Tag Archives: benefit mandates

Lessons of the AHCA Collapse

Like the British evacuation of Dunkirk more than seven decades ago, Friday’s abrupt decision to halt proceedings on the American Health Care Act (AHCA) prior to a House vote represented victory only in that it averted an even costlier defeat—an embarrassing floor vote seemingly destined to fail, or passage of a bill unloved by wide swathes of the public and lawmakers alike.

Whether that decision is ultimately viewed as a “deliverance”—as Winston Churchill dubbed the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation—will depend in no small part on whether lawmakers can, both individually and collectively, learn the right lessons from an entirely predictable defeat.

“What went wrong?” poses an erroneous query about this bill. The question is not why it failed, but why anyone thought it might succeed. Virtually all of the premises upon which the legislation was based proved faulty, and were easily proven faulty prior to its introduction. There’s little need for Monday-morning quarterbacking if only one can see the flaws in one’s strategy on the Sunday morning prior to the game.

Republicans Need to Remember How to Govern

Leadership outlined its strategy—such as it was—in a February 27 Wall Street Journal article: “Republican leaders are betting that the only way for Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act is to set a bill in motion and gamble that fellow GOP lawmakers won’t dare to block it.”

Irrespective of what one thinks of the bill’s policy particulars—whether the bill represents a positive, coherent governing document and vision for the health care system—this thinking demonstrates that Republicans have to re-learn not just how to govern, but also how to legislate.

As a legislative strategy, the House’s gambit represented a puerile cross between the “chickie run” in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Hans Christen Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Daring lawmakers to challenge the process, and attempting to bully and browbeat them into submission—“testosterone can get you in trouble,” as Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) reportedly noted during one meeting—does not a durable process make. Unsurprisingly, that process broke down after a mere 18 days.

While many stories have focused on Speaker Paul Ryan, some minds might turn instead to one of his predecessors, and an axiom used by the longest-tenured House speaker, Sam Rayburn: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.” That the outcome seems predictable—indeed, was predicted by many in private conversations—makes it no less painful politically, or personally.

In circumstances such as these, there is a fine line between learning lessons and pointing fingers. Focusing on the personalities behind the legislative failure would only further enflame tensions, while serving little productive purpose. On the other hand, understanding the reasons the legislation was in many ways doomed from the start can help prevent future calamities. Of the flawed premises that lay behind the legislative strategy, three seem particularly problematic.

1. Starting with the House

The House’s decision to consider the legislation first seemed ill-considered at the time, given the difficulties the chamber encountered the last time it moved first on repealing Obamacare. In the fall 2015, Congress considered and passed, but President Obama vetoed, repeal legislation under special budget reconciliation procedures. Passing the bill represented a “dry run” testing what a Republican Congress could do to dismantle Obamacare, but for the Democratic president who remained in the White House.

But as I noted the week after last November’s election, the House’s 2015 repeal reconciliation bill suffered from numerous procedural flaws. That legislation originally repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), even though such Senate procedures meant that this provision, with an incidental fiscal impact, could not remain on a budget reconciliation bill. The House-reported legislation also increased the deficit in the years beyond the 10-year budget window, subjecting it to a potentially fatal point-of-order in the Senate.

The House’s 2015 reconciliation bill contained so many procedural flaws that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce an entirely new substitute version of the legislation. Had he not, the Senate parliamentarian would have advised the Senate to strip the bill of its procedural protection as a reconciliation matter, forcing the House to start its process all over again.

Given that near-death experience fewer than 18 months ago, it made much more sense for the Senate to take the lead in crafting a reconciliation measure. At minimum, House staff needed to solicit greater feedback from the Senate regarding that chamber’s procedures during the drafting process, to ensure they wrote the bill consistent with the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules. Neither happened.

House leadership claimed they wrote their bill to comply with the Senate’s reconciliation rules. But experts in Senate procedure could readily see that AHCA as released suffered from multiple procedural flaws, several potentially fatal to the entire bill. Last week, days before its scheduled floor consideration, the relevant House committees released a managers amendment re-drafting the measure’s tax credit, precisely because of the procedural flaws in the initial version.

All of which makes one wonder why the House insisted on initiating action. The Senate not only has more detailed and arcane procedures to follow than the House, Republicans also hold a narrower majority in the upper chamber. While no more than 21 of 237  House Republicans (8.9 percent) can defect on a bill passing solely with Republican votes, no more than two of 52 Senate Republicans can defect in the upper chamber, a much narrower (3.9 percent) margin.

Due to both its procedural quirks and tighter vote margins, it made far more sense for the Senate to initiate legislative action. Yet this year, as in 2015, the House took the lead—and ran into the same procedural problems.

2. The Unrealistic Timetable

The day before House leadership released a document outlining their vision for what became AHCA, I published a lengthy analysis of the legislative environment. I concluded that any legislation featuring either comprehensive changes to Medicaid or a refundable tax credit—the former I generally favored, the latter I did not—just could not pass in the timetable allotted for it:

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

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

Nothing in the above passage proved inaccurate. House leadership even skipped steps in the process I outlined—going forward with markups without a CBO score, and not writing the bill to comply with Senate procedure until just before a scheduled House vote—yet still couldn’t meet their targets. This would lead most people to believe those targets were just too ambitious.

Two vignettes show the problems caused by the sheer haste of the process. First, the managers amendments released last Monday night had to be re-written on Tuesday night. In both cases, the House committees had to submit second-degree amendments “to address drafting issues,” because the original managers amendments had no fewer than ten separate drafting errors among them.

Second, the managers amendment included an extra pot of funds to increase the refundable tax credits given to those near retirement age. However, the legislation created that pot of money not by increasing the refundable credits, but by lowering thresholds for a deduction available to those who itemize medical expenses on their tax returns.

