The Affordable Care Act: Yet another way of proving that there is no such thing as a free lunch
One of the most important things I have learned is that every choice we make in life has costs and benefits. If I use my only $5 to purchase a latte, I give up the ability to purchase something else with the $5. It’s an elementary principle, but somehow we forget it when we talk about big-picture things.
The Affordable Care Act is an example of this basic lesson. A simplified version of the argument for the ACA is that the President and his supporters wanted to ensure that everyone was covered by health insurance, and that being old or sick would not cause one’s putative insurance rates to be so high that he could not afford to purchase insurance. The ACA also redistributes money to the poor and lower middle class so that they can purchase health insurance for free or at a discounted rate.
By itself, this idea sounds great. No one, except the most partisan, could argue that it would be a good thing if, all else equal, all those who currently don’t have the opportunity to purchase affordable health insurance magically had the opportunity to purchase affordable coverage that they desired.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, because things cost money. To pay for the benefit of expanding coverage, which costs money, we have to find a source of revenue. The ACA’s proponents have claimed that this revenue will come from people buying into the health insurance system who otherwise would not have done so, and the money from those individuals being redistributed to benefit the poor, old, and sick. The ideal situation, according to the ACA’s proponents, is that lots of young, healthy individuals will buy in to the system. The unspoken logic is that such individuals will effectively pay the way for others have affordable healthcare coverage. The ACA’s proponents also believe that the new law will result in some limited efficiency gains, such as lowering dependence on emergency room visits by substituting preventative care, though no one seriously contends that these efficiency gains pay for the bulk of the cost (and it’s up for debate whether the law actually makes insurance less efficient). That’s why the ACA includes the individual mandate, which requires individuals to purchase insurance or pay a penalty. And that’s also why the ACA makes illegal insurance policies that provide “sufficient” coverage. The point is to require the young and healthy to buy in, and to pay not only for insurance coverage they think they’ll use, but intentionally to get them to pay for insurance coverage they almost certainly won’t use, so that this coverage will be cheaper for the law’s beneficiaries.
To put it another way, because the bulk of the cost must be paid for the young and healthy, they, as a group, are the “losers” of the ACA, whereas the old, poor, and sick are the “winners.” The cost that can’t be paid for by the young and healthy will be paid for through increased premiums, so to the extent one’s insurance premiums go up, one is also a “loser” whose costs are distributed to the law’s “winners.” (Additionally, to the extent the law leads to increased taxes, those paying the taxes are also “losers.”)
Moreover, for the reasons discussed above, no one can seriously contend that the ACA is “free.” That is, if we’re going to expand health insurance coverage, it’s going to cost a positive dollar amount. Given the number of uninsured and seniors (e.g. baby boomers) in this country, this will be a substantial dollar amount.
Therefore, in arguing over whether the ACA is good policy, the question is not simply whether you believe that it is good that everyone has health insurance, or whether you believe that we should spend less. This is not the question because for every story about a family who is able to buy health insurance at a lower rate, there is a story about a family that must cut back because they have to pay a higher rate. The question instead is whether the expansion is worth the cost and redistribution of wealth. For a number of reasons, I have my doubts that it is. For example:
- Why are we redistributing even more wealth from the young to the old? The old in the US consume so many resources, have the benefit of social security (which may not be around for the young), and have passed the buck of the nation’s crippling debt onto the young. Moreover, a huge percentage of the old in the country have not saved for retirement and will likely need to be “bailed out” using the resources of the young.
- Why won’t the ACA’s proponents frame the issue of the ACA as the trade off that I have labeled it here? They speak as if the law will cause no one to pay a single penny more. But as we’ve learned from the President’s embarrassing about-face instructing insurers that he won’t enforce the part of the ACA that required them to cancel plans that were not deemed sufficient by the law (which is plainly unconstitutional and practically a disaster), the law clearly is a trade off.
- So far, we’ve heard far more about “losers” than “winners” in the news; that is, we haven’t heard many stories about people or families saving money, but we’ve heard lots about insurance rates going through the roof. Particularly embarrassing for the President was using an anecdote of a woman who thought she had saved money under the ACA, but then learned the rate that she was originally offered was a computer error and her true price was far higher.
- Many of the uninsured who have pre-existing conditions today were once young and healthy, and chose not to purchase insurance when they were younger. They took the benefit of not buying insurance (saving money) when they were young, and bore the risk that they might be unable to purchase affordable coverage if they developed a health condition while uninsured. Under the ACA, however, they are bailed out of the consequences of their risk, on the backs of the present young and healthy who no longer get to make the same choice. This is simply a wealth transfer from young to old.
This doesn’t mean that the concept of expanding health insurance coverage is a bad thing. Perhaps to you, you believe that the concept of universal health insurance is so valuable that it is priceless, which justifies your belief that the benefit is worth the cost. (Though I would disagree that anything is “priceless,” and would ask why the burden should be on the young and healthy to fund your belief.)
What is to be done about this? I don’t agree with the tactics of the Tea Party to threaten the apocalypse if the ACA is not repealed. But I do think that the President needs to be more flexible in discussing substantial modifications to the ACA. The law is not a panacea, and should never have been marketed that way. I would be interested in seeing amendments that, for example, place heavier burdens on well-to-do seniors, or focus more heavily on actual efficiency improvements as opposed to wealth redistribution.