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Are press depictions of Affordable Care Act beneficiaries favorable to policy durability?

  • Jacqueline Chattopadhyay (a1)

Background: If successfully implemented and enduring, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) stands to expand health insurance access in absolute terms, reduce inter-group disparities in that access, and reduce exposure to the financial vulnerabilities illness entails. Its durability—meaning both avoidance of outright retrenchment and fidelity to its policy aims—is thus of scholarly interest. Past literature suggests that social constructions of a policy’s beneficiaries may impact durability.

Questions: This paper first describes media portrayals of ACA beneficiaries with an eye toward answering three descriptive questions: (1) Do portrayals depict beneficiaries as economically heterogeneous? (2) Do portrayals focus attention on groups that have acquired new political relevance due to the ACA, such as young adults? (3) What themes that have served as messages about beneficiary “deservingness” in past social policy are most frequent in ACA beneficiary portrayals? The paper then assesses how the portrayal patterns that these questions uncover may work both for and against the ACA’s durability, finding reasons for confidence as well as caution.

Methods: Using manual and automated methods, this paper analyzes newspaper text from August 2013 through January 2014 to trace portrayals of two ACA “target populations” before and during the new law’s first open-enrollment period: those newly eligible for Medicaid, and those eligible for subsidies to assist in the purchase of private health insurance under the ACA. This paper also studies newspaper text portrayals of two groups informally crafted by the ACA in this timeframe: those gaining health insurance and those losing it.

Results: The text data uncover the following answers to the three descriptive questions for the timeframe studied: (1) Portrayals may underplay beneficiaries’ economic heterogeneity. (2) Portrayals pay little attention to young adults. (3) Portrayals emphasize themes of workforce participation, economic self-sufficiency, and insider status. Health status, age, gender, and race/ethnicity appear to receive little attention.

Implications and Conclusions: Existing literature suggests that these portrayal patterns may both support and limit ACA durability. In favor of durability is that ACA beneficiaries are depicted in terms that have been associated with deservingness in past American social policy—particularly being cast as workers and insiders. Yet, the results also give three reasons for caution. First, ACA insurance-losers are also portrayed as deserving. Second, it is unclear how the portrayal patterns found may impact the durability of the ACA’s efforts to cut insurance disparities by age, health status, and especially race/ethnicity. Third, portrayals’ strong casting of beneficiaries as workers, and limited attention to beneficiaries’ economic heterogeneity and to young adults, may do little to help cultivate beneficiary political engagement around the ACA.

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Corresponding author
Correspondence: Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28223. Email:
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