The Club for Growth released an ad this week going after Sen. Mark Pryor on (what else?) Obamacare. The ad tries to tie Pryor to President Barack Obama’s much-maligned “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” promise. The gimmick is a parrot: Obama is saying stuff, and Pryor is saying the same stuff! It’s like he’s parroting Obama! The thing is, Pryor didn’t actually say what’s implied in the ad.
The ad is nearly identical (one might even say it parrots) an ad the Club for Growth is running against Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska. We hear Obama saying multiple times that individuals could keep their plans if they liked them. In practice, of course, the law’s coverage mandates meant that some people’s plans were no longer compliant and were cancelled. The difference is that the Begich ad features a quote of Begich himself saying “the reality is, if you’ve got an insurance plan now, you like it, you keep it.” Meanwhile, in the Pryor ad, the Club for Growth clips off his quote — he says, “What’s the bottom line? Are we going to be able to stick with our plan? The answer is yes.” Viewers are left to assume he’s talking about individual health insurance, like all those Obama quotes. In fact, Pryor’s actual quote, from an Arkansas Business interview, was a response to a question about businesses offering insurance — “I think what business wants to know is what’s the bottom line? Are we going to be able to stick with our plan…” Now we can further parse the potential impacts of the law on businesses — the employer mandate has twice been delayed, more than 90 percent of businesses have less than 50 employees and aren’t impacted by the mandate, most large businesses already offer coverage that would be compliant under the mandate — but suffice to say that what Pryor is taking about in the Arkansas Business interview really has nothing to do with what’s in the ad, which is why Club for Growth chopped off the beginning of the quote. (Given the amount of oppo research aimed at Pryor, I’d guess the Pryor quote that Club for Growth actually wants doesn’t exist.)
The other thing to keep in mind is that here in Arkansas, people actually can keep their individual health insurance plans through the fall of 2017, even if they’re not compliant with Obamacare, because of regulatory decisions made by the Arkansas Insurance Department and allowed by the Obama administration. I sometimes get asked, when I do a story on Arkansans who have gained coverage, why I haven’t done a story on Arkansans whose plans have been cancelled due to Obamacare, and the reason is that those cancellations have not happened in Arkansas.
Now it’s true that three years from now, those plans are set to become non-compliant and would end. At that point, some people — particularly healthy or relatively more affluent people — would end up with more expensive insurance to replace the plans they had. That’s true for two reasons: 1) Obamacare requires that plans cover more stuff (for example, maternity coverage) and 2) Obamacare bans exclusion or price discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. Previously, the individual market — where folks shopped for insurance if they didn’t get it through their work or through a public program like Medicare — was a very good deal for a healthy guy like me precisely because insurance companies could charge super-cheap premiums for the healthy and exclude or charge exorbitant rates to the sick. (Whether that’s really what we want out of a health care system is one of the big questions at the heart of the Obamacare debate.)
Some Arkansas Republicans say it’s immaterial that folks can keep their plans until fall of 2017 since eventually they may lose them and have to purchase something more expensive. One thing to keep in mind is that there has always been a huge amount of turnover in the individual market — very few people keep the same non-group plan for two years; a recent study found that only 42 percent kept the same non-group plan for even a full year. The other thing I’d add is that the timing is not immaterial for the people who actually have these plans (I should know, I’m one of them). My current plan potentially phasing out more than three years from now is quite a bit different than my plan ending right now. That’s the problem with the ubiquitous “Wanda” and “Jerry” Americans For Prosperity ads on this topic — political arguments aside, they’re misleading and confusing to people like Wanda and Jerry. In fact, Wanda [Buckley, of Marion] claims she’s still confused, even though Blue Cross has confirmed that she can actually keep her plan.
Team Cotton seems to take the position that it’s unfair that the attack based on “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” has been somewhat neutered in Arkansas because of the delay. But the political reality is that the attack — some people, who may have switched plans anyways, may have to switch to more expensive plans three years from now — doesn’t have as much bite as flashy plan cancellations.
More broadly, I wonder if Tom Cotton’s droopy poll numbers might call into question the all-Obamacare-all-the-time approach (particularly compared to Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, who has gone for a more, well, diversified campaign portfolio). Even in Republican primaries, both statewide and in very conservative districts, the all-Obamacare tactic produced mixed results. Certainly, Obamacare remains a net negative for Pryor. And the Club for Growth ad is merely run-of-the-mill misleading, par for the campaign course — in the end, Pryor voted for the law and that’s ultimately the point. I just don’t think an ad like this packs the punch in Arkansas that folks thought it would when the campaign began.
Finally, when it comes to the most talked-about provision of the law in Arkansas — the private option, the state’s unique plan using Medicaid funds available via Obamacare to purchase private health insurance for low-income Arkansans — Pryor hasn’t been shy about expressing his support, while Cotton has bobbed and weaved and refused to take a position. For good reason: Cotton wants to repeal the health care law, but he doesn’t have an answer on what would happen to the 170,000 (and counting) Arkansans who have gained coverage via the private option (not to mention 40,000 more who have enrolled in coverage on the Obamacare exchange). That’s the awkward part about the “keep your plan” attack for Republicans: it relies on a status quo bias that’s now out of date. I personally think it would be a bad idea to enshrine a rule in health care reform that the worst possible outcome is if some folks lose the particular plan they have today — but if that’s the standard, what about the more than 200,000 Arkansans who would lose their insurance if Cotton got his way on the health care law?
The ad closes with bird poop on the New York Times, so perhaps the goal is more about fundraising and rallying the converted than moving the needle on independent voters in Arkansas. According to the Washington Free Beacon the parrot in the ad is named “Harley” and has previously worked with Jay-Z and been on the television show “Dexter.” Probably a Hollywood liberal.