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Next phase of the Obamacare battle: dueling personal stories

When the White House and its allies sought to regain control of the healthcare debate as Obamacare rolled into effect Wednesday, the face of that effort was not President Obama, but Mary-Therese — a Floridian who said she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and then lost her coverage.

"I’ve been waiting a long time for Jan. 1, 2014," she says in a Web ad from Organizing for Action, the advocacy group born out of the president's campaign operation.

But the story about the healthcare law being publicized in a new video from the campaign of Monica Wehby, a Republican making a long-shot bid against Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in Oregon, was very different. It featured "Donna of Portland," who said she never received enrollment options from her state’s exchange after applying when her family’s insurance plan was canceled.

"We heard that the Oregon Medical Insurance Plan was probably going to be closing, but we just thought I would fold into another insurance," Donna says to the camera from her kitchen in a video that accuses Merkley of misleading Oregonians about being able to keep their health plans. "We had no idea there would be this kind of time involved, or turmoil."

Those sorts of dueling stories are the next phase of the battle over Obamacare, and the question of which version Americans will find most compelling could tip the balance in a dozen or so Senate races this year that will determine the balance of power in Washington.

For much of the fall, the Obama administration and vulnerable Democratic lawmakers have been buried under stories about technical difficulties of the lurching federal insurance portal known as HealthCare.gov, and the shock waves that followed the cancellation of about 5 million plans that did not meet the law’s requirements. In a frank assessment during his last news conference, the president said simply that the law got "about as bad a bunch of publicity as you could imagine."

White House advisors think they are turning the corner with about 2.1 million people enrolled in Obamacare plans, in addition to 4 million others who have been found eligible for coverage under the law's expansion of Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Starting Wednesday, the spotlight shifted, at least in part, from government mechanics to insurance companies, who will now share responsibility for handling any sign-up glitches.

But the campaign against the healthcare law — and the Democratic senators who voted for it — has been vociferous, well-financed and multi-faceted. Conservative legal strategists, who have led a multi-front march to the Supreme Court, notched a small victory on New Year's Eve when they succeeded in getting Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to grant a temporary reprieve to an order of Catholic nuns, shielding it from complying with a mandate in the law to cover birth control.

Outside groups like Americans for Prosperity have poured millions of dollars into anti-Obamacare ads against top targets like Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. (The group drew heat, however, for hiring a Maryland actress to star in its Alaska ad.)

And as the 2014 races gear up, Republican Senate challengers with less money to spend — like Wehby in Oregon, Rep. Bill Cassidy in Louisiana and Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas — are on the hunt for Americans who will tell their stories about mishaps with Obamacare. As they solicit their experiences through campaign Facebook pages and websites and at their events, Republican operatives are also combing news stories for evidence of shrinking doctor networks, rising premiums or unexpected coverage gaps.

Because the healthcare law touches so many Americans, there is no shortage of stories on both sides.

A Wehby aide said one of the women featured in the campaign’s video is the mother of one of Wehby’s former patients (the candidate is a pediatric neurosurgeon). She contacted the campaign through Facebook after watching her health insurance premiums rise and her network of doctors shrink over the last year, changes that she believes result from broader shifts in the healthcare system because of the new law.

Last fall, Republican operatives used robocalls, Web ads, social media and billboards to bludgeon Democratic senators who used variations of Obama’s line that those who liked their health insurance plans could keep them. The new Wehby video closes with a clip of Merkley comparing the healthcare system to a Rubik’s cube that he holds in his hand: "Healthcare is not a game," the ad says.

Merkley’s seat is considered to be relatively safe in a solid blue state. The freshman senator won in 2008 with 48.9% of the vote to 45.6% for his closest challenger, but Oregon’s disastrous problems with its health insurance marketplace, where consumers still cannot sign up online, have given his challengers an opening.

Asked about the criticism of Obamacare and Oregon’s troubles, a spokesman for Merkley said the senator was focused "on ensuring that Oregonians have access to health insurance."

"No one should go without health insurance due to Cover Oregon’s mistakes. That is why he supports allowing people to sign up for coverage into January, with coverage retroactive to Jan. 1," Merkley spokesman Matt McNally said.

"Republicans want to repeal the bill, which would send us back to the old way of doing things on healthcare: People being kicked off their insurance when they got sick, caps on people’s coverage, and no coverage for those with preexisting conditions. Instead, Sen. Merkley is ready to work with his colleagues across the aisle to make improvements to the law that retain the critical consumer protections contained in health reform."

After being skewered for moving too slowly when the healthcare law’s problems moved into the public eye, the White House and partners like Organizing for Action are trying to be more proactive in this second phase, arming their allies with resources to help resolve post-Jan. 1 insurance glitches quickly. A White House tip sheet issued Tuesday, for example, offered telephone numbers for consumers to call for help if their medical provider is unable to locate their information.

And now that coverage is in effect, they hope to draw more attention to the stories they have been culling over the last month — like that of Mary-Therese, who was featured in a three-minute video montage of Americans who successfully signed up for coverage under the new law.

"For decades millions of Americans have not had access to quality affordable healthcare," the ad says as pictures of newly covered individuals pop from a map of the United States. "This is why the Affordable Care Act matters. Millions of Americans now have the peace of mind and security of being insured."

Organizing for Action operatives say they plan to roll out many more of those stories as the months go on; no doubt with Republicans countering with stories of their own.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Twitter: @MaeveReston

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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