TODAY marks the beginning of health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act's new insurance exchanges, for which two million Americans have signed up. Now that the individual mandate is officially here, let me begin with an admission: Obamacare is awful.That is the dirty little secret many liberals have avoided saying out loud for fear of aiding the president's enemies, at a time when the ideal of universal health care needed all the support it could get. Unfortunately, this meant that instead of blaming companies like Novartis, which charges leukemia patients $90,000 annually for the drug Gleevec, or health insurance chief executives like Stephen Hemsley of UnitedHealth Group, who made nearly $102 million in 2009, for the sky-high price of American health care, the president's Democratic supporters bought into the myth that it was all those people going to get free colonoscopies and chemotherapy for the fun of it.
I believe Obamacare's rocky start -- clueless planning, a lousy website, insurance companies raising rates, and the president's telling people they could keep their coverage when, in fact, not all could -- is a result of one fatal flaw: The Affordable Care Act is a pro-insurance-industry plan implemented by a president who knew in his heart that a single-payer, Medicare-for-all model was the true way to go. When right-wing critics "expose" the fact that President Obama endorsed a single-payer system before 2004, they're actually telling the truth.
What we now call Obamacare was conceived at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and birthed in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney, then the governor. The president took Romneycare, a program designed to keep the private insurance industry intact, and just improved some of its provisions. In effect, the president was simply trying to put lipstick on the dog in the carrier on top of Mitt Romney's car. And we knew it.
By 2017, we will be funneling over $100 billion annually to private insurance companies. You can be sure they'll use some of that to try to privatize Medicare.
For many people, the "affordable" part of the Affordable Care Act risks being a cruel joke. The cheapest plan available to a 60-year-old couple making $65,000 a year in Hartford, Conn., will cost $11,800 in annual premiums. And their deductible will be $12,600. If both become seriously ill, they might have to pay almost $25,000 in a single year. (Pre-Obamacare, they could have bought insurance that was cheaper but much worse, potentially with unlimited out-of-pocket costs.)
And yet -- I would be remiss if I didn't say this -- Obamacare is a godsend. My friend Donna Smith, who was forced to move into her daughter's spare room at age 52 because health problems bankrupted her and her husband, Larry, now has cancer again. As she undergoes treatment, at least she won't be in terror of losing coverage and becoming uninsurable. Under Obamacare, her premium has been cut in half, to $456 per month.
Let's not take a victory lap yet, but build on what there is to get what we deserve: universal quality health care.
Those who live in red states need the benefit of Medicaid expansion. It may have seemed like smart politics in the short term for Republican governors to grab the opportunity offered by the Supreme Court rulings that made Medicaid expansion optional for states, but it was long-term stupid: If those 20 states hold out, they will eventually lose an estimated total of $20 billion in federal funds per year -- money that would be going to hospitals and treatment.
In blue states, let's lobby for a public option on the insurance exchange -- a health plan run by the state government, rather than a private insurer. In Massachusetts, State Senator James B. Eldridge is trying to pass a law that would set one up. Some counties in California are also trying it. Montana came up with another creative solution. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who just completed two terms, set up several health clinics to treat state workers, with no co-pays and no deductibles. The doctors there are salaried employees of the state of Montana; their only goal is their patients' health. (If this sounds too much like big government to you, you might like to know that Google, Cisco and Pepsi do exactly the same.)
All eyes are on Vermont's plan for a single-payer system, starting in 2017. If it flies, it will change everything, with many states sure to follow suit by setting up their own versions. That's why corporate money will soon flood into Vermont to crush it. The legislators who'll go to the mat for this will need all the support they can get: If you live east of the Mississippi, look up the bus schedule to Montpelier.
So let's get started. Obamacare can't be fixed by its namesake. It's up to us to make it happen.