Monthly Archives: April 2017

Important Concerns about the State Waiver Process

On Tuesday evening, legislative language emerged regarding a proposal negotiated by conservative and centrist House Republicans. The proposal, which would further amend the Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation, would allow states to waive some (but not all) of the law’s major insurance regulations.

Specifically, states could request a waiver to:

  • Beginning in January 2018, vary rating by age more than Obamacare (current law says that insurers cannot charge older individuals more than three times the premiums paid by younger enrollees);
  • Beginning in January 2020, set their own essential health benefits—the categories of services all insurance sold must cover; and
  • Beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period, permit insurers to vary premiums by health status and/or eliminate the mandatory 30 percent penalty for individuals who do not maintain continuous insurance coverage—provided that the state has established a program of actual or invisible high-risk pools, or some other mechanism through the bill’s Stability Fund to stabilize its insurance markets.

Some conservatives may have philosophical concerns with this approach, on several levels. It perpetuates a federal regulatory regime for health insurance, maintaining Obamacare as the default option. Not only does the bill take the position that “If you like your Obamacare, you can keep it,” it ensures that states will keep Obamacare unless and until they affirmatively do something to opt out of the law—a position that turns federalism on its head.

Over and above those philosophical concerns, two very practical matters lurk.

How Many States Will Actually Apply for Waivers?

While Washington has discussed this waiver concept for nearly a month, exactly zero Republican governors have publicly expressed an interest in applying for a waiver. Granted, details have been scarce to find, and frequently changing. But with Republicans occupying literally two-thirds of the nation’s governorships, the silence from state houses seems deafening.

Two plausible theories could explain the silence. First, in some states, governors need explicit authority from their legislatures to take an action like applying for a waiver. Unless and until their legislatures provide explicit authorization, governors cannot apply for anything, even if they wanted to.

With most legislatures heading out of session, and filing deadlines for the 2018 plan year fast approaching, it seems a stretch to think that many, if any, states will apply for a waiver for next year, even if the bill gets signed into law within a month. And with 36 governors’ races on the line next fall, how many governors will want to implement waivers for the 2019 plan year—thus guaranteeing Obamacare will be an issue in the last week of their campaigns, with open enrollment starting mere days before the November 6 plebiscite?

Moreover, on the political front, the waiver process essentially punts to the states a decision—repeal of the Obamacare regulatory regime—that Congress can, and should, have taken on its own. Why should anyone believe that states will request waivers from the Obamacare regulations, when it was Congress’ own lack of political will that shifted the decision to the states in the first place?

Can a Future Administration Deny Waiver Renewals?

Supporters of the waiver concept have attempted to reassure conservatives that the state waivers would be automatic from Washington, and could not be held up by a future Democrat Administration. And with respect to initial approval of waiver applications, the language released does seem fairly straight-forward: It allows states to self-certify they are applying to achieve at least one of several stated objectives, and deems waivers approved, allowing the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to deny them only in the case of an incomplete application.

But the language in subsection (4)(A), reproduced in full below, suggests that extending waivers once granted could be far from a sure thing:

No waiver for a State under this subsection may extend over a period of longer than 10 years unless the State requests continuation of such waiver, and such request shall be deemed granted unless the Secretary, within 90 days after the date of its submission to the Secretary, either denies such request in writing or informs the State in writing with respect to any additional information which is needed in order to make a final determination with respect to the request. [Emphasis mine.]

The bill text distinguishes between “an application submitted in paragraph (1)”—the initial waiver application—and a “continuation of such waiver.” That distinction, coupled with the permissive language given to the HHS Secretary—who has the power to “den[y] such request in writing,” for reasons not explicitly stated—could give a future Administration all the opening it needs to deny future waiver extensions.

A Better Solution

The above concerns notwithstanding, the waiver debate has put paid to the notion that Congress cannot repeal Obamacare’s major insurance regulations as part of a repeal bill passed through budget reconciliation. In other words, the question is not one of process, and what the Senate parliamentarian will allow, but one of political will—whether Republicans want to repeal Obamacare or not. Rather than punting those decisions off to governors, and keeping the law’s regulatory structure firmly intact in Washington, Congress should finish its job and deliver the repeal it has promised the American people for the past seven years.

