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People will die if we don’t repeal and replace Obamacare! That right, and I’ll tell you why: First, the “Affordable” Care Act (ACA) creates terrible incentives for physicians. Among other provisions, it has chopped reimbursement rates on Medicare and Medicaid. As a result, physicians are declining patients under those plans, exposing the “access” myth under Obamacare as one of several cruel deceptions. Second, “physician feedback” reports and hospital “performance scores” reward providers who avoid the sickest and neediest patients. Third, provisions of the ACA encourage the monopolization of health care delivery and consequently inflate costs. That makes it less likely that needy individuals will insure or seek care, especially given the high deductibles they face. And greater market concentration in health care delivery often means patients have nowhere to go when they are denied care. Fourth, Obamacare has increased the regulatory burden on providers, which invariably reduces the quality of care. Other ACA regulatory burdens placed on employers have forced them to reduce employees’ hours and new hiring in order to control costs. This has limited the number insured under employer plans, leaving them to grapple with the exchanges, or on government plans from which physicians feel stiffed, or to be uninsured. All of these developments lead to undesirable health care outcomes. And there is more.

The ACA Disaster

Obamacare was a complete sham and destined to fail from the start, but the law’s now certain demise is greeted with indignance by the economic illiterati of the left. There are many counts upon which the law has failed: almost 29 million remain uninsured; millions of others in the individual market lost the coverage and doctors they preferred; only a single insurance option is available on many exchanges; the individual mandate is widely-ignored; the exchanges are serving a sickly risk pool; insurance premia are skyrocketing; health care delivery has trended toward monopoly; low Medicaid reimbursement rates have reduced actual access to providers; negative employment effects have arisen as firms adjusted to the employer mandates; and the law has imposed stiff regulatory compliance costs on providers of health care. Obamacare is also a significant budget item, despite early claims to the contrary (also see here): according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the law’s contribution to the federal budget deficit is expected to be almost $2 trillion over the next ten years. What a law! It’s many invasive tendrils are destroying the vitality of the health care and insurance sectors, and it must be eliminated.

There are better ways to achieve the goals originally put forward under the aegis of the ACA. Those who fear repeal either believe that the law will not be replaced, which is unlikely, or that the replacement plan will lead to the loss of health care coverage for a large number of individuals. My contention is that the ACA can be replaced with a plan that would correct its massive deficiencies without creating other death traps.

The single truthful claim that supporters of Obamacare can make is a reduction in the number of uninsured since its implementation, but the numbers reported are exaggerated. A typical quote is that 20 million have gained coverage, an estimate, but we’ll go with that. The link gives a rough but meaningful accounting. Most of the increase in the number of insured, about 13 million, came from expanded Medicaid enrollment. That could have been accomplished without the ACA, and most of those enrollees were already eligible for Medicaid before the ACA’s expansion in eligibility. Perhaps the law had some beneficial effects on the awareness of individuals who were previously eligible but unenrolled.

The quoted gains in the insured population also include several million who were forced off their previous coverage in the individual market by the ACA. These do not represent net increases in the insured population. There have also been gains among young adults who remained on their parents policies. And yes, there have been gains in coverage among those with pre-existing conditions, but this totals less than half a million even counting those already covered under state “high-risk pools”. Needless to say, outright repeal of the ACA without replacement would not lead to a 20 million increase in the uninsured population, as many have argued. With replacement, it is conceivable that losses in coverage could be zero or negative.

Replacement Bills

What are the likely features of an ACA replacement bill? There are as many as nine different proposals or bills introduced by republicans, including one from Rep. Tom Price, who has been nominated to serve as President-Elect Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. Bill Cassidy have introduced a bill endorsed by economist John C. Goodman. Rep. Phil Roe introduced a bill just last week. Sen. Orin Hatch and Sen. Richard Burr have proposed health care legislation. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also proposed a plan that received muted praise from noted health-care expert Avik Roy. These plans have some commonalities. In broad strokes, the proposed legislative actions call for less regulation, greater choice in the design of health insurance policies, more patient-centered care, a shift to market orientation, efforts to equalize the tax treatment of insurance premia for employer and individually-sponsored plans, retention of the ACA’s continuance of family coverage for young adults, and tax credits to support universal availability of insurance coverage.

There are several ways in which an ACA replacement plan can reduce the cost of health care delivery and the cost of health care insurance. The low-hanging fruit, as it were, involves steps to reduce the regulatory burden on health care providers, eliminating the ACA’s Minimum Essential Coverage and Essential Heath Benefits requirements (and allowing wider choice of coverage types and levels), and allowing competition among insurers across state lines.

