Holy seven million, Batman! The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, has made a stunning comeback from its shambolic start. As the March 31 deadline for 2014 coverage approached, there was a surge in applications at the “exchanges” — the special insurance marketplaces the law set up. And the original target of seven million signups, widely dismissed as unattainable, has been surpassed.
But what does it mean? That depends on whether you ask the law’s opponents or its supporters. You see, the opponents think that it means a lot, while the law’s supporters are being very cautious. And, in this one case, the enemies of health reform are right. This is a very big deal indeed.
Of course, you don’t find many Obamacare opponents admitting outright that 7.1 million and counting signups is a huge victory for reform. But their reaction to the results — It’s a fraud! They’re cooking the books! — tells the tale. Conservative thinking and Republican political strategy were based entirely on the assumption that it would always be October, that Obamacare’s rollout would be an unremitting tale of disaster. They have no idea what to do now that it’s turning into a success story.
So why are many reform supporters being diffident, telling us not to read too much into the figures? Well, at a technical level they’re right: The precise number of signups doesn’t matter much for the functioning of the law, and there may still be many problems despite the March surge. But I’d argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees.
The crucial thing to understand about the Affordable Care Act is that it’s a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated way to do something inherently simple. The biggest risk to reform has always been that the scheme would founder on its complexity. And now we know that this won’t happen.
Remember, giving everyone health insurance doesn’t have to be hard; you can just do it with a government-run program. Not only do many other advanced countries have “single-payer,” government-provided health insurance, but we ourselves have such a program — Medicare — for older Americans. If it had been politically possible, extending Medicare to everyone would have been technically easy.
But it wasn’t politically possible, for a couple of reasons. One was the power of the insurance industry, which couldn’t be cut out of the loop if you wanted health reform this decade. Another was the fact that the 170 million Americans receiving health insurance through employers are generally satisfied with their coverage, and any plan replacing that coverage with something new and unknown was a nonstarter.
So health reform had to be run largely through private insurers, and be an add-on to the existing system rather than a complete replacement. And, as a result, it had to be somewhat complex.
Now, the complexity shouldn’t be exaggerated: The basics of reform only take a few minutes to explain. And it has to be as complicated as it is. There’s a reason Republicans keep defaulting on their promise to propose an alternative to the Affordable Care Act: All the main elements of Obamacare, including the subsidies and the much-attacked individual mandate, are essential if you want to cover the uninsured.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration created a system in which people don’t simply receive a letter from the federal government saying “Congratulations, you are now covered.” Instead, people must go online or make a phone call and choose from a number of options, in which the cost of insurance depends on a calculation that includes varying subsidies, and so on. It’s a system in which many things can go wrong; the nightmare scenario has always been that conservatives would seize on technical problems to discredit health reform as a whole. And last fall that nightmare seemed to be coming true.
But the nightmare is over. It has long been clear, to anyone willing to study the issue, that the overall structure of Obamacare made sense given the political constraints. Now we know that the technical details can be managed, too. This thing is going to work.
And, yes, it’s also a big political victory for Democrats. They can point to a system that is already providing vital aid to millions of Americans, and Republicans — who were planning to run against a debacle — have nothing to offer in response. And I mean nothing. So far, not one of the supposed Obamacare horror stories featured in attack ads has stood up to scrutiny.
So my advice to reform supporters is, go ahead and celebrate. Oh, and feel free to ridicule right-wingers who confidently predicted doom.
Clearly, there’s a lot of work ahead, and we can count on the news media to play up every hitch and glitch as if it were an existential disaster. But Rube Goldberg has survived; health reform has won.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 3, 2014
Barack Obama has done many dastardly things to Republicans. He regularly ridicules their arguments. He insists on being treated as though he were legitimately the president of the United States. And most cruelly of all, he beat their standard-bearers in two national elections. Is it any wonder they loathe him so? But one thing Obama has done to the GOP has gone unnoticed: he made it impossible for them to be serious about health care policy.
By now you’re well familiar with how the core of the Affordable Care Act—a ban on insurance companies denying coverage for pre-existing conditions (also known as “guaranteed issue”), accompanied by an individual mandate and subsidies for people of moderate incomes to purchase private insurance—was originally a conservative proposal. The idea was that unlike in most other western countries where a large government program like Medicare covers all citizens, you could achieve something close to universal coverage and health security through the use of markets. When Mitt Romney installed it in Massachusetts, it worked quite well and everybody was pleased. But then Barack Obama came along and embraced it, so all good and true conservatives had to conclude that it was not only a terrible idea in practical terms but a vile and wicked plot to rob Americans of their freedom.
