Back in March, on the day he signed the health care overhaul into law, President Obama conceded that the administration still had a lot of educating to do.
“Those fighting change are still out there, still making a lot of noise about what this reform means,” he told the audience gathered at the Interior Department. “So I want the American people to understand it, and look it up for yourself. Go on our website, whitehouse.gov, or go to any credible news outlet’s website, and look in terms of what reform will mean for you. You don’t have to take my word for it.”
But in those ensuing months, it is the opponents of the health care overhaul who have done most of the educating. And polls have shown the public remains not only sharply divided over the merits of the measure, but continually confused about what it contains and what it would do.
Ads Blast Law’s Supporters
One reason is the massive amounts of money being poured into questionable campaign advertising by outside groups who have complaints about the new law.
“Markey fought for the Obama-Pelosi government takeover of health care crushing small businesses with billions in penalties,” the ad says.
But the St. Petersburg Times website PolitiFact.org rated that part of the ad “false.” Not only are 96 percent of small businesses exempt from the new law’s requirement to cover their workers, but many will be eligible for new tax credits, the paper reported.
Similarly, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org took issue with an ad about the new law’s impact on Medicare. That ad comes from the conservative senior group 60 Plus and is aimed at more than a dozen Democrats. The ad charges that the law “threatens our ability to keep our doctors and keep our health plans as we were promised.”
But, as FactCheck.org pointed out, there are no Medicare cuts affecting doctors in the new law. Those are part of a separate Medicare issue.
Push-Back Efforts Outspent
Advocates for the measure are pushing back, sometimes with humor. Health Care for America Now, an umbrella coalition of labor and consumer groups, has produced an online video featuring comedian Jack Black as a “liar for hire” working undercover in an elementary school. Black tries to convince students that under the new law, “Obama’s gonna kill our grandmas,” and that “an army of 16,000 IRS agents [will] come to your house and put you in jail if you don’t buy health insurance.”
But that ad is only on the Web. Supporters of the health law are being vastly outspent by opponents on the actual TV and radio airwaves.
In fact, says Stephanie Cutter, who is the Obama administration’s point person for outreach strategy for the new law, given the mismatch, her side is holding its own.
“If you look at the polls, the nation is still split on whether or not they’re for reform, and that’s despite pro-reform efforts being outspent 7 to 1,” Cutter says. “So even if public opinion is not steadily increasing at the numbers we’d like to see, it’s holding steady despite being outspent at these large margins.”
And Cutter concedes that public education has not been at the forefront of the administration’s efforts.
“Our first priority was to implement the law,” she says.
Indeed, over the past six months the administration has put into place rules that protect patients from insurance company abuses, implement those new tax credits for small businesses, and provide help for seniors with prescription drug costs.
“All of these things have come out the door over the past six months as a result of our implementation efforts,” Cutter says. “And our education strategy has been pretty simple: Make a difference in people’s lives. Show them the tangible benefits of the law. And slowly that education process will happen.”
The Future Of Health Law Opinion
But that may be too slow. Drew Altman, a political scientist and president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, says the failure to help the public understand what was in the health law actually happened well before the bill passed, back when the administration was trying to decide whether to emphasize cost control, coverage expansion or patient protection.
“And the consequence was [that] when health reform was not defined in terms people could understand, it was left open to being defined by its opposition in more scary terms. And that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “And health reform is still living with that.”
Altman cautions, however, that Republicans shouldn’t read too much into polls showing widespread public disapproval of the measure.
“It’s a symbol for them of their frustration with Washington, their anger towards Washington; the process in a really bad economy that just has people angry overall,” he says.
And that disapproval doesn’t necessarily translate into a firm desire to see the law go away. One recent poll by Bloomberg News found 47 percent of respondents said they’d like to see the health law repealed. But in subsequent questions, majorities said they wanted to keep six of eight major provisions of the law intact.