As Donald Trump and the Republicans aim a bulldozer at the Affordable Care Act, supporters of the ACA are making a strong case for its successes. One of them is Jonathan Cohn, who has covered health care for years. In a long and persuasive essay, he calls on witness after witness to show that “real people with serious medical issues are finally getting the help they need.”
Cohn interviews a number of people who fell victim to “the old system at its callous, capricious worst” (before President Barack Obama took office) when “roughly 1 in 6 Americans had no health care insurance, and even the insured could still face crippling medical bills.” The ACA was an effort to address their problems, and after seven years, he reports, the list of what’s gone right is long:
– In states like California and Michigan, the newly regulated markets appear to be working as the law’s architects intended, except for some rural areas that insurers have never served that well. Middle-class people in those states have better, more affordable options.
– It looks like more insurers are figuring out how to make their products work and how to successfully compete for business. Customers have turned out to be more price-sensitive than insurers originally anticipated. In general, the carriers that struggle are large national companies without much experience selling directly to consumers rather than through employers.
– Last year’s big premium increases followed two years in which average premiums were far below projections, a sign that carriers simply started their pricing too low. Even now, on average, the premiums people pay for exchange insurance are on a par with, or even a bit cheaper than, equivalent employer policies – and that’s before the tax credits.
– The majority of people who are buying insurance on their own or get their coverage through Medicaid are satisfied with it, according to separate surveys by the Commonwealth Fund and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The level of satisfaction with the new coverage still trails that involving employer-provided insurance, and it has declined over time. But it’s clearly in positive territory.
Overall, Cohn concludes, the number of people without health insurance “is the lowest that government or private surveys have ever recorded.”
Yes, there are problems. Cohn acknowledges where the Affordable Care Act has failed and why. Mostly because the president and his allies were so determined to succeed where those before them had failed, “they made a series of concessions that necessarily limited the law’s ambition:
They expanded Medicaid and regulated private insurance rather than start a whole new government-run program. They dialed back demands for lower prices from drug makers, hospitals and other health care industries. And they agreed to tight budget constraints for the program as a whole, rather than risk a revolt among more conservative Democrats. These decisions meant that health insurance would ultimately be more expensive and the new system’s financial assistance would be less generous.”
Cohn gives critics their due, especially those who focused on the law’s actual consequences: the higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs that some people face.
“The new rules, like coverage of pre-existing conditions, have made policies more expensive, and Obamacare’s financial aid frequently doesn’t offset the increases. A ‘rate-shock’ wave hit suddenly in the fall of 2013, when insurers unveiled their newly upgraded plans and in many cases canceled old ones – infuriating customers who remembered Obama’s promise that ‘if you like your plan, you can keep it,’ while alienating even some of those sympathetic to what Obama and the Democrats were trying to do.”
But remember: “When the Senate passed its version of the legislation in December 2009, then-Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) described the program as a ‘starter home‘ with a solid foundation and room for expansion.”
Yet the Republicans, many of whom reject the whole concept of health care as a right, are determined to rip it all up. Giving scant attention to what’s gone right, they claim the Affordable Care Act is “a disaster.” Their now-leader, President Trump, turned directly to the camera Tuesday night in his address to Congress and announced that he still wants the ACA “repealed and replaced.” If Trump and his fellow Republicans could, they would end it altogether, but they are nervous about the political consequences of depriving millions of Americans of coverage and raising deductibles. As longtime health policy experts Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein – both physicians – point out in the current Annals of Internal Medicine, proposals by House Speaker Paul Ryan and the new HHS Secretary, Tom Price, both Republicans, would slash Medicaid spending for the poor, shift the ACA’s subsidies from the near-poor to wealthier Americans and replace Medicare with a voucher program. This would likely lead to their rout at the polls in 2018 and 2020. The vast majority of Americans want to keep their health care coverage.
We are at a stalemate. Opponents of the ACA have no viable replacement and supporters have no power to stave off the Republican bulldozer.
Is the situation hopeless? In Washington, probably – at least for now. But there are alternatives. As I noted above, two longtime advocates for universal health care, Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein, have renewed their campaign for single-payer reform, which candidate Barack Obama applauded when he was campaigning and then rejected after his election as part of those compromises he made to win support from conservative Democrats and the medical and insurance industries. In their Annals article, the two reformist physicians offer evidence that single-payer reform could provide “comprehensive coverage within the current budgetary envelope” because of huge savings on health care bureaucracy. It’s worth reading.
So is a plan put forth by Minnesota State Sen. John Marty. Often described as “the conscience of the Minnesota Senate,” Marty has been an advocate for universal health care since he was elected 30 years ago. He has served as chairman of the Senate Health Committee and now serves as the ranking minority member of the Senate Energy Committee. Often ahead of his times, Marty introduced and eventually secured passage of the country’s first ban on smoking in hospitals and health care facilities. Long before public support had materialized, he worked to ban mercury in consumer products, create a legal structure for public benefit corporations and bring about a “living wage” for workers. In 2008, when he introduced legislation proposing marriage equality for LGBT couples and predicted it could pass in five years, colleagues dismissed him as a Don Quixote. Five years later Minnesota passed marriage equality legislation.
So this lifelong progressive has earned the right to chide his fellow progressives for “merely tinkering” with problems. He writes that “If 21st-century progressives had been leading the 19th-century abolition movement, we would still have slavery, but we would have limited slavery to a 40-hour work week, and we would be congratulating each other on the progress we had made.”
This timidity, Marty acknowledges, might be partially explained by decades of defeat at the hands of powerful financial interests and politicians beholden to those interests. But as a result, many politicians who espouse progressive change have retreated from a “politics of principle” to a “politics of pragmatism.”
Sen. Marty crisscrossed Minnesota to talk directly with citizens about what they need and want in health care. He has now proposed a universal health care system which he calls the Minnesota Health Plan. He’s distilled it into a small paperback book – Healing Health Care: The Case for a Commonsense Universal Health System. I asked him to write an essay for us summing up the plan’s basic principles and the case for it.
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