By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009
First lady Michelle Obama sought to rally women to the cause of health-care reform Friday, describing the current system as shot through with a gender bias that prevents women from achieving "true equality."
During an appearance with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Obama linked the goal of disrupting "a status quo that is just unacceptable" and the centuries-old struggle for women's rights. Departing several times from her prepared remarks, Obama urged about 140 representatives of the health-care industry and women's groups to "mobilize like you've never mobilized before."
In the first eight months of her husband's presidency, as in the campaign, Michelle Obama has tended to her children, made community appearances and generally tried to stay within the lines of what the public sees as appropriate for a first lady. But Obama made clear Friday she sees herself as part of a sisterhood.
"In many states, insurance companies can still discriminate because of gender. And this is still shocking to me," said Obama, who was a vice president with the University of Chicago hospital system. "These are the kind of facts that still wake me up at night, that women in this country have been denied coverage because of preexisting conditions like having a C-section or having had a baby," or having been a victim of domestic violence.
Women frequently are charged more than men of the same age for the same insurance when shopping for individual policies; one study found the disparity can be as great as 48 percent. Insurance companies are regulated at the state level; only 10 states ban gender rating, and two others offer limited protection, according to a 2008 report from the National Women's Law Center.
Such practices would not be permissible under the reform proposals now under consideration.
In two years of campaigning, Obama said, she heard stories from women across the country about how costs and insurance battles were pushing families to the brink, "that they were being crushed, crushed by the current structure of our health care."
Women are disproportionately affected because they are more likely to work part time or in small businesses, jobs less likely to offer health insurance. And Obama said women are predominantly responsible for making medical appointments for their children and dealing with sick and elderly parents.
She recalled a night eight years ago when her daughter Sasha was 4 months old and wouldn't stop crying -- "and Sasha was not a crier." Her pediatrician suspected meningitis and sent them to the emergency room, "so we were terrified," she said. Obama said that because she had excellent health insurance to pay for Sasha's two-day hospitalization, "she is now the Sasha that we all know and love today, who is causing me great" -- and here she paused for a smile, revealing a mother's exasperated amusement -- "excitement."
Obama's appearance is part of a carefully orchestrated White House blitz. Vice President Biden, fresh off his Iraq trip, will work on the insurance industry and senior citizens, according to senior advisers. Biden gave his "first major health policy address" Tuesday to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and on Wednesday he visits the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring. The vice president also will reach out to lawmakers, drawing on his 34 years as a senator.
Aides to the first lady said she would probably not return to the subject of reform for a while because she has a busy schedule the next few weeks, with the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh, accompanying the president to the United Nations and flying to Copenhagen to lobby the International Olympic Committee to bring the Games to her hometown of Chicago in 2012.
After President Bill Clinton's failed attempt at health-care reform, the Obama White House is sensitive to the pitfalls of intensive first lady lobbying on the issue. Press secretary Robert Gibbs took pains Friday to cast Michelle Obama's efforts as part of broad reform for everyone, "an issue . . . that touches men and women at every income level regardless of what you do for a living."
But Marcia D. Greenberger, who founded the National Women's Law Center and began her career suing General Electric for discrimination for not covering pregnancy for its female workers -- the Supreme Court sided with GE -- was thrilled with the first lady's blunt talk.
"Putting this effort into the long context of struggles that women's organizations have made was very moving and very true," Greenberger said. "She made the case, I have to say, in a way that I thought was more compelling than I ever had heard it made before."
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.