Tag Archives: Barack Obama

How the Media Care More About Obamacare Than the Constitution

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

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

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

What Exactly Is Going On With Obamacare Subsidies?

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

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

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

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

What’s The Media Saying About All This?

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

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

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

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

Thanks For The Double Standard, American Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spare Me Your Self-Righteousness

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Binary Choices of “Repeal-and-Replace”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2: Keeping Obamacare Regulations Requires Significant Insurance Subsidies

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

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

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

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

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

3: Banning Pre-Existing Condition Consideration Versus Repealing Obamacare

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

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

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

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

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

To Govern Is To Choose

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

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

This post was originally published in The Federalist.

How HHS’ Proposed Rule Would Slightly Improve Obamacare

This morning, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a rule proposing several changes to Obamacare insurance offerings. The regulations are intended to help stabilize insurance markets and hopefully pave the way for a repeal and transition away from Obamacare.

Worth noting before discussing its specifics: The rule provides a period of notice-and-comment (albeit a shortened one) for individuals who wish to weigh in on its proposals. This decision to elicit feedback compares favorably to the Obama administration, which rushed out its 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters without prior public comment during the “lame duck” post-election period. Because the Obama administration wanted that regulation to take effect before January 20—so President Trump could not withdraw the regulation upon taking office—HHS declined to allow the public an opportunity to weigh in before the rules went into effect.

Today’s proposed rule contains reforms designed to bring relief and stability to insurance markets:

  • A shortening of next year’s open enrollment period from three months to six weeks—a solution included in my report on ways the new administration can mitigate the effects of Obamacare. In theory, the rule could (and perhaps should) have proposed an even shorter open enrollment window, to prevent individuals from signing up after they develop health conditions.
  • A requirement for pre-enrollment verification of all special enrollment periods for people signing up on the federal exchange, healthcare.gov—again outlined in my report, and again to cut down on reports that individuals are signing up for coverage outside the annual open enrollment period, incurring costly expenses, then dropping coverage.
  • Permitting insurers to require individuals who have unpaid premium bills to pay their debts before enrolling in coverage—an attempt to stop the gaming of Obamacare’s 90-day “grace period” provision, which a sizable proportion of enrollees have used to avoid paying their premiums for up to three months.
  • Increasing the permitted range of actuarial value variation—also outlined in my report—to give insurers greater flexibility.
  • Additional flexibility on network adequacy requirements, both devolving enforcement to states and allowing insurers greater flexibility in those requirements. Some might find this change ironic—critics of Obamacare have complained about narrow physician networks, and this change will allow insurers to narrow them even further. Yet the problem with Obamacare and physician access is that insurers have been forced to narrow networks. The law’s new benefit mandates have made increasing deductibles, or cutting provider reimbursements, the only two realistic ways of controlling costs. Unless and until those statutory benefit requirements are repealed, those incentives will remain.

One key question is whether these changes by themselves will be enough to stabilize markets, and keep carriers offering coverage in 2018. Given that Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini this morning called Obamacare in a “death spiral,” and Humana announced yesterday it will exit all exchanges next year, that effect is not certain.

As my report last month outlined, the new administration can go further with regulatory relief for carriers, from further narrowing open enrollment, to reducing exchange user fees charged to insurers (and ultimately enrollees), to providing flexibility on medical loss ratio and essential benefits requirements, to withdrawing mandates to provide contraception coverage. All these changes would further improve the environment for insurers, and could induce more to remain in exchanges for 2018.

However, as my post this morning noted, the ultimate action lies with Congress. The Trump administration, and HHS under new Secretary Tom Price, have started to lay a foundation providing relief from Obamacare. Now it’s time for the legislature to take action, and deliver on their promise to the American people to repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How to Repeal Obamacare–And What Comes Next

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s confirmation early Friday morning marks both an end and a beginning. While his installation after a bitter nomination battle formally begins the Trump administration’s work on healthcare, Price will also seek to bring about the end of former President Barack Obama’s unpopular and unaffordable healthcare law.

