By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009
President Obama is embarking on a final public relations push on health care Friday before heading off on vacation, wading into the same kind of often hostile town hall meetings that members of Congress have endured for much of August.
Obama heads to Montana on Friday and Colorado on Saturday for town hall meetings even as his allies are stepping up their efforts to rebut what they describe as "myths" about health-care reform. Obama supporters are being urged to turn out for the president to counter what they anticipate could be the kind of vocal criticism that has recently dominated headlines and cable news.
Facing questions about whether public support for the health overhaul initiative is sagging, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the problem was rooted in misconceptions spread by political opponents.
"Have some of those misconceptions contributed to the poll numbers? I don't doubt that," Gibbs said. "But at the same time, I mean, there's a little cause and effect here, but we're not going to stop pushing back on the misconceptions, whether or not the polling shows one thing or another. The president, again, strongly believes that, and has for years, that it's better to address what people's concerns are and take them on head-on."
One of the most inflammatory charges has been that Obama and Democrats were seeking to implement "death panels," with bureaucrats making decisions about whether elderly or seriously ill patients live or die. The allegation stems in part from a provision in a bill passed by three House committees that would provide Medicare reimbursement to patients seeking end-of-life counseling. On Thursday, lawmakers working on the Senate version said that provision had been dropped from their proposal.
"The bill passed by the House committees is so poorly cobbled together that it will have all kinds of unintended consequences," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. "On the end-of-life issue, there's a big difference between a simple educational campaign, as some advocates want, and the way the House committee-passed bill pays physicians to advise patients about end-of-life care and rates physician quality of care based on the creation of and adherence to orders for end-of-life care, while at the same time creating a government-run program that is likely to lead to the rationing of care for everyone. . . .
"We dropped end-of-life provisions from consideration entirely because of the way they could be misinterpreted and implemented incorrectly."
In an e-mail to supporters posted on the White House Web site Thursday morning, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, said critics of the administration's health-care proposals were spreading "all sorts of lies and distortions" through "viral e-mails" that were flying around unchecked. He urged supporters to help start "a chain e-mail of our own" to rebut what Obama has called "these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that's actually been proposed."
Separately, a coalition of groups backing Obama's proposals launched a $12 million TV ad campaign Thursday, pitching health insurance reform in states where centrist Democratic House members or senators are under pressure on the issue. The campaign is intended to serve as a counterweight to critics who have shouted down Democratic lawmakers at town hall meetings, encounters that have received heavy news coverage.
The coalition distributing the ads, Americans for Stable Quality Care, is funded largely by the pharmaceutical industry and includes the American Medical Association; Families USA; the Federation of American Hospitals; the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA; and the Service Employees International Union. PhRMA has promised to contribute as much as $150 million for advertising and grass-roots activity to help pass Obama's health-care reform package.
The pharmaceutical industry has pledged to provide $80 billion over the next decade to help cover the costs of the overhaul, reportedly in return for an administration promise that Medicare would not be allowed to negotiate drug prices with the industry.
In the first 30-second ad, a narrator offers assurance that health-insurance reform means people cannot be denied coverage for a preexisting condition or dropped if they get sick.
"It means putting health-care decisions in the hands of you and your doctor," the narrator says. "It means lower costs, a cap on out-of-pocket expenses, tough new rules to cut waste and red tape and a focus on preventing illness before it strikes. So what does health-insurance reform really mean? Quality, affordable care you can count on."
According to a USA Today/Gallup poll, 69 percent of Americans are closely following news of town hall meetings on health-care reform. Thirty-four percent say protests against the plan at the meetings have made them more sympathetic to the critics' views, and 21 percent say the protests make them less sympathetic, according to the poll. Thirty-six percent say the protests have made no difference.
A separate USA Today/Gallup poll reported that 49 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of health-care policy while 43 percent approve.
With Obama heading to Montana, Democrats in that state are furiously recruiting the party faithful to turn out at his event, which is scheduled to take place in a suburb of Bozeman. Demonstrators are targeting Obama's appearance as their most high-profile opportunity yet to make their case against a plan they perceive to be a government takeover of the nation's health-care system.
Worried about the potential for a harsh reception, the Montana Democratic Party sent an e-mail to supporters Thursday urging them to show up Friday.
"Last fall, when Swiftboaters and special interests attacked President Obama, folks like you came to his defense," wrote Anna Gustina, who was the 2008 state director of Organizing for America, a grass-roots arm of the Obama presidential campaign. "We knocked on doors, talked to neighbors, and made our voices heard. Now, we need to do it again."
Staff writers Ceci Connolly and Mary Ann Akers contributed to this report.