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Many opinions at forum, but were they convincing?

Holding a copy of a Democrat-written health care overhaul plan, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann said she opposes the bill because it would create a "government takeover" of the system. Democrats at Bachmann's town hall forum audience dismissed that characterization. Staff photo by Scott Wente

Some area residents on different sides of the national health care debate left U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's recent town hall forum believing that opinions had been expressed but few views were changed.

Bachmann's Thursday, Aug. 27 forum at Oak-Land Junior High School in Lake Elmo brought the national discussion about a health care overhaul to a local stage. It drew several hundred people and fueled lively exchanges and occasional shouting matches between Bachmann supporters and those seeking a broader government role in health care.

But some said there was little in the way of discussion that could have advanced debate or shaped opinion. Josh Metzler of Woodbury was among those.

"Since I wanted to go there and be educated, I was pretty disappointed and I thought it was thoroughly unenlightening," said Metzler, an 18-year-old Bachmann detractor who wanted to ask her about pharmaceutical company advertising but, like others, was turned away because the forum ended.

A Bachmann supporter, Gary Baran of Woodbury said the forum may have done little to sway people's positions on the issue, including the representative's.

"I would guess that no one's opinion here was probably changed, because at the start of the debate you heard just about as much cheering or booing on each side as you heard at the end," Baran said. "Michele is a very principled person. I think she'll stick by her guns and what she believes in, which happens to be very close to mine."

A different option

Bachmann, a Stillwater Republican who represents the 6th District, is an outspoken critic of Democrats' health-care proposals. She said a leading bill would result in a "government takeover" of the health care system and cost more than advocates claim.

She was both cheered and booed during the 1 hour, 15 minute forum.

"Here's another option that hasn't been talked about very much, and that's the option where you own your own health care - not government, not business," she said to loud applause.

Bachmann promoted expanded private-sector activity and said Congress should make it easier for people to buy health insurance from companies across state lines.

"Let's not destroy what truly is the greatest health-care system the world has ever known," Bachmann said at one point.

"That's a lie," a man yelled.

"Shut up," another audience member told him.

Bachmann's forum came on the heels of similar events held in other Minnesota congressional districts last month. Those forums, while widely attended, generally have lacked the headline-garnering raucous crowd outbursts at town hall meetings elsewhere.

Feisty, but civil

Hundreds of people had lined up in the halls of and outside Oak-Land before doors opened. People carrying signs and posters were told to leave them outside.

The crowd was lively but civil, authorities said. The Washington County Sheriff's Department staffed the event with eight uniformed officers and another 10 deputies in plain clothes who sat among audience members.

"A couple of verbal jousts in the hallway, but everything went OK," Cmdr. Marv Stutz said.

Joining Bachmann at the event was fellow Republican Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas. The Rochester, Minn., native has a background in obstetrics.

Burgess questioned whether Congress can pass sweeping health-care reform before the end of the year, a goal of President Barack Obama.

"I don't know whether that's practically possible or not," he said.

Woodbury resident Rhonda Schwartz said while she disagreed with Burgess on health care issues, he offered insight into negotiations taking place in Congress and why some proposals have traction while others do not.

"Actually, I thought he did a fantastic job really presenting the other point of view," Schwartz said. "With Congresswoman Bachman, I just hear rhetoric."

'Truth' and 'lies'

Where Schwartz heard "rhetoric," Diane Baran said she heard the "truth."

Baran, who like her husband, Gary, supports Bachmann, said the representative "speaks her mind," to the frustration of her opponents.

"She has a lot of people who don't like to hear what she has to say because it goes against their beliefs," Diane Baran said.

Washington County resident and self-described "DFL activist" Ilya Gorodisher pointedly challenged Bachmann over what he said were her distortions of Obama's health care positions.

"Why do you persist on stretching the truth to the point of lies?" Gorodisher, of May Township, asked.

Bachmann said the Obama administration has not accurately represented the potential costs and scope of a Democrat-led health care overhaul.

"Is there misinformation out there? Yes," she said.

"Is it you?" Gorodisher replied.

Gorodisher later said there was "zero benefit" to the forum because people on both sides have entrenched positions on the issue.

"There's no actual discussion," he said.

After the forum, Bachmann said the large crowd "shows that Minnesotans are very concerned about the rising cost of health care."

"If people disagreed or left with the same beliefs they had before, I hope they got questions answered and concerns addressed," she said in a statement.

Schwartz said she disagrees with Bachmann's positions, but wanted to hear what Bachmann had to say about health care. And, Schwartz said, even if there remain unanswered questions, the level of turnout showed "a tremendous sense of community."

Gary Baran said he knows why hundreds of people showed up and why similar events are drawing big crowds across the country. Health care is not like other issues debated by Congress, he said.

"This is personal. My health care is personal to me," Baran said. "I have a vested interest in that that you just cannot underestimate."

"That's what's driving everybody here: it is personal."