Why Public Interest Is Cooling in Obamacare as a Political Story


This was published as a Wall Street Journal Think Tank column on Month Day, 2014.

 Last November, when the ACA rollout crisis was at a boil and on the front pages virtually every day, Pew Research Center found that 37% of the American people were following the story “very closely” and 28% “fairly closely,” making the ACA the most closely followed news story that month. November was the high point–or, depending on your perspective, the low point–for the ACA as a news story last year in terms of public attention compared with other issues.

But this year the ACA has dropped as a news story in people’s minds. The Kaiser Family Foundation launched a Health Policy News Index in January that tracks public attention to health policy news stories and how closely people are following health stories compared with other issues in the news. So far this year the high point for the ACA came in May, when 23% followed the enrollment story very closely. That share is far behind other stories in the news this year: the missing Malaysian flight (followed very closely by 43% of the public); recent events in Ferguson, Mo. (40%); the health-care scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs (32%); and the Ebola outbreak (30%). While partisans and experts closely followed stories this summer about ACA premium increases and legal challenges to the ACA’s premium subsidies, these seemingly big stories were closely followed by just 8% and 10% of the American people, respectively.

Of course attention to any issue is affected by what else may be happening at that time. A review of headlines on Google trends shows Obamacare spiking during coverage of the October rollout problems, then falling steadily and rising again around the spring enrollment deadline before flattening out more recently. Meanwhile, coverage of Iraq rose in July and August and no doubt is rising again with the airstrikes in Syria.

A hot debate continues about the ACA among partisans and experts, and health reform news will always resonate with the public because health is an issue that affects people personally. But unless there is a new development that garners media attention like the rollout did, the ACA story seems to be cooling as a front-page and political story, creating space for implementation to move forward less encumbered by constant controversy.

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