WASHINGTON -- Three years after it passed, President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats are still trying to sell the federal health care law to a skeptical nation.
Lawmakers, armed with tool kits and fact sheets, are fanning out across the nation to tout the law’s benefits. Those charged with implementing its changes, starting with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, are pushing companies to donate money to a private group that’s working to get the program up and running. Supporters are organizing armies of volunteers to go door to door to try to sign up millions of uninsured Americans.
Obama, too, is touring the nation to talk up the benefits. His most recent speech – Friday in San Jose, Calif. – focused on the promise of lower premiums in the state that has the largest insurance market, as well as on the Republicans who’ve been relentless in criticizing the law.
“It’s basic trench warfare,” said Stuart Altman, an economist at Brandeis University who specializes in health care policy. “It’s symbolic of the split in the country.”
Ever since the creation of Social Security in the 1930s, the government often has had to explain or sell new social programs to the country. But the campaign to sell this law is far greater than any other in recent history, including the Medicare prescription-drug benefit enacted in 2006, political and health care experts said.
As ever, politics drives the debate.
Democrats say they have no choice but to sell the law to the public because Republicans and their allies are aggressively spreading misinformation, discouraging people from enrolling and refusing the additional money the administration says is needed to implement the changes. The law included $1 billion for implementation, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says it will take $5 billion to $10 billion, and Congress won’t appropriate any more. Also, some GOP governors are rebuffing efforts to expand Medicaid, the government-run health program for the poor and a key part of the law.
“The Republicans in Congress are hellbent on doing whatever they can to help this fail,” said Mo Elleithee, a veteran Democratic political consultant.
A Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, in 2010. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law last year.
Republicans haven’t given up, working to eliminate, defund or minimize the law. The House of Representatives, now run by Republicans, has voted 37 times to repeal it, symbolic votes that die in the Democratic-led Senate.
“The president has shown over and over again that he is good at campaigning, but not so good at governing,” said Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “All of the campaign-style events in the world won’t mask the fact that Obamacare costs too much: too much for families, too much for businesses and too much for taxpayers.”
Whatever the reason, Americans are skeptical. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week found that 49 percent of Americans think the law is a bad idea. That number has gradually increased in the same poll since 2009. About 37 percent think the law is a good idea. Other polls show similar results.
That may be part of the reason the Obama administration is working to arm its allies.