Thank Anthem Blue Cross for Health Care Reform

March 22, 2010

When the history of the 2010 health reform bill is written, it should include a shout out to Anthem Blue Cross of California for all of its help. What a lot of changes in a short period of time! Remember the ancient history of January 19, 2010? That was the day that Scott Brown of Massachusetts was elected to fill the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s seat. Here’s a sample of what the news reports said after the election:

“I think you can make a pretty good argument that healthcare might be dead,” said New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, a fierce advocate of the public option. Another New York liberal, Democrat Chuck Schumer, thinks discontent among Independents will force Democrats to de-emphasize healthcare to focus on what matters to voters — jobs. “Our focus must be on jobs, the economy and delivering for the middle class,” he said. (January 20 LA Times)

Newspapers around the country echoed those views, and in the weeks after the Brown election those views deepened: the voters had spoken, health reforms were deeply unpopular, and the House would never pass the Senate version of health reform (the only viable way to get health reform without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate).

Well, lo and behold, it is just over two months later, and guess what? The House has passed the Senate bill and health reform writ large is now about to become the law of the land!

So, what happened to change the story? Was it that the President became more engaged, or the public more supportive * (or, at least, less negative)? Did the bi-partisan summit held in late February accomplish its desired end?

Well, yes, all of that is true. But even with all of that, I don’t think we would have seen the passage of this historic health care bill Sunday had it not been for Anthem’s announcement in early February that it was raising individual rates by 39 percent.

Assuming that Anthem was not adopting Machiavelli’s approach (i.e., actually trying to get health reform passed — which did cross my mind), then one has to wonder what they were thinking to announce those rate increases in the midst of this great debate about health reform. Until Anthem announced its rate increases, advocates were having a hard time explaining reform in ways that resonated with the public. The President and Congress spent a lot of time talking about health reform in a very technical way, focusing on the details of policy changes and broader systemic impacts. How many people are sick of hearing “bending the cost curve,” as I am? (And who even knows what that means??) Opponents of reform, on the other hand, had much simpler sound bites about “death panels,” Medicare cuts, and the like.

But Anthem’s proposed rate increase gave advocates a clear message to rally around. The message was important — not just to change public opinion, but to help wavering law makers and give them something they could use in their districts to run on. It is no coincidence that after Anthem’s rate increase announcement, the President really seemed to find his voice on health reform. This was a message that the public could understand: rates are going up, people can’t afford care, and health reform would help with that.

So, on this historic day and on behalf of all the advocates of health reform: thank you Anthem Blue Cross. It wouldn’t have happened without you.

* With regard to the polling data: the polls have moved slightly in a favorable direction since January. On January 20, the day after Scott Brown got elected, the Rasmussen poll had 40 percent favoring health reform and 58 percent opposed; on March 14, 43 percent were in favor with 53 percent opposed.