How Barack Obama Trapped the GOP On Health Care

Barack Obama has done many dastardly things to Republicans. He regularly ridicules their arguments. He insists on being treated as though he were legitimately the president of the United States. And most cruelly of all, he beat their standard-bearers in two national elections. Is it any wonder they loathe him so? But one thing Obama has done to the GOP has gone unnoticed: he made it impossible for them to be serious about health care policy.

By now you're well familiar with how the core of the Affordable Care Act—a ban on insurance companies denying coverage for pre-existing conditions (also known as "guaranteed issue"), accompanied by an individual mandate and subsidies for people of moderate incomes to purchase private insurance—was originally a conservative proposal. The idea was that unlike in most other western countries where a large government program like Medicare covers all citizens, you could achieve something close to universal coverage and health security through the use of markets. When Mitt Romney installed it in Massachusetts, it worked quite well and everybody was pleased. But then Barack Obama came along and embraced it, so all good and true conservatives had to conclude that it was not only a terrible idea in practical terms but a vile and wicked plot to rob Americans of their freedom.

And that has left Republicans in a difficult spot. They would very much like to have market-based health care ideas they could rally around, if nothing else than to demonstrate to the public that they sincerely want to fix what's wrong in America's health care system. But the theft of the guaranteed issue-plus-mandate-plus-subsidies framework has left them with nothing but unappetizing scraps off the health care table, none of which will do much of anything to address problems like the large number of uninsured Americans.

There's a ritual people like me have taken to of late. Republicans announce that they're about to release a health care plan. Then we say sarcastically, "Gee, let me guess. It involves 1) tort reform; 2) letting people buy insurance across state lines; 3) incentives for more use of health savings accounts, and 4) high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions" (here's a recent example). And we're always right, because those are the Big Four conservative health care ideas, and nobody can come up with anything different.

Here's the thing about these ideas: neither any of them individually, nor all of them collectively, would even begin to tackle the things that ail the American health care system, the things the Affordable Care Act was meant to address. Tort reform—which means making it difficult or impossible for patients to sue for malpractice—won't bring down costs like conservatives think it will. We know this because a number of states have enacted the kind of tort reform Republicans advocate for the whole nation, and it had no impact on spending. Realistic assessments of the effect of tort reform on medical spending conclude that if there's any impact at all, it would be tiny (I discussed this issue at length here).

Letting people buy insurance across state lines would be fine if it was accompanied by national standards for policies; you've surely forgotten it by now, but the more liberal House version of the ACA created a national insurance exchange instead of 50 state exchanges, in which you could have bought insurance from anywhere. But a well-regulated system isn't what conservatives want; they propose to remove the ACA's regulations and then initiate a race to the bottom, where the least-regulated state would offer cheap insurance to lure customers who wouldn't realize the limits of what they had bought until they got sick (here's an explanation of just how bad an idea this is).

As for health savings accounts, we already have them. They're a great deal for people who are healthy, but not so much when you actually need care. And high-risk pools are a terrible solution as anything other than a temporary stopgap—they put all the sick people in the same pool, meaning covering them is extremely expensive. That's no help to the tens of millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions.

Which brings us to Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who is almost certainly running for president in 2016. There aren't a lot of Republicans who have a good understanding of health care policy, but Bobby Jindal is one of the ones who do. Back in 1996, at the tender age of 24, he was appointed the head of the Louisiana Department of Health; George W. Bush later made him an assistant secretary of health and human services. So he's well familiar with this issue, and surely has a reasonably good understanding of which policies are likely to have a large impact and which are likely to make no difference at all.

But Jindal is hamstrung, like all Republicans, by the fact that they can't advocate anything Barack Obama has ever supported. So when he released a health care plan yesterday, it was a predictable mixture of small-bore proposals (Wellness incentives! Eliminate fraud!), and the Big Four conservative ideas. For good measure, he threw in a version of Paul Ryan's plan to turn Medicare from an insurance program into a voucher program, where the government would give seniors a certain amount of money and then they'd seek private insurance, with the invisible hand of the market bringing prices down, all previous evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

In fairness to Jindal, he has tweaked a few things from the standard conservative playbook. He would require insurance companies, once they've sold you insurance, to continue your plan even if you get sick—but doesn't say how he'd protect the tens of millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions who would have trouble getting covered in the first place, other than state high-risk pools. And there are a few smaller features of his proposal that make sense. For instance, he'd change the tax treatment of health insurance so everyone could get the same favorable treatment that people with employer-provided insurance get. That would increase the fairness of the system, even if Jindal's assertions that it would magically cut the ranks of the uninsured by 9 million and dramatically slow health care spending are absurd on their face.

But if we repealed the ACA and instituted all of Jindal's proposed reforms, we'd still have all the problems we had before the ACA was passed. And I suspect that if you gave him a truth serum, he'd admit that none of what he proposes would have much of a salutary effect. But that's where conservatives are. Barack Obama stole the one market-based idea they had that might actually bring us to something close to universal coverage. They have no idea where to go from there, and that's how it's going to be for the foreseeable future. They'll feel the need to keep saying, "We have a plan too!" And when everyone says, "OK, tell us what it is," it will be the same old thing, and no one will take them seriously. 

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