Category Archives: Entitlement Reform

Democrats’ Hypocrisy on the Trump Budget

As expected, the Left had a harsh reaction to President Trump’s first budget on its release Tuesday. Bernie Sanders called the proposed Medicaid reductions “just cruel,” the head of one liberal think-tank dubbed the budget as a whole “radical,” and on and on.

But if liberals object to these “draconian cuts,” there’s one potential solution: Look in the mirror.

Liberals’ supposed outrage over reductions to entitlements largely serving poor people would look slightly less disingenuous if they hadn’t made the same hyperbolic comments about reducing entitlement spending on middle-class and wealthy retirees. If the Left believes the budget reduces spending from anti-poverty programs too deeply, that in part stems from the president’s (flawed) conclusion that Social Security and Medicare reforms are too politically toxic to propose.

And exactly who might be to blame for creating that toxic environment?

Democrats Are Using The ‘Mediscare’ Playbook

Democrats have spent the past several political cycles running election campaigns straight out of the “Mediscare” playbook. In case anyone has forgotten, political ads have portrayed Republicans as literally throwing granny off a cliff.

This rhetoric about Republican attempts to “privatize” Medicare came despite several inconvenient truths:

  1. The “voucher” system Democrats attack for Medicare is based upon the same bidding system included in Obamacare;
  2. The Congressional Budget Office concluded one version of premium support would, by utilizing the forces of competition, actually save money for both seniors and the federal government; and
  3. Democrats—in Nancy Pelosi’s own words—“took half a trillion dollars out of Medicare” to pay for Obamacare.

Given the constant attacks from Democrats against entitlement reform, however, Donald Trump made the political decision during last year’s campaign to oppose any changes to Medicare or Social Security. He reiterated that decision in this week’s budget, by proposing no direct reductions either to Medicare or the Social Security retirement program. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the president told him, “I promised people on the campaign trail I would not touch their retirement and I would not touch Medicare.”

That’s an incorrect and faulty assumption, of course, as both programs rapidly spiral toward insolvency. The Medicare hospital insurance trust fund has incurred a collective $132.2 billion in deficits the past eight years. Only the double-counting created by Obamacare continues to keep the Medicare trust fund afloat. The idea that President Trump should not “touch” seniors’ retirement or health care is based on the fallacious premise that they exist beyond the coming decade; on the present trajectory, they do not, at least not in their current form.

Should Bill Gates Get Taxpayer-Funded Healthcare?

That said, the president’s reticence to “touch” Social Security and Medicare comes no doubt from Democrats’ reluctance to support any reductions in entitlement spending, even to the wealthiest Americans. When Republicans first proposed additional means testing for Medicare back in 2011, then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) opposed it, saying that “if [then-House Speaker John] Boehner wants to have the wealthy contribute more to deficit reduction, he should look to the tax code.”

In other words, liberals like Henry Waxman, and others like him, wish to defend “benefits for billionaires”—the right of people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to receive taxpayer-funded health and retirement benefits. Admittedly, Congress passed some additional entitlement means testing as part of a Medicare bill two years ago. But the notion that taxpayers should spend any taxpayer funds on health or retirement payments to “one-percenters” would likely strike most as absurd—yet that’s exactly what current law does.

As the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. If Democrats are so violently opposed to the supposedly “cruel” savings proposals in the president’s budget, then why don’t they put alternative entitlement reforms on the table? From eliminating Medicare and Social Security payments to the highest earners, to a premium support proposal that would save seniors money, there are potential opportunities out there—if liberals can stand to tone down the “Mediscare” demagoguery. It just might yield the reforms that our country needs, to prevent future generations from drowning in a sea of debt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

CBO Estimate of American Health Care Act, As Passed by the House

On May 24, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its score of the American Health Care Act, as passed by the House on May 4. CBO found that the bill would:

  • Reduce deficits by about $119 billion over ten years—$133 billion in on-budget savings, offset by $14 billion in off-budget (i.e., Social Security) costs.
  • Increase the number of uninsured by 14 million in 2018, rising to a total of 23 million by 2026—a slight reduction from its earlier estimates.
  • Generally reduce individual market insurance premiums, “in part because the insurance, on average, would pay for a smaller proportion of health care costs.” However, those reductions would vary widely, as detailed further below.

