Short of repealing or defunding President Obama’s health care law, Republicans have spent months calling for his signature legislative accomplishment to be delayed.
But what happens if two months from now, Obama decides that it needs to be delayed? I know this sounds far-fetched, so hear me out.
As I reported Thursday morning, the publicly visible glitches plaguing Obamacare's enrollment process have made it hard to assess the full scope of the program's technological problems, but, behind the scenes, insurers are encountering problems with the relatively few enrollments they have received.
But Americans only have until Dec. 15 to enroll in plans that start on Jan. 1, when the law’s benefits start to kick in along with the individual mandate, the ban on pre-existing conditions, and a raft of other taxes and regulations.
Insurers fear a major customer service debacle on Jan. 1 if it turns out that the federal website offering insurance is displaying incorrect information about the cost and benefits of given plans.
Beyond that, there’s the threat that, if difficulties signing up persist, those who are most likely to turn away from buying insurance are the younger and healthier Americans with low medical costs — precisely the demographic that insurers need to attract to offset the cost of covering those with pre-existing conditions.
Bloomberg's Megan McArdle, an Obamacare critic, has called for a drop-dead date at which point the health care law will have to be delayed in the event the technological problems aren't resolved. This, she argued, would be a necessary step to save the insurance industry from collapsing.
Obama, no doubt, wants to avoid the political embarrassment of a delay — or even the mere suggestion of one. But what happens if it’s the middle of December and enrollments are nowhere near where they need to be to make the system viable? What if, by necessity, he has to seek a delay?
The operating assumption would be that Republicans would jump at the chance to delay it. But after the past few weeks, can we really be sure that this would be the case?
It’s perfectly conceivable that if such a scenario played out, the position of the Tea Party activists and their allies in Congress would be that delaying the law for a year would be tantamount to a bailout of Obamacare.
If Obama doesn’t agree to full repeal, they could argue, the law should go into effect and destroy the private insurance market so that Americans can experience the full disaster of the law and increase the public pressure to repeal it entirely.
One can easily see the logic behind this argument. It’s much easier to blame Tea Party Republicans for shutting down the government and the potential consequences of not raising the debt ceiling than it would be to blame them if Obama’s pet project backfired and wreaked havoc with the insurance system.
Republicans may conclude that they have something they lacked in the government shutdown fight: leverage.
Keep in mind that although Obama has used the regulatory process to delay certain parts of the health care law, any large-scale delay would likely have to go through Congress.
And the law’s elements are so intertwined that if technological problems continue to ravage the exchanges — the centerpiece of the program — it will be difficult to delay the law piecemeal.
To be clear, as I’ve repeatedly cautioned, we don’t yet know the full extent of the health care law’s technological problems. The issues could get resolved in time — if not perfectly, at least well enough to avoid the type of catastrophic disaster that it would take to convince Obama to accept political embarrassment and seek delay. But the scenario I’ve outlined isn’t as insane as it might have seemed just a few weeks ago.