Nothing to Show for Obamacare
For all its costs, very few Americans have gained coverage thanks to the law.


Michael Tanner

Moreover, we should probably subtract from the above numbers the roughly 500,000 Americans who, by the White House’s own count, lost insurance coverage because of Obamacare and have not yet found new coverage.

This is a worse-case reading of the numbers, but it is at least possible that Obamacare has, so far, resulted in some 330,000 fewer Americans having private health insurance.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The 55 percent of Americans who get their insurance at work have been largely unaffected so far. But ACA provisions similar to those that have resulted in the cancellation of individual policies will start to affect employer-sponsored plans over the course of 2014, as employer plans expire. By some estimates, as many as 78 million workers could be affected. Most of those with canceled employer policies will ultimately end up with similar, if more expensive, policies from their employers, but some will simply end up uninsured.

Some Obamacare supporters argue that we should also count some of the approximately 6.6 million people aged 18 to 26 who have stayed on their parents’ policies. Slightly more than half of those had previous coverage, but still, according to a survey by HHS, about 3.1 million Americans in this age group gained coverage after the law’s requirement went into effect in September 2010. There are no good data specifying how many gained coverage from going on their parents’ plan as opposed to some other mechanism, such as getting a job, but if even half did, that would be 1.5 million more people with insurance because of Obamacare. That’s a good thing for the most part, I guess, but it’s something that might have been possible without remaking the entire American health care system.

But at least there are all those new Medicaid enrollees, right?

Maybe not. An outstanding analysis by Washington Post “fact checker” Glenn Kessler points out that the administration’s count of 3.9 million Medicaid enrollees includes people who would have been eligible for Medicaid even without the expansion of the program Obamacare has paid for. Indeed, about half of new Medicaid enrollees are in states that chose not to expand Medicaid under the law. Some of this is due to Obamacare’s promotional efforts, probably, but much of it is also just normal, annual Medicaid enrollments. Kessler concludes that, until CMS releases more complete information at the end of March, no one will really know how many Medicaid enrollees can be traced to Obamacare.

Indeed, at least some new Medicaid enrollees may well have been previously insured. Surveys by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others have long documented a “crowd out” effect from Medicaid expansion, as both individuals and employers choose taxpayer-funded Medicaid, which has no premiums, over more costly private insurance.

One might also question whether enrolling more people in Medicaid is really accomplishing anything anyway: Evidence from an assessment of a randomized expansion of Medicaid in Oregon has so far shown no improvement in physical-health outcomes thanks to the insurance. It has, however, shown that enrolling more people in Medicaid increases rather than decreases emergency-room utilization.

Throwing all this into the hopper, a good guess would be that Obamacare may have resulted in a very small increase in the number of Americans with insurance coverage — nearly all of that coming from the Medicaid expansion and allowing young people to stay on their parents’ policies.

All that for the low, low price of just $2.4 trillion over the next ten years, the cancellation of millions of insurance plans, millions of Americans’ losing access to their current doctors, and much higher premiums.

Universal coverage? More like universal pain.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.


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