PORTLAND — To the thousands of Mainers gathered inside the Portland Expo who endured the yearlong debate leading up to the passage of national health care reform, President Barack Obama was just what the doctor ordered.

“Just seeing the president in person, getting the chance to be part of this, is historic,” said Leah Bartley of Lewiston, a volunteer who helped organize the event. “I’m for health care because I care a lot about small businesses and there are so many people in Maine that just don’t have access to good health care, so I’m happy that some changes are being made.”

In town to tout the recently enacted federal health care reform legislation, Obama used humor and facts to connect people to the policy.

“Leaders of the Republican Party have actually been calling the passage of this bill ‘Armageddon,'” Obama said. “They say it’s the end of freedom as we know it. So after I signed the bill, I looked up to see if there were any asteroids headed our way. I checked to see if any cracks had opened up in the ground. But you know what? It turned out to be a pretty nice day. Birds were chirping. Folks were strolling down the street. Nobody lost their doctor or was forced into some government plan.”

The audience roared with approval.

“What this reform represents is basically a middle-of-the-road solution to our health care problems,” Obama said. “It’s not the single-payer, government-run system that some on the left have supported in the past. And it’s not what many on the right wanted, which was even fewer rules and regulations for insurance companies. Instead, this reform incorporates ideas from Democrats and Republicans, including those of your senator, who I consider a friend, Olympia Snowe, who spent many hours meeting with me about this bill.”

Obama stressed the short- and long-term changes provided by the controversial measure, highlighting impacts on small businesses and senior citizens.

“This year, seniors who fall in the coverage gap known as the doughnut hole will receive $250 to help pay for prescriptions, which will be the first step toward closing that gap completely,” he said. “And I want seniors to know, despite what some have said, these reforms will not cut your guaranteed benefits. What they will do is eliminate co-payments and deductibles for preventive care, like checkups and mammograms.”

Also, beginning in 2010, businesses with fewer than 50 employees that offer health insurance will be eligible for tax credits to help offset their costs, Obama said.

“Then, by 2014, each state will set up a health insurance exchange, a competitive marketplace where uninsured people and small businesses will finally be able to purchase affordable, quality insurance,” he said. “In other words, they’ll be part of a pool, and get the same good deal that members of Congress get for themselves.”

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who was seated on risers with other state lawmakers behind Obama during the speech, said she was pleased that the president focused on selling his policy.

“I know the provisions of it will help my constituents, and so I am glad he was here to help catch people’s attention and to help them understand what’s in the bill so they can not be so fearful and come to understand this is something that will be of help to them,” Rotundo said.

Buffy Morrissette of Poland said she wasn’t surprised that the president chose to come to Maine to promote his plan.

“We’re extraordinarily active in this state,” she said. “We’re small but we’re loud. We have two moderate Republican senators and we have two Democratic representatives, which means that we must have a reasonably interesting demographic in this state, in order to pull that off.”

Nathan Libby of Lewiston said he recognized why some people were upset with the changes in health care, but he believes it’s for the best.

“We’re mandated to have car insurance, renter’s insurance and home insurance,” he said. “I mean, I can understand why people are upset, but this is, I think, a big part of reducing costs, making sure we’re all playing on the same playing field.”

Richard Grandmaison of Lewiston said he was excited to hear the president talk about the health care policy directly.

“I think really, what’s happened since the election of Obama, it’s been a dynamic change for this country,” he said. “All the rhetoric, if we can get past that, I think we can do a lot of good for the people of the country.”

Obama finished his speech by acknowledging that the reforms are not universally celebrated.

“Democracy is a messy business,” he said. “It can be frustrating sometimes, but ultimately, that’s what makes our country so great, because everybody is able to voice their opinions. You’re free to call your president an idiot, you know, that’s a wonderful thing.”

A couple of hundred ticket holders were left disappointed when they were turned away at the door. Organizers told them they had given out more tickets than there was space inside the Expo.

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