How the Media Care More About Obamacare Than the Constitution

Fewer than 12 months ago, some people—aka, yours truly—raised a warning about Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions. The text of the law nowhere provided an appropriation for them, meaning that, as I wrote last May, the next President could shut them off unilaterally. At the time, I contacted several reporters, pointing out that such a move could have major implications for the health care law. None showed any interest in writing on the topic, and to the best of my knowledge, few if any reporters did.

Having now under-reacted regarding the issue during most of 2016, the media are compensating by over-reacting now. Since the House failed to pass “repeal-and-replace” legislation, breathless articles in multiple publications have examined the issue, whether the Trump Administration will cut off the subsidies, and whether insurers will bail on the Exchanges en masse as a result.

There’s just one little detail about the issue that many of these articles are missing. You may have heard of it: it’s called the United States Constitution.

What Exactly Is Going On With Obamacare Subsidies?

For the uninitiated, the dispute involves one of two types of Obamacare subsidies: premium subsidies to lower monthly premium costs, and cost-sharing reductions that help with things like deductibles and co-payments. The law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for certain low-income individuals, and provides for a system of reimbursements to repay insurers for providing said reductions.

However, Obamacare itself failed to provide any appropriation for the reimbursement payers to insurers. The lack of an explicit appropriation violates Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which requires that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Congress has the “power of the purse,” and Members of Congress believe that the Obama Administration violated that power.

To remedy that violation, the House of Representatives authorized legal action in July 2014, and filed suit in November 2014 seeking to stop the subsidies. Last May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the Obama Administration had in fact violated the Constitution by spending money without an express appropriation. The case, House v. Price (formerly House v. Burwell), remains on hold; the Obama Administration appealed Judge Collyer’s ruling last year, and the Trump Administration and the House are attempting to resolve the status of that appeal.

Over Obamacare’s first four fiscal years, the disputed payments to insurers would total approximately $20.9 billion—$2.1 billion in fiscal year 2014, $5.1 billion in fiscal year 2015, $6.1 billion in fiscal year 2016, and an estimated $7.6 billion if they continue through fiscal year 2017 (which ends September 30). Over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the payments will total $135 billion.

What’s The Media Saying About All This?

Given that background, it’s worth examining press coverage on the issue since Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” efforts collapsed, bringing questions about the lawsuit, and the subsidy payments, to the fore:

  • Politico noted that the House’s suit argued that the Obama Administration “had paid for [the subsidies] without congressional authority”—but also quoted an expert as saying failure to appropriate funds for the subsidies would “shoot [Obamacare] in the head.”
  • A separate Politico opinion piece said that “if the Republicans want to avoid a major mess, they need to make the suit go away and make sure the subsidies keep flowing.”
  • A Wall Street Journal article said that the House calls the payments “illegal.”

All three of these stories omitted one simple word: “Constitution.” As in, a federal judge said Barack Obama’s Administration violated the Constitution. As in, one analyst thinks the House needs to make a suit protecting its constitutional authority “go away.” As in, the payments weren’t ruled “illegal”—they were ruled unconstitutional.

Granted, other stories have at least mentioned the constitutional element of the dispute. But there haven’t been many stories focusing on the constitutionality of President Obama’s actions (which even Obamacare supporters have questioned), or even how the court ruling could rein in executive unilateralism. Instead of reading about how—by spending money without an appropriation—Barack Obama “sabotaged” the Constitution, or even “shot it in the head,” the public has seen all sorts of articles suggesting that President Trump may “sabotage” Obamacare—by upholding the Constitution.

Thanks For The Double Standard, American Media

Remember: The cost-sharing subsidies involve an issue where a federal judge has already ruled that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by giving insurers tens of billions of dollars without an appropriation—yet the press seems more focused on whether or not those payments will continue.

That response merits a thought experiment in word substitution: If a federal court had ruled that the George W. Bush Administration violated the Constitution by giving tens of billions of dollars to—let’s pick a company at random here—Halliburton, do you think the press would be more focused on the violation of the rule of law and the unconstitutional payments, or on the chaos that would result if those payments to Halliburton suddenly ceased? If you think the latter, I’ve got some land I want to sell you.

If you’re still unconvinced that reporters are in the tank for Obamacare—or at minimum guilty of significant, and quite selective, double standards when it comes to their constitutional outrage—consider this recent Politico piece about a Donald Trump tweet threatening to change libel laws:

Trump’s comments on libel, coupled with his regular attacks on reporters and news organizations, have alarmed First Amendment advocates and his critics, who warned over the course of the campaign that his posture toward news organizations revealed a lack of respect for the role a free press plays in a democracy.

