Democrats Need an ACA Retain and Repair Plan

Even before President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, Republicans in Congress have sworn to repeal it. “Repeal and Replace” became a rallying cry that helped switch 63 House and six Senate seats to the GOP side of the aisle in 2010. Today Republicans have the majority in both chambers of Congress and occupy the White House. the GOP opposition to the ACA is not the only explanation for this pendulum swing, but that opposition was certainly a factor.

Republican votes to repeal the ACA became a Washington staple in the six years after the law’s passage. There’s no official count, but House Republicans may have voted 60 times or more to do away with Obamacare. And why not? With President Obama in the White House they knew their repeal legislation would never become law. Votes to repeal the law were an easy political statement.

Now Republicans hold the power to make repeal real and thing aren’t so easy. The House Republican Leadership, reputedly with input from the White House and Senate Republicans, drafted and put forward the American Health Care Act as the first step in the repeal and replace effort. The AHCA faces an uncertain fate in even in the House of Representatives. And a report by the Congressional Budget Office of the AHCA’s impact on the uninsured, the federal budget, premiums and the affordability of coverage has only narrowed the bill’s path to passage.

Republicans want to keep their promise to repeal Obamacare and fear the political payback if they fail to do so. They know they will own the results of any health care reform they pass. f that result includes higher premiums and fewer insureds, the political price could be both high and painful.

Thus the current Republican civil war. More moderate Republicans worry the AHCA doesn’t do enough to support Medicaid and keep Americans insured. Their conservative counterparts are lining up against the AHCA because they see the bill as creating new entitlements and failing to cut back on Medicaid fast enough. Whether the two sides can be brought together is unknown (although I’m skeptical).

Which leaves Democrats sitting back and enjoying the spectacle of Republican-on-Republican political violence. They’ll occasionally throw a sound bite over the transom keep things interesting and to remind their base that they’re fighting the good fight. Generally, however, Democrats are adhering to adage of avoiding interfering with the enemy when they are in the process of destroying themselves.

This is a dangerous strategy. Politics can take sudden turns and, if they’re not careful, Democrats could find themselves in the same predicament that Republicans are in today.

When attacking the GOP health care proposal, Democrats often recite a mantra along the lines of “Sure, the ACA has some problems. But we shouldn’t repeal the ACA, we should fix it.”  But what does that mean? Democrats are as shy about detailing what “retain and repair” means as Republicans have been about defining “repeal and replace.”

History may show Republican’s failure to devise an ACA alternative in the six years following its passage as political malpractice. Their civil war over the AHCA provides Democrats with a window of opportunity to avoid a similar judgment..

Republicans want Democrats to do more than gloat. The Hill reported that Senator John Cornyn challenged Democrats to offer an alternative to the AHCA. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer response: we have and it’s called the Affordable Care Act.

That’s a good line, but that’s all it is. If Republicans fail to pass health care reform, things as they are remains. That status quo is the ACA, a law Democrats admit is flawed and should be fixed. Democrats can claim the high ground by identifying those flaws and offering remedies. Even if Democrats fail to gain Republican support for retain and repair, there’s a value to building a party consensus around a proposal now.

After all, President Donald Trump prides himself as a deal maker. It’s extremely unlikely, but if the AHCA fails, President Trump might look for an alternative and the Democrats should be ready with one. Again, a deal with President Trump is highly unlikely, but these are not likely political times.

Even if the Democratic retain and repair proposal goes nowhere in 2017, it could be useful later. Democrats will need something to run on in 2018. A consensus retain and repair platform might be helpful.

Then there’s the possibility that Democrats are in control of Congress and the White House come 2020. If so, today’s Republicans offer an important lesson. The year you take control of Washington is not the time to start debating a health care reform plan; it’s the time to present one.

 

America’s Disappearing Common Ground

Everyone knows the reason so little gets done in Washington is that the two political parties have become ever more divided and uncooperative. We can see it on cable news programs. We can hear it on talk radio. And we experience it as the federal government generates more crises than solutions. We also experience it every Thanksgiving dinner when our crazy uncle starts spouting eye-roll inducing political nonsense.

For those of us engaged with health care reform, we witness this dynamic every time politicians on both sides of the aisle identify the same problem, but refuse to work together to resolve it.

