A recent Commonwealth Fund analysis of survey data concluded that the number of uninsured Americans rose over the past two years, by the equivalent of approximately 4 million individuals. The Commonwealth researchers claim Trump administration policy decisions explain the decline in the number of Americans with health insurance.
But the data themselves suggest another theory: Some Americans may have made a political decision to drop health coverage.
The study notes that between 2016 and 2018, uninsured “rates were up significantly among adults with lower incomes—those living in households earning less than 250 percent of poverty (about $30,000 for an individual and $61,000 for a family of four).” At first blush, the implication seems obvious: Premiums have risen significantly over the past several years, including in 2018, dissuading working-class families from buying coverage.
But consider that Obamacare subsidizes insurance rates for low-income households, capping their premium costs as a percentage of income, and insulating them from most of the effects of premium increases. Consider too that over the past several years, only low-income individuals have purchased coverage on insurance exchanges in significant numbers, precisely because of the rich premium subsidies and lower co-payments and deductibles taxpayers provide to households with income below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
The high subsidies for low-income individuals would not appear to explain the increase in the uninsured among this group. And a marginal decrease in the uninsured rate this year among those with incomes over 250 percent of poverty—including those who do not qualify for insurance subsidies at all—suggests premium increases may not have led affluent Americans to drop coverage (at least not yet).
What might more logically explain the increase in the number of uninsured? In a word, politics. The Commonwealth researchers note that between 2016 and 2018, the uninsured rate among Republicans aged 19-64 nearly doubled, from 7.9 percent to 13.9 percent. By contrast, the uninsured rate among self-identified Democrats actually declined, albeit not in a statistically significant fashion.
The increase in the uninsured also occurred almost exclusively in states that did not expand Medicaid. From 2016 through 2018, the uninsured rate in those states rose by more than one-third, from 16.1 percent to 21.9 percent, while the rate in states that did expand Medicaid remained relatively constant. Given that the 18 states that have not expanded Medicaid under Obamacare are overwhelmingly southern and red ideologically, this data point confirms a political tinge regarding health coverage decisions.
In all, the uninsured data suggest that a small but measurable percentage of red-state Americans have decided to drop health coverage over the past two years. Because many of those individuals come from working-class backgrounds and could qualify for sizable subsidies, affordability may not have driven their decision to forego insurance. Moreover, three times as many Republicans (6 percent) as Democrats (2 percent) plan to drop health coverage when Obamacare’s individual mandate tax disappears next year, further indicating that politics plays into Americans’ coverage decisions.
The Commonwealth researchers ignore the policy implications of a political divide over purchasing health coverage. They propose reducing the uninsured rate through the usual toolkit Obamacare supporters rely upon to bolster the law: More funding for outreach; more affordability subsidies; more “stability” funding for insurers; more government-run insurance options, including the “public option.”
But if some Americans have purposefully dropped health coverage as a political statement—in opposition to Obamacare in general, the individual mandate in particular, or in solidarity with President Trump—no increase in subsidies, or cajoling via outreach programs, will persuade them to change their decisions. In fact, further policy debates about reinforcing Obamacare may only inflame partisan passions, recalling Ronald Reagan’s famous axiom about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
In the run-up to this November’s elections, Democrats plan to attack Republicans’ so-called “sabotage” of Obamacare. Senate Democrats’ campaign arm did just that within hours of the Commonwealth study’s release. But the evidence suggests that the partisanship of the past two years has contributed to the increase in the uninsured rate—meaning Democrats may be the ones sabotaging themselves.