Is a deal on health care possible? Conventional wisdom says no. “Repeal and Replace” is dead, and Republicans have moved on. So have many Democrats, toward pursuit of a single-payer plan that’s going nowhere on Capitol Hill but energizes the party’s core. Last month, President Donald Trump said he’ll “dismantle” the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on his own—and backed this up with executive orders that risk the stability of the insurance exchanges.
Democrats are angry that Trump and congressional Republicans want to repeal the ACA and roll back its expansion of health insurance coverage. Republicans are angry that Democrats pushed “Obamacare” through Congress on a party-line basis, and they see the ACA as big government running amok. Both parties are positioning themselves for primaries, and neither shows much interest in the risky work of compromise.
We’re alarmed. One of us is a Cato Institute-friendly “free-market”eer who wrote a book arguing (tongue in cheek) that Medicare is the work of the Devil. The other helped to develop President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign health plan and believes that failure to ensure everyone’s access to health care is an assault on human decency. But we’ve come together because we believe that failure to resolve the present impasse will have hugely destructive consequences for millions of Americans’ access to health care—and for our national confidence in our political system’s capacity to function.
Designing A Deal
President Trump has cut off cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurers and issued a directive to allow coverage options less comprehensive than the ACA requires—measures that threaten to unravel the individual and small-group markets by incentivizing younger and healthier people to exit. Meanwhile, the uncertainty that besets federal funding under the ACA for Medicaid expansion poses huge fiscal risks for states, as does Congress’s failure, so far, to renew funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). And over the longer term, soaring private and public spending on medical services that deliver doubtful value erodes US productivity and well-being.
We think a bipartisan “grand bargain” to stabilize the US health care system is feasible—if key decision makers can move beyond showmanship and spite. To this end, we outline a deal that: honors but balances the competing values at stake, steadies both market and public mechanisms of medical care financing, and puts the nation on a path toward sustainability in health spending.
Our grand bargain builds on federalism. Vastly different values, priorities, and interests stand in the way of nationwide health policy uniformity. Allowing states to sort out controversial matters within broader limits than the ACA now imposes would permit creative policy alternatives to unfold and encourage local buy-in. We needn’t and shouldn’t mandate definitive answers to bitterly contested questions that can be reasonably negotiated at the state or local level. Instead, we should open political and market pathways for the emergence of answers to these questions over time.
Moving to this long game will require all sides to pass on their pursuit of a quick political win. Doing so is the key to moving from cycles of backlash and volatility to a system that builds confidence and delivers high-quality, compassionate health care to all.
The Long Game: Seven Steps Toward a Compromise that Can Work And Endure
With these basic principles in mind, we propose the following seven steps:
Moving Beyond Maximalism—Medicaid Rollback And “Medicare for All”
Republicans should end their campaign to roll back the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and Democrats should stand down on their quest for single payer. Both pursuits inspire true believers but will go nowhere on Capitol Hill for the imaginable future.
Give states more flexibility to design their Medicaid programs and to govern their insurance exchanges. One approach would be to simply allow states complete flexibility to design their own coverage rules. Alternatively, we could give states more flexibility but ensure, via federal law, that Medicaid and plans sold on the exchanges provide affordable access to effective preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic services. States could also be allowed but not required to offer a public option through their exchanges. Instead of an all-or-none answer to the public plan question, the nation would have a framework for market-driven, state-by-state resolution. Similarly, states should be allowed to decide whether to prohibit, permit, or require enrollment of Medicaid beneficiaries in private plans. Finally, when it comes to care that serves culturally contested purposes—including, but not limited to, gender reassignment or confirmation and late termination of pregnancies for nontherapeutic reasons—states should be given autonomy to go their own ways. More federalism will achieve greater stability than would temporary nationwide imposition of one or another approach by whichever party happens to hold the electoral upper hand.
