SPRINGFIELD — Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill brought in a big crowd. Republican Sen. Kit Bond brought the big names. Missouri's two senators highlighted the national health care debate Monday in strikingly different fashions.
Bond appeared before an invitation-only crowd of 100 people in Kansas City for a subdued health care discussion with Sen. John McCain and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Their message: There's no need for a wholesale overhaul of the U.S. health care system.
McCaskill encountered a rowdy round of boos and applause from about 1,100 people as she held her 10th and final town-hall health care forum at a packed Springfield theater. McCaskill's message: Health care must be revamped to make it more affordable and accessible.
The separate, almost simultaneous forums held 150 miles apart illustrate the wide gap in public opinion that members of Congress are grappling with as they consider a health insurance overhaul backed by President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders.
McCaskill, a key Obama supporter in last year's presidential campaign, pledged Monday to a vocally skeptical crowd that she will not support legislation creating a government-run health insurance program unless it has financial and policy restraints that keep it from morphing into a government-mandated health care plan.
But "doing nothing is a bad idea," McCaskill told the crowd at the Gillioz Theatre, later adding: "Continuing to do nothing is just going to make insurance more and more unreachable for more and more of you."
At a forum at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, McConnell called for Congress "to step back, start over and think about incremental changes" to the health care system when they return to work in September.
Federal restrictions on awards in medical malpractice lawsuits were among the potential health care reforms touted by McConnell, McCain and Bond. But McCaskill said decisions about malpractice laws should be left to the states and that restrictions already in place in various states have done little to hold down health care costs.
Like many of her health care forums, McCaskill's event in Springfield was contentious from the start. She was introduced to competing jeers and cheers and encouraged the crowd to be "civil and kind." While answering questions, she was frequently interrupted by shouts of disbelief. Sometimes, audience members yelled at each other to "shut up" or "sit down."
When Army veteran Melvin Cole, 61, of Ozark, asked if she would vote for or against the health care proposal if the vote were today, McCaskill demurred by saying it would depend on what's ultimately in the health care bill. That prompted loud groans and boos.
McCaskill paused at one point to tell the Springfield audience: "I think it's the first time I've ever been in a room when I've had so many people booing."
Vocal dissent was not a factor at the Republican senators' health care forum. Their audience consisted of 50 people invited by Bond and 50 invited by the hospital. Before the start, a family of three who had taken seats near the back were asked to leave because they hadn't been invited. They quietly refused but eventually were escorted out of the room by security.
Bond has not hosted McCaskill's wide-open style of forums. But McCain encountered some unruly audience members at a previous health care forum in his home state of Arizona.
"I have seen a level of dissatisfaction and even anger that I haven't experienced in the years I've been a member of Congress," McCain said Monday.
"We all want reform," McCain said. But "the problem is that there is no provision for bringing cost under control" in some of the proposals pending in the House and Senate.
McCaskill said she has taken to heart a consistent and key message from her forums: "People feel very strongly that they do not want and are not interested in a single-payer system. That certainly has been reinforced in these meetings."