- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

President Obama touted his health care plan again Wednesday by at town hall meeting in Northern Virginia, pushing for a government-run insurance option but stopping short of threatening to veto a bill that does not include such a feature.

Mr. Obama also showed an openness to taxing at least some benefits under employer-provided insurance programs, an idea he vigorously opposed during the presidential campaign when it was proposed by Republican rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The forum, in front of roughly 200 lawmakers, activists, and health care industry representatives at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, served mainly to promote the president’s continued push for a massive reform, which faces a fierce fight in Congress.

“America has waited long enough for action on these issues,” Mr. Obama said.

It was also an opportunity for the White House to tout its tech-savvy staff and outreach operation, which solicited questions by video on YouTube, as well as through the social networking site Facebook and through Twitter.

The Republican National Committee countered by live-blogging the president’s comments, providing rapid-fire rebuttal.

Despite the much-touted outreach, however, the president in the end took only seven questions during the hour-long session — three coming over video, three from the audience and one coming from a Twitter user.

Further, the White House faced questions about whether the forum was really the example of transparency that the administration likes to highlight.

White House staff pre-selected the questions that the president was asked by video and Twitter. Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who moderated the forum, insisted that the president had not seen the questions in advance.

In addition, the three questions that came from the audience were all asked by people who worked or volunteered for liberal groups closely aligned with the White House.

One man was a member of Healthcare for America Now, a liberal group pushing Mr. Obama’s reform ideas. He asked Mr. Obama to talk about his plans for making health care reform affordable. Another question came from a woman from the Service Employees International Union, who asked Mr. Obama what she could do to help his health care reforms be passed into law.

And the final audience member to get a question was Debby Smith, 53, of Appalachia, Va., who is a volunteer for Organizing for America, which is the organization that was formed out of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign to raise grass-roots support for his initiatives.

Mrs. Smith provided the television highlight of the forum when she started to cry as she described her inability to find health insurance for her kidney cancer. Mr. Obama walked off the stage to stand a few feet away as she asked her question, and then invited her out of the audience after she had finished talking so he could give her a hug.

“We’ll get your information and we’ll see what we can do to help you,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t want you to feel all like you’re alone out there.”

“Debby is a perfect example of somebody who we should, in a country this wealthy, be able to provide coverage for her health care problems,” he said.

When asked afterward if she knew she would be called on, Mrs. Smith said she was told not to expect to be able to pose a question.

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