Temporary setbacks can often yield important knowledge that leads to more meaningful accomplishments—a lesson senators should remember while pondering the recent fate of their health-care legislation. This past week, frictions caused by federalism helped create the legislative stalemate, but the forces of federalism can also pave the way for a solution.
Moderates opposed to the bill raised two contradictory objections. Senators whose states expanded Medicaid lobbied hard to keep that expansion in their home states. Those same senators objected to repealing all of Obamacare’s insurance mandates and regulations, insisting that all other states keep adhering to a Washington-imposed standard.
But those Washington-imposed regulatory standards have prompted individual insurance premiums to more than double since Obamacare first took effect four years ago. While the current draft of the Senate bill allows states to waive out of some of those regulations, it outright repeals none—repeat, none—of them.
The High Prices Are The Fault of Too Many Rules
As the Congressional Budget Office score of the legislation indicates, the lack of regulatory relief under the bill would create real problems in insurance markets. Specifically, CBO found that low-income individuals likely would not purchase coverage, because such individuals would face a choice between low-premium plans with unaffordable deductibles or low-deductible plans with unaffordable premiums.
The budget analysts noted that this affordability dilemma has its roots in Obamacare’s mandated benefits package. Because of the Obamacare requirements not repealed under the bill, insurers would be “constrained” in their ability to offer plans that, for instance, provide prescription drug coverage or coverage for a few doctor visits before meeting the (high) deductible.
CBO concluded that the waiver option available under the Senate bill would, if a state chose it, ease the regulatory constraints on insurers “at least somewhat.” But those waivers only apply to some—not all—of the Obamacare regulations, and could be subject to changes in the political climate. With governors able to apply for—and presumably withdraw from—the waiver program unilaterally, states’ policy decisions could swing rapidly, and in ways that exacerbate uncertainty and instability.
If You Want Obamacare, You Can Enact It at the State Level
The Senate should go back to first principles, and repeal all of the Obamacare insurance regulations, restoring the balance of federalism under the Tenth Amendment, and the principle of state regulation of insurance that has existed since Congress passed the McCarran-Ferguson Act in 1947. If Obamacare is as popular as its supporters claim, states could easily reprise all its regulatory structures—as New York, New Jersey, and others did before the law’s passage. Likewise, senators wanting their colleagues to respect their states’ wishes on Medicaid expansion should respect those colleagues’ wishes on eliminating the entire Obamacare regulatory apparatus from their states.
On Medicaid, conservatives have already granted moderates significant concessions, allowing states to keep their expansions in perpetuity. The controversy now stems around whether the federal government should continue to keep paying states a higher federal match to cover childless adults than individuals with disabilities—a proposition that tests standards of fairness and equity.
However, critics of the bill’s changes to Medicaid raise an important point. As CBO noted, states “would not have additional flexibility” under the per capita caps created by the bill to manage their Medicaid programs. Without that flexibility, states might face greater pressure to find savings with a cleaver rather than a scalpel—cutting benefits, lowering reimbursement rates, or restricting eligibility, rather than improving care.
Several years ago, a Medicaid waiver granted to Rhode Island showed what flexibility can do for a state, reducing per-beneficiary spending for several years in a row by better managing care, not cutting it. When revising the bill, senators should give all Medicaid programs the flexibility Rhode Island received from the Bush administration when it applied for its waiver in 2009. They should also work to ensure that the bill will not fiscally disadvantage states that choose the additional flexibility of a block grant compared to the per capita caps.
If senators’ desire to protect their home states helped prompt this week’s legislative morass, then a willingness to allow other senators to protect their home states can help unwind it. Maintaining Obamacare’s regulatory structure at the federal level, while cutting the spending and taxes used to alleviate the higher costs from that structure, might represent the worst of all possible outcomes—an unfunded mandate passed down to millions of Americans. By contrast, eliminating the Washington-based regulatory apparatus and giving states a free choice whether to re-impose it would represent federalism at its best.