Faced with a politically embarrassing fiasco — Obamacare — the administration’s defenders have turned to an unlikely source for hope that all may not be lost. Steve Beshear, the Democratic governor of Kentucky, a state Mitt Romney won by 22 points, has been singled out for praise in light of the relative success of Kentucky’s state-run health-care exchange. He has become a darling of the MSNBC crowd and a “beaming” Nancy Pelosi recently hosted him on Capitol Hill. However, the Kentucky success story appears to be just the latest in a long line of Obamacare distortions.
To begin with, Beshear implemented Obamacare in Kentucky by circumventing the state legislature via executive order, insisting that it was the “right thing to do” and that the people of Kentucky supported his action.
Polling suggests otherwise. One survey conducted in late October, weeks after the exchange went online, found that while Beshear is personally popular, only 25 percent of Kentucky residents have a favorable opinion of Obamacare; 65 percent have an unfavorable opinion. The law polls slightly better when it’s called the “Affordable Care Act,” but it’s still underwater, by a 31–48 margin. Only 37 percent said Kentucky is moving in the right direction, compared with 46 percent who said the state is on the wrong track.
Just last week, voters in western Kentucky’s seventh state-house district had the opportunity to weigh in via a special election to replace a Democratic member who resigned in September. They narrowly elected Republican Suzanne Miles, a result that took both parties by surprise, especially the GOP. Democrats had held the seat for decades, and they enjoyed a significant registration advantage. Republicans are now just five seats shy of controlling the state house for the first time since 1921.
State Republicans attribute the win to Miles’s decision to highlight her opposition to Obamacare’s implementation. In the closing weeks of her campaign against Kim Humphrey, who was endorsed by Beshear and who had praised the governor’s Obamacare decision as “the right move,” Miles focused on the Obamacare debacle. Her campaign ran ads touting her as “the only candidate who supports a full repeal of Obamacare,” a message reinforced by anti-Obamacare robocalls from Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.).
National Democrats have sought to utilize Beshear’s relatively smooth rollout of the Kentucky exchange in their campaign to unseat Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) in 2014, but McConnell’s challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, has been reluctant to embrace Obamacare on a federal or state level. When a local reporter asked the Grimes campaign on Monday why the candidate has thus far declined to join her fellow Democrats in praising the Kentucky exchange, her advisers responded with a canned statement acknowledging that “there are parts of the Affordable Care Act that need to be fixed.” Representative John Yarmuth, Kentucky’s lone Democrat in Congress, has said that Grimes’s refusal to take a firm position on the law was “smart politics.”
He’s probably right. In November, the Kentucky Department of Insurance predicted that some 280,000 individual and small-group policies would be discontinued as a result of Obamacare. The state may have been spared many of the problems plaguing the federal health-care exchange, but it was not immune to President Obama’s “Lie of the Year” that individuals who liked their current health plans would be able to keep them
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s strong enrollment numbers, relative to other states, are less impressive on close examination. According to the most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services, Kentucky has enrolled 75,000 people in new health-insurance plans since October 1, making it a top performer among states operating their own exchanges. However, more than two-thirds of the new enrollments are in Medicaid. Experts have warned that such a dramatic expansion of Medicaid, on top of what was already envisioned under Obamacare, could have an enormous financial impact on state budgets.
According to HSS, only 13,145 Kentuckians have actually enrolled in private insurance plans through the exchange. Nor has the Kentucky exchange been able to entice significant numbers of so-called young invincibles (healthier individuals between ages 18 and 35) to sign up, another troubling indicator for Obamacare proponents. The administration has estimated that roughly 40 percent of enrollees in the exchange need to be younger than 35 for the system to work; last month, the figure for Kentucky, a state whose exchange has been relatively free of technical flaws, was less than 20 percent.
Kentucky Democrats, including Beshear, may get a chance to reaffirm their support for Obamacare early next year. Last week, Robert Benvenuti, a Republican state representative, pre-filed legislation that would require the governor, his cabinet, and all 138 members of the General Assembly to purchase health insurance through the exchange — so they can become a part of the “success.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.