The decision to provide the additional funds through a deduction, rather than by adjusting the credits themselves, was almost certainly driven by the mechanics of budgetary scoring, and ultimately the bill’s timetable. While the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) could estimate the relatively straightforward financial effects of a deduction quickly, altering the tax credit levels for individuals aged 50-64 would create knock-on effects—would more individuals take the credit, would more individuals retire early and drop employer-sponsored coverage, etc.—taking CBO staff a week or more to model.

So, rather than “wasting” time coming up with a policy and finding out the effects of said policy, prior to House passage, congressional staff instead created a $90 billion “slush fund” and pledged to sort the details out later.

Just before Obamacare’s passage in March 2010, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously said “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” House Republicans took her multiple steps further: By including a “slush fund” designed to change later in the process, and proceeding to both committee markups and a vote on House passage without a final CBO score, congressional leadership guaranteed that anyone who voted for AHCA would not by definition have known what was intended to be in the bill, let alone the fiscal effects of such policies.

The end result was a group of members in vulnerable districts who voted for the bill in committee without a CBO score—and could suffer serious, if not fatal, political consequences for having done so. Some of these moderates hold substantial disagreements with conservatives on how to structure an Obamacare repeal. But it was not conservatives that compelled the moderates to cast a tough vote for the legislation in committee without a CBO score analyzing the bill’s fiscal and coverage impacts—it was the hyper-aggressive timetable.

3. Unproductive White House Coordination

While publicly President Trump and others made statements insisting that his administration was “100 percent behind” the House Republican plan, the divisions within the administration were an open secret on Capitol Hill. From staff to officials, many had misgivings about the policy behind the bill, the legislative tactics and strategy, or both.

Those differences helped affect the ultimate outcome. Ryan attempted to turn his legislation into a “binary choice”—either support this bill, or support Obamacare—granting conservatives some concessions during the drafting process, but few thereafter. By contrast, factions within the administration attempted to woo conservatives and fought House leadership, which resisted making changes.

Ironically, had the administration halted negotiations sooner, and demanded an immediate vote earlier last week, they might have had a better chance of winning that tally. (Whether that victory would have ultimately proved Pyrrhic is another story, but they might have eked out a victory nonetheless.) But because the White House and congressional leadership weren’t on the same page, the former’s negotiations with conservatives left moderates to slowly trickle away from the bill, such that by Friday, it was virtually impossible to find a coalition to reach 216 votes whichever way leadership turned.

Even as the momentum slowly sapped from the bill, the administration and Capitol Hill leaders remained at odds on tactics. The New York Times reported on Saturday that some in the administration wanted to hold a House vote, even an unsuccessful one, to find out who opposed President Trump. But making such a demand misunderstands the dynamic nature of votes in the House of Representatives.

While AHCA might have passed narrowly, it would not have failed narrowly. Once a critical mass of 30 or so Republican “noes” signaled the bill’s clear failure, members would have abandoned the politically unpopular legislation en masse—likely with the implicit or explicit support of House leadership. Having witnessed these “jailbreak” votes in the House, it’s possible that, had the White House forced the issue, the bottom could have fallen out on support for the bill. As a tactic to snuff out disloyal behavior, calling a vote on a doomed bill would have yielded little in the way of political intelligence—only more political damage.

Underneath Tactical Errors Is Philosophical Disagreement

Beneath the obvious tactical errors lie some fundamental disagreements within the Republican party and the conservative movement about Obamacare, the future of our health-care system, and even the role of government. As I have written elsewhere, those differences do not represent mere window-dressing. They are as sizable as they are substantive.

On the one hand, the conservative wing of the party has focused on repealing Obamacare, and lowering health costs—namely, the premiums that have risen substantially under the law. By contrast, moderates and centrists remain focused on its replacement, and ensuring that those who benefited from the law continue to have coverage under the new regime.

That divide between “repealers” and “replacers” represents a proxy for the debate between reducing costs and maximizing coverage, a debate that precedes Obamacare by several decades, if not several generations. Some have argued that facts on the ground—the individuals gaining coverage as a result of Obamacare—necessitate an approach focused on maintaining coverage numbers.

Others believe that “repeal means repeal,” that Republicans ran, and won, elections on repealing the law—including as recently as five months ago—and that breaking such a deeply ingrained pledge to voters would represent political malpractice of the highest order.

The drafters of the House bill attempted to split the ideological divide, in part by retaining the popular parts of Obamacare while minimizing the law’s drawbacks. Both the House bill and the Better Way plan that preceded it maintained Obamacare’s restrictions on pre-existing conditions, its requirement that insurers cover dependents under age 26, and its prohibition on annual and lifetime limits for health insurance.

But policy decisions come with trade-offs, and in health care in particular those trade-offs can prove troublesome. Barack Obama did not wish to impose a mandate to purchase health insurance, having fought against one during his 2008 primary campaign; but CBO scoring considerations forced him to endorse one in the bill that became Obamacare. Similarly, the “popular” insurance regulations that Republican leadership maintained in its bill were the same ones that raised premiums so appreciably when Obamacare went into effect.

The AHCA approach of repealing Obamacare’s mandates and subsidies while retaining most of its insurance regulations created what Yuval Levin, a policy wonk close to Ryan, called a “twisted, fun-house mirror approach” to prior conservative health policy that yielded “substantive incoherence.” Dropping the individual mandate while retaining most of the insurance regulations created a CBO score that showed substantial coverage losses while failing to lower premiums appreciably—the worst of all possible policy outcomes.

The ideological divisions within the Republican Party, and the incoherent muddle of legislation that attempted to bridge the two, may have been overcome had the House released its bill the morning after the election, on November 9. But it did not release the bill on November 9, or on December 9, or on January 9, or even on February 9. The House introduced its bill on March 6, with the goal of passing legislation through both chambers by April 6. That timetable didn’t envision reconciling ideological differences so much as it hoped to steamroll them. It was all-but-guaranteed not to end well.

Lessons For the Future

What then of the future? One can only but hope that Republicans follow the example of Kipling’s poem “The Lesson,” written during the Boer War: “Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should; We have had no end of a lesson: It will do us no end of good.”

