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Yes, We Can Fix the ACA

By       Message Margaret Flowers       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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Rally in Support of Affordable Care Act
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2017 is the make or break year for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Seven years in, the flaws of the ACA are clear -- tens of millions are still without health insurance, premiums and out-of-pocket costs are rising and causing people to either avoid and delay care or go into debt, and the US continues to rank poorly in health outcomes. There is one way to fix the ACA, and I call it the Private Extraction.

What are we to do?

The Republicans are seeking a way to keep their promise to repeal and replace the ACA, but they are finding that this is not very easy to do. There are deep divides within the party over cuts to Medicaid and subsidies for premiums. And the changes they are currently proposing will leave tens of millions more people without insurance. This is highly unpopular with the public, and the Republicans are being hit with widespread opposition. President Trump is so discouraged that he's calling for an all-out repeal now with a replacement to be determined down the road. This would be political suicide if they can't come up with a solution.

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Despite the Democratic base's overwhelming support for National Improved Medicare for All single payer health care, the Democrats are saying that we can't do that yet because first they want to fix the ACA. We hear Democrats and their supporters in the media and non-profit world saying that we just need to "stabilize the market" and suggesting the addition of a public insurance, which they call a public option, or allowing people to buy into Medicare as a way to insure more people.

This was the same message that the Democrats gave in 2009 when their base wanted single payer to be included in the health reform debate. Democrats said that the people were asking for too much and told them to work for something more practical, a public option, instead. This effectively divided and weakened single payer supporters. The saddest part of that story is that the public option was never intended to be in the final legislation. The White House and Congressional leadership actively worked to keep it out of the final bill when the tide of support was moving lawmakers to include it.

So, here we are again. Even Senator Sanders, considered to be a champion of Medicare for All after campaigning on it heavily in the presidential primary, is saying that we have to fix the ACA first and then we can work for single payer. We know how that works out, but in case you are not familiar with the scenario: if and when the ACA is tweaked, we will then be told that we have to wait and see if that worked, and when it doesn't, then another tweak will be proposed, and so on. Single payer's day will never come until we organize and work specifically to make it a reality.

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Let's look at the Democrat's proposals:

"Stabilizing the market" basically amounts to giving the private health insurance corporations more money through direct subsidies or tax credits so they will lower premiums and still make enough profits to satisfy their investors. The Center for American Progress, a Democratic Party think tank funded by the health insurance industry lobby group AHIP, offered a "bipartisan proposal" this week "that proposes repairing Obamacare's exchanges through a mixture of new subsidies to help insurance companies cover their most expensive patients, and lower taxes to encourage insurers to set up shop in under-served markets."

Jeff Stein goes on to describe CAP's plan further: "The second component is a $15 billion 'reinsurance' fund. It calls for giving states federal money to give insurers funding for their most expensive, high-cost enrollees -- which Spiro says would in turn reduce premium payments for everyone else on the exchanges." Here is the translation: the plan would use public dollars to reimburse private insurers for actually having to pay for health care. If you step outside of the matrix for a moment, it becomes clear that is a ridiculous idea.

And while Democrats rail about the Republican's efforts to repeal the taxes in the ACA, the Democrat's proposal essentially does the same thing by funneling more public dollars into the pockets of the medical industrial complex and their Wall Street investors. Applying market language to health care, which is a public necessity, reveals that the Democrats view health care as a commodity and not a human right. It can't be both.

A "public option" is the term applied to a public health insurance that people could choose to purchase instead of private health insurance. It is often described as a way to compete with private insurers because theoretically it would be able to offer lower premiums since it would not have a requirement for profit. The reality is that adding another insurance to our already complex and heavily bureaucratic system just adds more complexity and bureaucracy. And thinking that it could effectively compete with private insurance, which already has a large grip on the market, is naive.

To create a public option, either each state or the federal government would need to set up a new health insurance plan, recruit health professionals to participate in it, negotiate rates for health care services, and then market the plan to customers as a lower cost viable alternative and hope enough people sign on to make it work. This is a big lift. And in the past, private health insurers have been willing to temporarily drop premiums to stifle just this kind of competition.

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What is most likely to happen is that the public insurance becomes a relief valve for the private insurers by attracting people who actually need health care. I call it the Profiteer's Option. Private insurers are very talented at finding ways to encourage people to leave them when they become sick. One way they do this is by severely restricting their provider networks so that when a person becomes ill and finds out that the doctor or hospital they need is not in their network, they seek an alternative. Or they can do it in a more passive-aggressive way by offering lower quality service to people who start racking up high health bills.

A natural experiment in public-private competition is found in Medicare. There is a public Medicare, often referred to as traditional Medicare, and there are private Medicare plans, misnamed Medicare Advantage plans. People who enroll in Medicare Advantage plans are healthier overall than those in traditional Medicare. When a Medicare Advantage enrollee starts to need more care, they quickly find that the Advantage plan has less generous coverage or doesn't include the health professional they need to use and they drop out. This leaves traditional Medicare to cover the sickest population.

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Margaret Flowers, M.D. is a pediatrician from Maryland who is co-director of Popular Resistance and coordinator of Health Over Profit for Everyone Campaign.

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