Monthly Archives: March 2015

A Tale of Two Exchanges

Two reports released in the past week demonstrate a potential bifurcation in state insurance exchanges: The insurance marketplaces appear to be attracting a disproportionate share of low-income individuals who qualify for generous federal subsidies, while middle- and higher-income filers have generally eschewed the exchanges.

On Wednesday, the consulting firm Avalere Health released an analysis of exchange enrollment. As of the end of the 2015 open-enrollment season, Avalere found the exchanges had enrolled 76% of eligible individuals with incomes between 100% and 150% of the federal poverty level—between $24,250 and $36,375 for a family of four. But for all income categories above 150% of poverty, exchanges have enrolled fewer than half of eligible individuals—and those percentages decline further as income rises. For instance, only 16% of individuals with incomes between three and four times poverty have enrolled in exchanges, and among those with incomes above four times poverty—who aren’t eligible for insurance subsidies—only 2% signed up.

The Avalere results closely mirror other data analyzed by the Government Accountability Office in a study released last Monday. GAO noted that three prior surveys covering 2014 enrollment—from Gallup, the Commonwealth Fund, and the Urban Institute—found statistically insignificant differences in the uninsured rate among those with incomes above four times poverty, a group that doesn’t qualify for the new insurance subsidies.

The GAO report provided one possible reason for the lack of enrollment among individuals not eligible for federal insurance subsidies. In 2014, premiums remained unaffordable—costing more than 8% of income—across much of the country for a 60-year-old making five times poverty. These individuals earned too much to qualify for subsidies, but too little to afford the insurance premiums for exchange policies. The GAO data confirm my July analysis, in which I wrote: “Those who do not qualify for federal subsidies appear to find exchange coverage anything but affordable.”

Other findings echo the strong link between subsidies and coverage. The Commonwealth Fund’s study last summer noted that among those with incomes between 250% and 399% of poverty, the uninsured rate had not changed appreciably. These individuals don’t qualify for the additional federal assistance with cost-sharing—deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance—provided to those with incomes below 250% of the federal poverty level. Prior studies have demonstrated that some of these individuals won’t qualify for premium subsidies at all, based on their age, income, and premium levels in their state.

The overall picture presented is one of a bifurcated, or even trifurcated, system of health insurance. Individuals who qualify for very rich insurance subsidies or Medicaid have signed up for coverage, while those who qualify for small or no subsidies have not. It raises two obvious questions: Whether and how the exchanges can succeed long-term with an enrollment profile heavily weighted towards subsidy-eligible individuals—and whether an insurance market segregated by income was what Obamacare’s creators originally had in mind.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

An Unconservative Approach to Insurance Reform

The “doc fix” legislation that the House passed Thursday would add $141 billion to the deficit and make some structural changes to Medicare. Some of those changes aim to make Medicare more solvent by reducing the growth of program spending, a conservative goal, but it would achieve this by liberal means: prohibiting the sale of certain types of insurance policies.

The issue involves Medigap supplemental insurance, which pays for beneficiary cost-sharing (deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance) not covered by the traditional Medicare program. The most popular Medigap policies cover the Medicare Part B deductible, along with other forms of cost-sharing. Studies have shown that these types of policies—which allow seniors to visit medical providers without any out-of-pocket costs—encourage beneficiaries to over-consume care, raising taxpayer spending on Medicare.

The House legislation responds to this by making some types of Medigap coverage illegal. It would prohibit the sale or issuance of any policies that insulate beneficiaries from the Medicare Part B deductible of $147. This provision would apply only to new beneficiaries and only after Jan. 1, 2020; it would not take away health insurance plans for seniors currently enrolled.

In contrast, the Obama administration’s budget plan took a more conservative approach to this problem. It proposed a “premium surcharge for new beneficiaries beginning in 2019” choosing first-dollar Medigap coverage. Under its approach, insurers could still offer, and seniors could still purchase, insulating Medigap insurance—but they would have to repay taxpayers for additional Medicare spending engendered by their generous supplemental coverage. The president’s budget did not go so far as to apply this to today’s seniors, but it would be easier to extend this premium surcharge concept to existing Medicare beneficiaries; they could keep their existing insurance and would have to make taxpayers whole.

Medigap supplemental insurance is hardly a free market. Over and above state regulation of plans, the federal government has prescribed benefit packages for many years thanks to Medigap’s interactions with Medicare. But it’s striking that policy makers in the House decided the best way to reform this insurance market was to ban certain types of insurance outright, as opposed to implementing changes to ensure that Medicare does not lose money from seniors’ overconsumption of care.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

At What Price Medicare “Reform?”

The Congressional Budget Office has released its score of the Medicare “doc fix” legislation scheduled for consideration Thursday in the House. Among other things, the score provides some sense of the difficulty in enacting reforms to improve Medicare’s solvency.

