Monthly Archives: March 2017

Lessons of the AHCA Collapse

Like the British evacuation of Dunkirk more than seven decades ago, Friday’s abrupt decision to halt proceedings on the American Health Care Act (AHCA) prior to a House vote represented victory only in that it averted an even costlier defeat—an embarrassing floor vote seemingly destined to fail, or passage of a bill unloved by wide swathes of the public and lawmakers alike.

Whether that decision is ultimately viewed as a “deliverance”—as Winston Churchill dubbed the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation—will depend in no small part on whether lawmakers can, both individually and collectively, learn the right lessons from an entirely predictable defeat.

“What went wrong?” poses an erroneous query about this bill. The question is not why it failed, but why anyone thought it might succeed. Virtually all of the premises upon which the legislation was based proved faulty, and were easily proven faulty prior to its introduction. There’s little need for Monday-morning quarterbacking if only one can see the flaws in one’s strategy on the Sunday morning prior to the game.

Republicans Need to Remember How to Govern

Leadership outlined its strategy—such as it was—in a February 27 Wall Street Journal article: “Republican leaders are betting that the only way for Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act is to set a bill in motion and gamble that fellow GOP lawmakers won’t dare to block it.”

Irrespective of what one thinks of the bill’s policy particulars—whether the bill represents a positive, coherent governing document and vision for the health care system—this thinking demonstrates that Republicans have to re-learn not just how to govern, but also how to legislate.

As a legislative strategy, the House’s gambit represented a puerile cross between the “chickie run” in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Hans Christen Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Daring lawmakers to challenge the process, and attempting to bully and browbeat them into submission—“testosterone can get you in trouble,” as Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) reportedly noted during one meeting—does not a durable process make. Unsurprisingly, that process broke down after a mere 18 days.

While many stories have focused on Speaker Paul Ryan, some minds might turn instead to one of his predecessors, and an axiom used by the longest-tenured House speaker, Sam Rayburn: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.” That the outcome seems predictable—indeed, was predicted by many in private conversations—makes it no less painful politically, or personally.

In circumstances such as these, there is a fine line between learning lessons and pointing fingers. Focusing on the personalities behind the legislative failure would only further enflame tensions, while serving little productive purpose. On the other hand, understanding the reasons the legislation was in many ways doomed from the start can help prevent future calamities. Of the flawed premises that lay behind the legislative strategy, three seem particularly problematic.

1. Starting with the House

The House’s decision to consider the legislation first seemed ill-considered at the time, given the difficulties the chamber encountered the last time it moved first on repealing Obamacare. In the fall 2015, Congress considered and passed, but President Obama vetoed, repeal legislation under special budget reconciliation procedures. Passing the bill represented a “dry run” testing what a Republican Congress could do to dismantle Obamacare, but for the Democratic president who remained in the White House.

But as I noted the week after last November’s election, the House’s 2015 repeal reconciliation bill suffered from numerous procedural flaws. That legislation originally repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), even though such Senate procedures meant that this provision, with an incidental fiscal impact, could not remain on a budget reconciliation bill. The House-reported legislation also increased the deficit in the years beyond the 10-year budget window, subjecting it to a potentially fatal point-of-order in the Senate.

The House’s 2015 reconciliation bill contained so many procedural flaws that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce an entirely new substitute version of the legislation. Had he not, the Senate parliamentarian would have advised the Senate to strip the bill of its procedural protection as a reconciliation matter, forcing the House to start its process all over again.

Given that near-death experience fewer than 18 months ago, it made much more sense for the Senate to take the lead in crafting a reconciliation measure. At minimum, House staff needed to solicit greater feedback from the Senate regarding that chamber’s procedures during the drafting process, to ensure they wrote the bill consistent with the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules. Neither happened.

House leadership claimed they wrote their bill to comply with the Senate’s reconciliation rules. But experts in Senate procedure could readily see that AHCA as released suffered from multiple procedural flaws, several potentially fatal to the entire bill. Last week, days before its scheduled floor consideration, the relevant House committees released a managers amendment re-drafting the measure’s tax credit, precisely because of the procedural flaws in the initial version.

All of which makes one wonder why the House insisted on initiating action. The Senate not only has more detailed and arcane procedures to follow than the House, Republicans also hold a narrower majority in the upper chamber. While no more than 21 of 237  House Republicans (8.9 percent) can defect on a bill passing solely with Republican votes, no more than two of 52 Senate Republicans can defect in the upper chamber, a much narrower (3.9 percent) margin.

Due to both its procedural quirks and tighter vote margins, it made far more sense for the Senate to initiate legislative action. Yet this year, as in 2015, the House took the lead—and ran into the same procedural problems.

2. The Unrealistic Timetable

The day before House leadership released a document outlining their vision for what became AHCA, I published a lengthy analysis of the legislative environment. I concluded that any legislation featuring either comprehensive changes to Medicaid or a refundable tax credit—the former I generally favored, the latter I did not—just could not pass in the timetable allotted for it:

The likelihood that House Republicans can get a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill—defined as one with either tax credits, Medicaid reform, or both—1) drafted; 2) cleared by the Senate parliamentarian; 3) scored favorably by CBO [the Congressional Budget Office]; and 4) with enough Member support to ensure it passes in time for a mark-up on March 1—two weeks from now—is a nice round number: Zero-point-zero percent.

Likewise the chances of enacting a comprehensive ‘repeal-and-replace’ bill by Congress’ Easter recess. It just won’t happen. For a bill signing ceremony for a comprehensive ‘repeal-and-replace’ bill, August recess seems a likelier, albeit still ambitious, target.

Nothing in the above passage proved inaccurate. House leadership even skipped steps in the process I outlined—going forward with markups without a CBO score, and not writing the bill to comply with Senate procedure until just before a scheduled House vote—yet still couldn’t meet their targets. This would lead most people to believe those targets were just too ambitious.

Two vignettes show the problems caused by the sheer haste of the process. First, the managers amendments released last Monday night had to be re-written on Tuesday night. In both cases, the House committees had to submit second-degree amendments “to address drafting issues,” because the original managers amendments had no fewer than ten separate drafting errors among them.

Second, the managers amendment included an extra pot of funds to increase the refundable tax credits given to those near retirement age. However, the legislation created that pot of money not by increasing the refundable credits, but by lowering thresholds for a deduction available to those who itemize medical expenses on their tax returns.

The decision to provide the additional funds through a deduction, rather than by adjusting the credits themselves, was almost certainly driven by the mechanics of budgetary scoring, and ultimately the bill’s timetable. While the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) could estimate the relatively straightforward financial effects of a deduction quickly, altering the tax credit levels for individuals aged 50-64 would create knock-on effects—would more individuals take the credit, would more individuals retire early and drop employer-sponsored coverage, etc.—taking CBO staff a week or more to model.

So, rather than “wasting” time coming up with a policy and finding out the effects of said policy, prior to House passage, congressional staff instead created a $90 billion “slush fund” and pledged to sort the details out later.

Just before Obamacare’s passage in March 2010, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously said “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” House Republicans took her multiple steps further: By including a “slush fund” designed to change later in the process, and proceeding to both committee markups and a vote on House passage without a final CBO score, congressional leadership guaranteed that anyone who voted for AHCA would not by definition have known what was intended to be in the bill, let alone the fiscal effects of such policies.

The end result was a group of members in vulnerable districts who voted for the bill in committee without a CBO score—and could suffer serious, if not fatal, political consequences for having done so. Some of these moderates hold substantial disagreements with conservatives on how to structure an Obamacare repeal. But it was not conservatives that compelled the moderates to cast a tough vote for the legislation in committee without a CBO score analyzing the bill’s fiscal and coverage impacts—it was the hyper-aggressive timetable.

3. Unproductive White House Coordination

While publicly President Trump and others made statements insisting that his administration was “100 percent behind” the House Republican plan, the divisions within the administration were an open secret on Capitol Hill. From staff to officials, many had misgivings about the policy behind the bill, the legislative tactics and strategy, or both.

Those differences helped affect the ultimate outcome. Ryan attempted to turn his legislation into a “binary choice”—either support this bill, or support Obamacare—granting conservatives some concessions during the drafting process, but few thereafter. By contrast, factions within the administration attempted to woo conservatives and fought House leadership, which resisted making changes.

