Now that the incoming Congress ensures a GOP majority in both chambers, the Republican Party is turning its attention back to potential “fixes” to President Obama’s health reform law. This week, in what represents the first major bill of the 114th Congress, the House is scheduled to take up legislation that world redefine the definition of a “full-time employee” under the law to a worker putting in 40 hours per week instead of 30 hours per week.
It’s a policy change that Republicans have long championed, and was quickly identified as one of the party’s top priorities after the 2014 midterm elections. But now that Congressional approval may be in sight, some conservatives are having second thoughts. As the New York Times reports, the GOP is encountering some unexpected resistance to the 40-hour change from the right.
The policy question centers on Obamacare’s employer mandate, which requires large companies to extend health care to at least 95 percent of their full-time workers. The law currently includes employees working at least 30 hours each week in that category. Over the past several years, Obamacare opponents have claimed that the 30-hour threshold “redefines full-time” in a way that harms American workers.
“The 30-hour full-time employee definition fundamentally alters more than 40 years of federal policy that considered ‘full-time’ to be a 40-hour work week,” House Republicans say on their website, arguing that service sector employees who work between 30 and 40 hours will be in danger of having their hours cut so their employers can avoid offering them insurance.
There’s just one problem: Moving the threshold up to 40 hours a week wouldn’t solve the issue of companies cutting workers’ hours in order to trim health costs. In fact, there’s evidence that would simply make it even worse.
According to a study from the Commonwealth Fund, about 2.6 million Americans work between 40 to 44 hours per week and don’t currently get offered insurance through their job. If Obamacare’s definition of full-time work gets changed, these people would be considered at “high risk,” since their bosses could continue avoiding giving them coverage by cutting their hours below 40 weeks.
“Compared with the current 30-hour definition, at a full-time definition of 40 hours per week, there are more than twice as many workers at high risk of hours reductions because they are within five hours of the full-time definition at firms that do not offer health insurance coverage,” the researchers concluded.
It makes sense when you think about the fact that, as the GOP points out, federal policy has long considered 40 hours to be a full work week. Most Americans are already working that much. Right now, it wouldn’t make sense for companies to cut those people down to 29 hours per week to avoid giving them health care. But if companies only need to cut them to 39 hours, that starts looking like a more feasible business solution.
“I call this the ‘send people home a half hour early on Friday and deny them health insurance’ bill,” Tim Jost, a health care scholar at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, told Mother Jones.
According to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, the policy will also cost the government more money. As more full-time workers lose employer-sponsored health insurance, about a million of them may shift over to Medicaid or the health marketplaces, increasing the federal deficit by an estimated $73.7 billion over 10 years.
Some conservative Obamacare opponents are starting to realize this. A recent op-ed in the National Review argues that changing the threshold to 40 hours doesn’t make sense. Bill Kristol, who edits the right-wing Weekly Standard, has urged House Republicans to “show clout by blocking this ill-advised ‘fix’ of Obamacare.”
As the New York Times notes, the growing dispute highlights the fact that anti-Obamacare rhetoric doesn’t necessarily translate into viable policy fixes. Indeed, despite the fact that the Republican Party has spent the past four years attempting to dismantle the health law, the party hasn’t yet offered a serious alternative. When GOP candidates have put forth health care proposals, they have borrowed heavily from the policies already included in Obamacare.
“It’s one thing to say that’s an easy change,” Joseph Antos, a health care analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told the Times. “There’s nothing easy about changing any one sentence in the Affordable Care Act.”