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Summary of House Republicans’ Latest Obamacare “Replace” Legislation

UPDATE:        On March 13, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its score of the bill. CBO found that the bill would:

  • Reduce deficits by about $337 billion over ten years—$323 billion in on-budget savings, along with $13 billion in off-budget (i.e., Social Security) savings.
  • Increase the number of uninsured by 14 million in 2018, rising to a total of 24 million by 2026.
  • Raise individual market premiums by 15-20 percent in 2018 and 2019, but then lower premiums in years following 2020, such that in 2026, premiums would be about 10 percent lower than under current law.

Among CBO’s major conclusions regarding provisions in the bill:

Individual Market Changes, 2017-19:             CBO believes that eliminating the mandate penalties will effectively increase insurance premiums; however, the presence of subsidies will still induce “a significant number of relatively healthy people” to purchase coverage. The budget office believes that elimination of the mandate will increase the number of uninsured by roughly 4 million in 2017. In 2018, CBO believes the number of uninsured would increase by 14 million—6 million from the individual market, 5 million from Medicaid, and 2 million from employer coverage. “In 2019, the number of uninsured would grow to 16 million people because of further reductions in Medicaid and non-group coverage.” CBO believes most of these coverage losses would be due to repealing the individual mandate—as a result of individuals who stop buying coverage with repeal of the mandate penalties, or those deterred by expected premium spikes.

With respect to premiums, CBO believes that “average premiums for single policy-holders in the non-group market would be 15 percent to 20 percent higher than under current law, mainly because of the elimination of the individual mandate penalties.” Eliminating the mandate penalties would increase adverse selection (i.e., a disproportionately older and sicker enrollee population), mitigated somewhat by potential reinsurance payments from the State Stability Fund.

CBO believes that the availability of Obamacare premium subsidies (but NOT cost-sharing subsidies) to individuals purchasing coverage off of Exchanges in 2018 and 2019 will lead to about 2 million individuals taking the subsidies for off-Exchange coverage. Likewise, CBO believes that altering the subsidy regime for 2019 only—to increase subsidies for younger enrollees, while decreasing them for older enrollees—will increase enrollment by about one million, “the net result of higher enrollment among younger people and lower enrollment among older people.”

With respect to other market changes during the transition period, CBO expects that the State Stability Fund will operate through the Department of Health and Human Services (as opposed to the states) before 2020, as states will not have adequate time to set up their own programs for 2018 and 2019. CBO also notes that the “continuous coverage” provision—i.e., a 30 percent surcharge for those who lack coverage for more than 63 days—will induce about 1 million individuals to purchase coverage in 2018, but will deter about 2 million individuals from purchasing coverage in 2019 and future years.

CBO also notes that “the people deterred from purchasing coverage [by the surcharge] would tend to be healthier than those who would not be deterred and would be willing to pay the surcharge”—raising the question of whether or not this “continuous coverage” provision would exacerbate, rather than alleviate, adverse selection in insurance markets.

The expansion of age rating bands—from 3-to-1 under current law to 5-to-1 in the new bill—would increase enrollment marginally, by less than 500,000 in 2019, “the net result of higher enrollment among younger people and lower enrollment among older people.”

While CBO does not believe a “death spiral” would emerge in most sections of the country, it does note that “significant changes in non-group subsidies and market rules would occur each year for the first three years following enactment, which might cause uncertainty for insurers in setting premiums.” CBO believes that the health status of enrollees would worsen in 2018, due to the elimination of the individual mandate penalties. However, in 2019 CBO notes that two changes for that year—expansion of the age rating bands, as well as a one-year change to the Obamacare subsidies—may attract healthier enrollees, but “it might be difficult for insurers to set premiums for 2019 using their prior experience in the market.”

Individual Market Changes, 2020-2026: In 2020, CBO believes that roughly 9 million fewer individuals would purchase coverage on the individual market than under current law—a number that would fall to 2 million in 2026. Employer-based coverage would also decline, by a net of roughly 2 million in 2020, rising to 7 million by 2026, because elimination of the individual mandate penalties will discourage individuals from taking up employer-sponsored coverage. “In addition, CBO and JCT expect that, over time, fewer employers would offer health insurance to their workers.” Overall, the number of uninsured would increase to 48 million by 2020, and 52 million by 2026, with the increase “disproportionately larger among older people with lower income.”

With respect to premiums in years 2020 and following, CBO believes that “the increase in average premiums from repealing the individual mandate penalties would be more than offset by the combination of three main factors:” 1) a younger and healthier mix of enrollees than under current law; 2) elimination of actuarial value requirements, therefore lowering premiums; and 3) reinsurance payments from the State Stability Fund. CBO believes that “by 2025, average premiums for single policy-holders in the non-group market under the legislation would be roughly 10 percent lower than the estimates under current law.” Some conservatives may note that in 2009, CBO analyzed Obamacare as increasing premiums by 10-13 percent relative to prior law—meaning that under the best possible assumptions, the bill might only begin to undo one decade from now the harmful premium increases created by Obamacare.

CBO also notes that the overall reduction in premiums would mask significant changes by age, raising premiums for older enrollees while lowering them for younger enrollees. Specifically, “premiums in the non-group market would be 20 percent to 25 percent lower for a 21-year-old and 8 percent to 10 percent lower for a 40-year-old—but 20 percent to 25 percent higher for a 64-year-old.”

CBO notes that, while elimination of the actuarial value requirements would theoretically allow health insurance plans to reduce coverage below 60 percent of actuarial value (i.e., percentage of expected health costs covered by insurance), retention of Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements would “significantly limit the ability of insurers to design plans with an actuarial value much below 60 percent.”

However, CBO does believe that the insurance market changes would lower plans’ average actuarial value overall, while increasing out-of-pocket costs. “CBO and JCT [also] expect that, under the legislation, plans would be harder to compare, making shopping for a plan on the basis of price more difficult.”

The transition to a new subsidy regime in 2020 would change market composition appreciably. Specifically, CBO believes that “fewer lower-income people would obtain coverage through the non-group market under the legislation than under current law,” and that because “the tax credits under the legislation would tend to be larger than current law premium tax credits for many people with higher income,” the new subsidy regime “would tend to increase enrollment in the non-group market among higher-income people.”

In general, changes in the age-rating in the individual market, coupled with changes in the subsidy regime, lead CBO to conclude that “a larger share of enrollees in the non-group market would be younger people and a smaller share would be older people.” Overall spending on subsidies would be “significantly smaller under the legislation than under current law,” due to both smaller take-up of the subsidies and smaller per-beneficiary subsidies. CBO believes that subsidies in 2020 will equal about 60 percent of average premium subsidies under current law, and will equal about 50 percent of current law subsidies in 2026.

According to CBO, the State Stability Fund grants “would exert substantial downward pressure on premiums in the non-group market in 2020 and later years and would help encourage participation in the market by insurers.” However, CBO did note that effects may be determined by whether states elect to participate in the grant programs, and whether states’ activities directly affect the individual market for health insurance.

CBO believes that the bill would encourage employers to drop employer-sponsored health coverage—both due to the elimination of the employer mandate penalties, and the broader availability of subsidies to individuals at higher income levels than Obamacare. In part as a result, CBO scores a total of $70 billion in savings due to interaction effects—that is, individuals’ compensation moving from pre-tax health insurance to after-tax wages as employers drop coverage. However, CBO also believes that the lower level of subsidies compared to Obamacare—which would grow more slowly over time—coupled with less rich health coverage offered on the individual market would mitigate employers’ incentives to drop coverage.

In 2020, CBO believes the State Stability Fund grants “would contribute substantially to the stability of the non-group market,” and that “the non-group market is expected to be smaller in 2020 than in 2019 but then is expected to grow somewhat over the 2020-2026 period.”