Health Savings Accounts That Appeal To Everyone
An expanded role for tax-protected health savings should have bipartisan appeal. We propose that every lawful US resident be auto-enrolled in a health savings account (HSA), funded through a refundable tax credit, scaled to income and family size. People could opt out but would lose this credit if they did. Few would do so, enabling HSAs to become a means for pursuing both market discipline and social equity.
Repeal The Individual Mandate
Sacrilege, you’re surely thinking, if you’re a Democrat who’s spent seven-plus years defending the mandate, the ACA’s most disliked element. But the mandate isn’t needed to keep healthy people in community-rated risk pools—it’s the intensity of the incentives, whether framed as penalties or subsidies, that matters. Even the mandate’s most outspoken economist-defender, Jonathan Gruber, concedes that high-enough subsidies for the purchase of insurance can substitute for it.
Such subsidies could be supplied in conservative-friendly fashion by allowing all who buy coverage on the exchanges to put HSA funds (including the tax credit we urge) toward their premiums. Sign-up for coverage could also be made more user-friendly through auto-enrollment, subject to opt-out, in “silver” plans (for tax filers who aren’t otherwise covered and aren’t Medicaid eligible). A more robust approach might condition the refundable HSA tax credit on tax filers’ purchasing insurance (or not opting out of auto-enrollment).
Congressional Authorization Of Funding For Both The ACA’s Cost-Sharing Reductions And CHIP
There is bipartisan support for restoring the ACA’s cost-sharing reduction subsidies and extending CHIP. Although annual appropriations are the norm, Congress should guarantee funding for the cost-sharing reductions for a two-year period, with automatic renewal for an additional two years if per capita subsidies rise by no more than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) during the prior two years. By so doing, Congress can reaffirm its authority over appropriations while helping to stabilize markets for individual coverage. Likewise, Congress should renew CHIP’s funding for several years—we urge three as a compromise—to both stabilize state budgets and secure health care for the millions of children who depend on this program.
The “Long Game”—Reining In Medical Spending
A long-term effort to contain spending growth is essential for US fiscal stability and consumer well-being. The ACA created a framework for doing this. The Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) can limit Medicare spending, subject to congressional veto, if growth exceeds target rates. And the 40 percent “Cadillac tax” on high-cost private health plans will cover a rising share of the private market as medical costs increase. Together, these policies have the potential to contain clinical spending by capping demand. But there’s bipartisan opposition to both. The IPAB, which hasn’t yet been established, and the Cadillac tax, now delayed until 2020, are fiercely opposed by stakeholders with lots to lose, and they’re at high risk of repeal.
A grand bargain should follow through on both of these strategies, plus add similar restraints on Medicaid spending and on the amounts spent to subsidize coverage through the exchanges. Most other nations employ global budgeting to control health spending. For reasons of federalism, public philosophy, and market structure, global budgeting isn’t an option for the US. But a coordinated scheme of restraint, based on the best available behavioral and economic modeling, could apply similar braking power to our entire health economy. There’s plenty of room for argument about design details (that is, should per capita growth targets be based on the CPI? The CPI plus 1 percent?) and methods of restraint (that is, the IPAB approach? Spending caps for public programs? The Cadillac tax versus caps on tax deductibility of insurance premiums?). Continued bipartisan evasion will only make the problem worse.
Pursuing Therapeutic Value
Much more must be done to use health care resources wisely as constraints tighten. Tying financial rewards closely to clinical value via paymentpractices, market exclusivity policies, and other incentives will be critical—and will require the clearing of legal and regulatory obstacles. Voluntary action must also play a role: The grand bargain we’ve sketched here creates myriad opportunities for providers, patients, and insurers to gain by insisting on value from a sector of the economy that too often fails to deliver it.
To be sure, politics could foil all efforts to forge compromise. But there is a way forward. Our proposals achieve much that is important to both the ACA’s fiercest critics and staunchest defenders. They work in concert to address the political and market crises that immediately threaten our health care system, while laying the foundation for a long-term approach to control medical spending’s unsustainable growth.