LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — President Barack Obama deployed his highest-profile spokesman yet on Wednesday to tout his far-reaching health-care law: the 42nd president of the United States. And Bill Clinton even stuck to the script.
As Obama and his aides try to win support for a military strike against Syria, the White House remains focused on raising the public profile of the Affordable Care Act, which is weeks away from the most critical stage of its implementation.
That effort includes enlisting the help of Clinton — memorably dubbed “the Secretary of Explaining Stuff” — as well as celebrities, insurance companies and activists to promote the health-care initiative and explain to eligible Americans how they can sign up for coverage starting Oct. 1.
The push comes amid continued Republican opposition of the law, including attempts at the state and federal levels to erect roadblocks in its path.
In a speech in Little Rock, Ark., Clinton argued Wednesday that both opponents and supporters of the law have an obligation to make it work. Saying he “actually wrote this whole thing out” to get the details right, Clinton said the law has yielded benefits, such as reducing medical errors and introducing “competitive bidding for durable medical equipment.”
“It seems to me that the benefits of reform can’t be fully realized, and the problems can’t be fixed, unless both the supporters and the opponents of the legislation work together to implement it,” Clinton said.
With less than a month to go before open enrollment begins for state and federal insurance exchanges nationwide, the law’s proponents are convening town hall meetings, buying airtime, distributing leaflets and firing off tweets aimed at trying to convince Americans that it’s worth navigating uncertain terrain and paying the required premiums to get ensured.
Tara McGuinness, White House senior communications adviser, said the administration is “one month out from the kickoff of a six-month public education campaign,” adding that “most of the activity will happen once the marketplaces are open.”
Even those who are most invested in having the law implemented acknowledge that large swaths of the public remain uninformed about the measure.
“Our expectation is there’s a significant education effort that lies ahead,” Maureen Sullivan, chief strategy officer for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, said in an interview.
With millions of potential customers in the offing, insurers are poised to be among the administration’s most valuable allies in the effort to register the uninsured. Insurance companies are expected to spend as much as $1 billion on advertising over the next two years — a blitz aimed in part at informing many Americans who do not realize the law is in effect.
Blue Cross and its affiliates have, among other things, distributed educational pamphlets at 8,000 Walgreens stores and started a website, AskBlue, which walks customers through the costs of different plans and the possible subsidies available to them. The company is in discussions with another retailer to have staff at stores to answer questions about the law, Sullivan said.
The insurer’s affiliates have begun grass-roots efforts tailored to different constituencies, even in Republican-controlled states that aren’t operating their own exchanges. BlueCross BlueShield of Louisiana, for example, has a coalition that briefed the state’s insurance commissioner Wednesday on the law’s implementation, conducted webinars for local media and plans to place registration guides in the state’s 340 public libraries.
“We’re giving them the information that they need before they sit down to enroll,” said John Maginnis, BCBS Louisiana spokesman.
Republicans have continued to attack the law and the administration’s efforts to promote it. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who has sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Monday questioning why the agency was spending at least $8.7 million to promote the measure through television ads.
“Until critical questions can be answered regarding the availability and type of health insurance to be provided by ObamaCare, it is unconscionable to spend taxpayer dollars to promote and advertise ObamaCare plans that have yet to be finalized,” he wrote.
HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters, who would not confirm the size of the ad buy, defended the administration’s decision to spend money on the issue. “Starting Oct. 1, millions of Americans will be able to access quality, affordable health coverage for the first time, and we will continue educating and informing the uninsured of this opportunity,” she wrote in an e-mail.
House Republicans, who have voted 40 times to repeal or modify parts of the law, plan to hold at least three additional votes aimed at dismantling the legislation this fall: one to require verification for its subsidies to consumers; a second to block the Independent Payment Advisory Board; and a third to eliminate the money the administration is using for implementation.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is investigating the more than 100 groups that have received grants as “navigators” to help educate Americans about their options. The law’s supporters said the questionnaires represent an unfair burden; Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the panel’s vice chairman, said she and others are “simply asking . . . ‘Tell us how you will spend the money and how you will protect personal financial and health information during the enrollment process.’ “
The administration is attempting to counter the opposition with its own efforts. Sebelius made at least nine public appearances in the past two months across the country, including in July at the NAACP’s annual convention in Orlando., where she delivered remarks, and a visit to a Houston clinic in August. She will head to Newark next week. The Labor Department, meanwhile, is providing insurance referrals and offering voluntary staff training at its 3,000 American Job Centers.