Three months from now, Americans will get their first look at whether Obamacare works. The answer will depend a lot on Republican governors and legislatures -- and they should want the law’s exchanges to be successful as much as the president does.
The new state insurance exchanges are supposed to start selling health coverage Oct. 1. The idea behind these marketplaces is that allowing apple-to-apple comparisons between health plans will foster competition and lower prices. Most Republican governors and legislatures, however, have resisted running their own exchanges; 19 states have refused to play any role whatsoever.
Continued resistance could hamper an already fraught process. In a report this week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned that the federal government is behind schedule in building exchanges in states that have refused to do so. This makes it even more crucial that all states pitch in to help.
Why should Republican opponents of the exchanges change tack now? First, there are the crass politics: Many residents who stand to benefit are their constituents. Federal exchange subsidies are available for people earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level, or $32,500 to $94,200 for a family of four. According to 2012 exit polls, 42 percent of people with family incomes between $30,000 and $50,000 voted for Mitt Romney; for those earning between $50,000 and $100,000, the share was 52 percent. If Republican governors think stonewalling exchanges hurts only Democrats, they’re wrong.
Then there are the economic reasons: States with weak exchanges could become less attractive to businesses. John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, said this week that his state supports its insurance exchange in part to help small businesses, which want healthy and productive workers.
Finally, and most compellingly, there is the human reason - - rather, 25 million human reasons. Well-run exchanges will make getting health insurance easier and more affordable. Even philosophical opponents of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act must concede this practical point. Obamacare also happens to be the law of the land.
Some Republican governors have already accepted a role in their exchanges. Iowa and Michigan are partnering with the federal government, while Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico agreed to build their own. It’s too late for other states to follow those courses, but there are still meaningful steps they could take.
One thing they can do is smooth the path for “navigators” - - people or organizations that will help others shop for insurance on the exchanges. Florida requires navigators to register with the state, and Pennsylvania is considering a similar move. This should be fine as long as registration is quick and straightforward.
States should also build solid lines of communication between the exchanges and state-run programs, especially Medicaid. Exchanges can use the information that states keep about people’s income and insurance status to determine whether they’re eligible for subsidies. Easy access to Medicaid databases will mean fewer errors and faster service for people in both programs.
State insurance regulators, who have the authority to approve insurance plans sold on federally run exchanges, can do their part by monitoring the participating insurance plans aggressively enough to keep rates down.
Perhaps the single biggest thing Republican officials could do is simply be ready and willing to address the inevitable hiccups. If states look for ways to stall progress, they’ll find them. Conversely, if governors who oppose the law nonetheless direct their officials to cooperate, the exchanges are more likely to survive those hiccups.
Governors could set a positive tone by reminding their residents that the exchanges are coming. Instead of saying the exchanges “are not going to work,” as Texas Governor Rick Perry did in December, they should encourage their constituents to see whether they’re eligible for subsidies. It doesn’t need to cost the states anything.
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