Democrats stoke grassroots US healthcare campaign

Mon Jun 8, 2009 8:00am EDT

* Obama supporters expect tough fight

* Opponents start running TV ads

* Obama says summer will be "make or break" for reform

By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY, Mo., June 8 (Reuters) - From a living room in Kansas to a bagel shop in New York to an Alabama church, Democrats have started mobilizing support for President Barack Obama's healthcare reform plans.

Suburban housewives and social workers mixed with Baptist ministers, college students, retirees and many others at grassroots gatherings over the weekend. Spurred by the Democratic National Committee's burgeoning political machine dubbed "Organizing for America," thousands of such meetings had been planned for Friday through Monday.

Those attending the scripted two-hour events viewed a videotaped message from Obama, shared personal stories and made local battle plans to counter the expected stiff opposition.

"It's going to be a vicious fight," said 76-year-old Hank Putsch who attended an organizing meeting on Saturday at a Kansas City restaurant. "The insurance companies and healthcare companies are gearing up to oppose this. We've got to get our voices heard."

Obama has declared this summer "make-or-break" time for healthcare reform and has called on Congress to pass comprehensive legislation by the end of the year, saying America can no longer afford the costs of a system dominated by profit-driven insurance and healthcare companies which leaves 46 million people uninsured.

Though he is leaving the details to Congress, Obama has said reform must ensure a public health insurance option operating alongside private plans, a reduction in basic costs, and assurance that no one is denied insurance.

"This is why we elected him," said Sarah Starnes, a hospital social worker who has volunteered to help campaign for the Obama plan in Missouri. "It used to be that we'd elect a president and then the lobbyists would determine what happened. This time it is going to be us who determine what happens."

The Democrats' strategy calls for tapping an estimated 2 million volunteers and a database of more than 10 million e-mail addresses built during Obama's election campaign.

SCRIPTED TALKING POINTS

Supporters are receiving talking points and scripted messages to lobby friends and family. A signature drive is underway to petition members of Congress and online fund-raising is earmarked for TV and radio advertisements.

Supporters hope to demonstrate their strength in a "National Health Care Day of Service" later this month.

"All it takes is one big medical crisis to ruin a family," said Melissa Carlson, who with her husband Bob, hosted an organizing effort on Saturday in their Overland Park, Kansas home. "One person can't make a difference but if we all do something eventually it adds up."

White House economic advisers last week said U.S. healthcare spending accounts for about 18 percent of the country's economic output, but could reach 34 percent by 2040 and the uninsured population could climb to 72 million.

Even those with insurance are finding it harder to pay their portion of medical bills while job losses are making healthcare costs more burdensome.

At one meeting held Saturday in a suburban Dallas, Texas, home, 59-year-old Grace Allison said she could not pay for a recent emergency room visit after losing her health insurance along with her job as a university administrator.

"I don't have $1,000 in my bank account. If I don't pay it affects my credit," she said.

Previous administrations, most notably President Bill Clinton's, have attempted healthcare reform. But well-financed opposition from corporate and political interests derailed their efforts.

It's too early to tell whether or not the Organizing for America efforts will translate to much pressure on Congress. The effort is fresh and no numbers were available on how many people are jumping on board.

Opponents are also getting organized. One group, Conservatives for Patients' Rights, last week launched a television ad warning that if the federal government becomes a player in healthcare insurance, it will erode private plans, leaving citizens with no choices about their care.

Critics also charge reform efforts could be too costly, adding to an already bloated deficit.

Observers said the aggressive grassroots push started this weekend could easily falter.

"Healthcare reform means different things to different people," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"To some people it means covering everybody, to others it means lowering their premiums. Almost everybody is for healthcare reform but they may not be for the same kinds of reform." (Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas, editing by Alan Elsner)




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