Barack Obama has done many dastardly things to Republicans. He regularly ridicules their arguments. He insists on being treated as though he were legitimately the president of the United States. And most cruelly of all, he beat their standard-bearers in two national elections. Is it any wonder they loathe him so? But one thing Obama has done to the GOP has gone unnoticed: he made it impossible for them to be serious about health care policy.
By now you're well familiar with how the core of the Affordable Care Act—a ban on insurance companies denying coverage for pre-existing conditions (also known as "guaranteed issue"), accompanied by an individual mandate and subsidies for people of moderate incomes to purchase private insurance—was originally a conservative proposal. The idea was that unlike in most other western countries where a large government program like Medicare covers all citizens, you could achieve something close to universal coverage and health security through the use of markets. When Mitt Romney installed it in Massachusetts, it worked quite well and everybody was pleased. But then Barack Obama came along and embraced it, so all good and true conservatives had to conclude that it was not only a terrible idea in practical terms but a vile and wicked plot to rob Americans of their freedom.
And that has left Republicans in a difficult spot. They would very much like to have market-based health care ideas they could rally around, if nothing else than to demonstrate to the public that they sincerely want to fix what's wrong in America's health care system. But the theft of the guaranteed issue-plus-mandate-plus-subsidies framework has left them with nothing but unappetizing scraps off the health care table, none of which will do much of anything to address problems like the large number of uninsured Americans.
There's a ritual people like me have taken to of late. Republicans announce that they're about to release a health care plan. Then we say sarcastically, "Gee, let me guess. It involves 1) tort reform; 2) letting people buy insurance across state lines; 3) incentives for more use of health savings accounts, and 4) high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions" (here's a recent example). And we're always right, because those are the Big Four conservative health care ideas, and nobody can come up with anything different.
Here's the thing about these ideas: neither any of them individually, nor all of them collectively, would even begin to tackle the things that ail the American health care system, the things the Affordable Care Act was meant to address. Tort reform—which means making it difficult or impossible for patients to sue for malpractice—won't bring down costs like conservatives think it will. We know this because a number of states have enacted the kind of tort reform Republicans advocate for the whole nation, and it had no impact on spending. Realistic assessments of the effect of tort reform on medical spending conclude that if there's any impact at all, it would be tiny (I discussed this issue at length here).
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