, , , , , , , , ,

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is still predicting strong future growth in the number of insured individuals under Obamacare, despite their past, drastic over-predictions for the exchange market and slim chances that the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid will be adopted by additional states. Now that Republican leaders have backed away from an unpopular health care plan they’d hoped would pass the House and meet the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules, it will be interesting to see how the CBO’s predictions pan out. The “decremental” forecasts it made for the erstwhile American Health Care Act (AHCA) were based on its current Obamacare “baseline”. A figure cited often by critics of the GOP plan was that 24 million fewer individuals would be insured by 2026 than under the baseline.

It was fascinating to see many supporters of the AHCA accept this “forecast” uncritically. With the AHCA’s failure, however, we’ve been given an opportunity to witness the distortion in what would have been a CBO counterfactual. What a wonderful life! We’re stuck with Obamacare for the time being, but this glimpse into the CBO’s delusions will be one of several silver linings for me.

Again, the projected 24 million loss in the number of insured under the AHCA was based on an actual predicted loss of about 5 – 6 million and the absence of an Obamacare gain of 18 – 19 million. Those figures are from an excellent piece by Avik Roy in Forbes. I drew on that article extensively in my post on the AHCA prior to its demise. Here are some key points I raised then, which I’ve reworded slightly to put more emphasis on the Obamacare forecasts:

  1. The CBO has repeatedly erred by a large margin in its forecasts of Obamacare exchange enrollment, overestimating 2016 enrollment by over 100% as recently as 2014.
  2. The AHCA changes relative to Obamacare were taken from CBO’s 2016 forecast, which is likely to over-predict Obamacare enrollment on the exchanges by at least 7 million, according to Roy.
  3. The CBO also assumes that all states will opt to participate in expanded Medicaid under Obamacare going forward. That is highly unlikely, and Roy estimates its impact on the CBO’s forecast at about 3 million individuals.
  4. The CBO believes that the Obamacare individual mandate has encouraged millions to opt for insurance. Roy says that assumption accounts for as much as 9 million of total enrollment across the individual and employer markets, as well as Medicaid.

Thus, Roy believes the CBO’s estimate of the coverage loss of 24 million individuals under the AHCA was too high by about 19 million!

In truth, Obamacare will be watered down by regulatory and other changes instituted by the Trump Administration, which has said it will not enforce Obamacare’s individual mandate. Coverage under the “new” Obamacare will devolve quickly if the CBO is correct about the impact of the individual mandate.

The CBO’s job is to “score” proposed legislation relative to current law; traditionally, it made no attempt to account for dynamic effects that might arise from the changed incentives under a law. The results show it, and the Obamacare projections are no exception. In the case of Obamacare, however,  the CBO seems to have applied certain incentive effects selectively. The supporters of the AHCA might have helped their case by focusing on the flaws in the CBO’s baseline assumptions. We should keep that in mind in the future with respect to any future health care legislation, not to mention tax reform!