During congressional hearings with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., made an interesting argument that some Americans don’t want quality health insurance. “Some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari,” Blackburn asserted. But that begs the question: What kind of Ford?
As early as 1972, there were reports that when a Ford Pinto was involved in a low-speed collision, the car would spontaneously burst into flames. According to a 1977 investigation by Mother Jones magazine, Ford was aware of the problem — resulting from a flaw in the gas tank design — but instead of paying to recall and redesign the car, Ford decided it would be cheaper to pay for the lawsuits. Ultimately, at least 27 people and as many as 180 people died as a result of Pinto fires. But it took the government forcing Ford to recall the Pinto for the problem to actually be solved.
In 2009, millions of Americans lacked any health insurance whatsoever and millions more had private health insurance metaphorically designed to explode at the hint of any serious illness or preexisting conditions or exorbitant medical costs. So, in 2009, 14,000 Americans were losing their health insurance every single day. And medical bills were prompting more than 60 percent of all bankruptcies in our nation. In other words, many health insurance policies were patently dangerous and unsafe.
Now, Rep. Blackburn and her ilk might argue that people should have been free to buy the Pinto if they wanted, without government intrusion into personal choices or private business practice — just like they seem to want to argue that Americans should be free to hold onto their inadequate, costly and reckless insurance policies that throw them off at the slightest sign of illness while forcing costs up for the rest of us. But, arguably, most Americans want to buy cars that are safe. Auto companies didn’t want to install seat belts and airbags, just like Ford didn’t want to fix the Pinto. That was government regulation at work, making us all more safe — even if, in some cases, it made cars more expensive. We ultimately save, in every way imaginable, when the number of traffic deaths is dramatically cut.
This is, in effect, exactly what the Affordable Care Act does with respect to some currently existing, private insurance policies. If those policies don’t meet a new, higher bar of quality coverage, then the government will no longer allow insurance companies to sell them. Instead, the 5 percent of Americans who rely on the individual insurance market for their coverage will have other options, all that provide better quality coverage and many of which are far less expensive. Plus, at least half of folks on the individual market will be eligible for subsidies that further bring costs down.
A great example comes from Deborah Cavallaro, who has been making the rounds on television complaining about her current insurance plan being canceled. Cavallaro had not looked into her other, new options under Obamacare until a Los Angeles Times reporter called. Together, they looked at Cavallaro’s options — and found a “silver” plan for Cavallaro that would cost slightly more in her monthly premium but save her tons in terms of her annual deductible and out-of-pocket costs as well as doctor visit expenses. Plus, thanks to Obamacare, this plan would not be subject to the annual payment caps or preexisting condition clauses that have been exploding in the faces of consumers for decades. After all, it’s important to remember that in 2009, most Americans were not very satisfied with their insurance plans. People wanted better options, and now, thanks to Obamacare, they’ve got ‘em!
Congresswoman Blackburn and her cohort might fire back something about young, healthy men being required to pay for good insurance plans that cover maternity — one of 10 basic coverage requirements mandated under the Affordable Care Act, this one designed to undo the history of insurance plans discriminating against women and families. Perhaps Republicans might also argue that Americans who live in really flat places should be able to buy cars without brakes. But that wouldn’t be safe for drivers or the rest of us. And in the case of healthcare reform, in particular, the point here is to bring down costs and raise the quality of care for all of us. Those young, healthy men are going to grow up and have families one day — and then eventually become elderly — and will benefit from an insurance system that keeps costs manageable throughout and doesn’t kick off the elderly or infirm. Just as we all benefit from seat belts and airbags, even if we never get in an accident.
Nobody is forcing anyone to buy a Ferrari plan in the individual health insurance exchange. At least 6.4 million Americans will pay less than $100 per month for coverage in the Obamacare exchanges — which means there are plenty of Fords available. What the Affordable Care Act simply ensures is that those policies will be safe and reliable — and not catch fire when we least expect it.