Reformers should start building a coalition to push for expanding the bill and making it more affordable.
The whining from some fast-food chains that they won’t be able to afford paying for their employees’ health coverage under Obamacare have gotten a lot of press. But what is more troubling is the recent news that some big chains are concluding that the costs won’t be nearly as high as they had projected. The reason: Their employees won’t be able to afford the health insurance and will instead pay a fine and remain uninsured. This fight is just the first battle in the coming war over Obamacare that will center around those who get left out. Big flaws in the bill will mean that many low-wage workers will be forced to choose between paying huge chunks of their income on premiums or on a penalty that leaves them with no coverage at all. Reformers should take note and get ready for the coming struggle.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Wendy’s lowered its estimate of the cost of Obamacare for each of its restaurants by 80 percent, from $25,000 a store to $5,000. The hamburger chain figured that many of its full-time employees, who will be offered health insurance through the company, will turn down the coverage because, as the Journal reported, “they can get insurance through Medicaid or a family member, or because they prefer to pay the penalty for not having coverage.” That penalty starts at $95 a year, although it will go up to $695 by 2016.
Wendy’s isn’t alone. Several other fast-food chains have come up with similar estimates. One example is Popeyes, which figures that since only five percent of its employees have signed up for the high-deductible plan now offered at a price of only $2.50 a week, few workers will choose to pay an estimated $25 a week for the improved coverage it will offer under Obamacare. While the new coverage required under the law will be far superior to the plan Popeyes now offers, with a good list of benefits, it will still include a steep deductible, particularly for a low-wage worker.
The debate over fast-food chains and their workers is revealing one of the biggest flaws in the Affordable Care Act. Many low-wage workers will be put in a very difficult position: pay a big chunk of their limited wages for health insurance that is costly to use, or pay a fine for the privilege of remaining uninsured. This is an example of how the debate around Obamacare is about to take a huge turn. Instead of partisan opponents fearmongering about the theoretical impact of the law, the new struggle will be around the actual experience of those Americans whom the law was written to protect: people who are uninsured because they can not afford coverage or are locked out of the system because they have a pre-existing health condition.
Come January, 2014, millions of people will get affordable health coverage for the first time. These will mostly be working people who do not get insurance on the job now but will become newly eligible for Medicaid or income-based tax credits to buy insurance in the new health insurance marketplaces (“exchanges”). This will also include those who will no longer be turned down because of a pre-existing condition. The expansion of Medicaid – in states that give that the green light – and the income-based subsidies will create a huge new constituency for Obamacare that will oppose any attempts to roll back the law.
But due to problems written into the Affordable Care Act, the news won’t all be good for many people who can’t get affordable coverage now. There are some for whom the coverage in the marketplaces will still be too costly because the subsidies are too stingy. For example, a single person who earns just $33,500 will be required to pay $258 a month in premiums, which is more than nine percent of his or her gross income, for coverage. That’s a big chunk out of a moderate income and is more than twice as much as that person would pay under Massachusetts’ current, successful law. In fact, people who earn more than two times the federal poverty level would be required to pay premiums from 6.3 percent to 9.5 percent of their incomes. If those costs are out of their financial reach, the bleak alternative is to pay a fine for remaining uninsured. It’s true that the coverage will include good benefits, free preventive services, and a cap on out-of-pocket costs. But unless it is already paying high medical bills, that won’t help a working family pay a high premium. The millions who face this dilemma will not be happy to have to make the choice between premiums that will put a big squeeze on an already tight budget or paying a fine they can’t afford for no benefits at all.