Most of the CBO analysis focused on changes to the legislation made since the bill was originally introduced—and specifically the effects on insurance markets. The current CBO report therefore should be read in conjunction with the prior report (found online here, and my summary of same here).

Waivers:         With respect to the state waivers for insurance regulations—specifically, essential health benefits and community rating requirements—CBO categorized states as adopting one of three general approaches, based in part on the way states regulated their insurance markets prior to Obamacare. CBO did not attempt to determine which states would make which decisions, but used three categories to describe their attitude toward the waivers:

  • About half of the population would live in states that would not adopt the waivers;
  • About one-third of the population would live in states adopting “moderate” waivers; and
  • About one-sixth of the population would live in states adopting “substantial” waivers.

No Waiver States:       CBO estimated that in these states, premiums would fall by an average of 4 percent by 2026, due largely to a younger and healthier population purchasing insurance. Specifically, the greater variation in age rating that the bill permits for insurers, beginning in 2019, would raise premiums for older people while “substantially” lowering them for younger individuals.

Moderate Waiver States:        CBO estimated that in these states, premiums would fall by an average of 20 percent, with significant variations. “The estimated reductions in average premiums range from 10 percent to 30 percent in different areas of the country,” and reductions for younger people would be greater than those for older individuals. The premium reductions would come because “on average, insurance policies would provide fewer benefits;” however, plans “would still offer financial protection from most major health risks.”

CBO noted that states making moderate changes might eliminate such requirements as maternity care, mental health, substance abuse, rehabilitative and habilitative care, and pediatric dental care. In general, insurers “would not want to sell policies that included benefits that were not mandated by state law.” Carriers could sell supplemental riders for such coverage, but CBO concluded most individuals purchasing those riders would utilize them, potentially resulting in “substantially higher out-of-pocket costs” for said individuals.

In the case of states making moderate changes via waivers, CBO estimated that while premiums would be lower for individual insurance, employers would be more likely to continue offering group coverage, and therefore fewer employees would switch from employer to individual market policies. CBO estimated that, compared to the previous estimate, “slightly more people would have insurance in those states, but fewer of them would be enrolled through the non-group market.”

Substantial Waiver States:    In these states, CBO estimated that, while waivers would result in “significantly lower premiums” for those with low expected health costs, the changes could destabilize markets over time, such that less healthy individuals might be “unable to purchase comprehensive coverage with premiums close to those under current law and might not be able to purchase coverage at all.”

Essentially, CBO believes that waiving the community rating provision will create an arbitrage opportunity, whereby healthy individuals will want to undergo medical underwriting to lower premiums, while sick individuals will be unable to do so. CBO wrote that some healthy individuals will actually attempt to hide proof of continuous health insurance coverage, because they could achieve lower premiums by doing so:

CBO and JCT anticipate that, in states making substantial changes to market regulations, most healthy people applying for insurance in the nongroup market would be able to choose between underwritten premiums and community-rated premiums. If underwritten premiums were to their advantage, healthy applicants could fail to provide proof of continuous coverage when first applying for nongroup insurance—or allow their coverage to lapse for more than 63 days before applying. Moreover, insurers and states might have difficulty verifying that an applicant did not have continuous coverage. As a result, such a waiver would potentially allow the spread of medical underwriting to the entire nongroup market in a state rather than limiting it to those who did not have continuous coverage.

