Category Archives: Taxes

Summary of Senate Republicans’ Revised Discussion Draft

On June 26, Senate leadership released an updated discussion draft of their Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act. A detailed summary of the bill is below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Where provisions in the bill were also included in the reconciliation bill passed by Congress early in 2016 (H.R. 3762, text available here), differences between the two versions, if any, are noted. Ten-year fiscal impacts from the Congressional Budget Office score are also noted where applicable.

Of particular note: It is unclear whether this legislative language has been fully vetted with the Senate Parliamentarian. When the Senate considers budget reconciliation legislation—as it plans to do with the Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill—the Parliamentarian advises whether provisions are budgetary in nature and can be included in the bill (which can pass with a 51-vote simple majority), and which provisions are not budgetary in nature and must be considered separately (i.e., require 60 votes to pass).

As the bill was released prior to issuance of a full CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not fully vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I

Revisions to Obamacare Subsidies:             Modifies eligibility thresholds for the current regime of Obamacare subsidies. Under current law, households with incomes of between 100-400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $24,600 for a family of four in 2017) qualify for subsidies. This provision would change eligibility to include all households with income under 350% FPL—effectively eliminating the Medicaid “coverage gap,” whereby low-income individuals (those with incomes under 100% FPL) in states that did not expand Medicaid do not qualify for subsidized insurance.

Clarifies the definition of eligibility by substituting “qualified alien” for the current-law term “an alien lawfully present in the United States” with respect to the five-year waiting period for said aliens to receive taxpayer-funded benefits, per the welfare reform law enacted in 1996.

Changes the bidding structure for insurance subsidies. Under current law, subsidy amounts are based on the second-lowest silver plan bid in a given area—with silver plans based upon an actuarial value (the average percentage of annual health expenses covered) of 70 percent. This provision would base subsidies upon the “median cost benchmark plan,” which would be based upon an average actuarial value of 58 percent.

Modifies the existing Obamacare subsidy regime, by including age as an additional factor for determining subsidy amounts. Younger individuals would have to spend a smaller percentage of income on health insurance than under current law, while older individuals would spend a higher percentage of income. For instance, an individual under age 29, making just under 350% FPL, would pay 6.4% of income on health insurance, whereas an individual between ages 60-64 at the same income level would pay 16.2% of income on health insurance. (Current law limits individuals to paying 9.69% of income on insurance, at all age brackets, for those with income just below 400% FPL.)

Lowers the “failsafe” at which secondary indexing provisions under Obamacare would apply. Under current law, if total spending on premium subsidies exceeds 0.504% of gross domestic product annually in years after 2018, the premium subsidies would grow more slowly. (Additional information available here, and a Congressional Budget Office analysis available here.) This provision would reduce the overall cap at which the “failsafe” would apply to 0.4% of GDP.

Eliminates subsidy eligibility for households eligible for employer-subsidized health insurance. Also modifies definitions regarding eligibility for subsidies for employees participating in small businesses’ health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs).

Increases penalties on erroneous claims of the credit from 20 percent to 25 percent. Applies most of the above changes beginning in calendar year 2020.

Beginning in 2018, changes the definition of a qualified health plan, to prohibit plans from covering abortion other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may eventually be eliminated under the provisions of the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” therefore continuing taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion. (For more information, see these two articles.)

Eliminates provisions that limit repayment of subsidies for years after 2017. Subsidy eligibility is based upon estimated income, with recipients required to reconcile their subsidies received with actual income during the year-end tax filing process. Current law limits the amount of excess subsidies households with incomes under 400% FPL must pay. This provision would eliminate that limitation on repayments, which may result in fewer individuals taking up subsidies in the first place. Saves $25 billion over ten years—$18.7 billion in lower outlay spending, and $6.3 billion in additional revenues.

Some conservatives may be concerned first that, rather than repealing Obamacare, these provisions actually expand Obamacare—for instance, extending subsidies to some individuals currently not eligible. Some conservatives may also be concerned that, as with Obamacare, these provisions will create disincentives to work that would reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of millions of jobs. Finally, as noted above, some conservatives may believe that, as with Obamacare itself, enacting these policy changes through the budget reconciliation process will prevent the inclusion of strong pro-life protections, thus ensuring continued taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion. When compared to Obamacare, these provisions reduce the deficit by a net of $292 billion over ten years—$235 billion in reduced outlay spending (the refundable portion of the subsidies, for individuals with no income tax liability), and $57 billion in increased revenue (the non-refundable portion of the subsidies, reducing individuals’ tax liability).

Small Business Tax Credit:             Repeals Obamacare’s small business tax credit, effective in 2020. Disallows the small business tax credit beginning in 2018 for any plan that offers coverage of abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother—which, as noted above, some conservatives may believe will be stricken during the Senate’s “Byrd rule” review. This language is substantially similar to Section 203 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, with the exception of the new pro-life language. Saves $6 billion over ten years.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. This language is similar to Sections 204 and 205 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. The individual mandate provision cuts taxes by $38 billion, and the employer mandate provision cuts taxes by $171 billion, both over ten years.

Stability Funds:        Creates two stability funds intended to stabilize insurance markets—the first giving funds directly to insurers, and the second giving funds to states. The first would appropriate $15 billion each for 2018 and 2019, and $10 billion each for 2020 and 2021, ($50 billion total) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “fund arrangements with health insurance issuers to address coverage and access disruption and respond to urgent health care needs within States.” Instructs the CMS Administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure for providing and distributing funds.” Does not require a state match for receipt of stability funds.

Creates a longer term stability fund with a total of $62 billion in federal funding—$8 billion in 2019, $14 billion in 2020 and 2021, $6 billion in 2022 and 2023, $5 billion in 2024 and 2025, and $4 billion in 2026. Requires a state match beginning in 2022—7 percent that year, followed by 14 percent in 2023, 21 percent in 2024, 28 percent in 2025, and 35 percent in 2026. Allows the Administrator to determine each state’s allotment from the fund; states could keep their allotments for two years, but unspent funds after that point could be re-allocated to other states.

Long-term fund dollars could be used to provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals, including by reducing premium costs, “help stabilize premiums and promote state health insurance market participation and choice,” provide payments to health care providers, or reduce cost-sharing. However, all of the $50 billion in short-term stability funds—and $15 billion of the long-term funds ($5 billion each in 2019, 2020, and 2021)—must be used to stabilize premiums and insurance markets. The short-term stability fund requires applications from insurers; the long-term stability fund would require a one-time application from states.

Both stability funds are placed within Title XXI of the Social Security Act, which governs the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). While SCHIP has a statutory prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for abortion in state SCHIP programs, it is unclear at best whether this restriction would provide sufficient pro-life protections to ensure that Obamacare plans do not provide coverage of abortion. It is unclear whether and how federal reinsurance funds provided after-the-fact (i.e., covering some high-cost claims that already occurred) can prospectively prevent coverage of abortions.

Some conservatives may be concerned first that the stability funds would amount to over $100 billion in corporate welfare payments to insurance companies; second that the funds give nearly-unilateral authority to the CMS Administrator to determine how to allocate payments among states; third that, in giving so much authority to CMS, the funds further undermine the principle of state regulation of health insurance; fourth that the funds represent a short-term budgetary gimmick—essentially, throwing taxpayer dollars at insurers to keep premiums low between now and the 2020 presidential election—that cannot or should not be sustained in the longer term; and finally that placing the funds within the SCHIP program will prove insufficient to prevent federal funding of plans that cover abortion. Spends a total of $107 billion over ten years.

Implementation Fund:        Provides $500 million to implement programs under the bill. Costs $500 million over ten years.

Repeal of Some Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals some Obamacare taxes:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”)—but only through 2025, lowering revenues by $66 billion;
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $5.6 billion;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $100 million;
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $18.6 billion;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $25.7 billion;
  • Medical device tax, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $19.6 billion;
  • Health insurer tax (currently being suspended), lowering revenues by $144.7 billion;
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $1.8 billion;
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $36.1 billion;
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals, effective January 1, 2023, lowering revenues by $58.6 billion;
  • Tax on tanning services, effective September 30, 2017, lowering revenues by $600 million;
  • Net investment tax, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $172.2 billion;
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $500 million.

These provisions are generally similar to Sections 209 through 221 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. However, the bill does NOT repeal the economic substance tax, which WAS repealed in Section 222 of the 2015/2016 bill. Moreover, the bill delays repeal of the Medicare “high-income” tax (which is not indexed to inflation) for an additional six years, until 2023.

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses. Lowers revenues by a total of $19.2 billion over ten years.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). CBO believes this provision would save a total of $225 million in Medicaid spending, while increasing spending by $79 million over a decade, because 15 percent of Planned Parenthood clients would lose access to services, increasing the number of births in the Medicaid program by several thousand. This language is virtually identical to Section 206 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Saves $146 million over ten years.

Medicaid Expansion:           The discussion draft varies significantly from the repeal of Medicaid expansion included in Section 207 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. The 2015/2016 reconciliation bill repealed both elements of the Medicaid expansion—the change in eligibility allowing able-bodied adults to join the program, and the enhanced (90-100%) federal match that states received for covering them.

