A well-timed boost

A WELL-TIMED BOOST…. To be sure, health care reform may yet fail. But after having been read its last rites, the initiative is still very much alive, and has a legitimate shot at becoming law fairly soon. The LA Times considers what helped revive the faltering patient, and points to a California insurance company — which raised premiums 39% — that helped at a key moment.

Unwittingly, Anthem helped revive Democratic efforts. Every letter it sent out was a political gift for Obama. The only thing missing was a shiny red bow.

Each morning, White House officials wake up to a news summary, a stack of clippings printed and neatly stapled to offer a headlined view of the world. On Feb. 5, snow was falling in Washington, and the healthcare bill, for all intents, was in deep hibernation. […]

Plans were underway to announce the summit as Pfeiffer thumbed through the White House news summary for Feb. 5.One story leaped out: a Times article that described people outraged over Anthem’s plans “to dramatically raise rates.” Pfeiffer, who helps formulate and drive the president’s message, flagged the article for others in the White House. Many had already read the piece.

The president’s political team immediately saw what Anthem had done: The company had given Obama, who struggled for months to find a cogent argument, a simple way to crystallize his case for change.

Much of the debate over the healthcare overhaul was esoteric — what’s the difference between a cooperative and a healthcare exchange, anyway? For many Americans, the whole issue seemed irrelevant. After all, most have insurance, and polls suggest that many, if not entirely satisfied, are happy enough with the system as it is.

Obama and his allies had been arguing, not very successfully, that doing nothing had a price, that rising healthcare costs would cripple the economy and rising premiums would eventually force many of the insured to drop their coverage. Anthem’s whopping rate increases were an example the White House could cite and — better still — something people could easily understand.

I think it’s easy to overstate this. I agree with Kevin Drum’s take: “I tend to believe that the turnaround on healthcare was driven mostly by fundamentals: panic subsided, as it usually does; Democrats realized that passing nothing and looking hapless was political suicide; and a plan came together for passage that looked doable — and that had strong backing from the entire party leadership.”

But Anthem helped — not its customers, but the reform initiative — delivering a great story at a great time. If health care can get done, millions of Americans will owe a very nice thank-you note to an insurance company that didn’t want to give the effort a boost, but did anyway.