Gnawing away at health care

Image: Courtney Keating/

At the beginning of 2017, Republicans promised to release the kraken on Obamacare — to destroy the program with one devastating blow. But a funny thing happened: Voters realized that repealing the Affordable Care Act would mean taking health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans. They didn’t like that prospect — and enough Republicans balked at the backlash that Obamacare repeal fizzled.

But Republicans still hate the idea of helping Americans get health care. So instead of releasing the kraken, they’ve brought on the termites. Rather than trying to eliminate Obamacare in one fell swoop, they’re trying to undermine it with multiple acts of sabotage — while hoping voters won’t realize who’s responsible for rising premiums and falling coverage.

Which is why it’s important to place the blame where it belongs.

The first thing you need to understand is that Obamacare has been a highly successful program. When the legislation was passed, Republicans insisted it would fail to cut the number of uninsured and would blow a huge hole in the federal budget. In fact, it led to major gains in coverage, reducing the uninsured rate to its lowest level in history, at relatively low cost.

It’s true that the coverage expansion was somewhat less than originally predicted, although the shortfall was much less than you may have heard. It’s also true that after initially offering surprisingly cheap policies on the Obamacare exchanges, insurers found that the people signing up were sicker, on average, than they expected, leading to higher premiums. But as of last year, the markets appeared to have stabilized, with insurers generally profitable.

Nobody would claim that Obamacare is perfect; many Americans remain uninsured, and too many of those with coverage face troublingly high out-of-pocket expenses. Still, health reform delivered most of what its advocates promised and caused none of the disasters its opponents predicted.

Yet Republicans still want to destroy it. One reason is that much of the coverage expansion was paid for with taxes on high incomes, so repeal would be a way to cut taxes on the wealthy. More broadly, conservatives hate Obamacare precisely because it works. It shows that government actually can help tens of millions of Americans lead better, more secure lives, and in so doing it threatens their low-tax, small-government ideology.

But outright repeal failed, so now it’s time for sabotage, which is taking place on two main fronts.

One of these fronts involves the expansion of Medicaid, which probably accounted for more than half the gains in coverage under Obamacare. Now a number of Republican-controlled states are trying to make Medicaid harder to get, notably by imposing work requirements on recipients.

What is the point of these work requirements? The ostensible justification — cracking down on able-bodied Medicaid recipients who should be working but aren’t — is nonsense: There are very few people meeting that description. The real goal is simply to make getting health care harder, by imposing onerous reporting and paperwork requirements and punishing people who lose their jobs for reasons beyond their control.

The other front involves trying to reduce the number of people signing up for private coverage. Last year the Trump administration drastically reduced outreach — the effort to let Americans know when and how to get health insurance.

The administration is also promoting various dodges that would in effect let insurance companies go back to discriminating against people in poor health. And when Congress passed a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, it also eliminated the individual mandate, the requirement that people sign up for insurance even if they’re currently healthy.

Preliminary evidence suggests that these efforts at sabotage have already partially reversed the coverage gains achieved under Obama, especially among lower-income Americans. (Curiously, all the coverage losses seem to have happened among self-identified Republicans.) But the worst is yet to come.

You see, GOP sabotage disproportionately discourages young and healthy people from signing up, which, as one commentator put it, “drives up the cost for other folks within that market.” Who said that? Tom Price, President Donald Trump’s first secretary of health and human services.

Sure enough, insurers are already proposing major premium hikes — and they are specifically attributing those hikes to GOP actions that are driving healthy Americans out of the market, leaving a sicker, more expensive pool behind.

So here’s what’s going to happen: Soon, many Americans will suffer sticker shock from their insurance policies; federal subsidies will protect most of them, but by no means everyone. They’ll also hear news about declining insurance coverage. And Republicans will say, “See, Obamacare is failing.”

But the problem isn’t with Obamacare, it’s with the politicians who unleashed this termite infestation — who are doing all they can to take away your health coverage. And they need to be held accountable.

© 2018, New York Times News Service
Paul Krugman is a regular columnist for The New York

Related News