Tag Archives: America Next

How A Meghan Trainor Song Explains the Obamacare Debate

Meghan Trainor may not be known as a policy wonk, but her lyrics could prove surprisingly useful for health care analysts. In constructing an Obamacare alternative, the debate really is all about that base—or, to be more specific, multiple baselines.

Despite the lyrics to Trainor’s famous hit, the intersection of those baselines—the coverage and fiscal baselines, along with the beliefs of the Republican Party base—has caused “treble” in replacing the health law.

Health Insurance Versus Health Care Prices

The first baseline—and the one currently driving the discussion—involves the number of Americans with health insurance. Right now, many Republicans believe they must try to extend coverage to the 20 million individuals Obamacare has supposedly provided with insurance.

Of course, some of those Americans—such as yours truly—had lost their prior coverage and were forced to buy exchange policies, or obtained coverage through Obamacare’s mandate for coverage of young adults under age 26, a provision ancillary to the law’s main entitlements. Moreover, other studies suggest the 20 million number is both inflated and driven largely by Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid, not individuals purchasing policies on state insurance exchanges.

The alternative to Obamacare released by America Next nearly three years ago, which I helped draft, decided to focus on what bothers Americans most about the health care system: rising costs. Any Republican alternative to Obamacare that excludes an individual mandate or employer mandate likely will not cover as many individuals as Obamacare, perhaps by a good number. That’s one reason the America Next plan centered on controlling health costs, not implementing a coverage expansion designed to compete with Obamacare.

Although conservatives would historically focus on how their policies will lower health costs, right now many Republicans appear fixated on chasing coverage numbers. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price both support refundable, advanceable tax credits, a policy Ryan has supported for many years. While incorporating a refundable tax credit into an Obamacare alternative will result in more Americans with health coverage—mitigating the first baseline issue—it could have other ramifications.

The Tax and Spend Baseline

The second baseline to consider when talking about Obamacare alternatives is the tax and spending baseline. If a replacement plan pre-supposes repeal of the law, should an alternative be viewed as raising or lowering taxes and spending relative to what existed with the law, or relative to what existed prior to the law?

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2015 that Obamacare will raise nearly $1.2 trillion in taxes over a decade. If an alternative to Obamacare would change that $1.2 trillion number to $800 billion, should that be viewed as a $400 billion tax cut relative to Obamacare itself, or a $800 billion tax increase, because Obamacare should be assumed as fully repealed?

Then There’s the Republican Base

On this front, the third base involved in this discussion, the Republican political base, has made its voice clear. Asked in a March 2014 poll conducted by America Next whether “any replacement of Obamacare must repeal all of the Obamacare taxes and not just replace them with other taxes,” 55 percent of the general public agreed. More concerning for Republican members of Congress, self-identified Republicans and conservatives agreed by much larger margins, approaching three to one. They would view any attempt to leave some of the law’s taxes or spending intact as inconsistent with pledges to repeal the law entirely.

Therein lies Republicans’ dilemma. Some Republicans believe that any credible Obamacare alternative must offer some insurance subsidy to those newly covered by the law. Several Republican alternatives already released would re-direct the funds raised by the law—whether through taxes, spending, or both—to finance new subsidy options.

However, based on the polling available, Republican voters disagree with this strategy. With Obamacare little discussed during the presidential campaign, and President Trump sending decidedly un-conservative signals about his policy priorities, Tea Party supporters may be more than a little surprised if an alternative to the law ends up retaining chunks of its spending and taxes.

This interplay among the base of new insureds, the spending and tax baselines, and the beliefs of the conservative base will define the House Republican alternative to Obamacare, and the legislative debate that continues to unfold. Meghan Trainor may never serve as a Washington policy analyst, but her mantra that it’s all about that base will ring true in the debate surrounding Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of House Republicans’ Obamacare “Replacement”

On Thursday, prior to lawmakers returning home for the President’s Day recess, House leadership gave them a brief outline of policies likely to be included in “repeal-and-replace” legislation introduced next month. While this “full replace” strategy likely will encounter additional obstacles and delays, as I outlined last week, it’s worth analyzing the specific policies being proposed at this point, to see how they shape up.

