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Obama Heads West With Pitch for Health Reform

August 14, 2009 at 1:53 PM EDT
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Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser follows the reform debate to Grand Junction, Colo., where President Obama is rallying support for his plan.

JIM LEHRER: And still to come on the NewsHour tonight: the future of space flight; Shields and Brooks; the Taliban view; and the Weaver-Obama interview.

That follows two takes on the health care debate. The first was in the West, where President Obama took his campaign for reform back on the road today. NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports for our Health Unit, a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In his second town hall meeting of the week, the president once again sharply attacked insurance companies before a large crowd in Belgrade, Montana.

Mr. Obama was introduced by Katie Gibson, a cancer survivor whose health insurance was canceled after she was told she had less than a year to live.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today we’re talking about folks like Katie, who’ve had their insurance policies suddenly revoked, even though they were paying premiums, because of a medical condition.

But we’re no different than Katie and other ordinary Americans, no different than anybody else. We are held hostage at any given moment by health insurance companies that deny coverage or drop coverage or charge fees that people can’t afford at a time when they desperately need care.

It’s wrong. It’s bankrupting families. It’s bankrupting businesses. And we are going to fix it when we pass health insurance reform this year.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The president repeatedly tried to debunk some of the myths that have been spread about health care reform, citing a few aimed at a government-run insurance plan.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Everybody here who still has — who has currently private insurance, you know, you would more than likely still be on your private insurance plan. Employers wouldn’t stop suddenly providing health insurance.

So that is where this idea of government-run health care came from. It is not an accurate portrayal of the debate that’s going on in Washington right now.

Audience questions payment plan

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The audience was polite and generally friendly, but he did get some tough questions. A member of the NRA challenged him. He wanted to know how a health care reform plan, estimated to cost $1 trillion, would be paid for.

TOWN HALL ATTENDEE: You can't tell us how you're going to pay for this. You're saving here. You're saving over there. You're going to take a little money here; you're going to take a little money here, but you have no money. The only way you're going to get that money is to raise our taxes. You said you wouldn't. Max Baucus says he doesn't want to put out a bill that will, but that's the only way you can do that.

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I'm happy to answer the question.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Overall, this bill will cost -- let's say it costs $800 billion to $900 billion. That's a lot of money. That's a lot of money. That's over 10 years, though, all right? So that's about $90 billion -- $80 billion to $90 billion a year.

About two-thirds of it -- two-thirds -- can be obtained by doing some of the things I already mentioned, like eliminating subsidies to insurance companies. So you're right; that's real money. I just think I would rather be giving that money to the young lady here who doesn't have health insurance and giving her some help than giving it to insurance companies that are making record profits.


Now, you may disagree. I just think that's a good way to spend our money.

Obama's Western tour

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today's event in the tiny rocky mountain town marked the first in a swing through three Western states, where the White House is hoping to clarify some of the public's concerns about reform.

President Obama goes to western Colorado tomorrow to Grand Junction, a city of 45,000 that's received a lot of attention lately for health reforms it implemented in the 1980s.

Here, a majority of doctors work together to offer coordinated medical care. The result is some of the lowest medical costs in the country, for example, 30 percent below the national average for Medicare.

Doctors are not salaried. They're paid for each service they perform, but the fees are the same for Medicaid patients and for those covered by private insurance. And because they work together, they save money by not ordering excessive numbers of tests.

Michael Pramenko, a family physician, is part of that system and supports what President Obama is trying to do. He thinks health care reform can be done without a lot of government involvement, just like they've done in Grand Junction.

DR. MICHAEL PRAMENKO: This is such a big sticking point right now, as we head down the road to possible legislation. The whole idea of, should government be more involved? Grand Junction offers a grand compromise on that and shows that it can be done in a very effective manner with nonprofits that are oriented towards the community and the patient, rather than to shareholders and profits.

Confusion lingers over reform

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Surveys show that most Grand Junction residents are happy with their health care, but the ones we talked to had many questions about reform efforts on the national level.

Tony Myers is an English teacher and debate coach at Grand Junction High School. His mother in Indiana almost went bankrupt because of medical costs from treating cancer, so he very much wants reform, but he has many questions about the proposals on the table.

TONY MYERS, high school English teacher: I would like to see a public breakdown of, "This is what's being offered, this is how it's going to work, and this is what you will get out of it." And I think that if I had one thing that I would say to President Obama, that has to be done, because until common, average, everyday people can really wrap their heads around it and understand it, they're not going to support it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What are you confused about?

TONY MYERS: I would like to know, if I lose my current job or if I become ill and can no longer work, what's it really going to offer to me that is different from the status quo?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bob Turrou is a veterinarian who queries that the reform efforts might actually make the health care system worse than the status quo.

BOB TURROU, veterinarian: I fear that it will be like health care is in Canada and England, and it will take a long time to get things done, to get diagnostic treatments done, and to get surgery done, that you wouldn't have the same relationship with your doctor that you would previously, that something would happen -- they would have certain guidelines when people are older and over a certain age and, if they have cancer or they're not -- they're just going to give them hospice care, things like that. That's what I'm afraid of.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Greg and Jean Dillon are retirees. Greg was an architect, Jean a hospital administrator. They are registered Republicans, but voted for Barack Obama. They support the idea of reform but are concerned about how fast it's being done.

JEAN DILLON, retired hospital administrator: I guess as complicated as I think health care is in coverage and issues and technology and billing issues, I wish they could slow down, have a little bit more concrete plan or a step-by-step plan where you could implement it in degrees. I don't know if that's possible.

Some Medicare recipients worried

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Both Dillons are Medicare recipients, and they worry those benefits could be cut.

GREG DILLON, retired architect: The big issue right now is the baby boomers coming online. And so what are their demands going to be on medical care? Is there going to be rationing?

What is going to be the fallout -- for example, if there's a government program, will the corporate people start bailing out and shoving everything at the public? And is there some way to keep that from happening, because all of a sudden we might find a situation where everybody is dumping everybody and forcing them into the public side of this issue?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Janet Wilke has owned the Homestyle Bakery for 33 years and cannot afford to give her 16 employees health benefits. She wants reform but says she's frightened by the costs.

JANET WILKE, bakery owner: I think that what they're talking about now is going to be very expensive. I want to know how we're going to pay for it.

I see our country going deeper and deeper into debt, and I think that's a major concern. You know, we have to -- there has to be a way to pay for all of this without breaking the country.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Janet Wilke is not planning to attend the town hall meeting tomorrow, but the president will no doubt hear many concerns like hers when he comes to Grand Junction.