Dear journalists, can we please stop calling the ACA Obamacare?

Published on
October 31, 2017

I can recall few times in which the United States has been more polarized, and even fewer times in which the media has been under such attack and scrutiny from those in prominent positions of authority. The following is intended to be neither an attack, nor scrutiny — but merely a strong suggestion: Can we please stop referring to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as Obamacare?

With the lives of so many millions who depend on our health care system at stake, journalists are shouldering a huge responsibility to educate the public and illuminate areas of injustice that would otherwise go unseen. They are doing yeoman’s work. Are the semantics of our current health care system really that important in the grand scheme of things? Yes.

What’s in a name?

Obamacare is now a ubiquitous term used when discussing health care in the U.S. Indeed, even former President Obama himself embraced it. However, most Americans clearly don’t understand that Obamacare and the ACA are one and the same.

In a poll by NBC News, a majority of registered voters in Kentucky who were asked about health care had a negative view of “Obamacare,” but just 22 percent had an unfavorable view of “Kynect,” the state’s exchange created out of the ACA — even though they are fundamentally the same thing. Perception matters.  

More recently, a Morning Consult poll found that one-third of Americans don’t realize that Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing.

Furthermore, the most vociferous opponents of the ACA have used “Obamacare” as a pejorative term for so many years now that it has become a demeaning and condescending synonym that helps justify the resistance to any attempts at stabilizing or improving it.

That is why it would be so much more beneficial to our collective understanding as a nation of voters and consumers of health care if we achieve this seemingly minor semantic victory.

And the role of the journalist is vital in this mission.

I’ve had conversations about this with reputable, intelligent journalists who have admitted to grappling with the same dilemma. “Do we use ‘Obamacare,’ adding fuel to the polarizing fire because the term is more widely recognizable? Or do we begin to phase it out since it has now become bigger than any one administration, and the term could potentially stymie progress?” they ask. I trust that there has been heated debate in many newsrooms on this very topic.

Why it matters

As the CEO of the largest publicly operated health plan in the U.S., I’m writing on behalf of the lives of millions of Americans who deserve access to affordable, quality health care. We manage the care of 2.1 million primarily low-income Los Angeles County residents, and many of them have benefitted from various aspects of the ACA. Most also stood to lose so much with each new iteration of proposed repeals.

For those of us whose lives are devoted to providing access to quality health care for people regardless of their economic situation, the ACA, while imperfect, created an opportunity for millions of our friends, neighbors and family members to have access to care and peace of mind that they would not be bankrupted by a major health issue.

I have personally seen the positive impact that has been made in the lives of individuals we are charged to protect, but make no mistake, I have also seen the challenges that remain with the ACA. There is undoubtedly more work that remains to be done to make our system more accessible, while improving the quality of care and becoming more streamlined and cost-effective. It will help those of us who are trying to make legitimate improvements to the ACA if it is not politicized every time it is referenced. Phasing out the use of Obamacare is a step in that direction.

In a world of fake news and polarizing rhetoric, we can do better, and it starts by choosing our words wisely.