But what are those lessons, and what good might result from heeding them? While the policy differences within factions of the Republican Party are sizable, the only way to bridge them lies through an open, transparent, and deliberative process—negotiating outcomes among all sides from the start, rather than imposing them from on high through fiat.

If, as President Reagan famously noted, “personnel is policy,” so too then process provides a key to optimal policy making. A good process by itself cannot create good policy, but bad process will almost assuredly result in bad policy outcomes. In the short- and long-term, five principles can provide the initial glimmer of a path forward from last Friday’s dark outcome.

1. Let the Senate Lead

The procedural details surrounding budget reconciliation, and the narrower margins in the upper chamber, both augur toward the Senate re-starting any action on health care. As a practical matter, tensions remain far too high—with tempers short, friendships among members and staff frayed, and patience thin—for the House to initiate any legislative action for at least the next few weeks.

On upcoming legislation ranging from appropriations to tax reform to additional action regarding Obamacare, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” will have to exercise its deliberative powers. The ideological gaps are no less narrow in the House than in the Senate—can Mike Lee and Susan Collins reach consensus on a path forward regarding Obamacare?—but the recriminations and scars of the past month smaller.

If the Senate, with its smaller margins and arcane procedures, can deliver a quality policy product, the House, having seen its legislation sink in mere weeks, might be much more inclined to adopt it as its own.

2. Listen

House leadership rightfully notes AHCA had its origins in the Better Way policy white paper released last June. Prior to that document’s release, leadership staff spent significant time and effort reaching out to members, interest groups, the think-tank community, and others to gain thoughts and feedback on their proposals.

But actual legislation is orders of magnitude more complex than a white paper. Moreover, Better Way and AHCA deviate from each other in multiple important respects. The Better Way proposal includes numerous provisions—incentives for wellness, conscience protections for health care professionals, and proposals to repeal sections of Obamacare regarding Medicare, and Medicare Advantage—never included in AHCA, or mentioned in any great detail as part of the House’s “three-phase” approach.

Meanwhile, AHCA doubles the funding for grants to states when compared to the Better Way proposal, and uses significantly different parameters for the state grants than the 2009 House Republican alternative to Obamacare referenced in the Better Way document.

It’s possible to speculate on why House leadership made all these changes, but leadership itself made very little attempt to communicate exactly why they made them, or even that they were making them at all. Saying that Better Way led to AHCA is like saying the Model T led to the DeLorean. The former are both health-care proposals just as the latter are both cars, but each differ in significant ways.

The process that led from Better Way to AHCA was almost as significant as the process that led from the Model T to the DeLorean, but was opaque to all but a few closely held staff. Even lawmakers who understood and supported every single element of the Better Way plan could rightfully feel whipsawed when presented with AHCA, told it was a “binary choice,” and they had to publicly support it within a few weeks of its introduction, or otherwise they would be voting to keep Obamacare in place and undermine a new president.

When the Republican Study Committee unveiled its health-care legislation in 2013, its public release culminated a months-long process of consultation and scrutiny of the legislative text itself. RSC staff reached out to dozens of policy experts (myself included), and spent hours going through the bill line-by-line to make sure the legislation would accomplish its intended goals, while keeping unintended consequences to a minimum.

AHCA would have benefited immensely from this type of under-the-radar analysis, rather than subjecting legislation not yet ready for prime time to the intense scrutiny that came with a white-hot political debate and a hyper-accelerated timeline.

3. Trust Experts

A note at the bottom of page 25 of a leaked draft of AHCA provides an important hint toward a larger issue. The bracketed note, in a passage regarding per capita cap reforms to Medicaid, calls for staff to “review with CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] any conforming amendments required.”

Congressional staff I spoke with over the past few weeks questioned whether anyone within the relevant agencies had in fact reviewed the legislation, to provide the technical expertise necessary to ensure that AHCA could be implemented as written, and would actually result in a workable health-care system.

At the time the legislative process began, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had relatively few political appointees—no more than a few dozen out of about 150 total spots filled, and a CMS administrator not confirmed until the week prior to the scheduled House vote. The combination of a stretched staff and mistrust between political and career appointees within the agencies could well have limited the exchange of critically important details regarding how to draft, and implement, the legislation.

In addition to working with career personnel at the agencies, congressional staff should also utilize the institutional knowledge of their predecessors. While working for the House Republican Conference in 2009, I made it a point to start the Obamacare debate by finding out what I didn’t know, reaching out to those who had gone through the “Hillarycare” debate 15 years prior. My idea came from an unlikely source—former senator Tom Daschle, who in his 2008 book “Critical” described how lawmakers went through a “Health Care University” of policy seminars in 1993. In trying to replicate those seminars for both members and staff, I hoped we could obtain some of the collective wisdom of the past that I knew I lacked.

As I had previously noted in November, most of the senior Republican health-care staff working on Capitol Hill during the Obamacare debate in 2009-10 have moved on to other posts. But they, and others like them, are not far removed from the process. Based on my experience, most would gladly offer technical guidance and expertise; in many cases, even the lobbyists would do so with “client hats” removed, in the hopes of arriving at the best possible product.

But reaching out in such a manner requires a deliberative and inclusive process; games of legislative hide-and-seek and talk of “binary choices” preclude the received wisdom of all but the select few participating in the policy-making.

4. Be Honest

The House Ways and Means Committee’s section-by-section summary of AHCA illustrates the dilemma lawmakers faced. Page three of the document, discussing verification of eligibility for the new tax credit, states that “the Secretary of the Treasury is empowered to create a system—building upon already developed systems—to deliver the credit.”

There’s just one minor detail missing: The “already developed systems” for verifying eligibility Ways and Means referenced are Obamacare eligibility systems. This goes a long way toward explaining the omission: If the House is using an Obamacare eligibility system to deliver a refundable tax credit (also included in Obamacare), how much of the law is it really repealing?

