Tag Archives: Byrd rule

Summary of Senate Republicans’ Obamacare Legislation

A PDF copy of this analysis can be found here.

On June 22, Senate leadership released a discussion draft of their Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act. A detailed summary of the bill is below, along with possible conservative concerns 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 fully 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 advises 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 complete bill and CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not fully 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

Revisions to Obamacare Subsidies:             Modifies eligibility thresholds for the current regime of Obamacare subsidies. Under current law, households with incomes of between 100-400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $24,600 for a family of four in 2017) qualify for subsidies. This provision would change eligibility to include all households with income under 350% FPL—effectively eliminating the Medicaid “coverage gap,” whereby low-income individuals (those with incomes under 100% FPL) in states that did not expand Medicaid do not qualify for subsidized insurance.

Clarifies the definition of eligibility by substituting “qualified alien” for the current-law term “an alien lawfully present in the United States” with respect to the five-year waiting period for said aliens to receive taxpayer-funded benefits, per the welfare reform law enacted in 1996.

Changes the bidding structure for insurance subsidies. Under current law, subsidy amounts are based on the second-lowest silver plan bid in a given area—with silver plans based upon an actuarial value (the average percentage of annual health expenses covered) of 70 percent. This provision would base subsidies upon the “median cost benchmark plan,” which would be based upon an average actuarial value of 58 percent.

Modifies the existing Obamacare subsidy regime, 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 350% FPL, would pay 6.4% of income on health insurance, whereas an individual between ages 60-64 at the same income level would pay 16.2% 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.)

Lowers the “failsafe” at which secondary indexing provisions under Obamacare would apply. Under current law, if total spending on premium subsidies exceeds 0.504% of gross domestic product annually in years after 2018, the premium subsidies would grow more slowly. (Additional information available here, and a Congressional Budget Office analysis available here.) This provision would reduce the overall cap at which the “failsafe” would apply to 0.4% of GDP.

Eliminates the so-called “family glitch,” which renders members of a worker’s family ineligible for insurance subsidies if the worker qualifies for “affordable” employer-sponsored health insurance, regardless of whether or not said coverage applies to a worker’s family. (Additional information available here.) Also modifies definitions regarding eligibility for subsidies for employees participating in small businesses’ health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs).

Increases penalties on erroneous claims of the credit from 20 percent to 25 percent. Applies most of the above changes beginning in calendar year 2020.

Beginning in 2018, changes the definition of a qualified health plan, to prohibit plans from covering abortion other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may eventually be eliminated under the provisions of the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” therefore continuing taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion. (For more information, see these two articles.)

Eliminates provisions that limit repayment of subsidies for years after 2017. Subsidy eligibility is based upon estimated income, with recipients required to reconcile their subsidies received with actual income during the year-end tax filing process. Current law limits the amount of excess subsidies households with incomes under 400% FPL must pay. This provision would eliminate that limitation on repayments, which may result in fewer individuals taking up subsidies in the first place.

Some conservatives may be concerned first that, rather than repealing Obamacare, these provisions actually expand Obamacare—for instance, extending subsidies to some individuals currently not eligible, and fixing the so-called “family glitch.” Some conservatives may also be concerned that, as with Obamacare, these provisions will create disincentives to work that would reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of millions of jobs. Finally, as noted above, some conservatives may believe that, as with Obamacare itself, enacting these policy changes through the budget reconciliation process will prevent the inclusion of strong pro-life protections, thus ensuring continued taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion.

Small Business Tax Credit:             Repeals Obamacare’s small business tax credit, effective in 2020. Disallows the small business tax credit beginning in 2018 for any plan that offers coverage of abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother—which, as noted above, some conservatives may believe will be stricken during the Senate’s “Byrd rule” review. This language is substantially similar to Section 203 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, with the exception of the new pro-life language.

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.

