What You Need to Know About Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments

This paper was originally published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation; a PDF copy can be found on their website here

On October 12, the Trump Administration announced it would immediately terminate a series of cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. Meanwhile policy-makers have spent time debating and discussing cost-sharing payments in the context of a “stabilization” bill for the Obamacare Exchanges. Here’s what you need to know about the issue ahead of this year’s open enrollment period, scheduled to begin on November 1.

What are cost-sharing reductions?

Cost-sharing reductions, authorized by Section 1402 of Obamacare, provide individuals with reduced co-payments, deductibles, and out-of-pocket maximum expenses.[1] The reductions apply to households who purchase Exchange coverage and have family income of between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL, $24,600 for a family of four in 2017). The system of cost-sharing reductions remains separate from the subsidies used to discount monthly insurance premiums, authorized by Section 1401 of Obamacare.[2]

What are cost-sharing reduction payments?

The payments (also referred to as CSRs) reimburse insurers for the cost of providing the discounted policies to low-income individuals. According to the January Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline, those payments will total $7 billion in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, $10 billion in the fiscal year ending this coming September 30, and $135 billion during fiscal years 2018-2027.[3]

What is the rationale for CSR payments?

Insurers argue that CSR payments reimburse them for discounts that the Obamacare statute requires them to provide to consumers. However, some conservatives would argue that the cost-sharing reduction regime might not be necessary but for the myriad new regulations imposed by Obamacare. These regulations have more than doubled insurance premiums from 2013 through 2017, squeezing middle-class families.[4] Some conservatives would therefore question providing government-funded subsidies to insurers partially to offset the cost of government-imposed mandates on insurers and individuals alike.

Why are the CSR payments in dispute?

While Section 1402 of Obamacare authorized reimbursement payments to insurers for their cost-sharing reduction costs, the text of the law did not include an explicit appropriation for them. Some conservatives have argued that the Obama Administration’s willingness to make the payments, despite the lack of an explicit appropriation, violated Congress’ constitutional “power of the purse.” In deciding to terminate the CSR payments, the Trump Administration agreed with this rationale.

What previously transpired in the court case over CSR payments?

In November 2014, the House of Representatives filed suit in federal court over the CSR payments, claiming the Obama Administration violated both existing law and the Constitution, and seeking an injunction blocking the Administration from making the payments unless and until Congress grants an explicit appropriation.[5] In September 2015, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the House of Representatives had standing to sue, rejecting a Justice Department attempt to have the case dismissed. Judge Collyer ruled that the House as an institution had the right to redress for a potential violation of its constitutional “power of the purse.”[6]

On May 12, 2016, Judge Collyer issued her ruling on the case’s merits, concluding that no valid appropriation for the CSR payments exists, and that the Obama Administration had violated the Constitution by making payments to insurers. She ordered the payments halted unless and until Congress passed a specific appropriation—but stayed that ruling pending an appeal.[7]

How did the Obama Administration justify making the CSR payments?

In its court filings in the lawsuit, the Obama Administration argued that the structure of Obamacare implied an appropriation for CSR payments through the Treasury appropriation for premium subsidy payments—an appropriation clearly made in the law and not in dispute.[8] President Obama’s Justice Department made this argument despite the fact that CSR and premium subsidy regimes occur in separate sections of the law (Sections 1402 and 1401 of Obamacare, respectively), amend different underlying statutes (the Public Health Service Act and the Internal Revenue Code), and fall within the jurisdiction of two separate Cabinet Departments (Health and Human Services and Treasury).

The Obama Administration also argued, in court and before Congress, that it could make an appropriation because Congress had not prohibited the Administration from doing so—effectively turning the Constitution on its head, by saying the executive can spend funds however it likes unless and until Congress prohibits it from doing so.[9] In her ruling, Judge Collyer rejected those and other arguments advanced by the Obama Justice Department.

Did Congress investigate the history, legality, and constitutionality of the Obama Administration’s CSR payments to insurers?

Yes. Last year, the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees organized and released a 158-page report on the CSR payments.[10] While congressional investigators received some documents relating to the Obama Administration’s defense of the CSR payments, the report described an overall pattern of secrecy surrounding critical details—portions of documents, attendees at meetings, etc.—of the CSR issue. For instance, the Obama Administration did not fully comply with valid subpoenae issued by the committees, and attempted to prohibit Treasury appointees who volunteered to testify before committee staff from doing so. However, despite the extensive oversight work put in by two congressional committees, and the pattern of secrecy observed, neither of the committees have taken action to compel compliance, or redress the Obama Administration’s obstruction of Congress’ legitimate oversight work.

What has the Trump Administration done about the CSR payment lawsuit?

After the election, the Justice Department and the House of Representatives filed a motion with the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.[11] The parties stated that they were in negotiations to settle the lawsuit, and sought to postpone proceedings in the appeal (which the Obama Administration had filed last year). The Justice Department and the House have filed several extensions of that request with the court, but have yet to present a settlement agreement, or provide any substantive updates surrounding the issues in dispute. In announcing its decision to terminate the CSR payments, the Trump Administration said it would provide the court with a further update on October 30.

In August, the Court of Appeals granted a motion by several Democratic state attorneys general seeking to intervene in the suit (originally called House v. Burwell, and renamed House v. Price when Dr. Tom Price became Secretary of Health and Human Services).[12] The attorneys general claimed that the President’s frequent threats to settle the case, and cut off CSR payments, meant their states’ interests would not be represented during the litigation, and sought to intervene to prevent the House and the Trump Administration from settling the case amongst themselves—which could leave an injunction permanently in place blocking future CSR payments.

Upon what basis did President Trump stop the CSR payments to insurers?

Under existing law, court precedent, and constitutional principles, a determination by the executive about whether or not to make the CSR payments (or any other payment) depends solely upon whether or not a valid appropriation exists:

  • If a valid appropriation does not exist, the executive cannot disburse funds. The Anti-Deficiency Act prescribes criminal penalties, including imprisonment, for any executive branch employee who spends funds not appropriated by Congress, consistent with Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”[13]
  • If a valid appropriation exists, the executive cannot withhold funds. The Supreme Court held unanimously in Train v. City of New York that the executive cannot unilaterally impound (i.e., refuse to spend) funds appropriated by Congress, which would violate a President’s constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”[14]

Has a court forced President Trump to keep making the CSR payments?

No. In fact, until the Administration had announced its decision late Thursday, no one—from insurers to insurance commissioners to governors to Democratic attorneys general to liberal activists and Obamacare advocates—had filed suit seeking to force the Trump Administration to make the payments. (While the Democratic attorneys general sought, and received, permission to intervene in the House’s lawsuit, that case features the separate question of whether or not the House had standing to bring its matter to court in the first place. It is possible that appellate courts could, unlike Judge Collyer, dismiss the House’s case on standing grounds without proceeding to the merits of whether or not a valid appropriation exists.)

Given the crystal-clear nature of existing Supreme Court case law—if a valid appropriation exists, an Administration must make the payments—some would view the prolonged unwillingness by Obamacare supporters to enforce this case law in court as tacit evidence that a valid appropriation does not exist, and that the Obama Administration exceeded its constitutional authority in starting the flow of payments.

How will the decision to stop CSR payments affect individuals in Exchange plans?

In the short- to medium-term, it will not. Insurers must provide the cost-sharing reductions to individuals in qualified Exchange plans, regardless of whether or not they get reimbursed for them.

Can insurers drop out of the Exchanges immediately due to the lack of CSR payments?

No—at least not in most cases in 2017. The contract between the federal government and insurers on the federal Exchange for 2017 notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw from the Exchanges if they are not.[15] However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause may therefore have limited applicability to withdrawal of CSR payments. It appears insurers have little ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers.

If insurers faced a potential unfunded obligation—providing cost-sharing reductions without federal reimbursement—to the tune of billions of dollars, how did they react to Judge Collyer’s ruling last year?

Based on their public filings and statements, several did not appear to react at all. While Aetna and Centene referenced loss of CSR payments as impacting their firms’ outlooks and risk profiles in their first Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) quarterly filings after Judge Collyer’s ruling, most other companies ignored the potential impact until earlier this year.[16] Some carriers have given decidedly mixed messages on the issue—for instance, as Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish claimed on his company’s April 26 earnings call that lack of CSR payments would cause Anthem to seek significant price hikes and/or drop out of state Exchanges,[17] his company’s quarterly SEC filing that same day indicated no change in material risks, and no reference to the potential disappearance of CSR payments.[18]

Even before Judge Collyer’s ruling in May 2016, one could have easily envisioned a scenario whereby a new President in January 2017 stopped defending the CSR lawsuit, and immediately halted the federal CSR payments: “Come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different” than in mid-2016.[19] However, despite public warnings to said effect—and the apparent lack of public statements by either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to continue the CSR payments should they win the presidency—insurers apparently assumed maintenance of the status quo, disregarding these potential risks when bidding to offer Exchange coverage in 2017.

Did insurance regulators fail to anticipate or plan for changes to CSR payments following Judge Collyer’s ruling?

It appears that many did. For instance, the office of California’s state insurance commissioner reported having no documents—not even a single e-mail—analyzing the impact of Judge Collyer’s May 2016 ruling on insurers’ bids for the 2017 plan year.[20] Likewise, California’s health insurance Exchange disclosed only two relevant documents: A brief e-mail sent months after the state finalized plan rates for the 2017 year, and a more detailed legal analysis of the issues surrounding CSR payments—but one not undertaken until mid-November, after Donald Trump won the presidential election.[21]

Some conservatives may be concerned that insurance commissioners’ failure to examine the CSR payment issue in detail—when coupled with insurers’ similar actions—represents the same failed thinking that caused the financial crisis. That herd behavior—an insurer business model founded upon a new Administration continuing unconstitutional actions, and regulators blindly echoing insurers’ assumptions—represents the same “too big to fail” mentality that brought us a subprime mortgage scandal, a massive financial crash on Wall Street, a period of prolonged economic stagnation, and a taxpayer-funded bailout of big banks.