Capitol Hill leadership could never reconcile the inherent contradictions in their product. On MSNBC, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) called AHCA “the best opportunity to deliver on our promise to repeal the awful law of Obamacare”—eliding the fact that the bill explicitly retains and utilizes portions of that “awful law.” When pressed, leadership staff relied upon absurd, legalistically parsed statements, afraid to admit that the bill retained portions of Obamacare’s infrastructure.

These Clintonian definitions—“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘repeal’ is”—do nothing but build mistrust among members and staff alike. At least some in the policy community felt that House leaders were relying upon Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s parliamentarian, as a de facto human shield—claiming the House couldn’t repeal portions of Obamacare under budget reconciliation, when in fact leadership wouldn’t, for policy or political reasons.

The fact that House leaders claimed their bill comported with reconciliation requirements, yet had to re-write major portions of AHCA at the last minute because it did not, gives added credence to this theory.

Whenever “repeal-and-replace” legislation comes back before Congress, the leaders and committees preparing the legislation should include a list of all the major provisions of Obamacare not repealed by the measure, along with clear reasons why. Even if some members want a more robust repeal than that offered, transparency would at least prevent the corrosive mistrust—“You’re not being up-front about this, so what other things are you hiding?”—that comes from an opaque process.

5. Be Humble

More than perhaps any bill in recent memory, AHCA represented a feat of legislative hubris. As a policy matter, Obamacare imposed a more sweeping scope on the nation’s health-care system. But the tactics used to “sell” AHCA—“We’re doing this now, and in this way. Get on board, or get out of the way”—were far more brutal, and resulted in a brutal outcome, an outcome easily predicted, but the one its authors did not intend.

There is a different approach, one I’ve seen on display. Some job interviews are thoroughly unremarkable, but two during my tenure on Capitol Hill stand out—the chief of staff who described himself as a “servant leader,” one who ensures all the members of the team have the tools they need to succeed; and the legislative director who told me, “We want to make sure you have a voice.” Of course I took both jobs, and felt myself privileged to work in such inclusive and empowering environments.

In some ways, the process that led to AHCA represents the antithesis of servant leadership, with members being given a virtual ultimatum to support legislation many neither liked nor understood. But in its purest form, public service should be just that—service—to one’s constituents, and, in the case of elected congressional leaders, to the members who chose them.

A more humble, inclusive, open, and transparent process will not guarantee success. The policy differences among the disparate Republican factions are real, and may not ultimately be bridgeable. But an opaque, authoritarian, and rushed process will almost certainly guarantee failure, as it did in the case of AHCA.

Listening Is Crucial

Ultimately, the failure to legislate on AHCA lay in a failure to listen to the policy concerns of Members, and to the warning signs present from the start. One can only hope that Republicans learn from this proverbial mule-kick, and start listening to each other more carefully and more closely. That process can yield the wisdom and judgment that comes from understanding, which can only help to heal the many breaches within the party following the events of recent weeks.

On November 8, Republicans received an important gift from voters—the chance to serve the country. Recovering from last week’s setback will require leaders of a humbled party to recommit themselves to service, both to the American people and to each other, in service of a common good. The chance to serve the American people is solely within the public’s gift. That gift, if and when squandered, will likely not be renewed for a long time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Despite Trump Intervention, House GOP Still Not Repealing Obamacare

President Trump bragged that he won over many new converts to House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation following a Friday meeting with Members of Congress at the White House. After the meeting, House leaders scheduled a vote for later this week on the measure, and introduced provisions implementing the agreement in a managers amendment package late last night.

So what tweaks did Trump promise to Congress members on Friday—and will they improve or detract from the legislation itself?

What Changes Were Announced After The Meeting?

The agreement in principle with the House Members includes several components:

  1. Abortion restrictions for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs): RSC Chairman Mark Walker (R-NC) and other pro-life Members asked for further restrictions on abortion funding. As a result, the agreement eliminates language allowing unspent tax credit dollars to get transferred into Health Savings Accounts, for fear those taxpayer dollars moved into HSAs could be used to cover abortions. However, as I noted recently, many of the other restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion could well get stripped in the Senate, consistent with past precedent indicating that pro-life riders are incidental in their budgetary impact, and thus subject to the Senate’s “Byrd rule” preventing their inclusion on budget reconciliation.
  2. Prohibiting more states from expanding Medicaid: While this provision has been sold as ensuring no new states would expand Medicaid to able-bodied people, it does not do so—it only ensures that states that decide to expand after March 1 will receive the regular federal match levels for their able-bodied populations (i.e., not the 90-95 percent enhanced match). Neither the bill nor the managers package permanently ends the expansion to able-bodied adults—which the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill did—or ends the enhanced federal match for expansion states until January 2020, nearly three years from now.
  3. Medicaid work requirements: The agreement permits—but does not require—states to impose work requirements, a point of contention between some states and the Obama Administration. However, non-expansion states will have comparatively few beneficiaries on which to impose such requirements. Medicaid programs in non-expansion states consist largely of pregnant women, children, and elderly or disabled beneficiaries, very few of whom would qualify for the work requirements in the first place.

Medicaid: Block Grant vs. Per Capita Cap

The fourth component—allowing states to take their federal payments from a reformed Medicaid program as a block grant, instead of a per capita cap—warrants greater examination. In general, per capita caps have been viewed as a compromise between the current Medicaid program and a straight block grant fixed allotment. In the 1994-95 budget showdown with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton proposed per capita caps for Medicaid as an alternative to the Republican House’s block grant plan.

A block grant and a per capita cap differ primarily in how the two handle fluctuations in enrollment: the latter adjusts federal matching funds to reflect changes in enrollment, whereas the former does not. Supporters of per capita caps often cite economic recessions as the rationale for considering their approach superior to block grants. Medicaid’s counter-cyclical nature—more people enroll during economic downturns, after losing employer-sponsored coverage—coupled with states’ balanced budget requirements, means that during recessions, states often contend with a “double whammy” of rising Medicaid rolls and declining tax revenues. Medicaid per capita caps would mitigate the effects of the first variable, giving states more latitude during tough economic times.