Stability Funds:        Creates two stability funds intended to stabilize insurance markets—the first giving funds directly to insurers, and the second giving funds to states. The first would appropriate $15 billion each for 2018 and 2019, and $10 billion each for 2020 and 2021, ($50 billion total) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “fund arrangements with health insurance issuers to address coverage and access disruption and respond to urgent health care needs within States.” Instructs the CMS Administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure for providing and distributing funds.” Does not require a state match for receipt of stability funds.

Creates a longer term stability fund with a total of $62 billion in federal funding—$8 billion in 2019, $14 billion in 2020 and 2021, $6 billion in 2022 and 2023, $5 billion in 2024 and 2025, and $4 billion in 2026. Requires a state match beginning in 2022—7 percent that year, followed by 14 percent in 2023, 21 percent in 2024, 28 percent in 2025, and 35 percent in 2026. Allows the Administrator to determine each state’s allotment from the fund; states could keep their allotments for two years, but unspent funds after that point could be re-allocated to other states.

Long-term fund dollars could be used to provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals, including by reducing premium costs, “help stabilize premiums and promote state health insurance market participation and choice,” provide payments to health care providers, or reduce cost-sharing. However, all of the $50 billion in short-term stability funds—and $15 billion of the long-term funds ($5 billion each in 2019, 2020, and 2021)—must be used to stabilize premiums and insurance markets. The short-term stability fund requires applications from insurers; the long-term stability fund would require a one-time application from states.

Both stability funds are placed within Title XXI of the Social Security Act, which governs the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). While SCHIP has a statutory prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for abortion in state SCHIP programs, it is unclear at best whether this restriction would provide sufficient pro-life protections to ensure that Obamacare plans do not provide coverage of abortion. It is unclear whether and how federal reinsurance funds provided after-the-fact (i.e., covering some high-cost claims that already occurred) can prospectively prevent coverage of abortions.

Some conservatives may be concerned first that the stability funds would amount to over $100 billion in corporate welfare payments to insurance companies; second that the funds give nearly-unilateral authority to the CMS Administrator to determine how to allocate payments among states; third that, in giving so much authority to CMS, the funds further undermine the principle of state regulation of health insurance; fourth that the funds represent a short-term budgetary gimmick—essentially, throwing taxpayer dollars at insurers to keep premiums low between now and the 2020 presidential election—that cannot or should not be sustained in the longer term; and finally that placing the funds within the SCHIP program will prove insufficient to prevent federal funding of plans that cover abortion.

Implementation Fund:        Provides $500 million to implement programs under the bill.

Repeal of Some Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals some Obamacare taxes:

  • 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, effective January 1, 2017;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars, effective January 1, 2017;
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions, effective January 1, 2018;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals, effective January 1, 2018;
  • Medical device tax, effective January 1, 2018;
  • Health insurer tax (currently being suspended);
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage, effective January 1, 2017;
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction, effective January 1, 2017;
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals, effective January 1, 2023;
  • Tax on tanning services, effective September 30, 2017;
  • Net investment tax, effective January 1, 2017;
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives, effective January 1, 2017.

These provisions are generally similar to Sections 209 through 221 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. However, the bill does NOT repeal the economic substance tax, which WAS repealed in Section 222 of the 2015/2016 bill. Moreover, the bill delays repeal of the Medicare “high-income” tax (which is not indexed to inflation) for an additional six years, until 2023.

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.

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 Expansion:           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 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—scheduled under current law as 90 percent in 2020—to 85 percent in 2021, 80 percent in 2022, and 75 percent in 2023. The regular federal match rates would apply for expansion states—defined as those that expanded Medicaid prior to March 1, 2017—beginning in 2024, and to all other states effective immediately. (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 through 2023.)

