Littwin: Because being insured is horrible

Mike Littwin

You’ve heard the numbers. You’ve seen the smiles. The axis has shifted, if just slightly. And the Obamacare narrative — once all about the bad news — has taken a dramatic turn.

Suddenly, at least for the moment, the news is all good.

The 8 million who have enrolled in the exchanges. The 12 million — according to Gallup — who were uninsured last fall are insured today. The Congressional Budget Office report that premiums are coming in lower than expected — and that the Republican prediction/hope of double-digit increases next fall is unlikely.

In a victory-lap-redux news conference Wednesday, Barack Obama was asked whether Democrats should take their own dramatic turn — and embrace Obamacare as they head to the November elections.

Unsurprisingly, he said they should. OK, what else would he say? He was saying much the same thing for a while, even as vulnerable Democrats have been running as fast as they could not just from Obamacare but from Obama himself.

But here’s the surprise: At this point, Obama might be right.

And here’s how we’ll now: When/if Mark Udall makes the call.

The people arguing about what uninsured people would do are insured themselves and always have been insured. So they didn’t see it coming when, as the deadlines approached, 3.7 million Americans signed up — because the subsidies are generous, because there are penalties for not signing up, because being uninsured is horrible.

The Republican strategy against Udall is pretty obvious — a heavy dose of anti-Obamacare and then more anti-Obamacare and then more anti-Obamacare, still. It’s as obvious as the $850,000 Koch brothers’ ad bought just after Cory Gardner shocked the political world by agreeing to take on Udall. It’s the same strategy vulnerable and semi-vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents are seeing everywhere in a year when prognosticators give Republicans a better-than-even chance of winning the Senate.

Maybe you remember how the Koch brothers’ commercial ended: The actress looks into the camera, with sadness in her eyes and seeming regret in her voice, to say, “Obamacare doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.”

But what if it does work?

In a purplish-trending-blue state like Colorado, where Obama and Obamacare have been taking a beating in the polls, a change in the dynamic could well change the dynamics of the Senate race, where Udall is generally considered only a slight favorite. If the polls on Obamacare move significantly, you’ll be able to tell. That’s when Udall would begin defending the law instead of defending himself for voting for it.

I don’t know what Udall — who is, to put it nicely, careful — will do. But what’s clear is that Gardner is unlikely to win unless a solid majority of Coloradans continue to consider Obamacare a loser.

Sarah Kliff, who writes about health care for Vox, the new Ezra Klein project, did the perfect job explaining how the 8 million came to enroll on the exchanges. They enrolled, she noted, despite the disastrous rollout, despite the scary cancellation notices, despite the death panels, despite the death spirals, despite 50 votes in the House to repeal, despite the unanimous doom-saying from the Republican side, despite the display of fear from red-state Democrats, despite glitches, despite confusion, despite a law that is so much more complicated than it has to be, despite all the predictions otherwise.

And why did they enroll?

There’s a very simple reason, she wrote: “Being uninsured is horrible.”

It is so horrible that when uninsured or underinsured people couldn’t get through on the broken exchanges, they didn’t give up. They tried again. And, if they didn’t get through the next time, they tried again. And again. Because being uninsured is horrible.

As Kliff explained, most of the people arguing about what uninsured people would do are insured themselves and have always been insured. And so nobody saw it coming from either side that in March and April, as the deadlines approached and even passed, 3.7 million would sign up. They signed up because the subsidies are, in fact, generous. They signed up because there are penalties for not signing up. They signed up because being uninsured is horrible.

The critical 18 to 34 age group account for 28 percent of the enrollees — around the same number who signed up for Romneycare in its first year in Massachusetts. The 18 to 34 group is important because you need young and healthy people to make the complicated system work. The target is closer to 40 percent, the experts say, but Romneycare history suggests that the number is in reach. Remember: Being uninsured is horrible. And the non-partisan CBO predicts that, after this first year, the sign-ups will come more quickly.

The Republican argument now is about the cancellations — even though they were delayed — and about Obamacare cutting Medicare benefits (does anyone really believe that?) and how the sign-up numbers must be skewed and how there’s a conspiracy involving the Census Bureau to cook the books on the newly insured.

What Republicans have been unable to argue is that they have an alternative to Obamacare. How is it possible that in all this time they’ve come up with … nothing? They have no plan to make sure people with pre-existing conditions can get insurance. They have no plan to do anything about the lifetime caps. They have no plan. It’s embarrassing but not surprising.

One of the really interesting things that Gallup discovered in its polling is that 54 percent of the newly insured are Democrats and only 24 percent are Republicans. In other words, Obamacare is so political that people are deciding to sign up for health care insurance according to party membership.

The question now is: If Obamacare seems to be working, do those numbers change, too? Because if they do change, that’s when the narrative will end.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for