This high-minded rhetoric came one paragraph after Politico, citing various legal experts, pointed out “that there are virtually no steps within the President’s power to ‘open up libel laws,’ as Trump has suggested.”

When President Trump makes an empty threat against the press—one that he has no power to follow through on—the media piles on with all manner of self-righteous indignation about the integrity of the First Amendment and undermining democracy.

But when a federal judge rules that President Obama violated (not threatened to violate, mind you, but actually violated) the Constitution by paying insurers tens of billions of dollars, the media focuses largely on how remedying that violation will impact the health care law. They seem to care more about protecting Obamacare than protecting the Constitution. Is it any wonder why people boo the press?

Spare Me Your Self-Righteousness

Within that double standard lies the major problem: the presumption that Obamacare is “too big to fail,” irrespective of whether or not the Obama Administration’s payments to insurers violated the Constitution. Some could be forgiven for thinking that the press coverage provides a disturbing lesson to future Presidents: If you violate the Constitution long enough and badly enough, it will become a norm, such that people will expect future leaders to accommodate the violation.

To all those reporters worried about President Trump’s attacks on reporters, I’ll simply posit that the Constitution is a binary choice: You either support it—all of it, even or especially the portions you find inconvenient—or you don’t. If you want the public to care about the Trump Administration’s stance towards the First Amendment, then it might be wise to give a damn about the other portions of the Constitution too.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about Invisible High Risk Pools

Last Thursday afternoon, the House Rules Committee approved an amendment providing an additional $15 billion for “invisible high risk pools.” That surprising development, after several days of frenetic closed-door negotiations and a study on the pools released Friday, may have some in Washington trying to make sense of it all.

If you want the short and dirty, here it is: Thursday’s amendment doesn’t resemble the model cited by pool proponents, undermines principles of federalism, relies on government price controls to achieve much of its premium savings, and requires far more taxpayer funding than the amendment actually provided. But other than that, it’s great!

Want more info? Read on.

The Amendment Text Does Not Match Its Maine Model

The legislative text the Rules Committee adopted last week bears little resemblance to the invisible risk pool model the amendment’s proponents have described.

In response to my article last week asking whether the invisible risk pool funding differs from Obamacare’s reinsurance program, supporters cited a blog post highlighting the way such a pool works in Maine. Under Maine’s program, insurers cede their highest risks to the pool prospectively—i.e., when individuals apply for insurance. Insurers also cede to the pool most of those high-risk patients’ premium payments, to help pay for the patients’ health claims.

Conversely, insurers participating in Obamacare’s reinsurance program receive retrospective payments (i.e., after the patients incur high health costs), and keep all of the premium payments those patients make. In theory, then, those two differences do distinguish the Obamacare reinsurance program from the Maine pool.

But there’s one other key distinction: The amendment the Rules Committee adopted last week doesn’t include the parameters of the Maine model. The original version proposed by Rep. Gary Palmer—the amendment language upon which the Milliman study was based—more closely tracked the Maine model. But the Rules Committee instead passed an amendment with generic language leaving much more discretion to the Trump administration. On Friday, Politico explained why:

The [Milliman] study…assumes that insurers would agree up front to surrender most of the premiums paid by high-risk enrollees, in exchange for protection against potentially costly claims down the line… Palmer included those specifics the first time he proposed adding a risk-sharing program to the [American Health Care Act], roughly two weeks ago. But they were stripped out of the final version presented Tuesday, and likely for good reason…Insurers likely wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about having that much skin in the game. Instead, the amendment essentially tells state and federal officials to sort out the details later—and most importantly, after the program is passed into law.

The federal pools may end up looking nothing like the Maine program advocates are citing as the model—because the administration will determine all those critically important details after the fact. Or, to coin a phrase, we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.

The Amendment Undermines State Sovereignty

As currently constructed, the pool concept undermines state sovereignty over insurance markets. Paradoxical as it may sound, the amendment adopted last Thursday is both too broad and too narrow. With respect to the invisible high risk pool concept, the legislation doesn’t include enough details to allow policy-makers and insurers to determine how they will function. As noted above, all of those details were essentially punted to the administration to determine.

But the amendment is also too narrow, in that it conditions the $15 billion on participation in the invisible risk pool model. If a state wants to create an actual high risk pool, or use some other concept to stabilize their insurance markets, they’re out of luck—they can’t touch the $15 billion pot of money.