CBO projected that the bipartisan legislation to repair Medicare’s physician payment structure would add $141 billion to the deficit. As I wrote in an earlier post, Congress paid for temporary patches in the past in part by cutting spending and in part by planning on bigger payment reductions in future years. While the legislation’s prospective increases in payment levels would be paid for, the future payment reductions already on the books would not be covered, thus raising the deficit. That unpaid-for increase in Medicare spending would also raise the basic Medicare Part B monthly premium by $10 monthly in 2025, CBO concluded.

The bill would make two structural changes to Medicare. CBO found significant savings—more than $34 billion—from reduced subsidies for higher-income earners. But the legislation’s reforms to Medigap supplemental insurance produced comparatively paltry savings: $400 million over a decade. The smaller savings is a result of legislators delaying the Medigap changes until 2020 and watering down the proposed cost-sharing required of Medigap enrollees.

CBO analyzed the bill’s costs and fiscal impact in its second decade, but the budget scorekeepers did not say the bill would reduce the deficit in the budgetary “out-years.” Compared with current law, the bill would increase the deficit, the agency said. And when compared to “freezing Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services,” CBO said, “the legislation could represent net savings or net costs in the second decade after enactment, but the center of the distribution of possible outcomes is small net savings.” In other words, even if one considers the scheduled reductions in future payments budgetary gimmicks that will never happen–and thus that they should be disregarded–the bill might not reduce the deficit, and if it did the budgetary savings would be very small.

Medicare needs more than very small savings to remain viable for the long term. The program’s Part A trust fund has run deficits of more than $120 billion over the past six years. And Medicare’s problems will only increase: Urban Institute projections indicate that a married couple earning average wages that retires this year will receive more than three times as much in benefits—$427,000—over their lifetime as they have paid in Medicare taxes. If the price of reforming Medicare is raising the deficit by $141 billion, how much more “reform” can Medicare withstand?

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

Will the “Doc Fix” Include a Compromise on Children’s Health Insurance?

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee issued a news release Saturday expressing concern about provisions for children’s health insurance in the Medicare “doc fix” bill taking shape in the House. Media coverage of the children’s health program has largely focused on the length of the extension: Senate Democrats want a four-year extension, while a summary of the House agreement released Friday has a two-year reauthorization. But there are other, fundamental policy disagreements.

The disagreements are rooted in a letter issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in August 2007. Congress was due to reauthorize the children’s health insurance program that fall, and the letter applied two principles to state programs: It targeted resources first toward families making less than 200% of the federal poverty level (now $48,500 for a family of four). If states wished to expand children’s health insurance to families with incomes greater than 250% of the federal poverty level, they had to first cover at least 95% of children in the lowest income group. The letter also instructed states to take steps to ensure that children and families were not dropping private, employer-provided coverage to enroll in taxpayer-funded programs.

Democrats reacted to the letter by refusing to vote on President George W. Bush’s nominee for CMS administrator in the Senate. The Democratic-controlled Congress passed legislation expanding children’s health insurance October 2007 and January 2008, but President Bush, viewing the bills as inconsistent with the policy goals his administration had outlined, vetoed the measures. House Republicans sustained his veto on both occasions.

Upon taking office, President Barack Obama ordered his secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, to rescind the August 2007 memo. In February 2009 congressional Democrats enacted the children’s health insurance program expansion that had previously eluded them. Many Republicans believe the program should be targeted toward the lowest-income families, as it was initially designed. Draft reauthorization language issued by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month would focus “funding on low-income families” to “address concerns about crowding out private coverage and subsidizing upper-middle-class families,” according to a summary.

The bipartisan deal to amend Medicare’s “doc fix” includes a two-year reauthorization of the children’s health insurance program, but policy details of that extension haven’t been released. Unless Republicans and Democrats can agree on a compromise—which eluded Congress and the Bush administration in 2007-08—one party may have to renege on policies it has adhered to for years. There are questions about the fiscal sustainability of the “doc fix,” but the philosophical questions may be no less difficult.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

The House “Doc Fix” and the Obama Budget

Last month, in writing about how the president’s budget would forestall changes to entitlements for several years, I said that while the budget “would include some modest changes to Medicare benefits, the overall document postpones most of the fiscal pain until after President Barack Obama leaves office.” The same might be true of bipartisan Medicare legislation that addresses physician payments.

House leaders filed “doc fix” legislation Thursday afternoon, but they have not yet released the legislative language surrounding the parts of the bill that would be paid for. A summary circulating among lobbyists in Washington suggests as one of the “pay-fors” a Medicare Advantage timing shift—a budget gimmick that would shift plan payments into a future fiscal year, masking overall Medicare spending levels.

