President Obama: Address To The Joint Session Of Congress On Health Care

Madame Speaker, Vice President Biden, Members of Congress, and the American people:

When I spoke here last winter, this nation was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month.  Credit was frozen.  And our financial system was on the verge of collapse.


As any American who is still looking for work or a way to pay their bills will tell you, we are by no means out of the woods.  A full and vibrant recovery is many months away.  And I will not let up until those Americans who seek jobs can find them; until those businesses that seek capital and credit can thrive; until all responsible homeowners can stay in their homes.  That is our ultimate goal.  But thanks to the bold and decisive action we have taken since January, I can stand here with confidence and say that we have pulled this economy back from the brink.


I want to thank the members of this body for your efforts and your support in these last several months, and especially those who have taken the difficult votes that have put us on a path to recovery.  I also want to thank the American people for their patience and resolve during this trying time for our nation.


But we did not come here just to clean up crises.  We came to build a future.  So tonight, I return to speak to all of you about an issue that is central to that future – and that is the issue of health care.


I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.  It has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for health care reform.  And ever since, nearly every President and Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, has attempted to meet this challenge in some way.  A bill for comprehensive health reform was first introduced by John Dingell Sr. in 1943.  Sixty-five years later, his son continues to introduce that same bill at the beginning of each session.


Our collective failure to meet this challenge – year after year, decade after decade – has led us to a breaking point.  Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy.  These are not primarily people on welfare.  These are middle-class Americans.  Some can’t get insurance on the job.  Others are self-employed, and can’t afford it, since buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer.   Many other Americans who are willing and able to pay are still denied insurance due to previous illnesses or conditions that insurance companies decide are too risky or expensive to cover.


We are the only advanced democracy on Earth – the only wealthy nation – that allows such hardships for millions of its people.  There are now more than thirty million American citizens who cannot get coverage.  In just a two year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point.  And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage.  In other words, it can happen to anyone.


But the problem that plagues the health care system is not just a problem of the uninsured.  Those who do have insurance have never had less security and stability than they do today.   More and more Americans worry that if you move, lose your job, or change your job, you’ll lose your health insurance too.  More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won’t pay the full cost of care.  It happens every day.


One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn’t reported gallstones that he didn’t even know about.  They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it.  Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne.  By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer more than doubled in size.  That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.


Then there’s the problem of rising costs.  We spend one-and-a-half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren’t any healthier for it.  This is one of the reasons that insurance premiums have gone up three times faster than wages.  It’s why so many employers – especially small businesses – are forcing their employees to pay more for insurance, or are dropping their coverage entirely.  It’s why so many aspiring entrepreneurs cannot afford to open a business in the first place, and why American businesses that compete internationally – like our automakers – are at a huge disadvantage.  And it’s why those of us with health insurance are also paying a hidden and growing tax for those without it – about $1000 per year that pays for somebody else’s emergency room and charitable care.


Finally, our health care system is placing an unsustainable burden on taxpayers.  When health care costs grow at the rate they have, it puts greater pressure on programs like Medicare and Medicaid.  If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined.  Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem.  Nothing else even comes close.


These are the facts.  Nobody disputes them.  We know we must reform this system.  The question is how.


There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada’s, where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everyone.  On the right, there are those who argue that we should end the employer-based system and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.


I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both approaches.  But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have.  Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch.  And that is precisely what those of you in Congress have tried to do over the past several months.


During that time, we have seen Washington at its best and its worst.


We have seen many in this chamber work tirelessly for the better part of this year to offer thoughtful ideas about how to achieve reform.  Of the five committees asked to develop bills, four have completed their work, and the Senate Finance Committee announced today that it will move forward next week.  That has never happened before.  Our overall efforts have been supported by an unprecedented coalition of doctors and nurses; hospitals, seniors’ groups and even drug companies – many of whom opposed reform in the past.  And there is agreement in this chamber on about eighty percent of what needs to be done, putting us closer to the goal of reform than we have ever been.


But what we have also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government.  Instead of honest debate, we have seen scare tactics.  Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise.  Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge.  And out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned.


