While waiting for a chance to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a conservative alternative, there are right ways and wrong ways to address its 2,400 pages of shortcomings. The right way was recently demonstrated by a group of five Republican senators, who proposed a bill to offer millions of Americans an escape from Obamacare’s unprecedented and unconstitutional (despite the opinions of five justices) individual mandate. The wrong way was recently demonstrated by a group of eight Republican senators, who proposed a bill to expand the reach of Obamacare’s direct outlays to insurance companies.
Three weeks ago, Senators Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, Ron Johnson, Jeff Flake, and John McCain introduced legislation saying that if there’s only one Obamacare plan available in your area, the federal government can’t compel you to buy that plan against your will. You are exempt from the individual mandate. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to bring this presumably popular legislation, which now has 16 cosponsors, up for a vote.)
Subsequently, Senators Lamar Alexander, Thad Cochran, Mark Kirk, Rob Portman, Ron Johnson, John Barrasso, Kelly Ayotte, and David Perdue introduced legislation saying that governors—not state legislatures, curiously—could decide to expand the use of the subsidies that Obamacare pays to insurance companies. In states that have at least one county where only one exchange plan is offered, governors could decide to let such taxpayer-funded subsidies be used outside of Obamacare’s exchanges, as well as inside of the exchanges (where they must now be used). (The governors’ actions would also void the individual mandate in those states.)
The eight senators are trying to sell their bill partly as a reprieve for taxpayers, who—they claim—would benefit from having those who are eligible for such subsidies pick potentially cheaper, off-exchange plans. But if someone is eligible for, say, $3,100 in Obamacare subsidies (which is about what the typical 49-year-old making $25,000 gets), that person’s insurance company gets the $3,100 whether he or she picks a $3,100 plan, a $5,000 plan, or a $10,000 plan. Either way, in other words, the insurer gets $3,100 and the taxpayer is out the same. The only way taxpayers would save money is if this person were to choose a plan that cost less than $3,100, which not many people are going to do since—per Obamacare’s design—they can’t pocket the savings.
Republicans shouldn’t be in the business of trying to expand or “fix” Obamacare—and the bill proposed by the eight senators would seem to be guilty on both counts. On the other hand, exempting Americans from the coercive individual mandate—like under the Cotton, Sasse, Johnson, Flake, and McCain bill—involves neither an expansion nor a fix. Freeing people from that mandate is merely a proposal to provide relief, without broadening or propping up Obamacare. That’s the sort of approach Republicans should be taking.