From NBC's Athena Jones
Up until now, First Lady Michelle Obama has focused largely on supporting military families, promoting community service, education and the arts, and touting healthy eating and healthy habits.
But today she waded into the hotly contested political issue that is her husband's top legislative priority this year: health care.
Like she did on the campaign trail during the 2007-2008 presidential contest, Mrs. Obama delivered a pointed, emotional argument for why the nation's health-care system must be overhauled.
"If we want to achieve true equality for women, if that is our goal; if we want to ensure that women have opportunities that they deserve, if that is our goal; if we want women to be able to care for their families and pursue things that they could never imagine, then we have to reform the system," she told an audience gathered in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
"We have to reform the system," Mrs. Obama added. "The status quo is unacceptable. It is holding women and families back, and we know it."
The first lady joined Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to urge advocacy groups to "mobilize like you've never mobilized before" to educate friends and family about the president's health-care plans and to push for a comprehensive revamp of the system this year.
Both women argued that health care is a women's issue and pointed out disparities in premiums for women -- a problem exacerbated by the fact that women make some 78 cents for every dollar men make.
"A recent study showed that 25-year-old women are charged up to 45% more for insurance than 25-year-old men for the exact same coverage," the first lady said. "And as the age goes up, you get to 40, that disparity increases to 48% -- 48% difference for women for the exact same coverage in this country."
Sebelius joked that former President Ronald Reagan used to say, "The status quo is just Latin for the mess we're in," to illustrate the need for change. She spoke of the injustice of some insurance companies that deny coverage to women who have had a Cesarean section or who are victims of domestic violence.
"These are the kind of facts that still wake me up at night," Obama said later of these examples of coverage being denied.
The first lady said her husband's health-care proposal would prevent companies from discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions or placing caps on coverage and would require coverage for preventive care like mammograms or pap smears at no extra cost.
Obama spoke passionately and emotionally about her daughter Sasha's frightening bout with meningitis at four months old. She said her family was fortunate enough to have good insurance to cover her daughter's visit to the emergency room and her two days in the hospital.
"It is that moment in our lives that flashes through my head every time we engage in this health-insurance conversation. It's that moment in my life," she said. "Because I think about what on earth would we have done if we had not had insurance. What would have happened to that beautiful little girl if we hadn't been able to get to a pediatrician who was able to get us to an emergency room? The consequences I can't even imagine. She could have lost her hearing. She could have lost her life if we had had to wait because of insurance."
The audience -- made up of women young and old -- listened as three ordinary women shared stories of their struggles in the face of costly or inaccessible health-care insurance.