Tag Archives: budget gimmicks

A Fiscally Irresponsible Bill

Last week the Wall Street Journal, in endorsing House Republicans’ American Health Care Act, highlighted the legislation’s “fiscal bonus.” Yes, the bill’s Medicaid reforms warrant praise as a good effort to control entitlement spending. But that meritorious effort notwithstanding, the bill contains numerous structural flaws, with potentially more on the way, that could bust budgets for decades to come.

Some of the same leaders decrying or explaining away Congressional Budget Office scores showing large coverage losses due to the bill have proved far too willing to take the bill’s supposed deficit savings at face value. But a good CBO score doesn’t necessarily mean legislation will reduce the deficit; instead, it means that lawmakers and staff have worked hard to achieve a good CBO score.

CBO scores have inherent limitations — notably, the discipline (or lack thereof) on the part of lawmakers to adhere to a bill’s parameters. Two years ago this month, the Wall Street Journal endorsed a Medicare “doc fix” bill that increased the deficit by more than $140 billion in its first decade alone. In doing so, the editorial page argued that Congress’ “cycle[s] of fiscal deception” required a return to “honest budgeting,” stopping budget games by making spending increases more transparent.

Given this history, one question naturally follows: Does the American Health Care Act engage in similar cycles of fiscal deception likely to bust future budgets? Many signs point to yes. First, the bill expands access to Obamacare’s subsidy regime for calendar years 2018 and 2019. CBO believes the bill will reduce entitlement spending only slightly in its first few fiscal years — by $29 billion next year, and $42 billion the following — as the individual mandate’s repeal will cause some to drop coverage.

But in fiscal year 2020 — when the Obamacare entitlements would end and the new tax credit would begin — the bill assumes a massive $100 billion net reduction in entitlement spending. Net entitlement spending would fall still further, to $137 billion in fiscal year 2021, which begins on October 1, 2020, mere weeks before the presidential election.

With the bill’s major “cliff” in entitlement spending coming in a year divisible by four, it’s fair for conservatives to question whether these reductions will ever go into effect, and the promised deficit reduction will ever be achieved. If the “transition” provisions end up extended in perpetuity, conservatives will end up with “Obamacare Max” — an expanded Obamacare subsidy regime available to millions more individuals.

Second, the bill does not even attempt to undo the fraudulent entitlement accounting created by Obamacare. Section 223 of the reconciliation measure passed in January 2016 transferred $379.3 billion of that bill’s deficit savings back to the Medicare trust fund. That provision represented a recognition that, as vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said on the campaign trail back in August 2012, “President [Obama] took $716 billion from the Medicare program—he raided it—to pay for Obamacare.” Not only does Speaker Ryan’s bill not attempt to make Medicare whole from the Obamacare “raid,” the managers amendment released Monday evening consumed much of the bill’s supposed savings.

Third, while conservatives have focused on the bill’s tax credits as a new entitlement, the measure effectively creates a second new entitlement, this one for insurers. CBO’s estimate of possible premium reductions by 2026 hinged in no small part on creation of a “Patient and State Stability Fund,” and use of grants from the fund to subsidize insurers’ high-cost patients. However, the bill stops federal payments to the “Stability Fund” in 2026—and therefore the score does not take into consideration that this $10-15 billion annual bailout fund for health insurers could become permanent.

Fourth, reports suggest that House lawmakers are relying upon a bipartisan group in the Senate to repeal outright Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” (delayed until 2026 in the most recent bill), which would worsen deficits in future decades. Leadership sources pushing this move would then argue that the bill blows a hole in the budget not because it spends more money, but because it reduces revenue.

However, the 2016 reconciliation bill repealed all of Obamacare’s tax increases and its new entitlements, while leaving the deficit virtually unchanged over the next 50 years. By contrast, if lawmakers create two entitlements — the new tax credit regime and the “Stability Fund” — while also repealing the “Cadillac tax,” they will create a fiscal hole likely to reach into the trillions. To borrow a phrase, the American Health Care Act doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.

Budgetary “out-years” gimmicks brought us the Medicare “doc fix” mess in the first place, which should embolden conservatives to recognize fiscal chicanery and legerdemain when they see it.

Positive Medicaid reforms notwithstanding, the structure on which the American Health Care Act is based does fiscal responsibility a disservice. A conservative-controlled Congress can and should do better.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

Despite Trump Intervention, House GOP Still Not Repealing Obamacare

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

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

What Changes Were Announced After The Meeting?

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

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

Medicaid: Block Grant vs. Per Capita Cap

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

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

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

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

Will This Be A Good Deal For Americans?

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

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

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

AHCA Leaves Much To Be Desired

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

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

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

AHCA Doesn’t Fully ‘Repeal And Replace’

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Top Ten Conservative Concerns with the American Health Care Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memo to Congress on Obamacare: Take My Coverage–Please!

Last week, Vox ran a story featuring individuals covered by Obamacare, who live in fear about what the future holds for them. They included people who opened small businesses because of Obamacare’s coverage portability, and worry that the “career freedom” provided by the law will soon disappear.

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Vox didn’t ask this small business owner—who also happens to be an Obamacare enrollee—for his opinions on the matter. Like the enrollees in the Vox profile, I’m also incredibly worried about what the future holds, but for a slightly different reason: I’m worried for our nation about what will happen if Obamacare ISN’T repealed.

What Obamacare Hasn’t Done For Me

Unlike many of the individuals in the Vox story, I am a reluctant Obamacare enrollee—literally forced to buy coverage on the District of Columbia’s Exchange because Washington, D.C. abolished its private insurance market. (While I did contemplate moving to Virginia, where I could at least purchase an Obamacare-compliant plan without going through an Obamacare-mandated website, such changes aren’t easy when one owns one’s own home.)

While in generally decent health, I have some health concerns: mild hypertension (controlled by medications), mild asthma, and allergies that have worsened in the past few years. I’ve gone through two reconstructive surgeries on my ankle, which I’ve chronicled in a prior article. Under “research” previously published by the Obama Administration, my health conditions classify me as one of the 129 million people with a pre-existing condition supposedly benefiting from the law.

Yet while my health hasn’t changed much since Obamacare passed and was implemented, my health insurance policy has already been cancelled once. The replacement I was offered this year included a 20 percent premium increase, and a 25 percent increase in my deductible.

If Obamacare was repealed, or if insurers stopped offering coverage, it would be an inconvenience, no doubt. I don’t know what options would come afterwards. That would depend on actions by Congress, the District of Columbia, and the insurance community. But having already lost my coverage once, and gone through double-digit premium and deductible increases, how much worse can it really get?

Obamacare Will Raise the Deficit

Conversely, I am greatly worried about what will happen if Congress doesn’t repeal Obamacare. Our nation is nearly $20 trillion in debt—yet Obamacare would spend nearly $2 trillion more on health coverage in the next 10 years.

I know what liberals are saying: “But Obamacare will reduce the deficit!” Yes, the Congressional Budget Office did issue a score saying the law will lower the deficit. But consider all the conditions that must be met for Obamacare to lower the deficit. If:

  • Annual Medicare payment reductions that will render more than half of all hospitals unprofitable within the next 10 years keep going into effect; and
  • Provisions that will, beginning in 2019, reduce the annual increase in Exchange insurance subsidies—making coverage that much more unaffordable for families—go into effect; and
  • An unpopular “Cadillac tax” that has already been delayed once—and which the Senate voted to repeal outright on a bipartisan 90-10 vote in December 2015—actually takes effect in 2020 (which just happens to be an election year); then

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law will reduce the deficit by a miniscule amount. But if any of those conditions aren’t met, then the law becomes a budget-buster. And if you think all those conditions will actually come to pass, then I’ve got some land to sell you.

