Like many health policy experts, I’ve closely followed and participated in the debate over the Affordable Care Act. I’ve spoken at town hall events, fielded questions from reporters, and discussed the ACA with students, friends, and colleagues.I have been asked a wide range of questions about the ACA, but I am always amazed by the one topic that almost never seems to come up: how the deeply indebted federal government will pay the roughly $200 billion annual cost of expanding coverage.
The inattention to the financing of the ACA by the public, the media, and even Republicans is a testament to the skill of its drafters. The benefits of the ACA are highly visible, the costs are concealed.
Consider the ACA’s treatment of Medicare hospital reimbursements. Reimbursements to hospitals increase from year to year based on the projected increase in hospitals’ labor and capital costs. The ACA reduces the rate of growth in payments by 0.1 percentage points per year plus an additional factor based on projected economy-wide productivity growth. It is possible that the application of these factors will result in a net reduction in payments, but, more likely, payments will not increase by as much as they would have in the absence of the law.
This provision, which will raise $64 billion in 2020, may result in the closure of some hospitals and reduce quality in those that remain open. However, these effects are uncertain and difficult to summarize in a soundbite.
Other financing provisions are only slightly less obtuse. About one quarter of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in private health plans, the so-called Medicare Advantage plans. The ACA will revamp the formula used to set payments to these plans for a savings of $19 billion in 2020. The ACA will reduce subsidies to so-called Disproportionate Share Hospitals (hospitals that serve a large number of low-income patients) for a 2020 savings of $9 billion.
There is an ancient Arabic proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” With this in mind, I can’t help but think that whatever Senator and leading Tea Party blowhard Ted Cruz opposes must be good. When Cruz decided to try to shut down America because he opposes Obamacare , well that sealed the deal for me. I say “Obamacare forever.”
Readers know that I think Obamacare has too many rules that create problems for payers and providers alike, and relies on some questionable practices for funding. I don’t like the rush to form ACOs or the lack of serious cost-effectiveness analysis (admittedly a concession to Republicans.) But Obamacare beats the hell (sorry Ted) out of Cruzcare, which, as far as I can tell, goes something like this: “Didn’t put aside enough money for that life-saving operation? Here is a prayer that might help.”
I used to sort of be a Republican. I voted for Bush (I won’t say which one in order to avoid embarrassment) and voted against Obama more than once (living in Illinois I had several opportunities.) And I hate that Obama is playing at President like someone playing poker with a winning hand.
This isn’t supposed to be about which politician claims the biggest pot for himself. But I will take a selfish and somewhat scornful Obama over Ted Cruz and the Tea Cozies any and every day of the week. And I will work to find the best Democratic leaders if all the Republicans can offer is Cruz and his TCs.
Shut down the government to finally fund Medicare and Social Security? Maybe. Shut down the government to achieve a rational tax code? Sure. Shut down the government to balance the budget? Now we are talking. But shut down the government to block the opening of the health insurance exchanges? How absurd!
Today, more than three years after being signed into law, and more than a year after surviving a Supreme Court challenge, the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, finally begins to fulfill its promise. Most of this country has long since taken sides, despite appalling gaps in popular understanding of what the law means, what it does, and what it doesn’t do.
Let me admit that I’ve never had particularly warm feelings toward President Obama. I think his foreign policy is a mess. The trillions in debt that the U.S. has run up over the past 5 years will hurt my generation and future generations, and if Republicans can be faulted for their fantasy that the federal budget can be balanced exclusively through spending cuts, Obama has sustained the Democratic fairy tale that raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires” is all that is necessary to pay the skyrocketing bills.
On multiple occasions during my time in government, the President had no qualms about squashing science and scientists for political convenience. He is a perpetual campaigner, preferring theatrical gestures to the backstage grunt work of governing. And for all of his rhetorical gifts when preaching to the choir, he’s been one of the least effective persuaders-in-chief to have held the office.
And so, naturally, I oppose Obamacare. I oppose a government takeover of health care that includes morally repugnant death panels staffed by faceless bureaucrats who will decide whose grandparents live or die and make it impossible for clinicians to provide compassionate end-of-life care. I oppose the provision in Obamacare that says that in order for some of the 50 million uninsured Americans to obtain health insurance, an equal or greater number must forfeit their existing plans or be laid off from their jobs.
