KEVIN FERRIS: Replace Obama with what?

By Kevin Ferris

June 27 was the easy part for conservatives, well, except for learning that the chief justice who once talked about calling balls and strikes also has a wicked curveball.
But cranking out the press releases, from think tanks, candidates, House and Senate offices, and one presumptive presidential nominee, obviously wasn’t difficult. And two words shared top billing in almost all of them: Repeal and Replace.
Now comes the hard part, assuming opponents of the Affordable Care Act are ever actually in a position to pull off repeal. Replace Obamacare with what?
Strict constructionists might argue that there’s no reason to go beyond repeal. But unless they also repeal Medicaid, Medicare, the Department of Veterans Affairs and a host of other programs, government is in health care to stay. Therefore what needs addressing is the government’s business model for health care.
Reforms in the nation’s health care system have been desperately needed for a long time, but conservatives refused to recognize this and act, according to the article “How to Replace Obamacare” in the spring edition of the journal National Affairs.
To do away with the costly, intrusive, tax–increasing Obamacare, which has now been blessed by the Supreme Court, means dealing with the issues – among them costs, the uninsured, covering preexisting conditions – that inspired the push for reform.
The authors note that scores of plans offer a market–based approach to health care – the only real way to control costs and make coverage both affordable and accessible – but they all share seven core “pillars.”
One, “move American health care away from open–ended government subsidies and tax breaks, and toward a defined–contribution system.” Health coverage would come from competing insurance plans, and government would make a fixed contribution toward each person’s insurance purchase. Pick a plan more expensive than the contribution, and you make up the difference.
Two, forget the coercive individual mandate. Instead, the government promises that individuals won’t face the high premiums associated with costly illness providing they stay enrolled in health insurance.
Three, recognize the varied demographics and economic conditions in the states and give them leeway.
Four, move toward individual federal tax credits for health care and away from a policy that favors employer–sponsored health plans which distort the market, limit portability and the transparency of costs, and discriminate against lower–income workers and employees of small businesses.
Five, work with states to reform Medicaid so recipients no longer have to refuse jobs for fear of losing health insurance, or be discriminated against by care providers who won’t accept Medicaid because reimbursement rates are too low.
Six, gradually reform fee–for–service Medicare to a premium–support plan. This would ensure the system outlasts the baby boomers.
Seven, offset new costs – especially the subsidies and tax breaks – with spending cuts elsewhere. Even “replace” won’t be cheap.
Any one of these proposals would be a heavy lift for a Congress or president, even if they all got along. But without such pro–market reforms, there is no way to get control of costs or give consumers more health care choices. Conservatives who are serious about “replace” will recognize this, and be ready to move from press releases to policy changes.
Kevin Ferris is assistant editor of the editorial page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at kf@phillynews.com. It is distributed by MCT Information Services.