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

Finally, the bill repeals provisions regarding presumptive eligibility and the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the language in this bill would give expansion states a strong incentive to sign up many more individuals for Medicaid over the next seven years. Some conservatives may also be concerned that, by extending the Medicaid transition for such a long period, it will never in fact go into effect.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Allotments:                Exempts non-expansion states from scheduled reductions in DSH payments in fiscal years 2021 through 2024, and provides an increase in DSH payments for non-expansion states in fiscal year 2020, based on a state’s Medicaid enrollment.

Retroactive 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.

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.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Permits—but unlike the House bill, does not require—states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income every six months, or at shorter intervals. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match rate for states that elect this option.

Work Requirements:           Permits (but does not require) states to, beginning October 1, 2017, impose work requirements on “non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant” beneficiaries. States can determine the length of time for such work requirements. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match for state expenses attributable to activities implementing the work requirements.

States may not impose requirements on pregnant women (through 60 days after birth); children under age 19; the sole parent of a child under age 6, or sole parent or caretaker of a child with disabilities; or a married individual or head of household under age 20 who “maintains satisfactory attendance at secondary school or equivalent,” or participates in vocational education.

Provider Taxes:        Reduces permissible Medicaid provider taxes from 6 percent under current law to 5.8 percent in fiscal year 2021, 5.6 percent in fiscal year 2022, 5.4 percent in fiscal year 2023, 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2024, and 5 percent in fiscal year 2025 and future fiscal years. Some conservatives may view provider taxes as essentially “money laundering”—a game in which states engage in shell transactions solely designed to increase the federal share of Medicaid funding and reduce states’ share. More information can be found here.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in fiscal year 2020. 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 2020, states could choose their “base period” based on any eight consecutive quarters of expenditures between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017. The CMS Administrator would have authority to make adjustments to relevant data if she believes a state attempted to “game” the look-back period.

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.

For years before fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to medical inflation for children, expansion enrollees, and all other non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation plus one percentage point for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries. Beginning in fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to overall inflation.

Includes provisions in the House bill regarding “required expenditures by certain political subdivisions.” Some conservatives may question the need to retain a parochial New York-related provision into the bill.

Provides a provision—not included in the House bill—for effectively re-basing the per capita caps. Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase the caps by between 0.5% and 2% for low-spending states (defined as having per capita expenditures 25% below the national median), and lower the caps by between 0.5% and 2% for high-spending states (with per capita expenditures 25% above the national median). The Secretary may only implement this provision in a budget-neutral manner, i.e., one that does not increase the deficit. However, this re-basing provision shall NOT apply to any state with a population density of under 15 individuals per square mile.

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. Requires new state reporting on inpatient psychiatric hospital services and children with complex medical conditions. Requires the HHS Inspector General to audit each state’s spending at least every three years.

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 that the use of the past several years as the “base period” for the per capita caps, benefits 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.

Medicaid Block Grants:      Creates a Medicaid block grant, called the “Medicaid Flexibility Program,” beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Requires interested states to submit an application providing a proposed packet of services, a commitment to submit relevant data (including health quality measures and clinical data), and a statement of program goals. Requires public notice-and-comment periods at both the state and federal levels.

The amount of the block grant would total the regular federal match rate, multiplied by the target per capita spending amounts (as calculated above), multiplied by the number of expected enrollees (adjusted forward based on the estimated increase in population for the state, per Census Bureau estimates). In future years, the block grant would be increased by general inflation.

Prohibits states from increasing their base year block grant population beyond 2016 levels, adjusted for population growth, plus an additional three percentage points. This provision is likely designed to prevent states from “packing” their Medicaid programs full of beneficiaries immediately prior to a block grant’s implementation, solely to achieve higher federal payments.

Permits states to roll over block grant payments from year to year, provided that they comply with maintenance of effort requirements. Reduces federal payments for the following year in the case of states that fail to meet their maintenance of effort spending requirements, and permits the HHS Secretary to make reductions in the case of a state’s non-compliance. Requires the Secretary to publish block grant amounts for every state every year, regardless of whether or not the state elects the block grant option.

