April 4

After the administration met a target of seven million new private insurance signups under the Affordable Care Act, and after pretty much every Obamacare “horror story” featured in a Koch-funded attack ad has turned out to be either completely false or extremely misleading at best, and after even some conservatives are telling their brethren to stop fooling themselves into thinking the ACA will inevitably implode, you might think that we could now start having a reasonable, factually grounded discussion about how we might improve the ACA going forward.

No such luck. In fact, there’s a new misleading “horror story” on its way: the worker whose hours are being cut back so their boss won’t have to comply with the ACA’s employer mandate. Watch out for it, because it’s coming.

Just as before, the decisions of private companies to attempt to screw over ordinary people are going to be blamed not on those companies, but on Obamacare. Before it was insurance companies, who tried to shunt their customers into overpriced policies when cheaper options were available on the exchanges. How many news stories did we see that featured someone’s anger at an insurer’s letter telling them they should sign up for a new, more costly plan, without even asking what other options the person had?

This time, the “horror story” will feature workers whose employers are trimming their hours back to avoid having to give them health insurance. Yesterday the House passed a bill, with every Republican voting in favor (along with 18 conservative Democrats) changing the law’s definition of full-time work from 30 hours a week to 40 hours a week. The purpose is to allow an employer to cut a full-time worker down to 39 hours and claim they’re “part time,” to avoid giving them health coverage (as it stands now, they’d have to cut them down to 29 hours).

President Obama would veto any such bill if it actually passed both houses. But still: this is the opening of a new front in the endless battle over the ACA.

So some context is in order. The ACA mandated that all companies with 50 or more workers offer health coverage. It’s vital to understand that this mandate actually affects only a small portion of workers, because most companies of that size already offer coverage. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 91 percent of firms with between 50 and 199 employees offer coverage today, before any mandate has taken effect. For companies with 200 or more employees, it’s virtually all of them (over 99 percent). Even most companies with fewer workers — 85 percent of those with between 25 and 49 employees — offer coverage.

So if, in the coming days, you see a story about an employer that’s trying to find ways not to cover their employees, the first thing to remember is that this an employer who is not giving their workers the benefits most people get. The second thing to remember is that the mandate has already been delayed. Companies with between 50 and 99 workers now have until 2016 to get their workers insured.

To be clear, there’s an argument for restructuring the employer mandate completely; there are other ways you could make sure that employees are covered. And as we learned in the Hobby Lobby case, the mandate isn’t truly a mandate; if a firm wants, it can decline to cover its workers, and pay a tax (which will cost a lot less than health coverage) to help defray the cost of them getting insurance through the exchanges.

I don’t even believe that people should be getting insurance through their employers at all; the fact that we do is an artifact of history that doesn’t have much practical rationale, particularly now (it started during World War II, when wage controls meant employers couldn’t give raises, so they began offering health benefits instead). But once coverage is required from all mid-size and large firms, it will be part of the cost of doing business for all of them — just as it is today for nearly all of them.

And by the way, this is true of lots of regulations: minimum wage laws, worker safety laws, laws against dumping toxic waste in the creek behind your factory, and a whole host of other laws that may increase a company’s expenses but get worked into the prices they charge for their goods and services.

As long as this is the system we have and there’s a mandate scheduled to take effect in 2016, we should be honest about what it means. If the claims about people getting dropped from individual coverage have taught us anything, it’s that whenever we see a new “Obamacare horror story,” it’s probably bogus. And this one will be no exception.