Obamacare’s Unspoken Opportunity Costs

Even if you believe in raising taxes to reduce the deficit, Congress has already done that. Except that money wasn’t used to lower the deficit—it’s been used to pay for Obamacare. Even some liberals accept that you can only tax the rich so much, at which point they will stop working to avoid paying additional income in taxes. Obamacare brought us much closer to that point, without doing anything to put our fiscal house in order.

Likewise, the law’s Medicare payment reductions are being used to both pay for Obamacare and extend the life of the Medicare trust fund (at least on paper, if not in reality). If it weren’t for the gimmick of this Obamacare double-counting, the Medicare trust fund would have become insolvent this year. Instead, budgetary smoke-and-mirrors have allowed Democrats to postpone the day of fiscal reckoning—making the day that much worse when it finally arrives.

We Just Can’t Afford Obamacare

Whether they’re liberal websites, Democratic leaders, or Republican politicians attempting to cover as many Americans as Obamacare in their “replacement,” no one dares utter the four words that our country will soon face on any number of fronts: “We can’t afford it.”

But the fact of the matter is, we can’t afford Obamacare. Not with trillions of dollars in debt, 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day, and the Medicare trust fund running over $130 billion in deficits the past eight years. Our nation will be hard-pressed to avoid all its existing budgetary and financial commitments, let alone $2 trillion in spending on yet more new entitlements.

So, to paraphrase Henny Youngman, take my health coverage—please. Repeal Obamacare,  even if it means I lose my health coverage (again). Focus both on reducing health costs and right-sizing our nation’s massive entitlements.

Failing to do so will ultimately turn all 300-plus million Americans into the “faces of Obamacare”—victims of a debt crisis sparked by politicians and constituents who want more government than the public wants to pay, and our nation can afford.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Unwinding Obamacare: Why Congress Must Rescind the Massive Medicaid Expansion

This report was originally published by the Palmetto Promise Institute, and is available in PDF form on their website here.

As Congress prepares to consider legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare in 2017, unwinding that law’s massive expansion of Medicaid should stand at the top of the Congressional agenda. The source of most of the law’s spending, Medicaid expansion has resulted in exploding enrollment, creating state budget shortfalls that legislatures will need to remedy in 2017.

Moreover, Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied has undermined Medicaid’s original mission to provide services to the most vulnerable in society—including seniors and individuals with disabilities. The law effectively discriminates against vulnerable populations, providing states with more federal funding to cover the able-bodied than individuals with disabilities. Sadly, even as able-bodied beneficiaries have flooded into Medicaid, hundreds of thousands of individuals with disabilities continue to suffer long waits for needed care.

Congressional Republicans have put forward proposals seeking to reform Medicaid, transforming the program into a system of block grants or per capita allotments that will provide greater flexibility to states in exchange for a fixed federal spending commitment. However, such reforms are necessary—but not sufficient—in reforming the Medicaid program. First and foremost, Congress should take immediate action to unwind Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, re-orienting the program to serve the most vulnerable populations for which it was originally designed.

History of Medicaid and Obamacare

As originally enacted into law in 1965, the Medicaid program provided federal matching funds to states to cover certain discrete populations, including the blind, seniors, individuals with disabilities, and needy parents. Obamacare changed the program fundamentally by expanding the program to all low-income adults; under Section 2001 of the law, all those with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) qualified for Medicaid coverage.[1] The statute as written made expansion mandatory for all states participating in Medicaid. States could decline to expand Medicaid, but in so doing, they would have had to forfeit all federal Medicaid funds, including funds for their existing aged, blind, and disabled populations.

In June 2012, the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory nature of Medicaid expansion as unconstitutionally coercive. Speaking for a seven-member majority, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that “the threatened loss of 10 percent of a state’s overall budget [i.e., the federal share of Medicaid spending]…is economic dragooning that leaves states with no real option but to acquiesce in the Medicaid expansion.”[2] The Court left the expansion, and the rest of the law, intact, but prohibited the federal government from withholding all Medicaid funds from any states that chose not to pursue the categorical expansion to all adults with incomes under 138 percent FPL.

Because the Supreme Court ruling gave them a free choice about whether or not to embrace Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, states—the “laboratories of democracy”—have taken different approaches. Some states, fearing that the federal government will renege on its promised high levels of funding, declined to expand. Some states passed a traditional Medicaid expansion, ratifying Obamacare’s massive new entitlement as its authors intended. Other states have utilized a system of premium assistance—also called the “private option”—that uses Medicaid dollars to subsidize private Exchange insurance coverage for individuals qualified for Medicaid under the Obamacare expansion.

Whether through the “private option” or traditional Medicaid, outcomes for states embracing Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied have been little different. States that have embraced Obamacare’s expansion have faced spiking enrollment and skyrocketing costs, all while perpetuating a system that encourages discrimination against the most vulnerable. Policy-makers should closely examine these cautionary tales as they look to rescind and replace Obamacare.

Exploding Enrollment, Skyrocketing Spending

The evidence among those states that have expended Medicaid demonstrates the massive effects on state budgets—due in large part to skyrocketing enrollment. A recent report by the Foundation for Government Accountability showed how the Medicaid rolls exploded in states that chose to expand the program under Obamacare. In a whopping 24 states that decided to expand, state Medicaid programs exceeded the highest enrollment projections:

  • Arizona predicted a maximum enrollment of 297,000; by September 2016, 397,879 had enrolled in Medicaid;
  • Arkansas predicted a maximum enrollment of 215,000; by October 2016, enrollment had reached 324,318;
  • California predicted a maximum enrollment of 910,000; by May 2016, enrollment had more than quadrupled prior maximum projections, reaching 3,842,200;
  • Colorado predicted a maximum enrollment of 187,000; by October 2016, enrollment hit 446,135;
  • Connecticut predicted a maximum enrollment of 113,000; by December 2015, 186,967 had enrolled;
  • Hawaii predicted a maximum enrollment of 35,000; by June 2015, enrollment had exceeded that projection, reaching 35,622;
  • Illinois predicted a maximum enrollment of 342,000; by April 2016, nearly double that amount—650,653—were enrolled;
  • Iowa predicted a maximum enrollment of 122,900; by February 2016, enrollment had reached 139,119;
  • Kentucky predicted a maximum enrollment of 188,000; by December 2015, enrollment more than doubled the initial expectation, reaching 439,044;
  • Maryland predicted a maximum enrollment of 143,000; by December 2015, enrollment reached 231,484;
  • Michigan predicted a maximum enrollment of 477,000; by October 2016, enrollment exceeded that projection, reaching 630,609;
  • Minnesota predicted a maximum enrollment of 141,000; by December 2015, enrollment hit 207,683;
  • Nevada predicted a maximum enrollment of 78,000; enrollment more than doubled those maximum projections, reaching 187,110 by September 2015;
  • New Hampshire predicted a maximum of enrollment of 45,500; by August 2016, enrollment reached 50,150;
  • New Jersey predicted a maximum enrollment of 300,000; twelve months after expansion began, in January 2015, enrollment totaled 532,917;
  • New Mexico predicted a maximum enrollment of 140,095; by December 2015, enrollment had reached 235,425;
  • New York predicted a maximum enrollment of 76,000; by December 2015, nearly four times as many had enrolled—a grand total of 285,564;
  • North Dakota predicted a maximum enrollment of 13,591; by March 2016, a total of 19,389 had enrolled;
  • Ohio predicted a maximum enrollment of 447,000; by August 2016, enrollment hit 714,595;
  • Oregon predicted a maximum enrollment of 245,000; by December 2015, enrollment hit 452,269;
  • Pennsylvania predicted a maximum enrollment of 531,000; by April 2016, enrollment had hit 625,970;
  • Rhode Island predicted a maximum enrollment of 39,756; in December 2015, enrollment reached 59,280;
  • Washington state predicted a maximum enrollment of 262,000; by July 2016, enrollment had more than doubled the highest enrollment projections, reaching 596,873; and
  • West Virginia predicted a maximum enrollment of 95,000; enrollment in December 2015 hit 174,999.[3]

While Medicaid is considered a counter-cyclical program—one in which enrollment typically rises during recessions, as household incomes shrink and individuals lose access to employer-sponsored coverage—Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion went into effect at a time of steady, albeit slight, economic growth. In other words, Medicaid enrollment under the Obamacare expansion could eventually exceed these figures—even as the actual enrollment numbers themselves exceeded projections prior to implementation, in some cases by several multiples.

