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Obama Invokes Grandmother's Death in Town Hall

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- President Barack Obama has made it clear that his efforts to reform the U.S. health care system have meaning to him personally.

On Saturday, Obama invoked his own anguish over the death of a loved one as he challenged the notion that Democratic efforts to overhaul the nation's health care would include "death panels" that decided who would get care and who wouldn't.

"I just lost my grandmother last year. I know what it's like to watch somebody you love, who's aging, deteriorate and have to struggle with that," an impassioned Obama told a crowd as he spoke of Madelyn Payne Dunham. He took issue with "the notion that somehow I ran for public office or members of Congress are in this so they can go around pulling the plug on grandma."

"When you start making arguments like that, that's simply dishonest -- especially when I hear the arguments coming from members of Congress in the other party who, turns out, sponsored similar provisions," Obama said.

Reforming the U.S. health care system is Obama's top domestic priority and arguably his most challenging political fight yet as president, in no small part because of the vast number of diverse stake-holders involved.

His goal is to ensure health care for everyone in a country with the world's costliest system and an estimated 48 million uninsured people.

It's an issue that touches everyone in the United States. There are thickets of competing interests among patients, doctors, drug makers, insurers, labor, businesses and others.

Any plan must get through a Democratic-controlled Congress, where most lawmakers are up for re-election next year. Also, there's an ideological fault line between Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives over the level of government involvement in health care.

In a debate in which he often sounds professor-like, Obama on Saturday spoke with a rare bit of emotion that seemed to counter that of vocal health care opponents as he referenced the beloved grandmother who helped raise him and who he called "Toot."

She died of cancer at age 86 on Nov. 2, two days before he won election to become the nation's first African-American president.

He talked about her death while answering a question about misinformation being spread about Democratic health care efforts during a town hall style gathering in a high school gymnasium.

"Health care is really hard. This is not easy. I'm a reasonably dedicated student to this issue. I've got a lot of really smart people around me who've been working on this for months now," he said. "There is no perfect painless silver bullet out there that solves every problem, gives everybody health care for free. There isn't. I wish there was."

But he said that because there's no perfect solution to solving health care, opponents "start saying things like we want to set up death panels to pull the plug on grandma."

Obama reiterated his contention that the Democratic health care legislation would not create "death panels" to deny care to frail seniors. Obama has explained that the provision that has caused the uproar would only authorize Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, living wills, hospice care and other issues, if the patient wants it.

Conservatives have called end-of-life counseling in government health care programs like Medicare a step toward euthanasia and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has likened the idea to a bureaucratic "death panel" that would decide whether sick people get to live. Those claims have been widely discredited but the issue remains a political weapon in the increasingly bitter health care debate.

Over the past week, Obama has fielded questions from audiences in New Hampshire, and Montana, as well as in Grand Junction. Thus far, he's faced polite crowds, a stark contrast to the taunts and jeers that Democratic lawmakers have endured at similar sessions during their August break.

Much like in the campaign, Obama's using people's stories to illustrate his points, railing against interest groups and asking supporters to "rise to this moment."

In Grand Junction, he sounded much like a candidate again as he adapted a campaign theme.

He likened the health care effort to policy fights that led to Social Security and Medicare system.

"These struggles have always boiled down to a contest between hope and fear," Obama said -- a talking point of his candidacy. "So if you want a different future, if you want a brighter future. I need your help."