A Critical Analysis of Obamacare: Affordable Care or Insurance for Many and Coverage for Few?

Pain Physician. 2017 Mar;20(3):111-138.


The Affordable Care Act (ACA), of 2010, or Obamacare, was the most monumental change in US health care policy since the passage of Medicaid and Medicare in 1965. Since its enactment, numerous claims have been made on both sides of the aisle regarding the ACA's success or failure; these views often colored by political persuasion. The ACA had 3 primary goals: increasing the number of the insured, improving the quality of care, and reducing the costs of health care. One point often lost in the discussion is the distinction between affordability and access. Health insurance is a financial mechanism for paying for health care, while access refers to the process of actually obtaining that health care. The ACA has widened the gap between providing patients the mechanism of paying for healthcare and actually receiving it. The ACA is applauded for increasing the number of insured, quite appropriately as that has occurred for over 20 million people. Less frequently mentioned are the 6 million who have lost their insurance. Further, in terms of how health insurance is been provided, the majority the expansion was based on Medicaid expansion, with an increase of 13 million. Consequently, the ACA hasn't worked well for the working and middle class who receive much less support, particularly those who earn more than 400% of the federal poverty level, who constitute 40% of the population and don't receive any help. As a result, exchange enrollment has been a disappointment and the percentage of workers obtaining their health benefits from their employer has decreased steadily. Access to health care has been uneven, with those on Medicaid hampered by narrow networks, while those on the exchanges or getting employer benefits have faced high out-of-pocket costs.The second category relates to cost containment. President Obama claimed that the ACA provided significant cost containment, in that costs would have been even much higher if the ACA was not enacted. Further, he attributed cost reductions generally to the ACA, not taking into account factors such as the recession, increased out-of-pocket costs, increasing drug prices, and reduced coverage by insurers.The final goal was improvement in quality. The effort to improve quality has led to the creation of dozens of new agencies, boards, commissions, and other government entities. In turn, practice management and regulatory compliance costs have increased. Structurally, solo and independent practices, which lack the capability to manage these new regulatory demands, have declined. Hospital employment, with its associated increased costs, has been soaring. Despite a focus on preventive services in the management of chronic disease, only 3% of health care expenditures have been spent on preventive services while the costs of managing chronic disease continue to escalate.The ACA is the most consequential and comprehensive health care reform enacted since Medicare. The ACA has gained a net increase in the number of individuals with insurance, primarily through Medicaid expansion. The reduction in costs is an arguable achievement, while quality of care has seemingly not improved. Finally, access seems to have diminished.This review attempts to bring clarity to the discussion by reviewing the ACA's impact on affordability, cost containment and quality of care. We will discuss these aspects of the ACA from the perspective of proponents, opponents, and a pragmatic point of view.Key words: Affordable Care Act (ACA), Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), cost of health care, quality of health care, Merit-Based Incentive Payments System (MIPS).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Health Expenditures*
  • Humans
  • Insurance Coverage
  • Insurance, Health / economics*
  • Medicaid
  • Medicare
  • Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act*
  • United States