By contrast, the discussion draft retains eligibility for the able-bodied adult population—making this population optional for states to cover, rather than mandatory. (The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius made Medicaid expansion optional for states.) Some conservatives may be concerned that this change represents a marked weakening of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill language, one that will entrench a massive expansion of Medicaid beyond its original focus on the most vulnerable in society.

With respect to the Medicaid match rate, the discussion draft reduces the enhanced federal match to states—scheduled under current law as 90 percent in 2020—to 85 percent in 2021, 80 percent in 2022, and 75 percent in 2023. The regular federal match rates would apply for expansion states—defined as those that expanded Medicaid prior to March 1, 2017—beginning in 2024, and to all other states effective immediately. (In the case of states that already expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults prior to Obamacare’s enactment, the bill provides for an 80 percent federal match for 2017 through 2023.)

The bill also repeals the requirement that Medicaid “benchmark” plans comply with Obamacare’s essential health benefits, also effective December 31, 2019. In general, the Medicaid provisions outlined above, when combined with the per capita cap provisions below, would save a net of $772 billion over ten years.

Finally, the bill repeals provisions regarding presumptive eligibility and the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services. Saves $19 billion over ten years.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the language in this bill would give expansion states a strong incentive to sign up many more individuals for Medicaid over the next seven years. Some conservatives may also be concerned that, by extending the Medicaid transition for such a long period, it will never in fact go into effect.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Allotments:                Exempts non-expansion states from scheduled reductions in DSH payments in fiscal years 2021 through 2024, and provides an increase in DSH payments for non-expansion states in fiscal year 2020, based on a state’s Medicaid enrollment. Spends $19 billion over ten years.

Retroactive Eligibility:       Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid to the month in which the individual applied for the program; current law requires three months of retroactive eligibility. Saves $5 billion over ten years.

Non-Expansion State Funding:             Includes $10 billion ($2 billion per year) in funding for Medicaid non-expansion states, for calendar years 2018 through 2022. States can receive a 100 percent federal match (95 percent in 2022), up to their share of the allotment. A non-expansion state’s share of the $2 billion in annual allotments would be determined by its share of individuals below 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL) when compared to non-expansion states. This funding would be excluded from the Medicaid per capita spending caps discussed in greater detail below. Spends $10 billion over ten years.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Permits—but unlike the House bill, does not require—states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income every six months, or at shorter intervals. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match rate for states that elect this option. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

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 five 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. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Provider Taxes
:        Reduces permissible Medicaid provider taxes from 6 percent under current law to 5.8 percent in fiscal year 2021, 5.6 percent in fiscal year 2022, 5.4 percent in fiscal year 2023, 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2024, and 5 percent in fiscal year 2025 and future fiscal years. Some conservatives may view provider taxes as essentially “money laundering”—a game in which states engage in shell transactions solely designed to increase the federal share of Medicaid funding and reduce states’ share. More information can be found here. CBO believes states would probably reduce their spending in response to the loss of provider tax revenue, resulting in lower spending by the federal government. Saves $5.2 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in fiscal year 2020. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare). The cap would rise by medical CPI plus one percentage point annually.

While the cap would take effect in fiscal year 2020, states could choose their “base period” based on any eight consecutive quarters of expenditures between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017. The CMS Administrator would have authority to make adjustments to relevant data if she believes a state attempted to “game” the look-back period.

Creates five classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; 4) expansion enrollees (i.e., able-bodied adults enrolled under Obamacare); and 5) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps.

For years before fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to medical inflation for children, expansion enrollees, and all other non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation plus one percentage point for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries. Beginning in fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to overall inflation.

Includes provisions in the House bill regarding “required expenditures by certain political subdivisions.” Some conservatives may question the need to insert a parochial New York-related provision into the bill.

Provides a provision—not included in the House bill—for effectively re-basing the per capita caps. Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase the caps by between 0.5% and 2% for low-spending states (defined as having per capita expenditures 25% below the national median), and lower the caps by between 0.5% and 2% for high-spending states (with per capita expenditures 25% above the national median). The Secretary may only implement this provision in a budget-neutral manner, i.e., one that does not increase the deficit. However, this re-basing provision shall NOT apply to any state with a population density of under 15 individuals per square mile.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent. Requires new state reporting on inpatient psychiatric hospital services and children with complex medical conditions. Requires the HHS Inspector General to audit each state’s spending at least every three years.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Some conservatives may note that the use of the past several years as the “base period” for the per capita caps, benefits states who expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults under Obamacare. The most recent actuarial report on Medicaid noted that, while the actuary originally predicted that adults in the expansion population would cost less than existing populations, in reality each newly eligible enrollee cost 13.6% more than existing populations in 2016. Some states have used the 100% federal match for their expansion populations—i.e., “free money from Washington”—to raise provider reimbursement levels.

Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that the draft bill would retain the increased spending on adults in expansion states—extending the inequities caused by states that have used Obamacare’s “free money” to raise Medicaid spending while sending Washington the tab. Coupled with the expansion provisions outlined above, saves a net of $772 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Block Grants:      Creates a Medicaid block grant, called the “Medicaid Flexibility Program,” beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Requires interested states to submit an application providing a proposed packet of services, a commitment to submit relevant data (including health quality measures and clinical data), and a statement of program goals. Requires public notice-and-comment periods at both the state and federal levels.

The amount of the block grant would total the regular federal match rate, multiplied by the target per capita spending amounts (as calculated above), multiplied by the number of expected enrollees (adjusted forward based on the estimated increase in population for the state, per Census Bureau estimates). In future years, the block grant would be increased by general inflation.

Prohibits states from increasing their base year block grant population beyond 2016 levels, adjusted for population growth, plus an additional three percentage points. This provision is likely designed to prevent states from “packing” their Medicaid programs full of beneficiaries immediately prior to a block grant’s implementation, solely to achieve higher federal payments.

Permits states to roll over block grant payments from year to year, provided that they comply with maintenance of effort requirements. Reduces federal payments for the following year in the case of states that fail to meet their maintenance of effort spending requirements, and permits the HHS Secretary to make reductions in the case of a state’s non-compliance. Requires the Secretary to publish block grant amounts for every state every year, regardless of whether or not the state elects the block grant option.

Permits block grants for a program period of five fiscal years, subject to renewal; plans with “no significant changes” would not have to re-submit an application for their block grants. Permits a state to terminate the block grant, but only if the state “has in place an appropriate transition plan approved by the Secretary.”

Imposes a series of conditions on Medicaid block grants, requiring coverage for all mandatory populations identified in the Medicaid statute, and use of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) standard for determining eligibility. Includes 14 separate categories of services that states must cover for mandatory populations under the block grant. Requires benefits to have an actuarial value (coverage of average health expenses) of at least 95 percent of the benchmark coverage options in place prior to Obamacare. Permits states to determine the amount, duration, and scope of benefits within the parameters listed above.

Applies mental health parity provisions to the Medicaid block grant, and extends the Medicaid rebate program to any outpatient drugs covered under same. Permits states to impose premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing, provided such efforts do not exceed 5 percent of a family’s income in any given year.

Requires participating states to have simplified enrollment processes, coordinate with insurance Exchanges, and “establish a fair process” for individuals to appeal adverse eligibility determinations.

Exempts states from per capita caps, waivers, state plan amendments, and other provisions of Title XIX of the Social Security Act while participating in Medicaid block grants. Coupled with the expansion provisions outlined above, saves a net of $772 billion over ten years.

Performance Bonus Payments:             Provides an $8 billion pool for bonus payments to state Medicaid and SCHIP programs for Fiscal Years 2023 through 2026. Allows the Secretary to increase federal matching rates for states that 1) have lower than expected expenses under the per capita caps and 2) report applicable quality measures, and have a plan to use the additional funds on quality improvement. While noting the goal of reducing health costs through quality improvement, and incentives for same, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—as with others in the bill—gives near-blanket authority to the HHS Secretary to control the program’s parameters, power that conservatives believe properly resides outside Washington—and power that a future Democratic Administration could use to contravene conservative objectives. CBO believes that only some states will meet the performance criteria, leading some of the money not to be spent between now and 2026. Costs $3 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Waivers:  Permits states to extend Medicaid managed care waivers (those approved prior to January 1, 2017, and renewed at least once) in perpetuity through a state plan amendment, with an expedited/guaranteed approval process by CMS. Requires HHS to adopt processes “encouraging States to adopt or extend waivers” regarding home and community-based services, if those waivers would improve patient access. No budgetary impact.

Coordination with States:               After January 1, 2018, prohibits CMS from finalizing any Medicaid rule unless CMS and HHS 1) provide an ongoing regular process for soliciting comments from state Medicaid agencies and Medicaid directors; 2) solicit oral and written comments in advance of any proposed rule on Medicaid; and 3) respond to said comments in the preamble of the proposed rule. No budgetary impact.

