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Obama touts health-care reform benefits in crowd-pleasing speech at Portland Expo

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Obama touts health-care reform benefits in crowd-pleasing speech at Portland Expo

PORTLAND — While the crowd outside the Exposition Building expressed mixed opinions about President Barack Obama and his new health-care reform law, inside thousands of spectators were so excited they cheered for the microphone check Thursday afternoon.

President Obama visited the city Thursday to tout provisions in the new law that he said will help seniors, children, small business owners and young adults.

"The future looks stronger and more hopeful than it has in a long time," the president said, speaking before a few thousand people at the Expo. It was Obama's first visit to Maine as president. He was in the state twice during the 2008 election campaign, and appeared at rally at the Expo in September 2007.

In his speech Thursday, Obama criticized foes of the bill and the media for rushing to judge the results of a measure he signed little more than a week ago.

"Maybe we should wait to see what happens when we actually put it into place," Obama said, adding that it will take four years for all reform measures to be enacted.

"If you want to have a fight, I welcome that fight because I don't think the American people are going to put the insurance companies back in the driver's seat," he said.

Highlights of the reform law that are scheduled to go into effect this year include mandating access to health care for adults and children with pre-existing conditions, eliminating lifetime and annual maximums, free preventative care for new policies and coverage for children up to the age of 26 under their parents' health plans.

Small businesses will also be able to get a tax break that will return more than a third of what they pay for health insurance for employees.

The president singled out Portland business owner Bill Milliken as an example of a small business owner who could be helped by the reform law. Obama said Milliken, who owns Maine Beer & Beverage Co., wants to give part-time employees health insurance and more hours, but cannot afford to do both. He said the tax credit will make it easier for him to realize those goals.

In the lobby of the Expo afterwards, Milliken's mother, Anne Marie Milliken, said she thought the president's speech was "wonderful." She said that although she receives Medicaid, she supports the health-care reform law because of others it will help.

"I care about the younger people it will affect and the (currently) uninsured," said Milliken, who lives in Portland.

Gail Kendrick traveled to the Expo with a group of friends, including fellow Topsham residents Lovye Oesterlin and Joanie Gogerty. All three said they support the reform.

Kendrick said she found the speech motivational and inspiring.

"There is always the ability to tweak it in the future," Gogerty added.

Oesterlin, who had the chance after Obama's speech to get close enough to the president to touch him, said it is important to support young people with the student loan changes he signed into law March 30 – another topic mentioned by the president.

The new law will put $68 million over the next decade directly into student aid instead of having it go to banks first. It will also cap repayment of student loans at 10 percent of a person's income.

"These people are graduating with $60,000 in loans and such," Oesterlin said.

Under the health-care reform law, in 2011 additional provisions will be made for certain Medicaid patients to pay for pharmaceuticals.

In 2014, the part of the law takes effect that requires people to either have health insurance or pay a penalty of $750 or 2 percent of their income (whichever is greater.) Starting in 2014, no one can be denied insurance for pre-existing conditions.

Beginning in 2018, insurance plans cannot charge co-pays or deductables for preventative care.

The president left the Expo shortly after 4 p.m., with a lively crowd still gathered along Park Avenue. Some people were protesting, while others stood on front porches and lawns to catch a glimpse of the president, who waved as his motorcade sped by, heading back to the Portland International Jetport.

He was scheduled to fly to Boston Thursday evening for a Democratic fundraiser, but made a surprise stop first in Framingham, Mass., to be briefed about damage from flooding caused by this week's record-breaking rains.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net

Photo: Rich Obrey

President Obama waves to onlookers as his limousine leaves the Portland Expo on Thursday, April 1.