A new study says scrapping one of Obamacare's most controversial aspects — the employer mandate — would not leave significantly more Americans without health insurance, despite the political fervor that surrounds any attempt to strip down the signature overhaul.
Researchers at the Urban Institute said keeping the provision, which requires companies of more than 50 employees to provide health coverage or pay fines, would only insure about 200,000 more people — a relatively small proportion of the roughly 250 million Americans who hold health insurance.
Congressional Republicans — and some Democrats — say the mandate is killing jobs in their home states and districts, as firms try to stay below the mandate's 50-employee trigger by dropping workers or refusing to hire more.
They also want the law to define full-time work as 40 hours per week instead of 30. A number of stories have surfaced about part-timers who work between the two benchmarks being reduced to 29 hours or less so they are not counted toward the mandate.
"The requirement's implications for coverage are small, and yet the negative labor market effects of keeping it in place could harm some low-wage workers," Urban Institute researchers said in their report, which was released in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and spoke favorably of the health care law overall.
The study notes that Congress would have to find new revenue streams to make up for loss of penalties that, under the mandate, would kick in when at least one of the employer's workers takes advantage of a government subsidy on the law's health exchanges.
Repealing the mandate, which has been delayed twice, comes with political risk and reward for President Obama and his Democratic allies.
While it might alleviate some criticism from Republicans and the business community, changing any aspect of the law could look like a sign of retreat, especially after the administration beat back the GOP's repeated efforts to dismantle the law.
"While the White House mocks Republican efforts to end this anti-job mandate — even threatening a veto of policies he developed — it's clear that the consequences of Obamacare need to be stopped," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in response to the study. "It's long past time for Washington Democrats to work with us to remedy the mess they created — and that means repealing this law and replacing it with real reforms that actually lower costs."
For now, the mandate is a key part of the GOP's anti-Obamacare arsenal. Whenever a restaurant or grocer cuts its workforce or raises prices, citing the mandate, ugly headlines are sure to follow.
Some large employers, including Target and Trader Joe's, announced they would stop providing coverage to part-time workers, saying they might be better off in the health law's exchanges.
The new study says these reports have taken a toll on the overall law's popularity.
"Eliminating the employer responsibility requirements should substantially diminish employer opposition to the ACA," the researchers wrote. "In fact, without that burden, employers may play more of a role promoting the expansion of coverage under the law."
The mandate was supposed to take effect in 2014 alongside other major provisions of the health overhaul. But the Obama administration delayed the mandate to 2016 for companies with 50-99 workers and, starting in 2015, will phase it in for companies with more than 100.
Republicans have accused the White House of delaying the mandate to avoid blowback at the ballot box during November's mid-term elections.
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