Last week, in a bold example of their governing prowess, congressional Republicans took their 62nd vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and this time they actually passed it through both houses and sent it to President Obama to be vetoed. Naturally, they were exultant at their triumph. Speaker Paul Ryan admitted that there is as yet no replacement for the ACA, but they'll be getting around to putting one together before you know it. The fact that they've been promising that replacement for more than five years now might make you a bit skeptical.
What we know for sure is this: If a Republican wins the White House this November, he'll make repeal of the ACA one of his first priorities, whether there's a replacement ready or not. To listen to them talk, the only division between the candidates is whether they'll do it on their first day in the Oval Office, in their first hour, or in the limo on the way back from the inauguration.
But I've got news for you: They aren't going to do it, at least not in the way they're promising. Because it would be an absolute catastrophe.
Let's take a brief tour around the consequences of repealing the ACA. First, everyone who benefited from the expansion of Medicaid would immediately lose their health coverage. According to Charles Gaba of acasignups.net, who has been tracking these data as assiduously as anyone, that amounts to about nine million people. Granted, the working poor are not a group whose fate keeps too many Republicans up at night, but tossing nine million of them off their health coverage is at least bound to generate some uncomfortable headlines.
Then there's all the people who now get their health coverage through the exchanges that the ACA set up. Remember how fake-outraged Republicans were back in the fall of 2013 because some people with crappy health plans got letters from their insurers telling them that they'd have to sign up for a plan that was compatible with the ACA's new standards? The truth was that some of them would wind up paying more for coverage while others would pay less, but it was the subject of a thousand credulous news stories portraying them all as victims, to Republicans' unending joy.
Now imagine that ten million people, the number signed up for private coverage through the exchanges, all had their coverage simultaneously thrown into doubt. Think that might cause some bad press for the party and the president who did it?
There's more. The ACA also allowed young people to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26; three million took advantage of the provision. They'd likely lose their insurance too. Oh, and if you're a senior on Medicare? Get ready for the return of the "doughnut hole" in prescription drug coverage, which the ACA closed.
Let's add in one more element (though there are lots of the ACA's provisions we don't have time to discuss). One of the central and most popular provisions of the ACA banned insurance companies from even asking about pre-existing conditions when they offer you a plan. About half of Americans have some kind of condition that in the old days would mean they either could get insurance but it wouldn't cover that condition, or they couldn't get covered at all. If you bought insurance in the old days, you remember what a hassle it was to document for the insurer every time you saw a doctor for years prior. You don't have to do that now, but if Republicans succeed, we'll be back to those bad old days. So they can look forward to lots of news stories about cancer survivors who now can't get insurance anymore, thanks to the GOP.
But wait, they'll say, our phantom replacement plan has a solution: high-risk pools! This is a common element of the various inchoate health-care plans Republicans have come up with. Anyone who knows anything about insurance knows why these are no solution at all. They take all the sickest people and put them together in one pool, which of course means that the premiums to insure them become incredibly high. As I've written elsewhere, high-risk pools are the health insurance equivalent of going to a loan shark: You might do it if you're desperate and have no other option, but you're going to pay through the nose. So good luck with that.
Even if Republicans could come together around a single replacement plan, that plan would still be a political disaster. The theory behind their health-care ideas is that once we inject some more market magic into health care, everything will be great. But there are a couple of important things to understand about this idea. First of all, their plans don't even try to achieve anything like universal coverage. It just isn't one of their goals, and as a consequence, implementing their plans is going to mean a lot more uninsured than we have now, a reversal of the progress the ACA is made, with millions or even tens of millions of people likely to lose coverage. Second, even if the market mechanisms they use were to work out how they predict—and it's almost certain they won't, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment—it would take a substantial amount of time.
In this, the ACA is direct. You can't afford coverage? Here's a subsidy, now you can afford coverage. But under Republican plans, more people shopping around for their health care is, over time, supposed to bring costs down, which will eventually translate to lower premiums. But in the meantime, while we wait for the invisible hand to perform its alchemy, millions upon millions of Americans will get screwed. Think there's going to be a political backlash?
I suspect that many conservatives understand that, but still think that in the long term, their small-government ideas will leave us with a superior system. But that still leaves them with a political dilemma. On one hand, repealing the ACA would be spectacularly disruptive—in fact, unwinding the law will probably be more disruptive than putting it in place was, now that the entire health-care and health-insurance industries have adapted to it—and there will be millions of people victimized by repeal. It will be a political disaster of unimaginable proportions.
On the other hand, they've invested so much emotional, political, and rhetorical energy over the last six years into their opposition to this law that they would seemingly have no choice but to repeal it, no matter the consequences. Liberals may argue that the ACA would have been a lot better if it hadn't worked so hard to accommodate the market-based character of the American health-care system, but Republicans have been telling their constituents that it's the most horrific case of government oppression since the Cultural Revolution (or as Ben Carson says, "the worst thing that's happened to this nation since slavery"). They can't exactly turn around to the people who elected them and say, "Look, I know we said we'd repeal this thing, but that's going to be a real mess. How about if we just make some changes to it so it works more like we'd like?"
Or maybe they could. Just look what happened to Matt Bevin, the new governor of Kentucky. He ran on a platform of purging the state of every molecule of that despicable Obamacare, but now that he's in office, things are looking a little more complicated. That's because Kentucky is one of the great ACA success stories, where the expansion of Medicaid brought health insurance to a half a million low-income people who didn't have it, and the state's health-care exchange, Kynect, was a model of success. So Bevin is now backtracking on his promise, saying that instead of just eliminating the Medicaid expansion he's going to reform it. And Kynect may get the axe (which would mean just turning it over to the federal government), but that won't happen for quite some time, if at all.
And that's what I think we'd see if we actually got a Republican president and a Republican Congress forced to deal with the consequences of what they've been promising for so long. Once they have the ability to bring down such a health-care calamity on the public, it's not going to seem like such a great idea. They'll say they're as committed to it as ever, while behind the scenes they'll be frantically trying to figure out how to do something they can call "repeal" but that won't actually get rid of all the things people like about the law. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a "repeal" bill that, in the name of an effective transition, left much of the law in place, then slowly instituted their market-driven ideas over time. Because there are limits to even what kind of damage an all-Republican government would inflict—if not on the country, then at least on their political fortunes.