Ironically, had the administration halted negotiations sooner, and demanded an immediate vote earlier last week, they might have had a better chance of winning that tally. (Whether that victory would have ultimately proved Pyrrhic is another story, but they might have eked out a victory nonetheless.) But because the White House and congressional leadership weren’t on the same page, the former’s negotiations with conservatives left moderates to slowly trickle away from the bill, such that by Friday, it was virtually impossible to find a coalition to reach 216 votes whichever way leadership turned.

Even as the momentum slowly sapped from the bill, the administration and Capitol Hill leaders remained at odds on tactics. The New York Times reported on Saturday that some in the administration wanted to hold a House vote, even an unsuccessful one, to find out who opposed President Trump. But making such a demand misunderstands the dynamic nature of votes in the House of Representatives.

While AHCA might have passed narrowly, it would not have failed narrowly. Once a critical mass of 30 or so Republican “noes” signaled the bill’s clear failure, members would have abandoned the politically unpopular legislation en masse—likely with the implicit or explicit support of House leadership. Having witnessed these “jailbreak” votes in the House, it’s possible that, had the White House forced the issue, the bottom could have fallen out on support for the bill. As a tactic to snuff out disloyal behavior, calling a vote on a doomed bill would have yielded little in the way of political intelligence—only more political damage.

Underneath Tactical Errors Is Philosophical Disagreement

Beneath the obvious tactical errors lie some fundamental disagreements within the Republican party and the conservative movement about Obamacare, the future of our health-care system, and even the role of government. As I have written elsewhere, those differences do not represent mere window-dressing. They are as sizable as they are substantive.

On the one hand, the conservative wing of the party has focused on repealing Obamacare, and lowering health costs—namely, the premiums that have risen substantially under the law. By contrast, moderates and centrists remain focused on its replacement, and ensuring that those who benefited from the law continue to have coverage under the new regime.

That divide between “repealers” and “replacers” represents a proxy for the debate between reducing costs and maximizing coverage, a debate that precedes Obamacare by several decades, if not several generations. Some have argued that facts on the ground—the individuals gaining coverage as a result of Obamacare—necessitate an approach focused on maintaining coverage numbers.

Others believe that “repeal means repeal,” that Republicans ran, and won, elections on repealing the law—including as recently as five months ago—and that breaking such a deeply ingrained pledge to voters would represent political malpractice of the highest order.

The drafters of the House bill attempted to split the ideological divide, in part by retaining the popular parts of Obamacare while minimizing the law’s drawbacks. Both the House bill and the Better Way plan that preceded it maintained Obamacare’s restrictions on pre-existing conditions, its requirement that insurers cover dependents under age 26, and its prohibition on annual and lifetime limits for health insurance.

But policy decisions come with trade-offs, and in health care in particular those trade-offs can prove troublesome. Barack Obama did not wish to impose a mandate to purchase health insurance, having fought against one during his 2008 primary campaign; but CBO scoring considerations forced him to endorse one in the bill that became Obamacare. Similarly, the “popular” insurance regulations that Republican leadership maintained in its bill were the same ones that raised premiums so appreciably when Obamacare went into effect.

The AHCA approach of repealing Obamacare’s mandates and subsidies while retaining most of its insurance regulations created what Yuval Levin, a policy wonk close to Ryan, called a “twisted, fun-house mirror approach” to prior conservative health policy that yielded “substantive incoherence.” Dropping the individual mandate while retaining most of the insurance regulations created a CBO score that showed substantial coverage losses while failing to lower premiums appreciably—the worst of all possible policy outcomes.

The ideological divisions within the Republican Party, and the incoherent muddle of legislation that attempted to bridge the two, may have been overcome had the House released its bill the morning after the election, on November 9. But it did not release the bill on November 9, or on December 9, or on January 9, or even on February 9. The House introduced its bill on March 6, with the goal of passing legislation through both chambers by April 6. That timetable didn’t envision reconciling ideological differences so much as it hoped to steamroll them. It was all-but-guaranteed not to end well.

Lessons For the Future

What then of the future? One can only but hope that Republicans follow the example of Kipling’s poem “The Lesson,” written during the Boer War: “Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should; We have had no end of a lesson: It will do us no end of good.”

But what are those lessons, and what good might result from heeding them? While the policy differences within factions of the Republican Party are sizable, the only way to bridge them lies through an open, transparent, and deliberative process—negotiating outcomes among all sides from the start, rather than imposing them from on high through fiat.

If, as President Reagan famously noted, “personnel is policy,” so too then process provides a key to optimal policy making. A good process by itself cannot create good policy, but bad process will almost assuredly result in bad policy outcomes. In the short- and long-term, five principles can provide the initial glimmer of a path forward from last Friday’s dark outcome.

1. Let the Senate Lead

The procedural details surrounding budget reconciliation, and the narrower margins in the upper chamber, both augur toward the Senate re-starting any action on health care. As a practical matter, tensions remain far too high—with tempers short, friendships among members and staff frayed, and patience thin—for the House to initiate any legislative action for at least the next few weeks.

On upcoming legislation ranging from appropriations to tax reform to additional action regarding Obamacare, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” will have to exercise its deliberative powers. The ideological gaps are no less narrow in the House than in the Senate—can Mike Lee and Susan Collins reach consensus on a path forward regarding Obamacare?—but the recriminations and scars of the past month smaller.

If the Senate, with its smaller margins and arcane procedures, can deliver a quality policy product, the House, having seen its legislation sink in mere weeks, might be much more inclined to adopt it as its own.

2. Listen

House leadership rightfully notes AHCA had its origins in the Better Way policy white paper released last June. Prior to that document’s release, leadership staff spent significant time and effort reaching out to members, interest groups, the think-tank community, and others to gain thoughts and feedback on their proposals.

But actual legislation is orders of magnitude more complex than a white paper. Moreover, Better Way and AHCA deviate from each other in multiple important respects. The Better Way proposal includes numerous provisions—incentives for wellness, conscience protections for health care professionals, and proposals to repeal sections of Obamacare regarding Medicare, and Medicare Advantage—never included in AHCA, or mentioned in any great detail as part of the House’s “three-phase” approach.

Meanwhile, AHCA doubles the funding for grants to states when compared to the Better Way proposal, and uses significantly different parameters for the state grants than the 2009 House Republican alternative to Obamacare referenced in the Better Way document.

It’s possible to speculate on why House leadership made all these changes, but leadership itself made very little attempt to communicate exactly why they made them, or even that they were making them at all. Saying that Better Way led to AHCA is like saying the Model T led to the DeLorean. The former are both health-care proposals just as the latter are both cars, but each differ in significant ways.

The process that led from Better Way to AHCA was almost as significant as the process that led from the Model T to the DeLorean, but was opaque to all but a few closely held staff. Even lawmakers who understood and supported every single element of the Better Way plan could rightfully feel whipsawed when presented with AHCA, told it was a “binary choice,” and they had to publicly support it within a few weeks of its introduction, or otherwise they would be voting to keep Obamacare in place and undermine a new president.

When the Republican Study Committee unveiled its health-care legislation in 2013, its public release culminated a months-long process of consultation and scrutiny of the legislative text itself. RSC staff reached out to dozens of policy experts (myself included), and spent hours going through the bill line-by-line to make sure the legislation would accomplish its intended goals, while keeping unintended consequences to a minimum.

AHCA would have benefited immensely from this type of under-the-radar analysis, rather than subjecting legislation not yet ready for prime time to the intense scrutiny that came with a white-hot political debate and a hyper-accelerated timeline.

3. Trust Experts

A note at the bottom of page 25 of a leaked draft of AHCA provides an important hint toward a larger issue. The bracketed note, in a passage regarding per capita cap reforms to Medicaid, calls for staff to “review with CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] any conforming amendments required.”

Congressional staff I spoke with over the past few weeks questioned whether anyone within the relevant agencies had in fact reviewed the legislation, to provide the technical expertise necessary to ensure that AHCA could be implemented as written, and would actually result in a workable health-care system.

At the time the legislative process began, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had relatively few political appointees—no more than a few dozen out of about 150 total spots filled, and a CMS administrator not confirmed until the week prior to the scheduled House vote. The combination of a stretched staff and mistrust between political and career appointees within the agencies could well have limited the exchange of critically important details regarding how to draft, and implement, the legislation.

