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Obama Promotes Benefits to Older Americans

Start of an aggressive national sales effort

Kicking off an orchestrated White House campaign to sell the benefits of the new health care law to a confused public, President Barack Obama today fielded questions from older Americans, one of the groups most skeptical of the reforms.

For more than an hour, standing in the auditorium of a large senior center in Wheaton, Md., the president took questions from the audience of 120 people—and from among more than 10,000 others listening and watching in tele-town halls across the country. The questions focused on some of the most sensitive issues for older Americans, such as Medicare’s future, keeping doctors, and health care security for people not yet of Medicare age.

“This new law gives seniors and their families greater savings, better benefits and higher quality health care,” Obama said. “It keeps Medicare strong and solvent—today and tomorrow.” And, he stressed: "Your guaranteed benefits will not change."

The town hall was timed just as the first of the new law’s tangible benefits is about to be rolled out. On Thursday, $250 checks will begin to be mailed to those who fall into the Medicare prescription drug program’s doughnut hole this year, to help defray their costs.

The president cautioned older Americans to beware of scams that seek to defraud them of their $250 checks.

And today, the Administration on Aging and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services launched a massive education effort—including a national fraud prevention campaign on radio and television and in print ads.

The town hall also marked the beginning of the Democrats’ campaign to sell health care reform to voters in the five months leading up to the midterm elections. A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Americans were less confused about the new law in May than they were in April, but 44 percent still described themselves as confused on its provisions. A CBS poll last month showed a slight increase in support for health care reform: 43 percent now approve of the law, up from 32 percent in March, but 47 percent still disapprove.

Experts say Obama clearly has to sell the new law to the public.

Listing some of the reforms that will affect older people this year or next—free preventive care, beginning to close the doughnut hole, and more incentives to keep doctors in primary care—Obama painted his Republican opponents as bent on rolling them back. “We have an entire party out there that’s running on a platform of repeal,” he said. “They’d gut the consumer protections. They’d put insurance companies back in charge.”

Responding to Obama’s town hall, Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia told the AARP Bulletin: “It’s important that seniors are presented an accurate portrayal of how the new health care law, in its entirely, will affect them and their families—not just one or two portions that may be most favorable to the president’s case.”

Asked by a caller how the law will affect people enrolled in Medicare Advantage health plans, Obama said that this is an issue “where probably there’s been the most misinformation and concern.” The plans will not be eliminated, he said, and insurance companies can still make money from them. But current subsidies to the plans—an average $17 billion more than the government pays for people enrolled in the traditional Medicare program—will be reduced. “We’re saying to insurance companies that you can’t use this just to pad your profits or to pay higher CEO bonuses,” he said. “Eighty-five percent of what you spend has to be actually for health services.”

Describing the shortage of primary care physicians as “absolutely critical,” Obama said that the law offers incentives to doctors to go into, or stay in, primary care and also over time will change the way they’re paid, on the basis of the quality of care they provide instead of the number of services they prescribe.
He explained how under existing law, each year doctors face a larger and larger Medicare pay cut and every year Congress postpones it. “We’ve got to fix this permanently,” he said.  Doctors “shouldn’t have this guillotine hanging over their heads every year.”  Otherwise, he added, an increasing number of physicians will opt out of Medicare.  

Facing what appeared to be a mostly friendly audience of older Americans, Obama was at ease, answering their questions as well as those from callers in Nevada, Colorado, Illinois and Maryland in a tone that was more neighborly and less professorial than usual. He used plain talk as he tried to make his arguments both clear and convincing.

Groups such as AARP, Alliance for Retired Americans and the Easter Seals organized more than 100 events in 26 states where people could view the televised event and ask questions.

Patricia Barry is a senior editor with the AARP Bulletin who writes about Medicare and health policy.

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