WASHINGTON – The $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that passed the House on Saturday would make one of the biggest changes to the affordable care law in more than a decade, and it could pave the way the ground for a broader overhaul of the healthcare agenda – but don’t. don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard much about it.
The reforms, which would include a temporary increase in subsidies to purchase insurance and make it available to people of all incomes for the first time, received little attention from either side.
For Democrats, who have spent the last year debating whether or not to move to a single-payer system, the more minor changes are not controversial and are therefore less discussed than the other features of the bill.
Republicans, who have increasingly played down their opposition to the ACA, otherwise known as Obamacare, made little mention of it in their messages against the bill.
And industry groups, who have spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising and lobbying campaigns against previous democratic healthcare proposals, are overwhelmingly in favor this time around.
“These ACA changes really flew under the radar and didn’t attract major opposition from Republicans,” said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, an not-for-profit health policy research.
The biggest ACA-related element in the US bailout, which the House passed last week, would respond to one of the most persistent complaints about the law among clients and political opponents: sky-high premiums for people who are not eligible for the federal plan. tax credits to help pay them off.
Tax credits can go a long way for those who qualify – in many cases it is possible to find a plan without a premium. But anyone who earns more than 400 percent of the federal poverty line ($ 51,520 for an individual) is falling off a “subsidy cliff” and must pay a heavy price. Premiums vary widely based on local health care costs, and the plans are often so expensive that customers forgo insurance.
For the next two years, the American Rescue Plan would extend higher employee tax credits and cap the maximum premium anyone would have to pay at 8.5% of their income. It would also increase low-income tax credits: people earning less than 150% of the federal poverty line ($ 19,320 for an individual) would have to pay $ 0 in premiums for a referral plan, for example.
For those with lower incomes, the bill would boost incentives for states to expand Medicaid by asking the federal government to take the tab for new beneficiaries. Twelvestates, including Florida, Georgia, and Texas, have refused to accept Medicaid dollars through the ACA. It is not known whether the bill would affect their calculations.
The changes, which are said to be temporary, closely mirror Joe Biden’s health care agenda of the presidential campaign, and Democrats should try to make them permanent across the board.
But they are also fruits within reach at the political level. Unlike other health care reforms, there are few obvious “losers” beyond deficit-increasing budget hawks. The US Chamber of Commerce and major lobby groups representing insurers, hospitals and doctors have all endorsed the measures, which would put more money into the system without asking them to cut costs or pay new taxes.
“The industry has generally supported the ACA coverage provisions in the covid relief bill,” Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, said in an email.
Brian Blase, a member of the Trump administration’s National Economic Council, described the overall Democratic approach as “talking about the meanness of health insurance companies but still channeling money to them.”
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the additional grants would cost $ 34 billion and insure an additional 1.3 million people by next year. Blase said if the grants were extended permanently, they could cost the government much more by encouraging small businesses to offload their workers on ACA scholarships.
While some conservative political thinkers like Blase have criticized the proposal on its cost, Republicans in Congress seem less sure how to send a message against it. Minority House Leader Kevin McCarthy of California never mentioned it in his speech opposing the relief legislation, instead focusing on other elements of the $ 1.9 trillion bill. of dollars.
Many Republicans faced attack ads in 2018 and 2020 for their opposition to the ACA, and the party has largely turned to the “Medicare for All” attack instead, even as the Supreme Court is considering a Republican-led trial to overturn Obamacare.
But the detente between Democrats, Republicans and big business may not last long.
Democrats are already discussing creating a public insurance option that would compete with private insurers in a future bill. There is also pressure to allow some older Americans to purchase traditional health insurance.
Former public options executives have called for reimbursement of doctors and hospitals at Medicare-related rates, which tend to be much lower than what private insurance pays. Proponents argue it would put pressure on insurers and providers to lower prices. Polls have long found broad bipartisan support for the idea, and Biden has called for both a public option and lowering the Medicare age to 60.
But moving more Americans to government plans will likely mean less money for doctors, hospitals, and specialists. While some proposed versions would adjust tariffs up a bit to ease the transition, a coalition of healthcare industry groups spent a lot on ads opposing a public option last year and are likely to do so. the same again. Republicans, who have shown little enthusiasm for the idea, are sure to follow suit.
“The healthcare industry would fight a public option with all it has,” Levitt said.