In addition to working with career personnel at the agencies, congressional staff should also utilize the institutional knowledge of their predecessors. While working for the House Republican Conference in 2009, I made it a point to start the Obamacare debate by finding out what I didn’t know, reaching out to those who had gone through the “Hillarycare” debate 15 years prior. My idea came from an unlikely source—former senator Tom Daschle, who in his 2008 book “Critical” described how lawmakers went through a “Health Care University” of policy seminars in 1993. In trying to replicate those seminars for both members and staff, I hoped we could obtain some of the collective wisdom of the past that I knew I lacked.

As I had previously noted in November, most of the senior Republican health-care staff working on Capitol Hill during the Obamacare debate in 2009-10 have moved on to other posts. But they, and others like them, are not far removed from the process. Based on my experience, most would gladly offer technical guidance and expertise; in many cases, even the lobbyists would do so with “client hats” removed, in the hopes of arriving at the best possible product.

But reaching out in such a manner requires a deliberative and inclusive process; games of legislative hide-and-seek and talk of “binary choices” preclude the received wisdom of all but the select few participating in the policy-making.

4. Be Honest

The House Ways and Means Committee’s section-by-section summary of AHCA illustrates the dilemma lawmakers faced. Page three of the document, discussing verification of eligibility for the new tax credit, states that “the Secretary of the Treasury is empowered to create a system—building upon already developed systems—to deliver the credit.”

There’s just one minor detail missing: The “already developed systems” for verifying eligibility Ways and Means referenced are Obamacare eligibility systems. This goes a long way toward explaining the omission: If the House is using an Obamacare eligibility system to deliver a refundable tax credit (also included in Obamacare), how much of the law is it really repealing?

Capitol Hill leadership could never reconcile the inherent contradictions in their product. On MSNBC, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) called AHCA “the best opportunity to deliver on our promise to repeal the awful law of Obamacare”—eliding the fact that the bill explicitly retains and utilizes portions of that “awful law.” When pressed, leadership staff relied upon absurd, legalistically parsed statements, afraid to admit that the bill retained portions of Obamacare’s infrastructure.

These Clintonian definitions—“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘repeal’ is”—do nothing but build mistrust among members and staff alike. At least some in the policy community felt that House leaders were relying upon Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s parliamentarian, as a de facto human shield—claiming the House couldn’t repeal portions of Obamacare under budget reconciliation, when in fact leadership wouldn’t, for policy or political reasons.

The fact that House leaders claimed their bill comported with reconciliation requirements, yet had to re-write major portions of AHCA at the last minute because it did not, gives added credence to this theory.

Whenever “repeal-and-replace” legislation comes back before Congress, the leaders and committees preparing the legislation should include a list of all the major provisions of Obamacare not repealed by the measure, along with clear reasons why. Even if some members want a more robust repeal than that offered, transparency would at least prevent the corrosive mistrust—“You’re not being up-front about this, so what other things are you hiding?”—that comes from an opaque process.

5. Be Humble

More than perhaps any bill in recent memory, AHCA represented a feat of legislative hubris. As a policy matter, Obamacare imposed a more sweeping scope on the nation’s health-care system. But the tactics used to “sell” AHCA—“We’re doing this now, and in this way. Get on board, or get out of the way”—were far more brutal, and resulted in a brutal outcome, an outcome easily predicted, but the one its authors did not intend.

There is a different approach, one I’ve seen on display. Some job interviews are thoroughly unremarkable, but two during my tenure on Capitol Hill stand out—the chief of staff who described himself as a “servant leader,” one who ensures all the members of the team have the tools they need to succeed; and the legislative director who told me, “We want to make sure you have a voice.” Of course I took both jobs, and felt myself privileged to work in such inclusive and empowering environments.

In some ways, the process that led to AHCA represents the antithesis of servant leadership, with members being given a virtual ultimatum to support legislation many neither liked nor understood. But in its purest form, public service should be just that—service—to one’s constituents, and, in the case of elected congressional leaders, to the members who chose them.

A more humble, inclusive, open, and transparent process will not guarantee success. The policy differences among the disparate Republican factions are real, and may not ultimately be bridgeable. But an opaque, authoritarian, and rushed process will almost certainly guarantee failure, as it did in the case of AHCA.

Listening Is Crucial

Ultimately, the failure to legislate on AHCA lay in a failure to listen to the policy concerns of Members, and to the warning signs present from the start. One can only hope that Republicans learn from this proverbial mule-kick, and start listening to each other more carefully and more closely. That process can yield the wisdom and judgment that comes from understanding, which can only help to heal the many breaches within the party following the events of recent weeks.

On November 8, Republicans received an important gift from voters—the chance to serve the country. Recovering from last week’s setback will require leaders of a humbled party to recommit themselves to service, both to the American people and to each other, in service of a common good. The chance to serve the American people is solely within the public’s gift. That gift, if and when squandered, will likely not be renewed for a long time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Updates to House Republicans’ Managers Amendments

On Thursday evening, House leadership released the text of a second-degree managers amendment making additional policy changes. That amendment:

  • Delays repeal of the Medicare “high-income” tax until 2023;
  • Amends language in the Patient and State Stability Fund to allow states to dedicate grant funds towards offsetting the expenses of rural populations, and clarify the maternity, mental health, and preventive services allowed to be covered by such grants;
  • Appropriates an additional $15 billion for the Patient and State Stability Fund, to be used only for maternity and mental health services; and
  • Allows states to set essential health benefits for health plans, beginning in 2018.

Earlier on Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office released an updated cost estimate regarding the managers amendment. CBO viewed its coverage and premium estimates as largely unchanged from its original March 13 projections. However, the budget office did state that the managers package would reduce the bill’s estimated savings by $187 billion — increasing spending by $49 billion, and decreasing revenues by $137 billion. Of the increased spending, $41 billion would come from more generous inflation measures for some of the Medicaid per capita caps, and $8 billion would come from other changes. Of the reduced revenues, $90 billion would come from lowering the medical care deduction from 7.5 percent to 5.8 percent of income, while $48 billion would come from accelerating the repeal of Obamacare taxes compared to the base bill. Note that this “updated” CBO score released Thursday afternoon does NOT reflect any of the changes proposed Thursday evening; scores on that amendment will not be available until after Friday’s expected House vote.

Updated ten-year costs for repeal of the Obamacare taxes include:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”)—but only through 2026 (lowers revenue by $66 billion);
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications (lowers revenue by $5.7 billion);
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars (lowers revenue by $100 million);
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Medical device tax (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage (lowers revenue by $1.8 billion);
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction (lowers revenue by $125.7 billion)
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals (lowers revenue by $126.8 billion);
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals (lowers revenue by $28.5 billion);
  • Health insurer tax (lowers revenue by $144.7 billion);
  • Tax on tanning services (lowers revenue by $600 million);
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives (lowers revenue by $500 million); and
  • Net investment tax (lowers revenue by $172.2 billion).

A Fiscally Irresponsible Bill

Last week the Wall Street Journal, in endorsing House Republicans’ American Health Care Act, highlighted the legislation’s “fiscal bonus.” Yes, the bill’s Medicaid reforms warrant praise as a good effort to control entitlement spending. But that meritorious effort notwithstanding, the bill contains numerous structural flaws, with potentially more on the way, that could bust budgets for decades to come.

Some of the same leaders decrying or explaining away Congressional Budget Office scores showing large coverage losses due to the bill have proved far too willing to take the bill’s supposed deficit savings at face value. But a good CBO score doesn’t necessarily mean legislation will reduce the deficit; instead, it means that lawmakers and staff have worked hard to achieve a good CBO score.

CBO scores have inherent limitations — notably, the discipline (or lack thereof) on the part of lawmakers to adhere to a bill’s parameters. Two years ago this month, the Wall Street Journal endorsed a Medicare “doc fix” bill that increased the deficit by more than $140 billion in its first decade alone. In doing so, the editorial page argued that Congress’ “cycle[s] of fiscal deception” required a return to “honest budgeting,” stopping budget games by making spending increases more transparent.

Given this history, one question naturally follows: Does the American Health Care Act engage in similar cycles of fiscal deception likely to bust future budgets? Many signs point to yes. First, the bill expands access to Obamacare’s subsidy regime for calendar years 2018 and 2019. CBO believes the bill will reduce entitlement spending only slightly in its first few fiscal years — by $29 billion next year, and $42 billion the following — as the individual mandate’s repeal will cause some to drop coverage.

