A harmless extended family gathering turned into a full-fledged health care reform debate recently, with three generations chiming in on what they thought needs to be done (or not done) to “fix” health care in America.

Coming just a few days after President Obama’s prime-time speech focusing on the urgent need for health care reform (yes, we also discussed the “police acted stupidly” comment), the lighthearted gathering took on a serious tone for about 15 minutes after one of the grandparents present took advantage of a momentary lull in conversation by asking aloud, “So, what did everybody think of Obama’s health care speech?” Most of the time, these invitations for debate are given a token comment or two before being dropped in favor of any other subject without political overtones. But this one struck a chord.

The grandparents of the group stuck together under the banner of “Don’t mess with my Medicare,” and also alluded repeatedly to the problem of illegal immigrants and how their presence further burdens the system. They were all against the perception that current proposals would amount to “getting rid of Medicare” in favor of a government health care plan option that would “compete” with private insurance.

The middle generation – consisting of both baby boomers and Gen-X family members – were split on opinions regarding reform proposals, whether or not they amount to “socialized medicine” and the immediate necessity for reform. All agreed there are significant inefficiencies in the current system.

While a trio of teen-agers were in on the conversation representing the younger generation, they mostly listened and contributed the occasional comment about specific health care situations they were familiar with – and a concern about how decisions being made now will affect their tax burden in the future.

Party lines were definitely present, and most comments didn’t deviate too far from one’s particular party line. Still, nary a mention was made of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and his urging of fellow Republicans to “dig in their heels” and create a Waterloo for the President.

What kills me is how no matter what seemed to be said, no opinions were likely changed one bit. I fear this is the way it is throughout our society at large. Too many people stick to the party line. They adopt it immediately (and sometimes without really thinking it through to see if it really fits with their personal beliefs) and close their mind to the other side.

And it is startling how misinformed the general public really is when it comes to the whole health care reform debate. I bet if you ask 10 seemingly normal people you interact with on any given day about the current health care reform proposals in the House and Senate, you would get 10 different answers and all of them would be incorrect. It’s not that people don’t care – I think this is an issue that really does mean a lot to just about every adult. Newspaper editorial pages and online forums are filled with a constant barrage of letters and comments from people who are very passionate about the pros and cons of health care reform.

It’s just that it’s hard to weed out reality from perception. People hear occasional sound bytes they might remember, but it represents only a small piece of the whole pie. In the meantime, health care reform once again turns into a political party power struggle, just as it was with ClintonCare in 1994 and even Harry Truman’s proposed national health insurance plan back in 1945.

Meaningful health care reform may end up happening this time around, but if it does, you can bet it will create an even larger gap between the two parties.