One of the best features in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act is the freedom that it offers workers from “job lock,” a job they can’t leave for fear of losing their affordable health insurance coverage. Yet Obamacare foes think that’s a bad thing.
That’s the gist of their reactions to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s recent generally rosy projections of how many people will choose to work less because of the effects of the Affordable Care Act.
In short, top congressional Republicans confused leaving a job with losing a job. House Republican Leader Eric Cantor tweeted that “millions of hardworking Americans will lose their jobs and those who keep them will see their hours and wages reduced.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s spokesman similarly claimed that the CBO projected “a loss of at least 2 million full-time jobs” from the ACA “over the next three years.”
Maybe they were just reading too fast. The CBO report actually projects that the labor market will lose the equivalent of 2 million to 2.5 million full-time workers, not because employers cut jobs but because of workers who decide to work less — largely because Obamacare enables them to work less.
That’s more than twice as many worker-hours as the CBO predicted when the law was signed in 2010.
That’s great news for workers who might, for example, want to leave work for a while or forever to take care of children, ailing parents or their own ailments but couldn’t because they were afraid to lose affordable health insurance.
But won’t those workers who decide to spend more time with their families reduce the nation’s overall productivity, as some critics argue — or burden government budgets by paying less in payroll and income taxes?
Not necessarily so, say the CBO’s economists.
At a time of moderate to high unemployment, their report points out, “other applicants will be readily available to fill those positions and the overall effect on unemployment will be muted.”
Still, isn’t Obamacare “extending the hand-out society,” as Fox News’ Stuart Varney announced with alarm, by making Americans more dependent on government?
Only if you want to say the same about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other government programs that have helped reduce poverty and provide income support to low-wage workers.
Which brings us to a refreshingly factual concern that Obamacare opponents have raised about the CBO report: Since workers gradually lose Obamacare’s premium-support subsidy as their income rises, doesn’t it create a disincentive or “tax on work” penalty against doing more work.
At the margins, some upwardly mobile workers will have to decide whether earning more income will be worth the loss of the subsidy they already receive.
That’s not a new dilemma. Some upwardly mobile workers already face similar decisions if their earnings rise above the eligibility limits for food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and other income support programs.
Yet the fundamental virtue of welfare-to-work programs that earns vast bipartisan support is the goal of helping people move from dependence to self-sufficiency.
The portion of Americans who face that dilemma under Obamacare is not huge, according to CBO figures, and lawmakers have alternatives. They could make the subsidies more generous to cushion the impact on those with rising incomes, which would make Obamacare more expensive.
Or they could move toward a single-payer system, such as simply extending Medicare to cover everybody and not just seniors — which Obamacare’s conservative critics fear even more.
Yet the absence of alternatives, as the Grand Old Party makes Obamacare its central target of this year’s midterm elections, has moved GOP lawmakers to make a significant shift.
Instead of “repeal Obamacare,” they’re calling for “repeal and replace.”
To replace it, a rising consensus is forming around a bill recently filed by Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Orrin Hatch of Utah that has received praise from such independent experts as the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt.
Although the CBO indicates Obamacare is recovering from its bumpy rollout, the program is far from perfect.
Our nation’s health care challenges still call for serious debate based on facts, not distortions.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.