WHEATON, Md. — President Barack Obama dipped into the volatile politics of health care on Tuesday, using a televised question-and-answer session to attack Republican critics and remind retirees that the check — a new $250 rebate to help them pay for prescription drugs — is about to go in the mail.
"They still think that none of this should have happened, they don't think you should be getting these rebates," Obama said of Republicans, who want the bill repealed. "They'd gut the existing consumer protections. They'd put insurance companies back in charge."
Obama traveled to the Holiday Park Multipurpose Senior Center, where he took questions from the audience and by telephone. It marked the beginning of an election-season public relations blitz by the White House and its allies, aimed especially at the elderly, who tend to turn out heavily in elections and are among the most skeptical of the law.
The appearance drew criticism from Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who has criticized the White House for trying to politicize the rollout of the bill. Addressing reporters in the Capitol, McConnell lamented the administration's "willingness to use the levers of government for a purpose that seems to me is highly questionable."
The timing of Tuesday's session was no accident; the first batch of rebate checks (an estimated 80,000 checks out of the 4 million that will go out this year) will be put in the mail on Thursday, providing the elderly with the first evidence of the law's changes. Obama promoted that provision and other popular features of the new law.
"By 2020 this law will close the doughnut hole completely," he said, referring to the gaps in prescription drug coverage that the rebates are intended to ease. "Now, that's not all. Beginning next year, preventive care, including annual wellness visits for Medicare beneficiaries, certain screening services like mammograms, will all be free."
The insurance industry responded with its own pitch, arguing that reductions in payments to private Medicare Advantage plans will drive up premiums. "Seniors are going to be shocked," said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group.