By Megan E. Gustafson and Laura Gurfein
COLLEGE PARK – President Obama “fired up” a largely student audience at the University of Maryland Comcast Center Thursday, trying to induce them to support his embattled health care reform plan.
“We need the voices of young people to stand up for this nation,” he said to cheers.
Obama’s health care proposals have been under fire from conservatives, including South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, who interrupted the president’s speech before a joint session of Congress to call him a liar. Critics charge that the president’s plans will cover illegal immigrants, fund abortions and put the government into unrecoverable debt.
At UMCP, Obama was drawn back to a core demographic critical to his political success.
Introducing the president was one of the young believers: Rachel Peck, a 20-year-old Maryland junior diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer during her freshman year.
“I ran for president because of people like Rachel,” Obama said.
Peck, so far, has been fortunate. She was covered by her parents’ insurance when her cancer struck, something she called “such an added bonus” that allowed her to get well and focus on her studies without having to worry about the cost of treatment.
But she said she worries about the day that she’ll have to get own insurance.
“What happens if my cancer returns and I can’t pay for my radiation?” she asked the audience, and later urged them to “address health care reform now.”
“Young people, it’s about what kind of country you want to be,” the president said, adding that change will come if students get behind his plan.
Obama then outlined his health care reform plan, tailoring his message to the needs and concerns of a younger audience. Many young adults, even those with insurance, struggle to pay their medical bills, he said, leaving them one accident or illness away from bankruptcy.
The president said for those who have health insurance, his plan will ensure more security because it will make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage for a pre-existing condition or to cap lifetime benefits.
Obama spoke directly to college students’ concerns, saying his plan would allow them to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26.
That prompted an audience member to shout, “Thank you,” amid applause.
The president also talked about the importance of providing coverage to uninsured Americans, including a “public option” designed to provide a low-cost alternative to bring more choices to more people.
Obama said a public option does not mean a government takeover of the health care system, drawing a parallel to the marketplace of higher education: Both public and private universities are available to students, he said.
“No one says we’re taking over private colleges. What we’re doing is giving students a choice,” Obama said. “You should have a choice the same way in your health care.”
A final highlight of his plan focused on slowing “the growth of health care costs for our families and our businesses and our government.”
To 19-year-old Ariela Fleisig the rally produced happy memories of Obama’s campaign.
“Invoking his campaign was brilliant. It felt like the campaign again,” said Fleisig, an economics major at Johns Hopkins University and the vice president of the Maryland Federation of College Democrats.
Mike Furman has “blown off the health care thing” in the past, but the 20-year-old University of Maryland government and politics major came to the rally today to learn more.
“I want to know what I’m choosing. This made me more aware,” Furman said.
Olney resident Patricia Lee said she stood during the entire speech because she wanted to “stand for health care.”
“It seems we’re getting less and paying more,” she said, adding she knows a lot of people who don’t have health care.
Lee is an Obama supporter who traveled to eight states and the District of Columbia as a campaign volunteer. She said she will do “everything in my power” to help pass health care reform.
The chief executive officer of Hillcrest Children’s Center in Washington, D.C., Juanita Price, said her employees are struggling to pay the $1,500 monthly premium for family health coverage. Even though the nonprofit contributes $500 toward the premium, it’s still “a lot of money” for typically underpaid social workers and licensed therapists, she said.
“We have kicked this can down the road for too long,” said Price, 59, who lives in the District. “We have a moral obligation to do something.”
One protester interrupted the president as he cited examples of Americans in debt because of incomplete coverage.
“Obama, you’re a liar. Obama, your health care kills children. Abortion is murder,” yelled Andrew Beacham, an intern with Operation Rescue Insurrecta Nex.
Audience members booed and threw objects in his direction. He was escorted out by University Police, as were two other counter-hecklers.