Delaying Obamacare May Be Necessary To Save It

There are a couple of new stories out today that give more details on the troubles of HealthCare.gov, the federal health exchange. It’s a mess. From a New York Times article today:

Administration officials approached the contractors last week to see if they could perform the necessary repairs and reboot the system by Nov. 1. However, that goal struck many contractors as unrealistic, at least for major components of the system. Some specialists working on the project said the online system required such extensive repairs that it might not operate smoothly until after the Dec. 15 deadline for people to sign up for coverage starting in January, although that view is not universally shared.

That’s the worst case scenario and it looks like it may be the most likely one too. Starting January 1st, the individual mandate takes effect. That means that millions of Americans must sign up for health insurance before then. The law gives everyone a three-month grace period, but because of processing delays, you need to purchase insurance by Feb 15. After that, you’ll have to pay the prorated fine of either $95 or 1% of your income for not having insurance. That’s why that February 15 date is so important. What happens though if you spend months trying to sign up for Obamacare, but the website doesn’t work properly? Surely, the federal government can’t force you to pay a penalty for its failure. Without changes to the law though, we’re heading that way.*

The Obama administration has been adamant that it will not delay either the law or the individual mandate. It does not want to give any more time for Republicans to attempt to dismantle it, but time is running short. What happens if in a month, the exchanges are still not working? Will the administration have the political courage to stand up and say we need more time? Will Republicans allow a delay?

There’s another important point here: we can’t only delay the individual mandate. It shocks me how many conservatives have pushed for an individual mandate delay. That would eliminate the stick meant to bring young, healthy people to the exchanges to offset the influx of old, unhealthy people. It would likely bring about the dreaded death spiral where too many old, unhealthy people sign up for health care forcing insurance companies to raise premiums, which then scares away the most healthy people and forces insurance companies to raise premiums again and so on. The entire point of the individual mandate is to force those young people on to the exchanges. Without them, the law will fail.

As that February 15 date approaches, Republicans will see the political value of calling for an individual mandate delay. Imagine how easy it will be for any GOP congressmen to argue that the federal government is going to fine you for the failure of the exchanges. It’s a perfect talk point. Simple, easy to understand, and dead right.

That’s why the administration needs to get out ahead of this. If there is a decent probability that the exchanges won’t work in December, it’s time to take HealthCare.gov down and give the contractors an extra 3-6 months to work on it. The longer they wait, the worse it will look politically and the greater the chances that political pressure from the right will stop the law before it has a chance to get going. In the end, Democrats have control of the Senate and White House. If Obamacare is delayed until June, the Republicans will still have no leverage to attempt to stop it. Only Obama and Senate Democrats have the power to block the law. For the past two years, using that power to defeat the GOP’s attempt to undermine Obamacare was vital. Right now though, it’s looking more and more likely that the opposite is true. The greatest threat to the Affordable Care Act is no longer the Republican Party. It’s the law itself. Democrats need to start looking at that power as a way to save Obamacare, not a way to thwart the opposition.

*Thanks to Adrianna McIntyre for helping clear up some mistakes I made about the timing. Important date is February 15 for signing up for health insurance and avoiding the penalty, not December 15,

Delaying the Individual Mandate Isn’t A Real Possibility

One thing that Republicans have been clamoring about recently is for a one-year delay in the individual mandate in response to the Administration’s (unlawful) decision to delay the employer mandate a year. This morning, National Journal and Public Notice hosted an event at the Newseum titled “Fiscal Fallout: What is ‘Responsible’ in Today’s Fiscal Reality” with keynote addresses from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’s Robert Greenstein as well as a panel discussion on our fiscal situation. Near the end of the panel,  Bill Hoagland, the Senior Vice President at the Bipartisan Policy Center, discussed the possibility of delaying the individual mandate for a year:

You can’t defund Obamacare on a continuing resolution because 90% of Obamacare is entitlements so it doesn’t make any sense, but I do think Bob [CBPP’s Robert Greenstein] passed over one small thing. He mentioned that a delay would increase the number of uninsured by 11 million. Yet he did not mention that the CBO’s cost estimate on that was that it would save $35 billion too. I’m not here to propose a delay, but for the average person listening to this debate outside, [they may say,] ‘Wait a minute. You delayed the employer mandate. Why can’t we delay the individual mandate?” And I worked with some insurance companies also so I know that the argument will be that this will drive up premiums immediately. Quite frankly, premiums have been set here for the exchanges starting in a few weeks and the companies don’t know what the experience is going to be anyway. So I don’t find a delay necessarily to be bad. In fact, I would almost think the Administration would want a delay to get the exchanges ready [while] other provisions of the law remain in effect – no [rejecting people with] pre-existing conditions, [allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance] up until age 26. So I think one of the outcomes here will be that you hear more about a delay. And I’m not proposing it. I’m just suggesting you’ll hear more about a delay.

