Groups that vehemently disagree about the health reform law seem to have settled on one thing as of late: The next two weeks will be crucial to getting out their message about the Affordable Care Act.
On Friday, the Affordable Care Act hits its two-year anniversary. The following Monday, the Supreme Court opens six hours of oral arguments on the law’s constitutionality. Here in Washington — as well as across the country — you can expect to see a deluge of events denouncing or supporting the law. As Republican Senate staffer Chris Jacobs tweeted this morning, “Today is the start of two weeks that health policy nerds around the country have been waiting for. It’s...#Obamacareapalooza!”
“This is not a topic voters are thinking about day in and day out,” says Geoff Garin, of the democratic polling firm Peter Hart Research Associates. “There are relatively few windows for fully educating voters. The anniversary might be one of those, and the Court decision is likely to be another.”
But as much as the focus on the health reform law represents an opportunity, it also presents a challenge for its supporters: How do you sway a public that, for two years now, has been stuck stubbornly in place?
‘The most important changes in attitude will come through people’s own experiences with the law,” says Garin. For some Americans, the health reform law has had an impact: 1 million young adults under 26 have enrolled on their parents’ health insurance plans, for example. But for most voters, the law hasn’t done much of anything quite yet.
Moreover, the content of the law may not actually be that important. Polling, alongside political science research, suggest that voters’ views of the health reform law have less to do with the policies it includes, and more to do with larger views of government.
“The concrete settled early on people’s impressions,” says Democratic pollster John Anzalone. “It wasn’t that voters knew what was in the bill, but that they were taking a stand for or against the Obama administration.”
When public opinion has so far proved resistant to messaging, what’s an advocacy group to do? I put this question to Ethan Rome, president of Health Care for American Now. They’re part of a 100-group coalition holding hundreds of events across the country this week, meant to highlight the health reform law’s benefits.
Rome agrees that messaging the health reform law is, right now, an uphill battle. And with this week’s slew of events, he doesn’t expect to see a whole lot change in public opinion. “We have the most polarized electorate in the history of the country,” he says. “The law is a surrogate for a debate about the role of government. The law itself is a political construct, so it does not surprise me at all that support for the law is divided among partisan lines.”
At the same time, Rome argues its “important to drive a positive message about the real benefits of the law each and every day, and not be deterred by the consistency of the polling.” It’s not about winning the public opinion in the short-run, he contends, but over the long haul. If the Supreme Court does uphold the law, and the health overhaul also survives the presidential election, he wants to have a bevy of positive messages for voters to fall back on.
“We have a longterm interest in educating the public on this issue that really goes beyond 2012,” says Rome. “We expect to see a change in public opinion in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. Right now, it’s a bit of an existential debate about whether it’s here to stay. Once it becomes clear to people that the law is staying, we want to have this information out there.”