Health wonks and Dem operatives are quietly mulling the possibility of a new batch of health plan cancellations in October — just before the midterms.

Dems believe a round of “cancellation” headlines could greet this development. They think headlines will be out of sync with the actual problem, perhaps dramatically so. But as the gap between last fall’s “horror stories” and subsequent hard data about Obamacare has showed, press coverage of the law tends not to err on the side of proportionality or restraint. And the same hype and distortion could very well happen again — weeks before Election Day 2014.

According to Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation, the possibility of more cancellations resides in the fact that an untold number of people may have renewed policies before January 1st, meaning they did not have to meet Obamacare’s minimum standards. Those people with current plans that don’t comply could get cancellation notices 90 days before the end of this year, i.e., in October.

It’s very hard to tell how many people might fall into this category. There could be very few. Or there could be more than expected, Levitt suggests. Another unknown: Obama, in a change to the law amid last year’s furor, allowed states to permit people to keep non-compliant plans, which resulted in a patchwork of responses, in which some states granted no extension and others granted only a year-long one. People in those states could get cancellations (though for complicated reasons it isn’t yet clear where).

But as Levitt notes, cancellations anywhere will be aggressively whipped up by opponents of the law, and could get an assist from the intense scrutiny of the political environment we’ll be seeing this fall.

“So much of this debate has been driven by anecdote, which can be misleading,” Levitt says. “When there is no data available to see whether the anecdotes are generalizable, they get reported anyway. This could be another example of a relatively small number of negative anecdotes being used by opponents of the law to discredit it.”

This could still be an issue even if it doesn’t happen in states with contested Senate races. “It might not matter if it’s in a specific state or not,” Levitt says. “If the story gets fed through news coverage and social media, if policies are cancelled anywhere, there’s the potential for critics to make it a national story that puts vulnerable proponents on the defensive, even if this isn’t happening in their states.”

One Dem operative involved in multiple Senate races predicts Republicans to furiously spin any cancellations in hopes of provoking a rerun of last fall’s epic-Obamacare-freakout coverage. But he notes vulnerable Dem Senators were more damaged by fallout in states where Senate races had not yet engaged (Louisiana, North Carolina) than in ones that had engaged (Arkansas).

“These races will all be very close but very much baked in,” the Dem operative says. “It’s going to be much harder for some random new Obamacare attack to really move any of these races. If Republicans go nuts with ads about this in October, voters will only hear Republicans complaining about Obamacare again.”

Of course, the same commentators who madly hyped last fall’s Obamacare travails into certain doom for Dems will likely do the same all over again. We’ve now learned that many of last fall’s storylines (cancelled plans! rate shock!) were absurdly hyped in policy terms, too. As Jonathan Cohn notes in a must read, new data from the Kaiser Family Foundation has revealed a much more nuanced picture: Many who had been previously insured are actually paying less now, thanks to the law’s subsidies, meaning there may be many more winners than losers. All that will be forgotten if new cancellation stories start.

Indeed, we are getting all this new data about what really happened last fall many months after the headlines. That will likely happen again this time, with data on the actual numbers of any new cancellations this fall coming in some time next year. But by then the Senate races will have long since been decided.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.