It has been a rough two months for the Affordable Care Act and its defenders. Having spent years fighting ridiculous allegations about socialized medicine and "death panels," supporters of near-universal coverage now face something different. The performance failures in the rollout of healthcare.gov have triggered cries of "I told you so!" from some liberals. This wouldn’t have happened, they say, if only Obama had supported some form of single-payer plan, such as Medicare for all. The anger over the botched rollout is understandable, but these recriminations are poorly timed—and just plain wrong.
For starters, the ACA is working reasonably well in some places—California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Washington, and the District of Columbia, for example. These under-reported success stories show that insurance exchanges can work, if properly administered. Exchanges are successfully determining applicants’ eligibility for Medicaid or private insurance, enabling consumers to choose among competing plans, and computing the tax credits to which people are entitled. The human benefits are real, from California to Breathitt County in rural Kentucky. These successes make the federal government’s dismal rollout even more embarrassing. Republicans may have done everything within their power to dynamite the ACA, but the administration fell inexcusably short in launching Obama's domestic-policy centerpiece.
It doesn't help that health reform is really complicated. The U.S. health-care system is far and away the most complex in the world, one that includes employer-sponsored coverage, Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, the Indian Health Service, and small-group and individual insurance coverage—and that's before Obamacare was implemented.
Given that complexity, some on the left say, life would be simpler if only Congress had been willing—which it was not—to scrap all current arrangements and replace them with a single, federally administered health insurance plan. Those on the right regard this complexity and say that life would be simpler if only Congress had been willing—which it was not—to scrap all current arrangements and replace them with income-related vouchers people could use to help pay for private insurance of their choice.
Those positions enjoy loud support in the blogosphere, Twitter, and cable TV, but only niche support at each end of the political spectrum. Although their ideological values could hardly be more different, these polar-opposite camps each disdain the kludgy fixes of incremental politics. And yet, incrementalism is what most Americans want. Most people are reasonably well-insured. They like their coverage, and they want it to remain affordable. They fear legislation that threatens it. Proposals, whether from the left or right, that force most people into radically different arrangements are fated to remain politically marginal in America.
That the right, which predicted Obamacare would mean the death of liberty and ruination of the U.S health care system, feels vindicated by Obamacare's initial woes is no surprise. But the troubles with healthcare.gov have rekindled attacks from the left, too. Consider a recent essay by American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner, in which he writes, "The colossal mess that Obamacare has become reflects both the character of the legislation and that of the president who sponsored it."
We understand Kuttner’s frustration. We do not share his disdain for the ACA or for Obama. The law ended a century of legislative failures in the search for universal health insurance coverage, and enacted important reforms of our healthcare delivery system. Obama bet his historic legacy on a reform that, however imperfect, brings health insurance to millions, improves its quality, and helps slow spending growth.
The real beef of those who seek a more radical rewiring of our healthcare system is not with the president. It is with the coalition of labor, healthcare, disability, and anti-poverty groups that coalesced during 2007 and 2008 around a health reform model that later became the ACA. Candidates Hillary Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards endorsed similar health plans. They all included Medicaid expansion, regulated markets (health insurance exchanges), premium subsidies, strengthened insurance regulation, and an explicit or de facto individual mandate. Many Democrats would have preferred single-payer, but the candidates and even most single-payer supporters understood that politically this just wasn’t possible.
We wish ACA had gone farther. It could have provided more generous premium assistance and cost-sharing for working families. It could have allowed people near retirement to buy into Medicare. Alas, senators such as Joe Lieberman—not Obama—scuttled these possibilities. The ACA is only the first step in a long journey of needed health reforms.
Kuttner goes on to write: "Medicare for All would be simpler to execute, easier to understand, and harder for Republicans to oppose.” Nancy Folbre, writing in The New York Times, took the same position. Kuttner and Folbre are correct that Medicare for All would be much easier to understand. Perhaps, as Obama among others has said, Medicare for All would be preferable to our current system, were we designing that system from scratch.
But we aren’t. The slogan “Medicare for all” was never incorporated in a well-crafted legislative proposal. Had it been, it would have been even easier than Obamacare for Republicans to oppose. And implementation would have been formidably difficult. Had the transition to single-payer ever been specifically mapped out, it would immediately have become apparent that this process requires wholesale replacement or rewiring of employer-based coverage, major changes in the relations between states and the federal government. Hundreds of billions of dollars in transfers and new taxes would have been necessary. Enterprising constitutional conservatives surely would have identified plausible court challenges. What's more, a phalanx of providers—hospitals, doctors, insurers, drug companies and device manufacturers—opposed single-payer proposals. Even such incremental moves as the public option evoked profound unease among insurers, community hospitals, and other key parts of the coalition that supported the ACA.
The backlash against the ACA is occurring because it disrupts coverage of several million people in the individual and small-group insurance market. Transition to single-payer would have been far messier, disrupting coverage for hundreds of millions of Americans, with a much larger and more explosive mix of winners and losers.
There was and is no alternative to the messy incremental politics that produced Obamacare. Liberals such as then–House Majority Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t make unpalatable compromises because they held pallid aspirations for health reform. They compromised because they knew that they could not impose their will on querulous colleagues, because they needed 60 Senate votes, because millions of Americans needed help, and because it is better to win messily than to lose gloriously.
Much now rides on the government’s ability to fix healthcare.gov. Definite progress has been made. The federal exchange will be better by year's end, but it will be months, not a few weeks, before the website really works the way it should. The White House's cautionary messages on enrollment efforts and its one-year delay in online small business enrollment exemplify the many challenges with getting Obamacare off the ground. So these are anxious times. If the ACA fails, hopes for universal coverage will be set back a generation. Now's not the time for liberals supporters to turn against Obamacare, or against each other.
This post has been updated.
Henry Aaron is the Bruce and Virginia Maclaury Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University Of Chicago.