On the other hand, per capita caps give states a greater incentive to enroll more beneficiaries—and a greater disincentive to scrutinize potentially fraudulent applicants—because every new enrollee means greater revenue for the state (albeit capped per beneficiary).  Most notably, the per capita caps in the House bill grow at a faster rate than the block grant proposal in the managers package—per capita caps would grow at medical inflation, whereas block grants would grow with general inflation.

In general, while conservatives would support block grants to reduce the federal Medicaid commitment and encourage state economies, it remains unlikely that many states would embrace them—because it is not in their fiscal self-interest to do so,because it is not in their fiscal self-interest to do so, particularly given the disparity in the inflation measures in the House language. If true, this language may end up meaning very little.

Will This Be A Good Deal For Americans?

If Medicaid reforms comprised the entirety of the bill, they would likely be worth supporting, despite the complexities associated with the debate between expansion and non-expansion states. The move to per capita caps represents significant entitlement reform, and is consistent with the principles of federalism.

As a repeal bill, however, the measure as currently constituted falls short. The agreement on Friday made zero progress on repealing any other insurance benefit mandates in Obamacare—the primary drivers of higher premiums under the law. That’s one reason why CBO believes premiums will actually rise by 15-20 percent over the next two years. House leadership claims that the mandates must remain in place due to the procedural strictures of budget reconciliation in the Senate. But the inconsistencies in their bill—which repeals one of the mandates, modifies others, and leaves most others fully intact—contradict that rhetoric.

Moreover, by modifying rather than repealing some of the Obamacare mandates, the bill preserves the Washington-centered regulatory structure created by the law, undermining federalism and Tenth Amendment principles.

AHCA Leaves Much To Be Desired

From a fiscal standpoint generally, the bill also leaves much to be desired. It creates at least one new entitlement: refundable tax credits to purchase health insurance. It may create a second new entitlement, this one for insurance companies in the form of a “Patient and State Stability Fund,” totaling $100 billion over 10 years, which insurers will no doubt attempt to renew in a decade’s time. (The bill also does not repeal Obamacare’s risk corridor and reinsurance bailout provisions, allowing them to continue to disburse billions of dollars in claims owed to insurers.)

While CBO claimed the bill would reduce the deficit by $337 billion, the managers amendment goes to great lengths to spend all of that supposed savings—accelerating the repeal of Obamacare’s tax increases, and increasing the inflation measure for some of the per capita caps.

Moreover, it remains unclear whether the “transition” from Obamacare to the new tax credit regime will take place in January 2020 as scheduled. The CBO tables analyzing the bill’s fiscal impact clearly delineated how most of the measure’s spending reductions will hit in fiscal years 2020 and 2021—right in the middle of the presidential election cycle.

AHCA Doesn’t Fully ‘Repeal And Replace’

If President Trump or Republicans in Congress flinch on letting the transition take place as scheduled, the bill’s supposed deficit savings will disappear rapidly. Instead, conservatives could be left with “Obamacare Max”—the House bill actually expands and extends Obamacare insurance subsidies for 2018 and 2019—in perpetuity.

The bill’s lack of full repeal, the premium increases scheduled to take effect over the next two years, and the spending “cliff” hitting in 2020 leave the bill with little natural political constituency to support it. The way in which the bill falls short of repeal—by keeping Medicaid expansion, keeping Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and creating a new entitlement—makes it difficult to support from a policy perspective as well. Friday’s meeting may have brought new concessions at the margins, but it did not alter the bill’s fundamental structure, leaving it short of the repeal conservatives had been promised—and voted for mere months ago.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Top Ten Conservative Concerns with the American Health Care Act

1.     Doesn’t Improve Care.  Obamacare expanded the federal bureaucracy at the expense of quality care. Tax dollars were taken from providers and used to pay administrators, consultants, lobbyists, insurers, and regulators. The House bill does nothing to change that dynamic.

2.     Raises Insurance Premiums.  The Congressional Budget Office believes that the bill will raise insurance premiums by 15-20 percent on average in the next two years, with even higher spikes in some areas. Americans care most about lowering health costs and making coverage affordable—yet the bill falls short on that count, retaining all but one of Obamacare’s costly mandated benefits and insurance regulations.

3.     Doesn’t Repeal Obamacare.  Lost in the question of whether or not the bill’s replacement provisions represent “Obamacare Lite” is the fact that the bill as currently drafted represents “Repeal Lite”—when compared not only to full repeal, but even to the 2015 reconciliation bill that passed both houses of Congress. The bill retains all but one of Obamacare’s benefit mandates, some of its taxes, and keeps Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied in perpetuity.

4.     Expands Obamacare.     Rather than repealing all of the law, the House Republican bill instead expands Obamacare’s subsidy regime—extending it to millions of individuals off of insurance Exchanges for 2018 and 2019—and revises the subsidy regime for 2019. Some conservatives may question the need to “fix” Obamacare, when House Republicans’ legislation should revolve around repealing Obamacare.

5.     Creates New Entitlement.  Beginning in 2020, the bill creates an entirely new entitlement—advanceable, refundable tax credits—replacing Obamacare’s form of subsidized health insurance with another.

6.     Fiscal Gimmicks?  Under the bill, the transition from the Obamacare subsidy regime to the new system of tax credits, and a reformed Medicaid program, will take place beginning in January 2020—a presidential election year. If Congress or the Administration delay or abandon the transition due to political blowback, the cost of the House bill will soar.

7.     Permanent Bailout Fund for Insurers?    While failing to repeal Obamacare’s risk corridors and reinsurance bailouts, the bill also creates a new “Patient and State Stability Fund,” designed to provide most of its $100 billion in grants to subsidize health insurers. Some conservatives may question whether this grant program will end in 2026 as scheduled under the bill, or whether health insurers instead will make claims on Washington for federal bailouts to the tune of billions of dollars annually.