How can Congress restore its Article I power?

With respect to the CSR payments, conservatives looking to restore its Article I power—as Speaker Ryan recently claimed he wanted to do by maintaining the debt limit as the prerogative of Congress—could take several appropriate actions:[22]

  • Insist on a settlement of the lawsuit in the House’s favor, consistent with the last Congress’ belief that 1) Obamacare lacks a valid appropriation for CSR payments and 2) decisions regarding appropriations always rest with Congress, and not the executive;
  • Ask the Justice Department to investigate whether any Obama Administration officials violated the Anti-Deficiency Act by making CSR payments without a valid congressional appropriation; and
  • Insist on enforcement of the subpoenae issued by the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees during the last Congress, and pursue contempt of Congress charges against any individuals who fail to comply.

How can Congress exercise its oversight power regarding the CSR payments?

Before even debating whether or not to create a valid appropriation for the CSR payments, Congress should first examine in great detail whether and why insurers and insurance commissioners ignored the issue in 2016 (and prior years); any potential changes to remedy an apparent lack of oversight by insurance commissioners; and appropriate accountability for any unconstitutional and illegal actions as outlined above.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by blindly making a CSR appropriation without conducting this critically important oversight, Congress would make a clear statement that Obamacare is “too big to fail.” Such a scenario—in addition to creating a de facto single-payer health care system—would, by establishing a government backstop for insurers’ risky behaviors, bring about additional, and potentially even larger, bailouts in the future.

What are the implications of providing CSR payments to insurers?

Given the way in which many insurers and insurance regulators blindly assumed cost-sharing reduction payments would continue, despite the lack of an express appropriation in the law, some conservatives may be concerned that making CSR payments would exacerbate moral hazard. Specifically, when filing their rates for the 2017 plan year, insurers appear to have assumed they would receive over $7 billion in CSR payments—despite the uncertainty surrounding 1) the lack of a clear CSR appropriation in the statute; 2) the May 2016 court ruling calling the payments unconstitutional; 3) the unknown outcome of the 2016 presidential election; and 4) the apparent lack of a firm public commitment by either major candidate in the 2016 election to continue the CSR payments upon taking office in January 2017.

Some conservatives may therefore oppose rewarding this type of reckless behavior by granting them the explicit taxpayer subsidies they seek, for fear that it would only encourage additional irresponsible risk-taking by insurance companies—and raise the likelihood of an even larger taxpayer-funded bailout in the future.

How can Congress solve the larger issue of CSRs creating an unfunded mandate on insurance companies absent an explicit appropriation?

One possible way would involve elimination of Obamacare’s myriad insurance regulations, which have led to insurance premiums more than doubling in the individual market over the past four years.[23] Repealing these new and costly regulations would lower insurance premiums, reducing the need for cost-sharing reductions, and allowing Congress to consider whether to eliminate the CSR regime altogether.



[1] 42 U.S.C. 18071, as created by Section 1402 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.

[2] 26 U.S.C. 36B, as created by Section 1401 of PPACA.

[3] Congressional Budget Office, January 2017 baseline for coverage provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2017-01-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 2.

[4] Department of Health and Human Services Office of Planning and Evaluation, “Individual Market Premium Changes: 2013-2017,” ASPE Data Point May 23, 2017, https://aspe.hhs.gov/system/files/pdf/256751/IndividualMarketPremiumChanges.pdf.

[5] The House’s original complaint, filed November 21, 2014, can be found at https://jonathanturley.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/house-v-burwell-d-d-c-complaint-filed.pdf.

[6] Judge Collyer’s ruling on motions to dismiss, dated September 9, 2015, can be found at https://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2014cv01967/169149/41.

[8] Links to the filings at the District Court level can be found at https://dockets.justia.com/docket/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2014cv01967/169149.

[9] Testimony of Mark Mazur, Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee hearing on “Cost Sharing Reduction Investigation and the Executive Branch’s Constitutional Violations,” July 7, 2016, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/event/hearing-cost-sharing-reduction-investigation-executive-branchs-constitutional-violations/.

[10] House Energy and Commerce and House Ways and Means Committees, “Joint Congressional Investigative Report into the Source of Funding for the ACA’s Cost Sharing Reduction Program,” July 7, 2016, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/20160707Joint_Congressional_Investigative_Report-2.pdf

[13] The statutory prohibition on executive branch employees occurs at 31 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1); 31 U.S.C. 1350 provides that any employee knowingly and willfully violating such provision “shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.”

[14] Train v. City of New York, 420 U.S. 35 (1975).

[15] Qualified Health Plan Agreement between issuers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for 2017 plan year, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.

[16] Aetna Inc., Form 10-Q Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the second quarter of calendar year 2016, http://services.corporate-ir.net/SEC/Document.Service?id=P3VybD1hSFIwY0RvdkwyRndhUzUwWlc1cmQybDZZWEprTG1OdmJTOWtiM2R1Ykc5aFpDNXdhSEEvWVdOMGFXOXVQVkJFUmlacGNHRm5aVDB4TVRBMk5qa3hOQ1p6ZFdKemFXUTlOVGM9JnR5cGU9MiZmbj1BZXRuYUluYy5wZGY=

p. 44; Centene, Inc., Form 10-Q Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the second quarter of calendar year 2016, https://centene.gcs-web.com/static-files/23fd1935-32de-47a8-bc03-cbc2c4d59ea6, p. 42.

[17] Transcript of Anthem, Inc. quarterly earnings call for the first quarter of calendar year 2017, April 26, 2017, http://phx.corporate-ir.net/External.File?item=UGFyZW50SUQ9NjY3NTM5fENoaWxkSUQ9Mzc1Mzg1fFR5cGU9MQ==&t=1, p. 5.

[19] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies to Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, https://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.

[20] Chris Jacobs, “Don’t Blame Trump When Obamacare Rates Jump,” Wall Street Journal June 16, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-blame-trump-when-obamacare-rates-jump-1497571813.

[21] Covered California response to Public Records Act request, August 25, 2017.

[22] Burgess Everett and Josh Dawsey, “Trump Suggested Scrapping Future Debt Ceiling Votes to Congressional Leaders,” Politico September 7, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/07/trump-end-debt-ceiling-votes-242429.

[23] HHS, “Individual Market Premium Changes: 2013-2017.”

Alexander-Murray Deal Funds Insurers’ Abortion Coverage

Amidst the rumored press reports about what the supposed “insurer stabilization bill” negotiated between Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) may contain, one Twitter commenter made an astute observation: Unless the agreement contained explicit language forbidding it—language Sen. Murray likely would not endorse—the agreement will appropriate approximately $25-30 billion to subsidize insurance plans that cover abortion.

That fact alone should give conservatives pause. Coming on a week when Senate Republican leaders seek to pass a budget precluding another attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, the Alexander-Murray deal would not only not advance the pro-life cause—it would, by extending subsidies to insurers who cover abortions, actively undermine it.

Follow the Money

Some background regarding federal restrictions on abortion funding: The Hyde Amendment, named for former Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL) prohibits federal funding of abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. However, this funding restriction, first enacted in 1976 and renewed every year thereafter, only applies to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations bill to which it is attached annually. If funding flows outside the HHS appropriations measure, those funds would not be subject to the Hyde restrictions, and could therefore subsidize abortion coverage.

Obamacare contained just such funds—for instance, the premium tax credits used to subsidize plans on insurance Exchanges. While Obamacare includes a “segregation mechanism” designed to separate the portion of premium payments used to cover abortion, pro-life groups have recognized this mechanism as an accounting gimmick—one which the Obama Administration didn’t even bother to enforce.

Hyde Language Added?

Obamacare included other funding that recipients could use for abortion coverage. Section 10503 of the law appropriated $9.5 billion for community health centers from 2010 through 2015. Because the legislation made such funding mandatory—that is, appropriated federal tax dollars outside the annual HHS spending bill to which the Hyde Amendment applies—recipients of that $9.5 billion could have used the federal dollars to fund abortions.

When extending the community health center funding as part of a larger Medicare bill in spring 2015, Republican leaders recognized the lack of pro-life protections, and insisted on adding them to extend the mandatory health center funding. As a result, Section 221(c) of the bill (page 68 here) said that the same requirements that applied to other Public Health Service Act funding provisions—that is, the Hyde Amendment funding restrictions—would also apply to the community health center funding.

However, if Sen. Alexander does not explicitly add the Hyde Amendment protections to the “stabilization bill,” the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers will be used to fund plans that cover abortion. And there is little reason to believe Sen. Murray would endorse such a restriction. If the Hyde Amendment restrictions apply to the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, then in order to receive said payments, it is likely insurers would have to stop offering abortion coverage on Exchanges—an outcome Sen. Murray, and Democrats, would not wish to countenance.

Massive Funding Amounts

The “stabilization bill” would likely seek to provide massive funding amounts to insurers—roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates. These significant sums would surely represent the second-largest expansion of federal abortion funding, behind only Obamacare itself.

Some conservatives may therefore have concerns that this “stabilization bill” would violate pro-life principles, and insist on the inclusion of pro-life language as a necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) requirement for their support of the legislation. Given that House and Senate Republican leaders demanded—and received—the addition of Hyde protections regarding community health center funding two years ago, under a Democratic President, conservatives should demand—and receive—no less with a Republican in the White House.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Alexander-Murray Legislation

On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced he had reached an agreement in principle with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) regarding an Obamacare “stabilization” package. Unfortunately, legislative text has not yet been released (UPDATE: bill text was released late Tuesday evening), but based on press reports, Twitter threads, and a summary circulating on Capitol Hill, here’s what is in the final package:

Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments:             The bill appropriates roughly $25-30 billion in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, which offset their costs for providing discounts on deductibles and co-payments to certain low-income individuals enrolled on insurance Exchanges. Late last Thursday, President Trump announced he would halt the payments to insurers, concluding the Administration did not have authority to do so under the Constitution. As a result, the bill includes an explicit appropriation, totaling roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates.

