- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

With health care reform facing a critical stretch in Congress, President Obama on Wednesday attempted to rally support for his plan by holding a tightly controlled town-hall meeting in Northern Virginia that culminated with him hugging a crying cancer victim.

The president, who will travel abroad for a week just as Congress returns from recess Monday to begin a month of intensive work on a health care bill, did not announce any changes in position or new initiatives.

He repeated his belief that reform should include a government-run insurance option but stopped short of threatening to veto a bill that does not include such a feature. Demonstrating the difficulty that the public option faces, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, said the public option lacks the votes to pass.

“I think we’re not going to get the votes to pass the overall bill if that becomes a condition of it,” Mr. Lieberman told the New Haven Independent.

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

But 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 action.

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

The event 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 its response to the president’s comments, providing rapid-fire rebuttal.

But the White House’s promise of an engaging and free-spirited forum that invited debate and opposition views did not exactly come to pass.

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

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.

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.

Jason Rosenbaum, a member of Healthcare for America Now, an interest group pushing Mr. Obama’s reform ideas, asked Mr. Obama to talk about his plans for making health care affordable.

Another audience questioner was 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 third audience member to ask a question was Debby Smith, 53, of Appalachia, Va., a volunteer for Organizing for America, an organization that grew out of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign to raise grass-roots support for his policies.

Mrs. Smith 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, committing to her to get legislation passed this year.

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

One of the two most challenging questions came from Rep. Michael C. Burgess, Texas Republican, who urged Mr. Obama by video to cap damages awarded in medical malpractice suits. Mr. Obama said that the real problem is current incentives for practitioners to order batteries of expensive tests and procedures for patients in order to make a personal profit.

The other challenging question, submitted via Twitter, asked why health care benefits might be taxed. Mr. Obama said he prefers to raise about $318 billion by reducing the amount of tax deductions for charitable donations that can be claimed by those making more than $250,000 a year.

But he acknowledged that “this is something that’s going to be debated in the House and the Senate.”

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