Partisan Blame Game Is Harming Health Care Consumers

Partisan Blame Game Is Harming Health Care Consumers
David Proeber/The Pantagraph via AP
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In an effort to confront rising health care costs, the House last week passed legislation expanding HSAs and creating new choices for consumers. The Senate should act quickly and defy skeptics who see little hope for progress this year.

For months, Democrats have been accusing President Trump and congressional Republicans of “sabotaging” Obamacare. However, partisan blame shifting is sabotaging health-care consumers. Congress’s inability to come together is punishing the very people Congress claims they want to protect.

My organization has been cataloguing Obamacare’s price increases and describing its key structural flaws since long before President Trump’s election. A report we assembled while President Obama was heading out of office showed premiums for families had increased 140 percent. Last year we described how the Affordable Care Act (the ACA or Obamacare) had become unaffordable according to the law’s own definition in 47 out of the 50 markets we track. Next year, consumers could again see double-digit increases. This is a continuation of a trend, not a new development.

The package of health-care bills passed the House with modest bipartisan support. (46 Democrats support H.R. 6199 while a dozen supported H.R. 6311.) This is encouraging.

Democrats championed one of the bill’s key provisions backed by Representative Peter Roskam to create a new catastrophic or “Copper” plan under Obamacare as recently as 2014. That year leading Democratic Senators including Patty Murray, Mark Warner, Heidi Heitkamp, Tim Kaine, Mary Landrieu, Angus King, and Joe Manchin all backed Copper plans. Estimates found the plans could lower premiums by 18 percent.

Meanwhile, Republican Senators, including Lamar Alexander and Tim Scott, backed Copper plans. As Scott said, “These plans, currently only available for people under the age of 30, can help prevent medical bankruptcy in the event of emergency, and also ensure more families have the option to choose the health care plan that best fits their needs and budget.”

Roskam deserves credit for advancing a bipartisan idea, even if a majority of House Democrats ultimately put politics ahead of consumers’ needs.

Unfortunately, both bills missed an important opportunity. Republican leaders appear to have caved to the same faction on the Right that thought shutting down the government in 2013 was a credible way to persuade President Obama to abandon his signature achievement. A previous version of the House bill allowed consumers to use their ACA tax credit for non-exchange (i.e. non-Obamacare) plans. In other words, the provision gave consumers choice and buying power. Conservatives shouldn’t be afraid of letting Obamacare plans compete with other plans on a level playing field. There’s no shame in saying, “If you like your Obamacare you can keep it.”

The Senate needs to follow the House’s lead and address rising premiums by creating real choice. The House bill Copper plan provisions confront a central Obamacare flaw, which was to tell consumers what they must buy for their own good.

Consider this analogy. At a May 8 hearing, Rep. Mike Kelly, a former auto dealer, described the federal government’s efforts to take over health care e-commerce as creating “HowToBuyACar.gov.” The reality is worse. Obamacare not only created HowToBuyACar.gov, it also banned dealers from selling anything besides Mercedes — vehicles politicians believe are truly safe and have essential benefits. That’s great if you can afford a Mercedes, but not a good a deal if you can’t. The Copper provision is important but it’s really a new entry level Mercedes. The real fix is to create a market that allows people to shop for any kind of plan they want, from Chevys to Cadillacs.

The House bill responds to consumers who are clamoring for choice. Consumer and market pushback to government interference and one-size-fits-all mandates isn’t sabotage; it’s human nature.

Republicans, of course, are hardly blameless. Rather than coalescing around any one of the reasonable Obamacare alternatives offered in the past decade, too many of them chose to catalogue Obamacare’s failures rather than offering fixes. When it came time to offer a solution Republicans struggled mightily to come together — nearly did — and then fell short by just one vote in the Senate.

Republicans in Congress are nervous, and for good reason. Health care may be a more important priority to voters this midterm election than the economy. When we asked our customers whether they trusted Democrats or Republicans to make health care more affordable or accessible, Democrats fared better than Republicans (31 percent to 18 percent). But 51 percent answered “Neither.”

In politics, fortunes change. If the Democrats in the Senate cling to the sabotage meme instead of acting on Mr. Roskam’s bill, they may find short-term success. Over the long haul, however, the public is unforgiving of politicians who shift blame. The Senate should build on the modest bipartisan vote in the House and put consumers first.

Scott Flanders is the CEO of eHealth, Inc., a private online marketplace for health insurance.

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