Obama pitching seniors on health bill

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President Barack Obama is turning his attention back to his signature health care bill and trying to win over the most skeptical constituency: seniors.

Obama was set to pitch the bill at a senior center in Wheaton, Md., on Tuesday. The event will be broadcast live and seniors will be able to listen by phone and ask questions at dozens of gatherings around the country.

The timing coincides with the release later this week of the first batch of $250 checks to seniors who fall into Medicare’s prescription drug coverage gap, known as the “doughnut hole.” The checks will be the first tangible benefits most of them will be seeing from the law Obama signed in March. Some 4 million elderly and disabled people will get checks this year, and the first batch of 80,000 is supposed to go out Thursday.

Obama also will announce new measures to combat Medicare fraud, including aiming to halve waste, fraud and abuse in the program by the end of 2012.

The health care law, which consumed much of the first year of Obama’s presidency, has taken a back seat to the disastrous Gulf oil spill in terms of Obama’s public priorities. With crucial midterm elections looming, and some of the rancorous debate around the legislation having subsided, the administration wants to draw the public’s attention to what’s in the new law for them.

The biggest elements, like the new requirement for everyone to get health coverage and new marketplaces to shop for insurance, don’t kick in until 2014, but a number of benefits begin this year or next, including tax credits for small businesses, the doughnut hole rebate and free preventive care for the elderly.

Seniors are a key group for the White House. They are reliable voters who have demonstrated more skepticism about the law than other groups have, in large part because of concerns about cuts to the Medicare health program that insures people 65 and older.

An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted after the law was signed found 49 percent of seniors were strongly opposed, compared with 37 percent of those 64 and younger.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that seniors have the information they need about their Medicare, including that the new law protects their guaranteed benefits and offers additional benefits and savings,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s assistant for special projects.

“We know there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and we’re going to make sure seniors have the facts,” Cutter said.

Republicans were quick to ridicule the approach, noting that the majority of seniors won’t see the benefit because most don’t fall into the “doughnut hole.”

“Don’t be surprised if the president forgets to mention that more than nine in 10 Medicare beneficiaries will never receive one of these checks,” Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee said in a news release.

The doughnut hole rebate checks are a down payment on the law’s approach of gradually closing the prescription drug coverage gap over the next decade. Seniors who fall into the gap are responsible for $3,610 in drug costs in 2010 before their Medicare coverage kicks in again.

Meanwhile, the administration is getting a boost from outside allies who are getting ready to roll out a high-profile advocacy group called the Health Information Center. Leaders of the group, including Andrew Grossman, who founded the advocacy group Wal-Mart Watch, are aiming to raise $25 million a year to promote the health law.

“One of the things that is going to be critical in the course of this is making sure that the benefits of the new law become real for people,” said communications specialist Anita Dunn, a consultant to the new group who formerly was Obama’s White House communications director.

- Associated Press