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Obama Takes Health Care Message to Mont., Colo.

BY Larisa Epatko  August 14, 2009 at 4:55 PM EDT

President Obama at a past health care town hall meeting in New Hampshire; AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama made his latest pitch to the public on health care reform at a Friday town hall meeting in Montana as he seeks to overcome opposition to the $1 trillion overhaul plan.

He downplayed the importance of protests at recent town hall meetings with lawmakers around the country.

“TV loves a ruckus,” Mr. Obama said. “What you haven’t seen on TV … are the many constructive meetings going on around the country. People are coming together and having a civil, honest and often difficult conversation about how to improve the system.”

The meeting was one of three around the country this week at which the president is emphasizing insurance company practices he is aiming to change. In New Hampshire on Tuesday, he discussed the practice of denying coverage because of pre-exising conditions.

In Montana, he talked about insurance companies dropping coverage for people who have been diagnosed with an illness.

“We are held hostage at any given moment by health insurance companies that deny coverage or drop coverage or charge fees that people can’t afford,” Obama told a crowd of more than 1,000 people.

Here is President Obama’s speech and his answers to audience questions:

The town hall meetings this week come as poll numbers show people are concerned about the U.S. budget deficit, and Republicans contend that the health plan would be an expensive mistake, especially during a recession.

Even some health care supporters have faulted the president for relying too heavily on others to make his case, and blamed the White House for letting health care opponents dominate the discussion. Some past town hall meetings have turned into yelling matches among protesters.

“It’s OK if the fringes believe certain things, but you don’t want their ideas creeping into the mainstream,” said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution in Washington, Reuters reported.

But the administration says Mr. Obama’s efforts are paying off and winning converts and blasts opponents for using scare tactics, such as saying reform would create “death panels” to decide whether the elderly would receive treatment, according to Reuters.

“I do believe that the president feels strongly that when he makes his case, it helps the case for overall health care reform,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Congress plans to return Sept. 8 from a month-long recess to resume work on health care, tackling three overhaul bills — two in the Senate and one in the House — that seek to make major changes to insurance industry rules, expand coverage to an estimated 46 million uninsured, and hold down costs.

Senate Finance Committee leaders say they will continue to work during the August break, but no formal action will be taken until September.

Committee Democratic Chairman Max Baucus and senior Republican Charles Grassley have said a group of six committee leaders is near agreement on a bipartisan bill, reported Reuters. The way to pay for the nearly $1 trillion 10-year plan is one of the final outstanding issues.

House leaders, meanwhile, have said they want to bring their health overhaul bill to a vote in September.