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Dueling town halls for and against Obamacare illustrate the ongoing PR battle

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 19, 2013: More than 600 people packed the auditorium Tuesday night at Maryville University to hear Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones and others lay out, in general, their opposition to Obamacare and their frustration that the federal health insurance law has yet to be killed.

“The effort to defund Obamacare will continue,” Jones said at an event billed as an Obamacare Townhall. It was co-hosted by Americans for Prosperity, a fiscally conservative group, and local radio station 97.1 FM Talk.

But Jones emphasized that Republicans likely will need to take control of the U.S. Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016, to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature piece legislation. The audience was largely – but not entirely – sympathetic.

A few miles away, another Affordable Care Act question-answer session was held staffed by volunteers with Organizing for Action, a pro-Obama group that’s trying to get a positive spin out to the public. Fewer than two dozen people attended.

“We’re talking about the truth about Obamacare,” said team leader Susan Price. “How people can enroll, what the advantages are, and the things they’ve already got through Obamacare” – notably, the provision that allows adult children to stay on their parents’ health-care plan until they’re 26.

Price said the local Organizing for Action group has held several question-answer sessions so far and plans to hold many more over the next few months. Because the group is operating on a tight budget, publicity for their gatherings is largely word of mouth, Price said.

The competing town hall in Maryville was emceed by 97.1 radio host Jamie Allman and had been promoted on the air for weeks. The audience was filled to capacity well before the 7:30 p.m. start time, and dozens of people were turned away. The audience sat in rapt silence throughout most of the presentations.

Financial details of exchanges displayed

Once the town hall was underway, Allman made his criticisms of Obamacare quite clear. But he emphasized to the audience that the event’s aim was to inform, not indoctrinate.

And in fact, one of the panelists – insurance broker Vincent Blair – was complimented by a pro-Obamacare member of the audience for his straight-forward presentation of the facts.

Using a wall-size video screen, Blair laid out how insurance exchanges would work, who will qualify for government subsidies (for a family of four, the income ceiling for a federal subsidy is about $94,000) and who likely will benefit the most.

The upshot is that older Americans with pre-existing conditions or chronic health problems will likely see the largest drops in their insurance premiums. Younger, healthier Americans may pay more.

The actual premiums offered on the exchanges likely won’t be known for Missourians until the enrollment period officially opens on Oct. 1.

But Blair said there are indications that some people who work for small firms may actually obtain cheaper insurance on the exchanges than they could obtain from their employers – a reason some small businesses may opt to drop coverage for their workers.

A key problem, which Blair briefly touched on, is that subsidies have a minimum income level as well as the maximum, because people making less are supposed to qualify for Medicaid. But that won’t be the case in Missouri because the General Assembly so far has opted against expanding the program.

As a result, several hundred thousand low-income residents in Missouri won’t qualify for Medicaid or for the federal insurance subsidies.

Speakers talk of costs and contraceptives

Meanwhile, Dr. Randy Tobler, an obstetrician/gynecologist who’s also a radio host on 97.1, repeated the often-heard assertion of Obamacare critics that expanding access to health insurance will result in a shortage of physicians to treat the larger pool of patients.

During the Q and A, many questioners raised concerns about cost or about their opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that the insurance coverage include free access to contraceptives.

Jones said that the Catholic Church, and some Catholics, have been vocal in their opposition to such coverage. He predicted that lawsuits will continue until the U.S. Supreme Court steps in.

Jones also noted that many of the nation’s largest labor unions are raising concerns about Obamacare, because it appears that some of their members’ insurance benefits won’t qualify for federal subsidies.

Jones predicted that the growing opposition from such powerful groups could help cripple Obamacare’s implementation. But even so, Jones emphasized to the audience that Obamacare will remain in force – in some form – until Republicans make election-year gains.

The pro-Obama arm, Organizing for Action, is banking that Americans will have seen enough positive results from Obamacare by 2014 that the program’s future will be assured.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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