Dismantling Obamacare should be a three-fold process, involving coordination among HHS, the rest of the administration, and the Republican-led Congress. The steps can occur concurrently, but all must take place to prevent people from suffering any further from Obamacare’s ill effects.

Having assumed his post, Price should use the regulatory apparatus at his disposal to bring immediate relief from Obamacare. Press reports indicate the administration has already taken steps in that regard, sending a package of insurance stabilization rules to the Office of Management and Budget for clearance prior to their release, potentially as soon as Friday afternoon.

The reports suggest the administration is considering many of the proposals to provide regulatory flexibility that I included in a report analyzing repeal last month. Specifically, the administration may reduce the length of the annual open enrollment period and require verification of individuals seeking special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment. These are two critical steps to prevent individuals from signing up for insurance after they become sick.

The administration is also considering additional flexibility with regards to Obamacare’s benefit mandates, allowing additional variation in the expected percentage of health costs plans cover, for instance.

In many cases, the administration and Price have significant latitude to provide flexibility, but that latitude is not unlimited. Until Congress acts, Obamacare remains on the statute books. While regulators can reinterpret the law, they cannot ignore it. Already, the liberal-leaning AARP has threatened legal action over one of the new administration’s rumored regulatory changes.

These legal constraints illustrate why Congress should act, preferably sooner rather than later, in passing legislation repealing Obamacare. Congress should use as the basis for action the repeal bill it passed in the fall of 2015, which Obama vetoed early last year. That bill repealed all of the law’s tax increases, and sunset the law’s coverage expansions after a two-year period to allow for an appropriate transition.

While the 2015 legislation should represent the initial template for Obamacare’s repeal, Congress can and should go further. Legislators should also seek to repeal the law’s insurance regulations, which have raised premiums and caused millions to receive cancellation notices.

Although some assume Congress cannot repeal the regulations using budget reconciliation — the special process that allows legislation to pass with a 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60 votes, in the Senate — that may not be accurate. The Congressional Budget Office and others have made estimates showing the significant budgetary impact of these costly regulations. Republicans should use those cost estimates, and past Senate precedent, to enact repeal of the major insurance provisions using the special budget reconciliation procedures.

While adding repeal of the insurance regulations to the 2015 measure, Congress should also ease the transition away from Obamacare by freezing enrollment in the law’s new entitlements upon enactment of the repeal bill. It makes no sense to allow millions of individuals to continue enrolling in a program Congress has just voted to end. Especially with respect to the law’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied, freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Obamacare to retain their coverage, while starting a process to transition away from the law’s spending and allow individuals to transition off the rolls and into employer-based coverage.

When thinking about a post-Obamacare world, Congress and the new administration should have three priorities: lowering costs, lowering costs and lowering costs.

Americans of all political stripes view lowering health costs as their number-one priority, and it isn’t even close. While candidate Obama promised in 2008 that his health plan would lower costs by an average $2,500 per family per year, the bill he signed into law instead raised costs and premiums for millions.

The answer to the top health concern lies not in new spending and taxes to subsidize health insurance (the failed Obamacare formula) but in reducing the underlying costs of care.

Reducing costs involves equalizing the tax treatment of health insurance, limiting current tax preferences that encourage over-consumption of health insurance and health care. But this must be done in a way that does not raise tax burdens overall. Lowering costs should include incentives for wellness and promote health savings accounts, the expansion of which could reduce health expenditures by billions of dollars.

States have a big role to play in the health debate, both in lowering costs and protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions.

Congress can and should provide states with incentives to reduce insurance benefit mandates that drive up the cost of care. Congress should guarantee that individuals with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, but give states funding, and let them decide the best route — whether through high-risk pools, or some other risk transfer mechanism — to ensure access to care. While not the panacea President Trump and others have claimed, Congress should allow individuals to shop across state lines for the coverage that best suits their needs.

These changes will not require a 2,700-page piece of legislation like Obamacare. They should not even be considered a “replacement” for Obamacare. But they would have an impact in reducing health costs, the issue Americans care most about. They would represent a new beginning after the canceled policies and premium spikes associated with Obamacare.