The document also discusses more substantive changes to the Medicare program: Federal Part B and Part D subsidies would be reduced for individuals with incomes greater than $133,000. And first-dollar coverage for new beneficiaries purchasing supplemental coverage—which studies have shown encourages seniors to over-consume care–would be limited.

These changes may start to address Medicare’s structural shortfalls, but they seem relatively paltry next to some of the Obama administration’s budget proposals. The president’s plan proposed increasing the Medicare Part B deductible and introducing home health co-payments—actions that could reduce incentives for over-consumption of care and crack down on fraud, a particular problem in the home health program. But while the president’s proposed changes would not take effect until 2019, the House proposal would delay them one additional year, until 2020.

Demographics will define our fiscal future for the generation to come. The Congressional Budget Office noted this year that Social Security, health programs, and interest payments represent 84% of the increase in federal spending over the coming decade, largely because an average of 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day. Yet the House legislation could end up exempting from any structural reforms the more than 16 million individuals forecast to join Medicare by 2020.

Unsustainable trends will, at some point, give out. As I wrote last month, putting dessert before spinach by kicking tough choices to future political leaders might lead to short-term political gains but could also produce long-term fiscal and political pain. And when the fiscal reckoning occurs, voters are not likely to look kindly on those who created the problems.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

Paying for the Medicare “Doc Fix”

House members are working on legislation to provide a permanent repeal of provisions capping Medicare reimbursements to physicians. As past debates have shown, failure to identify spending cuts to offset the pay increase to doctors would significantly impact seniors’ Medicare premiums.

Legislative language has yet to be released, but press reports have indicated the outlines of a potential agreement between House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The proposal is expected to permanently repeal the sustainable growth rate (SGR) mechanism established in 1997 for setting physician payments and overall physician spending within Medicare. After only a few years, spending began to exceed the SGR spending targets, prompting Congress to pass a series of bills—known as the “doc fix”–adjusting the targets upward for short periods.

In general, Congress financed these short-term doc fixes by reducing spending elsewhere in the budget. More than $165 billion worth was covered this way. But lawmakers used two statutory mechanisms to lower the cost of these short-term spending bumps and promised to recover the remaining costs in the future. Each time it has come up, Congress has kicked the proverbial can down the line.

When it comes to physician payment, the agreement being negotiated by the congressional leaders is expected to do two things: First, it would fill in the shortfall from repeated budgetary gimmicks. Maintaining flat payment rates for the future, rather than letting the SGR cuts take effect, would cost $137.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This would not be paid for but would be absorbed into the deficit. The second part of the agreement, which provides for modest increases in physician payments in the coming years, would have a net cost of $37.1 billion, according to CBO. This increase in spending would be paid for.

One ramification of the proposed $137 billion increase in deficit spending: Seniors would fund a significant portion. As CBO noted in its 2009 score of an earlier, unsuccessful SGR repeal bill: “Beneficiaries enrolled in Part B of Medicare pay premiums that offset about 25 percent of the costs of those benefits. . . . Therefore, about one-quarter of the increase in Medicare spending would be offset by changes in those premium receipts.”

The House Republican leadership is well aware of the premium effects of an unpaid-for SGR repeal. When then-Speaker Pelosi brought an unpaid-for SGR repeal bill to the House floor in November 2009, then-Minority Leader Boehner called it an “absolute train wreck,” because it “forces seniors to pay higher premiums.” All but one House Republican voted against the legislation—largely because it did not include spending cuts to pay for the repeal.

It remains unclear how many House Republicans today might change their position from 2009, or what their public justification for doing so would be. What is clear is that any unpaid-for legislation would have a fiscal impact on America’s seniors as well as the federal budget.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

King v. Burwell and Congressional Intent on Exchange Subsidies

In the big case to be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, supporters of the health-care law maintain that nonpartisan congressional analyses of Obamacare make clear that lawmakers intended on making subsidies available to individuals in all states, even if the precise language is open to interpretation.

But  in at least one other case, the law’s supporters took the opposite tack—ignoring a bipartisan congressional analysis that came up with a conclusion they didn’t like.

Here is what’s happening:

King v. Burwell, the case to be heard Wednesday, centers on the legality of insurance subsidies being provided in states that use the federal HealthCare.gov platform. Some congressional sponsors of the health-care law have said that they clearly intended to make subsidies available to individuals in all states, regardless of whether states used their own or the federal insurance exchange.

In op-eds and amicus briefs, several members of Congress have argued that an Internal Revenue Service rule proposed in August 2011 and finalized in May 2012 that extended subsidies to individuals in both state- and federally run insurance exchanges was consistent with their intent at the time the health-care law was passed. The Congressional Budget Office “came to the same conclusion,” five lawmakers wrote in the Washington Post last October. The legislators say that because CBO assumed that subsidies would be available in all 50 states, as expressed by CBO scores for the bill when it passed, Congress’s intent was clear. But on a different issue of interpretation, several of the law’s authors undermined that logic.

