As he tried to reframe the national discussion about healthcare reform on Wednesday, President Obama uttered an outright fib: “This debate has never been about right or left,” he said of the ceaseless fighting over his healthcare plan.
Oh, yes, it has. And is.
Faced with a blizzard of bad PR as a result of a faltering website that had been designed as the main portal for those seeking insurance under the plan, Obama went to Boston to park himself in the place where Republicans and Democrats passed a state health program that served as a model for the national one.
His intent was multi-pronged: By location, he sent the reminder that in places where all parties worked to pass and improve healthcare reform, the program has succeeded. (And, he pointed out, that was accomplished under a Republican governor, Mitt Romney, the man he defeated in 2012). By topic, he accented the popular aspects of healthcare reform, as if to remind people that there was a reason that politicians have tried to pull off insurance reform for decades.
But in trying to re-argue the case for a program passed several years ago — and not sold well in the interim — Obama faces an intractable question: Is anyone listening?
Recent polling shows that views of healthcare reform have frozen in place, and along partisan lines.
According to a survey taken by the Pew Research Center in mid-October, about 4 in 10 Americans approved of the healthcare law and 5 in 10 disapproved.
But among Democrats, 75% approved. Among Republicans, 85% disapproved. And their views have apparently hardened; apart from a slight increase in disapproval among Republicans, hardly any group changed their tune from a September Pew poll.
Republicans have noted time and again that the national plan was passed by Democrats against GOP objections, making it different at the outset from the bipartisan Massachusetts measure. Nonetheless, the president’s remarks Wednesday appeared intended to reach over the squabbling right-left divide to reassure Americans that what was passed wasn’t as life-altering as its opponents have made it out to be and in fact had some popular components.
“A true patients’ bill of rights,” he called it. “No more discrimination against kids with preexisting conditions. No more dropping your policy when you get sick and need it most. No more lifetime limits or restricted annual limits. Most plans now have to cover free preventive care like mammograms and birth control. Young people can stay on their parents’ plans until they are 26. All this is in place right now. It is working right now.”
He implored those who are uninsured and want to sign up for coverage, or those whose existing insurance is being replaced, to have patience as the kinks are worked out of the system. He repeatedly said that he was confident those groups would find affordable plans -- once they can gain access to the system, that is.
He also nodded to the blast of criticism from people whose bargain-basement plans have been canceled because they did not comport with the new minimum coverage requirements for health insurance. He called the insurers who had sold those plans “bad apple” insurers. And he altered his often-uttered statement, as the law was proposed and since, that Americans who were happy with their insurance could keep it. Now what you can keep, he said, is “health insurance that works,” as defined by the law.
“If you’re getting one of these letters, just shop around in the new marketplace,” he said. “That’s what it’s there for.... You’re going to get a better deal.”
The danger in Obama’s remarks, nearly a full month after the rocky debut of the insurance marketplaces that were supposed to benefit the most needy, is that they came after a considerable chunk of the country has either gone to their partisan corners or thrown their hands up in frustration or disgust. A calm rendering of the facts as he saw them might have at least minimized some of the partisan tension, but Obama did not pass up the opportunity to dig at the other side.
He spoke of governors, including some Republican executives, who have worked to put the healthcare law into place, and chastised those who had worked to block it.
“Some are so locked into politics that they won’t lift a finger to help their own people,” he said, with an edge of bitterness. “If they put as much energy into making it work as they do to attacking the law, Americans would be better off.”
And, he said, anyone defending the broken system that the law was meant to replace “should have to explain themselves ... because I don’t think we should go back to discriminating against kids with preexisting conditions. I don’t think we should go back to dropping people because they get sick or they make a mistake on their application.”
Selling the healthcare law has always been a stiff challenge, in some ways giving rise to the same fears that are summoned by discussions about changing Social Security and Medicare. People are always worried that they will lose what they have, imperfect as it is. When putting a plan in place whose most visible beneficiaries are people in the minority — the uninsured and the uninsurable — squawks are predictable.
At this point, however, Obama alone owns Obamacare, for better or worse.