November 11, 2012

Republican governors face law of the land on Obamacare

Deciding whether to take part in health insurance exchanges confronts them with a difficult decision.

By CHRISTINE VESTAL/Stateline.org

Since the day it was enacted, many of the Affordable Care Act's opponents have preferred to treat it as provisional. First, they argued, the Supreme Court might overturn the whole law. When that didn't happen in June, opponents turned to the hope that maybe Mitt Romney would win the presidency and repeal it.

U.S. Congresswoman Bachmann speaks outside the Supreme Court in Washington
click image to enlarge

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaks outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington in March during the second day of arguments over the Affordable Care Act.

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Now, there are no more maybes.

"With an Obama victory one has to come to terms that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land," says Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Maybe it's time to start living in reality rather than fantasy."

Still, in the new reality, there remain some significant uncertainties in the immediate future of the ACA, particularly in how Republican governors, who have vociferously opposed the law until now, will react in the wake of President Obama's victory.

The ACA is indeed the law of the land and will remain so for the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean that Republican governors have to be full participants.

If they decline to be involved, however, they have to be willing to forgo billions of federal dollars while at the same time inviting more federal involvement in their state health policies.

At issue is whether states will be willing and able to run their own health insurance exchanges -- the ACA's envisioned online marketplaces where some 30 million Americans will be able to comparison shop for private insurance plans and apply for Medicaid and federal tax credits. If states choose not to run their own exchanges, the law requires the federal government to do it for them.

States must also decide whether they want to accept generous federal funding to expand their Medicaid programs to cover millions more people. In addition to the political liability that may represent for Republicans, the expansion also comes with a future price tag some states are taking very seriously.

States were expected to make the initial decision on establishing exchanges by Nov. 16, but the Obama administration announced Friday it was extending the deadline to Dec. 14. There is no deadline for states in considering whether to participate in the ACA's expanded Medicaid program, but it is a decision many of them will want to make sooner rather than later. Choices made on both health exchanges and Medicaid expansion will have major effects on consumers and the entire health care industry, as well as state budgets, for years to come.

From here on out, states will be the primary drivers of the health law's implementation. To achieve its intended goal of covering 30 million uninsured people with affordable health care, the Obama administration will have to engage in some give-and-take in order to ensure the cooperation of as many states as possible.

The federal health law originally required states to expand their Medicaid programs, starting in 2014, to people with incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level, about $31,000 for a family of four and $15,000 for an individual. That expansion by itself was expected to take in some 16 million uninsured people nationwide, about half of the population the law aimed to cover.

But this year's Supreme Court decision, which largely upheld the law, made the Medicaid expansion optional for the states. That spawned a series of refusals to participate by GOP governors who opposed the law. Most Democratic governors are expected eventually to agree to implement the provision.

For states that take up the Medicaid option, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs for the first three years; after that states are responsible for up to 10 percent of the costs. Although the offer seems generous, some states genuinely worry that the increased expenses in the fourth year and beyond will strain their already costly Medicaid programs.

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