Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Restoring the Rule of Law to Obamacare

Over the last several months, this space has highlighted that President Trump has an opportunity and a challenge: Restoring the constitutional rule of law his predecessor often ignored. Such a move would require ending the Obama administration’s ad hoc rewriting of Obamacare, implementing the law as written—no more, no less.

Into that debate stepped the Conservative Action Project on Friday, with a memo noting that the president can and should lead on Obamacare. The title suggests a continuation of Obama’s “pen and a phone” mentality, emphasizing executive unilateralism in the face of Congress’ inability to pass “repeal-and-replace” legislation regarding Obamacare.

So Far Trump Is Perpetuating Obama’s Law-Breaking

The document contains numerous important suggestions to undo President Obama’s illegal executive acts. For instance, it encourages Trump to “take action to end the illegal and unconstitutional cost-sharing subsidies to the insurance companies,” ending their disbursement. This development would be not only welcome, but far overdue.

For more than six months President Trump has continued his predecessor’s habit of violating the Constitution to disburse billions of unappropriated dollars to insurance companies. To both enforce the rule of law and end crony capitalist dealings between “Big Government” and “Big Insurance,” Trump should end the unconstitutional subsidies forthwith.

The CAP letter also rightly calls on Trump to “end the illegal diversion of money from the U.S. Treasury to insurance companies.” The Government Accountability Office ruled last September that the Obama administration had violated the text of Obamacare by prioritizing reinsurance payments to insurers over required payments to the Treasury. As with the cost-sharing subsidies, President Trump should put the rule of law—and taxpayers—ahead of insurance companies’ special interests.

The CAP document calls for President Trump to “continue to fight for repeal of the individual mandate,” but—thankfully—does not call for Trump to defang the mandate unilaterally. As I wrote back in January, when administration officials first suggested they may not enforce the mandate at all, “a Republican Administration should not be tempted to ‘use unilateral actions to achieve conservative ends.’ Such behavior represents a contradiction in terms.”

You Can’t Ignore the Law Because You Don’t Like It

In this same vein, CAP’s call for the Trump administration to “expand the exemption for so-called ‘grandmothered’ plans” represents an open invitation for the president to violate the Constitution, just as his predecessor did. These “grandmothered” plans should have been cancelled in January 2014, as they did not—and do not—comply with the new statutory requirements included in Obamacare.

In late 2013, President Obama faced political controversy for his “If you like your plan, you can keep it” broken promise, which became PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year. To stanch his political bleeding and solve the problem of millions of cancellation notices—along with a broken website preventing individuals with cancelled plans from buying new ones—Obama tried to pass the proverbial buck. He said his administration would allow states, if they chose, to let individuals keep their plans—temporarily. This purportedly “temporary” solution has been extended numerous times, and now is scheduled to expire at the end of 2018.

Unfortunately, as law professor (and Obamacare supporter) Nicholas Bagley has noted, Obama’s unilateral creation of these “grandmothered” health plans violated his constitutional duties as chief executive: “The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.”

To put it more bluntly, the president cannot decline to enforce the law because he finds himself in a political jam, whether due to a broken promise, a non-functioning website, or mere disagreement with the law in question. That principle applies as equally to President Trump as it does to President Obama. Trump’s extension of “grandmothered” plans violates the Constitution as much as President Obama’s did—and expanding those plans to include other forms of insurance would represent a further violation.

To be clear, as a matter of policy, I hate the idea of cancelling millions of insurance policies because they do not meet Obamacare’s myriad regulatory requirements. But as I noted recently, I believe President Trump should do just that—not because I support that outcome, or because President Trump supports it, but because the law requires it. He should have done that months ago—within days of taking office—to make clear that the cancellations stemmed from President Obama’s violation of his own health law, not any measure Trump himself wanted to implement.

Unfortunately, however, President Trump has yet to enforce the law, or the Constitution, when it comes to Obamacare, having undone none of his predecessor’s illegal and extralegal acts. For this conservative, hope springs eternal, as tomorrow always brings another opportunity to do the right thing. Here’s to this administration finally realizing that the rule of law by definition means enforcing the laws one disagrees with—for that critical principle exceeds the value of any particular law, no matter how onerous or obscure.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Inconvenient Truths over Obamacare’s Cost-Sharing Reductions

Leaders in both parties engaged in rhetorical bluster over the weekend regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions. Those payments to insurers for lowering deductibles and co-payments—ruled unconstitutional by a federal district court judge last May—remain in political limbo, and a subject of no small controversy.

