HELENA – Protesters plan to turn out in force when President Barack Obama brings his health care town hall tour to Montana on Friday and puts a conservative suburb of Bozeman at the center of the issue for a day.
Organizers expect as many as 500 people at a rally outside the Gallatin Field Airport hangar in Belgrade where Obama will hold the event.
Patients First said the protest is intended to show leaders the public is not happy with the expensive reform proposals. The group is affiliated with the Americans for Prosperity activists who came together during the “Tea Party” anti-big-government protests.
Obama was expected to focus on a provision of the reform plan that would prevent insurance companies from dropping or limiting insurance coverage for those who become seriously ill.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is a key figure in the issue, as he tries to draft a bipartisan plan. Protesters want to get his attention.
“Montana has become ground zero in the national health care debate,” said Jake Eaton of Patients First. “It will be important to see Montanans come out in force to say no to government health care.”
Advocates for a government-run health care system are hoping to get inside the hangar to ask Obama questions. Some may have a vocal presence outside the aircraft hangar, said Gene Fenderson of the group Montanans for Single Payer.
“We are encouraging people to attend the president’s forum and hopefully have a chance to ask questions,” he said.
Observers said they would be surprised if protesters created big problems.
“Even though we are Montana, and pretty conservative, I would be surprised if there were a huge scene in Belgrade in opposition to the president,” said Craig Wilson, a political scientist at Montana State University-Billings. “Any time a president comes to Montana, it’s a big deal.”
Other groups with a stake in the issue are using the president’s visit to advance their cause without protests.
Service Employees International Union plans to bring in national figures this week to support its campaign in favor of a government health care option.
And a group of doctors called the Coalition to Protect Patient Rights was holding an event each day before the president’s visit. It opposes the government option.
Obama showered Montana with unprecedented attention during the election last year but fell short of becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992 to carry the state.
The president chose to hold his town hall in Belgrade, a conservative suburb of Bozeman in a county he barely carried, instead of playing it safe by visiting a Democratic stronghold like Butte.
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