The reduction in costs and subsidies that can achieved by allowing simple catastrophic-only policies in both the individual and employer markets is obvious. These policies would have low premia and correspondingly high deductibles. Regular checkups and routine health maintenance would not be covered under such basic policies. Those benefits would be optional, along with others like mental health coverage, maternity and reproductive health. The basic policies would represent real insurance, not paid-in-advance services. It’s more difficult, however, to anticipate the magnitude of cost savings and efficiency gains from eliminating regulatory requirements, encouraging competition among providers, and legalizing interstate insurance competition. That means the total gain from “low-hanging fruit” is hard to quantify, but it is real. Here are comments by David Brooks in The New York Times on the promise of market-oriented reforms.

Several of the GOP plans seek to provide universal availability of health insurance coverage by allowing refundable tax credits on insurance costs combined with expanded availability of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). These steps would help to equalize the tax benefits of health insurance across the employer and individual markets. This is a crucial step due to the historically damaging effects of employer-provided coverage, as noted by A. Barton Hinkle here. Several of the GOP plans would allow non-employers like church groups, fraternal and professional associations to offer coverage.

Here is Avik Roy on the handling of high-risk individuals under the Ryan plan:

Obamacare-style guaranteed issue and community rating would be gone and replaced by high risk pools, guaranteed issue for continuously held coverage, and a default requirement that insurers had to price their plans for older enrollees no higher than 5 times how they price them for younger enrollees (a significant improvement from Obamacare’s stricter 3:1 ratio).

Other proposals in some of the GOP plans involve reform of the FDA, more support for private Medicare plans, and a change in the federal portion of Medicaid funding to block grants to states (who actually manage the program). The latter will be the subject of a future post.

Opportunities and Minefields

The kinds of steps described above can lead to greater reductions in the number of uninsured, and at a lower cost, than Obamacare. However, many partisans are agitating to convince republicans that this is impossible. Here is Roy’s opinion (he refers to his 2014 book, Transcending Obamacare):

… many would-be reformers have convinced themselves that no Republican replacement for Obamacare can cover as many Americans as Obamacare will. Put simply, this is flat-out wrong. As Transcending Obamacare showed, you absolutely can achieve universal coverage with less spending and less government intervention, because we spend way too much subsidizing health coverage for the wealthy, and because our government-driven employer-based health care system inflates wasteful spending across the board.

John C. Goodman discusses four “minefields” that republicans should avoid, the first of which seems obvious:

  1. Don’t repeal and delay: All indications are that congressional republicans have avoided this minefield, and Trump has stated that he won’t accept anything short of “simultaneous” repeal and replace.
  2. ACA revenue should not be “given away”: Goodman lists negotiated fee reductions from the AMA under the ACA, AARP’s agreement to Medicare cuts, and taxes on pharmaceutical companies, insurers, big labor and big business. Eliminating these sources of savings and tax revenue can be afforded only by reducing other costs. I’m dubious that the fee reductions and taxes haven’t had counterproductive effects, but point taken.
  3. Don’t impose a Cadillac tax: The Cadillac tax applies to expensive plans offered by employers. This point is an exception to #2 above, but Goodman says several GOP plans impose forms of Cadillac taxes despite widespread opposition.
  4. Don’t ignore employers: Here is Goodman on employers:

Virtually all of the new government spending for private health insurance under Obamacare is going to what has become the most dysfunctional part of the healthcare system – the individual market. This is where premiums are spiraling and there is a race to the bottom on quality and access to care. Almost every Republican plan to replace Obamacare makes the same mistake. But why throw good money after bad?

Almost 30 million Americans are still uninsured (largely because the products in the Obamacare exchanges are so expensive and unattractive) and 85% of these live in a household with someone in the labor market. A tax credit that could be used by employers to help employees enroll in a group plan would give them access to lower premiums and better coverage.

Goodman strongly endorses the replacement plan put forward by Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. Bill Cassidy. It is the only GOP plan advanced thus far that avoids the four pitfalls identified by Goodman.

Markets Can Save Lives

My statement at the top of this piece might strike some as outrageous, but it is less outrageous than statements by Sen. Harry Reid and others that “people will die” if Obamacare is repealed. Of course, my assertion would be hard to defend unless conditioned on a replacement plan to improve access to quality care. But it is wrong to say that repeal will lead to incremental deaths without reference to a replacement plan. The claim that there is unlikely to be a replacement is disingenuous.

The usual defense of the ACA is grounded in the increased number of insureds it has achieved, combined with appeals to the expense of catastrophic health events. A weaker defense is the presumption that Obamacare codifies a “right” to health care. Even if we stipulate that such a right exists, there are better ways to accomplish the ends desired by the ACA’s proponents. The alternatives now under consideration are encouraging, as they are largely geared toward leveraging the efficiency of the market with less reliance on information-deficient government planners and rule-makers.