AP Political Writer
RICHMOND, Va. - President Barack Obama's Health and Human Services secretary brought a defense of the administration's health reforms to the electoral battleground of Virginia Tuesday with a direct appeal to women.
In a stage-lighted living room chat with a half dozen women, Kathleen Sebelius heard stories Tuesday of how Obama's embattled Affordable Care Act had benefitted middle class women and children, an indirect complement to the Democrats' focus on women.
Sebelius said the 45-minute conversation _ just four blocks from the Virginia Commonwealth University basketball arena where Obama officially launched his re- election bid a month ago _ was official and apolitical and educational.
"We're having outreach conversations, and women were ... penalized in the existing system benefits under system, paying more for coverage, plans didn't cover what they needed," Sebelius said.
"Women are often purchasing health care for women and their families, they're providing a lot of the care strategies for older parents, so having these conversations in living rooms is to talk about the plan and its benefits," she said.
The former Kansas governor has held similar conversations across the nation, but this one came as Virginia Democrats unabashedly pursue women as a major constituency, hammering Republicans on issues as varied as Senate Republicans blocking a bill requiring equal pay for women and Virginia's nationally lampooned mandate for pre-abortion ultrasound exams.
Virginia this year is a furiously contested toss-up state, not only for its 13 electoral votes in a close presidential race but also in a race for retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb's seat, a race both parties believe could determine the balance of power in Congress.
Republicans and allied independent groups are clawing back primarily with stinging attacks in Virginia on an anemic recovery from the economic swoon of 2008, the worst since the Great Depression.
An e-mailed rebuttal to Sebelius's appearance from Romney spokesman Curt Cashour made no mention of the women's issues theme, but repeated Romney's pledge to "work from day one to repeal this disastrous law so businesses can start hiring again."
The most heavily televised current ad, underwritten by the conservative, anti- Obama group Crossroads GPS, ties the economy to women's issues. It shows a young mother and her two children who age 20 years in a couple of seconds by special effects. That is intended to dramatize the plight of new college grads who can't find work move back home with their parents.
Another $1.2 million ad the same group began airing in Virginia and other swing states features a stopwatch and notes that in the ad's 30-second run, the nation's debt has increased by $1.4 million.
And it's in the same capital city where Virginia's activist Republican attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, filed suit against the law just hours after it was signed, making him among the first to challenge what he said is the law's unconstitutionally broad requirement that every person carry insurance of pay a fee.
"Secretary Sebelius should ... explain why they have put a cadre of unelected bureaucrats like her in charge of determining what is and what isn't sufficient health insurance for each and every American, taking that choice away from Virginians and their employers," Cuccinelli said in response to Sebelius's event.
With the Supreme Court set to rule on the law any day, women posed in a semicircle under movie lighting before a battery of high-definition cameras offered one poignant anecdote after another supporting the 2-year-old law's mandate that insurers can no longer deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. Before the law took effect, health care providers "cherry-picked" whom they would cover, and reflexively denied coverage for many who were insured, they said.
Diana Strickland, whose 7-year-old son suffers from a rare and disabling genetic disorder, said she dreaded such a diagnosis before the law took effect because it would constitute a pre-existing condition, rendering her child uninsurable for life.
"Every bill, the (insurer's) default was to deny it. I used to feel like this is a full-time job staying on the phone with the insurance companies," Strickland said. "My husband is a small business owner and we hope it will grow and at that point, we'll probably switch insurance companies. Before, our sons would be eliminated because of their conditions."
Lisa Price Stevens, a primary care physician at Richmond's Daily Planet, a care provider for the region's poor and homeless, said she despaired of her profession and the inability of the poor to receive the care she prescribed until the health reform law took effect.
"Health care became a little frustrating for me, but that all changed with the Affordable Care Act," she said.
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