Healthcare: Democrats up ante

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is doubling down on healthcare reform, betting that it will do Democrats more good than harm in November’s elections.

She and her leadership team have seized on new polls that suggest healthcare overhaul’s popularity is rising, and they are urging members of Congress to use this week’s recess to tout the new law.

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Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the party leadership have sent lawmakers back to their districts urging them to hold town hall-type meetings to highlight the law’s benefits, in the belief it could help Democrats avoid major losses in November.

Recent polls indicate a slow but steady uptick in the popularity of healthcare reform. Despite Republican hopes that the law’s controversial passage will win them seats this fall, the Democrats’ actions show they still consider the issue a political winner.

“There’s an aggressive campaign to talk about the benefits of the legislation,” said a House leadership aide. 

David Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said the party that prevails in November will likely be the one that can rally independents behind it. And that, he said, will hinge on messaging.

“Both parties’ bases will be convinced their party is right,” said Redlawsk. “Republicans will believe it is a huge waste of money and government overreach; Democrats will buy the positives and the messages that it is working.

“In the end,” Redlawsk said, “healthcare reform may be one of the few positive messages Democrats have to put out there — if they can continue to highlight its benefits.”

With that in mind, Democratic leaders circulated a memo late last week pressing members to host meetings with constituents during this week’s recess to underscore the benefits of the reform law. The memo also suggests drawing attention to Democrats’ jobs agenda and their response to the BP oil spill.

Leaders are encouraging members to demonstrate a new online tool for choosing personalized insurance plans; to highlight the arrival of Medicare prescription drug rebate checks; and to stage roundtable discussions on the so-called patients’ bill of rights, the insurance reforms designed to protect consumers from losing coverage and benefits.

The memo is loosely based on a July 2 letter from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to lawmakers.

By voting unanimously against the Democrats’ legislation, Republicans bet that voters will be upset that it passed. That dynamic has turned the health reform debate into one of politics as much as policy, with Democrats trumpeting every benefit that comes along and Republicans blasting the changes as a government takeover of the healthcare system.

Recent polls have given both sides reason to be hopeful. A survey conducted last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 48 percent of respondents viewed the reforms favorably — up seven percentage points from a month earlier — while 41 percent have an unfavorable view.

More recently, a Rasmussen Survey found that 60 percent of Americans would like to see the reforms repealed — a finding that Republicans are quick to note.

“The American people want nothing to do with its cost increases, tax hikes and Medicare cuts, and they will hold accountable every Democrat who ignored the will of the American people and voted for it,” Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Republican House leader John Boehner (Ohio), said in an e-mail.

Not that Democrats are touting everything in their reform law.

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The memo does not dwell, for instance, on the high-risk insurance pools launched by the Obama administration last week. Those pools are designed to cater to patients who can’t get health insurance due to pre-existing conditions. Democrats have said those pools will cover the sickest Americans before state-based insurance exchanges go live in 2014. But the Congressional Budget Office recently questioned their effectiveness, finding that the $5 billion allocated for the pools is likely to run dry by 2013.

Some experts argue the focus on healthcare reform is being overplayed in a tough economic environment where jobs will be the larger worry among voters.

David Epstein, a political scientist at Columbia University, said the political advantage on the healthcare front this year will go to neither party.

“The [Republicans] can’t really run against it, because now it’s passed and no one feels like their healthcare has been changed much, except for a few benefits that kicked in immediately,” Epstein said. “The [Democrats] can’t run on it much either, though, because it’s still complicated and voters are unsure about its long-term effects.

“It’s a push,” he added. “In this election, it’s going to be the economy, stupid.”

Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at George Washington University, agreed.

“My hunch,” she said, “is that until voters more directly feel and see the effects of the healthcare law, neither party will be especially harmed or advantaged.”