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On the heels of his latest Supreme Court victory, President Barack Obama visited Tennessee Wednesday touting his signature health care plan — a victory lap that signals his focus has shifted to changing the national conversation from repealing the law to ways to improve it.
“With the Supreme Court case now behind us…I’m hoping what we can do is focus on how we can make it even better, because it’s not as if we’ve solved all the problems in our health care system,” Obama told a group of medical professionals at an elementary School in Tennessee. “America still spends more on health care than any other advanced nation and our outcomes aren’t particularly better. And so we know there is still a lot of waste in the system, we know that the quality of care isn’t always where it needs to be.”
Hoping for a collective, bipartisan effort across the country, the president says his focus is now on lessons learned, further improvements to the law, support to medical professionals, and options to encourage preventative care for individuals across the country.
His comments come after the Supreme Court ruling last week which denied a challenge to the law that would have jeopardized coverage for millions of Americans. The 6-3 landmark decision upheld federal financial assistance to millions of low-income Americans for health insurance premiums, no matter where they live.
“I’m feeling pretty good about how health care is going,” Obama said. “And the thing I’ve never lost sight of is that this is about people, not politics, not Washington, it’s about families and loved ones and the struggle and fear that comes about when you’ve got serious illness.”
Tennessee was a significant place to make a first stop on his victory lap.
In December, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, got the deal he wanted from the Obama administration: Tennessee would accept more than $1 billion in federal funding to expand Medicaid, as allowed for in the Affordable Care Act, but Obama aides would allow Haslam to essentially write staunchly conservative ideas into the program's rules for the state. He dubbed the reformed Medicaid program "Insure Tennessee."
Haslam's bill died in a committee of the Tennessee state senate. The vote was one of the clearest illustrations of the increasing power of Americans for Prosperity, the national conservative group whose foundation is chaired by controversial billionaire David Koch and other conservative groups funded in part by the Koch brothers.
On Wednesday, Obama seemed hopeful, “I’d like to see some good sense spring forth from the good state of Tennessee!”
The topic of extending Medicaid to low-income individuals was not part of the president’s remarks, despite Haslam’s failed efforts through Insure Tennessee to extend Medicaid to some 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.
“The point is, this is not an abstract thing anymore,” Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden last week after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the law. “This is not a set of political talking points. For all the misinformation campaigns, all the doomsday predictions, all the talk of death panels and job destruction, for all the repeal attempts — this law is now helping tens of millions of Americans.”
The president’s appearance is an effort to “capitalize on the Supreme Court ruling and sense of inevitability and help these Republican governors push back against the party,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“There’s two groups of Republicans. There are some who are still going to oppose this as long as they can regardless of the facts on the ground and there are some Republicans, including these Republican governors who say it’s time to sign on to this,” Zelizer said.
Ultimately, gaining support on the state level could help create pressure on national leaders to accept the Affordable Care Act, political science experts said.
However, the upcoming presidential election could upend matters.
“There’s very little chance that much will change on the ACA front during President Obama’s term. Obama has secured the program for now. As long as a Democrat wins the White House or Democrats win the Senate, Obamacare will continue to be safe,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “But if Republicans win the White House in 2016, things will change. A presidential victory probably guarantees a continued Senate majority, and the Republicans almost certainly will win the House again. While it won’t be easy, I’d expect the new GOP president to quickly push through at least a couple of major changes to Obamacare.”
In the meantime, as he wrapped up the town-hall style event in Tennessee, Obama talked up the law’s benefits for everyone — even those who don’t support his administration’s efforts.
“In some ways, health care is a good metaphor for a lot of the problems we have, we spend money on things we don’t need and neglect the things we don’t,” the president said. “The reason that dealing with this health care issue is so important is so that people have at least a stable base from which to then focus on all the other issues they’ve got to focus on in their lives.”