Inpatient Psychiatric Services:             Provides for optional state Medicaid coverage of inpatient psychiatric services for individuals over 21 and under 65 years of age. (Current law permits coverage of such services for individuals under age 21.) Such coverage would not exceed 30 days in any month or 90 days in any calendar year. In order to receive such assistance, the state must maintain its number of licensed psychiatric beds as of the date of enactment, and maintain current levels of funding for inpatient services and outpatient psychiatric services. Provides a lower (i.e., 50 percent) match for such services, furnished on or after October 1, 2018. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Small Business Health Plans:             Amends the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to allow for creation of small business health plans. Some may question whether or not this provision will meet the “Byrd rule” test for inclusion on a budget reconciliation measure. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Title II

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances. This language is substantially similar to Section 101 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Saves $9 billion over ten years.

Opioid Funding:       Appropriates $2 billion for Fiscal Year 2018 for the HHS Secretary to distribute “grants to states to support substance use disorder treatment and recovery support services.” Spends $2 billion over ten years.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” above). Language regarding community health centers was included in Section 102 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Spends $422 million over ten years.

Age Rating:   Changes the maximum variation in insurance markets from 3-to-1 (i.e., insurers can charge older applicants no more than three times younger applicants) to 5-to-1 effective January 1, 2019, with the option for states to provide for other age rating requirements. Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the ability for states to opt out, this provision, by setting a default federal standard, maintains the intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Medical Loss Ratios:            Permits states to determine their own medical loss ratios, beginning for plan years on or after January 1, 2019. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Insurance Waiting Periods:             Imposes waiting periods on individuals lacking continuous coverage (i.e., with a coverage gap of more than 63 days). Requires carriers to, beginning with plan years starting after January 1, 2019, impose a six-month waiting period on individuals who cannot show 12 months of continuous coverage. However, the bill states that such waiting period “shall not apply to an individual who is enrolled in health insurance coverage in the individual market on the day before the effective date of the coverage in which the individual is newly enrolling.” The waiting period would extend for six months from the date of application for coverage, or the first date of the new plan year.

Permits the Department of Health and Human Services to require insurers to provide certificates of continuous coverage. Prohibits waiting periods for newborns and adopted children, provided they obtain coverage within 30 days of birth or adoption.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision, rather than repealing Obamacare’s regulatory mandates, would further entrench a Washington-centered structure, one that has led premiums to more than double since Obamacare took effect. Some conservatives may also note that this provision will not take effect until the 2019 plan year—meaning that the effective repeal of the individual mandate upon the bill’s enactment, coupled with the continuation of Obamacare’s regulatory structure, could further destabilize insurance markets over the next 18 months. CBO believes this provision will only modestly increase the number of people with health insurance. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

State Innovation Waivers:              Amends Section 1332 of Obamacare regarding state innovation waivers. Eliminates the requirement that states codify their waivers in state law, by allowing a Governor or State Insurance Commissioner to provide authority for said waivers. Appropriates $2 billion for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2019 to allow states to submit waiver applications, and allows states to use the long-term stability fund to carry out the plan. Allows for an expedited approval process “if the Secretary determines that such expedited process is necessary to respond to an urgent or emergency situation with respect to health insurance coverage within a State.”

Requires the HHS Secretary to approve all waivers, unless they will increase the federal budget deficit—a significant change from the Obamacare parameters, which many conservatives viewed as unduly restrictive. (For more background on Section 1332 waivers, see this article.)

Provides for a standard eight-year waiver (unless a state requests a shorter period), with automatic renewals upon application by the state, and may not be cancelled by the Secretary before the expiration of the eight-year period.

Provides that Section 1332 waivers approved prior to enactment shall be governed under the “old” (i.e., Obamacare) parameters, that waiver applications submitted after enactment shall be governed under the “new” parameters, and that states with pending (but not yet approved) applications at the time of enactment can choose to have their waivers governed under the “old” or the “new” parameters. Spends $2 billion over ten years. With respect to the fiscal impact of the waivers themselves, CBO noted no separate budgetary impact noted, including them in the larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019. Appropriates funds for cost-sharing subsidy claims for plan years through 2019—a provision not included in the House bill. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House. Some conservatives may view the appropriation first as likely to get stricken under the “Byrd rule,” and second as a budget gimmick—acknowledging that Obamacare did NOT appropriate funds for the payments by including an appropriation for 2017 through 2019, but then relying on over $100 billion in phantom “savings” from repealing the non-existent “appropriation” for years after 2020. Saves $105 billion over ten years.

Top Ten Ways Senate Obamacare Bill Is #FakeRepeal

1.     Retains Obamacare Insurance Subsides.  The bill modifies, but does not repeal, Obamacare’s system of insurance subsidies—an expansion of the welfare state, administered through the tax code.

2.     Retains Obamacare Medicaid Expansion.           The bill as written would never repeal Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults, while it would not fully eliminate the enhanced match states currently receive to cover those adults until 2024—nearly seven years from now.

3.     Expands Obamacare Insurance Subsidies.             Rather than repealing all of the law “root and branch,” as Sen. McConnell claimed was his goal, the bill instead expands eligibility for Obamacare’s subsidy regime. Some conservatives may question the need to “fix” Obamacare, when the legislation should repeal Obamacare.

4.     Retains ALL Obamacare Regulations.         While modifying some and allowing states to waive others, the bill does not repeal any of Obamacare’s onerous insurance regulations—the prime drivers of the premium spikes that have seen rates more than double since Obamacare went into effect.

5.     Retains Obamacare’s Undermining of State Sovereignty.   Because the bill keeps in place the federal mandates associated with Obamacare, states must ask permission to opt-out of just some parts of Obamacare, which remains the default standard. This turning of federalism on its head will allow Democratic Governors—and/or a future Democratic Administration—to reinstitute Obamacare mandates quickly and easily.

6.     Appropriates Obamacare Cost-Sharing Reductions.    Unlike Obamacare itself, the bill actually spends federal tax dollars on cost-sharing reductions authorized, but not appropriated, under the law. While conservatives might support a temporary appropriation to ensure a stable transition as Obamacare is fully repealed, the bill does the former—but certainly not the latter.

7.     Extends and Expands Obamacare’s Corporate Welfare Bailouts.    The bill includes not one, but two, separate “stability funds” designed to make slush fund payments to insurance companies. Between now and 2021, the bill would spend at least $65 billion on such payments—over and above the cost-sharing reduction subsidies listed above.

8.     Includes Obamacare’s Work Disincentives.    The Congressional Budget Office previously estimated that the subsidy “cliffs” included in Obamacare would discourage work—because individuals could lose thousands of dollars in subsidies by gaining one additional dollar of income—and that the law would reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of over two million jobs. The Senate bill retains those subsidy “cliffs.”

9.     Continues Obamacare Pattern of Giving Too Much Authority to Federal Bureaucrats.      The bill gives near-blanket authority to the Administration on several fronts—from creating the “stability funds” to giving Medicaid incentives to states—that would allow federal bureaucrats to abuse this excessive grant of power.

10.  Obamacare Architect Admits It’s Not Repeal.  Speaking on CNN Thursday, famed Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber said that “this is no longer an Obamacare repeal bill—that’s good.” He continued: “If you look at what’s criticized [about] Obamacare, it was subsidies, it was regulations…this law wouldn’t really change those…It really [doesn’t] change very much.” Those admissions come from an individual who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Obama Administration to consult on Obamacare.

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

How “Repeal and Replace” Legislation Could Increase the Deficit

Even if the Congressional Budget Office releases an estimate early next week claiming that the Senate Obamacare discussion draft reduces the deficit, the legislation could well end up increasing the deficit. That’s because the bill repeals most of the law’s taxes, but leaves one in place—for the moment. Under the discussion draft, Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans would return in 2026.

The New York Times noted earlier this week that Republicans intend to offer an amendment to eliminate the tax outright. If an outright repeal of the “Cadillac tax” receives more than 60 votes in the Senate—as it has before—that would mean the legislation could (and likely would) increase the deficit in the long term, while still passing through budget reconciliation measures on a simple majority vote.

About the Heller Amendment

Congressional staff have considered this scenario for months—whereby the “repeal” bill can bust the budget, by using Democratic votes to repeal the “Cadillac tax,” just as they did in 2015. During consideration of that repeal-only reconciliation bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) offered a substitute amendment sunsetting the tax in 2025. Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) then offered an amendment to that substitute repealing the “Cadillac tax” outright. That amendment passed on a bipartisan vote, with 90 senators voting to repeal the tax.

Because that vote passed overwhelmingly (i.e., with more than 60 votes), the Congressional Budget Act restrictions on reconciliation legislation—that the provision not increase the deficit outside the ten-year budget window—did not apply, and would not apply in this case either. In other words, if the bill increases the deficit solely due to the “Cadillac tax” repeal amendment, and 60 senators have supported said amendment, the bill’s overall deficit impact doesn’t matter.

It’s the Spending, Stupid

Should this scenario transpire, and the reconciliation bill ultimately increase the deficit, congressional leadership may claim that the long-term deficit increase would be due to the full repeal of the Obamacare “Cadillac tax.” But an examination of prior CBO scores shows a different picture.