Admittedly, the amendment the Rules Committee adopted last Thursday isn’t nearly as bad as the original Palmer amendment on invisible pools. That original amendment required all insurers to participate in the invisible pools “as a condition of doing business in a state”—potentially violating both the Fifth Amendment for an unconstitutional taking against insurers, and the Tenth Amendment by undermining states’ sovereignty over their insurance markets and business licensing.

In a post last week, I cited House Speaker Paul Ryan’s February criticism of Obamacare: “They’re subsidies that say, ‘We will pay some people some money if you do what the government makes you do.’” That’s exactly what this amendment does: It conditions some level of funding on states taking some specific action—not the only action, perhaps not even the best action, to stabilize their insurance markets, just the one Washington politically favors, therefore the one Washington will attempt to make all states take.

Ryan was right to criticize the Obamacare insurance subsidy system as “not freedom.” The same criticism applies to the invisible pool funding—it isn’t freedom. It also isn’t federalism—it’s big-government, nanny-state “conservatism.”

The Pools’ Claimed Benefits Derive From Price Controls

Much of the supposed benefits of the pools come as a result of government-imposed price controls. The Milliman study released Friday—and again, conditioned upon parameters not present in the amendment the Rules Committee adopted Thursday—models two possible scenarios.

The first scenario would create a new insurance pool in “repeal-and-replace” legislation, with the invisible pools applying only to the new market (some individuals currently on Obamacare may switch to the new market, but would not have to). The second scenario envisions a single risk pool for insurers, combining existing enrollees and new enrollees under the “replace” plan.

In both cases, Milliman modeled assumptions from the original Palmer amendment (i.e., not the one the Rules Committee adopted last Thursday) that linked payments from the invisible risk pools to 100 percent of Medicare reimbursement rates. The study specifically noted the “favorable spread” created as a result of this requirement: the pool reduces premiums because it pays doctors and hospitals less than insurers would.

Under the first scenario, in which Obamacare enrollees remain in a separate market than the new participants in “replace” legislation, a risk pool reimbursing at Medicare rates would yield total average rate reductions of between 16 and 31 percent. But “if [risk pool] benefits are paid based on regular commercially negotiated fees, the rate reduction becomes 12% to 23%”—about one-third less than with the federally dictated reimbursement levels.

Under the second scenario, in which Obamacare and “replace” enrollees are combined into one marketplace, premiums barely drop when linked to commercial payment rates. Premiums would fall by a modest 4 to 14 percent using Medicare reimbursement levels, and a miniscule 1 to 4 percent using commercial reimbursement levels.

Admittedly, the structure of the risk pool creates an inherent risk of gaming—insurers could try to raise their reimbursement rates to gain more federal funds from the pool. But if federal price controls are the way to lower premiums (and for the record, they aren’t), why not just create a government-run “public option” linked to Medicare reimbursement levels and be done with it?

The Study Says This Doesn’t Provide Enough Money

According to the study, the amendment adopted doesn’t include enough federal funding for invisible risk pools. The Milliman study found that invisible risk pools will require more funding than last Thursday’s amendment provided—and potentially even more funding than the entire Stability Fund. Under both scenarios, the invisible risk pools would require anywhere from $3.3 billion to $17 billion per year in funding, or from $35 billion to nearly $200 billion over a decade.

By contrast, Thursday’s amendment included only $15 billion in funding to last from 2018 through 2026. And the Stability Fund itself includes a total of $130 billion in funding—$100 billion in general funds, $15 billion for maternity and mental health coverage, and the $15 billion specifically for invisible risk pools. If all 50 states participate, the entire Stability Fund may not hold enough money needed to fund invisible risk pools.

Remember too that the Milliman study assumes that 1) insurers will cede most premium payments from risk pool participants to help finance the pool’s operations and 2) the pool will pay claims using Medicare reimbursement rates. If either or both of those two assumptions do not materialize—and insurers and providers will vigorously oppose both—spending for the pools will increase still further, making the Milliman study a generous under-estimate of the program’s ultimate cost.

Let States Take the Reins

All of the above notwithstanding, the invisible high risk pool model could work for some states—emphasis on “could” and “some.” If states want to explore this option, they certainly have the right to do so.

