How the Obamacare repeal fight could lead to bigger government

The Republican legislative charge against Obamacare appears to be dead for the time being.  But the GOP’s bedeviling ordeal to roll back the healthcare law may have already backfired. Progressives might come away from this fight seeing virtue in reaching for bigger government solutions for America’s social safety net.

Obamacare’s staying power is Exhibit A of how social insurance programs are inherently sticky.  Political scientist Paul Pierson has observed that conservatives perpetually fall well short of reversing the biggest expansions of the welfare state.  Ronald Reagan largely acquiesced to Medicare and Social Security—even though he had long opposed both programs as menaces to American freedom.  In the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher was stymied from unwinding Britain’s national healthcare system.

Pierson theorized that welfare state expansions last because they fundamentally reshape politics by creating strong interest groups of beneficiaries to defend these programs.  “[T]he emergence of powerful groups surrounding social programs may make the welfare state less dependent on the political parties, social movements, and labor organizations that expanded social programs in the first place,” Pierson argued.

That’s why the defense of Obamacare this year proved so potent.  The law’s Medicaid expansion created a new class of beneficiaries to advocate for the program, and who stood to become human carnage under any rollback.  And the law created a constituency of people who counted on government help to get affordable decent coverage, and others who depended on the law’s regulations to protect them from pre-existing conditions exclusions or lifetime caps on benefits.  Quite simply, Obamacare helped a lot of people—many of whom became passionate and highly credible advocates for the law in 2017.

So if Democrats can just heave a new social program over the finish line in Congress, that program can then generate its own defenders even if the political climate in Washington swings to the right.  In 2010, Democrats squeaked Obamacare into law, and then proceeded to lose both houses of Congress and the White House over the ensuing six years.  But by cultivating a new class of Obamacare beneficiaries, the law became remarkably resilient even as Democrats’ hold on power collapsed.

So what type of program should Democrats be trying to muster into law?  One that can withstand permanent conservative opposition.  One thing is clear from the Obamacare experience: Democrats will get no credit or Republican buy-in for adopting a moderate, market-centered approach for social insurance programs.  Obamacare’s health insurance marketplaces were designed as public-private partnerships, where the government relies on private insurers to help expand healthcare access.  Democrats famously poached this idea from former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tenure as governor of Massachusetts.  Still, Republicans vehemently turned on their own idea simply because a Democratic president had embraced it.

But a moderate policy design without bipartisan support has turned out to be extremely vulnerable.  While Obamacare stands mostly intact in spite of fervent conservative opposition, the prospect of full or partial repeal of the law perpetually spooks insurance companies.  Insurers hike premiums or leave markets altogether, jeopardizing the ability of whole swaths of the country to meaningfully benefit from national health reform.  And of course, when a hostile administration is charged with running the program, there are countless levers it can pull to deliberately trigger an insurer stampede and to cause the program to fail.  Obamacare’s design leaves it at enormous risk under a saboteur-in-chief.

The solution is to bolster social programs with more robust government-run options.  Skittish Democrats built Obamacare around private insurers in order to avoid being tagged as executing a big government takeover of healthcare—but conservatives called it one anyway.  If Democrats are going to be branded as overreaching socialists either way, then they may as well come away with something stronger to show for it, rather than settling for a rickety structure dependent on the voluntary participation of bottom-line-driven private companies.

To be effective in the long run, most social insurance programs need public options.  For Obamacare, this might mean opening up Medicare, Medicaid, or other public insurance programs to scoop up those who are being underserved by the law’s private insurance expansion.  Or maybe it means transcending Obamacare altogether with a single-payer system.  Either way, buttressing Obamacare requires tilting the law’s center of gravity away from private insurance options and toward public ones.

After all, while the GOP may be licking its wounds for now, don’t count on its anti-Obamacare fever to ever truly break.  A few congressional Republicans may be ready to finally pursue pragmatic tweaks to make Obamacare work better.  But opposition to universal healthcare has been the central tenet of the Republican Party for nearly a decade.  It’s far more convenient for the GOP to continue launching salvo after salvo at the law than it is to rethink what it means to be a conservative.

Republicans were still coming after Social Security seventy years after its enactment, trying and failing to partially privatize the program in 2005.  Paul Ryan still dreams of dismantling Medicare fifty years after LBJ signed it into law—a dream built around the same public-private health insurance partnership that he and his party discredited under Obamacare.

If this history is any guide, there’s little use in hoping for a true truce over the pillars of the welfare state.  Instead, progressives must fortify them to withstand an interminable barrage.

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The Senate healthcare bill might be unconstitutional

Senate Republicans just won’t let their healthcare bill die. But if the political process doesn’t kill it, the U.S. Constitution might. That’s because the Senate bill now imposes insurance market death spirals on any state that fails to step in to create its own positive health policy. That very well may be unconstitutional under the Tenth Amendment’s prohibition on coercing the states.

