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Obama confronts skeptics on healthcare, pledges action (MS)

ANNANDALE, Va. – President Obama, pledging to overhaul healthcare this year despite divisions in Congress and the public, took on his skeptics directly yesterday, seeking to assure patients that their costs would not increase and that they would not be victims of a “government takeover.’’

“There’s no doubt that we have to preserve what’s best in the healthcare system,’’ such as allowing Americans to choose their own doctors, but “we also have to fix what’s broken in the healthcare system,’’ Obama told a pre-selected audience of about 200 at Northern Virginia Community College.

While some critics have complained about the high cost of healthcare overhaul – more than $1 trillion over the next decade, according to some congressional estimates – “the costs of inaction, of not doing anything, are even greater. They’re unacceptable,’’ Obama said.

A cancer patient from Appalachia, Va., added an emotional plea to Obama’s policy defense. Unable to work because of her kidney cancer and ineligible for Medicaid or other government health benefits, Debby Smith told the president, she had no way of paying for treatments.

“I get food stamps, but that’s it. And I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to make it in nine years until I’m qualified to get my regular Social Security – now that I have a new tumor and I have nowhere to turn,’’ the 53-year-old Smith, told the president, weeping softly. Obama hugged her and said his office would see what it could do to help her. “I don’t want you to feel alone,’’ he told her.

Smith said after the town hall meeting that she had been invited to attend the session by the White House. But while the former accountant said she was working for Organizing for America – a pro-Obama group pushing healthcare overhaul – she had been advised she would probably not have the chance to ask a question.

“He seemed concerned,’’ Smith said of Obama. But she said she wasn’t sure what she would do to get the care she needs for her renal cell cancer.

The exchange with Smith was vividly reminiscent of many encounters then-candidate Bill Clinton had in 1992 on the campaign trail, when scores of patients told sad stories of being denied coverage or treatment for illnesses, despite having been once employed and insured. The Clinton healthcare plan was soundly rejected by Congress, in part because of a well-organized campaign by medical providers and businesses to convince Americans that they would be bound by “socialized’’ medicine.

But Obama insisted yesterday the situation had become so dire that the country could accomplish some kind of overhaul of the way Americans receive and pay for healthcare – and noted that this time, insurers and doctors are participating in the talks.

However, he pointedly urged the public to help him in the fight as Congress resumes drafting health legislation next week. “You are what are going to drive this process forward – because if Congress thinks that the American people don’t want to see change, frankly, the lobbyists and the special interests will end up winning the day,’’ he said.

Yesterday’s town hall meeting – which included participants who asked questions via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as in person – is part of a public relations blitz to keep pressure on Congress to send him a bill this year.

Obama addressed public worries head on: Why no single-payer system, one Internet questioner asked. It might work elsewhere, but so many Americans have become so used to receiving health insurance through their employers, it’s too dramatic a change, Obama explained.

And what about taxing healthcare benefits, a “Twitter’’ chatter wondered. Obama said he does not want to raise people’s health costs, so he instead wants to raise cash by limiting the amount of tax deductions very wealthy people can take on the income taxes.

Still, both Congress and the electorate are showing signs of nervousness at the first major effort in 16 years to revamp healthcare: Some key senators are withholding support for the Obama-backed “public option,’’ which would allow Americans to buy government-offered insurance, and citizens are also worried about potential costs, according to a recent poll.

Just a bare majority – 51 percent – support Obama’s healthcare plans, compared with 45 percent who oppose them, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released yesterday. Further, 54 percent of Americans think their healthcare costs would go up, while just 17 percent said their healthcare financial burden would decrease, according to the poll – numbers clearly frustrating to a president eager to convince the public that they would be better off, fiscally and physically, if the healthcare system is reformed.

“The scare tactics of those who would oppose reform don’t work,’’ Obama told his audience, dismissing warnings of a government takeover.

“I don’t want to take over healthcare. They’ll tell you we want to ration the system,’’ Obama added. But if a doctor and patient agree on using a cheaper pill, “that’s not rationing. That’s common sense.’’