For 2018 only, the bill includes language allowing states to decline the cost-sharing reduction payments—if they previously approved premium increases that assumed said payments would not be made. If states do not decline the payments, they must certify that said payments will “provide a direct financial benefit to consumers”—that is, they will result in lower premium rates, and/or rebates to consumers. The bill also includes clarifying language regarding the interactions between any such rebates and premium tax credit levels under Obamacare.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, because insurers understood for well over a year that a new Administration could terminate these payments in 2017, the agreement would effectively subsidize their flawed assumptions. Some conservatives may be concerned that action to continue the flow of payments would solidify the principle that Obamacare, and therefore insurers, are “too big to fail,” which could only encourage further risky behavior by insurers in the future. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that, absent Hyde Amendment protections, these payments would subsidize federal insurance plans covering abortion.

State Waiver Processes:     The bill would streamline the process for approving state innovation waivers, authorized by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Those waivers allow states to receive their state’s Exchange funding as a block grant, and exempt themselves from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations.

Specifically, the agreement would:

  1. Extend the waivers’ duration, from five years to six, with unlimited renewals possible;
  2. Prohibit HHS from terminating waivers during their duration (including any renewal periods), unless “the state materially failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the waiver;”
  3. Require HHS to release guidance to states within 30 days of enactment regarding waivers, including model language for waivers;
  4. Shorten the time the Department of Health and Human Services to consider waivers from 180 days to 90;
  5. Allow a 45 day review for 1) waivers currently pending; 2) waivers for areas “the Secretary determines are at risk for excessive premium increases or having no health plans offered in the applicable health insurance market for the current or following plan year; and 3) waivers that are “the same or substantially similar” to waivers previously approved for another state. These waivers would initially apply for no more than three years, with an extension possible for a full six-year term;
  6. Allow governors to apply for waivers based on their certification of authority, rather than requiring states to pass a law authorizing state actions under the waiver—a move that some conservatives may be concerned could allow state chief executives to act unilaterally, including by exiting a successful waiver on a governor’s order.

State Waiver Substance:    On the substance of innovation waivers, the bill would nullify regulatory guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015. Among other actions, that guidance prevented states from using savings from an Obamacare/Exchange waiver to offset higher costs to Medicaid, and vice versa. While supporting the concept of greater flexibility for states, some conservatives may note that, as this guidance was not enacted pursuant to notice-and-comment, the Trump Administration can revoke it at any time—indeed, should have revoked it months ago.

Additionally, the bill amends—but does not repeal—the “guardrails” for state innovation waivers. Under current law, Section 1332 waivers must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as” Obamacare coverage;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as Obamacare coverage;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of [a state’s] residents” as under Obamacare; and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”

Some conservatives have previously criticized these provisions as insufficiently flexible to allow for conservative health reforms like Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven options.

The bill allows states to provide coverage “of comparable affordability, including for low-income individuals, individuals with serious health needs, and other vulnerable populations” rather than the current language in the second bullet above. It also clarifies that deficit and budget neutrality will operate over the lifetime of the waiver, and that state innovation waivers under Obamacare “shall not be construed to affect any waiver processes or standards” under the Medicare or Medicaid statutes for purposes of determining the Obamacare waiver’s deficit neutrality.

The bill also makes adjustments to the “pass-through” language allowing states to receive their Exchange funding via a block grant. For instance, the bill adds language allowing states to receive any funding for the Basic Health Program—a program states can establish for households with incomes of between 138-200 percent of the federal poverty level—via the block grant.

Some conservatives may view the “comparable affordability” change as a distinction without a difference, as it still explicitly links affordability to Obamacare’s rich benefit package. Some conservatives may therefore view the purported “concessions” on the December 2015 guidance, and on “comparable affordability” as inconsequential in nature, and insignificant given the significant concessions to liberals included elsewhere in the proposed legislative package.

Catastrophic Plans:              The bill would allow all individuals to purchase “catastrophic” health plans, and keep those plans in a single risk pool with other Obamacare plans. However, this provision would not apply until 2019—i.e., not for the upcoming plan year.

Catastrophic plans—currently only available to individuals under 30, individuals without an “affordable” health plan in their area, or individuals subject to a hardship exemption from the individual mandate—provide no coverage below Obamacare’s limit on out-of-pocket spending, but for “coverage of at least three primary care visits.” Catastrophic plans are also currently subject to Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements.

Outreach Funding:               The bill requires HHS to obligate $105.8 million in Exchange user fees to states for “enrollment and outreach activities” for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Currently, the federal Exchange (healthcare.gov) assesses a user fee of 3.5 percent of premiums on insurers, who ultimately pass these fees on to consumers. In a rule released last December, the outgoing Obama Administration admitted that the Exchange is “gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs”—in part because maintaining the Exchange costs less per year than creating one did in 2013-14. However, the Obama Administration rejected any attempt to lower those fees, instead deciding to spend them on outreach efforts. The agreement would re-direct portions of the fees to states for enrollment outreach.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would create a new entitlement for states to outreach dollars. Moreover, some conservatives may object to this re-direction of funds that ultimately come from consumers towards more government spending. Some conservatives may support taking steps to reduce the user fees—thus lowering premiums, the purported intention of this “stabilization” measure—rather than re-directing them toward more government spending, as the agreement proposes.

The bill also requires a series of bi-weekly reports from HHS on metrics like call center volume, website visits, etc., during the 2018 and 2019 open enrollment periods, followed by after-action reports regarding outreach and advertising. Some conservatives may view these myriad requirements first as micro-management of the executive, and second as buying into the liberal narrative that the Trump Administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, by requiring minute oversight of the executive’s implementation of the law.

Cross-State Purchasing:     Requires HHS to issue regulations (in consultations with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners) within one year regarding health care choice compacts under Obamacare. Such compacts would allow individuals to purchase coverage across state lines. However, because states can already establish health care compacts amongst themselves, and because Obamacare’s regulatory mandates would still apply to any such coverage purchased through said compacts, some conservatives may view such language as insufficient and not adding to consumers’ affordable coverage options.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Constitution Finally Takes Precedence over Obamacare

Late Thursday evening, the Administration announced that it was immediately ending cost-sharing reduction payments to health insurers offering plans in Obamacare Exchanges. And regardless of what the press or liberals might claim, the decision isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about “sabotage.” It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about Obamacare “imploding.” It’s about one thing—and one thing only: The rule of law.

The text of Obamacare nowhere includes an appropriation for the cost-sharing reduction payments, which reimburse carriers for discounting deductibles and co-payments for low-income Exchange enrollees. The Obama Administration knew that—but went ahead and made the payments anyway. One slight problem: The Constitution clearly gives the “power of the purse” to Congress: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

Without an appropriation, the Trump Administration has no choice but to end the payments to insurers—just as the Trump Administration would have no choice but to make the payments to insurers if an appropriation existed. One can easily make the argument—as this observer has—that the Administration should have ended the payments months ago.

But in time the Trump Administration did conclude—correctly—that President Obama had no more authority to make Obamacare payments without an appropriation than President Trump has to make payments for a border wall without an appropriation. By complying with the law and the Constitution to end the payments, President Trump actually diminished his executive power and ability to act unilaterally—restoring a rightful balance of power between the branches. Democrats fearful of the implications of three more years of a Donald Trump in the White House have reason to thank him for so doing.

But they won’t. Instead the cries of “sabotage” will continue—disregarding the fact that President Obama, by valuing Obamacare more than the Constitution itself, sabotaged the rule of law. When Tom Price resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services last month, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) said his replacement “needs to be focused on implementing the law as written.” By cutting off the cost-sharing payments, that’s exactly what the Trump Administration has done—implemented the law as it was written, rather than as Democrats wished they had written it.

As for insurers, they can’t say they weren’t warned. Here’s what yours truly wrote about cost-sharing reduction payments nearly a year and a half ago:

The next President could easily wade into the [cost-sharing reduction payments]. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress. Such an action could take effect almost immediately…Come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different [than under the Obama Administration.]

That’s exactly what happened. Insurers gambled that they—and Obamacare—were “too big to fail,” despite a court ruling last May striking down the subsidy payments as unconstitutional. Because the court stayed that ruling, insurers assumed the next President would blithely continue the unconstitutional payments during its appeal. They assumed wrong.

Congress, having sparked the lawsuit when the House of Representatives sued to protect its constitutional prerogatives, could of course use its “power of the purse” to reinstate the cost-sharing reduction subsidies—this time through an explicit appropriation, rather than executive fiat. But before even considering such an action, it should first thoroughly investigate, and develop policies to eradicate, the “too big to fail” mentality that led insurers—and state insurance commissioners—to assume that unconstitutional acts would continue in perpetuity. Even better, Congress could instead develop ways to dismantle the structure of regulations and mandates that insurers believe requires them to receive $135 billion in subsidy payments in the first place.

For the time being, individuals likely will not see any direct effects from the payments ceasing. Carriers cannot exit Exchanges mid-year, and contracts for the 2018 plan year are already signed. (A provision in carriers’ 2017 and 2018 contracts lets them exit Exchanges if enrollees do not receive cost-sharing reductions—not if the insurers themselves do not receive reimbursement for those cost-sharing reductions. This clause, awkwardly drafted by insurers’ counsel, may provide them with little legal recourse—and further highlights their questionable assumptions and behavior surrounding the subsidies.) So maybe—just maybe—Washington can spend some time focusing on the real issue behind the Administration’s action: Upholding the Constitution.

