An Obamacare “Fix” That Isn’t
Astute political observers might have noticed disconsonant views coming from Republicans on Capitol Hill recently. Even as many rightly criticized Obamacare for the massive premium increases many Americans face—and noted that the law’s framework makes Obamacare inherently unfixable—other unnamed Republican sources may be already laying the groundwork for efforts to repair the law after next week’s election. Such efforts would not only undermine the party’s pre-election messaging, they could well prove ineffective at best in solving the law’s twin problems of too many regulations and too much spending.
Two weeks ago, President Obama attempted to sell his unpopular law in Miami, encouraging people to sign up for exchange coverage in 2017 despite higher premiums for coverage of questionable quality. In response, House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement taking issue with the structure of the law itself:
After listening to the president’s speech, I’m not sure what health care law he’s talking about. He wondered out loud why there’s been such a fuss. It’s no secret: It’s because of Obamacare. That’s why we’ve seen record premium hikes. That’s why millions of people—including millennials—have lost their plans, or been forced to buy plans they don’t like. That’s why we’ve seen waste, fraud, and abuse. And at this point, one thing is clear: This law can’t be fixed. [Emphasis mine.]
Last week, however, a different story emerged, in a story highlighting proposed changes to the law that Congress could consider in 2017. The article in The Hill quoted unnamed congressional sources as saying that Republicans have in fact offered to help Democrats “fix” Obamacare:
A Democratic health adviser spoke to congressional Republicans recently about changing the age rating ratio, with a subsidy for older people, and said the reaction was “favorable.”
To translate the article’s policy-speak into English: Obamacare requires that insurers charge older individuals no more than three times what younger enrollees pay. In most cases, however, older individuals incur costs about five to six times what the youngest enrollees incur in medical bills. The three-to-one age rating therefore charges younger people more, so that older individuals pay slightly lower premiums.
Younger and healthier individuals aren’t enrolling in Obamacare, because they don’t see it as a good value—which, under the age rating restrictions, it isn’t. As a result, Obamacare’s exchanges face a pool of enrollees sicker than the average employer plan—one of the main reasons why insurers are losing money, and not offering exchange coverage. The unnamed Democratic staffer mooted changes that would loosen the age rating ratio—providing slightly lower premiums for younger enrollees, in the hope they will sign up in greater numbers—in exchange for richer subsidies for the older individuals who would pay more under the change.
It remains unclear whether these discussions have advanced to any degree of seriousness, or whether Speaker Ryan would in fact bring Obamacare “fixes” to the House floor after publicly stating that the law can’t be fixed. But what is clear is what new subsidies would entail—adding more spending to the nearly $2 trillion the law will already spend in the coming decade, at a time when our nation faces a staggering $19.8 trillion in federal debt. New subsidies would also likely entail new tax increases that will impede economic growth, or additional reductions in Medicare to pay for more spending on Obamacare, at a time when Medicare itself faces funding shortfalls—an inconvenient truth neither presidential candidate has bothered to consider.
Just as important, it’s also unclear whether changing the age rating regulations alone would bring premiums down enough to encourage young people to enroll. Over and above age rating, Obamacare included massive new regulations on health insurance policies, most of which raised premiums dramatically: A new list of “essential health benefits” that all plans must cover; requirements for coverage of preventive services without cost-sharing; requirements that plans cover a greater percentage of expected medical expenses. Even if more favorable age rating lowers premiums by one-third, it won’t take insurance rates much below where they were before the 25 percent premium increase facing plans this January. How will taking premiums back to they are now—when young people haven’t enrolled in Obamacare for the past three years—fix the problem?
The answer’s simple: It won’t. “Favorable” reactions from unnamed staffers aside, more spending and more taxes won’t fix an inherently unfixable law—even if accompanied by some regulatory changes that might do some good. As the old saying goes, if you’re in a hole, stop digging. When it comes to Obamacare, that means staff on both sides of the aisle shouldn’t waste time with “solutions” that involve throwing more of someone else’s money at the problem. Future generations already face a nearly $20 trillion—and counting—hole of debt; if we won’t solve that problem, let’s at least agree not to make it any bigger.