Michelle Obama turns to health care overhaul

Calls its passage crucial for women

Michelle Obama shook hands yesterday after her presentation sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls. Michelle Obama shook hands yesterday after her presentation sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls. (Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)
By Foon Rhee
Globe Staff / September 19, 2009

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Michelle Obama jumped into the health care fight yesterday, urging women to mobilize behind the president’s plan, which is running into opposition from both the left and right in Congress.

“If we want to achieve true equality for women, if that is our goal . . . we have to reform the system. The status quo is unacceptable. It is holding women and families back, and we know it,’’ she said at an event sponsored by the six-month-old White House Council on Women and Girls.

Speaking as a woman, daughter, and mother, she delivered a highly personal appeal - far different than the policy-wonk pitch of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the last first lady to take on health care.

After three women told their stories of health care hardship, she hugged them and said she heard similar tales for two years on the campaign trail - that women “were being crushed, crushed by the current structure of our health care. Crushed.’’

“This is why we are fighting so hard for health insurance reform. This is it. This is the face of the fight,’’ she told the audience, which included members of the Business and Professional Women, the YWCA, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and the National Council of Negro Women.

The first lady also related the story of her daughter Sasha, who at 4 months old had a meningitis scare, and how that moment “flashes through my head every time we engage in this health insurance conversation.’’

“Because I think about what on earth would we have done if we had not had insurance,’’ the first lady said. “What would have happened to that beautiful little girl if we hadn’t been able to get to a pediatrician who was able to get us to an emergency room? The consequences I can’t even imagine. She could have lost her hearing. She could have lost her life if we had had to wait because of insurance.’’

Saying that it’s “still shocking to me’’ that women are discriminated against in coverage and premiums, and that many policies don’t cover basic services that women need, she asserted that the president’s plan would fix that.

“So I think this is a pretty reasonable plan,’’ said Obama, a former hospital executive, urging the audience to “mobilize like you’ve never mobilized before’’ over the next few weeks to educate people about the plan and to rebut false allegations.

“No longer can we sit by and watch the debate take on a life of its own,’’ she said. “It is up to us to get involved, because what we have to remember is that now more than ever, we have to channel our passions into change.’’

She is joining a public relations blitz on health care that includes the president sitting down yesterday to tape interviews with ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Univision that will be shown during the networks’ morning talk shows tomorrow.

The first lady, who previously has made helping military families her signature issue, has a significantly higher favorability rating these days than her husband. In the most recent poll measuring both Obamas, Gallup found in April that 72 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of Michelle Obama and only 17 percent unfavorable, compared with a 69 percent favorable/28 percent unfavorable split for her husband.

Asked about her entry into the health care fray, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday, “She’s obviously a very popular figure . . . and if she can help out we’re happy to have her.’’