And that has left Republicans in a difficult spot. They would very much like to have market-based health care ideas they could rally around, if nothing else than to demonstrate to the public that they sincerely want to fix what’s wrong in America’s health care system. But the theft of the guaranteed issue-plus-mandate-plus-subsidies framework has left them with nothing but unappetizing scraps off the health care table, none of which will do much of anything to address problems like the large number of uninsured Americans.
There’s a ritual people like me have taken to of late. Republicans announce that they’re about to release a health care plan. Then we say sarcastically, “Gee, let me guess. It involves 1) tort reform; 2) letting people buy insurance across state lines; 3) incentives for more use of health savings accounts, and 4) high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions” (here’s a recent example). And we’re always right, because those are the Big Four conservative health care ideas, and nobody can come up with anything different.
Here’s the thing about these ideas: neither any of them individually, nor all of them collectively, would even begin to tackle the things that ail the American health care system, the things the Affordable Care Act was meant to address. Tort reform—which means making it difficult or impossible for patients to sue for malpractice—won’t bring down costs like conservatives think it will. We know this because a number of states have enacted the kind of tort reform Republicans advocate for the whole nation, and it had no impact on spending. Realistic assessments of the effect of tort reform on medical spending conclude that if there’s any impact at all, it would be tiny (I discussed this issue at length here).
Letting people buy insurance across state lines would be fine if it was accompanied by national standards for policies; you’ve surely forgotten it by now, but the more liberal House version of the ACA created a national insurance exchange instead of 50 state exchanges, in which you could have bought insurance from anywhere. But a well-regulated system isn’t what conservatives want; they propose to remove the ACA’s regulations and then initiate a race to the bottom, where the least-regulated state would offer cheap insurance to lure customers who wouldn’t realize the limits of what they had bought until they got sick (here’s an explanation of just how bad an idea this is).
As for health savings accounts, we already have them. They’re a great deal for people who are healthy, but not so much when you actually need care. And high-risk pools are a terrible solution as anything other than a temporary stopgap—they put all the sick people in the same pool, meaning covering them is extremely expensive. That’s no help to the tens of millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions.
Which brings us to Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who is almost certainly running for president in 2016. There aren’t a lot of Republicans who have a good understanding of health care policy, but Bobby Jindal is one of the ones who do. Back in 1996, at the tender age of 24, he was appointed the head of the Louisiana Department of Health; George W. Bush later made him an assistant secretary of health and human services. So he’s well familiar with this issue, and surely has a reasonably good understanding of which policies are likely to have a large impact and which are likely to make no difference at all.
But Jindal is hamstrung, like all Republicans, by the fact that they can’t advocate anything Barack Obama has ever supported. So when he released a health care plan yesterday, it was a predictable mixture of small-bore proposals (Wellness incentives! Eliminate fraud!), and the Big Four conservative ideas. For good measure, he threw in a version of Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare from an insurance program into a voucher program, where the government would give seniors a certain amount of money and then they’d seek private insurance, with the invisible hand of the market bringing prices down, all previous evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
In fairness to Jindal, he has tweaked a few things from the standard conservative playbook. He would require insurance companies, once they’ve sold you insurance, to continue your plan even if you get sick—but doesn’t say how he’d protect the tens of millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions who would have trouble getting covered in the first place, other than state high-risk pools. And there are a few smaller features of his proposal that make sense. For instance, he’d change the tax treatment of health insurance so everyone could get the same favorable treatment that people with employer-provided insurance get. That would increase the fairness of the system, even if Jindal’s assertions that it would magically cut the ranks of the uninsured by 9 million and dramatically slow health care spending are absurd on their face.
But if we repealed the ACA and instituted all of Jindal’s proposed reforms, we’d still have all the problems we had before the ACA was passed. And I suspect that if you gave him a truth serum, he’d admit that none of what he proposes would have much of a salutary effect. But that’s where conservatives are. Barack Obama stole the one market-based idea they had that might actually bring us to something close to universal coverage. They have no idea where to go from there, and that’s how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. They’ll feel the need to keep saying, “We have a plan too!” And when everyone says, “OK, tell us what it is,” it will be the same old thing, and no one will take them seriously.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 3, 2014
The cynicism of the GOP’s anti-Obamacare strategy has been obvious forever, but some particular kinks in it only became clear as the enrollment deadline approached and it seemed the Obama administration would not just meet but beat its public-exchange enrollment target. Republicans went from shrieking about what an awful program it was to complaining that not enough people had signed up, and then, when the goal was met, complaining that not enough uninsured people had gotten coverage, and of course lying about that, too.