Subjectively, we all know common ground is shrinking in this country. Turns out there’s objective evidence, too. The Pew Research Center tracked the distribution of political values held by Democrats and republicans between 1994 and 2014. As the graph below shows, the gap is widening.Pew Ideological Divide Graphic

There’s a couple of things to note in the graph. First, the gap between the center of each party is further apart now than 20 years ago. The second is the bulking up of the extremes. “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican”. This shows what we’ve all felt: the parties have moved apart and common ground is increasingly rare.

The Pew study was issued more than a year ago. However, anyone watching this year’s presidential debates will attest that ideological differences between the parties is definitely not diminishing.

America moves forward when reasonable people can disagree, find common ground, and compromise. Over the past 20 years, however, fewer partisans see the other side as reasonable; fewer are willing to compromise. Common ground is disappearing.

The Pew Study is pretty depressing for those of us who want less fighting between the parties and more problem solving. However, there is some good news in the report. While there’s movement towards the extremes, the majority of Americans remain neither uniformly liberal nor conservative. As the Pew Research Center notes, “more [Americans] believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.”

Politicians often claim to speak for the “silent majority.” This is usually not the case as it’s their next statement is often a pander to the most extreme elements of their party. The real silent majority are those who want their representatives to “meet halfway.”

The problem is, however, the silent majority is, well, silent. No one hears them. In a political context, silence equates to voting. If it’s the extremists who vote, then politicians listen to the extremists. When a majority of Americans stand up and insist that their representatives work together, politicians will find a way to work together. Maybe not right away, but eventually they’ll get the message.

Until the majority speaks up (votes), however, it’s the crazy uncles that are listened to–and not just on Thanksgiving. In fact, it seems the crazy uncles are part of the presidential debates now, too.

Health Care Reform the 2016 Where’s Waldo

At this time in 2011, six months before the Iowa caucuses, health care reform was a big deal. Republicans couldn’t see a live microphone without calling for its repeal. And one would think that the official name of what was commonly referred to as “Obamacare” was “the President’s signature issue” in his first term. Flash forward four years and health care reform is now the “Where’s Waldo” issue of 2016: it’s there somewhere, but darn well hidden.

True, every candidate on the GOP wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They are all happy to haul out the old tropes about how the ACA is a job killing, anti-free market, mess and a government overreach. Many will be happy to explain how it’s all unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, every candidate on the Democratic side is defending the ACA, although some more enthusiastically than, well, at least one. Candidate Bernie Sanders has promised to introduce “Medicare for all” legislation (a euphemism for single payer) soon and would seek a single payer solution were he to become president. Yet even on the Democratic side, the topic of the ACA is pretty well hidden in their campaigns.

In fact, a quick survey of campaign web sites shows a remarkable lack of emphasis on health care reform by presidential candidates. On the Democratic side, health care reform doesn’t make the issues list on the campaign web sites of former Governor Martin O’Malley or Senator Bernie Sanders. Defending the Affordable Care Act is the ninth issue addressed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s web site.

On the Republican side Donald Trump is too busy bullying his opponents and the press to mention any issues other than immigration on his site. Health care reform makes Dr. Ben Carson list of issues, but he devotes just 98 words to the topic — and the only alternative he mentions is his support of health savings accounts. Former Governor Jeb Bush’s site is nearly issues free (there’s a white paper on his tax reform plan in the “news” section, but there is no “issues” tab). I couldn’t find anything about health care reform on the site. Then, I couldn’t find the issue (or any issues) on Carly Fiorina‘s or Senator Ted Cruz‘s sites, either.

Governor Scott Walker announces his intent to repeal Obamacare on his first day in office. And although I couldn’t find it on his web site, to his credit Governor Walker has offered a plan to replace the ACA. Senator Marco Rubio gets around to discussing health care reform on his web site after first mentioning 17 other issues while on Governor John Kasich‘s site it comes in at #3.

Given all that’s going on the world, it’s not surprising health care reform isn’t a driving issue. Which is remarkable. Health care reform arguably gave birth to the Tea Party movement. It cost Democrats the majority in the House in 2010 and helped chip away at their Senate majority until that was lost, too. In short, health care reform moved elections.

Now, not so much. The ACA is a part of America’s landscape now. Too many people are insured under the law to repeal it. Too much physical, digital and process infrastructure has been built out. Too many stakeholders are vested in the ACA continuing and opponents of the reforms have no coherent program to replace it.

