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Analysis: Health insurance premium hikes may carry heft at polls

By Amber Phillips Washington Post

WASHINGTON – It was ostensibly the news Senate and House Republicans had been waiting for: Two weeks before Election Day, the public gets word that the average premium in Obama’s health insurance program – the one Republicans have have been railing against for six years now – is going to spike by roughly 25 percent, as much as triple the increase in 2016 rates.

And congressional Republicans were ready. The day the premiums for the Affordable Care Act were announced, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was out with an ad lambasting his opponent for supporting the law:

“Obamacare premiums skyrocketing around the country. Up nearly 75% here in Arizona. Ann Kirkpatrick still says she’s ‘proud,’ ” his campaign tweeted.

McCain was first out of the gate because he likely knows some of the biggest hikes could come in his state as the number of participating health insurance plans in Arizona drops from 65 to four. Many more Republicans will likely follow his lead: Political reporters’ inboxes soon filled with Republican operatives pointing out their Democratic opponent is in favor of the ACA.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., singularly focused on protecting his majority, put out a video Tuesday capitalizing on the news.

(The state of Washington runs its own health care exchange and isn’t included in the numbers released Monday. Updated plans and premiums should be released this week, according to the state insurance commissioner’s office.)

Republicans are making a bet that in the final few weeks of the campaign, Obamacare is going to become toxic. But there’s evidence to suggest no party is going to reap any significant Obamacare-related vote: The country is split along party lines on approval or disapproval of the law, and health care costs don’t seem to be topping voters’ concerns right now. That being said, if Republicans can spend the next 14 days framing the election around Obamacare, they might have a shot at shifting that dynamic.

The latest data from Kaiser Family Foundation shows that about half of America is split about whether they like Obamacare, with slightly more people disapproving of it than approving of it. That’s remained fairly constant throughout this year, even with news that major health insurers like Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield are scaling back their participation in the plan.

As with just about any policy issue in America these days, feelings about the ACA split along party lines: Democrats overwhelmingly approve of the law (74 percent) and Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove of it (76 percent).

Americans unaffiliated with either party don’t feel a pull one way or the other. Kaiser data show independent voters are more negative than positive about the law, but are split along the lines of the rest of America too, with 47 percent unfavorable and 43 percent favorable. That’s not a great starting point for Republicans, especially taking into account the fact that independents as a bloc have tended to lean a bit conservative in recent years.

This isn’t to say that rising health insurance costs are just fine by voters. When you ask voters which kind of health-related issue could influence their vote, as Kaiser did in September, Obamacare and its costs top the charts: 67 percent said they were concerned about the future of the law, and 60 percent said they were concerned about the cost of health insurance premiums.

But that’s when voters are asked specifically to talk about health care. When you zoom out to the dozens of issues that might drive them to the ballot box, it’s not clear voters prioritize Obamacare.

Of the 70 percent of Americans who told Gallup pollsters in September that noneconomic issues are the most important problems facing the country today, just 3 percent cited health care. (Above health care: dissatisfaction with government, elections reform, race relations, immigration, terrorism … basically, a lot of things.)

That being said, more than a third of Americans said economic problems were the country’s top concern. And there’s a very real case for Republicans to make that this law isn’t helping alleviate those concerns.

As major insurers have stopped providing their health insurance on the marketplace, there are fewer choices (about 1 in 5 consumers next year will have only have plans from one insurer to choose from), and those choices will be on average more expensive: Premiums are rising in the 39 states that have a federally run market by an average 25 percent.

Saying things like this is probably politically smart: The news “does little to dispel the notion we are seeing the law implode at the expense of middle-class families,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told the Associated Press.

That’s because the news confirms the concerns of 62 percent of Americans who, in a June Kaiser poll, said they were “very concerned” about premium increases.

Obama administration officials counter that Republicans are only taking in half the data. In 2017, they said, more than 8 in 10 shoppers will qualify for subsidies to help pay their premiums.

That means, the Post’s Amy Goldstein reports: “With subsidies, more than three-quarters of customers will be able to find a health plan next year for which they pay $100 or less in monthly premiums, according to the new data.”

To sum up, Obamacare premium spikes is not the news Democrats want to have to deal with right now. As Obamacare enters its fourth sign-up season, Democrats were undoubtedly hoping to reap the rewards of the more than 21 million happily newly insured Americans.

That doesn’t seem to be happening, but not because Americans hate the law. There doesn’t seem to be overwhelming feelings one way or the other for it. But if Republicans can frame the rest of the election around Obamacare, then, maybe, they have a shot at taking advantage of its latest troubles.

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