- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 15, 2009

BELGRADE, Mont. | President Obama said at a town-hall meeting here that he does not intend to vilify insurance companies as he tours the West this weekend to persuade Americans to back his proposed overhaul to the nation’s health care system.

In the second in a series of town-hall meetings he has planned for the critical period while Congress stands in recess, questioners were polite but not uniformly supportive.

Marc Montgomery, a 52-year-old insurance broker from Helena and one of nine people the president called on for questions, chided Mr. Obama for his recent decision to focus his bid for a health care overhaul on the failings of the insurance industry.

Why, Mr. Montgomery asked, was the president “vilifying” insurance brokers?

“That’s a fair question,” Mr. Obama conceded. “My intent is not to vilify insurance companies … What we do have to make sure of is that certain practices that are very tough on people, that those practices change.”

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The president said that some insurance companies are working with him to shape the legislation, but, he complained, others are standing in the way. And for no good reason, he added, arguing that the only way to make an overhaul work in the best interest of the insurance industry is to put the tens of millions of uninsured Americans under their umbrella.

Mr. Obama spent the bulk of the event, held at an airport hangar in this rustic mountain-ringed city of 5,700 people, trying to regain control of a health care sales pitch that has been overshadowed in recent weeks by angry protests. He urged the audience to embrace a brand of civil discussion that he said was in the American tradition.

“I know there has been a lot of attention paid to some of the town-hall meetings going on around the country, especially when tempers flare. TV loves a ruckus,” Mr. Obama said.

His goal, he told the crowd, was to set straight those who have become convinced that his plan would be unsustainable financially, would lead to health care rationing or a bureaucratic morass, or would give government panels the power to make life-and-death decisions on the basis of cost.

Preventing a ruckus was not a tough slog for Mr. Obama, though. Of the 1,300 people attending, about one-third were provided tickets through Democratic elected officials or others friendly to the administration.

And though the remaining tickets were handed out at two local city halls, there was little question that the bulk of them were grabbed by the president’s supporters. Mr. Obama repeatedly received rousing ovations, and was not once interrupted.

With Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and the Senate Finance Committee chairman who is now driving the legislative effort, seated behind him on stage, the president made repeated references to the senator’s effort to win passage of a comprehensive bill.

Mr. Baucus spoke only briefly at the event, telling the crowd he had been traveling the state “busting myths about health care.”

But on Friday, one of the House’s senior Democrats broke ranks and expressed doubts to a Pennsylvania radio station that Congress will pass health care overhaul legislation this year.

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, told WJPA-AM that Congress has to “do it right” on health care legislation and said Congress might not pass a comprehensive overhaul before January and maybe not even then.

Mr. Murtha, a key ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said members are telling the California Democrat not to rush passage.

Mr. Obama’s Western swing, which will also include a town-hall meeting Saturday in Colorado, comes during a crucial period for his most important legislative initiative. While on recess, members of Congress are trying to sort out what their constituents want from health care legislation that is pending before them back in Washington.

Wealthy interest groups on all sides of the debate are investing heavily in persuasion campaigns that aim to convince those members of Congress to return with the right prescription. A coalition that includes the pharmaceutical industry lobby, PhRMA, and the nation’s largest union for health care employees, the Service Employees International Union, has committed to spending more than $12 million in television ads that promote the president’s plan.

Insurance companies and other groups that are opposing his plan have pushed back with vigor. Their efforts have gained momentum with help from the president’s conservative critics, who have been an outspoken and at times disruptive force at town-hall meetings held around the country by members of Congress.

Terry Bannon, 58, a general contractor in the audience from Belgrade, said he came to the town hall with doubts about the president’s ability to deliver the kind of health care system he seemed to be promising.

“The words ‘trust me’ and ‘government’ don’t work well together any more,” he said.

In an effort to counter that skepticism, Mr. Obama tried to present himself as someone sympathetic to the views of ordinary Americans who generally frown on the coarse discourse that has become the standard inside the Washington Beltway - a view that seemed to hold plenty of currency in Montana.

“Here in Montana you have bears, moose and elk,” the president smiled as he tried to warm up the crowd. “In Washington, you have mostly bull.”

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