salishan development in east Tacoma, a Rotary Club meeting in Bremerton and a ceremony marking the decision of kidney dialysis provider DaVita to remain in downtown Tacoma.

Behan said Dicks also will likely be peppered with questions when he is shopping at the Thriftway near his home on the Hood Canal, at a Mariners game he hopes to attend or at the Starbucks on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma where he stops for coffee.

"It's not like he is ducking," Behan said. "He's pretty visible. He's out there."

That's not enough face time with the public for some critics, such as Jerald Christensen of Gig Harbor.

When he made an inquiry with Dicks' Tacoma office in late July about town hall meetings, Christensen said he was told the congressman's August schedule still was being finalized. But last week, Dicks' staff told him there would be no such meetings.

"It's truly a sad day in our country when our elected officials don't want to listen to us," Christensen wrote in a letter to the editor of The Tacoma News Tribune.

Cantwell said she's held health care forums in Seattle, Vancouver and Spokane in recent weeks and will continue to do so. She said the forum in Spokane had its "raucous" moments but was productive.

"It's a two-way street," she said. "I learn things from them all the time. It's like light bulbs go on when I talk with my constituents."

In general, forums are a little more controlled than town hall meetings and usually involve a panel discussion with experts or members of the public. Often questions from the audience are allowed. Since the first of the year, Cantwell has done 20 roundtables or forums, including nine on health care, said Ciaran Clayton, her spokeswoman.

Sen. Patty Murray has held nearly a dozen telephone town halls since the first of the year in which thousands of the state's residents have participated, said Jeff Bjornstad, her chief of staff. More are planned, he said.

Prior to a telephone town hall, Bjornstad said a computer might call 50,000 people inviting them to participate. Usually between 500 and 800 people actually join the call and Murray fields eight to 10 questions.

Murray also sends out weekly e-mail updates to 350,000 people and she has received e-mails from more than 6,000 people on a spot on her website devoted to health care.

"Are we ducking? That's laughable," Bjornstad said.

He said the internet and telephone town halls have proven to be a more effective way to communicate with Murray's 6.5 million constituents than an in-person town hall.

"It's an old-fashioned art form," Bjorstad said, adding people don't generally have time to attend a meeting.

Murray does have public events planned through most of the recess including Chamber of Commerce and Rotary speeches, meetings with two Obama Cabinet secretaries visiting the state and a series of roundtables on health care

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