The future of the Affordable Care Act: Reassessment and revision

Given the lackluster healthcare exchange enrollment numbers, unaffordable coverage, and increasing overall healthcare costs, President Obama is wrong to think the Affordable Care Act (ACA) needs just a few tweaks – its most fundamental aspects need to be rethought. Obama’s essay marks the first time a modern sitting president has had a piece published in the journal.

Much of the progress made under the ACA expanding healthcare coverage to the uninsured has been thanks to increased enrollment in Medicaid — not the exchanges — a harbinger of even less progress to come.  Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell sharply adjusted down projections of new exchange enrollees in 2016 to 1.3 million. Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that over the next decade, as the population increases, coverage will expand only modestly and the proportion of the uninsured will cease to decline.

Six key areas in the ACA are flawed — and need to be fixed if healthcare reform is to meet its promise and not have rampant cost problems:

  1. Subsidies still leave plans too expensive. Congress must continue income-related subsidies while making coverage affordable to both households and taxpayers, which is “no easy task” because it could drive up costs of the ACA considerably.
  2. The Cadillac tax needs to be fixed. While better than nothing, it doesn’t confront the underlying problem of health insurance being tax deductible, which is regressive and inefficient. One suggestion is a modification of the Cadillac tax that makes any excess plan costs above a cap be considered taxable income to the employee, as opposed to an excise tax.
  3. Increase federalism in the healthcare system. States should apply for waivers under Section 1332, which takes effect in 2017 and gives states flexibility to meet the law’s goals while retaining its basic protections. The Administration has made a serious mistake in dragging its feet and acting overly restrictively with states who could launch their own bold and far-reaching experiments, as it has itself in encouraging conservative states to expand Medicaid under the ACA.
  4. The exchanges need to be the primary vehicle for health insurance – not Medicaid expansion. Equalizing the subsidy structure for exchange plans and the tax treatment of employer-sponsored benefits, more employees would go on the exchanges which gives them greater choice and portability.
  5. Replace the Independent Payment Advisory Board with a premium support system for Medicare. Premium support would enforce a long-term budget for Medicare by allowing greater control of the beneficiaries themselves, as opposed to imposing payment and price controls; it would also accelerate innovation in the design and pricing of Medicare services.
  6. The ACA should focus more on the “upstream” determinants of health – beyond just medical services. We need to find ways to blend health, housing, transportation, social services and other items to reduce the need for costly medical services, he writes.

If it were a separate economy, the US health system would be equivalent to the first or sixth largest economy in the world. It is both pragmatic and principled to recognize that achieving agreement on how to redesign an economy that large, or to do it successfully in 1 piece of legislation, is beyond the capabilities of the federal government. That is why core parts of the ACA need to be reassessed and revised and why empowering the US system of federalism to adapt and experiment with this law is so important.

Read “The Future of the Affordable Care Act: Reassessment and Revision.”