On Friday, the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act (“BCRA”) took a Byrd Bath. That’s the process by which the Senate parliamentarian reviews a reconciliation bill to make sure each provision is related to the federal budget. Provisions that aren’t sufficiently related to spending get eliminated from the bill and cannot be passed by a bare majority reconciliation vote.

Unfortunately for the GOP’s already-floundering healthcare effort, the parliamentarian just knocked out some major provisions of BCRA. She ruled that a provision defunding Planned Parenthood requires sixty votes to succeed. And she ruled that a provision prohibiting federal tax credits from paying for abortion services requires sixty votes as well.

These are deep political blows to Republicans, making “passage almost impossible,” according to Rep. Mark Meadows. But perhaps the most devastating decision by the parliamentarian struck down the GOP’s six-month lockout proposal. This policy was meant to be a conservative replacement for Obamacare’s individual mandate. It would make anyone who failed to maintain continuous insurance coverage wait six months before signing up for insurance. This is meant to stabilize insurance markets by nudging healthy people to sign up or face a six-month penalty.

Without the six-month lockup provision, BCRA suddenly has no mechanism to stabilize insurance markets. This leaves Senate Republicans courting insurance market disaster. The GOP would leave in place Obamacare’s politically popular guaranteed issue and community rating requirements. Guaranteed issue means that insurers cannot deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions. Community rating requires insurers to offer coverage to sick people at the same price they offer to healthy people.

For insurance markets to remain stable under these regulations, they must have a broad risk pool with a substantial number of healthy people enrolled in coverage. That’s why the individual mandate to purchase coverage is so crucial, pulling healthy people into the market. Without any type of penalty for forgoing insurance, anyone can buy insurance at any time. This means that more healthy people will decide not to purchase insurance until they need it. With the healthiest people opting out of the market, costs go up for everyone else, leaving a sicker risk pool left over. The next healthiest group then drops coverage, making costs rise and the risk pool sicker still.

This is what’s known as an insurance market death spiral — a process that culminates in a moribund insurance market with few if any insurers willing to sell. And that’s exactly what would happen under either GOP healthcare bill. For Senate Republicans to press ahead with BCRA in its current form would be to deliberately inflict insurance market death spirals.

At the same time, the GOP bill loosens the requirements for states to obtain waivers from federal regulations. As Nicholas Bagley explained at Vox, “Under the Affordable Care Act, a state has to show that its alternative plan would allow it to cover as many people, with coverage as generous, without increasing federal spending. [. . .] [But] [u]nder the Senate bill, to get a waiver, a state doesn’t have to demonstrate anything about coverage. Instead, it just has to show that the plan won’t ‘increase the federal deficit.’”

This makes it significantly easier for states to obtain waivers from national healthcare rules. Indeed, as long as a state’s proposed plan doesn’t increase federal spending, the federal government is required to grant that state’s waiver request under BCRA.

So post-Byrd Bath, the Senate bill pairs disastrous, death-spiral inducing federal insurance market rules with a much more permissive process for states to obtain waivers from those very rules. From one vantage point, it appears that the Republican Congress could even be threatening a booby-trapped insurance market if states don’t take action to seek waivers to implement their own regulatory policies. That is, the GOP healthcare bill is so bad, it could only reasonably be meant to provoke state-based reform.

That’s where the Senate bill gets into constitutional trouble. The Supreme Court has read the Tenth Amendment to prohibit Congress from enacting legislation that coerces the states. The states are sovereign entities, and Congress cannot try to compel desired action from them through overly strong-arm tactics. For instance, when Obamacare threatened to cut off all pre-existing Medicaid funding from any state that declined to expand its program to cover the near poor, the Supreme Court held that this threat amounted to undue coercion. As Chief Justice John Roberts put it in NFIB v. Sebelius, this threat amounted to Congress pointing a “gun to the head” of the states. No reasonable state would have had any meaningful choice.

One could read BCRA as posing a similar threat to the states: adopt state-based health reform, or have your insurance markets destroyed by malicious federal regulation. Indeed, this promotes the conservative preference for federalism and state-level policymaking. Under BCRA, if state lawmakers want healthy insurance markets, they will need to take affirmative legislative action to enact market-stabilizing policies and to seek federal waivers to take steps to save their insurance markets.

This looks awfully coercive. If states don’t act, BCRA’s perverse regulatory regime destroys their insurance markets. BCRA thus becomes a way to compel state action.

But don’t take my word for it. There’s some indication that the Supreme Court considers the threat of insurance death spirals to be constitutionally problematic. In King v. Burwell, opponents of Obamacare argued that Congress had conditioned subsidies for individual insurance enrollees on each state’s decision to run an insurance marketplace. If so, that meant that Congress had threatened states with insurance market death spirals if they didn’t run their own exchanges: without subsidies, the individual mandate would be inoperative while guaranteed issue and community rating remain in effect (the same dynamic as under BCRA). Such a federal regulatory environment would have plunged insurance markets into death spirals in states that refused to comply with the wishes of Congress.

