Somebody Has to Be Wrong About Obamacare

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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A CNN poll taken last week showed that many Americans are exaggerating the effect of Obamacare on their own lives. As I wrote on Tuesday, this suggests the law will get a bump in public support over the next few months, as the widely anticipated negative consequences don't materialize for most people outside the health-care insurance exchanges.

The poll is interesting for another reason: It suggests that the public's divergent views on Obamacare don't reflect different opinions about the proper role of government, so much as wildly different understandings about what the law will mean for the average American. Here's the thing: They can't both be right.

Start with this question: "Do you think you and members of your family will or will not be able to receive care from the same doctors you see now?" That isn't a question about political preferences; it's asking respondents to make a prediction of fact.

So the difference is startling: 79 percent of Democrats said they'll be able to keep their doctor, compared with just 44 percent of Republicans -- almost a 2-to-1 gap. Unless doctors start dropping patients according to their party affiliation, those two groups can't both be right.

The same is true for a question about whether people expect to pay for medical care. Here the gap is even larger: 86 percent of Republicans said yes, compared with just 47 percent of Democrats. Again, unless insurers structure co-payments and deductibles by party, they can't both be right.

Based on those numbers, one of two things will happen in 2014. The first is that access to doctors will fall and the cost of care will go up for most Americans; Democrats will (gradually) realize they've been misled, and support for the law will collapse.

The second possibility is that access to doctors and the cost of care won't change for most Americans; Republicans will (gradually) realize they've been misled, and the case against Obamacare will disintegrate for the average voter. Fear of that outcome may explain why Republican leaders have been so frantic in trying to undermine the law now -- they're afraid that once their base realizes the warnings about Obamacare were wrong, they will stop paying attention.

It seems almost unnecessary to note, a week before the law's coverage provisions take effect, that the vast majority of Americans who get their insurance outside the exchanges won't see any big difference in cost or in their ability to see their own doctor. Unnecessary, because whether you agree with me or not, we're about to find out. All we know for sure is that somebody is wrong.

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