Since Obamacare made its debut, discussions have focused on Ted Cruz’ efforts to defund the law and the shockingly bad functionality of the Website itself. Fortunately for Obama, polling indicates that Senator Cruz has lost, at least for now, the battle for hearts and minds. The President has not been nearly so lucky on the technological front. If current trends continue, the rollout may go down as the worst major product launch in history. But given the government’s enormous resources, it’s safe to say that the site itself will ultimately be fixed. But when it is finally up and running, the plan’s many deeper, and more intractable, flaws will come into focus. That’s when the fun will really begin.
Put simply the program is built on a mountain of false assumptions and is covered by a terrain of unanticipated incentives. Any cleared-eyed observer should conclude that it is perfectly designed to raise the costs of care and wreck the federal budget. However, like just about every other complicated problem that bedevils the nation, the public has become far too caught up in the politics and has ignored the horrific details.
Most people agree that the plan can only remain solvent if enough young and healthy people (“the invincibles”) agree to sign up. They are the ones who are likely to pay more into the system than they take out. But now that insurance coverage is guaranteed to anyone at any time (at the same price — even after they have gotten sick or injured), the only incentive for the invincibles to sign up will be to avoid the penalty (I think we can dismiss “civic duty” as an effective motivator). But as I detailed in a column last year, Justice John Roberts declared the law to be constitutional only because the penalties are far too low to actually compel behavior. Once young healthy people understand that they can save money by dropping insurance, they will. No amount of slick, cheerful TV ads will change that.
The good news for Obama is that the plan will get a large percentage of young people covered. The bad news is that many of those that do sign up will not help the bottom line. The youngest and healthiest of the group are under 26 and will now be able to stay on their parents’ plans. This group will add nothing to the pool of premiums (but will use services). Among those older than 26, the ones who qualify for the largest subsidies will be more inclined to sign up. The way the plan is structured, individuals and families earning between 1.38 and 4 times the Federal poverty level will qualify for a subsidy. The government subsidy covers almost the entire premium for those near the bottom of that spectrum. These individuals will definitely sign up. But just like those under 26, they will be a net drain on the system.
From my estimations, private premium contributions don’t surpass the government contributions until an individual or a family makes about 2.5 times the poverty level (which equates to about $28,000 for an individual and $55,000 for a family of 4). Since a very large percentage of young people earn less than that, many will sign up to get the benefit. But these people will likely be net drains to the system as well. Their total premiums paid may be more than the services they receive, but that may not be true when you look only at what they actually pay in.
Young women, who plan on using maternity care, may also be motivated. But they can cost more than they bring in. The real cash cows are the young men, not covered by parents, who make more than 4 times the poverty level. But their only incentive to sign up is to avoid the penalty. But at just one percent of income, the penalty just won’t be a deciding factor. Most young men will save money by dropping insurance, paying the tax and incidental doctor visits out of pocket, and then only adding the insurance if and when something really bad happens.
The subsidies in Obamacare kick in and kick out very abruptly. People finding themselves on the wrong side of a dividing line will face difficult choices that hurt the plan’s finances. The San Francisco Chronicle recently profiled a California couple in their early 60s making about $64,000 per year who would be able to qualify for a $14,000 annual subsidy by reducing their income by $2,000 dollars per year. It’s easy to imagine such individuals reducing their hours or their pay to qualify. Of course this type of behavior modification has not been anticipated by preparing premium and budget projections. It is no accident that the government has offered no serious projections about how much in healthcare subsidies it should expect to pay out over the coming years
In truth, the premium levels themselves are based on nothing but assumptions. It is true that those lucky enough to actually get through the website’s technological maze have seen (unsubsidized) premiums that are lower than similarly constituted plans in the private market. But those low prices are only possible because no one knows what the new pool of insurance holders will look like. They assume it will look like the pools that already exist. But they won’t.
Of course, the incentives for the young and healthy to drop out, and for the sick, old and the heavily subsidized to drop in will mean that the post-Obamacare pool will have very different actuarial arithmetic than the current pools. But all of that is as yet unknown. The numbers we see now were put there just to make us feel good. But once the economics kicks in, look for them to rise quickly.
It is also ironic that high-deductible, catastrophic plans are precisely what young people should be buying in the first place. They are inexpensive because they provide coverage for unlikely, but expensive, events. Routine care is best paid for out-of-pocket by value conscious consumers. But Obamacare outlaws these plans, in favor of what amounts to prepaid medical treatment that shifts the cost of services to taxpayers. In such a system, patients have no incentive to contain costs. Since the biggest factor driving health care costs higher in the first place has been the over use of insurance that results from government-provided tax incentives, and the lack of cost accountability that results from a third-party payer system, Obamacare will bend the cost curve even higher. The fact that Obamacare does nothing to rein in costs while providing an open-ended insurance subsidy may be good news for hospitals and insurance companies, but it’s bad news for taxpayers, on whom this increased burden will ultimately fall.
The real shock of Obamacare is not the unbelievable ineptitude in which it was launched, but the naiveté in which it was designed. The only thing worse than the product launch may be the product itself. But unlike other major entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare, that took years to produce red ink that was far in excess of original assumptions, the financial shortfalls in Obamacare should show up very quickly. Republicans should not miss that opportunity to destroy this monster that threatens us all.