A Reckless ‘Repair’ To Obamacare

A Reckless ‘Repair’ To Obamacare

By Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

The GOP manifesto published by the Wall Street Journal last week over the names of Republican leaders John Boehner (R-OH) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) included a tweak to the Affordable Care Act they say would provide Americans with “more hours and better pay.”

Don’t believe it.

Their proposed change would threaten the livelihoods of as many as 81 million workers. It would have precisely the opposite effect they claim. The bottom line is that it would be a handout to cheeseparing employers, not a gain for their workers. If the two GOP leaders really want to fix Obamacare, the Supreme Court last week gave them a path to do so.

And their rationale is specious, too. Boehner and McConnell say their overall plan involves “renewing our commitment to repeal Obamacare, which is hurting the job market along with Americans’ healthcare.” Their focus is on raising the definition of full-time work in the Affordable Care Act from 30 hours to 40.

Because employees working less than 30 hours don’t have to be covered by health insurance under the act, Boehner and McConnell say that restoring the “traditional” definition of full-time employment would remove an “arbitrary and destructive government barrier” to full-time job creation.

This idea is based on the notion that employers are gaming the part-time rule to escape their health coverage obligations. Paul Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities raises a couple of pertinent points about this.

First, there’s nothing to say that employers inclined to cut their workers’ hours to evade the act wouldn’t do the same whether the employees work 30 hours or 40. And here’s the key: There are a lot more of the latter than the former.

In 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 10.2 million workers notching 30 to 34 hours a week, or 7.4 percent of the workforce; that’s the class most vulnerable to having their work hours shaved to become ineligible for coverage.

But 60.9 million Americans worked exactly 40 hours — 43.8 percent of all workers. It wouldn’t take much to cut many of them to 39 hours or below, removing them from the jurisdiction of the Affordable Care Act. People already working 30 to 39 hours a week — about 20 million more — would still be excluded from coverage.

Not all those workers would be vulnerable. Most people working 40 hours or more already get health coverage from their employer, but about 9 percent don’t, according to a study by the Commonwealth Fund. The study finds that raising the full-time threshold to 40 hours would more than double the number of workers at risk of a reduction in hours.

What makes the rationale of Boehner and McConnell specious is that the idea that Obamacare has triggered a rise in part-time work is nothing but a cherished myth of anti-Obamacare conservatives. Month after month, the myth is disproved — most recently by the employment report released Friday.

That report showed that workers employed part time for “economic reasons” — at their employers’ choice, not their own — fell again in October, to 7.03 million on a seasonally adjusted basis, down an additional 76,000 from the month before. The figure now is lower than it’s been at any time since October 2008.

Is there an Obamacare effect? The figures simply don’t show it. Anti-Obamacare dead-enders such as Charles Koch and Mortimer Zuckerman made much of the spike in part-timers last June; as we and others explained, that had nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act but reflected the usual flood of students taking summer jobs.

If Boehner and McConnell really want to do the right thing by American voters, the Supreme Court last week gave them an opening by accepting the infamous King/Halbig issue for review. These are the cases that questioned whether Americans who get their coverage through the federal insurance exchange, rather than state exchanges, are entitled to federal premium subsidies. Most experts, including the legislators who drafted the ACA, say they are, but a clutch of conservative opponents have relied on an ambiguous phrase in the law to say those 7 million Americans should be denied premium assistance.

Now that the GOP controls the House and the Senate, the outlines of a deal to make the Supreme Court case moot are easy to find. The GOP dearly wants to eliminate the ACA’s medical device tax and its employer mandate. Neither change would fundamentally harm the ACA’s ability to bring affordable insurance to the uninsured masses, and both are favored by many Democrats. So give them to the Republicans — in return for a legislative fix to the subsidy language. President Obama won’t sign anything that undermines the ACA, but here’s betting that this is a deal he’d make.

But by trying to tweak the full-time definition, Boehner and McConnell are heading back in the direction of obstructionism. They’re using nonexistent statistics to justify a change in policy that will hurt scores of millions of Americans.

Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at mhiltzik@latimes.com.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

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