Wednesday was a healthcare reform doubleheader for President Obama. After his town hall on the issue in Raleigh, N.C., Obama headed to Bristol, Va., for another one in a Kroger supermarket. (The president actually flew to Bristol, Tenn., for the second event, but only because the airport is just over the state line. A Salon editor has ordered me to point out that the Tennessee town is also home to the Bristol Motor Speedway, the fastest of NASCAR's short tracks because of the high banks of the track walls. Now consider yourself informed.)
White House aides say more than 80 percent of Kroger employees have health insurance provided by the chain, thanks mostly to union contracts, which cover 70 percent of the stores' employees. The company spend $1 billion in 2008 on healthcare for workers and retirees -- which, naturally, fits the administration's pitch that even if you like the care you have now, your employer may not be able to afford to provide it for much longer.
Standing on a makeshift podium set up in the produce section, where he was flanked by a sign advertising 49 cent bananas, Obama hit that message pretty hard. "One of the reasons that a lot of Americans aren't sure whether we should reform the health care system is they've got health insurance right now and they're thinking, 'You know what? As long as I've got it, I just don't want to see any changes to it,'" he said. "What they don't realize is that the costs are going up for their employers at such a high rate that they are not getting raises, higher wages or higher incomes because that money is all going into health care."
During a short introductory speech, Obama mostly gave what has now become his standard healthcare pitch: if you like your doctors and current care, you won't have to change it; reform will help the country's long-term budgets, even though it's expensive in the short term; it will keep insurance companies from denying you coverage due to "pre-existing conditions" and other loopholes; and it'll make it cheaper and easier for people to get coverage. Republicans, as you may have guessed, dispute most of those points, and some polls show those counterarguments are starting to sway voters.
That may explain both Obama's two-stop day, and his the slightly more personal tone he brought to the discussion. He noted that Bristol was where he made his first campaign trip after clinching the Democratic nomination, and reminded the crowd that he had campaigned on healthcare reform. "This is the first town that I visited in the general election after I had won my party's nomination," he said. "So, in my mind, at least, this is where change began. And that's why I've come back: to talk with you about how we're going to deliver on that promise of change."
And he also spoke of watching his mother battle insurance companies over her treatment as she died of cancer -- which might help inoculate people against the GOP line that "government bureaucrats" would be involved in healthcare under Obama's proposed reforms. Never mind that the public healthcare plan Obama supports would only put the government in charge of some insurance policies; Obama was hoping to remind people that the insurance bureaucrats aren't necessarily any better -- in fact, may be worse -- than the government ones.
We will stop insurance companies from denying you coverage because of your medical history, because you've got a pre-existing condition. I'll never forget watching my mother on her hospital bed dealing with cancer trying to argue with health insurance companies, even though she'd been paying her premiums, saying that her cancer was a pre-existing condition, even though it hadn't been diagnosed when she first got her insurance. And I said then, and I continue to believe, that that's not right. And I'll bet many of you have heard of somebody or maybe have experienced yourself that same kind of situation.
The grocery store setting handed Obama a few easy laugh lines, too. "This is the first time I've been in a grocery store in a while," he said. "They don't let me do my own shopping, but I miss it. So I may pick up some fruit on the way out. I just wanted you to know." A few minutes later, he said he didn't want to talk too long, "because I do have to take some questions from you, and also Michelle's probably e-mailing me about grabbing some milk on the way home." Consider the fruit line one promise kept, no matter how the healthcare debate shakes out: reporters on the scene said that on the way out of the store, Obama grabbed a peach and took a bite out of it. (An aide handed store employees some cash to cover the cost -- which makes the peach deficit-neutral, too.)