But the rhetorical exchanges yielded inconvenient truths, both for Democratic leaders demanding the Trump administration continue the payments, and for the president himself, who has threatened to stop them.

Schumer: If the Payments Are Constitutional, Trump Can’t Withhold Them

Senate Majority Leader Schumer tweeted about what might happen “if @POTUS refuses to make CSR [cost-sharing reduction] payments.” There’s just one problem with his statement: If the payments are lawful, President Trump cannot refuse to make them. More than four decades ago, the Supreme Court held unanimously in Train v. City of New York that the Nixon administration could not spend smaller amounts than what Congress appropriated for a environment program.

Schumer therefore implicitly admitted—as elsewhere—that the payments are not only illegal, but unconstitutional. Obamacare lacks an explicit appropriation for the cost-sharing reduction payments. That’s the reason Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the Obama administration’s actions in making said payments unconstitutional last year. (The ruling is currently stayed pending appeals.)

As one summary of the case noted, Train v. City of New York established the principle that “the President cannot frustrate the will of Congress by killing a program through impoundment.” Yet Schumer, in asking the Trump administration to continue making payments to a program that Congress never funded in the first place, wants the executive unilaterally—and unconstitutionally—to frustrate the expressed will of the legislative branch, thereby diminishing Schumer’s own authority as a lawmaker.

It’s highly likely Schumer, a lawyer who spent several years serving on both the House and Senate judiciary committees, knows full well the nature of unconstitutional actions, begun by the last administration, that he wants the current one to continue. But if he wants to have any credibility on the rule of law—whether criticizing the Trump administration’s other “abuses,” or standing up for the independence of the Russia investigation—he would be wise to 1) admit that the Obama administration violated the Constitution in making the payments to begin with and 2) hold the last administration just as accountable as he wants to hold the current president.

Trump: Upholding the Constitution Is a Choice

Conversely, the president seems to delight in dangling in front of Democrats the prospect of cancelling the CSR payments, as he did most recently on Twitter Saturday, one day after the Senate failed to approve a “skinny” health-care repeal.

But for the president, as for Schumer, the question of the cost-sharing reduction payments should come down to a binary choice: Does a lawful appropriation for CSRs exist, or not? If a lawful appropriation exists, then the president must make the payments, consistent with Train v. City of New York outlined above. If a lawful appropriation does not exist, then the president must not make the payments, consistent with both Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution—“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law”—his duty to “take Care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and his oath of office.

This conservative believes President Trump should have cancelled the CSR payments within days of taking office, not because it would have been popular—it likely would not have been—but because the rule of law demands it. Likewise, President Trump should have long since undone billions of dollars in reinsurance payments to insurers that the Government Accountability Office found illegal, and cancelled the “grandmothered” plans President Obama allowed some individuals to keep in 2014—violating his constitutional duty to “take Care that the laws be fully executed” in the process.

Making a clean break with the numerous legal and constitutional violations the Obama administration perpetrated to keep Obamacare afloat early in his administration would have demonstrated President Trump’s desire to escape the executive unilateralism of his predecessor.

Government of Laws, Or of Men?

In drafting the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, John Adams famously spoke of creating a government of laws, not of men. Yet both participants in the CSR drama this weekend seem insistent on creating an arbitrary government based on whim. In Schumer’s case, that whim stems from placing Obamacare on a higher pedestal than the Constitution, while the president’s whims seem most directed towards achieving a legislative victory on health care, no matter its form.

That Barack Obama, a constitutional law professor, bequeathed such legal gamesmanship and a culture of inherently arbitrary actions to both parties stands as one element of his legacy. As the debate this weekend demonstrated, that legacy has affected—and infected—our constitutional discourse, and not for the better.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Chuck Schumer Admits Obama Administration Violated the Constitution

Last week, one of Washington’s leading Democrats made what should be considered a stunning admission, yet few in the media bothered to notice, or care. In response to comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) about a potential bailout of Obamacare insurers, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said: “Democrats are eager to work with Republicans to stabilize the markets and improve [Obamacare]. At the top of the list should be ensuring cost-sharing payments are permanent, which will protect health care for millions.”

Schumer’s statement contradicts the Obama administration, which argued in federal court that the cost-sharing reductions are already permanent. It’s also an implicit admission that the Obama administration violated both the U.S. Constitution and federal criminal statutes by spending funds without an appropriation.

