Health care law will mean fewer people in workforce

Analysis estimates effect as people lose incentive to maintain long hours

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WASHINGTON — Several million American workers will cut back their hours on the job or leave the nation's workforce entirely because of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, congressional analysts said Tuesday, adding fresh fuel to the political fight over "Obamacare."

The workforce changes would mean nationwide losses equal to 2.3 million full-time workers by 2021, in large part because people would opt to keep their income low to stay eligible for federal health care subsidies or Medicaid, the Congressional Budget Office said. It had estimated previously that the law would lead to 800,000 fewer workers by that year.

Republican lawmakers seized on the report as major new evidence of what they consider the failures of Obama's health coverage overhaul, which they're trying to overturn and planning to use as a main argument against Democrats in November's midterm elections.

It's the latest indication that "the president's health care law is destroying full-time jobs," said Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "This fatally flawed health care scheme is wreaking havoc on working families nationwide."

But the White House said the possible reduction would be due to voluntary steps by workers rather than businesses' cutting jobs — people having the freedom to retire early or spend more time as stay-at-home parents because they no longer had to depend only on their employers for health insurance.

The law means people "will be empowered to make choices about their own lives and livelihoods," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf said the top reasons people would reduce work would be to qualify for subsidized coverage and an expanded Medicaid program but that lower wages — because of penalties on employers who don't provide coverage and looming taxes on generous health care plans — would also be a factor.

The agency also reduced its estimate of the number of uninsured people who will get coverage through the health care law. The budget experts now say 1 million more people will be uninsured this year than had been expected, partly because of the website problems that prevented people from signing up last fall.

However, it wasn't all bad news for the Obama administration. The CBO's wide-ranging report predicted that the federal budget deficit will fall to $514 billion this year, down from last year's $680 billion and the lowest by far since Obama took office five years ago.

The new estimates also say that the health care law will, in the short run, benefit the economy by boosting demand for goods and services because the lower-income people it helps will have more purchasing power. The report noted that the 2014 premiums that people pay for exchange coverage are coming in about 15 percent lower than projected, and the health care law, on balance, still is expected to reduce the federal deficit.

However, the budget experts see the long-term federal deficit picture worsening by about $100 billion a year through the end of the decade because of slower growth in the economy than they previously predicted.

What about those people whose decisions about work might be affected by the new law?

Lower-wage workers are more likely to reduce their hours or quit their jobs because of Obamacare incentives, the report said.

Although some employers will choose not to hire additional workers, or will reduce hours, the budget office said that does not appear to be the main factor.

"The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in businesses' demand for labor," the report said.

The report notes that the estimate of job losses is "subject to substantial uncertainty." There now are more than 130 million jobs in the economy.