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Joan Vennochi

Will Obama fight for his health plan?

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / August 9, 2009

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PRESIDENT OBAMA is supposed to be the great communicator.

If he wants healthcare reform, he better start communicating.

Ask Sean Hannity what’s so American about allowing him access to the best medical care in the country - while the poor guy who just lost his job and health insurance is left with nothing but a prayer.

Don’t demonize Americans who turn up at town hall meetings because opponents scared them into thinking they are about to lose something precious. Explain why assorted special interests are scaring them.

Tweet. Use the Internet to rebut. But don’t turn into Big Brother, urging citizens to act like government informants by forwarding opponents’ e-mail to the White House.

Team Obama can spend August complaining about right-wing distortion of their healthcare agenda. Or, they can figure out how to tell their truth: Revamping healthcare is not an evil socialist plot to take away American rights. It’s a patriotic movement to guarantee them.

To paraphrase John Edwards - a Democrat who demonstrated passion for healthcare, unfortunately, along with other things - there shouldn’t be two Americas. There shouldn’t be a country where the wealthy can always count on access to the best medical care; and the middle class is only OK until a downward economic spike throws their life, budget, and access to medical treatment into turmoil.

Of course, there is also a third America. It is made up of the uninsured poor, who never have a shot at what the rest of the country considers a constitutional right: the ability to tap into the amazing and, yes, costly resources of a healthcare system that is envied by the rest of the world.

Some Americans - regularly derided as liberals - believe it is morally right to give the less fortunate access to the same quality medical care as the rest of the country. But there is also economic incentive - which should appeal to conservatives - to expand access. It costs more to treat people in emergency rooms. Preventive medical care costs less than treatment of catastrophic illness.

As a presidential candidate, Obama talked about healthcare mostly in connection with his mother’s end-of-life struggle to pay her medical bills. It was an effective anecdote, which he used to launch a broad commitment to reform healthcare as president. Obama’s reform plan was not as comprehensive as Hillary Clinton’s. But all the Democrats on the 2008 primary trail connected the complicated policy dots in a way that helped people see what was in it for them and the country.

In recessionary times, the goal is more urgent. Today, more Americans are perched on a precarious financial edge. When a job disappears, employer-supplied health insurance does, too. A doctor’s visit becomes a luxury. Instead of immediately bringing in a child for a strep test, a parent waits out the scratchy throat and puts off the antibiotics that are needed to fight something other than a cold.

A commitment to change the landscape for the uninsured should take nothing away from those who are lucky enough to have health insurance. But Obama’s opponents are working hard to convince average Americans that healthcare reform means they will pay more for less.

It should be easy for Obama to explain what’s not in the plan. Government-mandated euthanasia is obviously not his goal. The government is not going to play doctor and deny life-saving medical procedures. Why would any elected official, Democrat or Republican, support that?

Cost is the real enemy of Obama’s agenda. Explaining the cost, while keeping a pledge against raising taxes on the middle class - that’s the hard part.

The money question wasn’t raised by those crazy skeptics known as “Birthers’’ who still question Obama’s credentials as an American citizen. It was raised by the Congressional Budget Office. Once the CBO estimated the cost at $1 trillion over 10 years, the average American wanted to know how it all adds up.

It’s Obama’s job to show them. If he can’t, true healthcare reform loses to the status quo.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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