What’s Behind the Fixation on Obamacare?

October 7, 2013

I’m having withdrawal symptoms. Not symptoms that my body is craving formerly-abused substances. Rather, symptoms that I want to withdraw from following what’s going on — and not — on Capitol Hill.

I’m tired, as I’m sure you are, of the day-by-day, blow-by-blow reports and commentary on who said what, what’s really on their minds, who will do what next, what they should do instead, etc.

And I’m anxious because I can’t persuade myself that this is all a lot of kabuki theater staged to ensure that Republicans up for re-election don’t lose their primaries to candidates more radically right-wing than they.

This may be simply because I’m prone to worrying — one of the things I do best, in fact.

Wonkblogger-in-chief Ezra Klein thinks the government shutdown is really a fine thing because it makes default on the debt less likely. And bad as the shutdown is, everyone knows default would be a whole lot worse.

Noam Schrieber at The New Republic arrived at a similar conclusion, based on the political calculations he supposes House Speaker John Boehner will make.

On the other hand, Howard Gleckman at the Tax Policy Center says that for many House Republicans, Obamacare is the white whale, a.k.a. Moby Dick, that so obsessed Captain Ahab.

The end result, as you may recall, was that he and all but one of his crew members died in a futile effort to kill the creature, who wouldn’t have harmed them if left alone.

There is, to me, something apt in this analogy. Obamacare clearly isn’t just a program Republicans don’t like — different somehow from the many, many other items the House leadership planned to include in its debt ceiling bill.

It’s a symbol for diverse antipathies — not the least of which is Obama. At any rate, I don’t know how else to explain what’s appearing more and more like an obsession.

Bill Moyers & Company’s Joshua Holland, among others, argues that right-wingers feel they’ve got to stop Obamacare now because otherwise Americans will soon find out that it delivers meaningful benefits.

It will thus “provide solid evidence that government can improve people’s lives.” So, Holland says, it’s “an existential threat” to the Tea Party types, who rail against “big government.”

Also, not coincidentally, against the taxes we pay for such public goods as education, clean air and water and what we’ve got by way of a safety net.

Eduardo Porter at The New York Times also refers to “an existential threat.” For him, it’s the distinct possibility that a “large slice of the middle class” will shift its allegiance to Democrats because of the benefits of Obamacare.

In short, a shrewd political calculation, rather than “only some folks gettin’ their crazy on,” in Jared Bernstein’s priceless words.

But there is some deep hostility to social programs here.

Thus, we have Washington Post columnist George Will comparing the insurance subsidies to a heroin drip that will make Americans “instant addicts” — just as we’ve become addicted to other entitlements like Social Security.

See also Senator Ted Cruz, who alleges that the President plans to get as many of us as possible “hooked on the subsidies, addicted to the sugar.”

Ah, well. Taking the most optimistic view of things, the economy will be rescued from the devastating consequences of default. And Obamacare will continue to roll out, as the law provides.

But that doesn’t mean the hard-core opposition hasn’t done damage. Some examples in my next post.


Too Many Bad Jobs and Plenty of Blame to Go Around

December 17, 2012

“We’re better at pulling people out of the stream than walking up to see who’s throwing them in.”

Bishop Gene Robinson, who said this, was speaking about the faith community at the launch of the Half in Ten campaign’s new shared prosperity report.

But I think his twist on the oft-quoted precept of another Christian social justice advocate applies more generally.

Look at public policies, for example. The safety net surely isn’t all it should be, but it does protect a large majority from utter destitution.

On the other hand, we see a high tolerance for employment practices that effectively throw people into the safety net.

Our federal policies, for example, allow employers to pay workers as little as $7.25 an hour — even less if they’re home care workers, who’ve got no minimum wage or overtime rights at all.

Companies can duck not only the minimum wage and related overtime requirements, but their obligations for the payroll taxes that will ultimately provide workers with Social Security and Medicare benefits.

They can shift jobs overseas — either directly or by contracting out work formerly performed by employees here in the U.S. Our tax code gives them incentives for the former.

When offshoring isn’t possible, companies can still contract out essential parts of their operations to other companies or to agencies that employ workers on a short-term basis — again ducking whatever payroll tax obligations they’d otherwise have.

Contracting out, whether here or abroad, can also relieve them of legal obligations for workers’ health and safety — and for maintaining insurance to compensate those who suffer on-the-job insurances or workplace-related illnesses.

And for the legal obligations they’d otherwise have under nondiscrimination laws.

In theory, temporary workers have the same basic protections they’d have as regular company employees — though none of the optional benefits, of course.

