WASHINGTON – First lady Michelle Obama sought to assure older women on Friday that efforts to overhaul health care won't undercut the benefits they receive through Medicare, saying her husband considers the government-run program a "sacred part of America's social safety net."
Mrs. Obama, championing the health care effort at the White House while her husband travels through Asia, said women are among those struggling the most under the current system and would benefit from health care overhaul.
She said there's been "a lot of misinformation" and she wanted to be clear that the legislation in Congress would make Medicare more stable by eliminating wasteful subsidies to private insurance and cracking down on fraud.
"My husband believes that Medicare is a sacred part of America's social safety net and it's a safety net that he will protect — he will protect — with health insurance reform," said Mrs. Obama, a former hospital executive. "America has a responsibility to give all seniors the golden years they deserve."
To pay for part of the overhaul, the House bill would cut more than $400 billion from Medicare and Medicaid over 10 years. Democrats argue that the cuts can be made, especially to the Medicare Advantage program that lets private insurers contract with Medicare to provide coverage. Republicans counter that seniors would be hurt by the cuts, and Congress' nonpartisan budget analyst told a Senate panel that benefits could indeed be reduced.
Mrs. Obama, addressing an audience composed of women and seniors advocates such as the president of the seniors' lobby AARP, said women face special challenges because they often make less money and have to pay higher premiums.
AARP and women's groups are pushing to end what they consider discriminatory ratings. Most states allow insurers to charge higher premiums for the elderly, women and people with pre-existing health conditions. Charging these groups of people higher rates for health insurance is based on the idea that they use more services and therefore cost more.
Mrs. Obama also promised the health care legislation will close the gap in prescription medication coverage under Medicare Part D, known as the "doughnut hole." She said the president's health care proposals will make seniors' prescription drugs affordable, provide stability for those who have insurance and make coverage affordable for Americans who don't have it as well as provide a cap for out-of-pocket expenses.
"That's what reform will mean for older women, for seniors and for all Americans," she said.
Mrs. Obama targeted two important groups in her meeting. Women, like the public overall, are generally split on the health care legislation. And polls have shown people age 65 and older have also had the most negative views about President Barack Obama's attempt to overhaul health care.
Before Mrs. Obama spoke, three women picked by the White House explained how they did everything they were supposed to do in the health care system but it still failed them when they needed the coverage the most.
Kelly Adair Bollinger, 52, explained that her husband lost his job when he had a heart attack, and with that, their health insurance. The health insurance she purchased through her own job had much higher premiums and co-pays. Also, her daughter was diagnosed with a rare cancer. She was forced into bankruptcy.
"My husband and I are both masters' educated professionals and we have both worked full-time our adult lives in careers that gave back to our community," said Bollinger, of Oswego, N.Y. She said if the situation can happen to "people like me, it can happen to anyone."