Wyden Defects on ObamaCare
Wall Street Journal
Most Democrats have come to understand that they can’t run on ObamaCare, but few have the temerity of Ron Wyden. The Oregon Senator is the first to break with the policy underpinnings of the bill he voted for. Last week Mr. Wyden sent a letter to Oregon health authority director Bruce Goldberg, encouraging the state to seek a waiver from certain ObamaCare rules so it can “come up with innovative solutions that the Federal government has never had the flexibility or will to implement.”
One little-known provision of the bill allows states to opt out of the “requirement that individuals purchase health insurance,” Mr. Wyden wrote, and “Because you and I believe that the heart of real health reform is affordability and not mandates, I wanted to bring this feature of Section 1332 to the attention of you and the legislature.”
Now, that’s news. One of the Democratic Party’s leading experts on health care wants his state to dump the individual mandate that is among ObamaCare’s core features. The U-turn is especially notable because Mr. Wyden once championed an individual mandate in the bill he sponsored with Utah Republican Bob Bennett. We have differences with Wyden-Bennett, but it was far better than ObamaCare and would have changed incentives by offering more choices to individuals and spurring competition among providers and insurers.
Mr. Wyden should have known better than to vote for ObamaCare given his market instincts and health-care experience. Even so, the price for his support included the Section 1332 waivers that he is now promoting. In addition to the individual mandate, states may evade regulations about business taxes, the exact federal standards for minimum benefits, and how subsidies are allocated in the insurance “exchanges”—as long as the state covers the same number of uninsured and keeps coverage as comprehensive.
Medicaid also grants some indulgences toward state flexibility, even if those waivers are difficult to acquire. The Secretary of Health and Human Services would need to approve the ObamaCare alternative of Oregon or any other states, and the waivers don’t start until 2017, three years after ObamaCare is supposed to be up and running. It is also hard to see how anyone in the current Administration would grant them.
These practical realities aside, Mr. Wyden’s move may be more important as a political signal. Mr. Wyden is running for re-election this year. And while he is now well ahead of GOP challenger Jim Huffman, in a year like this one he has cause to avoid becoming Barbara Boxer or Patty Murray, who may lose because they’ve remained liberals from MSNBC central casting.
This sort of thing also isn’t supposed to happen to newly passed entitlements. Democrats have long believed that once an entitlement passes, however unpopular at the time, voters and business will grow to like it and then Republicans begin to come around. The exception was a catastrophic-coverage program to replace private “Medigap” policies, which Democrats passed in 1988 and repealed a year later amid a public furor.
On ObamaCare, Democrats are having the first political second thoughts, at least in this election season. Mr. Wyden is essentially saying that what his party passed is not acceptable, and if such thinking builds, opponents may have a real chance to replace ObamaCare with something better.