Essentially, CBO believes that this arbitrage opportunity could lead to a “death spiral” when it comes to coverage for individuals with high health needs—they may be unable to purchase coverage at any price. As a result, CBO concluded that in substantial waiver states, “employers would be even more likely to continue offering coverage than in states making moderate changes,” which would tend to keep individuals enrolled in group coverage, and decrease coverage in the individual insurance market overall.

CBO also noted that a “few million” (number not more specifically defined) individuals might purchase coverage that “would not cover major medical risks.” It noted the possibility that a secondary market would develop to sell insurance policies priced to match the amount of the bill’s tax credits: “Although such plans would provide some benefits, the policies would not provide enough financial protection in the event of a serious and costly illness to be considered insurance.”

Patient and State Stability Fund:            The estimate included additional details surrounding the Stability Fund, most of which CBO assumed “would be used by states to reduce premiums or increase benefits in the non-group market:”

  • The original $100 billion allocated to the fund would “exert substantial downward pressure on premiums in the non-group market and would help encourage insurers’ participation in the market.”
  • The $15 billion in invisible risk sharing funds, which “would be directed to insurers to reduce their risk of having high-cost enrollees…would have a small effect on premiums in 2018 and a larger effect on premiums in 2019.”
  • The $8 billion in funds for waiver states “would increase the number of states choosing such a waiver,” but CBO did not attempt to predict the precise way in which states would utilize those funds. While one section of the estimate alleges that “the funding would not be sufficient to substantially reduce the large increases in premiums for high-cost enrollees,” another section notes that only $6 billion of the funding would be spent over the decade—providing contradictory and unclear messages about whether the funding would be sufficient, and if it would not, why CBO thinks some of that supposedly insufficient funding would not be spent within a decade.
  • The $15 billion to cover maternity and mental health care would likely go to “health care providers rather than to insurers;” $14 billion would be spent over the decade.

Changes in Insurance Coverage:               CBO estimated that under the bill, the number of uninsured would rise by 14 million in 2018, 19 million in 2020, and 23 million in 2026. With respect to Medicaid, 14 million fewer people would have coverage than under current law; however, CBO noted that some of those individuals “would be among people who CBO projects would, under current law, become eligible in the future as additional states adopted” Medicaid expansion.

CBO estimated that the individual insurance market would decline by 8 million in 2018, 10 million in 2020, and 6 million in 2026. The estimate noted CBO’s belief that the individual market will shrink in 2020, only to expand in later years, because of implementation difficulties, particularly for states that apply for waivers and are therefore charged with certifying plans. “CBO and JCT expect that such implementation difficulties would result in some reduction in coverage and some occasions when individuals purchasing coverage would fail to get the credits. Those difficulties would probably decline over time in most markets.”

When compared to its original estimate of the bill, CBO concluded that:

  • Enrollment in the individual market would be 1 million lower in 2018 and 3 million lower in 2026, due to more employers continuing to offer coverage, while some otherwise uninsured individuals would choose to enroll in individual coverage due to lower premiums.
  • Employer based coverage would increase by 1 million in 2018 and 4 million in 2026, primarily because employers would be more likely to offer—and employees more likely to accept—group health coverage in states with insurance waivers.
  • The uninsured would decrease by 2 million in 2020 and 1 million in 2026, “primarily attributable to lower premiums for non-group coverage.” CBO concluded that, while coverage would be less robust under the waivers, “more people would choose to enroll rather than be uninsured.”

Administrative Complexity:          CBO included several passages noting the complexity and potential administrative/implementation challenges associated with the bill. It assumed that the state insurance waivers would not actually go into effect until 2020, as states would need time to prepare for same. For instance, CBO noted that Obamacare subsidies—which would remain in effect in 2018 and 2019 under the bill—are linked to the second-lowest cost silver plan. Determining the second-lowest cost silver plan in a state waiving some or all Obamacare regulations—where insurers could practice medical underwriting for individuals without continuous coverage—would require “substantial additional regulations or guidance.”