The Good

State Innovation Grants: While sounding new to some, this concept was first introduced in 2009 in the House Republican alternative to Obamacare, and later reprised in an Obamacare alternative introduced by America Next and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) that I helped draft. The program provides federal incentives for states to reform their insurance markets in ways that will lower premiums, expand access, and ensure coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions (i.e., high-risk pools).

While on the one hand it’s regrettable that the federal government essentially has to bribe states to eliminate the benefit mandates that drive up insurance premiums, the Congressional Budget Office in 2009 concluded that the Innovation Grant incentives would work, helping drive down premiums by as much as 10 percent. Staff for Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), then ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, did yeoman’s work compiling this proposal back then, and House Republicans are smart to revive the concept.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs): In recent years, health savings accounts have become a popular and effective way to reduce health care costs. In addition to making other minor reforms, the Republican plan would roughly double HSA contribution limits. This change would allow individuals—particularly those just establishing HSAs—to save more for medical expenses, while not sparking the over-consumption that an unlimited HSA might incentivize.

Medicaid: With respect to Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied, the House document says expansion states “could continue to receive enhanced federal payments for currently enrolled beneficiaries for a limited period of time” (emphasis mine). This language would effectively adopt my earlier proposal of freezing enrollment in the Medicaid expansion—perhaps the most effective way to unwind the Obamacare entitlement. Unfortunately, other changes (described below) might have the opposite effect.

The Bad (or Questionable)

More Obamacare? In discussing the transition period between Obamacare and the new regime they seek to establish, the House document states “the Obamacare subsidies are adjusted slightly [sic] to provide additional assistance for younger Americans and reduce the over-subsidization older Americans are receiving.”

This language could mean one of two things: Either 1) a change in Obamacare’s age-rating bands—which currently prohibit insurers from charging older Americans more than three times what younger Americans pay—to allow greater variability and flexibility for insurers; or 2) some change in the subsidy regime that would have the same effects as 1).

Regardless, it seems questionable whether the answer to Obamacare’s problems lies in either more spending or another federal regulation that would only slightly ease the current micromanagement of health insurers. The focus should remain on repealing Obamacare, not fixing Obamacare.

Medicaid: At minimum, the House paper leaves more questions than it answers here, providing few specifics on the formula for a reformed Medicaid program (either block grants or per capita caps) in the future. In last year’s Better Way plan, House leadership proposed creating a “base year” for a reformed program of 2016, but that specific policy point did not appear in last week’s document.

Since release of the Better Way plan last year, new data from actuarial reports on Medicaid have shown how states that expanded Medicaid have “gamed the system” to increase their federal funding. Specifically, participants in the Medicaid expansion have averaged 14 percent higher costs than non-expansion enrollees—exactly the opposite of the actuary’s projections prior to the law’s implementation. That’s because states have used the prospect of the up to 100 percent federal match for expansion populations—so-called “free money” from Washington—to pay higher physician reimbursements.

Any reformed Medicaid formula must not disadvantage states that declined Obamacare dollars to expand the program to the able-bodied. However, because spending was higher for expansion enrollees than for non-expansion enrollees last year, using 2016 as the “base year” for Medicaid reform would do just that. Congressional staff are aware of the updated data showing how Medicaid expansion states have abused the Obamacare reimbursement formulae. But it will require both careful planning and a public vetting of the details to determine whether the funding formulae for Medicaid reform will perpetuate the current inequities.

Health Savings Accounts: While increasing contribution limits will increase HSA take-up, one other change should take precedence: Allowing HSA funds to be used to pay for insurance premiums, which is currently prohibited in most cases (except for COBRA continuation coverage, during periods of unemployment, and other limited circumstances). Allowing account funds to pay for premiums would represent a quantum leap forward in consumer-driven health care, by creating a defined-contribution model: Small businesses that cannot afford to purchase coverage for their workers can make predictable HSA contributions, which employees can then use to pay for health expenses, or to fund their own health insurance.

