By Rob Field
Obamacare won't do any good if no one knows about its benefits.
Experts predict the law will extend health coverage to 30 million more people. But none of them will get that coverage if they don't know it's available.
A recent poll suggests that may just be the case. A nonprofit group dedicated to spreading knowledge of the law, Enroll America, found that 78% of those who will be eligible for subsidies to purchase insurance coverage and 83% of those who will be newly eligible for Medicaid are oblivious.
It seems confusion runs quite deep. In another recent poll, less than 40% of respondents could correctly identify most major provisions of the health reform law with any certainty.
Most people seem to know about the most unpopular part of the law, the mandate requiring that everyone maintain coverage. But few are fully aware of the popular parts, like making coverage available to everyone, regardless of how sick they are.
Enroll America held focus groups around the country to gauge knowledge of health reform. At one held in Philadelphia in November, almost all participants had heard about the mandate. But not a single one had heard that the law will make coverage more affordable. And all were selected because they will be eligible for subsidies or for Medicaid.
Even more perplexing, when told that Obamacare guarantees them access to coverage regardless of health status, most refused to believe it.
Obamacare can't succeed if its intended beneficiaries don't sign up. But those working to implement it clearly have their work cut out for them. And they don't have much time. The exchanges are scheduled to start signing people up in October 2013.
When the state of Massachusetts, implemented a similar health reform plan in 2006 under Governor Mitt Romney (often called Romneycare), it needed a massive advertising campaign to spread the word. A huge coalition helped out, including much of the business community.
A few states have launched their own campaigns to explain Obamacare to the public, including California, Maryland and Washington. But the rest of the country apparently remains in the dark.
Some private efforts are popping up. Enroll America was founded by Families USA, a nonprofit group that supports health reform, to runs ads explaining Obamacare. The ads will appear in 2013 with funding from a cross-section of the health care industry and various foundations.
It's long past time for the federal government to get into the act. Ever since the law's passage in 2010, it has done a horrendous job of communicating its meaning. With only about a year to go before full implementation, that should be a top priority.
However, once again, some health reform opponents seem intent on standing in the way. In November, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R – Mich.) subpoenaed the government for information on federal spending to promote the law. He and other opponents want to launch an investigation of any communication campaign, claiming it amounts to political advocacy.
The real politics here is the effort to disrupt health reform's rollout by keeping people in the dark. The federal government ran massive communication campaigns for the launch of other major health reforms, like the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and even Medicare itself. Why should it now stand mute?
Let's hope the administration realizes the urgency of getting the word out about Obamacare. The only thing the country has to lose is a large portion of its uninsureds.