For all of the non-stop wall-to-wall coverage of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby—in which the Court ruled that the government doesn’t have the authority to force “closely-held corporations” to violate their religious beliefs—a simple fact has been lost. The ruling did not overturn a single word of the “Affordable Care Act,” otherwise known as Obamacare. Nor did the Supreme Court prevent the government from requiring that taxpayers finance abortion-related services.Pro-life activists—and Obamacare opponents—are cheering today. But when they sit down and reflect, they’ll realize that they haven’t won a thing.
Holiday weekend changes to the health care law have become commonplace. Despite repeated insistence that the law was working, the administration chose Thanksgiving to announce its delay of enrollment for the small business exchange. Also over the Thanksgiving week, the administration announced that open enrollment for 2015 would not begin until November 15, 2014. And even Christmas was not off limits as the administration pushed back the deadline to enroll for coverage starting on January 1. Of course, on New Year’s Eve, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared there would be no more delays, just another promise that has not held true.
For the past couple of months, the law’s supporters have toasted to success on more than one occasion, ignoring the fact that the backend of the exchanges have yet to be built, millions of ‘inconsistencies’ remain unresolved, and several state exchanges remain in disarray. We can only imagine what could be next.
It is not possible to displace Obamacare without advancing a credible alternative. Simply repealing the law implies a reversion to the pre-Obamacare status quo, which had its own set of problems. To repair American health care, critics of the president’s plan must offer reforms that address the defects of the old system while jettisoning Obamacare’s fatal combination of soaring costs and shrinking access to doctors and leading hospitals. Doing so would win broad public support. In polling done for the 2017 Project, a group advancing a conservative reform agenda, the public favored replacing Obamacare 44 percent with an alternative, as opposed to keeping and fixing it 32 percent.
Of course, the Republicans’ language is unlikely to become law, thanks to the Democrats’ fervent fidelity to their hard-won health care handiwork. But the debate over a delay should, if anything, help the GOP heading into this year’s midterm elections. The party is already expected to do well. Simply by focusing its fire on the mandate, the GOP can refocus the larger health care debate around it, and thus elevate its importance in the campaign.That’s smart politics. Health care is now firmly at the top of voter’s minds, according to research by The Polling Company for FreedomWorks. Full disclosure: I helped conduct this research. Voters usually name “health care” as one of their “top 10” issues. But right now it’s one of the “top three,” along with “jobs / economy” and “government spending.” An unpublished January poll by Heart-Mind Strategies for the Heritage Foundation is even more striking, finding health care to be in the “top one” – that’s right, the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds.It gets better. The Polling Company research finds a solid majority of voters in every category – including the law’s supporters – support a delay of the whole law, not just the mandate. Sixty percent say they favor a delay “to make sure the law is fair and workable for everyone.”
The best part of the plan is the fixed tax credit. This is an idea proposed by Mark Pauly and me in Health Affairs almost 20 years ago and virtually all economists favor it. It contrasts with tax deductions and exclusions employer payments that are not counted in the employee’s taxable income. These unbounded tax subsidies encourage over-insurance because we can all lower our taxes by buying more expensive insurance. The fixed sum tax credit, by contrast, pays for the first dollars of coverage but beyond some point all remaining premium payments are made with after-tax dollars. This means that individuals won’t buy another dollar of insurance unless they get a dollar’s worth of value.Another good feature of the Capretta plan is that the tax credit is independent of income. It is universal, at least for people who buy insurance on their own. This contrasts with the Burr/Coburn/Hatch proposal, with which Capretta is associated and which he curiously promotes in the same chapter where he describes his own plan – even implying that the two plans are essentially the same. They’re not.
Savvy primary voters understood that all GOP candidates would criticize the detested Obamacare law, but they were looking for candidates committed to actually working towards repealing and replacing it. The Repeal Pledge was established in the summer of 2010 for just that purpose. It is designed to attest to the seriousness of the signer’s understanding that the Affordable Care Act is so fundamentally and structurally flawed that it cannot be fixed. Instead, it needs to be delayed, defunded, and prevented from metastasizing until it can be repealed and replaced with positive, patient-centered reforms.
Capretta’s tax on employer provided health insurance in practice turns out to apply to the top 35% of employer health plans, as reflected in the bill proposed by Senators Coburn R-OK, Burr R-NC and Hatch R-UT. That is a tax assessed against the covered workers, which means roughly 35% of workers not necessarily wealthier than middle income could be expected to bear that tax.Moreover, about 97% of voters have health insurance. So the plan is to raise taxes on about 35% of those who vote, to help finance insurance for those who don’t vote. Unions will be more worried about this new tax on their workers than about losing employer provided health insurance for their workers.