Medicaid Changes:  Overall, CBO believes that about 5 million fewer individuals with enroll in Medicaid in 2018 (due largely to elimination of the individual mandate penalties), 9 million fewer individuals in 2020, and 14 million in 2026.

If the bill passes, CBO believes that coming changes taking effect in 2020 mean that “no additional states will expand eligibility, thereby reducing both enrollment in and spending on Medicaid,” because CBO’s current-law baselines assume that additional states will expand their programs by 2026. This change would lead to a reduction in estimated enrollment of approximately 5 million by 2026.

CBO believes that “some states that have already expanded their Medicaid programs would no longer offer that coverage, reducing the share of the newly eligible population residing in a state with expanded eligibility to about 30 percent in 2026.” (CBO believes roughly half of the Medicaid eligible population currently lives in one of the 31 states that have expanded eligibility—and that, absent changes, this percentage will increase to 80 percent in 2026.)

CBO believes that, once the “freeze” on the enhanced Medicaid match takes effect at the beginning of 2020, “about one-third of those enrolled as of December 31, 2019 would have maintained continuous eligibility two years later,” remaining eligible for the enhanced federal match. By the end of 2024 (i.e., five years after the “freeze” takes effect), the enhanced federal match would apply to under 5 percent of newly eligible enrollees.

With respect to the per capita caps on Medicaid, CBO believes that the CPI-medical inflation measure in the House bill would reduce spending slightly compared to CBO’s baseline projections: CPI-medical would increase at a 3.7 percent rate, compared to a 4.4 percent increase in Medicaid spending under current law. CBO believes states would adopt a mix of approaches to reflect the lower spending growth: increasing state spending; reducing payments to health care providers and plans; eliminating optional services; restricting eligibility; or improving program efficiency.

 

Where available, scores of specific provisions are integrated into the earlier summary of the legislation, which follows below.

Legislative Summary

On March 6, House leadership released a revised draft of their Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill—the Energy and Commerce title is here, and the Ways and Means title is here.

A detailed summary of the bill is below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Changes with the original leaked discussion draft (dated February 10) are noted where applicable. Where provisions in the bill were also included in the reconciliation bill passed by Congress early in 2016 (H.R. 3762, text available here), differences between the two versions, if any, are noted.

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

In the absence of a fully drafted bill and complete CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I—Energy and Commerce

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances. This language is substantially similar to Section 101 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Saves $8.8 billion over ten years.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” below). The spending amount exceeds the $285 million provided in the leaked discussion draft. Language regarding community health centers was included in Section 102 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Costs $422 million over ten years.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). This language is virtually identical to Section 206 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. CBO believes that, after taking into account increased births (and Medicaid spending) due to lack of access to contraceptive care, this provision will save Medicaid a net of $156 million over ten years.

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

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

With respect to the Medicaid match rate, the discussion draft reduces the enhanced federal match to states, effective December 31, 2019. The bill provides that states receiving the enhanced match for individuals enrolled by December 31, 2019 will continue to receive that enhanced federal match, provided they do not have a break in Medicaid coverage of longer than one month. (In the case of states that already expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults prior to Obamacare’s enactment, the bill provides for an 80 percent federal match for 2017 and all subsequent years.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that—rather than representing a true “freeze” that was advertised, one that would take effect immediately upon enactment—the language in this bill would give states a strong incentive to sign up many more individuals for Medicaid over the next three years, so they can qualify for the higher federal match as long as those individuals remain in the program.

The bill also repeals the requirement that Medicaid “benchmark” plans comply with Obamacare’s essential health benefits, also effective December 31, 2019.

The repeal of the Medicaid expansion, when coupled with the per-capita caps, will reduce Medicaid spending by a total of $880 billion over ten years. CBO did not provide granularity on the savings associated with each specific provision.

Finally, the bill repeals the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services. This provision saves $12 billion over ten years.

DSH Payments:         Repeals the reduction in Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments. Non-expansion states would see their DSH payments restored immediately, whereas states that expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied under Obamacare would see their DSH payments restored in 2019. This language varies from both Section 208 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill and the leaked discussion draft. Spends $31.2 billion over ten years. In addition, increases in the number of uninsured will have the effect of increasing Medicare DSH payments, raising spending by an additional $43 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Program Integrity:             Beginning January 1, 2020, requires states to consider lottery winnings and other lump sum distributions as income for purposes of determining Medicaid eligibility. Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid to the month in which the individual applied for the program; current law requires three months of retroactive eligibility.

Requires, beginning six months after enactment, Medicaid applicants to provide verification of citizenship or immigration status prior to becoming presumptively eligible for benefits during the application process. With respect to eligibility for Medicaid long-term care benefits, reduces states’ ability to increase home equity thresholds that disqualify individuals from benefits; within six months of enactment, the threshold would be reduced to $500,000 in home equity nationwide, adjusted for inflation annually. These provisions were not included in the leaked discussion draft.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Requires states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income at least every six months. This provision was not included in the leaked discussion draft. All told, this change, along with the program integrity provisions highlighted above, saves a total of $7.1 billion over ten years.

Non-Expansion State Funding:             Includes $10 billion ($2 billion per year) in funding for Medicaid non-expansion states, for calendar years 2018 through 2022. States can receive a 100 percent federal match (95 percent in 2022), up to their share of the allotment. A non-expansion state’s share of the $2 billion in annual allotments would be determined by its share of individuals below 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL) when compared to non-expansion states. This funding would be excluded from the Medicaid per capita spending caps discussed in greater detail below. This provision was not included in the leaked discussion draft. Costs $8 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

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

While the cap would take effect in Fiscal Year 2019, the “base year” for determining cap levels would be Fiscal Year 2016 (which concluded on September 30, 2016), adjusted forward to 2019 levels using medical CPI. The inflation adjustment is lower than the leaked discussion draft, which set the level at medical CPI plus one percent.

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

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent.

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

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

Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that the draft bill would retain the increased spending on adults in expansion states—extending the inequities caused by states that have used Obamacare’s “free money” to raise Medicaid spending while sending Washington the tab.

The per-capita caps, when coupled with the repeal of the Medicaid expansion, will reduce Medicaid spending by a total of $880 billion over ten years. CBO did not provide granularity on the savings associated with each specific provision.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019. However, the bill does not include an appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies for 2017, 2018, or 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House. Similar language regarding cost-sharing subsidies was included in Section 202(b) of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

On a related note, the bill does NOT include provisions regarding reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment, all of which were repealed by Section 104 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. While the reinsurance and risk corridor programs technically expired on December 31, 2016, insurers have outstanding claims regarding both programs. Some conservatives may be concerned that failing to repeal these provisions could represent an attempt to bail out health insurance companies.

Patient and State Stability Fund:              Creates a Patient and State Stability Fund, to be administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), for the years 2018 through 2026. Grants may be used to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions (whether through high-risk pools or another arrangement), stabilizing or reducing premiums, encouraging insurer participation, promoting access, directly paying providers, or subsidizing cost-sharing (i.e., co-payments, deductibles, etc.).

In the leaked discussion draft, the program in question was called the State Innovation Grant program. The new bill changes the program’s name, and includes additional language requiring the CMS Administrator, in the case of a state that does not apply for Fund dollars, to spend the money “for such state,” making “market stabilization payments” to insurers with claims over $50,000, using a specified reinsurance formula. Some conservatives may view this as a federal infringement on state sovereignty—Washington forcibly intervening in state insurance markets—to bail out health insurers.

Provides for $15 billion in funding for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, followed by $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 through 2026 ($100 billion total). Requires a short, one-time application from states describing their goals and objectives for use of the funding, which will be deemed approved within 60 days absent good cause.

