The PJ Tatler

Media Narrative Crucial in Obamacare Rollout

Most conservatives expect the media to be gushing superlatives about Obamacare when the state exchanges open for business on October 1. NBC is going to do a series of programs on Obamacare, and given that network’s attachment to the president, we know that criticism of the law will be slight or non-existent.

But as this article in Politico points out, Republicans better have some kind of an alternative narrative ready to go because first impressions are lasting ones and voter opinion on Obamacare is likely to be shaped in the first crucial days and weeks after its rollout.

America’s about to take Obamacare for a test drive with an army of hungry reporters in the back seat.

When Obamacare enrollment begins on Tuesday, reporters in the Twitter age will be tempted to declare the health law a success or a failure in the first few days — a judgment that will certainly be stoked by advocates on both sides of the issue.

And any rush judgments could have a big impact on public opinion of the law. Right now, the majority of Americans in recent polls say they oppose the law, but the Obama administration is hoping that will turn around once people see it in action.

The first days of enrollment are a chance for that to happen — but there’s just as big a chance that the public could become convinced it’s a huge disaster, if technical breakdowns in the new health insurance exchanges dominate the news.

Tevi Troy, a former assistant secretary of health and human services under President George W. Bush and author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted,” said journalists should keep an eye on early opinion polls after coverage programs take effect to see if the public opinion needle moves.

He also urged reporters to cover the early weeks of Obamacare implementation like the start of a political campaign — not won or lost in the first few days or weeks.

Drew Altman, CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the challenge for the media will be to make sure the public doesn’t get spun silly — because the first days of open enrollment will give Obamacare’s supporters and critics a ton of material to work with.

“Each side will have their facts and their anecdotes, so the challenge for the journalists is to get beyond that and find out what’s actually happening,” he said.

Republicans are at a disadvantage in this game not only because of media bias, but because there has been some hyperbole about the law coming from the GOP that paints a far more dire picture of what is likely to occur in the first weeks of the law’s implementation than will probably happen. In the last couple of months, as problems with the exchanges mounted, designers slashed the capabilities of the exchanges dramatically, simplifying the process as much as possible, leaving more complex functions to be handled off site. This will be an inconvenience for shoppers, but will also prevent the system from suffering an embarrassing crash in its first days.

There will almost certainly still be big problems associated with the exchanges, but barring a massive security breach, the media will go with the administration talking points that excuse most of the problems as expected bumps in the road for a new, complex system.

What might alter that narrative would be misquotes on premiums and/or incorrectly figuring subsidies. The amount of information available may be reduced, but if it isn’t accurate, Obamacare will be in trouble. The aforementioned security concerns also have the potential to alter the expected glowing media narrative, although it is difficult to say if the administration would inform the public immediately if hackers were successful. Anything that comes out that casts a shadow over using the exchanges — its security vulnerabilities, its complexity, or its inaccuracies — would lead to fewer people trusting them. A lower than expected number of sign-ups would be disaster for the administration which is why the mantra for the first few months will be “it will get better.”

Will it work? Those already predisposed to hate Obamacare because they’ve been thrown off their insurance, or had their hours cut at work, or are seeing their premiums rise substantially, won’t be part of the cheering section.

But those who will be getting the goodies — Medicaid expansion or subsidies — will probably be in a mood to cut the administration some slack.