Well the time for bickering is over.  The time for games has passed.  Now is the season for action.  Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do.  Now is the time to deliver on health care.


The plan I’m announcing tonight would meet three basic goals:


It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance.  It will provide insurance to those who don’t.  And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.  It’s a plan that asks everyone to take responsibility for meeting this challenge – not just government and insurance companies, but employers and individuals.  And it’s a plan that incorporates ideas from Senators and Congressmen; from Democrats and Republicans – and yes, from some of my opponents in both the primary and general election.


Here are the details that every American needs to know about this plan:


First, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, Medicare, Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have.  Let me repeat this:  nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.


What this plan will do is to make the insurance you have work better for you.  Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition.  As soon as I sign this bill, it will be against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick or water it down when you need it most.  They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime.  We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they get sick.  And insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies – because there’s no reason we shouldn’t be catching diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer before they get worse.  That makes sense, it saves money, and it saves lives.


That’s what Americans who have health insurance can expect from this plan – more security and stability.


Now, if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who don’t currently have health insurance, the second part of this plan will finally offer you quality, affordable choices.  If you lose your job or change your job, you will be able to get coverage.  If you strike out on your own and start a small business, you will be able to get coverage.  We will do this by creating a new insurance exchange – a marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to shop for health insurance at competitive prices.  Insurance companies will have an incentive to participate in this exchange because it lets them compete for millions of new customers.  As one big group, these customers will have greater leverage to bargain with the insurance companies for better prices and quality coverage.  This is how large companies and government employees get affordable insurance.  It’s how everyone in this Congress gets affordable insurance.  And it’s time to give every American the same opportunity that we’ve given ourselves.


For those individuals and small businesses who still cannot afford the lower-priced insurance available in the exchange, we will provide tax credits, the size of which will be based on your need.  And all insurance companies that want access to this new marketplace will have to abide by the consumer protections I already mentioned.  This exchange will take effect in four years, which will give us time to do it right.  In the meantime, for those Americans who can’t get insurance today because they have pre-existing medical conditions, we will immediately offer low-cost coverage that will protect you against financial ruin if you become seriously ill.  This was a good idea when Senator John McCain proposed it in the campaign, it’s a good idea now, and we should embrace it.


Now, even if we provide these affordable options, there may be those – particularly the young and healthy – who still want to take the risk and go without coverage.  There may still be companies that refuse to do right by their workers.  The problem is, such irresponsible behavior costs all the rest of us money.  If there are affordable options and people still don’t sign up for health insurance, it means we pay for those people’s expensive emergency room visits.  If some businesses don’t provide workers health care, it forces the rest of us to pick up the tab when their workers get sick, and gives those businesses an unfair advantage over their competitors.  And unless everybody does their part, many of the insurance reforms we seek – especially requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions – just can’t be achieved.


That’s why under my plan, individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance – just as most states require you to carry auto insurance.  Likewise, businesses will be required to either offer their workers health care, or chip in to help cover the cost of their workers.  There will be a hardship waiver for those individuals who still cannot afford coverage, and 95% of all small businesses, because of their size and narrow profit margin, would be exempt from these requirements.  But we cannot have large businesses and individuals who can afford coverage game the system by avoiding responsibility to themselves or their employees.  Improving our health care system only works if everybody does their part.


While there remain some significant details to be ironed out, I believe a broad consensus exists for the aspects of the plan I just outlined:  consumer protections for those with insurance, an exchange that allows individuals and small businesses to purchase affordable coverage, and a requirement that people who can afford insurance get insurance.


And I have no doubt that these reforms would greatly benefit Americans from all walks of life, as well as the economy as a whole.  Still, given all the misinformation that’s been spread over the past few months, I realize that many Americans have grown nervous about reform.  So tonight I’d like to address some of the key controversies that are still out there.


Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost.  The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens.  Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible.  It is a lie, plain and simple.


There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants.  This, too, is false – the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.  And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up – under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.