The lunacy of their complaint – “This program is a nightmare – but not enough people are being helped by it!” – is like the old joke about the kvetchy restaurant patron who complains the food is terrible, and the portions are too small. It would be funny if it weren’t sad.
I confess that the freakout over the federal exchange’s rocky start had me convinced the administration would miss its enrollment target. So hitting the seven million mark is cause for elation, but also anger: Imagine how many people might have enrolled if the entire Republican Party coast to coast hadn’t spent the last six months telling them not to?
Let’s take it further: Imagine if all 50 states had implemented their own exchanges, instead of just 17 of them. Imagine if all 50 states had expanded Medicaid, instead of just 27. Imagine if a well-funded noise machine, from Fox to Rush to the online swarm hadn’t publicized every glitch and every allegation of someone losing their insurance, often fabricating the problems, sometimes lying outright, while ignoring every positive story.
It’s absolutely true that this first enrollment period still leaves most of the uninsured without insurance. Still, at least 9.5 million of the uninsured now have care, thanks to the state and federal exchanges, Medicaid expansion and people buying coverage privately. (On Fox, Charles Krauthammer simply lied when he says it’s only 1 million.) It must be noted that states that built their own exchanges and expanded Medicaid did much better when it comes to covering the uninsured. The Los Angeles Times estimates that at least 27 percent of the newly insured were previously uninsured; in Kentucky, it’s 75 percent and in New York it’s 70 percent. If Republican governors and legislatures hadn’t sabotaged the program in roughly half the states, we would see numbers like that nationwide.
When you add in young people covered by their parents’ insurance and people with pre-existing conditions who can now get coverage, the number goes higher still. As President Obama noted in his Rose Garden victory lap, 100 million people have received free preventive care under new regulations for insurance plans. It’s no wonder that the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll showed approval of the Affordable Care Act topping disapproval for the first time ever, with approval jumping from 40 percent in November to 49 percent last week. Barring a major meltdown, those numbers are likely to climb too.
This is, of course, what the GOP feared – not that the plan would fail, but that it would work. Again, it’s not perfect – we still don’t know exactly who signed up, and whether the balance of young and old, sick and well will make plans affordable. But this enormous milestone should make Democrats smarter about how to make Republicans pay for their obstruction in 2014. The conventional wisdom is that Obamacare will be a millstone in the midterms, especially for red state Democrats, but conventional wisdom is often wrong.
Democrats should challenge Republicans to take away that free preventive care from 100 million Americans. Challenge them to transfer money from women back to men, by letting insurance companies once again charge women more, sometimes much more, for health insurance. Take insurance away from people with pre-existing conditions; kick young people off their parents’ plans. Roll back Medicaid expansion in the 27 states that participated. Go on and tell the American people you’re going to do that, Republicans. The midterms might not be the cakewalk you think.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, April 2, 2014
President Barack Obama should have skipped his Obamacare victory lap and instead let Vice President Joe Biden talk about the Affordable Care Act officially surpassing 7.1 million enrollees because achieving that milestone is – to paraphrase the colorful expression for which the vice president is well remembered – a big flipping deal.
Let’s be clear on what it’s not: It’s not a definitive number in the sense that there are many questions left to be answered which will help clarify its meaning. As a House GOP leadership aide noted to reporters after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that the 7.1 million figure had indeed been surpassed, we still need to know how many of the enrollees were previously uninsured, how many have paid their premiums, how many are getting subsidies and what the age breakdown is of the enrollees.
Some of these questions are not as mysterious as many conservative critics seem to believe: The Los Angeles Times’ Noam N. Levey reported Monday, for example, that roughly one-third of the initial six million enrollees were previously uninsured and that all told 9.5 million people who hadn’t had insurance have gotten it through Obamacare; 80 percent of enrollees having paid seems to be a consensus conservative estimate; and young people reportedly made up around 27 percent of those signing on through the Obamacare exchanges, though that number may well have been higher in the final surge and was reportedly higher among those signing up in the harder-to-track private market.
And in any case, this is only the first Obamacare enrollment window; nearly twice as many people are expected to enroll in 2015 as did this year, and many more the following year. And let’s keep the full scope of the Affordable Care Act in mind as well: Obamacare numbers guru Charles Gaba estimates that altogether somewhere between 14.6 and 22.1 million people have gotten coverage under the law.