For 2018 and 2019, funding would be provided to states on the basis of two factors. 85% of the funding would be determined via states’ relative claims costs, based on the most recent medical loss ratio (MLR) data. The remaining 15% of funding would be allocated to states 1) whose uninsured populations increased from 2013 through 2015 or 2) have fewer than three health insurers offering Exchange plans in 2017. This formula is a change from the leaked discussion draft, which determined funding based on average insurance premiums, and guaranteed every state at least a 0.5% share of funding ($75 million).

For 2020 through 2026, CMS would be charged with determining a formula that takes into account 1) states’ incurred claims, 2) the number of uninsured with incomes below poverty, and 3) the number of participating health insurers in each state market. The bill requires stakeholder consultation regarding the formula, which shall “reflect the goals of improving the health insurance risk pool, promoting a more competitive health insurance market, and increasing choice for health care consumers.” The formula language and criteria has been changed compared to the leaked discussion draft.

Requires that states provide a match for their grants in 2020 through 2026—7 percent of their grant in 2020, 14 percent in 2021, 21 percent in 2022, 28 percent in 2023, 35 percent in 2024, 42 percent in 2025, and 50 percent in 2026. For states that decline to apply for grants, requires a 10 percent match in 2020, 20 percent match in 2021, 30 percent match in 2022, 40 percent match in 2023, and 50 percent match in 2024 through 2026. In either case, the bill prohibits federal allocation should a state decline to provide its match.

Some conservatives may note the significant changes in the program when compared to the leaked discussion draft—let alone the program’s initial variation, proposed by House Republicans in their alternative to Obamacare in 2009. These changes have turned the program’s focus increasingly towards “stabilizing markets,” and subsidizing health insurers to incentivize continued participation in insurance markets. Some conservatives therefore may be concerned that this program amounts to a $100 billion bailout fund for insurers—one that could infringe upon state sovereignty.

This program spends a total of $80 billion over ten years, according to CBO.

Continuous Coverage:         Requires insurers, beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period (i.e., open enrollment for 2019, or special enrollment periods during the 2018 plan year), to increase premiums for individuals without continuous health insurance coverage. The premium could increase by 30 percent for individuals who have a coverage gap of more than 63 days during the previous 12 months. Insurers could maintain the 30 percent premium increase for a 12 month period. Requires individuals to show proof of continuous coverage, and requires insurers to provide said proof in the form of certificates. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision maintains the federal intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare, rather than devolving insurance regulation back to the states.

Essential Health Benefits:              Permits states to develop essential health benefits—which include actuarial value and cost-sharing requirements—for insurance for all years after December 31, 2019.

Age Rating:   Changes the maximum variation in insurance markets from 3-to-1 (i.e., insurers can charge older applicants no more than three times younger applicants) to 5-to-1 effective January 1, 2018, with the option for states to provide for other age rating requirements. Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the ability for states to opt out, this provision, by setting a default federal standard, maintains the intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare.

Special Enrollment Verification:                Removes language in the leaked discussion draft requiring verification of all special enrollment periods beginning for plan years after January 1, 2018, effectively codifying proposed regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month.

Transitional Policies:           Removes language in the leaked discussion draft permitting insurers who continued to offer pre-Obamacare health coverage under President Obama’s temporary “If you like your plan, you can keep it” fix to continue to offer those policies in perpetuity in the individual and small group markets outside the Exchanges.

Title II—Ways and Means

Subsidy Recapture:              Eliminates the repayment limit on Obamacare premium subsidies for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Obamacare’s premium subsidies (which vary based upon income levels) are based on estimated income, which must be reconciled at year’s end during the tax filing season. Households with a major change in income or family status during the year (e.g., raise, promotion, divorce, birth, death) could qualify for significantly greater or smaller subsidies than the estimated subsidies they receive. While current law caps repayment amounts for households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017), the bill would eliminate the repayment limits for 2018 and 2019. This provision is similar to Section 201 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Saves $4.9 billion over ten years.

Modifications to Obamacare Premium Subsidy:         Allows non-compliant and non-Exchange plans to qualify for Obamacare premium subsidies, with the exception of grandfathered health plans (i.e., those purchased prior to Obamacare’s enactment) and plans that cover abortions (although individuals receiving subsidies can purchase separate coverage for abortion). In a change from the leaked discussion draft, individuals with “grandmothered” plans—that is, those purchased after Obamacare’s enactment, but before the law’s major benefit mandates took effect in 2014—also cannot qualify for subsidies.

While individuals off the Exchanges can receive premium subsidies, they cannot receive these subsidies in advance—they would have to claim the subsidy back on their tax returns instead.

Modifies the existing Obamacare subsidy regime beginning in 2018, by including age as an additional factor for determining subsidy amounts. Younger individuals would have to spend a smaller percentage of income on health insurance than under current law, while older individuals would spend a higher percentage of income. For instance, an individual under age 29, making just under 400% FPL, would pay 4.3% of income on health insurance, whereas an individual between ages 60-64 at the same income level would pay 11.5% of income on health insurance. (Current law limits individuals to paying 9.69% of income on insurance, at all age brackets, for those with income just below 400% FPL.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that 1) these changes would make an already complex subsidy formula even more complicated; 2) could increase costs to taxpayers; and 3) distract from the purported goal of the legislation, which is repealing, not modifying or “fixing,” Obamacare. No independent score of the cost of the modified subsidy regime is available—that is, the CBO score did not provide a granular level of detail regarding these particular provisions in isolation.

Repeal of Tax Credits:         Repeals Obamacare’s premium and small business tax credits, effective January 1, 2020. This language is similar to Sections 202 and 203 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, with one major difference—the House bill provides for a three-year transition period, whereas the reconciliation bill provided a two-year transition period. Repeal of the subsidy regime saves a net of $673 billion (after taking into account the modifications to subsidies outlined above), while repeal of the small business tax credit saves an additional $8 billion.

In addition, CBO estimates an additional $70 billion of “interaction” savings—based largely on assumed reductions in employer-sponsored health coverage, which would see individuals receiving less compensation in the form of pre-tax health insurance and more compensation in the form of after-tax wages.

Abortion Coverage:             Clarifies that firms receiving the small business tax credit may not use that credit to purchase plans that cover abortion (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion).

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. This language is similar to Sections 204 and 205 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, except with respect to timing—the House bill zeroes out the penalties beginning with the previous tax year, whereas the reconciliation bill zeroed out penalties beginning with the current tax year. Reduces revenues by $38 billion over ten years in the case of the individual mandate, and $171 billion in the case of the employer mandate.

Repeal of Other Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals all other Obamacare taxes, effective January 1, 2018. Taxes repealed include (along with CBO/Joint Committee on Taxation revenue estimates over ten years):

  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives (lowers revenue by $400 million);
  • Tax on tanning services (lowers revenue by $600 million);
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals (lowers revenue by $24.8 billion);
  • Health insurer tax (lowers revenue by $144.7 billion);
  • Net investment tax (lowers revenue by $157.6 billion);
  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”)—but only through 2025 (lowers revenue by $48.7 billion);
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications (lowers revenue by $5.5 billion);
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars (lowers revenue by $100 million);
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions (lowers revenue by $18.6 billion);
  • Medical device tax (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage (lowers revenue by $1.7 billion);
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction (lowers revenue by $34.9 billion);
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals (lowers revenue by $117.3 billion);

These provisions are all substantially similar to Sections 209 through 221 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. However, when compared to the leaked discussion draft, the bill delays repeal of the tax increases by one year, until the end of calendar year 2017. Additionally, the bill does NOT repeal the economic substance tax, which WAS repealed in Section 222 of the 2015/2016 bill, as well as the leaked discussion draft.

