An alarming article in Politico.com looks at what could happen if the Supreme Court determines that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate provision is unconstitutional—something that the current conservative leaning of the Court seems to indicate is somewhat more likely than not.
Assuming that such a possible decision by the Court follows that of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in ruling that the mandate is unconstitutional but the remainder of the ACA may stand, the Politico.com article anticipates some potentially disastrous consequences.
The provisions of the ACA—some of them already in force—include guaranteed issue, elimination of annual and lifetime limits, and a ban on basing premiums on health status, essentially decoupling coverage and premiums from insurance risk. Without the requirement for almost everyone to have coverage, there will be nothing to ensure that the risk pool contains a large percentage of individuals in good health as well as those with medical problems, and nothing to stop anyone from waiting until they’re sick or injured to demand coverage.
Without a subsequent change to the ACA, the consequences of full implementation in 2014 with no individual mandate would be dramatic jumps in premium rates in the individual and small group markets. These, in turn, would lead to further drops in enrollment, especially by those least in need of coverage, leading to additional premium increases as all but the sick retreat from the insurance market—the classic adverse selection-fueled death spiral.
As premiums for all but major employers shoot through the roof, those unfortunates who work for marginally-profitable small businesses or, worse still, pay for their own coverage will find insurance either unobtainable—as insurers exit the small group and individual markets—or unaffordable.
In a more politically rational world, a possible high court ruling against the mandate would be followed by Congressional action to modify other parts of the law—for example, by modifying the guaranteed issue provision. However, no-one who watched the cliff-edge battle over the debt limit can be confident that extremists in either party would compromise on any reasonable solution. What’s to stop lawmakers from continuing to refuse to modify their positions regardless of the impact on the insurance market? After all, the ACA is anathema to Republicans, while there are plenty of Democrats who despise the private insurance industry and who might be happy to see it close to collapse.
Even leaving political adversarial issues alone, Democrats will not be eager to renege on their promise that health insurance will be available to anyone, while many Republicans may also hesitate to revoke such an apparently attractive provision for fear of a subsequent electoral backlash.
The Politico.com article doesn’t try to guess the outcome, but it’s hard to be optimistic. A reasonable supposition—given the current inflexible mood in Congress—is that there will be no compromise until the insurance market is on the edge of disaster—or maybe already slipping over that edge. Insurance industry lobbyists are likely to find few votes for a rational solution until there is sufficient public outcry over skyrocketing premiums and cancellations of coverage by carriers abandoning the market to put politicians’ reelection chances at risk.
Roger Collier was formerly CEO of a national health care consulting firm. His experience includes the design and implementation of innovative health care programs for HMOs, health insurers, and state and federal agencies. He is editor of Health Care REFORM UPDATE.