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Health care town hall smaller, still lively

/ Source: East Valley Tribune

It was a shadow of its predecessor, but Rep. Jeff Flake's second town hall debate on health care wasn't short on angry residents with strong opinions about the reform legislation under consideration in Washington, D.C.

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While there was some shouting and even some four letter words exchanged during the hour-and-a-half event Monday at Poston Butte High School in San Tan Valley, there were fewer fireworks than there were during the Republican congressman's first meeting at Basha High School on Aug. 10.

There were also fewer people.

Terry Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, which helped arrange the event, estimated the crowd size at about 400 people. That's a fraction of the 1,350 who packed the auditorium to the rafters at Basha High School.

That town hall drew so many people, their cars backed up for miles from the school and the fire marshal turned away 500 people at the door once the school's auditorium reached its maximum occupancy.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said the sparse audience isn't evidence of health care overdose among the public.

"I think it's more the location," he said, referring to the new high school. "This (health care) is still a very hot issue."

Babeu said people weren't able to locate the school using Google Maps, so he positioned a sheriff's vehicle at the school entrance so people would know when they reached the location.

Similar town hall meetings have unfolded across the nation as lawmakers have retreated to their congressional districts to gather public input on the legislation and, in some cases, foment opposition or support.

The meetings - some of which have devolved into screaming matches and physical altercations - have captured and held the public's attention since they began in July.

Flake, whose 6th Congressional District includes Gilbert, Queen Creek, Apache Junction and parts of Mesa and Chandler, acknowledged the ebb in attendance, but said it was evidence the public is more informed on the legislation working through the U.S. Congress, thus fewer people are likely to attend.

"There's still a lot of interest," he added, pointing out that several hundred attendees is a good number.

There were verbal sparring matches during the event, which started at 7 p.m.

When Mesa resident Frank Shine stepped to the microphone and criticized those in attendance who claimed the United States had the world's best health care system, a man in the audience told him to go to Canada.

"You need to inform yourself," Shine replied.

Flake, who returned to Washington Tuesday, said he doubts anything will happen with the legislation soon.

"I think the House is going to wait on the Senate," he said.

While talk circulates in Washington that the Senate may use its budget reconciliation process to permit a vote on a health care bill without the threat of filibuster, Flake said that's unlikely given the extreme skepticism expressed by some of the public at the town hall meetings around the nation.

"I would be surprised if they did that," he said, noting some members of Congress are facing an election in 2010.

Some people used their opportunity at the microphone Monday to vent about other issues.

Bob Bittinger told Flake he wasn't pleased the congressman missed an important vote in June on an energy bill that addressed climate change by imposing "cap-and-trade" limits on carbon emissions. The legislation set up an auction system in which companies, including electric utilities, would buy and sell credits to release global-warming gases.

Bittinger also complained about the Cash for Clunkers program, which ended last week. The program was designed to stimulate automobile sales and cut the number of gas guzzlers on the road by providing $3,500 and $4,500 rebates to customers trading in vehicles for more fuel-efficient ones.

Bittinger said the government was paying for cars that weren't very much money.

"It's a joke," Bittinger said.