I support the Affordable Care Act, but not Obamacare

More than three years after being signed into law, and more than a year after surviving a Supreme Court challenge, the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, finally begins to fulfill its promise. Most of this country has long since taken sides, despite appalling gaps in popular understanding of what the law means, what it does, and what it doesn’t do.

Let me admit that I’ve never had particularly warm feelings toward President Obama. I think his foreign policy is a mess. The trillions in debt that the U.S. has run up over the past 5 years will hurt my generation and future generations, and if Republicans can be faulted for their fantasy that the federal budget can be balanced exclusively through spending cuts, Obama has sustained the Democratic fairy tale that raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires” is all we need to do to pay the skyrocketing bills.

On multiple occasions during my time in government service, the president had no qualms about squashing science and scientists for political convenience. He is a perpetual campaigner, preferring theatrical gestures to the backstage grunt work of governing. And for all of his rhetorical gifts when preaching to the choir, he’s been one of the least effective persuaders-in-chief to have held the office.

And so, naturally, I oppose Obamacare. I oppose a government takeover of health care that includes morally repugnant death panels staffed by faceless bureaucrats who will decide whose grandparents live or die and make it impossible for clinicians to provide compassionate end-of-life care. I oppose the provision in Obamacare that says that in order for some of the 50 million uninsured Americans to obtain health insurance, an equal or greater number must forfeit their existing plans or be laid off from their jobs. I oppose the discarding of personal responsibility for one’s health in Obamacare. I oppose Obamacare’s expansion of the nanny-state that will regulate the most private aspects of people’s lives.

It’s a good thing that Obamacare, constructed on a foundation of health reform scare stories, doesn’t exist and never will.

Instead, the Affordable Care Act (which I support) is based on a similar law in Massachusetts that was signed by a Republican governor and openly supported by the administration of George W. Bush. It achieves the bulk of health insurance expansion by leveling the playing field for self-employed persons and employees of small businesses who, until now, didn’t have a fraction of the premium negotiating power of large corporations that pool risk and provide benefits regardless of health status. The ACA discourages health care “free riders” and provides support for people of modest means to purchase private health insurance in regulated open marketplaces, and it tells insurers that in exchange for new customers, they can no longer discriminate against the old and sick and make their profits off the young and healthy. Finally, the ACA rewards physicians and hospitals for quality and good outcomes, rather than paying for pricey tests and procedures that may or may not improve health.

The ACA has flaws. Since it doesn’t do much to narrow the income discrepancy between different types of physicians, it may overwhelm the capacity of primary care as millions of uninsured patients look for family doctors for the first time. The ACA’s provisions to discourage overuse of unnecessary medical services are limited and probably inadequate to the scope of the problem.

But it’s worth noting that these problems all predated the law. We don’t have enough family physicians and other primary care clinicians, specialists make too much money in comparison, and overdiagnosis and overtreatment are already rampant today. That the ACA tries to address these issues at all is a small victory of sorts.

It’s interesting to consider the counterfactual exercise of what might have happened if Mitt Romney had captured the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and then narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton, who was the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination in that year. No doubt affordable health care would have an important focus of that hypothetical contest, with Romney successfully linking Clinton to her husband’s failed 1994 reform plan that makes conservative objections to the ACA look insignificant by comparison. Once elected, a President Romney might have felt pressure to advance national health reform, and would have naturally modeled his proposals on his Massachusetts plan. We might have ended up with a conservative law with notable similarities to the Affordable Care Act, only criticized on the left for being too administratively complex and not generous enough in providing insurance coverage.

A farfetched scenario, you say? Perhaps. But it underlines the need for people of all political persuasions to set aside the overheated rhetoric about Obama and Obamacare and focus on making the ACA work.

Kenneth Lin is a family physician who blogs at Common Sense Family Doctor.

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