 This post was originally published in the Washington Examiner.

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.

Barack Obama’s Anti-Democratic Speech

In Miami on Thursday afternoon, President Obama gave a speech ostensibly updating the American people on the status of his health care law. But beneath the wonky explanations lay several dark—one might even call them intolerant—undercurrents.

As much as Donald Trump’s recent comments suggesting he won’t accept the results of November’s election violate democratic norms—and they do—President Obama’s demeanor provides a more subtle, but perhaps no less insidious, threat to democratic pluralism.

When it comes to his eponymous law, President Obama thinks only policy outcomes to his liking warrant an end to debate, will only acknowledge ideas and philosophies consonant with his own, and refuses to acknowledge the extent of the deception needed to pass the measure in the first place.

Granted, the President didn’t follow Donald Trump’s (bad) example in saying he would only accept the election results “if I win.” But when it comes to the policy consequences arising from said elections, the President’s attitude essentially echoes Trump’s: The outcomes only matter if he wins.

“Going Back” to Hillarycare

As his is wont, the President on Thursday cited multiple votes on repeal bills in Congress, and questioned why Republicans wouldn’t want to “go back” to the days before Obamacare. But to this historian, it’s worth taking at least minute to do just that.

A certain former Secretary of State often likes to point out that “it was called Hillarycare before it was called Obamacare.” She’s right, of course. It was called Hillarycare—and the voters overwhelmingly rejected it, handing control of both chambers of Congress to Republicans for the first time in 40 years. And before that, voters and legislators rejected universal coverage schemes under Presidents Nixon, Truman, and both Presidents Roosevelt, to name but a few.

Viewed from this prism, why did Democrats in 2009 “go back” to try and enact Hillarycare after voters soundly rejected it—not just during the Clinton Administration, but time after time after time over a span of nearly a century? Because, for good or for ill, they believed in the objective of universal coverage—and they would not take repeated “nos” from the voters for an answer.

Why then should those concerned about the impact of Obamacare—or for that matter, any program promoted by this President—not demonstrate the same level of passion, and the same level of sustained enthusiasm, to obtain their objectives? The answer is simple: They absolutely should—at least, if you believe in democracy. But to judge from his speech, President Obama apparently places a higher priority on denigrating those who would undermine his agenda.

Granted, if you believe government only exists to provide an ever-larger amount of largesse to individuals—a boundless array of programs, generating an ever-growing level of federal munificence—you might think the only outcomes that matter are ones that increase government’s scope and reach. But if you believe that lawmakers, in their rush to obtain short-term political advantage, might be spending their way into unsustainable levels of debt for future generations, you probably take issue with the President’s one-sided perspective.

Differing Goals

Likewise, the President refuses to acknowledge that conservatives have any “serious alternatives” to the law. As someone who helped draft not one, but two, such alternatives, I can categorically call that claim false. President Obama likely knows such alternatives exist—but because they disagree with his objectives, he refuses to acknowledge them.

There’s an ironic contradiction between the President’s refusal to acknowledge conservative alternatives to Obamacare and his self-proclaimed willingness to accept ideas from any quarter. In his speech Thursday, the President joked that he would even change the name of Obamacare to “Reagancare” or “Paul Ryancare,” if Republicans would agree to improve the measure.

But there’s a not-insignificant catch: President Obama will discuss ideas from anyone—but only if they accomplish his objectives. If the ideas don’t synch up with his objectives—if he doesn’t win on the policy, to echo Trump—then to the President, those ideas simply don’t exist.

The President once again talked about Obamacare’s program of state waivers, which he claimed would provide flexibility to states. But as I have previously noted, the law permits states to waive some of the law’s requirements only if they agree to accomplish the law’s objectives. States can impose more mandates and regulations, and cover more people, but not fewer. Conservatives who wish to emphasize solutions that focus on lowering health care costs over expanding coverage will find little comfort from the law’s waivers—and little acknowledgement from this President.