By contrast, enrollment in health insurance Exchanges remains far below expectations set at the time of the law’s passage. Just before Obamacare passed in March 2010, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that in 2016, the Exchanges would enroll a total of 21 million Americans.[4] For the first half of 2016, the Exchanges averaged enrollment of only 10.4 million—less than half the original CBO projection.[5]

Moreover, an analysis of Exchange enrollees shows enrollment concentrated largely among the individuals who qualify for the largest subsidies. According to an analysis conducted by the consulting firm Avalere Health, 81% of eligible individuals with income below 150 percent FPL—who are eligible for both subsidized premiums and reduced cost-sharing—have selected an Exchange plan.[6] On the other hand, only 16% of those with incomes between 300 and 400 percent FPL—who qualify for modest premium subsidies, but not reduced cost-sharing—have enrolled in Exchange coverage, while only 2% of individuals with incomes above 400 percent FPL—who do not qualify for subsidies at all—have signed up.[7] When it comes to both Medicaid expansion and Exchange coverage, the evidence suggests that only those individuals who receive free, or heavily subsidized, insurance have signed up in great numbers.

Just as enrollment for subsidized Medicaid under Obamacare dramatically exceeded expectations, so too have per-enrollee health costs for Medicaid participants. In the official 2014 report on the state of Medicaid’s finances, government actuaries acknowledged for the first time that per-enrollee costs for Obamacare’s newly eligible Medicaid enrollees ($5,488) exceeded those of previously eligible Medicaid participants ($4,914).[8] Actuaries had previously assumed that per-enrollee costs for the newly eligible population would be 30 percent lower than spending on existing populations—but the actual data suggested otherwise.[9] At the time, the actuaries believed some of the higher Medicaid spending arose because of pent-up demand—newly insured individuals requesting care for long-ignored medical conditions—a phenomenon they suggested might fade over time.[10]

But contrary to the expectations of government actuaries, costs for newly eligible beneficiaries continued to increase for a second straight year in 2015. Whereas the gap between per-enrollee costs for newly eligible beneficiaries and existing beneficiaries stood at approximately $500 in 2014, in the following year the gap grew to over $1,000—an average cost of $6,366 for every newly enrolled adult, versus $5,159 for every adult previously eligible for Medicaid.[11] As a result, the Congressional Budget Office likewise increased their estimates of per-enrollee spending on Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion—at least in the short term.[12] CBO still believes that per-enrollee spending on Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will stabilize at lower levels over time, despite the evidence that actual costs continue to exceed prior assumptions by sizable margins.

The combination of higher-than-expected enrollment and higher-than-expected enrollee costs has created a “double whammy” for state budgets. While the federal government paid 100 percent of the cost to cover Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion population for the law’s first three years, states must contribute 5 percent of costs for the newly eligible beginning in 2017, rising to 10 percent by 2020—a share proving larger than expected, and one placing fiscal strains on states.

With the new entitlement costing much more than expected, states may have to cut other critically important spending priorities to continue funding Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults. In Kentucky, costs for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 are now estimated at $257 million—more than double the original estimate of $107 million.[13] As a result, education, transportation, corrections, and other priorities will receive $150 million less from the state budget. Ohio’s budget for Medicaid expansion more than doubled from the $55.5 million originally projected, likewise robbing other important state spending programs.[14]

Even Democrats serving in state legislatures have expressed alarm at the rising tide of spending associated with Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and the other programs being cannibalized to pay for this new entitlement. In Oregon, facing a $500 million Medicaid-imposed budgetary shortfall over the next three years, Democratic state Senator Richard Devlin noted that “the only way to keep this [budget situation] manageable is to keep those costs under control, get people off Medicaid.”[15] In New Mexico, also facing pressures due to higher-than-expected enrollment, Democratic state Senator Howie Morales expressed anguish over the fiscal choices:

When you’re looking at a state budget and there are only so many dollars to go around, obviously it’s a concern. The most vulnerable of our citizens—the children, our senior citizens, our veterans, individuals with disabilities—I get concerned that those could be areas that get hit.[16]

Sen. Morales’ comments eloquently describe the plight that legislators face. States that expand Medicaid may have to cut important programs for individuals with disabilities, seniors, and the most vulnerable—to provide additional taxpayer funds for an expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults.

Undermining the Most Vulnerable

Supporters’ claims to the contrary, Medicaid expansion actually undermines principles of social justice and fairness—in which our society focuses the safety net first and foremost on those unable to provide for themselves. Expanding Medicaid under Obamacare serves only to endorse a horrifically unfair system created by the law, which effectively discriminates against individuals with disabilities—prioritizing coverage of able-bodied adults over protecting the most vulnerable in society.[17]

How does this happen in practice?

In 2013, the congressionally-appointed Commission on Long-Term Care heard testimony about the significant numbers of individuals with disabilities on waiting lists for home- and community-based services (HCBS).[18] Because coverage of HCBS—as opposed to institutional care in a nursing home—remains an optional service for state Medicaid programs, Americans in 42 states remain on lists waiting for access to home-based care.[19] More than 582,000 individuals—including nearly 350,000 with intellectual and developmental disabilities, over 155,000 aged and/or disabled individuals, over 58,000 children, more than 14,000 individuals with physical disabilities, and more than 4,000 Americans with traumatic brain injuries—remain on Medicaid waiting lists.[20] All these individuals could benefit from home-based care that would improve their quality of life, and could keep them from requiring more costly nursing home care in the future—yet they must wait in the Medicaid queue, in many cases for years on end.

Yet even as more than half a million Americans with disabilities wait for service, Obamacare prioritizes coverage of able-bodied adults over treating the most vulnerable—providing states as much as 45 cents on the dollar more to cover the able-bodied than individuals with disabilities. In 2017, the law provides a federal match for expansion populations—that is, individuals with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level—of 95 percent, dipping slightly to 94 percent in 2018, 93 percent in 2019, and 90 percent in 2020 and future years.[21] Conversely, states wishing to expand coverage to individuals with disabilities—to eliminate their Medicaid waiting lists—will receive only the normal Medicaid matching rate, which for the current fiscal year ranges from 50 percent to 75 percent, based on states’ relative income.[22] In other words, in 2017, states will receive at least 20 cents, and as much as 45 cents, more on the dollar for covering able-bodied adults than they will ending waiting lists for individuals with disabilities seeking care.

Sadly, some states have responded to Obamacare’s perverse incentives in predictable ways. In the few years since the law took effect, the most vulnerable in society have suffered, while able-bodied adults received a new, taxpayer-funded entitlement:

  • A recent report from Illinois found that 752 individuals with disabilities died while awaiting access to home- and community-based services since Obamacare’s expansion took effect. Ironically enough, on the very day that Illinois voted to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied early, it also cut funding for medication and services provided to special needs children.[23]
  • In Arkansas, while Gov. Asa Hutchison pledged to cut his state’s waiting list for individuals with disabilities in half, instead it has grown by 25 percent—even as Hutchison has embraced Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied. The individuals waiting for care include ten-year-old Skylar Overman, whose mother worries she will die before she ever receives access to the in-home care she needs.[24]
  • In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich’s administration cut Medicaid eligibility for 34,000 individuals with disabilities, even while expanding the program to the able-bodied.[25]

Any law that results in these types of inequities—the most vulnerable cast aside to hasten access to care for the able-bodied—cannot be considered compassionate or just.

