In their quest to take back the House and Senate in November’s midterm elections, Democrats have received a bit of bad news. The Hill recently noted:
Health insurers are proposing relatively modest premium bumps for next year, despite doomsday predictions from Democrats that the Trump administration’s changes to ObamaCare would bring massive increases in 2019. That could make it a challenge for Democrats looking to weaponize rising premiums heading into the midterm elections.
Administration officials confirmed the premium trend last Friday, when they indicated that proposed 2019 rates for the 38 states using healthcare.gov averaged a 5.4 percent increase—a number that may come down even further after review by state insurance commissioners. So much for that “sabotage.”
The messaging strategy once again illustrates the political peril of rooting for something—particularly legislation Democrats worked so hard to enact in the first place—to fail on someone else’s watch. Like officials accused of “talking down the economy” so they can benefit politically, Democrats face the unique task of trying to talk down their own creation, while blaming someone else for all its problems.
— Chris Jacobs (@chrisjacobsHC) July 26, 2018
The Obamacare Exchanges’ Prolonged Malaise
While Obamacare hasn’t failed due to President Trump, it hasn’t succeeded much, either. Enrollment continues to fall, particularly for those who do not qualify for subsidies. Two years ago—long before Donald Trump had any power to “sabotage” Obamacare as president—Bill Clinton called Obamacare “the craziest thing in the world” for these unsubsidized persons, and their collective behavior demonstrates that fact.
A recent study from the liberal Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that, away from Obamacare exchanges, where individuals cannot receive insurance subsidies, enrollment fell by nearly 40 percent in just one year, from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of this year. However, the rich subsidies provided to those who qualify for them—particularly those with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, who receive reduced cost-sharing as well—strongly encourage enrollment by this population, making it unlikely that the insurance exchanges will collapse on their own.
President Trump can talk all he wants about Obamacare imploding, but so long as the federal government props tens of billions of dollars into the exchanges, it probably won’t happen.
Good Reasons for Premium Moderation
Those premium subsidies, which cushion most low-income enrollees from the effects of premium increases, coupled with a lack of competition among insurers in large areas of the country, have allowed premiums to more-or-less stabilize, albeit at levels much of the unsubsidized population finds unaffordable. Think about it: If you have a monopoly, and a sizable population of individuals either desperate for coverage (i.e., the very sick) or heavily subsidized to buy your product, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to break even, much less turn a profit.
As a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, insurers spent the past several years ratcheting up premiums, for a variety of reasons: A sicker pool of enrollees than they expected when the exchanges started in 2014; a recognition that some insurers’ initial strategy of underpricing products to attract market share backfired; and the end of Obamacare’s “transitional” reinsurance and risk corridor programs, which expired in 2016.
While some carriers have adjusted 2019 premiums upward to reflect the elimination of the individual mandate penalty beginning in January, some had already “baked in” lax enforcement of the mandate into their rates for 2018. Some have long called the mandate too weak and ineffective to have much effect on Americans’ decision to buy coverage.
It Could Have Been Worse?
Liberals have started to make the argument that, but for the Trump administration’s so-called “sabotage” of insurance markets, premiums would fall instead of rise in 2019. (Some insurers have proposed premium reductions regardless.) The Brookings Institution recently released a paper claiming that in a “stable policy environment” without repeal of the mandate, or the impending regulatory changes regarding short-term insurance and Association Health Plans, premiums would fall by an average of approximately 4.3 percent.
But as the saying goes, “‘It could have been worse’ isn’t a great political bumper sticker.” Democrats tried to make this point regarding the economic “stimulus” bill they passed in 2009, after the infamous chart claiming unemployment would remain below 8 percent if the “stimulus” passed didn’t quite turn out as promised:
In 2011, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tried to make the “It could have been worse” argument, claiming that unemployment would have risen to 15 percent without the “stimulus”:
But even she acknowledged the futility of giving such a message to the millions of people still lacking jobs at that point (to say nothing of the minor detail that studies reinforcing Pelosi’s point didn’t exist).
There’s No Need for a Bailout
While the apparent moderation of premium increases complicates Democrats’ political message, it also undermines the Republicans who spent the early part of this year pressing for an Obamacare bailout. Apart from the awful policy message it would have sent by making Obamacare’s exchanges “too big to fail,” such a measure would have depressed turnout among demoralized grassroots conservatives who want Congress to repeal Obamacare.
As it happens, most state markets didn’t need a bailout. That’s a good thing on multiple levels, because a “stability” bill passed this year would have had little effect on 2019 premiums anyway.
That said, if Democrats want to make political arguments about premiums in this year’s elections, maybe they can tell the American people where they can find the $2,500 in annual premium reductions that Barack Obama repeatedly promised would come from his health care law. Given the decade that has passed since Obama first made those claims without any hint of them coming true, trying to answer for that broken promise should keep Democrats preoccupied well past November.