BELGRADE, Mont. — President Barack Obama brought his town hall tour to Montana on Friday, talking about health care reform in a state where residents pride themselves on their independence and many are skeptical of new government programs.
The president and his family were greeted at Gallatin Field Airport by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and is a primary power broker in the Senate’s health care overhaul plans.
Introducing the president was Katie Gibson, a Montana cancer survivor who struggled to find and keep health insurance after leaving her corporate employer, according to the White House. Her case was among several the president cited as examples of Americans being held hostage by health insurance companies that deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions or cancel coverage when people get sick.
Outside the airport, more than a thousand people stood in the rain waving signs and American flags and chanting for and against the government proposals. Police were on the scene to keep things calm.
But when one protest group turned on speakers to listen to a live broadcast of Obama speaking inside the airport hangar, the crowd largely grew quiet and listened to the town hall meeting with few outbursts.
Schweitzer said he was pleased everyone remained respectful, especially those who asked the president critical questions.
“They were able to ask these questions without being disagreeable,” said Schweitzer, who agrees with Obama that reform can bring down health care costs.
Baucus, who is playing a big role in congressional negotiations, said he thinks the president’s visit will help everyone better understand the issues.
“I think it’s good for Montana, it’s good for all of us,” Baucus said.
Protesters outside the building represented a wide range of viewpoints, and few seemed willing to change their opinions no matter what the president said.
Pamela Thomas, 56, a student at Montana State University in Bozeman, was looking for like-minded demonstrators who share her concern about the expense of health care changes.
“I think as a country we are on the verge of bankruptcy. I want to stop mega-spending,” said Thomas, who is legally blind and is insured through Medicare.
She believes protesters can influence the debate.
“I am here because I think when you go public and stand up and whistle and cheer for your side, you accomplish a huge amount,” Thomas said. “We have to exercise our rights.”
Dr. Luanne Freer, a Bozeman emergency room physician, said she liked the idea of a single-payer system, but doesn’t expect that to happen. She said her biggest concerns were costs doctors face for malpractice insurance and the way the threat of lawsuits dictates care decisions.
“I am here because I want to peacefully let my health care reform opinion be known. I don’t want to be out-shouted,” she said, keeping away from the crowd with her friends and holding a sign advocating health care reform. “The system is terribly broken.”
Jean Snyder, 56, a Belgrade school teacher, said she’s a Republican voter and an independent person who doesn’t want the government interfering in her life.
“This is the first time I have been fired up enough to do something other than vote,” she said.
Protesters carried signs of all stripes to their gathering spots, including one that said: “Kennedy Lives. Grandma dies?” Others took different positions — “Medicare for all” and “Reform health care now.”
After the town hall meeting, Obama plans to spend the night at Big Sky Resort and then visit Yellowstone National Park with his family on Saturday before heading to another town hall in Grand Junction, Colo.
Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton held town halls in Montana in the past, but those were relatively small, closed events.