President Obama warned Americans on Saturday not to believe "rumors" that the health reform initiative he is supporting will lead to a government-run health care system or push Medicare recipients to die rather than running up hefty tabs for medical services.
"Let me start by dispelling the outlandish rumors that reform will promote euthanasia, or cut Medicaid, or bring about a government takeover of health care. That's simply not true," Obama said in his weekly address.
Obama's message was delivered against the backdrop of increasingly hostile debate concerning overhauling the nation's health care system.
From Connecticut to California last week, angry demonstrators opposed to Democratic health care proposals disrupted town hall meetings convened to discuss the topic, at times accusing lawmakers who favor Obama's plan of backing a "socialist agenda."
In his address, Obama was vague about who was behind what he suggested were organized efforts to demonize the White House-backed health reform plans. He suggested that the efforts were originating in the capital -- though the most dramatic resistance to his proposals has been taking place elsewhere.
"As we draw close to finalizing -- and passing -- real health insurance reform, the defenders of the status quo and political point-scorers in Washington are growing fiercer in their opposition," the president said. "In recent days and weeks, some have been using misleading information to defeat what they know is the best chance of reform we have ever had. That is why it is important, especially now, as senators and representatives head home and meet with their constituents, for you, the American people, to have all the facts."
In calls to lawmakers and at town hall meetings, opponents charge, among other things, that proposed legislation would force them to lose their own insurance even if they're satisfied with it, or require euthanasia for the elderly.
Get the facts
Neither is true, according to FactCheck.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Republican congressional leaders point to the angry protests as signs that the public opposes Democratic plans to overhaul health care.
Obama on Saturday introduced his pitch for health reform legislation by touting better-than-expected unemployment numbers out Friday that showed a loss of 247,000 jobs in July -- about 50,000 fewer than predicted -- and the unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, well short of the 10 percent that some expected.
"This month's jobs numbers are a sign that we've begun to put the brakes on this recession and that the worst may be behind us," the president said. "But we must do more than rescue our economy from this immediate crisis; we must rebuild it stronger than before. We must lay a new foundation for future growth and prosperity, and a key pillar of a new foundation is health insurance reform -- reform that we are now closer to achieving than ever before."
The president also emphasized what is now the White House's central argument for health care reform: the idea that it will provide added security to Americans who already have decent insurance.
"While reform is obviously essential for the 46 million Americans who don't have health insurance, it will also provide more stability and security to the hundreds of millions who do," Obama said. "What we need, and what we will have when we pass health insurance reform, are consumer protections to make sure that those who have insurance are treated fairly and that insurance companies are held accountable."
Many Democratic House members holding town hall meetings in their districts have been met by large, sometimes rowdy, crowds. In a series of instances, shouting matches have broken out. At other events, some opponents have carried signs that depict Obama as Adolf Hitler or suggest that his plan amounts to Naziism. Some conservative groups that are encouraging members to attend the sessions have denounced the extreme and disruptive tactics. But the heated confrontations have proved to be irresistible fodder for television news broadcasts.
A raucous demonstration in St. Louis County, Mo., on Thursday ended with six arrests, while a scuffle ended a Tampa, Fla., town hall meeting the same night. And two Democrats, Reps. Brad Miller of North Carolina and Brian Baird of Washington, received death threats -- Miller from a caller who was upset that he was not holding a public forum and Baird via fax a day after he described town hall demonstrators as "a lynch mob."
Whether the protests reflect a growing segment of voters upset about everything from the economic stimulus package to the bailout of automakers and now a $1 trillion overhaul of the health care industry, or just a narrow but very vocal minority magnified by the media -- especially talk radio -- is unclear.
But recent polls have found that public support for the president and for a health care overhaul has been slipping.
"Democrats are in denial," Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said last week.
"Instead of acknowledging the widespread anger millions of Americans are feeling this summer. ... Democrats are trying to dismiss it as a fabrication."
While significant details of the health reform proposals remain in flux, Obama said congressional committees have reached "an unprecedented level of agreement" concerning the contours of a bill. He also vowed that such legislation would prevent "arbitrary" denial of payment by private insurers and end annual and lifetime caps that can cut off coverage when medical costs spiral upward.
"Insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage because of a previous illness or injury. And insurance companies will no longer be allowed to drop or water down coverage for someone who has become seriously ill. Your health insurance ought to be there for you when it counts -- and reform will make sure it is," Obama said.
The president had long demanded that both houses of Congress pass health care reform bills by the August recess. That deadline came and went last week with no floor vote in either body. Nevertheless, Obama concluded his address Saturday by drawing another line in the sand.
"We have to get this done ... we will get this done -- by the end of the year," he insisted.
McClatchy News Service contributed to this report.