My health care proposal has also been attacked by some who oppose reform as a “government takeover” of the entire health care system.  As proof, critics point to a provision in our plan that allows the uninsured and small businesses to choose a publicly-sponsored insurance option, administered by the government just like Medicaid or Medicare.


So let me set the record straight.  My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition.  Unfortunately, in 34 states, 75% of the insurance market is controlled by five or fewer companies.  In Alabama, almost 90% is controlled by just one company.  Without competition, the price of insurance goes up and the quality goes down.  And it makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly – by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest; by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage; and by jacking up rates.


Insurance executives don’t do this because they are bad people.  They do it because it’s profitable.  As one former insurance executive testified before Congress, insurance companies are not only encouraged to find reasons to drop the seriously ill; they are rewarded for it.  All of this is in service of meeting what this former executive called “Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations.”


Now, I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business.  They provide a legitimate service, and employ a lot of our friends and neighbors.  I just want to hold them accountable.  The insurance reforms that I’ve already mentioned would do just that.  But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange.  Let me be clear – it would only be an option for those who don’t have insurance.  No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance.  In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5% of Americans would sign up.


Despite all this, the insurance companies and their allies don’t like this idea.  They argue that these private companies can’t fairly compete with the government.  And they’d be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option.  But they won’t be.  I have insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.  But by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits, excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers.  It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities.


It’s worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option of the sort I’ve proposed tonight.  But its impact shouldn’t be exaggerated – by the left, the right, or the media.  It is only one part of my plan, and should not be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles.  To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it.  The public option is only a means to that end – and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.  And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have.


For example, some have suggested that that the public option go into effect only in those markets where insurance companies are not providing affordable policies.  Others propose a co-op or another non-profit entity to administer the plan.  These are all constructive ideas worth exploring.  But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can’t find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice.  And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.


Finally, let me discuss an issue that is a great concern to me, to members of this chamber, and to the public – and that is how we pay for this plan.


Here’s what you need to know.  First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – either now or in the future.  Period.  And to prove that I’m serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize.  Part of the reason I faced a trillion dollar deficit when I walked in the door of the White House is because too many initiatives over the last decade were not paid for – from the Iraq War to tax breaks for the wealthy.  I will not make that same mistake with health care.


Second, we’ve estimated that most of this plan can be paid for by finding savings within the existing health care system – a system that is currently full of waste and abuse.  Right now, too much of the hard-earned savings and tax dollars we spend on health care doesn’t make us healthier.  That’s not my judgment – it’s the judgment of medical professionals across this country.  And this is also true when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid.


In fact, I want to speak directly to America’s seniors for a moment, because Medicare is another issue that’s been subjected to demagoguery and distortion during the course of this debate.


More than four decades ago, this nation stood up for the principle that after a lifetime of hard work, our seniors should not be left to struggle with a pile of medical bills in their later years.  That is how Medicare was born.  And it remains a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next.  That is why not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.


The only thing this plan would eliminate is the hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud, as well as unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies – subsidies that do everything to pad their profits and nothing to improve your care.  And we will also create an independent commission of doctors and medical experts charged with identifying more waste in the years ahead.


These steps will ensure that you – America’s seniors – get the benefits you’ve been promised.  They will ensure that Medicare is there for future generations.  And we can use some of the savings to fill the gap in coverage that forces too many seniors to pay thousands of dollars a year out of their own pocket for prescription drugs.  That’s what this plan will do for you.  So don’t  pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut – especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past, and just this year supported a budget that would have essentially turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program.  That will never happen on my watch.  I will protect Medicare.


Now, because Medicare is such a big part of the health care system, making the program more efficient can help usher in changes in the way we deliver health care that can reduce costs for everybody.  We have long known that some places, like the Intermountain Healthcare in Utah or the Geisinger Health System in rural Pennsylvania, offer high-quality care at costs below average.  The commission can help encourage the adoption of these common-sense best practices by doctors and medical professionals throughout the system – everything from reducing hospital infection rates to encouraging better coordination between teams of doctors.


Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan.  Much of the rest would be paid for with revenues from the very same drug and insurance companies that stand to benefit from tens of millions of new customers.  This reform will charge insurance companies a fee for their most expensive policies, which will encourage them to provide greater value for the money – an idea which has the support of Democratic and Republican experts.  And according to these same experts, this modest change could help hold down the cost of health care for all of us in the long-run.


Finally, many in this chamber – particularly on the Republican side of the aisle – have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of health care.  I don’t believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I have talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs.  So I am proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine.  I know that the Bush Administration considered authorizing demonstration projects in individual states to test these issues. It’s a good idea, and I am directing my Secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on this initiative today.


Add it all up, and the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years – less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration.  Most of these costs will be paid for with money already being spent – but spent badly – in the existing health care system.  The plan will not add to our deficit.  The middle-class will realize greater security, not higher taxes.  And if we are able to slow the growth of health care costs by just one-tenth of one percent each year, it will actually reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the long term.


This is the plan I’m proposing.  It’s a plan that incorporates ideas from many of the people in this room tonight – Democrats and Republicans.  And I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead.  If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen.  My door is always open.


But know this:  I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it.  I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are.  If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out.  And I will not accept the status quo as a solution.  Not this time.  Not now.


Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing.  Our deficit will grow.  More families will go bankrupt.  More businesses will close.  More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it most.  And more will die as a result.  We know these things to be true.


That is why we cannot fail.  Because there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed – the ones who suffer silently, and the ones who shared their stories with us at town hall meetings, in emails, and in letters.


I received one of those letters a few days ago.  It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy.  He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal.  He asked that it be delivered upon his death.


In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, and his children, who are here tonight .  And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform – “that great unfinished business of our society,” he called it – would finally pass.  He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that “it concerns more than material things.”  “What we face,” he wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”


I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days – the character of our country.  One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government.  And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and sometimes angry debate.


For some of Ted Kennedy’s critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty.  In their mind, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.


But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here – people of both parties – know that what drove him was something more.  His friend, Orrin Hatch, knows that.  They worked together to provide children with health insurance.  His friend John McCain knows that.  They worked together on a Patient’s Bill of Rights.  His friend Chuck Grassley knows that.  They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.


On issues like these, Ted Kennedy’s passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience.  It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer.  He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick; and he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent – there is something that could make you better, but I just can’t afford it.


That large-heartedness – that concern and regard for the plight of others – is not a partisan feeling.  It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling.  It, too, is part of the American character.  Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes.  A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.  A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.


This has always been the history of our progress.  In 1933, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism. But the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it.  In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, did not back down.  They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.


You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem.  They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom.  But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited.  And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter – that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges.  We lose something essential about ourselves.


What was true then remains true today.  I understand how difficult this health care debate has been.  I know that many in this country are deeply skeptical that government is looking out for them.  I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road – to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term.


But that’s not what the moment calls for.  That’s not what we came here to do.  We did not come to fear the future.  We came here to shape it.  I still believe we can act even when it’s hard.  I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress.  I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test.


Because that is who we are.  That is our calling.  That is our character.  Thank you, God Bless You, and may God Bless the United States of America.

 Real People, Real Issues in Attendance

Marie Connolly (Washington, DC)

Marie is the owner of Stitch DC yarn shop, which she opened in June 2004.  She lives on Capitol Hill with her husband and three children.  Stitch DC hosted a Roundtable Discussion in May with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls Tina Tchen on the struggles small businesses face in trying to provide health insurance to their employees.  Marie cannot afford to provide her three employees health insurance.  Under health insurance reform, Marie will be eligible for small business tax credits.


