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Business executive Roger Vang wanted to know what federal plans might affect his company's health insurance plan so he checked President-elect Barack Obama's website.
"I wanted to see if Obama had any major changes coming," said Vang, chief financial officer of Diversified Plastics in Brooklyn Park. "They had a button to click for information on health care, so I foolishly did."
The button led Vang to a discussion guide for a grass-roots forum to help modernize the nation's health care system. It invited him or anyone else to host a local forum. So he did.
The forum and others in Minneapolis and St. Paul were among thousands held across the nation last month in response to Obama's health transition team's request on his Change.gov website. The website outlines health care problems and provides discussion questions. Moderators are asked to e-mail feedback and suggestions from the public meetings to the team, led by Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Daschle.
Daschle attended some forums, including one in Dublin, Ind. He told 35 people there that the forums are designed "to hear directly from you about your concerns, about your recommendations, about ways you think our system can be made to work better," the Washington Post reported.
Vang was surprised by the quick response after he e-mailed invitations to members of the local Chamber of Commerce and a manufacturing group. Within 36 hours, 27 people signed up and a dozen more wanted to, but he didn't have room.
"So many came that I had to confiscate the plant lunch room," the company's largest meeting space, Vang said. Only a few failed to show the morning of Dec. 30, despite a nasty snowstorm.
"They apparently wanted to talk," Vang said. "There was quite a range of opinions. ... We passed around the mike so we could hear everybody."
Vang guided the discussion, took notes and e-mailed a summary back to Obama's health transition team.
The locations of metro-area grass-roots forums were hard to find, but officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul said each city had at least one forum.
Dr. Sam Willis hosted 18 people, many in health-related work, for a forum in his Loring Park home in Minneapolis.
"Affordability came up over and over again," Willis said. "It is a real issue for people: having health insurance with high deductibles but not being able to afford to go to a doctor and pay the premium."
Many wanted universal health care, but there was no agreement on what that meant, Willis said. Like Vang, he e-mailed a summary to Obama's website.
About half the members at the Brooklyn Park forum said the cost of health care was the biggest health problem. Almost all the 25 participants, who included city officials, business people and an unemployed man, thought town hall or community meetings were the best way to generate ideas for policymakers to use in fixing health system problems.
Another issue cited was knowing how much medical care costs.
"There's a greater need for transparency in the costs as choices are made," said participant Ann Wynia, president of North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park. Wynia, a Chamber of Commerce member, said different views were put forward at the forum, but everyone was respectful and had a chance to speak.
The forums are "a grass- roots think tank,'' said Willis. "It's a brilliant way to draw on the energy of the American people."
Vang said he hopes somebody from Obama's website or team sends a response to his summary data because "the group seems to want to have more meetings."
Jim Adams • 612-673-7658