Saturday, July 29, 2017

Why Trump’s Threat to Congress is so Bonkers

Saturday on Twitter President Trump seemed to threaten to take away Congress’s health care benefits. Let me explain why this would create one of the most amazing and bizarre acts of political irony in American politics. It would expose a dozen layers of hypocrisy, possibly end up as one of Trump’s most popular acts, and it could ultimately be what takes him down.

The hypocritical history

You may wonder why Trump has the power to mess with congressmen’s and their staff’s health care benefits. It all goes back to 2010 when Democrats were writing the Affordable Care Act. In an attempt to make Democrats look like hypocrites, Republicans offered an amendment which would force Congress to get health insurance via the new ACA exchanges. This move backfired once the Democrats decided to vote for it and even used it as a selling point for their law.

The problem is the amendment, like basically everything the GOP did during the debate over the ACA, was designed only as political theater with no concern for policy. As a result, if you actually implemented the amendment as written, it would force Congress to buy insurance on the DC exchange at full price, just as millions of Americans who make over $50,000 a year but don’t have employer coverage are doing right now.

The possibility of actually having to pay the full out of pocket cost for expensive premiums, like millions of Americans currently do, caused a bipartisan freakout. Passing a special bill to fix it, though, would open any member up to attack ads, so instead Republicans and Democrats begged the Obama administration to bend regulation in a legally questionable way to fix it. Note that hypocritical Republicans endlessly attacked Obama when he used similarly legally questionable regulatory fixes to help other groups.

The solution was to stretch the interpretation of the law to effectively treat every congressional office as its own small business. That allowed the offices to use the money that previously went to their former federal employee insurance as a special subsidy to buy insurance on the exchange. One can argue this is fair, but it is not really what a technical reading of the law says, and Congress could easily change it anytime.

More importantly, not only was this hypocritical on a process level for the GOP, but also on a policy level for both parties. After all, most Republicans just voted to repeal the employer mandate, yet they freaked out at the idea of not having their own employer provide insurance . 

Similarly, Democrats promised that even the unsubsidized insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchanges would be affordable for the middle class, but they balked at actually having to pay anywhere near that much for insurance.

In addition, members of Congress from both sides have advocated for moving away from employer-provided insurance and toward people buying their own coverage. It was John McCain’s plan in 2008 and the core of the bipartisan Wyden-Bennett plan. Yet when they were almost forced to become the test bed for this move away from employers paying for insurance, they did everything to avoid the fate they wanted for everyone else.

There is no way this works

The most bonkers part is Trump is threatening to do this to get Senate Republicans to agree on an Obamacare repeal, and there is no way that would work. The GOP just proved they can’t agree to even a skinny bill. Also, given what everyone knows about John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski, there is no way they would become more willing to compromise after being publicly threatened and extorted.

The insanity of what is happening next

If Trump actually follows through on this threat, it could be very popular and one executive action he takes that is well within his legal purview. He could probably even spin it as one of his only “drain the swamp” moves. 

After all, people don’t like it when Congress gets treated differently. They also dislike political stunts. The fact that Congress never fixed the problem via legislation shows they know it is a political loser.
Ironically, though, Trump’s most popular executive action could also be what brings him down. Congressional Republicans have been putting up with a lot of questionable behavior from Trump, but if he literally takes money out of their pockets, that could change. If Congressional Republicans stop defending him, the investigation flood gates would open. 

The irony of the long term impact

The final ironic twist is if Trump actually does it, the long term effect might be to make American health care more progressive, not less. Paying full price health insurance in the United States is crazy expensive -- way more expensive than it is in any other industrialized country. Maybe if everyone in Congress is forced to feel just how out of control American health insurance premiums are for a few years, they might take serious the idea of cost control.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Private health insurers admit they will always behave terribly

The group America’s Health Insurance Plans came out strongly against against the Cruz amendment in the Senate Republican health care bill, but the Cruz amendment is terrible only because America’s private health insurers are collectively promising to act terribly every chance they get.

The Cruz amendment would allow insurers to sell policies that don’t cover everything and exclude people who actually need health care. AHIP rightly notes:

As the U.S. Senate considers the Better Care Reconciliation Act, we are writing to urge you to strike the "Consumer Freedom Option" from the bill. It is simply unworkable in any from and would undermine protections for those with pre-existing medical conditions, increase premiums and lead to widespread terminations of coverage for people currently enrolled in the individual market.

What is important to note, however, is that this scenario only happens if the private insurers make it happen. The Cruz amendment merely allows insurers to offer deceiptive or exclusionary non-compliant plans -- the insurers don’t have to.

If the insurers really care about people with pre-existing conditions and a stable market, the insurers could reach a collective agreement that none of them would offers these plans -- problem solved. Just because the Cruz amendment would allow them to behave badly doesn’t mean they have to. The market only destabilizes if private insurers choose to destabilize it in the pursuit of short term profits.

The fact that no one inside or outside the industry thinks such collective action is even in the realm of possibility means that while condemning the Cruz amendment, the private insurers revealed something telling about their true nature.

AHIP is promising that as an industry, insurers will eventually exploit any legal leeway they are provided to make money, even if it costs people their lives. They are promising to do things they publicly admit are morally wrong if the government doesn’t hold them back at every turn.

They are indirectly admitting they can’t stop themselves from hurting people, like a werewolf begging to be chained up in the basement before the full moon. This who is in control of the country's health care.

Yet Democrats are still wondering why an individual mandate forcing people to be customers of an industry which admits they can’t be trusted was deeply unpopular.

Friday, July 7, 2017

An easy way to solve the Medicare For All tax problem

Polling has consistently shown broad public support for Medicare For All, or single payer health care, but every policy position is vulnerable to attacks. The most common attacks used against Medicare For All revolve the around overall cost and the need to raise new taxes. These issues can be a problem, but one that is easy to solve if supporters are willing to be creative.

Traditionally, single payer plans suffer from the issue of "big, scary numbers." Take, for example, the recent bill in California where headlines about it often focused on its overall cost to the government of $400 billion instead of the net change. Much of that $400 billion sticker price simply added up to the state consolidating the billions it spends on several health programs (Medicaid, state employe benefits) into one program.

It is also easy to scare people over the tax increases needed to pay for a pure single payer system, even though it would mean individuals would pay less in taxes for healthcare than they currently pay in premiums.

Supporters of Medicare For All should engage in a multi-faceted educational effort to inform people about the value of these trade-offs, but they should also realize there is an easy way to avoid some of these political problems

First, allow companies and individuals under 65 to buy into Medicare.

Second, require all companies buy their employees Medicare or private coverage at least as good Medicare from insurers that must pay into a risk adjustment program. This is already how Medicare basically works with Medicare Advantage, except companies would be making the choice.

Most of the cost of our healthcare system is already hidden from individuals by the tax-exempt status of employer-provided insurance; so instead of trying to teach everyone about this, just modify it. This plan would hurt companies that don’t already provide coverage but cause significantly less disruption than eliminating employer-provided insurance and replacing it with a new tax.

This plan mostly eliminates the need for very large new taxes or the "big, scary number" problem. Everyone with a job will technically get coverage via their work and those without jobs could mostly be covered by moving around money already spent on Medicaid, ACA, etc…

The strong employer mandate is not a perfect funding source, but it is good enough. In practical terms it would function much like a payroll tax with a ceiling. It is basically how Germany funds its health care system, and it would effectively get us to where the country needs to be.