Some new advertisements attacking the Affordable Care Act actually show why the law is working.
The ads are running in Colorado and Louisiana, two states where incumbent Democratic senators face difficult reelection fights. They come from Americans for Prosperity, the conservative organization backed by the Koch Brothers. And in the spots, a woman makes some fairly sweeping claims about how Obamacare is hurting average Americans: “Millions of people have lost their health insurance, millions of people can’t see their own doctors, and millions are paying more and getting less.”
The statements leave out critical context, as Politifact has observed. But the interesting thing about the ads is their style. The narrator isn’t claiming these things happened to her or, for that matter, to any particular person. It’s all very broad and unspecific.
That’s a change and it's probably because so few "Obama-scare" stories have held up to media scrutiny. Remember “Bette in Spokane”? House Republicans claimed she had to pay twice as much for her new coverage. Reporter David Wasson, a local reporter with the Spokesman-Review, tracked her down and determined that Bette could actually save money if she bought Obamacare coverage on Washington state’s online marketplace. Then there was Whitney Johnson, a 26-year-old with multiple sclerosis, who claimed that she’d have to pay $1,000 a month for her new insurance in Texas. That didn’t sit quite right with journalist and policy expert Maggie Mahar. Mahar dug into the details and, in an article for healthinsurance.org, revealed that Johnson had actually found coverage for about $350 a month—what Johnson had been paying previously. Maybe the best-known story is the one of Julie Boonstra, a Michigan cancer patient who said that her new insurance policy was “unaffordable.” A series of reporters, first at the Washington Post and then at the Detroit News, determined that Boonstra is probably saving money because of Obamacare—all while keeping the physicians who provide her cancer care.
The conservatives’ struggle to find more airtight stories might seem mystifying, given that there’s no shortage of people with real and serious complaints about the Affordable Care Act. Quite a few Americans, probably numbering in the low millions, lost their old policies and are now paying more for replacements—usually because the old plans lacked benefits like maternity and mental health or because insurers can no longer avoid the sickest and most expensive beneficiaries. You’ve read about some of those people in these pages. These people are not happy and it’s easy to see why: The president and his allies promised that everybody who liked their olds plans could keep them. But, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik has observed, these stories inevitably have a lot of nuance. These are people who, almost by definition, are healthy enough to have gotten cheap insurance before or make enough money that they don’t qualify for the Affordable Care Act’s insurance discounts. That makes their tales less dramatic.
A better subject for future conservative advertisements might be people with serious, even life-threatening diseases who need access to very specific specialists or hospitals—and are now having difficulty, because their new plans have very narrow networks of providers. But even these stories have mitigating circumstances that media attention would reveal. Most of these people can find their way to comparable, albeit different, doctors and hospitals—and at least some can keep the old ones if they’re able and willing to pay more for it. Also, this kind of thing was a problem long before Obamacare came along. And that’s not to mention the fact that, previously, many of these people lived in fear of losing their insurance altogether.
In short, these stories may generate sympathy but they are rarely the stuff of tragedy. And that’s because of the protections Obamacare provides—which is to say, the very things that Koch-funded right-wingers want to gut.
After all, it’s Obamacare that sets a minimum standard for insurance, so that all policies include comprehensive benefits and set limits on out-of-pocket spending. It’s Obamacare that puts coverage within financial reach of many more people than before, by offering those subsidies and then, for some people, reducing out-of-pocket expenses even more. In the old days, it wasn’t so hard to find tear-jerker anecdotes: People without insurance or with inadequate insurance were filing for bankruptcy, losing their homes, and missing out on essential medicine. Now those stories are less common and, for the most part, they are among people who had these same problems previously. Telling the stories of these people would be a rationale for expanding the Affordable Care Act, not repealing it.
At some point, conservatives will find some tragic stories that are real. It’s a big country, and a complex law, and there are bound to be a few people for whom the new changes work out really badly. But there are also good news stories—lots of them. And while those stories inevitably have complications of their own, some are pretty dramatic. Democrats may not have figured out the politics of Obamacare. But it looks increasingly like they got the policy right.