The bad news for Obamacare keeps on coming. Major health carriers are leaving insurance exchanges, and other insurance co-operatives the law created continue to fail, leaving tens of thousands without health coverage. Those on exchanges who somehow manage to hold on to their insurance will face a set of massive premium increases—which will hit millions of Americans weeks before the election.
Many on the Right believe Obamacare was deliberately designed to fail, and fear that we’re on a slippery slope toward single-payer. On the other side of the spectrum, the Left hopes conservatives’ fears—and liberals’ dreams—will be answered. But is either side right?
The reality is more nuanced than the rhetoric would suggest. Whether government runs all of health care is less material than whether government pays for all of health care. The latter will, sooner or later, lead to the former. That’s why the debate over bailing out Obamacare is so important. Ostensibly “private” health insurers want tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies—because they claim these subsidies are the only thing standing between a government-run “public option” or a single-payer system.
But the action insurers argue will prevent a government-run system will in reality create one. If insurers get their way, and establish the principle that both they and Obamacare are too big to fail, we will have created a de facto government-run insurance system. Whether such system is run through a handful of heavily regulated, crony capitalist “private” insurers or government bureaucrats represents a comparatively trifling detail.
The Biggest Wolf Is Not the Closest
In considering the likelihood of single-payer health care, one analogy lies in the axiom that one should shoot the wolf outside one’s front door. Single-payer health care obviously represents the biggest wolf—but not the closest. While liberals no doubt want to create a single-payer health care system—Barack Obama has repeatedly said as much—they face a navigational problem: Can you get there from here?
The answer is no—at least not in one fell swoop. Creating a single-payer system would throw 177.5 million Americans off their employer-provided health insurance. That level of disruption would be orders of magnitude greater than the cancellation notices associated with the 2013 “like your plan” fiasco, which itself prompted President Obama to beat a hasty, albeit temporary, retreat from Obamacare’s mandates. Recall too that the high taxes needed to fund a statewide single-payer effort prompted Vermont—Vermont—to abandon its efforts two years ago.
Understanding the political obstacles associated with throwing half of Americans off their current health insurance, liberals’ next strategy has focused on creating a government-run health plan to “compete” with private insurers. Hillary Clinton endorsed this approach, and Democratic senators made a new push on the issue this month. When stories of premium spikes and plan cancellations hit the fan next month, liberals will inevitably claim that a government-run plan will solve all of Obamacare’s woes (although even some liberal analysts admit the law’s real problem is a product healthy people don’t want to buy).
Can the Left succeed at creating a government-run health plan? Probably not at the federal level. Liberals have noted that only one Democratic Senate candidate running this year references the so-called “public option” on his website. Thirteen Senate Democrats have yet to co-sponsor a resolution by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) calling for a government-run plan. Such legislation faces a certain dead-end as long as Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress. Given the failure to enact a government-run plan with a 60-vote majority in 2009, an uncertain future even under complete Democratic control.
What About Single-Payer Inside States?
What then of state efforts to create a government-run health plan? The Wall Street Journal featured a recent op-ed by Scott Gottlieb on this subject. Gottlieb notes that Section 1332 of Obamacare allows for states to create and submit innovation waivers—waivers that a Hillary Clinton administration would no doubt eagerly approve from states wanting to create government-run plans. He also rightly observes that the Obama administration has abused its authority to approve costly Medicaid waivers despite supposed requirements that these waivers not increase the deficit; a Clinton administration can be counted on to do the same.
But another element of the state innovation waiver program limits the Left’s ability to generate 50 government-run health plans. Section 1332(b)(2) requires states to enact a law “that provides for state actions under a waiver.” The requirement that legislation must accompany a state waiver application will likely limit a so-called “public option” to those states with unified Democratic control. Because Obamacare, and the 2010 and 2014 wave elections it helped spark, decimated the Democratic Party, Democrats currently hold unified control in only seven states.
Even at the state level, liberals will be hard-pressed to find many states in which to create their socialist experiment of a government-run health plan. In those few targets, health insurers and medical providers—remember that government-run health plans can only “lower” costs by arbitrarily restricting payments to doctors and hospitals—will make a powerful coalition for the Left to try and overcome. Also, in the largest state, California, the initiative process means that voters—and the television ads health-care interests will use to influence them—could ultimately decide the issue, one way or the other.
So if single-payer represents the biggest wolf, but not the one closest to the door, and government-run plans represent a closer wolf, but only a limited threat at present, what does represent the wolf at the door? Simple: the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Too Big To Fail, Redux
The wolf in sheep’s clothing comes in the form of insurance industry lobbyists, who have been arguing to Republican staff that only making the insurance exchanges work will fend off calls for a government-run plan—or, worse, single-payer. They claim that extending and expanding the law’s current bailouts—specifically, risk corridors and reinsurance—can stabilize the market, and prevent further government intrusion.
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. But examining the logic reveals its hollowness: If Republicans pass bad policy now, they can fend off even worse policy later. There is of course another heretofore unknown concept of conservative Republicans choosing not to pass bad policy at all.
That’s why comments suggesting that at least some Republicans believe Obamacare must be fixed no matter who is elected president on November 8 are so damaging. That premise that Congress must do something because Obamacare and its exchanges are “too big to fail” means health insurers are likewise “too big to fail.” If this construct prevails, Congress will do whatever it takes for the insurers to stay in the marketplace; if that means turning on the bailout taps again, so be it.
But once health insurers have a clear backstop from the federal government, they will take additional risk. Insurers have said so themselves. In documents provided to Congress, carriers admitted they under-priced premiums in the law’s first three years precisely because they believed they had an unlimited tap on the federal fisc to cushion their losses. Republican efforts in Congress to rein in that bailout spigot have met furious lobbying by health insurers—and attempts by the Obama administration to strike a corrupt bargain circumventing Congress’ restrictions.
Efforts to end the bailouts and claw back as much money as possible to taxpayers would shoot the wolf at the door. Giving insurers more by way of bailout funds—socializing their risk—will only encourage them to take additional risk, exacerbating a boom-and-bust cycle that will inevitably result in a federal takeover of all that risk. When the federal government provides the risk backstop, you have a government-run system, regardless of who administers it.
While the insurance industry may view more bailouts as their salvation, Obamacare’s version of TARP looks more like a TRAP. By socializing losses, purportedly to prevent single-payer health care, creating a permanent insurer bailout fund will effectively create one. While remaining mindful of the other wolves lurking, Congress should focus foremost on eliminating the one at its threshold: Undo the Obamacare bailouts, and prove this law is not too big to fail.