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Pre-existing conditions at forefront of White House's response to health care repeal

Pre-existing conditions and small business owners feature the White House's weapon of choice in the fight against health care reform repeal efforts: webcasts.

By Staff writer / January 19, 2011

From left, Brian Rothgery, Kathy Laru, and Rachel Trobaugh demonstrate with local community groups outside the office of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) in Racine, Wisc., Jan. 18, to show their opposition to the possible repeal of health care reform. The White House has responded to the possible repeal with webcasts featuring the law's benefits for individuals who own small businesses or have pre-existing conditions.

Scott Anderson / Journal Times / AP

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Today the Republican-led House is set to vote on repealing President Obama’s health care reform legislation. So how are White House officials responding, given that the original health care effort stands as Mr. Obama’s signature domestic effort?

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They’re saying: “Hey gang, let’s put on a webcast!”

OK, that’s not entirely fair. Obama himself has been pretty tough, rhetorically-speaking, on the issue. “We can’t go backward,” he said yesterday in a statement about the repeal effort. “Americans deserve the freedom and security of knowing that insurance companies can’t deny, cap, or drop their coverage when they need it the most.”

But in general the problem for the administration is that it is defending a piece of legislation whose major provisions aren’t scheduled to take effect until 2014, and about which the US public remains confused.

So officials are using the classic approach of trying to personalize a complicated policy via individuals’ stories. They’ve been putting one per day up on the White House blog, complete with video of the people in question describing how the health reform bill has affected, or will affect, them.

Tuesday’s episode was “Voices of Health Reform: Cathy's Story”. It focuses on Cathy Lynn Howell Allen from Marblehead, Ohio, who has a preexisting health condition that has made it impossible for her to purchase insurance on the open market for individuals.

Obama’s health reforms will indeed ban insurance firms from turning down people with preexisting conditions – in 2014. So Ms. Allen talks instead about how the bill has enabled her to enroll in a kind of insurance halfway house, Ohio’s high-risk pool, which the reform bill helped create.

On Tuesday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius also released a report noting that upwards of 129 million Americans have pre-existing conditions.

Then the White House pivoted from preexisting conditions to small businesses. On Wednesday, the “Voices of Health Reform” episode was “Betsy's Story,” dealing with book store owner Betsy Burton of Salt Lake City, Utah, who pays for health insurance for her employees even in the face of continually rising costs.

Those tax credits are kicking in already, so Ms. Burton may be getting some immediate help with this burden. According to her, the amount of money she will get will bring her payroll cost down from 30 percent (presumably of her gross income) to a more reasonable 19 percent.

The White House blog also has a clip in which assistant to the president Stephanie Cutter uses a white board to try and explain how great the health reforms are, and why it would be just awful to repeal them.

None of these videos are going to be nominated for a documentary Academy Award, we must say. Whoever produced the one with Ms. Cutter is a little shaky on how to do two-camera shots. The ones with the personal stories aren’t so much video as filmed still pictures with voice-overs.

If these webcasts will stand as the White House's first line of defense against the repeal efforts – or second line, behind Obama's speech-making – the White House might consider raising their production values. Ken Burns has donated generously to the Democratic Party over the years. Maybe they should call him.

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