A coalition of law professors and non-profit organizations presented this problem to the Supreme Court in an amicus brief (on which I advised). And at oral arguments, multiple justices worried about the coercive effects of Congress imposing death spirals on the states. Justice Anthony Kennedy called it “a serious constitutional problem.” “The states are being told: Either create your own exchange, or we’ll send your insurance market into a death spiral,” he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was similarly troubled by the coercive implications of the plaintiffs’ reading of the ACA. “If we read it the way you’re saying,” she said, “then we’re going to read the statute as intruding on the federal-state relationship, because then the states are going to be coerced into establishing their own exchanges.” (In its opinion, the court ultimately steered clear of any constitutional issues by locating an anti-death spiral constraint in the statute itself.)

Granted, these are the oral argument musings of just two of the Court’s nine justices. But one could imagine a state opposed to Obamacare repeal seizing on these hints from King v. Burwell to attack BCRA in court, pressing the Supreme Court to deal with the “serious constitutional problem.” For BCRA presents a unique perversion of the federal-state relationship: federal legislation so awful that it coerces any reasonable state into action.

The Senate’s healthcare bill was bad when it was introduced, and it got made worse after undergoing its Byrd Bath. The GOP’s healthcare effort is no longer just politically dire. It has now ventured into potentially unconstitutional territory. The same is true of the Senate’s alternative “repeal only” bill, which too would eliminate the individual mandate without bothering to supply any replacement.

The Senate is due to vote to begin debate on Obamacare repeal in a matter of hours. After the parliamentarian’s decision, the Senate’s bill currently lacks any meaningful way to protect insurance markets. If Senate Republicans press on with the bill in its current form, they will be assenting to inflicting grave harm on health insurance markets across the country. And they may be casting a bad vote for a bill that’s on the wrong side of the Constitution.

 

Note: This post is cross-posted at Medium.

Medicaid is once again a conservative piñata

Margot Sanger-Katz writes at the New York Times that the Republican healthcare bill is increasingly becoming a rollback of Medicaid:

“[T]he Medicaid caps have not drawn the same public outcry as other provisions of the law that would cut back on coverage more directly. Several Republican senators have expressed concerns about changes to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which broadened the program to include more low-income adults in 31 states. [ ] Others worry about changes to private insurance subsidies that would make insurance less affordable to older, middle-class Americans. Fewer have spoken out about the cuts to Medicaid’s legacy beneficiaries. That means that, as the Senate works out final details, the forced diet for Medicaid is likely to stay in the bill.”

The GOP bill plans draconian cuts to the Medicaid program, both by unwinding Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid coverage to people earning up to 138 percent of the poverty line, and by capping the amount that the federal government will chip in to cover people on “traditional” Medicaid.  These cuts jeopardize healthcare for people from all walks of life, including middle-class families with children with disabilities, or elderly people in nursing homes.  Nearly one hundred million Americans rely on Medicaid—our country’s largest health insurer.

But in the conservative war against Obamacare, Medicaid has always been a convenient target.  In the first hotly politicized court challenge to Obamacare in 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the law’s individual mandate, but weakened its Medicaid expansion by making it voluntary for the states.  Even liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the Court’s conservatives in striking down the mandatory Medicaid expansion.  This preserved the individual insurance markets for the middle-class, while leaving public insurance coverage for the near-poor at the whims of state governments.

Conservative lawmakers seized on the “Red State Option” opened up by the Court to make their stand against Obamacare.  Nineteen states held out and refused free federal money to cover nearly all of the expansion.  Instead, conservative state leaders denied healthcare coverage to some 2.5 million people in order to claim a scalp from Obamacare.

Conservatives at the time trotted out half-hearted pretextual reasons for spurning the Medicaid expansion.  Some argued that they didn’t believe the federal government would maintain funding for Medicaid.  Others second-guessed Congress for running deficits and taking on new debts to extend healthcare to more people.

The irony, of course, is that until now, the federal government has never permanently reduced state funding for Medicaid—and has twice increased funding in the last twenty years.  (A small exception was in 1981, when President Reagan and Congress enacted a temporary Medicaid funding cut.)  It required a conservative takeover of Washington to bootstrap in the spurious fear of Medicaid cuts that their ideological brethren supposedly fretted over in the states.

What’s more, the concern-trolling of state conservatives over the federal debt is proving just as hollow.  Congressional Republicans are poised to slash Medicaid funding for the poor with one hand while doling out gargantuan tax cuts for the wealthy donor class with the other.  The net impact of squeezing Medicaid on the federal debt will be negligible at best.  Yet the silence from conservative fiscal hawks is deafening.

