Democrats mount most aggressive fight yet to protect healthcare reform law

The White House and congressional Democrats are vowing to aggressively fight back against any efforts to dismantle their signature healthcare reform law despite a State of the Union promise to work with Republicans on improvements.

Republicans during the midterm elections successfully tarred the new law as a big government takeover of healthcare crammed down the public's throat.

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Now Democrats are mounting their most vigorous counter-offensive to date by highlighting the law’s benefits for Americans and painting repeal proponents as stooges of the insurance industry.

Addressing the same healthcare conference where he first outlined his reform goals four years ago, Obama on Friday made it clear that Tuesday’s overture was not a capitulation.

“I joined you [in 2007] in a promise, that we would make health reform a reality by the end of the next president’s first term,” Obama told 1,000 activists at the 16th annual Families USA conference. “That was our commitment, and together that is what we did.”

Democratic lawmakers who addressed the conference shared similar outlooks.

“Passing healthcare reform was the right thing to do,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told the crowd. “When you’re armed with what’s right, it’s easier to mount a campaign.”

Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack said healthcare advocates “really welcome” a debate on repeal, because they say three things have changed since the law was enacted last year: Advocates are now better prepared to explain it; all the groups who supported the law for different reasons are now “working together in collaboration, with cohesive messages to protect the legislation”; and provisions are now in place from which people are directly benefiting.

During the State of the Union address, for example, Obama made reference to two beneficiaries who were sitting in the first lady’s viewing box: a brain-cancer patient enrolled in a high-risk pool funded by the law, and an auto-repair-shop owner who’s saving on his employee coverage thanks to the law's small-business tax credits.

The presidential nod coincides with the administration’s new “Voices of Health Reform” campaign, which officials call “a series where readers can meet average Americans already benefiting from the health reform law.” The campaign seeks to spark positive coverage of the law, especially in local and state media that are most likely to pick up local people's stories.

“As people start to connect with those benefits, they are more enthusiastic about the Affordable Care Act,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told The Hill earlier this month. “It's not just some law that Congress passed, but it really impacts them and their families in a very positive way.”

Another part of the strategy has been to counter reports that the law will increase costs for the very consumers it is meant to help. After Republicans in the House and Senate this week repeatedly brought up estimates by Medicare’s chief actuary that the law will increase health costs, the administration released its own report on Friday.

The report states that in 2014, family policies in the state exchanges could be as much as $2,300 less expensive than they would be without the law, and families could save even more thanks to tax credits and cost-sharing assistance. The report, however, doesn’t factor in the increased benefits mandated by the law, which will offer people more comprehensive coverage but at a higher cost.

“This is simple math,” Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the ranking member on the Senate Health Committee, said Friday. “According to [the Congressional Budget Office], the net impact of the new health care law is a [10 percent to] 13 percent increase in premiums. This equals a $2,100 increase for families purchasing coverage on their own.”

Polls suggest the strategy is showing early signs of success.

While opposition to the law increased last month to 50 percent, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, only 20 percent want total repeal. And 62 percent disapproved of the GOP’s plans to defund the law by withholding appropriations.

Part of the Democrats’ defense will also play out in congressional hearings, where Republicans have vowed to grill administration officials about the law's costs.

“Obviously, a part of our strategy will have to be to react and respond to what the aggressors will be doing,” Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee’s health subpanel, told The Hill. “But we will also keep focused on helping the American people really understand what it is they’ve got.”

—Jason Millman contributed to this report.