Darlene Daniels (Baltimore, MD)

Darlene has insurance through her employer, but it only goes so far.  Diagnosed in 2008 with a chronic condition, Sarcoidosis, that attacks all her major organs, she’s already gone through her coverage cap for the year.  Darlene has had to undergo three different procedures to treat her condition, and the insurance company only paid $400 total.  When she was first diagnosed, she incurred bills totaling at least $30,000, and while Darlene is trying to negotiate a payment plan, she fears she will be paying this off the rest of her life.  Her Sarcoidosis necessitates that she see a heart and lung doctor regularly and an eye doctor three times a year, but she just can’t afford it.  Darlene is still waiting to see if she qualifies for medical assistance.  Under health insurance reform, there will be no annual caps on coverage.


Angela Diggs (Washington, DC)

Angela Diggs has served as Project Director for Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center in Southeast Washington, DC since March 2002.  The center is a partnership of the District of Columbia Office on Aging and Providence Hospital’s Wellness Institute.  It is located in the District’s Southeast Ward 8, where longstanding health care access problems are starting to be addressed.  Ms. Diggs is responsible for overall administration and management of the center.  Congress Heights is considered the model for all future wellness programs in DC.  Angela has been with Providence Hospital since May 1995, serving in progressively challenging positions within the Wellness Institute and Employee Health Services.  Angela shared her experiences in March at the White House Forum on Health Reform.


Peter Gaytan (Alexandria, VA)

Peter Gaytan began serving as Executive Director of The American Legion Washington DC Office in April 2009.  In 1991, he entered the United States Air Force.  After completing initial training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and Keesler AFB, Mississippi, he served as Military Protocol Liaison with the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover AFB, Delaware.  He also served four years with the 512th Airlift Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve as a Public Affairs Specialist.  Originally from Norfolk, VA he and his wife, Kimberly and twins, Maria and Sebastian currently reside in Alexandria, VA.


When Peter was having stomach pain, he went to his primary care physician and was told to take Pepto-Bismol and TUMS.  He later went to a Gastroenterologist who did a basic workup.  After a few months of continued stomach pain, the GI specialist requested a colonoscopy.  It took months for the insurance company to agree that it was necessary, stating that at Peter’s age of 37, a colonoscopy was not needed.  The colonoscopy was finally performed, and the doctor could not complete the procedure due to the size of the tumor.  Peter’s test showed that he had stage III cancer and it had spread out of Peter’s colon and into the surrounding lymph nodes.  He had surgery the following week, and the tumor was removed, as well as 14 inches of colon.  Peter started chemotherapy shortly after his surgery, going to the Cancer Center every two weeks for five hours of chemo, and carrying a portable pump for two more days of slow drip chemo.  The surgery and chemotherapy bills were not all covered by his private insurance, and Peter is still struggling to make payments.  Under health insurance reform, even though he has a pre-existing condition, Peter would have security of being able to get insurance if he ever lost his current insurance.


Katie Gibson (Bozeman, MT)

Katie is a recurrent cancer survivor who shared her story when she introduced the President in August at the Town Hall in Bozeman, MT.  Katie was told in 1995 that she had less than a year to live.  In 1998 Katie and her husband Scott Bischke backpacked 800 miles across their beloved state of Montana.  Katie had group coverage through Hewlett Packard when she and her husband decided to leave the corporation and move to Montana.  Her insurance would not transfer with her if she left HP to start her own company.  Due to pre-existing conditions she struggled to find new insurance but did eventually find it through a professional group, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).  Years after they had their new insurance, they were informed that the minimum deductible was being increased from $5000 to $25000/year.  Katie and her husband had no say in the matter, and they could not afford to pay $25,000 a year out of pocket, so they had to search for new insurance.  This was not easy for Katie as a cancer survivor, and one insurance company after another refused to cover her because they said she had a pre-existing condition.  Eventually Katie found a company and was accepted into a new program.  Just in case, Katie kept her old coverage for a month after the new coverage started – just to be certain the new company would cover her.  Everything seemed fine, but several months later the new insurance company called to say they had changed their minds, and that Katie’s insurance had been rescinded retroactive to the beginning of the policy.  So now not only did Katie not have insurance, her record indicated a long lapse in coverage.  Her first health insurance company would not take her back.  This situation was very stressful as she was quite ill at the time.  Katie and her husband called the Montana State Insurance Commissioner’s office, and they intervened for them.  Through a state-backed program, Katie is now fully covered.  Under health insurance reform, rescissions are prohibited.