Win at All Costs?

One might not recognize it at first glance, but the President’s speech implicitly admitted many of the deceptions needed to pass Obamacare in the first place. In calling the law a “starter home,” and calling for increased subsidies, he conceded that his remarks to Congress stating “the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion” amounted to a bait-and-switch. Ditto his claims that premiums are rising at their slowest rate—far from the $2,500 per family premium reduction he promised in 2008.

But to President Obama, when it comes to policy, winning is all that matters. And just as with Trump’s comments on the election in November, the only outcomes that matter to President Obama—and the only ideas he will acknowledge—are those in agreement with him. Regardless of whether you believe Obamacare should be preserved, improved, or repealed, that’s bad for democracy.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Bailing Out Health Insurers Will Lead to Single Payer Health Care

The bad news for Obamacare keeps on coming. Major health carriers are leaving insurance exchanges, and other insurance co-operatives the law created continue to fail, leaving tens of thousands without health coverage. Those on exchanges who somehow manage to hold on to their insurance will face a set of massive premium increases—which will hit millions of Americans weeks before the election.

Many on the Right believe Obamacare was deliberately designed to fail, and fear that we’re on a slippery slope toward single-payer. On the other side of the spectrum, the Left hopes conservatives’ fears—and liberals’ dreams—will be answered. But is either side right?

The reality is more nuanced than the rhetoric would suggest. Whether government runs all of health care is less material than whether government pays for all of health care. The latter will, sooner or later, lead to the former. That’s why the debate over bailing out Obamacare is so important. Ostensibly “private” health insurers want tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies—because they claim these subsidies are the only thing standing between a government-run “public option” or a single-payer system.

But the action insurers argue will prevent a government-run system will in reality create one. If insurers get their way, and establish the principle that both they and Obamacare are too big to fail, we will have created a de facto government-run insurance system. Whether such system is run through a handful of heavily regulated, crony capitalist “private” insurers or government bureaucrats represents a comparatively trifling detail.

The Biggest Wolf Is Not the Closest

In considering the likelihood of single-payer health care, one analogy lies in the axiom that one should shoot the wolf outside one’s front door. Single-payer health care obviously represents the biggest wolf—but not the closest. While liberals no doubt want to create a single-payer health care system—Barack Obama has repeatedly said as much—they face a navigational problem: Can you get there from here?

The answer is no—at least not in one fell swoop. Creating a single-payer system would throw 177.5 million Americans off their employer-provided health insurance. That level of disruption would be orders of magnitude greater than the cancellation notices associated with the 2013 “like your plan” fiasco, which itself prompted President Obama to beat a hasty, albeit temporary, retreat from Obamacare’s mandates. Recall too that the high taxes needed to fund a statewide single-payer effort prompted Vermont—Vermont—to abandon its efforts two years ago.

Understanding the political obstacles associated with throwing half of Americans off their current health insurance, liberals’ next strategy has focused on creating a government-run health plan to “compete” with private insurers. Hillary Clinton endorsed this approach, and Democratic senators made a new push on the issue this month. When stories of premium spikes and plan cancellations hit the fan next month, liberals will inevitably claim that a government-run plan will solve all of Obamacare’s woes (although even some liberal analysts admit the law’s real problem is a product healthy people don’t want to buy).

Can the Left succeed at creating a government-run health plan? Probably not at the federal level. Liberals have noted that only one Democratic Senate candidate running this year references the so-called “public option” on his website. Thirteen Senate Democrats have yet to co-sponsor a resolution by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) calling for a government-run plan. Such legislation faces a certain dead-end as long as Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress. Given the failure to enact a government-run plan with a 60-vote majority in 2009, an uncertain future even under complete Democratic control.

What About Single-Payer Inside States?

What then of state efforts to create a government-run health plan? The Wall Street Journal featured a recent op-ed by Scott Gottlieb on this subject. Gottlieb notes that Section 1332 of Obamacare allows for states to create and submit innovation waivers—waivers that a Hillary Clinton administration would no doubt eagerly approve from states wanting to create government-run plans. He also rightly observes that the Obama administration has abused its authority to approve costly Medicaid waivers despite supposed requirements that these waivers not increase the deficit; a Clinton administration can be counted on to do the same.