Further, because states accepting waivers would have to define qualified health plans beginning in 2020, those states would have to administer the tax credit program. The uncertainties surrounding whether and how states could administer the new programs led CBO to conclude that in waiver states “eligible people would initially be slower to take up the offer of tax credits, more claims would be made by people who are ineligible, and payments would be made for policies that do not qualify as insurance.”

Summary of Fiscal Year 2018 Budget

UPDATE: The official White House budget document, posted on Tuesday, revealed an additional policy proposal, extending a series of mandatory spending programs included in the 2015 Medicare Access and SCHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) for two more years. These programs include community health center funding, the National Health Service Corps, abstinence education programs, health profession opportunity grants, and other related public health programs. These proposals would cost a total of $9.9 billion over a decade, of which the majority ($7.2 billion) would go toward community health centers.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the Trump Administration’s proposal for a temporary, two-year extension of these mandatory spending provisions would effectively re-create the scenario caused by the Medicare sustainable growth rate — which saw mandatory spending being extended in piecemeal increments, so as to hide the spending’s full deficit impact.

Original post follows below…

Late Monday afternoon, a document briefly appeared on the Department of Health and Human Services website as the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget in Brief. It’s unclear whether the document was a draft of the HHS budget, or merely a case of a staffer posting the official document online too early (our money would be on the latter). It also must be noted that other budget materials—the White House/Office of Management and Budget document, as well as supplemental materials from the Treasury and others—provide more detail and information not present solely within the HHS budget.

That said, based on the review of the document posted, the health budget seems in many respects functionally incoherent:

  • It proposes significant entitlement savings from Medicaid, over and above those included in Obamacare repeal, while proposing no direct savings from Medicare—a program that will spend more than $9 trillion in the coming decade, and which faces insolvency by 2028;
  • It grants states more flexibility with regards to Medicaid reform, while with respect to medical liability reform, it prescribes a solution from Washington—one that conservatives have argued is inconsistent with Tenth Amendment principles; and
  • It assumes $250 billion in savings from Obamacare repeal—more than the most recent estimate of the House legislation—a “magic asterisk” not likely to be achieved, but one on which the budget relies in order to achieve balance within a decade.

A summary of the document follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days, as more materials get released.

Discretionary Spending

While press reports in recent days have focused on the amount of “cuts” proposed in the President’s budget, it’s worth noting the HHS budget’s overall spending levels. When it comes to budget authority, the budget would spend $1.113 trillion in Fiscal Year 2018, which is a 1.24% reduction compared to the $1.127 trillion preliminary number for the current fiscal year, and a 0.54% reduction compared to the $1.119 trillion for Fiscal Year 2016.

Furthermore, the HHS budget actually increases the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) within the Department—from 77,499 in FY16, to 79,505 in FY17, to 80,027 in FY18.

When compared to Fiscal Year 2017 amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $850 million (31.0%) reduction for the Food and Drug Administration, as the Administration proposes increasing FDA user fees to compensate for reductions in taxpayer funding;
  • $449 million (4.2%) reduction for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $55 million (1.1%) reduction for the Indian Health Service;
  • $1.3 billion (17.2%) reduction for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $5.78 billion (18.2%) reduction for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $385 million (9.3%) reduction for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and
  • $379 million (9.6%) reduction for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

Food and Drug Administration:  As noted above, the budget envisions a “recalibration” of how to pay for FDA pre-market review activities. Specifically, the budget would increase industry user fees “to fund 100 percent of cost for pre-market review and approval activities” for brand and generic prescription drugs and medical devices.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $22.6 Billion, including interactions)

Medicare Appeals:  Proposes new mandatory spending of $127 million in Fiscal 2018, and $1.27 billion over a decade, to address the pending backlog of Medicare appeals.

