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Health Reform: Elections, Politics and Patients


How much did health reform affect the midterm election results? How, in turn, will those results shape health care as politicians prepare for the 2012 race?

Polls suggested that health care is an important but secondary voting issue in this election,' wrote Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. His analysis of 17 independent polls' on the role of health care, from the perspective of potential voters, appeared online one week before the election and in a November issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

In March 2010, Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act' after a bruising partisan battle.'  Blendon described the competing messages on health care received by the public before and after health reform passed.

'The Democratic messages were all about, 'We have popular provisions; how could you ever not want this bill?' Blendon said. 'The Republicans took a completely different route. They didn't argue that there weren't some popular things; they argued that the overall bill would have a really bad impact on seniors, on taxpayers, on people who have to buy their own insurance and on the deficit, and that employers weren't going to hire people because there was so much regulation.

The jury's still out on whether Medicare funding changes are 'cuts' or 'savings' but older voters were convinced of the former.'  'The administration's argument was that wasn't true at all; these were just savings that wouldn't affect care,' Blendon said. But seniors really believed that this bill would lead to Medicare as they know it deteriorating.

Key Health Reform Components

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010. Voters welcomed some provisions and feared others. Many Americans share confusion about what health reform includes and how it affects them.

Most Popular*

Pre-existing Conditions: Insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to children because they already have a medical condition like asthma or diabetes. This protection extends to adults in 2014.

Insurance Caps: Insurers can no longer impose lifetime limits on certain benefits. In addition, the law restricts their ability to impose annual caps.

Medicare Doughnut Hole: About drugs, not doughnuts: Seniors who reach the Medicare Part D prescription gap receive $250 rebates and a 50 percent discount on covered drugs.

Young Adults-Extended Coverage: Young adults can stay on their parents' plans until they reach age 26.

Small Business Tax Credits: Employers can receive credit for up to 35 percent of workers' health insurance.

Preventive Services: The law waives coinsurance and deductibles for most preventive services and Medicare will cover 100 percent of the cost.

Most Unpopular

Individual Mandate: By 2014, most Americans must have insurance coverage or pay a penalty. Opponents charge that the mandate is unconstitutional.

Medicare Cuts: Seniors' biggest fear was that the law reduced Medicare benefits and they voted accordingly. Depending on one's position, funding changes are defined as (1) Medicare cuts, (2) reductions in growth of spending or (3) Medicare savings.

Taxpayer Costs: Tax hikes will affect more-expensive health plans and medical equipment, among other increases. Voters worried that costs would be passed on to them.

*Most and least popular items derived from: Blendon RJ, Benson JM. Health care in the 2010 congressional election. NEJM 363(e30), 2010 and from interview with Robert Blendon.

AARP, the national organization for Americans age 50 and above, supports the Health Reform Act although many members'and former members who left the organization in protest of that stance'oppose it. AARP policy chief John Rother said seniors stand to lose if the new legislation doesn't survive.

If it were repealed, seniors would lose very important benefits: assistance paying for prescription medications, the doughnut hole, prevention benefits, long-term care,' Rother said. 'The Medicare trust fund was extended by nine years; without [reform] it would be exhausted in just the next few years.'

In March, the Congressional Budget Office estimated' that health reform legislation 'would produce a net reduction in federal deficits of $143 billion over the 2010-2019 period, as result of changes in direct spending and revenues.

Ed Haislmaier, senior research fellow for health policy studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, takes issue with the CBO figures.

Haislmaier said the CBO underrated the 'employer-dumping' effect: the number of employers who will drop health insurance coverage, thus increasing the number of people who need subsidies. He also said the agency vastly underestimated the size and pace of the enrollment in the Medicaid expansion after 2014.

Voters by the numbers

In the NEJM analysis, 67 percent of Democrats said they were 'more likely to vote for a Congressional candidate who supported the new health care law.' Republicans had the opposite response: 72 percent were less likely to vote for that candidate. Independents were also more negative toward health reform.

It's difficult to tease out the effect of health reform on individual races, but CNN exit polls' show parallels between voters' views on health care and election results.

In the California senate race, 68 percent of voters who rated health care as the most important issue voted for incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who has called for a public health insurance option (which did not make it into the law),'  compared with 29 percent for Carly Fiorina, whom Boxer defeated.

On the flip side, in Florida's governor race, Rick Scott (R)' an early and vocal opponent of health reform 'defeated Alex Sink (D), with 85 percent of repeal supporters voting his way.

Although his House seat wasn't at stake, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) emerged as Speaker of the House. On Nov. 16, Boehner filed a 'friend of the court' brief challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate, as part of the multi-state lawsuit against health reform. Boehner has called for repeal.

A Player in the Movement to Repeal

Tom Nelson, spokesman for U.S. Rep.-elect Rick Berg (R-N.D), calls en route from North Dakota to Capitol Hill. The staff has yet to organize their new office, much less fine-tune the freshman Congressman's agenda. But one item is clear: Berg intends to do his best to get rid of the new health care law.

