Six takeaways on health care hearings

High profile hearings this week on the troubled start to the Obama health law put the White House on the defensive, as Republicans expanded their attacks on the law and seized some political momentum back which had been lost in the fight over the government shutdown.

Here’s some takeaways on what happened and where this fight between Reupblicans in Congress and the White House goes from here:

+ This isn’t about just a web site.

That was the Obama Administration argument last week, that the health law shouldn’t be defined by just the troubled healthcare.gov web site. Unfortunately for the White House, Republicans showed in recent days that this issue definitely is about more than just a bungled internet portal, as they brought in the story line of canceled insurance plans, substantial insurance rate hikes and more. Democrats laid the blame on insurance companies, but that didn’t seem to put out the fire.

But it is about the web site

While Republicans certainly can’t count on healthcare.gov never working, the optics of Secretary Katheleen Sebelius promising that the site would be working soon – while it was showing an error message on the big screen in the hearing room – was a total slam dunk for Republicans. The enrollment and application features were down all day Sunday, Monday morning, Monday night, all day Tuesday and into early Wednesday morning. Sooner or later it gets fixed, but every day wasted is one the White House can’t get back to sign people up for insurance.

Who has the larger supply of health stories?

In the battle over the changes brought about by the Obama health law, there will be winners and losers. The question is, which party is better positioned to take advantage of that? GOP lawmakers repeatedly used the stories of folks back home who were upset by the changes in their insurance plans – especially the cost – and there seem to be no shortage of those tales. Democrats also have feel-good stories of people finally getting insurance – but are they outnumbered here?

Who is leaking and why?

The two days of hearings this week were punctuated by leaks on each day of some insider memos about the health law. One laid bare the Obama Administration prediction that almost 500,000 people would complete the insurance enrollment process just in the month of October – that’s not going to happen. On Wednesday, it was a memo that raised questions about security issues on the healthcare.gov web site and what was done about it before the official rollout on October 1. The leaks were notable to me for one main reason – the Obama Administration has had a tight lid on “bad” stories about the health law from inside the government. That seemed to change this week.

What a change in momentum in the last two weeks

Two weeks ago today, the government shutdown had ended and Democrats felt like they had the high ground politically. But the shutdown almost seems like it never happened as we have swung totally into the showdown over the health law’s troubles. In hearings this week, Democrats routinely mentioned the shutdown, but it sort of rang hollow. New polling data from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a big drop in the President’s numbers, as his job approval rating is at a historic low in that poll – though it also had more bad news for the GOP as well. One thing to think about – the shutdown didn’t hit everyone – health care does.

+The story isn’t ending anytime soon

Democrats probably never dreamed they would be in this position on the President’s health care law as the month of October ended. “If you like it, you can keep it” isn’t going away anytime soon. The tales of people losing insurance may not either. It doesn’t mean that Democrats have to curl up in the corner and admit defeat or anything, but clearly the Obama White House faces a much different political landscape than the day after the shutdown, when Democrats felt pretty good about how they had faced down the GOP – in a fight that centered on funding for the health care law. There will be more hearings next week for Kathleen Sebelius – we’ll see if healthcare.gov is really working by then.