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2013 may be the most significant year in health care policy ever.

But we have to get through 2012 first.

Once the 2012 election results are in there will be the very real opportunity to address a long list of health care issues.

If Republicans win, the top of the list will include “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act. If Obama is reelected, but Republicans capture both houses of Congress, we can still expect a serious effort to change the law. Then there is the granddaddy of all problems, the federal debt. The 2012 elections could well prepare the way for entitlement reform—particularly for Medicare and Medicaid. Even if Obama is reelected, the 2013 agenda will include a serious debate about Republican ideas to change Medicare into a premium support system and block grant Medicaid to the states.

If the election is a draw with neither side able to unilaterally move their agenda—likely in the form of Obama still in the White House but facing a Republican Congress, the pressure to deal with the growing costs of Medicare and Medicaid as well as nagging concerns about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act will create an imperative for action in 2013.

That first year after a presidential election is the time when things can get done. After a long and drawn out campaign, that is the year that everyone expects action. With 2014 being another election-year and 2015 and 2016 years in the run-up to another four-year presidential election cycle, passing big legislation only becomes more difficult as time goes on.

What does this mean for 2012? Look for most health care action to be out on the campaign trail as both sides try to achieve a mandate to act in 2013.

That doesn’t mean 2012 won’t be short on drama.

The big show will be up at the Supreme Court starting in late March. Will the Supremes uphold the whole Affordable Care Act, tell everyone to come back in 2014 when someone is actually harmed by the individual mandate (citing the Anti-Injunction Act), throw the individual mandate out and send the law back to lower courts for a many months process deciding what else has to go, toss the Medicaid expansion, or some combination of all of the above?

About the only certain judicial path over whether and how the Affordable Care Act would be implemented is for the Court to uphold the whole thing. The alternatives could be any number of combinations that would present the market with a nothing short of an implementation nightmare.

Can you even imagine the run-up to full implementation on January 1, 2014 if President Obama were to be reelected, the Republicans were to capture both houses of Congress, and the Court overturned the individual mandate and any number of related items? The law would have to be fixed. A Republican Congress would want to “fix” it one way and Obama would be determined not to see the Affordable Care Act gutted, with neither side able to unilaterally advance a solution.

Or, we could have a majority of Republicans in the Congress, and a Republican President in the White House, that would certainly kill at least the budget related parts of the bill before Valentine’s Day 2013 no matter what the Court said—it would take 60 votes in the Senate to get rid of all of the law. That would leave a market that had already implemented the first elements of the law and was almost ready to implement the rest of a long list of huge new changes that would have just evaporated but still leaving some of the law’s items dangling if the two sides couldn’t find a way to work together.

Or, the Court could throw out the individual mandate and the related insurance elements of the new law with a Republican Congress and President eager to throw out the rest of it, needing only 51 Senate votes to get virtually all that was left.

Will the Supreme Court throw a wrench into the Affordable Care Act? I have no idea and I don’t see any evidence anyone else does either. The chances they could throw out the mandate and other key parts of the law look to be about as good as their upholding the whole thing or citing the Anti-Injunction Act in telling everyone to come back in 2014. Don’t underestimate the Court’s interest in not fiddling with the Anti-Injunction Act any more or less than any other part of the law they are going to review.

The first half of 2012 will be the quiet before the potential storm as we await the Supreme Court’s decisions.

If they uphold the law we will need to await the election. With Republicans poised to hold the House and capture the Senate, the real question looks to be whether President Obama will be reelected and therefore able to defend the Affordable Care Act with his veto pen.

If the Court throws out key moving parts in the law, the only way to avoid real market problems will be for the 2013 Congress and President to work together.

If this spring the Court cites the Anti-Injunction Act and tells both sides to come back in 2014, we will just have more uncertainty with nothing decided and the same Constitutional issues still festering.

And, then there are the still growing federal debt and the Medicare and Medicaid entitlement issues to be decided. The 2012 elections are setting up to be a referendum over Republican proposals to limit federal entitlement liabilities by implementing a Medicare premium support system as well as shifting responsibility for Medicaid to the states via block grants versus Democrats who will defend the traditional structure of these entitlements.

What will 2012 give us in 2013?

Robert Laszweski has been a fixture in Washington health policy circles for the better part of three decades. He currently serves as the president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates of Alexandria, Virginia. Before forming HPSA in 1992, Robert served as the COO, Group Markets, for the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. You can read more of his thoughtful analysis of healthcare industry trends at The Health Policy and Marketplace Blog, where this post first appeared.

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5 Responses for “2012: A Year of Huge Uncertainty in Health Care Policy”

  1. Jonathan H says:

    The juxtaposition of 2012 and 2013 is good, but I would say that whether 2013 shapes up to be one of the most important years of health care policy or of health care implementation depends on the Supreme Court and the November elections. The Democrats are hoping it will be a big year for implementation, while the Republicans are hoping for policy.

    With that in mind, I don’t know where you get this idea: “With Republicans poised to hold the House and capture the Senate…” The last data I saw indicated it was very unclear who would hold the House, and no one is likely to have more than a bare majority in the Senate in the new 60 vote era. You seem to think the odds that a Democratic president will face a unified Republican Congress to be much higher than I do. I’d bet Romney’s $10,000 that at least one house of Congress is under Democratic control in 2013.

    The big source of uncertainty for me is the Supreme Court. Huge source of uncertainty.

  2. Jonathan H says:

    BobbyG, I’m with Bob L in thinking this is all sheer speculation. What are your sources?

  3. I too believe it is way too much speculation and that we are giving way too much credit to the Republicans at this time as to their ability to hold both the House and the Senate.

  4. Chris Luke says:

    I think second half of 2012 will definitely gonna be good. Saying anything now will definitely be early. Agree with @Ludmilla Wikkeling-Scott, that it is way too much speculation. Let’s see what elections brings out.

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