What You Need to Know about Trump’s Executive Order on Health Care

On Thursday morning, President Trump signed an Executive Order regarding health care and health insurance. Here’s what you need to know about his action.

What Actions Did the President Take?

The Executive Order did not change regulations on its own; rather, it instructed Cabinet Departments to propose changes to regulations in the near future:

  1. Within 60 days, the Department of Labor will propose regulatory changes regarding Association Health Plans (AHPs). Regulations here will look to expand the definition of groups that can qualify as an “employer” under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). AHPs have two advantages: First, all association health plans regulated by ERISA are federally pre-empted from state benefit mandates; second, self-insured plans regulated by ERISA are exempt from several benefit mandates imposed by Obamacare—such as essential benefits and actuarial value standards.
  2. Within 60 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) will propose regulatory changes regarding short-term health plans. Regulations here will likely revoke rules put into place by the Obama Administration last October. Last year, the Obama Administration limited short-term plans to 90 days in duration (down from 364 days), and prevented renewals of such coverage—because it feared that such plans, which do not have to meet any of Obamacare’s benefit requirements, were drawing people away from Exchange coverage. The Trump Administration regulations will likely modify, or eliminate entirely, those restrictions, allowing people to purchase plans not compliant with the Obamacare mandates. (For more information, see my Tuesday article on this issue.)
  3. Within 120 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS will propose regulatory changes regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), vehicles where employers can deposit pre-tax dollars for their employees to use for health expenses. A 2013 IRS Notice prevented employers from using HRA dollars to fund employees’ individual health insurance premiums—because the Obama Administration worried that doing so would encourage employers to drop coverage. However, Section 18001 of the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law last December, allowed employers with under 50 employees to make HRA contributions that workers could use to pay for health insurance premiums on the individual market. The Executive Order may seek to expand this exemption to all employers, by rescinding the prior IRS notice.
  4. Within six months—and every two years thereafter—the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS, along with the Federal Trade Commission, will submit reports on industry consolidation within the health care sector, whether and how it is raising health care costs, and actions to mitigate the same.

How Will the Order Affect the Health Sector?

To some extent, the full impact of the Executive Order will remain unclear until the respective Departments actually release their proposed regulatory changes. For instance, it is unclear how far the Department of Labor can go in re-defining the term “employer” with respect to who can join an Association Health Plan—so it’s hard to predict the scope of the changes the rules themselves will propose.

In general, however, the issues discussed by the Executive Order will:

  • Give individuals more options, and more affordable options. Premiums on the individual market have more than doubled since 2013, due to Obamacare’s regulatory mandates. AHPs would allow workers to circumvent state benefit mandates through ERISA’s federal pre-emption of state laws; self-insured AHPs would also gain exemption from several federal Obamacare mandates, as outlined above. Because virtually all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits do not apply to short-term plans, these would obtain the most regulatory relief.
  • Allow more small businesses to subsidize workers’ coverage—either through Association Health Plans, or by making contributions to HRAs, and allowing employees to use those pre-tax dollars to buy the health coverage of their choosing on the individual market.

When Will the Changes Occur?

The Executive Order directed the Departments to announce regulatory changes within 60-120 days; the Departments could of course move faster than that. If the Departments decide to release interim final rules—that is, rules that take effect prior to a notice-and-comment period—or sub-regulatory guidance, the changes could take effect prior to the 2018 plan year.

However, any changes that go through the usual regulatory process—agencies issuing proposed rules, followed by a notice-and-comment period, prior to the rules taking effect—likely would not take effect until the 2019 plan year. While the Executive Order directed the agencies to “consider and evaluate public comment on any regulations proposed” pursuant to the Order, it did not specify whether the Departments must evaluate said comments before the regulations take effect.

Does the Order Represent a Regulatory Overreach?

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was asked about this issue Thursday, given conservatives’ prior criticisms of Barack Obama’s “pen and a phone” strategy. In the case of short-term health plans and Health Reimbursement Arrangements, the Executive Order could lead the Departments merely to rescind President Obama’s prior regulations—which almost by definition cannot represent regulatory overreach.

However, with respect to Association Health Plans, some conservatives may take a more nuanced view. Conservatives generally support allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines, believing that such freedom would allow consumers to buy the plans that best suit their interests.

However, AHPs accomplish this goal not through Congress’ Commerce Clause power—i.e., explicitly allowing, for instance, an individual in Maryland to buy a policy regulated in Virginia—but instead through federal pre-emption—individuals in Maryland and Virginia buying policies regulated by Washington, albeit in a less onerous manner than Obamacare’s Exchange plans. As with medical liability reform, therefore, some conservatives may support a state-based approach to achieve regulatory relief for consumers, rather than an expanded role for the federal government.

Finally, if President Trump wants to overturn his predecessor’s history of executive unilateralism, he should cease funding cost-sharing reduction payments to health insurers. The Obama Administration’s unilateral funding of these payments without an appropriation from Congress brought a sharp rebuke from a federal judge, who called the action unconstitutional. If President Trump wants to end executive overreach, he should abide by the ruling, and halt the unilateral payments to insurers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AARP’s Medicare Amnesia

Based on its statements the past few weeks, if Obamacare extended to non-profit organizations, AARP might need to seek coverage for memory loss. While the seniors’ group opposes House Republicans’ extension of children’s health insurance because it includes provisions means-testing Medicare benefits for wealthy seniors, the Obamacare legislation it endorsed in December 2009 did the very same thing.

Obamacare Included Means-Testing

A letter the AARP sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week objected to the House’s proposals to increase Medicare means-testing, noting that wealthy seniors already pay a greater share of their Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) premiums. That statement is true—in part because of Obamacare, which AARP endorsed.

Section 3402 of that law increased the number of affluent individuals subject to means-testing for Part B premiums, by freezing the inflation measure used to calculate the means-testing thresholds from 2010 through 2019. With no annual adjustment for inflation this decade, more seniors will find themselves with income exceeding the threshold limits.

In addition, Section 3308 of Obamacare applied means-testing for affluent seniors to the Part D prescription drug program for the first time.

Obamacare Used Medicare Savings

Last week’s AARP letter also claimed that “not only is it wrong to continue to ask Medicare beneficiaries to shoulder the burden for non-Medicare expenditures, but it will make it harder to finance actual improvements and address long-term challenges in the Medicare program.” That statement contains no small amount of irony, considering that Obamacare, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi herself admitted, “took half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in [Obamacare], the health care bill”—to spend on new entitlements.

Moreover, by using savings from the Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) trust fund, Obamacare gamed the accounting to make the program’s shortfalls look less severe. When then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was asked whether the Medicare savings were being used “to save Medicare, or to fund health reform [Obamacare],” Sebelius replied, “Both.”

Some would argue that Obamacare’s financial chicanery has actually undermined Medicare’s solvency by giving lawmakers an excuse to postpone needed reforms. While this year’s Medicare trustees report claimed the Part A trust fund would become insolvent in 2029, the last trustees report released prior to Obamacare measured the program’s insolvency date at 2017—this year.

If it weren’t for the double-counting in Obamacare—a bill that AARP proudly endorsed—lawmakers would likely be confronting Medicare’s structural deficits this year. Instead, comforted by the false hope of Obamacare’s accounting gimmicks, Congress seems unlikely to embark on comprehensive Medicare reform to solve those deficits in the near future, which will only exacerbate the impact of legislative changes when they do take place.

The history of Obamacare lends support to AARP’s current argument that Medicare savings not finance other government spending. But given its own history in supporting Obamacare, AARP seems singularly unqualified to make it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What’s Congress Doing with SCHIP?

Amidst the wrangling over Obamacare, reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expired on September 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. The two committees of jurisdiction—energy and commerce in the House, and finance in the Senate—each marked up their reauthorization bills last week. But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said Monday the bill would not come to the House floor this week.

What’s the holdup? Why the delays in bringing to the floor for votes a bill whose authorization has already expired?

Even though Republicans proposed a generous—some conservatives might argue too generous—reauthorization of SCHIP, House Democrats object because they don’t want millionaires and billionaires to pay for the new spending on children’s health insurance, and Senate Democrats object because they want to attach tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to insurance companies.

I swear to you: I’m not making this up.

A Mixed House Package

The SCHIP reauthorization text varies little between the House and the Senate versions. On that front, conservatives may have qualms with supporting little more than a straight extension of the status quo. The bill extends—albeit for only one year, as part of a more gradual phase-out—enhanced funding to state SCHIP programs. The full 23 percent match increase would end in 2019, as under current law, while states would receive an additional 11.5 percent increase in 2020. Some states have received a 100 percent federal match for their child enrollees due to this Obamacare provision, which is a clear disincentive for states to fight fraud and improper spending.

Moreover, the bill extends Obamacare’s maintenance of effort requirement—limiting states from making changes to their programs—by an additional three years in most cases, from 2019 to 2022. The bill also does not include reforms the House proposed two years ago, which would require states to focus on covering poor children first—the program’s prime emphasis before the 2009 reauthorization signed by President Obama envisioned states expanding their programs to more affluent families.

On the positive side, however, the House did include good reforms to help pay for the new SCHIP spending. It includes several provisions designed to promote program integrity in Medicaid, including one that would effectively ensure that lottery winners, or others who receive large lump-sum payments, do not maintain coverage for this low-income program. The House bill would also increase Medicare means-testing for affluent families, reducing taxpayer subsidies for Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) coverage for individuals making over $160,000, and eliminating the subsidies entirely for individuals making more than $500,000.