The disparities and perverse incentives present in Obamacare apply to South Carolina just as much as they do in other states. The law provides massive incentives for South Carolina to expand Medicaid to these able-bodied adults—many of whom may be unemployed or under-employed—rather than ending waiting lists for individuals with disabilities. In fiscal year 2017, South Carolina will receive a 71.3 percent match from the federal government for the traditional Medicaid program—including coverage for individuals with disabilities.[26] Yet Obamacare will provide a 95 percent match should the state choose to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults. Effectively, the law provides South Carolina with nearly 25 cents more on the dollar should the state discriminate against the most vulnerable in our society.

South Carolina has rightly rejected the effective discrimination perpetuated by Obamacare, for multiple reasons. The state has a list of 5,656 individuals with disabilities waiting to receive HCBS.[27] Providing enough funding to end the Medicaid waiting list should stand as the state’s pressing health care priority—not expanding health coverage to able-bodied adults, many of whom would exceed the income limits to qualify for Medicaid if they pursued full-time employment. The fact that Washington does not agree with South Carolina’s decision to prioritize the most vulnerable—because federal officials want the state to put the able-bodied, rather than individuals with disabilities, at the head of the Medicaid line—is a reason for Washington to change its priorities, not South Carolina.

Not a Panacea for Hospitals

In many states debating the future of Medicaid under Obamacare, hospital associations have served as the biggest supporters of expansion. Hospitals claim that expanding Medicaid will result in substantial improvements to their bottom line, making the difference between facilities remaining open or shutting their doors. Unfortunately, however, Medicaid expansion will not make a meaningful impact on hospitals’ bottom line.

In September 2016, staff at the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report illustrating the minimal impact of Medicaid expansion on hospitals’ profitability.[28] The paper analyzed the effects of several changes associated with Obamacare on two variables: hospitals’ aggregate profit margin nationwide, and the percentage of hospitals with negative margins. The analysis estimated these two factors in 2025, and compared hospital profitability with 2011, before most of Obamacare’s major provisions took effect.

The CBO analysis found that, under the best possible scenario, hospitals will fare no better in 2025 than they did prior to Obamacare’s major provisions taking effect—and they could fare much worse. A scenario that coupled the law’s Medicare payment reductions with its coverage expansions yielded a best-case scenario similar to the status quo ante: about one quarter of hospitals with negative profit margins (26% in 2025, versus 27% in 2011), and an aggregate margin of 6.0% in both cases.[29] However, should hospitals fail to achieve the productivity gains contemplated under Obamacare, margins will fall significantly—with as many as half of all hospitals having a negative profit margin by 2025, and the industry as a whole barely profitable.[30] Thanks to Obamacare, hospitals will struggle mightily just to tread water—and many may end up sinking financially.

The CBO paper also specifically examined whether all states expanding Medicaid would make a material impact on its analysis. Would a broader expansion of insurance coverage overcome the damaging fiscal effects of Obamacare’s Medicare payment reductions? CBO concluded that broader Medicaid expansion would have a minor impact:

Differing assumptions about the number of states that expand Medicaid coverage have a small effect on our projections of aggregate hospitals’ margins. That is in part because the hospitals that would receive the greatest benefit from the expansion of Medicaid coverage in additional states are more likely to have negative margins, and because in most cases the additional revenue from the Medicaid expansion is not sufficient to change those hospitals’ margins from negative to positive. Moreover, the total additional revenue that hospitals as a group would receive from the newly covered Medicaid beneficiaries…is not large enough relative to their revenues from other sources to substantially alter the projected aggregate margins.[31]

Despite claims from some hospital executives that Medicaid expansion represents a make-or-break financial decision for their industry, non-partisan experts disagree.

The real problem for hospitals lies elsewhere within Obamacare, in the Medicare productivity adjustments that will affect hospitals each and every year. The Medicare actuary, along with other non-partisan experts, has made annual warnings every year since the law’s passage concluding the productivity reductions are unsustainable, and will make most hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and home health agencies unprofitable in the coming decades.[32] The September CBO report confirms, and further validates, the Medicare actuary’s work highlighting the unrealistic nature of the payment reductions used to fund Obamacare.

As has been explained elsewhere, hospitals made a terribly unwise bargain when negotiating behind closed doors with the Obama Administration: They agreed to annual reductions in their Medicare payments forever in exchange for a one-time increase in the number of insured Americans.[33] Hospital lobbyists themselves know full well that the agreement they negotiated will ultimately destroy the industry.

At a televised event in August 2010, months after the law passed, Chip Kahn—the CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents the for-profit hospital industry—admitted his knowledge of Obamacare’s long-term effects on the hospital sector.[34] Then-Medicare actuary Richard Foster asked Kahn why hospitals agreed to what appears on its face to be a bad deal: Perpetual Medicare payment reductions in exchange for a one-time increase in insured Americans. Mr. Kahn first claimed that “from the hospital industry standpoint, there never was any kind of illusion that this was some kind of standard that we could meet in terms of improving quality”—even though the law itself assumes that hospitals will become more productive year-over-year, and reduces their Medicare payments accordingly.[35] When pressed on this issue—what will happen to the hospital industry when these year-on-year reductions cascade over time—Mr. Kahn eventually threw up his hands: “Now, you could say, did you make a bad deal? And fortunately, I don’t think I’ll probably be working after 2020. [Laughter.]…I’m glad my contract only goes another six years. [Laughter.]”[36]

The candid comments by the head of the Federation of American Hospitals months after the law passed say it all. In endorsing Obamacare, hospital lobbyists knew they were agreeing to provisions that would decimate their industry in the long run—but didn’t care, because those devastating provisions would only take effect well after they had retired. These incredibly cynical comments provide two additional reasons for legislators not to embrace Medicaid expansion. As both the CBO analysis and Mr. Kahn’s comments indicate, expanding Medicaid will not solve hospitals’ financial difficulties, which arise from a self-inflicted blow—namely, agreeing to massive Medicare payment reductions that overwhelm the comparatively small revenue gain associated with Medicaid expansion. But while expanding Medicaid will not save hospitals in the long term, it will serve to sink state budgets, leaving them with the worst of both worlds on the fiscal front.

Work Disincentives

Supporters of Medicaid expansion claim that the additional federal funds generated by expansion have created jobs and economic growth. In reality, expanding Medicaid has only created additional disincentives for work, according to non-partisan economic experts.

Many studies claiming Medicaid expansion will create jobs represent one-sided—and therefore highly biased—analysis, examining the federal revenue flowing into states as a result of expansion without studying the impact of the tax increases necessary to generate said revenue. However, many studies—including a seminal analysis undertaken by President Obama’s former chief economic adviser, Christina Romer—find that the economic damage—in technical terms, the deadweight losses associated with Obamacare’s tax increases—will vastly outweigh any job gains associated with Medicaid expansion.[37]

Ironically, one of the architects of Obamacare disputes the economic theories put forward by Medicaid expansion proponents. In a New York Times op-ed, former Obama Administration advisor Zeke Emanuel stated that “Health care is about keeping people healthy or fixing them up when they get sick. It is not a jobs program.”[38] Likewise, two Harvard economists note that viewing the health system as a jobs program will ultimately increase spending and raise health costs, limiting access for the poor: “Treating the health care system like a (wildly inefficient) jobs program conflicts directly with the goal of ensuring that all Americans have access to care at an affordable price.”[39]

Rather than creating jobs, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) believes that Medicaid expansion will discourage work. In part of its 2014 update on Obamacare’s effects on the labor supply—in which CBO asserted that the law as a whole will reduce the supply of labor provided by the equivalent of 2.5 million jobs by 2024—the budget office noted that “expanded Medicaid eligibility under [the law] will, on balance, reduce incentives to work.”[40] For instance, individuals who exceed Medicaid eligibility limits by even one dollar could face hundreds, or thousands, of dollars in premiums and co-payments to obtain subsidized Exchange coverage; such workers will likely work fewer hours to keep their income below eligibility caps.

