October 7, 2014
How a GOP Congress Could Fix Obamacare
by Sally Pipes
Republicans should focus on incremental reforms with bipartisan support, such as strengthening health savings accounts.
Republicans are primed to take over Congress. A new FiveThirtyEight.com projection gives the GOP a 60% chance of winning the Senate this fall. And, according to RealClearPolitics, there’s virtually no chance Democrats will take the House.
If the GOP succeeds, public displeasure with Obamacare may be why. A recent poll from Bankrate.com found that more than two-thirds of voters say that Obamacare will play a role in how they vote in the coming election. Nearly half said it would influence them “in a major way.”
Of course, the next Congress has little hope of repealing Obamacare outright. The president would just issue a veto. Overriding it — though technically possible — would be difficult with an intransigent Democrat minority.
A GOP majority should instead focus on incremental reforms with bipartisan support — like tax cuts, regulatory reforms and repeal of some of Obamacare’s most unpopular mandates. That’s the most effective way for lawmakers to move our health care system toward one that puts markets and patients at its center.
Step one? Repeal Obamacare’s medical-device tax. This 2.3% excise charge on all device sales is expected to collect $29 billion over the next decade, according to government data.
Device firms are compensating by cutting jobs. Stryker, for instance, has cut 5% of its workforce — about 1,000 people. Zimmer Holdings has chopped 450 jobs. In total, Obamacare’s device tax could kill 43,000 jobs, according to Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist at the Hudson Institute.
Getting rid of the tax is a no-brainer. In March 2013, 79 senators — including 34 Democrats — approved a non-binding resolution calling for its repeal. It’s time to make that vote binding.
Second, a GOP-controlled Congress should strengthen health savings accounts. These financial vehicles allow patients to stow away money tax-free for medical expenses. HSAs are typically coupled with high-deductible health insurance. Patients bear the cost of routine care, and coverage kicks in when needed, like in the event of a medical emergency.
HSAs give patients a financial incentive to avoid unnecessary medical expenses. Converting someone to HSA-based insurance drops her annual health expenses by an average of 17%.
This year, 17.4 million people are enrolled in HSA-eligible plans — a nearly 14% increase over 2013. Among large employers, 36% now offer HSA/high-deductible plans, up from 14% five years ago.
Annual HSA contributions are currently capped at $3,350 for an individual and $6,550 for a family. Congress should raise them to $6,250 and $12,500, respectively. And patients with HSA coverage through the exchanges should be eligible for a one-time, $1,000 refundable tax credit to be deposited directly into their account.
Third, the new Congress should reform medical malpractice. Frivolous lawsuits and the threat of baseless litigation are increasing health costs and degrading quality of care.
Excessive malpractice suits drive “defensive” medicine, in which doctors order unnecessary procedures and tests simply to shield against accusations of negligence. This practice costs the country an estimated $210 billion every year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Injecting common sense into the medical tort system would bring down that bill.
Earlier this year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill that restricted lawsuits against doctors by, among other things, limiting non-economic damage judgments to $250,000. It was effectively ignored once it moved out of committee. Republicans should dust it off and pass it.
Finally, the GOP should repeal Obamacare’s employer mandate, which slaps midsize and large companies with a fine if they don’t provide sufficiently “robust” health coverage to full-time employees.
The mandate is destroying jobs. Employers are holding off on hiring and ratcheting back workers’ hours to avoid additional insurance costs. A Gallup poll found that 85% of businesses are not looking to hire. Nearly half cited rising healthcare costs.
There’s ample political support for repealing the employer mandate. The administration has already unilaterally — and maybe illegally — delayed its implementation. Several prominent backers have openly called for repeal.
All of these reform ideas are imminently actionable. They could find broad bipartisan backing and avoid a veto. Most importantly, they would move U.S. healthcare closer to a consumer-driven system, with patients empowered to control their own spending and market forces pushing costs down.