Has Obamacare Turned the Corner?

Healthcare reform finally got some good news, exceeding enrollment goals and possibly changing minds in the process. Will it still be Democrats' albatross in the midterms?
Reuters

The big Obamacare deadline has passed, and Democrats are exultant. Monday was the last day to enroll for 2014 coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and more than 7 million Americans—7,041,000, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney—have signed up for health insurance through the federal and state insurance exchanges. That exceeds the original goal the government had set for first-year enrollment (which had been lowered to 6 million when the website proved disastrously unfunctional). It's a rare piece of good news and a significant milestone for a policy whose launch has mostly meant headaches for the president and his party. Further gladdening Democrats, some polls are now even showing voters beginning to change their negative views of the law. Is Obamacare finally turning the corner?

The answer is ... maybe. Republicans have lots of questions about that 7 million number, including: How many of those people will follow through by actually paying for the insurance they've signed up for? (Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says 80 to 90 percent have made their first premium payment, which is about what most experts estimate.) How many of them previously had insurance, but either had their policies canceled or switched to the exchange because they found a better deal than they were getting? (The Associated Press reported that at least 4.7 million people got cancelation notices.) And what effect will the law end up having on healthcare costs and insurance premiums overall?

Meanwhile, Healthcare.gov still has plenty of issues. In the final enrollment surge leading up to Monday's deadline, the site repeatedly crashed, and the administration is allowing people who started signing up but didn't finish an extra two weeks to complete the process. While the site is now navigable for consumers (most of the time), its "back-end" software remains unbuilt, forcing insurers to sign people up more or less by hand once they come through the door. Some state-level exchange websites, such as Maryland and Oregon, have failed miserably and had to be completely scrapped. (States could decide whether to build their own exchange or send their citizens to the federal site; 17 states, mostly Democrat-led, are running their own exchanges independent of the federal government.)  

Nonetheless, it's clear the doomsayers' predictions for the Affordable Care Act—that the website was totally unworkable, that enrollment would fall dramatically short, that the whole structure of healthcare reform would collapse of its own weight—aren't coming to pass. Some conservative commentators recognize this and are urging the Republican Party to accept it. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on Monday wrote that "Obamacare, thrice-buried, looks very much alive." Ramesh Ponnuru wrote on Bloomberg View, "It's clear now that one scenario with a lot of purchase among conservative opponents of Obamacare—that the law would 'implode,' 'collapse' or 'unravel'—is highly unlikely," and urged the law's naysayers to "concede defeat."

Democrats are also excited about an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday that showed a dramatic turnaround in public opinion of the Affordable Care Act. With 49 percent in favor of the law and 48 percent opposed, the poll found public support for the law at its highest level ever, a staggering rebound from the 40 percent in favor and 57 opposed that the same pollster found at the height of the rollout debacle last November. 

If subsequent polls bear out this result, it would indeed be a stunning turn of events, a sign that voters were changing their minds about healthcare reform in a way that could upend the conventional wisdom about the upcoming midterm elections. But as the Republican pollster Logan Dobson pointed out on Twitter, at the moment, the ABC poll looks like a major outlier. Contrary to its 1-point net-favorable reading, nine other national polls in the last month have found sizable net-negative views of the law, anywhere from an 8-point to an 18-point gap. Even those dire readings represent an improvement in some cases: CBS News had the law's approval at -30 in November, down to -12 this month.

This chart from HuffPost Pollster shows that, on average, negative views of the ACA peaked in November and have subsided slightly since then, but remain about 11 points more negative than positive:

All these polls, of course, were taken before the deadline passed. The big question, especially for politics, is what the next round of polls looks like. Does today's flurry of good Obamacare news begin to change Americans' minds about the virtues of the law? Does that, in turn, do anything to lift the president's sagging approval rating and Democrats' gloomy midterm prospects? We'll have to wait and see. 

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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