- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

President Obama has begun a new phase of his effort to overhaul the nation’s health care system by trying to gird Americans for the perils that await them if his effort fails.

In speeches and in the weekly radio address he released Saturday, the president has begun using stark language to warn Americans that failure to act on his proposed health care reform could lead more families into bankruptcy and could leave them stranded when they get sick. To buttress this claim, the president described the findings of a newly released Treasury Department study that says if nothing changes, nearly half of all Americans under 65 will lose their health coverage at some point over the next 10 years.

“Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing,” Mr. Obama warned during his address to Congress last week. “Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it the most. And more will die as a result.”

That striking language was the preface for a new phase in his aggressive campaign for health care reform, which continued Saturday with his radio address and the first in a series of rallies, this one in Minneapolis. He intends to revisit the topic again during speeches in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and in College Park on Thursday.

“It’s an anxiety that’s keeping more and more Americans awake at night,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re not just talking about Americans in poverty, either - we’re talking about middle-class Americans. In other words, it can happen to anyone.”

In Minneapolis, Mr. Obama criticized opponents’ tactics in the debate over health care. “We’ve heard scare tactics instead of honest debate,” he said.

And he reiterated that Americans should not pay attention to claims that Medicare benefits will be cut under his health care reform effort. “That will never happen on my watch,” he said.

Todd Harris, a Republican political consultant, said after hearing the president’s speech to Congress that he was surprised by the approach Mr. Obama was taking.

“One of the ironies is that he lashes out at people he considers demagogues. And yet in his own speech he says, if we don’t do this, people are going to die,” Mr. Harris said.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said the goal of Mr. Obama’s speech in Minneapolis on Saturday was simply to emphasize to Americans the consequences they face if Congress fails to pass a health care reform plan.

Those consequences were made clear, the president said, in the new Treasury Department report. The report was based on information collected from 17,123 Americans during the period from 1997 to 2006 but recently analyzed by the Treasury. It showed that over the decade, 48 percent of individuals went without health insurance for at least a month, 41 percent were without coverage for at least six months, and 36 percent were without coverage for a full year.

Time spent without health insurance was tallied cumulatively over the decade, not consecutively.

“While many Americans may have the misperception that benefits and protections for the uninsured help only a small slice of Americans, that’s not the case,” said a senior Treasury Department official, speaking to reporters on a conference call on the condition that he not be identified. “This can happen to any American. This really, in a sense, backs that up.”

Months of polling have showed increasing satisfaction on the part of many Americans with the health care they have, and increasing reluctance to spend more money for the minority of the country without insurance.

The administration hopes to persuade the country with this report that it is not just a minority of Americans who bear risk under the current system.

The senior Treasury official said the new report “really just backs up the claim that not only can it happen to you, but it does happen to almost half of Americans in a period of a decade.”

The president, the official said, was using the data to back up “his view that the status quo is not acceptable, that the status quo is a plan to allow half of Americans to go without insurance over a decade.”

The report’s release comes on the heels of a change in the president’s official count of Americans who are without health insurance. In his speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, Mr. Obama for the first time put the number at 30 million instead of 46 million, a figure that he and other proponents of health care reform have cited repeatedly for more than a year.

The president repeated the 30 million figure in his Saturday radio address.

A second Treasury official who spoke to reporters on the call said that the number of uninsured was in “the high thirties” of millions. Those who have criticized the 46 million figure have said that it includes immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan group based at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, has said that it is possible that 5.6 million of the estimated 9.7 million uninsured immigrants are in the country illegally, though it said there is no “hard data” to verify it.

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