Obama warns of a health care ‘cost of inaction’

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. | President Obama appears to have fixed on a new strategy to counter what he has called fear-mongering by his opponents in the national health care debate: Try to convince the public that making no change would be scarier.

To illustrate the steep cost of doing nothing, the White House invited Nathan Wilkes to a town-hall meeting here Saturday. Mr. Wilkes, the founder of a telecommunications company, saw his insurance costs skyrocket when his son was diagnosed with hemophilia. Then, when the costs got too high, the insurance carrier abandoned him and his company altogether. He said a social worker actually proposed he get divorced so his wife would qualify for coverage.

“When you think of … countless folks like Nathan, I want you to remember one thing: There but for the grace of God go I,” the president told a crowd of roughly 1,600. “These are ordinary Americans, no different than anyone else, held hostage by health insurance companies that deny them coverage, or drop their coverage, or charge fees that they can’t afford for care they desperately need.”

Similar health care horror stories are becoming a set piece used to open Mr. Obama’s town-hall appearances. In Colorado, and during events he held throughout the past week, he has significantly amped up his language in describing the risks associated with keeping the current health care system intact. To the audience gathered here, Mr. Obama repeatedly returned to real-life evidence of a broken system.

During his 70-minute presentation, he referred not only to Mr. Wilkes’ situation, but also to the story of a teenager from Indiana diagnosed with leukemia, who died before his parents could raise the money for a bone-marrow transplant.

Last week in New Hampshire, he told a crowd about a man who lost coverage “in the middle of chemotherapy” therapy because he had gallstones, and of a woman who was told her insurance would not cover her internal organs because of an accident she had when she was five years old.

“Think about that. That covers a lot of stuff,” he said. “They’re only going to cover your skin. Dermatology, that’s covered; nothing else.”

During a town-hall meeting in the Big Sky region of Montana on Friday, Mr. Obama focused his remarks on cases in which insurance companies abandoned patients just when they most needed coverage. “They got sick, and suddenly that’s when they got dropped,” he said.

Mr. Obama has made clear his purpose for sharing these health insurance nightmares.

“Those who would stand in the way of reform will say almost anything to scare you about the cost of action,” Mr. Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “But they won’t say much about the cost of inaction.”

The new tactics come at a critical period in the national health care debate. Members of Congress, back in their home districts for a summer break, are trying to decide whether to get behind the president’s overhaul plan, which is pending before them in Washington. Interest groups on both sides have been pouring money into a persuasion campaign.

The president has spent the weekend attempting to tilt the scales in his favor, interspersing town-hall appearances with vacation stops in some of the nation’s most majestic natural spaces. On Friday, Mr. Obama went fly fishing while his wife and daughters rafted down the Gallatin River. On Saturday, the first family toured Yellowstone National Park. On Sunday, Mr. Obama plans to spend a full day at the Grand Canyon.

His new approach capitalizes on polling that shows Americans are in broad agreement in their desire to see major changes to the way health care is delivered. Insurance companies, he thinks, have presented a ripe target.

Eric Dezenhall, a Washington public relations specialist who served in the Reagan White House, said the president has made clear that there has to be a definable enemy that serves as a proxy for evil in order for him to win this battle.

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