Shutdown takes focus off Obamacare glitches

Public's attention diverted much to chagrin of Republicans

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In this weekly column, former health insurance executive Wendell Potter offers commentary on matters relating to U.S. health care reform.

If health care reform advocates and Obamacare lovers haven’t done so already, I suggest they send the House Republican caucus a thank you note.

Because of the actions they’ve taken to shut down the federal government, congressional Republicans have kept the Washington media so preoccupied over the past several days that reporters have not done what they surely would have done in the absence of all the drama on Capitol Hill.

Had there been no shutdown, the D.C. press corps would have covered every glitch accompanying last Tuesday’s launch of the Obamacare-created health insurance marketplaces to the point that the glitches would be all that they — and we — would be talking about now.

I’m sure Republican political consultants and communications strategists are banging their heads against the wall. Not only are Americans blaming the GOP more than President Barack Obama and the Democrats for the shutdown — and the problems associated with it—but the anti-Obamacare congressional delegation squandered a golden opportunity to dominate the headlines and talk shows with their “I-told-you- it’d-be-a-train-wreck” talking points.

As anticipated, there were plenty of glitches if not complete system crashes during the first days. Everyone knew that getting all the states’ marketplaces up and running flawlessly just wasn’t going to happen. The first days of any big launch are inevitably plagued by anticipated as well as unanticipated problems.

If I had been one of the GOP’s PR guys, I would have been looking forward to Oct. 1 and would have been ready to link Americans unable to get online to shop for coverage — or who got online and found out that their premiums will likely be higher next year — with their Obamacare-hating members of Congress.

While most people who will be shopping for coverage in the marketplaces will undoubtedly find better deals than are available now — as well as help from the government to pay their premiums — there will be a fair number of folks who will have to pay more and won’t qualify for tax credits and subsidies. They will not be happy campers, and many of them, especially if they lean to the right, will be eager to step in front of the TV cameras.

By midday last Tuesday, I would have been locked and loaded with anecdotes to blast to the media to “prove” that Obamacare was the disaster in the making GOPers had been predicting and that “rate shock” was real.

The goal of the PR campaign, if the strategists had been able to implement it and get the media to pay attention, would have been to create a perception of Armageddon, a perception that of course that would be at odds with reality. Which is that most people will come to realize that Obamacare in general, and the marketplaces in particular, are a net positive for the vast majority of us and that the sky didn’t fall.

But, as the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater once proclaimed, “perception is reality.” Meaning that through the selective disclosure of data and stories, supplemented with half-truths and outright lies, perceptions can be created that people come to accept as reality. It is through this kind of deception that millions of Americans remain convinced that the Affordable Care Act is a “government takeover of health care” that created “death panels” and puts a bureaucrat between you and your doctor.

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It is possible, maybe even likely, that once the shutdown comes to an end, the anti-Obamacare delegation will be able to regroup and figure out how to dominate the headlines and airwaves with tales of the marketplace gone terribly bad.  But with every day that the federal government remains closed, the longer the Obama administration will have to fix the glitches and compile lots of anecdotes and data to show how well things are going.

The president and supporters of the law are already making the convincing case that the problems were largely the result of much greater demand than anyone could have anticipated or been prepared for, and that the problems are fixable.

“It appears the administration was expecting a trickle and they got a flood,” Sabrina Corlette, research professor at the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, told me. “It's a sign that millions of Americans are eager to learn about new, more affordable coverage options offered by the exchanges.”

She went on to point out that “although some consumers have been frustrated by frozen search screens and long wait times, the administration is implementing fixes and expanding capacity. These early glitches are likely to be temporary — and there is still plenty of time to sign up for coverage, which doesn't start until January 1, 2014.”

The irony here is rich.

Not only has the government shutdown not shut down or even delay Obamacare, the political theater that is Washington these days is all that the media and public are paying attention to. If it’s a train wreck, the media’s not paying much attention to it.