Those pay-fors drew Democrats’ ire, and prompted the postponement of consideration on the House floor this week. To put it more bluntly: Democrats are holding children’s health hostage because they object to charging millionaires and billionaires more for Medicare. Should anyone remind them that Obamacare itself also increased Medicare means-testing for wealthy beneficiaries to pay for Obamacare?

In the Senate, a Stalemate

Meanwhile, over in the Senate—which has yet to decide how to pay for the new SCHIP spending—Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) demanded last week that the Republican majority “immediately bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote and include much-needed bipartisan provisions to stabilize the markets, lower premiums for 2018,” and extend other programs.

Schumer made those demands despite two inconvenient truths: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) haven’t yet reached agreement on a bipartisan “stabilization” bill—and most states finalized their 2018 insurance premiums on September 27, weeks ago. In other words, Schumer wants to enact an agreement that doesn’t exist to achieve premium reductions that can’t happen.

A cynic might surmise that, with his talk of “stabilization” measures, Schumer wants to use SCHIP to sneak through tens of billions of dollars in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers—a provision that might prove unpopular, and controversial, as a stand-alone measure, but could pass through relatively unnoticed as part of a larger, “Christmas tree”-sized bill.

For conservatives, the current mixed policy outcomes on SCHIP could deteriorate significantly. Weakening the House’s “pay-fors”—which seems bound to happen, given Walden’s further attempts to negotiate with Democrats—could eliminate some, if not most, of the reasons conservatives could see to vote for the measure.

While the policy outcomes seem uncertain, and could range from fair to poor, the political ramifications seem clear. In 2007 and 2008, when President George W. Bush vetoed SCHIP bills due to provisions that would have diverted the program from the low-income children for which it was designed, Democrats organized protests, and ran ads against him. This year, when Democrats are holding up an arguably too-generous SCHIP bill literally because they want to defend the wealthy and insurance companies, Republicans have responded by…negotiating with them.

If one wants reasons behind conservative discontent with Washington, look no further than this bill.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What to Do on Obamacare Now

The collapse of legislation proposed by senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), coupled with the near-simultaneous resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, presents a turning point in this year’s health-care debate. Given the dual disappointments, policymakers and voters looking for long-delayed progress may wonder whether, and what, conservatives can do to restore patient freedom to health-care markets.

Congress still retains procedural options to continue legislatively dismantling Obamacare. In the interim, the executive can seize important regulatory opportunities to lower premiums for millions of Americans—and it appears President Trump is finally doing just that. Press reports over the weekend suggest the administration is preparing to revoke Obama administration regulations sharply limiting the sale of short-term health insurance plans.

What Is Short-Term Health Insurance?

Short-term health insurance plans generally do not comply with Obamacare’s myriad new insurance mandates—the same mandates that have more than doubled average individual market premiums since Obamacare’s major provisions took effect. Previously, insurers sold short-term health insurance for durations of up to 364 days. However, when liberals noticed how some individuals started using short-term plans as a lifeboat to save themselves from Obamacare’s crushing premiums, Obama’s HHS crushed short-term plans.

The short-term plan regulations, finalized by the Obama administration one week before last year’s election, demonstrate how liberals hope “consumer protections” protect individuals from becoming consumers. Administration officials expressed “concern” that the policies have “significant limitations”—for instance, Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements do not apply to short-term coverage—and “may not provide meaningful health coverage.” As a result, bureaucrats prohibited short-term plans from exceeding 90 days in duration, and banned carriers from automatically renewing such coverage.

Jimmy Kimmel forgot to mention it, but prohibiting coverage renewals harms individuals with pre-existing conditions, because it forbids customers who develop a pre-existing condition while on short-term plans from continuing their coverage. In discouraging these short-term plans, the Obama administration preferred individuals going without coverage entirely over seeing anyone purchase a policy lacking the full panoply of “government-approved” benefits. The Trump administration can and should rescind this coercive rule and its perverse consequences immediately.

What Else the Trump Administration Can Do

Upon completing regulatory action to return to the status quo ante on short-term plans, the administration can take action it should have taken months ago: Restoring constitutional order by stopping the unilateral payment of cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurers. Congress could also repeal the individual mandate penalty, allowing those who wish to purchase non-compliant short-term plans rather than taxing them for not buying costly Obamacare coverage.

Heretofore, administration officials had declined to act on short-term plans—the same reluctance that has prevented the administration from ending the unilateral payments to insurers. Perhaps federal bureaucrats fear de-stabilizing rickety insurance exchanges. But because this series of administrative actions would open new insurance options, failing to act perpetuates Obamacare, consigns millions of families to perpetually higher premiums, and in the case of the unilateral insurer payments, undermines the rule of law—all higher priorities than the “stability” of insurers whose profits nearly doubled during the Obama administration.

Obamacare advocates may complain that this series of actions would bifurcate insurance markets—a reasonable assumption. The exchanges would likely morph into something approaching a high-risk pool, with federal subsidies available to cover the cost of more expensive insurance for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Meanwhile, other individuals would have more, and more affordable, options.

That said, executive action should not prompt Congress to walk away from attempts to reform health care (or vice versa, for that matter). Whether through reconciliation instructions in the fiscal year 2018 budget this fall, the fiscal year 2019 budget next year, or other means, Congress should keep searching for opportunities to return patient-centered forces to health care, and provide needed relief from skyrocketing premiums.

When they next face voters, both President Trump and Republicans in Congress should prepare to tell them they did everything they could to fulfill their eight-year promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. They have much work yet to do to make such a claim credibly. Following the setback on Graham-Cassidy, they should roll up their sleeves and do just that.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

On the Importance of Listening

The Catholic Church provides a three-year rotation for Sunday scripture readings. The rotation allows the faithful to hear the same readings at regular intervals, applying the lessons from familiar biblical passages to the changing times and seasons.

So it happened that, one weekend last month, I went to church and heard a reading from the first book of Kings, one in which the Lord instructs Elijah to go outside on Mount Horeb and await God’s passage. The reading resonated with me for its relevance in our current climate—one dominated by noise and shouting rather than deliberation and contemplation.

For instance, compare and contrast just a few recent incidents with the biblical passage from Kings. At Howard University last week, a group of protestors shouted throughout a speech given former FBI Director James Comey, despite pleas from other attendees and administrators to allow Comey to speak uninterrupted.

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.

NFL games across the country became the scene of protests and booing, as players’ reactions to the national anthem and President Trump’s related comments almost eclipsed on-the-field activities.

After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.

At my alma mater, The American University, an incident where individuals hung Confederate flag posters around campus on the same night as a speech on racial equality prompted a statement from the student government referencing the nation’s “history of white supremacy,” as if recalling the sins of past generations—too numerous to count—would cause boorish and offensively provocative behavior to cease.

After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.

So many of our current culture wars center around symbols—flags, anthems, ceremonies. But almost by definition, symbols carry different meanings to different people. A Confederate flag that symbolizes ancestral heritage to some symbolizes a system of racial oppression and exploitation to others.

The repeated, and seemingly intensifying, conflicts over these symbols stem not just from disparate definitions of what they mean, but a growing sense of disempowerment, disillusionment, and even alienation, numerous groups feel—from each other, and from the country as a whole. From Black Lives Matter to the white working class, the burgeoning protest movements and last November’s “primal scream” election illustrate how alienated segments of society believe amplifying their tone will allow them to regain power taken from them.

But as the reading from Kings reminds us, wisdom does not always lie with the loudest and strongest. It requires us to listen to discern its voice:

After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Lost in last weekend’s debate about football protests lies a simple question: If NFL players, faced with the prospect of suspensions or other costly sanctions, all suddenly decide to stand at attention for the national anthem, what exactly have critics of the anthem protests achieved? Would those players have suddenly changed their opinions of the police, the military, or the judicial system? Likewise, if the gay rights movement wins court rulings requiring bakers to make cakes for same-sex weddings, would such a move ensure the entire country “approves” of gay marriage?

Groups’ sense of alienation might prompt them to seek the imprimatur of a sanctioning body—whether NFL owners or a court of law—to demonstrate theirs as the “official” or “correct” position. But while sanctioning bodies might be able, given enough force, to impact behavior, no sanctioning body can ultimately change one’s beliefs.

That’s where the lesson from Kings comes in. Changing others’ beliefs involves listening for the whisper amidst the wind, the earthquakes, and the fire—the modern noise that has coarsened our debate. It requires understanding the sense of concern, or even disillusionment, that may have prompted the protests in the first place. It involves seeing others as they are, not as we wish they would be.

Listening isn’t always easy, but it is worthwhile. I won’t claim perfection on this front—far from it. But over the past week, I’ve run into some more diverse perspectives on the health-care debate, which is my professional specialty. In several cases, they’ve imparted factual knowledge, and while they haven’t necessarily changed my beliefs, they have modified my perspective and allowed me to see things from a different light.

At times, the cacophony of voices on Twitter, cable news, and in myriad other cultural venues might prompt us to wonder if anyone can make sense of it all, and maintain that inner peace. The story of Elijah on Horeb reminds us that wisdom and understanding remain always present in our lives—if only we search hard enough to find them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Updated Summary of Graham-Cassidy Health Care Legislation

A PDF version of the below can be found on the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s website

Summary of CBO Score

On Monday evening, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a preliminary estimate of the Graham-Cassidy bill. CBO concluded that the bill would comply with reconciliation parameters—namely, that it would reduce the deficit by at least as much as the underlying reconciliation vehicle (the House-passed American Health Care Act), reduce the deficit by at least $1 billion in each of its two titles in its first ten years, and not increase the deficit overall in any of the four following decades.

