PORTLAND — President Obama fired up a boisterous crowd at the Portland Expo on Thursday, calling the nation’s new health care reform law a promise fulfilled that will help Maine’s small businesses and families.

“Last week, after a year of debate and a century of trying, health insurance reform became the law of the land,” Obama said as the crowd cheered and chanted, “Yes-we-did!”

Obama’s first appearance in Maine as president was a rousing campaign-like rally, not unlike his visit to the Expo more than two years ago when he was a candidate promising to fix the nation’s health insurance system.

Obama told the audience how the new law will immediately provide tax credits to small businesses, improve medical benefits for seniors and protect individuals from being cut off by health insurance companies because they get sick or exceed coverage limits.

He also chided critics and pundits for declaring the law a disaster and a failure.

“Every day since I signed the reform into law, there’s another poll or headline that says, ‘Nation Still Divided on Health Reform.’ ‘No Great Surge in Public Support.’

“Well, yeah. It just happened last week,” he said. “Before we find out if people like health care reform, maybe we should wait to see what happens when we actually put it into place.”

He challenged Republicans to make good on threats to campaign against the law in this fall’s elections.

“They’re actually going to run on a platform of repeal in November,” Obama said. “And my attitude is, ‘Go for it.’ I want these members of Congress to come out of Washington, come to Maine and (say), ‘We’re going to take away your tax breaks.’ “

Obama is making a concerted effort to explain the benefits of health care reform in appearances such as Thursday’s, said Moira Mack, a White House spokeswoman.

He left Portland after the roughly 40-minute speech Thursday afternoon to attend a fundraiser in Boston for the Democratic National Committee.

The enthusiastic crowd of more than 2,000 people inside the Expo roared and waved when Obama entered, and later drowned out parts of the speech with applause and cheers.

“I guess when the sun comes out around here, everybody gets pretty psyched,” Obama joked. Some in the audience shouted out “Thank you!” and “We love you!”

“Well, I love you back,” said Obama, who quickly took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

Obama praised Gov. John Baldacci and thanked U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud for their support on the reform law. He also thanked U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican who ultimately voted against the bill.

“This reform incorporates ideas from Democrats and Republicans, including, by the way, a number of ideas from your senator and my friend, Olympia Snowe,” he said. Even the mention of Snowe’s name drew applause.

Obama was introduced by Karen Mills of Brunswick, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Mills said the new law is “going to be good for Maine’s kids, it’s going to be good for Maine’s seniors and it’s going to be really good for Maine’s 35,000 small businesses.”

To highlight the law’s benefit to small businesses, Obama told the audience about Bill Milliken, co-owner of two businesses in Portland, who will be able to provide health insurance to more of his employees because of tax credits in the law.

Starting this year, companies with 25 or fewer employees can apply for credits equaling as much as 35 percent of the cost of health insurance for workers.

“It means employees who work for Bill will have a better chance of keeping their health insurance or getting it. If they already have insurance, it means Bill will have more money to hire another worker,” Obama said.

Obama said his administration will soon send details on how to apply for the tax credit to millions of small businesses across the country. He also said information is now posted at www.whitehouse.gov.

Obama also talked about Theresa D’Andrea of Limerick, whose husband died of cancer recently and left her with $60,000 in medical bills that exceeded the claims limit in their insurance plan. Such limits are banned by the new law.

“Because of this reform, a situation like Theresa’s won’t happen again in the United States of America,” Obama said.

“This reform will not solve every problem with our health care system. It’s not going to bring down the cost of health care overnight. We’ll have to make some adjustments along the way,” he said. “But it represents enormous progress. It enshrines the principle that every American should have the security of decent health care; that nobody should go bankrupt because they get sick or have a child with a pre-existing condition. Small business shouldn’t be burdened because they want to do the right thing by their employees.”

David Clough, Maine director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, watched the speech on the Internet. Obama didn’t mention other ways the law will affect businesses, such as a mandate that companies with more than 50 workers provide affordable insurance to workers or pay penalties starting in 2014.

“He did a good job of making his case, but from the standpoint of a small-business owner, the tax credits are only available to a small subset of businesses” and only for the next six years, Clough said. “It’s very limited. It’s a come-on that will be initially helpful to some, and once it’s gone you’re left with the full premium.”

According to Obama, other reforms in the law will give small businesses more bargaining power and lower insurance costs after 2014. Clough said business owners are less confident that costs will come down.

“In truth, there are certainly pluses and minuses in this law, and lots of question marks,” he said.

Dean Scontras of Eliot, a Republican congressional candidate who hopes to unseat Chellie Pingree in November, criticized Obama for not addressing the overall cost of the law or its impact on the national debt.

“While it’s always an honor for Maine to be visited by a sitting president, I believe that President Obama’s failure to address the costs associated with his health care reform is not in the best interests of Maine and American taxpayers,” Scontras said in a written statement.

In his speech, Obama said the law will reduce the federal deficit “by more than $1 trillion over the next two decades.”

Pingree, who was in the Expo, praised the speech. “I think he did a terrific job,” she said. “He took a complicated issue and broke it up in a way everyone could understand it.”

Roy Peasley, 86, of Rockland had even higher praise for Obama.

Peasley, a World War II veteran, led the Pledge of Allegiance before Obama’s speech. “This is the best day of my life,” he told the crowd.

Afterward, he compared Obama to Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he served as a military guard in 1943.

“(Obama) is probably the best orator we have today, in the world,” Peasley said.

 

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

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