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Dozens of residents from across western Montana came to celebrate the passage of the national health reform bill and acknowledge its bittersweet victory on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn on Tuesday evening.

Most everyone in the crowd was keenly aware that this act of Congress has come too late for their uninsured family members and friends who battled illnesses.

While thrilled to have witnessed this landmark change in American health care, Denalie Bruins took her turn at the microphone to acknowledge the people who will never benefit from the reform.

The longtime Missoula nurse had worked with too many elderly and poor whose lives were shortened because of their lack of accessible, affordable health care.

"I'm speaking for those who aren't with us any longer," Bruins said. "I'm speaking for the disabled.

"I'm speaking for my friend who passed away - my friend who no hospital would take without a sizable down payment," she said. "She spurred me on to carry on the fight for health care."

Looking out at her audience, Bruins spoke with emotion as she recalled the long fight that led up to Sunday's congressional vote and the historic moment on Monday when President Barack Obama signed it into law.

"We have gone through all stages of burn-out, and I have gone to a lot of meetings and rallies likes this, and I was asked to go to D.C. and testify," she said. "There are so many people in this crowd who worked hard and tirelessly to make this happen.

"And I am really, really grateful."

"I am very proud to be an American," said Jennifer Hensley, the Helena-based field director for the grassroots organization Montana Change That Works. "We finally get a great piece of legislation - and it does a lot."

Although she hasn't yet waded through its 2,000-some pages, Hensley said she is thrilled with the law's highlights: It puts an end to denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, it allows for children to stay on their parent's health insurance plan up until they are 26 years old and it puts an end to the practice of lifetime limits on policies.

"This is a night of celebration," Hensley said. "And we did it first by sharing our stories with our neighbors, our state and our country."

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John Lund, a Missoula pastor, praised the historic event and said it was the morally right thing to do.

"Health care is not a Democratic or Republican or liberal issue," Lund said. "It is a human issue and it's about taking care of people."

Cautioning that many details still need be worked out and the work to bring health care to all isn't yet done, Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, applauded what has transpired.

"It's a very good start," Wanzenried said. "We have 50 million Americans without health care ... Now there's 31 million who will have health care who didn't before. That in itself is worth the change."

With a nod to the partisan outrage and frustration the law has sparked, Wanzenried said: "The naysayers are out there and they are vocal. We need to match them by extolling the virtues of this law. Between now and November speak up about what we've done.

"This is a significant accomplishment," he said. "Let's take a moment to reflect and rally the troops to make it better - let's move it forward."

When the speeches were over and words of celebration were shared, the crowd bowed their heads for a moment of silence.

They remembered their loved ones who didn't have health care, who struggled, who died.

It was their suffering and their stories, Hensley said, that caused this week's historic change.

It took the courage of Congress to make the law, she said, but because of the uninsured and their stories, "we start a new day in America with health care reform being the law of the land."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

 

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