Although it did not include any specific coverage or premium numbers, CBO did conclude that the bill would likely decrease coverage by millions compared to the current policy baseline. The report estimated that the bill’s block grant would spend about $230 billion less than current law—a 10 percent reduction overall (an average 30 percent reduction for Medicaid expansion states, but an average 30 percent increase for non-expansion states). Moreover, CBO believes at least $150 billion in block grant funding would not be spent by the end of the ten-year budget window.

CBO believes that “most states would eventually make changes in the regulations for their non-group market in order to stabilize it and would use some funds from the block grants to facilitate those changes.” Essentially, current insurance regulations mean that markets would become unstable without current law subsidies, such that states would use a combination of subsidies and changes in regulations to preserve market stability.

CBO believes that most Medicaid expansion states would attempt to use block grant funding to create Medicaid-like programs for their low-income residents. However, the analysis concludes that by 2026, those states’ block grants would roughly equal the projected cost of their current Medicaid expansion—forcing them to choose between “provid[ing] similar benefits to people in a [Medicaid] alternative program and extend[ing] support to others” further up the income scale. In those cases, CBO believes “most of those states would then choose to provide little support to people in the non-group market because doing so effectively would be the more difficult task.”

Overall, CBO believes that the bill would reduce insurance coverage, because of its repeal of the subsidies, Medicaid expansion, and the individual mandate. The budget office believes that states with high levels of coverage under Obamacare would not receive enough funds under the revised block grant to match their current coverage levels, while states with lower levels of coverage would spend the money slowly, in part because they lack the infrastructure (i.e., technology, etc.) to distribute subsidies easily. CBO also believes that employment-based coverage would increase under the bill, because some employers would respond to changes in the individual market by offering coverage to their workers.

With respect to the Medicaid reforms in the bill, CBO concludes that most “states would not have substantial additional flexibility” under the per capita caps. Some states with declining populations might choose the block grant option, but the grant “would not be attractive in most states experiencing population growth, as the fixed block grant would not be adjusted for such growth.” States could reduce their spending by reducing provider payment rates; optional benefit categories; limiting eligibility; improving care delivery; or some combination of the approaches.

For the individual market, CBO expresses skepticism about the timelines in the bill. Specifically, its analysis found that states’ initial options would “be limited,” because implementing new health programs by 2020 would be “difficult:”

To establish its own system of subsidies for coverage in the nongroup market related to people’s income, a state would have to enact legislation and create a new administrative infrastructure. A state would not be able to rely on any existing system for verifying eligibility or making payments. It would need to establish a new system for enrolling people in nongroup insurance, verify eligibility for tax credits or other subsidies, certify insurance as eligible for subsidies, and ultimately ensure that the payments were correct. Those steps would be challenging, particularly if the state chose to simultaneously change insurance market regulations.

While CBO believes that states that expanded Medicaid would be likely to create programs for populations currently eligible for subsidies (i.e., those households with incomes between one and four times poverty), it notes that such states “would be facing large reductions in funding compared with the amounts under current law and thus would have trouble paying for a new program or subsidies for those people.”

CBO believes that without subsidies, and with current insurance regulations in place, a “death spiral” would occur, whereby premiums would gradually increase and insurers would drop out of markets. (However, “if a state required individuals to have insurance, some healthier people would enroll, and premiums would be lower.”) To avoid this scenario, CBO believes that “most states would eventually modify various rules to help stabilize the non-group market,” thereby increasing coverage take-up when compared to not doing so. However, “coverage for people with pre-existing conditions would be much more expensive in some of those states than under current law.”

While widening age bands would “somewhat increase insurance coverage, on net,” CBO notes that “insurance covering certain services not included in the scope of benefits to become more expensive—in some cases, extremely expensive.” Moreover, some medically underwritten individuals (i.e., subject to premium changes based on health status) would become uninsured, while others would instead obtain employer coverage.

Finally, CBO estimated that the non-coverage provisions of the bill would increase the deficit by $22 billion over ten years. Specific estimates for those provisions are integrated into the summary below.

Summary of Changes Made

On Sunday evening, the bill’s sponsors released revised text of their bill. Compared to the original draft, the revised bill:

  • Strikes language repealing sections of Obamacare related to eligibility determinations (likely to comply with the Senate’s “Byrd rule” regarding budget reconciliation);
  • Changes the short-term “stability fund” to set aside 5 percent of funds for “low-density states,” which some conservatives may view as a carve-out for certain states similar to that included in July’s Better Care Reconciliation Act;
  • Re-writes waiver authority, but maintains (and arguably strengthens) language requiring states to “maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” which some conservatives may view as imposing limiting conditions on states that wish to reform their insurance markets;
  • Requires states to certify that they will “ensure compliance” with sections of the Public Health Service Act relating to: 1) the under-26 mandate; 2) hospital stays following births; 3) mental health parity; 4) re-constructive surgery following mastectomies; and 5) genetic non-discrimination;
  • Strikes authority given to the Health and Human Services Secretary in several sections, and replaces it with authority given to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator;
  • Includes a new requirement that at least half of funds provided under the Obamacare replacement block grant must be used “to provide assistance” to households with family income between 50 and 300 percent of the poverty level;
  • Requires CMS Administrator to adjust block grant spending upward for a “low-density state” with per capita health care spending 20 percent higher than the national average, increasing allocation levels to match the higher health costs—a provision some conservatives may consider an earmark for specific states;
  • Imposes new requirement on CMS Administrator to notify states of their 2020 block grant allocations by November 1, 2019—a timeline that some may argue will give states far too little time to prepare and plan for major changes to their health systems;
  • Slows the transition to the new Obamacare replacement block grant formula outlined in the law, which now would not fully take effect until after 2026—even though the bill does not appropriate block grant funds for years after 2026;
  • Gives the Administrator the power not to make an annual adjustment for risk in the block grant;
  • Strikes the block grant’s annual adjustment factor for coverage value;
  • Delays the block grant’s state population adjustment factor from 2020 until 2022—but retains language giving the CMS Administrator to re-write the entire funding allocation based on this factor, which some conservatives may view as an unprecedented power grab by federal bureaucrats;
  • Re-writes rules re-allocating unspent block grant allocation funds;
  • Prohibits states from receiving more than a 25 percent year-on-year increase in their block grant allocations;
  • Makes other technical changes to the block grant formula;
  • Changes the formula for the $11 billion contingency fund provided to low-density and non-expansion states—25 percent ($2.75 billion) for low-density states, 50 percent ($5.5 billion) for non-Medicaid expansion states, and 25 percent ($2.75 billion) for Medicaid expansion states;
  • Includes a $750 million fund for “late-expanding” Medicaid states (those that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare prior to December 31, 2016), which some conservatives may consider an earmark, and one that encourages states to embrace Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied;
  • Includes $500 million to allow pass-through funding under Section 1332 Obamacare waivers to continue for years 2019 through 2023 under the Obamacare replacement block grant;
  • Strikes language allowing for direct primary care to be purchased through Health Savings Accounts, and as a medical expense under the Internal Revenue Code;
  • Strikes language reducing American territories’ Medicaid match from 55 percent to 50 percent;
  • Restores language originally in BCRA allowing for “late-expanding Medicaid states” to select a shorter period for their per capita caps—a provision that some conservatives may view as an undue incentive for certain states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare;
  • Restores language originally in BCRA regarding reporting of data related to Medicaid per capita caps;
  • Strikes language delaying Medicaid per capita caps for certain “low-density states;”
  • Includes new language perpetually increasing Medicaid match rates on the two highest states with separate poverty guidelines issued for them in 2017—a provision that by definition includes only Alaska and Hawaii, which some conservatives may view as an inappropriate earmark;
  • Strikes language allowing all individuals to purchase Obamacare catastrophic coverage beginning in 2019;
  • Strikes language clarifying enforcement provisions, particularly regarding abortion;
  • Allows states to waive certain provisions related to insurance regulations, including 1) essential health benefits; 2) cost-sharing requirements; 3) actuarial value; 4) community rating; 5) preventive health services; and 6) single risk pool;
  • Requires states to describe its new insurance rules to the federal government, “except that in no case may an issuer vary premium rates on the basis of sex or on the basis of genetic information,” a provision that some conservatives may view as less likely to subject the rules to legal challenges than the prior language; and
  • Retains language requiring each waiver participant to receive “a direct benefit” from federal funds, language that some conservatives may view as logistically problematic.

Full Summary of Bill (as Revised)

Last week, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced a new health care bill. The legislation contains some components of the earlier Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), considered by the Senate in July, with some key differences on funding streams. A full summary of the bill follows below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Cost estimates are included below come from prior Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores of similar or identical provisions in BCRA.

Of particular note: It is unclear whether this legislative language has been fully vetted with the Senate Parliamentarian. When the Senate considers budget reconciliation legislation—as it would do should the Graham-Cassidy measure receive floor consideration—the Parliamentarian advises whether provisions are budgetary in nature and can be included in the bill (which can pass with a 51-vote simple majority), and which provisions are not budgetary in nature and must be considered separately (i.e., require 60 votes to pass).

As the bill was released prior to issuance of a CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not fully vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I

Revisions to Obamacare Subsidies:             Beginning in 2018, changes the definition of a qualified health plan, to prohibit plans from covering abortion other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may eventually be eliminated under the provisions of the Senate’s “Byrd rule.” (For more information, see these two articles.)

Eliminates provisions that limit repayment of subsidies for years after 2017. Subsidy eligibility is based upon estimated income, with recipients required to reconcile their subsidies received with actual income during the year-end tax filing process. Current law limits the amount of excess subsidies households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017) must pay. This provision would eliminate that limitation on repayments, which may result in fewer individuals taking up subsidies in the first place. Saves $11.7 billion over ten years—$8.5 billion in spending, and $3.2 billion in revenue.

Repeals the subsidy regime entirely after December 31, 2019.

