The history of president Obama’s health reform bears an uncanny and disturbing similarity to the life cycle of a hurricane. With Sandy fresh in our memory, the similarity is not comforting.
Hurricanes have three phases. The front wall of the storm brings high winds, lightening, and rain. Next, at the hurricane’s center, or eye, the wind drops and the air warms. If one is at sea, the water may turn calm and warm, bringing the illusion that the storm has ended. As the storm moves on, wind and rain return, often with increased force. Those fooled by the calm who leave safe havens may be destroyed by what follows.
The life cycle of a hurricane will bear an eerie similarity to that of health reform. Nearly four years elapsed between president Obama’s initial call for national health reform until the bill became law and the Supreme Court ruled on its constitutionality. The political and legal turmoil was intense and continuous. The process was rancorous and the outcome in doubt from start to finish. It took a bitterly fought presidential election to put an end to this phase of the struggle.
Now, we are in a period of relative calm. The 2012 election settled the immediate fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The candidate who swore to repeal it lost. The ACA was the major domestic legislative achievement of the victorious incumbent president who won reelection. Now, eighteen states are in process of designing rules for health insurance exchanges — the administrative entities that will manage implementation of the new law, the most important provisions of which will take effect one year hence. The other states will either leave implementation entirely to the federal government or share administrative responsibilities with federal agencies.
A huge amount of work remains to be done by October 1, 2013 when people can begin enrolling for insurance coverage in the new exchanges.
Now that Mitt Romney has picked Paul Ryan to be his running mate, a major national debate on Representative Ryan’s so-called ‘premium support’ plan has become certain. Ryan’s plan would replace the current Medicare program for workers under the age of 55. When eligible, they would receive a flat dollar amount—or voucher—that would cover part of the cost of a health insurance plan. The value of the voucher would be adjusted annually according to a pre-specified index. If health care costs increased faster than that index, enrollees would have to pay the added cost themselves or accept narrowed insurance coverage.
Because that plan would not apply to anyone age 55 or older, supporters claim that older Americans don’t ‘have a dog in that fight.’ For reasons I explain below, that isn’t true, even if one looks only at Representative Ryan’s Medicare proposal. Other elements of the Romney/Ryan health care program have even larger implications for older Americans, but let’s start with the Ryan Medicare plan.
Costs for Seniors Could Rise
The claim that the Ryan plan leaves American’s over age 55 unaffected is untrue because it is likely to raise the amount they have to pay out-of-pocket for insurance. The reason is technical, but easy to understand. The premium for those who stay in traditional Medicare under the Ryan plan would be calculated as under current law, but the average cost of serving those who remain in traditional Medicare would go up as private insurance companies market selectively to those with relatively low anticipated costs.
Sharp questioning in oral arguments before the Supreme Court raised serious questions about whether the “individual mandate” — the requirement that people carry health insurance — will survive.
At issue is Obamacare’s central requirement that every American buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Critics say this is an unprecedented expansion of federal power — that if the government can force people to buy insurance, it can force them to buy anything.
Supporters, including me, say the mandate is just a logical extension of federal authority to regulate this market — a market that everyone eventually participates in at one time or another. We also know that if the mandate is struck down chaos is inescapable.
Under one scenario, the court would invalidate the requirement while leaving the law’s many other rules and regulations in place.
In that event, insurance companies would have to insure anyone who asked for coverage — but they would be barred from charging premiums equal to a best guess of what the new customers will cost.
Limiting how much insurers charge can work, but only if the mandate is in place — if everyone, the healthy as well as the sick, has to have insurance. It can’t work if people can go without insurance until they get sick and only then call up their friendly insurance broker and say “Cover me.”
So, Congress would have to do something. But what? One option would be to repeal the parts of the law that the Supreme Court left standing. Finding the votes to repeal the health reform is unlikely, as the next Congress is almost certain to be closely divided.