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Health care debates ‘civil,’ Obama asserts

He criticizes media focus on protesters

'TV loves a ruckus,' said President Obama, criticizing the media coverage of his town hall meetings and promoting his plan in Montana. "TV loves a ruckus," said President Obama, criticizing the media coverage of his town hall meetings and promoting his plan in Montana.
By Liz Sidoti
Associated Press / August 15, 2009

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BELGRADE, Mont. - Trying to lower the temperature of the health care fight, President Obama yesterday denounced news media emphasis on angry protesters at town hall meetings.

Starting a four-day Western swing, Obama held the latest of his own events, fielding polite but occasionally tough questions.

Tieless and rolling up his sleeves, the president didn’t deny that there have been angry outbursts by foes of his plan at town halls hosted by Democratic lawmakers this month.

But he said that was hardly the whole story. “TV loves a ruckus,’’ Obama told a mostly supportive crowd of 1,300 inside an airport hangar. “What you haven’t seen on TV - and what makes me proud - are the many constructive meetings going on all over the country.’’

“You’re seeing people who are coming together and having a civil, honest, often difficult conversation about how we can improve the system,’’ the president added. “That’s how democracy is supposed to work.’’

While hundreds demonstrated outside, there was no sign of protesters on the airstrip where Air Force One landed or inside the hangar.

He did get a few pointed questions, however.

One came from Randy Rathie, who called himself a proud member of the National Rifle Association. “You can’t tell us how you’re going to pay for this,’’ Rathie said. “The only way you’re going to get that money is raise our taxes.’’

“You are absolutely right. I can’t cover another 46 million people for free. I can’t do that. We’re going to have to find money from somewhere,’’ Obama replied.

He noted a congressional estimate that legislation being considered in the Senate could cost $800 billion to $900 billion over 10 years. Obama has proposed higher taxes for families earning more than $250,000 a year. He said there were also other ways to find money, including streamlining the system and eliminating what he said were subsidies to insurance companies.

“But your point is well taken,’’ Obama said. “I appreciate your question and the respectful way you asked it.’’

Later, Rathie told CNN he was “well impressed’’ with how Obama handled his question. “Now he’s given me his word, personally, that he’s not going to raise my taxes,’’ Rathie said, but at the same time, “they’re trying to put in a program that they don’t even understand.’’

Another man, who said his job was selling health-insurance policies, asked Obama why he had changed his strategy from one of reaching out to insurance companies to “vilifying’’ them.

“My intent is not to vilify insurance companies,’’ Obama said. “I say, let’s work with the existing system.’’ But he said some bad practices of insurance companies “are tough on people’’ and “have to change.’’

In the second of three town hall meetings this week designed to convince Americans who have insurance that an overhaul would benefit them, Obama yesterday blasted insurance companies that revoke or water down coverage when patients get seriously ill.

“They got sick, and suddenly that’s when they get dropped,’’ he said. “It’s wrong. It’s bankrupting families, it’s bankrupting businesses. And we are going to fix it when we pass health insurance reform this year.’’

Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., Obama highlighted insurers who don’t cover preexisting conditions. And in another forum today in Grand Junction, Colo., Obama’s target will be insurers that charge exorbitant out-of-pocket costs.

Obama’s healthcare plan, and bills drafted by congressional Democrats, would ban all three insurer practices.

“When you hear about these experiences, when you think of the millions of people denied coverage because of preexisting conditions, when you think about the thousands who have their policies canceled each year,’’ he said. “I want you to remember one thing: There but for the grace of God go I.’’

Obama also took on some of his critics, who have been accusing him of wanting a government takeover of health care and who have been repeating the widely debunked claim that a provision for end-of-life counseling would lead to government “death panels’’ deciding who gets treatment and who doesn’t.

The president urged the crowd to “fight against the fear.’’

“The fight is getting fierce. And 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, and their political allies try to scare the heck out of everybody,’’ Obama said.

“We can’t let them do it again. Not this time. Because for all the scare tactics out there - for all the scare tactics out there, what is truly scary - what’s truly risky - is if we do nothing.’’