But in fiscal year 2020 — when the Obamacare entitlements would end and the new tax credit would begin — the bill assumes a massive $100 billion net reduction in entitlement spending. Net entitlement spending would fall still further, to $137 billion in fiscal year 2021, which begins on October 1, 2020, mere weeks before the presidential election.

With the bill’s major “cliff” in entitlement spending coming in a year divisible by four, it’s fair for conservatives to question whether these reductions will ever go into effect, and the promised deficit reduction will ever be achieved. If the “transition” provisions end up extended in perpetuity, conservatives will end up with “Obamacare Max” — an expanded Obamacare subsidy regime available to millions more individuals.

Second, the bill does not even attempt to undo the fraudulent entitlement accounting created by Obamacare. Section 223 of the reconciliation measure passed in January 2016 transferred $379.3 billion of that bill’s deficit savings back to the Medicare trust fund. That provision represented a recognition that, as vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said on the campaign trail back in August 2012, “President [Obama] took $716 billion from the Medicare program—he raided it—to pay for Obamacare.” Not only does Speaker Ryan’s bill not attempt to make Medicare whole from the Obamacare “raid,” the managers amendment released Monday evening consumed much of the bill’s supposed savings.

Third, while conservatives have focused on the bill’s tax credits as a new entitlement, the measure effectively creates a second new entitlement, this one for insurers. CBO’s estimate of possible premium reductions by 2026 hinged in no small part on creation of a “Patient and State Stability Fund,” and use of grants from the fund to subsidize insurers’ high-cost patients. However, the bill stops federal payments to the “Stability Fund” in 2026—and therefore the score does not take into consideration that this $10-15 billion annual bailout fund for health insurers could become permanent.

Fourth, reports suggest that House lawmakers are relying upon a bipartisan group in the Senate to repeal outright Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” (delayed until 2026 in the most recent bill), which would worsen deficits in future decades. Leadership sources pushing this move would then argue that the bill blows a hole in the budget not because it spends more money, but because it reduces revenue.

However, the 2016 reconciliation bill repealed all of Obamacare’s tax increases and its new entitlements, while leaving the deficit virtually unchanged over the next 50 years. By contrast, if lawmakers create two entitlements — the new tax credit regime and the “Stability Fund” — while also repealing the “Cadillac tax,” they will create a fiscal hole likely to reach into the trillions. To borrow a phrase, the American Health Care Act doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.

Budgetary “out-years” gimmicks brought us the Medicare “doc fix” mess in the first place, which should embolden conservatives to recognize fiscal chicanery and legerdemain when they see it.

Positive Medicaid reforms notwithstanding, the structure on which the American Health Care Act is based does fiscal responsibility a disservice. A conservative-controlled Congress can and should do better.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

Summary of House Republicans’ Managers Amendment

UPDATE: On March 23, the Congressional Budget Office released an updated cost estimate regarding the managers amendment. CBO viewed its coverage and premium estimates as largely unchanged from its original March 13 projections. However, the budget office did state that the managers package would reduce the bill’s estimated savings by $187 billion — increasing spending by $49 billion, and decreasing revenues by $137 billion. Of the increased spending, $41 billion would come from more generous inflation measures for some of the Medicaid per capita caps, and $8 billion would come from other changes. Of the reduced revenues, $90 billion would come from lowering the medical care deduction from 7.5 percent to 5.8 percent of income, while $48 billion would come from accelerating the repeal of Obamacare taxes compared to the base bill.

Updated ten-year costs for repeal of the Obamacare taxes include:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”)—but only through 2026 (lowers revenue by $66 billion);
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications (lowers revenue by $5.7 billion);
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars (lowers revenue by $100 million);
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Medical device tax (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage (lowers revenue by $1.8 billion);
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction (lowers revenue by $125.7 billion)
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals (lowers revenue by $126.8 billion);
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals (lowers revenue by $28.5 billion);
  • Health insurer tax (lowers revenue by $144.7 billion);
  • Tax on tanning services (lowers revenue by $600 million);
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives (lowers revenue by $500 million); and
  • Net investment tax (lowers revenue by $172.2 billion).

 

Original post follows:

On the evening of March 20, House Republicans released two managers amendments to the American Health Care Act—one making policy changes, and the other making “technical” corrections. The latter amendment largely consists of changes made in an attempt to avoid Senate points-of-order fatal to the reconciliation legislation.

In general, the managers amendment proposes additional spending (increasing the inflation measure for the Medicaid per capita caps) and reduced revenues (accelerating repeal of the Obamacare taxes) when compared to the base bill. However, that base bill already would increase the deficit over its first five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Moreover, neither the base bill nor the managers amendment—though ostensibly an Obamacare “repeal” bill—make any attempt to undo what Paul Ryan himself called Obamacare’s “raid” on Medicare, diverting hundreds of billions of dollars from that entitlement to create new entitlements. Given this history of financial gimmickry and double-counting, not to mention our $20 trillion debt, some conservatives may therefore question the fiscal responsibility of the “sweeteners” being included in the managers package.

Summary of both amendments follows:

Policy Changes

Medicaid Expansion:           Ends the enhanced (i.e., 90-95%) federal Medicaid match for all states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs as of March 1, 2017. Any state that has not expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults after that date could do so—however, that state would only receive the traditional (50-83%) federal match for their expansion population. However, the amendment prohibits any state from expanding to able-bodied adults with incomes over 133% of the federal poverty level (FPL) effective December 31, 2017.

With respect to those states that have expanded, continues the enhanced match through December 31, 2019, with states receiving the enhanced match for all beneficiaries enrolled as of that date as long as those beneficiaries remain continuously enrolled in Medicaid. Some conservatives may be concerned that this change, while helpful, does not eliminate the perverse incentive that current expansion states have to sign up as many beneficiaries as possible over the next nearly three years, to receive the higher federal match rate.

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 5 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.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Increases the inflation measure for Medicaid per capita caps for elderly, blind, and disabled beneficiaries from CPI-medical to CPI-medical plus one percentage point. The inflation measure for all other enrollees (e.g., children, expansion enrollees, etc.) would remain at CPI-medical.

Medicaid “New York Fix:”               Reduces the federal Medicaid match for states that require their political subdivisions to contribute to the costs of the state Medicaid program. Per various press reports, this provision was inserted at the behest of certain upstate New York congressmen, who take issue with the state’s current policy of requiring some counties to contribute towards the state’s share of Medicaid spending. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision represents a parochial earmark, and question its inclusion in the bill.

Medicaid Block Grant:        Provides states with the option to select a block grant for their Medicaid program, which shall run over a 10-year period. Block grants would apply to adults and children ONLY; they would not apply with respect to the elderly, blind, and disabled population, or to the Obamacare expansion population (i.e., able-bodied adults).

Requires states to apply for a block grant, listing the ways in which they shall deliver care, which must include 1) hospital care; 2) surgical care and treatment; 3) medical care and treatment; 4) obstetrical and prenatal care and treatment; 5) prescription drugs, medicines, and prosthetics; 6) other medical supplies; and 7) health care for children. The application will be deemed approved within 30 days unless it is incomplete or not actuarially sound.

Bases the first year of the block grant based on a state’s federal Medicaid match rate, its enrollment in the prior year, and per beneficiary spending. Increases the block grant every year with CPI inflation, but does not adjust based on growing (or decreasing) enrollment. Permits states to roll over block grant funds from year to year.

Some conservatives, noting the less generous inflation measure for block grants compared to per capita caps (CPI inflation for the former, CPI-medical inflation for the latter), and the limits on the beneficiary populations covered by the block grant under the amendment, may question whether any states will embrace the block grant proposal as currently constructed.

Implementation Fund:        Creates a $1 billion fund within the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the Medicaid reforms, the Stability Fund, the modifications to Obamacare’s subsidy regime (for 2018 and 2019), and the new subsidy regime (for 2020 and following years). Some conservatives may be concerned that this money represents a “slush fund” created outside the regular appropriations process at the disposal of the executive branch.

