Three Points CBO Omitted from Its Report on Obamacare Repeal

This morning, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report analyzing the effects of Obamacare repeal. Specifically, CBO claimed that enacting a reconciliation bill that the last Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, would increase the number of uninsured (even relative to pre-Obamacare numbers) while raising insurance premiums appreciably. CBO believes that leaving Obamacare’s major insurance regulations in place—which last year’s reconciliation bill did—while repealing the law’s subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, will destabilize insurance markets, cause insurers to exit the marketplace, and raise premiums.

However, there are three important facts the CBO report didn’t address:

CBO Has Gotten Previous Estimates Wrong

While no forecaster has a perfect batting average, CBO’s track record with respect to Obamacare is perhaps less ideal than most. CBO thought that the CLASS Act—which Democratic Senator Kent Conrad infamously called “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing for which Bernie Madoff would be proud of—could be implemented in an actuarially sound manner. The Obama Administration eventually had to admit that the CLASS Act was not a fiscally sound program. And CBO failed to conduct enough analysis that could have predicted the CLASS Act’s failure prior to Obamacare’s passage—a point former Director Doug Elmendorf has publicly refused to admit.

With respect to enrollment, CBO significantly over-estimated the number of individuals that would sign up for Obamacare. In March 2010, as Democrats were ready to pass the law, CBO claimed that in 2016, 21 million individuals would sign up for coverage on insurance Exchanges. The reality has proven far different: Less than half as many individuals (10.4 million) had Exchange coverage as of June 30, 2016. And this much lower enrollment comes despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling making Medicaid expansion optional for states—which actually increased Exchange enrollment in states that have declined to expand Medicaid.

CBO claimed in 2010 that the individual mandate would cause tens of millions of individuals to sign up for coverage. It hasn’t happened. Now CBO claims that effectively repealing the mandate while leaving insurance regulations in place will cause healthy individuals to cancel coverage en masse. Could that happen? Absolutely. But given their recent track record on this specific issue, should one really take CBO’s word as gospel…?

The Solution Is More Repeal, Not Less

In a paradoxical way, the CBO report actually makes a strong case for expanding the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill. The paper notes on several occasions that repealing Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, while leaving its insurance regulations in place, would harm insurance markets. For instance, CBO notes that:

The number of people without health insurance would be smaller if, in addition to the changes in [last year’s reconciliation bill], the insurance market reforms mentioned above were also repealed.

Congress chose not to litigate the question of whether Obamacare’s major insurance mandates were budgetary in nature, and thus could be included in a budget reconciliation bill, last year. It should do so now. The findings of this CBO paper, along with other scoring estimates, give ample ammunition to those who consider it entirely consistent with past Senate precedents to include repeal of the major insurance regulations in budget reconciliation.

The Trump Administration Can Mitigate Repeal’s Effects

Even if Congress cannot or will not expand the scope of the reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations under Obamacare, the Trump Administration can act to mitigate against the kinds of concerns outlined in the CBO paper. A report I released just this morning outlines some of them. The Administration can significantly shorten—to just a few weeks, or even shorter—the annual open enrollment period, which can protect against individuals signing up for coverage after they get sick. It can reduce special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment, and require verification for all special enrollment. And it can take other administrative actions to mitigate the effects of a spike in premiums.