WASHINGTON — Joanne Johnson wiped a tear from her cheek as she told a congressional hearing Wednesday how her brother died an unnecessarily early death because he didn't have health insurance.
Johnson, a retired Bell South employee who lives in Blythewood, S.C., joined two dozen other "insurance abuse survivors" from across the country as part of a weeklong push by President Barack Obama to compel congressional passage of his health-care overhaul.
Johnson struggled to tell the room packed with lawmakers, health activists and reporters about her brother, Marvin Wright.
Wright, a construction worker, started having pain in 2003 that he thought was arthritis. He put off going to a doctor for months because he lacked insurance; by the time he went, it was too late.
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"He was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but by then it had spread to the bones," Johnson said. "That's where the pain was coming from."
As Wright paused to gather herself, another "survivor" — Heather Mroz of Coconut Creek, Fla. — rubbed her shoulder to comfort her.
"I'm here today to urge Congress to pass health insurance," Johnson said when she continued. "Let's get there! Let's get this done!"
A half dozen lawmakers, all Democrats, appeared with constituents who spoke at the hearing.
Rep. Joe Wilson, a Springdale, S.C., Republican who represents Johnson, turned down an invitation to attend.
Aides said Wilson was at a House Armed Services Committee meeting on Pentagon spending requests at the same time as the health-care hearing.
"Congressman Wilson has an open-door policy and is happy to meet with Ms. Johnson to discuss health-care reform and other issues important to her and the Second District," said Pepper Pennington, a Wilson spokeswoman.
Johnson and other health-care activists are spending the week in Washington for a series of events timed to coincide with the annual convention of America's Health Insurance Plans, a lobby group for medical insurance providers.
On Tuesday, the group staged protests and mock arrests — for failure to have health insurance — outside the group's convention at the Ritz Carlton hotel in the capital's fashionable Georgetown neighborhood.
While the hearings and protests went on in Washington, Obama continued his attacks on the health-insurance industry at a rally in St. Charles, Mo., outside St. Louis.
"The health care system has billions of dollars that should go to patient care that are lost each and every year to fraud and abuse and to massive subsidies that line the pockets of the insurance industry," Obama told the crowd in his third health-care event of the week outside Washington.
Obama mocked Republican lawmakers' who opposed Democratic health-care legislation and insist on starting over with new reform negotiations.
"Let me tell you something — the insurance industry isn't starting over!" Obama declared. "They just announced a 39 percent rate increase in California and a rate increase of up to 60 percent right across the border (from Missouri) in my home state of Illinois. Sixty percent in one year! That's the future if we fail to act."
Obama said a key section of the Democratic plan "would end the worst practices of the insurance companies" by making it illegal for them to deny coverage to people because of preexisting coverage and to cut off coverage when policyholders become ill.
"Insurance companies would no longer be able to arbitrarily and massively raise premiums," Obama said. "They would be subject to review."
Obama is trying to increase momentum for extending medical benefits to millions of uninsured Americans.
The House passed a major health-care bill in November by a narrow 220-215 margin, and the Senate approved a less ambitious measure in December by a 60-39 vote.
Normally, the two bills would be fused by a conference committee into a single measure, which would then go to both chambers for final passage.
But the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders are planning to have the House vote soon on the unchanged Senate measure.
That maneuver would enable them to skip a second vote in the Senate, where the election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy has left Democrats one vote shy of the 60-member threshold needed to block a GOP filibuster.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia, S.C., Democrat, will face a stiff challenge in trying to gain enough votes to move the Senate health-care measure through the House.
"We must act on health insurance reform now to provide quality, affordable, accessible health care for all Americans," Clyburn told McClatchy on Wednesday. "For many this is a matter of life or death. The steep rise in health care costs is stressing family budgets. It's sending people who have insurance into emergency rooms for primary care because they can't afford the steep premiums."
Clyburn added: "We've been debating this issue for three generations. Since the last time we took up this issue, premiums have doubled and millions more have become uninsured and underinsured. It's time to act."
The Obama administration played good cop, bad cop Wednesday as it dispatched Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to meet with the insurance executives at their convention.
"It's not too late to work on this issue together — for insurance companies to come to the table and work with us," Sebelius told the group.
Sebelius urged the industry to stop spending millions of dollars to derail Obama's proposal, saying he isn't seeking "to eliminate the private insurance market and go to some kind of single-payer system like Europe or Canada."
Sebelius said the Democratic plan could help insurers because it would provide hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits for moderate-income people to purchase private insurance.
Karen Ignagni, head of the insurers' trade group, accepted Sebelius' request to make public all their efforts to raise premiums, with cost increases and other data justifying the rate increases.
Ignagni, though, accused the administration of pursuing "the politics of vilification" in an effort to pass the health care bill.
"The current legislation will make health care more expensive, not more affordable," Ignagni said.