Hundreds of thousands of state residents would likely be affected by a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including those in counties that went hard for the law’s critic-in-chief, President-Elect Donald Trump, according to a Bridge Magazine analysis of government data.
The implications of an immediate repeal of the ACA could be felt by nearly 1-in-10 Michigan residents, and as much as 13 percent of the population in places as different from one another as the Detroit-area and rural Emmet County.
Consider: In Wayne County, dominated by Democratic-heavy Detroit, 12.7 percent of county residents receive health care through a combination of ACA enrollment or Medicaid expansion. In Cheboygan County, at the top of the mitt, where Trump trounced Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin, 13.1 percent of residents depend on ACA coverage or Medicaid expansion.
If the Republican-led Congress, with a likeminded president, also change the way that traditional Medicaid is funded, as many as two million Michiganders could be impacted by Washington’s dramatic health-care changes, enrollment data show.
Trump is pushing Congress to immediately repeal “Obamacare” and congressional leaders have already begun taking votes to dismantle President Obama’s signature domestic legislative achievement.
It remains unclear whether Congress can agree on a plan to replace it immediately or at some point in the future. That uncertainty could leave many Michiganders facing the prospect of losing their health coverage, at least temporarily.
Bridge asked the state’s congressional delegation whether and how the ACA should be changed or repealed. Republicans, who hold 9 of the state’s 14 congressional seats, generally indicated they would move quickly to dump the law though, notably, no Republican spelled out whether they are willing to ditch Obamacare without a concrete plan to replace it.
MORE COVERAGE: Repeal Obamacare? Michigan delegation split…and a bit vague
“The president’s health-care law has led to double-digit premium increases, rising deductibles, and dwindling choices for consumers,” said one, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, in a statement. “Obamacare is collapsing and families who are hurting need relief. To fix this broken system, we need to repeal Obamacare and have a stable transition to patient-centered health care solutions that give families more choices and lower costs.”
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, says he favors Obamacare’s repeal and a move toward a system that’s less expensive and with more options for families.
Half the state’s delegation – four Republicans and three Democrats – responded to questions posed by Bridge this week. Both U.S. Senators, Democrats Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, defended the ACA and, like others in their party, said they do not favor repeal but largely agree that the ACA can be improved, though they too weren’t terribly specific on how.
“The Affordable Care Act must be preserved. The evidence of its benefits are clear in our state,” Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, said in statement. “The protections in the law are also vital so that no one can be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition or women are not charged more for their care.”
Republican congressmen Fred Upton of St. Joseph, Mike Bishop of Rochester and Paul Mitchell of Dryden sent general answers that criticized the ACA but offered no specific plans on how best to repeal, replace or change any elements of it.
Dems: Repeal not the answer
Since the ACA went into effect in 2013, the percentage of state residents without health insurance fell from 11 percent to 6.1 percent, according to U.S. Census data from 2015. It’s likely even lower today though, as Republicans are quick to note, premiums for ACA-bought policies continue to rise.
“The Affordable Care Act is not perfect but it has provided a significant benefit to working families across Michigan,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in response to Bridge’s inquiry. “We cannot afford to go backwards, and I will be fighting tooth and nail to protect the health care coverage” of those receiving coverage through the ACA.
More than 630,000 people were added to the state’s Medicaid rolls since early 2014, when the Michigan Legislature voted to expand coverage for the poor. The ACA offered additional federal funding to states to cover those making up $33,000 for a family of four or $16,000 for a single person. (The limit for traditional Medicaid is just below $25,000 for a family of four and $12,000 for an individual.)
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, says she will fight “tooth and nail” to maintain ACA coverage for her constituents
The plan, approved by the Michigan Legislature with the vast majority of Democratic legislators and a minority of Republicans, went into effect in early 2014 and has seen hundreds of thousands sign up across the state. In many northern Michigan counties, the expansion doubled the number of people eligible for Medicaid.
Then, beginning in 2014, residents were able to buy private health insurance through the federal exchanges. As of late last year, more than 345,000 Michigan residents were covered by ACA-bought policies.
To ACA supporters, the number of beneficiaries – nearly a million across the state – should give Congress pause before it makes major changes to a program that benefits so many in Michigan and across the country.
“One would hope that the congressional delegation is responsive to its constituents,” said Marianne Udow-Phillips, director of the Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation, a nonpartisan health care research center based at the University of Michigan.
