PALCO, Kan. — U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran briefly made a tiny western Kansas town the focus of a roiling national debate on overhauling health care last week by holding a town hall meeting that attracted dozens of out-of-area visitors and a gaggle of state and national reporters.
The event felt out of place in a county where President Donald Trump received 84 percent of the vote in last year’s election. Thanks largely to the visitors, Moran faced tough questions about GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, with some audience members espousing liberal Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for all” position.
A few of Palco’s residents welcomed the burst of attention, at least initially. The 2016 census estimate puts its population at 278. It’s about 270 miles west of Kansas City, off of a two-lane state highway in a rolling Smoky Hills landscape dotted with farms and oil pumpjacks.
“A majority of Kansans haven’t even heard of Palco,” Ashley Kuhn, director of Main Street day care center, after declaring the attention “awesome.”
Kuhn paused to watch a Lincoln SUV roll by, its front grill and back window festooned with patriotic bunting, and displaying stickers for ride-sharing service Uber. A driver was bringing a reporter to the youth center down the street.
“That is the first time we’ve ever seen an Uber driver in Palco,” Kuhn said.
About 150 people tried to pack into room set up to seat 65 people, with reporters setting up laptops in an adjacent kitchen.
Many in the crowd were critics of Republican health care proposals, there to pressure Moran into sticking to his opposition to the current Senate GOP plan. Planned Parenthood had a contingent wearing pink shirts, and some of the outsiders came from as far away as the Kansas City area.
At least a few local residents complained about the interlopers, including on social media, finding them rude. At one point, a college anti-abortion activist was shouted down by more liberal crowd members while asking a question.
Former state Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a conservative Republican from Palco, said in the past, local town halls have been “more like sitting around the kitchen table.” He said last week’s event didn’t represent area views.
“It doesn’t mean Palco, Kansas, suddenly flipped on Trump,” Couture-Lovelady said.
Yet local residents also have concerns about increasing insurance premiums, co-payments and deductibles and worry about how a new federal law would affect the 20-bed public hospital in Plainville, 14 miles east. Moran grew up in Plainville, a fact noted by a highway sign at the south city limits.
The senator said he’s had four previous town hall meetings in Palco and that people in small communities deserve to interact with elected officials, too.
“For the folks in Palco, if you find this disturbing, I’m sorry,” Moran said in opening the meeting. “To those who traveled large and small distances to come to Palco, welcome to this part of Kansas.”
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