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Op-Ed
 

Wendell Potter: Health reform to be political fodder in 2014


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By: Wendell Potter, Center for Public Integrity

May 6, 2013 - Will the implementation of some of the most important provisions of ObamaCare this fall and next year result in the "train wreck" Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) predicted a few days ago?

No. But you can be certain that there will be no shortage of political candidates and high-powered political spin doctors who will be working relentlessly between now and the 2014 midterms to convince us that it will be.

ObamaCare — even though it already has reduced the number of uninsured Americans by several million and has limited price gouging by insurance companies — represents the best hope that many Republicans will have of maintaining or boosting their majority in the House and possibly retaking the Senate.

Think about it. The economy seems to be on the right track. Just last week the stock market reached record highs and the jobless rate fell to its lowest point in four years. The war in Iraq is over and most American troops are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year. The GOP appears to have lost the advantage to Democrats on gun control and immigration, and abortion and gay rights are no longer the reliable campaign wedge issues they once were.

That leaves ObamaCare and "big government spending" as just about the only issues that remain for right-leaning candidates, barring any unforeseen domestic or global calamity. But if their campaigns against ObamaCare next year are as successful as their campaigns against it were in the 2010 midterms — and the White House and supporters of the law are once again asleep at the switch — GOP candidates might not need anything else to talk about to take both houses of Congress.

When Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, there was wide support for health care reform, and Republican strategists knew it. They realized they might be able to turn reform into a winning issue for their candidates by mounting a campaign to make people afraid of what the Democrats might try to do. So just as Congress was beginning preliminary work on what eventually became the Affordable Care Act, GOP message guru Frank Luntz persuaded his clients to condemn whatever the Democrats proposed as a "government takeover of health care."

Even though the bill that ultimately became law was anything but a government takeover, GOP lawmakers and candidates never missed an opportunity to insist that it was. Luntz' sound bite was repeated hundreds of times in floor speeches by Republican members of Congress in the hours before the House voted on its version of the bill on November 7, 2009.

Their fear-based campaign worked so well to influence public opinion that GOP candidates have never stopped using the "government takeover" meme, which is why the perception of ObamaCare as being exactly that has become a reality for millions of Americans.

When you consider the inadequate job that the White House and the President's supporters have done in explaining how the law benefits just about every one of us — and never letting us forget why reform was necessary in the first place — it's little wonder Republicans see opportunity once again.

There no doubt will be glitches when the online health insurance exchanges go live on October 1 for the relatively small percentage of Americans who will use them to shop for coverage because their employers don't offer health insurance as an employee benefit. The exchanges will work just fine for the vast majority of people, but there will be some who will have complaints. You can expect the law's critics to give every one of them a voice in their effort to create the impression that the exchanges are a disaster and that the government can't do anything right.

Similarly, some people who have been paying relatively low premiums for what they don't realize is junk insurance will be upset when junk insurance is outlawed next year. Because real insurance costs more than junk, some invariably will complain about having to pay higher premiums for coverage that will actually be there if and when they need it.

You can also expect that a fair number of folks will squawk when the requirement to have health insurance kicks in on January 1. And you can bet that the opponents of the law will be aided, unwittingly in most but certainly not all cases, by the media. Just as local TV reporters tell us about the drivers who crash into each other instead of the rest of us who get to our destinations unharmed, the media will focus on the glitches. And they'll interview far more complainers than happy campers.

I'm betting that Frank Luntz and other Republican strategists have already been hired to craft the sound bites to use against Democrats next year. If the Democrats and consumer advocates who support ObamaCare are not at work developing their own strategies to counter the coming barrage of misleading spin, the GOP will have an excellent chance of controlling Capitol Hill after the next elections.

Former CIGNA executive-turned-whistleblower Wendell Potter is writing about the health care industry and the ongoing battle for health reform. His columns are published every Monday. Potter is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. www.publicintegrity.org

 

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