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Engagement, Women, Health Care, and Yarn

Posted by Christina M. Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement
Welcome to the Office of Public Engagement!  Those of you who know Washington may have known about the Office of Public Liaison, which has been the office in the White House since the Nixon Administration that has connected the White House with public interest groups and constituencies based here in DC.  Since the Inauguration, I have been the Director of the Office of Public Liaison, and our staff has had a busy hundred days reaching out to local and national groups across over four dozen different areas.  But President Obama, as a community organizer himself, has always recognized the importance of engaging grass roots and grass tops, and wants this White House to be engaged in a two-way conversation with people across the country.  As the President explained in the video announcing our "relaunch," we are renaming and repurposing ourselves as the Office of Public Engagement to reflect that mission – let me give you an example from an event just last week.
As America celebrated National Women’s Health Week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and I hosted a round table discussion at Stitch DC, a local yarn store here in Washington. We were joined by 7 women small business owners who explained firsthand how skyrocketing costs are making it nearly impossible for small businesses to provide health care benefits for employees and their families.
Secretary Sebelius and Christina Tchen of the Office of Public Engagement(Photo credit: Chris Smith, Department of Health and Human Services)
Marie Connolly, who owns Stitch, discussed how difficult it was to lose employees because she was not able to offer them health care coverage. As is the case with many small business owners, Ms. Connolly was forced to choose between not providing health care insurance for her employees in order to remain competitive, or providing such benefits and risk going out of business altogether.  Marie has health insurance for baby Oona (who joined us at the meeting) and her other children through her husband’s plan. Nora  Connolly, Marie’s sister and business partner, recently had a harrowing health scare where she was tested for a possibly serious condition, without any health insurance.  Luckily, she was fine.
Unfortunately, her situation is not unique for small business owners around the country. Angela Bradley, a small business owner from Maryland, related a similar story about being unable to provide health care to employees due to the high expense of doing so. Bradley also has lost workers to large businesses, such as Safeway, better positioned to provide health care insurance for its employees. We also heard from Leah Daniels, owner of a Washington DC cookware store, who shared that she has never worked in a job that offers health care, and currently cannot pay for health care for herself or any of her 4 employees.
Secretary Sebelius and Christina Tchen of the Office of Public Engagement(Photo credit: Chris Smith, Department of Health and Human Services)
These are just three among numerous similar stories we heard around the table which demonstrate that small businesses are struggling from high health care costs.  These stories show that the health care system in America needs to be reformed to ease the burden on small businesses, and to ensure that the workers in this country, and their families, receive the health care coverage they need.
As Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, I was also interested in hearing about the effects skyrocketing health care costs have on these women and their families. It is well-documented that women are disproportionately adversely impacted by our broken health care system -– HHS just released a new report on this topic, and as always visit for more information.  President Obama and the White House Council on Women and Girls are committed to improving the health of all women and we know that health care reform is essential to achieving that goal.
As President Obama has said, this office serves as the front door to the White House, and we will be engaging all of you in the work it will take to change this country. The meeting I had with women small business owners this week is one of many important conversations we’ll be holding. Please stay tuned for additional blogs from me and the rest of the Office of Public Engagement staff, as we will be listening to and sharing with you the stories that we are hearing around the country.