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.
“He’s not entirely wrong,” Mr. Dezenhall said. “People see attacks on big businesses as victimless crimes. Anything done to tax or punish a profit-making entity tends to be seen as noble and just, especially in his world.”
A challenge the president faces, though, is that his detractors have a potent fear narrative of their own, Mr. Dezenhall explained. “Namely that the kind of maddening low-level bureaucrats we all run into at the motor vehicles office will be deciding what doctors we can see. It is this prospect, not some theoretical notion of socialism, that is fueling Obama’s opposition.”
But Mr. Obama has an answer for people with that fear.
“I don’t want government bureaucrats meddling in your health care,” Mr. Obama told the Colorado audience Saturday. “But the point is, I don’t want insurance company bureaucrats meddling in your health care either.” As it has in other venues, that line brought the loudest ovation of the event.
By pushing harder against insurance companies, Mr. Obama has risked creating more friction with one of the key parties involved in congressional negotiations on health reform that are expected to continue in teleconferences all this week. Fallout from that friction was evident earlier this month on Capitol Hill after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, described the insurance industry as “immoral,” and said “they are the villains in this.”
Her comments brought a protest from Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who had been advising Mrs. Pelosi on health care messaging. In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, Mr. Yarmuth called Mrs. Pelosi’s remarks “inflammatory” and “misguided.” He had to worry about offending 7,000 people in his congressional district who work for the insurance company Humana.
“I’m primarily concerned that [those constituents] would say, ‘Do you really think that I work for an immoral employer?’ ” Mr. Yarmuth told the local newspaper.
Similar pushback came during a town-hall meeting in Montana on Friday, when Mr. Obama was confronted directly on the approach by Marc Montgomery, a private insurance broker from Bozeman. The health insurance companies are in favor of health care reform and have a number of proposals before Congress to work with government to provide for the uninsured and cover individuals with pre-existing conditions, Mr. Montgomery said.
So he wondered, “why is it that you’ve changed your strategy from talking about health care reform to health insurance reform and decided to vilify the insurance companies?” Mr. Obama was, for a moment, contrite, telling the questioner that it had not been his intent to vilify the industry. In fact, the president said, the insurer Aetna has been working with the administration on the issue of pre-existing conditions and it is “absolutely true” that there are other companies doing the same.
“You are absolutely right that the insurance companies, in some cases, have been constructive,” Mr. Obama said. However, he continued, “in some cases what we’ve seen is also funding in opposition by some other insurance companies to any kind of reform proposals.”
By the time the president reached Colorado on Saturday evening, however, the language he had used all week was back. It is the insurance industry, he said, that is hoping to stymie his overhaul by “trying to get people scared.” “These struggles have always boiled down to a contest between hope and fear,” Mr. Obama told the crowd.
There was plenty of hopeful talk in the president’s remarks, but also frightening accounts of ailing Americans who were let down by their insurers. That is also critical to the conversation, he explained during his radio address Saturday.
“These are the stories that aren’t being told,” he said. “Stories of a health care system that works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people. And that’s why we’re going to pass health insurance reform that finally holds the insurance companies accountable.”