But another element of the state innovation waiver program limits the Left’s ability to generate 50 government-run health plans. Section 1332(b)(2) requires states to enact a law “that provides for state actions under a waiver.” The requirement that legislation must accompany a state waiver application will likely limit a so-called “public option” to those states with unified Democratic control. Because Obamacare, and the 2010 and 2014 wave elections it helped spark, decimated the Democratic Party, Democrats currently hold unified control in only seven states.

Even at the state level, liberals will be hard-pressed to find many states in which to create their socialist experiment of a government-run health plan. In those few targets, health insurers and medical providers—remember that government-run health plans can only “lower” costs by arbitrarily restricting payments to doctors and hospitals—will make a powerful coalition for the Left to try and overcome. Also, in the largest state, California, the initiative process means that voters—and the television ads health-care interests will use to influence them—could ultimately decide the issue, one way or the other.

So if single-payer represents the biggest wolf, but not the one closest to the door, and government-run plans represent a closer wolf, but only a limited threat at present, what does represent the wolf at the door? Simple: the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Too Big To Fail, Redux

The wolf in sheep’s clothing comes in the form of insurance industry lobbyists, who have been arguing to Republican staff that only making the insurance exchanges work will fend off calls for a government-run plan—or, worse, single-payer. They claim that extending and expanding the law’s current bailouts—specifically, risk corridors and reinsurance—can stabilize the market, and prevent further government intrusion.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. But examining the logic reveals its hollowness: If Republicans pass bad policy now, they can fend off even worse policy later. There is of course another heretofore unknown concept of conservative Republicans choosing not to pass bad policy at all.

That’s why comments suggesting that at least some Republicans believe Obamacare must be fixed no matter who is elected president on November 8 are so damaging. That premise that Congress must do something because Obamacare and its exchanges are “too big to fail” means health insurers are likewise “too big to fail.” If this construct prevails, Congress will do whatever it takes for the insurers to stay in the marketplace; if that means turning on the bailout taps again, so be it.

But once health insurers have a clear backstop from the federal government, they will take additional risk. Insurers have said so themselves. In documents provided to Congress, carriers admitted they under-priced premiums in the law’s first three years precisely because they believed they had an unlimited tap on the federal fisc to cushion their losses. Republican efforts in Congress to rein in that bailout spigot have met furious lobbying by health insurers—and attempts by the Obama administration to strike a corrupt bargain circumventing Congress’ restrictions.

Efforts to end the bailouts and claw back as much money as possible to taxpayers would shoot the wolf at the door. Giving insurers more by way of bailout funds—socializing their risk—will only encourage them to take additional risk, exacerbating a boom-and-bust cycle that will inevitably result in a federal takeover of all that risk. When the federal government provides the risk backstop, you have a government-run system, regardless of who administers it.

While the insurance industry may view more bailouts as their salvation, Obamacare’s version of TARP looks more like a TRAP. By socializing losses, purportedly to prevent single-payer health care, creating a permanent insurer bailout fund will effectively create one. While remaining mindful of the other wolves lurking, Congress should focus foremost on eliminating the one at its threshold: Undo the Obamacare bailouts, and prove this law is not too big to fail.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What Blue Cross Blue Shield Didn’t Tell You About Reinsurance

An hour ago, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association released a blast e-mail to Hill staff trying to justify their support for Obamacare’s reinsurance bailout. The full e-mail is pasted below, but here is a quick fact check of their claims:

CLAIM: “Health plans were required to reduce their premiums based on the federal reinsurance rules in place.”

