First posted 9/12/11 on Health Care Reform Update
Kaiser Health News has an interesting piece in which it quotes the answers of six health care system “experts” to what happens if the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate is found unconstitutional. (The GAO posed a similar question to a wider group earlier this year, and published its much more extensive findings in a February 25 letter to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.)
It’s important to emphasize that KHN’s question was not what kind of coverage incentives should have been in the ACA, something that a number of the interviewees apparently didn’t understand, but what happens if the individual mandate is overturned.
In fact, if the mandate is thrown out, a couple of things are certain. First, many of those who would otherwise have acquired coverage will not do so as penalties for non-compliance are eliminated. Second, there will be an immediate jump in individual and small group premium rates, since the effects of the ACA provisions proscribing medical underwriting and pre-existing condition limitations will no longer be offset by an influx of new healthy insureds.
What happens next? The political finger-pointing is likely to be nicely balanced. Republicans will blame the ACA for the increase in rates. Democrats will blame Republicans for fighting the one provision of the ACA most likely to hold down premiums.
While proposals like restoring pre-existing condition exclusions or imposing penalties on late enrollees or extending the time between open enrollment periods could help mitigate the problem, neither party will hurry to push for solutions. Democrats will be unwilling to renege on their promises to eliminate all forms of medical underwriting, while Republicans will be just as unwilling to do anything that might make the ACA effective. And with the two chambers of Congress in opposing hands, an impasse seems more likely than not.
Is there room for a compromise? Given politicians’ propensity for buck passing, perhaps giving states authority to change open enrollment periods or to allow pre-existing condition exclusions after 2014 might find bipartisan support. State governors and insurance commissioners might welcome the opportunity to leave their mark on federal legislation, or at least to take credit for limiting premium increases.
One thing seems sure: overturning the mandate while leaving all other ACA provisions unchanged would provide a huge accelerant for the individual and small group insurance death spiral.
Roger Collier used to be CEO of a large health care consulting practice. Now he track the status of the reform bill, writing at Reform Update.