By N.C. Aizenman and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 23, 2010; A3
Six rocky months after winning passage of the landmark health-care law, President Obama celebrated the half-year mark by holding a sunny backyard get-together in the Virginia suburbs with a sampling of Americans from across the country who he said are already benefitting.
The folksy televised gathering on the back patio of the Falls Church home of Paul and Frances Brayshaw - complete with a pitcher of lemonade in the background - was an unusually high-profile plug for an accomplishment many Democrats on the ballot in November rarely mention. With polls showing the public ambivalent about the law, and Democrats in some districts taking a beating for supporting it, many prefer to keep the focus on jobs and other economic issues.
The president, too, seemed keen to counter the belief of some that health care distracted him from what many voters view as the most pressing concern: turning around the economy.
"Obviously, the economy has been uppermost in our minds," began Obama, speaking in his shirt sleeves to about two dozen people seated in a semicircle around him. "So much of our focus day to day is trying to figure out how do we just make sure that this recovery that we're slowly on starts accelerating in a way that helps folks all across the country."
But he argued that addressing the high cost and limited accessibility of health care was just as fundamental to the nation's fiscal health.
"The single biggest driver of our deficit is the ever-escalating costs of health care. . . . It was bankrupting families, companies and our government."
While it will take years to determine whether the law succeeds in curbing those trends, Obama also used the example of several members of the audience brought in by the White House to highlight early consumer protections that kick in Thursday.
These include a cap on lifetime limits on the insured and requirements that insurers fully cover children with preexisting conditions and allow dependents to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26.
Dawn Josephson of Jacksonville, Fla., whose son had surgery last year because of a serious eye condition, described her relief on learning that the new, more affordable health insurance plan she recently purchased would be obligated to pay for the future surgeries he is likely to need.
"It's really made our lives so much less stressful," she said.
Gail O'Brien, a teacher at a Montessori school from Keene, N.H., whose employer does not offer insurance, spoke of her anguish on receiving a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma this year - followed by her emotion on learning that she could apply to one of the new state-based "high-risk" pools the law established for people with preexisting conditions.
"You don't know how this has changed my life," said O'Brien, who wore a blue scarf to cover the hair she has lost through cancer treatments.
The American public as a whole is proving a harder sell. In a Kaiser health tracking poll last month, 43 percent of Americans said they had favorable impressions of the new law and 45 percent held unfavorable ones, numbers virtually identical to what they were in May. In an Associated Press poll released last week, 41 percent said they support the health-care reforms, matching the number backing the bill on the eve of its passage in March.
Obama took some responsibility, at one point saying: "Sometimes I fault myself for not having been able to make the case more clearly to the country."
Despite the political risks of trying to do so now, White House officials said they think they have no choice but to embrace a bill they engineered - and which could eventually provide an opening as voters start to feel its effects.
They also think that Republicans may overreach on the issue, especially with their recent declarations that they will work to peel back as much of the law as possible. Democrats argue that while voters may be skeptical about how the bill will work, they don't want it to be repealed before it has been given a chance.
Obama added: "I want them to look you in the eye and say, 'Sorry, Gail, you can't buy health insurance.' "