No one is happier with Kathleen Sebelius' resignation as Health and Human Services secretary than Kathleen Sebelius. After years of implementing the Obama administration's complex, signature piece of law, it is now time to relax and play a little golf, or give well-compensated speeches, or become a lobbyist -- whatever. Anything else will be better. Treat yourself to a sit-down and a peach schnapps, Kathleen.
One notch down on the list of happiest, we find members of the Republican Party, who intend to use the upcoming Senate confirmation hearing of Office of Management and Budget chief Sylvia Mathews Burwell to replace Sebelius as an opportunity to smoke out the truth on the perceived failure of the Affordable Care Act. "Republicans," Politico writes, "hope to turn Sylvia Mathews Burwell’s nomination to run the Department of Health and Human Services ... into a proxy war over Obamacare." The confirmation "presents an ideal opportunity to examine the failures that are Obamacare," Sen. Ted Cruz notes. Obamacare will be put on trial, in the greatest political show this fair country has ever witnessed. And in the end ... the Affordable Care Act will continue existing and Democrats will probably easily muster the now-50 votes they need to break a filibuster.
But what arguments do Republicans hope to make, exactly? Because the grounds supporting their chief claim -- that Obamacare has been an "unmitigated disaster," to put it in the words of every Republican who's spoken on the issue thus far -- are receding as more and more numbers trickle out. If Burwell does her preparation, what Republicans hope will be an ambush may turn into the administration's best public opportunity yet to spread word of the law's successes.
The GOP continues to think it can erase reports of millions of uninsured people getting insurance, at affordable rates, through its strategy of deeming any and all positive statistics as "cooked." Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, in particular, wins a creativity award for her remarks this weekend linking the Burwell selection to the overall fakeness of the administration's "numbers." Burwell is quick with numbers, Blackburn notes -- not as a compliment, as it's usually meant when describing a nominee to lead a Cabinet department, but as an indication that the administration intends to use this mystical numerate facility of Burwell's to help them "spin the numbers":
Rep. Marsha Blackburn called Burwell an "interesting choice,” suggesting the Obama administration sought out a replacement who could manipulate the numbers on the Affordable Care Act's solvency.
"I think there are many of us, and probably a bit of a growing consensus, that they know they've got a math problem with Obamacare, and the numbers are not going to work out so that the program is actuarially sound. And they're going to have to have somebody to kind of spin the numbers," the Tennessee Republican said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"With Burwell coming from OMB, I think they are expecting her to be able to do for them," she said, adding that Sebelius' resignation doesn't mean the end of GOP's fight to repeal the law.
But just because Blackburn and her colleagues think there's "probably a bit of a growing consensus" that this program is about to go bust doesn't make it so. If one were to stick a finger in the wind, in fact, you'd probably discover there's "a bit of a growing consensus" around the opposite conclusion.
Blackburn spoke on Sunday, so her interviewer didn't have the opportunity to gauge her reaction to the Congressional Budget Office's latest report on the Affordable Care Act. The CBO, in collaboration with the Joint Committee on Taxation, "project that 12 million more nonelderly people will have health insurance in 2014 than would have had it in the absence of the ACA. They also project that 19 million more people will be insured in 2015, 25 million more will be insured in 2016, and 26 million more will be insured each year from 2017 through 2024 than would have been the case without the ACA." These coverage figures are upward revisions from CBO's last estimate. And it will all come at a cheaper price, too: "The agencies now project a net cost of $36 billion for 2014, $5 billion less than the previous projection for the year; and $1,383 billion for the 2015–2024 period, $104 billion less than the previous projection." (As CBO clarifies, "Those estimates address only the insurance coverage provisions of the ACA, which do not generate all of the act's budgetary effects. Many other provisions, on net, are expected to reduce budget deficits.") And the lower net costs of the ACA stem from the fact that insurance plans being offered are cheaper than what the CBO had originally projected them to be.
On top of what CBO says -- that the ACA is providing coverage for 12 million more than otherwise would have had it in 2014 alone, for cheaper than expected -- a number of early surveys suggest that the numbers don't lie: between 5 and 10 or so million, on average, have already picked up coverage.
These projections and estimates are early, and soft, but even as they harden, it's highly unlikely that they won't show millions of people gaining insurance and insurance companies being able to manage their books all the same. The commonly held impression among Republicans that the White House is preparing the number-spinning show of the century for Burwell's confirmation hearing doesn't hold much water anymore: There are real, unspun, positive numbers rising to the surface each day, and all Burwell has to do is repeat them to her inquisitors. This may not quite be the dirty-secret-extracting forum ACA scolds so giddily expect.