Obama finds some friends on Western Slope

By Ellen Miller

GRAND JUNCTION — President Barack Obama brought his push for health care reform deep into Republican territory last weekend, wringing cheers from the enthusiastic crowd at a town hall meeting at Central High School.

He said it was “great to be back’’ (he campaigned here last August) and plugged the local peach crop by saying his wife and two daughters were off picking peaches while he spoke.

“Health insurance reform is a key pillar of rebuilding our economy,’’ Obama told the 1,600 locals who had obtained tickets for the event. “No one in America should go broke because they get sick.’’

As Colorado’s leading Democrats — U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, 3rd Congressional District U.S. Rep. John Salazar and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and Secretary of State Bernie Buescher — watched from the front row, Obama outlined six key components of his plan for health care reform:

• People who like their current insurance plans can keep them.

• They also may choose plans from a national insurance exchange, where a “public option’’ would compete with private insurance companies.

• No more lifetime insurance caps.

• No denial of insurance on grounds of pre-existing conditions.

• No cancellations or rate increases when people get sick.

• Small businesses that insure their employees would get tax credits.

President Barack Obama addresses participants at a town hall in Grand Junction last week.
Photo by Gretel Daugherty

Not everyone in the crowd stood to cheer the president’s plan. Although local Republicans had maintained total control of ticket distribution for last year’s appearances by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, Mesa County Democrats willingly shared the presidential experience with members of the other party.

University of Colorado Regent and former longtime Republican state Sen. Tillie Bishop gave the invocation; Grand Junction’s Republican mayor, Bruce Hill, welcomed Obama at the airport and claimed a prize seat in the high school gym; and Mesa County Republican Vice Chair Duncan McArthur joined other local GOP officials inside.

And one of the six members of the audience chosen to question the president directly was Zach Lahn, a legislative aide to Republican state Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.

Lahn caught Obama’s eye by waving his arms and shouting during the Q&A.

Identifying himself only as a University of Colorado political science student and offering to debate the president “Oxford style,” Lahn asked “how in the world” private insurance companies would be able to compete with a public option.

“I think we can craft a system where you have an entity out there in competition,” Obama said. “UPS and FedEx are doing a lot better than the Postal Service. But it’s a legitimate debate. It’s both the right and the left that are so fixated on this that they aren’t looking at the rest.”

Obama talked at length about the “structural deficit,” noting he had inherited some of the debt, and the recession had deepened it. He attacked earlier congressional sessions that had approved the Iraq War and the Medicare prescription benefit but “didn’t want to pay.”

“If the government cannot bring the costs of Medicare and Medicaid under control,” he said, “we can’t cut our way out of it or tax our way out of it.”

“If you are a fiscal hawk, if you are a deficit hawk, and you are tired of this crazy spending in Washington, and you finally want to make sure we are looking out for the next generation, then, you — more than anybody — should want to reform the health care system.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall was one of the elected officials in G.J.
Photo by Gretel Daugherty

With that remark capping his 90-minute appearance, the president shook hands with people sitting in the front rows center, left and right of the stage and with the select group of local residents who had been honored to sit onstage because each had volunteered more than 300 hours on his campaign last year.

“I thought he was terrific,” Bennet told The Colorado Statesman after Obama left the high school. “He’s not advocating a single-payer (system), and we need to change incentives for better care.”

Udall said he’s focusing on improving care for rural communities and small business owners and that he wants a bill “that meets the needs of everyone in our state.”

John Salazar, who invited Obama to Grand Junction to see the community’s success in keeping Medicare costs below the national average through quality control and physician collaboration, said opposition to reform means it’s “healthy to have a debate, and the president is willing to listen.”

Salazar said calls to his offices throughout CD 3 are “turning” and are now “about 70 percent in favor” of reform.

Colorado Senate Republican Caucus Chair Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, wasn’t in Grand Junction but issued a statement saying Obama “and his allies have been surprised by the growing public outcry over Democratic plans for massive federal intervention into our nation’s health care.”

Residents questioned after the town hall were largely effusive, including Grand Junction attorney and Democrat Harry Griff.

“There’s a value in having universal coverage,” Griff told The Statesman. “Our premiums are higher now because of emergency care. If it costs me a little more in taxes, I’m okay with that.”

A couple who wouldn’t give their names said they were both Republicans and in their 60s.

On leaving the hall, they said they were glad not everyone inside was a Democrat, but they remained opposed to Obama’s plan. “The government shouldn’t be involved,” the man said.