The Josiah Bartlett Center’s Andrew Cline writes in USA Today that to replace Obamacare, Republicans must first agree to make a gradual transition toward a freer market in health care.  (Editor’s note: We did not write the USA Today headline. That was the work of an editor at the paper.)

 

Why Obamacare is still with us

By Andrew Cline 

Republicans in Washington have failed to deliver on a signature campaign promise — to repeal Obamacare — despite controlling the House, Senate and White House. After last week’s flop, the party’s various factions pointed fingers faster than an all-mime production of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” 

The most common accusations — inept management, poor leadership, rogue senators — identify only symptoms of a larger problem. The “root cause,” so to speak, is that the Republican Party does not enjoy the same clarity of purpose on health care that the Democratic Party enjoys. 

On health care, Democrats have two advantages over Republicans. One is a shared purpose: universal coverage achieved through aggressive government intervention. The other is their willingness to achieve that goal incrementally.

Obamacare did not achieve universal coverage. The percentage of uninsured Americans has fallen from 14.6 percent in 2008 to 11.3 percent. But Obamacare moved the country closer to the goal, which brought more strident left-wingers on board. 

Republicans do not share such clarity. There is broad agreement only on the political goal: repealing Obamacare. There is no agreement on the principles, never mind the details, that would guide replacement.

There are two primary reasons for this lack of clarity. One is that the Republican Party does not insist on ideological conformity from coast to coast. Keeping the likes of Sens. Rand Paul and Susan Collins under the tent helps the party win majorities in Congress. But that ideological diversity can make it harder to govern. 

Democrats have a spread, too, but it is narrower. Nearly a third (29 percent) of Republicans say the federal government “has a responsibility to ensure health coverage for all,” while only 14 percent of Democrats say it doesn’t, according to Pew Research data

The other reason is that health care does not lend itself to quick “get the government out of the way” fixes. The health care marketplace is thoroughly distorted by government interference (this was true well before Obamacare). These distortions have to be slowly and carefully unwound. Because many of them have grown popular, no majority can be found for quickly abolishing them. 

If there were a quick and easy free-market solution, it would be law by now. But the political reality is that government’s heavy hand will not be removed any time soon — because most voters don’t want it to be. 

Another factor: Medicaid comprised 28 percent of state budgets in 2015, which explains why so many Republican governors pushed back against the last Obamacare repeal bill. (For comparison, elementary and secondary education accounted for 19.5 percent.)

Pew polling shows that only 5 percent of Americans say government shouldn’t be involved in health care. Given the country’s lack of an appetite for a pure free market in health care, Republicans might consider turning to a leader from the past for guidance. Conservative health care analyst Avik Roy reminds Republicans that in his classic 1964 “Time for choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan offered a guidepost, saying “no one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds.” Taking his lead from Reagan, Roy offers a path forward. 

Roy, who has urged Republicans to bridge their internecine gap, points out that health care is the No. 1 driver of runaway federal spending. With every day that passes under the current system, the country slips into worse financial shape and the country becomes more dependent not just on Washington, but on the bureaucracy itself (see Medicaid). 

Roy offered a plan in 2014 that would cover more people than Obamacare while reducing government interventions and spending. It would replace Obamacare with Swiss-style subsidies for lower-income Americans while transitioning the inefficient government-run Medicaid program toward a more market-oriented system. 

It would be an improvement over the current system, yet it is not even considered because it is not free market enough for most Republicans. Opponents to options such as this one pretend that the alternative is a true free market in health care. It isn’t. There is no appetite for a true free market at the moment. The alternative to a transitional model is the status quo. 

We can either move incrementally toward a freer market, or we can drift toward single payer. Those are the options. If Republicans cannot agree on that, then Obamacare really is here to stay. 

Andrew Cline is interim president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in New Hampshire.