As part of the administration's efforts to sell the still controversial health care overhaul to voters ahead of the midterm elections, President Obama held a town hall with senior citizens to talk about what the law will do to help them.
Seniors, an important voting bloc in any election year, have been among the most skeptical about the new law, many fearing that it will reduce their benefits. Today's event focused in part on the first mailing -- set for this week -- of the $250 "donut hole" rebate checks meant to help seniors pay for prescription drugs. The president and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also stressed the need to combat scam artists who may try to take advantage of seniors.
Obama spent about 15 minutes spelling out the benefits of the new law, before taking about 45 minutes of questions from local seniors and people calling in on the telephone. The president held a similar town hall last year with the senior group AARP when he was trying to drum up support for the bill. Today he tried to assure seniors they had nothing to fear from the new law.
"This new law gives seniors and their families greater savings, better benefits and higher quality health care," he told the audience gathered at a senior center in Wheaton, MD. "The guaranteed Medicare benefits that you've earned will not change regardless of whether you receive them through Medicare or Medicare Advantage. Your guaranteed benefits will not change; eligibility won't change; Medicare will continue to cover your costs the way it always has; if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor."
For much of last year, the White House argues, opponents of the health care overhaul sought to distort its provisions, with some success. Today, the president wasted no time in painting a picture of a Republican party that wants to reverse the improvements the new law introduces, from taking away the donut hole rebate checks to allowing companies to continue to deny coverage to the sick.
"You have an entire party out there that's running on a platform of repeal, they want to roll back all these reform efforts," he said. "They'd gut the existing consumer protections. They'd put insurance companies back in charge."
The president and Sebelius tackled questions on the donut hole; Medicare Advantage benefits; support for primary care physicians; independent living for seniors; long-term solvency of Medicare and COBRA benefits -- subsidies for unemployed workers that help them pay health care premiums. Obama said he wanted to see Congress extend COBRA benefits for another six months, since unemployment remains high.
"This is being debated in Congress right now," he said. "What we need is to make sure that Congress follows through on its commitment to go ahead and maintain COBRA until people are working at higher rate again."