risk pools


The President Canít Run on Obamacare

On Obamacare’s first anniversary, let’s give the president his due: It wouldn’t be in law today without his persistent push for its passage.

Not that his policy arguments carried the day or were persuasive. They weren’t. No, in the end, Obamacare was passed because the president had so tied his political fate to it that it became quite literally impossible for most members of his party in Congress to oppose it. And so it passed.

Other presidents have staked their presidencies on early legislative initiatives too, and then used their success in securing their enactment to aid their reelection. President Reagan certainly comes to mind in that regard, with his 1981 tax cut featuring prominently in his 1984 campaign. And Bill Clinton made his tax-hike and deficit-reduction plan of 1993 the centerpiece of his economic message in 1996.

The problem for President Obama, however, is that, unlike the Reagan tax cut, Obamacare will do almost nothing worth running on before 2012. The main selling point for the law — the supposed “universal coverage” proponents erroneously say the law will deliver — doesn’t kick in until at least 2014. That’s when the “big bang” of Obamacare comes into play: the individual and employer mandates; the new entitlement expansions; and the one-size-fits-all insurance plans.

Between now and then, there’s a lot of regulation to be issued, but there won’t be any real action on the ground where Americans get their health care (other than some tax increases and Medicare cuts the administration will never mention anyway). And so the law’s apologists are left with nothing to talk about except the supposed “early benefits” of Obamacare, like coverage of 26-year-olds on their parents’ plans and the new high-risk pools for those with pre-existing conditions.

But these provisions are minor matters in the scheme of things. They certainly did not require a 2,700-page bill to address. And so few Americans have benefited from them that they hardly register at all in the public consciousness. Only about 12,000 people have signed up for the poorly constructed risk pools, and no one expects the other insurance regulations to help more than a tiny percentage of the population. For most Americans, these “early benefits” are simply non-events. If the president were to feature them as large achievements of his presidency in 2012, it would strike most voters as the trumpeting of the trivial.

With so little to work with, and intense opposition among those pushing for repeal, the president is unlikely to feature Obamacare at all in his 2012 campaign, and certainly not in the way Reagan touted his 1981 tax cut in 1984. President Obama will no doubt defend the new health law from every attack, even as he tries to deflate the repeal push with minor concessions. But, having exhausted his first term securing passage of Obamacare, the president will have to find some other rationale to justify requesting a second term.

posted by James C. Capretta | 2:21 pm
Tags: 2012 election, President Obama, Obamcare, risk pools, taxes
File As: Health Care

After Obamacare

With my colleague Yuval Levin, I have cowritten a piece in the latest Weekly Standard examining the political landscape for health care reform in the wake of the election of Scott Brown to the United States Senate. After discussing how the Democrats’ ambitious plans have screeched to a halt, we suggest some ideas for health reform that conservatives should take up:

First, they should seek to address the problem of insuring Americans with preexisting conditions through state-based high-risk pools, not cumbersome insurance regulations that try to outlaw basic economics. Risk pools, backed with federal money but nowhere near the scale of Obamacare’s costs, would give those with preexisting conditions more options in the individual market and make a significant dent in the number of uninsured, but without overturning our health care system.

Second, they should propose to help doctors and patients limit some of the burden of rising costs with medical malpractice reform. Sensible caps on punitive damages would not only save money but also help address shortages of medical providers in key specialties, and allow more Americans to afford and access care.

Third, they should argue that the states be given the lead role in developing more detailed reforms of how and where people get their insurance—to cover more people and slow the rise of costs. The overall goal should be to build well-functioning marketplaces in which insurers and providers compete to deliver the best value to cost-conscious consumers. The federal government should remove bureaucratic obstacles to state experimentation on this front, and offer support where possible, but not design one mammoth new program. The regulation of both the practice of medicine and of insurance is done in the states, and their improvement should be too....