IPAB Repeal:  Repeals Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), at a cost of $7.6 billion over a decade. While opposing Obamacare’s notion that a board of unelected bureaucrats should be empowered to make rulings lowering Medicare spending nationwide, some conservatives may also oppose efforts to repeal a spending constraint on our nation’s largest health care entitlement without any similar efforts to control the program’s large (and growing) outlays.

Liability Reform:  Achieves Medicare savings of $31.4 billion from medical liability reforms. The reforms would impose caps on non-economic damages, provide safe harbors for physicians based on following clinical guidelines, allow for the creation of health courts, provide for a three-year statute of limitations, eliminate joint and several liability, allow courts to modify contingency arrangements, and provide for periodic payments for large jury awards.

The proposal would yield total savings of $55 billion overall. The largest share of $31.4 billion would come from Medicare—in part because a portion of physician fees are based on medical liability insurance payments. Medicaid savings would total $399 million. Much of the remaining $23.2 billion would come from revenue interactions with the current exclusion from employer-provided health insurance—i.e., a lowering of health insurance costs and premiums resulting in workers receiving slightly less of their compensation as pre-tax health benefits, and slightly more of their compensation as after-tax cash wages.

While supporting the concept of liability reform generally, some conservatives may be concerned that the budget’s proposals violate the principles of federalism. States can enact liability reforms on their own—and many states like Texas have done so, without any mandates from Washington. Some conservatives may therefore view this proposal as an example of “big government conservatism” inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $627 Billion)

The HHS document notes that “the budget includes a net savings to Medicaid of $627 billion over 10 years, not including additional savings to Medicaid as a result of the Administration’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

Medicaid Reform:  Assumes $610 billion in savings (again, over and above Obamacare repeal) from Medicaid reform, giving states the choice between a per capita cap or a block grant beginning in 2020. The document specifically notes that this proposal will allow states to promote solutions that encourage work and promote personal responsibility.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program:  Assumes a two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The budget also proposes eliminating two Obamacare-related provisions—the increase in the enhanced federal match rate for SCHIP, and the maintenance of effort requirements imposed on states—in both cases at the end of the current fiscal year.

The budget would cap the level at which states could receive the enhanced federal SCHIP match at 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500 for a family of four in 2017). Some conservatives would argue that this provision is one way to ensure federal funds are directed towards the vulnerable populations that need them most; guidance issued by the Bush Administration in 2007 provides other examples of potential policies to include.

Finally, the budget also proposes undoing an Obamacare change that required states to transition certain children off of SCHIP and into expanded Medicaid, allowing states to re-enroll these children into SCHIP.

On net, the SCHIP extension would save the federal government $5.8 billion over ten years, reflecting new costs to the SCHIP program ($13.9 billion), savings to Medicaid ($16.7 billion), and savings to other federal health programs ($3 billion).

Liability Reform:  As noted above, the budget assumes an additional $399 million in Medicaid savings from enacting liability reform.

Repeal of Obamacare

The budget assumes a net of $250 billion in savings from an Obamacare repeal/replace measure, savings accruing to both HHS and Treasury. Some conservatives, noting that the most recent score of Obamacare legislation showed a net savings of only $150 billion—with more new spending added since then—may question whether or not this assumption is realistic.

Summary of “Repeal and Replace” Amendments

Ahead of tomorrow’s expected vote on the American Health Care Act, below please find updates on the amendments offered to the legislation. The original summary of the bill is located here.

The bill will be considered tomorrow in the absence of a Congressional Budget Office score of any of 1) the second-degree managers amendment; 2) the Palmer-Schweikert amendment; 3) the MacArthur-Meadows amendment; and 4) the Upton amendment. Some conservatives may be concerned that both the fiscal and policy implications of these four legislative proposals will not be fully vetted until well after Members vote on the legislation. Some conservatives may also be concerned that changes to the legislation made since the last CBO analysis (released on March 23) could change its deficit impact — which could, if CBO concludes the amended bill increases the deficit, cause the legislation to lose its privilege as a reconciliation matter in the Senate.

