THE CONGRESSIONAL Budget Office released on Tuesday yet another damning report on health care, this time highlighting the damage President Trump will do if he continues his Obamacare sabotage campaign. Over the next few weeks, during which the government and insurers must sort out what will happen to Obamacare insurance markets next year, everyone in the administration and every member of Congress must recognize that they have no more time to entertain repeal-and-replace fantasies. The fate of the health-insurance markets on which millions of people rely hangs on their willingness to accept reality.
The Trump administration has shown some flexibility. The Department of Health and Human Services last week offered insurers an extra few weeks to file rates for next year. Earlier, Alaska got $323 million in federal money to backstop its individual insurance market in a reinsurance arrangement that could drive down premiums and serve as a model for stabilizing insurance markets across the nation. Though Mr. Trump has repeatedly vowed to let Obamacare collapse, these moves show willingness to bolster, not undermine, the insurance markets that Obamacare created.
Yet the administration has stoked more uncertainty than it has allayed, leaving the health system in peril. The White House has been deciding month-to-month whether to keep important subsidy payments flowing to insurance companies — payments that were simply assumed during the Obama administration. Without these payments, insurers would have to jack up premiums or leave Obamacare markets next year. The CBO estimated Tuesday that average premiums would jump by 20 percent next year if the Trump administration pulled them. Moreover, because of how the payments interact with other elements of the health-care system, the government would end up losing money — $194 billion over a decade.
Though it would be irrational to subvert the health-care system and the budget, Mr. Trump has repeatedly threatened to do so. His officials also have taken steps in that direction, pulling advertisements meant to encourage people to enroll in health insurance, cutting programs that helped people sign up, railing about Obamacare's "victims" and generally insisting, against the facts, that the law is a disaster. The administration's moves to weaken the individual mandate, which requires all Americans to carry health coverage and underpins the Obamacare system, have led insurers to contemplate increasing premiums or leaving the system.
The president wanted and failed to overhaul Obamacare. That does not excuse him from faithfully executing the law. Unless Mr. Trump wants to be blamed for health-care chaos, the administration’s mixed messages must stop. Mr. Trump should commit to keeping the subsidies going permanently, to enforcing the individual mandate and to working with Congress on a bipartisan bill that would bolster insurance markets.
The broad strokes are clear: Democrats would ensure that subsidy payments are made permanent and Republicans would get more flexibility for states in administering Obamacare. More money should also go into reinsurance programs like Alaska’s. Though such a bill might come too late to hold down 2018 premiums, serious legislative activity could persuade insurers to stay in the market, riding out next year with the promise of a more stable situation in 2019.
All of this would be easier if the administration would commit to a strategy of stewardship, not sabotage.
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