Maryland (Reuters) - President Barack Obama assured older voters his healthcare reforms will protect their benefits on Tuesday as he launched an election-year push to counter opposition to the plan after weeks focused on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
With Obama's schedule largely dominated since April by the Gulf oil spill, administration officials have done little publicly to counteract opposition to his healthcare law. Many Republicans, meanwhile, have been focusing on healthcare in campaigning ahead of November elections that could cut into the Democratic majorities in the U.S. Congress.
Obama's speech at a senior citizens' center in the Washington suburb of Wheaton, Maryland, was one of many events around the country to tout the overhaul's advantages for older Americans.
They are considered an essential voting bloc because they show up reliably at the polls on Election Day, and polls show many are nervous about what the new law will do to Medicare, their government health insurance.
"Your guaranteed benefits will not change. Eligibility won't change. Medicare will continue to cover your costs the way it always has. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor," Obama told the crowd of about 200 retirees before taking questions at the event and by telephone.
Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress pushed through healthcare reform, his White House's biggest legislative success, in March, after months of bitter partisan wrangling with Republicans, who say the plan is too expensive and an unwarranted government intrusion into a private industry.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Obama's renewed health care push as "this major P.R. campaign to try to make something that's immensely unpopular popular."
He said, "And I assume all this is designed to occur before the November election."
REMEMBER THE DEATH PANELS
Obama took aim at the opposition, who he said have spread "nasty rumors" and misinformation to scare older Americans.
"The death panels, remember those?" he asked, referring to charges from some Republicans during his push to pass the healthcare law that the program would include panels to determine whether the sick and elderly should receive care or be left to die.
"You have an entire party out there that is running on a platform of repeal. They want to roll back all these reform efforts," Obama said.
The event was timed to come before the first mailing on Thursday of $250 rebate checks to help the elderly pay for medications, one of the most popular provisions of the plan, which Obama signed into law in March.
At least 20 of the 50 U.S. states have joined a lawsuit seeking to overturn the sweeping reform of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system.
The states behind the suit, most with Republican attorneys general, claim the healthcare overhaul violates state government rights in the U.S. Constitution and will force massive new spending on hard-pressed state governments.
Obama told the audience that his plan would cut costs and included provisions to cut wasteful spending, and would not bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid insurance programs.
Obama also announced new programs to fight Medicare fraud, in another effort to appeal to those older than 65.