As America begins to feel the impact of the federal government shutdown, I felt compelled to take a deeper look at some of the main arguments in the debate over health care reform.
Although the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was signed into law over three years ago, the conservative-led House of Representatives have refused to pass any annual budget or continuing resolution which does not defund Obamacare (or at least temporarily delay it), a measure which has no chance of finding favor with the Democrat-led Senate or White House. As a result, most federal government agencies and programs have temporarily lost their funding, which translates to almost a million people out of work. Despite losing the past two presidential elections, and losing seats in both the Senate and the House in 2012, conservatives have continued their claims of “acting on the will of the American people.” In the new-age of media spin—apparently—one can claim a citizen mandate despite not having majority of citizen support.
There has been a continuous stream of narratives and talking points floated by conservatives in their ongoing attempt to derail any effort at healthcare reform. Though many of their points could be classified as—to some extent or other—inaccurate, I would like to focus in on three particular points, all of which were created by a seemingly deliberate distortion of the Affordable Care Act. Though misleading and almost entirely false, they have been nonetheless effective in mobilizing opposition to Obamacare.
- Obamacare will lead to a government takeover of the health care system
- Obamacare is a job killer
- Obamacare is Socialist
Most alarming to those of us who study public policy is the lack of effect evidence and facts to the contrary of these false theories have had in derailing their use in political discourse.
MYTH 1: The Affordable Care Act is a “Government Takeover of the Healthcare System”
A frequently cited claim by Republican politicians and conservative pundits (including in the past few weeks leading up to the shutdown of the federal government), this statement alludes to a belief that Obamacare will result in the private healthcare industry being overtaken by the federal government, removing the individual right to choose a personal healthcare plan, and instead turning over that choice to some fictitious bureaucracy within the federal government. People tend to associate a term such as ‘government takeover’ with coups and revolutions. It creates a relation of healthcare to a dictatorial government, and a removal of individual freedom. As a result, people view Obamacare as being an ‘anti-American’ bill.
But the claim is almost entirely untrue. While it is true that the government will take a more active role under the Affordable Care Act, the law’s implementation of insurance markets (exchanges) actually encourages greater access to the private health insurance market, setting up a system where the maximum possible amount of citizens can/will obtain health insurance through the private market. The narrative that the government will come between individuals and their choice of healthcare plans was deemed ‘Lie of the Year’ by Politifact.com in 2010. In their article exposing the misleading claim and its political impact, the site noted that “uttered by dozens of politicians and pundits, It [the ‘government takeover’ myth] played an important role in shaping public opinion about the healthcare plan”. The strategy was an effective one, created by GOP strategists. Using fear to advocate their cause rather than facts, and knowing the value that many Americans put on individual rights, they were successful in mobilizing millions of citizens behind the claim. There are even many who believe (myself included) that this false claim about the health care system played a major role in helping the Republican Party win a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010.
But even as researchers and analysts continue to discredit their argument, conservatives continue to use it three years later. Even New Jersey Governor Christ Christie, who is considered a political moderate (at least by modern conservative standards), publicly made the claim multiple times in 2011. The rising threat of a government shutdown brought with it an influx of Republican attempts of linking the law to socialism, communism, and other derogatory comparisons and innuendo such as the loss of individual freedoms.
MYTH 2: The Affordable Care Act is a Job Killer
Many opposed to Obamacare cite their objection from a fiscal standpoint. There is some legitimate debate over the costs of reforming our healthcare system, and the possible impact the bill could have on our nation’s debt issues. But many conservatives shifted the debate, leveraging those natural concerns into a scarier myth that would cause an instant reaction with the American public—that implementing Obamacare will result in a dramatic loss of American jobs. Though the recession has officially ended and the economy is steadily (if slowly) recovering, the job market is still quite vulnerable and when the public is repetitively being fed the notion that Obamacare would destroy more jobs, rationality goes out the window.
The claim became a focal point in the GOP-House’s case against Obamacare; in one of the many attempts to repeal the law, the Republican bill to repeal it was titled “Repeal the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”. One would think that if you were going to name a bill after a talking point, then the talking point should be well backed by evidence. But even the claim the Republicans rallied so passionately behind was an inaccurate and purposely misleading claim.
This entire myth is based on a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Report which claimed the Affordable Care Act would result in a labor reduction of over one half of one percent of the American labor force, which equates to roughly 800,000 jobs. Republicans have cited this as the “proof” that Obamacare will destroy thousands of jobs. But they got to this conclusion by deliberately misreading the language of the report. The CBO report does not make any correlation that Obamacare will lead to the destruction of American jobs. Rather, the report claims that the provisions created by the act can potentially result in a reduction in the use of labor by the economy, at a decline of about half a percent. This does not allude to Americans being laid off. It instead suggests that with the Medicaid expansion and other provisions created by Obamacare, these new resources may encourage some laborers to work fewer hours, or “withdraw from the labor market” by retiring. The “reduction of labor” would not be a result of the cutting of American jobs, but by people voluntarily reducing their influence in the labor force. If anything, more people retiring or voluntarily working less would likely create job opportunities rather than get rid of them. Republicans took the report entirely out of context to make their claim, which became a central component to their economic objection to Obamacare.
The claim was repeated throughout the 2012 election cycle in ads that ran across the country. In particular, the U.S Chamber of Commerce ran numerous campaign ads citing the CBO report as proof that “Obamacare would kill jobs and limit future job creation”. The idea that Obamacare would directly result in the loss of jobs for hardworking Americans was a continued attempt at portraying the bill as being bad for our economy. Just like the “government takeover” myth, the fact that their claim was discredited does not prevent them from continuing to make it a central component of their case against Obamacare.
MYTH 3: Obamacare is Socialist
The word “socialism” has become almost like white noise in today’s political discourse, thanks in large part to its constant use by so many conservatives—everything these days is either socialist or [insert scandal here]-gate.
Of course, the realities of the policies within the Affordable Care Act are anything but socialist. Rather, the entire system is actually a promotion of, and boost to, the private market. In the current private insurance market, insurance companies rarely directly compete against each other, their prices are their prices and if they were to choose to raise them (as they frequently do) individuals have little choice but to just eat the increased cost. Under the new healthcare law, however, the insurance marketplaces create a central portal where private companies have to directly compete for the business of consumers, which, rather than being socialist, is actually the very foundation of free market principles.
The “socialist” option (sort of) would have been to enact a single payer healthcare system, where the government provides its own insurance plan directly to the general public, competing directly (assuming a public/private version of single payer) with private health insurance companies. There are, of course, many people who still argue that this would have been the better option, as it would have created a standard against which private insurers would have had to compete against, forcing price competition and benefiting consumers.
It’s worth pointing out that the United States is one of the only western democratic societies which doesn’t provide universal healthcare to all citizens. Most western countries, such as Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and even the Vatican have long since recognized that healthcare should be a fundamental right, and the inherent evil of a supposedly moral society allowing their own citizenry to fall ill and/or die from diseases easily cured.
*Eri Ethington contributed to this article.