Is Trumpcare finally dead? Even now, it’s hard to be sure, especially given Republican moderates’ long track record of caving in to extremists at crucial moments. But it does look as if the frontal assault on the Affordable Care Act has failed.
And let’s be clear: The reason this assault failed wasn’t that Donald Trump did a poor selling job, or that Mitch McConnell mishandled the legislative strategy. Obamacare survived because it has worked — because it brought about a dramatic reduction in the number of Americans without health insurance, and voters didn’t and don’t want to lose those gains.
Unfortunately, some of those gains will probably be lost all the same: The number of uninsured Americans is likely to tick up over the next few years. So it’s important to say clearly, in advance, why this is about to happen. It won’t be because the Affordable Care Act is failing; it will be the result of Trump administration sabotage.
Some background here: Even the A.C.A.’s supporters have always acknowledged that it’s a bit of a Rube Goldberg device. The simplest way to ensure that people have access to essential health care is for the government to pay their bills directly, the way Medicare does for older Americans. But in 2010, when the A.C.A. was enacted, Medicare for all was politically out of reach.
What we got instead was a system with a number of moving parts. It’s not as complex as all that — once you understand the basic concept of the “three-legged stool” of regulations, mandates and subsidies, you’ve got most of it. But it has more failure points than, say, Medicare or Social Security.
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Notably, people aren’t automatically signed up for coverage, so it matters a lot whether the officials running the system try to make it work, reaching out to potential beneficiaries to ensure that they know what’s available, while reminding currently healthy Americans that they are still legally required to sign up for coverage.
You can see this dependence on good intentions by looking at how health reform has played out at the state level. States that embraced the law fully, like California and Kentucky, made great progress in reducing the number of the uninsured; states that dragged their feet, like Tennessee, benefited far less. Or consider the problem of counties served by only one insurer; as a recent study noted, this problem is almost entirely limited to states with Republican governors.