Repeal of Obamacare Tax Increases:             Accelerates repeal of Obamacare’s tax increases from January 2018 to January 2017, including:

  • “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans—not repealed fully, but will not go into effect until 2026, one year later than in the base bill;
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars;
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions;
  • Medical device tax;
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage;
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction—this provision actually reduces the limitation below prior law (Obamacare raised the threshold from expenses in excess of 7.5% of adjusted gross income to 10%, whereas the amendment lowers that threshold to 5.8%);
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals;
  • Health insurer tax;
  • Tax on tanning services;
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives; and
  • Net investment tax.

“Technical” Changes

Retroactive Eligibility:       Strikes Section 114(c), which required Medicaid applicants to provide verification of citizenship or immigration status prior to becoming presumptively eligible for benefits during the application process. The section was likely stricken for procedural reasons to avoid potentially fatal points-of-order, for imposing new programmatic requirements outside the scope of the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction and/or related to Title II of the Social Security Act.

Safety Net Funding:              Makes changes to the new pool of safety net funding for non-expansion states, tying funding to fiscal years instead of calendar years 2018 through 2022.

Medicaid Per Capita Cap:   Makes changes to cap formula, to clarify that all non-Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) supplemental payments are accounted for and attributable to beneficiaries for purposes of calculating the per capita cap amounts.

Stability Fund:          Makes technical changes to calculating relative uninsured rates under formula for allocating Patient and State Stability Fund grant amounts.

Continuous Coverage:         Strikes language requiring 30 percent surcharge for lack of continuous coverage in the small group market, leaving the provision to apply to the individual market only. With respect to the small group market, prior law HIPAA continuation coverage provisions would still apply.

Re-Write of Tax Credit:      Re-writes the new tax credit entitlement as part of Section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code—the portion currently being used for Obamacare’s premium subsidies. In effect, the bill replaces the existing premium subsidies (i.e., Obamacare’s refundable tax credits) with the new subsidies (i.e., House Republicans’ refundable tax credits), effective January 1, 2020.

The amendment was likely added for procedural reasons, attempting to “bootstrap” on to the eligibility verification regime already in place under Obamacare. Creating a new verification regime could 1) exceed the Senate Finance Committee’s jurisdiction and 2) require new programmatic authority relating to Title II of the Social Security Act—both of which would create a point-of-order fatal to the entire bill in the Senate.

In addition, with respect to the “firewall”—that is, the individuals who do NOT qualify for the credit based on other forms of health coverage—the amendment utilizes a definition of health insurance coverage present in the Internal Revenue Code. By using a definition of health coverage included within the Senate Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, the amendment attempts to avoid exceeding the Finance Committee’s remit, which would subject the bill to a potentially fatal point of order in the Senate.

However, in so doing, this ostensibly “technical” change restricts veterans’ access to the tax credit. The prior language in the bill as introduced (pages 97-98) allowed veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, coverage through the Veterans Administration to receive the credit. The revised language states only that individuals “eligible for” other forms of coverage—including Medicaid, Medicare, SCHIP, and Veterans Administration coverage—may not qualify for the credit. Thus, with respect to veterans’ coverage in particular, the managers package is more restrictive than the bill as introduced, as veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA coverage cannot qualify for credits.

Finally, the amendment removes language allowing leftover credit funds to be deposited into individuals’ health savings accounts—because language in the base bill permitting such a move raised concerns among some conservatives that those taxpayer dollars could be used to fund abortions in enrollees’ HSAs.

The “Technical” Amendment That Could Affect Millions of Veterans’ Health Coverage

As the House of Representatives steamrolls toward a vote tomorrow on Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, lawmakers weighing their vote may wish to consider a few key questions—such as:

  • How did an ostensibly “technical” amendment end up withdrawing refundable tax credits from up to seven million veterans?
  • Does Donald Trump—who released a specific plan early in his campaign to “ensure our veterans get the care they need wherever and whenever they need it”—realize the potentially broad-ranging effects of this “technical” amendment on veterans?
  • And what other supposedly “technical” language will turn out to have unintended consequences should House Republicans rush to put this legislation on the statute books without fully digesting its effects?

Conservatives have their own (justifiable) concerns with the underlying substance of the new tax credit entitlement, but this “technical” amendment provides a microcosm of the problems that result when legislators rush to judgment based on arbitrary deadlines. Just as with Obamacare itself, lawmakers may find they have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

The Issue

As I explained last week, the original House bill had a potentially fatal flaw in its tax credit “firewall.” Specifically, language designed to ensure individuals with other forms of health insurance—such as Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, and VA coverage—did not receive the credit touched upon other committees of jurisdiction in the Senate, such as Armed Services and Veterans Affairs. Under budget reconciliation procedures, a committee—the Senate Finance Committee, in this instance—cannot include subject matter outside its own jurisdiction; doing so could cause the entire bill to lose its procedural privilege as a reconciliation measure.

Due to these procedural concerns, the House released a technical amendment late Monday evening that, according to a summary, “includes the technical restructuring of the new tax credit made as a result of Senate guidance to maintain the privilege of the bill.” However, in restructuring the credit, staff—whether by accident or design—ended up eliminating eligibility for an entire class of veterans.

Pages 97-98 of the original House bill included specific language stating that veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA health benefits would qualify for the credit:

‘‘(2) SPECIAL RULE WITH RESPECT TO VETERANS HEALTH PROGRAMS.—In the case of other specified coverage described in paragraph (1)(F) [i.e., VA coverage], an individual shall not be treated as eligible for such coverage unless such individual is enrolled in such coverage.

However, the “technical” amendment released Monday evening strikes that language. The replacement language, on pages 9-10 of the amendment, states that individuals qualify for the credit only if they are “not eligible for” other types of coverage, including VA coverage:

‘‘(2) The individual is not eligible for—
‘‘(A) coverage under a group health plan (within the meaning of section 5000(b)(1)) other than coverage under a plan substantially all of the coverage of which is of excepted benefits described in section 9832(c), or
‘‘(B) coverage described in section 5000A(f)(1)(A) [which includes VA coverage]

The revised language therefore means that individuals eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA coverage cannot qualify for the new insurance subsidies created by the bill.

The Impact

The most recent estimates suggest about 9.1 million individuals are enrolled in VA health programs. However, a 2014 Congressional Budget Office score of veterans’ choice legislation concluded that “about 8 million [veterans] qualify to enroll in VA’s health system but have not enrolled.” Subtracting for VA enrollment gains since that CBO score leaves approximately seven million veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA health programs, and thus potentially affected by the House’s “technical” change.

At least some of those seven million veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA health programs may not qualify for the House’s new insurance subsidies for other reasons. For instance, some of those seven million veterans may have other forms of health coverage—from a current or former employer, Medicare, Tricare, etc.—that would render them ineligible for the credit regardless of their VA status.

However, given a universe of seven million veterans potentially affected by the changes, doubtless many veterans would be actually affected by the House language. And as a policy matter, it is unclear why the revised House language, by cutting off access to the credit for those eligible for but not enrolled in VA coverage, seeks to direct more people into a government-run VA health system still suffering from the effects of the wait time reporting scandal.

The Fallout

It is possible, and perhaps even probable, that this “technical” change—which in reality could affect millions of veterans—was entirely unintentional in nature, caused by harried, sleep-deprived congressional staff rushing to complete work on the bill. But it raises the obvious question: What other changes, tweaks, errors, or other unintended consequences might such rushed legislation contain?

We’ve seen this show before. In 2010, the text of Obamacare as passed failed to make clear that VA and Tricare coverage qualified as minimum benefits—making soldiers and veterans subject to taxes for violating the law’s individual mandate. Because of that drafting error, Republicans forced a vote on exempting soldiers and veterans from the mandate, before the issue was eventually resolved.

This week’s “technical” amendment, with potentially wide-reaching implications, reprises the errors of Obamacare, and demonstrates the dangers of House Republicans’ rushed strategy. With a highly compressed timetable seemingly dictating the entire process, unforced errors seem almost inevitable. President Trump has made clear his desire to move to tax reform as soon as possible—but how would he defend disqualifying up to seven million veterans from the bill’s tax credits?

Once finding out about the effects of this “technical” amendment, House leadership will quite probably move to change it—and fast. But what about the other “technical” problems lurking in the bill? Given the rushed process, doubtless more of these “bugs” and “glitches” exist. Who will find them—and when? What if they aren’t found until after the measure’s enactment, and then can’t be fixed legislatively? Lawmakers should think long and hard about these unintended consequences before they vote to assume responsibility for them for a long time to come.