David “Dave” Gorman (Gaithersburg, MD)

Dave, a combat-disabled veteran of the Vietnam War, was appointed Executive Director of the 1.3 million-member Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Service and Legislative Headquarters in Washington, DC in 1995.  Dave entered the U.S. Army in 1969, serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the famed “Sky Soldiers” of the Vietnam War.  In October of 1969, he was wounded in action in Vietnam.  Both of his legs were amputated, and Dave came back to the States and transferred into the VA Health Care System.  Dave went through rehab and physical therapy and was fitted for prosthetics.  Almost four decades later, he is a leader in veterans’ advocacy and continues to seek care within the VA Health Care System.  Currently, Dave uses the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC.  Dave is the father of five children and has five grandchildren.  He and his wife, Paula, live in Gaithersburg, MD.


Vincent Keane (Washington, DC)

Vincent is President and CEO of Unity Health Care.  Unity Health Care serves individuals and families in all 8 Wards of the District of Columbia through its network of medical and social services that reach residents and the homeless.  Virtually all of Unity Health Care’s patients live at or below the federal poverty level.  Regardless of the ability to pay, Unity Health Care continues to provide each patient with a primary care provider who offers referrals to specialist when needed.  The First Lady visited Unity Health Care’s Upper Cardozo health center in June as part of her efforts to promote health reform and to announce the release of $850 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) funds for capital improvements to community health centers. 


Victoria “Vicki” Kennedy (Hyannis Port, MA)

Throughout his career, Senator Edward M. Kennedy fought tirelessly for affordable and accessible health care for all Americans.   He called it the “cause of his life.”  Nearly every health care bill passed by Congress over the last five decades was championed by Senator Kennedy.    Though he didn’t achieve his dream of health care for all, Senator Kennedy expanded quality and affordable health care to millions of Americans, including children, seniors and disabled Americans.    On August 25, 2009, Senator Kennedy passed away after battling brain cancer for more than a year.   His wife, Vicki Kennedy, was a partner in her husband’s lifelong fight for health care reform, and shares his commitment and passion to make health care a right, and not a privilege.  


In 1994, 2000, and 2006 Vicki played an active role in the re-election campaigns of her late husband, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA).  She created a Massachusetts Women’s Council which has served as a model for other campaigns around the country, and she remains active in her support of candidates in Massachusetts and around the country. She was a National Co-Chair of the Obama National Catholic Advisory Committee.  Vicki practiced law in the private sector until 1997, with a special emphasis on bank regulatory and commercial law and corporate strategic planning.  She received a BA, magna cum laude, from Newcomb College in 1976 and a JD, summa cum laude, from the Tulane Law School in 1979.  She then served as a law clerk for Judge Robert Sprecher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  In 1998, Vicki received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the Suffolk University Law School in Boston for her service to her community.  Together, the Kennedys have five children and four grandchildren.


Laura Klitzka (Green Bay, WI)

Laura is a 35-year old married mother of two with metastatic breast cancer.  Laura shared her story when she introduced the President in June at the Town Hall in Green Bay, WI.  Laura was first diagnosed in January 2008 and has since undergone 8 rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and 33 rounds of radiation, only for the cancer to return and spread to her bones.  Laura’s cancer is untreatable in the long term.  She is presently taking prescription drugs to try and prevent the cancer’s spread and treat the illness as a chronic condition, but ultimately her prognosis is 2 to 10 years at most.  Laura has insurance coverage under her husband’s employer, but the plan has a lifetime benefits limit of 1 million dollars, and Laura and her husband worry that they will reach this limit because of her expensive treatments.  Laura is receiving $1,050 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance after she was laid off from her job during her treatment.  Laura estimates her family has at least $12,000 in unpaid medical bills, and they are struggling to get by.  Their budget is very tight and they’ve had to use a credit card to pay at least one mortgage payment so far.  Laura says she doesn’t want to lose their house over her illness, and while she knows she won’t be able to see her children grow up, she wants to be sure the time she has left with them is quality and not spent worrying about health care bills.  Under health insurance reform, lifetime benefit limits will be prohibited.


