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 BellSouth employee who lives in Blythewood, 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.
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Lexington 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."