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First Lady wades back into health debate

From NBC's Athena Jones
WASHINGTON -- For the second time in as many months, First Lady Michelle Obama entered the contentious fray over health care, urging breast cancer survivors and their advocates not to lose heart in what may seem like an uphill battle to get legislation through Congress.

She made the remarks at an event she hosted with Dr. Jill Biden to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The pair were joined on stage by three breast cancer survivors struggling to pay for health coverage, because their cancer, though in remission, was deemed a pre-existing condition.

The first lady said that while progress had been made battling the disease, the fight would not be finished until the health care system was revamped. She cited a Department of Health and Human Services report that showed that even breast cancer patients with employer-sponsored insurance paid an average of more than $6,200 in out-of-pocket costs per year and some paid as much as $30,000 or more, while those without insurance struggle to pay for care. She said caps on coverage hurt cancer patients and that other women suffered because they could not pay for needed screenings.

"There are people in this country who have breast cancer, but don't even know it because they can't afford a mammogram," Obama told the crowd gathered in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden on the east side of the White House. "This is not acceptable in this country. This is something that could happen to any of us."

While the first lady has spent much of her time this year focusing on non-controversial issues like nutrition, support for military families and the arts, she has increasingly begun to address areas of policy that are much more contentious. Last month, at an event with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Obama spoke passionately about health care as a women's issue, pointing out disparities in premiums for women and arguing that "true equality for women" required revamped health-care system.

Today's event seemed to be an indication that the White House has become more comfortable with using what officials have long called one of the administration's most powerful voices to push the president's agenda.

"There's a belief that if you've already fought cancer you shouldn't have to also financial insurance companies to get the coverage you need at a price that you can afford," Obama said.

She said the health care bills before Congress would prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, ban caps on coverage and require basic preventive care at no extra charge, but reminded the audience that the challenge was getting the legislation passed.

"We know that there are all sorts of myths and misconceptions out there and we know there are folks who will do anything they can to stop reform, because for whatever reason, they want to keep things the way they are," she said. "From where we stand now it might seem like an uphill battle, but fortunately folks like you know a little something about an uphill battle right? You know a thing or two about overcoming long odds and rallying people to an important cause."

About 90 people from advocacy groups, religious organizations, health care providers and research organizations -- the vast majority of them women who donned the pink breast cancer awareness ribbons --gathered under gray skies in the garden for the event. About a dozen members of congress, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), herself a breast cancer survivor, were also on hand.

In stressing the importance of early detection, Tina Tchen, who heads up the White House Council on Women and Girls, said that this year alone 200,000 cases of breast cancer would be diagnosed and 40,000 women would die.