As he continued his campaign-style push to transform the nation's health insurance system, President Obama on Saturday promised families being shoved to the brink by medical bills that the legislation would create a "common-sense set of consumer protections" for Americans with health insurance.
But the president's efforts to convince average consumers that they stand to benefit from such measures as an annual cap on out-of-pocket costs continued to be overshadowed by the controversy over a proposed government-sponsored healthcare plan, which would be one of a number of options in a new, regulated insurance marketplace.
During an otherwise placid town hall meeting here with 1,600 people packing a high school gymnasium, one University of Colorado student challenged Obama to an "Oxford-style debate" over the so-called public option.
"How in the world can a private corporation providing insurance compete with an entity that does not have to worry about making a profit, does not have to pay local property taxes," or face local regulations? Zach Lahn asked Obama. "How can a company compete with that?"
Obama -- who ribbed Lahn, 23, for his "chutzpah" in offering to take on the president in "all-out" debate -- replied that he still believes the administration and Congress can craft a public option that would not be subsidized by taxpayers.
"I think there are ways we can address those competitive issues," Obama told Lahn, "and you're absolutely right, if they're not entirely addressed, then that raises a set of legitimate problems."
But, he added, "the notion that somehow just by having a public option you have the entire private marketplace destroyed is just not borne out by the facts."
The president also expressed frustration about the emphasis on the government-sponsored option and left open the possibility that it would not be part of a final bill.
"The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of healthcare reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it," Obama said. "And by the way, it's both the right and the left that have become so fixated on this that they forget everything else."
Lahn, who described himself on his Twitter account as a "determined Christian conservative," said after the event that Obama had not given him a real answer.
"I was looking for the truth -- the truth of this answer is a private company cannot compete with someone who prints their own money," Lahn said after the gathering. "We have a Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security that's bankrupt in our country, and now we're supposed to put more faith in the federal government -- if you can't ride a bike, don't hop on a motorcycle."
A number of other Grand Junction audience members also said in interviews that the government-sponsored option was among their chief concerns. Jeb Brost, 31, an addictions counselor, said he believed the option would "really dissolve private healthcare."
"I think the biggest problem is [Obama] can't guarantee what's going to happen with this 10 years down the road," Brost said.
With his appearance in Grand Junction -- a city of 45,000 that has been cited as a national model in containing healthcare costs -- the president ventured into less friendly territory than some of his previous town halls. Obama carried Colorado in the November election, but Republican Sen. John McCain beat him here in Mesa County, 64% to 34%.
Still, the questions posed to the president were respectful, and his explanations occasionally drew standing ovations. One audience member urged Obama to elaborate on the "misinformation" in the healthcare debate and how it is "dividing the country."
That led the president to criticize Republicans who have inaccurately suggested that a provision in some versions of the legislation, which would allow Medicare to compensate doctors who counsel patients about living wills and other end-of-life decisions, would amount to "death panels."
"I know what it's like to watch somebody you love, who's aging, deteriorate, and have to struggle with that," Obama said, alluding to his grandmother, who died in November. "So the notion that somehow I ran for public office, or members of Congress are in this so that they can go around pulling the plug on Grandma? I mean, when you start making arguments like that, that's simply dishonest, especially when I hear the arguments coming from members of Congress in the other party who, turns out, sponsored similar provisions."
Obama's swing through Western states this weekend has not been all business. He spent the morning with his wife and daughters touring Black Sand Basin at Yellowstone National Park, stopping for lunch at a lodge near Old Faithful. The family viewed the eruption of Old Faithful, a sight the president told his Grand Junction audience that he last saw when he was 11.
"It's still going strong," he reported.