Obamacare: How It Should Be Fixed

Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us

a special report by Steven Brill
Time, March 4, 2013
Pete Souza/White House
President Obama with doctors and nurses at the White House after giving a speech about health care reform, March 2010

The US health care system urgently needs fixing. It is much too expensive and inefficient, and leaves too many people with no care or inadequate care. In March 2010, the recently elected Obama administration barely managed to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a huge and complicated collection of legislative initiatives designed to correct the system’s problems.1 The statute is 2,700 pages long, and so far there are about 20,000 pages of regulations.

Most Democrats generally approve of the ACA as an important achievement in health care legislation, which moves the US closer to the kind of system it will ultimately need. Its central provision is a mandate for nearly all either to have insurance or else pay a fine. Despite its deficiencies and complexities, and however much it disappoints those hoping for more fundamental reform, the ACA’s supporters call it a good start that can be amended later as necessary.

However, more than a few liberals think the ACA was fatally compromised by deals the president made with the private insurance, hospital, and pharmaceutical industries to get their support, particularly the sacrifice of a “public option”—insurance the government would sell if private companies refused or their plans were seen as excessively expensive. They believe it will ultimately fail because it does not basically change our dysfunctional system. It expands and improves private insurance coverage, but provides no effective controls of rising costs and no significant change in the way medical care is delivered. Many of the critics think we need major reform that replaces private insurance and employment-based coverage with a publicly funded single-payer system.

Before the ACA was enacted, the president’s health care proposals were bitterly opposed by Republicans who said they violated two conservative principles: first, the familiar Reagan view that government involvement usually is the problem, not the solution; and second, an implied but rarely spoken belief that medical care is basically a special kind of business, and should conform to business practices. Republicans believe that the ACA flouts these principles by depending heavily on government regulation and interfering with free-market forces.

Republican opposition hardened even more after the legislation became law, culminating in a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court. On June 28, 2012, the Court sustained by a 5–4 vote the contested major provision in the ACA that mandated insurance coverage. But by a 7–2 vote, the Court struck down the provision in the law that gave Congress the power to withhold federal Medicaid support from states refusing to expand their Medicaid program, which provides medical care for poor people. This decision made it financially feasible for states to opt out of the ACA’s provision requiring that the coverage of low-income patients be expanded. As of this writing, seven…

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