Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently gave a candid assessment of the chances of getting an Affordable Care Act (ACA) replacement bill through the Senate, saying “I don’t know how we get to 50 (votes) at the moment.” That succinctly captures the political dilemma. There has long been broad bipartisan agreement that the nation’s health care system was in need of repair. Something had to be done to contain rapidly rising health care costs, increase the quality of medical outcomes, and to expand coverage. But there was little or no bipartisan agreement on how to do it. Indeed, no major health care initiative since Medicare was enacted in 1965 has enjoyed true bipartisan support.

The most recent effort to overhaul the health care system was no exception. The ACA passed in March 2010 with no Republican votes. That wholly partisan effort, in turn, set off a determined, seven-year-long effort by Republicans to repeal the law. The most recent step on this tortuous journey occurred on May 4, 2017 when the House passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) by a vote of 217-213. In this case, no Democrats voted for the bill. Twenty Republicans also voted no and the bill passed with just one GOP vote more than the 216 needed to pass.

As we explain below, the ACA and AHCA are “apples and oranges” in their approaches to reforming the healthcare system. Because each proceeds from different philosophical premises, this post briefly examines their key components and primary goals without opining on the merits. Our primary focus is on the political and policy challenges faced by Senate Republicans in getting a bill passed (which remains highly uncertain) and whether such a bill will differ greatly from the House product. In our view, to achieve the GOP’s publicly stated policy objectives, and faced with the constraints imposed by the budget reconciliation rules (explained below), Senate Republicans will be forced to address essentially the same questions as their colleagues in the House—and their solutions likely will differ from those of the House mostly in degree.

What the AHCA Does

In the AHCA, House Republicans singled out a few ACA provisions they had publicly campaigned against—most of which are contained in Title I of the law. These include the mandate that individuals purchase coverage; the narrow, 3:1 modified community-rating corridor that Republicans asserted made coverage prohibitively expensive for younger individuals; and the requirement that plans sold in the individual and small-group market include a comprehensive set of covered medical and related services known as “essential health benefits” (EHBs) The AHCA also would make major changes to Medicaid that go well beyond rolling back the program expansion authorized by the ACA.

The AHCA’s primary purpose is to reduce premium costs and reduce the federal government’s role in health care by giving more authority and flexibility to the states. The ACA’s primary goal, in contrast, was to expand insurance coverage in the individual markets—and it did that, although not as much as had been predicted. Another ACA goal was to make coverage more affordable, at least for low- and moderate-income individuals—and it did that too. But the ACA did little to lower medical costs, and from the available evidence had only a marginal effect on healthcare outcomes. Neither does the AHCA address those issues. It instead focuses mainly on reducing federal expenditures, shifting costs to the states, and constraining the growth of Medicaid. The recently issued report by the Congressional Budget Office and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation indicates that the AHCA would achieve significant success in this regard, estimating that the bill would reduce the cumulative federal deficit over the 2017-2026 period by $119 billion.

The GOP Challenge

With their slim 52-48 majority, Republican lawmakers don’t have the votes to repeal the ACA outright. That would require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Instead, they must rely on a special budget strategy called “reconciliation.” Created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, reconciliation allows certain bills that directly impact federal spending to be passed by a simple majority. For example, reconciliation rules would allow repeal of the ACA’s individual and employer mandates by a simple 51-vote majority because those mandates directly affect revenue; but reconciliation could not be used to repeal the employer reporting rules because those provisions do not directly affect spending. These restrictions severely limit which provisions of the ACA Republicans in the Senate (and by extension the House) can replace without Democratic support. We discuss those provisions below.