Refundable Tax Credit:       Creates a new, age-rated refundable tax credit for the purchase of health insurance. Credits total $2,000 for individuals under age 30, $2,500 for individuals aged 30-39, $3,000 for individuals aged 40-49, $3,500 for individuals aged 50-59, and $4,000 for individuals over age 60, up to a maximum credit of $14,000 per household. The credit would apply for 2020 and subsequent years, and increase every year by general inflation (i.e., CPI) plus one percent. Excess credit amounts can be deposited in individuals’ Health Savings Accounts.

When compared to the leaked discussion draft, the bill would also impose a means-test on the refundable credits. Individuals with modified adjusted gross incomes below $75,000, and families with incomes below $150,000, would qualify for the full credit. The credit would phase out linearly, at a 10 percent rate—every $1,000 of income would cause the subsidy to shrink by $100. Assuming the maximum credit possible ($14,000), the credit would phase out completely at income of $215,000 for an individual, and $290,000 for a family.

The credit may be used for any individual policy sold within a state, or unsubsidized COBRA continuation coverage. The credit may also not be used for grandfathered or “grandmothered” health plans—a change from the leaked discussion draft. The bill also increases penalties on erroneous claims for the credit, from 20 percent under current law for all tax credits to 25 percent for the new credit—a change from the leaked discussion draft.

Individuals may not use the credit to purchase plans that cover abortions (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion). The credit would be advanceable (i.e., paid before individuals file their taxes), and the Treasury would establish a program to provide credit payments directly to health insurers.

Individuals eligible for or participating in employer coverage, Part A of Medicare, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Tricare, or health care sharing ministries cannot receive the credit; however, veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA health programs can receive the credit. Only citizens and legal aliens qualify for the credit; individuals with seriously delinquent tax debt can have their credits withheld.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by creating a new refundable tax credit, the bill would establish another source of entitlement spending at a time when our nation already faces significant fiscal difficulties.

Some conservatives may also note that, by introducing means-testing into the bill, the revised credit (when compared to the leaked discussion draft) by its very nature creates work disincentives and administrative complexities. However, whereas Obamacare includes several “cliffs”—where one additional dollar of income could result in the loss of thousands of dollars in subsidies—this credit phases out more gradually as income rises. That structure reduces the credit’s disincentives to work—but it by no means eliminates them. Costs $361 billion over ten years. The CBO score did not provide any granularity on the amount of the credit that represents revenue effects (i.e., tax cuts to individuals with income tax liability) versus outlay effects (i.e., spending on “refunds” to individuals who have no income tax liability).

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses. The increase in contribution limits would lower revenue by $18.6 billion, and the other two provisions would lower revenue by a combined $600 million.

Cap on Employer-Provided Health Coverage: Does NOT contain a proposed cap on the deductibility of employer-sponsored health insurance coverage included in the leaked discussion draft.

Why House Republicans Are Re-Writing Their Obamacare “Replacement”

On Friday, Politico reported that Republicans were considering ways to amend their Obamacare “replacement” legislation, by placing income limits on the bill’s new refundable tax credit for health insurance. The Politico story implied the income cap sought to prevent wealthy individuals like Warren Buffett from obtaining federal subsidies for health insurance, but in reality House staff are re-writing their legislation to correct a major flaw in its structure.

Based on my conversations with multiple sources close to the effort, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had indicated to congressional staff that the prior House framework could see at least 10 million, and potentially up to 20 million, individuals losing employer-sponsored health insurance. Further, CBO stated that that House framework, even after including a refundable tax credit for health insurance, would not cover many more people than repealing Obamacare outright.

By comparison, Obamacare led to about 7 million plan cancellation notices in the fall of 2013. While those cancellations caused a major political firestorm, the framework the House released prior to the recess could cause a loss of employer coverage of several times that number. What’s more, that framework as described looks for all intents and purposes like a legislative orphan appealing to no one—neither moderates nor conservatives—within the Republican party:

  • A significant erosion of up to 10-20 million individuals with employer-provided health coverage;
  • A new entitlement—the refundable tax credits—that by and large wouldn’t expand coverage, but instead cause individuals currently in employer plans to switch to the credits;
  • More federal spending via the refundable tax credits;
  • A tax increase—a cap on the current exclusion for employer-provided health coverage—to pay for the new spending on the credits; and
  • An increase in the uninsured (compared to Obamacare) of at least 15 million—nearly as much as repealing the law outright.

Details of the bill are changing constantly, and no doubt House leadership will claim these figures pertain to prior drafts of the legislation. But even if those numbers reflect outdated drafts, the combination of major re-writes to the bill and the lack of a CBO score at any point in the process thus far should cause significant pause on Capitol Hill. Members are being asked to vote on legislation before knowing its full effects, or even how it will look in its final version.

Coverage Quicksand

According to CBO, the combination of a cap on the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, coupled with an age-rated tax credit for insurance, created a dynamic where expanding health insurance coverage was all but impossible.

An age-rated credit provides much greater incentive for firms to drop coverage, because all workers, not just low-income ones, can qualify for the credit. Moreover, because an age-rated credit provides the same subsidy to all individuals, regardless of income, low-income enrollees—the only individuals who have enrolled on exchanges in significant numbers—would have much less financial incentive to purchase insurance than they do under Obamacare, hence the lower coverage numbers overall.

On their bill, House Republicans put themselves in coverage quicksand. The more they thrashed to get out of the quicksand—by increasing the subsidies or adjusting the cap on the employer exclusion, or both—the deeper they sank, by increasing the erosion of employer-sponsored insurance.

Means-Tested Credit

Moving to a means-tested credit would create the same disincentives to work—individuals taking fewer shifts, or working fewer hours, for fear of losing their subsidies—as Obamacare itself. Here’s what Speaker Ryan’s Better Way document, released last summer, said about the current law:

Obamacare penalizes work. The law’s employer mandate and definition of a ‘full-time’ employee play a significant role in reduced hours, wages, and jobs. Even more critically, Obamacare’s subsidies themselves are riddled with cliffs and phase-outs, and the law includes a direct tax on work. Taken as a whole, CBO found that the law’s policies discourage work in such a way that it will be as if 2 million full-time jobs vanish from the economy by 2025. Our plan would repeal those taxes and work disincentives and implement a flat, simple form of assistance that would grow the economy and ensure work pays.

If House Republicans have turned on a dime, and re-embraced means-tested credits after criticizing them for several years, their plan will have at least some of the same work disincentives as Obamacare. Moreover, a means-tested credit also creates administrative complexities—reconciling payments made based on estimated income with actual income at the end of the year—that make it tougher to implement, as the Obamacare experience has demonstrated.

Obamacare’s Moment of Truth

On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul sparked a Twitter meme, searching through the Capitol for copies of House Republicans’ current version of “replace” legislation. While Paul raised a valid point about the need for a transparent process, he might have been better served to search for a CBO score of the legislation, for that will show where the rubber meets the road on the bill’s fiscal effects.

House leadership has yet to release any budgetary scores of their legislation, yet apparently plan on marking up the bill this week—before a CBO score becomes available. Given the ways in which several drafts have prompted CBO to warn about a massive erosion of employer-sponsored health coverage, the phrase Caveat emptor applies. Members who vote for a bill without knowing its full fiscal effects, yet will be held politically responsible for said effects, do so entirely at their own risk.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of House Republicans’ “Repeal-and-Replace” Legislation

This evening, House leadership released a revised draft of their Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill—the Energy and Commerce title is here, and the Ways and Means title is here.

A detailed summary of the bill is below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Changes with the original leaked discussion draft (dated February 10) are noted where applicable. Where provisions in the bill were also included in the reconciliation bill passed by Congress early in 2016 (H.R. 3762, text available here), differences between the two versions, if any, are noted.

