Obamacare’s veto problem—and how to fix it

Emboldened progressives have spent much of the last two weeks cheering Obamacare’s triumph over the Trumpcare repeal train-wreck. But meanwhile, a pair of developments have quietly highlighted the limitations of Obamacare as a framework for truly providing healthcare to everyone .

Obamacare has cut the ranks of the uninsured to historic lows on the strength of its private insurance marketplaces and its Medicaid expansion. But too many actors disinterested or outright hostile to the law’s goals have the power to get in the way of universal healthcare. Quite simply, Obamacare’s design has left it subject to too many vetoes.

First came the news that the major insurer Anthem is considering exiting Obamacare’s marketplaces.  Anthem’s exit, the latest in a string of high-profile departures, could be a particularly painful blow. In fourteen states, Anthem sells Blue Cross Blue Shield plans—historically the insurer of last resort on the individual market. Anthem is currently the sole insurer in nearly 300 counties, serving around 250,000 people. If Anthem quits Obamacare, people in parts of four states would be at risk of having no insurer willing to sell on the individual market.

Next came Kansas’s failed attempt to expand Medicaid. Kansas is one of nineteen states that have refused to take federal funding to expand Medicaid to people earning just above the poverty line. Last week, both houses of its state legislature voted to finally expand Medicaid. Yet arch-conservative governor Sam Brownback barely batted an eye before vetoing the bill on the spurious grounds that “The cost of expanding Medicaid under ObamaCare is irresponsible and unsustainable.”

The Kansas House of Representatives tried to override Brownback’s veto this week, but came up three votes short. As Vox’s Sarah Kliff observed, “65 percent of Kansas legislators support Medicaid expansion. But it failed because they needed two-thirds support to override Brownback[’s] veto.”

This leaves at least 56,000 Kansans ensnared in a coverage gap: too rich to qualify for Kansas’s Medicaid program, but too poor to qualify for subsidies on Obamacare’s marketplaces. And in Kansas, “too rich” means parents earning more than $7,760 per year—38 percent of the federal poverty line. (Forget about Medicaid if you’re a childless adult in Kansas—you don’t qualify, period.)

These two events—Anthem’s cold feet, and Brownback’s cold heart—get at the core vulnerabilities of Obamacare’s coverage expansion. Businesses get a veto over Obamacare if they don’t think they can make enough money participating in it. If too many insurers think that selling in a part of the country doesn’t make sense for their bottom lines, that region is written out of national health reform not by its democratically-elected representatives, but by private corporations.

On the other hand, states get a veto over Obamacare if their governors or legislatures have ideological misgivings about the law. Of course, Obamacare’s drafters never intended this—it was the Supreme Court that made Medicaid expansion optional. The Court’s decision made it easy for state-level conservatives to flex their hostility to Obamacare and to second-guess the budgeting decisions of Congress. So a determined conservative governor or legislature can blow a massive whole in Obamacare by turning down free federal money to provide insurance to the poor.

Neither veto is tenable for a durable system of universal healthcare. As I have written, a universal healthcare scheme cannot only depend on the business calculations of private corporations. Yet as presently constructed, healthcare officials have no way to guarantee offerings on the insurance marketplaces. The Obama administration routinely cajoled recalcitrant companies to sell in parts of the country in danger of too little competition—a last-ditch effort that the Trump administration will be in little rush to emulate while it waits for the law to “explode.”

Universal healthcare can’t just bet on insurers voluntarily selling plans in every part of the country. The number of counties with one or fewer insurers is projected to swell over the coming years. Insurers are eager to sell in states with high population densities like New York and California, but aren’t sure they can make money selling in rural states like Alaska. This has left health reform proponents marking their calendars for June 21. That’s the day by which insurers must decide whether they will sell plans on Obamacare’s marketplaces next year—and therefore the day we’ll find out how much of the country will be graced with universal healthcare.

That’s simply not sustainable. Instead of counting on private companies to provide universal healthcare, we should revive the public option as at least a fallback in states with too few insurance offerings. This was a good idea that embraced by both Democrats and moderate Republicans during Obamacare’s drafting, but was ultimately jettisoned. By the end of his presidency, Barack Obama himself was pushing for this reform. Obamacare needs a backstop—we cannot just settle for an insurance desert where companies refuse to sell. A public option would do the trick.

Then there’s Medicaid. Kansas’s inability to expand its program even in the face of supermajority political support is a sign that it’s time to harmonize and simplify control of Medicaid. Medicaid has long been a joint operation between the states and the federal government. The federal government provides much of the funding, but we have fifty different Medicaid programs across the country.

Instead of leaving healthcare for the poor at the mercy of state politics, we ought to simply let the federal government take the reins of the entire Medicaid program. This would guarantee coverage for all who qualify, regardless of the state they happen to live in. The states would be freed of a massive fiscal burden, and 50 different bureaucracies would be eliminated, letting the federal government better streamline cost control experiments.

And after federalizing Medicaid, we ought to expand it again to cover more people. Medicaid has been a tremendous success under Obamacare, and we should build on it further.

Though nonstarters in the current political environment, these steps are vitally necessary to strengthen universal affordable coverage in the United States over the long term. Obamacare has too many places where those driven by profit or ideology can hack away at the goal of universal healthcare. Eliminating these veto points is the next step in reaching the dream of healthcare for all.

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