Merkley town hall is focused on health care

Retired emergency room physician Craig Miller sat in the bleachers in the Summit High School gym in Bend on Tuesday night, waiting for the start of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s town hall and holding a hand-lettered sign.

“Please respect others,” Miller’s sign read, with a smiley face scrawled in the letter “o,” in response to other town halls across the country that turned hostile.

And, for the most part, the audience did. Outside of raucous cheering for or against various positions expressed by the questioners — and some isolated heckling — the Portland Democrat’s town hall went off without a hitch. Today, he’ll be in Prineville at 11:30 a.m. for a town hall at the Crook County Library, and he plans to wrap up 36 town halls in 36 Oregon counties by Sunday.

Most questions Tuesday revolved around the broader issue of health care reform, and the “public option,” a government-subsidized alternative for people unable to afford private insurance.

Bob Sant, 46, from Bend, voiced his support for health care reform by sharing a story of how his parents were bankrupted when his father suffered a stroke 15 years ago. His parents lost their retirement savings, he said, a house in Bend that would be worth close to a million dollars today, and now live in a small cabin in Alaska. Misinformation threatens to derail health reform, Sant said, or result in a bill that’s too watered-down to help those most in need.

“We have gone around and around in this country over fear, not over facts,” he said.

Merkley replied by relating a story from a business owner he met earlier in the day, who told him that company’s insurance premiums went up 60 percent this year. Health care costs are doubling every six or seven years at the current rate, he said, and are expected to consume $40 trillion over the next decade.

“The path we’re on right now is a formula for disaster,” Merkley said. “If you have health care right now, you worry about losing it if you lose your job; if you don’t have it, you worry about getting sick.”

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