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

In the absence of a fully drafted bill and complete CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I—Energy and Commerce

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

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” below). The spending amount exceeds the $285 million provided in the leaked discussion draft. Language regarding community health centers was included in Section 102 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). This language is virtually identical to Section 206 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

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

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

With respect to the Medicaid match rate, the discussion draft reduces the enhanced federal match to states, effective December 31, 2019. The bill provides that states receiving the enhanced match for individuals enrolled by December 31, 2019 will continue to receive that enhanced federal match, provided they do not have a break in Medicaid coverage of longer than one month. (In the case of states that already expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults prior to Obamacare’s enactment, the bill provides for an 80 percent federal match for 2017 and all subsequent years.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that—rather than representing a true “freeze” that was advertised, one that would take effect immediately upon enactment—the language in this bill would give states a strong incentive to sign up many more individuals for Medicaid over the next three years, so they can qualify for the higher federal match as long as those individuals remain in the program.

Finally, the bill repeals the requirement that Medicaid “benchmark” plans comply with Obamacare’s essential health benefits, also effective December 31, 2019.

DSH Payments:         Repeals the reduction in Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments. Non-expansion states would see their DSH payments restored immediately, whereas states that expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied under Obamacare would see their DSH payments restored in 2019. This language varies from both Section 208 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill and the leaked discussion draft.

Medicaid Program Integrity:             Beginning January 1, 2020, requires states to consider lottery winnings and other lump sum distributions as income for purposes of determining Medicaid eligibility. Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid to the month in which the individual applied for the program; current law requires three months of retroactive eligibility.

Requires, beginning six months after enactment, Medicaid applicants to provide verification of citizenship or immigration status prior to becoming presumptively eligible for benefits during the application process. With respect to eligibility for Medicaid long-term care benefits, reduces states’ ability to increase home equity thresholds that disqualify individuals from benefits; within six months of enactment, the threshold would be reduced to $500,000 in home equity nationwide, adjusted for inflation annually. These provisions were not included in the leaked discussion draft.

Non-Expansion State Funding:             Includes $10 billion ($2 billion per year) in funding for Medicaid non-expansion states, for calendar years 2018 through 2022. States can receive a 100 percent federal match (95 percent in 2022), up to their share of the allotment. A non-expansion state’s share of the $2 billion in annual allotments would be determined by its share of individuals below 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL) when compared to non-expansion states. This funding would be excluded from the Medicaid per capita spending caps discussed in greater detail below. This provision was not included in the leaked discussion draft.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Requires states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income at least every six months. This provision was not included in the leaked discussion draft.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

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

While the cap would take effect in Fiscal Year 2019, the “base year” for determining cap levels would be Fiscal Year 2016 (which concluded on September 30, 2016), adjusted forward to 2019 levels using medical CPI. The adjustment was reduced from medical CPI plus one percentage point in the leaked discussion draft.

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

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent.

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

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

Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that the draft bill would retain the increased spending on adults in expansion states—extending the inequities caused by states that have used Obamacare’s “free money” to raise Medicaid spending while sending Washington the tab.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019. However, the bill does not include an appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies for 2017, 2018, or 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House. Similar language regarding cost-sharing subsidies was included in Section 202(b) of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

On a related note, the bill does NOT include provisions regarding reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment, all of which were repealed by Section 104 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. While the reinsurance and risk corridor programs technically expired on December 31, 2016, insurers have outstanding claims regarding both programs. Some conservatives may be concerned that failing to repeal these provisions could represent an attempt to bail out health insurance companies.

Patient and State Stability Fund:              Creates a Patient and State Stability Fund, to be administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), for the years 2018 through 2026. Grants may be used to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions (whether through high-risk pools or another arrangement), stabilizing or reducing premiums, encouraging insurer participation, promoting access, directly paying providers, or subsidizing cost-sharing (i.e., co-payments, deductibles, etc.).

In the leaked discussion draft, the program in question was called the State Innovation Grant program. The new bill changes the program’s name, and includes additional language requiring the CMS Administrator, in the case of a state that does not apply for Fund dollars, to spend the money “for such state,” making “market stabilization payments” to insurers with claims over $50,000, using a specified reinsurance formula. Some conservatives may view this as a federal infringement on state sovereignty—Washington forcibly intervening in state insurance markets—to bail out health insurers.

Provides for $15 billion in funding for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, followed by $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 through 2026 ($100 billion total). Requires a short, one-time application from states describing their goals and objectives for use of the funding, which will be deemed approved within 60 days absent good cause.

For 2018 and 2019, funding would be provided to states on the basis of two factors. 85% of the funding would be determined via states’ relative claims costs, based on the most recent medical loss ratio (MLR) data. The remaining 15% of funding would be allocated to states 1) whose uninsured populations increased from 2013 through 2015 or 2) have fewer than three health insurers offering Exchange plans in 2017. This formula is a change from the leaked discussion draft, which determined funding based on average insurance premiums, and guaranteed every state at least a 0.5% share of funding ($75 million).

For 2020 through 2026, CMS would be charged with determining a formula that takes into account 1) states’ incurred claims, 2) the number of uninsured with incomes below poverty, and 3) the number of participating health insurers in each state market. The bill requires stakeholder consultation regarding the formula, which shall “reflect the goals of improving the health insurance risk pool, promoting a more competitive health insurance market, and increasing choice for health care consumers.” The formula language and criteria has been changed compared to the leaked discussion draft.

Requires that states provide a match for their grants in 2020 through 2026—7 percent of their grant in 2020, 14 percent in 2021, 21 percent in 2022, 28 percent in 2023, 35 percent in 2024, 42 percent in 2025, and 50 percent in 2026. For states that decline to apply for grants, requires a 10 percent match in 2020, 20 percent match in 2021, 30 percent match in 2022, 40 percent match in 2023, and 50 percent match in 2024 through 2026. In either case, the bill prohibits federal allocation should a state decline to provide its match.

Some conservatives may note the significant changes in the program when compared to the leaked discussion draft—let alone the program’s initial variation, proposed by House Republicans in their alternative to Obamacare in 2009. These changes have turned the program’s focus increasingly towards “stabilizing markets,” and subsidizing health insurers to incentivize continued participation in insurance markets. Some conservatives therefore may be concerned that this program amounts to a $100 billion bailout fund for insurers—one that could infringe upon state sovereignty.

Continuous Coverage:         Requires insurers, beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period (i.e., open enrollment for 2019, or special enrollment periods during the 2018 plan year), to increase premiums for individuals without continuous health insurance coverage. The premium could increase by 30 percent for individuals who have a coverage gap of more than 63 days during the previous 12 months. Insurers could maintain the 30 percent premium increase for a 12 month period. Requires individuals to show proof of continuous coverage, and requires insurers to provide said proof in the form of certificates. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision maintains the federal intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare, rather than devolving insurance regulation back to the states.

Essential Health Benefits:              Permits states to develop essential health benefits—which include actuarial value and cost-sharing requirements—for insurance for all years after December 31, 2019.

Age Rating:   Changes the maximum variation in insurance markets from 3-to-1 (i.e., insurers can charge older applicants no more than three times younger applicants) to 5-to-1 effective January 1, 2018, with the option for states to provide for other age rating requirements. Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the ability for states to opt out, this provision, by setting a default federal standard, maintains the intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare.

Special Enrollment Verification:                Removes language in the leaked discussion draft requiring verification of all special enrollment periods beginning for plan years after January 1, 2018, effectively codifying proposed regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month.

