The Health Care Plan Trump Voters Really Want
This was originally published as a New York Times op-ed on January 5, 2017.
This week Republicans in Congress began their effort to repeal and potentially replace the Affordable Care Act. But after listening to working-class supporters of Donald J. Trump — people who are enrolled in the very health care marketplaces created by the law — one comes away feeling that the Washington debate is sadly disconnected from the concerns of working people.
Those voters have been disappointed by Obamacare, but they could be even more disappointed by Republican alternatives to replace it. They have no strong ideological views about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, or future directions for health policy. What they want are pragmatic solutions to their insurance problems. The very last thing they want is higher out-of-pocket costs.
The Kaiser Foundation organized six focus groups in the Rust Belt areas — three with Trump voters who are enrolled in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, and three with Trump voters receiving Medicaid. The sessions, with eight to 10 men and women each, were held in late December in Columbus, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Mich., and New Cumberland, Pa. Though the participants did not agree on everything, they expressed remarkably similar opinions on many health care questions. They were not, by and large, angry about their health care; they were simply afraid they will be unable to afford coverage for themselves and their families. They trusted Mr. Trump to do the right thing but were quick to say that they didn’t really know what he would do, and were worried about what would come next.
They spoke anxiously about rising premiums, deductibles, co-pays and drug costs. They were especially upset by surprise bills for services they believed were covered. They said their coverage was hopelessly complex. Those with marketplace insurance — for which they were eligible for subsidies — saw Medicaid as a much better deal than their insurance and were resentful that people with incomes lower than theirs could get it. They expressed animosity for drug and insurance companies, and sounded as much like Bernie Sanders supporters as Trump voters. One man in Pennsylvania with Type 1 diabetes reported making frequent trips to Eastern Europe to purchase insulin at one-tenth the cost he paid here.
Surveys show that most enrollees in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces are happy with their plans. The Trump voters in our focus groups were representative of people who had not fared as well. Several described their frustration with being forced to change plans annually to keep premiums down, losing their doctors in the process. But asked about policies found in several Republican plans to replace the Affordable Care Act — including a tax credit to help defray the cost of premiums, a tax-preferred savings account and a large deductible typical of catastrophic coverage — several of these Trump voters recoiled, calling such proposals “not insurance at all.” One of those plans has been proposed by Representative Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services. These voters said they did not understand health savings accounts and displayed skepticism about the concept.
When told Mr. Trump might embrace a plan that included these elements, and particularly very high deductibles, they expressed disbelief. They were also worried about what they called “chaos” if there was a gap between repealing and replacing Obamacare. But most did not think that, as one participant put it, “a smart businessman like Trump would let that happen.” Some were uninsured before the Affordable Care Act and said they did not want to be uninsured again. Generally, the Trump voters on Medicaid were much more satisfied with their coverage.
There was one thing many said they liked about the pre-Affordable Care Act insurance market: their ability to buy lower-cost plans that fit their needs, even if it meant that less healthy people had to pay more. They were unmoved by the principle of risk-sharing, and trusted that Mr. Trump would find a way to protect people with pre-existing medical conditions without a mandate, which most viewed as “un-American.”
If these Trump voters could write a health plan, it would, many said, focus on keeping their out-of-pocket costs low, control drug prices and improve access to cheaper drugs. It would also address consumer issues many had complained about loudly, including eliminating surprise medical bills for out-of-network care, assuring the adequacy of provider networks and making their insurance much more understandable.
Several states are addressing the problem of surprise medical bills. But other steps urged by these Trump voters will be harder to achieve, including controlling drug costs. Republican health reform plans would probably increase deductibles, not lower them. And providing the more generous subsidies for premiums and deductibles that these voters want would require higher taxes, something the Republican Congress seems disinclined to accept.
In general, the focus among congressional Republicans has been on repealing the Affordable Care Act. There has been little discussion of the priorities favored by the Trump voters who spoke to us. But once a Republican replacement plan becomes real, these working-class voters, frustrated with their current coverage, will want to know one thing: how that plan fixes their health insurance problems. And they will not be happy if they are asked to pay even more for their health care.