WHEATON, Md. - President Barack Obama on Tuesday sought acceptance of the health overhaul law from skeptical seniors, a crucial constituency he wants to win over even as the Gulf oil spill dominates public debate and his time.
The questions Obama got from a crowd at the Holiday Park Multipurpose Senior Center in suburban Maryland, and from others listening on the phone, suggested that even if rancorous debate has faded, plenty of doubts remain. And there's only so much Obama can do to ease them. That may be a sobering prospect for the White House with crucial midterm elections looming, but the administration is determined to keep making the case for the new system - to seniors and others.
Tuesday's event was timed to coincide 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." Some 4 million elderly and disabled people will get checks this year, a down payment on the law's approach of closing the doughnut hole entirely over the next decade.
The first question Obama got, from a woman in the audience: Why can't he close the doughnut hole faster?
Answer: "It's very expensive."
The next question was from a listener in Illinois who wanted to know whether participants in the private insurance plans in Medicare, called Medicare Advantage, would lose benefits.
The answer is yes, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But Obama didn't come out and say it, explaining instead that Medicare Advantage plans are overpaid and subsidized by the majority of seniors who are on regular Medicare, something that's also true.
Obama's overall message: "What you need to know is the guaranteed Medicare benefits you've earned will not change ... your guaranteed benefits will not change."
He took shots at Republicans who want to repeal the law and said, "We're going to fight any effort to go back to a system that doesn't work for the American people and doesn't work for our seniors."
It might not be enough to reassure them.
Another question was from a laid-off worker in Nevada, too young for Medicare, who asked about losing COBRA subsidies that help him keep insurance.
Obama noted that the health law will help people like that join purchasing pools to gain competitive power to buy insurance. It won't happen until 2014, so it won't provide the immediate relief the Nevada worker is seeking.
But, Obama said optimistically, 2014 "is right around the corner."
The Medicare rebate checks will be the first tangible benefits most recipients will be seeing from the law Obama signed in March, and the first batch of 80,000 is supposed to go out Thursday. The checks are going to reimburse seniors for money spent on prescription drugs. Seniors who fall into the "doughnut hole" gap are responsible for $3,610 in drug costs in 2010 before their Medicare coverage kicks in again.
Obama also announced new measures Tuesday to combat Medicare fraud, including aiming to halve waste, fraud and abuse in the program by the end of 2012.
Seniors are a key group for the White House, reliable voters who have demonstrated more skepticism than others about the law. 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. Republicans have been quick to highlight those concerns.
"Seniors are right to be skeptical. They were told this law would strengthen Medicare, when in fact it takes a half trillion dollars out of Medicare to fund a new government program," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The administration is getting a boost from outside allies who plan to roll out a group called the Health Information Center to promote the law. Leaders of the group, including Andrew Grossman, who founded the advocacy group Wal-Mart Watch, are aiming to raise $25 million a year and are recruiting former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and Victoria Kennedy, widow of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, as co-chairs.
"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.