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September 19, 2014

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Beware: Anti-Obamacare scare tactics

Amid the gaudy colors of Broadway show signs in Times Square, one stark and stately nine-story billboard stands out in bold black, white and red: “WARNING: Obamacare may be hazardous to your health.”

Unfortunately, disinformation about Obamacare can be hazardous to our health, too.

The Times Square billboard, posted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, is only one of the more visible signs of an all-out, last-ditch, by-any-means-necessary push by conservatives to undermine the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obamacare’s official name, before it launches Oct. 1.

If making health care affordable to more Americans is good for our health, Heritage’s Times Square billboard is about as well-placed as a furrier in Hawaii.

Its one-line statement does not mention, for example, a July announcement by state insurance regulators that average premium rates in New York under Obamacare will be at least 50 percent lower than those currently available.

Nor does it mention a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a leading nonpartisan health policy organization, that found similar results nationwide. Of the 17 states plus the District of Columbia where data are fully available, Kaiser found the average premium costs to be lower in 15 than the Congressional Budget Office had expected. That sounds pretty healthy, so far.

Heritage should be pleased. The prominent Washington-based think tank developed the individual health care mandate in the late 1980s. Heritage also supported the concept in then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. But in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Heritage turned ferociously against it. So have other conservatives whose last-ditch attempts to scuttle public access to good Obamacare information pose a hazard in themselves to public health.

President Barack Obama is convinced that, once people begin to receive

Obamacare’s benefits, more of them will like it, just as most learned to love Medicare after its birth in 1965. I suspect that he’s right. So do a lot of the plan’s conservative opponents. That’s why they’re waging a full-tilt battle of media campaigns, fundraising operations and reckless disregard for inconvenient facts.

Another example: the “Creepy Uncle Sam” Internet video ads posted by Generation Opportunity — a nonprofit backed by the famously libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, according to The New York Times — to urge young people to “opt out” of the health care law.

With a Burger King-sized head, Creepy Uncle Sam intrudes as young patients in examination rooms await a vaginal exam in one ad and a prostate probe in another. “Don’t let the government play doctor,” says the closing message. “Opt out of Obamacare.” Hidden message: “Kids, we hope you’re stupid.”

It is ironic to me that supposedly patriotic people would turn a symbol as beloved as Uncle Sam into the sort of monstrous caricature that haters of America display. But that’s how our government is viewed by zealots who would tell young people to pay a fine instead of purchasing low-cost health care through an Obamacare exchange.

Less obvious — and more pernicious — than the ad campaigns are efforts by anti-Obamacare politicians and state governments to gum up the “navigators,” counselors whose job is to inform and help people sign up for coverage.

Republicans in Congress have tried to bury these helpers in a mountain of unrealistic demands for paperwork to be produced in a matter of days.

In the states, the Washington Post reports, more than a dozen have imposed licensing rules and other limits on the navigators, encouraged by professional insurance agents and others who lobbied heavily for the restrictions.

Florida’s Department of Health, for example, recently barred local health departments from handing out brochures and other outreach material about the state exchange; the materials will apparently only be distributed if someone asks for it. But aren’t outreach materials by definition aimed to reach those who don’t already know about the program? Hey, you’re catching on.

Small wonder that a majority of Americans still say they either oppose Obamacare or don’t know enough about it to have an opinion. The same people tend to like the program’s features, when they are told about them. No wonder its opponents want to keep us in the dark. Hey, guys, play fair.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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