Surprise? Employer mandate delayed

A laurel to Politico for strong coverage of the latest plot twist in the healthcare reform story

The Obama administration’s just-before-July 4 surprise—postponing for a year the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate—generated a ton of news coverage, from perfunctory to nuts-and-bolts only, to the more analytical and sometimes speculative. Some of the reporting, though, was quite good, and discussed the business aspects of Obamacare the press should have been on top of all along.

For months, the business community had been complaining about this or that provision of the health reform law and the onerous requirements they said it imposed. Complaints ranged from taxes they must pay to subsidize insurance for the uninsured to too much record keeping, which they said would eventually mean worker layoffs. The media made light last fall of Papa John’s, aka John Schnatter’s, announcement that his pizza chain would have to cut employee hours and jack up the price of pizzas because of Obamacare. There was much more to that story, as last week’s announcement shows. Among the news outlets that churned out coverage of the delay last week, there was a clear standout that dug into the behind-the-scenes story and more: Politico, which deserves a CJR laurel.

Late in the day on July 2, with the long holiday weekend looming, the Treasury Department revealed in a blog post that it was postponing until 2015 the requirement that businesses with 50 or more workers must provide health insurance or face penalties. Between July 2 and 4, jumping off this news, Politico’s team produced seven pieces which pretty much gave readers everything they needed to know about the employer mandate, but likely didn’t know before the July 2 delay. (Granted, Politico— along with Politico Pro—has a lot of health policy knowledge and peoplepower). Hours after the announcement, Politico reporters got up two quick-react stories: a short post quoting White House adviser Valerie Jarrett who said “we are listening” to business; and, a straightforward “6 Questions about the Obamacare mandate”.

Another fast-react piece featured comments from GOP pols like Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso who called the delay a “cynical political ploy to delay the coming train wreck associated with Obamacare until after the 2014 elections.” Politico Pro also wrote about the (predictable) reaction from business groups delighted with the delay but warning that more provisions may need fixing. “We don’t want to forget there are significant changes needed in the law, so long term we are still going to pursue those,” said Judith Thorman, a lobbyist for the International Franchise Association.

The real standout in Politico’s coverage was a trio of pieces that got beyond the obvious headlines and revealed how the business community worked cooperatively, strategically, and with meticulous planning to push for the postponement. Their campaign left hardly a doubt about what Yale political scientist Charles Lindblom once called the privileged position of American business and its lobbying clout. You got that message quickly in the lede of a revealing July 4 piece by Joanne Kenen and Paige Winfield Cunningham which told how Ron Pollack—the head of the advocacy group Families USA, and, per Politico, “one of the White House’s closest allies on Obamacare” as well as the media’s go-to guy when they wanted a consumer quote—did not even get a heads up from the administration about the delay. Kenen and Cunningham noted that “some of the business lobbyists who had urged the administration to push back its rules” were likewise unprepared for the announcement last Tuesday. But the vice president of one business group told Politico that “we certainly felt like we were making headway” in what Politico described as a “coordinated campaign to convince senior White House officials that their date for requiring coverage was simply impractical.”

Another July 4 piece by David Nather offered more insight into White House think and illustrated what it described as “just one more piece of evidence that the administration is perfectly willing to bend the rules for some powerful interests—a welcome invitation for other players to raise their hands in the coming months.” Who may be next in line to get a reprieve? Nather fingered the hospitals which are worried the delay might be troubling for those workers who won’t get coverage from their employers until 2015. Hospitals have troubles of their own. You see, they are facing a cut in payments to cover the cost of treating the uninsured. The healthcare reform law assumed that with more of the uninsured covered, hospitals would have less charity care and fewer collection headaches. So crafters of the law eliminated some extra payments to some hospitals that cared for the poor. What’s the hospitals’ favored solution to these potential cuts? Why, a delay, of course.

On July 3, Nather’s colleague Alex Isenstadt tackled the politics of postponing the mandate and outlined what the GOP and the Dems think they can get out of this unexpected turn in the Obamacare saga. Basically, each sees an advantage. Isenstadt reported that the delay “denies Republicans powerful anecdotes they can use against the Democrats.” Think: restaurant owner, eking out a living in a tiny town, laying off a couple of dish washers. Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant, told Isenstadt that the stumbles and delays in implementing Obamacare—and there have been a number of them—are “the gift that just keeps on giving.” That’s exactly what Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said right before passage of the Affordable Care Act, when Anthem Blue Cross—a subsidiary of the giant insurer, WellPoint—raised rates 39 percent in California. That increase gave the pols one more reason to push the bill toward passage. Some Dems, on the other hand, see a “distinct upside in the delay,” per Politico. That is, they might avoid talking about healthcare reform (or, at least, the employer mandate) in the mid-term elections. Still, the politics of delay breed uncertainty, which is unsettling. “It’s never fun for us to have to deal with the unknown,” one Democratic strategist told Politico.

One thing that is known: the healthcare reform story will continue to be—for reporters, too—the gift that just keeps on giving. And for this latest plot twist, Politico rose to the occasion with its coverage.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.