Despite Trump Intervention, House GOP Still Not Repealing Obamacare

President Trump bragged that he won over many new converts to House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation following a Friday meeting with Members of Congress at the White House. After the meeting, House leaders scheduled a vote for later this week on the measure, and introduced provisions implementing the agreement in a managers amendment package late last night.

So what tweaks did Trump promise to Congress members on Friday—and will they improve or detract from the legislation itself?

What Changes Were Announced After The Meeting?

The agreement in principle with the House Members includes several components:

  1. Abortion restrictions for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs): RSC Chairman Mark Walker (R-NC) and other pro-life Members asked for further restrictions on abortion funding. As a result, the agreement eliminates language allowing unspent tax credit dollars to get transferred into Health Savings Accounts, for fear those taxpayer dollars moved into HSAs could be used to cover abortions. However, as I noted recently, many of the other restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion could well get stripped in the Senate, consistent with past precedent indicating that pro-life riders are incidental in their budgetary impact, and thus subject to the Senate’s “Byrd rule” preventing their inclusion on budget reconciliation.
  2. Prohibiting more states from expanding Medicaid: While this provision has been sold as ensuring no new states would expand Medicaid to able-bodied people, it does not do so—it only ensures that states that decide to expand after March 1 will receive the regular federal match levels for their able-bodied populations (i.e., not the 90-95 percent enhanced match). Neither the bill nor the managers package permanently ends the expansion to able-bodied adults—which the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill did—or ends the enhanced federal match for expansion states until January 2020, nearly three years from now.
  3. Medicaid work requirements: The agreement permits—but does not require—states to impose work requirements, a point of contention between some states and the Obama Administration. However, non-expansion states will have comparatively few beneficiaries on which to impose such requirements. Medicaid programs in non-expansion states consist largely of pregnant women, children, and elderly or disabled beneficiaries, very few of whom would qualify for the work requirements in the first place.

Medicaid: Block Grant vs. Per Capita Cap

The fourth component—allowing states to take their federal payments from a reformed Medicaid program as a block grant, instead of a per capita cap—warrants greater examination. In general, per capita caps have been viewed as a compromise between the current Medicaid program and a straight block grant fixed allotment. In the 1994-95 budget showdown with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton proposed per capita caps for Medicaid as an alternative to the Republican House’s block grant plan.

A block grant and a per capita cap differ primarily in how the two handle fluctuations in enrollment: the latter adjusts federal matching funds to reflect changes in enrollment, whereas the former does not. Supporters of per capita caps often cite economic recessions as the rationale for considering their approach superior to block grants. Medicaid’s counter-cyclical nature—more people enroll during economic downturns, after losing employer-sponsored coverage—coupled with states’ balanced budget requirements, means that during recessions, states often contend with a “double whammy” of rising Medicaid rolls and declining tax revenues. Medicaid per capita caps would mitigate the effects of the first variable, giving states more latitude during tough economic times.

On the other hand, per capita caps give states a greater incentive to enroll more beneficiaries—and a greater disincentive to scrutinize potentially fraudulent applicants—because every new enrollee means greater revenue for the state (albeit capped per beneficiary).  Most notably, the per capita caps in the House bill grow at a faster rate than the block grant proposal in the managers package—per capita caps would grow at medical inflation, whereas block grants would grow with general inflation.

In general, while conservatives would support block grants to reduce the federal Medicaid commitment and encourage state economies, it remains unlikely that many states would embrace them—because it is not in their fiscal self-interest to do so,because it is not in their fiscal self-interest to do so, particularly given the disparity in the inflation measures in the House language. If true, this language may end up meaning very little.

Will This Be A Good Deal For Americans?

If Medicaid reforms comprised the entirety of the bill, they would likely be worth supporting, despite the complexities associated with the debate between expansion and non-expansion states. The move to per capita caps represents significant entitlement reform, and is consistent with the principles of federalism.

As a repeal bill, however, the measure as currently constituted falls short. The agreement on Friday made zero progress on repealing any other insurance benefit mandates in Obamacare—the primary drivers of higher premiums under the law. That’s one reason why CBO believes premiums will actually rise by 15-20 percent over the next two years. House leadership claims that the mandates must remain in place due to the procedural strictures of budget reconciliation in the Senate. But the inconsistencies in their bill—which repeals one of the mandates, modifies others, and leaves most others fully intact—contradict that rhetoric.

Moreover, by modifying rather than repealing some of the Obamacare mandates, the bill preserves the Washington-centered regulatory structure created by the law, undermining federalism and Tenth Amendment principles.

AHCA Leaves Much To Be Desired

From a fiscal standpoint generally, the bill also leaves much to be desired. It creates at least one new entitlement: refundable tax credits to purchase health insurance. It may create a second new entitlement, this one for insurance companies in the form of a “Patient and State Stability Fund,” totaling $100 billion over 10 years, which insurers will no doubt attempt to renew in a decade’s time. (The bill also does not repeal Obamacare’s risk corridor and reinsurance bailout provisions, allowing them to continue to disburse billions of dollars in claims owed to insurers.)

While CBO claimed the bill would reduce the deficit by $337 billion, the managers amendment goes to great lengths to spend all of that supposed savings—accelerating the repeal of Obamacare’s tax increases, and increasing the inflation measure for some of the per capita caps.

Moreover, it remains unclear whether the “transition” from Obamacare to the new tax credit regime will take place in January 2020 as scheduled. The CBO tables analyzing the bill’s fiscal impact clearly delineated how most of the measure’s spending reductions will hit in fiscal years 2020 and 2021—right in the middle of the presidential election cycle.

AHCA Doesn’t Fully ‘Repeal And Replace’

If President Trump or Republicans in Congress flinch on letting the transition take place as scheduled, the bill’s supposed deficit savings will disappear rapidly. Instead, conservatives could be left with “Obamacare Max”—the House bill actually expands and extends Obamacare insurance subsidies for 2018 and 2019—in perpetuity.

The bill’s lack of full repeal, the premium increases scheduled to take effect over the next two years, and the spending “cliff” hitting in 2020 leave the bill with little natural political constituency to support it. The way in which the bill falls short of repeal—by keeping Medicaid expansion, keeping Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and creating a new entitlement—makes it difficult to support from a policy perspective as well. Friday’s meeting may have brought new concessions at the margins, but it did not alter the bill’s fundamental structure, leaving it short of the repeal conservatives had been promised—and voted for mere months ago.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Top Ten Conservative Concerns with the American Health Care Act

1.     Doesn’t Improve Care.  Obamacare expanded the federal bureaucracy at the expense of quality care. Tax dollars were taken from providers and used to pay administrators, consultants, lobbyists, insurers, and regulators. The House bill does nothing to change that dynamic.

2.     Raises Insurance Premiums.  The Congressional Budget Office believes that the bill will raise insurance premiums by 15-20 percent on average in the next two years, with even higher spikes in some areas. Americans care most about lowering health costs and making coverage affordable—yet the bill falls short on that count, retaining all but one of Obamacare’s costly mandated benefits and insurance regulations.

3.     Doesn’t Repeal Obamacare.  Lost in the question of whether or not the bill’s replacement provisions represent “Obamacare Lite” is the fact that the bill as currently drafted represents “Repeal Lite”—when compared not only to full repeal, but even to the 2015 reconciliation bill that passed both houses of Congress. The bill retains all but one of Obamacare’s benefit mandates, some of its taxes, and keeps Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied in perpetuity.

4.     Expands Obamacare.     Rather than repealing all of the law, the House Republican bill instead expands Obamacare’s subsidy regime—extending it to millions of individuals off of insurance Exchanges for 2018 and 2019—and revises the subsidy regime for 2019. Some conservatives may question the need to “fix” Obamacare, when House Republicans’ legislation should revolve around repealing Obamacare.

5.     Creates New Entitlement.  Beginning in 2020, the bill creates an entirely new entitlement—advanceable, refundable tax credits—replacing Obamacare’s form of subsidized health insurance with another.

6.     Fiscal Gimmicks?  Under the bill, the transition from the Obamacare subsidy regime to the new system of tax credits, and a reformed Medicaid program, will take place beginning in January 2020—a presidential election year. If Congress or the Administration delay or abandon the transition due to political blowback, the cost of the House bill will soar.