Small Business Tax Credit:             Repeals Obamacare’s small business tax credit, effective in 2020. Disallows the small business tax credit beginning in 2018 for any plan that offers coverage of abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother—which, as noted above, some conservatives may believe will be stricken during the Senate’s “Byrd rule” review. Saves $6 billion over ten years.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. The individual mandate provision cuts taxes by $38 billion, and the employer mandate provision cuts taxes by $171 billion, both over ten years.

Stability Fund:          Creates two state-based funds intended to stabilize insurance markets—the first giving funds directly to insurers, and the second giving funds to states. The first would appropriate $10 billion each for 2018 and 2019, and $15 billion for 2020, ($35 billion total) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “fund arrangements with health insurance issuers to address coverage and access disruption and respond to urgent health care needs within States.” Instructs the CMS Administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure for providing and distributing funds.” Does not require a state match for receipt of stability funds. Some conservatives may be concerned this provision provides excessive authority to unelected bureaucrats to distribute $35 billion in federal funds as they see fit.

Includes new language setting aside 5 percent of stability fund dollars for “low-density states”—a provision which some conservatives may oppose as an earmark for Alaska and other similar states.

Market-Based Health Care Grant Program:       Creates a longer-term stability fund for states with a total of $1.176 trillion in federal funding from 2020 through 2026—$146 billion in 2020 and 2021, $157 billion in 2022, $168 billion in 2023, $179 billion in 2024, and $190 billion in 2025 and 2026. Eliminates BCRA provisions requiring a state match. States could keep their allotments for two years, but unspent funds after that point could be re-allocated to other states. However, all funds would have to be spent by December 31, 2026.

Expands BCRA criteria for appropriate use of funds by states, to include assistance for purchasing individual insurance, and “provid[ing] health insurance coverage for individuals who are eligible for” Medicaid, as well as the prior eligible uses under BCRA: to provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals, including by reducing premium costs, “help stabilize premiums and promote state health insurance market participation and choice,” provide payments to health care providers, or reduce cost-sharing.

However, states may spend no more than 15 percent of their resources on the Medicaid population (or up to 20 percent if the state applies for a waiver, and the Department of Health and Human Services concludes that the state is using its funds “to supplement, and not supplant,” the state Medicaid match). In addition, states must spend at least half of their funds on “provid[ing] assistance” to families with incomes between 50 and 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Some conservatives may believe these restrictions belie the bill’s purported goal of giving states freedom and flexibility to spend the funds as they see fit.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by doling out nearly $1.2 trillion in spending, the bill does not repeal Obamacare, so much as it redistributes Obamacare funds from “blue states” to “red states,” per the formulae described below. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the bill creates a funding cliff—with spending dropping from $190 billion in 2026 to $0 in 2027—that will leave an impetus for future Congresses to spend massive new amounts of money in the future.

Grant Formula:         Sets a complex formula for determining state grant allocations, tied to the overall funding a state received for Medicaid expansion, the basic health program under Obamacare, and premium and cost-sharing subsidies provided to individuals in insurance Exchanges. Permits states to select any four consecutive fiscal quarters between September 30, 2013 and January 1, 2018 to establish the base period. (The bill sponsors have additional information regarding the formula calculations here.)

Intends to equalize grant amounts, with a phase-in of the new methodology for years 2021 through 2026. Ideally, the bill would set funding to a state’s number of low-income individuals when compared to the number of low-income individuals nationwide. Defines the term “low-income individuals” to include those with incomes between 50 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level (45-133% FPL, plus a 5 percent income disregard created by Obamacare). In 2017, those numbers total $12,300-$33,948 for a family of four.

Adjusts state allocations (as determined above) according to additional factors:

  1. Risk Adjustment:      The bill would phase in risk adjustment over four years (between 2023 and 2026), and limit the risk adjustment modification to no more than 10 percent of the overall allotment. Risk adjustment would be based on clinical risk factors for low-income individuals (as defined above). The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator could cancel the risk adjustment factor in the absence of sufficient data.
  2. Population Adjustment:              Permits (but does not require) the Administrator to adjust allocations for years after 2022 according to a population adjustment factor. Requires CMS to “develop a state specific population adjustment factor that accounts for legitimate factors that impact the health care expenditures in a state”—such as demographics, wage rates, income levels, etc.—but as noted above, does not require CMS to adjust allocations based upon those factors.

Notwithstanding the above, states could not receive a year-on-year increase in funding of more than 25 percent.

Requires the Administrator to adjust block grant spending upward for a “low-density state” with per capita health care spending 20 percent higher than the national average, increasing allocation levels to match the higher health costs—a provision some conservatives may consider an inappropriate earmark for Alaska. Imposes new requirement on the Administrator to notify states of their 2020 block grant allocations by November 1, 2019—a timeline that some may argue will give states far too little time to prepare and plan for major changes to their health systems.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the admirable intent to equalize funding between high-spending and low-spending states, the bill gives excessive discretion to unelected bureaucrats in Washington to determine the funding formulae. Some conservatives may instead support repealing all of Obamacare, and allowing states to decide for themselves what they wish to put in its place, rather than doling out federal funds from Washington. Finally, some may question why the bill’s formula criteria focus so heavily on individuals with incomes between 50-138 percent FPL, to the potential exclusion of individuals and households with slightly higher or lower incomes.

Provides $750 million for “late-expanding” Medicaid states—those that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare prior to December 31, 2015—which some conservatives may consider an earmark, one that encourages states that have embraced Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied. Also includes $500 million to allow pass-through funding under Section 1332 Obamacare waivers to continue for years 2019 through 2023.

Grant Application:  Requires states applying for grant funds to outline the intended uses of same. Specifically, the state must describe how it “shall maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” along with “such other information as necessary for the Administrator to carry out this subsection”—language that could be used by a future Democratic Administration, or federal courts, to undermine the waiver program’s intent.

Explicitly requires states to “ensure compliance” with several federal insurance mandates:

  1. Coverage of “dependents” under age 26;
  2. Hospital stays following deliveries;
  3. Mental health parity;
  4. Reconstructive surgery following mastectomies; and
  5. Genetic non-discrimination.

Some conservatives may note that these retained federal mandates belie the notion of state flexibility promised by the legislation.

Contingency Fund:               Appropriates a total of $11 billion—$6 billion for calendar year 2020, and $5 billion for calendar 2021—for a contingency fund for certain states. Half of the funding ($5.5 billion total) would go towards states that had not expanded Medicaid as of September 1, 2017, with the remaining one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards “low-density states”—those with a population density of fewer than 15 individuals per square mile—and another one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards states that did expand Medicaid.

Implementation Fund:        Provides $2 billion to implement programs under the bill. Costs $2 billion over ten years.

Repeal of Some Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals some Obamacare taxes:

  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $5.6 billion;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $100 million;
  • Medical device tax, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $19.6 billion; and
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $1.8 billion.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill barely attempts to reduce revenues, repealing only the smallest taxes in Obamacare—and the ones that corporate lobbyists care most about (e.g., medical device tax and retiree prescription drug coverage provision).

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses. Lowers revenues by a total of $19.2 billion over ten years.

Allows for Health Savings Account funds to be used for the purchase of high-deductible health plans, but only to the extent that such insurance was not purchased on a tax-preferred basis (i.e., through the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, or through Obamacare insurance subsidies).

Allows HSA dollars to be used to reimburse expenses for “dependents” under age 27, effectively extending the “under-26” provisions of Obamacare to Health Savings Accounts. Prohibits HSA-qualified high deductible health plans from covering abortions, other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—an effective prohibition on the use of HSA funds to purchase plans that cover abortion, but one that the Senate Parliamentarian may advise does not comport with procedural restrictions on budget reconciliation bills. No separate cost estimate provided for the revenue reduction associated with allowing HSA dollars to be used to pay for insurance premiums.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). CBO believes this provision would save a total of $225 million in Medicaid spending, while increasing spending by $79 million over a decade, because 15 percent of Planned Parenthood clients would lose access to services, increasing the number of births in the Medicaid program by several thousand. Saves $146 million over ten years.

Medicaid Expansion:           Phases out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, effective January 1, 2020. After such date, only members of Indian tribes who reside in states that had expanded Medicaid—and who were eligible on December 31, 2019—would qualify for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Indians could remain on the Medicaid expansion, but only if they do not have a break in eligibility (i.e., the program would be frozen to new enrollees on January 1, 2020).

Repeals the enhanced federal match (currently 95 percent, declining slightly to 90 percent) associated with Medicaid expansion, effective in 2020. Also repeals provisions regarding the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services. Saves $19.3 billion over ten years.

Retroactive Eligibility:       Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid from three months to two months. These changes would NOT apply to aged, blind, or disabled populations, who would still qualify for three months of retroactive eligibility. Saves $800 million over ten years.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Permits—but unlike the House bill, does not require—states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income every six months, or at shorter intervals. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match rate for states that elect this option. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Work Requirements:           Permits (but does not require) states to, beginning October 1, 2017, impose work requirements on “non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant” beneficiaries. States can determine the length of time for such work requirements. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match for state expenses attributable to activities implementing the work requirements.

States may not impose requirements on pregnant women (through 60 days after birth); children under age 19; the sole parent of a child under age 6, or sole parent or caretaker of a child with disabilities; or a married individual or head of household under age 20 who “maintains satisfactory attendance at secondary school or equivalent,” or participates in vocational education. Adds to existing exemptions (drafted in BCRA) provisions exempting those in inpatient or intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment and full-time students from Medicaid work requirements. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Provider Taxes:        Reduces permissible Medicaid provider taxes from 6 percent under current law to 5.6 percent in fiscal year 2021, 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2022, 4.8 percent in fiscal year 2023, 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2024, and 4 percent in fiscal year 2025 and future fiscal years—a change from BCRA, which reduced provider taxes to 5 percent in 2025 (0.2 percent reduction per year, as opposed to 0.4 percent under the Graham-Cassidy bill). Some conservatives may view provider taxes as essentially “money laundering”—a game in which states engage in shell transactions solely designed to increase the federal share of Medicaid funding and reduce states’ share. More information can be found here. CBO believes states would probably reduce their spending in response to the loss of provider tax revenue, resulting in lower spending by the federal government. Saves $13 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in fiscal year 2020. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare).

