President talks health care reform at Bristol event

Hank Hayes • Jul 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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BRISTOL, Va. — Kroger deli worker Charlotte Norman asked President Barack Obama Wednesday if her 90-year-old mother will be “put out to pasture” and abandoned by Medicare.

“Please tell me it isn’t so,” Norman told Obama.

Norman’s question was among the concerns Obama tried to address while pitching his health care reform agenda to about 100 Kroger workers in the supermarket’s produce section during a campaign- style event.

Obama responded it wasn’t so.

“Medicare is in place, and as long as I’m there and even long after I’m gone, Medicare will continue to be in place,” Obama promised.

Kroger workers, many of them donning “Health Care for America — Now!” stickers provided to them by their United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, were concerned about Medicare’s fate, as well as the public health care option offered in Obama’s reform plan being debated by Congress.

Obama noted Medicare, the federal health care plan for America’s elderly, will be in the red within eight years without reform.

“Just tell your mom ‘Nobody is messin’ with her doctor,’” he told Norman. “Nobody is messin’ with her Medicare. People should not believe all this stuff they hear. ... I got this one letter from a woman. She said, ‘I don’t want government-run health care. I don’t want your socialist plan. And don’t touch my Medicare.’”

Missy Faulkner, another deli worker, asked Obama if he would be willing to put his family into the reform plan’s proposed insurance exchanges.

Obama likened the exchanges to the health insurance congressional members have.

“This is not a bad deal. ... You could go to this exchange, select the plan you thought was best, which is what the members of Congress do, and then get a subsidy to help pay for your premium. And because you are part of a big pool of customers, you then will have leverage and negotiating power with the insurance companies to drive down those costs and afford health care, and it’s high quality,” Obama told Faulkner. “What I want to do is not replace the private insurance system, but I do want to make sure folks ... are able to get the same good deal.”

Obama stuck to the theme that his health care reform agenda is trying to build on the employer-based insurance system America has now.

One of the reasons wages are flat, he said, is because workers are putting more money into their health care premiums.

“We’re not going to be changing your system if you’re happy with what you’ve got,” Obama said in reiterating a pledge not to take people’s private policies away from them.

In a fact sheet distributed to reporters at the event, Kroger said it spends more than $1 billion a year on health care, with more than 80 percent of its associates participating in a company-funded plan.

While also televised live locally, Obama’s appearance was beamed to more than 120 stores in Kroger’s mid-Atlantic region.

“This is the first time I have been in a grocery store in a while. ... I miss it,” Obama said after walking out of the meat section and stepping to the lectern as the event started. “I might pick up some fruit on the way out.”

The president reminded the crowd that Bristol, Va., was the first place he campaigned during the 2008 general election cycle.

“This is where change began,” he said.

Obama also took note of the latest Newsweek magazine cover saying, “The Recession is Over.”

“When my administration came into office, we were facing the worst economy of our lifetimes,” Obama said. “We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month. It was nearly impossible to take out home loans, auto loans, student loans and loans for small businesses to buy inventory and make payroll.”

He said his economic stimulus plan, with about a quarter of its funding committed, is making progress.

Outside the event, next to Gate City Highway, a number of signs held by more than 200 protesters denounced the high level of federal spending.

“It has cost some money to do all this, although when I hear critics talk about out-of-control spending, I can’t help but remember that those same critics contributed to the $1.3 trillion deficit we inherited when I took office — a debt that’s partially a result of two tax cuts that went primarily to the wealthiest few Americans and a Medicare drug program, none of which was paid for,” Obama said in defending the stimulus.

Obama also attempted to dispel notions of a complete government takeover of health care.

But, he added: “We will stop insurance companies from denying you coverage because of your medical history. I will never forget watching my own mother, as she fought cancer in her final days, trying to argue with health insurance companies even though she had been paying her premiums saying that her cancer was a pre-existing condition even though it hadn’t been diagnosed when she first got insurance. I continue to believe that’s not right. ... And I bet many of you have probably heard of somebody in that situation.”

Obama insisted that with reform, insurance companies will have to abide by a yearly cap on how much people can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses.

“No one in America should go broke because they’re sick,” he said. “We will require insurance companies to cover routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms, colonoscopies, or eye and foot exams for diabetics, so we can avoid chronic illnesses that cost not only lives, but money.”

Doing nothing about health care coverage, he indicated, is not an option.

“I’m not thinking about the politics of this thing right now,” Obama said. “I’m thinking about the fact that if we do nothing, then I can guarantee your premiums will double, more and more people will lose coverage, business profits will be strained which means they will be able to hire fewer people. And our federal budget is going to blow up.”

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