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ObamaCare's GOP gift

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By Charles Lane
Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Say what you want about Republicans' obsession with destroying ObamaCare. One thing they can't be accused of is acting in calculated, partisan self-interest.

If all the GOP cared about was hurting Democrats, Republicans might support the health-care law — because it threatens a core Democratic Party constituency: organized labor.

Collective bargaining in this country developed under a system of employer-based health insurance. Now, negotiating for health benefits is much, if not most, of what unions do in return for members' dues.

ObamaCare undermines this function and, therefore, labor's already diminished power to attract and maintain members, whose dues fill the campaign treasuries upon which many Democrat politicians depend.

The law does this in several ways. First is the 40 percent excise tax on “Cadillac” health plans — employer-provided insurance costing more than $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families. This cost-control measure, widely hailed by health-care economists, will hit many union plans. Over time, it will create a de facto cap on the benefits for which unions can bargain.

ObamaCare's individual health-care exchanges also disfavor unions. When organizers try to recruit members today, health care is often a big selling point. What will organizers tell workers who, thanks to ObamaCare, already have access to subsidized health care?

Then there are the “Taft-Hartley” plans, which serve unions whose members work for various companies over their careers. These plans, common in the hospitality and construction industries, gather contributions from employers and buy insurance for 6.2 million active participants, according to the Labor Department.

ObamaCare menaces these affordable, portable plans by providing both workers and employers an affordable, portable alternative — the exchanges. Suddenly, nonunion employers have a new competitive advantage.

Labor was blindsided this summer by President Obama's decision to delay the employer mandate by a year. Having the employer and individual mandates start simultaneously kept the employer-based system — from which unions benefit — on an equal footing with ObamaCare's new individual-based market.

Now, however, there's only an individual mandate until 2015. Employers are under no mandate to provide health care, and some may abandon their coverage, knowing that their workers must go to the exchanges. And a worker insured by the exchange is one who doesn't need a union to get insurance.

In reaction to the unions' clash with ObamaCare, Republicans offer little but rhetoric, the gist of which is “we told you so,” and continue demanding total repeal. What they seem not to grasp is that the features of the law that the unions hate are those that many Americans, including many who do not currently vote Republican, might like: the end of health insurance “job lock,” say, or bending the cost curve through limits on Cadillac plans.

If Republicans were smart, they might support those aspects of the law, instead of total repeal. But as we have seen in recent days, that is a very big “if.”

Charles Lane, a former editor of The Atlantic, is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.

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