CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The October ritual of checking new health insurance rates has never been fun for Karl Quist, who runs a tech startup. But last year, he said when his rate for a plan through Obamacare tripled, “my first reaction was panic.”
On Facebook, he found hundreds of other MBAs, app developers and self-employed professionals struggling with Charlottesville’s highest-in-the-nation rate hikes.They formed “Charlottesville for Reasonable Health Insurance” on Facebook and collected data, made PowerPoint presentations, demanded meetings with insurance executives, grilled state regulators and even got a bill through the Virginia state legislature making it easier to buy less-expensive small business plans.
But with the new rates coming soon — weeks before voters head to the polls in the midterm elections — consumers are bracing for more pain here and across the country. Insurers in Maryland, New York and Washington have already submitted requests for premium increases averaging 19 percent to 30 percent statewide, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s an October “surprise” that everyone sees coming, including Democrats trying to take back the House and Senate.
An array of state and national progressive groups are already laying the groundwork to attack Republicans for the expected premium increases. Democratic candidates are running ads on health care more than any other issue. And Senate Democrats recently announced plans to devote the month of August to a messaging campaign on health care costs.
“Republicans have backed themselves into a corner,” said Tom Perriello, a Democrat who represented Charlottesville in Congress until he was thrown out of office after voting for the Affordable Care Act in 2010. “Now people are saying keep your hands off my Obamacare.”
In focus groups and polls, Democrats are honing a message that they say will link health care problems to voter skepticism of private insurers, the Republican tax bill and donor influence on policies.
“One argument that has an enormous amount of power with voters is that Trump and the Republicans gave both the insurance companies and the drug companies huge tax cuts — and they’re continuing to jack up people’s costs nevertheless,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
Tim Hogan, a spokesman for liberal group Health Care Voter, said they are preparing a seven-figure ad buy targeting House incumbents who voted for repeal and replace bills last year. The group has collected sign-ups from 600,000 members, who they keep updated with regular news of premium increases and reports linking them to moves by Congress and the White House to weaken Obamacare.
“The efforts from Republicans and Donald Trump to sabotage the health care system are a huge part of this campaign,” he said.
In Charlottesville, the Facebook group’s founders are turning their attention to the elections as well. They’re allying themselves with a Democratic candidate for the area’s open congressional seat — one of four Virginia House races considered highly competitive. Health care is likely to figure prominently in all of them and the state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, has blamed higher rates on the White House’s “active sabotage of the health care system.”