President Obama says his Affordable Care Act is about to make health insurance cheaper than the average cellphone bill and as easy to get as “a plane ticket on Kayak.”
In a pitch to community college students in suburban Maryland on Thursday morning, Obama compared the soon-to-launch healthcare “marketplaces” to Internet travel websites that let users compare prices and details with a few keystrokes.
“Don’t take my word for it, go on the website,” Obama told a crowd at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md. “See for yourself what the prices are. See for yourself what the choices are and then make up your own mind. That’s all I’m asking.”
“If you go on the website and it turns out you’re going to save money,” Obama said, “even if you didn’t vote for me, I’ll bet you’ll sign up for that healthcare plan.”
Though laced with jabs at Republican opponents of the law known as “Obamacare,” the president’s message was focused less on politics than on function.
With just five days to go until the marketplaces open online, the White House is intent on a task that many critics of the administration say is long overdue: explaining how it works.
That task is priority No. 1 for the Obama administration this week, with everyone from the commander in chief to the rank-and-file press staff setting out details for reporters and target interest groups.
When the exchanges open Tuesday, people who do not have insurance will have an open-enrollment period that lasts until March in which to review the available plans and decide whether to sign up.
Obama’s speech will be followed by a series of events in which White House and agency officials will fan out to participate in conferences, briefings and online conversations with target groups.
The administration has faced considerable criticism from fellow Democrats for not selling Obamacare consistently enough in the 3 1/2 years since Obama signed it into law. White House officials have countered that until the law actually became real to consumers, such efforts would have been futile.
Obama and White House officials have their work cut out for them. Polling shows even uninsured Americans, the primary target for the law’s new exchanges, are wary. A Pew Research survey conducted last week found the uninsured as likely to disapprove of the law as they are to approve of it, with about one-third of those without insurance saying they think the law will have a negative effect on them. Only half of the uninsured surveyed knew the law offered subsidies to bring down the out-of-pocket cost of insurance.
The architects of the sales campaign are putting a lot of stock in the online sign-up process. In a preview Wednesday, White House Deputy Senior Advisor David Simas showed 40 regional newspaper reporters how the online “experience” works, as users answer questions about their age and income and then find a range of plans for which they are eligible.
After a few clicks in the demonstration, a user could select from plans ranging in level from “bronze” to “platinum,” then compare the cost of premiums, the plan details and the providers involved.
“Right now,” before the new law takes effect, “there is no way to see how different plans work for your family,” Simas said. “These marketplaces will change that.”
The administration has invested untold time and money into trying to make sure those online prompts work, knowing that one bad or glitchy experience can turn off a potential customer and create a talking point for the law’s opponents.
The government has been training proxies at community centers, clinics and hospitals to guide people through the process. Officials will staff 24-hour call centers with operators who can tap into the online prompts of a caller and walk a person through any problems.
Medicare call centers already handle 28 million calls for customer service, Simas said, asserting the agencies “know how to do this.”
Even the looming government shutdown, which could start Tuesday, won’t threaten the rollout of the president’s signature plan, Simas said. Key workers have been designated “core and essential” and thus will continue to work when other government employees are furloughed.
Still, the White House was braced for bumps in the road and was trying to lower expectations accordingly.
“News flash: There will be glitches,” Simas said with a laugh. “This is not a six-day open enrollment. This is not a six-week open enrollment. This is a six-month open enrollment.”
That’s good for the White House, which has been distracted by crises abroad and the threat of a budget showdown. With much of the Washington news corps focused on that, the White House message operation has reached out directly to local news outlets this week.
The message in Largo was designed to convince young, uninsured Americans -- a crucial demographic -- the new healthcare “exchanges” can provide insurance coverage that fits their budgets.
Far from the policy-talk of past health care addresses, Obama on Thursday was offering more of a how-to.
“Starting on Tuesday, every American can visit healthcare.gov to find out what’s called the insurance marketplace for your state,” Obama said. “It’s a website where you can compare and purchase affordable health care plans ... the same way you shop for a plane ticket on Kayak.”
He urged people to give it a try even if they have had a bad healthcare shopping experience in the past.
“I promise you, this is a lot easier,” he said. “It’s like booking a hotel or a plane ticket.”