How Conservatives Are Helping Obamacare

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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Yuval Levin, among other conservatives, has made an offer to liberals: Let's delay the implementation of Obamacare for a year and make everybody better off:

Congressional Democrats surely want to avoid being blamed for a meltdown of American health care during a congressional election year, the people implementing this law at every level could certainly use the time, and Republicans believe that more time would not make Obamacare more popular but would allow them to further develop and articulate their alternatives (and allow another election to intervene earlier in the rollout process, making a replacement more plausible).

Liberals, wisely, are saying no. What's funny about this conversation is that conservatives have been accidentally managing expectations for implementation: By harping constantly on what a disaster the rollout is going to be, they will make what actually happens look good by comparison.

Jonathan Cohn has a good piece in the New Republic arguing that implementation won't be as bad as people are saying. This is his really important observation:

Notice that the worries about implementation chaos apply strictly to people who would otherwise be uninsured or at the mercy of the existing individual insurance market, in which plans are inconsistently priced, full of coverage holes, and of unpredictable reliability -- and in which financial assistance for buying private coverage is not available at all. Even if it takes these people a while to get insurance, and even if finding that coverage is a maddening experience, they're going to end up with something they don't have now: Coverage that meets more of their needs and is available to them, with substantial financial assistance. Don't forget: Today, people with pre-existing medical conditions frequently cannot get any coverage on the individual market.

This is something that has been lost in the discussion of Obamacare implementation difficulties: Implementation won't much affect the 78 percent of Americans currently covered through Medicaid, Medicare, or employer group health plans. It will make some people who currently buy individual coverage worse off. But only 5 percent of Americans get insurance through the individual market, which is already hugely dysfunctional. Three times as many Americans are currently uninsured, and they can only stand to gain from Obamacare implementation, even if it does not go smoothly.

For those 5 percent who buy individual coverage now, the new law will be a mixed bag. Some people will probably have frustrating bureaucratic experiences with the new exchanges that they didn't have buying directly from insurers. And some people (particularly young and healthy people) will see their premiums go up. But others will see their premiums go down, either because they currently pay a lot because of age or health status, or because income-based premium subsidies will more than offset any premium increase.

There will also be people who lose group health coverage, when premium subsidies make it attractive for their employers to send them to shop in the exchanges. (Others will gain group coverage if employers decide it is better to offer it than to pay a penalty for uninsured workers.) But neither this effect nor any problems faced by people with existing individual insurance is likely to create a clamor for repeal that is any more effective than the din of the last three years.

That is because the most obvious way to fix the problem of those who have trouble in the health exchanges will be to fix the exchanges, not repeal them. Let's say your employer dropped group coverage and you're having trouble with the exchange. Will you want the whole law repealed in the hope that will lead your employer to reverse course and offer a group plan again? Or will you want the exchange fixed so you are guaranteed access to coverage?

Cohn looks back to Medicare Part D and the Children's Health Insurance Program and argues that those programs got through their rocky implementations in large part because benefits obtained with bureaucratic difficulty are better than no benefits at all. He's right, and this is why conservatives are "magnanimously" offering to delay implementation of Obamacare. They realize that once people have guaranteed access to health coverage, they won't want to give it up, even if there are implementation problems.

The political landscape is already dire for those who still hope to repeal Obamacare, and they're actually making their position worse by talking constantly about what a nightmare implementation is going to be. This fall, as the exchanges come on line, tens of millions of people are going to find they can get health coverage they never could before. They are likely to be quite happy about that, especially if they've been hearing for months in advance that it will be a mess.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.