Udow-Phillips, a former director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, acknowledged that the ACA has problems, including premium increases averaging nearly 17 percent, and needs to be amended. But she said it might get more support if more of its beneficiaries were aware of who they are. She said some who benefit from Medicaid expansion don’t know that they are benefitting from “Obamacare” in part because Michigan calls its expansion program Healthy Michigan” with no mention of Medicaid or the ACA.
“A lot of people didn’t realize they got coverage because of the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “Communication around this law has been terrible by advocates for the law.”
Indeed, news stories have appeared around the country indicating that some recipients don’t know the coverage they now have is a result of the ACA.
“I guess we really didn’t think about that, that he was going to cancel that or change that or take it away. I guess I always just thought that it would be there,” Debbie Mills, a Trump voter in Kentucky, told Vox. “I was thinking that once it was made into a law that it could not be changed, but I guess it can? Yes?”
The Senate took the first steps toward repeal this week, voting 51-48 to use the budget process to begin defunding the law. However, no plan to replace it has emerged, although individual pieces of a potential new health-care structure have been talked about for years. Republicans in charge of writing legislation to defund the ACA say no final decisions have been made, despite a Jan. 27 action deadline set by the incoming administration.
A vote for change
In Michigan, some counties with the highest Medicaid expansion and ACA usage gave Trump some of his largest victory margins (he won the state by just over 10,000 votes).
In Oscoda County, between Grayling and Lake Huron in northern Michigan, more than a quarter of residents get Medicaid – traditional or through the expansion – or bought a policy through the ACA. It’s one of the highest rates in the state. So too is the support it gave Trump, who received 70 percent of the county vote; Trump performed better in only two other Michigan counties.
Conversely, urban areas like Wayne County, where more than 30 percent of residents get Medicaid (traditional or through expansion) or bought an ACA policy, went for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in big numbers. She promised to preserve the ACA.
Charles Gaba, a Bloomfield Hills web developer, began collecting and disseminating data on the ACA in 2013 and has become a reliable source for ACA data to both the media and politicians. He estimates that two-thirds of those who bought a private policy through the ACA and all of those who are on the Healthy Michigan plan could be directly affected by repeal.
And that doesn’t count roughly one million state residents who benefit from traditional Medicaid coverage, which could also see substantial changes. Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s pick as secretary of health and human services, has advocated turning Medicaid into a block grant program similar to welfare, which would send money to the states while giving them greater flexibility on how to spend it.
Those plans make some advocates for the poor nervous, in part because of how states, including Michigan, have historically handled other block grant programs. Bridge wrote last year about how some block grant money for the poor ended up funding scholarships at private colleges in the state for more affluent students.
Change is coming
For critics of the ACA, Trump’s election has created an opportunity to focus on those who’ve been harmed because their premiums rose sharply, their insurance shifted to higher deductibles, or they lost job opportunities because of high insurance costs.
“It’s very easy when you talk about the possibility of repeal that you’ll be able to identify and swing a camera and find some people who would lose their coverage. It’s true and unfortunate. (But) right now the existence of the law has some very serious negative effects on a lot of people,” said Robert Graboyes, a senior research fellow focusing on health care at the Mercatus Center, a market-oriented research center at George Mason University in Virginia.
Noting that the plan has been far more expensive than expected, Graboyes said he is hopeful the ACA’s successor will tackle cost.
If regulatory controls on new drugs and treatments are altered, pharmaceutical costs could fall, he said. If hospitals are allowed to compete more, other costs could come down. He said savings from a “market approach” could pay for the health care coverage of millions. Instead, he said even Republican solutions are focused largely on how bills are paid – through insurance – rather than how those bills are comprised.
“And as long as all we talk about is insurance and the demand side we’re not going to get out of it,” Graboyes said. “But I’m confident that ultimately we will. To some extent we don’t have a choice.”
No clear proposal has emerged from the Republicans on what they plan to do. Price hasn’t been confirmed yet and Trump isn’t inaugurated until Jan. 20. Until they do or until a bill gets enough support in Congress, what happens next is almost anyone’s guess.
“I think it’s very, very hard to know at this point exactly what they’re going to propose,” Udow-Phillips said. “I don’t think they know what they’re going to propose yet.”
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