While the cap would take effect in fiscal year 2020, states could choose their “base period” based on any eight consecutive quarters of expenditures between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017. The CMS Administrator would have authority to make adjustments to relevant data if she believes a state attempted to “game” the look-back period. Late-expanding Medicaid states could choose a shorter period (but not fewer than four) quarters as their “base period” for determining per capita caps—a provision that some conservatives may view as improperly incentivizing states that decided to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied.

Creates four classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; and 4) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps. Exempts declared public health emergencies from the Medicaid per capita caps—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency—but such exemption may not exceed $5 billion.

For years before fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to medical inflation for children and all other non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation plus one percentage point for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries. Beginning in fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to overall inflation for children and non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries—a change from BCRA, which set the caps at overall inflation for all enrollees beginning in 2025.

Eliminates provisions in the House bill regarding “required expenditures by certain political subdivisions,” which some had derided as a parochial New York-related provision.

Provides a provision—not included in the House bill—for effectively re-basing the per capita caps. Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase the caps by between 0.5% and 3% (a change from BCRA, which set a 2% maximum increase) for low-spending states (defined as having per capita expenditures 25% below the national median), and lower the caps by between 0.5% and 2% (unchanged from BCRA) for high-spending states (with per capita expenditures 25% above the national median). The Secretary may only implement this provision in a budget-neutral manner, i.e., one that does not increase the deficit. However, this re-basing provision shall NOT apply to any state with a population density of under 15 individuals per square mile.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent. Requires new state reporting on inpatient psychiatric hospital services and children with complex medical conditions. Requires the HHS Inspector General to audit each state’s spending at least every three years.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Home and Community-Based Services:             Creates a four-year, $8 billion demonstration project from 2020 through 2023 to expand home- and community-based service payment adjustments in Medicaid, with such payment adjustments eligible for a 100 percent federal match. The 15 states with the lowest population density would be given priority for funds.

Medicaid Block Grants:      Creates a Medicaid block grant, called the “Medicaid Flexibility Program,” beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Requires interested states to submit an application providing a proposed packet of services, a commitment to submit relevant data (including health quality measures and clinical data), and a statement of program goals. Requires public notice-and-comment periods at both the state and federal levels.

The amount of the block grant would total the regular federal match rate, multiplied by the target per capita spending amounts (as calculated above), multiplied by the number of expected enrollees (adjusted forward based on the estimated increase in population for the state, per Census Bureau estimates). In future years, the block grant would be increased by general inflation.

Prohibits states from increasing their base year block grant population beyond 2016 levels, adjusted for population growth, plus an additional three percentage points. This provision is likely designed to prevent states from “packing” their Medicaid programs full of beneficiaries immediately prior to a block grant’s implementation, solely to achieve higher federal payments.

In a change from BCRA, the bill removes language permitting states to roll over block grant payments from year to year—a move that some conservatives may view as antithetical to the flexibility intended by a block grant, and biasing states away from this model. Reduces federal payments for the following year in the case of states that fail to meet their maintenance of effort spending requirements, and permits the HHS Secretary to make reductions in the case of a state’s non-compliance. Requires the Secretary to publish block grant amounts for every state every year, regardless of whether or not the state elects the block grant option.

Permits block grants for a program period of five fiscal years, subject to renewal; plans with “no significant changes” would not have to re-submit an application for their block grants. Permits a state to terminate the block grant, but only if the state “has in place an appropriate transition plan approved by the Secretary.”

Imposes a series of conditions on Medicaid block grants, requiring coverage for all mandatory populations identified in the Medicaid statute, and use of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) standard for determining eligibility. Includes 14 separate categories of services that states must cover for mandatory populations under the block grant. Requires benefits to have an actuarial value (coverage of average health expenses) of at least 95 percent of the benchmark coverage options in place prior to Obamacare. Permits states to determine the amount, duration, and scope of benefits within the parameters listed above.

Applies mental health parity provisions to the Medicaid block grant, and extends the Medicaid rebate program to any outpatient drugs covered under same. Permits states to impose premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing, provided such efforts do not exceed 5 percent of a family’s income in any given year.

Requires participating states to have simplified enrollment processes, coordinate with insurance Exchanges, and “establish a fair process” for individuals to appeal adverse eligibility determinations. Allows for modification of the Medicaid block grant during declared public health emergencies—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency.

Exempts states from per capita caps, waivers, state plan amendments, and other provisions of Title XIX of the Social Security Act while participating in Medicaid block grants.

Performance Bonus Payments:             Provides an $8 billion pool for bonus payments to state Medicaid and SCHIP programs for Fiscal Years 2023 through 2026. Allows the Secretary to increase federal matching rates for states that 1) have lower than expected expenses under the per capita caps and 2) report applicable quality measures, and have a plan to use the additional funds on quality improvement. While noting the goal of reducing health costs through quality improvement, and incentives for same, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—as with others in the bill—gives near-blanket authority to the HHS Secretary to control the program’s parameters, power that conservatives believe properly resides outside Washington—and power that a future Democratic Administration could use to contravene conservative objectives. CBO believes that only some states will meet the performance criteria, leading some of the money not to be spent between now and 2026. Costs $3 billion over ten years.

Inpatient Psychiatric Services:             Provides for optional state Medicaid coverage of inpatient psychiatric services for individuals over 21 and under 65 years of age. (Current law permits coverage of such services for individuals under age 21.) Such coverage would not exceed 30 days in any month or 90 days in any calendar year. In order to receive such assistance, the state must maintain its number of licensed psychiatric beds as of the date of enactment, and maintain current levels of funding for inpatient services and outpatient psychiatric services. Provides a lower (i.e., 50 percent) match for such services, furnished on or after October 1, 2018; however, in a change from BCRA, allows for higher federal match rates for certain services and individuals to continue if they were in effect prior to September 30, 2018. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Medicaid and Indian Health Service:             Makes a state’s expenses on behalf of Indians eligible for a 100 percent match, irrespective of the source of those services. Current law provides for a 100 percent match only for services provided at an Indian Health Service center. Costs $3.5 billion over ten years.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments:     Adjusts reductions in DSH payments to reflect shortfalls in funding for the state grant program described above. For fiscal years 2021 through 2025, states receiving grant allocations that do not keep up with medical inflation will have their DSH reductions reduced or eliminated; in fiscal year 2026, states with grant shortfalls will have their DSH payments increased. Costs $17.9 billion over ten years.

High-Poverty States:            Provides for a permanent increase in the federal Medicaid match for two states, based on poverty guidelines established for 2017. Specifically, provides for a 25 percent increase to the state with the “highest separate poverty guideline for 2017,” and a 15 percent increase to the state with the “second highest separate poverty guideline for 2017”—provisions that by definition would apply only to Alaska and Hawaii, respectively. Some conservatives may be concerned first that these provisions represent inappropriate earmarks, and further that they would change federal spending in perpetuity based on poverty determinations made for a single year. Costs $7.2 billion over ten years.

Title II

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. Saves $7.9 billion over ten years.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” above). Spends $422 million over ten years.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019, and does not appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidy claims for plan years through 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House.

Grant Conditions:    Sets additional conditions for the grant program established in Title I of the bill. States may submit applications waiving certain provisions currently in federal statute:

  1. Essential health benefits;
  2. Cost-sharing requirements;
  3. Actuarial value requirements, including plan metal tiers (e.g., bronze, silver, gold, and platinum);
  4. Community rating—although states may not be able to vary premiums based on health status, due to contradictory language in this section;
  5. Preventive health services; and
  6. Single risk pool.

Requires states to submit their revised rules to the federal government, “except that in no case may an issuer vary premium rates on the basis of sex or on the basis of genetic information.” Some conservatives may view this language as less likely to spark new legal challenges than the prior wording, which prohibited insurance changes based on “membership in a protected class.” However, some conservatives may also find that the mutually contradictory provisions over whether and how states can vary insurance rates may spark other legal challenges.

The waivers only apply to an insurer receiving funding under the state program, and “to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit” from the grant—which does not include reinsurance. In other words, each individual must receive some direct subsidy, rather than just general benefits derived from the broader insurance pool. Some conservatives may be concerned that, by tying waiver of regulations so closely to receipt of federal grant funds, this provision would essentially provide limited regulatory relief. Furthermore, such limited relief would require states to accept federal funding largely adjudicated and doled out by unelected bureaucrats.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, while well-intentioned, these provisions do not represent a true attempt at federalism—one which would repeal all of Obamacare’s regulations and devolve health insurance oversight back to the states. It remains unclear whether any states would actually waive Obamacare regulations under the bill; if a state chooses not to do so, all of the law’s costly mandates will remain in place there, leaving Obamacare as the default option.

 

Some conservatives may view provisions requiring anyone to whom a waiver applies to receive federal grant funding as the epitome of moral hazard—ensuring that individuals who go through health underwriting will receive federal subsidies, no matter their level of wealth or personal circumstances. By requiring states to subsidize bad actors—for instance, an individual making $250,000 who knowingly went without health coverage for years—with federal taxpayer dollars, the bill could actually raise health insurance premiums, not lower them. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that—because the grant program funding ends in 2027, and because all individuals subject to waivers must receive grant funding—the waiver program will effectively end in 2027, absent a new infusion of taxpayer dollars.