  • The initial House “repeal” reconciliation bill (H.R. 3762) from the fall of 2015—which repealed the “Cadillac tax,” but did not repeal Obamacare’s entitlements—would have appreciably increased the deficit in the long term, according to CBO; but
  • The revised “repeal” reconciliation bill that passed the Senate later in 2015—which repealed the “Cadillac tax,” and all the Obamacare taxes, while also repealing the law’s new entitlements—would have had a minimal, almost infinitesimal, deficit impact over the coming half-century.

Given this dynamic, some conservatives may argue that it isn’t the repeal of the “Cadillac tax” that would cause any increase in the long-term budget deficit—it’s the entitlement spending included in the bill.

Raise the Deficit, Raise Costs

Not only would repeal of the “Cadillac tax” increase the budget deficit, it would also increase overall health-care spending. Although crude—it taxes all health plans at 40 percent, rather than at filers’ marginal tax rates, and raises taxes overall—the “Cadillac tax” would, if ever allowed to go into effect, serve as a control on health care spending. Most economists agree that the current, unlimited tax exclusion for employer-provided health coverage encourages workers to over-consume health insurance, and thus health care. Limiting this exclusion—albeit without raising taxes—represents sound conservative policy.

Ironically, if this procedural gambit succeeds, Republicans will have raised both the budget deficit and overall health care costs. Those potential outcomes provide further evidence the bill would reprise Obamacare, not repeal it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Updates to House Republicans’ Managers Amendments

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

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

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

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

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

Obamacare Repeal Will Destroy the Republican Agenda Unless Congress Gets Smart

With Congress heading towards its first recess at week’s end, it’s time to summarize where things stand on one of Republicans’ top objectives—repealing Obamacare—and might be headed next. While those who want further details should read the entire article, the lengthy analysis below makes three main points:

  1. Congress faces far too many logistical obstacles—the mechanics of drafting bill text, procedural challenges in the Senate, budgetary scoring concerns, and political and policy disagreements—to pass a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill by late March, or indeed any time before summer;
  2. Congressional leaders and President Trump face numerous pressures—both to enact other key items on their agenda, and from conservatives anxious to repeal Obamacare immediately, if not sooner—that will prevent them from spending the entire spring and summer focused primarily on Obamacare; therefore
  3. Congressional leaders will need to pare back their aspirations for a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill, slim down the legislation to include repeal and any pieces of “replace” that can pass easily and swiftly with broad Republican support, and work to enact other elements of their “replace” agenda in subsequent legislation.

What Has Happened In the Last Month

Before the New Year, congressional leaders had endorsed a strategy of repealing Obamacare via special budget reconciliation procedures, using legislation that passed Congress (but President Obama vetoed) in late 2015 and early 2016 as a model. Subsequent efforts would focus on crafting an alternative to the law, whose entitlements would sunset in two or three years, to allow adequate time for a transition.

However, some observers questioned this “repeal-and-delay” strategy, arguing that insurance markets would quickly collapse without a clear vision from Congress for what will follow Obamacare. President Trump seemed to ratify these concerns when he called for “simultaneous,” or near-simultaneous, “repeal-and-replace.”

Due to Trump’s intervention and angst amongst some Republicans toward moving forward with a repeal-first approach, congressional leaders pivoted. Various press reports in the last week suggest House committees are drafting a robust “replace” package that will accompany repeal legislation. This “repeal-and-replace” bill will use the special reconciliation procedures that allow budget-related provisions to pass with a 51-vote majority (instead of the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster) in the Senate, with non-budgetary provisions being considered in subsequent pieces of legislation.

The press reports and strategic leaks from House offices attempt to show progress towards a quick markup—a March 1 markup date was floated in one article—and enactment before Congress next recesses, in late March. But these optimistic stories cannot hide two fundamental truths: 1) Enacting comprehensive “replace” legislation along with repeal will take far longer than anyone in Congress has yet admitted; and 2) Leadership does not have the time—due both to other must-pass legislation, and political pressure from the Right to pass repeal quickly—necessary to fashion a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill.

He may not realize it at present, but in going down the simultaneous “repeal-and-replace” pathway, President Trump made a yuuuuge bet: holding the rest of legislative agenda captive to the rapid enactment of such legislation. Once it becomes more obvious that “repeal-and-replace” will not happen on its current timetable—and that other key elements of the Republican agenda are in jeopardy as a result—it seems likely that Speaker Ryan, President Trump, or both will scale back the “replace” elements of the “repeal-and-replace” bill, to allow it to pass more quickly and easily.

Adding Layers of Complexity

A Politico story last Tuesday claiming that an Obamacare alternative was coalescing in the House listed four elements of “replace” incorporated into a repeal bill: 1) incentives for health savings accounts (HSAs); 2) funding for high-risk pools for individuals with pre-existing conditions; 3) a refundable tax credit for the purchase of health insurance; and 4) comprehensive Medicaid reform in the form of per capita caps on beneficiary spending.

But every element added to a piece of legislation makes it that much more complex. Republicans have an easy template to use for repealing Obamacare: the reconciliation bill that already passed Congress. That bill has been drafted, passed procedural muster in the Senate, and received both a favorable budgetary score and enough votes for enactment.

Conversely, crafting “replace” policies will require more time, conversations with legislative counsel (the office in Congress that actually drafts legislation), discussions about policy options for implementation, and so forth.

House Republicans did engage in some of these conversations when compiling their Better Way agenda last spring. But that plan ultimately did not get translated into legislative language, and the plan itself left important details out (in some cases deliberately).

Moreover, because Republicans want to use special budget reconciliation procedures to enact this “repeal-and-replace” bill, they must consult heavily with the Senate parliamentarian, who advises the Senate on whether legislative provisions are primarily budgetary in nature, and thus can be included in a reconciliation bill. Reports last week suggested some of those discussions are underway. But if the Senate parliamentarian raises objections to the way House Republicans have drafted certain sections of their legislation, House staff may have to start from scratch and re-draft the legislative language to comply with the Senate rules.

It seems plausible that House Republicans could fairly easily incorporate some elements of their “replace” agenda—for instance, HSA incentives or funding for high-risk pools—into a repeal reconciliation bill. There are several “off-the-shelf” (i.e., previously drafted) versions of these policy options, and the budgetary effects of these changes are relatively straight-forward (i.e., few interactions with other policy elements).

But on tax credits and Medicaid reform, House Republicans face another major logistical obstacle: Analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Longtime observers and congressional historians may recall that CBO was where Hillarycare went to die back in 1994. While Republicans are not necessarily doomed to face a similar fate two decades later, the idea that budget analysts will give “repeal-and-replace” a clean bill of fiscal health within a fortnight—or even a month—defies both credulity and history.

Running the CBO Gauntlet

As someone who worked on Capitol Hill during the Obamacare debate eight years ago, I remember the effect when CBO released one of its first scores of Democrats’ legislation. As the New York Times reported on June 17, 2009, in a piece entitled “Senate Faces Major Setback on Health Care Bill”:

The Senate Finance Committee is delaying its first public drafting session on major health care legislation until after the July Fourth recess, a lengthy setback but one that even Democrats say is critically needed to let them work on reducing the costs of the bill…. The drafting session had been scheduled for Tuesday. But new cost estimates by the Congressional Budget Office on health care proposals came in much more expensive than expected, emboldening critics and alarming Democrats.

I recall well hearing from Senate staffers about the massive fiscal gap between Democrats’ spending wish list and their revenue-raising proposals. That setback forced Democrats to go back to the drawing board, and sparked the “Gang of Six” discussions among Finance Committee Republicans and Democrats that spanned the months of July and August 2009. Eventually, Democrats did enact Obamacare, but on March 23, 2010—279 days after the CBO debacle the Times chronicled.

Given the role CBO played in delivering Hillarycare a mortal blow in the 1990s, and the more than nine-month gap between the initial (horrible) CBO scores of Obamacare and that law’s enactment, House leadership’s implication that its “repeal-and-replace” legislation can move straight to passage by receiving a clean bill of health from CBO on the first go-round seems highly unrealistic.

Just like any player moving up from the minor leagues will need time to adjust to big-league pitching, so too will any legislation with as many moving parts as a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill require several, and possibly significant, adjustments and tweaks to receive a CBO score Republicans find acceptable.

While House Republicans’ Better Way plan included a much less complicated and convoluted formula for providing insurance subsidies than Obamacare, they may face other difficulties in achieving a favorable CBO score, particularly regarding to the number of Americans covered under their refundable tax credit regime. These include the following.

No Mandate:  While conservatives view the lack of a requirement to purchase insurance as a feature of any Obamacare alternative, CBO has a long history of viewing a mandate’s absence as a bug—and will score legislation accordingly. In analyzing health reform issues in a December 2008 volume, CBO published an elasticity curve showing take-up of health insurance based on various levels of federal subsidies. The curve claimed that, even with a 100 percent subsidy—the federal government giving away health insurance for “free”—only about 80 percent of individuals will actually obtain coverage. In CBO’s mind, unless the government forces individuals to buy insurance, a significant percentage will not do so.