In reality, they’ve got to put up with whatever the agency and its client firms dish out because they’ll get fired if they complain. And they can have a lot to complain about, as this report from a former “warehouse slave” shows.

Unions used to provide a strong counterweight to such practices. Now they don’t because they represent only a small fraction of the private-sector workforce.

We can attribute some of the decline in union strength to changes in the economy, including the shift to temporary contract labor. But public policies have played a role too.

Twenty-four states, for example, have “right to work” laws that allow employees to benefit from the wages, benefits and other terms of employment unions negotiate without paying the dues unions need to effectively represent the workforce as a whole.

At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Board arguably doesn’t have the authority to keep companies from crippling union organizing campaigns or from making them effectively meaningless by refusing to bargain in good faith.

It’s easy to blame our policymakers for staying safely downstream. But that’s too simple, I think.

We’re collectively responsible for choosing them — and to some extent, for the policies they pursue.

But we also make other choices that give companies incentives to keep throwing people into the stream — or at the very least, no compelling reason to stop.

We may have joined the Black Friday boycott of Walmart, but how many of us don’t bargain-hunt, even when we know that our choice of rock-bottom prices puts companies that try to do the right things at a competitive disadvantage.

How many of us buy clothing, electronics, toys and other goods even when we know — or could know — that the companies they’re made for tolerate dreadful conditions in their suppliers’ factories?

Yet we sometimes do keep companies from behaving badly. Look at what’s just happened at Darden Restaurants — the company that owns some popular sit-down chains, including Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Capital Grille.

Word go out that Darden planned to exploit a deliberately-created loophole in the Affordable Care Act by cutting its workers hours just enough to put them under the threshold for mandatory employer-sponsored health insurance.

Next thing you know, a flood of negative feedback from customers, lower satisfaction scores at restaurants where Darden was testing its strategy and (horrors!) lower sales projections, leading analysts to drop their target prices for buying its stock.

The company does an about-face. Says it has no intention of converting full-time workers to part-time — or of cutting back on the health insurance coverage full-timers can get.

I don’t want to sound like a cock-eyed optimist. Darden has merely pushed the pause button on its workforce changes. Some other companies reportedly are moving ahead to convert full-time to part-time jobs. Still others are planning to do so.

And targeted consumer pressures alone aren’t going to transform working conditions in the lower layers of our growing service sector anyway.

But the Darden episode suggests that we’ve got some leverage if we care to use it.


DC Makes Right Choices on Health Care Reform

July 19, 2012

Reading about how states are responding to the Affordable Care Act, I feel proud to live in the District of Columbia.

Only 10 states have decided to expand their Medicaid programs by the 2014 deadline. The District has charged ahead.

It’s already lifted its income eligibility ceiling to 133% of the federal poverty line, as the ACA required — until the Supreme Court in effect said it couldn’t. The District has also requested — and received — a waiver to lift the ceiling to 200% of the FPL.

This is so fiscally smart.

Under a separate program called the DC Healthcare Alliance, the District had been paying the full costs of health coverage for people with incomes below 200% of the FPL who couldn’t qualify for Medicaid.

Now it’s shifted a majority of them from the Alliance into Medicaid. The federal government pays its regular 70% share of the costs. And as of 2014, it will pay 100% of the costs for the newly-eligible at or below 133% of the FPL.

Another cause for pride is the DC Council’s decision to preserve enough funding for the Alliance so that it can still cover hospital-based services for adults who can’t be shifted — mostly undocumented immigrants, we’re told.

Consider that some states are doing their best to drive these people out — most of them among the states that won’t admit even more poor U.S. citizens into their Medicaid programs.

And since I’m beating the drum here, I’ll add that the District has moved ahead to establish an exchange for health care insurance purchases, as the ACA envisions.

Only 14 states have even established the necessary legal framework. Mayor Gray signed the District’s law in January — after what seems to have been a good bit of work by an interagency task force, including efforts to get public input.

Virtually all states have gotten grants to plan exchanges, as has the District. But 17 of them decided to stop or slow down planning until the Supreme Court ruled on the ACA. Another six hadn’t really gotten started.

Now these states are behind the eight ball. If they don’t have a “blueprint” ready by November, the federal government may decide to run an exchange for them — just the kind of “takeover” conservative ACA opponents deplore.

Rhetoric aside, the laggard states may, for various reasons, wind up with a health care system that’s less satisfactory than what they’d otherwise have.

Six states have nevertheless decided not to even try to establish exchanges. Seems we’ve got a new legal strategy for making the health reform plan crash. Or maybe two.