This isn’t a bad thing. Because it opens up a real possibility that, once there’s a new President and Congress in 2017, they can accomplish something important: fixing the Affordable Care Act. The law has lots of flaws, but the debate since it’s passage has too often been an all-or-nothing affair: dump it or defend it. Yes, there’s been some tweaking around the edges of the legislation, but not the comprehensive review and modification that’s needed.

Finding Waldo can be hard. Finding a way forward to improve the ACA will be harder still. If little kids can find Waldo, perhaps there’s hope that what passes for adults in Congress can find common ground to improve the ACA. That’s still a long shot, but perhaps a bit more possible now than just a year or two ago.

Moving Beyond Health Care Reform Repeal to Revision

During the 2010 election Republicans promised to “Repeal and Replace” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Having gained a majority in the House of Representatives they quickly passed a bill to do just that (joined by three Democrats). Having failed to gain a majority in the Senate the repeal process is all but over.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he would not bring the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”to the Senate floor for a vote. In response Republican Senators have promised to offer amendments repealing what they see as unpopular provisions of the law. In both the House and Senate GOP lawmakers are targeting the PPACA’s requirement that all Americans obtain health insurance coverage, malpractice reform, taxes imposed on health insurance carriers and others, denying federal subsidies (including tax deductions) for health plans that cover abortions, and permit the sale of health insurance across state lines. While Republicans know these amendments will fail, forcing Democrats up for election in 2012 to cast several votes defending President Barack Obama’s health care legislation has significant potential political benefits.

But two can play this game. So if Republicans force a vote on their measures, Democrats will require GOP Senators to vote on legislation concerning more popular elements of the PPACA. These include closing the Medicare prescription benefit donut hole, eliminating pre-existing condition exclusions for children, and allowing children to remain on their parent’s health plan up to age 26.

Then there’s the coming Republican effort to defund the PPACA. (Which creates an enjoyably ironic situation. Many in both parties, but especially Republicans, argued Democrats were arrogant to pass health care reform in the face of polls showing the public opposed their legislation. How will they respond to a Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health showing 62 percent of respondents opposed cutting off funds needed to implement the PPACA?)

What all this means is that we’re in for two years of political showmanship concerning health care reform. But that doesn’t mean meaningful changes to PPACA won’t be forthcoming. President Obama declared his willingness to sign a medical malpractice reform bill. Of course there’s tort reform and then there’s tort reform. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has committed to providing “what the parameters of medical malpractice reform might be” during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Hearing. Whether there is enough common grounds with GOP proposals to deal with medical malpractice remains uncertain until then. Meanwhile, 60 Senators have signed onto a bill to repeal the the 1099 reporting provisions contained in the health care reform law. Down the road there will be efforts to gain bi-partisan support for changes to more difficult provisions of the new reform law, including medical loss ratio requirements and the exchanges.

Yes we’ll all be subjected to the sound and fury signifying only political posturing and one-upmanship. But there will also be acts of quiet negotiation aimed at what President Obama in his State of the Union speech called “improving” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And as Politico Post describes the reaction of this language by Julie Barnes, director of health policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, this could well be “a signal that bipartisan cooperation on health reform tweaks is on the horizon.”

One can only hope.

Health Care Still Vital Issue in 2008 Campaign

The Kaiser Family Foundation has been issuing quarterly tracking polls on the issues voters want presidential candidates to address. Health care has been the top domestic issue voters are focused on (Iraq has been the top issue). But now that the mortgage crisis, gas prices and a faltering stock market has had more time to impact family’s sense of financial security, the economy has taken on greater importance to voters.

In the March 2008 Kaiser Health Tracking Poll 45 percent of the voters listed the economy as one of the two issues they would most like to hear presidential candidates talk about. 32 percent of the voters listed Iraq and 28 percent mentioned health care. Immigration followed with 14 percent, education with seven percent and terrorism six percent.

The economy topped the list for Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. For Democrats, however, health care was the second most mentioned issue followed by Iraq.

In the Kaiser poll published in December 2007, Iraq was the top issue, mentioned by 35 percent of those surveyed, followed by health care mentioned by 30 percent and then the economy, cited by 21 percent of the participants. Democrats, Republicans and Independents all ranked the top three issue in this order.

When asked what single issue will most drive their choice for the next president, the economy was at the top of the list for all voters, Democrats, Republicans and Independents. For Democrats and Independents, the next two issues were Iraq and health care; for GOP voters it was terrorism and Iraq.

In March, the top issue for all voters was Iraq, followed by the economy and health care for Republicans and Independents, while Democrats selected health care and the economy as their next two most important issues.

