How Healthcare Got Its Mojo Back


On the day after Scott Brown’s election victory in Massachussetts, healthcare reform looked dead. Republicans were crowing, public opinion was turning, and Democrats were scurrying for cover like rats in a sewer. So what turned things around? In the LA Times today, Mark Barabak and Duke Helfand argue that Anthem Blue Cross was a big part of it:

Unwittingly, Anthem helped revive Democratic efforts. Every letter it sent out was a political gift for Obama. The only thing missing was a shiny red bow.

….On Super Bowl Sunday, the president appeared on CBS, chatting with Katie Couric….”One of the major insurers in California just announced that in the individual market they’re increasing their premiums by 39%,” Obama said, three days after the story broke. “That’s a portrait of the future if we don’t do something now.”

….For months, Obama had been on the defensive, facing electoral setbacks, declining poll numbers, dissident Democrats and stories that highlighted the deal-making often needed to grind out legislation. Finally, the administration felt it was on offense. “BIG insurance rate increases and MORE coming,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wrote on his new Twitter account, linking to coverage of the Anthem story. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, sent a letter to WellPoint challenging the increases, and summoned industry executives to the White House to explain themselves. Obama paid a surprise visit to the meeting, bearing a letter from an Ohio cancer survivor complaining that her premium was rising more than 40% this year. Obama said he planned to carry the letter to public events to remind people of the stakes in the healthcare overhaul.

Well, Anthem certainly didn’t hurt the cause of healthcare reform, that’s for sure. Whether it was really a big bellwether in the other direction is a different question, and one I’m not so sure of. I guess, as in most things, I tend to believe that the turnaround on healthcare was driven mostly by fundamentals: panic subsided, as it usually does; Democrats realized that passing nothing and looking hapless was political suicide; and a plan came together for passage that looked doable — and that had strong backing from the entire party leadership. That probably accounts for 80% of what happened.

But who knows? Maybe 80% wouldn’t have been enough. So thanks, Anthem Blue Cross! Your timing couldn’t have been better if we’d been paying you.