Does the Obamacare mandate actually make people better off?

Here is my latest NYT Upshot column, on the topic of the Affordable Care Act.  Here is what is to me the key excerpt:

But there is another way of looking at it, one used in traditional economics, which focuses on how much people are willing to pay as an indication of their real preferences. Using this measure, if everyone covered by the insurance mandate were to buy health insurance as the law dictated, more than half of them would be worse off.

This may seem startling. But in an economic study, researchers measured such preferences by looking at data known as market demand curves. Practically speaking, these demand curves implied that individuals would rather take some risk with their health — and spend their money on other things — partly because they knew that even without insurance they still would receive some health care. These were the findings of a provocative National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “The Price of Responsibility: The Impact of Health Reform on Non-Poor Uninsureds” by Mark Pauly, Adam Leive, and Scott Harrington; the authors are at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

One implication is that the preferences of many people subject to the insurance mandate are likely to become more negative in the months ahead. For those without subsidies, federal officials estimate, the cost of insurance policies is likely to increase by an average of another 7.5 percent; even more in states like Oklahoma and Mississippi. The individuals who are likely losers from the mandate have incomes 250 percent or more above the federal poverty level ($11,770 for a single person, more for larger families), the paper said. They are by no means the poorest Americans, but many of them are not wealthy, either. So the Affordable Care Act may not be as egalitarian as it might look initially, once we take this perspective into account.

I should stress that, at this point, I don’t see any realistic alternative to trying to improve ACA.  Still, I find it distressing how infrequently this problem is acknowledged or dealt with, probably from a mix of epistemic closure, a “health insurance simply has to make people better off” attitude, and a dose of “let’s not give any ammunition to the enemy.”  In fact, I think a lot of Democratic-leaning economists and commentators are doing a real disservice to their own causes on this one.

It’s worth noting that Kentucky, one of the best-functioning ACA state exchanges, just elected a Republican governor who very explicitly pledged to tank the current set-up as much as possible, Medicaid too.  I think it’s time to admit this is not just Tea Party activism or Hee Haw political stupidity, rather a large number of the people subject to the mandate simply are not better off as would be judged by their own preferences.  And that is not a secondary problem of Obamacare, it is a primary problem.

Interestingly, I found the NYT reader comments on my piece to be fairly supportive, which is not always the case.  There’s a good deal of “this happened to me, too,” and not so much raw invective about whatever defects I may have.

I think it is a big mistake to argue Obamacare is on the verge of collapse, or whatever other exaggeration of the day may be at hand.  Still, I don’t find the current set-up of the exchanges to be entirely stable, at least not in terms of ongoing popularity, much less consumer sovereignty.

A key question is what happens moving forward.  One option, which I had not initially expected, is for the exchanges to narrow and evolve into an expanded version of some of the earlier plans for a segregated high-risk pool.  In that case, the argument would morph from “don’t worry, enough people will sign up for the exchanges” into “the welfare effects here are still positive, because fortunately not everyone signs up for the exchanges.”  The high risk pool would then at some point require additional subsidies.  In the past, I argued that the penalties for not signing up were too low, but under this scenario it may be desirable to lower rather than raise those penalties.

We’ll see.  The piece covers other issues as well, do read the whole thing.

Here is Megan on the costs of ACA plans.  Here are some interesting calculations from Jed Graham.


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