Articles

The ObamaCare Spin Machine Revs Up

July 10, 2013

There's been a recent flurry of activities attempting to boost the Affordable Care Act. In mid-June, for example, President Obama's "Organizing for Action" group reportedly spent seven figures on TV ads (in California, Florida and Texas) claiming, "Americans are already seeing the benefits" of health-care reform.

Also in June, the administration and an allied nonprofit, Enroll America, described how hundreds of thousands of community organizers will sign up seven million uninsured people for health coverage, once registration for subsidized insurance starts Oct. 1.

Then on July 2, the administration dropped a bombshell, delaying the employer mandate for a year.

Even Democrats were taken aback. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the law's authors, was quoted in the New York Times saying, "This was the law. How can they change the law?" But the rule of law won't stop this White House from trying to reduce the damage from ObamaCare until after the 2014 midterm elections.

Political considerations have frequently dictated the administration's actions on ObamaCare. For example, a week after Democrats were shellacked in the 2010 midterm elections, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius boosted discretionary payments to insurance companies by $8.3 billion over three years to mitigate the impact of cuts in the popular Medicare Advantage program until after the 2012 election.

Administration figures and supporters have long said that ObamaCare would become more popular as time went by. It hasn't. A June 2 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 37% thought the health-care plan was a good idea while 49% thought it a bad idea. On May 10, 2010, about two months after ObamaCare passed, it was 38% good idea, 44% bad.

Other surveys show a similar pattern. A June 9 Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll found that only 35% of Americans had a favorable impression of the health law, while 43% had an unfavorable opinion. On June 22, 2010, four months after the legislation passed, the Kaiser poll reported 48% favorable, 41% unfavorable. These poll numbers have created fear in the Obama White House about the health law's impact on Democratic candidates next year.

Meanwhile, the temporary reprieve from the employer mandate will not stop many businesses from preparing their people for when the company stops providing insurance. They'll also continue limiting more part-time employees to fewer than 30 hours a week, in order to avoid being snared by this provision in the law.

To offset this development, the administration desperately wants to sign up as many people for health policies as possible, hoping the newly insured will be grateful voters on Nov. 4, 2014. Also, the Congressional Budget Office estimates for ObamaCare outlays assume a disproportionate share of the early sign-ups are young people. They will pay higher insurance rates to subsidize coverage for older uninsured Americans. Organizing for America and Enroll America are focused on workers under 35.

Political problems still loom. Though ObamaCare provides generous subsidies to the uninsured, they still have to pay something each month. How many uninsured believe their insurance will be free? An analysis published earlier this year in Contingencies, the American Academy of Actuaries magazine, concluded that Americans earning as little as $25,000 can expect to pay higher premiums under ObamaCare—even with the law's subsidies.

The administration thinks it can spin its way out of these problems. Take the Department of Health and Human Services inquiry on Tuesday to media buyers about television ad rates in the fourth quarter of this year for a possible ad blitz urging people to sign up. The list of 21 media markets seems suspiciously political. Six of the 10 largest—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington—are missing.

But five media markets (Austin, Dallas, Harlingen, Houston and San Antonio) are in Texas, a red state targeted by a Democratic effort called "Turn Texas Blue" led by Obama campaign operatives. Charlotte and New Orleans also are on the list, both in states where vulnerable Democratic senators are defending ObamaCare. With the exception of Indianapolis and St. Louis, the other markets are in states with a Republican governor's seat up for grabs—Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Tampa and Tucson.

Nevertheless ads are less important than the quality of the product they tout—and ObamaCare is a lemon. There's little the president can do to spin his way out of that.

A version of this article appeared July 11, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The ObamaCare Spin Machine Revs Up and online at WSJ.com.

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