Medicaid expansion will discourage work precisely because most of the participants in the expansion are able-bodied adults of working age. According to analysis conducted by the liberal-leaning Urban Institute, nearly nine in ten individuals (88.1%) who would benefit from Medicaid expansion in South Carolina represent adults without dependent children.[41] Moreover, the vast majority of South Carolinians to be covered under expansion would come within the ages of 19-55—prime working ages for most Americans. More than one-quarter (27.6%) of would-be beneficiaries of expansion are aged 19-24, with a further 21.9% aged 25-34, and more than one-third (35.5%) aged 35-54.[42]

The Urban Institute data strongly suggest that the vast majority of the potential beneficiaries from Medicaid expansion in South Carolina constitute individuals who could be in work, or preparing for work. Indeed, many South Carolinians working full-time would generate enough income not to qualify for benefits under Medicaid expansion. In 2016, 138 percent of the federal poverty level represents an income of just under $16,400 for an individual.[43] A South Carolinian working a full-time job (40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year) at a wage of $8.25 per hour would earn $16,500 annually, thereby exceeding the limit to qualify for Medicaid benefits.

However, CBO believes the Medicaid “benefit cliff” will discourage individuals from working, precisely because they wish to remain eligible for benefits. A December 2015 CBO paper quantified this impact: Analysts concluded that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will reduce beneficiaries’ labor force participation by about 4 percent, by “creat[ing] a tax on additional earnings for those considering job changes” that would raise their income above the threshold for eligibility.[44]

While Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied discourages work and will reduce the labor supply, unwinding the expansion will produce salutary economic effects. Tennessee’s decision to roll back a Medicaid coverage expansion in 2005 encouraged more individuals to join the labor force, in order to obtain employer-sponsored health coverage.[45] If states wish to grow their economies and encourage work, unwinding Obamacare provides a better approach to achieving those objectives.

“Private Option” Results in Greater Public Spending

While some supporters of Medicaid expansion believe that the so-called “private option”—using Medicaid dollars to purchase Exchange coverage for beneficiaries—represents an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, evidence suggests otherwise. In 2012, immediately following the Supreme Court ruling that made Medicaid expansion optional for states, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) considered expansion through health insurance Exchanges significantly more costly than expansion through traditional Medicaid:

For the average person who does not enroll in Medicaid as a result of the [Supreme] Court’s decision and enrolls in an Exchange instead, estimated federal spending will rise by roughly $3,000 in 2022—the difference between estimated additional Exchange [premium and cost-sharing] subsidies of about $9,000 and estimated Medicaid savings of roughly $6,000.[46]

Providing Medicaid beneficiaries private coverage through the insurance Exchanges could cost approximately 50% more, according to CBO’s 2012 estimate—a concern other non-partisan experts have flagged.

Government auditors have raised significant concerns that the “private option” waiver method of providing coverage improperly wastes taxpayer funds. In an August 2014 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that, when approving the first instance of this “private option” model in Arkansas, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “did not ensure budget neutrality,” which is required under federal law, in three key areas:

  • “HHS approved a spending limit for the demonstration that was based, in part, on hypothetical costs—significantly higher payment amounts the state assumed it would have to make to providers if it expanded coverage under the traditional Medicaid program—without requesting any data to support the state’s assumptions.” GAO concluded that these higher payment assumptions increased the program’s budget caps by $778 million—or nearly 20% of the approximately $4.0 billion, three-year budget for the program.
  • “HHS gave Arkansas the flexibility to adjust the spending limit if actual costs under the demonstration proved higher than expected…one which HHS has not provided in the past.”
  • “HHS in effect waived its cost-effectiveness requirement that providing premium assistance to purchase individual coverage on the private market prove comparable to the cost of providing direct coverage under the state’s Medicaid plan—further increasing the risk that the demonstration will not be budget-neutral.”[47]

The GAO report illustrates how, in order to ensure that Arkansas endorsed Obamacare’s massive new entitlement, federal officials raised the budgetary caps required under law so high that they became nearly meaningless—and then gave Arkansas officials discretion to raise them even higher. Such actions represent a disservice to taxpayers in all states, including South Carolina. The GAO report demonstrates why unwinding the law’s Medicaid expansion—in all its forms, including the “private option”—represents the wisest way to protect taxpayer funds.

How to Unwind Obamacare’s Medicaid Expansion: Congress

As Congress considers legislation to repeal Obamacare in January 2017, it should embark on a three-step approach to unwind the law’s massive Medicaid expansion:

  • First, Congress should take action to freeze enrollment in the Medicaid expansion immediately after enactment of the repeal bill. Freezing enrollment will hold those currently on Medicaid harmless, while beginning a process to roll back the higher levels of spending associated with Medicaid expansion.
  • Second, Congress should roll back the enhanced federal match for expansion populations, consistent with budget reconciliation legislation that Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, during the 114th Congress.[48] Ending the enhanced federal match by 2019 will eliminate the discrimination inherent in Obamacare—whereby states receive a higher match to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities.
  • Third, Congress and states should reorient Medicaid towards the vulnerable populations for which the program was originally designed. Added flexibility from Congress, and the incoming Trump Administration, will allow states to achieve additional savings in their Medicaid programs—savings that will permit states to achieve other important priorities, like reducing waiting lists for individuals with disabilities seeking access to home-based care.

While proposals to transform Medicaid into a block grant or per capita allotment would give states welcome flexibility from Washington’s dictates, lawmakers must focus first on unwinding Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion—and eliminating distortions to the program caused by same. Any block grant or Medicaid funding formula that uses the years 2014 through 2017 as a “base year” will perpetuate the inequities caused by the Obamacare expansion—the massive enrollment of able-bodied adults, and the increased spending by states that used the prospect of a 100% federal match to increase Medicaid reimbursements. States that made the policy choice to keep Medicaid focused on the most vulnerable in society should not be penalized by a block grant formula that rewards those states who embraced Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied.

How to Unwind Obamacare’s Medicaid Expansion: The States

The states also have a role, albeit a limited one, in the undoing of Obamacare’s massive Medicaid expansion. As state legislatures reconvene, they can:

  • Continue to resist calls for expanding Medicaid to able-bodied adults. No state is expected to expand or choose a “private option” scheme in their new legislative terms, but fiscally responsible legislators should nevertheless arm themselves with the facts of this paper and prepare for misguided calls for subjecting more states to the excessive costs of Medicaid expansion.
  • Pass resolutions memorializing Congress to resist attempts to retain any of the core principles of Obamacare, including Medicaid expansion, as having a negative impact on state budgets and state policies. Both with respect to the costs of Medicaid expansion, and with respect to skyrocketing premiums in health insurance Exchanges, states and consumers alike are begging for relief from Obamacare. If enough states call for a top to bottom repeal and replace of Obamacare, including Medicaid expansion, consumers will win.
  • Prepare for possible common sense solutions, formerly known as “Obamacare off-ramps,” that will insure freedom for the insured without bullying businesses or individuals into plans they don’t like and doctors they don’t want. Members of both the United States House and Senate previously introduced such plans in the last Congress.[49] The new Trump Department of Health & Human Services, and specifically the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), should provide guidance on blanket waivers designed to maximize flexibility for state Medicaid programs immediately upon taking office.[50]

Need for Reform

Even prior to Obamacare, Medicaid stood as a program in need of significant reform. The program has nearly tripled as a share of state budgets since 1987, yet provides beneficiaries with care of questionable quality.[51] Results from Oregon suggest that newly enrolled individuals in Medicaid used the emergency room at rates 40 percent higher than the uninsured—a disparity that persisted over time—yet did not achieve measureable improvement in their physical health outcomes.[52] With high (and growing) levels of spending coupled with subpar outcomes, states should use the flexibility promised from the Trump Administration to rethink their approach to Medicaid.

