Putting Obamacare in a Deep Freeze

As they debate various ways to repeal and replace Obamacare, Republicans in Congress have proposed a transition between the current regime and the more market-oriented solution they wish to create. As part of that transition, Congress should explore putting an immediate freeze on new Obamacare enrollment. Such a freeze would allow currently enrolled Americans to maintain their coverage while halting the growth in spending on the law’s costly taxpayer subsidies.

Medicaid Freeze

There are good policy reasons to include a freeze on enrollment as part of repeal legislation. The “Better Way” alternative to Obamacare released by Speaker Ryan in June proposed that “states that have not expanded Medicaid under Obamacare as of January 1, 2016…would not be able to do so.” If the House intends to freeze enrollment by preventing new states from implementing Medicaid expansion, reason dictates that it should also prevent new individuals in states that have already expanded Medicaid from joining the entitlement.

Previous research suggests that the existence of a Medicaid entitlement for the able-bodied significantly decreases job-search activity, employment, and enrollment in employer-sponsored health coverage. The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) has demonstrated that freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Medicaid to transition out of poverty and into work in a relatively short period of time, and that there is broad public support for such a move.

Freezing enrollment would also begin to unwind the inequities in the current system, which rewards states that have expanded Medicaid for discriminating against the most vulnerable. Some governors have indicated their desire to preserve the expansion in their states. But keeping Medicaid expansion in some states would set up a direct conflict with other states that are explicitly prohibited from expanding under the House Republican plan. As a compromise, Congress should instead freeze enrollment in those states that have already expanded Medicaid, as a way to begin dismantling the new entitlement for the able-bodied.

King v. Burwell

When it comes to insurance Exchanges, Republicans had previously proposed freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s subsidy regime. Last year, the Supreme Court considered the case of King v. Burwell, which had the potential to strike down taxpayer-funded subsidies in states with a federally run insurance exchange (i.e.  most of them). Ahead of that case, Senators Ron Johnson and Ben Sasse both proposed different transitional arrangements that would allow individuals receiving subsidies at the time of the ruling to continue their coverage for some period of time, without allowing new individuals to qualify for taxpayer-funded coverage.

Though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the subsidies in King v. Burwell, the transition plans by Sasse and Johnson provide just as sensible a template now as they did then. Admittedly, insurers may not want to offer coverage where only unsubsidized individuals can join exchanges, as those unsubsidized individuals would likely be the costliest to insure. But the plans laid out by Sasse and Johnson provide two possible blueprints for unwinding Obamacare, including its taxpayer-funded exchange subsidies.

Obama Precedent

In considering the practical effects of an enrollment freeze, Republicans should examine how President Obama tried to minimize the impact of his “Lie of the Year” — “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” When millions of Americans received cancellation notices in the fall of 2013, the Obama Administration allowed individuals to keep their prior coverage temporarily. This reprieve was ultimately extended until December 2017.

By allowing some individuals to keep their pre-Obamacare coverage, Obama’s plan-cancellation “fix” solved a political problem, minimizing the number of individuals thrown off their current coverage at one time. Extending the “fix” for several years also limited disruption, as natural “churning” in insurance markets will reduce the number of individuals with affected policies between now and December 2017.

Of course, President Obama’s administrative actions in 2013 violated the law. Even liberals have acknowledged that Obama abrogated his constitutional duties by publicly advertising that his Administration would not enforce the ACA’s statutory requirements. But Congress can and should seek to minimize disruption in a legal way, by explicitly including an enrollment freeze in its repeal legislation. With Obamacare’s coverage gains coming almost entirely from Medicaid expansion, freezing enrollment will allow for a smoother transition into the new system Republicans intend to create.

This post was originally published at National Review.