Things that Are Still True about Health Care

It's been a pretty intense month on the health-care front, what with the beginning of open enrollment for the new exchanges giving rise to lots of disingenuous fulminating from Republicans, not to mention a whole lot of crappy journalism. Any time a story dominates the news for a couple of weeks, there's a temptation to believe that what's happening now will change everything. So I thought it might be a good idea to take a step back and remind ourselves about some things that are still true about the Affordable Care Act and still true about health care in America.

Over the long term, the problems with won't have much of an effect on the success or failure of the law.

Yes, it has been a huge screw-up, with both the administration and the contractors sharing responsibility. Yes, it has caused a lot of people trying to sign up for new insurance a lot of hassle. But it's the thing everybody's focused on now in part because it's the only thing happening with the law, until January 1st when a whole bunch of the law's other provisions also go into effect. The problems with the web site are finite and fixable, and five years from now all this will seem like a minor footnote in the whole story.

Even if everything works perfectly with the ACA, we're going to have a very expensive system for a long time.

The law did many things to try to "bend the cost curve," including things like rewarding hospitals for reducing their readmission rates so there isn't such an incentive to just pile on the procedures. But the fundamental fact is that America's health-care system is far and away the most expensive in the world—nearly twice as expensive as the average for OECD countries—and it will still be very expensive for the foreseeable future.

There are many reasons why, but what they come down to is that there are lots of actors—insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, device makers—who make ungodly amounts of money off our health-care system, and unwinding all their influence and the points at which costs get driven up is unfathomably complicated. Other countries' systems were designed by asking how good care can be delivered to everyone at a cost the country can afford; our system, outside of the government parts like Medicare, was basically designed by asking how to make sure everybody except patients can make as much money as possible. At its heart, the ACA doesn't question that fundamental premise. So the curve may bend, but it won't bend too sharply, and it's starting from a very high place.

The expansion of Medicaid is the most significant thing the law did to help uninsured Americans.

It's easy to forget, with all this talk about people on the individual insurance market, that they make up a small portion of the country. The most meaningful part of the ACA was always its expansion of Medicaid, promising to finally give insurance to millions of Americans who can't afford it. So far, people signing up for Medicaid are significantly outnumbering those signing up for new private insurance, which isn't surprising, especially given's problems. And every time a poor family signs up for Medicaid, it's cause for celebration—they'll be healthier and more secure, they'll be more productive at work, and the whole community benefits.

The Republican sabotage campaign against the ACA is unprecedented in American history. You can't blame every problem the law has or will have on Republican sabotage, but this isn't hyperbole. It truly is something we've never seen (here's a recap). The only thing that comes close is efforts in the South to resist the school desegregation mandated by Brown v. Board of Education. That isn't an excuse for any failures of the Obama administration, but it has made everything harder.

Republicans criticizing the ACA have no idea what they'd do to improve the health-care system. If you ask them, they'll say, "Um ... tort reform?" There are a very small number of conservative health-care wonks out there (like the people who came up with the plan that became Romneycare which became Obamacare!), but their ideas are laughably small-bore. Republicans are essentially satisfied with the pre-ACA status quo, with 50 million uninsured Americans and skyrocketing costs. That doesn't necessarily mean that any particular critique they make of the ACA is wrong by definition, but it's good to keep in mind.

There's still no good reason your job should determine your health coverage. The linking of health insurance and employment is an historical accident. When wages were frozen in World War II, companies began offering insurance as a way to attract better workers, unions began demanding it as part of contracts, and today around 80 percent of American get their coverage through their job. One of the best things the ACA does is eliminate the "job lock" this produces, by making it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. Now you can quit your job to start that business you've dreamed of without worrying about whether you can get insurance. But the link between employment and insurance is just one more layer of complication that makes our health care system such an absurd kludge. Which leads to...

A single-payer-plus system would have made this whole thing simpler. Conservatives may roll their eyes and say, "Are you still going on about that?" but it's something we should indeed keep talking about. The Affordable Care Act brings us to a system that is much better than what we have now, but still far worse than what it could be. I'll continue to reiterate that we could have a system that satisfies the desires of both liberals and conservatives, insures everyone, and does it without all the layers of complication we suffer through now. If we wanted to, we could transition over time to a system like they have in France, with a basic, government-provided single-payer plan that covers every citizen, combined with a market for supplemental private insurance. That would give us the universal coverage and security liberals like, the ability to buy as much insurance as you want from a private company that conservatives like, and the efficiency and cost savings we all ought to like.

Would that be a big change? Sure. But it's essentially what America's seniors already have, and it has been very successful. They have their government plan so there are virtually no uninsured seniors, and they can buy Medigap coverage to give them extra benefits.

The ACA could make it easier to transition to a system where all Americans enjoy the same privilege. The exchange marketplace could be transitioned to become the place everyone buys supplemental insurance. We now have a system where a significant chunk of the population—the elderly and poor—are on government plans, and you could widen their availability in both directions (down in age and up in income) and unify the benefits.

That's a long-term project, but it could be the next big health-care reform (in 20 years or so). Obviously, the most important priority in the next year or two is implementing the ACA and determining what's working and what isn't so it can be tweaked and improved. But we shouldn't forget about what comes next.

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