However, such efforts should come only after Congress has first backed down Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied. Restoring Medicaid as a safety net program for the most vulnerable in society would unwind more than $1 trillion in projected spending over the coming decade providing coverage to the able-bodied.[53] Just as important, it would remove the inequities created by Obamacare, and put all states on a level playing field for the reformed Medicaid program that should follow.

Mr. Jacobs is the Founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy research and consulting firm.



[1] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Public Law 111-148, as amended by the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, Public Law 111-152, http://housedocs.house.gov/energycommerce/ppacacon.pdf, Section 2001(a).

[2] NFIB v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. __ (2012).

[3] Jonathan Ingram and Nicholas Horton, “Obamacare Expansion Enrollment Is Shattering Projections,” Foundation for Government Accountability, November 16, 2016, https://thefga.org/download/ObamaCare-Expansion-is-Shattering-Projections.PDF, p. 5.

[4] Congressional Budget Office, estimate of H.R. 4872, Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, in concert with H.R. 3590, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, March 20, 2010, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/111th-congress-2009-2010/costestimate/amendreconprop.pdf, Table 4, p. 21.

[5] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “First Half of 2016 Effectuated Enrollment Snapshot,” October 19, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-10-19.html.

[6] Avalere Health, “The State of Exchanges: A Review of Trends and Opportunities to Grow and Stabilize the Market,” report funded by Aetna, October 2016, http://go.avalere.com/acton/attachment/12909/f-0352/1/-/-/-/-/20161005_Avalere_State%20of%20Exchanges_Final_.pdf, Figure 3, p. 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The numbers in parentheses represent revised 2014 data cited in the 2015 actuarial report, based on actual spending patterns. The numbers initially cited in the 2014 actuarial report were $5,514 for newly eligible adults, and $4,650 for previously eligible adults.

[9] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary, “2014 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” report to Congress, 2014, https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2014.pdf, pp. 36-37.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary, “2015 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” report to Congress, 2015, https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2015.pdf, p. 27.

[12] For an analysis of the ways that the Medicare actuary’s office and CBO have changed their baseline projections of Medicaid spending over time, see Brian Blase, “Evidence Is Mounting: The Affordable Care Act Has Worsened Medicaid’s Structural Problems,” Mercatus Center, September 2016, https://www.mercatus.org/system/files/mercatus-blase-medicaid-structural-problems-v1.pdf, pp. 15-20.

[13] Christina Cassidy, “Rising Cost of Medicaid Expansion is Unnerving Some States,” Associated Press October 5, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/4219bc875f114b938d38766c5321331a/rising-cost-medicaid-expansion-unnerving-some-states.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Christina Cassidy, “Medicaid Enrollment Surges, Stirs Worry about State Budgets,” Associated Press July 19, 2015, http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/c158e3b3ad50458b8d6f8f9228d02948/medicaid-enrollment-surges-stirs-worry-about-state-budgets.

[16] Ibid.

[17] See also Chris Jacobs, “How Obamacare Undermines American Values: Penalizing Work, Citizenship, Marriage, and the Disabled,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2862, November 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/how-obamacare-undermines-american-values-penalizing-work-marriage-citizenship-and-the-disabled.

[18] The author served as an appointee to the commission, whose work can be found at www.ltccommission.org.

[19] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Waiting List Enrollment for Medicaid Section 1915(c) Home- and Community-Based Services Waivers,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured 2015 survey, http://kff.org/health-reform/state-indicator/waiting-lists-for-hcbs-waivers/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Section 2001(a) of PPACA.

[22] “Federal Financial Participation in State Assistance Expenditures,” Federal Register November 25, 2015, pp. 73781-82, Table 1, https://aspe.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/167966/FMAP17.pdf.

[23] Nicholas Horton, “Hundreds on Medicaid Waiting List in Illinois Die While Waiting for Care,” Illinois Policy November 23, 2016, https://www.illinoispolicy.org/hundreds-on-medicaid-waiting-list-in-illinois-die-while-waiting-for-care-2/.

[24] Jason Pederson, “Waiver Commitment Wavering,” KATV June 15, 2016, http://katv.com/community/7-on-your-side/waiver-commitment-wavering.

[25] Chris Jacobs, “Obamacare Takes Care from Disabled People to Subsidize Able-Bodied, Working-Age Men,” The Federalist November 18, 2016, http://thefederalist.com/2016/11/18/obamacare-takes-care-disabled-people-subsidize-able-bodied-working-age-men/.

[26] “Federal Financial Participation,” Table 1.

[27] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Waiting List Enrollment.”

[28] Tamara Hayford et al., “Projecting Hospitals’ Profit Margins Using Several Alternative Scenarios,” Congressional Budget Office Working Paper 2016-04, September 2016, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/workingpaper/51919-Hospital-Margins_WP.pdf.

[29] Ibid., Table 6, p. 29.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., p. 34.

[32] For the most recent version, see John Shatto and Kent Clemens, “Projected Medicare Expenditures under an Illustrative Alternative Scenario,” Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, June 22, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/2016TRAlternativeScenario.pdf.

[33] Chris Jacobs, “The Report Every State Legislator Should Read,” National Review September 27, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/440411/obamacare-medicaid-expansion-hospitals-wont-benefit-says-cbo.

[34] American Enterprise Institute, “Medicare after Reform: the 2010 Medicare Trustees Report,” August 6, 2010, video available through C-SPAN at https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4402939/chip-kahn.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Chris Conover, “Will Medicaid Expansion Create Jobs?” Forbes February 25, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisconover/2013/02/25/will-medicaid-expansion-create-jobs/#73893e3e3d25.

[38] Ezekiel Emanuel, “We Can Be Healthy and Rich,” New York Times February 2, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/02/we-can-be-healthy-and-rich/.

[39] Kate Baicker and Amitabh Chandra, “The Health Care Jobs Fallacy,” New England Journal of Medicine June 28, 2012, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1204891.

[40] Congressional Budget Office, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024,” February 2014, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/45010-Outlook2014_Feb.pdf, Appendix C: Labor Market Effects of the Affordable Care Act: Updated Estimates, pp. 117-27.

[41] Genevieve M. Kenney et al., “Opting in to the Medicaid Expansion Under the ACA: Who Are the Uninsured Adults Who Could Gain Health Insurance Coverage?” Urban Institute, August 2012, p. 9, Appendix Table 2, http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/alfresco/publication-pdfs/412630-Opting-in-to-the-Medicaid-Expansion-under-the-ACA.PDF.

[42] Ibid., p. 8, Appendix Table 1.

[43] “Annual Update of the HHS Poverty Guidelines,” Federal Register January 25, 2016, pp. 4036-37, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-01-25/pdf/2016-01450.pdf.

[44] Edward Harris and Shannon Mok, “How CBO Estimates Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Labor Market,” Congressional Budget Office Working Paper 2015-09, December 2015, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/workingpaper/51065-ACA_Labor_Market_Effects_WP.pdf, p. 12.

[45] Craig Garthwaite, Tal Gross, and Matthew Notowidigdo, “Public Health Insurance, Labor Supply, and Employment Lock,” National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper 19220, July 2013, http://www.nber.org/papers/w19220.