Meanwhile, for the longer term, conservatives should make a case for changes in the tax law that level the playing field between employer-provided and individually purchased health insurance, with a gradual transformation of the tax exclusion for employer-based coverage into a credit available to all. A consumer-controlled tax credit would also enhance the benefits of risk-pools, tort reform, and state-based reform efforts.

And they should press the case for real Medicare reform, not to use the program as a pot of cash, as the Democrats tried to do over the past year, but to put it on a sound footing by empowering enrollees rather than bureaucrats to make decisions....

These ideas would not yield a sudden transformation of American health care, but a gradual improvement in the areas that matter most—cost-control, greater access for the uninsured, and greater fairness for those with preexisting conditions—while sustaining the quality and innovation that characterize American health care.

The piece is available in its entirety here.

posted by James C. Capretta | 9:28 pm
Tags: Obamacare, Yuval Levin, tort reform, risk pools, Medicare
File As: Health Care

On Rosy Premium Scenarios

As the Senate starts its debate of the health-care bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the back-and-forth has intensified over what the legislation would do to insurance premiums and rising costs in the coming years.

Over the Thanksgiving break, M.I.T. economist Jonathan Gruber released a short paper in which he claimed the Reid bill would reduce premiums for people buying insurance in the individual market. It was clear from a story in Politico that the Obama White House was gearing up to argue the Gruber analysis was proof positive of the virtues of the Senate legislation. Unfortunately for Team Obama, Gruber’s paper was quickly shot down by a new study from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). CBO estimates that the Reid bill would drive premiums up, not down, in the individual market — by 10 to 13 percent compared to current law. For family coverage, the Reid bill would increase premiums by, on average, $2,100 in 2016, according to CBO. So much for the argument that Obamacare will cut premium costs across the board. It clearly won’t.

But even this CBO analysis is terribly optimistic. For weeks, experts have been warning that the Senate legislation would lead to serious “adverse selection” in the individual and small-group insurance markets. Adverse selection occurs when, on average, the pool of insured lives becomes less healthy over time compared to a relevant comparison group. The Senate bill would require insurers to take all comers, with heavily regulated rates. These rules would help those with chronic conditions get less expensive coverage. But they would also drive up premiums for the young and healthy. If the healthier people left or stayed out the insurance risk pool, premiums for those who remained would go up quite dramatically. Indeed, that’s exactly what Wellpoint, a large national insurer, predicted would occur under the bill prepared by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, which formed the basis of much of the Reid plan. The Wellpoint actuaries estimated that, under the Baucus bill, premiums for a person at the average age and in average health would go up by more than 50 percent in the individual insurance market in California, and by more than 20 percent in the small-group market.

CBO argues that risk selection problems will be mitigated by the presence of new insurance subsidies, penalties for those who don’t get coverage, a once-a-year enrollment window which will limit the opportunity to come back into insurance, and the tendency for people to comply with mandates even if they are costly. But, as others have shown, even with subsidies, the cost of coverage for many low and moderate wage families will be very substantial. Many people could reduce their costs if they paid the penalty instead of premiums and signed up with insurance only when they really needed it. Would the fact that they might have to wait a few months before getting insurance be enough to keep them in coverage all year? Hard to predict. In fact, as pointed out here, it appears that none of most-cited models used to estimate the impact of health-reform plans, including CBO’s, has an explicit capacity to calibrate insurance take-up rates based on the penalties imposed on those who go without coverage. Apparently, the premium estimates are based as much on judgment as analytics, and CBO’s judgment is clearly on the optimistic side. But what if they are wrong? What if adverse selection is more pronounced, as many experts are predicting? At a minimum, before any votes are cast, CBO should make it clear how sensitive their premium estimates are to their assumptions about the risk pool. That way Senators could decide for themselves what to believe.

posted by James C. Capretta | 6:11 pm
Tags: CBO, Reid bill, Jonathan Gruber, adverse selection, risk pools
File As: Health Care