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Obama vows safeguards

President Barack Obama holds  a baby at a town hall meeting  in Belgrade, Mont., Friday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
President Barack Obama holds a baby at a town hall meeting in Belgrade, Mont., Friday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Genial Montanans greet president at forum on care

BELGRADE, Mont. – President Barack Obama on Friday promised a new era of protections against insurance companies that drop customers when medical crises hit and said people who already have coverage would be among the biggest beneficiaries of his plans to revamp the health care system.

Eager to address criticism of Democratic plans for health care reform, Obama traveled to Belgrade and spoke at a campaign-style town hall meeting, the kind of forum where his allies in Congress have faced boos and jeers from skeptical constituents in recent days.

But the president, whose popularity and powers of persuasion may well make him the reform effort’s most effective spokesman, encountered the same difficulty he faced at a town hall meeting this week in New Hampshire: For the most part, the critics were nowhere to be seen.

The crowd of about 1,300 that gathered in an airplane hangar here Friday was overwhelmingly friendly and supportive, applauding repeatedly. Only two men put the president on the spot – something White House officials had indicated they were hoping would happen more often.

A welder wearing a National Rifle Association jacket accused Obama of secretly planning to pay for the reforms by raising taxes, and an insurance salesman wanted the president to explain why he was “vilifying” insurance companies.

Obama gave both men detailed answers, explaining how he would pay for the changes – not by taxing the middle class – and saying that, although some insurance companies have been “constructive,” others have fought against “any kind of reform proposals.”

White House officials say they did not attempt to load the audience with sympathetic voters. They said tickets to the town hall events have been given out much more broadly than in previous administrations. President George W. Bush often distributed tickets through the state Republican Party.

There had been speculation that Friday’s town hall might become more unruly, like some of the events that lawmakers have hosted across the country.

Obama was clearly hoping for the chance to dispel false claims. At the beginning of the event, he even turned a positive question around so he could answer the critics.

When a man called Medicare one of “the best social programs this nation has ever put together,” Obama responded by dredging up one of the frequent criticisms of the health care program for seniors – that it is a government-run system.

“So when you hear people saying, ‘I hate government programs, but keep your hands off my Medicare,’ then there’s a little bit of a contradiction there,” he said. “And I have been hearing that quite a bit, all right, so I just want to, I want to be clear about that.”

As he has in the past few weeks, Obama framed his case for reform around controversial practices of insurance companies, with a particular focus Friday on people who have trouble getting health insurance with pre-existing medical conditions and those who are denied payment for treatments even if they have coverage. The goal is to try to make reform seem more appealing to those who already have coverage; polls suggest the insured are lukewarm in their support.

All the scary stories heard about others having trouble getting coverage or payment for treatments should make people think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” Obama said. He made sure to mention, as he has done at every stop, that his mother wrestled with her insurance company in the final months of her battle with cancer.

He tried to rebut the notion that health care reform represents a “government takeover,” noting that most people’s coverage would remain what it is today. “I don’t want government bureaucrats meddling in your health care, but I also don’t want insurance bureaucrats meddling in your health care,” he said.

Obama said he would pay for expanded coverage by “cutting waste and sweetheart deals for insurance companies that don’t make anybody healthier,” a reference to subsidies for private Medicare Advantage plans.

Obama is embarking on a final public relations push on health care reform before heading off on vacation. From Montana, Obama heads to Colorado today even as his allies are stepping up efforts to rebut what they describe as “myths” about reform plans.

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