Those who insist on commemorating every meaningless partial-year anniversary may be pleased to find that this week marks the six month anniversary of the new health care law's passage. In order to mark this occasion, President Obama and his team are planning a party, or at least a P.R. offensive, which may or may not be aimed partially at convincing anxious Democratic politicians—who'd been assured that, by now, the public would be grinning ear-to-ear every time they heard the word "ObamaCare"—that the steadily unpopular law was actually a good idea. Nervous party members need to stiffen their spines, quit trying to display an independent streak, and support team-D on this one, pronto.
You can't have a party without some goodies. In this case, the White House is counting on the roll out of some of the law's new regulations consumer benefits. Starting on September 23, health insurance plans will be required to fully cover some preventive care benefits (which will be touted as "free," despite the fact that they're not), cover dependent children up to age 26, and will be prohibited from placing lifetime limits on coverage. But as The Wall Street Journal oh-so-carefully notes, those "choices are expected to be more complicated and expensive as employers try to comply with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which will be phased in over a few years." All those new benefits, the Journal explains, come at the price of "higher premiums, co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses, according to industry surveys." You can add fewer coverage choices to that list, too; some insurers are responding by chucking certain types of coverage; Anthem, for example, is dropping child-only policies on the same day that the new benefits kick in.
Insurers, already beset with rising prices due to other factors, have been attempting to warn the public that the new rules will result in additional rate increases—as much 9 percent. The administration and its supporters have tended to respond in two ways: 1) No. 2) Shut up. Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal, for example, has expressed irritation that his state's department of insurance approved a slate of upcoming rate hikes, which he says are "outrageous," especially because the new benefit requirements had absolutely nothing to do with the hikes! "In so far as the companies are falsely blaming the health care reform law, these rate hike requests are particularly unacceptable," he told a local news broadcast. His implied question/complaint is becoming a common one: Can't we just order insurers to lower their rates? Connecticut might try, but that plan hasn't worked out so well in Massachusetts.
If there's an actual outrage to be found in this mess, though, it's Kathleen Sebelius' vaguely threatening recent letter to insurers. The letter starts by taking note that "several health insurer carriers are sending letters to their enrollees falsely blaming premium increases for 2011 on the patient protections in the Affordable Care Act" and then warning that "there will be zero tolerance for this type of misinformation and unjustified rate increases." Which means what, precisely? It's not clear whether it's a threat to respond with snippy press releases (fair enough) or with regulatory retaliation (far more worrisome). But it does put the insurance industry in an awkward position. As one insurance industry spokesman recently wondered, "How can [insurers] be forced to increase benefits, then be prevented from telling customers why costs are on the rise?" Don't the insurers understand that it's ObamaCare's (half) birthday and no one is supposed to point out that this little baby isn't quite as cute and cuddly as the Obama team desperately wants us to believe?