FACT: What this talking point fails to mention is that reinsurance “assessments” — $63 per person in 2014, $44 in 2015, and $27 this year — RAISED premiums for the majority of Americans with employer-provided health plans — 175 million in 2014 — so that a select few individuals with Exchange coverage could have slightly lower rates.  Raising premiums for some people to lower people for others is “spreading the wealth around,” to use Barack Obama’s famous phrase — but it doesn’t lower underlying health costs, and it doesn’t represent the $2,500 in lower premiums Barack Obama repeatedly promised.

CLAIM: “The transitional reinsurance program receives no federal funds.”

FACT: The reinsurance program uses the coercive power of the federal government to collect the dollars — making them federal funds.  Even the BCBS-distributed literature admits reinsurance funds were collected by “assessments” — i.e., a non-voluntary requirement on all health plans to pay the federal government.

Most federal entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, welfare, food stamps — are by their nature redistributive, taking money from some people and giving them to others.  Do Republicans believe THOSE programs do not represent “federal funds?”  Of course not.  The same principle applies here.  Or do BCBS representatives believe all Americans with employer plans would willingly pay $63 per year in higher premiums to help out their friendly health insurers?

CLAIM: “Reinsurance payments to health plans have been below the amounts specified in the statute.”

FACT: This claim misses two points.  First, on a per-enrollee basis, insurers in 2014 received nearly 50% more in reinsurance funds than they assumed when setting premiums for that year. And you don’t have to take my word for it — that conclusion comes from a paper released by the Commonwealth Fund, not exactly a bastion of conservatism.

Second, in 2014 the federal Treasury received exactly ZERO dollars from the reinsurance program — even though the Congressional Research Service and other independent experts have said the law is clear: The Treasury Department, and NOT insurers, stand first in priority for reinsurance assessment funds.

CLAIM: “The privately funded reinsurance program reduced costs for taxpayers.”

FACT: First, because the Obama Administration illegally prioritized insurers over the Treasury as explained above, the reinsurance program stands to stiff taxpayers out of billions of dollars in repayments.  Second, any supposed reduction in the cost of federal insurance subsidies came solely as a result of “assessments” — i.e., taxes — on employer-provided health plans.  Whether taxpayers pay as a result of a front-end reinsurance “assessment” or as a result of the back-end cost of federal insurance subsidies is essentially immaterial — a tax is a tax is a tax.

The fact of the matter remains: The reinsurance program remains an illegally-manipulated system of corporate welfare, and insurers are fighting to retain money that legally belongs in the Treasury.  It’s worth noting that nowhere in the BCBS documents do the Blues even attempt to argue the legality of the program as rejiggered by the Obama Administration.  Their argument to Congress therefore amounts to, essentially, “We stole that money fair and square!”

Members of Congress who want to 1) stand on the side of taxpayers, 2) oppose crony capitalism, and 3) oppose Obamacare should support every attempt to reclaim funds from the reinsurance program — and prevent a risk corridor bailout.

From: ”Pray, Jason”
Date: September 7, 2016 at 11:11:55 AM EDT
To: ”Pray, Jason”
Subject: H.R.5904 – Taxpayers Before Insurers Act

Hi everyone – I hate to come out of the post-recess box like this but, in the strongest possible terms, we encourage your office to not get on this bill as a cosponsor.

In short – Congress should oppose efforts to eliminate or limit the ACA reinsurance program; here are facts about the program:

• Health plans were required to reduce their premiums based on the federal reinsurance rules in place;

• The transitional reinsurance program receives no federal funds;

• Reinsurance payments to health plans have been below the amounts specified in the statute; and

• The privately funded reinsurance program reduced costs for taxpayers.

Limiting or eliminating the reinsurance program simply amounts to a retroactive tax on insurance companies and higher premiums going forward.

Please see the attached documents and feel free to contact me with any questions.

-          Jason

Jason Pray

Executive Director, Congressional Relations

BlueCross & BlueShield Association

Have Republicans Gone Wobbly on Obamacare?

In the weeks after Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously remarked to President George H.W. Bush that “this was no time to go wobbly.” The Iron Lady’s maxim could well have applied to the Senate majority leader last week, when he made comments suggesting Republicans should have a hand in “fixing” Obamacare—the law collapsing in front of our very eyes—in 2017.

