In 4th CD, a two-sided debate over health care reform

With the public still deeply divided over health care reform and some pundits saying it’s politically toxic, it’s hard to find any Democrat in a competitive re-election race who is talking up the new law. Except, that is, in Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District.

Rep. Jim Himes, the Democratic incumbent facing state Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton, has not shied away from his vote in favor of health care reform. Himes mentioned it, albeit obliquely, in one of his early TV ads, and last week the freshman congressman sought to draw attention to Debicella’s call for repeal of the health care overhaul.

Debicella, too, seems to be taking a slightly different tack on the health reform than some his Republican counterparts. While he has embraced the GOP’s vow to repeal the law, Debicella has a few caveats that go with that campaign pledge.

To be clear, neither candidate is making health care reform the No. 1 issue of the campaign. Both say they talk about jobs and the economy far more often. But health care is still playing a significant role, as voters sort out the impact of the law and as Himes and Debicella seek to define each other in the final weeks of the campaign.

In other contested House and Senate campaigns around the country, the only Democrats talking about the health reform law are those who voted “No,” proudly touting their opposition to a key Democratic accomplishment. Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to make the health overhaul symbol of Democrats’ “Big Government” agenda, labeling the law “Obamacare.”

“Few Democrats are talking about health care reform proactively, even in the muted way that Congressman Himes is doing,” said Frederick Yang, a Democratic pollster who is working for congressional candidates across the Midwest and the South this election.  “I think especially this year, Democrats are trying to run localized campaigns, and this is clearly a national issue.”

But across the 4th District’s politically and economically diverse terrain, voters are still talking and thinking about the overhaul.

Katherine Homberger, of Norwalk, says she’ll vote Republican this midterm election because the health care bill seems unreasonable to her. “I think it’s too expensive,” she said. “How are they going to pay for it?”

Another Norwalk resident, Edward Olius, said he backs the law unequivocally. “I have insurance, but [other] people don’t. How can we not help these people, who can’t even get in to see doctors?”

Debicella said it’s usually the second or third issue to come up in his conversations on the campaign trail. For his part, Himes said he has raised it in part because many voters are still so uncertain of what was in the health care bill, and how it will affect them.

Even so, both candidates seem to be treading carefully on health care, while accusing each other of distorting the real impact of the law.

Himes, for example, does not offer a full-throated endorsement. While the law’s provisions to expand coverage to the uninsured and to crack down on insurance industry abuses are very strong, Himes said, he’s not sure how well the cost-containment measures will work.

“I have always been very upfront with my critiques of the plan, and there’s lots of uncertainty,” Himes said. “It’s going to be up to us to implement the cost-savings measures over time.”

But whatever the law’s flaws, Himes said, he thinks his constituents would rather see Congress improve the law than repeal it.

And his campaign clearly saw a political advantage in focusing on the more immediate elements of health care law last week, when several of the insurance industry reforms went into effect. Those included a ban on insurance companies’ ability to deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions, allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, and a prohibition on life-time caps on insurance coverage.

“Dan Debicella wants to REPEAL those reforms,” blared an email from the Himes campaign.

Debicella says that’s not true. Yes, he supports scrapping much of the health care law, but not all of it. He specifically supports keeping those new protections, which he said Democrats timed to go on the books just before the election.

The elements Debicella opposes would not come into play, for the most part, until 2014. Those include the mandate that individuals purchase insurance, the federal subsidies to help cover the cost, and the new health exchanges where people will be able to shop for their insurance plans.

Debicella argues that the subsidies and other measures will hurt the vast majority of Americans who already have private insurance, just to help the few who do not–an argument Himes’ sharply rejects.

“The biggest thing I hear [from voters] is that they don’t like the law because they don’t think it’s going to help them, and these are middle class folks,” Debicella said. “There’s a better way to focus on cost reduction.”

Debicella said he would fully back Republican efforts to de-fund implementation of the law and block regulations that he sees as harmful. But, he added, “I prefer the word replace,” not repeal, when explaining his position. His substitute proposals include a tax credit to individuals to encourage the use of preventive medicine; tort reform to rein in the cost of medical malpractice insurance for doctors; and more use of low-cost programs like Connecticut’s Charter Oak Plan.

How voters sort out these differences, and how  much weight they give health care in this election, remains to be seen. Polls show an intensely partisan and deep split on law, along with a significant dose of confusion.

Yang, the pollster, said Himes’s strategy of proactively raising the issue could help gin up the Democratic base in his district. But, he added, given the strong association between health reform and President Barack Obama, along with Obama’s sinking popularity, it’s not without risk.