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Sandy • As criticism mounts over the Republican plan to replace Obamacare, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price made a quick stop in a Salt Lake City suburb Monday to decry the pitfalls of the current health care system and to defend President Donald Trump as someone determined to get "something positive done."

The invitation-only event kicked off Price's brief listening tour this week to two conservative states — Utah and Texas — intended to highlight the struggles of small-business owners.

His two-hour visit Monday was held at Colonial Flag, a small store and warehouse nestled at the edge of Interstate 15, that provided an unflinchingly patriotic backdrop for the secretary's remarks.

Inside, the state flag hung below a 9-foot-wide American flag. During the roundtable discussion, water bottles rested on coasters with stars and stripes. Paintings of the nation's founders sat on easels. And pinwheels, stickers and doormats for sale all oozed red, white and blue.

The shop's owner, Paul Swenson, organized the town hall and handpicked the exclusive audience: about 10 Colonial Flag employees, 12 business representatives (including from the Larry H. Miller Group and Merit Medical), some of the state's top GOP leaders and a handful of friends and family. The sympathetic crowd calmly asked Price a total of six questions ranging from opioid addiction to insurance costs to "disharmony and disconnect" in Congress.

When he answered, the attendees approved.

"You don't want a system that works best for Florida," he said. "You want a system that works best for Utah."

Price, a longtime critic of former President Barack Obama's landmark Affordable Care Act, led opposition to the measure when he was a Republican congressman representing Georgia. In a 2009 debate, Price called Obamacare "stifling and oppressive."

The orthopedic surgeon, who was confirmed to Trump's Cabinet in early February, continued those criticisms Monday, saying health insurance premiums and deductibles have risen under the 2010 law, pricing residents out of getting the care they need. He also lauded the Senate's pending bill to revise the system.

"We want access to every single American for the coverage they want," Price said, slightly echoing Trump's calls for "insurance for everybody."

Still, about 15 to 20 protesters picketed outside of the event. Some tried to walk into the lobby but were escorted out by police. "How much was a seat at the table?" one man yelled as attendees walked out to their cars. "This was not a town hall," screamed another.

Ryan Jensen, a West Jordan resident, carried a poster that said "this bill is worse than Mondays." The mental-health advocate fears Price is "only listening to one side of the story."

"This bill is a wet piece of paper. We're going to be paying the same amount or more for less coverage," Jensen said. "It comes down to pocketbooks."

The Senate legislation largely mirrors the House bill passed in early May with slashes to Medicaid and Planned Parenthood funding. In the most recent iteration, about 22 million more Americans would be uninsured by 2026 than if Obamacare were to stay intact, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis.

Conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah has joined four other GOP senators in opposing the bill, likely dooming the long-anticipated measure. Trump has been frustrated by that discord, Price said, because the president wants "to move the nation in a better direction."

Lee, though, has said he would vote "yes" only if an amendment were added to allow states and individuals to opt out of the federal plan and experiment with different forms of insurance and coverage. Price's comments seemed to suggest some possible flexibility along those lines, though the current draft bill does not include that provision.

Meanwhile, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a key player in modifying the health care legislation, has praised the GOP plan, calling it "an important step" to replace Obamacare.

During his address Monday, Price commended the state's all-Republican delegation, calling out Hatch several times for his work on the bill and for being "an incredible leader" and a "dear friend."

Price said the health care stories in Utah "reflect what's happening across the nation." Thirteen counties in the state, he noted, have just one insurance provider. While that number is accurate, the residents in those areas account for just 4.9 percent of the state's population, according to the Utah Health Policy Project, a nonprofit that helps residents enroll in coverage. And eight counties gained an insurer this year as companies have expanded.

The health secretary also wrote in a recently published op-ed in the Deseret News that premiums in Utah have jumped about $1,900 since 2013. Provisions of Obamacare, including for individuals with pre-existing conditions, were still rolling out that year, so it's "not comparable" to 2017, said Utah Health Policy Project's spokesman Jason Stevenson.

"It's not only cherry-picking data," he said, "but it's ignoring obvious differences."

Regardless of the numbers, Todd Steinicke, who owns a small insurance company in Salt Lake County, fears Obamacare is "slowly collapsing." He was invited to the Price town hall because Colonial Flag is one of his clients.

"It's nice to have lawmakers mingle with actual citizens."

Twitter: @CourtneyLTanner