President Obama flew cross-country Friday into a headwind of rural anger and suspicion about his healthcare reform package. And the mood of the town hall meeting awaiting him at an airport hangar in Belgrade, Mont. was framed by severe weather and about 800 “tea party” protesters gathered on the western horizon.
But in the end, as a hail storm sent the demonstrators outside scrambling for cover, the 1,200 citizens indoors were not only receptive to what Obama said, but gave him standing ovations.
Of 20 different individuals interviewed by the Monitor as they left afterward, all but one said they supported the president’s plan.
In another gesture indicative of how two different Democratic approaches to healthcare reform may be converging before Congress returns this fall, Obama gripped Montana’s US Senator Max Baucus in a bear hug. The president was profuse in his praise for Sen. Baucus who, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is the spearhead in any hope the Obama administration has of getting legislation passed in Congress.
Able to spy the crowd of protestors from his cabin in Air Force One, Obama artfully worked the room and deliberately sought out the questions of skeptics who admitted their attitudes were shaped by the coverage of cable TV.
The forum began with a testimonial from a young woman named Katie Gibson who had two different insurance providers revoke her coverage after she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
“These are ordinary Americans, no different than anyone else, held hostage by health insurance companies that deny them coverage, or drop their coverage, or charge fees that they can’t afford for care that they desperate need,” Obama said.
He reiterated that those Americans with healthcare coverage they like will see no changes, except possible reductions in their premiums as government ends subsidies to insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. He said it will become illegal for insurance companies to cancel coverage, and he said the 46 million uninsured Americans would have affordable options currently unavailable to them.
He called claims that he is attempting to promote socialism “bogus” and, in response to a question from Cara Wilder, who is out of work with two young kids, he said his objective is not to copy public healthcare as it exists in Canada, Britain, or countries in Europe, but to promote an American one that builds on the free market.
“Because we are getting close [to reform], the fight is getting fierce,” he said, alluding to the derailment of reforms pushed by the Clinton Administration 16 years ago. “The history is clear: Every time we are in sight of health insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they’ve got. They use their influence. They run their ads. They use their political allies to scare the American people.”
The town forum was an opportunity for the president to tout the dividends of the Recovery Act, replete with tax cuts for 400,000 working families in Montana, and new loans for 200 small local businesses.
He said there is an inseparable link between rising unemployment and healthcare, noting that in Bozeman alone a recent hiring agency reported that 8,000 applicants had sought 160 jobs. Over 40,000 Montanans also have received extended employment benefits after losing their jobs in the current recession.
One of those whom Obama won over was Nancy Lien-Griffin, whose family operates a small timber and lumber operation in the tiny community of Ennis. She said the recession has forced her to lay people off and there is no affordable way for them to get healthcare coverage.
Obama said a central focus of his reform is reaching out to small business owners and leaning on insurance providers to reduce premiums and have government provide incentives for entrepreneurs to give their workers coverage.
“I believe that insurance ought to be provided through the workplace,” she said afterward. “I think he understands the challenges of small business people.”
Lien-Griffin and her friend Mike Sand, an attorney from Bozeman, said if they had any complaint about Obama it’s been that he’s been slow to spell out specifics of what reform would do. And it has probably fueled the fear some have.
“I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard, and I was impressed by how articulate he was and willing to meet his critics head on,” Sand said.
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