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The Essential Bargain

The ACA has included a long series of bargains to achieve universal health care in the face of two forces: a multi-trillion dollar health care industry, and an implacable political opposition that refuses to bargain. Whatever the merits and blunders of the compromises taken, it should have come as no great surprise that the guidance released at the end of 2011 for the minimum benefit set (the “essential benefits”) was yet another compromise. It bowed to the existing authority of the states by allowing them leeway to decide the essential benefit package, despite the fact that the law itself seemed to intend a single national standard. There are limits, of course: ten categories of benefit must be covered (hospital, lab, maternity, dental, etc.) and the details on what is covered must be set by reference to one of four model plans:

• One of the three largest small group plans in the state by enrollment;
• One of the three largest state employee health plans by enrollment;
• One of the three largest federal employee health plan options by enrollment;
• The largest HMO plan offered in the state’s commercial market.

Predictably, immediate reactions were mostly negative. It was almost universally described as a “punt” by the administration, but a more accurate football metaphor is that the new guidance was a field goal. It’s certainly better than not scoring at all, and games can be decided by field goals. But it also means that your offense wasn’t good enough to close the deal on a touchdown. In that way, you can look at a field goal as one step closer to losing. For different reasons, that is exactly what some foes and supporters alike of the ACA will say about the new guidance.

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