[46] Congressional Budget Office, “Estimates for the Insurance Coverage Provisions of the Affordable Care Act Updated for the Recent Supreme Court Decision,” July 2012, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/112th-congress-2011-2012/reports/43472-07-24-2012-CoverageEstimates.pdf, p. 4.

[47] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid Demonstrations: HHS’ Approval Process for Arkansas’ Medicaid Waiver Raises Cost Concerns,” Report GAO-14-689R, August 8, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/665265.pdf, p. 3.

[48] Section 207 of H.R. 3762, Restoring Americans’ Health Care Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015.

[49] Palmetto Promise Institute, “King v. Burwell: The Obamacare Off-Ramp?” Health Care Fast Facts May 2015, http://www.kbcsandbox4.com/palmetto/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/King-v-Burwell-Fast-Facts.pdf.

[50] Chris Jacobs, “Reforming Medicaid, Beginning on Day One,” Chris Jacobs on Health Care December 12, 2016, http://www.chrisjacobshc.com/2016/12/12/reforming-medicaid-beginning-on-day-one/.

[51] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2016, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Reports/Spring%202016%20Fiscal%20Survey%20of%20States-S.pdf, p. 63; National Association of State Budget Officers, 1996 State Expenditure Report, April 1997, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/SER%20Archive/ER_1996.PDF, Table 3, p. 11.

[52] Amy Finklestein et al., “Effect of Medicaid Coverage on ED Use—Further Evidence from Oregon’s Experiment,” New England Journal of Medicine October 20, 2016, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1609533; Katherine Baicker, et al., “The Oregon Experiment—Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes,” New England Journal of Medicine May 2, 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321.

[53] Congressional Budget Office, baseline estimates for federal subsidies for health insurance, March 2016, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2016-03-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 3, p. 5.

Democrats’ Priorities: Obamacare or Zika?

If Nero was the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, Barack Obama must surely qualify as the president who dithered while his signature initiative rapidly crumbled. Despite a public-health emergency in sections of the southern United States, the president seems more interested in shoveling money to insurers than in stopping the threat from the Zika virus.

Last week the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was attempting yet another Obamacare relaunch, this one including a federally funded “advertising campaign featuring newly insured individuals, as well as direct appeals to young people hit by tax penalties this year for failing to enroll.” With enrollment in the law’s exchanges well below original estimates, insurers leaving in droves, and premiums ready to spike, the move seems to be a desperate attempt to increase sign-ups and keep insurers at the Obamacare table.

But the timing of the announcement could not be more incongruous. Even as the Department of Health and Human Services wastes taxpayer dollars to promote yet again a measure enacted into law six years ago — on which public opinion has remained decidedly stable (and negative) — HHS also claims that it desperately needs additional funding to fight the Zika virus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote to HHS on Friday to ask why the agency’s leaders  believe that taxpayer dollars “would be better spent propping up the failed Obamacare exchanges than other important public health priorities — such as preventing the spread of Zika.”

The fact remains, however, that HHS’s top priority is propping up the failed Obamacare experiment — a bigger priority than obeying the text of Obamacare itself. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service and other outside experts have concluded that, in implementing Obamacare’s reinsurance program, the administration violated the law by prioritizing payments to insurers over payments to the Treasury. As a result, insurers will receive billions of dollars in extra funding that legally should be returned to taxpayers.

To sum up the situation: The Obama administration is funneling billions of dollars to “greedy” insurers that Democrats hate, while Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have called for Congress to return from its recess to pass billions of dollars in spending to fight Zika. There is, however, an easy win-win solution: Use the reinsurance funds to pay for the new Zika spending, rather than giving insurance companies another Obamacare bailout.

The Zika conference report that the House passed in June did pay for new spending on the virus by rescinding some unspent Obamacare funds. Two-thirds of the funds rescinded, however ($543 million in total), came from an account used to establish Obamacare exchanges in United States territories. With exchanges having been established for years, this “rescission” amounts to Congress agreeing not to spend money that was never going to be spent anyway — a “pay for” on paper rather than in reality.

By contrast, utilizing reinsurance funds to finance Zika spending would represent a legitimate savings to taxpayers. Such a move would reclaim billions of dollars that otherwise would have been (unlawfully) diverted to insurance companies — some of which would fund the new Zika spending, and some of which would be returned to the taxpayers to whom the funds belonged in the first place.

Using reinsurance dollars to fund a Zika package would be not only good policy but good politics as well. Most Americans would put the health of infants and pregnant women over the health of insurance companies’ bottom lines — and so should Congress. If Democrats wish to defend crony capitalism and corporate-welfare payments to insurers, that is their right. But particularly after the premium spikes hit this fall, few may wish to do so.

As the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. Senator McConnell rightly pointed out last week that this administration has prioritized its failed Obamacare experiment over protecting Americans from the Zika virus. When it comes to finding any new source to pay for new Zika spending, ending Obamacare’s reinsurance bailout should stand at the top of the priority list.

This post was originally published at National Review.

For Presidential Candidates, Some Inconvenient Truths on Entitlements

News coverage regarding Hillary Clinton’s proposal to allow individuals under age 65 to buy into Medicare has focused largely on describing how her plan might work, or how it fits into her Democratic primary battle with socialist Bernie Sanders — the left hand trying to imitate what the far left hand is doing. But these political stories mask a more important policy paradigm: While Sanders and Clinton both want to expand Medicare, the program is broke — and neither Sanders, nor Clinton, nor Donald Trump have admitted that inconvenient truth, or have proposed any specific solutions to fix the problem.

Astute readers may note the verb tense in the preceding sentence. It’s not that Medicare will become insolvent in ten or twenty years’ time — it’s practically insolvent now. The program’s Part A (hospital insurance) trust fund lost a whopping $128.7 billion between 2008 and 2014, according to the program’s trustees. The Congressional Budget Office projected earlier this year that the trust dund would become insolvent within the decade.

But in reality, the only thing keeping Medicare afloat at present is the double-counting budget gimmicks created by Obamacare. In the year prior to the law’s enactment, the program’s trustees estimated that the Part A trust fund would become insolvent by 2017 — just a few short months from now. But within months after Obamacare became law, the trustees pushed back their insolvency estimate twelve years, from 2017 to 2029.

The trustees’ estimates notwithstanding, Medicare hasn’t become more solvent under President Obama — far from it. Instead, the Medicare payment reductions and tax increases used to fund Obamacare are simultaneously giving the illusion of improving Medicare’s insolvency. When former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius was asked at a congressional hearing whether those funds were being used “to save Medicare, or#…#to fund health care reform [Obamacare],” Sebelius replied, “Both.”

The Madoff-esque accounting schemes included in Obamacare do not improve Medicare’s solvency one whit. In fact, they undermine the program, because the illusion of solvency has encouraged politicians to ignore Medicare’s financial shortfalls until it’s too late.

And ignore it they have. Sanders has proposed a “Medicare for all” plan that a liberal think tank this week estimated would cost the federal government $32 trillion over ten years. Hillary Clinton has proposed creating another new entitlement — this one a refundable tax credit of up to $5,000 per family to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses, for which many of the 175 million Americans with employer-sponsored coverage could qualify. And Donald Trump has run ads, in states including Pennsylvania, claiming he will “save Social Security and Medicare without cuts.”

But none of them have provided specifics about how they would reform our existing entitlements to prevent a fiscal collapse and preserve them for current seniors and future generations. The collective silence might stem from the fact that Medicare alone faces unfunded obligations of $27.9 trillion over the next 75 years — and that’s after the Obamacare accounting gimmicks that make Medicare’s deficits look smaller on paper. Shortfalls that large will require making tough choices; greater economic growth will make the deficits more manageable, but we can’t grow our way out of a $28 trillion shortfall.

