ANALYSIS: 'ObamaCare' label is sticking

Backers of the president's health plan are losing the public relations battle

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 Updated:

Tea Party members protest President Obama's health care mandate in Cincinnati.

Tom Uhlman/AP

The Kaiser Family Foundation just released the findings of its annual survey of businesses to determine how much the cost of employer-sponsored health coverage has gone up. There were some unexpected findings.

One was that the average cost of annual premiums for family coverage is now more than $15,000. The 9 percent increase in the cost of health insurance over last year caught many people by surprise, because it represented a bigger hike in premiums than in recent years.

What seems clear is that insurers decided last year to charge their customers considerably more than necessary this year to be able to meet Wall Street’s profit expectations; insurance companies are also concerned that such increases will be more difficult once health care reform is fully implemented in 2014.

Here’s another surprise. Kaiser found that 50 percent of small employers are aware that they are now eligible for a tax credit from the federal government — thanks to the Affordable Care Act — if they provide subsidized coverage to their employees. I can hardly believe the awareness of the tax credit is that high.

As I have traveled across the country in recent weeks, speaking to a wide range of audiences, one thing has become abundantly clear: the provisions of the Affordable Care Act already in effect are anything but abundantly clear to people.

That’s because opponents of health care reform have won the public relations battle in defining the Affordable Care Act.

While the most recent Kaiser survey did not seek the views of the general population nor ask employers what they think or know about the Affordable Care Act, other polls show that advocates of the new law have been losing ground in the battle for public support.

This week I have been speaking at Florida churches — a Catholic church in Winter Park, outside Orlando, Monday night, and a Unitarian Universalist church in Clearwater Tuesday night.  The hosts wanted an overview of what’s in the new law and what’s not — to provide factual, unbiased information and also to dispel many of the myths that have gained traction, starting before the law was even enacted.

What the hosts told me — and what I learned from talking to people who attended the forums — is that the Obama Administration and the national groups that backed  the legislation have essentially been missing in action when it comes to explaining the benefits of the law.

Kaiser’s finding that 50 percent of small businesses were familiar with the tax credit would certainly come as a shock to Dr. Patrick Cannon, advocacy director for Florida CHAIN (Community Health Action Information Network). He has been traveling the state trying to reach small business owners and educate them about the tax credit.

He has found almost no one even knows about it. This undoubtedly helps explain why the number of small businesses offering coverage to their employees dropped significantly in the most recent Kaiser survey.

Cannon believes that one of the reasons is that reform advocates missed an important opportunity to brand the Affordable Care Act in positive terms — starting with the most basic term of all, the name of the law itself.

As Cannon pointed out, opponents of the law  use a single term to describe the law: ObamaCare. The term has so seeped its way into the vernacular that even some of the law’s advocates have started using that pejorative label. The groups that support the law, he notes, use a wide range of terms to describe it.

Cannon is embarking on an effort among supporters to be consistent in calling it the Affordable Care Act.

Because opponents have been able to define the law on their own terms (or term), advocates are finding it increasingly difficult to have civil conversations with people about it — including with independents.

Liz Buckley, executive director of Focus Orlando, told me that, “If you even try to have conversations with people about it, people think you’re just trying to reelect Obama. They just shut down the conversation.”

Why the administration has been so inept or disengaged is baffling. It’s true that people will be skeptical of information about the law that comes straight from the White House, but the folks behind the Obama campaign in 2008 seemed to know how to get third parties motivated and active on behalf of the candidate.

Where are those folks now? If the White House is serious about making sure the law goes forward — and making sure the Obama legacy is a positive one — they better get in gear and turn public awareness and attitudes around. Otherwise, pretty soon, it may be too late. 

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