But, as Obamacare itself has demonstrated, Washington does not represent the source and summit of all the accumulated wisdom in health care policy. States are desperate for the opportunity to innovate, and create new policies in the marketplace of ideas—not have more programs foisted upon them by Washington, as the Rules Committee amendment attempts to do. Moving in the direction of the former, and not the latter, would represent a true change of pace. Here’s hoping that Congress finally has the courage to do so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Five Questions About This Week’s “Repeal-and-Replace” Developments

At a Thursday morning press conference, Speaker Ryan and House leaders unveiled amendment language providing an additional $15 billion in funding for “invisible high risk pools,” which the House Rules Committee was scheduled to consider Thursday afternoon. That amendment was released following several days of conversations, but no bill text, surrounding state waivers for some (or all—reports have varied on this front) of Obamacare’s “Big Four” regulations—guaranteed issue, community rating, essential health benefits, and actuarial value. Theoretically, states could use the risk pool funds to subsidize the costs of individuals with pre-existing conditions, should they decide to waive existing Obamacare regulations regarding same.

Given these developments regarding risk pools and waivers and regulations (oh my!), it’s worth posing several key questions about the still-fluid discussions:

Do Republicans believe in limited executive authority, or not?

The text of the amendment regarding risk pool funding states that the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) “shall establish…parameters for the operation of the program consistent with this section.”

That’s essentially all the guidance given to CMS to administer a $15 billion program. Following consultations with stakeholders—the text requires such discussions, but doesn’t necessarily require CMS to listen to stakeholder input—the Administration can define eligible individuals, the standards for qualification for the pools (both voluntary or automatic), the percentage of insurance premiums paid into the program, and the attachment points for insurers to receive payments from the program.

This extremely broad language raises several potential concerns:

  • Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has previously cited the number of references to “the Secretary shall” or “the Secretary may” in Obamacare as showing his ability to modify, change, or otherwise undermine the law. Republicans who give such a broad grant of authority to the executive would allow a future Democrat Administration to return the favor.
  • Nothing in the amendment text directs funding towards the states that actually utilize the waiver process being discussed. In other words, states that opt-out of the Obamacare regulations, and wish to utilize the funds to help individuals with pre-existing conditions affected by same, could lose out on funding to those states that retain all of the Obamacare regulations.
  • The wide executive authority does little to preclude arbitrary decisions by the executive. If the Administration wants to “come after” a state or an insurer, this broad grant of power may give the Administration the ability to do so, by limiting their ability to claim program funds.

As I have previously written, some conservatives may believe that the answer to Barack Obama’s executive unilateralism is not executive unilateralism from a Republican Administration. Such a broad grant of authority to the executive in the risk pool program undermines that principle, and ultimately Congress’ Article I constitutional power.

Do Republicans believe in federalism, or not?

Section (c)(3) of the amendment text allows states to operate risk pools in their respective states, beginning in 2020. However, the text also states that the parameters under which those state pools will operate will be set at the federal level by CMS. Some may find it slightly incongruous that, even as Congress debates allowing states to opt-out of some of Obamacare’s regulations, it wants to retain control of this new pot of money at the federal level, albeit while letting states implement the federally-defined standards.

How is the new funding for “invisible high risk pools” substantively different from Obamacare’s reinsurance program?

Section (d)(5) of the amendment text requires CMS to establish “the dollar amount of claims for eligible individuals after which the program will provide payments to health insurance issuers and the proportion of such claims above such dollar amount that the program will pay.”

The amendment language echoes Section 1341(b)(2) of Obamacare, which required the Administration to establish payments to insurers for Obamacare’s reinsurance program. That existing reinsurance mechanism, like the proposed amendment text, has attachment points (an amount at which reinsurance kicks in) and co-insurance (health insurers will pay a certain percentage of claims above the attachment point, while the program funding will pay a certain percentage).

Congressional leadership previously called the $20 billion in Obamacare reinsurance funding a “bailout” and “corporate welfare.” But the $15 billion in funding under the proposed amendment echoes the Obamacare mechanism—only with more details missing and less oversight. Why do Republicans now support a program suspiciously similar to one that they previously opposed?

Why do conservatives believe any states will actually apply for regulatory waivers?

The number of states that have repealed Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion thus far is a nice round figure: Zero. Given this experience, it’s worth asking whether any state would actually take Washington up on its offer to provide regulatory relief—particularly because Congress could decide to repeal all the regulations outright, but thus far has chosen not to do so.