A second irony (really more of a tragedy) in the Republican healthcare ransacking is that Medicaid had been the most successful vehicle for Obamacare’s coverage expansion, helping cut the uninsured rate in the United States to never-before-seen lows.  The subsidized private insurance marketplaces have only reached half the size that the Congressional Budget Office expected when the law was enacted.  But Medicaid has outpaced expectations, signing up 40 percent more people than CBO expected—even though a couple million people have been blocked from signing up by conservative state governments.

Medicaid is an inherently institutionally vulnerable program because its traditionally thought of as a program principally for the poor.  Liberals like Bill Clinton have tried to refashion our perception of Medicaid over the years, pointing out (correctly) that it provides life-saving and valuable services for the middle-class, too.

Up until now, Medicaid’s protectors have been able to stave off the full conservative assault on the program.  But it’s not without its scars from the persistent attacks.  Seven years after Obamacare became law, conservatives are still hunting for enough scalps to claim a victorious repeal.  And now that they’re in power, Medicaid is their juiciest target.  Perhaps they really will live out the fantasies of Paul Ryan’s keg parties past.

TrumpCare dies another death

lucy-football

An action shot of the House’s latest attempt to repeal Obamacare

As if trapped in a time loop, Republicans yet again pulled their Obamacare repeal bill after—yet again—failing to come up with the votes to pass it out of the House:

“An 11th-hour White House push to give President Trump a major legislative victory in his first 100 days in office broke down late Thursday as House Republican leaders failed to round up enough votes for their bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

There is no mystery here: no matter how much they try to tweak their bill, there is no congressional majority to eliminate Obamacare’s coverage gains.  There is no majority in the House, and certainly not in the Senate.

The relentless push to repeal Obamacare that became party dogma in opposition has deflated under the reckoning of governance.  The puritanical faction of Republican true-believers that would follow through on the bluster of opposition simply does not constitute the majority needed to pass laws.

That’s because the core question is whether government will backtrack from its commitment to ensuring decent, affordable healthcare for everyone.  Another way of putting it is whether government will abandon the principle that those with the misfortune of illness are not second-class citizens and are entitled to security in health and wellbeing just like everyone else.

Stripped of its wonkery (of which I am happy to indulge), that’s what this debate comes down to.  The House’s first repeal attempt fell apart because it would have buried the poor and sick with outrageous new costs and thrown them off their insurance.  Its newest attempt faltered because it would subject Obamacare’s protections for the sick to a veto by the states, segregating some people with costly illnesses into theoretically (but not really) separate-but-equal insurance pools.

Republicans have not yet mustered the blind political might to execute either act of cruelty.  Enough of their party has hesitated in the face of retreating from the government’s duty to protect the sick.  Indeed, reports suggest that as many as 50 House Republicans secretly do not want any part of Obamacare repeal.

Which is not to say that the so-called moderates are eager Obamacare supporters.  When Obama’s veto shielded them from political responsibility—that is, before the GOP was firing “live rounds”—House Republicans passed bill after bill repealing Obamacare.  This empty gesture amounted to a statement of the ideological preferences of the moderates—a philosophical opposition to the idea of government guaranteeing healthcare.

But reality has asserted itself now that Republicans are in the seat of power.  Obamacare’s endurance comes from its fundamental principle that healthcare is a right.  It shifted the baseline on how our healthcare system operates, and shifted political dynamics accordingly.  These new political dynamics are what the GOP willfully didn’t see coming—and what are now coming home to roost, eroding the legislative muscle behind rescinding Obama’s greatest achievement.

One must wonder what the whole point of this latest exercise in futility was.  Why go through the doomed charade of negotiations between the House Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Group given the raw math facing repeal?  Was it to pin blame on the moderates?  On the Senate?  For Paul Ryan—who a month ago admitted that “Obamacare is the law of the land”— and the House leadership to pass the buck to the rest of their caucus?  To throw a Hail Mary attempt to give Donald Trump the semblance of an achievement within his first 100 days in office?

Probably some combination of the above.  But whatever it was, the bigger mystery is just how many times Republicans will fall on their face before coming to terms with their unthinkable: that Obamacare is here to stay.

Commonwealth Fund

I’ve been collaborating with the non-profit healthcare think tank The Commonwealth Fund to put together a series of brief explainers on various conservative health reform proposals.  These aim to provide the basics on the function, backstory, and impact of various health policy ideas.

The first of these explainers are available now; I’ll update this post as forthcoming explainers go live:

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.

The simple appeal of single-payer

Sarah Kliff reports at Vox on the surprising popularity of single-payer healthcare even among Trump voters. When she asked a group of Trump supporters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, whether they wished we had a single-payer system like Canada’s, “[h]alf of the hands shot up.”

In one sense, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. Though often written off as a fringe fantasy, single-payer healthcare consistently polls well, drawing support even among Republicans. There is an element of the idea that has universal appeal.

But yet, the popularity among conservative voters is curious.  Kliff says fairness and consistency are two key draws of single-payer.   “The voters I’ve interviewed like the idea of everybody getting equal treatment, no matter where they live or how much they earn,” she reports.

