Obama Faces Skeptical Crowds At Town Halls

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So far, President Obama's health care town halls haven't been marked by the intense anger and outrage that many members of congress have seen. But at an airplane hanger at a small airport in Montana, Obama did hear, first-hand, some of the worries many have about proposed health care changes. NPR's Don Gonyea reports on the latest town hall confrontation.

DAVID GREENE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene in for Scott Simon.

President Obama took his case for an overhaul of the nation's health care system to an audience of both supporters and skeptics in Montana yesterday. He'll do the same in Colorado later on today. It's part of a Western weekend swing the president hopes will bolster support for the changes he wants Congress to enact.

The event yesterday was in Belgrade, Montana - that's not far from Bozeman -and NPR's Don Gonyea was there.

DON GONYEA: So far, President Obama's health care town halls have not been marked by the intense anger and outrage that many members of Congress have seen. But at an airplane hangar at a small airport in Montana, Mr. Obama did hear firsthand some of the worries many have about proposed health care changes. The locals were friendly, but they had questions.

Several asked about Medicaid and Medicare - would those programs continue as they are now? The first questioner was Sarah Landry from Bozeman, who spoke of her worries about continued coverage for her son.

Ms. SARAH LANDRY: He suffers from autism, he's non-verbal. He suffers from extremely hard-to-control epilepsy. and he's Type 1 diabetic. He has been sick with these ailments ever since he was nine months old.

GONYEA: To this and other related questions, the president promised that those who currently qualify for Medicaid will continue to qualify. On Medicare, the president said, there are cost savings to be found but only through cutting waste. Among the skeptics in the crowd was this man who spoke up about halfway into this 75-minute-long event.

Mr. RANDY RATHY(ph): My name is Randy Rathy. I'm from Eagle Acka(ph), Montana. And as you can see I'm a proud NRA member.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RATHY: I believe in our Constitution.

GONYEA: Rathy continued that he doesn't believe it when the president says the vast majority of the price of reform will come through cost savings.

Mr. RATHY: That's all we get is bull. You can't tell us how you're going to pay for this. You're saving here, you're saving over there, you're going to take a little money here, you're going to take a little money there, but you have no money. The only way you're going to get that money is to raise our taxes. You said you wouldn't.

GONYEA: The president said he stands by his campaign promise not to raise taxes on people making less than $250,000 a year. But he did say people making more than that, including himself, can afford to pay more. He then added…

President BARACK OBAMA: Randy, I appreciate your question, the respectful way you asked it. And by the way, I believe in the Constitution too, so thank you very much, appreciate it.

GONYEA: One thing the president continued to do yesterday in Montana was to focus on problems he has with insurance companies.

Pres. OBAMA: We are held hostage at any given moment by health insurance companies that deny coverage or drop coverage or charge fees that people can't afford at a time when they desperately need care.

GONYEA: It's a way to reframe the debate over health care reform but it doesn't sit well with Helena, Montana resident Mark Montgomery, who said he makes his living selling health insurance.

Mr. MARK MONTGOMERY (Health Insurance Salesman): Why is it that you've changed your strategy from talking about health care reform to health insurance reform and decided to vilify the insurance companies?

Pres. OBAMA: Okay. That's a fair question, that's a fair question. First of all, you are absolutely right that the insurance companies in some cases have been constructive.

GONYEA: But he also said some have lobbied and spent money trying to derail reforms. The White House says yesterday's event was a constructive give and take, a chance for the president to address concerns people have and misinformation they've been given. This morning, the president is relaxing with his family at nearby Yellowstone National Park, then it's another town hall with a potentially tough audience in the western Colorado town of Grand Junction.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, in Big Sky, Montana.

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