President Obama didn’t want to include a mandate in Obamacare, not least because he campaigned against it. But CBO essentially forced Democrats to include one to receive a favorable score on the number of Americans covered. If Republicans care about matching the number of individuals insured by Obamacare (some view it as more of a priority than others), the lack of a mandate will cost them on coverage numbers. Alternative mandate-like policies such as auto-enrollment may mitigate that gap, but CBO may not view them as favorably—and they come with their own detractors.

Age-Rated Subsidies: Obamacare uses income as a major factor in calculating its insurance subsidy amounts, which creates two problems. First, because subsidies decline as individuals’ income rises, Obamacare effectively discourages work. CBO has previously calculated that, largely because of these work disincentives, the law will reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs.

Second, the process of reconciling projected income to actual earnings creates administrative complexity. It poses large paperwork burdens on the Internal Revenue Service and taxpayers alike, and requires some individuals to forfeit their refunds and pay back subsidies at tax time.

House Republicans have proposed a simpler system of insurance subsidies, based solely upon age. However, because the subsidies are solely linked to age, low-income individuals receive the same subsidy as millionaires. While much more transparent and fair, this system also does not target resources to those who would need them most. To borrow an analogy, it spreads the peanut butter (i.e., insurance subsidies) more evenly, but also more thinly, over the proverbial piece of bread (i.e., Americans seeking insurance). Given CBO’s beliefs about the likelihood of individuals purchasing insurance outlined above, this change could also cost Republicans significantly in the coverage department.

Medicaid Reform: Republicans have consistently argued that providing states with additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in exchange for a defined federal contribution will allow them to reduce program spending in beneficial ways. Rhode Island’s innovative global compact waiver provides an excellent example of providing better care within an overall budget on expenditures.

However, CBO analysts have publicly taken a different view. In analyzing per capita spending caps for Medicaid—the policy option House Republicans are reportedly incorporating into their alternative—last December, CBO wrote that

States would take a variety of actions to reduce a portion of the additional costs that they would face [from the caps], including restricting enrollment. For people who lose Medicaid coverage, CBO and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that roughly three-quarters would become uninsured.

CBO has therefore made rather clear that it will score reforms to Medicaid as increasing the number of uninsured.

Speaker Ryan may have pushed for the comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” strategy in part to appease Republican members of Congress who want to see their alternative to Obamacare provide as many Americans with insurance as current law. But it seems highly improbable that CBO will score any Republican tax credit proposal as covering as many Americans as Obamacare. It is also not outside the realm of possibility for CBO to score an alternative as covering fewer Americans than the pre-Obamacare status quo.

The first two CBO scoring issues nixed any attempt by House Republicans to include tax credits as part of their alternative to Obamacare in 2009, when I worked in House leadership. Sources tell me unfavorable scores also nixed House Republicans’ attempt to include a refundable tax credit when the party was crafting responses to a potential Supreme Court ruling striking down the law’s subsidies in 2015. It therefore ranges from likely to certain that an initial CBO score of a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill will go over about as well as it did for Republicans in 2009 and 2015—with generally poor coverage figures compared to Obamacare.

In theory, Republicans could work to surmount some of these obstacles and achieve more robust coverage figures. But such efforts would require time to sort through policy options—time that Republicans don’t currently have—and money to fund insurance subsidies, even though Republicans don’t have an obvious source of funding for them.

Pay-For Problems

Over and above the purely technical problems associated with scoring a “repeal-and-replace” bill, other issues present both policy and political concerns. To wit, if Republicans include refundable tax credits in their plan, how exactly will they finance this new spending? The possibilities range from unpalatable to implausible.

  • They could try to keep some of Obamacare’s tax increases to fund their own spending. But key Republican lawmakers and key constituency groups have strongly supported repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. It seems unlikely that a bill that failed to repeal all of the law’s tax increases could gather enough votes for passage.
  • They could include their own revenue-raisers after repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. For instance, House Republicans could limit the value of employer-provided health coverage. But while economists of all political stripes support such efforts as one key way to reduce health costs, members of the business community would likely oppose this measure, judging from recent news stories. Unions and the middle class likely wouldn’t be keen either. Moreover, by using limits on employer-provided health coverage as a new source of revenue rather than reforming the tax treatment of health insurance in a revenue-neutral way, Republicans would repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, but replace them with other tax increases—an unappetizing political slogan for the party to embrace.
  • They could use Medicaid reform to fund the credits, but that causes the potential problems with coverage numbers outlined above, and will likely generate additional squabbling among governors and states over the funding formula, as outlined in greater detail below.
  • They could use the remaining savings after repealing Obamacare’s tax increases and entitlements—which in the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill totaled $317.5 billion—to fund a new insurance subsidy regime. But such a move raises both policy and political problems. While Republicans could re-direct the $317.5 billion in savings during the first ten years to pay for insurance subsidies, the subsidies would likely have to expire after a decade. Creating a permanent new entitlement (the subsidies) funded by temporary savings would result in a point of order in the Senate—one that takes 60 votes, which Republicans do not have, to overcome—because budget reconciliation bills cannot increase the deficit in any year beyond the ten-year budget window. Thus any subsidies funded by the reconciliation bill’s savings would have to sunset by 2026—a far from ideal outcome. On the political side, the savings in last year’s reconciliation bill came from keeping Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending. If Republicans turn around and use that money to fund a new subsidy regime, they would be “raiding Medicare to fund a new entitlement”—the exact same charge Republicans used against Democrats to great effect during the debates over Obamacare.

To put it bluntly, while some Republicans may want to include refundable tax credits in their Obamacare alternative, they have no clear way—and certainly no pain-free way—to fund these credits. Even if they do push forward despite the clear obstacles, finding the right blend among the options listed above will require conversations among members and constituency groups, and multiple rounds of CBO scores for various policy options—all of which will take much more time than House leadership currently envisions.

Then There Are the Political Obstacles

Layered on top of the pay-for difficulties lie other political obstacles preventing quick enactment of a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” package.

Medicaid: With 16 Republican governors ruling states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, and 17 Republican governors in states that did not, the fate of Medicaid expansion remains one of the thorniest questions surrounding repeal. Many states that did expand wish to keep their expansion, while states that did not do not want to be disadvantaged by making what they view as the conservative choice to turn down the new spending from Obamacare. Lawmakers have admitted they have yet to craft a solution on this issue. Attaching Medicaid reform to a “repeal-and-replace” measure will only complicate matters further, by giving states another issue (namely, the new funding formula for the per capita spending caps) to fight over.

House-Senate Differences: While House Republicans gear up to pass a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” package, reports last week also indicated that Senate leadership still intends to consider legislation more closely resembling the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. If Speaker Ryan continues to craft a “repeal-and-replace” bill while Majority Leader McConnell pushes “repeal-and-delay,” something will have to bring the two leaders to an agreement reconciling their disparate approaches.

Insurers: Those opposed to the “repeal-and-delay” strategy initially advocated by congressional leaders cited the needs of insurers as reason to pass a full “replacement” of Obamacare concurrent with repeal. Insurers will need to start submitting bids for the 2018 plan cycle by spring, and will want some certainty about how next year’s landscape will look before doing so. Hence the call for a full “repeal-and-replace,” to give insurers fast reassurances about the policy landscape going forward.

But if “full replace” will take until summer to pass—as it almost invariably will—then that argument gets turned on its head. In such circumstances, Congress should act swiftly to include some type of high-risk pool funding for those with pre-existing conditions, to prevent the insurer community from ending up with an influx of very sick, very costly enrollees.

Passing a repeal bill with high-risk pool funding may provide insurers with less certainty than a full “repeal-and-replace” measure, but it would yield infinitely more certainty than Congress arguing until September over the details of “full replace,” with the entire legal and regulatory realm in limbo as insurers must prepare for their 2018 plan offerings.

Conservatives: Some conservatives have philosophical objections to refundable tax credits, or indeed to any “replacement” legislation. Sen. Mike Lee this week called including “replacement” provisions on a repeal bill a “horrible idea.” Lee was one of three Republicans (the others being Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) who in fall 2015 pushed for more robust repeal legislation, issuing a statement demanding that year’s reconciliation measure include the greatest amount of repeal provisions possible consistent with Senate rules. After the conservatives laid down their marker, the Senate ultimately passed, and the House ratified, the reconciliation measure repealing the law’s entitlements and all of Obamacare’s tax increases.

Some within the party have acknowledged the fractious nature of the “replace” discussions. Ramesh Ponnuru has publicly worried that some conservatives agnostic or skeptical on the merits of a “replace” plan would do nothing following repeal, and therefore wants to link repeal with replace, to force conservatives to vote for a vision of “replace.”

Such maneuvering pre-supposes that conservatives will swallow a “replace” plan they dislike to repeal Obamacare, a dicey proposition given conservatives’ success at obtaining a more robust repeal measure in 2015. It also pre-supposes that conservatives will stand idly by while leadership takes the months necessary to create full-scale “replace” legislation.

If the process continues to drag on in the House, it would not surprise me one bit were conservatives to introduce a discharge petition to force a House floor vote on the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, likely in conjunction with outside conservative groups, would turn the discharge petition into a litmus test for Republican members of Congress: Are you for repeal—and repeal in the form of legislation that virtually all returning Republicans voted for one short year ago—or not?

