In his first visit to Maine since he was elected president a year and a half ago, President Barack Obama on Thursday laid out the immediate effects of the recently passed health care reform bill and brushed off threats from detractors who have called for repeal of the law.

Obama extolled the immediate impact of the bill, emphasizing his message that short-term effects of the health care reform bill will begin immediately. He announced a tax credit for small businesses to offset costs of insuring employees. Also this year, insurance companies will be required to offer preventative care, and younger people will be able to stay on their parents’ insurance plan until they are 26, extending coverage by a year.

“This is the reform that some folks in Washington are still hollering about. And now that it’s passed, they’re already promising to repeal it,” he said. “Well I say go for it,” he said to massive applause.

“Now that this bill is finally law and all the folks who have been playing politics will finally have to confront the reality of what this reform is, they’re also going to have to confront the reality of what it isn’t,” he said. “They’ll have to finally acknowledge that this isn’t a government takeover of our health care system.  They’ll see that if Americans like their doctor, they will keep their doctor.  And if you like your insurance plan, you will keep it.  No one will be able to take that away from you.  It hasn’t happened yet.  It won’t happen in the future.”

Obama confronted what he called “overheated rhetoric” and “fear-mongering” from conservatives who have referred to the health care bill in apocalyptic terms.

Obama joked that after the bill he looked around for the forewarned doom. “I looked up at the sky to see if asteroids were coming.  I looked at the ground to see if cracks had opened up in the earth.  You know what? It turned out it was a pretty nice day,” he said to laughter and applause.

Nearly 2,500 people attended his speech at the Portland Expo on Park Avenue. Tickets for the event went on sale Wednesday, but sold out within an hour.

Hours before the event, more than a thousand people had assembled in a line stretching around the block from the Portland Expo to King Middle School on Deering Avenue, in anticipation of President Obama’s visit to Portland this afternoon.

Police blocked off the street in front of the Expo, and Park Avenue was barricaded from St. John Street to Deering Avenue. At around 1 p.m. there were at least one hundred people protesting Obama and health care legislation.

Hours before the event, several USM students waited in line behind green barriers set up along the sidewalk by the Expo.

Will Douglas, a pre-med student at USM, had set up a laptop on an old wooden chair and was studying for his MCAT exam while he waited. He said he was excited about the March 22 passage of the health care bill, which would allow him to stay on his family’s insurance plan for another year.

“It’s obviously not what a lot of us are looking for,” he said of the plan, which would make it mandatory for US citizens to have health insurance and prohibit insurance companies from denying anyone with a pre-existing medical condition.

Douglas said the bill was “catering to the insurance companies, when they’re such a healthy industry anyway.”

Student senator and student body president-elect Ashley Willems-Phaneuf was among those waiting in line. Her friend gave her an extra ticket to go see the president. “I’m very glad to see students on both sides,” said Willems-Phaneuf, who said she came to support USM students who are involved in politics.

Paula Burrows, senior media studies major, and Jen Tochterman, also a senior media studies major, waited three hours on Wednesday for tickets for the event. “I support Barack Obama. It’s been a long time coming,” said Tochterman. She said she’s glad the health bill extended her insurance coverage for another year.

Michael Hoffmann, senior music major, stood in line with Tochterman and Burrows. They all missed classes to see the president. “I don’t think [the health care bill] works for everyone but it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Student senator-elect Charles Silsby protested the event outside the expo. He said he tried calling as many people as possible when he heard about Obama’s visit.

“It’s a matter of getting the necessary voices,” he said while holding a large flag that read, “don’t tread on me.” Silsby said some people couldn’t make it because of work. “A lot of people who have grievances about it are working folk,” he said.

Silsby said both of his parents had cancer and were treated quicker than they would’ve been if they were in a country with public health care.

“As of yet no one has produced a public option that seems to be pragmatic,” he said.

Silsby also took issue with how the health care bill was passed. “Not a single one of them read it; the president hasn’t read it,” he said. “I think with something so large, they need to play the emotional and moral card less and the logic card more,” he said.

Obama mentioned Bill Milliken, a small business owner in attendance, as someone who will benefit from the tax credit to help insure employees. Milliken is a USM graduate and now owns Maine Beer and Beverage Company and Market House Coffee.

April Thibodeau of Maine Small Business Coalition contacted him earlier in the week and said the White House was looking for small businesses for Obama to mention in his speech.

“It blew me away,” said Milliken of the mention in the speech. “I got the presidential thumbs-up.”

“I’m progressive. I’m into giving my employees health care,” he said. “There’s a lot to do to provide health care. It’s expensive.”

“I’m a small business owner. A couple of hundred dollars more a month will make a huge difference,” said Milliken.

Student Body President Maggie Guzman attended the speech. “It’s really awesome that Obama came to Portland. A lot of Portland citizens supported the health care bill,” she said.

One woman in the crowd yelled, “you lie,” when Obama said the plan will help all Americans. “I was impressed with how he handled the heckler,” said Guzman who stood next to the woman.

Congressman Mike Michuad (D, Maine) told The Free Press the bill would have direct impact on the lives of college students. Young adults can stay on their parents plan until they are 26. Student loans will now come directly from the federal government and they will put the money they save back to financial aid like Pell Grants.

“From a job standpoint, there’s a lot of help here for small businesses,” he said.

In his speech, Obama referred to Governor John Baldacci as “one of the finest governors in the country.”

Baldacci established Dirigo Health – a state-funded program that provides health care to people who can’t afford it – to an effort to control health care costs, improve the quality and care and ensure access to coverage.

Baldacci spoke with reporters and shook hands with supporters before Obama’s speech. “You can’t have a healthy economy if you don’t have healthy people,” he said.

Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of The Maine Heritage Policy Center – a conservative think tank – stood outside the Expo after the speech, protesting.

He said the government needs to “create more choices, not take away choices” for people to have for health care.

“What we need to do is move away from the ram it and jam it approach the president has taken,” said Bragdon.

Henry Hamilton, 65, from Otisfield, graduated from USM in 1972 and supports a public health care system. “I think it’s going to be as historic a law as social security,” he said. “I do think his was preaching to the choir here. And I hope the message reaches beyond here.”


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