Ellen Linderman (Carrington, ND)

Ellen is a 61-year old farmer in Carrington, ND.  Ellen has had several difficult experiences with health care in recent years.  Ellen was initially denied health insurance coverage a few years back when she and her husband (also a farmer) had to switch from the state employee plan to private insurance. However, since she had eye surgery less than 6 months prior to switching, she was considered high risk.  The issue was eventually resolved but only after she went without coverage for several months.  Health insurance reform would help people like Ellen who have a pre-existing condition and need to get insurance – insurance companies can’t deny people due to a pre-existing condition.


John Martineau (Hot Springs National Park, AR)

John is a 35-year old father who is working part-time and attending school part-time.  John cannot afford health insurance and his four year old son, Jaxon, suffers from seizures.  Jaxon is covered under CHIP, but John is uninsured and is constantly worried because he cannot afford health insurance.  He runs the Organizing for America Hot Springs phone bank twice a week.  He is working hard for health insurance reform so that he and other families with children who suffer from illnesses like Jaxon’s won’t have to go uninsured.


Dr. Wayne Myers (Waldoboro, ME)       

Dr. Myers is an organic farmer and exotic farm animal rancher in Waldoboro, Maine.  He is also a pediatrician by training and has been active in rural health care for many years.  As a rural rancher, farmer, and former resident of many remote rural places including Alaska, he understands the health care challenges present in accessing care and affordable insurance in rural areas. 


Darlyne Neff (Iowa City, IA)

Darlyne is a 75-year old retired teacher from Iowa City.  She credits two operations, one for breast cancer and a second to remove a brain tumor, for extending her life.  In December 2008, Darlyne organized a community meeting on health care reform at Oaknoll Retirement Community in Iowa City.  As senior citizens who have health insurance and Medicare they know they are lucky to have good health coverage, but know too that others go without even basic medical care. 


Sergio Olaya (Bethesda, MD)

Sergio’s late mother, Clara, is an example of the urgent need for health insurance reform.  Before being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, Clara had been working at the Centers for Disease Control in getting health-related information to the growing Hispanic and Latino Communities nationwide.  Unfortunately, while she was in-between federal jobs, she could not afford to pay for COBRA while also supporting Sergio thru college at the University of Delaware.  Because of the high cost of COBRA, Clara was unable to maintain coverage, and ultimately fell ill and was unable to work and receive coverage.  Her medical bills skyrocketed and by the time she passed away shortly thereafter, they had reached $255,000.  Sergio was ultimately forced to sell the family home to pay off all the outstanding medical bills incurred by his mother.  Sergio is currently in his final semester at the University of Delaware for a degree in Political Science and minor in Sociology.


Yolanda Pena (San Antonio, TX)

The insurance crisis has had a profound effect on Yolanda’s life.  Yolanda had health insurance through an employer in September 2006 when her doctors discovered her brain tumor.  When she had surgery a month later, they discovered that it wasn’t cancerous, but they did have to remove most of it to avoid damage.  She was told she would be able to return to work in 10 weeks, but it was about six months before she regained her comprehension, memory, and motor skills enough to do so.  Fortunately, her employer was able to hold her job until she went back in the spring of 2007, but she soon discovered that she was unable to continue working and left in August.  She and her husband looked at COBRA, but it was unaffordable.  No one on the individual market would cover her without charging exorbitant premiums.  To get onto her husband’s plan, it would cost them an extra $300 a month.  Instead, he sets aside $150 a month to cover her continuing medical needs like medications, doctor’s visits, and MRIs.  She still has some medical debt from when she was first diagnosed, but as with many people with chronic conditions, debt is just a part of her life.  Under health insurance reform, Yolanda would be able to access affordable coverage in the health insurance exchange and would be eligible for subsidies to help pay for coverage.