In comments at a Chamber of Commerce event in Louisville last Monday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said the law “is crashing”—an obvious statement to all but the law’s most grizzled supporters. But McConnell also “said the next president will have to work with Congress to keep the situation from worsening, though he did not specifically say the health care law would be repealed.”

Those last comments in particular—about the imperative to “fix” Obamacare—should cause conservatives to remember three key points.

1. It’s Not Conservatives’ Job to Fix Liberals’ Bad Law

A crass political point, perhaps, but also an accurate one. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid rammed Obamacare through on a straight party-line vote, despite Republicans’ warnings, because, in President Obama’s words, “I’m feeling lucky.” These days, it’s the American people who might not be feeling so lucky, with insurers leaving the insurance exchanges in droves and premiums ready to spike.

Some might ask the reasonable question whether Republicans, as the governing party in Congress, should come together for the good of the country to make President Obama’s disastrous law work. But ask yourself what Democrats would do if the circumstances were reversed: Do you think that, if Republicans had enacted premium support for Medicare or personal accounts for Social Security on a straight-party line vote, and those new programs suffered from technical and logistical problems, Pelosi and Reid would put partisanship aside and try to fix the reformed programs? If you do, I’ve got some land to sell you.

We know Reid and Pelosi wouldn’t come together in the national interest, because they didn’t do so ten years ago to support the surge in Iraq. Instead, they passed legislation undermining the surge and calling for a troop withdrawal. The surge succeeded despite Reid and Pelosi, not because of them. So if Democrats abandoned the national interest to score political points a decade ago, why should Republicans bail them out of their Obamacare woes now?

2. Hillary Clinton’s Proposed ‘Solutions’ Range from Bad to Worse

On health care, Hillary Clinton’s campaign proposals have thus far fallen largely into three buckets: 1) increasing Obamacare subsidies, paid for by tax increases; 2) creating a government-run health plan; and 3) expanding price controls against pharmaceutical companies. Conservatives should endorse exactly none of those proposals. Moreover, Clinton’s proposals would actually exacerbate the exchanges’ fundamental problem: A product too few individuals want to buy because federal regulations and mandates have driven up premiums, making the purchase of coverage irrational for all but the sickest individuals.

But McConnell’s statement that “exactly how it [Obamacare] is changed will depend on the election” implies that a Clinton victory will allow her to set the tone and agenda for negotiations on “fixing” Obamacare. It also implies that Republicans should begin negotiating against themselves, and start rationalizing ways to accept proposals coming from a President Hillary: “Well, we could live with a government-run health plan, provided it were state-based…” or “We might be able to justify billions more in spending on new subsidies if…”

In addition to representing the antithesis of good negotiation, such a strategy brings with it both policy and political risk. Negotiating changes to Obamacare on a bipartisan basis puts Republicans on the hook if those changes don’t work. Clinton’s ideas for more taxes, regulations, and spending won’t make the exchanges solvent; if anything, they will only postpone the inevitable for a while longer.

3. Ridiculous Straw Men Can’t Justify Bailouts

Insurance industry spokesmen have been flooding Republican offices on Capitol Hill making this argument: Congress has to grant insurers massive new bailouts, or the American people will end up with a government-run health plan, or worse, single-payer health care.

That argument relies on several levels of specious reasoning. Unless Republicans lose both houses of Congress in November—a possible outcome, but an unlikely one—insurers’ argument pre-supposes that a Republican Congress will vote to enact a government-run health plan, or single-payer health care. As liberals themselves have pointed out, only one Democrat running for Senate this year even mentioned the so-called “public option” on his website. So why is this government-run health plan even a concern, when Reid couldn’t enact it in 2009 with a 60-vote Senate majority?

The honest answer is it probably isn’t—insurers are just trying to scare Republicans into bailing them out. It’s the oldest straw-man argument in the book: We must do something; this is something; therefore, we must do this.

If you don’t believe me, just read the following: “Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it the most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true.”

