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In the messaging war on Obamacare, both sides get personal

A busy screen is shown on the laptop of a Certified Application Counselor as he attempted to enroll an interested person for Affordable Care
A busy screen is shown on the laptop of a Certified Application Counselor as he attempted to enroll an interested person for Affordable Care

By Gabriel Debenedetti

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Wayne Dofflemyer is no fan of Obamacare.

Because of President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, Dofflemyer's insurance company dropped the 70-year-old retiree's doctor from its network this year. Dofflemyer, who credits the doctor with saving his life when he had a ruptured colon in 2012, switched to a different insurer for about the same price in order to stay with his doctor.

But Dofflemyer, of Hudson, Florida, said that he was still angry enough about the hassle of changing insurers to complain to his Republican senator - Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Mark Sullivan, a 31-year-old Texan, is just as passionate in defending the policy. He says he managed to sign up for coverage on the program's technically challenged website, HealthCare.gov, and will save enough money on health insurance to help him start a "business intelligence" website service.

In Washington, Dofflemyer and Sullivan's stories have become part of the messaging war over Obamacare, as Republicans and White House-led Democrats spar over whether the technical problems with the program's web site should lead to a broader reconsideration of the effort to help millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans.

Allies of Obama's administration, besieged by criticism from Republicans who oppose the healthcare law and see an opportunity to undermine it, have fired off a barrage of press releases and social media posts with stories like Sullivan's, touting the virtues of the healthcare law.

Senate Republicans and conservative groups have fired back with stories such as Dofflemyer's. Their aim is to cast the healthcare law as an expensive job-killer that, despite Obama's promises to the contrary, will force millions of Americans into unwanted - and sometimes more expensive - changes in their coverage.

For both sides, the idea is to cut through the political rhetoric and arguments over bureaucratic failings in Washington and present personal, touching anecdotes that support their side of the Obamacare story and resonate across America.

The White House on Monday shared four anecdotes from people like Sullivan whose insurance coverage had improved under the law, which was passed in 2010 and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

The president tried to inspire a gathering of the pro-Obama group Organizing for Action (OFA) by telling the story of Kentucky's Jeffrey Huff, who had written Obama a letter explaining that his family's monthly healthcare costs would drop by more than half next year because of the Affordable Care Act.

And in a sign that both sides see power in such stories, the White House asked Americans to share their Obamacare success stories on its WhiteHouse.gov website, while the Senate Republican Conference (SRC) solicited Obamacare horror stories at a new web site, republican.senate.gov/YourStory.

"The idea is that we get real-life examples that we can share with senators from their states. When they're talking about these issues, you can really put a face to it," South Dakota Senator John Thune, chairman of the SRC, said in an interview.

Thune said he also had encouraged senators in his party to talk about Obamacare with their constituents on Twitter.

They are looking for people like Dofflemyer, who told Reuters, "I run into people and Obamacare comes up, and everyone's like, 'Bleh.' "

Democrats have used Sullivan to boost their claim that although the HealthCare.gov website has had significant problems, the healthcare program itself is solid.

"A lot of reporters want to talk about the problems with the website," Sullivan told Reuters. "I can understand that focus, but a lot are missing the bigger story" that many people in Obamacare will save money on their insurance.

Sullivan said he has been taken aback by the "whirlwind" of attention that has come with being an amateur spokesman for the policy, Obama's signature domestic policy.

"I got to meet with (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius two weeks ago," Sullivan said. "It's been ... a little unexpected. All I did was sign up and tweet about it."

HEALTHCARE 'INHERENTLY PERSONAL'

Lauren Crawford, a Washington-based partner at Hamilton Place Strategies who has advised Democrats and healthcare campaigns, said personal stories are crucial in a messaging fight such as this one because healthcare "is inherently personal."

With Obamacare, "people want to make what's the most financially smart decision for themselves, and what's the best coverage. So messaging-wise, we went from this big 'millions of people signing up' campaign to a more individual one," Crawford said.

She rejected the notion that such stories from the White House were merely an attempt to shift attention from the website's troubles, which have prevented untold numbers of Americans from using the site to enroll in insurance programs.

"I don't think it's a conscious effort to move the debate, but this is a next step. We've been talking about the website for over a month now," Crawford said.

The pace of personal stories from both sides of the healthcare debate has picked up this week.

"Yes, the website had some problems, but saving roughly $2,500 next year (in premiums alone!) seems well worth a little extra patience," the White House quoted "Mark from Idaho" as saying on Monday.

DEMOCRATS SCRUTINIZE FOES' MESSAGES

In a video aimed at Floridians that was released the same day, Republican Senator Rubio read letters from constituents such as "Barbara from Palm Coast," who complained of having to buy more expensive insurance because of Obamacare.

The Democrats' messaging efforts have included poking holes in personal anecdotes put out by Republicans.

The White House on Monday pointed to articles in The New Republic and Consumer Reports that it said debunked claims about the rising healthcare costs of Diane Barrette, a Florida resident.

Barrette, who media reports initially said could be forced to pay hundreds of dollars more for insurance each month because her current plan will be canceled, appeared in CBS and Fox News reports and was touted in Republican press releases, The New Republic noted.

But the more expensive insurance plans that Barrette complained about "also offer real coverage, and her current plan does not," the New Republic story said, adding that after having her options explained to her, Barrette warmed to them.

She called the change a possible "blessing in disguise."

Democrats have long used poignant anecdotes to promote social programs by focusing on the people they help, while Republicans typically have focused on such programs' impact on the federal budget or whether they represent an unwanted growth of government.

"It's one of the reasons Republicans have tried so hard to stop, blunt, divert, delay Obamacare" before people begin seeing many of the program's benefits, said Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and deputy HHS secretary under president George W. Bush.

So in essence, Republicans have taken a page from Democrats' playbook by using personal stories of their own.

"It personalizes it, it humanizes it in a way that ... Republicans don't do as well as we should," Thune said. "For better or for worse, everybody is having an experience" with Obamacare.

(Editing by David Lindsey and Grant McCool)

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