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Originally published August 15, 2009 at 12:08 AM | Page modified August 15, 2009 at 4:58 PM

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Obama criticizes health insurers

President Obama on Friday accused some insurance companies of trying to undermine his plans for overhauling health care by "funding in opposition," a comment that could inflame tensions at a time Obama is hoping to keep insurers at the negotiating table.

The New York Times

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Politifact: Learn the facts and fibs about the health-care debate: www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2009/aug/13/health-care-reform-simple-explanation

Related developments

Armey leaves: Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey is leaving his job as a consultant for the DLA Piper law firm amid questions about his role in rallying opposition to President Obama's drive to remake the U.S. health-care system. Armey, 69, a Texas Republican, said he was leaving the firm in part because it was being unfairly "attacked" for his connection to FreedomWorks. Armey founded that group, which says its mission is "training" opponents of a health-care overhaul to attend congressional town-hall meetings. Armey served in the House from 1985 to 2003.

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BELGRADE, Mont. — President Obama on Friday accused some insurance companies of trying to undermine his plans for overhauling health care by "funding in opposition," a comment that could inflame tensions at a time Obama is hoping to keep insurers at the negotiating table.

The president, who did not mention any companies by name, made the comment during a question-and-answer session at a town-hall-style meeting in Belgrade, about eight miles northwest of Bozeman.

He was responding to an insurance salesman who challenged him about why his administration had decided to "vilify the insurance companies" by shifting strategy from talking about reshaping health care to emphasizing changes in health insurance.

"OK, that's a fair question," the president told the salesman, Marc Montgomery, of Helena. He went on to say that some companies have "been constructive," citing Aetna, whose chief executive, Ronald Williams, is a major Obama supporter. But Obama then criticized other companies, though not by name.

"Now, I want to just be honest with you, and I think Max will testify," the president said, referring to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who is spearheading the legislation in the Senate. "In some cases what we've seen is also funding in opposition by some other insurance companies to any kind of reform proposals."

The exchange illustrated the delicate line Obama is walking in taking on the insurers.

As town-hall meetings held by members of Congress have grown raucous, many Democrats have accused insurers — who oppose Obama's call for a government-sponsored plan — of sending protesters to the events.

The industry has denied engaging in such tactics. A spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, said Friday that his organization is "putting our resources behind advancing comprehensive-health reform."

Obama earlier told the crowd that Americans with insurance "are held hostage" by the risk of losing coverage when they "get sick and need it the most. ... Right now we've got a health-care system that all too often works better for the insurance companies than it does for the American people. We want to change that."

His remarks in Montana included a campaign-style plea for people to knock on doors and help him clear up misconceptions about health-care legislation.

The "ruckus" being portrayed on the cable networks, the president said, is not representative of the constructive conversations taking place around the country about how to improve the quality of patient care and reduce costs.

"Every time we are in sight of health-insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they've got," Obama told the crowd. "They run their ads. They use their political allies to scare the American people. Well, we cannot let them do it again."

The exchange between Obama and the salesman was not nearly so fiery as those that have erupted during lawmakers' events. But it was one of two pointed clashes — the other came when a man in a National Rifle Association (NRA) jacket accused the president of planning to raise taxes to pay for the overhaul — that occurred during the session, where participants otherwise seemed overwhelmingly supportive of the president.

The trip to Belgrade, the first stop in a four-state Western swing, mixes business with pleasure. Obama's wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, are along for planned excursions to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Obama is scheduled to conduct another health-care town-hall meeting today, in Grand Junction, Colo.

In a sense, the president came to Montana, a state he narrowly lost in the 2008 election, looking for pointed questions.

At a time critics are making unsubstantiated claims that his plan would create government "death panels" to "pull the plug on Grandma," Obama is trying to push back by convincing ordinary Americans that overhauling the system will improve their care by ending such industry practices as denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

White House officials said 1,300 people attended the event, held in an airplane hangar. Roughly 70 percent of the tickets were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, officials said, with the remaining 30 percent going to elected officials and community leaders.

The salesman, Montgomery, said he stood in line all night waiting for tickets. He complained afterward that the president had delivered a "classic political answer" to his question.

Another who waited all night for a ticket was the NRA member, Randy Rathie, a welder from the town of Ekalaka, who said he drove several hundred miles to the event and slept in his truck.

"Max Baucus, our senator, has been locked up in a dark room there for months now trying to come up with some money to pay for these programs, and we keep getting the bull," Rathie told the president.

He went on: "You have no money. The only way you're going to get that money is to raise our taxes."

Obama replied that he would keep his pledge not to raise taxes on families earning $250,000 or less, but Rathie said afterward that he was dissatisfied with the answer, adding, "He won't tell Americans where the real money comes from."

While the crowd inside the hangar was polite, demonstrators chanted across the street from the airport, both in favor of and in opposition to a health-care overhaul.

"The Rush Limbaugh Show" blared from a nearby sound truck.

Amid the din, a woman stood with a sign that said, "Please be civil."

Material from Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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