So in short, the 7 million news is not a be-all, end-all vindication of the Affordable Care Act. It is, as Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle writes, “the end of the beginning” for the law (h/t BBC’s Anthony Zurcher).
But keeping all that in mind, we also need to acknowledge another thing that it’s not: It’s not the beginning of the end.
Commentary in recent weeks and months looking toward yesterday’s deadline contemplated almost solely the scope of the next presumed Obamacare failure – whether the law would fall short of the reduced-expectations 6 million enrollee figure, let alone the original 7 million benchmark. The fact that in the end the exchanges blew by the lower figure and even exceeded the positive one, even after the bungled initial rollout of the website and more glitches on the final day of the enrollment period, is a testament to not only the fact that the law has some life in it but also the mobilization skills the administration was able to marshal in the closing weeks. (It was, if anything, reminiscent of the 2012 presidential ground game; hey now that the enrollment deadline has passed, do you think the people who masterminded getting millions of people to sign up might be available to help Democrats mobilize their notoriously somnambulant off-year voters? Just wondering.)
Republicans and conservatives, of course, are insisting that there’s nothing to see here except for fraud or failure. But the former just recalls their 2012 “unskewed” infatuation while the latter, as Steve Benen points, has them taking on an increasingly Baghad Bob-style mien. They can insist that the story of Obamacare is one of unremitting, uninterrupted failure, but who are you going to believe – Republicans or your own eyes?
Those on the right who keep trying to poke holes in the law by raising questions need to answer one they’d like to ignore: What happened to Obamacare’s inevitable collapse? Because 7.1 million enrollees is, after all, a big flipping deal.
By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, April 1, 2014
“ACA Enrollment Tops 6 Million”: The Imminent Implosion Of The Affordable Care Act Has Been Cancelled
The expectation all along was that health care enrollment through the Affordable Care Act would spike shortly before the March 31 deadline. As of this afternoon, those expectations are very much in line with reality.
More than 6 million people have signed up for health insurance on the new exchanges, a number that signals a tremendous last-minute surge, the White House said Thursday.
President Barack Obama told volunteers and navigators helping sign people up that 1.5 million people visited HealthCare.gov on Wednesday – the highest-traffic day yet. Officials have said they logged more than a million visits each day so far this week.
Remember, this total only refers to consumers who’ve signed up for private coverage through exchange marketplaces. It doesn’t include Americans who’ve gained coverage through Medicaid expansion. For that matter, clearing the 6-million milestone is an important threshold, but there’s still time remaining in the open-enrollment period and it’s not unrealistic to think we’ll see 6.2 million by next week.
“We are seeing near-record numbers of consumers coming to check out their options and enroll in coverage. Yesterday alone, we had 1.5 million visits to HealthCare.gov and took more than 430,000 calls at our 24/7 call center,” said Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
As of March 1 – not quite four weeks ago – 4.2 million Americans had enrolled through exchanges, suggesting we’ve seen nearly two million consumers sign up in less than a month.
It’s easy to forget, but this seemed like a pipe dream last fall. In October, the first month of the open-enrollment period, just 106,185 consumers signed up for insurance through an exchange – causing Republicans to not only celebrate, but to openly mock the system by noting a variety of sports venues that hold more than 106,185 attendees.
It was obviously proof, we were told at the time, that the Affordable Care Act itself was “hurtling toward failure.”
The enrollment totals must seem literally unbelievable to Republicans, who managed to convince one another that the ACA is not only catastrophically flawed, but on an inevitable road towards imploding.
Indeed, as Paul Krugman noted earlier today, “[P]eople in the GOP are still working with a completely wrong narrative — namely, that Obamacare is failing, and that these are desperate ploys to save a sinking ship. The reality is quite different: enrollments have clearly surged in the final month…. How will the GOP respond when the numbers come in?”
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I suspect it’ll have something to do with Benghazi.
To reiterate a point from early February, those who say they hate “Obamacare” won’t want to hear this, but the imminent implosion of the Affordable Care Act has been cancelled.
What’s more, this is less of a comeback story than a story of normalcy and effective governance. There was a fair amount of panic in November – remember the pieces that predicted “Obamacare may destroy all of liberalism forever”? – but there were plenty of voices counseling patience. There were problems, but they were surmountable. There were elements that were broken, but they could be fixed.
The recent progress, in other words, isn’t some remarkable fluke the White House achieved through a Hail Mary pass. Rather, what we’re seeing now is progress many of us expected to see all along.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 27, 2014