In a major setback for his most vaunted legislative accomplishment, President Obama is acknowledging problems implementing his comprehensive health insurance program.
The typical rule in Washington, D.C., is that the more embarrassing the announcement, the harder the government/political establishment tries to minimize the news.
Considered in that context, President Obama last week set the new indoor record for trying to sneak a huge story past a sometimes somnambulant public.
Although President Obama's Affordable Care Act is popularly known as "Obamacare," the bill's namesake skipped the announcement that he's delaying a major program feature for at least a year.
Obama left it to a relatively anonymous treasury department bureaucrat — assistant secretary Mark Mazur — to announce the rules change. More telling is that Mazur also skipped making the announcement personally, preferring to do so by publishing a blog post. Even more telling is that the announcement came on the eve of the July 4 holiday.
That's the trifecta of obfuscation, and the reason is easily explained. Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who voted for Obamacare, has described the bill and its implementation as a "train wreck." Now Obama's announcement has confirmed that the White House not only is having a terrible time implementing the massive changes mandated by Obamacare but fears the political consequences that could come into play in November 2014.
In other words, it's the worst of all possible situations — bad policy and bad politics.
In an effort to avoid double-trouble, President Obama, through his minion, temporarily pulled the plug on the employer mandate — the requirement that companies with 50 or more employees must pay a $2,000 per employee penalty if they do not provide health insurance that meets Obama's specifications.
In Obamaworld, the mandate makes perfect sense — just order it and thy will be done.
In the real world, it poses problems — one of the biggest being that employers who can't afford either employee health insurance or the $2,000 per employee penalty pursue legal efforts to avoid it.
This would be a choking mandate even in economic boom times. But in our current world of slow growth and unacceptably high unemployment, this requirement provides a huge disincentive for companies to hire new employees. That's particularly so for small companies that have fewer than 50 employees and need to stay that way to avoid a crushing new financial burden. Business, of course, has been screaming bloody murder about the mandate from the start, only to be ignored by the Obama administration. But now the administration said it's delaying implementation because of the "complexity of the requirements." In other words, actually creating the bureaucratic framework for putting the rule into action and overseeing its implementation is more than was anticipated by the those who came up with the idea in the first place.
Other than the sheer absurdity of this about-face, there are some additional troubling factors. For starters, Obamacare mandates the employer insurance requirement become effective on Jan. 1, 2014. Under what authority does the Obama administration just tell employers not to worry about it until Jan. 1, 2015? This is federal law that Obama has sworn an oath to enforce. Snapping one's fingers and ordering something done is fine for potentates, but Obama, at least theoretically, can't just rewrite federal law on a whim.
Here's another problem. Obama is defining full-time employees as those who work at least 30 hours a week. Employers concerned about costs were/are in the process of taking their part-time workers and putting many of them on schedules of less than 30 hours a week to avoid the mandate. Particularly hard hit are part-time restaurant and service employees, who can look forward to working fewer hours and earning less money. This effort designed to help the little guy is having unintended consequences.
The individual mandate, of course, remains in effect, and it's increasingly predicted that millions of young, lower-income individuals will simply ignore it and opt to pay a fine for their refusal to comply. If they do buy health insurance, they can expect to pay dramatically higher rates as a consequence of the legislation's goal of requiring young insureds to subsidize the health insurance costs of older insureds.
It is, of course, no great surprise that implementing any kind of comprehensive legislation poses challenges. That goes with the territory. What generally does not go with the territory is the degree of difficulty posed specifically by Obamacare; the problems are becoming increasingly a topic of news articles that put the whole program in a negative light.
That's where politics comes into play. President Obama and the Democrats suffered a crushing defeat as a consequence of Obamacare in 2012 and want to avoid a similar drubbing in 2014, the results being that they decided to push the policy and the politics back to 2015 with the hope that most people won't notice.