Permits block grants for a program period of five fiscal years, subject to renewal; plans with “no significant changes” would not have to re-submit an application for their block grants. Permits a state to terminate the block grant, but only if the state “has in place an appropriate transition plan approved by the Secretary.”

Imposes a series of conditions on Medicaid block grants, requiring coverage for all mandatory populations identified in the Medicaid statute, and use of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) standard for determining eligibility. Includes 14 separate categories of services that states must cover for mandatory populations under the block grant. Requires benefits to have an actuarial value (coverage of average health expenses) of at least 95 percent of the benchmark coverage options in place prior to Obamacare. Permits states to determine the amount, duration, and scope of benefits within the parameters listed above.

Applies mental health parity provisions to the Medicaid block grant, and extends the Medicaid rebate program to any outpatient drugs covered under same. Permits states to impose premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing, provided such efforts do not exceed 5 percent of a family’s income in any given year.

Requires participating states to have simplified enrollment processes, coordinate with insurance Exchanges, and “establish a fair process” for individuals to appeal adverse eligibility determinations.

Exempts states from per capita caps, waivers, state plan amendments, and other provisions of Title XIX of the Social Security Act while participating in Medicaid block grants.

Performance Bonus Payments:             Provides an $8 billion pool for bonus payments to state Medicaid and SCHIP programs for Fiscal Years 2023 through 2026. Allows the Secretary to increase federal matching rates for states that 1) have lower than expected expenses under the per capita caps and 2) report applicable quality measures, and have a plan to use the additional funds on quality improvement. While noting the goal of reducing health costs through quality improvement, and incentives for same, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—as with others in the bill—gives near-blanket authority to the HHS Secretary to control the program’s parameters, power that conservatives believe properly resides outside Washington—and power that a future Democratic Administration could use to contravene conservative objectives.

Medicaid Waivers:  Permits states to extend Medicaid managed care waivers (those approved prior to January 1, 2017, and renewed at least once) in perpetuity through a state plan amendment, with an expedited/guaranteed approval process by CMS. Requires HHS to adopt processes “encouraging States to adopt or extend waivers” regarding home and community-based services, if those waivers would improve patient access.

Coordination with States:               After January 1, 2018, prohibits CMS from finalizing any Medicaid rule unless CMS and HHS 1) provide an ongoing regular process for soliciting comments from state Medicaid agencies and Medicaid directors; 2) solicit oral and written comments in advance of any proposed rule on Medicaid; and 3) respond to said comments in the preamble of the proposed rule.

Inpatient Psychiatric Services:             Provides for optional state Medicaid coverage of inpatient psychiatric services for individuals over 21 and under 65 years of age. (Current law permits coverage of such services for individuals under age 21.) Such coverage would not exceed 30 days in any month or 90 days in any calendar year. In order to receive such assistance, the state must maintain its number of licensed psychiatric beds as of the date of enactment, and maintain current levels of funding for inpatient services and outpatient psychiatric services. Provides a lower (i.e., 50 percent) match for such services, furnished on or after October 1, 2018.

Small Business Health Plans:             Amends the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to allow for creation of small business health plans. Some may question whether or not this provision will meet the “Byrd rule” test for inclusion on a budget reconciliation measure.

Title II

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.

Opioid Funding:       Appropriates $2 billion for Fiscal Year 2018 for the HHS Secretary to distribute “grants to states to support substance use disorder treatment and recovery support services.”

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” above). Language regarding community health centers was included in Section 102 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

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, 2019, 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.

Medical Loss Ratios:            Permits states to determine their own medical loss ratios, beginning for plan years on or after January 1, 2019.

State Innovation Waivers:              Amends Section 1332 of Obamacare regarding state innovation waivers. Eliminates the requirement that states codify their waivers in state law, by allowing a Governor or State Insurance Commissioner to provide authority for said waivers. Appropriates $2 billion for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2019 to allow states to submit waiver applications, and allows states to use the long-term stability fund to carry out the plan. Allows for an expedited approval process “if the Secretary determines that such expedited process is necessary to respond to an urgent or emergency situation with respect to health insurance coverage within a State.”