Those words come from none other than Barack Obama, as he tried to sell Obamacare in his address to Congress in September 2009. We know where that speech led us, and we should know better than to follow such illogical reasoning again.

Phineas Taylor Barnum once famously remarked that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Here’s hoping that Republicans will disprove that adage next year, and decline to accept the sucker’s bet associated with trying to fix an inherently unfixable law.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ Agenda: Tax Health Benefits to Fund Corporate Welfare

A feature article in Sunday’s Washington Post provided the latest summary of Obamacare’s woes: Premiums set to spike dramatically, insurers leaving in droves, and millions of Americans held hostage to a lengthening comedy of errors. But liberals stand ready with their answer: More of the same government taxes and spending that created the problem in the first place. To wit, the Left would tax Americans’ employer-provided health benefits to fund a permanent bailout fund for insurance companies.

In a brief released earlier this month, the liberal Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had several possible “solutions” to solve the problem of low enrollment, and low insurer participation, in Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges. In the document, the foundation suggested making program of reinsurance now scheduled to expire at year’s end permanent:

Extending [Obamacare’s] reinsurance program and its mechanism of financing would more likely have a stabilizing influence [on insurers]. The program could be authorized permanently…or for a set period of time, with authority for CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] to continue it if needed….Funds for the reinsurance pool would need to be, as they are currently, collected from individual market insurers, group market insurers, and self-funded plans.

In other words, individuals who do not purchase coverage from an exchange should have their benefits taxed, to fund more corporate welfare subsidies to health insurers, in the hopes that they will continue to offer exchange coverage.

That was the basic premise of the law’s reinsurance mechanism. Put slightly more charitably, Section 1341 of Obamacare imposed an assessment on Americans with employer-provided coverage, or those who purchase health coverage directly from an insurance carrier rather than through a government-run exchange, to help subsidize exchange insurers with high-cost patients.

The assessments were set to last three years—from 2014 through 2016—serving as a transition while the new marketplaces developed. But after three years, the exchanges are in worse shape than ever. Healthy and wealthy individuals have not purchased coverage, making the exchange population sicker than the average employer plan.

Rather than fixing a problem that onerous government regulations—a mandated package of benefits, and rating requirements that have raised premiums so substantially for healthy individuals that many have chosen to forgo coverage—the Left just wants more of the same. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation paper included numerous “solutions” straight out of the liberal playbook: Requiring insurers to participate on exchanges; a government-run “public option” intended to destroy private coverage, richer subsidies; and new penalties for late enrollment. In other words, more of the taxes, spending, and regulations that brought us this mess in the first place—not to mention the permanent insurer bailout fund.

Two clear ironies stand out when it comes to the reinsurance proposal. First, the Obama administration has already given insurers far more than they expected—or the law allows—on the reinsurance front. Government officials have repeatedly increased reinsurance reimbursement levels, giving insurers nearly 50% more support from the program in 2014 than they originally expected. And the non-partisan Congressional Research Service believes that the Administration has violated the law by prioritizing payments to insurers over payments to the Treasury—giving insurers billions of dollars in extra funding that legally should be returned to taxpayers.

Second, Barack Obama himself campaigned vigorously against “taxing health benefits” in 2008. He ran ads attacking John McCain for making health insurance subject to income tax, saying the tax would fund subsidies that would go straight to insurance companies. Yet Obamacare contained not one, but two, separate “assessments” (read: taxes) on health plans—the first to fund comparative effectiveness research that could be utilized by health plans reimbursement and coverage decisions, and the second for the “temporary” reinsurance program. After violating his campaign pledge not once, but twice, in Obamacare itself, the president’s allies want Congress to make permanent the tax on health benefits—to finance a bailout fund that will go—you guessed it!—straight to the insurance companies.

With labor force participation still historically low, and Americans struggling with high health costs, now is certainly not the time to tax the health coverage that businesses provide to working families so that insurers can receive billions more dollars in bailout funds. Congress should not even think about throwing good money after bad in a vain attempt to keep the sinking Obamacare ship afloat.