Earlier this month, the Senate passed legislation that would overhaul the tax code, make dramatic changes to federal health care policy, and undermine the budgets of Medicaid and Medicare, two pillars of the American health care system. The House and Senate are now trying to reconcile their two tax bills. Each passed the legislation on a party-line vote, with one Republican voting against the bill in the Senate.
Congress is now one step away from passing a tax bill that will have a profound effect on the health and well-being of Americans for a generation. No one should forget that, to get this close, the Senate rushed to approve a deeply unpopular proposal with little transparency and due diligence — and no bipartisanship. Left unchecked, these actions will harm millions of Americans — and American democracy itself.
Even though the legislation has been framed as a tax bill, it is very much a health care bill. The Senate bill would eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate, which would lead to the destabilization of the individual health insurance market. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that this change alone would increase individual premiums by 10% a year and cause as many as 13 million Americans to join the ranks of the uninsured by the end of the next decade. In California, the uninsured population would grow by 1.7 million people. Congress may still pass separate legislation to restore some stability to the individual market, but the leading proposals are too modest to prevent much damage.
On its own, the language in the tax bills would trigger a major earthquake in the health care system, and the aftershocks of this tax bill would be just as dangerous. By eliminating more than $1 trillion of federal revenue, the administration and congressional leaders are manufacturing a budget crisis that would likely lead to automatic cuts to Medicare under federal rules. The CBO, which examined the House bill, has estimated that those cuts could be around $25 billion a year. Republican leaders have also indicated they intend to use the revenue shortfall that they are engineering with this tax bill to seek deep cuts in safety-net programs, starting with Medicaid.
This isn’t merely about what the legislation will do to health care, because it also would exacerbate inequality and worsen health disparities in this country. Under both the House and Senate bills, low- and middle-income families would pay more in taxes and have a harder time paying not just for health care, but also for food, housing, child care, education, and other basic needs. When people struggle so much to make ends meet, they suffer more from illness and die younger. And if inequality keeps getting worse, it will undermine the economic, social, and political stability upon which our nation depends.
The burden on Californians would be particularly heavy. Our families would no longer be able to deduct what they pay in state and local taxes on their federal tax returns. This change alone would take more than $112 billion a year out of the pockets of hardworking Californians — more than any other state. The fact that Californians would be paying more in federal taxes would inevitably put new pressure on our state and municipal governments to reduce their taxes. Under that scenario, it is not hard to imagine a new wave of painful state and local budget cuts.
The irony is that California actually has the power to stop this runaway train. If the entire California congressional delegation worked together to protect their constituents, and if they were united and strong, they could prevent many — if not all — of the worst provisions in the tax bills from becoming law.
This moment is a test of leadership. Nothing less than the health of our people — and our democracy — are at stake.
Sandra R. Hernández, MD, is president and CEO of the California Health Care Foundation. Prior to joining CHCF, Sandra was CEO of The San Francisco Foundation, which she led for 16 years. She previously served as director of public health for the City and County of San Francisco. She also cochaired San Francisco’s Universal Healthcare Council, which designed Healthy San Francisco. It was the first time a local government in the US attempted to provide health care for all of its constituents.
In February 2018, Sandra was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the Covered California board of directors. She also serves on the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing Advisory Council at UC Davis and on the UC Regents Health Services Committee. Sandra is an assistant clinical professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. She practiced at San Francisco General Hospital in the HIV/AIDS Clinic from 1984 to 2016.
Sandra is a graduate of Yale University, the Tufts School of Medicine, and the certificate program for senior executives in state and local government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.