Advocates: Dems should stop avoiding healthcare reform on campaign trail

Healthcare advocates are frustrated Democrats are largely avoiding talking about the reform law on the stump — even parts of it they think are winners with the public. 
 
Some strategists say that’s a good idea, given the law’s overall unpopularity. But advocates and pollsters insist the party could still capitalize on the issue by focusing on a little-talked-about provision: the one requiring members of Congress to buy the same health insurance as everyone else.
 

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“It could be a very strong silver bullet because it communicates a lot: You must really believe in the plan or you wouldn’t have put yourself or your family on it,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster whose firm has conducted surveys on healthcare reform.
 
But Democrats’ overall messaging on the bill has become so muddled — public confusion over the new law is at its highest point since April, according to one survey — others suggest it’s not worth the fight.
 
“The truth is the healthcare bill is not that popular,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster whose clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidThe Memo: Trump pulls off a stone-cold stunner The Memo: Ending DACA a risky move for Trump Manchin pressed from both sides in reelection fight MORE (Nev.). “And as a result, people are reluctant to make it any part of the centerpiece of their campaign because you’re unnecessarily dragged into a discussion of an issue that is not that popular.”
 
The administration and Democratic leaders in Congress have long insisted people will like the bill when they are clear on what’s in it. Mellman noted a push by the White House and the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) to educate voters.
 
“There’s a huge effort that the White House has undertaken, that HHS has undertaken, an educational effort to get people to understand what is in the bill," he said. "And when they understand what is in the bill, they do like it.
 
“But campaigns are not a good place to do an educational effort,” he added. “Campaigns are about winning, they’re not about educating. It’s not clear that debating the healthcare bill is a winning issue for candidates.”
 
Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Poll finds little support for Menendez reelection Judge tells Menendez lawyer to 'shut up' MORE (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he doesn't think voters want to hear candidates talking about healthcare; they want to hear about jobs.
 
“You always want to be talking to your constituency and electorate about what’s on their mind, and what’s on their mind is their economic security,” he told The Hill. “It’s very simple: If I’m talking about the moon, and you’re at your kitchen table talking about your jobs, how to keep your home, how to pay your kid’s tuition, then the bottom line is, I’m going to look and say, ‘Boy, this guy’s got a disconnect with me.’ So the connection is on the economic questions, and that’s what our incumbents and candidates are talking about.”
 
The Herndon Alliance, a healthcare advocacy group that supported the reform effort, is pushing for Democrats to run on healthcare rather than away from it. They cite the provision requiring members of Congress to participate in the new health exchanges as one that could help sway voters.
 
“We’ve actually tested it, and that, combined with other things, is actually the strongest argument for healthcare reform,” said Dr. Bob Crittenden, the group’s executive director. “We went through six focus groups [over the summer], and every focus group brought it up. It’s very interesting that there was such unanimity.”
 
Beginning in 2014, the health reform law creates state-based insurance exchanges, which are virtual marketplaces where consumers — and members of Congress — can compare plans based on benefits and cost. Patients earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of poverty will be eligible for federal subsidies for plans purchased on the exchanges. Wealthier families can use the exchanges as a menu for convenience, but won't receive federal help.
 
Those in the country illegally are not eligible to use the exchanges, even to buy unsubsidized coverage.
 
A survey of 1,000 likely voters conducted by Anzalone Liszt Research in April found 68 percent of respondents were more likely to support the bill if they knew members get their healthcare coverage from the same plans that tens of millions of Americans would. Other polls showed that number climbing as high as 75 percent.
 
In July, an online poll of 2,000 likely voters by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that members’ joining the exchanges was the second most popular aspect of the bill.
 
Both polls were commissioned by the Herndon Alliance.
 
Still, the legislative overhaul Congress passed in March is neither well understood nor well liked. In the Anzalone Liszt survey, 28 percent believed — incorrectly — that it calls for “death panels.” And a recent poll by The Hill found a majority of voters in key battleground districts favor repeal. Nearly one in four Democrats wanted to roll back the legislation.
 
Some Democrats have started addressing healthcare, though.
 
Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) used their support for the bill to attack their Republican opponent for, they said, standing with insurance companies.
 
House Democrats such as New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and Tennessee Rep. Steven Cohen, have been focused on the so-called “patient’s bill of rights,” which went into effect Sept. 23. It allows young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26 and removes lifetime limits on coverage.


Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) was in New Orleans in September to talk up healthcare reform at a roundtable with voters and House candidate Cedric Richmond.
 
But Lake called the patient's bill of rights “confusing" and said it wasn't the most effective message on healthcare reform.
 
“It might be a short-term message, but it’s not a long-term message,” she said of the patient’s bill of rights.
 
A White House official said the members being incorporated into the exchanges is something that is “consistently brought up” by HHS Secretary Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusFormer health chiefs: Stabilizing ObamaCare markets benefits Republicans OPINION | 5 big ideas to halt America's opioid epidemic Aligning clinical and community resources improves health MORE and President Obama when addressing healthcare reform. The official pointed to several recent speeches by Sebelius in which she brought up the members’ plans, and one speech the president made in June during which he talked about it.
 
Mellman said the education effort by the White House could help, but campaigns are unlikely to engage on the issue.
 
“In a campaign, you got to make choices,” Mellman said. “You can only talk about one or two things. Do you want to try to educate people about the healthcare bill or do we want to say [to your opponent], ‘If we had your way, we would have fired 1,500 teachers.’”