Some ACA opponents, including a bunch of Congressional Republicans, now claim that the ACA doesn’t allow the federal government to impose penalties on employers who won’t provide adequate, affordable health insurance except in states that operate their own exchanges.

Others argue that the federal government can’t provide subsidies to households who purchase health insurance on exchanges that state inaction constrains it to create.

So we can look forward to more brawling in Congress — and perhaps another round of lawsuits.

But, as things stand now, these attacks on the ACA won’t affect District residents because our policymakers have viewed the law as an opportunity to “ensure¬† … access to quality, affordable health care” for all of us.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer. It’s a testimony to our times that it’s worth a shout-out.


Supreme Court Medicaid Ruling Worst for Very Poor People

July 5, 2012

Analysts and pundits have dug into the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, including the part that addresses Medicaid.

What we’re learning is very bad news for very poor people because millions — especially the poorest — are likely to remain uninsured.

Here’s why.

As I earlier wrote, the ruling essentially lets states retain their current Medicaid eligibility restrictions.

They’d forfeit the extra federal funding they’d get if they expanded their programs to include all residents (except some immigrants) with incomes at or below 133% of the federal poverty line.

But they wouldn’t lose the funding they get under the regular formula — 50% up to 73.4% of costs in the upcoming fiscal year.

We’ve had a lot of speculation about what state governors will do, especially those heading up the 26 states that challenged the law.

Some say it will be hard for them to turn down so much extra money, especially when their constituents see how other states are benefiting — and from their federal tax dollars too.

Governors will also be under pressure from their in-state hospitals — a powerful lobbying force, as the final shape of the ACA shows.

Others point out that some right-wing governors have already rejected extra federal money, e.g., some of the stimulus grants created by the Recovery Act.

And some of their states would incur quite large additional Medicaid costs — not initially, but as 2020 approaches and thereafter. A big reason is that, at this point, their programs exclude so many people an expansion would cover.

In Texas, for example, non-working parents qualify for Medicaid only if their incomes are below 12% of the federal poverty line. The cut-off for working parents is 26% of the FPL — just over $4,960 a year for a family of three.

Not surprisingly then, the combined caseloads for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program* would initially increase by an estimated 1.2 million if the state adopts the ACA expansion criteria.

This alone, says the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, would cost the state $2 million, increasing to $1.4 billion by 2020.

What it would get from the federal government would be exponentially larger, however — total of $52.5 billion through 2019.

Florida Governor Rick Scott claims that it would cost his state about $1.9 billion to “implement a massive entitlement expansion of the Medicaid program.”

In this case too, though he doesn’t say it, the cost in part reflects the state’s very low income eligibility cut-off — 58% of the FPL for parents.

Think Progress reports that Scott and nine other governors have said they’ll definitely not accept the expansion funding. Twenty-two are still on the fence, including 15 whose states signed on to the lawsuit.

So it seems we’ll indeed see a goodly number of states with no Medicaid expansion — at least initially. We’ll thus still have millions of people with no health insurance. And they’ll be among the poorest.

The problem, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, is the way the ACA structures tax credits to subsidize health insurance purchased on the exchanges states will establish — or the federal government establish for them.

The most generous subsidies are for people at 100% to 133% of the federal poverty line. I infer that Congress included this income bracket to extend assistance with health care coverage to documented immigrants who aren’t eligible for Medicaid.

Other people in this income bracket could purchase health insurance if their state decides not to expand its Medicaid program.

The coverage would cost them more than Medicaid would have, but the premiums would be fairly modest — at most 2% of annual income.

No subsidies, however, for people below the federal poverty line — people who can’t possible afford to buy insurance at market rates. They’re about 80% of all uninsured people who’d have become eligible for Medicaid before the Supreme Court ruled.

Congress could, of course, fix the ACA to make health insurance for these people affordable if their states won’t open Medicaid to them.

Lot of luck. Republican Congressional leaders insist that the law must, as the House Majority Leader John Boehner put it, “be ripped out by its roots” and replaced with …. Well, they’re still not saying.

This much we know. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks that coverage for the well over 30 million people uninsured now “is not the issue.”

As the New York Times explains, Republicans may have difficulty dismantling the ACA in its entirety. But this is cold comfort to the poor people whose only hope for health care is Medicaid.

* CHIP is part of the calculation because Texas had planned to shift some children out of the program and into Medicaid in 2014.

UPDATE: PolitiFact has just awarded a False rating to Governor Scott’s claim that expanding Florida’s Medicaid program would cost $1.9 billion. Estimates from the state’s health care agency, it says, indicate that costs for new patients added under the expansion would be about $500 million, but not until 2020.¬† At least, one advocacy organization has called the estimates “hyper-inflated.”


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