8.     Federally Controlled, Not Patient-Centered.    Notwithstanding some important structural changes to Medicaid that respect states, the House bill claims to be patient-centered but still denies a 60-year-old the ability to opt out of paying for maternity benefits. Supporters of the House bill talk about giving more flexibility to states, but leave all but one of the federal insurance mandates in place.

9.     Perpetuates Medicaid Expansion.    The House Republican bill allows states to keep their Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied in perpetuity—a major change compared to the 2015 repeal bill. CBO concluded that many states will in fact keep their expansions, diverting funds from covering the most vulnerable to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults. Moreover, the House bill maintains Obamacare’s enhanced Medicaid match for nearly three years, encouraging expansion states to sign up more able-bodied adults between now and January 2020 to receive additional federal funding.

10.  Inadequate Verification.  By relying on Obamacare’s system of verifying eligibility for the new tax credit entitlement, the bill requires verification of citizenship but not identity—continuing Obamacare’s problems of fraudulent applicants obtaining subsidies. In addition, some conservatives may be concerned that even these inadequate verification provisions could be stripped due to procedural concerns in the Senate.

A PDF version of this document is available on the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

House Republicans’ Health Care Bill By the Numbers

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has compiled a list of important numbers relevant to House Republicans’ Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation:

27-30 Percent—Extent to which Obamacare’s insurance mandates would raise premiums, according to a 2009 Congressional Budget Office estimate

50 Percent—Actual increase in average premiums in 2014 when Obamacare was implemented, with another 25% increase expected in 2017

15-20 Percent—Estimated increase in individual market premiums in 2018 and 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office under GOP plan

1—Number of Obamacare insurance mandates actually repealed in the Obamacare “repeal” bill; the actuarial value mandate would end, beginning in January 2020

1,031—Number of days between the bill’s introduction (March 6, 2017) and the date on which the enhanced federal match for states that expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults would finally end

Never—Date when the Medicaid expansion ends; Section 112(a) of the bill explicitly allows states to keep their expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults—a change from the 2015 reconciliation bill, which repealed expansion outright

1,762—Approximate number of days until the bill may begin to reduce the deficit; the bill actually increases the deficit in its first five years, relying on budgetary savings in the “out years” that may or may not ever materialize

7,000,000—Estimated loss in employer-sponsored health coverage by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in part because “fewer employers would offer health insurance to their workers”

$100,000,000,000—Spending on the Patient and State Stability Fund, a new program that some may believe could turn into a permanent bailout fund/entitlement for insurers

$361,000,000,000—Spending on the new tax credit entitlement in the Obamacare “repeal” bill

$20,000,000,000,000—Approximate level of total federal debt, which may lead some to question the wisdom of the spending on the two new programs outlined above

1411—Section of Obamacare regarding eligibility determinations; the House Republican bill would replicate that program to test eligibility for its own new insurance subsidies, even though Republicans have previously criticized Obamacare for enabling fraud and giving taxpayer subsidies to undocumented immigrants

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

Obamacare versus the American Health Care Act

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

Obamacare

House GOP Proposal

Refundable tax credit entitlement

Check

Section 1401, Page 129

Check

Page 23 of Ways and Means bill

Raid Medicare to pay for new entitlement

Check

“President [Obama] took $716 billion from the Medicare program—he raided it—to pay for Obamacare” (Rep. Paul Ryan)

Check

Medicare savings RETAINED to pay for Ryancare entitlement spending

Allow illegal aliens to receive new entitlement

Check

“Insufficient and ineffective verification methods…allow for illegal immigrants to access the Exchange and subsidies” (Rep. Tom Price)

Check

Retains same verification system—Page 41 of Ways and Means bill

Federal bailouts for health insurers

Check

Sections 1341-42, Page 124

Check

Page 45 of Energy and Commerce bill

Medicaid expansion to able-bodied adults

Check

Section 2001, Page 198

Check

Page 5 of Energy and Commerce bill

Federal control of insurance markets
  • Pre-existing conditions

Check

Section 1201(1), Page 64

Check

Page 61 of Energy and Commerce bill

  • Insurance Exchanges

Check

Section 1311, Page 88

Check

RETAINED

  • 26-year-old mandate

Check

Section 1001(1), Page 34

Check

RETAINED

  • Essential health benefits

Check

Section 1302(b), Page 78

Check

RETAINED

  • Medical loss ratios

Check

Section 1001(1), Page 40

Check

RETAINED

  • Annual/lifetime limits

Check

Section 1001(1), Page 33

Check

RETAINED

  • Prevention and contraception mandate

Check

Section 1001(1), Page 33

Check

RETAINED

  • Actuarial value

Check

Section 1302(d), Page 82

X

Repealed in 2020—Page 65 of Energy and Commerce bill

 

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.

Four Senate Republicans Propose Taxpayer Funding of Abortion

In the same week as the March for Life and the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, congressional Republicans are presenting strikingly different messages on the issue. While the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved legislation (H.R. 7) that would prohibit federal funding of abortions, with all House Republicans present voting for the bill, on Monday four Republican senators introduced a bill that would allow direct taxpayer funding of abortions.

That legislation, the Patient Freedom Act (the PFA, S. 191), introduced by senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), with Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) as original co-sponsors, would go further than Obamacare in funding abortion coverage. Whereas Obamacare provides federal funding for insurance plans that cover abortion, the Patient Freedom Act would allow for direct federal funding of abortion procedures themselves.

The PFA (text here, and a summary here) gives states a choice of three options regarding the health care system within their borders. They can:

  • Keep the regime created by Obamacare in place (i.e., the individual and employer mandates, subsidies, etc.), albeit funded at 95 percent of current levels;
  • Create a new insurance regime, funded by a rather complicated allotment formula—the allotment would equal 95 percent of the funding a state would have received under Obamacare, distributed directly to individuals through new Roth Health Savings Accounts (HSAs); or
  • Reject Obamacare entirely—and give up all federal funds associated with it.

