Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Key To Obamacare's Survival?

Even though the House of Representatives has just voted to use the budget bill to defund Obamacare, its chances of survival are pretty good.  Not just because the Senate will delink the defunding from the budget bill, but also because Obamacare suddenly seems to have some powerful supporters.

Not that these supporters are speaking openly.  But here's the scoop.  Major American corporations are moving their workers or retirees to the private exchanges.  Wahlgreens, Sears, and Darden Restaurants (think Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille and more) have announced that employees will move to the private exchanges.  IBM and Time Warner are moving retirees to the private exchanges.  Apparently, these companies will pay employees or retirees subsidies to reduce their premium costs.  But these companies, and others making similar moves, are offloading a very important risk--the unpredictability of health care costs.  They provide fixed subsidies, thus stabilizing their costs.

Businesses love predictability and certainty.  Profits are more likely if you can control major cost items like health care coverage for employees and/or retirees.  In essence, Obamacare is on the verge of becoming an important subsidy to big business.

Experience teaches that government subsidies are virtually impossible to eliminate.  Long after the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, agricultural subsidies that make no public policy sense persist.  Even after being nationalized just before they could bring down the entire U.S. economy, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac roll along, now more centrally positioned in the financing of residential real estate than ever before.  Virtual giveaways of access to minerals on federal land continue unabated even though the settlement of the West was effectively complete by 1890.

With Obamacare in the process of becoming a potentially really, really important subsidy to really, really big corporations, do we really think that it's going to be eliminated?  The Tea Partiers in the House make a lot of noise, but can they take on the political firepower that big business lobbyists can bring to bear?  Recent polls indicate that a majority of Americans support Obamacare, and politicians in a democracy eventually have to pay attention to the polls (see Obama-Syria-poison-gas-response for more on this point).  But, just as importantly (or more so), powerful business interests can arrange the survival of big subsidies no matter how loud some people in the House of Representatives scream.  This may reflect poorly on the nature of the political process, but it's the truth.  And Obamacare may well now have the backing of some highly influential lobbyists who will speak softly (to stay out of the cross-hairs of the Tea Party) but will wield big sticks to keep their clients well-subsidized.

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