WASHINGTON — As polls showed eroding support for his overhaul of the nation's healthcare system, President Obama spent Wednesday courting the majority of Americans who already have insurance and are most resistant to the proposed changes.
While the president's past remarks often have been addressed to the millions nationwide who lack health coverage -- or have focused on the need to contain costs -- Obama at two public events Wednesday instead addressed how he believes the more than 200 million people who have coverage would benefit from the plans being debated in Congress.
Some observers said that Obama's seemingly subtle shift was in fact a significant departure that could improve the legislation's chances.
"He literally grabbed the debate and yanked in a new and historic direction so that the healthcare debate is fundamentally about the middle class," said Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, a think tank that promotes centrist policies. Cowan said that Obama, in doing so, reframed the healthcare debate so that "it's not only about the uninsured, but it's equally about Americans who have insurance [but] feel that it's unstable."
To that end, Obama highlighted a series of consumer protections he would like to see remain in the final bill -- including requirements that insurers cover preexisting conditions and don't withhold coverage from the seriously ill. The president also derided critics of the healthcare overhaul, whom he accused of exploiting Americans' fear of change.
"These folks need to stop scaring everybody," Obama said at a town hall in Raleigh, N.C.
"But what a lot of chatter out there hasn't focused on is the fact that if you've got health insurance, then the reform we're proposing will . . . provide you more stability and more security," he went on. "Because the truth is, we have a system today that works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn't always work well for you."
Obama attempted to directly rebut an assertion that Republicans have made the centerpiece of their message: that a revamp of the system will drive up healthcare costs for ordinary Americans, harm seniors on Medicare and result in fewer treatment options.
Shortly after the president's events in North Carolina and Virginia, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the top House Republican, advanced those arguments again.
"This is a giant government bureaucracy that's going to drive up the cost of healthcare, drive up the cost of health insurance, deny millions of Americans their choice of doctor, and eventually lead to rationing of healthcare in America," Boehner said on CNN.
He targeted the same audience Obama spent the day trying to reach. "You know, 93% of the American people have access to high-quality, affordable health insurance," Boehner said. "Let's help them be able to hold onto that, reduce the cost of it and expand access to those Americans who don't have good access."
Earlier in the day, Boehner dismissed White House efforts to portray the bill as a means of driving down healthcare costs, saying Democrats hadn't made their case for change. "Until Americans know there is a problem, talking about solutions confuses them," he said.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Wednesday showed that national support for a healthcare overhaul was slipping and suggested that Republicans were winning the messaging war.
In mid-June, Americans were equally divided on Obama's health plan. In the new poll, 42% labeled it a bad idea and 36% favored it. Among those with insurance, 47% called the plan a bad idea.
The messages coming from supporters and critics of the overhaul take on added importance now that House leaders have said the chamber will not vote on its healthcare plan until after the August recess.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) urged the White House not to let that time go to waste.
"The president is in the driver's seat in August," Durbin said. "Congress is gone and scattered to the winds. And the White House is still there, generating a message and activity. So I think the president will have a chance to tell the American people a little bit more about why this process is so important."
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Obama's bill of insurance rights
President Obama on Wednesday outlined eight consumer protections that he expects to see included in the final healthcare overhaul produced by Congress:
* No discrimination for preexisting conditions.
Insurance companies would be prohibited from refusing you coverage because of your medical history.
* No exorbitant out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles or co-pays.
The amount insurance companies could charge for out-of-pocket expenses would have an annual cap.
* No cost-sharing for preventive care.
Insurance companies must fully cover regular checkups and tests that help you prevent illness, such as mammograms, or eye and foot exams for people with diabetes.
* No dropping of coverage for the seriously ill.
Insurance companies would be prohibited from canceling or watering down coverage for those who get serious illnesses.
* No gender discrimination.
* No annual or lifetime caps on coverage.
* Extended coverage for young adults.
Children would continue to be eligible for family coverage through age 26.
* Guaranteed insurance renewal.
Insurance companies would be required to renew any policy as long as the policyholder pays the premium in full.
Source: White House