Obama, Democrats Launch Health Care Push

With a speech on Tuesday, President Obama rolls out the first stages of implementing the health care overhaul. The public remains ambivalent about the new law, but polls suggest most are willing to let it play out before judging it. The administration and its Democratic Party allies are launching a campaign to sell it to the American people.

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Remember health care? More than two months after passage of a sweeping overhaul, many Americans are still skeptical of or downright opposed to the law.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, President Obama and his allies are now mounting a major effort to defend the measure.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama held a telephone town hall meeting today for seniors, who are the most concerned about health care and any changes to their own coverage.

He was introduced by Fran Garfinkle, a cancer survivor whose costly drugs have put her into the so-called donut hole - thats the gap in Medicare's prescription drug benefit, where seniors have to pay for their own medication.

Ms. FRAN GARFINKLE: It's pretty scary. I understand now how just one serious medical setback can cause one to lose their home, and to use their savings and their retirement fund.

HORSLEY: The president promised some relief for Garfinkle and the estimated four million seniors who will find themselves in the donut hole this year. Under the new health care law, theyll each receive a $250 check to help cover the cost of their medication. The first of those checks go out later this week.

President BARACK OBAMA: Beginning next year, if you fall into the coverage gap you'll get a 50 percent discount on the brand name medicine that you need - 50 percent.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: The administration is actively promoting the drug rebate checks and other benefits for seniors. The White House hired campaign strategist Stephanie Cutter to oversee its sales push. She admits it's an uphill battle, given Republican success in characterizing the law as too costly and risky.

Ms. STEPHANIE CUTTER (Assistant to the President, Special Projects): We may be starting from a couple of steps back from where we need to be, but we're going to get it done. We're going to communicate with seniors all the things they need to know under the law.

HORSLEY: The administration is getting some help from groups like AARP, which lobbied for the new law and has now sent mailings about it to nearly 40 million members. The group's vice president, Nancy LeaMond, says for many seniors ideological opposition is giving way to practical questions about how the law will work.

Ms. NANCY LEAMOND (Executive Vice President, AARP): Particularly for America's seniors, the focus now really is on finding out what it means to them.

HORSLEY: LeaMond knows it took years to educate seniors about the Prescription Drug Benefit, and the health care overhaul is considerably more involved.

Supporters are also launching a new non-profit group to defend the law and the politicians behind it. The Health Information Center is being organized by veteran Democratic strategists and bankrolled with up to $25 million this year, from unions, foundations and corporate contributors.

If all this sounds a little defensive for what is, after all, the law of the land, Harvard analyst Robert Blendon says there's a good reason.

Professor ROBERT BLENDON (Health Policy and Political Analysis, Harvard University): There is a continuing debate around this law because the majority of Americans have not come to the judgment that it's the right thing to do.

HORSLEY: Blendon says it's hard for people to reach that judgment because most of the law hasnt taken effect yet. The administration is trying to speed up some of the more popular early provisions, like the ban on lifetime insurance limits and the requirement that insurance companies cover sick children.

Prof. BLENDON: I think the administration is trying to put facts on the ground. But much of this legislation does not take effect for years, and that makes it harder for people to be absolutely supportive of its continuation.

HORSLEY: Republicans are actively campaigning for repeal of the health care law. But even though more Americans disapprove of the measure than support it, a Wall Street Journal poll last month found most want to give the overhaul a chance to work and make changes as needed.

In order to sell the new law as a major accomplishment, Democrats need to build public support for it. And the White House is convinced that as people grow accustomed to the benefits in the law, it will be harder for opponents to take them away.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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