Requires the HHS Secretary to approve all waivers, unless they will increase the federal budget deficit—a significant change from the Obamacare parameters, which many conservatives viewed as unduly restrictive. (For more background on Section 1332 waivers, see this article.)

Provides for a standard eight-year waiver (unless a state requests a shorter period), with automatic renewals upon application by the state, and may not be cancelled by the Secretary before the expiration of the eight-year period.

Provides that Section 1332 waivers approved prior to enactment shall be governed under the “old” (i.e., Obamacare) parameters, that waiver applications submitted after enactment shall be governed under the “new” parameters, and that states with pending (but not yet approved) applications at the time of enactment can choose to have their waivers governed under the “old” or the “new” parameters.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019. Appropriates funds for cost-sharing subsidy claims for plan years through 2019—a provision not included in the House bill. 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. Some conservatives may view the appropriation first as likely to get stricken under the “Byrd rule,” and second as a budget gimmick—acknowledging that Obamacare did NOT appropriate funds for the payments by including an appropriation for 2017 through 2019, but then relying on nearly $100 billion in phantom “savings” from repealing the non-existent “appropriation” for years after 2020.

What You Need to Know about Budget Reconciliation in the Senate

After last week’s House passage of the American Health Care Act, the Senate has begun sorting through various policy options for health care legislation. But looming over the policy discussions are procedural concerns unique to the Senate. Herewith a primer on the process under which the upper chamber will consider an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

How Will the Bill Come to the Senate Floor?

The bill that passed the House was drafted as a budget reconciliation bill. The phrase “budget reconciliation” refers to a process established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, in which congressional committees reconcile spending in programs within their jurisdiction to the budget blueprint passed by Congress. In this case, Congress passed a budget in January that required health-care committees to report legislation reducing the deficit by $1 billion—the intended vehicle for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

What’s So Important about Budget Reconciliation?

The Budget Act lays out specific time limits for debate in the Senate—20 hours of debate—and limits amendments to germane (i.e., relevant) topics. Normally, debate in the Senate is much more free-wheeling, with unlimited debate and amendments permitted on any issue. A senator could offer an amendment on Syria policy to a tax bill, for instance.

Under most circumstances, the Senate can only limit debate and amendments by invoking cloture, which requires the approval of three-fifths of all senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes). Because the reconciliation process prohibits filibusters and unlimited debate, it allows the Senate to pass reconciliation bills with a simple majority (i.e., 51-vote) threshold.

Why Does the ‘Byrd Rule’ Exist as part of Budget Reconciliation?

Named for former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV), the rule intends to protect the integrity of the legislative filibuster. By allowing only matters integral to the budget reconciliation to pass the Senate with a simple majority (as opposed to the 60-vote threshold), the rule seeks to keep the body’s tradition of extended debate.

What Is the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Simply put, the rule prohibits “extraneous” material from intruding in budget reconciliation legislation. However, the term “Byrd rule” is technically a misnomer in two respects. First, the “Byrd rule” is more than just a longstanding practice of the Senate. After several years of operation as a Senate rule, it was codified into law beginning in 1985, and can be found at 2 U.S.C. 644. Second, the rule consists of not just one test to define whether material is “extraneous,” but six.

What Are the Six Different Types of Extraneous Material?

This chart from Senate Budget Committee staff highlights the six statutory definitions of “extraneous” material, provides some examples of each, and explains how the Senate rules on, and disposes of, material falling under each test.

So the Various Types of ‘Byrd Rule’ Violations Are Not Necessarily Equivalent?

Correct. While most reporters focus on the fourth test—when a legislative provision has a budgetary impact merely incidental to the provision’s policy change—that is not the only type of rule violation. Nor in many respects is it the most significant.

