WALLA WALLA -- "Is health care a right or a privilege?" asked Dorothy Knudson.
"I believe we should be providing access for an affordable price," answered U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
That was the opening exchange in Thursday's town hall-style meeting on health care for seniors, an event that drew a crowd of about 450 people, including a number of sign-waving demonstrators outside, to Walla Walla Community College.
During the event, which stretched to 90 minutes, people lined up on both sides of the podium where McMorris Rodgers stood to take turns tossing questions at her about health-care reforms now pending before Congress.
In many cases the questions were prefaced with a statement or a story about medical care in society today. Some sad, some wry, some humorous but all tinged with an undertone that the current system needs to somehow be fixed.
At the start and throughout the meeting, McMorris Rodgers said she doesn't favor proposals that would jeopardize the relationship between a doctor and patient by putting "a bureaucrat between them" or legislation that would force people off private insurance plans and onto a government plan. She also said she will "not support a system that allows the government to determine what plan is acceptable and what is not."
What she said she did favor was finding a way to give people increased options for affordable health insurance, allowing Washington state's small business owners to obtain health insurance from out-of-state companies, portable health insurance for younger people, reforms in medical liability law, incentives to promote healthy lifestyles and support for advanced health information technology.
Above all, McMorris Rodgers said, whatever Congress does do about health care reform "we need to do it right."
The back-and-forth between McMorris Rodgers and the audience had its humorous moments. Such as one man who observed that the problem with U.S. health care today is "the insurance companies run health care. But the only thing I can think of as worse is the U.S. government running health care."
Another questioner was a woman who identified herself as "an 83-year old lady" living in an assisted care facility.
"If this health bill is passed, will we be stuck with it?" she asked.
"It's a reality that once a bill is passed, it's difficult to repeal," McMorris Rodgers replied. "It's not impossible, it's just very hard."
"The other question is, how do we keep (health care reform) from being passed as it presently is?" the woman continued.
"I think I need to take you back to Washington, D.C., with me," McMorris Rodgers said.
Other exchanges, however, took a more serious tone and included debates about public versus private options, whether a government supported insurance system could sustain itself and the need for some type of safety net to provide care for those who are "uninsurable."
As the meeting wound down, one of the final questioners was Dick Ingram, who received a standing ovation when he identified himself as "a retired Air Force veteran who flew a B-17 in World War II."
"I doubt if you can answer this question," the wheelchair-bound Ingram said. "I'm very concerned about the proposed cuts in Medicare. If Medicare goes bankrupt, what happens to (veterans medical care)? I'm 93, and as you can see, I need some care."
"I thank you for your service," McMorris Rodgers said. "We're going to work on that and try to make sure you do have health care."
Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.