That’s undoubtedly part of it. But I suspect something even more basic and practical accounts for single-payer’s enduring appeal. And that, simply, is its simplicity. People want out of the exhausting bureaucracy and byzantine complexity that is the American healthcare system. Our system is a confounding ad hoc kludge-on-kludge concoction of a public-private partnership layered on top of public programs grafted on to a tax-preferred fringe benefit.

When it comes to reform, relief from uninsurance and rising costs is just the beginning. People also want deeper relief from the sheer taxing ordeal of American healthcare: the churn between fragmented programs, the stress of navigating provider networks, the uphill futility of doing battle with insurance companies. When people look to government to reform healthcare, they aren’t just looking for help financing it—they want government to take on the stress and headache of navigating the entire system. Government should be a healthcare agent, not just a benefactor.

We often think about the size of government as a philosophical and horizontal continuum: how much space is government occupying? How much private industry is it regulating or displacing? But the individual experience may be much different. Individual Americans experience big government in a much more practical, vertical sense: how deeply are government systems imposing on my life for the worse? What costs—through taxation of either my income or my time and mental bandwidth—are government programs assessing me?

For most people, single-payer healthcare doesn’t inherently offend these anti-big government sentiments. Government absorbing the insurance system would ultimately streamline the healthcare financing experience for patients. The administration of healthcare financing would be synergized down to a single point: the federal government. That makes things a whole lot simpler for patients.

And because everyone would draw benefits from single-payer, they wouldn’t necessarily resent government spending on healthcare as a giveaway to someone else. For instance, Medicare enrollees, having paid in to the system over their lifetimes, want to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Because they have paid taxes in exchange for clear and visible benefits, Medicare beneficiaries don’t experience government-run health insurance as “big government.” Neither would enrollees covered by a broader single-payer system.

Strangely enough, it’s possible for individuals to experience a centrist program like Obamacare as “big government” in a way that they might not experience a typically left-wing program like single-payer. Obamacare provided much-needed relief on the basics of health insurance by guaranteeing access to it and subsidizing the cost. But it has done little to ease broader stresses endemic to our healthcare system. Indeed, Obamacare adds more complexity, with means-tested benefits for private insurance for some, and expanded public insurance for others. Either way, it’s a government program that requires consumers to make complex choices, figure out their own eligibility, and weigh different networks, premiums, and deductibles against each other.

The appeal of single-payer as the next order of health reform is that it would lift this burden off the individual. Single-payer would certainly be highly disruptive (perhaps existentially) for industry stakeholders. But for the day-to-day lives of actual people, it would be liberating.

Of course, our politics is skewed to avoid “big government” as business and industry experience it. My own suspicion is that, regardless of the theoretical benefits of single-payer (of which there are many), we are too far down the road of our own ramshackle system to tear it up and start over wholesale. Those with a stake in the current system would undoubtedly mobilize to defeat single-payer—especially once it comes time to dole out the massive tax increases needed to pay for it.

Where single-payer becomes possible, however, is in a crisis. And Republicans are courting just such a disaster by working to sabotage Obamacare. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times puts it, “if voters like government-provided health care and Republicans are going to undermine private markets, what should Democrats do? When they are next in charge, they should expand government health care.”

But even if single-payer comes to naught in the United States, the source of its appeal should guide the future of our public policy. Twenty-first century life imposes too many burdens and complexities on people. Maybe they just want government to lift some off of their backs.

Obamacare’s tenth life

This post is cross-posted at Medium.

Back in January, I recounted the Affordable Care Act’s many trials and tribulations in anticipation of what was poised to be its toughest battle yet. From Scott Brown cracking the Democrats’ filibuster-proof Senate majority in 2010, to John Roberts turning gun-shy before obliterating the individual mandate, through Ted Cruz’s government shutdown, Obamacare had more than its share of close calls.

Yet the law defied death again and again. “[F]or eight years, center-left health reform has prevailed against constant slings and arrows because its moral foundations are strong,” I wrote at the time. “Obamacare’s tendency to survive may just be what spares it again.”

And survive again it has. Trumpcare is dead, and Obamacare is alive. The GOP’s seven-plus year charge of repeal and replace went down in flames on Friday, having barely even made it out of the starting gate. And when it comes to the core of Obamacare, Republicans hardly even put up a fight.

That’s because the GOP long ago gave up on contesting the basic moral foundation of Obamacare: the notion that everyone is entitled to healthcare as a right. It was a quiet concession, drowned out by years of chest-thumping cries to repeal Obamacare, but the right implicitly acquiesced to Obamacare’s new normal years ago. That, more than anything, doomed the effort to repeal it.

Republicans tried to resist the moral force of universal healthcare by tarring it as “socialized medicine” and a government takeover of health insurance. But since Obamacare began delivering real benefits to real people, the center of gravity within Republican opposition shifted toward a more practical, less ideological critique about high premiums and inadequate coverage. Underneath the howls for repeal, the conservative objection increasingly moved from universal healthcare itself to the outcomes and mechanisms Obamacare employed to approximate it.