The individual mandate

The ACA included an “individual mandate” that requires most U.S. citizens to buy health insurance. The purpose was to ensure broad participation in the individual markets so that there would be enough healthy individuals in the risk pool to subsidize the cost of covering those who are less healthy. Most agree that the ACA penalty for not maintaining coverage was insufficient to induce enough healthy people into the pool. The result has been steep underwriting losses which have prompted major carriers to exit the public exchanges. The AHCA would eliminate the penalty retroactively, to the beginning of 2016. In its place, the bill would impose a “continuous coverage” requirement to induce people to buy coverage and stay covered rather than buying it only when they need it, which drives up costs in the exchanges. Health carriers could assess a 30 percent penalty on individuals who have a gap in coverage of more than 63 days in the prior 12 months. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has provided a similar rule for employer-provided group coverage since 1996.

Community rating

Under community rating, premiums can vary by age, among other things. In the case of age rating, actuarial principles dictate that the premiums paid by the oldest subscribers should be about five times what younger subscribers pay. To mitigate the impact on older citizens, the ACA limited the rating range to 3:1. The AHCA allows a ratio of up to 5:1 which actuaries say more closely aligns premiums with the costs associated with age. AHCA proponents assert that the maximum 3:1 ratio dictated by the ACA unfairly penalizes younger, healthier individuals, discouraging them from participating in the individual markets and contributing to the underwriting losses in the ACA exchanges. They also assert that individuals 65 and older are eligible for Medicare and that the workers affected by the 5:1 ratio would be primarily those 54 to 65 years old—generally the highest earning years.

Premium tax credits

The AHCA scraps the ACA’s cost-sharing subsidies, and replaces its premium tax credits. Beginning in 2020, the AHCA would offer credits for U.S. citizens and qualified aliens enrolled in qualified health plans who are not eligible for other sources of coverage. The credit amounts are based on age and adjusted by a formula that takes income into account. Credits would be capped according to a maximum dollar amount and family size. In general, the AHCA subsidies are less generous than those provided by the ACA. According to the CBO report, repeal of the ACA’s tax credits saves some $665 billion while the cost of the AHCA’s tax credits is $375 billion—a net savings of $290 billion.

Medicaid

Medicaid is a health insurance program with shared federal/state authority and financing. Historically, coverage generally was limited to low-income families with children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The ACA offers states generous federal funding designed to encourage expansion of their programs to cover all Americans under age 65 whose family income is effectively at or below 138 percent percent of federal poverty guidelines ($16,394 for an individual in 2016). Currently, 31 states plus the District of Columbia have expanded their programs.

The AHCA would change the current system of federal funding of Medicaid by placing per capita caps on federal payments to states. Under that approach, each state’s Medicaid spending, beginning in 2020, would be limited based on enrollee categories (i.e., children, disabled, etc.). States that exceed the limits would get less money the following year. Alternatively, states could opt to receive federal block grants (i.e., predetermined fixed amounts) to cover their Medicaid-eligible populations.

The Medicaid changes account for the single largest item of budgetary savings under the AHCA—some $843 billion over 10 years according to the CBO. The savings are important to achieving other GOP objectives such as tax reform, but many of the 16 GOP governors who expanded Medicaid have expressed concerns about the scope and timing of the changes and the impact on their citizens.

States’ ability to opt out

In an effort to persuade House conservatives to support the AHCA, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) offered an amendment that would allow states to seek waivers of certain AHCA provisions. The idea was to devolve to those states flexibility to modify their coverage rules to best meet the needs of their constituencies. Under the amendment, states that are granted waivers may:

  • Adopt age-rated premium ratios higher than 5:1 for older individuals buying coverage in the individual and small group markets;
  • Define their own, less generous, “essential health benefits” (EHBs) for plans purchased in the individual and small-group markets instead of the 10 EHBs mandated by the ACA (and which the AHCA otherwise would leave in place); and/or
  • Bypass the 30 percent penalty for individuals who do not maintain continuous health coverage, and instead apply medical underwriting to the pricing of plans in such cases; but states seeking such waivers must have a high-risk pool or participate in the Federal “Invisible Risk Sharing Program” (explained below).