Moreover, if Congress places additional conditions on these waivers, as some Members have discussed, even states that want to apply for them may not qualify. Obamacare already has a waiver process under which states can waive some of the law’s regulations—including the essential health benefits and actuarial value (but not guaranteed issue and community rating). However, those waiver requirements are so strict that no states have applied for these types of waivers—Health Savings Account and other consumer-directed health care options likely do not meet the law’s criteria. If the House plan includes similarly strict criteria, the waivers will have little meaning.

Will the Administration actively encourage states to apply for regulatory waivers?

President Trump has previously stated that he wants to keep Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions provisions in place. Those statements raise questions about how exactly the Administration would implement a program seeking to waive those very protections. Would the Administration actively encourage states to apply? If so, why won’t the Administration support repealing those provisions outright—rather than requiring states to come to the federal government to ask permission?

Conversely, if the Administration wishes to discourage states from using this waiver program, it has levers to do so. As noted above, the current amendment language gives the Administration very broad leeway regarding the $15 billion risk pool program—such that the Administration could potentially deny funds to states that move to waive portions of the Obamacare regulations.

The combination of the broad grant of authority to the executive, coupled with the President’s prior comments wanting to keep Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions provision, could lead some conservatives to question whether or not they are being led into a potential “bait-and-switch” scenario, whereby the regulatory flexibility promised prior to the bill’s passage suddenly disappears upon enactment.

The Binary Choices of “Repeal-and-Replace”

During the run-up to the aborted vote on House Republicans’ Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation, Speaker Paul Ryan repeatedly called the vote a “binary choice”: Republicans could support the leadership-drafted legislation, or, by failing to do so, effectively choose to keep Obamacare in place.

The rhetoric led to criticism of the speaker for attempting to bully or rush members of Congress into supporting legislation despite policy concerns and political unpopularity. That said, health care policy does involve several largely binary choices. They do not break down along the political fault lines the speaker proposed—support the leadership bill, or support Obamacare—but they demonstrate how health policy involves significant trade-offs that should be made very explicit as part of the policy-making process. Here are just three.

1: Obamacare’s Regulations Are (Mostly) All-or-Nothing

Just prior to the scheduled vote, Republican leadership and the Trump administration found themselves in trouble when they proposed eliminating Obamacare’s essential health benefits, for both legal and policy reasons. A more clearly drafted policy could minimize the former, but likely not the latter.

Here’s the problem: As long as insurers are required to accept all applicants regardless of health status or pre-existing conditions—a requirement known as guaranteed issue, and included in Obamacare—removing at least three other important Obamacare regulations would likely lead to unsustainable and perverse outcomes:

Community rating: Theoretically, insurers would have little problem with a requirement to accept all applicants, so long as they can charge those applicants an actuarially fair rate. However, “offering” a cancer patient an insurance policy priced at $50,000 per month would likely yield few acceptances (and would be politically unsustainable).

Obamacare allowed insurers to vary premiums only by age, family size, geography, and tobacco use. The House bill expanded the permissible rating variation, but only with respect to age. While this change would lower premiums for younger applicants, encouraging them to purchase insurance, it might not change insurers’ underlying assumption that applicants will be sicker-than-average.

Essential benefits: Requiring insurers to accept all applicants regardless of health status, but allowing them to vary benefit packages, would create incentives for insurers to structure their policies in ways that discourage sick people from applying.

For instance, no rational insurer would provide much (if any) coverage of expensive chemotherapy drugs, because doing so would prompt a flood of cancer patients to purchase coverage and run up large bills. Since Obamacare’s passage, HIV patients have already faced discrimination because of these inherent flaws in the law, even with the essential benefit requirements in place. Removing them would only accelerate a “race to the bottom.”

Actuarial value: Here again, removing the requirement that plans cover a certain percentage of expenses would lead to a rapid downsizing of generous plans from the marketplace—again, so insurers can avoid sick patients. Platinum plans have already become a rare breed on the Obamacare exchanges; removing the requirements would likely cause gold and silver plans to disappear as well.

These four major regulations—guaranteed issue, community rating, essential health benefits, and actuarial value—are inextricably linked. Repealing only one or two without repealing all of them, particularly the guaranteed issue requirements, would at best fail to lower premiums (largely what the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, concluded about the House bill) and at worst could severely disrupt the market, while making the sickest individuals worse off.