Donald Trump formalized this concession. Just days after his election, he announced that he intended to keep Obamacare’s popular guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Even earlier, Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” proposal agreed to preserve this protection, too. But to insure the sick, you must also insure the healthy — insurance markets cannot function any other way. And when it comes to universal healthcare, insuring both the sick and healthy is more or less the whole ballgame.

To keep protections for the sick in place, the Republicans would have to produce a plan that looked a lot like Obamacare. Under this constraint, the only way to differentiate it — and thus the only way to realistically claim to “repeal” Obamacare — would be to design a version of the law that was meaner, stinger, and outright worse.

That’s ultimately just what the GOP did, but only after abandoning their first strategy: so-called “repeal and delay.” This plan — to give Republicans the political catharsis of an immediate Obamacare repeal vote, but delaying the effective date of repeal for several years — implicitly conceded two important points: First, that it was unjust and untenable to simply repeal and toss people off of their healthcare. And second, that Republicans had no idea how to actually replace the law.

After it became clear that repeal and delay too would cause chaos on insurance markets, that half-baked plan was scrapped once enough leading Republicans (Trump included) clamored for simultaneous repeal and replace. And that course correction produced the monstrosity that was the American Health Care Act.

The bill was a horribly constructed, unloved mess from the day Ryan announced it from behind his smirk. But it was really its Congressional Budget Office score that did it in, for the CBO confirmed what everyone suspected: that AHCA grossly offended the prevailing moral principle of universal healthcare. In pursuit of that principle, Obamacare had normalized a baseline of widespread and affordable coverage. AHCA did immense violence to each of these, threatening to throw 24 million people off their insurance and jack up rates on millions more of the oldest and more vulnerable Americans.

With that, it was only a matter of time before AHCA collapsed in a heap. There were other factors, of course: The Republican Party was in a defensive crouch from the get go, and couldn’t coalesce around a replacement plan. A public enraged by the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency and terrified of the threat to life and limb posed by repeal galvanized to mount a fierce resistance. But the common thread through all of them was the potent moral force of universal healthcare.

Granted, Obamacare hasn’t yet achieved the goal of universal coverage. But it made a major down payment toward that goal, lowering uninsured rates to historic lows. With the failure of AHCA, the country is refusing to turn back from those gains.

So for the second consecutive Republican presidency, grand conservative designs to gut a pillar of the welfare state have crumbled. When George W. Bush decided to spend his second-term political capital privatizing Social Security, his plan made it through the summer before being pronounced dead. What is remarkable about Obamacare repeal is that it fell apart so fast.

But like Social Security reform, AHCA crumbled under the weight of poor policy design, Republican factionalism, and public resistance. Call it loss aversion, status quo bias, third-rail entitlements — the welfare state has demonstrated an impressive staying power.

And it all comes back to the foundational moral basis for government forging ahead to better people’s lives and provide a sense of security. That’s the brick wall that Ryan’s now-aborted “rescue mission” ran into headlong. Universal healthcare is right and just, and that’s why Obamacare has survived yet again — and perhaps for good.

Stalemate-and-delay: the future of the Obamacare fight?

The fight over Obamacare is poised to dominate much of President Trump’s first year in office.  Republicans are dead set on following through on years of political attacks against the law.  Democrats are equally adamant about saving President Obama’s signature achievement and the millions insured under it.

The problem is that congressional Republicans look increasingly unprepared to follow through on their rhetoric about replacing the law.  Yet they and the Trump administration is convinced the law is failing.  This leaves the GOP in a real bind.

But there may be a way out.  When it comes to Obamacare, the best outcome for everyone may be a stalemate.

As a basic matter of math, Republicans need Democratic support to replace Obamacare.  They could repeal the law with a bare majority in the Senate, but will need eight Democrats to go against the party and overcome a filibuster to enact a replacement.  Republican leadership, including Trump and House speaker Paul Ryan, has backtracked from the repeal-and-delay misfire, and has since come to promise that repeal and replacement will occur near simultaneously.  That requires Democratic votes.

The core question for Trump and the GOP is how to get them.  Trump believes that he is negotiating from a position of ever-increasing strength.  He thinks the law will crumble on its own, even telling congressional Republicans gathered in Philadelphia that he had thought about “doing nothing [on healthcare] for two years, and the Dems would come begging to do something” after “catastrophic” price increases.  Ryan has the same forecast for the law, repeatedly (and falsely) asserting that Obamacare’s individual marketplaces are in a “death spiral.”

Trump has hinted at this scenario before.  Earlier in January, Trump tweeted that the GOP needed to “be careful” about repealing Obamacare, because Democrats would be to blame when the law “fall[s] under its own weight.”  There is clearly a side of Trump that sees political advantage to continuing to hang Obamacare around the necks of Democrats—a side of him that splits from Republican leadership in Congress on the immediate urgency to erase the law from the books.  By sitting back and waiting, Trump suspects he could get a better deal.

