The Story So Far

Alan Jenkins

I received a notice from my employer earlier this month, announcing changes to our health care plan. Under the topic “Health Care Reform Mandates Changes,” the first four items read:

o Pre-existing condition limitations are not imposed for children up to the age of 19.
o Adult children can be covered as dependents of employees up to the age of 26, regardless of student or marital status, so long as the adult child is not eligible for coverage under their own employer.
o There is an unlimited lifetime maximum on plan benefits.
o There is no annual limit on essential health benefits, which includes such things as Durable

Medical Equipment, Mental Health Services, and Urgent Care Services.
With typical bureaucratic understatement, the notice heralded transformative positive changes for millions of workers, students, and families that will save lives, prevent financial catastrophes, enable educational achievement, and reduce our budget deficit. And the notice, of course, responded to just the first wave of significant improvements that health care reform will bring to everyday Americans and the nation as a whole in the coming years.

Which raises some questions. First, what part of these giant steps forward is so pernicious or threatening that the House of Representatives saw fit to vote for their repeal? I haven’t heard a factual answer to that question from opponents of health care reform, but, rather, just a string of inflammatory slogans claiming a “job killing government takeover of health care.” (Somehow this was left out of the employer notice that I received).

Second, given that millions of Americans are receiving notices like this one, why aren’t the political leaders who enacted these historic reforms telling their story more effectively? True, President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech this week that, “what I’m not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a preexisting condition.” But a line in an hour-long speech is far from the compelling narrative and coordinated echo chamber that the other side has mounted, and that health care reformers could easily pursue.

Where is the series of campus events in key news markets highlighting the stories of students, many with serious-but-treatable illnesses, who can now receive affordable, quality care without bankrupting their families or ending their educational progress? Where are the stories of kids who can’t be rejected for coverage because of preexisting illnesses? There are a few, but hardly of the scale or coordination that’s warranted and achievable.

To be sure, the President’s communications should overwhelmingly emphasize jobs, jobs, employment and jobs for the foreseeable future. But simply checking the box and moving on after a difficult, hugely beneficial accomplishment without both showing and telling its benefits to individuals, families, and the country opens the door to distortion, confusion, and misinformed backlash—all of which we’ve seen regarding health care over the last year. Declining to take a victory lap may be an admirable personal quality. But failing to effectively explain why a historic accomplishment benefits our nation and everyone in it leaves that accomplishment vulnerable, and limits the possibilities for future change.

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