April 23, 2014

Obamacare's Effect on Elections

Capitol Impact

The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is one of those political issues that divides Georgians more sharply than anything else. Republicans mostly hate it; Democrats tend to support it.

Whether you like or dislike the health care act, it has found a market among consumers, both in Georgia and nationally. 

There were 221,604 people who signed up for coverage as of Mar. 31 through the health insurance exchange operated in Georgia by the federal government. “It was mostly people who are uninsured, have never had insurance coverage,” said Amanda Ptashkin, one of the navigators who assisted Georgians signing up through the exchanges. “These numbers show that there was an unmet demand for affordable health insurance that is finally being met,” said Cindy Zeldin, director of the advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future.

The 221,000 number is all the more impressive when you consider that every statewide elected official opposed the implementation of the health care act and tried their best to shut it down. “We’re doing everything in our power to be an obstructionist,” Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens said on several occasions. Attorney General Sam Olens joined in a lawsuit that is trying to throw out the federal subsidies that help consumers pay the premiums for coverage they obtain through the insurance exchanges.

Gov. Nathan Deal refused to participate in one of Obamacare’s major provisions, the expansion of Medicaid coverage to low-income families, while Republican legislators passed a law that prohibits state agencies from helping people sign up through an insurance exchange. "We will not allow ourselves to be coerced into expansion,” Deal said. “I'm prepared to fight any intrusion into our rights as a state." 

In Kentucky, by contrast, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear established an insurance exchange, Kynect, that was considered to be one of the country’s most successful. Although Kentucky has less than half of Georgia’s population, more than 402,000 of its citizens enrolled for coverage through the exchange.

It’s interesting to contemplate what the political impact of Obamacare might be as we roll towards the general election in November, particularly in the marquee races for governor and U.S. senator. The Georgians who signed up for coverage through the insurance exchange are mostly those who previously could not get health insurance or are receiving a federal subsidy to help pay for their premiums. When the Republican candidates for governor and senator say they will do everything in their power to repeal Obamacare, they are effectively telling that pool of 221,000 potential voters that they will try to take away the health insurance coverage they just signed up for.

How much could a bloc of 221,000 people affect a statewide election? Let’s look back at the 2010 race for governor:  Deal’s winning margin over Roy Barnes in that election was 258,821 votes. Current polls indicate that the upcoming race between him and Democratic challenger Jason Carter could be closer than that.

You also have to consider the other side of the coin in pondering this issue, of course. Deal still has to survive a Republican primary election in a few weeks where former Dalton mayor David Pennington and state school Supt. John Barge are also on the ballot. Anything less than unyielding opposition to the health care act would cause problems for Deal in that election, although I don’t see his position on this issue ever changing – the governor’s dislike of Obamacare appears to be quite genuine. You also want to keep your political base fired up for the general election, and I’m not aware of a more potent method for motivating Republican voters than promises to kill Obamacare.

On the national level, public sentiment towards the Affordable Care Act is slowly becoming more positive as more people sign up for coverage. Will that be the case for Georgia as well?