President Obama’s reelection, along with the Supreme Court’s ruling last June on his signature health-care reform, may seem to have guaranteed that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will remain the law of the land. But that could turn out to be the easy part of Obamacare. Implementing the ACA’s main provisions by January 1, 2014 — the date on which the law is to take full effect — presents a more grueling and protracted set of tests.
The next round of health-care-policy battles will play out not just before Congress but also in state capitals and health-care markets across the country. You could think of these fights as being like a martial-arts battle, in which various “pressure points” are attacked to produce significant pain, serious injury, or even temporary immobilization, not to mention an aversion to future fighting. Let’s take a closer look at the more painful pressure points in the ACA.
1) Health exchanges. Nearly two-thirds of states still are not fully on board with running their own exchanges to offer the federally subsidized coverage dictated by the ACA. As many as 23 states would rather leave the daunting implementation process entirely in the hands of federal officials. Another ten may enlist as junior apprentices in largely federal-run “partnership” exchanges. But the White House desperately needs state governments to provide infrastructure and local-market experience as well as to take more of the political blame for the implementation fiascos ahead. Many states complain that the rules for exchanges are unclear, costly to administer, coercive, or all of the above. The federal government is supposed to set up exchanges in states that fail to do so, but, later next month, a federal district court in Oklahoma will begin to rule on arguments that directly challenge the authority of the federal government to distribute tax credits in federally run exchanges, which does not appear to be provided for in the text of the ACA.
2) Medicaid expansion. By one count earlier this month in The New England Journal of Medicine, 17 states have not yet agreed to expand their Medicaid coverage up to the ACA-designated 138 percent of the federal poverty level, A somewhat smaller number of states are officially opposed to the Medicaid expansion, and well under half of all states support it. The Supreme Court ruled that the Medicaid expansion must be optional, not a mandate enforced with penalties to states’ existing Medicaid programs. Many governors and state legislators doubt that the law’s initially generous federal funding will be sustainable within a largely unreformed, but expanded, entitlement program that already is straining their budgets. Existing Medicaid programs already fail to attract enough physicians because of their below-cost reimbursement policies.
3) Individual-mandate enforcement. The mandate that, beginning next year, requires almost everyone to purchase coverage meeting federal standards remains highly unpopular. Moreover, the tax penalties to enforce it are quite small compared with the premium costs of the required coverage. Many young and healthy individuals will therefore have a strong incentive to remain uninsured. Various exemptions (including those for the relative “unaffordability” of the premiums relative to one’s household income) will limit further the possibility of requiring coverage.
4) “Minimum” health-benefits coverage. The ACA’s bureaucratic file drawers are full of “essential” benefits and services that all health plans must offer, with four tiers of actuarial value (the share of covered benefits actually paid by an insurance plan).Then add income-based subsidies — to reduce premium costs as well as to lower other cost-sharing expenses. But don’t forget medical-loss ratio floors that limit the value of administrative services that insurers can provide, as well as their return on capital. The ACA also imposes adjusted community rating (effectively forcing lower-risk customers to pay more, so that higher-risk expensive ones can pay less); and guaranteed-issue requirements (allowing customers with costly preexisting conditions to insist on private insurance coverage whenever they want it). All of these ACA requirements affecting most forms of fully insured coverage (technically speaking, neither self-insured nor “grandfathered”) mean that those premiums will spike higher (particularly for healthier young adults in the individual market) and could outrun the budgetary limits of taxpayer subsidies.
5) Who picks up the check? Realistically assessing the fiscal effects of Obamacare doesn’t show only that we’re running out of room on Uncle Sam’s credit card. In addition, higher health-benefits costs will continue to suppress private-sector wage and job growth as well as prevent public investment in other priorities. Average workers and patients will ultimately bear the cost of the ACA’s new taxes, even though they are nominally aimed at health-care providers and higher-income individuals.
6) Health-care-provider capacity. The ACA will be much better at stimulating demand for health-care services than increasing their supply. A Congressional Research Service report last month noted current shortages of physicians and cautioned that the ACA may compound the problem by increasing the demand for health-care services. There are a handful of incentives in the law to increase the supply of health-care providers, but they are short-term, discretionary, and yet to be implemented. The ACA’s reimbursement and regulatory disincentives to enter or remain in medical practice, on the other hand, will be permanent.
7) “Pilot” error. A host of projects under the ACA that are meant to demonstrate innovations in health-care delivery systems have yet to get off the ground or show consistently positive (let alone reproducible) results. Some of these pilot programs look like health-policy kamikaze missions. The more-likely method of restraining health-care spending will be the old stand-by of formulaic, across-the-board reimbursement cuts for doctors, hospitals, and makers of medical products.
8) Transparency without real prices. Two sets of the ACA’s stated policy objectives appear to be at war with each other. The bill’s jargon of bundled payments, population-based capitation, complex cross-subsidies, risk adjustments, and pay-for-compliance incentives indicate that bureaucrats are really in charge. Such “trust us, we know what’s good for you” approaches threaten to undermine other gestures in the law to make health-care information more transparent, consumers cost-conscious, and providers accountable to patients rather than public payers.
9) Standardization vs. customization. The ACA embodies the progressive preference for rule by (politically favored) experts. , It treats health care as a manufacturing process with uniform standards based on “best evidence” and top-down quality assurance. Monopsony purchasing and economies of scale reign supreme. Different patients are to be treated as identical cogs on an assembly line. This type of politically driven health care is inherently centralizing and static. Competitive markets, on the other hand, are open to dynamic, bottom-up innovation, product differentiation, and improvements in customer service.
These pressure points, all serious vulnerabilities, suggest that the ACA’s implementation process will be politically precarious and economically painful. However, it will also present new opportunities to retrace our steps and consider a different path.
— Tom Miller is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “When Obamacare Fails: The Playbook for Market-Based Reform.”