I oppose the discarding of personal responsibility for one’s health in Obamacare. I oppose Obamacare’s expansion of the nanny-state that will regulate the most private aspects of people’s lives.
It’s a good thing that Obamacare, constructed on a foundation of health reform scare stories, doesn’t exist and never will.
Instead, the Affordable Care Act (which I support) is based on a similar law in Massachusetts that was signed by a Republican governor and openly supported by the administration of George W. Bush. It achieves the bulk of health insurance expansion by leveling the playing field for self-employed persons and employees of small businesses who, until now, didn’t have a fraction of the premium negotiating power of large corporations that pool risk and provide benefits regardless of health status.
A minority of the Members of Congress are threatening to cause the United States government to default on its debts, unless the majority members agree to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act, which Congress passed just a few years ago. There will presumably be some sort of negotiated solution. I worry that the negotiation range is being defined in a skewed way, between one pole and a moderate status quo, which is already the result of a prior negotiation. Seems like we have a one-way ratchet here.
My thought: perhaps the negotiations should go both ways, so that the end-result is more balanced. What if the Democrats made symmetric threats to cause default, unless:
- Medicare is expanded to cover all the poor who do not qualify for Medicaid (filling the gap the Supreme Court created in its “coercion” opinion),
- The Federal government creates a public health insurance option, to compete along with the corporate insurers (which was killed in final negotiations to pass the ACA),
- The Federal government gets explicit authority to provide insurance subsidies in the health insurance exchanges it sets up for states that have refused, oh and, as a kicker,
- Ronald Reagan International Airport (DCA) is re-named Jimmy Carter International Airport.
Ok, that last one is silly, but it might make for a fun bargaining chip, since it symbolizes the strategic game that is now being played, as we re-legislate settled questions. Positional bargaining is not pretty or enlightened, but if these chips can be traded, we might end up in the fallback position of keeping the Affordable Care Act as the negotiated compromise that it already is. Of course, the ACA is also the default rule, which has a nice double meaning in this context.
Christopher Robertson, JD, PhD is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, an associate professor at the James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona, and a research associate with the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard Law School. He blogs at the Petrie-Flom Center’s Bill of Health, where this post originally appeared.
Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week,” Newt Gingrich and I debated whether House Republicans in should be able to repeal a law — in this case, the Affordable Care Act — by de-funding it. Here’s the essence:
GINGRICH: Under our constitutional system, going all the way back to Magna Carta in 1215, the people’s house is allowed to say to the king we ain’t giving you money.
REICH: Sorry, under our constitutional system you’re not allowed to risk the entire system of government to get your way.
Had we had more time I would have explained to the former Speaker something he surely already knows: The Affordable Care Act was duly enacted by a majority of both houses of Congress, signed into law by the President, and even upheld by the Supreme Court.
The Constitution of the United States does not allow a majority of the House of Representatives to repeal the law of the land by de-funding it (and threatening to close the entire government, or default on the nation’s full faith and credit, if the Senate and the President don’t come around).
If that were permissible, no law on the books would be safe. A majority of the House could get rid of unemployment insurance, federal aid to education, Social Security, Medicare, or any other law they didn’t like merely by deciding not to fund them.
It may say something about expectations for the Affordable Care Act that the simplistic “just repeal Obamacare” cries of Congressional Republicans are starting to be supplemented by proposals for its replacement.
The most detailed so far is from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which has published an unexpectedly non-doctrinaire study authored by Harvard professor Michael Chernew and seven other respected academics.
It’s far from perfect, but it’s worth reading.
Structural details of the AEI proposal, modestly titled “Best of Both Worlds,” aren’t always clear (page 1 lists four “principles,” page 5 lists five “priorities”, and page 16 lists three “major planks”), but it does attempt a bipartisan approach, combining ideas from left and right.
Some of these ideas have been contained in other proposals, such as those of Wyden and Bennett and Fuchs and Emanuel (which may damn the AEI proposal in right-wing eyes), and most recently in a THCB piece by Martin Gaynor. They include the elimination of the employer coverage tax preference, the provision of “premium support” subsidies for most individuals, and the establishment of a national insurance exchange. Together, they are designed to encourage individual choice and responsibility and to maximize competition between insurers, while removing some of the inequities of the present system (and of the ACA).