It is possible that the budgetary cost of ending the restrictions on premium payments prompted leadership staff to work instead on increasing the contribution limits. But the former should come before the latter, for multiple reasons: Allowing people to use account funds to pay premiums will create greater political movement to increase the contribution limits, while increasing the contribution limits now will make ending the premium restrictions more costly later. Both are positive reforms, but for multiple strategic reasons, ending the premium payment restrictions should take precedence over increasing the contribution limits.

The Ugly

New Entitlement (Funded by New Taxes?): The linchpin of the House plan lies in its system of advanceable, refundable tax credits—a new program of spending that would see the federal government writing “refund” checks to individuals with no income tax liability. However, the proposal likely will not receive a favorable score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the number of individuals covered by health insurance, at least compared to Obamacare.

That said, the new government spending will impose a fiscal cost. While Republicans did not mention a “pay-for” in their policy brief, press reports suggest the party may raise taxes to fund the new spending. Specifically, House Republicans are looking at capping the current exclusion for employer-provided health coverage, a policy included in their Better Way plan last year.

Most economists agree that the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance and health care. However, there are better ways to reform the tax treatment of health coverage—and provide parity between employer-sponsored and individually purchased insurance—without raising taxes overall. The American people do not support repealing Obamacare’s revenue increases only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Therein lies the great disappointment of the House proposal. While in 2008 Barack Obama campaigned for his plan by saying it would reduce health-care costs, he governed with a singular focus on increasing the number of individuals with health insurance, and in so doing raised costs and premiums for millions of Americans. Going down the same failed Obamacare approach of more taxes and more spending will not lower health costs. That, and not repealing and replacing Obamacare’s taxes and spending, should be House Republicans’ ultimate objective.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What If GOP Alternatives to Obamacare Cover Fewer People–And That’s Not a Flaw?

Republican lawmakers crafting alternatives to Obamacare face a fundamental decision: whether to focus on expanding coverage or containing costs. Their choice may be driven, at least in part, by budget scorekeepers.

The Congressional Budget Office released a report in December 2008 on key issues in thumbnail_Figure 2-2.jpganalyzing major health-care proposals. Included was a chart projecting individuals’ willingness to enroll in health insurance at various levels of subsidy (in technical terms, an elasticity curve). That curve suggested that insurance enrollment would remain below 40% until subsidies reached 70% of cost and that even if costs were 100% subsidized, about a fifth of individuals would decline to enroll. (And that level of subsidy is probably much greater than many Republicans would be willing to offer.)

This scenario is what prompted President Barack Obama to accept an individual mandate after he had campaigned against it; Nancy-Ann DeParle, one of his advisers overseeing health-care efforts, wrote in April 2009 that “the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will likely take the position that without an individual responsibility requirement, half of the uninsured will be left uncovered.”

Having fought a mandate to purchase health insurance on both policy and constitutional grounds, Republicans are unlikely to include one in their alternative. This means that CBO is likely to analyze, or score, such a proposal as covering fewer individuals than Obamacare. While the GOP plan taking shape may not contain the legislative detail necessary to receive a CBO analysis, any Republican alternative is likely to be criticized by Obamacare supporters for not covering as many Americans.

Republicans could, however, embrace such an outcome as a feature rather than a flaw to their proposal. CBO concluded last September that eliminating the mandate would dramatically reduce coverage levels; this could be cited as grounds to argue that most of Obamacare’s coverage gains have come due to government coercion.

Some conservatives may argue that lowering costs, not increasing health coverage, is the proper metric by which to gauge health-care reforms. The plan I worked on for America Next, a conservative think tank, took this approach, focusing on reducing costs rather than on implementing a major coverage expansion.

