The rollout of Obamacare in Kentucky may represent the most interesting experiment in the politics of health care in the country right now. Dem governor Steve Beshear is perhaps the most outspoken defender of the Affordable Care Act in the south. This, in a deep red state where the reform known as “Obamacare” is deeply unpopular; where the leading foe of the President’s agenda is on the ballot this year; and where the need for reform is urgent.
In an interview today, Beshear offered fellow Dems — red state and otherwise — some startling advice: Stand up for Obamacare because it’s the right thing to do. What’s more, Beshear insists, Republicans are wrong: the health law will be a political positive for Dems next fall.
“We’re doing the right thing,” Beshear told me. “That’s the most important point here. The people of America, and the people of Kentucky, deserve access to affordable health care. For the first time in the history of this country, we have a tool that allows us to accomplish this goal.”
Republicans and some pundits will scoff at the idea that Dems — particularly in red states — should stand up for Obamacare. And it’s true that polls show Obamacare — and the president — with a woefully low approval rating in Kentucky. Meanwhile, Republicans are banking on continuing headlines about canceled plans and higher premiums — perhaps followed by other problems.
Asked to respond, Beshear urged a longer view. “This issue is going to look a lot different in November 2014 than it looks today,” he said. “By November 2014, these exchanges will be working smoothly, and the world will not have come to an end. The ACA doesn’t affect 80 percent. By November of next year, they are going to know that. Right now some are afraid because of misinformation. By November they will know it’s not going to do anything to them. The other 20 percent are going to be happy, for the most part, with what they find.”
“In general this issue is going to be a winner for Democrats by November of 2014 — whether you’re in a red state or a blue state,” Beshear said.
If so, shouldn’t Dems stand up for the law right now? “People respond to an office holder or candidate who takes strong positions, even if sometimes they are momentarily controversial,” he said. “People are looking for folks they can consider leaders even if they don’t agree with them on everything.”
Beshear — who has presided over successful implementation in Kentucky — acknowledged that Obama’s unpopularity would remain, but said the law itself could escape that. “Just the phrase ‘Obamacare’ in states where the president isn’t popular brings a very negative reaction,” he said. “But when you start talking about Kynect, our website here, and the program we’re implementing, those numbers start shifting. I would predict that next November, the phrase ‘Obamacare’ still won’t be popular. But our local efforts and the health care program itself will not be a defining issue.”
Mitch McConnell’s opponent — Alison Lundergran Grimes — has been far more cautious in defending Obamacare. She doesn’t go out of her way to talk about the law and she embraced a mandate delay, though she does stand up for the need to preserve its expanded coverage to Kentuckians.
Beshear said Grimes’ approach to the law — her low key “keep and fix” message, as opposed to the GOP repeal stance – is more in tune with the state’s desire for the parties to work constructively together. “People in Kentucky are tired of shouting matches,” he said. “We’ve got one of the unhealthiest populations here in Kentucky. This is our chance to do something about it. Her comments so far have been in that vein: there may be issues here but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Asked if he had a message for GOP governors who were still opting out of the Medicaid expansion, Beshear said:
“This is a moral issue. Every person in the country deserves access to affordable health coverage. The Medicaid expansion is part of the way we can do that. These folks out here without insurance aren’t a group of aliens from another planet. They are our friends and neighbors. They are people we shop and go to church with. They are the farmers out on the tractors. They are our grocery clerks. They are our former classmates. They are people who go to work every morning praying they don’t get sick. No one deserves to live that way.”
Beshear urged fiscally minded governors to have outside analysts conduct studies of how the expansion would impact their states. “Go get objective experts and go find out,” he said. “They’ll get the same answer I got. I’m confident of that. Don’t just play politics with this issue. We’re playing with the lives of people here and you’ve got to look at it that way.”