High-risk pools

High-risk pools are state programs that provide funding to cover the health care costs of individuals with catastrophic or pre-existing medical conditions and who are unable to purchase affordable coverage in the individual market. The AHCA embraces state high-risk pools as a way to contain the cost of medical premiums for healthy individuals. It does this by creating two risk pools: one for healthy individuals or those with continuous coverage, and the other for those with high-cost or pre-existing conditions. The idea is to lower premiums for healthy people while at the same time providing coverage for those with serious health conditions using a separate funding mechanism.

To fund coverage for high-risk individuals, the AHCA provides a total of $138 billion over 10 years through various mechanisms as follows:

  • A State Stability Fund in the amounts of $15 billion in 2018 and 2019, and $10 billion each year thereafter through 2026;
  • An additional $15 billion in 2020 that states could use for maternity coverage and newborn and prevention, treatment, or recovery support services for mental or substance use disorders;
  • An additional $8 billion for the period 2018-2023 to states with a “MacArthur waiver” (previously discussed); and
  • A Federal Invisible Risk Sharing Program to help with high-cost medical claims of certain individuals who buy coverage in the individual market.

The MacArthur waivers are not without controversy. The two biggest issues are the potentially large cost increases to older citizens and whether individuals with pre-existing health conditions will be adequately protected. Another question is how many states actually will seek waivers and assume the financial (and political) responsibility for protecting older and sicker workers if the federal dollars under the AHCA prove insufficient. The CBO makes an educated guess as to how many people might be affected by states getting waivers, but they are guesses nonetheless.

Ways to get to Yes

The CBO report estimates that from 2017 to 2026, the AHCA would reduce direct spending by $1.111 trillion and revenues by $0.992 trillion (resulting in a net deficit reduction of $119 billion—and that 23 million fewer people would have health coverage (CBO does not count as health coverage limited benefit plans, including so-called “mini-med” plans and fixed-dollar indemnity plans). These numbers are a direct consequence of the AHCA’s stated goals—to reduce the role of the federal government in regulating and financing health care, specifically in the individual market, Medicaid, and the uninsured.

Senate Republicans broadly share those goals, but they differ on how to achieve them, as did many of their House colleagues. To further mitigate the impact on individuals, the Senate could adjust the AHCA’s spending and revenue levels, as well as the timing of certain provisions—for example, they could push back the phase-out of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion provisions from 2020 to a later date. Similarly, the AHCA’s per-capita caps and block grant provisions could be adjusted to provide more money to the states. The trade-off would be higher spending levels than the House bill, but this could be offset by modifying the AHCA’s tax repeal provisions. For example, the ACA’s so-called “Cadillac” tax on high-cost employer plans, which the House bill delayed until 2026, could be allowed to go into effect earlier, thus generating more revenue. To the same effect, the Senate could push back repeal of the ACA’s Medicare payroll tax on high income individuals. Another step might be to provide additional subsidies for those aged 50 to 64 to mitigate any adverse effect of the increase in the premium age-rating ratio proposed by the House.

We are under no illusions that the policy differences among Senate Republicans can be reconciled—and if they can, that the House and Senate can reach agreement when they go to conference. All we know now is that the GOP is stuck with its seven-year public commitment to creating a better system with still no clear path forward. Democrats may be enjoying the Republicans’ predicament, but neither party is likely to be viewed favorably if the current system continues to falter and ultimately fails. If that happens, the price of our polarized political environment could be steep for both sides.

The sheer magnitude of the dollars at stake should compel policymakers to find a breakthrough. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports that national spending on health care grew 5.8 percent to $3.2 trillion in 2015, accounting for 17.8 percent of GDP. Medicare spending alone was $646.2 billion, 20 percent of the total. Medicaid another $545.1 billion, or 17 percent. Thus, the most urgent practical question may not be whose theory of government is more correct, but whether the current rate of health care spending is sustainable. We can’t think of a better answer than economist Herbert Stein’s wry observation that, “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”