Two new polls from Pew Research and NBC News/Wall Street are predictably prompting two very different reactions among supporters and foes of the Affordable Care Act. While the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff laments, "Americans are very, very confused about the Obamacare," Patrick Brennan of the National Review crowed, "Pew finds people dislike Obamacare so much they might even trust Republicans now."
But conservatives might want to control their glee before they fall to an embarrassing bout of premature exhilaration. As the poll record shows, the Medicare Part D prescription drug program that now enjoys 90 percent support was even more unpopular when the Bush administration launched it in than Obamacare is today.
The headlines in late 2005 and early 2006 tell the tale. The launch of the enrollment period for 43 million seniors to use their new drug benefit to purchase prescription coverage from private insurers was met with stories like "Medicare prescription drug plan stump seniors" (USA Today), "Officials' pitch for drug plan meets skeptics" (New York Times), "Medicare drug plan still not generating much enthusiasm" and "majority of Americans say drug plan is not working" (Gallup). As Kliff explained earlier this year, "Part D was less popular than Obamacare when it launched":
Eight years ago, the federal government rolled out Medicare Part D, a prescription drug benefit. For the first time ever, Medicare was launching a benefit administered exclusively through private health insurance plans. The benefit was not popular: In the spring of 2005, when enrollment efforts ramped up, polls showed Medicare Part D to be less popular than the Affordable Care Act. Fewer Americans felt they understood how it worked, too...
Neither was especially popular in the months prior to their launch. Part D was even less liked: 21 percent of the public had a favorable opinion of the program in April 2005 compared to 35 percent in April 2013 for the Affordable Care Act.
Looking back on it, the public's turnaround from initial rejection to growing support for Part D was understandable. The unfunded $400 billion program that President Bush signed into law in December 2003 was needlessly complex for seniors and unnecessarily expensive for taxpayers. Rather than having the government negotiate prices directly with pharmaceutical firms and add drug coverage into the traditional Medicare program, President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress instead gave recipients subsidies to purchase plans from private insurers. Making matters worse, millions of "dual eligible" already receiving drug coverage from Medicaid had to switch to the new scheme, a process that left millions unable to pay for their prescriptions for weeks in early 2006.
Bur for tens of millions of American seniors, Part D was better than the alternative: nothing.