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The Affordable Care Act, One Year Later

A year ago this week, Capitol Hill was full of noise as the House of Representatives debated, and then voted, on the Affordable Care Act. But one of the most vivid memories of that experience for me was an extended moment of silence.

It came very late on Sunday evening--after the floor speeches, the votes, and the press conferences had ended. The galleries had long since emptied and the Capitol building itself was virtually unoccupied, so that it was possible to walk the entire length of the building, on the ground floor hallway that stretches from the House all the way to the Senate, without hearing so much as a single conversation.

It felt more than silent. It felt peaceful and, yes, satisfying. A prolonged, difficult debate had finally ended. It was time to move on.

Except that we haven’t moved on. We are still having arguments about health care reform. In fact, we are still having the same arguments about health care reform. The Affordable Care Act is law of the land now, yes, but its critics are determined to change that. And while the prospects of repealing it legislatively remain relatively slim, the prospects of repealing at least part of it judicially seem far more realistic than they did in the spring of 2010.

So perhaps it is worth taking a step back, just for a moment, and remembering how we got to this point--why this debate started in the first place and why it led to the enactment of this law.

It’s really not that complicated. Around one-fifth of the non-elderly population, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million people, have no health insurance. Many millions more have insurance with major gaps or limitations, leaving them at risk of financial or medical catastrophe. Notwithstanding legitimate debates over exactly how many people go bankrupt or suffer physical hardship because they can’t pay their medical bills, virtually nobody denies that the human toll is real and significant.

These problems are the product, in part, a dysfunctional health insurance system that evolved haphazardly during the 20th Century. They also the product of a medical system as inefficient as it is costly. The United States pays more--far, far more--for health care than any other developed nation. But the care does not seem to be better overall, to say nothing of the fact that it is patently less available.

The goal of reform was really two-fold: In the short term, to make sure everybody can afford to pay for medical bills without financial distress; it the long term, to make the health care system as a whole more efficient, so that it no longer applied such a crushing financial burden on society. A single-payer system, like the ones in France or Taiwan, would have accomplished this. So would a scheme that turned health insurance into a regulated utility, as the Dutch and Swiss governments have done.

Political compromises, dating back to the earliest days of the 2008 presidential campaign, left the U.S. with a second-best--or, more accurately, a third- or fourth-best solution. It bolsters two existing insurance arrangements: Employer-sponsored coverage for workers in most companies, Medicaid for the very poor. It creates a new, regulated marketplace--insurance “exchanges”--for everybody else. Then, through a combination of tax changes and alterations to Medicare, it tries to reengineer medical care itself, wringing out administrative waste and focusing resources on the treatments, and care styles, that provide the most bang for the buck.

It’s easy to find the flaws--and to figure out who’s responsible for them. Doctors, hospitals, drug manufacturers, and device makers fought changes in the delivery of medical care that might affect their incomes; unions lobbied against tax reforms designed to discourage overly generous insurance; everyday Americans resisted changes to plans they already had. All of this blunted the Affordable Care Act’s efforts at cost control, which explains why, ten years from now, the best projections suggest we’ll have spent roughly as much on health care--as a government and as a country--as we would have if the law never passed.

At the same time, political conservatives fought to limit the bill’s expanse, demanding that the new outlays not exceed a $1 trillion, give or take. They had extra power, thanks to the filibuster, and were able to make the demand stick. As a result, the expansion of insurance coverage--via Medicaid and subsidies for private insurance--will not begin until 2014. Even then, somewhere around 20 million people, or 8 percent of the total population, will remain uninsured. And for some of the insured, the coverage will remain meager.

But the law’s shortcomings should not tarnish its many virtues. Eight percent uninsured means 92 percent insured, or around 95 of residents here legally. Or, to put it another way, more than 30 million additional people will have health insurance because of this law. The coverage, if not always as generous as it should be, will be enough to keep many if not most of the newly insured out of bankruptcy--and it will be available to almost everybody, regardless of pre-existing condition or insurance status.

The cost picture is also encouraging. The official projections suggest that, as of 2021, government spending (and, apparently, the country’s total spending) on health care will not be rising as fast as it is now. This is the critical distinction, because it’s the long-term burden of health care that threatens to bankrupt us. Critics doubt that officials will enforce planned changes to health care financing, but today’s lawmakers have no way to force action by their counterparts in the future. All they can do is put laws on the books--and that’s what they have done.

Are there better alternatives? Of course. But the loudest critics of the law, from the right, don’t have them. For all of their screaming, they have yet to put forward a credible plan that can do as much, let alone more, for less money. Their plans, stripped of misleading rhetoric, generally involve covering far fewer people, dramatically reducing the coverage that people have, or some combination of the two. Their dispute is not with the means Democrats have used to make health care affordable to all. It’s with the goal itself.

No, the way to improve the law is to build upon it--to bolster the insurance coverage, reach those Americans the law as written will not reach, and to strengthen the experiments in cost control that work. The best analysis of the law remains the one Senator Tom Harkin gave: The Affordable Care Act is not a mansion. It’s a starter home. But it’s got a solid foundation, a sturdy roof, and room for expansion.

A year from now, the presidential campaign will be well underway and the debate about the Affordable Care Act will likely be, if anything, more acrimonious than it is now. But perhaps after the election and, hopefully, after 2014, the country really will move on.

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