UPTON AMENDMENT: Adds an additional $8 billion to the Stability Fund for the period 2018-2023 for the sole purpose of “providing assistance to reduce premiums or other out-of-pocket costs of individuals who are subject to an increase in the monthly premium rate for health insurance coverage” as a result of a state adopting a waiver under the MacArthur/Meadows amendment. Gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services authority to create “an allocation methodology” for such purposes.

Some conservatives may note that the adequacy (or inadequacy) of the funding remains contingent largely upon the number of states that decide to submit relevant waiver requests. Some conservatives may also be concerned by the broad grant of authority given to HHS to develop the allocation with respect to such important details as which states receive will funding (and how much), the amount of the $8 billion disbursed every year over the six-year period, and which types of waiver requests (e.g., age rating changes, other rate changes, and/or essential health benefit changes) will receive precedence for funding.

MACARTHUR/MEADOWS AMENDMENT: Creates a new waiver process for states to opt out of some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations. States may choose to opt out of:

  • Age rating requirements, beginning in 2018 (Obamacare requires that insurers may not charge older enrollees more than three times the premium paid by younger enrollees);
  • Essential health benefits, beginning in 2020; and
  • In states that have established some high-risk pool or reinsurance mechanism, the 30 percent penalty in the bill for individuals lacking continuous coverage, and/or Obamacare’s prohibition on rating due to health status (again, for individuals lacking continuous insurance coverage), beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period.

Provides that the waiver will be considered approved within 60 days, provided that the state self-certifies the waiver will accomplish one of several objectives, including lowering health insurance premiums. Allows waivers to last for up to 10 years, subject to renewal. Exempts certain forms of coverage, including health insurance co-ops and multi-state plans created by Obamacare, from the state waiver option.

Also exempts the health coverage of Members of Congress from the waiver requirement. House leadership has claimed that this language was included in the legislation to prevent the bill from losing procedural protection in the Senate (likely for including matter outside the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance and HELP Committees). The House will vote on legislation (H.R. 2192) tomorrow that would if enacted effectively nullify this exemption.

While commending the attempt to remove the regulatory burdens that have driven up insurance premiums, some conservatives may be concerned that the language not only leaves in place a federal regulatory regime, but maintains Obamacare as the default regime unless and until a state applies for a waiver — and thus far no governor or state has expressed an interest in doing so. Some conservatives may also question whether waivers will be revoked by states following electoral changes (i.e., a change in party control), and whether the amendment’s somewhat permissive language gives the Department of Health and Human Services grounds to reject waiver renewal applications — both circumstances that would further limit the waiver program’s reach.

PALMER/SCHWEIKERT AMENDMENT: Adds an additional $15 billion to the Stability Fund for the years 2018 through 2026 for the purpose of creating an invisible risk sharing program. Requires the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to establish, following consultations with stakeholders, parameters for the program, including the eligible individuals, standards for qualification (both voluntary and automatic), and attachment points and reimbursement levels. Provides that the federal government will establish parameters for 2018 within 60 days of enactment, and requires CMS to “establish a process for a state to operate” the program beginning in 2020.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this amendment is too prescriptive to states — providing $15 billion in funding contingent solely on one type of state-based insurance solution — while at the same time giving too much authority to HHS to determine the parameters of that specific solution.

 

MARCH 24 UPDATE:

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).

MARCH 23 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.

 

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.

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.

One Easy Way to Start Reforming Entitlements

During his election campaign and the subsequent presidential transition, Donald Trump expressed a high degree of discomfort with reducing Medicare benefits. His position ignores the significant financial peril Medicare faces—a whopping $132.2 billion in deficits for the Part A (Hospital Insurance) trust fund over the past eight years.

That said, there is one easy way in which the new administration could advance the cause of entitlement reform: allow individuals—including wealthy individuals, like, say, Donald Trump—to opt out of Medicare.

