Republicans who want to blame their election shortcomings on last year’s attempt to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare will have all the fodder they need from the media. A full two weeks before Election Day, the bedwetters caucus was already out in full force:
House Republicans are increasingly worried that Democrats’ attacks on their votes to repeal and replace Obamacare could cost them the House. While the legislation stalled in the Senate, it’s become a toxic issue on the campaign trail for the House Republicans who backed it.
In reality, however, the seeds of this problem go well beyond this Congress, or even the last election cycle. A health care strategy based on a simple but contradictory slogan created a policy orphan that few Republicans could readily defend.
A Dumb Political Slogan
A few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration last January, the New York Times ran a story highlighting the history of the “repeal-and-replace” mantra. The Times attributed the slogan to Josh Holmes, then the chief of staff for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who coined it on the day Obamacare passed Congress. The end of the story featured a telling comment: “Mr. Holmes acknowledged that he had to create only the phrase, not the actual replacement. ‘I don’t do policy,’ he said with a laugh.”
Around the same time last year, I wrote an article explaining why the “repeal-and-replace” mantra would prove so problematic for the Republican Congress trying to translate the slogan into law. Conservatives seized on the “repeal” element to focus on eradicating the law, and taking steps to help lower health costs.
By contrast, moderates assumed that “replace” meant Republican lawmakers had embraced the mantra of universal health coverage, and would maintain most of the benefits—both the number of Americans with insurance and the regulatory “protections”—of Obamacare itself. Two disparate philosophies linked by a conjunction does not a governing platform make. The past two years proved as much.
A Non-Sensical Bill
In life, one mistake can often lead to another, and so it proved in health care. After having created an internal divide through the “repeal-and-replace” mantra over four election cycles, Republicans had to put policy meat on the details they had papered over for seven years. In so doing, they ended up with a “solution” that appealed to no one.
While the details of the House and Senate legislation varied, they followed a three-part formula. In general, the bills:
- Removed Obamacare’s requirements for what treatments insurers must cover (e.g., essential health benefits);
- Removed Obamacare’s requirements about how much of these treatments insurers must cover (e.g., actuarial value, which measures a percentage of expected health expenses covered by insurance); but
- Retained Obamacare’s requirements about whom insurance must cover—the requirement to cover all applicants (guaranteed issue), and the related requirement not to vary premiums based on health status (community rating).
As I first outlined early last year, this regulatory combination resulted in a witch’s brew of bad outcomes on both the policy and political fronts:
- Because lawmakers retained the requirements for insurers to cover all individuals, regardless of health status, the bills didn’t reduce premiums much. If insurers must charge all individuals the same rates regardless of their health, they will assume that a disproportionately sicker population will sign up. That dynamic meant the bills did little to reverse the more-than-doubling of individual market insurance premiums from 2013-17. What little premium reduction did materialize came largely due to the corporate welfare payments the bills funneled to insurers in the form of a “Stability Fund.”
- However, because lawmakers removed the requirements about what and how much insurers must cover, liberal groups raised questions about access to care, particularly for sicker populations. This dynamic led to the myriad charges and political attacks about Republicans “gutting” care for people with pre-existing conditions.
You couldn’t have picked a worse combination for lawmakers to try to defend. The bills as written created a plethora of “losers” and very few clear “winners.” Legislators absorbed most of the political pain regarding pre-existing conditions that they would have received had they repealed those regulations (i.e., guaranteed issue and community rating) outright, but virtually none of the political gain (i.e., lower premiums) from doing so.
Some people—including yours truly—predicted this outcome. Before the House voted on its bill, I noted that this combination would prove untenable from a policy perspective, and politically problematic to boot. Republicans plowed ahead anyway, likely because they saw this option as the only way to breach the policy chasm caused by bad sloganeering, and paid the price.
Lawmaker Ignorance and Apathy
More than three years ago, Peter Suderman recounted the decades of Republican inaction on health care. From the defeat of “Hillarycare” in 1994 to the inauguration of President Obama 15 years later, Republicans largely ignored the issue, while Democrats took the time to forge the policy consensus that eventually led to Obamacare.
That apathy continued after Obamacare’s enactment. While Suderman articulated an alternative vision to the law, he admitted that “Republicans can’t make the case for that plan because they’ve never figured out what it would look like. The GOP plan is always in development but never ready for final release.”
Emphasizing the “repeal-and-replace” mantra allowed Republicans to avoid face the very real trade-offs that come with making health policy. When a Republican Congress finally had to look those trade-offs in the face, it couldn’t. Many didn’t know what they wanted, or wanted a pain-free solution (“Who knew health care could be so complicated?”). Difficulty regarding trade-offs led to the further difficulty of unifying behind a singular policy.
Can’t Avoid Health Care
Many conservative lawmakers face something that could be described as “health policy PTSD”—they don’t understand it, so they don’t study it; they only define their views by what they oppose (e.g., “Hillarycare” and Obamacare); and when they put out proposals (e.g., premium support for Medicare and “repeal-and-replace” on Obamacare), they get attacked. So they conclude that they should never talk about the issue or put out proposals. Doubtless Tuesday’s election results will confirm that tendency for some.
But health care has become far too large an element of the federal budget, let alone the economy as a whole, to ignore for any length of time. Put simply, any lawmaker who believes in 1) a strong national defense, 2) low levels of taxation, or 3) a fiscally sustainable government—and most conservatives believe in one, if not several, of these concepts— has to take an active interest in health policy. Baby boomers’ continued retirement highlights the unsustainable nature of our current entitlement system, which Obamacare did nothing to solve, and arguably made worse.
Rather than using the election results to avoid health care, Republican lawmakers instead should lean in to the issue, to understand it and ascertain what concepts and policies they support. The left knows exactly what it wants from health care: More regulation, more spending, and more government control—leading ultimately to total government control.
Conservatives must act now to articulate an alternative vision, because the 800-pound gorilla of Washington policy will not disappear any time soon.