While violations of the fourth test are fatal to the provision—the extraneous material is stricken from the underlying legislation—violations of the third (material outside the jurisdiction of committees charged with reporting reconciliation legislation) and sixth (changes to Title II of the Social Security Act) tests are fatal to the entire bill.

Who Determines Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

As the chart notes, those determinations are made by the Senate Budget Committee chairman—currently Mike Enzi (R-WY)—or the chair, who normally acts upon guidance from the Senate parliamentarian.

How Does One Determine Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

In some cases, determining compliance with the rule is relatively straight-forward. A provision dealing with veterans’ benefits (within the jurisdiction of the Veterans Affairs Committee) would clearly fail the third test in a tax reconciliation bill, as tax matters lie within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

However, other cases require a more nuanced, textual analysis by the parliamentarian. Such an analysis might examine Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other outside scores, to assess the provision’s fiscal impact (or lack thereof), the statute the reconciliation bill seeks to amend, other statutes cross-referenced in the legislation (to assess the impact of the programmatic changes the provision would make), and prior precedent on related matters.

When Does the Senate Assess Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’?

In some respects, assessing compliance is an iterative process. Often, the Senate parliamentarian will provide informal advice to majority staff as they begin to write reconciliation legislation. While these informal conversations help to guide bill writers during the drafting process, the parliamentarian normally notes that these discussions do not constitute a formal advisory opinion; minority party staff and other interested persons are not privy to the ex parte conversations, and could in time bring her new information that could cause her to change her opinion.

Later in the process, as the reconciliation bill makes its way to the Senate floor, majority and minority leadership staff will gather for more formal discussions to assess which provisions qualify as “extraneous” under the “Byrd rule.” This process, informally known as the “Byrd bath,” allows for all sides to put their cases before the parliamentarian, who will normally provide more definitive guidance on how she would advise the chair to rule.

Do Debates about the ‘Byrd Rule’ Take Place on the Senate Floor?

They can, and they have, but relatively rarely. As James Wallner, an expert in Senate parliamentary procedure, notes, over the last three decades, the Senate has formally adjudicated only ten instances of the fourth test—whether a provision’s fiscal impacts are merely incidental to its proposed policy changes.

Because most determinations of “Byrd rule” compliance (or non-compliance) have been made through informal, closed-door “Byrd bath” discussions in the Senate parliamentarian’s office, there are few formal precedents—either rulings from the chair or votes by the Senate itself—regarding specific examples of “extraneous” material. As a result, the Senate—whether the parliamentarian, the presiding officer, or the body itself—has significant latitude to interpret the statutory tests about what qualifies as “extraneous.”

Can the Senate Overrule the Parliamentarian about What Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes, in two respects. The presiding officer—whether the vice president as president of the Senate, the president pro tempore (currently Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT), or another senator—can disregard the parliamentarian’s guidance and issue his or her own ruling. Alternatively, a senator could appeal the chair’s decision, and a simple majority of the body could overrule that decision. There is a long history of senators doing just that.

As a practical matter, however, such a scenario appears unlikely during the Obamacare debate, for two reasons. First, some senators may view such a move as akin to the “nuclear option,” undermining the legislative filibuster by a simple majority vote. The recent letter signed by 61 senators pledging to uphold the legislative filibuster indicates that at least some senators in both parties want to preserve the usual 60-vote margin for passing legislation, and therefore may not wish to set a precedent of allowing potentially “extraneous” material on to a budget reconciliation bill through a simple majority.

Second, if the Senate did overrule the parliamentarian on a procedural matter related to budget reconciliation, a conservative senator would likely introduce a simple, one-line Obamacare repeal bill and ask the Senate to overrule the parliamentarian to allow it to qualify as a reconciliation matter. Since many members of the Senate, like the House, do not actually wish to repeal Obamacare, they would likely decline to head down the road of overruling the parliamentarian, for fear it may head in this direction.

