Good News for Obamacare Is Bad News for Conservative Pundits

The warnings that insurance premiums will skyrocket next year look increasingly hyperbolic.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
April 18, 2014, 7:46 a.m.

Con­ser­vat­ives were sure at every turn that Obama­care would fail, but as the num­bers roll in, those con­vic­tions are look­ing in­creas­ingly ideo­lo­gic­al.

First they said nobody would en­roll. Then they said first-year premi­ums would be through the roof. And later, they warned of a “death spir­al,” wherein premi­ums would go up un­con­trol­lably. My col­league Sam Baker has writ­ten an ex­cel­lent ana­lys­is of the situ­ation, the up­shot of which is that Obama­care is on a win­ning streak.

The next great fron­ti­er of con­ser­vat­ive hy­per­bole con­cerns premi­ums for 2015, with crit­ics warn­ing that costs will double or even triple next year.

As of this week, we have good evid­ence to the con­trary. Health in­sur­ance premi­um rates are ex­pec­ted go up just 7 per­cent — a rate of in­crease much lower than what crit­ics were pre­dict­ing. And the non­par­tis­an Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice is pre­dict­ing that premi­um hikes will be re­l­at­ively mod­est.

“The double-rate in­creases we’ve been hear­ing are prob­ably ex­ag­ger­ated,” Dave Axene, a fel­low with the So­ci­ety of Ac­tu­ar­ies, told USA Today. “That’s not what we’re see­ing from the ac­tu­ar­ial or­gan­iz­a­tions — I guess we’re be­ing a little bit more op­tim­ist­ic.”

“A little bit more op­tim­ist­ic” is something of an un­der­state­ment. For weeks, pun­dits have been spout­ing apo­ca­lyptic no­tions about the costs of in­sur­ance premi­ums, warn­ing Amer­ic­ans that “the worst is yet to come.”

Writ­ing in The Wash­ing­ton Post last month, Mi­chael Ger­son spec­u­lated that premi­um in­creases could hit triple di­gits. “Over the past sev­er­al years, in­creases in in­sur­ance premi­ums have av­er­aged nearly 6 per­cent,” he wrote. “Be­cause of the rocky launch, age dis­tri­bu­tion, and delayed pro­vi­sions of Obama­care ex­changes, in­sur­ance com­pany of­fi­cials ex­pect far lar­ger premi­um in­creases this spring — in the double di­gits, if not the triple di­gits, in many places.”

He goes on to rep­rim­and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for fail­ing to pre­pare Amer­ic­ans for these drastic­ally in­creased premi­ums, call­ing it “an­oth­er round of Obama­care over­prom­ising.” In fact, it’s Ger­son who’s blown the ex­pect­a­tions game — not that he’s alone in that.

Just last week, Scott Got­tlieb, a res­id­ent fel­low at the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, wrote in For­bes that “health in­sur­ance premi­ums are show­ing the sharpest in­creases per­haps ever” and that “rate hikes have ac­cel­er­ated as Obama­care’s reg­u­la­tions have star­ted to get im­ple­men­ted.”

In an ap­pear­ance on Meet the Press, John Sununu cited a re­port from Well­Point that pre­dicted “double-di­git-plus” in­creases. The re­port startled ana­lysts at the time, with some say­ing they sus­pec­ted the com­pany was “hedging bets” in case of a change in rules. But that nu­ance didn’t make it in­to Sununu’s talk­ing points.

And con­ser­vat­ive blog­ger Ed Mor­ris­sey cited a sen­sa­tion­al head­line to make his case. “Re­mem­ber how Barack Obama and Demo­crats prom­ised to ‘bend the cost curve down­ward’ with Obama­Care?” he wrote on Hot Air. “Well, they got most of that prom­ise cor­rect. Obama­care has bent the cost curve all right, but sharply up­ward — and in 2015, ex­pect them to not just bend but ab­so­lutely ‘skyrock­et.’ “

That re­port was widely ban­died about in the con­ser­vat­ive blo­go­sphere. “In polit­ics, there’s only so much mas­sa­ging of the truth and flat-out ly­ing that one can do be­fore the head­lines catch up with the de­ceit,” wrote Na­tion­al Re­view‘s Charles Cooke. “Here’s one that ought to scare the hell out of any Demo­crats who are still hop­ing that The Charge of the Light Bri­gade can be an ef­fect­ive elect­or­al strategy for them: ‘O-Care premi­ums to skyrock­et.’ ” In this case, of course, it was de­ceit that caught up with the head­lines.

The ori­gin of these crit­ics’ ar­gu­ment can be traced to a thinly sourced art­icle in The Hill, which quoted a former Cigna ex­ec­ut­ive say­ing things like, “My gut tells me that, for some people, these in­creases will be sig­ni­fic­ant.” The re­ports about in­sur­ance rates pos­sibly trip­ling, which were widely re­peated, ap­pear to come from a single an­onym­ous in­sur­ance ex­ec­ut­ive.

The irony is that, had con­ser­vat­ives been a little less quick to trum­pet every nug­get of po­ten­tially bad news, the ad­min­is­tra­tion would be rid­ing a little less high right now — and their own pre­dic­tions would look a little less silly.

Nobody knows for sure what will hap­pen next year. And there are still plenty of Obama­care sup­port­ers who en­vi­sion premi­um in­creases in the double di­gits. But pun­dits like Ger­son and even some straight news out­lets have been far too con­fid­ent that everything will be ter­rible.

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