The AEI proposal assumes that eliminating the employer coverage tax preference will result in most individuals obtaining coverage through a national exchange, with national regulation of insurance plans. Current Medicaid eligibles will be included, with the replacement of acute care Medicaid funding by subsidies for conventional coverage. All individuals will be able to choose between fully-subsidized “basic plans” and more generous partially-subsidized options, typically with substantial deductibles tied to income and health status. Insurers will be encouraged to offer multi-year coverage and, unlike in the ACA, medical underwriting will be allowed. The only government financing will be for premium subsidies, to be funded by the additional income and payroll tax revenues resulting from elimination of the employer tax preference and by redirecting federal and state Medicaid payments.
There is nothing controversial about stopping Obamacare. A majority of Americans dislike the law and want it repealed. Obamacare is disastrous for individuals, businesses, and doctors alike. It is unaffordable and unworkable, and the Obama Administration has also made it unfair by giving its pet interest groups waivers and opt-outs.
Conservatives are also united behind full repeal of Obamacare, despite what you may hear from the media and liberal operatives. The debate right now is on how this goal is best achieved.
Debate is healthy for society, and also for a movement. Conservatives should not want to become the empty echo chamber that has become the liberal political/media/academic establishment.
With that in mind, let’s turn to the debate over how to save the country from Obamacare. Our view is that the most effective way to delay Obamacare is to cut off funding. Congress can halt Obamacare’s disastrous impact by defunding it entirely before the law’s health insurance exchanges take effect on October 1.
This approach would prevent further implementation of the law; it is the only tactic that fully achieves the objective that advocates of delay seek to accomplish.
Some conservatives believe they can achieve delay without defunding by postponing the individual mandate and employer mandate for one year while leaving firmly in place the massive federal spending on Obamacare’s new health care entitlements—$48 billion next year, and nearly $1.8 trillion over 10 years. Others, acknowledging that a delay of the mandate is insufficient, are now calling for Congress to delay the mandates and the new entitlements.
As a confident critic of ObamaCare from its genesis, I’m impressed that the law remains unpopular and that the American people appear ready to scrap it and start again. Last March, a senior bureaucrat in charge of rolling out ObamaCare fretted about a “third-world experience“.
ObamaCare’s opponents have managed to keep Republican politicians unified against the law. The only tactical question is whether the GOP can credibly threaten to “shut down the government” during the forthcoming debate over the Continuing Resolution (the legislation that funds the government in the absence of a budget).
It’s been a good three and a half years for ObamaCare’s opponents. Nevertheless, outside the political realm, businesses and investors are behaving as if ObamaCare is hardened concrete. Although ObamaCare’s opponents have overwhelmingly succeeded in convincing society of the law’s drawbacks, it is not at all clear that society is ready to accept a more free-market alternative reform.
Indeed, some of the approaches used against ObamaCare might have unintended consequences that will appear in 2014, the law’s first fully operational year, which would make repealing and replacing ObamaCare extremely difficult.
Here are a few friendly questions for ObamaCare’s opponents:
First: We’ve spend a lot of effort convincing people that state-based health-insurance exchanges will be a disaster, and succeeded in blocking their establishment in many states. To be sure, they are an unnecessary bureaucracy, but do we really believe that enrolling in the New York Health Benefits Exchange or Cover California will be the worst thing since unsliced bread? It won’t be like shopping on Amazon.com, but I’ll bet it will be easier than doing business with the DMV. The New York Times recently reported on exchange outreach efforts in Colorado (a pro-ObamaCare state) and Missouri (an anti-ObamaCare state). The take-away: In Colorado, it’s almost impossible for people to avoid learning how to enroll in the exchange, while in Missouri it’s been extremely difficult to get information. Most people will not be interested in how much it cost taxpayers to set up and operate the exchanges. Do we really believe that when ordinary Missourians learn from their Coloradan friends that their state government has helped them get federal tax credits for health insurance, that they will reward Show-Me state politicians for trying to block them?