Today, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have published plans — really, not so much plans as skeletal descriptions of planlike concepts — to replace Obamacare. Their fundamental dilemma is that Obamacare provides a popular benefit to millions of voters. Appealing to the conservative base demands they eliminate the program that provides this benefit. Appealing to the general election requires them to promise something to compensate the victims of repeal. How will they fund that something? This is the basic problem that for decades has prevented Republicans from offering a health-care plan. Rubio and Walker show that they still have no answer.
The usual pattern in politics is for politicians to turn complex problems into simple ones. But covering the uninsured is a simple problem they want to make complex. The main reason people lacked insurance before Obamacare is that they did not have enough money to afford it. Some of those uninsured people had unusually high health costs. Some of them had unusually low incomes. Boiled down, Obamacare transferred resources from people who are rich and healthy to people who are poor and sick, so the poor and sick people can afford insurance.
It cuts funds, but not benefits, from Medicare. And it transfers resources to sick people through regulations. The individual insurance market is reorganized so that insurers can’t deny essential health services or jack up prices to people with preexisting conditions. This means people with expensive medical needs pay less, and people with cheap medical needs have to pay more. Repealing Obamacare means eliminating all these forms of redistribution from the rich and healthy to the poor and sick. And replacing them with … what?
Walker and Rubio are fairly clear about their plans for regulating the insurance market. They want to go back to the pre-Obamacare, deregulated system. They’d eliminate the requirements that insurance plans cover essential benefits, and let them charge higher prices to sicker customers. That’s good for people who have very limited medical needs (as long as they never obtain a serious medical condition, or have a family with somebody with a serious medical condition). It’s bad for people who have, or ever will have, higher medical needs.
Both Walker and Rubio promise to take care of people with preexisting conditions by creating separate “high-risk pools.” That is a special kind of insurance market for people with expensive medical conditions. As you may have guessed, insurance for people with expensive medical needs is, well, expensive. Making that insurance affordable therefore requires lots of subsidies from the government. Where would Walker and Rubio get the money for that? They don’t say.
Both the Rubio and Walker planlike concepts share a basic structure and an extreme lack of detail. Walker’s document is a few pages padded out with ample white space. Rubio’s op-ed, which repeats the talking points of another op-ed from a few months ago, contains even less information. And the lack of detail is not a matter of filling in the fine print. Both Walker and Rubio have signed the Grover Norquist pledge to never raise a single penny of tax revenue ever, under any circumstances.
Both Walker and Rubio propose to cut funding for Medicaid, but this doesn’t create much room to subsidize coverage, since Medicaid is already much cheaper than Medicare or private insurance. Indeed, the main conservative complaint about Medicaid is that it is so cheap that many doctors refuse to see its patients. Republicans are willing to cut Medicaid because they’re generally willing to cut programs that focus on the very poor, but there’s not much blood to be drawn from this stone.
It is tempting to treat the lack of specifics in the Republican health-care plans as a problem of details to be filled it. But it is not a side problem. It is the entire problem. They will not finance real insurance for the people who have gotten it under Obamacare, nor will they face up to the actual costs they’re willing to impose on people. The party is doctrinally opposed to every available method to make insurance available to people who can’t afford it. They have spent six years promising to come up with an alternative plan, and they haven’t done it, because they can’t.