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The politics of health care

By Melvin J. Howard

Now that the Senate rejected legislation to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act, with Senator John McCain casting a decisive NO. Where do we go from here? Maybe the case can be made to improve it instead of repealing it. I wrote earlier that is was not clear President Trump, and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, whether a full repeal was even possible and what a replacement might look like. There are several reasons for this. First, Trump would face political and financial fall-out from a repeal. Second, even with Republican majorities now in the House and Senate, it would be hard to repeal the entire bill. It includes not only the establishment of the exchanges, in which people buy insurance, but also cost-saving and quality-improvement measures. Many health care professionals, systems, and tax payers welcomed these. In addition, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act with something entirely different without severely reducing access to care may be impossible. That’s because it’s the only system devised so far that uses the private market to increase coverage and that stops short of single payer government-run programs. The health reform framework that became the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare has a long history and many champions from all political philosophies. While the ACA will long be associated with President Obama and is most often called Obamacare, many other politicians and policy makers had been working on similar plans for years.

In the 1992 presidential election campaign, both incumbent George H. W. Bush and candidate Bill Clinton had health care reform plans. Both plans were structured similarly to the Affordable Care Act. They both created insurance purchasing pools (similar to the ACA marketplaces), eliminated pre-existing exclusion clauses, and had individual mandates and subsidies for low-income families. After the election, when it became apparent that the Clinton administration plan would be different from those plans, a group of Republican senators led by Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) developed a proposal that had all of these attributes.        

Then-governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts asked his staff to find ways to reduce the burden of the uninsured on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Searching for a market-based approach, they found their options narrow to a plan similar to Sen. Chafee’s. At the time the individual mandate penalty was described not as a tax, but as a measure of personal responsibility for paying for one’s own health care. The Massachusetts plan became the model for the Affordable Care Act. The reason all of these proposals resemble each other and the Affordable Care Act is that there are limited options for creating a sustainable private insurance market that allows individuals access to affordable health insurance.

Trump may be able to repeal the law and return to health care coverage as we knew it in 2010. Consequences, however, will be a sudden drop in access to care not just for those who lose coverage, but for many others who will lose access to care because their local hospital closes, or nearest doctor moves out of areas with high percentages of uninsured. Replacement requires something that looks like the ACA. The individual mandate of course is a little more complicated. At one point, it was seen along most of the political spectrum as a promising way to reduce the number of uninsured people in the United States; requiring healthy people to sign up for coverage was supposed to ensure that premiums were affordable. The idea was originally floated by the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and was first brought to Congress by Republicans in the 1990s. The mandate has since become one of the most despised aspects of the law.

But there isn’t a clear policy proposal with bipartisan support for how to get more healthy people into the insurance market in the absence of an individual mandate and insurance subsidies. Trump has proposed creating high-risk pool insurance programs, essentially plans that people with pre-existing conditions can buy into. These types of plans existed in many states before the passage of the ACA and by design are not self-sustaining because members use significantly more health care than they can afford. That means they require significant federal dollars ($25 billion in the case of a plan from Ryan), which is one of the many reasons high-risk pools are divisive among Republican lawmakers.


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