With Enemies Like This, Who Needs Friends?

As they tried to regain their footing after the surprise Senate election of Scott Brown, reformers received an unexpected boost from for-profit insurer Wellpoint. In February, the insurance giant announced it was planning to raise rates by 39 percent in California, and similarly large increases were reported elsewhere. Coming off a $2.5 billion profit in the last quarter of 2009, this didn’t sit so well with much of anyone but insurers, and became a major rallying point in the White House, Congress and advocates’ final push for reform. Some conservative commentators went so far as to blame Wellpoint for reform’s subsequent passage.

Now Wellpoint is at it again.  Recent headlines suggesting that the company routinely targets women with breast cancer for rescission boost the case that, if anything, the tougher insurance oversight that is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act doesn’t go far enough.   Since it seems the folks at Wellpoint can’t help themselves, it’s up to advocates and regulators to stop them before they kill again (no joke).

Repeal Watch 1: Public opinion This latest Wellpoint scandal makes it crystal clear: The repeal chorus is defending the indefensible.  And yet, with 45 percent of conservatives getting most of their information from cable news, it’s unclear that the indefensible is making it on air. The latest Kaiser tracking poll (pdf) has some moderately good news for reformers: a plurality of the country supports reform, but many are confused (or misinformed) about what reform actually does.

This lack of understanding underscores both the need and opportunity for an aggressive public education effort using all available means—everything from paid and earned (and social!) media to one to one conversations at the community level.

More bad news for repealers (and good news for us): there is strong cross-partisan public support—among Democrats, Republicans and Independents—for the early provisions of reform like small business tax credits, $250 rebate for seniors with high drug costs and coverage for children with pre-existing conditions.

But people over 65 continue to hold a more negative view of reform than younger adults do—and that’s worrisome, especially in light of their disproportionately big turn out at the mid-term polls, which we’ve talked about here before.

Even so, repeal may not be the ticket to ride that some conservative activists hoped for. A recent poll of Florida voters showed that a majority think that the state Attorney General McCollum’s decision to sue the federal government was a bad idea and that McCollum, the front runner in the Florida governor’s race, was losing ground.

Repeal Watch, Part 2:  Breaking down the repeal arguments

Voters have good reason to be skeptical of the repeal efforts, which have overwhelmingly been advanced by candidates seeking higher office or as part of a larger right-wing electoral strategy. A growing number of state legislatures hold a similarly skeptical view—so far more than 12 have rejected repeal measures.

And they are right to, since the main repeal arguments are so far-fetched.  Basically, they amount to:

  • The law is illegal because the Medicaid expansion imposes new costs on states. By the same reasoning, other provisions of Medicaid law, such as the requirement to cover certain children or people with disabilities, would also be illegal, and Medicaid would become nothing more than a blank check written to the states. And what of those new costs? A recent CBPP report shows that new state costs through 2019 add up to only 1.25 percent of projected state spending, and that’s before factoring in possible offsetting savings to states.
  • States have the ability to selectively decide which federal laws they will obey. This argument essentially parallels the case made by segregationists almost 50 years ago and has been decisively rejected by the courts.
  • The individual mandate falls outside of Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce because it regulates “inactivity” and/or it is an impermissible tax.

But from a legal standpoint, the “mandate” falls squarely within Congress’ authority to raise taxes. Semantics aside, the individual mandate is not really a mandate, but a financial incentive to purchase coverage.  From an economic standpoint, it is no different than the existing tax subsidy that goes to employer-sponsored coverage; lowering the cost of doing something or raising the cost of not doing it are functionally the same (more at the New England Journal of Medicine–subscription required).

In sum, both the legal and political campaigns for repeal (if indeed the two are distinguishable) rest on shaky ground—and more and more voters and political leaders are beginning to figure that out.

–Michael Miller, director of strategic policy