While a discharge petition needs 218 member signatures before its sponsor can force a floor vote, the mere introduction of a discharge petition would increase the pressure on House leadership to move quickly on repeal. Moreover, it would highlight the fact that neither Speaker Ryan nor President Trump can afford to spend the entire spring and summer slogging through a long legislative process regarding Obamacare.

Now We Come to the Opportunity Costs

Most of this year’s major action items require the Obamacare reconciliation bill to pass. Once and only once that legislation passes can Congress pass a second budget, allowing for a second budget reconciliation measure to move through the Senate. Specific items held in limbo due to the Obamacare debate include the following.

Tax Reform: Republicans want to use the second reconciliation bill to overhaul the tax code. (President Trump may also want to use the tax reform bill to finance his planned infrastructure package.) But because the current budget does not include reconciliation instructions regarding revenues, Congress must pass another budget with specific reconciliation instructions before tax reform can move through the Senate with a simple (51-vote) majority. But before Congress passes another budget, it must first pass the reconciliation bill (i.e., the Obamacare bill) related to this budget.

Debt Limit: The current suspension of the debt limit expires on March 15. While the Treasury can use extraordinary measures to stave off a debt default for several months, Congress will likely have to address the debt limit prior to its August recess. As with tax reform, the debt limit (and spending and entitlement reforms to accompany same) can be enacted with a simple majority in the Senate via budget reconciliation. But, as with tax reform, doing so first requires passing another budget, which requires enacting the Obamacare reconciliation bill.

Appropriations: The current stopgap spending agreement expires on April 28. Congress will need to pass another spending measure by then—quite possibly including a request by the president for additional border security funds—and begin considering spending bills for the new fiscal year that starts September 30. Here again, passage of these legislative provisions would be greatly aided by passage of another budget to set fiscal parameters, but that cannot happen until the Obamacare reconciliation bill is on the statute books.

As other observers have begun noting, many of the major “must-pass” and “want-to-pass” pieces of legislation—tax reform; Trump’s infrastructure package; a debt limit increase; appropriations legislation; funding for border security—remain essentially captive to the Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” process. The scene resembles the airspace over New York during rush hour, with planes circling overhead while one plane (the Obamacare bill) attempts to land. Unfortunately, the longer the planes circle, one or more of them will run out of fuel, effectively crashing major pieces of the Trump/Ryan agenda due to legislative inaction and neglect.

The Available Political Options

With a legislative process for “repeal-and-replace” likely to take months longer than currently advertised, and a series of other competing priorities contingent on it, Speaker Ryan and President Trump face three options.

Punt: Focus on passing the other agenda items first, and come back to Obamacare later;

Plow Ahead: Remain on the current course, knowing that Obamacare will jeopardize much of Trump’s and Ryan’s other agenda items; or

Pivot/Pare Back: Return to something approaching last year’s reconciliation bill, and postpone major “replace” legislation until a future reconciliation measure.

Given the current environment, the third option seems the clear “least bad” outcome. The first would represent a major political setback, effectively admitting defeat on the president’s top agenda item and betraying Republicans’ seven-year-long commitment to repeal that conservatives sharply opposed to Obamacare will never forget, and may never forgive. The second jeopardizes, if not completely sacrifices, most of the party’s legislative agenda, including items the president will want to tout in his re-election bid.

Therefore, it seems likely that Ryan, Trump, or both will eventually move to pare back the current comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” legislation towards something more closely resembling the 2015/2016 repeal reconciliation bill.

The legislation may include elements of “replace,” but only those with a clear fiscal nexus (due to the Senate’s rules regarding reconciliation) and broad support among Republicans. HSA incentives and funding for high-risk pools might qualify. But more robust provisions, such as Medicaid reforms or refundable tax credits, will likely get jettisoned for the time being, to help pass slimmed down legislation yet this spring.

Time’s a Wastin’

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

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

Republicans have already blown through two deadlines on “repeal-and-replace”: the January 27 deadline for committees to report reconciliation measures to the House and Senate Budget Committees, and the President’s Day recess, the original tentative deadline for getting repeal legislation to President Trump’s desk. Any further delays will accelerate both conservative angst and the same types of process stories from the media—“Republicans arguing amongst themselves on repealing Obamacare”—that plagued Democrats from the summer of 2009 through the law’s enactment.

Some may find this analysis harsh, or even impertinent. Some may want to take issue with my assumptions—Newt Gingrich would no doubt dispute CBO’s scoring methods, long and loudly. But policy-making involves crafting solutions given the way things are, not the way we wish them to be. And every day that goes by while Congress remains on the current “repeal-and-replace” pathway—which seems increasingly like a strategic box canyon—will only jeopardize the success of other critical policy priorities.

For all his wealth, Trump gets the same amount of one thing as everyone else: Time. For that reason, his administration and Speaker Ryan should re-assess their current strategy on Obamacare—the sooner the better. Time’s a wastin’, and the entire Republican agenda is at stake.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Concerns with Rand Paul’s Obamacare Replacement Act

On Wednesday, Politico reported that the House Freedom Caucus, an influential group of House conservatives, was considering whether to give its official endorsement to Sen. Rand Paul’s Obamacare Replacement Act (S. 222). The report indicated that word from the Freedom Caucus about an endorsement could come as soon as next week.

To this conservative health policy analyst, this development raises some serious concerns. Although not as objectionable as the Collins-Cassidy Patient Freedom Act, Paul’s legislation contains several features that, if widely embraced by conservatives, could lead to strategic and policy missteps going forward.

1. Doesn’t Repeal Obamacare

While the Paul bill provides an alternative vision for health care, it does not repeal most of Obamacare. The bill does repeal virtually all of the law’s major mandates: the individual and employer mandates to obtain insurance, the guaranteed issue and community rating regulations, the essential health benefits, and other various insurance mandates that have raised premiums.

However, the bill does not repeal either of Obamacare’s new entitlements—the subsidies for exchange health insurance, and the massive Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied—leaving in place nearly $2 trillion in spending over the coming decade. Likewise, the bill does not repeal any of the Obamacare taxes used to fund that spending, except those associated with the individual and employer mandates.

Paul’s office may view the bill as a successor and complement to the reconciliation bill that Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, in 2016. That bill would have repealed the law’s entitlements (after two years), and its tax increases (effective immediately), but not its regulations. Paul’s office might argue that his bill repeals the critical portions of Obamacare not included in last year’s reconciliation bill—the major insurance regulations—while providing a replacement vision to go beyond repeal.

But that position assumes last year’s reconciliation bill will be the starting point for this year’s discussion—and it may not be. Politico reported Tuesday evening that Republicans were having difficulty figuring out how to square Medicaid reform with Obamacare’s massive Medicaid expansion. Likewise, some Republicans have discussed not repealing the law’s tax hikes. On these controversies, the Paul bill, by omitting any provisions relating to the entitlement expansions and tax increases, contains a deafening silence.

Paul’s bill repealed the individual and employer mandates, even though last year’s reconciliation measure also effectively repealed them. Why didn’t his bill repeal all the other tax hikes and spending increases as well? Is it because Paul, whose home state expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied under Obamacare, wants to avoid taking a position on whether to keep that expansion?

2. Tax Credit Slippery Slope

The Paul bill does provide tax credits for health coverage, but largely of the non-refundable kind, an arcane but important difference. Paul’s bill provides a $5,000 tax credit to individuals who contribute to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), but only to the extent such individuals have income tax liability. The Paul bill does include a refundable tax credit for health insurance premiums, but the refundable portion of the credit only applies up to the limit of an individual’s payroll taxes paid.

Many Republican health reform plans would offer refundable tax credits to individuals in excess of tax liabilities, which represents pure welfare/outlay spending—the government issuing “refunds” to people with no net income or payroll tax obligations. By contrast, the Paul bill would ensure that credits only apply to individuals with actual payroll and income tax obligations.

However, this critically important distinction will likely be lost on many members of the press—and perhaps members of the Freedom Caucus themselves. “House Freedom Caucus Endorses Tax Credits” will blare the headlines. Having endorsed tax credits once, the pressure on Freedom Caucus members to then go further and endorse the House leadership plan for refundable tax credits will be immense. Put simply, the slippery slope to endorsing a major spending package in the form of refundable tax credits starts with the Paul bill.

3. Budget-Busting Health Care Giveaways

While the Paul bill includes no outlay spending—its incentives all come via tax cuts—those incentives are numerous, and costly. The legislation would supplement the current, uncapped exclusion on employer-provided health insurance with a new, uncapped deduction for individual-provided health insurance. It would eliminate contribution limits to HSAs, and introduce a new federal subsidy (via the tax credits) of up to $5,000 for HSA contributions.

Apart from the fiscal implications of the tax incentives, are these tax cuts smart tax cuts? Evidence suggests they may not be. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum believe that the current uncapped exclusion for employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance, and thus health care. Rather than reining in this tax incentive as one element of pro-growth tax reform, Paul’s bill goes in the other direction, creating two new uncapped tax incentives for health insurance.