The text of the legislation indicates a clear bias towards option two. If a state does not choose any of the three options, that state will automatically be placed in the second.

This Bill Would Repeal Abortion Restrictions

If a state chooses the second option, most of the provisions of Title I of Obamacare would not apply. That repeal would include the individual and employer mandates, and some (but not all) of the federal benefit mandates included in Obamacare.

Crucially, for states that select the second option (or the third, for that matter), the PFA would repeal Section 1303 of Obamacare, which imposes some restrictions on federal funding of abortion plans. Section 1303 permits states to prohibit abortion coverage on their insurance exchanges, and requires insurers to set up a segregation mechanism intended to keep federal insurance subsidies separate from funds that pay for abortion procedures.

Pro-life groups have attacked the Section 1303 “restrictions” as an accounting sham because money is fungible, and therefore the segregation scheme meaningless. Further, a September 2014 Government Accountability Office report noted that many insurers had not even followed the segregation regime.

However, Obamacare made an attempt, albeit a largely meaningless one, to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion. By contrast, the PFA makes no such attempt to do so.

Follow the Money

Because the PFA itself includes no restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion, it’s critical to examine the source of funding for the new state-based allotments. While the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funding of abortion, it does so only for appropriations provided through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ spending bill. Other agencies covered through other spending bills must explicitly prohibit funding of abortion coverage, otherwise federal funding of abortion would be permitted—and potentially required by courts as a necessary medical service.

The Patient Freedom Act includes only one new appropriation, for a population health initiative created by Section 103(c) of the bill. Therefore, the bill relies on Obamacare’s existing funding stream—the insurance subsidies provided in the form of refundable tax credits—to finance the allotments to individuals’ Roth HSAs. Because that funding stream goes through the Department of the Treasury via the Internal Revenue Code, the Hyde Amendment restrictions do not apply—meaning that federal funds can, and will, finance abortion coverage.

The legislation the House passed on Tuesday (H.R. 7) included an explicit ban on using Obamacare subsidies to fund abortion, or plans that cover abortion. (The ban is in Section 201(a) of the bill.) Because the Patient Freedom Act uses the exact same funding stream to finance its allotments, the sponsors needed to include an explicit ban on abortion funding in their legislation. They did not.

Direct Funding of Abortion Procedures

Not only would the Patient Freedom Act provide federal funds to insurance plans that cover abortion, it would allow individuals to fund their abortions directly with federal funds. The federal allotments would be directly provided (using a state-based formula developed by the Department of Health and Human Services) to eligible individuals using the new Roth Health Savings Account option. Recipients can use Roth HSA funds to fund health insurance premiums, provided those premiums are for plans that meet several federal mandates, or they can use their account to fund “qualified medical expenses.”

The definition of “qualified medical expenses”—available at Section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code here—includes no prohibition on abortion as a medical expense. Because the Internal Revenue Code is not subject to the Hyde Amendment, that law’s restrictions would not apply. Therefore, individuals could use federal dollars deposited into their Roth HSA to fund abortion procedures.

Current law does permit some tax breaks for abortion coverage. The tax code exempts employer-provided health insurance premiums from income and payroll taxes. Because some employer plans cover abortion, individuals receive a tax benefit for abortion coverage. Likewise, individuals can currently use their HSA funds to pay for abortions, given the definition of “qualified medical expenses.”

However, in both those cases, individuals and employers are using their own money to fund abortion procedures, and receiving a tax break from the federal government for doing so. By contrast, the Patient Freedom Act goes further, allowing the direct use of the federal government’s money to cover abortions, and plans that cover abortions.

That is a significant expansion of federal abortion funding that exceeds anything in Obamacare. And it’s a strikingly odd message for the senators to send on a week when many conservatives are focusing on protecting innocent life, not using taxpayer funds to destroy it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Fulfilling the Promise of Obamacare Repeal

Two months ago, the American people gave lawmakers a clear mandate: Save our nation’s health-care system from the harmful effects of Obamacare. They’re sick of exorbitant premium increases. They’re frustrated with insurer drop-outs and narrow provider networks that stifle access. They want change, and they want it now.

Congress’s votes last week on a budget were the first steps toward repeal. Last January, Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, a reconciliation bill that would eliminate more than $1 trillion in Obamacare tax increases and wind down spending on the law’s new entitlements by the time Congress can pass more sensible health-care reforms.

Now, with Republicans set to take control of the White House, that bill could be passed again and signed into law. Some have argued that doing so this year would disrupt the health-care industry, prompting insurers to exit more markets and leaving the American people in the lurch. But these critics should first acknowledge that Obamacare is leaving millions of Americans in the lurch right now. In one-third of counties, Americans have a “choice” of only one insurer on their Exchange.

That said, conservatives must proceed carefully when unraveling the government mandates crippling our health-care system. Thankfully, as I outline in a report released today, Congress and the incoming Administration have numerous tools at their disposal to bring the American people relief.

As it repeals Obamacare, Congress should work to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the law’s costly insurance mandates. Because reconciliation legislation must involve matters primarily of a budgetary nature, critics argue that the process cannot be used to repeal Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and that leaving the regulations in place without the subsidies will collapse insurance markets.

But Congress did not attempt to repeal the major insurance regulations during last year’s debate; it avoided the issue entirely. Consistent with past practice, Senate procedure, and the significant fiscal impact of the major regulations, it should seek to incorporate them into the measure this time around.

Congress should also include provisions in the reconciliation bill freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion upon its enactment. Currently eligible beneficiaries should be held harmless, but lawmakers should begin a path to allow those on Medicaid to transition off the rolls and into work. In a similar vein, Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets.

