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Obama downplays 'public' healthcare, attacks 'myths'

The president, in an interview with a conservative talk-radio host, says he's looking for 'some consensus' on the plan in Congress. Later, he calls on supporters to mobilize against lies.

August 21, 2009|Christi Parsons and Mark Silva

WASHINGTON — "I'm scared out of my mind talking to you here," Joe from Philadelphia blurted out as he was connected to President Obama during a conservative radio talk show devoted to healthcare Thursday. But when it came to his comment, Joe did not hold back.

"I'm getting a little ticked off that it feels like the knees are buckling a little bit," the caller said, suggesting the president had begun to wobble in the face of pressure from conservative critics.

"You have an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate, and you own the whole shooting match," Joe said. "It's very frustrating to watch you try and compromise with a lot of these people who aren't willing to compromise with you."

Appearing on host Michael Smerconish's call-in show, broadcast from the White House, Obama told Joe not to worry. "I guarantee," he said, "we are going to get healthcare reform done."

Obama's radio experience, as well as a later Internet session with supporters from the presidential campaign, demonstrated just how big the communications challenge can be on an issue as complex and controversial as healthcare.

And even as the president focused on dealing with what he said were misunderstandings, half-truths and outright falsehoods about his strategy for overhauling healthcare, he occasionally ventured into the vast gray area between fact and fiction.

For example, in his afternoon meeting at the Democratic National Committee, Obama tried to spike the charge that his plan would let the government dictate individual healthcare choices.

Obama said that "no matter what you've heard, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor under the reform proposals that we've put forward. If you like your private health insurance plan, you can keep it. If your employer provides you health insurance on the job, nobody is talking about messing with that."

In fact, almost 25% of those who receive Medicare could see changes in their provider networks. The White House wants to trim the generous subsidies the government gives to Medicare Advantage programs, which independent analysts have said sometimes go to insurance company profits and not to improved services.

If Obama succeeds in trimming those subsidies, some of the insurers could decide to drop out of the program or change the benefits they offer.

Obama also said during the webcast that "there are no plans under health reform to revoke the existing prohibition on using federal taxpayer dollars for abortions." That's an accurate statement, because neither the House nor Senate versions contains a requirement that federal funding be made available for abortions. Still, the legislation is short on many details and, depending on how regulations are written, some women with federally subsidized insurance might be able to buy plans that cover abortions.

The president, however, set the record straight on a few points, including whether he had abandoned the idea of a government-run insurance plan.

"We're happy to make sensible compromises," Obama said on the radio show. "What we're not willing to do is give up on the core principle that Americans who don't have health insurance should get it, that Americans who do have health insurance should get a better deal from insurance companies and have consumer protections."

And he let one misperception pass: Joe's assertion that the Democrats had an overwhelming majority committed to healthcare overhaul legislation. In the House and the Senate, moderate and conservative Democrats have objected to key features -- including the public option.

Taking questions transmitted to a moderator via e-mail, phone and Twitter during his DNC session, Obama talked about the challenge of cutting "through the noise" of disinformation.

"We can have a real debate because healthcare is hard, and there are some legitimate issues out there that have to be sorted through and worked on," Obama told supporters. "But what we're going to have to do is to cut through the noise and the misinformation, and the best ambassadors for true information, factual information, is all of you."

The White House emphasized Thursday that the president still wanted to work out a healthcare bill with Republican help -- even though Democratic leaders in the Senate are talking about splitting the elements of an overhaul into two parts, one of which they would try to pass with Democratic votes alone.

That bill would include a way to finance a government-run health plan, or possibly a series of regional healthcare cooperatives. It could pass the Senate by a simple majority under a procedural tactic reserved for budget matters.

More popular provisions, like those to tighten regulation of insurance companies, would then go through the usual floor process.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president still hoped for cooperation.

"Obviously our focus . . . is on continuing this process in a bipartisan fashion," Gibbs said. "You heard the president say that again today."

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cparsons@latimes.com

mdsilva@latimes.com

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