If Democrats think the botched rollout of the Obamacare web site has handicapped them in the 2014 congressional elections, they should be ready for worse to come. Unhappiness with the negative effects of the healthcare law could produce even nastier consequences for Democrats in 2016.
In the unrelenting partisan war between Republicans and Democrats that started as soon as Barack Obama became president in 2009, the Affordable Care Act has been the central battleground. The GOP used the ACA to bludgeon Democrats and win control of the House of Representatives in 2010. In the 2012 GOP presidential primaries, Republican candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum campaigned on warnings that the healthcare scheme would turn American citizens into government-dependent laggards, while Mitt Romney tried to sell the big fib that Obamacare was not really a clone of the state health plan he instituted as governor of Massachusetts. And, in 2013, tea party Republicans led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz forced a shutdown of the U.S. government, insisting it was their last chance to stop the ACA.
Throughout this ongoing, rancorous dispute, the one thing that most Republicans and Democrats agreed on was that, once Obamacare got going, it would be so popular with a majority of Americans that it would become a permanent fixture in our society.
On that one point of agreement, both sides might just be wrong.
Over the last five years, all the foolish bluster about death panels and a grim, socialist future being spouted by Cruz and Santorum and Sarah Palin and Fox News actually offered Obama and the Democrats a series of bogus arguments they could easily refute. They really never had to focus on the most problematic element at the core of the healthcare act: Bringing millions of new people into the health insurance system was always going to cost a lot of money and the insurance companies were never going to swallow that cost themselves.
Now, that enormous chicken is coming home to roost. Those who pay for their own health insurance have been the first to notice the effect of including more poor people and folks with pre-existing medical problems in the system. Many have seen their old policies eliminated and replaced by more expensive coverage. Allegedly, those new policies are better than the old ones, but, for those who were happy with the plan they had, the extra cost feels like a raw deal.
More politically significant will be what happens over the next couple of years as insurance companies ratchet up charges for company health plans. Right now, most people get their insurance through their employers. Many of those employers are going to either expect their employees to pick up the higher insurance costs or they will start trimming benefits to save money.
That means, right around the time of the 2016 election, there could be a whole lot of people upset about what Obamacare is costing them. Sure, most Americans agree that young adults just getting started in life, sick people who could be bankrupted by the cost of medical care and all the others who have not been able to get insurance deserve to have healthcare security. But no one really made it entirely clear that the cost of doing something so generous would land on most of those who already have insurance.
In addition to the price of subsidizing those who have been left out, here is one more wrinkle that could antagonize voters: quite a few high-quality medical facilities are being excluded from new health insurance plans. For example, only four of 19 nationally recognized comprehensive cancer care centers surveyed by the Associated Press said they are included in all of the insurance plans offered by the regional insurance exchanges established under the ACA.
"To keep premiums low, insurers have designed narrow networks of hospitals and doctors," the AP reports. "The government-subsidized private plans on the exchanges typically offer less choice than Medicare or employer plans . . . For now, the issue seems to be limited to the new insurance exchanges. But it could become a concern for Americans with job-based coverage, too, if employers turn to narrow networks."
In time, most Americans might accept the burdens of Obamacare for the sake of guaranteeing healthcare for everyone, but anger may precede acceptance. If there are millions of voters who find themselves paying more money for less healthcare, they might just take out their anger on the well-intentioned Democrats who passed the massive healthcare law without understanding all of its ramifications. That could not only give both houses of Congress to Republicans, but the White House, too – and with it, the chance to undo what the Democrats have done.