The issue that prompted the about-face involves the “family glitch” related to eligibility for insurance subsidies. If one parent is offered health insurance through an employer, the entire family does not qualify for subsidies to purchase coverage through the marketplace. In March 2010, the same week the health-care bill was signed into law, the Joint Committee on Taxation issued an analysis of the legislation that said, in part, that even though “family coverage costs more than 9.5 percent of income, the family does not qualify for a tax credit regardless of whether the employee purchases self-only coverage or does not purchase self-only coverage through the employer.”

The same August 2011 proposed rule that prompted King v. Burwell also included Treasury proposals to codify the “family glitch,” consistent with the March 2010 technical explanation provided by the Joint Committee on Taxation. Yet Reps. Sander Levin and Henry Waxman—who, respectively, chaired the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the ACA was passed—wrote to Treasury in December 2011 complaining about this interpretation of the statute. Their letter argued that the Treasury interpretation of the glitch was “simply incongruent” with congressional intent and a “wrong interpretation of the law.”

When it came to the exchange subsidies, the Congressional Budget Office undertook no textual analysis of the statutory provisions at dispute in King v. Burwell. But the Joint Tax Committee did. It released a contemporaneous analysis of the provisions at issue with respect to the “family glitch.” Although Mr. Levin and Mr. Waxman say CBO’s silence suggests a presumption that subsidies should be available in all 50 states, they disregarded the contemporaneous analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Now, the former House committee chairmen could have been unaware of the JCT analysis at the time the law was passed. They could wish to argue for the most generous subsidy regime possible, regardless of the law’s technical specifics. There may be some other policy or political explanation.

But this situation highlights the pitfalls of claims regarding a law’s intent. All types of retrospective analyses could turn into self-justifying ones—which may provide little use to courts attempting to discern what a statute actually means.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

CBO, Transparency, and Obamacare’s Deficit Impact

Before a House rules change in January, CBO generally had not applied “dynamic scoring” to major legislation, or considered likely macro-economic effects when analyzing a bill’s potential impact on the deficit. On Friday, in response to follow-up questions from a January congressional hearing, CBO said that had it conducted such an analysis of Obamacare, it would have found that the bill reduced the federal deficit by less than its original projections.

In short: Because CBO believes the health-care law will discourage work, it would lower federal revenues—but the agency did not consider the revenue impacts of these effects in 2010, when it projected that the law would reduce the federal deficit.

Although CBO does not usually estimate macroeconomic effects of major bills, it has done this. In 2013 the agency “relaxed” its score-keeping convention with respect to immigration legislation in the Senate, concluding that the bills under consideration would increase the labor supply and economic growth and thus federal revenues. Both the 2013 Senate immigration bill and Obamacare would have altered the U.S. workforce by millions of workers. That CBO went to great lengths to estimate the macroeconomic and fiscal effects of Senate legislation never enacted but has yet to do so with Obamacare raises questions about the agency’s policies for scoring legislative measures.

CBO has conducted two analyses of the health-care law’s impact on labor markets, but these did not say that the law’s effects on the labor force would impact its potential deficit reduction. The first analysis, released in August 2010, said that Obamacare would reduce the workforce by about half a percent, or approximately 800,000 workers, by 2021. The second analysis, released in February 2014, roughly tripled that estimate, to 1.5% to 2% of the labor force—the equivalent of approximately 2.3 million workers in 2021. CBO could have publicly stated that these labor-force changes, and the related revenue effects, would negatively affect the deficit, even if it could not specify by how much.

CBO said last summer that it would no longer produce estimates for the fiscal impact of the health law as a whole. It also declined to release a score of legislation repealing the law before last month’s House vote. In a blogpost last June, Mr. Elmendorf wrote that CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation “have no reason to think that their initial [March 2010] assessment that the ACA would reduce budget deficits was incorrect.” But the agency’s statement on Friday illustrates that the 2010 deficit assessment was incomplete and could be incorrect. CBO appears to have no intention of correcting this flaw or revealing Obamacare’s true fiscal impact.

CBO’s statement Friday was released to select congressional offices the same day Keith Hall was named as Mr. Elmendorf’s replacement. As CBO’s past analyses of Obamacare’s impact on the labor market received much press fanfare, the down-playing of this information seems straight out of “The West Wing.”

One hopes that under Dr. Hall’s leadership CBO will address a few issues, including a revised score of Obamacare that accounts for the legislation’s impact on labor markets and a broader discussion about the need to consider macroeconomic effects when analyzing bills as large in size and scope as the 2,700-page health-care law. CBO is accountable to Congress and taxpayers; it can act accordingly starting with more transparency.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.