7.     Permanent Bailout Fund for Insurers?    While failing to repeal Obamacare’s risk corridors and reinsurance bailouts, the bill also creates a new “Patient and State Stability Fund,” designed to provide most of its $100 billion in grants to subsidize health insurers. Some conservatives may question whether this grant program will end in 2026 as scheduled under the bill, or whether health insurers instead will make claims on Washington for federal bailouts to the tune of billions of dollars annually.

8.     Federally Controlled, Not Patient-Centered.    Notwithstanding some important structural changes to Medicaid that respect states, the House bill claims to be patient-centered but still denies a 60-year-old the ability to opt out of paying for maternity benefits. Supporters of the House bill talk about giving more flexibility to states, but leave all but one of the federal insurance mandates in place.

9.     Perpetuates Medicaid Expansion.    The House Republican bill allows states to keep their Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied in perpetuity—a major change compared to the 2015 repeal bill. CBO concluded that many states will in fact keep their expansions, diverting funds from covering the most vulnerable to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults. Moreover, the House bill maintains Obamacare’s enhanced Medicaid match for nearly three years, encouraging expansion states to sign up more able-bodied adults between now and January 2020 to receive additional federal funding.

10.  Inadequate Verification.  By relying on Obamacare’s system of verifying eligibility for the new tax credit entitlement, the bill requires verification of citizenship but not identity—continuing Obamacare’s problems of fraudulent applicants obtaining subsidies. In addition, some conservatives may be concerned that even these inadequate verification provisions could be stripped due to procedural concerns in the Senate.

A PDF version of this document is available on the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

Four Questions Following CBO’s Score

Yesterday’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation lead to widespread news coverage of its health coverage numbers. However, several other questions reveal the “story behind the story,” which could help determine the bill’s ultimate fate:

Who Wants to Run on Premium Increases?     While some may tout eventual premium savings under the bill (about which more below), the most immediate headline involves the estimated 15-20 percent premium increases that will hit in both 2018 and 2019, because CBO believes fewer healthy individuals will sign up for coverage. As with Obamacare’s Exchanges over the past few years, that projected national average may mask significant regional differences; some areas could see premium increases well in excess of 20 percent. These premium increases (possibly coupled with insurer exits) would be the first tangible impact of Obamacare repeal many constituents face heading into the 2018 elections—not a welcome sign for conservatives who ran for years on the promise of Obamacare repeal yielding lower premiums.

Spend More Now, Save More Later—Really?            While some Republican leaders touted the bill’s supposed deficit savings, a closer look reveals significant flaws. Notably, the bill will increase the deficit in its first five years by a net of $9.4 billion, while lowering the deficit by over $345 billion in its second five years. A look at Table 3 in the score—which shows the net budgetary effects of the bill’s major coverage provisions—gives important signals as to why. Take a look at the net spending on coverage—that is, reductions in Medicaid and Obamacare subsidy spending, offset by increases in spending on the bill’s new tax credits—by fiscal year:

Fiscal Year 2017: $8 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2018: $29 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2019: $42 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2020: $100 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2021: $137 billion spending reduction

Note that these numbers above are NOT cumulative totals—they represent annual reductions in entitlement/subsidy spending. The numbers mean that, even after taking into account the new refundable tax credits (which would start on January 1, 2020, the day after the Obamacare subsidy regime expires), net spending would decline by nearly an additional $60 billion in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020—i.e., roughly six weeks before the next presidential election.

With numbers like these, it’s not hard to argue that the new refundable tax credit will not take effect in a presidential election year—or possibly ever. Congress may instead act to perpetuate Obamacare’s existing subsidy regime, which the House Republican bill actually expands for the supposed “transition” period, into an enhanced, entrenched, and therefore permanent, entitlement.

What Will Premiums Look Like in 2027? CBO claims that “by 2026, average premiums for single policy-holders in the non-group market under the legislation would be roughly 10 percent lower than under current law.” If accurate, that estimate means that—more than 15 years after the law’s enactment—premiums might recover most (but perhaps not all) of the average $2,100 per family premium spike CBO attributed to Obamacare.

Even then, however, initial appearances can deceive. CBO noted that premiums would decline in 2026 in part because of the new, $100 billion Patient and State Stability Fund. CBO concluded that fund grants would likely be used for reinsurance payments to insurers; “if those funds were devoted to other purposes, then premium reductions would be smaller.”

That CBO analysis raises the obvious question: What happens to premiums in 2027—when the stability fund created by the legislation would expire? Or have House Republicans created in the Stability Fund what amounts to a perpetual bailout machine, a new entitlement for health insurers that they hope will keep premiums low—albeit at taxpayers’ expense?

Why Not Repeal?      Even with a new refundable tax credit entitlement, the overall CBO coverage numbers were little higher than those associated with enacting the 2015 repeal/reconciliation bill. In fact, if that 2015 reconciliation bill had repealed Obamacare’s major insurance regulations—the major drivers of rising premiums, all of which have a clear budgetary nexus—it may have achieved coverage levels higher than this “repeal-and-replace” bill.

House leadership will now face the difficult task of mustering up votes for a plan with no natural constituency. It’s the kind of legislation that leads to cynical blandishments to win votes—arguing to conservatives that the refundable tax credit is a relatively innocuous entitlement, because no one will use it; and arguing to moderates that, while many of their constituents will lose coverage under the bill, they can extend to their constituents the promise of the new tax credits, even though few will utilize them.

Instead of passing legislation that some may vote for, but few truly support, House leadership would be wiser instead to focus on enacting a bill that Members can both vote for and support. Repealing Obamacare—including the costly regulations emanating from Washington—would lower premiums, encouraging individuals to purchase coverage, and begin the process of restoring state sovereignty over health care and health insurance, an outcome for which conservatives could be proud.

House Republicans’ Health Care Bill By the Numbers

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has compiled a list of important numbers relevant to House Republicans’ Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation:

27-30 Percent—Extent to which Obamacare’s insurance mandates would raise premiums, according to a 2009 Congressional Budget Office estimate

50 Percent—Actual increase in average premiums in 2014 when Obamacare was implemented, with another 25% increase expected in 2017

15-20 Percent—Estimated increase in individual market premiums in 2018 and 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office under GOP plan

1—Number of Obamacare insurance mandates actually repealed in the Obamacare “repeal” bill; the actuarial value mandate would end, beginning in January 2020

1,031—Number of days between the bill’s introduction (March 6, 2017) and the date on which the enhanced federal match for states that expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults would finally end

Never—Date when the Medicaid expansion ends; Section 112(a) of the bill explicitly allows states to keep their expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults—a change from the 2015 reconciliation bill, which repealed expansion outright

1,762—Approximate number of days until the bill may begin to reduce the deficit; the bill actually increases the deficit in its first five years, relying on budgetary savings in the “out years” that may or may not ever materialize

7,000,000—Estimated loss in employer-sponsored health coverage by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in part because “fewer employers would offer health insurance to their workers”

$100,000,000,000—Spending on the Patient and State Stability Fund, a new program that some may believe could turn into a permanent bailout fund/entitlement for insurers

$361,000,000,000—Spending on the new tax credit entitlement in the Obamacare “repeal” bill

$20,000,000,000,000—Approximate level of total federal debt, which may lead some to question the wisdom of the spending on the two new programs outlined above

1411—Section of Obamacare regarding eligibility determinations; the House Republican bill would replicate that program to test eligibility for its own new insurance subsidies, even though Republicans have previously criticized Obamacare for enabling fraud and giving taxpayer subsidies to undocumented immigrants

A PDF of this document can be found at the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

Will the “Byrd Bath” Turn Into a Tax Credit Bloodbath?

While most of official Washington waits for word—expected early this week—from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the fiscal effects of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, another, equally critical debate is taking place within the corridors of the Capitol. Arcane arguments behind closed doors about the nuances of parliamentary procedure will do much to determine the bill’s fate in the Senate—and could lead to a final product vastly altered compared to its current form.

In recent days, House leaders have made numerous comments highlighting the procedural limitations of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate. However, those statements do not necessarily mean that the legislation released last week comports with all of those Senate strictures. Indeed, my conversations with more than half a dozen current and former senior Senate staff, all of whom have long expertise in the minutiae of Senate rules and procedure, have revealed at least four significant procedural issues—one regarding abortion, two regarding immigration, and one regarding a structural “firewall”—surrounding the bill’s tax credit regime.

