Local Democrats are rallying for health care reform as the national debate heats up.

Local Democrats are rallying for health care reform as the national debate heats up.

Representatives from Health Care for America NOW, Organizing for America and Oregon Action, and concerned residents met Saturday to discuss health care reform with state Sen. Alan Bates.

A private practice doctor of three years, Bates serves on the Oregon Senate Health Care and Veterans' Affairs Committee. He says change in the health industry is coming.

"I've been fighting for health care reform for 25 years," he told a crowd of dozens at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Fellowship in Ashland. "We have never been so close."

President Barack Obama's pledge to pass a health care reform law by the end of 2009 has come under fire from Republicans and some Democrats, who oppose expanding the role of government in the health care industry. Bates argued on Saturday that the American people cannot afford to wait beyond this year.

"The number of people with insurance has been dropping," he said. "It's time for reform."

Organized by the advocacy group Health Care for America NOW, Saturday's meeting was meant to bring supporters of reform together. A large-scale canvassing movement is underway, with volunteers knocking on doors around Ashland to sign petitions, urging their representatives to pass a health care bill.

"This is about getting people involved in health care reform advocacy," said HCAN organizer Steve Neuberger. "We support the president's agenda around a choice of plans, including a public option."

A controversial element of this year's debate, citizens under a public option would have the choice of either remaining with their private insurance company, or of opting into a public system. Many conservatives have argued that the installation of a public competitor will drive private companies out of business, reducing people's choices for care.

Ashland's corps of grassroots volunteers wants to dispel that notion. Hayley Mason, a senior at Southern Oregon University, does not have health care. One of the young adults leading the door-to-door efforts, she said she is collecting signatures to make sure people like her do not have to worry about their wallets when they get sick.

"When people can't pay to go to the Emergency Room, I feel like this needs to change," she said.

Sen. Bates is spearheading an effort to expand health care in Oregon, regardless of what happens nationally. He said if a bill is not passed on the federal level, states should take the lead in addressing their own needs. As many as 400,000 Oregonians currently do not have insurance.

"We want to close that gap," he said.

The group went over details of health care reform, as well as problems with the current system.

"I've been a nurse for 50 years," said Rosalie Caffrey. "Over that time I've seen lots of changes, and not ones that I've liked."

She said any country considering itself a world leader should take the initiative to make sure its citizens are cared for.

"I'm ashamed we aren't better than we are now," she said.

Delores Nims, 71, said efforts to kill health care reform are "mean-spirited." She said seniors who rely on Medicare, such as herself, have no legitimate argument against government intervention.

"I am very disappointed in other seniors," Nims said. "People are taking advantage of a public health plan and won't permit it to be extended to others."

The consensus among those at the meeting was that the country is ready for its leaders to take more responsibility, and that responsibility starts with compassionate care for people's welfare.

Following the discussion, volunteers spread throughout Ashland neighborhoods to gather signatures. Future rallies for health care reform will take place in Medford and Central Point the first week of September.