Is the Republican Advantage on Obamacare Eroding?

PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 19: People arrive to the free Affordable Care Act (ACA) Enrollment Fair at Pasadena City College on November 19, 2013 in Pasadena, California. The event, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles Association of Health Underwriters, offers one-on-one sessions with insurance experts certified by Covered California to help people enroll for healthcare coverage under the ACA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sam Baker and Sophie Novack
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Sam Baker and Sophie Novack
Dec. 8, 2013, 7:20 a.m.

With Health­ fi­nally work­ing, Demo­crats are able to fight back in the Obama­care an­ec­dote war.

The White House and its out­side al­lies are already ramp­ing up a massive ef­fort to em­phas­ize the per­son­al stor­ies of people get­ting cov­er­age un­der the health care law — ground that Demo­crats were largely forced to con­cede to the GOP dur­ing the up­roar over can­celed in­sur­ance policies.

Col­lect­ing con­stitu­ent stor­ies has been a fo­cus of the Re­pub­lic­an strategy against the health law for sev­er­al weeks. But now, with Health­ work­ing bet­ter and en­roll­ment be­gin­ning to surge, Demo­crats are pre­pared to launch a de­luge of pro-Obama­care an­ec­dotes as they try to pro­mote en­roll­ment and make a polit­ic­al sales pitch for the Af­ford­able Care Act.

“For a while we’ve been very fo­cused on lift­ing up per­son­al stor­ies as a really good way to com­mu­nic­ate what’s out there. Es­pe­cially with the prob­lems with the site, we wanted to — wherever we could — push stor­ies to show it’s pos­sible,” said Jes­sica Bar­ba Brown, na­tion­al com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for En­roll Amer­ica, a group ded­ic­ated to help­ing in­di­vidu­als sign up for cov­er­age through the law. “Now stor­ies are ob­vi­ously much bet­ter in terms of pro­cess, with people say­ing they sailed through the ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess in 45 minutes.”

An anti-Obama­care “play­book” re­leased by the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence be­fore Thanks­giv­ing em­phas­ized gath­er­ing stor­ies over the hol­i­day to use as am­muni­tion against the law, and the strategy will con­tin­ue over Decem­ber break.

“Re­cog­niz­ing that health care is much more than the web­site, House Re­pub­lic­ans have been shar­ing stor­ies primar­ily about can­celed plans, lost ac­cess to doc­tors and hos­pit­als, and high­er costs,” a House lead­er­ship aide wrote in an email to Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Re­pub­lic­an law­makers have held Google “hangouts” and reached out to con­stitu­ents through email and so­cial me­dia to col­lect stor­ies.

“Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans con­tin­ue to share the stor­ies they’ve re­ceived from con­stitu­ents on the Sen­ate floor, in weekly columns, in in­ter­views, and else­where,” Ash­Lee Strong, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence wrote in an email.

Al­though the law’s sup­port­ers clearly lost ground dur­ing the past two months, there are good reas­ons to think they’ll have an up­per hand in the an­ec­dote war. Some neg­at­ive stor­ies may be­come pos­it­ive ones, as people who had their pre­vi­ous plans can­celed find new cov­er­age through the law’s ex­changes. Without unity around a health care plan of their own, Re­pub­lic­ans have no al­tern­at­ive to sug­gest to those shar­ing their neg­at­ive ex­per­i­ences.

The Demo­crats’ case is also more dra­mat­ic. While Re­pub­lic­ans rolled out stor­ies of people’s premi­ums go­ing up, the ad­min­is­tra­tion and its al­lies have already be­gun to identi­fy people with chron­ic ill­nesses who are get­ting health care cov­er­age for the first time, or who have not been able to af­ford in­sur­ance un­til now.

“I think that we are in a good up­swing, and I think it will con­tin­ue to gain steam,” said Lauren Wein­er, deputy com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for Amer­ic­ans United for Change.

A White House of­fi­cial said the ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­cently launched new tools to col­lect pro-Obama­care an­ec­dotes and push them in­to the broad­er de­bate over the law. The White House helps mem­bers of Con­gress find an­ec­dotes in their area or that are rel­ev­ant to the spe­cif­ic is­sues they want to dis­cuss, the of­fi­cial said, and Obama has high­lighted sev­er­al per­son­al stor­ies in his re­newed sales pitch for the law.

This week, En­roll Amer­ica and some of its part­ner or­gan­iz­a­tions — in­clud­ing Fam­il­ies USA and Planned Par­ent­hood — is launch­ing a ma­jor new ini­ti­at­ive to high­light pos­it­ive ex­per­i­ences of those en­rolling in cov­er­age. The push will in­volve a co­ordin­ated weekly theme that high­lights stor­ies of cer­tain demo­graph­ics.

“Next week it will be wo­men and moms,” Bar­ba Brown ex­plained last week. “In the fu­ture it could be people en­rolled in Medi­caid, Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, Lati­nos, youth. On Valentine’s Day we may high­light couples and loved ones get­ting covered.” She says that the strategy is sep­ar­ate but com­ple­ment­ary to the White House’s an­ec­dotes push.

Like the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s ef­forts have ramped up fol­low­ing the web­site fixes. In the three weeks lead­ing up to the Dec. 23 dead­line to en­roll in cov­er­age be­gin­ning Jan. 1, En­roll Amer­ica will hold over 1,000 events across the coun­try — primar­ily en­roll­ment fairs where staff, part­ners, and nav­ig­at­ors will con­tin­ue to col­lect Obama­care suc­cess stor­ies.

The num­bers should work in fa­vor of the law’s sup­port­ers as well, as long as they are able to reach enough of those who are newly eli­gible for cov­er­age.

“There’s a myri­ad of ex­per­i­ences out there,” Bar­ba Brown said. “I think the kinds of stor­ies we’re high­light­ing rep­res­ent the ex­per­i­ences of most people.”

Demo­crats were sup­posed to be able to count on pos­it­ive stor­ies about people gain­ing cov­er­age as a coun­ter­weight to the bad pub­li­city over plan can­cel­la­tions. But be­cause Health­ was func­tion­ing so poorly, hardly any­one was able to en­roll and the site’s prob­lems over­shad­owed the few suc­cess stor­ies there might have been.

“The web­site func­tion­ing bet­ter is a very good thing for any­one who sup­ports this law. I think that has been a huge help,” Wein­er said.

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