President Obama is scheduled to visit the Portland area on Thursday to talk about health care reform.

The details of the visit, and Obama’s reason for choosing Maine to tout the new law, were unclear Friday. But the White House announcement created instant excitement among city officials and supporters of Obama and the health care law.

“I hope there will be a public speech,” said Jill Duson, a city councilor and former mayor who invited Obama to Portland during a couple of trips she took to the White House as mayor and in near-monthly letters since then. “It’s just a great opportunity. I know that Maine went very strongly for Obama in the election and I know there is strong support for health care reform here.”

The White House announced the visit Friday morning but provided no details except to say that Obama will attend “a health reform event.” He’s also scheduled to be in Boston that day to attend a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

It will be Obama’s first visit to Maine since he was elected president in November 2008. He visited Maine a couple of times before the election, most recently in February 2008.

Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, both Democrats, plan to attend the event but had not received details Friday. Pingree, whose district includes Portland, said her office had been flooded with calls and requests for tickets. She set up a page on her Web site (www.pingree.house.gov) to provide information when it becomes available.

“This reform is historic, it helps small businesses, seniors and average Americans, and the president’s visit is going to highlight those benefits,” Pingree said in a written statement.

Maine’s two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, criticized the law on the Senate floor this week but extended a welcome to Obama in written statements Friday.

“Any time a president visits, we are indeed fortunate,” Snowe said.

“It’s always an honor when a president visits our state, and Sen. Collins welcomes President Obama to Maine,” Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said in an e-mail.

Obama has traveled to other cities to speak about the benefits of health care reform since he signed the bill on Tuesday. The reform package has divided Americans and left many questioning how it will affect their health care, their families and their small businesses.

Obama and Republican leaders clearly foresee health care reform as a big issue in congressional elections this fall, when Democrats hope to defend strong majorities in the House and Senate.

“It certainly plays into the context of what separates me from my opponent,” said Dean Scontras, a Republican from Eliot who is running against Pingree for the 1st District U.S. House seat.

Health care reform is raising key issues for voters, such as deficit spending and the expanding role of government, said Scontras, who nevertheless called the president’s visit an honor for Maine.

Michaud, who declared his support for the law at the last moment, also will face a Republican challenger this fall, Jason Levesque of Auburn.

It doesn’t appear that Obama’s trip is intended to shore up support for Pingree or Michaud, however. Neither one appears to be vulnerable over health care reform, said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine.

“I’m kind of puzzled about why he’s coming to Portland,” Brewer said. “My guess would be the majority of the state is supportive (of the health care reform law). I don’t think the state needs to be won over on this. . . . Maybe he just wants to come to Maine.”

Others suspect that Obama chose Maine because of his strong support here.

“Maine is a place that has embraced health care reform,” said state Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell. “Many of the things that we have pioneered are in this legislation.”

Maine, for example, already prohibits insurance companies from dropping coverage for people who get sick, and the Legislature passed a bill this week banning annual and lifetime limits on insurance benefits. Both provisions are in the new federal law.

Treat was one of the leaders of a group of state legislators from around the country who helped shape the new law and will advise the Obama administration as it implements the policies. She was in Washington for the bill signing Tuesday.

Obama may highlight how Maine stands to benefit financially from a provision in the law.

Maine and 10 other states have already expanded Medicaid benefits to adults who don’t have children, something that other states will have to do and something the federal government will soon subsidize.

According to Michaud, that provision of the new law will provide Maine with an additional $154 million in federal funding from 2014 to 2019.

The way City Councilor Duson sees it, Portland is as inviting a place as any.

“I think that he’s making a concerted effort to kind of spread the good news about the law,” she said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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