As a medical doctor, Paul has shown little inclination to rein in health care spending. He voted for budget-busting Medicare physician payment legislation in 2015 that raised the deficit by more than $140 billion in its first decade alone, while failing to solve the long-term problems it purported to address. He has also previously proposed budgets with minimal reductions in Medicare spending, although he has introduced more substantive reforms in recent years.

But with health care already consuming nearly one-fifth of our economy, and our national debt approaching $20 trillion, does the solution to these problems really lie in creating new, uncapped incentives for tax-free spending on health care and health insurance?

Therein lies but one of the Paul bill’s problems. While ostensibly promoting market-oriented solutions, the legislation contains several strategic trip-wires that could contaminate any attempt to repeal Obamacare, or enact a conservative alternative. Members of Congress should tread cautiously.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Ways the Patient Freedom Act is Worse Than Obamacare

Last week, I wrote about how the Patient Freedom Act—introduced by senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Susan Collins (R-ME)—would dramatically expand taxpayer funding of abortions, even when compared to Obamacare.

But that’s not the only way in which their bill (S. 191) exceeds Obamacare’s standards for government intervention. Other details of their legislation reveal why its short title serves as a misnomer.

1. It Has More Spending Than Obamacare

The PFA (text available here, and a summary available here) gives states a choice of three options regarding the health care system within their borders. They can either 1) essentially keep Obamacare in place; 2) use an allotment, based on 95 percent of a state’s Obamacare spending, to create their own insurance regime (albeit with several federal mandates remaining); or 3) go out on their own and not receive any federal funds.

Section 104 of the bill contains a complicated formula to determine state allotments for option two—the default option for states under the PFA. Section 104(b)(2) provides that states that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare will receive 95 percent of the amount they would have received had they accepted the Medicaid expansion.

In other words, rather than reducing Obamacare’s spending, the Patient Freedom Act could well increase it—by giving new Medicaid funds to states that declined to expand.

Medicaid reform should not disadvantage states that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare. But the proper solution to that problem does not lie in adding to Obamacare’s nearly $2 trillion in spending over the coming decade. Instead, it lies in freezing enrollment in the Medicaid expansion, unwinding that new spending, and transitioning beneficiaries over time off the rolls and into work.

2. It Repeals Health Savings Accounts (Not Obamacare)

The Patient Freedom Act includes what amounts to “Lie of the Year” redux: if you like your Health Savings Account (HSA), you can’t keep it. While the bill does not repeal any of Obamacare—the word “repeal” appears exactly zero times in its 73 pages—it effectively ends the current HSA regime, making Health Savings Accounts less attractive to individuals.

Current law makes HSAs tax-privileged in two ways. First, contributions to an HSA can be made on a pre-tax basis—either via a payroll deduction through an employer, or an above-the-line deduction on one’s annual tax return. Second, HSA distributions are not taxable when used for qualified health expenses under Obamacare.

The Patient Freedom Act would abolish the first tax preference while retaining the second. Individuals must contribute to an HSA using after-tax dollars, but their contributions could grow tax-free, and distributions would be tax-free when used for qualified health expenses, as under current law. Section 201(b) prohibits additional contributions to “traditional” HSAs following enactment of the bill, instead diverting new contributions to the Roth (i.e., after-tax) HSAs created by the measure. While the bill does not require individuals to convert their existing HSAs to the new Roth HSAs, account administrators (e.g., banks, mutual funds, etc.) could require their customers to do so at some point—and individuals could face a hefty tax bill when they do.

Health Savings Accounts are a proven vehicle to help control the growth of health costs. While Obamacare included new restrictions on HSAs, Democrats did not upend the accounts nearly as much as contemplated by the Patient Freedom Act. Significantly reducing the tax preferences for Health Savings Accounts would not lower health care costs. If anything, it would raise them.

3. It Supports Government-Imposed Price Controls

In recent years, some Americans have faced the problem of “surprise” medical bills. These can occur when individuals seek emergency care at (or are taken by ambulance to) an out-of-network hospital, or when some providers at a facility remain outside an insurer’s network (e.g., a surgeon and the hospital are in-network, but the anesthesiologist is out-of-network). To address these issues, Section 1001 of Obamacare included new mandates that insurers not impose prior authorization requests on emergency care, and require only in-network cost-sharing for all emergency care, regardless of whether the patient was treated at an in-network hospital or not.

Section 121(a)(2) of the Patient Freedom Act goes further than Obamacare, imposing maximum charges for emergency services: 85 percent of insurers’ usual, customary, and reasonable charges for physician care; 110 percent of Medicare payment rates for inpatient and outpatient hospital care; and acquisition costs plus $250 for drugs and biological pharmaceuticals.

While the issue of “surprise” medical bills does present a policy problem—individuals caught in the middle of stand-offs between providers and insurers regarding payment rates—there are other ways to resolve it short of government price controls. To borrow a medical metaphor, the PFA uses a blunt knife when a sharp scalpel would be more appropriate.

4. It Would Create an Automatic Enrollment Program

Sections 105(c) and 107(c) of the PFA create parameters through which states can automatically enroll their residents in health insurance—complete with restrictions on the type of coverage states can auto-enroll individuals into. While individuals can opt out of insurance should they wish to do so, this mandate-without-a-mandate could prove even more problematic than Obamacare’s requirement that all individuals purchase health coverage.

Over at the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Anderson explains all the reasons why automatic enrollment represents bad policy. Much of it comes down to two questions: With the most recent enrollment estimates in Obamacare’s Exchanges dating back to June 30—seven months ago—how on earth will states determine who is insured, and who should be auto-enrolled in coverage, in real time? And even if states could compile all that data, why should individuals have to give their personal insurance details to another government database?

Nearly four years ago, then-Rep. Bill Cassidy said this about the IRS’ power in enforcing Obamacare:

Obamacare requires thousands of IRS agents to implement the law…They’re going to go through the small businesswoman’s books, to make sure that she actually has the number of employees that she claims, and that she has adequate insurance. That’s a little scary when you see what the IRS has been doing with their political targeting.

Granted, the PFA doesn’t have an employer mandate to enforce, but why is Sen. Cassidy’s “solution” to big government overreach at the federal level allowing states to impose their own intrusive requirements on individuals and businesses…?

Conservatives looking to repeal Obamacare should be disappointed by the ways in which the Patient Freedom Act exceeds Obamacare in several key respects, while liberals will undoubtedly oppose its (insufficient) attempts to devolve or deregulate health care to the states. Its Senate sponsors notwithstanding, the bill appears to lack a natural constituency. Or, to put it another way, if the Patient Freedom Act is the answer, then what exactly is the question?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

An Obamacare “Fix” That Isn’t

Astute political observers might have noticed disconsonant views coming from Republicans on Capitol Hill recently. Even as many rightly criticized Obamacare for the massive premium increases many Americans face—and noted that the law’s framework makes Obamacare inherently unfixable—other unnamed Republican sources may be already laying the groundwork for efforts to repair the law after next week’s election. Such efforts would not only undermine the party’s pre-election messaging, they could well prove ineffective at best in solving the law’s twin problems of too many regulations and too much spending.

Two weeks ago, President Obama attempted to sell his unpopular law in Miami, encouraging people to sign up for exchange coverage in 2017 despite higher premiums for coverage of questionable quality. In response, House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement taking issue with the structure of the law itself:

After listening to the president’s speech, I’m not sure what health care law he’s talking about. He wondered out loud why there’s been such a fuss. It’s no secret: It’s because of Obamacare. That’s why we’ve seen record premium hikes. That’s why millions of people—including millennials—have lost their plans, or been forced to buy plans they don’t like. That’s why we’ve seen waste, fraud, and abuse. And at this point, one thing is clear: This law can’t be fixed. [Emphasis mine.]

Last week, however, a different story emerged, in a story highlighting proposed changes to the law that Congress could consider in 2017. The article in The Hill quoted unnamed congressional sources as saying that Republicans have in fact offered to help Democrats “fix” Obamacare:

A Democratic health adviser spoke to congressional Republicans recently about changing the age rating ratio, with a subsidy for older people, and said the reaction was “favorable.”

To translate the article’s policy-speak into English: Obamacare requires that insurers charge older individuals no more than three times what younger enrollees pay. In most cases, however, older individuals incur costs about five to six times what the youngest enrollees incur in medical bills. The three-to-one age rating therefore charges younger people more, so that older individuals pay slightly lower premiums.

Younger and healthier individuals aren’t enrolling in Obamacare, because they don’t see it as a good value—which, under the age rating restrictions, it isn’t. As a result, Obamacare’s exchanges face a pool of enrollees sicker than the average employer plan—one of the main reasons why insurers are losing money, and not offering exchange coverage. The unnamed Democratic staffer mooted changes that would loosen the age rating ratio—providing slightly lower premiums for younger enrollees, in the hope they will sign up in greater numbers—in exchange for richer subsidies for the older individuals who would pay more under the change.

