Tax bill would repeal requirement to have health insurance, perhaps boosting efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare

Reporters interviewed Sen. Mitch McConnell between negotiations
on the tax bill. (Associated Press photo by J. Scott Applewhite)
The tax-reform bill the Senate passed early Saturday morning, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in the driver's seat, includes a repeal of the requirement that almost all Americans obtain health insurance.

The provision, perhaps the most important part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, appears highly likely to remain in the final version of the bill that will emerge from a House-Senate conference committee. That's because it was also in the House bill and would help make up for the budget deficits caused by tax cuts, writes Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post.

Once the mandate is repealed, Republicans may find it easier to "repeal and replace Obamacare," as they vowed for seven years but have so far failed to do, because "It disposes of a major reason previous GOP measures were projected to result in fewer Americans with coverage," Cunningham notes.

Enactment of the tax bill could also lead to cuts in Medicare. "If lawmakers don’t waive a 2010 rule known as 'paygo,' aimed at keeping government spending in check, that deficit spending would trigger automatic cuts to mandatory spending," limited to 4 percent, Cunningham writes. "Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who generally opposes cuts to entitlement programs," has said that McConnell has promised that Congress will waive 'paygo', "but such a decision is beyond McConnell’s ability to control. Waiving 'paygo' requires 60 votes in the Senate, and it’s not at all clear that Democrats would be willing to help Republicans save themselves from mandatory cuts." Perhaps McConnell believes enough would.

Part of the price McConnell paid for the vote of Collins, who helped kill a repeal-and-replace-Obamacare bill in the summer, was a promise for a vote on legislation to restore the insurance subsidies that President Trump ended recently. That measure, sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexamder (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), "seems awfully shaky," Cunningham writes. "The Senate is focused right now on the tax overhaul; yesterday House conservatives told The Hill they wouldn't support it (they've labeled it an 'insurer bailout'); and, as conservative policy wonk Chris Jacobs writes over at The Federalist, even if the payments are included in a year-end spending bill, they might not ever get made, due to mandatory sequester cuts."

Cunningham concludes, "Here's the interesting question at play over the next few weeks: Will Congress make two changes to the ACA marketplaces that are contrary to each other? Repealing the mandate undermines the marketplaces by ultimately weakening their risk pools (some healthy people drop coverage without the mandate). Making the subsidy payments (known as cost-sharing reductions) helps lower marketplace premiums, but it's kind of moot if you've already removed the key requirement underpinning the whole ACA."

If Trump signs the individual-mandate repeal into law, health-insurance companies will have to decide whether they want to sell through the Obamacare marketplaces, notes Sarah Kliff of Vox: "Are they comfortable selling in a marketplace where they have to offer all consumers coverage but healthy people can decide not to purchase? Or are they scared off by the prospect of getting swamped with sick customers? . . . By September or October of next year, we'd have a sense of whether there are some places where nobody wants to sell Obamacare. And we'll know if there are places with really high premiums, as insurance plans only their sicker customers to stick around."

Kliff concludes, "If Obamacare does truly seem to be in collapse — insurance plans fleeing the markets, premiums spiking — that might give Republicans the pretext to once again take another shot at Obamacare repeal."

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