President Gets Personal At Forum on Health Care
He Describes the Experiences of His Mother and Grandmother

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When President Obama pitches health-care reform, he usually cites cold, hard numbers to make the case that overhauling the nation's $2.3 trillion system is an economic imperative. But speaking to retirees on Tuesday, Obama took an unusually personal approach, recounting the experiences of his mother and grandmother to argue that "we could just be doing better."

He also said for the first time publicly that he and first lady Michelle Obama have living wills -- as his late grandmother did -- used to guide family members and physicians at the end of life.

"You don't want somebody else making those decisions for you," the president told members of the 50-and-over group AARP. "So I actually think it's a good idea to have a living will. I'd encourage everybody to get one. I have one; Michelle has one. And we hope we don't have to use it for a long time, but I think it's something that is sensible."

Obama confessed to a bit of irritation with the high-stakes political battle that this year has triggered more than $1 million a day in lobbying. "It's so obvious that the [health-care] system we have isn't working well for too many people and that we could just be doing better," he said.

The president has staked much of his first year in office on enactment of landmark health-care legislation. As the effort in Congress has slowed, he has become increasingly involved in selling the initiative to lawmakers and voters. Last week, he spoke every day about health reform, including during a Wednesday prime-time news conference.

But the town-hall-style session at the AARP's Washington headquarters was noteworthy for the human touch Obama applied. Fielding a question about insurance regulation, he spoke of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, at age 52, of ovarian and uterine cancer.

"If you've got a preexisting condition, insurance companies will still have to insure you," he said. "This is something very personal for me. My mother, when she contracted cancer, the insurance companies started suggesting that, well, maybe this was a preexisting condition. Maybe you could have diagnosed it before you actually purchased your insurance.

"Ultimately, they gave in," Obama continued, "but she had to spend weeks fighting with insurance companies while she's in the hospital bed, writing letters back and forth just to get coverage for insurance that she had already paid premiums on. And that happens all across the country. We are going to put a stop to that."

Polls show that senior citizens are more skeptical about health-care reform than any other age group.

One woman asked Obama about "rumors" that under the proposed legislation, every American over age 65 would be visited by a government worker and "told to decide how they wish to die."

First, Obama joked that there aren't enough government workers to undertake such a task. Then he got serious and personal, mentioning that his grandmother, who died shortly before Election Day last year, had a medical directive.

"It gave her some control ahead of time so that she could say, for example, if she had a terminal illness, did she want extraordinary measures even if, for example, her brainwaves were no longer functioning? Or did she want just to be left alone?" he said. "You know, that gives her some decision-making power over the process."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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