Easter Spencer (Washington, DC)

In June, Easter discovered a lump on her breast.  She called Mautner Project (a local support organization for lesbians with cancer and their loved ones for help; she is also a volunteer there) and was referred to the Capital Breast Care Center, which in turn referred her to Washington Hospital Center for a mammogram and sonogram.  The good news was that they discovered the lump was non-cancerous.  However, the doctors told her it should be removed, and she has no health insurance.  Easter works as an administrative assistant for a real estate management company.  She has four children and has eight grandchildren. 


David Turner (Little Rock, AR)

David was covered under his employee plan for a year before the insurance company went back in his record and cancelled his plan retroactively on January 25, 2008, claiming that he did not disclose all of his medical history on his original form.  The company cited high triglycerides and high cholesterol, which David didn’t even know he had, and claimed other conditions were ‘digestive disorders’ unbeknownst to David.  He appealed the decision, and four months later, he got a letter saying from his insurance company stating that it is irrelevant whether or not he intentionally or inadvertently failed to reveal all of his previous medical history.  Under health insurance reform, rescissions are prohibited.


Travis Ulerick (Dublin, IN) 

Travis is a 24-year old fire fighter/EMT for the Dublin Volunteer Fire Department in Dublin, Indiana.  He started out as a firefighter and first responder for the volunteer fire department on June 28, 2000.  When the fire department became the sole EMS provider for the southwestern portion of Wayne County in 2007, Travis was one of the four crew members hired to work full-time on the department’s ambulance.  He is currently a senior at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, graduated from the Tri-County Training Academy of Paramedic Science (Connersville, Indiana) in June 2009.  Travis introduced the President in March at the White House Forum on Health Reform and previously he hosted a health care community discussion with other local first responders, doctors, and everyday Americans in January 2009 in the bay of Dublin’s fire station.


Eric Whitaker (Chicago, IL)

Dr. Whitaker is the Executive Vice President, Strategic Affiliations and Associate Dean of Community-based Research at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC).  Until October, 2007, he served as Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).  In this capacity, Dr. Whitaker oversaw an agency with a budget of $450 million with over 1,200 employees statewide, as well as 3 laboratories and seven regional offices.  Prior to his appointment, Dr. Whitaker was an attending physician in Internal Medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and a member of its Collaborative Research Unit.  He helped found Project Brotherhood: A Black Men’s Clinic, a weekly clinic for African American men housed in Woodlawn Adult Health Center, which is affiliated with the Cook County Bureau of Health Services.  In 2000, the project received the highest award accorded by the National Association of Public Hospital and Health Systems.  He is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health. 


Nathan Wilkes (Englewood, CO)

Nathan’s son, Thomas, was born with hemophilia in 2003.  He shared his story when he introduced the President in August at the Town Hall in Grand Junction, CO.  At the time, he and his family had high quality insurance through the high tech telecommunications company that he helped found, but when the insurance company saw Nathan’s claims (ranging from a few thousand dollars to $750,000 a year for his son), they started to increase the premiums for all the employees and their families.  The company tried to find other coverage, but no other insurance company would take them with Thomas on the policy.  When his son Thomas neared the $1 million cap on his policy, Nathan searched for another option.  A social worker suggested that Nathan and his wife get divorced so that she could go on Medicaid.  Nathan found a way to get his son into the state’s high risk pool, but it too had a $1 million cap.  Nathan paid premiums to both his company and the high-risk insurance pool.  By this time, he was paying about $25,000 out of pocket a year and still getting huge bills and threats from collection agencies.  Finally, Nathan decided to form his own small business so that he could have more control over the plan selection.  Fortunately, under Colorado law, coverage for small businesses prohibits permanently excluding pre-existing conditions, so he was able to get coverage for his family.  But Nathan faces increasing premiums and a $6 million lifetime cap, which he fears will be exceeded because of his son’s continuing need for care.  Under health reform, coverage for Nathan and his family would not include any annual or lifetime caps on benefits.  Under health insurance reform, coverage for Nathan and his family would not include any annual or lifetime caps on benefits.

source – the white house


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