Amid protests, Obama assails insurance companies

PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire (Reuters) - President Barack Obama assailed insurance companies on Tuesday as he sought to counter an onslaught of conservative opposition to a U.S. healthcare overhaul at a town hall meeting that drew protests outside.

Obama opened his speech by saying Americans are too often “held hostage” by insurance companies that deny or drop their coverage or charge fees they cannot afford.

“I believe it is wrong; it is bankrupting families and businesses and that is why we’re going to pass health insurance reform in 2009,” Obama said.

Outside the event at a New Hampshire high school, about a thousand people gathered on the road leading to the school.

Healthcare overhaul advocates on one side of the street chanted “Yes, we can!” and waved signs saying, “Insurance companies are enemies of change” and “All Americans deserve affordable healthcare.”

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On the other side, opponents held banners saying “Obamacare, down the chute granny” and “Hands off my healthcare.”

The president is trying to grab back the initiative on his $1 trillion-plus healthcare plan from critics who have helped stoke public anger against his top domestic priority.

“Your health insurance should be there when it counts, not just when you’re paying premiums but when you actually get sick, and it will be when we pass this plan,” Obama said to applause among the 2,000 people at the event.

The increasingly bitter debate has dragged down Obama’s once-lofty approval ratings.

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The White House hoped the behavior at Obama’s meeting would be less raucous and more civil than public forums held by some Democratic members of Congress, where some in the crowd screamed and shouted to drown out the speakers.

Obama called on the crowd to allow for a vigorous debate, “but I do hope that we will talk with each other and not over each other.”

Obama’s push for healthcare reform, which seeks to provide coverage to nearly 46 million uninsured Americans, rein in rising medical costs and regulate insurers, has been assailed by Republican critics over its cost and far-reaching scope.

Republicans call it a government takeover of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system that will drive up the deficit and hurt the economy while the United States remains mired in its longest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Jeff Mason; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Simon Denyer and Jackie Frank