Can the Senate Waive the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes—provided three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 senators) agree. In the past, many budget reconciliation bills—like the Balanced Budget Act of 1997—passed with far more than 60 Senate votes, which made waiving the rule easier.

However, Republicans did not agree to waive the rule for extraneous material included in Senate Democrats’ Obamacare “fix” bill in March 2010. That material was stricken from the legislation and did not make it into law. For this and other reasons, it seems unlikely that eight or more Senate Democrats would vote to waive the rule for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

Didn’t Democrats Pass Obamacare through Budget Reconciliation?

Yes and no. They fixed portions of Obamacare—for instance, the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback”—through a budget reconciliation measure that passed through both houses of Congress in March 2010. But the larger, 2,400-page measure that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009 was enacted into law first.

Once Scott Brown’s election to the Senate in January 2010 gave Republicans 41 votes, Democrats knew they could not go through the usual process of convening a House-Senate conference committee to consider the differences between each chamber’s legislation. A conference report is subject to a filibuster, and Republicans had the votes to sustain that filibuster.

Instead, House Democrats agreed to pass the Senate version of the legislation—the version that passed with 60 votes on Christmas Eve 2009—then have both chambers use a separate budget reconciliation bill—one that could pass the Senate with a 51-vote majority—to make changes to the bill they had just enacted.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Despite Trump Intervention, House GOP Still Not Repealing Obamacare

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

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

What Changes Were Announced After The Meeting?

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

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

Medicaid: Block Grant vs. Per Capita Cap

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

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

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

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

Will This Be A Good Deal For Americans?

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

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

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

AHCA Leaves Much To Be Desired

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

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

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

AHCA Doesn’t Fully ‘Repeal And Replace’

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will the “Byrd Bath” Turn Into a Tax Credit Bloodbath?

While most of official Washington waits for word—expected early this week—from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the fiscal effects of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, another, equally critical debate is taking place within the corridors of the Capitol. Arcane arguments behind closed doors about the nuances of parliamentary procedure will do much to determine the bill’s fate in the Senate—and could lead to a final product vastly altered compared to its current form.

In recent days, House leaders have made numerous comments highlighting the procedural limitations of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate. However, those statements do not necessarily mean that the legislation released last week comports with all of those Senate strictures. Indeed, my conversations with more than half a dozen current and former senior Senate staff, all of whom have long expertise in the minutiae of Senate rules and procedure, have revealed at least four significant procedural issues—one regarding abortion, two regarding immigration, and one regarding a structural “firewall”—surrounding the bill’s tax credit regime.

Those and other procedural questions explain why, according to my sources, Senate staff will spend the coming week determining whether they will need to write an entirely new bill to substitute for the House’s proposed language. The stakes involved are high: Guidance from the parliamentarian suggesting that the House bill contains fatal procedural flaws, meaning it does not qualify as a reconciliation bill, could force the House to repeat the process, starting again with a new, “clean” reconciliation measure.

It is far too premature to claim that any of these potential flaws will necessarily be fatal. The Senate parliamentarian’s guidance to senators depends on textual analysis—of the bill’s specific wording, the underlying statutes to which it refers, and the CBO scores (not yet available)—and arguments about precedent made by both parties. Senate staff could re-draft portions of the House bill to make it pass procedural muster, or make arguments to preserve the existing language that the parliamentarian accepts as consistent with Senate precedents. Nevertheless, if the parliamentarian validates even one of the four potential procedural problems, Republicans could end up with a tax credit regime that is politically unsustainable, or whose costs escalate appreciably.

In 2009, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad famously opined that passing health care legislation through budget reconciliation would make the bill look like “Swiss cheese.” (While Democrats did not pass Obamacare through reconciliation, they did use the reconciliation process to “fix” the bill that cleared the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009.) In reality, it’s much easier to repeal provisions of a budgetary nature—like Obamacare’s taxes, entitlements, and even its major regulations—through reconciliation than to create a new replacement regime. The coming week may provide firsthand proof of Conrad’s 2009 axiom.