Although Democrats retained a slim Senate majority in the midterm elections'and health reform champion President Barack Obama holds veto power in the White House'Berg will stick to his promise to voters, Nelson said.

'The first thing we have to do is repeal,' Nelson said. 'We have two Houses and a president. [Berg] would let the process play out.

Berg, who defeated Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D), a nine-term incumbent, criticized Pomeroy throughout the campaign for backing health reform.

Nelson said Berg supports one or two of the new law's provisions, although he thinks the changes could have been made through older, existing legislation. 'He agrees that the [Medicare] doughnut hole needed to be closed and he supports the Frontier Amendment,' Nelson said. Passage of the Frontier Amendment means more money for rural hospitals.

But a few improvements don't outweigh the larger legislation's overarching flaws, Nelson said.'  'On something this big, you wouldn't say repeal unless it was that bad. It was a government takeover of our health care system.

Supporters of health reform still have powerful friends in Congress, however.

A key player is Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), not only as an architect of the law but as head of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.'  He also heads the Appropriations health subcommittee, which oversees funding for the Department for Health and Human services. Harkin repeatedly has said that efforts to repeal or defund health reform will fail.

One such effort already has: the Associated Press reported that on Nov. 29 the Senate blocked repeal of a tax provision to help fund reform.

However, on Dec. 13, the judicial branch weighed in: a federal judge in Richmond, Va., ruled that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, as the Wall Street Journal reported.

Alternatives, Anyone?

John Rother has a question for legislators: 'If the new majority in the House objects so strongly to savings in Medicare, what is it proposing instead to keep health care for under-65s affordable and solvent as well as for Medicare recipients?'

Health law opponents do have alternatives in mind, said Dean Rosen, onetime chief of staff to former Republican Majority Leader Senator Bill Frist, in a Nov. 12 briefing for journalists' at the National Press Club.

There have been a number of Republican proposals, legislative proposals, that are introduced that have insurance reforms and other things that they will point to and I'm sure will reintroduce,' Rosen said.

If the political debate seems to be more about health care costs than medical conditions, that's actually a fair reflection of the mindset of U.S. health consumers. In a November 2010 Gallup poll, Americans say that access to health care (34 percent) and health care/insurance costs (19 percent) are the most urgent health problems currently facing the country.

Will the new law lead to better health care?

From where he sits at Harvard, Robert Blendon says it will. Anything that would give millions of people stable coverage, paying for care and preventive services, has an impact on health,' he said. 'But at the School of Public Health, people don't worry about deficits or taxes'. I think everybody in the sort of 'health world' thought a bill that covered this many people was an improvement. But the Harvard Business School might have a different view.

More disease prevention and screening programs will help the uninsured and insured alike, Blendon said, but not necessarily make for a healthier bottom line.

By having people not die when they're younger and live 20 years longer, which is such a wonderful victory, they actually use more medical care,' Blendon said. 'There is no debate about whether we could push the curve and people could live longer: from a public health point of view, who could not be for people living longer? But there is a debate: 20 years from now, will the health care budget of the United States be lower if lots of people live longer?

Just two years from now, Americans return to the polls for the big one: the 2012 election. Health reform provisions' already in place by then' like free mammograms and colonoscopies (2010), expanding coverage for young adults and early retirees (2010), prescription drug discounts for seniors (2011), and the CLASS Act long-term care insurance program (2012) 'probably will have shown some results and gained traction.

But programs yet to begin could be vulnerable depending on the make-up of Congress and the White House. Funding renewal for the Children's Health Insurance Program (2013), prohibiting health insurance coverage based on adults' pre-existing conditions or gender (2014)'and above all, the individual mandate that most Americans must have health insurance or pay a penalty (2014)'might or might not survive to meet their start dates.

The real battle here is not so much about legislation in the next couple of years,' AARP's Rother said at the Press Club briefing. 'It's not really about appropriations. It's a battle for the hearts and minds of the American public'The election that matters will be 2012. We'll know the answer after that as to what will be the future of health reform.'

Editor's Note: This story originated as a project for the graduate journalism program at Georgetown University.

More Blog Posts by Lisa Esposito

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Lisa Esposito is the former editor of CFAH's Health Behavior News Service.

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December 14, 2010 at 9:49 PM

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Goldie Pyka says
December 15, 2010 at 10:32 AM

Jim Jaffe writes on the Huffington Post "Into the Health Reform Briar Patch?"

He says, "Those who are suing to overturn the mandatory health insurance requirements in the comprehensive reform bill apparently believe a success, perhaps built on their victory in Virginia this week, will be both a major embarrassment for the President and lead to the disintegration of the entire scheme. They may be very, very wrong..."

Click here to read the full post:

Jim Jaffe says
December 15, 2010 at 11:01 AM

this is a wonderful and comprehensive analysis, unsurprising from someone with Lisa's credentials. Blendon's right that health is a secondary political issue at best and it is fast receding as the economy and deficits gain greater traction. it is a bit early to bet on the 2012 elections, inasmuch as there are still undecided races from 2010, but I'm ready to bet now that health reform will not be an issue. the public attention span is simply too short.