Transitional Policies:           Removes language in the leaked discussion draft permitting insurers who continued to offer pre-Obamacare health coverage under President Obama’s temporary “If you like your plan, you can keep it” fix to continue to offer those policies in perpetuity in the individual and small group markets outside the Exchanges.

Title II—Ways and Means

Subsidy Recapture:              Eliminates the repayment limit on Obamacare premium subsidies for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Obamacare’s premium subsidies (which vary based upon income levels) are based on estimated income, which must be reconciled at year’s end during the tax filing season. Households with a major change in income or family status during the year (e.g., raise, promotion, divorce, birth, death) could qualify for significantly greater or smaller subsidies than the estimated subsidies they receive. While current law caps repayment amounts for households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017), the bill would eliminate the repayment limits for 2018 and 2019. This provision is similar to Section 201 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Modifications to Obamacare Premium Subsidy:         Allows non-compliant and non-Exchange plans to qualify for Obamacare premium subsidies, with the exception of grandfathered health plans (i.e., those purchased prior to Obamacare’s enactment) and plans that cover abortions (although individuals receiving subsidies can purchase separate coverage for abortion). In a change from the leaked discussion draft, individuals with “grandmothered” plans—that is, those purchased after Obamacare’s enactment, but before the law’s major benefit mandates took effect in 2014—also cannot qualify for subsidies.

While individuals off the Exchanges can receive premium subsidies, they cannot receive these subsidies in advance—they would have to claim the subsidy back on their tax returns instead.

Modifies the existing Obamacare subsidy regime beginning in 2018, by including age as an additional factor for determining subsidy amounts. Younger individuals would have to spend a smaller percentage of income on health insurance than under current law, while older individuals would spend a higher percentage of income. For instance, an individual under age 29, making just under 400% FPL, would pay 4.3% of income on health insurance, whereas an individual between ages 60-64 at the same income level would pay 11.5% of income on health insurance. (Current law limits individuals to paying 9.69% of income on insurance, at all age brackets, for those with income just below 400% FPL.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that 1) these changes would make an already complex subsidy formula even more complicated; 2) could increase costs to taxpayers; and 3) distract from the purported goal of the legislation, which is repealing, not modifying or “fixing,” Obamacare.

Repeal of Tax Credits:         Repeals Obamacare’s premium and small business tax credits, effective January 1, 2020. This language is similar to Sections 202 and 203 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, with one major difference—the House bill provides for a three-year transition period, whereas the reconciliation bill provided a two-year transition period.

Abortion Coverage:             Clarifies that firms receiving the small business tax credit may not use that credit to purchase plans that cover abortion (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion).

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. This language is similar to Sections 204 and 205 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, except with respect to timing—the House bill zeroes out the penalties beginning with the previous tax year, whereas the reconciliation bill zeroed out penalties beginning with the current tax year.

Repeal of Other Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals all other Obamacare taxes, effective January 1, 2018, including:

  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives;
  • Tax on tanning services;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals;
  • Health insurer tax;
  • Net investment tax;
  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”)—but only through 2025;
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars;
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions;
  • Medical device tax;
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage;
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction;
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals;

These provisions are all substantially similar to Sections 209 through 221 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. However, when compared to the leaked discussion draft, the bill delays repeal of the tax increases by one year, until the end of calendar year 2017. Additionally, the bill does NOT repeal the economic substance tax, which WAS repealed in Section 222 of the 2015/2016 bill, as well as the leaked discussion draft.

Refundable Tax Credit:       Creates a new, age-rated refundable tax credit for the purchase of health insurance. Credits total $2,000 for individuals under age 30, $2,500 for individuals aged 30-39, $3,000 for individuals aged 40-49, $3,500 for individuals aged 50-59, and $4,000 for individuals over age 60, up to a maximum credit of $14,000 per household. The credit would apply for 2020 and subsequent years, and increase every year by general inflation (i.e., CPI) plus one percent. Excess credit amounts can be deposited in individuals’ Health Savings Accounts.

When compared to the leaked discussion draft, the bill would also impose a means-test on the refundable credits. Individuals with modified adjusted gross incomes below $75,000, and families with incomes below $150,000, would qualify for the full credit. The credit would phase out linearly, at a 10 percent rate—every $1,000 of income would cause the subsidy to shrink by $100. Assuming the maximum credit possible ($14,000), the credit would phase out completely at income of $215,000 for an individual, and $290,000 for a family.

The credit may be used for any individual policy sold within a state, or unsubsidized COBRA continuation coverage. The credit may also not be used for grandfathered or “grandmothered” health plans—a change from the leaked discussion draft. The bill also increases penalties on erroneous claims for the credit, from 20 percent under current law for all tax credits to 25 percent for the new credit—a change from the leaked discussion draft.

Individuals may not use the credit to purchase plans that cover abortions (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion). The credit would be advanceable (i.e., paid before individuals file their taxes), and the Treasury would establish a program to provide credit payments directly to health insurers.

Individuals eligible for or participating in employer coverage, Part A of Medicare, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Tricare, or health care sharing ministries cannot receive the credit; however, veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA health programs can receive the credit. Only citizens and legal aliens qualify for the credit; individuals with seriously delinquent tax debt can have their credits withheld.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by creating a new refundable tax credit, the bill would establish another source of entitlement spending at a time when our nation already faces significant fiscal difficulties.

Some conservatives may also note that, by introducing means-testing into the bill, the revised credit (when compared to the leaked discussion draft) by its very nature creates work disincentives and administrative complexities. However, whereas Obamacare includes several “cliffs”—where one additional dollar of income could result in the loss of thousands of dollars in subsidies—this credit phases out more gradually as income rises. That structure reduces the credit’s disincentives to work—but it by no means eliminates them.

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

Cap on Employer-Provided Health Coverage: Does NOT contain a proposed cap on the deductibility of employer-sponsored health insurance coverage included in the leaked discussion draft.

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

Summary of House Republicans’ (Leaked) Discussion Draft

On Friday, Politico released a leaked version of draft budget reconciliation legislation circulating among House staff—a version of House Republicans’ Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill. The discussion draft is time-stamped on the afternoon of Friday February 10—and according to my sources has been changed in the two weeks since then—but represents a glimpse into where House leadership was headed going into the President’s Day recess.

A detailed summary of the bill is below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Where provisions in the discussion draft were also included in the reconciliation bill passed by Congress early in 2016 (H.R. 3762, text available here), differences between the two versions, if any, are noted. In general, however, whereas the prior reconciliation bill sunset Obamacare’s entitlements after a two-year transition period, the discussion draft would sunset them at the end of calendar year 2019—nearly three years from now.

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

In the absence of a fully drafted bill and complete CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not vetted this discussion draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I—Energy and Commerce

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

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $285 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” below). A parenthetical note indicates intent to add Hyde amendment restrictions, to ensure this mandatory funding for health centers—which occurs outside their normal stream of funding through discretionary appropriations—retains prohibitions on federal funding of abortions. Language regarding community health centers was included in Section 102 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

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

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

With respect to the Medicaid match rate, the discussion draft reduces the enhanced federal match to states, effective December 31, 2019. The bill provides that states receiving the enhanced match for individuals enrolled by December 31, 2019 will continue to receive that enhanced federal match, provided they do not have a break in Medicaid coverage of longer than one month. (In the case of states that already expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults prior to Obamacare’s enactment, the bill provides for an 80 percent federal match for 2017 and all subsequent years.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that—rather than representing a true “freeze” that was advertised, one that would take effect immediately upon enactment—the language in this bill would give states a strong incentive to sign up many more individuals for Medicaid over the next three years, so they can qualify for the higher federal match as long as those individuals remain in the program.

Finally, the bill repeals the requirement that Medicaid “benchmark” plans comply with Obamacare’s essential health benefits, also effective December 31, 2019.

