Barack Obama wanted to change American health care as we know it. And he is, in ways that go far beyond the goals of the Affordable Care Act.
For weeks, headlines have cataloged the upheaval at private employers: UPS dropping coverage for employed spouses, IBM reworking retiree benefits. Yesterday came the biggest change: Walgreen Co., the largest U.S. drugstore chain, told 160,000 workers they must buy insurance through a private exchange rather than having the company arrange their coverage.
None of the moves was dictated by the health-care law. All, though, have occurred in an environment shaped by Obamacare, which has pushed businesses and governments to reexamine their health-care role as costs soar and national priorities shift. The act now is giving businesses cover to loosen the decades-old link between jobs and health insurance, a shift that may further cloud the outlook for an already unpopular law.
“It’s going to be easy for conservatives who can’t beat up on this enough to point more fingers,” said Robert Laszewski, an insurance-industry consultant based in Arlington, Virginia. “If you pass the largest health-care reform bill in 50 years, then everything that happens in terms of people’s health insurance is your responsibility, fair or not.”
The decisions were an unintended consequence of the law that may ultimately drive up taxpayer costs, he said. Stanford University researchers voiced similar concern in a study last week. Rising health-care premiums could spur 2.5 million workers to switch from employer plans to coverage under the health law, they wrote in a report, boosting costs for the government by as much as $6.7 billion.
With Congress engaged in a bitter feud over funding the 2010 law, worries over benefits offer Republicans yet another line of attack, said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a telephone interview.
“It has to be bad news for Obama,” Hess said. “Working out a successful health-care system has to be his legacy.”
The Obama administration says it’s confident the law will gain support as people, particularly the uninsured, see its benefits.
“One of the largest uninsured populations right now are the 55- to 65-year-old who may not have affordable coverage through their jobs,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. health secretary, at a stop last week in Newark, New Jersey. “The good news is that those people will finally have an affordable option.”