Some background on the matter at issue: Section 1302 of Obamacare requires health insurers to reduce cost-sharing (i.e., deductibles, co-payments, etc.) for certain low-income enrollees who buy silver plans on health insurance exchanges. The law directs the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create a program to reimburse insurers for the cost of providing those cost-sharing discounts. But the text of the law does not actually disburse funds to HHS—or any other cabinet department—to make the reimbursement payments to insurers.

Not wanting to be bound by such niceties as the rule of law, the Obama administration started making the payments to insurers anyway, claiming the “text and structure” of Obamacare allowed them to do so. The House of Representatives sued, claiming a violation of its constitutional “power of the purse,” and last May, Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed, ruling that the administration violated the Constitution.

Schumer Admits Constitutional Violation

Schumer’s statement last Thursday stands out because the Obama administration and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have claimed, both in court and elsewhere, that Obamacare made a permanent appropriation for the cost-sharing payments. The law did no such thing, and a federal district court judge so ruled, but they attempted to argue that it did.

By conceding that Obamacare lacks a permanent appropriation for cost-sharing reductions, Schumer’s admission raises some interesting questions. The Obama administration requested an explicit appropriation for the cost-sharing reduction payments, a request Congress promptly denied. If there isn’t a permanent appropriation for cost-sharing payments in Obamacare—as Schumer admitted—then the Obama administration spent money without an appropriation.

The executive spending money without an appropriation not only violates Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution—“No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law”—but also the federal Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits federal employees from authorizing expenses in excess of available appropriations—which, according to Schumer’s logic, do not exist for the Obamacare cost-sharing reductions.

The Anti-Deficiency Act includes not just civil, but criminal, penalties: “An officer or employee of the United States Government or of the District of Columbia government knowingly and willfully violating [the Act] shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned for not more than 2 years, or both.”

By calling on Congress to “ensure” permanent cost-sharing reductions, Schumer has essentially admitted that President Obama violated the Constitution, and members of his administration may have violated federal criminal statutes by spending money without an appropriation. This prompts one other obvious question: When will Schumer endorse a special counsel to investigate these matters?

Don’t Endorse Law-Breaking

In deciding to pay the cost-sharing subsidies without an appropriation, the Obama administration and its allies have endorsed a strategy of ends justifying means: They wanted to provide health insurance to more Americans, therefore it was acceptable to violate the Constitution. And if the administration violated the Constitution long enough, and on a big enough scale, they could change the law to meet their will. Now that a federal court has ruled that President Obama did in fact violate the Constitution, that’s exactly what Pelosi and Schumer want to do: Change the law to accommodate the Obama administration’s law-breaking.

Conservatives shouldn’t buy it for a second. While liberals want the entire dispute to focus around ends—“Insurers must receive these payments, or millions of Americans will suffer!”—conservatives interested in the rule of law should focus on means: Did the administration violate the Constitution and federal criminal statutes, and who should be held responsible, and how?

Only after those weighty issues have been examined and adjudicated fully should Congress debate whether to appropriate funds for the cost-sharing reductions. To do otherwise would undermine the Constitution that members of Congress vowed to uphold, and further encourage the kind of flagrant law-breaking seen in the Obama administration.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Constitution Takes Precedence over Obamacare

The April 17 editorial “The reckless threat against the ACA,” which accused President Trump of wanting to break health care, omitted two key words: the Constitution. As in: U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled last May that the Obama administration violated the Constitution by spending money on Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions without a valid congressional appropriation.

The lawsuit brought by the House — a lawsuit the editorial board said Mr. Trump “should continue fighting” — would provide an important constitutional check on executive authority by prohibiting a president from spending money absent explicit congressional approval.

The editorial said Mr. Trump “should be working to preserve the Affordable Care Act.” But Mr. Trump did not take an oath to preserve, protect and defend Obamacare. He took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. And preserving the precedent set by Ms. Collyer’s ruling, and protecting Congress’s foremost power — the power of the purse — would do much to restore an important constitutional check and balance.

The editorial board’s blind defense of Obamacare without even acknowledging the important constitutional concerns surrounding the cost-sharing lawsuit did a disservice to the rule of law. Sacrificing legal principles to policy outcomes — Obamacare must be preserved, whether constitutional or not — is how democracy dies in darkness.

This post was originally published by The Washington Post.

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.