EDITORIAL

On Obamacare, a chance for Congress to do something useful

Patient William Wishart, 4 months, seems to look on as Dr. Melanie Walker uses a portable computer to enter information from his exam into an electronic medical records system at the Pediatric Partners practice in North Raleigh, N.C., last year.
Chris Seward | MCT
Patient William Wishart, 4 months, seems to look on as Dr. Melanie Walker uses a portable computer to enter information from his exam into an electronic medical records system at the Pediatric Partners practice in North Raleigh, N.C., last year.
Posted Aug. 30, 2013, at 1:09 p.m.

The Affordable Care Act faces a monumental public relations challenge as some of its major provisions start to take effect in the coming months.

First, there’s the popularity challenge.

In mid-June, 43 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the health care reform bill signed into law in 2010, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s health tracking poll. Thirty-five percent of Americans held a favorable view.

Among likely voters, Rasmussen Reports last week found the split was 41 percent favorable, 54 percent unfavorable.

Some 33 percent of respondents told Kaiser’s pollsters the law would make them worse off, compared with 19 percent who thought they would be better off because of the law and 40 percent who thought it would make no difference.

But regardless of what people think of the Affordable Care Act, there’s nearly universal agreement that health insurance is basically a necessity. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed that having health insurance was “very important” to them.

Then — and perhaps more importantly — there’s the awareness challenge.

In April, Kaiser’s tracking poll found 42 percent of Americans thought the Affordable Care Act was no longer the law.

Indeed, House Republicans have voted 40 times to repeal the law they hate with all their might — but for which they have no alternative. Their repeal votes won’t go anywhere in a Democratic Senate and while Barack Obama is president, but their repeated attempts to overturn the law could be having a public relations effect. Twelve percent of Americans in April thought Congress had overturned Obamacare.

In that context, try conveying to the public what a complicated law actually does, and you have a major public relations puzzle on your hands.

Enter members of Congress.

In 2014, 7 million Americans are expected to enroll in individual health insurance plans through online insurance marketplaces. Enrollment in those marketplaces opens Oct. 1. A majority of those 7 million Americans — the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates 65 percent — haven’t previously had health insurance coverage.

It’s also safe to say a significant portion of those 7 million aren’t yet aware of the coverage options that will be available to them and how they can enroll.

How can members of Congress help when so many of them have sought only to destroy the Affordable Care Act?

Senators, representatives and their staffers will be among those 7 million Americans expected to enroll in health insurance exchanges during the exchanges’ first year (enrollment is expected to reach 24 million by 2017). Under a provision in the law that was originally an attempt to sink it altogether, members of Congress and their staffs will drop the coverage they receive through the Federal Employees Health Benefits program on Jan. 1. In its place, they’ll choose from the plans offered in their states through health insurance exchanges.

Since our elected officials will be navigating health insurance exchanges just as millions of other Americans are, members of Congress can serve as examples to their uninsured constituents.

Senators should speak openly about how they’ll decide which coverage option is best for them and how they’ll learn about the available options. Representatives should show their constituents how they plan to sign up for coverage. (In Maine, residents will access the state’s health insurance exchange through www.healthcare.gov.)

People who need insurance will pick up bits and pieces of information through the public awareness campaign the White House is making a top priority this year. But they’ll probably learn best through example. And members of Congress are examples with big mouthpieces.

Of course, we’d expect the members of Congress who support the Affordable Care Act would be more eager than their colleagues on the other side of the aisle to take on this role. We can already hear the partisan accusations from Obamacare critics aimed at members of Congress who try to show their constituents how they can obtain health insurance.

But is it really advancing a purely political cause to help constituents obtain health insurance coverage — something that 88 percent of them say they need?

We look at it as an opportunity for a Congress that hasn’t been able to accomplish much to, at last, do something useful.

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