Friday, October 11, 2013

History says Obamacare may yet thrive -- Oct. 10, 2013 column


The new health benefit got off to a rocky start. Complaints about long wait times were flying, and politicians wanted to ditch the law.  

“Any time Washington passes a new law, sometimes the transition period can be interesting,” the president said.

“That,” The New York Times reported dryly, “was something of an understatement.” 

But it wasn’t President Barack Obama, responding last week to complaints about overwhelmed servers and long waits to access the new online marketplaces to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

It was President George W. Bush in March 2006, trying to defuse anger over a new prescription drug benefit for seniors, known as Medicare Part D. Democrats and seniors hated it.

“This is lousy legislation,” then-Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., declared when Bush signed the major new entitlement in December 2003. “We may spend the rest of our careers repairing the flaws of this bill.”

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, thundered at a rally against the drug benefit:  “Who do you trust? The H.M.O.-coddling, drug-company-loving, Medicare-destroying, Social Security-hating Bush administration? Or do you trust Democrats, who created Medicare and will fight with you to defend it – every day of every week of every year?”

The week Bush signed the prescription benefit, only one in four seniors approved.  Republicans and Democrats were – surprise! -- polarized. Forty-nine percent of Republicans approved and 52 percent of Democrats disapproved, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll. 

Nearly 10 years later, you’d hardly know anyone ever objected to the prescription benefit.

It’s optional, but nine in 10 seniors choose it. Of these, 90 percent say they’re satisfied with their drug coverage and 60 percent are very satisfied, according to a survey commissioned by Medicare Today, an industry group.

So what does all this say about today’s political flashpoint – Obamacare? It likely is on more solid ground than you might think, despite House Republicans’ dozens of votes to repeal it and multiple proposals to defund or delay it.   

Only about one in three people has a favorable opinion of the health law – far from a ringing endorsement. But when you think that only one in four seniors approved of the drug benefit, one in three is not so shabby.

Plus, while those who think Obamacare goes too far make the most fuss, about 7 percent of those who disapprove of the health law think it didn’t go far enough. There’s still support for a single-payer system.
Even its most devoted critics concede that once people actually see the Affordable Care Act in action, they’ll really like it.  

In July, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., told Fox News, “What the administration desperately wants is to get to January, to get the exchanges in place…they want people hooked on Obamacare so it can never be unwound. If we’re going to repeal it, we’ve got to do so now or it will remain with us forever.”

Cruz persuaded his House colleagues to shut down the federal government in the erroneous belief that Obama would cave on Obamacare. Republicans succeeded in shutting down the government, but funding was already in place for the rollout of Obamacare. Open enrollment began as scheduled Oct. 1.

Republicans have backed off repealing and defunding Obamacare, although they’d still like to delay it.

Obama insists that one day his signature health law will be as beloved as the Medicare drug benefit. As even Cruz indicated, it’s hard to see how Congress can take back health insurance after millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions get coverage starting Jan. 1.

Ironically, the government shutdown Cruz and others orchestrated has given the exchanges breathing room. The shutdown is more newsworthy than computer problems plaguing the rollout.

The glitches don’t get the media scrutiny they would if the marketplaces were the big news story in town. 
The Obama administration talks about the millions who have gone on the marketplaces, but it has not said how many people have been able to close the deal and buy insurance so far. Open enrollment continues through March 31.  

As another president once said, “Any time Washington passes a new law, sometimes the transition period can be interesting.”

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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