While the economy has supplanted health care as the top domestic issue among voters, health care is still a powerful issue. However, health care costs are a factor in how people feel about the economy. 10 percent of voters cited health care costs as the single most important economic issue facing you and your family. This trailed inflation (26 percent), high taxes (13 percent), and the price of gasoline (11 percent), but it was higher than items like problems getting a good-paying job or a raise in pay (nine percent) and the cost of housing (six percent).

Health care reform remains a critical issue, especially among Democrats and Independents. When evaluating health care reform proposals, 58 percent of what the Kaiser Foundation calls “health-focused voters” want to provide health insurance for nearly all of the uninsured, even if it involves a substantial increase in spending. 30 percent support a more limited plan that would cover only some of the uninsured, but involve less spending.

In 1992, the sign in the Clinton campaign war room read “It’s the economy, stupid.” What’s less well known is the addendum to the sign that read, “And it’s health care, too.” History looks like it’s repeating itself (although this time it may not be a Clinton war room). While Iraq will remain a critical issue, the economy and health care are even more relevant to voters’ decisions. That could change, but barring a terrorist attack on American soil, the voters are increasingly focused on the economy and remain strongly interested in the candidate’s positions on health care.

In other words, future debates will sound a lot like the recent debates. 

Republicans Sidelined By Choice?

The San Jose Mercury News had an interesting editorial yesterday which took to task the Governor and the Legislature on their failure to deliver on health care reform “two weeks into Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special session of the Legislature.” Some of what they had to say strikes me as greatly unfair. Lawmakers are seeking public input on proposals. If that takes some time so be it. Better the public should be heard than not, a sentiment I’m sure the Mercury News would agree with.

It was editorial’s criticism of Republican Legislators that got me thinking, however. As the Mercury News observes, the likely output of the special session, if there is any, will be legislation creating the framework for a new heatlh care system tied to a November 2008 initiative to finance and implement the reforms. The reason is that without Republican votes, there is no way the Governor and the Democratic Leadership can gain the two-thirds vote necessary to pass a spending bill.  Yes, as the Mercury News notes, “… instead of taking advantage of a prime opportunity to negotiate from strength, Republicans are remaining on the sidelines ….”

And he’s right. Republican legislators have been scarcely heard from on health care reform of late. There have been some op-ed pieces published in newspapers around the state (many of them quite good), but they’re clearly not a part of the negotiations. Earlier in the year the Republican caucuses presented their reform packages. Several of their ideas were innovative and would definitely improve the lives of many Californians, which is, after all, the goal here. The Democrats never held hearings on those bills and now the Republicans are “on the sidelines.”

Which makes me wonder: why? Is it their choice to leave the room or were they escorted out? (This being a Democratic leadership who punishes moderates in their own caucus by locking them out of their offices for crime of daring to be, well, moderate, perhaps “kicked” would be the more appropriate verb than “escorted.”). In a strange way it’s a bit of both. Republicans are so locked into a “no new taxes” mindset that they tie their hands on public policy. Since the Democrats are looking at expensive changes, why should they tolerate anyone at the table who can’t support the results under any circumstance? As a result, the only folks around to negotiate a compromise are the Democratic Legislative Leadership and the post-partisan Governor — or at least their staffs. The Republicans are no where near, without any influence.

Could they have a voice in the reform debate? It depends, I suppose, on how pure they want — or need — to be. If no new revenue sources are acceptable then I guess there’s nothing more for them to say. But maybe if they held out the possibility that if the health care reform package was a net win for the state’s economy and financial well-being (far from a sure thing, but definitely possible) that they could support it, perhaps their voice would be part of the debate. And that would be a good thing. Every voice needs to be heard, conservatives as well as liberals (and post-partisans, too). 

For example, when I was on the Santa Monica City Council there were two factions — the liberals and the moderates (this being Santa Monica even the conservatives were moderate) — with three members each (and they were formal members of their factions, running as slates and all). The seventh member was me who was independent of both coalitions. The best success I had was when I used my influence as a swing vote to force the two sides to reach a compromise. The result wasn’t necessarily what I would have come up with on my own, but it was something a broad spectrum of the city could get behind.

The same dynamic could happen with health care reform. It is a shame, however, that Republican have backed themselves so deeply into a no-tax corner that they deny themselves — and the people of California — the benefit of their ideas, influence and participation.