Could Obamacare actually rise from the ashes after the embarrassing website debacle? It's certainly possible. Here are three signs that could point to better days ahead for the beleaguered health reform legislation.
1. Public opinion not getting much worse
Granted, this one seems pretty lame on the surface. But there is a glimmer of good news for Obamacare in the most recent public opinion poll conducted by CNBC.
Nearly twice as many Americans view Obamacare in a negative light than have a favorable opinion -- 47% to 26%. How could that even remotely be construed as good news for the White House? Look at the delta -- not the river variety, but the change in the survey results.
Since September, the number of respondents in the CNBC poll with unfavorable opinions about Obamacare has only increased by 1%. Similarly, the percentage viewing the law favorably has dropped by just three points from 29% in September. Yes, these are still horrible results. However, considering the overwhelmingly bad publicity from the major website problems, the relatively minor shift in public opinion could be seen as a positive sign for Obamacare.
2. Celebrities singing praises instead of parodies
Not too long ago, the entertainment industry openly mocked Obamacare. Saturday Night Live went after the website woes with gusto. Country music stars Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood made fun of the law in a song called "Obamacare By Morning" on the Country Music Association awards show.
Now, though, some celebrities are actively helping to promote Obamacare. Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine tweeted his 4.7 million Twitter followers last week, encouraging Californians to sign up for insurance on the state's website. Several other famous actors and sports figures -- including George Lopez, Marlon Wayans, and Lisa Leslie -- are also helping spread the word about enrolling in Obamacare plans.
Of course, California's state health exchange didn't have nearly as many problems as the HealthCare.gov website. And the problems California did have weren't as severe as the federally operated marketplace. Still, celebrity endorsements (as opposed to celebrity derision) is an improvement. If those plugs help push more young people to sign up for Obamacare, it could be a really good sign for the program.
3. Advertising in a big way
Perhaps the biggest positive news for Obamacare stems from the big money flowing into advertising. According to The Wall Street Journal, WellPoint (NYSE:ANTM) is planning to spend as much as $100 million on advertising -- by the the end of the year.
Health Care Service Corporation, which owns Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, is also gearing up an advertising blitz for its Obamacare plans. The nation's fourth-largest health insurer is targeting billboards, direct mail, Internet, radio, and television channels to get the word out.
If things weren't getting better for Obamacare, these and other insurers wouldn't be so eager to shell out the big bucks on marketing. Money talks -- and it seems to be saying that things are looking better than they have in a while for health reform.
HealthCare.gov appears to be working alright for the most part. The drop in public approval could be bottoming out. Obamacare is getting help from friends in Hollywood and the insurance industry. All positive signs -- but that doesn't guarantee a full recovery.
A lot could still go wrong, particularly with the back-end functionality that is invisible to website users. And while enrollment numbers are improving, they're still not even close to where they need to be for Obamacare to be considered a success.
Maybe the biggest risk, though, is that the caution shown by two of the biggest insurers in the country proves to be prescient. UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH) CEO Stephen Hemsley led his company to hold back from participating too widely in state exchanges. Hemsley expressed concerns earlier in 2013 that the initial wave of enrollees in Obamacare could be less healthy -- and therefore more costly to insure.
After the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov, Aetna (NYSE:AET) CEO Mark Bertolini voiced similar worries. Bertolini wondered aloud if too few young, healthy Americans would sign up for health insurance. Like UnitedHealth, Aetna limited its participation in the Obamacare exchanges.
If more serious technical problems are avoided and plenty of healthy individuals enroll, Obamacare could rise from the ashes like the mythical phoenix. If not, the resurgence that some think is under way could end up more like another character from Greek mythology: Icarus, whose flight ended quite tragically.