For Democratic lawmakers who were hesitant to sign onto the sweeping 2010 health care law, one of the most powerful selling points was that the Affordable Care Act would actually reduce the federal budget deficit, despite the additional costs of extending health insurance coverage to the uninsured.
Four years after enactment of what is widely viewed as President Barack Obama’s key legislative achievement, however, it’s unclear whether the health care law is still on track to reduce the deficit or whether it may actually end up adding to the federal debt. In fact, the answer to that question has become something of a mystery.
In its latest report on the law, the Congressional Budget Office said it is no longer possible to assess the overall fiscal impact of the law. That conclusion came as a surprise to some fiscal experts in Washington and is drawing concern. And without a clear picture of the law’s overall financing, it could make it politically easier to continue delaying pieces of it, including revenue raisers, because any resulting cost increases might be hidden.
Charles Blahous, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s free market-oriented Mercatus Center, calls the CBO’s inability to estimate the net effect of the law “a real problem.”
“The ACA’s financing provisions were assumed to be effective so as to get a favorable score out of CBO upon enactment, but no one is keeping track of whether they’re being enforced,” says Blahous, a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare. “We receive occasional updates on the gross costs of the law, but none on whether the previously projected savings provisions are producing what was originally projected.”
As a result, Blahous says, “there’s no barrier to continually rolling back the financing mechanisms without the effect on the ACA’s finances ever being fully disclosed.”
When Congress passed the health care law in 2010, the CBO estimated it would reduce the deficit by more than $120 billion over a decade, compared to the agency’s current-law baseline projection of spending, revenue and the deficit. That meant the health care law would, in effect, pay for itself and deliver an additional fiscal bonus.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.