The CBO largely agrees with this analysis. In a January document, CBO noted that Obamacare included major regulatory changes that require insurers to: “Provide specific benefits and amounts of coverage”—essential health benefits (the types of services covered) and actuarial value (the amount of that coverage), respectively; “Not deny coverage or vary premiums because of an enrollee’s health status or limit coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions”—guaranteed issue; and “Vary premiums only on the basis of age, tobacco use, and geographic location”—community rating.

CBO views these four interlinked changes as at the heart of the Obamacare regulatory regime. While lawmakers could repeal piecemeal other mandates beyond the “Big Four,” such as the requirement to cover “dependents” under age 26, or the preventive services mandate, doing so would have a much smaller effect on reducing premiums than the four changes referenced above.

2: Keeping Obamacare Regulations Requires Significant Insurance Subsidies

The January CBO analysis of the 2015 repeal bill passed under reconciliation illustrates the second binary choice. Because that 2015 reconciliation bill repealed Obamacare’s insurance subsidies (after a delay) and mandate to purchase coverage, but not its regulatory requirements on insurers, CBO concluded that the bill would severely damage the individual health insurance market. By 2026, premiums would double, and about three-quarters of the country would have no insurers offering individual insurance coverage, in CBO’s estimate.

The analysis revealed one big reason why: Eliminating subsidies for insurance would result in a large price increase for many people. Not only would enrollment decline, but the people who would be most likely to remain enrolled would tend to be less healthy (and therefore more willing to pay higher premiums). Thus, average health-care costs among the people retaining coverage would be higher, and insurers would have to raise premiums in the non-group market to cover those higher costs.

In short, CBO believed repealing Obamacare’s subsidies while retaining its insurance regulations would lead to an insurance “death spiral.”

By contrast, CBO concluded that this year’s House Republican bill, which (largely) retained Obamacare’s regulations and included a new subsidy for insurance, would lead to a stable marketplace: “Key factors bringing about market stability include subsidies to purchase insurance, which would maintain sufficient demand for insurance by people with low health care expenditures…”

The obvious conclusion: While the individual health insurance market remained relatively stable without subsidies prior to Obamacare, and repealing both the law’s subsidies and its regulations would restore that sustainable market, as long as the regulatory changes wrought by the law remain in place, the market will require heavy insurance subsidies to remain stable.

3: Banning Pre-Existing Condition Consideration Versus Repealing Obamacare

This binary choice follows from the prior two. If the “Big Four” insurance regulations are so interlinked as to make them a binary proposition, and if a market with those “Big Four” requires subsidies to remain stable, then Republicans have a choice: They can either retain the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination—and the regulations and subsidies that go with it—or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare.

Consider, for instance, Ryan’s response to a reporter on February 16 questioning the similarities between the refundable tax credits in the House plan (later the House bill) and Obamacare: “They call them refundable tax credits—they’re subsidies. And they’re subsidies that say ‘We will pay some people some money if you do what the government makes you do.’ That is not a tax credit. That is not freedom. A tax credit is you get the freedom to do what you want, and buy what you need—and your choice.”

Based on Ryan’s own definition, the House bill qualifies as an Obamacare-esque subsidy, and not a tax credit. It gives some people (those with employer coverage or other insurance do not qualify) some amount—the credits had to be means-tested to solve major CBO scoring issues—if they buy insurance that meets government requirements.

For an individual “buy[ing] what [they] need,” the option to purchase health insurance without under-26 “dependent” coverage, or without maternity coverage for males, did not exist. So it’s not that others derided the House bill as “Obamacare Lite,” it’s that the bill qualifies as such under Ryan’s own definition.

Much of the problem lies in House Republicans’ Better Way proposal released last summer, which stated a desire to retain Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provision. The import of this proposal was not clear at the time. There are other, simpler ways to provide coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions (such as high-risk pools), and as Yuval Levin has pointed out, prior conservative health proposals did not include promises on pre-existing conditions. But Republicans’ unwillingness to upset the Obamacare standards for pre-existing conditions has significantly boxed in the party’s policy options regarding repeal.

To Govern Is To Choose

As with Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans face a self-inflicted dilemma, having over-promised voters by claiming they could keep the popular portions of Obamacare (pre-existing condition protections) while repealing the law.

But Republicans face what looks increasingly like a binary choice: going back to the status quo ante on pre-existing conditions, or breaking their seven-year-long pledge to repeal Obamacare. As the saying goes, to govern is to choose—but in this case, failing to govern may be the worst choice of all.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.