DSH Payments:         Repeals the reduction in Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments. This language is identical to Section 208 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019 (the year is noted in brackets, however, suggesting it may change). However, the bill does not include an appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies for 2017, 2018, or 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House. Similar language regarding cost-sharing subsidies was included in Section 202(b) of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

On a related note, the House’s draft bill does NOT include provisions regarding reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment, all of which were repealed by Section 104 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. While the reinsurance and risk corridor programs technically expired on December 31, 2016, insurers have outstanding claims regarding both programs. Some conservatives may be concerned that failing to repeal these provisions could represent an attempt to bail out health insurance companies.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

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

While the cap would take effect in Fiscal Year 2019, the “base year” for determining cap levels would be Fiscal Year 2016 (which concluded on September 30, 2016), adjusted forward to 2019 levels using medical CPI plus one percentage point.

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

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent.

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

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

Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that the draft bill would retain the increased spending on adults in expansion states—extending in perpetuity the inequities caused by states that have used Obamacare’s “free money” to raise Medicaid spending while sending Washington the tab.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). This language is virtually identical to Section 206 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

State Innovation Grants:    Creates a new program of State Innovation Grants, to be administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for the years 2018 through 2026. Grants may be used to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions (whether through high-risk pools or another arrangement), stabilizing or reducing premiums, encouraging insurer participation, promoting access, directly paying providers, or subsidizing cost-sharing (i.e., co-payments, deductibles, etc.). A similar program was first proposed by House Republicans in their alternative to Obamacare in 2009.

Provides for $15 billion in funding for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, followed by $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 through 2026 ($100 billion total). Requires a short, one-time application from states describing their goals and objectives for use of the funding, which will be deemed approved within 60 days absent good cause.

For 2018 and 2019, funding would be provided to states on the basis of relative costs, determined by the number of Exchange enrollees and the extent to which individual insurance premiums in the state exceed the national average. Every state would receive at least 0.5% of the national total (at least $75 million in 2018 and 2019).

For 2020 through 2026, CMS would be charged with determining a formula that takes into account the percentage of low-income residents in the state (the bill text includes in brackets three possible definitions of “low-income”—138%, 250%, or 300% of the federal poverty level) and the number of residents without health insurance.

Requires that states provide a match for their grants in 2020 through 2026—7 percent of their grant in 2020, 14 percent in 2021, 21 percent in 2022, 28 percent in 2023, 35 percent in 2024, 42 percent in 2025, and 50 percent in 2026.

Continuous Coverage:         Requires insurers, beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period (i.e., open enrollment for 2019, or special enrollment periods during the 2018 plan year), to increase premiums for individuals without continuous health insurance coverage. The premium could increase by 30 percent for individuals who have a coverage gap of more than 63 days during the previous 12 months. Insurers could maintain the 30 percent premium increase for a 12 month period. Requires individuals to show proof of continuous coverage, and requires insurers to provide said proof in the form of certificates. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision maintains the federal intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare, rather than devolving insurance regulation back to the states.

Essential Health Benefits:              Permits states to develop essential health benefits for insurance for all years after December 31, 2019.

Age Rating:   Changes the maximum variation in insurance markets from 3-to-1 (i.e., insurers can charge older applicants no more than three times younger applicants) to 5-to-1 effective January 1, 2018, with the option for states to provide for other age rating requirements. Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the ability for states to opt out, this provision, by setting a default federal standard, maintains the intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare.

Special Enrollment Verification:               Requires verification of all special enrollment periods beginning for plan years after January 1, 2018. This provision would effectively codify proposed regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month. Some conservatives may be concerned about the continued federal intrusion over what had heretofore been a matter left to state regulation, and question the need to verify enrollment in Exchanges, given that the underlying legislation was intended to repeal Obamacare—and thus the Exchanges—entirely.

Transitional Policies:          Permits insurers who continued to offer pre-Obamacare health coverage under President Obama’s temporary “If you like your plan, you can keep it” fix to continue to offer those policies in perpetuity in the individual and small group markets outside the Exchanges.

Title II—Ways and Means

Subsidy Recapture:              Eliminates the repayment limit on Obamacare premium subsidies for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Obamacare’s premium subsidies (which vary based upon income levels) are based on estimated income, which must be reconciled at year’s end during the tax filing season. Households with a major change in income or family status during the year (e.g., raise, promotion, divorce, birth, death) could qualify for significantly greater or smaller subsidies than the estimated subsidies they receive. While current law caps repayment amounts for households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017), the bill would eliminate the repayment limits for 2018 and 2019. This provision is similar to Section 201 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Modifications to Obamacare Premium Subsidy:         Allows non-compliant and non-Exchange plans to qualify for Obamacare premium subsidies, with the exception of grandfathered health plans (i.e., those purchased prior to Obamacare’s enactment) and plans that cover abortions (although individuals receiving subsidies can purchase separate coverage for abortion). While individuals off the Exchanges can receive premium subsidies, they cannot receive these subsidies in advance—they would have to claim the subsidy back on their tax returns instead. Only citizens and legal aliens could receive subsidies.

Modifies the existing Obamacare subsidy regime beginning in 2018, by including age as an additional factor for determining subsidy amounts. Younger individuals would have to spend a smaller percentage of income on health insurance than under current law, while older individuals would spend a higher percentage of income. For instance, an individual under age 29, making just under 400% FPL, would pay 4.3% of income on health insurance, whereas an individual between ages 60-64 at the same income level would pay 11.5% of income on health insurance. (Current law limits individuals to paying 9.69% of income on insurance, at all age brackets, for those with income just below 400% FPL.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that 1) these changes would make an already complex subsidy formula even more complicated; 2) could increase costs to taxpayers; and 3) distract from the purported goal of the legislation, which is repealing, not modifying or “fixing,” Obamacare.

Repeal of Tax Credits:         Repeals Obamacare’s premium and small business tax credits, effective January 1, 2020. This language is similar to Sections 202 and 203 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, with one major difference—the House discussion draft provides for a three-year transition period, whereas the reconciliation bill provided a two-year transition period.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. This language is similar to Sections 204 and 205 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, except with respect to timing—the House discussion draft zeroes out the penalties beginning with the previous tax year, whereas the reconciliation bill zeroed out penalties beginning with the current tax year.

Repeal of Other Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals all other Obamacare taxes, effective January 1, 2017, including:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”);
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars;
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals;
  • Medical device tax;
  • Health insurer tax;
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage;
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction;
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals;
  • Tax on tanning services;
  • Net investment tax;
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives; and
  • Economic substance doctrine.

These provisions are all substantially similar to Sections 209 through 222 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Refundable Tax Credit:       Creates a new, age-rated refundable tax credit for the purchase of health insurance. Credits total $2,000 for individuals under age 30, $2,500 for individuals aged 30-39, $3,000 for individuals aged 40-49, $3,500 for individuals aged 50-59, and $4,000 for individuals over age 60, up to a maximum credit of $14,000 per household. The credit would apply for 2020 and subsequent years, and increase every year by general inflation (i.e., CPI) plus one percent. Excess credit amounts can be deposited in individuals’ Health Savings Accounts.

The credit may be used for any individual policy sold within a state (although apparently not a policy purchased across state lines) or unsubsidized COBRA continuation coverage.

Individuals may not use the credit to purchase plans that cover abortions (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion). The credit would be advanceable (i.e., paid before individuals file their taxes), and the Treasury would establish a program to provide credit payments directly to health insurers.

Individuals eligible for or participating in employer coverage, Part A of Medicare, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Tricare, or health care sharing ministries cannot receive the credit; however, veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA health programs can receive the credit. Only citizens and legal aliens qualify for the credit; individuals with seriously delinquent tax debt can have their credits withheld.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by creating a new refundable tax credit, the bill would establish another source of entitlement spending at a time when our nation already faces significant fiscal difficulties.

