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December 18, 2013 4:58 PM What Obamacare Death Spiral?

By Ed Kilgore

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act have been terrified for months now that a combination of a botched online enrollment system, terrible press, and Republican sabotage could send the individual market part of the new system into the much-discussed “death spiral” where a disproportionately large population of older and sicker enrollees would produce very high premiums, which would in turn repel younger and healthier eligibles even more, creating a self-perpetuating disaster.

At Wonkblog today Sarah Kliff reports some research from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicating that fears of a “death spiral” are significantly overblown:

The rumors of an Obamacare death spiral have been greatly exaggerated. So say Larry Levitt, Gary Claxton and Anthony Damico, experts at the Kaiser Family Foundation who have put together a new brief analyzing what would happen if young adults snubbed the Affordable Care Act. Even if young people sign up at half the rate the administration hopes for, it would nudge premiums up only by a few percentage points, their report says.
“When you do the math, it matters, but not nearly as much as the conventional wisdom suggests,” Levitt says….
If young adults (those under 35) were 25 percent less likely than the rest of the population to sign up for Obamacare, they would represent 33 percent of exchange enrollees — rather than 40 percent. This means there would be fewer young people to subsidize older insurance subscribers. To make up that difference, the experts estimated, insurers would need to increase premiums by a terrifying … 1 percent. Yes, exactly 1 percent.
Levitt, Claxton and Damico also tested a scenario where young adults are half as likely as older shoppers to enroll. In that case, the younger enrollees would make up only a quarter of the exchange market. Premiums would fall 2.5 percent short of covering subscribers.

Wow. If these numbers are accurate, the widespread assumption (particularly among happy Republicans) that there’s nothing ahead for exchange enrollees beyond “sticker shock” forever could give way to the expectation that Obamacare will eventually be self-stabilizing, at least for most enrollees. That it turn would upset GOP calculations that they can perpetually benefit from Obamacare’s problems without coming up with their own credible “replacement” proposal (the ones we’ve seen so far, which rely on destructive gimmicks like interstate insurance sales and state-run high-risk pools, while vastly disrupting employer-based coverage, just aren’t credible once you get beyond the slogans).

A whole lot of GOP strategery for 2014 and 2016 depends on an Obamacare crash. They might want to start seriously considering a Plan B that isn’t even worse than the pre-Obamacare status quo ante.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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