It remains unclear whether these discussions have advanced to any degree of seriousness, or whether Speaker Ryan would in fact bring Obamacare “fixes” to the House floor after publicly stating that the law can’t be fixed. But what is clear is what new subsidies would entail—adding more spending to the nearly $2 trillion the law will already spend in the coming decade, at a time when our nation faces a staggering $19.8 trillion in federal debt. New subsidies would also likely entail new tax increases that will impede economic growth, or additional reductions in Medicare to pay for more spending on Obamacare, at a time when Medicare itself faces funding shortfalls—an inconvenient truth neither presidential candidate has bothered to consider.

Just as important, it’s also unclear whether changing the age rating regulations alone would bring premiums down enough to encourage young people to enroll. Over and above age rating, Obamacare included massive new regulations on health insurance policies, most of which raised premiums dramatically: A new list of “essential health benefits” that all plans must cover; requirements for coverage of preventive services without cost-sharing; requirements that plans cover a greater percentage of expected medical expenses. Even if more favorable age rating lowers premiums by one-third, it won’t take insurance rates much below where they were before the 25 percent premium increase facing plans this January. How will taking premiums back to they are now—when young people haven’t enrolled in Obamacare for the past three years—fix the problem?

The answer’s simple: It won’t. “Favorable” reactions from unnamed staffers aside, more spending and more taxes won’t fix an inherently unfixable law—even if accompanied by some regulatory changes that might do some good. As the old saying goes, if you’re in a hole, stop digging. When it comes to Obamacare, that means staff on both sides of the aisle shouldn’t waste time with “solutions” that involve throwing more of someone else’s money at the problem. Future generations already face a nearly $20 trillion—and counting—hole of debt; if we won’t solve that problem, let’s at least agree not to make it any bigger.

Bill Clinton’s Right: Obamacare’s Tax on Success Is “Crazy”

Taxes are back in the news on the presidential campaign trail — and this time, the controversy has nothing to do with Donald Trump. While the commentariat have seized on Bill Clinton’s description of Obamacare as “crazy,” it’s important to recognize exactly what he considered so nonsensical: the fact that Obamacare increases already sizeable government-imposed penalties on work, entrepreneurship, and success. Its perverse incentives will leave more Americans stuck in a poverty trap, making Obamacare even more warped than Bill Clinton’s description of the law.

In their full context, Clinton’s comments look more damning of the law, rather than less. Before uttering the “crazy” epithet, his remarks focused on those whose income puts them right above the cutoff line to receive federal subsidies. These people are, in the former president’s words, getting “whacked” because they have succeeded in life and in business:

The current system works fine if you’re eligible for Medicaid if you’re a lower-income working person, if you’re already on Medicare, or if you get enough subsidies on a modest income that you can afford your health care. But the people who are getting killed in this deal are the small businesspeople and individuals who make just a little too much to get in on these subsidies. Why? Because they’re not organized, they don’t have any bargaining power with insurance companies, and they’re getting whacked. So you’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have health care, and they’re out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours per week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It is the craziest thing in the world. [Emphasis is mine.]

During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney was roundly criticized when he said in an interview,  “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” Bill Clinton’s comments emphasized that Obamacare is not concerned about the middle class. It’s not aimed to support those who want to rise in station in life; it actually discourages them from doing so.

And whereas Romney’s 2012 impromptu “gaffe” came in a live television interview, Obamacare represents considered policy — the result of a legislative process of nearly a year and policymaking developed long before that. As I noted in a 2013 Heritage Foundation paper, the law contains numerous subsidy cliffs that create enormous inequities. In some cases, as little as an additional dollar of income could cause the loss of thousands of dollars in premium or cost-sharing subsidies paid by the federal government, or both. “Families facing these kinds of poverty traps may ask the obvious question: If I will lose so much in government benefits by earning additional income, why work?”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has answered that question simply: In many cases, individuals will not work. A 2010 CBO report concluded that “the phaseout of the [insurance] subsidies as income rises will effectively increase marginal tax rates, which will also discourage work.” All told, the nonpartisan budget scorekeepers have concluded that the law will reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2 million jobs next year alone.

Obamacare only exacerbated an existing poverty trap identified by scholars on both sides of the political spectrum, including those at the left-of-center Urban Institute. As income rises above the poverty level, government-funded benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and the earned-income tax credit phase out or disappear altogether, eroding or eliminating much of the income effect from higher wages. If a single parent with two children can receive nearly $30,000 in government benefits with no earnings, but only about $10,000 in benefits with $35,000 in earnings, many parents may make the calculated decision that the comparatively modest net increase in family income does not justify work. Moreover, both the prior welfare system and Obamacare impose financial penalties on marriage, discouraging one of the best ways for families to rise out of poverty.

It’s ironic that Bill Clinton, the president who signed the largest tax increase in American history, would express such outrage at the way Obamacare raises effective marginal tax rates for the middle class. But for a party that purports to stand for the interests of the poor and working class, Obamacare will only work to perpetuate the cycle of poverty down to future generations. And that is perhaps the craziest idea of all.

This post was originally published at National Review.

The Dirty Little Secret of Hillary Clinton’s Health Plan

On Monday, President Bill Clinton committed a Kinsley gaffe, criticizing Obamacare as “the craziest thing in the world,” whereby small business owners “wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” In response to her husband’s accurate depiction of Obamacare’s problems, Hillary said on Tuesday: “We got to fix what’s broken and keep what works, . . . We’re going to tackle it and we’re going to fix it.” Secretary Clinton is exactly correct — if by “fix” she means enacting a proposal that could line the pockets of businesses to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars while simultaneously jacking up premiums and deductibles for millions of Americans.

Hillary Clinton’s plan for a new federal tax credit to subsidize out-of-pocket costs for all Americans will encourage businesses to make their health benefits skimpier — raising premiums, co-payments, and deductibles — because they know that the new tax credit will pick up the difference for the hardest-hit families. While Secretary Clinton’s other major health-care proposals (to increase federal subsidies on insurance exchanges and to create a government-run “public option” on them) would apply only to those without employer-based coverage, the out-of-pocket tax credit would apply to both insurance that is employer-based and insurance that is individually purchased.

In analyzing her proposals, the liberal Commonwealth Fund noted that Secretary Clinton’s out-of-pocket tax credit would affect a pool of 177.5 million potentially eligible Americans, which is more than four times as many as those who would be eligible to avail themselves of the government-run “public option.” The broader reach for the tax credit, plus its generous amount (up to $2,500 per individual or $5,000 per family for out-of-pocket spending that exceeds 5 percent of income) creates a sizable cost for the federal government: net spending of $90.3 billion in 2018 alone, according to the Commonwealth analysis. In 2009, President Obama made this pledge to Congress: “The plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years.” But one element alone of Secretary Clinton’s plan will cost at least that much — and probably more than $1 trillion.

The Commonwealth analysis of Clinton’s plan attempts to estimate how much the out-of-pocket tax credit will reduce health-care expenses for middle-class and working-class families. What the Commonwealth researchers did not mention in the report, and instead buried in a technical appendix, is this doozy of an asterisk: “Potentially, this [tax credit] approach gives firms an incentive to increase workers’ premium contributions, so that more workers are eligible to claim the credit.”

The Commonwealth researchers did not even attempt to model the impact of the tax credit on the actual behavior of businesses, claiming that employers might not know their workers’ income or out-of-pocket expenses, and saying they could not make decisions based on incomplete information. Nonsense. Even if businesses decide not to increase employees’ premium contributions, they could jack up deductibles instead. A firm could raise its deductible by $2,500, offer all workers a $1,000 bonus — to help employees whose out-of-pocket costs don’t meet the 5 percent of income threshold to obtain the tax credit, or assist workers’ cash flow until they receive it — and still come out ahead.

Whether by accident or design, the Commonwealth researchers assumed that employers will not respond to incentives — an assumption that belies three years of experience with Obamacare’s exchanges. Thousands of Americans have gamed the law’s special enrollment periods to sign up for coverage outside the annual enrollment window, incurred above-average costs – and then dropped their coverage at above-average rates, un-enrolling after returning to health. And because Section 1412 of the law allows enrollees a three-month grace period before insurers can drop their coverage for non-payment, one insurer found that 21 percent of its customers didn’t bother to pay their premiums last December, because the law effectively said they didn’t have to.

Given the ways in which Americans have gamed Obamacare’s morass of new regulations to create a system of barely functioning insurance exchanges, it beggars belief to think that businesses would not similarly work to maximize profit. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey of employer-sponsored health plans, only 23 percent of workers face a deductible above $2,000. With the average deductible rising 12 percent last year, firms would now have an even greater incentive to privatize their gains – because the new tax credit would allow them to socialize their workers’ losses by moving them to the federal fisc.

Why would Secretary Clinton propose a costly plan that encourages large businesses to pocket profits while jacking up costs on struggling families? Simple: The plan will make employer coverage less desirable, and it might even make the Obamacare exchanges look attractive by comparison. If liberals’ end goal is to erode employer-provided health coverage and migrate all Americans to government-run exchanges, offering a tax credit that will effectively erode that coverage faster isn’t a bad way to start.

This post was originally published at National Review