Under current Social Security Administration (SSA) practice dating back to at least 1993, individuals who apply for Social Security benefits are automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A (hospital coverage). While Medicare Part B (physician coverage) requires a separate application process and monthly premium payment, Part A is effectively mandatory for all Social Security recipients. Individuals who do not wish to enroll can do so only by not applying for Social Security benefits. Put another way, the federal government holds individuals’ Social Security benefits hostage as leverage to forcibly enroll them in Medicare Part A.

If you think the government holding benefits hostage to forcibly enroll seniors—even wealthy ones—in taxpayer-funded Medicare sounds more than a little absurd, you wouldn’t be the first one. Several years ago, several conservatives—including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey—filed a lawsuit in federal court, Hall v. Sebelius, seeking to overturn the SSA guidance. The plaintiffs wanted to keep their previous private coverage, and did not wish to lose the benefits of that coverage by being forcibly enrolled in Medicare Part A.

We Have A Roadmap To Remedy This Problem

Unfortunately, both a federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed with the federal government. The majority opinions held that the underlying statute distinguished being “entitled” to Medicare Part A benefits from “enrolling” in Part B, meaning the government was within its rights to deny the plaintiffs an opportunity to opt out of Part A.

However, a dissent at the Court of Appeals by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson can provide a roadmap for the Trump Administration to remedy the absurd scenario of individuals being forcibly enrolled in a taxpayer-funded program. Judge Henderson held that the Social Security Administration had no statutory authority to prohibit (via its Program Operations Manual System, or POMS) individuals from disclaiming their Medicare Part A benefits. While the law “entitles” individuals to benefits, it does not give SSA authority to force them to claim said benefits. SSA published guidance in its program manual exceeding its statutory grant—without even giving the public the opportunity for notice-and-comment before establishing its policy.

It’s Time To End The SSA’s Kafka-esque Policies

During the Cold War, East German authorities referred to the barriers surrounding West Berlin as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”—implying that the Berlin Wall stood not to keep East Berliners in East Germany, but West Berliners out. One can’t help but notice a similar irony in the Medicare opt-out policies developed by the Social Security Administration. After all, if Medicare is so good, why must SSA hold individuals’ Social Security benefits hostage to keep them enrolled in the program?

The Trump Administration can easily put an end to the Social Security Administration’s Kafka-esque policies—and take one small step towards reforming entitlements—by instructing the new Commissioner of Social Security to work with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to develop a means for individuals to opt out of the Medicare Part A benefit. The savings from such a policy would likely be modest, but why should the federal government force the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on benefits that the beneficiaries themselves do not wish to receive?

The simple answer: it shouldn’t. Perhaps Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren view forcible enrollment in Medicare as “punishment” for wealthy seniors. But at a time when our nation faces nearly $20 trillion in debt, individuals of significant means—whether Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or even Hillary Clinton—shouldn’t be forced to accept taxpayer-funded benefits. The Trump Administration eliminating this government absurdity would represent a victory for fiscal responsibility—and sheer common sense.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Big Hospital’s Obamacare Hypocrisy

As Republicans prepare legislation to repeal Obamacare, the health care industrial complex has raised a host of concerns. Notably, two hospital associations recently released a report highlighting the supposed negative implications of the reconciliation bill Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, in January 2016.

While the hospitals allege that repealing Obamacare would decimate their industry, their report cleverly omits four inconvenient truths.

1. They Pushed Bad Ideas Because They Expect Bailouts

In August 2010 at an American Enterprise Institute forum, then-Medicare actuary Rick Foster engaged in a discussion with Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, about the effects of Obamacare. The non-partisan actuary asked Kahn a simple question: Why did his industry agree to a series of so-called productivity adjustments, which lower hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement rates every year forever, in exchange for a one-time increase in their number of insured patients?

Kahn gave a simple, yet cynical, reply: “You could say, did you make a bad deal, and fortunately, I don’t think I’ll probably be working after 2020 [Laughter.]….I’m glad my contract only goes another six years. [Laughter.]”

