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the Associated Press

Suggestions Abound at Vermont Health Care Forum

John Curran

Protestors hold signs at a rally in Burlington, Vt., Tuesday, March 17, 2009. Advocates of a single-payer health care system rallyed outside a Burlington building where a White House-organized forum is scheduled. About 125 people waving signs and chanting have gathered outside the Davis Center of the University of Vermont campus to promote their cause. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

BURLINGTON, Vt. - When she lost her job after 40 years with the same company, 66-year-old Sandra Burt lost a lot more than a paycheck. She lost her health insurance.

Burt, who has an autoimmune disorder, needs medication that costs $2,730 a month to sustain herself. Her husband has cancer, she can't pay for her treatment and she needs help.

"I don't think it's right," she told a White House health care forum Tuesday. "I worked for 47 years!"

The forum, the second of five being held nationally to solicit reform proposals, drew about 400 invited guests, plenty of suggestions and a raucous crowd of demonstrators who said the nation should have a single-payer system.

Hosted by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas and Nancy-Ann DeParle, who heads the White House Office for Health Reform, the forum - officially called the White House Regional Forum on Health Reform - was billed as an "open, inclusive and transparent" process for soliciting input for President Barack Obama's health care reform initiative.

In truth, it was an invitation-only affair.

At the forum, Patrick and Douglas acted as moderators, holding forth like talk-show hosts. Wearing tiny head-mounted microphones, they stood at the center of the ballroom and took turns trumpeting their states' efforts to expand health coverage and boost preventive care.

Calling on audience members for their opinions, they heard from providers, a medical equipment supplier, three family physicians and a hospital association executive, some of whom read from scripts. Some, like Burt, expressed their frustration.

Bronwyn Fleming-Jones, 21, a University of Vermont senior, told the forum she's about to graduate from college and is facing a difficult job market and the prospect of being uninsured.

"What I want to hear from Obama is what about the next generation, and what about preventive care?" she said.

The recurrent themes were improving the delivery of preventive care to reduce emergency room visits, eliminating administrative costs and increasing the use of "community care teams" that serve rural patients.

The conversation turned to so-called single-payer health care systems when Dr. Deb Richter, a family practitioner from Montpelier, raised her hand and Patrick handed her a microphone. She told him he might regret it.

Alluding to discussions about preventive care and community care teams, she said no one was talking about the financing end of the equation.

"We're deciding all these programs are wonderful ... but these are what we want to buy. We've not talked about how we're going to pay for it," Richter said. "Why don't we just say, `Everybody in, one system,' and pay for it through taxes?"

That was the thrust of the pre-forum demonstration organized by Richter, which saw about 125 sign-waving activists and others gathering to chant outside the Davis Center, listen to speeches and organize.

Martha Ahmed, 64, a registered nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care hospital in Burlington, said she sees the impact of rising costs on patients, many of whom neglect medical problems until they become severe because they don't have the money.

For some, it's too late when they finally seek care.

"Some are actually dying from not having been seen," she said.

Holding a sign that read "Yes We Can Make Vermont the Pilot for a Single-Payer Health Plan," 64-year-old Al Walskey, of West Berkshire, said he struggles to pay for his medication for rheumatoid arthritis. He said he attended the event to send a message to Obama, whom he supports.

"Politicians are like lumps of coal: They don't turn into diamonds unless something puts a lot of pressure on them," he said.

The remaining forums will be held in Iowa, North Carolina and California through early April.

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