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How Much Political Coverage of the Health-Care Law Is Too Much?

This was published as a Wall Street Journal Think Tank column on June 5, 2014.

With primaries underway and the midterms approaching, coverage of the Affordable Care Act will increasingly focus on politics. Many political reporters may take temporary control of the health-care beat during the leadup to November. News organizations should consider: How much Affordable Care Act political coverage is too much?

Already, the public says that coverage of the ACA is mostly about politics rather than what the law means for people. The question Americans most want answered is not how much the ACA mattered in some Senate or House race but: What does the law mean for me and my family? Almost half of Americans say they still cannot answer that question.
The news media are most people’s main source of information about the ACA, ahead of family and friends, doctors, or social media. Editors face a balancing act as they decide what stories to assign, how much space or time to devote to an ACA political story vs. a human story, or what the mix should be in any given health-care story.
And the Affordable Care Act’s role in the midterms may be somewhat overblown as a political story. The health law is likely to be the No. 2 issue, behind the economy, in exit polls of most races. But issues are only one factor motivating voters. A voter’s view of the candidates matters even more, and local issues often trump national ones. Because motivated voters turn out in midterm elections, and Republicans feel more strongly about the health law than do Democrats, the ACA may help drive Republicans to the polls. But it’s not clear how much the ACA will affect turnout in November. Nor do we know the ACA’s staying power as a political issue or as a national proxy for the larger debate about the role of government. Will it even be called “Obamacare” after 2016?
Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act represents a sweeping change in health insurance that will affect tens of millions of Americans and institutions people care about, including hospitals, clinics and employers in local communities, as well as affecting the federal budget and the economy.
As the midterms approach the ACA’s political story should be told, but it should not trump the people story Americans want to hear about most of all.

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.