First of all, under no circumstance is the Obama Administration going to delay the individual mandate for a year. They’ve fought off challenge after challenge for the law to get to this point and they believe (as I do) that once it officially begins, it will be here to stay. Based on their desperate, stubborn refusal of House Republicans to fund the government unless the Administration agrees to defund the law, they seem to agree as well.

Second, just delaying the individual mandate would be a disaster. Hoagland says he understands the counter argument to such a delay, but he doesn’t seem to. The problem is that if you delay the individual mandate, but still require insurance companies to cover everyone with pre-existing conditions then the death spiral ensues. Only unhealthy people sign up for the law while healthy people forego insurance. Without the offset of those healthy people paying into the system, these insurers must raise premiums to cover the unhealthy ones. Hoagland notes this, but uses a bit of hand-waving to say that insurance prices are locked in and thus insurers won’t be able to raise premiums. Well if that’s the case, then insurance companies will go bankrupt. The companies came up with insurance premiums assuming that young, healthy individuals would purchase insurance. Their business model falls apart if those individuals aren’t required to sign up, but the firms are not allowed to revises their premiums.

Thus, if Hoagland wants to delay the individual mandate (which he never says he wants to do – he’s just suggesting it’s going to come up), then we must delay the pre-existing condition requirement as well. This would effectively delay the entire law and give Republicans another year to figure out how to repeal and undermine it. They can even try to delay it until the midterm elections where they will hope to win back the Senate and repeal it altogether (of course, the President would veto such a bill).

So, contrary to Hoagland’s suggestion, this isn’t something you’re going to hear more about. It would be an epic disaster policy-wise and the Administration isn’t going to consider it. Obamacare is the law of the land and that’s not changing.

Is Obamacare the Biggest Tax Increase in History? No

Nope. Not at all. Kevin Drum debunks this one:

“There have been 15 tax increases of significant size since 1950, and Jerry Tempalski, a tax analyst in the Treasury Department, has estimated the size of all of them as a percentage of GDP.  Tempalski hasn’t estimated the eventual size of ACA, but PolitiFact took a crack at it using the same methodology, and they figure that ACA amounts to a tax increase of 0.49% of GDP seven years from now. That places it tenth on the list.”

And he supplies the table to the right as well.

Since the mandate is now defined as a tax, Obamacare does raise (optional) taxes. The President can no longer say otherwise. Politifact has dug up the transcript of an interview Obama did with ABC’s George Stephanopoulous and it’s good stuff:

Stephanopoulos: Under this mandate, the government is forcing people to spend money, fining you if you don’t. How is that not a tax?

Obama: Well, hold on a second, George. Here — here’s what’s happening. You and I are both paying $900, on average — our families — in higher premiums because of uncompensated care. Now what I’ve said is that if you can’t afford health insurance, you certainly shouldn’t be punished for that. That’s just piling on. If, on the other hand, we’re giving tax credits, we’ve set up an exchange, you are now part of a big pool, we’ve driven down the costs, we’ve done everything we can and you actually can afford health insurance, but you’ve just decided, you know what, I want to take my chances. And then you get hit by a bus and you and I have to pay for the emergency room care, that’s…

Stephanopoulos: That may be, but it’s still a tax increase.

Obama: No. That’s not true, George. The — for us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it’s saying is, is that we’re not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase. People say to themselves, that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I’m not covering all the costs.

Obama is right about everything here except declaring it not a tax increase. It is a tax increase, but it is a tax increase to correct a market failure. The President points the market failure out, but does not acknowledge that the way to correct it is through the tax. When Obama says “take a responsibility,” he means that individuals can either buy insurance or face a tax increase (which, in reality, is just the withholding of potential tax refunds). The reason for the tax seems to have been lost in the discussion of the Supreme Court’s ruling this past week, but it’s important to remember why it’s there. Without it, only unhealthy individuals would sign up for insurance and insurance companies, who can no longer discriminate based on pre-existing conditions, would get sucked into the “death spiral.”

By the way, check out what tax increase is fifth on the list: Reagan’s tax in 1982.