Other details may spark controversy, but lowering costs vs. increasing coverage is a fundamental distinction likely to define any alternative to Obamacare. The option Republicans choose and the way they frame the issue will go a long way toward shaping the policy and political battles to come.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

An Issue That Could Define Alternatives to Obamacare

A line buried in a Heritage Foundation policy paper issued just before the November elections hinted at a major fissure point in discussions surrounding a conservative alternative to Obamacare. The distinctions it raised could shape the form of any health-care alternatives the Republican-led Congress considers next year.

The policy brief, outlining the principles for any conservative health-care alternative, included the following lines:

Replacing the current tax treatment of health benefits with a new design for health care tax relief that is both revenue and budget neutral (based on pre-PPACA levels) is the first step in transforming the American health system into one that is more patient-centered, market-based, and value-focused.

The words in parentheses pack the most punch, for they lay down a clear marker regarding budgetary baselines—which define the parameters of many policy debates in Washington.

Consider a hypothetical alternative to Obamacare that repeals the law entirely, including its more than $1 trillion in tax increases, but then imposes new limits on the tax break for employer-provided health coverage—raising, say, $400 billion in revenue—to finance coverage expansions. Does that alternative cut taxes by $600 billion (the $1 trillion in repealed taxes, offset by the $400 billion in new revenue), or raise taxes by $400 billion, because repeal of the law should be seen as a given?

Polling data conducted for America Next earlier this year suggests that Americans believe the latter. A majority of voters (55%)—and sizable majorities of conservative voters—believe that “any replacement of Obamacare must repeal all of the Obamacare taxes and not just replace them with other taxes.”

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Economists and policy experts on both the left and the right agree on the need to reform the tax treatment of health insurance. But there is less agreement on the means. For instance, in one of his now-infamous videos, MIT economist and Obamacare consultant Jonathan Gruber explained how provisions in Obamacare—sold as a tax on insurance companies—ultimately would raise tax burdens on the middle class. Some on the right have proposed that Congress accelerate this tax increase by amending the law next year. Other alternatives to the Affordable Care Act would repeal and replace the law’s tax increases, while still other alternatives (including the plan put forward by America Next) would repeal all of the law’s tax increases, and reform the tax code, without raising additional revenue in its stead.

To the casual observer, these baseline distinctions may seem arcane—but in Washington, they can pack a wallop. Expect the issues referenced in the Heritage brief to resurface whenever the new House and Senate consider health-care alternatives.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

Democrats’ Obamacare “Fix”

front-page story in Saturday’s Washington Post discussing Republican candidates’ positions on the Affordable Care Act included a curious quote from Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of House Democrats’ campaign committee, who said that Republicans are “promising fixes but won’t be specific.”

Actually, many conservatives have outlined numerous alternatives to Obamacare. Republicans in the House have written at least 200 separate bills showing their ideas on health care, large and small. My own organization, America Next, released its blueprint for health reform earlier this year.

Conversely, the comparatively small universe of “fixes” advocated by supporters of the health legislation omit major fiscal details. Here are three examples:

In a March Politico op-ed, several Democratic senators (and one independent, Sen. Angus King) proposed allowing the broader sale of low-cost, high-deductible health plans, whose availability is currently limited under the ACA. The senators also advocated expanding the law’s tax credits for small business—making them available to more firms and for longer periods—and further diluting the ACA’s employer mandate on businesses, which already has been delayed twice.

Former President Bill Clinton last year called for fixing a provision that disqualifies families for insurance subsidies if one member of the family can get “affordable” health coverage from an employer.

Others have discussed repealing a provision in the law that would slow the growth in premium subsidies beginning in 2019.

Most of these “fixes” come with price tags—and potentially large ones at that. A 2011 study by the Employment Policies Institute found that fixing the affordability definition, as President Clinton proposed, could increase spending by nearly $50 billion per year.

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act suggesting modifications have a duty to explain whether and how any spending increases would be paid for—through tax increases or other spending reductions.  Because proposing new federal spending without a way to pay for it could put Democrats—and taxpayers—in, well, a bit of a fix.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.