Opponents' missteps locked in Obamacare's future

Congressional Republicans overplayed their hand, just as WellPoint did in 2010

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Last Thursday, October 10, 2013, probably won’t be mentioned in the history books as an important date for the U.S. health care system, but it was. That’s because last Thursday was the first day reform advocates who’ve worked for years were able to exhale, free of worry that the Affordable Care Act would not go forward.

Their victory did not come about because the Obama administration or Democrats in Congress has successfully carried out a winning strategy but because the other side screwed up big-time, to the point that their chances of being able to dismantle or defund the law fell to near zero.

As I was leaving the Dirksen Senate Office Building Thursday morning after speaking at a hearing chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Families USA’s Ron Pollack, who has been leading the reform fight for decades, said to me with a big smile, “I think we’re finally winning.”

He was able to say that because it became clear on Capitol Hill that day that Congressional Republicans were failing in their effort to get the president to sacrifice, delay or defund his signature accomplishment in order end the shutdown of the federal government.

In fact, results of public opinion surveys released Thursday — and comments by leading GOP pollsters — provided proof that the Republicans’ strategy of intimidation had backfired badly and even served to make Obamacare more popular with the public. This despite the fact that the federally operated health insurance marketplaces continued to be plagued with glitches.

The botched attempt to inflict mortal wounds to the health care law, which all but assures that it will be implemented as planned, reminded me of another moment when reform opponents fumbled at a critical time.

In February 2010, support for the health care reform legislation was waning, not only in Congress but also nationwide. The fear-based anti-reform PR campaign funded by health insurers and other special interests had taken its toll. It even helped Republican Scott Brown win what was thought to be a safe seat for Democrats in a special election in Massachusetts on January 19 to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Reform advocates were demoralized. Many were quietly acknowledging that victory seemed to be slipping away.

What they didn’t count on was help from what was then the nation’s largest health insurance company, the for-profit WellPoint Corporation.

In early February, the Los Angeles Times and other media began reporting that WellPoint had notified many policyholders in California that it planned to increase their premiums by as much as 39 percent.

Those stories provoked such outrage that it was all Washington lawmakers talked about for days. Almost immediately, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who was then chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, launched an investigation into the rate hike. He and other lawmakers sent a letter to WellPoint’s then-CEO, Angela F. Braly, asking her to testify before Waxman’s committee and provide a detailed explanation of the reasons for the increase.

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The outrage only grew when the media reported that the giant insurer’s Wall Street-pleasing profit the year before was $4.7 billion, almost double what the company had earned the year before. Then it was disclosed that the company’s top five executives, including Braley, had been paid more than $20 million in 2008, making them some of the highest paid executives in the country.

President Obama promptly used the proposed rate increase as a reason why reform was so urgently needed. He told reporters during a briefing that the WellPoint rate increase “is just a preview of coming attractions” in the absence of reform.

“Premiums will continue to rise for folks with insurance,” he said. “Millions more will lose their coverage altogether. Our deficits will continue to grow larger. And we have an obligation — both parties — to tackle this issue in a serious way."

WellPoint’s response only helped reform advocates. The company’s executives were perceived to be defiant, arrogant, politically tone deaf and completely beholden to shareholders and Wall Street financial analysts at the expense of policyholders.

The controversy unified Congressional Democrats at a time when many of them, especially so-called Blue Dogs from more conservative districts, were beginning to side with Republicans in opposition to reform. Enough of them came back into the fold to enable then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to get the legislation through both chambers and on its way to President Obama a few weeks later.

Talk on Capitol Hill Thursday was once again about how the Democrats had come together and how they were rallying behind the President.

This unity — along with the fact that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other Republicans who forced the government shutdown didn’t seem to have a well-thought-out plan — contributed to the feeling that advocates had finally won.

Obamacare is not going to be defunded. It will not even be delayed. It is and will continue to be the law of the land.