Those and other procedural questions explain why, according to my sources, Senate staff will spend the coming week determining whether they will need to write an entirely new bill to substitute for the House’s proposed language. The stakes involved are high: Guidance from the parliamentarian suggesting that the House bill contains fatal procedural flaws, meaning it does not qualify as a reconciliation bill, could force the House to repeat the process, starting again with a new, “clean” reconciliation measure.

It is far too premature to claim that any of these potential flaws will necessarily be fatal. The Senate parliamentarian’s guidance to senators depends on textual analysis—of the bill’s specific wording, the underlying statutes to which it refers, and the CBO scores (not yet available)—and arguments about precedent made by both parties. Senate staff could re-draft portions of the House bill to make it pass procedural muster, or make arguments to preserve the existing language that the parliamentarian accepts as consistent with Senate precedents. Nevertheless, if the parliamentarian validates even one of the four potential procedural problems, Republicans could end up with a tax credit regime that is politically unsustainable, or whose costs escalate appreciably.

In 2009, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad famously opined that passing health care legislation through budget reconciliation would make the bill look like “Swiss cheese.” (While Democrats did not pass Obamacare through reconciliation, they did use the reconciliation process to “fix” the bill that cleared the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009.) In reality, it’s much easier to repeal provisions of a budgetary nature—like Obamacare’s taxes, entitlements, and even its major regulations—through reconciliation than to create a new replacement regime. The coming week may provide firsthand proof of Conrad’s 2009 axiom.

“Byrd Rule” and Abortion

The Senate’s so-called “Byrd rule” governing debate on budget reconciliation rules—named after former Senate Majority Leader and procedural guru Robert Byrd (D-WV)— in fact consists of not one rule, but six. The six points of order (codified here) seek to keep extraneous material out of the expedited reconciliation process, preserving the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, subject to the usual 60-vote margin to break a filibuster.

The Byrd rule’s most famous test states that “a provision shall be considered extraneous if it produces changes in outlays or revenues which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the legislation.” If the section in question primarily makes a policy change, and has a minimal budgetary impact, it remains in the bill only if 60 senators (the usual margin necessary to break a filibuster) agree to waive the Byrd point of order.

One example of this test may apply to the House bill’s tax credits: “Hyde amendment” language preventing the credits from funding plans that cover abortion. Such language protecting taxpayer funding of abortion coverage occurs several places throughout the bill, including at the top of page 25 of the Ways and Means title.

Over multiple decades, and numerous parliamentarians, Republican efforts to enact Hyde amendment protections through budget reconciliation have all failed. It is possible that Republicans could in the next few weeks find new arguments that allow these critical protections to remain in the House bill—but that scenario cannot be viewed as likely.

The question will then occur as to what becomes of both the credit and the Hyde protections. Some within the Administration have argued that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can institute pro-life protections through regulations—but Administration insiders doubt HHS’ authority to do so. Moreover, most pro-life groups publicly denounced President Obama’s March 2010 executive order—which he claimed would prevent taxpayer funding of abortion coverage in Obamacare—as 1) insufficient and 2) subject to change under a future Administration. How would those pro-life groups view a regulatory change by the current Administration any differently?

Immigration

A similarly controversial issue—immigration—brings an even larger set of procedural challenges. Apart from the separate question of whether the current verification provisions in the House bill are sufficiently robust, ANY eligibility verification regime for tax credits faces not one, but two major procedural obstacles in the Senate.

Of the six tests under the Byrd rule, some are more fatal than others. For instance, if the Hyde amendment restrictions outlined above are ruled incidental in nature, then those provisions merely get stricken from the bill unless 60 Senators vote to retain them—a highly improbable scenario in this case.

But two other tests under the Byrd rule—provisions outside a committee’s jurisdiction, and provisions making changes to Title II of the Social Security Act—are fatal not just to that particular provision, but to the entire bill, potentially forcing the process to begin all over again in the House. The eligibility verification regime touches them both.

Page 37 of the Ways and Means title of the bill requires creation of a verification regime for tax credits similar to that created under Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare. As Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Tom Barthold testified last week during the Ways and Means Committee markup, verifying citizenship requires use of a database held by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

That admission creates a big problem: The tax credit lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee—but CIS lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And because the Finance Committee’s portion of the reconciliation bill can affect only programs within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, imposing programmatic requirements on CIS to verify citizenship status could exceed the Finance Committee’s scope—potentially jeopardizing the entire bill.

The verification provisions in Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare also require the use of Social Security numbers—triggering another potentially fatal blow to the entire bill. Senate sources report that, during when drafting the original reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare in the fall of 2015, Republicans attempted to repeal the language in Obamacare (Section 1414(a)(2), to be precise) giving the Secretary of HHS authority to collect and use Social Security numbers to establish eligibility. However, because Section 1414(a)(2) of Obamacare amended Title II of the Social Security Act, Republicans ultimately did not repeal this section of Obamacare in the reconciliation bill—because it could have triggered a point of order fatal to the legislation.

If both the points of order against the verification regime are sustained, Congress will have to re-write the bill to create an eligibility verification system that 1) does not rely on the Department of Homeland Security AND 2) does not use Social Security numbers. Doing so would create both political and policy problems. On the political side, the revised verification regime would exacerbate existing concerns that undocumented immigrants may have access to federal tax credits.

But the policy implications of a weaker verification regime might actually be more profound. Weaker verification would likely result in a higher score from CBO and JCT—budget scorekeepers would assume a higher incidence of fraud, raising the credits’ costs. House leaders might then have to reduce the amount of their tax credit to reflect the higher take-up of the credit by fraudsters taking advantage of lax verification. And any reduction in the credit amounts would bring with it additional political and policy implications, including lower coverage rates.

Firewall Concerns

Finally, the tax credit “firewall”—designed to ensure that only individuals without access to other health insurance options receive federal subsidies—could also present procedural concerns. Specifically, pages 27 and 28 of the bill make ineligible for the credit individuals participating in other forms of health insurance, several of which—Tricare, Veterans Administration coverage, coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, etc.—lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

If the Senate parliamentarian advises for the removal of references to these programs because they lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, then participants in those programs will essentially be able to “double-dip”—to receive both the federal tax credit AND maintain their current coverage. As with the immigration provision outlined above, such a scenario could significantly increase the tax credits’ cost—requiring offsetting cuts elsewhere, which would have their own budgetary implications.

Senate sources indicate that this “firewall” concern could prove less problematic than the immigration concern outlined above. While the immigration provision extends new programmatic authority to the Administration to develop a revised eligibility verification system, the “firewall” provisions have the opposite effect—essentially excluding Tricare and other program recipients from the credit. However, if the parliamentarian gives guidance suggesting that some or all of the “firewall” provisions must go, that will have a significant impact on the bill’s fiscal impact.

Broader Implications

Both individually and collectively, these four potential procedural concerns hint at an intellectual inconsistency in the House bill’s approach—one Yuval Levin highlighted in National Review last week. House leaders claim that their bill was drafted to comply with the Senate reconciliation procedures. But the bill itself contains numerous actual or potential violations of those procedures—and amends some of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, rather than repealing them outright—making their argument incoherent.

Particularly when it comes to Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations, there seems little reason not to make the “ol’ college try,” and attempt to repeal the major mandates that have raised premium levels. According to prior CBO scores, other outside estimates, and the Obama Administration’s own estimates when releasing the regulations, the major regulations have significant budgetary effects. Republicans can and should argue to the parliamentarian that the regulations’ repeal would be neither incidental nor extraneous—their repeal would remove the terms and conditions under which Obamacare created its insurance subsidies in the first place, thus meeting the Byrd test. If successful, such efforts would provide relief on the issue Americans care most about: Reducing health costs and staggering premium increases.

When it comes to the tax credit itself, Republicans may face some difficult choices. Abortion and immigration present thorny—and controversial—issues, either one of which could sink the legislation. When it comes to the bill’s tax credits, the “Byrd bath,” in which the parliamentarian gives guidance on what provisions can remain in the reconciliation bill, could become a bloodbath. If pro-life protections and eligibility verification come out of the bill, a difficult choice for conservatives on whether or not to support tax credits will become that much harder.