White House looks to spread good Obamacare news
By: Carrie Budoff Brown and Jonathan Allen
December 29, 2013 06:59 AM EST
If Democrats get their way, the next phase of the Obamacare wars will see something unusual: a flood of success stories.
The White House, Democratic lawmakers and advocacy organizations will launch a campaign this week to highlight real-life experiences under the Affordable Care Act — tales so compelling that they help drive up enrollment, marginalize Republican repeal efforts and erase memories of this fall’s HealthCare.gov debacle.
That’s the thought, at least.
If Wednesday’s start of coverage for millions of Americans doesn’t go as planned — so far, little about Obamacare has — the airwaves will be dominated by stories of complications and dropped insurance, and President Barack Obama will once again have to explain what went wrong.
But Democrats still see this moment as their best chance yet to show voters why the embattled law is worth protecting by featuring accounts of people visiting the doctor for the first time in years, receiving treatment for a nagging ailment or buying medication that they could never afford before.
White House officials and congressional aides say they have been lining up consumers and vetting their stories so they can be told through videos, blogs, local news reports, press conference calls and Twitter feeds, including those of celebrities. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius kicks off the effort with op-eds running Sunday in more than three dozen papers.
“Until now, the only thing you could really market is ‘Susie Smith saved $100 on her premium and now is covered.’ That’s intangible to people,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “But when she goes to the doctor and addresses a blood pressure problem she didn’t know she had, that is a powerful story.”
White House aides acknowledge the task of reversing the negative public opinion on Obamacare is a long-term project, one that goes well beyond promoting personal stories.
Administration officials are more optimistic about the challenge than they were in late November, when the federal insurance marketplace was just emerging from its technological stumbles. A December spike in enrollment and the site’s ability to handle the traffic gave the administration a much-needed boost of confidence.
But the West Wing is still on edge. Aides who failed to detect the warning signs on HealthCare.gov are reluctant to say that they’ve got this next phase completely under control, aware that there could be issues they didn’t foresee.
They’re hoping that enough adjustments were made in recent weeks to ease the transition, such as providing flexibility on paying the first month’s premium and contacting consumers with tips and fact sheets on understanding their new coverage. And that they’ll be able to look back at the opening weeks of 2014 as the moment when Obamacare finally regained its footing.
Under that scenario, the success stories would help rebuild confidence in Obamacare and encourage millions of Americans who haven’t signed up to do so.
“Sharing experiences neighbor to neighbor is often the most powerful way to spread awareness,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. “This effort will help give Americans the chance to speak firsthand about being able to buy quality, affordable insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. And in the coming weeks and months, as more Americans buy insurance and see their coverage kick in, we will continue to find opportunities to help share their experiences.”
On a political level, Democrats struggling to defend promises that people would be able to keep their plans and doctors if they liked them would find constituents willing to cut ads praising their senator or congressman for providing the insurance they needed for life-saving medical care. If they can fight Republicans to a draw on Obamacare, they will be in a far better position come November than they are in now.
And those Democrats have given themselves wiggle room for just such a pivot. Rather than abandoning the law they supported, they whacked Obama for failing to manage it well. So, if the president can turn around the implementation, lawmakers won’t be in the position of flipping back and forth.
“If there are millions of people happy with their coverage between now and March, it could turn around the falloff in support for the law after the disastrous rollout and keep skittish Democrats in the fold,” said Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. “But reality will determine whether or not that happens — not messaging.”
Republicans, unwilling to cede ground in the battle of anecdotes, describe the Democratic campaign as wishful thinking.
“That’s a strategy to look increasingly delusional and out of touch,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Americans understand this law is making care more expensive, decreasing choices and falling far short on its promises. Suggesting otherwise will continue to strain the president’s credibility.”
Republicans don’t intend to alter their own game plan in 2014, continuing to use House oversight committees and personal stories to highlight the consequences of the law.
And they may have plenty to work with.
The early problems with HealthCare.gov mean some people who thought they signed up for a plan may find that the insurer has no record of them. Others won’t like the high out-of-pocket deductibles or that their doctor isn’t part of their network.
A handful of horror stories can drown out dozens of positive ones. It’s been a trademark of the Obamacare debate that’s infuriated supporters, and it’s partly why Democrats are going to such lengths to coordinate a counteroffensive.
Administration officials developed the strategy in mid-December at a White House meeting with aides to House and Senate Democrats, who were part of communications “strike teams” created after HealthCare.gov relaunched Dec. 1. And since then, they’ve been working with outside groups to collect experiences with the Affordable Care Act.
“We just naturally come across these stories every day,” said Justin Nisly, spokesman for Enroll America, which has 14,000 volunteers who have contacted more than 410,000 people. “Many of our volunteers are people who have gotten covered,” and anecdotes are a way to “make this really practical for people to get beyond the politics of it.”
House Democratic leaders sent a three-page guide to members last week on finding stories and pitching them to local TV stations and newspapers, promoting them on Facebook and Twitter, integrating them into talking points and highlighting them in floor speeches.
There was one key precaution: The stories need to be “thoroughly vetted.”
Both parties have been burned by stories that appeared to perfectly capture their side of the argument, only to find the circumstances were more nuanced than first thought.
“By November of 2014, people are going to feel pretty good about (Obamacare),” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I don’t think it’s going to be the gift Republicans have anticipated it’s going to be for them politically.”