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Originally published August 13, 2009 at 3:48 PM | Page modified August 13, 2009 at 3:47 PM

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Nearly 3,000 show up for health-care forum in Everett

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, presided over one of summer's hottest road shows Wednesday: a public forum on health-care reform.

Seattle Times health reporter

EVERETT — U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen presided over one of summer's hottest road shows Wednesday: a public forum on health care.

An often-raucous crowd of nearly 3,000 showed up at Everett Memorial Stadium for more than two hours of discussion led by Larson, D-Lake Stevens, that occasionally threatened to break into partisan rancor. Hand-lettered signs peppered the bleachers, with supporters of President Obama's health proposals massed on the southern end of the baseball stadium and many foes on the other.

A small stream of people left halfway through the meeting, many of them professing disgust at what they saw as hectoring from some members of the audience and a lack of substantive questions.

Nonetheless, the town hall provided a rare occasion for voters in Washington to speak out about proposed changes in the nation's health-care system.

Most members of the state's congressional delegation have shunned in-person forums during their August recess in favor of more-controllable telephone town halls or appearances before small groups.

Town halls elsewhere around the country have been marred with threats and even an effigy hanging. Liberal and conservative advocacy groups have accused each other of hijacking the democratic process.

But a backlash from frustrated constituents who want their voices heard is prompting some officials to reconsider. On Wednesday, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, reversed himself and said he will hold five meetings in the next few weeks. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, also announced he will host two in-person town halls on health reform toward the end of the month.

On Wednesday, Larsen, who was hosting his third health-care town hall in a week, maintained his equanimity despite sporadic heckling and frequent interruptions from applause.

As staffers roved the stadium with a microphone, audience members challenged Larsen to cite an example of an efficient government program (Medicare, he replied), asked why members of Congress shouldn't get the same health plan they're trying to foist on the public, fretted that seniors "are going to be left out to dry" and questioned whether the proposed health-system changes were even constitutional.

"Have you informed the younger generation that they're the ones who are going to pay" for expanded coverage, one woman demanded.

Larsen said before the meeting that his constituents have several key concerns: They fear being forced into a government-run public plan, want to ban insurers from rejecting applicants with pre-existing medical conditions and want Medicare left untouched.

Larsen acknowledged that those issues are largely addressed in the bills passed by three House committees.

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"Another part of (town halls) is to debunk myths," Larsen said.

Bill Riehart, a retail manager from Everett, said he was disappointed that so few questions dealt with specifics of pending health legislation.

"There was just no substantive debate. It was just partisan bickering," Riehart said.

Riehart's wife, Jennifer, recently lost her job with a real-estate law firm. His job is the sole source of health coverage for the couple and their teenage daughter. He believes if he were ever to lose or leave his job, a public plan would give him a shot at obtaining affordable coverage.

Julie Martinoli, a construction-company co-owner from Monroe, lauded Larsen for braving the crowds when so many of his peers opted to duck.

"I think they're shirking their responsibility to represent the people," said Martinoli, who strongly opposes government intervention and mandates.

Linnae Riesen, communications director for Service Employees International Union 1199 NW, which represents 22,000 health-care workers and others in Washington, contends that part of the blame lies with conservatives and others who are "fearmongers spreading lies."

The partisan tussle has even infiltrated a meeting that was to be held today in Longview to discuss Mt. St. Helens Monument. The Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners hastily canceled the event — which was to feature Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Rep. Baird — Wednesday afternoon after learning that advocacy groups from both sides were urging followers to show up and turn it into an impromptu health-care forum.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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