In Town Meeting at New Hampshire School, President Faces Friendly Audience in the Hall as Protesters Chant on Streets Outside
President Barack Obama, confronting protests out on the street and serious questions about his health plan inside a high school, slammed talk of euthanasia "death panels" and Medicare cuts, urging supporters to confront the opposition that has forced him onto his political heels.
At his first town-hall meeting since opponents began roiling such gatherings, the president was faced with respectful questions and real concerns head-on. Questioners worried that a government-sponsored option would overwhelm the private-health-care market, and one participant said he was pushed off his name-brand high-cholesterol medication by Medicaid officials. "I'm dealing with the same thing that you're telling me the insurance companies are doing," said Bill Anderson of New Hampshire.
The town-hall meeting here was the first of three this week, as the president tried to regain his political footing. It also featured the largest protests of the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama has acknowledged for weeks that passing a plan to rein in health-care spending, cover most of the 46 million uninsured Americans and mend the holes in the private insurance market would be difficult.
"History is clear. Every time we come close to passing health-insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they've got. They use their influence. They use their political allies to scare and mislead the American people. They start running ads. This is what they always do," Mr. Obama said. "We can't let them do it again. Not this time. Not now."
Inside Portsmouth High School, Mr. Obama faced a friendly crowd, so much so that he sought out some tough questioners. Participants had signed up online for the event and then were picked in a lottery.
Outside, the gathering verged on a street brawl. The opposing forces lined up like screaming armies on either side of the street, about 1,000 people a side. Diane Campbell of Kingston, N.H., held a sign with Mr. Obama's face superimposed on a Nazi storm trooper, a sign, she said, that was made by her chronically ill mother.
Her mother's hereditary autoimmune disease is treated with expensive transfusions of gamma globulin, paid for by Medicare. Her sister, Louise, was born with no arms and one leg, and is also covered by Medicare, the government-run, health-insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
"Adolf Hitler was for exterminating the weak, not just the Jews and stuff, and socialism -- that's what's going to happen."
The two sides swapped taunts and chants, with the pro-Obama forces, especially union members, giving as much as they took.
David Matayabas, of Waltham, Mass., said the Communications Workers of America leadership had rallied members to come out in force.
"I think they're ill-informed, they're not very smart, and they're regurgitating talking points from Rush Limbaugh," said Mr. Matayabas, who was recently laid off from Athena Health Care in Watertown, Mass., where he worked claims. At one point, he said, he worked on the board trying to figure out how to deny claims. Now he pays $900 a month to keep his coverage through Cobra, the U.S. plan that lets workers who lose health benefits continue to receive them for a limited time.
New Hampshire State Rep. Steve Lindsey, a Democrat, stood on the pro-Obama side taking in the scene. Over the din, he noted that the clamor was remaining peaceful, "typical New Hampshire," he said, bemused.
"It's a chance for people to emote. I don't think people are listening to each other," he said.
Inside, the president tried to defuse such anger by going after the fuel that has supplied it: the sense among the vast majority of Americans -- those with health insurance -- that his plan has nothing for them.
For them, Mr. Obama tried to emphasize one issue, a prohibition in the legislation on insurance companies denying coverage to Americans with pre-existing medical conditions. He was introduced by Lori Hitchcock, a 52-year-old single mother who has been unable to purchase health insurance since she was diagnosed in 2003 with the Hepatitis C virus, which can give rise to the same disease that took the life of her husband.
"I am the face of the uninsured. I am uninsurable. I have a pre-existing condition," an emotional Ms. Hitchcock said.
The questions were pointed, and by design. Mr. Obama acknowledged that if he only got softballs, he would be accused of stacking the gathering with plants. Jackie Millet of Wells, Maine, worried that Mr. Obama's talk of increasing the efficiency of Medicare would cut her benefits. Justin Higgins, a student from Stratham, N.H., wondered how the president would cover the cost of his plan without raising taxes on the middle class.
Linda Arsenault, a teacher from Portsmouth, questioned how health-care providers already straining to cover their patient load would handle the 38 million uninsured that the president hopes to get covered.
Another questioner, Republican Ben Hershenson of Algonquin, Maine, said creating a public option like Medicare would break the private insurance market. "Who can compete with the government? The answer is nobody," he said.
Mr. Obama's answer evoked the public-private competition in the mail business. "UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right?" the president said. "It's the Post Office that's always having problems."