Obamacare's Critical Moment

At times like this, with the Obama administration weathering yet another controversy regarding the stumbling beginnings of the Affordable Care Act, it's useful to remind ourselves that this too shall pass. I've been plenty critical of how Healthcare.gov has been handled (see here, or here, or here), but eventually it will get fixed, at least to the point at which it works well enough. Likewise, the fears now being experienced by people with individual insurance policies will, by and large, turn out to be unfounded. There will be some who have to pay more than they've been paying, but in almost all cases they'll be getting more too.

But there's no doubt that this is an escalating problem for the administration. The person who got sold a cheap insurance policy on the individual market because the insurer was confident that either a) they probably wouldn't get sick any time soon, or b) the policy was so stingy (whether the customer knew it or not) that the insurer wouldn't have to pay anything even if they did, has now become the victim whom all agree must be made whole. We're all talking endlessly about Obama's "If you like your current plan, you can keep it" pledge, but the fact is that if you have one of these junk insurance plans, you only like it if you haven't had to use it. But no matter—the people on these plans (and not, say, people who are finally getting Medicaid, because they're poor so who cares) are now the only people that matter. Congress is obsessed with them, the news media is obsessed with them, and Something Must Be Done.

The administration is clearly spooked, and so are Democrats. But everyone needs to take a breath and ask themselves whether what they do in the next couple of weeks is something they'll be able to live with in a year or five years or twenty years.

No one should be under the illusion that the Republican proposals to "fix" the problem of people on the individual market who want to keep their current plan—one of which could be voted on today in the House—are anything other than an effort to cripple the ACA. Not only would they allow insurers to continue selling junk policies, they would also allow the insurers to deny people coverage because of pre-existing conditions. In other words, the Republicans propose to restore the abysmal status quo ante that led to passage of the ACA in the first place. They'd also have the likely effect of jacking up premiums in the exchange marketplace by allowing the insurers to cherry-pick healthy young people for the now still-legal junk policies, leaving older and sicker people to migrate to the exchanges, where premiums will almost surely skyrocket a year from now once the damage becomes clear. As Igor Volsky puts it, "On the eve of implementing hard fought reforms, lawmakers are essentially considering re-segregating the health care market: healthy uninsured individuals without an offer of employer-sponsored coverage, Medicare or Medicaid will be lured away into subprime policies that include few consumer protections (and probably won't be there for them should they fall ill); sicker people will find themselves in exchanges that resemble high-risk insurance pools, paying ever-more for coverage." Any Democrat who votes for something like that should be ashamed of themselves.

There's a Democratic proposal from Mary Landrieu that's almost as bad. Meanwhile, House Democrats are threatening the White House that they'll sign on with the Republican plan if the White House doesn't come up with some other solution that will allow them to cover their asses. But there may be no way to let people who have junk insurance keep it without undermining the law as a whole. As Ezra Klein says, "Solving a political problem now at the case of worsening a policy problem 10 months from now isn't a good trade." And that's putting it way too mildly. They could easily try to solve a political problem now and give themselves a much worse political problem ten months from now by making it impossible for the law to succeed. If that happens, the fact that they signed on to the measure that all but destroyed the law isn't going to save them with the voters. Obamacare's fate is every Democrat's fate, whether they like it or not.

You can say that Obama made his bed by repeating that "If you like your insurance, you can keep it," and now he has to sleep in it. I'd have two responses to that. First, plans that were in effect when the ACA passed in 2010 fall under a grandfather clause, so strictly speaking, if you liked the plan you had when the law was passed and you still have it, you can keep it, even if it doesn't meet the new requirements. But since the individual market is volatile (people move in and out of it frequently) and only plans that haven't been altered since then fall under the grandfather clause, that's a small number of people.

But much more importantly, we shouldn't make a terrible policy choice just because it's the one that we think would line up most precisely with a rhetorical pledge Barack Obama made three years ago. Yes, he should have said, "If you like your plan you can keep it, so long as it's a plan that gives real coverage and doesn't leave you vulnerable to bankruptcy if you get sick or have an accident." But he didn't. And today, we should make the policy choice that does the most good for the most people.

It would be nice if you could make an enormous policy change without leaving a single American worse off. But that was never possible. There are millions who are going to benefit from the ACA—people who had no insurance who will now be able to get it for free or for a modest cost, people with pre-existing conditions who couldn't get coverage but now can, and yes, people who thought they were covered but weren't and now will be, even if they have to pay a little more. Screwing huge numbers of them over for the sake of a small number of people who have been sold a bill of goods by their insurance company and want to keep their junk plans would be unconscionable.

As Josh Marshall says, it's time for nervous Democrats to have a gut check. Republicans are positively slobbering at the opportunity they think they have to destroy the ACA. After all that's happened—after a generation of waiting for health reform, after all the effort it took to pass it, after the Supreme Court case and the election and everything else—are there Democrats who want to find themselves telling their grandchildren, "Well, I helped the Republicans subvert the ACA and deprive millions of Americans of health security, because I was afraid somebody might run an ad against me in my next election"?

My confidence that your average member of Congress in either party fully understands the policy implications of what they might be voting for hovers somewhere near zero. But they need to get up to speed, and then find their moral centers. This is among the most critical moments in the already long and tortured history of this law. They'd better not screw it up.

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