Cap on Employer-Provided Health Coverage:                    Establishes a cap on the current exclusion for employer-provided health coverage, making any amounts received above the cap taxable to the employee. Sets the cap, which includes both employer and employee contributions, at the 90th percentile of group (i.e., employer) plans for 2019. In 2020 and subsequent years, indexes the cap to general inflation (i.e., CPI) plus two percentage points. Also applies the cap on coverage to include self-employed individuals taking an above-the-line deduction on their tax returns. While the level of the cap would be set in the year 2019, the cap itself would take effect in 2020 and subsequent tax years.

Excludes contributions to Health Savings Accounts and Archer Medical Savings Accounts, as well as long-term care, dental, and vision insurance policies, from the cap. Exempts health insurance benefits for law enforcement, fire department, and out-of-hospital emergency medical personnel from the cap.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision raises taxes. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum generally agree that an unlimited exclusion for employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance, and therefore health care. However, there are other ways to reform the tax treatment of health insurance without raising taxes on net. Given the ready availability of other options, some conservatives may be concerned that the bill repeals all the Obamacare tax increases, only to replace them with other tax hikes.

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

Abortion Coverage:             Clarifies that firms receiving the small business tax credit may not use that credit to purchase plans that cover abortion (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion).

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

The Bad (or Questionable)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ugly

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare Repeal Will Destroy the Republican Agenda Unless Congress Gets Smart

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

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

What Has Happened In the Last Month

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

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

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

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

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

Adding Layers of Complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running the CBO Gauntlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay-For Problems

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

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

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

Then There Are the Political Obstacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now We Come to the Opportunity Costs

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

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

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

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

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

The Available Political Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time’s a Wastin’

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Lessons from Last Year’s Obamacare Repeal Effort

In a move virtually ignored outside Washington and largely unnoticed even within it, last December the House and Senate passed legislation repealing much of Obamacare. President Obama promptly vetoed the measure — an obstacle that will disappear come January 20. As reporters and policymakers attempt to catch up and learn the details of a process they had not closely followed, three important lessons stand out from last year’s “dry run” at repealing Obamacare.

The Senate Should Take the Lead

The legislation in question, H.R. 3762, made it to President Obama’s desk only because Republicans used a special procedure called budget reconciliation to circumvent the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to overcome a Democratic filibuster. While reconciliation allowed the bill to make it to the president’s desk, it came with several procedural strings in the Senate. Reconciliation legislation may only consider provisions that are primarily budgetary in nature; policy changes, or policy changes with an incidental fiscal impact, will get stripped from the bill. In addition, reconciliation legislation may not increase the budget deficit.

Unfortunately, the original version of the bill the House introduced did not comply with the Senate requirements. The legislation repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) — but because that change was primarily policy-related and not fiscal in nature, it did not pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. Likewise, according to a cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the House-passed bill would have increased the deficit in the “out years” beyond the ten-year budget window, making it subject to another point-of-order challenge that would require 60 votes to overcome. Ultimately, the legislation contained enough of these procedural flaws that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce a completely new substitute for the bill as it came to the Senate floor, to ensure that it would receive the procedural protections accorded to a reconciliation measure.

The arcane and technical nature of the budget-reconciliation process means that the Senate will play the key role in determining what passes — simply because Senate procedure will dictate what can pass. While the House has the constitutional prerogative to originate all tax legislation, and by custom it initiates most major spending legislation, the Senate may do well to initiate action in this particular case. House Republicans proposed an Obamacare-replacement plan earlier this year, Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way,” but what good is passing that through the House if much of it ends up on the Senate’s proverbial cutting-room floor?

Personnel Matters, Because Institutional Memory Is Scarce

The original reconciliation bill was introduced in the House on October 16, during what amounted to an interval between leaders. John Boehner had announced his intention to resign the speakership, but Paul Ryan had not yet assumed that title. And while House members played another round of “musical chairs,” staff underwent their own turnover, as Speaker Boehner’s longtime health-policy adviser departed Capitol Hill a few weeks before Boehner announced his surprise resignation.

To say that relevant leaders and committee chairs have swapped places in the House recently is putting it mildly. Not one has served in his current post for more than two years. Two years ago, Paul Ryan chaired the House Budget Committee; his reign at Ways and Means lasted a brief nine months before he assumed the speakership. Elsewhere in leadership, both Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise assumed their jobs after the defeat of Eric Cantor in August 2014. At the committees, Budget Committee chairman Tom Price and Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady succeeded Paul Ryan in leading their respective committees last year. And the Energy and Commerce and Education and Workforce Committees will soon choose new chairmen to assume their gavels in January.

While Senate leadership has remained more stable at the member level, most of the staff in both chambers has turned over since the Obamacare debate of 2009–10. I served in House leadership during 2009, and Senate leadership from 2010 to 2012; most of my former colleagues have long since moved on, whether to lobbying jobs, grad school, or even outside Washington altogether. Both at the member level and the staff level, the critically important institutional knowledge of what happened to Democrats — and when, why, and how — during the Obamacare debacle eight short years ago is dangerously thin.

The Washington gossip circles seem most interested in playing the parlor game of who will fill what post in the new administration. But particularly if the administration defers to Capitol Hill on policy, the true action in determining what happens to Obamacare — and what replaces it — may well lie at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Both reporters and would-be job applicants should react and plan accordingly.

An Influential Troika of Senate Conservatives

In addition to its procedural shortfalls, the original House reconciliation bill represented something much less than full repeal of Obamacare. While the law as enacted contains 419 sections, four of which had already been repealed prior to last October, the House’s reconciliation bill repealed just seven of them. Admittedly, much of Obamacare contains extraneous provisions unrelated to the law’s coverage expansions: nursing-home regulations, loan-forgiveness programs, and the like. But the original House reconciliation bill left intact many of Obamacare’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions, leaving it far short of anything that could be called full repeal.

Into the breach stepped three conservative senators: Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. The day before the House voted to pass its reconciliation bill, they issued a joint statement calling it thin gruel indeed:

On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of Obamacare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal Obamacare, and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk. If this bill cannot be amended so that it fully repeals Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules, we cannot support this bill. With millions of Americans now getting health premium increase notices in the mail, we owe our constituents nothing less.

Knowing that the bill lacked the votes to pass the chamber without support from the three conservatives, Senate leadership significantly broadened the bill’s scope. The revised version that went to the president’s desk repealed all of the law’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions. It was not a one-sentence repeal bill that eradicated all of Obamacare from the statute books, but it came much closer to “fully repeal[ing] Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules,” as the three senators laid out in their statement.

The conservatives’ mettle will be tested once again. Already, Republican congressional sources are telling reporters that they intend to keep the law’s Medicaid expansion, albeit in a different fashion. “One of the aides said this version of the bill [that passed last year] was mostly about ‘messaging,’ and that this time, ‘We’re not going to use that package. We’re not dumb.’”

Apart from the wisdom of calling a bill that their bosses voted for less than one year ago “dumb,” the comment clarifies the obvious fissure points that will emerge in the coming weeks. Will conservatives such as Lee, Rubio, and Cruz hold out for legislation mirroring last year’s bill — and vote no if they do not receive it? Conversely, what Republican who voted for the reconciliation bill last year will object if it returns to the Senate floor? Will senators be willing to vote against something in 2017 that they voted for in 2015?

As I noted last week, Republicans’ path on Obamacare could prove more complicated than the new conventional wisdom in Washington suggests. If past is prologue, last year’s reconciliation bill provides one possible roadmap for how the congressional debate may play out.

This post was originally published at National Review.