The Trump administration has an important part to play as well, as it can provide regulatory flexibility to insurers and states — even within Obamacare’s confines. For instance, Obamacare gives the secretary of health and human services the sole authority to determine the time and length of the law’s open-enrollment periods. In both 2016 and 2017, those periods stretched on for three months, meaning that for at least one-quarter of the year, any American could sign up for insurance — no questions asked — immediately following a severe medical incident.

To guard against adverse selection — whereby more sick individuals than healthy ones sign up for coverage, raising insurance premiums for everyone — the Trump administration can significantly shorten enrollment periods. Next year’s open enrollment should last no more than 30 days if logistics will permit. Similar actions would restrict special enrollment periods that individuals have gamed under Obamacare, purchasing coverage outside open enrollment, racking up medical bills, and then cancelling their coverage. The Trump administration can eliminate special enrollment periods not required by statute, and require verification prior to enrollment in all other cases.

Another place for regulatory flexibility lies in the 3.5 percent “user fee” assessed for all those purchasing coverage on the federal exchange. In regulations released last month, the Obama administration essentially admitted that the actual cost of running the federal Exchange has dropped below 3.5 percent of premiums, but kept the “user fee” at current levels to increase funds for enrollment and outreach. The Trump administration should lower premiums by cutting user fees to the amount necessary for critical exchange functions, rather than spending hard-earned premium dollars promoting the partisan agenda the law represents.

The Trump administration can take other actions within the scope of Obamacare to provide a stable path to repeal. It can withdraw the mandated coverage of contraceptive services that raises premiums while forcing individuals and organizations to violate their deeply held religious beliefs. It can expand and revise the scope of essential health benefits, actuarial value, and medical-loss-ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers. It can immediately withdraw guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015 that paradoxically made an Obamacare “state innovation waiver” program less flexible for states. And it can build upon legislation Congress passed last month, which allowed small businesses to reimburse their employees’ insurance premiums without facing thousands of dollars in crippling fines, by extending the same flexibility to all employers.

Congress and the Trump administration have many tools at their disposal to provide an orderly, stable transition toward a new, better system of health care — one that focuses on reducing costs rather than expanding government control. They can and should use every one of these tolls to bring about that change, fulfilling the promise of repeal.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Is Controversy over Mammograms Looming?

The issue of mammogram coverage is about to return to the Washington agenda.

draft recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force last month echoes a similar recommendation made in the fall of 2009. Namely, the task force recommends mammogram screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74 but does not recommend universal screening before age 50: “The decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one and take patient context into account.”

That contradicts guidelines issued by the American Cancer Society and other groups for women in their 40s and is part of a long-standing debate about whether the benefits of early detection and treatment offset the costs, including false positives and additional radiation exposure.

Obamacare moved that debate from the clinical realm into the policy world by giving the task force jurisdiction over which preventive services insurers must cover. The law references the task force more than a dozen times. Any preventive service the task force grades “A” or “B” must be covered by private insurers, Medicare, and Medicaid without cost-sharing such as co-pays or deductibles. Because the draft recommendations give a “B” grade only to biennial screening between ages 50 to 74, insurers would not be required to cover mammograms for women younger than 50 or screenings more frequent than the every-two-years regimen recommended by the task force.

When the task force issued its recommendations during the fall of 2009—at the height of the Obamacare debate—critics of the bill questioned the task force’s role in the proposed regime. Sarah Palin wondered whether cutting costs played a role in the recommendations, and a group of Republican congresswomen called them a “slippery slope” on the way to rationing. Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement and said that the task force had no policy-making role—statements belied by the text of the bill before Congress.

In the end, the law explicitly instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to disregard the controversial 2009 guidelines, reverting instead to a prior series of recommendations that allowed for annual coverage of mammograms for all women 40 and older. If, however, the task force re-issues the same recommendations later this year—as its April draft suggested–that would supersede all its prior reports, again raising questions about coverage of annual mammograms.

A bipartisan group from Congress has already written to HHS, asking that the draft mammogram recommendations be disregarded. Congress may in time take more explicit action to overrule the task force. But the controversy in 2009 showed that the final recommendations issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are not likely to go unnoticed—in Washington or around the country.

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

Obamacare in a Nutshell

In 2011, analysts were speculating that Assurant Health might exit the insurance business, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week. So the recent news that Assurant’s parent company was looking to “sell or shut down” the insurance carrier by year’s end was not a total surprise. The issue now is whether its demise holds larger lessons about Obamacare’s impact on insurance markets.

One analyst called Assurant, which reported operating losses of nearly $64 million in fiscal 2014 and $84 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, a “casualty” of the law. The Affordable Care Act “required health plans to cover a package of basic benefits and required health insurers to spend at least 80 cents of every premium dollar on medical care or quality initiatives,” the Journal-Sentinel reported. Simply put, the law made health insurance more like a regulated utility—with plan designs, benefits, and overhead costs strictly regulated.

Obamacare supporters generally argue that these regulatory changes eliminate the potential for customer confusion or the sale of “substandard” insurance products. But further Journal-Sentinel reporting underscores a complication of that approach:

Finding a buyer for Assurant Health could be difficult. Unlike companies such as UnitedHealthcare or Anthem, which focus on larger employers, Assurant Health does not have the size in any one market to negotiate contracts directly with hospitals and doctors. It instead typically pays a monthly fee to other insurers to access their networks, potentially increasing its costs.

By standardizing insurance offerings—reducing or eliminating carriers’ ability to create niche markets through innovative product designs—Obamacare heightened the focus on insurers’ provider networks. Those companies that have the market clout to demand lower reimbursements from doctors and hospitals can moderate premium increases—winning more market share in the process. But smaller insurers that don’t have that clout may find themselves squeezed—and other carriers could face a similar fate to Assurant Health.

Obamacare standardizes offerings in the name of increasing competition, but doing so could end up reducing competition by creating an environment in which large insurers compete with large hospital and doctor networks in a battle of health-care oligopolies. Supporters of the law have worried about this for years—and Assurant’s impending closure appears to give more reason to do so.

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