Columns » Ernest Dumas

GOP tells NFL it can't endorse Obamacare

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Aaron Rodgers, the all-pro quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, will hawk casualty insurance for State Farm in funny TV spots again this fall, but neither he nor any other National Football League star will sell health insurance.

Congressional Republicans said it would be unseemly for sports stars to help President Obama insure families against medical catastrophes and demanded that the NFL commissioner, the good Republican Roger Goodell, prevent it. Goodell seemed to accede, although only a few months ago he stood up for the right of a Baltimore Ravens linebacker to promote same-sex marriage.

The threat to the sports organizations is part of the full-court press by congressional Republicans to screw up Obamacare before the final piece of it, the private insurance market, takes effect in October. They threaten to plunge the nation into bankruptcy and destroy its credit this winter if the president starts educating people about the importance of having health insurance.

Who knows how much sports heroes could wise people up on buying health insurance, but some of these jock commercials are pretty good. I confess I would like to see Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers' fierce all-pro safety, tackle an actor stand-in for Sen. Mitch McConnell, rip his white shirt off and toss the souvenir to a little boy of uninsured parents. Polamalu, you know, does it now to the guy who grabbed a frosty Coke from the boy's hand and tried to flee down the stadium tunnel — a funny reprise of the famous Coke commercials of Mean Joe Greene in 1979.

Upon hearing that the Department of Health and Human Services might enlist NFL stars in the campaign to enroll uninsured people in private health plans, McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP whip, sent Goodell and the heads of the other professional sports associations letters saying that they had better not let the athletes do that. They said the Affordable Care Act — a.k.a. Obamacare — is a bad deal. It is dangerous, they warned, for professional sports, to be involved in partisan stuff. The House speaker joined them.

The educational campaign to explain the new state insurance markets and how to enroll is overdue, the administration having abandoned the field to Republicans and foes of universal insurance for four years, since Congress began work on the reforms. People still know little about the law except the GOP's slogans, which were based on phrases that struck a nerve with focus groups in early 2009: Everyone's taxes will go up, insurance will be more expensive, the government and not doctors and their patients will make medical decisions, Medicare benefits will be slashed, treatment will be withheld from old folks, and on and on. Not one is true, but that is what half the people believe.

Most of Obamacare has already been implemented and nearly everyone is happy with it, to the extent they know Obamacare had anything to do with it: lower drug costs for seniors, free preventive care, youngsters remaining on their parents' policies, rebates from insurance companies for excess profits, the end of annual and lifetime caps on coverage. Here in Arkansas, Republicans are praising big parts of it, like big savings from bundled payments and Medicaid expansion, because everyone agrees not to whisper that they are Obamacare.

The tempest over sports stars' participation in the education campaign for the insurance markets (most people who are not insured are expected to buy an insurance plan, with government assistance if their incomes are less than 400 percent of the federal poverty line) is really trivial.

But it represents something unprecedented. That is the all-out effort by one party to scuttle a valid act of Congress, to see that the government fails in a program undertaken to help Americans. Nearly every major undertaking in the history of the republic was accomplished after a hard political fight, but afterward the losers never tried to undermine its implementation. It didn't happen with Social Security or the other Great Depression reforms, Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, President Reagan's military buildup, George W. Bush's wars or his Medicare drug program, even though it was enacted by deception after Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy had worked out what Democrats thought was a compromise.

Lots of people, including conservative columnists, have written about the effort, but Norm Ornstein of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute said it best in The Atlantic. To try to change flawed laws — every law is flawed in some respect — is laudable and expected, Ornstein said.

"But to do everything possible to undercut and destroy its implementation — which in this case means finding ways to deny coverage to many who lack any health insurance; to keep millions who might be able to get better and cheaper coverage in the dark about their new options; to create disruption for the health providers who are trying to implement the law, including insurers, hospitals, and physicians; to threaten the even greater disruption via a government shutdown or breach of the debt limit in order to blackmail the president into abandoning the law; and to hope to benefit politically from all the resulting turmoil — is simply unacceptable, even contemptible."

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