Reaction to Speaker Paul Ryan’s comments about Trump last week has largely focused on the latter’s tone and temperament in his presidential campaign. But if Ryan has stood for anything in Washington, it is fiscal responsibility and entitlement reform. Conversely, by claiming he can “save Social Security and Medicare without cuts,” Trump is effectively signing Republicans up for a $28 trillion tax increase to “save Medicare” — and more besides for Social Security. Little wonder, then, that the Speaker expressed his reluctance to endorse Trump; at their meeting today, they could well address this topic in detail.

Four decades ago, as Britain plunged into its Winter of Discontent, Prime Minister James Callaghan returned from a South American summit and denied any sense of “mounting chaos.” The next day, the Sun’s famous headline shouted “Crisis? What Crisis?” Clinton, Trump, and Sanders should take note. For while the remaining candidates for president seem more interested in creating new entitlements than in making existing ones sustainable, ultimately voters will not look kindly on those who fiddled while our fiscal future burned.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Hillary Clinton’s Obamacare “Fix”

In a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, Hillary Clinton outlined several elements of Obamacare that she said she would seek to change as president. Her proposals illustrate how the fiscal impact of the law could increase significantly from what was expected when the legislation passed in March 2010.

Among the things Mrs. Clinton cited was “how to fix the family glitch.” In short, if an individual qualifies for “affordable” health insurance through an employer, that person’s family will not qualify for federal insurance subsidies–even if the employer does not offer family coverage or if family coverage is unaffordable for the household.

Supporters of the health-care law may call this a “glitch,” but it is far from an unintended consequence. This provision has worked exactly how Congress wrote it into the Affordable Care Act. As I noted in an earlier Think Tank post, the Joint Committee on Taxation outlined the specifics behind this policy in a footnote on Page 33 of a 157-page summary of the law released the week of its passage. While some congressional Democrats have attempted to argue since then that the provision, as codified by the Internal Revenue Service, was “simply incongruent” with the text, or a “wrong interpretation of the law,” the legislative history indicates otherwise. The provision may have harsh consequences for affected families, but its inclusion was deliberate.

When Congress considered the legislation in 2010, the bill needed to adhere to President Barack Obama’s September 2009 pledge that it would “cost around $900 billion over 10 years.” But to keep the total cost of insurance subsidies—the “gross cost of coverage provisions” in Table 4 here—under $1 trillion, lawmakers made numerous tough choices. For instance, Congress delayed the start of subsidized insurance from January 2013 to January 2014. Congress increased Medicaid payment rates to improve access—but let that increase expire after two years. To pay for higher levels of upfront spending on insurance subsidies, Congress included provisions that slow their growth after 2019—a back-dated reckoning that future Congresses, and families, will have to contend with. And Congress passed—whether lawmakers knew it or not—the “family glitch” provision.

As I wrote in January, undoing all these fiscal constraints will cost money. Mrs. Clinton and other supporters of the law have wish lists of enhanced benefits, but proposals to pay for this new spending have been scarce. Moreover, to the extent that skeptics have likened Obamacare to a subprime mortgage—with “teaser” provisions passed in 2010 and a balloon payment still to come—the long lists of additional spending proposals, with few instances of budgetary restraint, will reinforce those comparisons.

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

“Doc Fix” Bill Makes Things Worse

Proponents of the “doc fix” legislation the House passed before Congress’s Easter recess have argued that it would permanently solve the perennial issue of physician reimbursements in Medicare. But an analysis by Medicare’s nonpartisan actuary all but cautions: “Not so fast, my friends!

The estimate of the legislation’s long-term impacts by Medicare’s chief actuary is sober reading. The legislation provides for a bonus pool that physicians can qualify for over the next 10 years but applies only in 2019 to 2024. The budgetary “out-years” provide for minimal increases in reimbursement rates. Beginning in 2026, physicians would receive a 0.75 percent annual increase if they participate in some alternative payment models or a 0.25 percent annual increase if they do not. Both are significantly lower than the normal rate of inflation.

Such paltry increases could have daunting effects over time. “We anticipate that payment rates under [the House-passed bill] would be lower than scheduled under the current SGR [sustainable growth rate formula] by 2048 and would continue to worsen thereafter,” the report said. By the end of the 75-year projection, physician reimbursements under the House-passed bill would be 30% lower than under the SGR. Critics have called the current system unsustainable, but over time the House bill’s “fix” would result in something worse.

The actuary said that the inadequacies of the House-proposed payment increases “in years when levels of inflation are higher.” Under the House-passed bill, physicians would receive a 2.3% increase in reimbursements over a three-year period. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the inflation rate was 11.3% in 1979, 13.5% in 1980, and 10.3% in 1981. If high inflation returned, doctors could effectively receive a paycut after inflation.

While physician groups are clamoring to avoid the 21% cut that would take effect this month if some sort of “doc fix” is not enacted, the House’s “solution” could result in larger real-term cuts in future years. Medicare’s chief actuary explains the results of these reimbursement changes over time:

“While [the House-passed bill] addresses the near-term concerns of the SGR system, the issues of inadequate physician payment rates are ultimately greater. . . . [T]here would be reason to expect that access to physicians’ services for Medicare beneficiaries would be severely compromised, particularly considering that physicians are less dependent on Medicare revenue than are other providers, such as hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.”

In sum, “we expect that access to, and quality of, physicians’ services would deteriorate over time for beneficiaries.”

The House “doc fix” legislation involved increasing the deficit by $141 billion, purportedly to solve the flaws in Medicare’s physician reimbursement system. But Medicare’s actuary thinks this legislation will make the long-term problem worse. When will Congress figure out that if you’re in a fiscal hole, it’s best to stop digging?

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

At What Price Medicare “Reform?”

The Congressional Budget Office has released its score of the Medicare “doc fix” legislation scheduled for consideration Thursday in the House. Among other things, the score provides some sense of the difficulty in enacting reforms to improve Medicare’s solvency.

CBO projected that the bipartisan legislation to repair Medicare’s physician payment structure would add $141 billion to the deficit. As I wrote in an earlier post, Congress paid for temporary patches in the past in part by cutting spending and in part by planning on bigger payment reductions in future years. While the legislation’s prospective increases in payment levels would be paid for, the future payment reductions already on the books would not be covered, thus raising the deficit. That unpaid-for increase in Medicare spending would also raise the basic Medicare Part B monthly premium by $10 monthly in 2025, CBO concluded.

The bill would make two structural changes to Medicare. CBO found significant savings—more than $34 billion—from reduced subsidies for higher-income earners. But the legislation’s reforms to Medigap supplemental insurance produced comparatively paltry savings: $400 million over a decade. The smaller savings is a result of legislators delaying the Medigap changes until 2020 and watering down the proposed cost-sharing required of Medigap enrollees.

CBO analyzed the bill’s costs and fiscal impact in its second decade, but the budget scorekeepers did not say the bill would reduce the deficit in the budgetary “out-years.” Compared with current law, the bill would increase the deficit, the agency said. And when compared to “freezing Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services,” CBO said, “the legislation could represent net savings or net costs in the second decade after enactment, but the center of the distribution of possible outcomes is small net savings.” In other words, even if one considers the scheduled reductions in future payments budgetary gimmicks that will never happen–and thus that they should be disregarded–the bill might not reduce the deficit, and if it did the budgetary savings would be very small.

Medicare needs more than very small savings to remain viable for the long term. The program’s Part A trust fund has run deficits of more than $120 billion over the past six years. And Medicare’s problems will only increase: Urban Institute projections indicate that a married couple earning average wages that retires this year will receive more than three times as much in benefits—$427,000—over their lifetime as they have paid in Medicare taxes. If the price of reforming Medicare is raising the deficit by $141 billion, how much more “reform” can Medicare withstand?

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