White House credits ObamaCare for slow growth in healthcare spending

The White House on Monday said ObamaCare was partly responsible for slowing the growth of healthcare spending, even as the agency tasked with implementing the law said the impact was “minimal.”

The new report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) found healthcare spending rose by 3.7 percent in 2012, the fourth year in a row that the increase was at a near-record low.

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“For years, healthcare costs in America skyrocketed, with brutal consequences for our country,” wrote White House deputy assistant for health policy Jeanne Lambrew in a blog post.

“The Affordable Care Act, for the first time in decades, has helped to stop that trend.”

The White House acknowledges that a slow economy has played a role in keeping cost growth low, but it argues that the trend persisted in part because of ObamaCare as the economy improved.

Republicans immediately challenged this assertion and pointed to a section of the CMS report that described the law's impact on the healthcare spending slowdown as small.

“No matter how much bluster the White House puts behind these findings, the actuaries continue to show that ObamaCare's impact on slower growth is negligible. To suggest otherwise is nonsense,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spokesman Brendan Buck said.

In response to the CMS report, Republican critics argued the law will eventually accelerate healthcare cost growth by imposing taxes and adding people to insurance rolls.

Supporters said the opposite, noting that parts of healthcare reform are designed to lower spending in both private and public health insurance.

The back-and-forth highlights a fiery and longstanding debate over ObamaCare's fiscal impact, as well as the White House's effort to find evidence that the law is functioning well.

The new statistics come at a critical time for President Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats, who have been worried about losing their majority in the Senate amid an onslaught of bad news about ObamaCare's rollout.

When Congress left Washington for its holiday recess, ObamaCare's troubled federal enrollment site had started to turn a corner.

By Dec. 31, about 2.1 million people had signed up for private health insurance on state and federally facilitated marketplaces.

The number was seen as a step forward for an administration that had been mired in conflict since HealthCare.gov debuted with serious technical flaws on Oct. 1.

Now, as campaign season looms, Republicans are eager to return focus to the law's botched rollout and what they see as its negative fiscal impact.

The National Republican Congressional Committee signaled confidence on the issue Monday, urging Democrats to sign a tongue-in-cheek petition promising to campaign on ObamaCare.

And the House GOP will vote Friday on two ObamaCare measures, one of which would require the administration to notify consumers if there is a data breach on any of the new health exchanges.

Polling released Monday suggested that Republicans have benefited from problems with the rollout, gaining an 8-point advantage over Democrats on healthcare issues among likely, undecided voters.

The survey was released by The Morning Consult, a healthcare news website.

What's more, likely, undecided voters expressed disapproval of ObamaCare by more than 2-to-1.

Leading Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have spurned warnings that the healthcare law could ultimately drag down their side in November.

“Any of our candidates will be able to run on ObamaCare,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told CNN's “Crossfire” last month.

Democrats have brought “peace of mind” to sick patients by passing the Affordable Care Act, she said, pointing to the law's benefits and protections. 

Still, few vulnerable Dems are rushing to embrace the healthcare law without also proposing changes that would ease the plight of some consumers.

Republicans must gain six seats to control the Senate and defend 17 districts in the House to keep the majority in that chamber.

Seeking to bolster its argument Monday, the White House said that policies meant to lower costs in Medicare — reducing avoidable hospital readmissions, for example — are having a positive impact in the private sector.

Lambrew also praised part of the healthcare law that requires insurers to spend at least 80 percent of premium dollars on patient care, thereby holding down companies' administrative costs.

In addition to reporting a fourth year of slow cost growth, the CMS found that the share of the economy pertaining to healthcare shrunk in 2012 for the first time in 15 years.

Still, it could prove difficult to convince the public that healthcare spending is slowing when many people are facing plans with higher out-of-pocket costs.

A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in December found that just 5 percent of all Americans believe the rate of healthcare spending has decreased. Just 3 percent of uninsured people felt this way, according to the survey.

This story was posted at 4 p.m. and updated at 5:25 p.m. and 8:32 p.m.

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