STRONGSVILLE, Ohio, March 15, 2010— -- In what could be a make or break week for health care overhaul, President Obama highlighted the struggle of one Ohio woman facing a serious illness without health insurance and injected a human element into the frantic negotiations and debate back in Washington.
Natoma Canfield is a 50-year-old cleaning woman and cancer survivor from Medina, Ohio, who had to drop her Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance because her monthly premiums kept skyrocketing.
Obama has been telling her story across the nation and today he made her a key part of his final push to get health care reform legislation passed.
"I'm here because of Natoma," Obama said. "I'm here because of countless others who have been forced to face the hardest and most terrifying challenges in their lives with the added burden of medical bills they cannot pay."
Canfield told ABC News that she could no longer afford to keep her health insurance.
"I just could not afford it," Canfield told ABC News. "I went into debt trying to keep coverage when it was $500 a month, and I couldn't do it anymore at $700 a month."
After the president started telling her story, Canfield's tale became even more dire.
Canfield is now back in the hospital after more than a decade being cancer-free. She was diagnosed with leukemia last week.
"Everything just kind of went blue and grey and I lost sight. I almost collapsed," said Canfield, whose insurance expired in January.
"The thing I was most afraid of has happened sooner than I thought," Canfield said. "What if there would be a catastrophe and I was in the hospital and had some pretty big medical bills."
The White House had invited Canfield to introduce the president today in Cleveland, but Canfield's sister traveled from Florida to fill in for her.
Obama used Canfield's story today to argue that health care reform cannot be delayed any longer and starting over, as some Republicans have called for, is not feasible.
"When you hear people say "start over" – I want you to think of Natoma. When you hear people saying that this isn't the "right time" – think of what she's going through," the president said. "When you hear people talk about who's up and who's down in the polls – instead of what's right or what's wrong for the country – think of her and the millions of responsible people – working people – being hurt by today's system of health insurance. And I want you to remember: There but for the grace of God go I."
Late last year Canfield wrote a letter to the president sharing her story, which Obama read to insurance executives.
"Incredibly, I have been notified that my premium for the next year, 2010, has been increased over 40 percent, to $8,496.24. This is the same insurance company I've been with for 11 cancer-free years. I need your health reform bill to help me. I simply can no longer afford to pay for my health-care costs," Canfield wrote Dec. 29, 2009.
"Thanks to this incredible premium increase demanded by my insurance company, January will be my last month of insurance. I live in the house my mother and father built in 1958, and I am so afraid of the possibility I might lose this family heirloom as a result of being forced to drop my health-care insurance," she wrote.
Anthem told ABC News in a statement that its rising premiums are a result of increased costs and risks in the health care industry.
"We understand and strongly share our members' concerns over the rising cost of health care services and the corresponding adverse impact on insurance premiums. Unfortunately, the individual market premiums are merely the symptoms of a larger underlying problem in Ohio's individual market -- rising health care costs," the insurer said in a statement.
"It is important to note that premiums are expensive because the underlying health care costs are expensive. Anthem offers a variety of health benefit plans, and we are dedicated to working with our members to find health coverage plans that are the most appropriate, and affordable for their needs. We are more than happy to take a look at a member's health benefit plan and review possible options to more closely meet the member's current needs. This may include moving to a lower-priced plan."
Obama reiterated his argument that the debate over health care is "about far more than the politics" and dismissed talk about what it will mean for both parties in the November elections.
"In the end, this debate is about far more than the politics. It's about what kind of country we want to be," Obama said. "It's about the millions of lives that would be touched and, in some cases, saved by making private health insurance more secure and more affordable. It's about a woman, lying in a hospital bed, who wants nothing more than to be able to pay for the care she needs."
Speaking at a senior center, Obama sought to ease concerns for Medicare recipients and argued that health care reform will not hurt or change the government health care program.
"Every senior should know: there is no cutting of your guaranteed Medicare benefits. Period," he said. "This proposal makes Medicare stronger, makes the coverage better, and makes its finances more secure. Anyone who says otherwise is misinformed – or is trying to misinform you."
Obama said that the Democrats' proposal "adds almost a decade of solvency to Medicare."
President Obama Makes Case for Health Care Reform
The White House says health care reform would help people like Canfield by lowering costs, ensuring more competition and making sure insurers are not able to deny coverage because of previous bouts with serious illnesses such as cancer.
"Lying in a hospital bed, worrying about how you're going to pay for your bills -- that's hard. I know. My mother went through that," the president said last week in St. Louis at a fundraiser for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
"Once the bill is implemented, she's not going to have to worry about an insurance company discriminating against her on the basis of a preexisting condition," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told ABC News March 4.
But Republicans say such anecdotes are not proof that this bill should become law. They say it will be a disaster and Democrats are forcing it through the Congress and on the American people.
"There will be a price to be paid to jam a bill through. The American people don't like using a sleazy process," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on ABC News' "This Week." "If they [Democrats] do this, it's going to poison the well for anything else they would like to achieve this year or thereafter."
Democratic leaders are unsure whether they have enough votes to pass the health care legislation. A total of 216 votes are required in the House to pass the bill. That's the total number of Democrats who voted for the bill last year, but since then, some have backed off amid concern that supporting the controversial bill would hurt their chances in this year's mid-term election. Others cite cost issues while some liberals, such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, say it doesn't go far enough.
But Americans like Canfield don't know if they can wait.
"I went from feeling A-OK to really bad," Canfield told ABC News from the hospital.
Canfield said she knows she will be facing "a huge hospital bill" since she had to drop her individual health insurance from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio after its most recent premium increase.
Canfield told ABC News she was "just so amazed that a regular person from Medina, that the president read my letter and is mentioning my plight. When I wrote my letter I just wanted it to be counted in the numbers... of people who wanted the president to go for health reform. I never thought he'd read my letter."
ABC News' Kristina Wong and Huma Khan contributed to this report.