Fast-forward those six years to last fall, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed the effects of various Obamacare provisions on hospital margins. The report concluded that even under the best-case scenario—in which hospitals achieve a level of efficiency non-partisan experts doubt they can reach—the revenue from Obamacare’s coverage expansions will barely offset the negative effects of the productivity adjustments. Under the worst-case scenario, more than half of hospitals could become unprofitable by 2025, and the entire industry could face negative profit margins.

Responding to the CBO report, the Federation of American Hospitals put out a statement from none other than Chip Kahn, wailing that “Medicare cuts are taking a punishing toll on the hospitals that serve all of us.” Translation: “Save me from my own stupidity—and the bad deal I cut six years ago!”

Kahn knew full well in August 2010 that Obamacare would eventually decimate his industry, through the cumulative effect of year-over-year reductions in Medicare payments. The laughter during his comments demonstrates Kahn thought it was one big joke. He and his colleagues cynically calculated first that they wouldn’t be around when those payment reductions really started to bite; and second that Congress would bail the hospitals out of their own bad deal—essentially, that hospitals are “too big to fail.”

2. Hospitals Supported Raiding Medicare to Pay for Obamacare

Last year’s reconciliation bill essentially undid the fiscal legerdemain that allowed Obamacare to pass in the first place. In the original 2010 legislation, Democrats used savings from Medicare both to improve the solvency of Medicare (at least on paper) and to fund the new entitlements.

The reconciliation bill would have repealed the new entitlements, and—in a truly novel concept—used Obamacare’s Medicare savings to…save Medicare. Instead, the hospital industry wants to continue the budget gimmickry that allows Medicare money to be spent twice and used for other projects.

3. Hospitals Believe Entitlements Are for Them, Not You

Last year, researchers from MIT released a major paper using the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment—in which winners of a random lottery won the right to Medicaid benefits, while others did not—to calculate the utility of Medicaid coverage. The study found that most beneficiaries valued their coverage at between 20 and 40 cents on the dollar. In other words, if given the choice between Medicaid coverage valued at $3,000 and cash in the amount of $1,500, most beneficiaries would take the cash.

In theory, individuals receiving cash contributions in lieu of Medicaid coverage could improve their health in all sorts of ways—buy healthier food, obtain transportation to a higher-paying job, move to a better apartment closer to parks and recreation. But who would object to giving patients cash to improve their health instead of insurance? You guessed it: Hospitals.

Hospitals view Medicaid as their entitlement, not their patients’. That’s why hospitals have worked so hard for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. It’s also why they wouldn’t support diverting money from coverage into other programs (e.g., education, housing, nutrition, etc.) that could actually improve patients’ health more than insurance, which has been demonstrated not to improve physical health outcomes.

4. Insisting Health Care Is Their Personal Jobs Program

Hospitals will claim that repealing Obamacare will cost industry jobs, just as they pushed for states to expand Medicaid as a way to create jobs. But economic experts on both sides of the aisle find this argument frivolous at best. As Zeke Emanuel, a former Obama administration official, has noted: “Health care is about keeping people healthy or fixing them up when they get sick. It is not a jobs program.”

Likewise, conservative economist Katherine Baicker has questioned “The Health Care Jobs Fallacy.” All spending will create jobs, one way or another. After all, if you’re looking to keep people employed, paying them to dig ditches and fill them in again will do the trick. But Baicker notes that it’s a far different thing to argue that health care represents the bestand most efficient use of resources—better than, say, building roads and bridges, lowering taxes, or even repaying the deficit.

The health-care sector seems to believe they have a God-given right to consume at least one-sixth of the economy (and growing). Rebutting hospitals’ argument—that they, and only they, can create jobs—might represent the first step in lowering health costs, which would help non-health sectors of the economy grow more quickly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.