By TYLER COWEN, professor of economics at George Mason University
Interesting piece on possible compromises that both political parties could agree to in improving the health care law.
The Affordable Care Act has gotten off to a rocky start. Federal and state online health insurance exchanges, which opened for business at the beginning of the month, have been bedeviled by technical snags. And opposition to the law from some House Republicans blocked funding for the entire federal government, leading to its partial shutdown.
In fact, with all the conflict and vituperation over Obamacare, it sometimes seems that one of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the law is imperfect at best. And they also agree that it could be improved. Even if a bipartisan deal to create a better health care system seems far off today, it’s not too soon to start imagining what a future bargain might look like.
Just to get started, I will assume that, at some point, Democrats will be willing to acknowledge that not everything has worked out as planned with the legislation, and that they would consider a rewrite that would expand coverage. I’ll also assume that Republicans will acknowledge that a feasible rewrite of the bill cannot give the Democrats nothing. And Republicans will need to recognize that repeal of Obamacare should not be their obsession, because they would then be leaving the nation with a dysfunctional yet still highly government-oriented health care system, not some lost conservative paradise. Both sides have a lot to gain, and, at some point, they should realize it.
Let’s look at some of the current problems in the health care system and see whether they might be patched up.
Even under Obamacare, many people will not have health insurance coverage, including two-thirds of poor blacks and single mothers and more than half the low-wage workers who lacked coverage before the law was enacted. That is largely because of the unwillingness of 26 governors to expand Medicaid coverage as the original bill had intended. The Supreme Court struck down that portion of the Affordable Care Act, however, giving states a choice.
Will many red-state governors eventually accept the act’s Medicaid extension, which is sometimes portrayed as a financial free lunch, since federal aid covers most of the coverage expansion? It’s not clear that they will. If the Republicans win the White House in 2016 and perhaps the House and Senate as well, they may cut off federal funds for that Medicaid expansion. In the meantime, many states don’t want to extend their Medicaid rolls, because such benefits are hard to withdraw once granted.
There is a deeper problem with relying heavily on Medicaid as the backbone of health care for the poor. The fact that so many governors have found political gain in opposing a nearly fully-funded Medicaid expansion suggests that long-term support for Medicaid is weaker than it appeared just a few years ago. Furthermore, in cyclical downturns, the increase in Medicaid coverage after a climb in unemployment puts much strain on state budgets.
A separate issue concerns employers who are shedding insurance coverage, whether by dropping retirees, moving more workers to part-time status, withholding coverage and paying fines mandated by law, or simply not hiring more workers in the first place. The magnitude of these effects is not yet clear, but over time we can expect that new businesses and new hiring will be structured to minimize costly insurance obligations. It’s no accident that the Obama administration handed out more than 1,000 exemptions from the employer coverage mandate, and postponed the employer mandate until 2015: both actions reflected underlying problems in the legislation. Ideally, the health care law should minimize what is essentially an implicit tax on hiring.
One way forward would look like this: Federalize Medicaid, remove its obligations from state budgets altogether and gradually shift people from Medicaid into the health care exchanges and the network of federal insurance subsidies. One benefit would be that private insurance coverage brings better care access than Medicaid, which many doctors are reluctant to accept.
To help pay for such a major shift, the federal government would cut back on revenue sharing with the states and repeal the deductibility of state income taxes. The states should be able to afford these changes because a big financial obligation would be removed from their budgets.
By moving people from Medicaid to Obamacare, the Democrats could claim a major coverage expansion, an improvement in the quality of care and access for the poor, and a stabilization of President Obama’s legacy — even if the result isn’t exactly the Affordable Care Act as it was enacted. The Republicans could claim that they did away with Medicaid, expanded the private insurance market, and moved the nation closer to a flat-tax system by eliminating some deductions, namely those for state income taxes paid.
At the same time, I’d recommend narrowing the scope of required insurance to focus on catastrophic expenses. If insurance picks up too many small expenses, it encourages abuse and overuse of scarce resources.
In sum, poorer Americans would get a guarantee of coverage and, with private but federally subsidized insurance, gain better access to quality care for significant expenses than they have now with Medicaid. Private insurance pays more and is accepted by many more doctors. But on the downside, the insured care would be less comprehensive than under current definitions of Obamacare’s mandate.
With a cheaper and more modest insurance package mandated under a retooled law, employers would be less intent on dropping coverage. That would help in job creation. It also would lower the federal cost of the subsidies through the exchanges, both because employers would cover more workers and because the insurance policies would be cheaper.
This wouldn’t be an ideal health care system, but it may be the best we can do, considering where we stand today.