By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
RALEIGH — President Barack Obama took the national health care debate to North Carolina on Wednesday, working during a town hall meeting to ease sweeping concerns over the cost of reform and seeking to calm fears of a massive government takeover.
Attempting to dispel what he called misinformation about health care reform, Obama told the crowd of 2,000 at Broughton High School in Raleigh that keeping the current system would lead to rocketing health insurance premiums, more people left uninsured and little help for small business owners hoping to cover their employees.
Many in attendance stood and cheered in agreement.
The pendulum of public opinion, however, seems to have swung on the president in recent weeks, with polls reporting fewer and fewer voters supporting the Democrats’ plan to reel in medical costs and guarantee all Americans have health insurance.
The White House said Obama’s visit was intended to dispel many of the “rumors” and “myths” of health care reform and to remind voters how important the overhaul is.
An estimated 1.8 million North Carolina residents – roughly 21 percent of the population – have no health care insurance, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. Among those who are covered, premiums increased 75 percent from 2000 to 2007.
Obama pledged Wednesday to enact reforms this year to curb the spending surge and expand coverage to everyone.
Many opponents of the plan support free-market health care instead of what they fear would be too much government involvement in the industry.
Larry Herwig, a 61-year-old Vietnam veteran, stood outside Broughton High School waving an American flag in protest of Obama’s reform efforts. Herwig was among a handful of self-described “tea party” protestors who held signs warning of mass hysteria and even death should Congress approve a government takeover of health care.
Obama addressed the protesters directly during his speech, saying some critics have deliberately worked to distort the truth.
“No one is talking about some government takeover of health care,” Obama said. “I’m tired of hearing that. I have been as clear as I can be. Under the reform I’ve proposed, if you like your doctor, you keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you keep your health care plan. These folks need to stop scaring everybody.”
Obama has labored recently through Internet forums, a primetime press conference, TV interviews and regional town hall meetings to sway public perception of reform. He’s attempted to supplant fears of long waiting lists, runaway deficits and rationed care with this message: “If you already have health insurance, reform means more security and stability.”
Area small business owners – a key group in the health care discussion – served as backdrop for the president during the hour-long address.
Lynne Leach, owner of Unique Concepts Custom Furniture in Wendell, said she supports reform and is willing to pay higher taxes if required, she said.
“Something needs to happen to make things more affordable,” said Leach, who employs and insures eight full-time workers. “We struggle every year. Our premiums go up, our benefits go down, and we just can’t sustain that long term. I don’t know how long we can sustain that.”
Still, a growing number of American’s say they distrust the president and his proposed health care overhaul.
John Bruner, 24, of Rocky Mount, said all government attempts at reform or regulation have failed throughout history.
“The federal government runs the education system,” Bruner said. “What do you hear everyday about the education system? How terrible it is. What do you think you’re going to hear everyday about health care?”
Obama said hesitation like that expressed by Bruner is understandable.
“I don’t trust Washington, either,” Obama said. “That’s why I ran for president.”
Perhaps the greatest hurdle facing health care reform is the price tag. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the plan working though the U.S. House would cost roughly $1 trillion over 10 years.
Obama said Wednesday two-thirds of the cost would be covered through gutting “wasteful and duplicative care,” reforming how doctors are reimbursed and through other expense related reforms. The rest of the bill, Obama proposed, would be covered through tax increases for the wealthy.
To coax legislation from Congress this year, the president has made a major investment of his time and political capital in recent weeks.
More town hall discussions on health care will be scheduled throughout the nation during the legislature’s August recess, White House officials said.
“Because the truth is,” Obama said Wednesday, “we have a system today that works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn’t always work well for you. And so the time to act is now.”