Democrats, on the other hand, are confident that Obamacare is succeeding.  They point to the 20 million people insured under the law and signs that its marketplaces have stabilized.  Democrats are determined to resist GOP repeal efforts, and are increasingly drifting toward a strategy of all-out opposition to Trump across the board.

From the Democrats’ perspective, there’s no reason to disabuse Trump of his notion that Obamacare is a ticking time bomb with their names attached to it.  Suppose Democrats stick together as a uniform bloc in opposition to repeal and replace.  A frustrated Trump might see the Democrats as “ungrateful” for the GOP’s efforts to save them from their supposed healthcare mess.  Trump might then decide to wait until carnage from Obamacare’s “collapse” starts to hit in order to exact a better deal out of desperate Democrats at that time.

For Democrats, this result keeps Obamacare on the books, delaying the repeal fight until a day when Trump may be on even weaker ground in public approval, and a day that is that much closer to the 2018 midterm elections.  At that point, Democrats could spark a wave election to take back the House or Senate, stopping Trump’s agenda altogether.

But stalemate-and-delay makes sense for Republicans, too.  If Trump gets fed up with congressional gridlock over healthcare and with how much of his first year in office the issue has consumed, he may want to shelve repeal—especially if he expects to pin down the Democrats into agreeing to more favorable terms down the road.  But would the repeal-obsessed GOP Congress go along with this?  Almost certainly.  Trump owns the GOP now, and the party will largely do as he says.  If Trump says build a border wall, Ryan asks how high (while writing a $15 billion check, to boot).  There’s no reason to think the party would subvert him if he tired of the Obamacare battle.

Trump and other leaders take the position that even though they could wait and let the law implode on its own, they have a duty to come to the rescue of those suffering under the tyranny of Obamacare.  By postponing the repeal push, Republicans get to blast obstructionist Democrats for perpetuating the hellish suffering inflicted on the American people under Obamacare.

This relocates the Obamacare debate back into the Republicans’ comfort zone.  Republicans are most at ease using healthcare as a political piñata against Democrats.  But now that they have the power to decimate Obamacare, they have no plausible plan to put the piñata back together again.  At the GOP’s Philadelphia retreat this week, one member of Congress said that the party’s leaders have offered “zero specifics” on an Obamacare replacement so far.  A leaked recording of that retreat shows Republican members of Congress ill at ease with the party leadership’s lack of strategy and clarity on healthcare.

So for Republicans in Congress, postponing repeal buys more time to devise a replacement plan, while allowing them to continue to use Obamacare as a political battering ram to rally their base going into the 2018 midterms.  Even though they’ve spent seven years railing against the law, Obamacare repeal is a fight that the GOP is not ready for.  Republicans are animated by political opposition to Obamacare as an avatar for big government liberalism.  But they still aren’t equipped or prepared to translate that political opposition into policy language.  Stalemate-and-delay allows them to reap the benefits of the former while avoiding the embarrassment of the latter.

Conversely, it also avoids Republicans taking ownership over the country’s healthcare system going into those elections—something many in the party are loath to do.  “We’d better be sure that we’re prepared to live with the market we’ve created” with repeal, said Rep. Tom McClintock of California.  “That’s going to be called Trumpcare. Republicans will own that lock, stock and barrel, and we’ll be judged in the election less than two years away.”

There are risks in this gambit for Democrats, but those risks are tolerable.  The key is for Democrats to stick together in total opposition to GOP repeal efforts.  And they will be sticking together to defend a wounded healthcare law—one that the Trump administration will weaken to the fullest extent of its executive authority.  Trump already issued an executive order instructing his administration to relax enforcement of the law “to the maximum extent permitted by law.”  White House adviser Kellyanne Conway even suggested the administration may refuse to enforce the law’s controversial individual mandate.  And Trump also canceled planned advertising for the law’s individual marketplace plans in the final days of open enrollment in an apparent attempt to reduce sign-ups.  These are all attempts to loosen the screws on Obamacare’s three-legged stool.

But these risks were always going to be the case under a Republican administration.  Republican sabotage was inevitable, but it beats wiping the law off the books entirely.

So perhaps Obamacare’s future looks much like its past: a political lightning rod perpetually on the chopping block, but never actually chopped.  Trump can rationalize stalemate-and-delay as standing pat until a later day when he can bend Democrats to his will.  Republicans can keep rallying their base on the promise of repeal were it not for those obstructionist, big government Democrats.  And Democrats can appeal to their base having successfully fought Trump and continuing to stand up to Republicans intent on gutting Obama’s signature achievement.

And that might be Obamacare’s political sweet spot.  Democrats want to save Obamacare, and Republicans need an off-ramp from repeal.  For both parties to win, the solution might just be to stalemate.

