The Republican Plans to Replace Obamacare Have Been Tried, and They Failed

By
Scott Walker
Scott Walker wants to build on failure.Photo: Jim Cole/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Before Obamacare, the individual insurance market for people who could not get health care through their job was a nightmare. The only way for insurers to make money was to avoid getting stuck with customers who would rack up high medical bills, forcing them to expend enormous time and expense to screen potential customers for preexisting conditions. Even people who could find plans with affordable premiums had to sign contracts loaded with fine-print exclusions leaving them responsible for unexpected costs. Obamacare overhauled that market, eliminating insurers’ ability to screen out healthy customers. In the new, regulated individual markets, people buy plans regardless of their prior health status. This has been a godsend to those unable to obtain coverage before.

Republicans would repeal all these new protections. But never fear, conservatives insist. In their place will be new protections. Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in National Review, points to two protections put in place by Scott Walker’s proposal, which is the prototypical Republican “see, we do too have a plan to replace Obamacare” plan.

Ponnuru mentions two protections. The first is a provision that would “bar insurers from charging higher prices to sicker customers provided they had maintained continuous coverage.” Republicans have taken to using this line a lot, because it sounds to the average person tuning in a lot like a promise to protect people with preexisting conditions, but the last six words are crucial. Maintaining continuous coverage is really hard. We know this because Congress passed a law in 1996 letting people who have employer-provided insurance keep their plan if they maintain continuous coverage. It has proven nearly useless. Maintaining continuous coverage is really hard for people who have financial distress, and it’s harder if the insurance company has every incentive for you to miss a payment or fail to dot one of your i’s or cross one of your t’s, so they can kick you out. And, of course, in a market where insurers can charge higher prices to sicker customers, “maintaining continuous coverage” means buying insurance that’s really expensive and can deny you coverage for lots of treatments you need.

The second provision is high-risk pools. This is a special market for the customers with the most expensive medical needs. Many states have tried high-risk pools. They also work really, really badly. There are all sorts of practical barriers that make it hard to operate a special insurance system for people with the most expensive conditions. For instance, how do you determine eligibility? Tens of millions of Americans have something in their medical history that makes them a less than perfect risk, from the insurance company’s standpoint. Where do you draw the cutoff for eligibility? And how do you keep insurance companies from skimming the high-risk pools, too — after all, they’ll want to cover the least costly people in the high-risk pool, not the most costly ones.

Even if it is possible to devise solutions to these problems, the biggest single impediment is that high-risk pools cost money. There’s no magic secret in a high-risk pool that makes insurers able to sell affordable insurance to people who need lots of medical care. And where would Republicans get the money to finance the high-risk pools? They don’t say. And they all have signed the Grover Norquist pledge that they will never raise taxes under any circumstances — even if aliens come to Earth and threaten to destroy humanity unless the president agrees to raise taxes by a single penny.

The funding problem is not ancillary. There’s an old joke in which a chemist, a physicist, and an economist are trapped on a desert island, and some cans of food wash up onshore. The physicist devises a plan to smash open the cans. The chemist comes up with a plan to heat them open. And the economist says “assume a can opener.” This is the problem not just with the high-risk pools, but the Republican health-care plans as a whole. They assume the availability of funding, but the party is theologically opposed to raising revenue of any kind. Like having a can opener, if the Republicans were able to overcome their fanatical opposition to revenue, the problem wouldn’t exist in the first place. Any reform that assumes Republicans will find a way to fund it is assuming a can opener. It’s premised on a fantastical assumption. That is why, in the absence of some concrete way around the no-taxes-ever problem, a vague hand-waving promise can’t be called a real plan.

Before Obamacare took effect, different measures were tried to reform America’s cruel and dysfunctional individual health-care marketplace. The continuous-coverage protection and high-risk pools both failed. One thing that succeeded was tried in Massachusetts, by Mitt Romney. The Obama administration decided to build that model out nationally, and it has worked very well — premiums have actually come in well under projections. But since it was Obama’s plan, Republicans oppose it. But since Obamacare is working, they need to have something they can say they’ll replace it with, and they’ve turned to the things that have already failed.