Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Columns

An Obamacare surrender


Published:

Washington is riven by conflict and deep-seated division. It is rare indeed when both sides can agree on anything consequential. Therefore it is incredibly heartening that there is now bipartisan agreement that the implementation of Obamacare is a mess.

Republicans have long maintained this, but now the Obama administration has lent its implicit assent with its astonishing decision to delay by a year the law's employer mandate. This is what the administration calls, via a blog post by the Treasury Department's assistant secretary for tax policy announcing the decision, "Continuing to Implement the ACA in a Careful, Thoughtful Manner."

It can call it whatever it wants, but there is no hiding the embarrassment of a climb-down on a high-profile feature of President Barack Obama's signature initiative. Although the administration was determined to do all it could to hide it. The administration was apparently planning to announce it on July 3 - only because the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve was too far off.

The purported reason for the delay is incompetence. The administration's story is that it simply couldn't find a way to implement the insurance reporting requirements on employers in the time frame set out in the law. Merely as a side effect, it had to put off the mandate and the $2,000-per-employee fine on employers with more than 50 employees who don't offer health coverage.

This just happens to be the mandate that is causing howls of pain from businesses and creating perverse incentives for them to limit their hiring or to hire part-time rather than full-time employees. And it just happens that 2015 - the new target for implementation - is after a midterm election year rather than during.

Explaining the decision, Obama apparatchik Valerie Jarrett issued a stalwart communique from Central Command that should take an honored place in the annals of blatant, unembarrassed hackery.

Her message was: All is well. Nothing to see here. Yes, maybe we've delayed implementation of the (hilariously euphemistic) "employer responsibility payments," aka fines, but don't worry, it's "full steam ahead" with the health care exchanges this October.

Jarrett portrayed the decision as about "cutting red tape." But if you pass a horrendously complicated law placing new burdens on employers, you aren't cutting red tape, you are adding to it. And a delay doesn't cut red tape - it delays it.

"As we implement this law," Jarrett explained, "we have and will continue to make changes as needed." But the law is supposed to be the law, not optional suggestions from Congress. In Jarrett's view, Obamacare is little more than a warrant for the Obama administration to decide how it wants to run the American health care system, one executive decision at a time.

It has become a trope among defenders of the law that its flaws are the fault of Republicans because they don't want to fix them. They must have seen their own peculiar version of "Schoolhouse Rock!": The first step in making a law is jamming a massive bill down the opposition's throat. The second is whining that the opposition won't fix problems inherent in the bill jammed down their throats.

Obamacare was sold on the twin, flagrantly false promises that you could keep the insurance you have and the prices for insurance would drop. But there will be significant dumping of employees onto the exchanges, and the latest indication of the law's price shock came via The Wall Street Journal this week, which reported that "healthy consumers could see insurance rates double or even triple when they look for individual coverage."

The delay of the employer mandate may create political pressure to delay the more important individual mandate as well, on grounds that ordinary people shouldn't face the fines for not buying government-mandated coverage that businesses have been spared.

Certainly, the maneuver on the employer mandate is a painful concession and a signal of weakness. Now everyone can agree: Implementation of the president's proudest achievement is troubled, at best.

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