The case for federalizing Medicaid

If Donald Trump ever moves on from bickering over the size of his inauguration crowd to actually governing, one of the first orders of business will be churning out a promised “terrific” Obamacare replacement plan. While we don’t yet know the exact details of Trumpcare, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway confirmed this week that block granting the Medicaid program to the states will be a big part of it.

This isn’t a surprise. Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan and health secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price have called for kicking Medicaid down to the states for years. Unfortunately, it’s the exact wrong direction we should be going toward.

Medicaid provides health insurance to nearly one hundred million people, including children, pregnant women, nursing home residents, people with disabilities, and low-income Americans. For over fifty years, the program has been managed jointly by the federal government and the states. Washington finances at least half of the program’s costs, and often substantially more in poorer states. Obamacare expanded Medicaid to cover those just above the poverty line, and even offered to pick up the entire tab for the first years of the expansion. Still, nineteen conservative-led states turned down free money, causing a Medicaid “coverage gap” currently ensnaring 2.5 million people that would have otherwise gained insurance.

Conservatives in Washington want to drastically change this arrangement by simply cutting a check to the states and letting them run Medicaid. Conservatives like this idea for a few reasons. For one, a block grant creates more predictable (and lower) costs for the federal government. It gets the federal government off the hook for covering a share of whatever costs program enrollees incur, and instead just subsidizes state Medicaid programs. A block grant transfers most of the commitment of insuring vulnerable populations from the federal government to the states.

The problem, of course, is that this is a barely-concealed way of cutting healthcare funding for the poor. The only way for block grants to save the federal government money is to systematically lowball the amount of the grant. For example, the block grant plan pushed by Price and other House Republicans would slash Medicaid spending by $1 trillion — nearly 25 percent — over the next decade. A similar plan offered by Paul Ryan in 2012 would have caused up to 20 million Americans to lose their coverage.

This leaves it to individual states to pick up the slack, but it’s far from guaranteed that they are willing or able to do so. Medicaid is already one of the costliest expenditures for states, consuming on average nearly 20 percent of their budgets (second only to K-12 education). Making up for a $1 trillion funding gap would be a stretch even during relatively good economic times. But during a recession, block granting would be a disaster. While the federal government can take on debt to finance deficit spending, almost every state is required to keep a balanced budget. When revenues dry up during a downturn, states take an axe to social spending to make up the difference. These cuts inevitably come disproportionately from low-income programs. So the end result of block-granting means Medicaid will get cut to the bone just when more and more people will need it.

Block-grant proponents want to give states more of a role to experiment with Medicaid. But just as some states may seize on new flexibility to experiment upward with better, more generous programs, others will ratchet Medicaid downward by providing stingier benefits. Those nineteen states refusing the federal Medicaid expansion in particular have political cultures deeply hostile to insuring the needy. In Texas, for example, childless adults are ineligible for Medicaid regardless of how poor they are, and even parents are “too rich” for coverage if they earn more than 18 percent of the poverty line — $2,118 a year.

Even though national Republicans package Medicaid block granting as an exercise in states’ rights, it’s not clear how many states want the privilege of taking the primary lead in running Medicaid. Even some Republican governors worry that block grants will reduce the effectiveness of their safety nets. Medicaid block grants could easily follow the pattern of welfare reform — another safety net program devolved to the states during years of economic growth that has since shriveled away due to chronic underfunding.

Instead of block-granting Medicaid to the states, a better course is to do the exact opposite: have the federal government assume full responsibility for Medicaid. This would eliminate harsh state-based eligibility restrictions like in Texas, and would guarantee coverage for all who qualify. Because the federal government can run budget deficits, it is better situated to protect the program during economic downturns. And federalizing Medicaid would relieve the states of a massive fiscal burden, freeing up money for education, infrastructure, tax cuts, and other state projects.

Putting Medicaid entirely in the hands of the federal government may also better tame the program’s costs. As Greg Anrig of the Century Foundations writes, “taking 50 separate state bureaucracies out of the picture would be a meaningful step in the direction of reducing confusion and wastefulness.” Congress and federal agencies would also be better able to experiment with cost-containment strategies without the states in the mix.

Federalizing Medicaid could also yield tax relief for low- and middle-income Americans. While new federal revenues would need to be raised, the states would be free to cut taxes. And because the federal tax code is more progressive than the states’, most of the new financing for Medicaid would come from the wealthy. The net result would likely mean lower taxes for most Americans.

Federalization is not a new idea, nor a partisan one. As Anrig points out, Ronald Reagan proposed federalizing Medicaid in 1982 in exchange for giving the states over other safety net programs. Even earlier, in 1979 Jimmy Carter proposed federalizing Medicaid as part of his health reform pitch.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised that he would not cut Medicaid. That’s a promise he cannot keep while also block-granting the program. Instead of pawning Medicaid off on the states, the federal government should lift it off of their shoulders entirely. That would give the states real flexibility.

Note: This post is cross-posted at Medium.