Obama Takes On Health Care Critics

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President Obama took his health care campaign to Portsmouth, N.H., where hundreds of supporters and opponents lined up to hear him and demonstrate.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

Today, President Obama held his first town hall meeting about health care, since town hall meetings have become the focus of loud anger and disruptions from opponents. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, most of the shouting took place outside the event.

BLOCK: Inside a packed high school gymnasium, President Obama spoke to a largely supportive crowd. We have reports from inside and outside. First, to the gymnasium and NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: President Obama was still hours away from arriving in Portsmouth, but the crowd outside was already at a fever pitch.

(Soundbite of protest)

GONYEA: On one sidewalk were opponents of the president's call for reforms.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified People: Just say no. Just say no.

GONYEA: On the other side of the street, just as much noise.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified People: …before it's too late. People die while we wait.

GONYEA: When the town hall got underway inside the gym, a chaplain's prayer included a plea for civility. But if there were any doubts about what kind of crowd the president would face, they were erased by the thunderous standing ovation he received once he got indoors.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: The president again made the case that without change to health care, premiums will continue to skyrocket, making coverage unaffordable for more and more Americans, while bankrupting families and businesses. He said there's too much misinformation out there about what he wants to accomplish. He stressed that people satisfied with their current plans can keep them. He said he doesn't want a government takeover of health care. And he addressed something being spread by his strongest critics - that a government panel will make life and death decisions for the elderly.

President BARACK OBAMA: The rumor that's being circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for death panels that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we've decided that we don't - it's too expensive to let her live anymore.

GONYEA: The president said emphatically, there is no such proposal. The questioners asked for details of what the president wants, until finally Mr. Obama had to ask for a more hostile question.

Pres. OBAMA: Because I don't want people thinking I just have a bunch of plants in here.

GONYEA: A few hands went up, the president called on two, but neither voiced the kind of anger that has marked town halls hosted by members of Congress over the past two weeks. Linda Arsenal(ph) of Portsmouth asked how this system can handle tens of millions of newly insured people.

Ms. LINDA ARSENAL: My concern is for where are we going to get the doctors and nurses to cover these?

Pres. OBAMA: The makeup of the medical profession right now, we have constant nurses shortages, and we have severe shortages of primary care physicians.

GONYEA: If anyone expected overt anger toward the president at this event, it didn't happen. The White House says the crowd was not rigged, that people got tickets by sending a request to a White House Web site and that the president will continue to address questions people bring to town hall meetings scheduled in Montana and Colorado this Friday and Saturday.

Don Gonyea, NPR News in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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