“Byrd Rule” and Abortion

The Senate’s so-called “Byrd rule” governing debate on budget reconciliation rules—named after former Senate Majority Leader and procedural guru Robert Byrd (D-WV)— in fact consists of not one rule, but six. The six points of order (codified here) seek to keep extraneous material out of the expedited reconciliation process, preserving the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, subject to the usual 60-vote margin to break a filibuster.

The Byrd rule’s most famous test states that “a provision shall be considered extraneous if it produces changes in outlays or revenues which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the legislation.” If the section in question primarily makes a policy change, and has a minimal budgetary impact, it remains in the bill only if 60 senators (the usual margin necessary to break a filibuster) agree to waive the Byrd point of order.

One example of this test may apply to the House bill’s tax credits: “Hyde amendment” language preventing the credits from funding plans that cover abortion. Such language protecting taxpayer funding of abortion coverage occurs several places throughout the bill, including at the top of page 25 of the Ways and Means title.

Over multiple decades, and numerous parliamentarians, Republican efforts to enact Hyde amendment protections through budget reconciliation have all failed. It is possible that Republicans could in the next few weeks find new arguments that allow these critical protections to remain in the House bill—but that scenario cannot be viewed as likely.

The question will then occur as to what becomes of both the credit and the Hyde protections. Some within the Administration have argued that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can institute pro-life protections through regulations—but Administration insiders doubt HHS’ authority to do so. Moreover, most pro-life groups publicly denounced President Obama’s March 2010 executive order—which he claimed would prevent taxpayer funding of abortion coverage in Obamacare—as 1) insufficient and 2) subject to change under a future Administration. How would those pro-life groups view a regulatory change by the current Administration any differently?

Immigration

A similarly controversial issue—immigration—brings an even larger set of procedural challenges. Apart from the separate question of whether the current verification provisions in the House bill are sufficiently robust, ANY eligibility verification regime for tax credits faces not one, but two major procedural obstacles in the Senate.

Of the six tests under the Byrd rule, some are more fatal than others. For instance, if the Hyde amendment restrictions outlined above are ruled incidental in nature, then those provisions merely get stricken from the bill unless 60 Senators vote to retain them—a highly improbable scenario in this case.

But two other tests under the Byrd rule—provisions outside a committee’s jurisdiction, and provisions making changes to Title II of the Social Security Act—are fatal not just to that particular provision, but to the entire bill, potentially forcing the process to begin all over again in the House. The eligibility verification regime touches them both.

Page 37 of the Ways and Means title of the bill requires creation of a verification regime for tax credits similar to that created under Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare. As Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Tom Barthold testified last week during the Ways and Means Committee markup, verifying citizenship requires use of a database held by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

That admission creates a big problem: The tax credit lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee—but CIS lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And because the Finance Committee’s portion of the reconciliation bill can affect only programs within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, imposing programmatic requirements on CIS to verify citizenship status could exceed the Finance Committee’s scope—potentially jeopardizing the entire bill.

The verification provisions in Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare also require the use of Social Security numbers—triggering another potentially fatal blow to the entire bill. Senate sources report that, during when drafting the original reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare in the fall of 2015, Republicans attempted to repeal the language in Obamacare (Section 1414(a)(2), to be precise) giving the Secretary of HHS authority to collect and use Social Security numbers to establish eligibility. However, because Section 1414(a)(2) of Obamacare amended Title II of the Social Security Act, Republicans ultimately did not repeal this section of Obamacare in the reconciliation bill—because it could have triggered a point of order fatal to the legislation.

If both the points of order against the verification regime are sustained, Congress will have to re-write the bill to create an eligibility verification system that 1) does not rely on the Department of Homeland Security AND 2) does not use Social Security numbers. Doing so would create both political and policy problems. On the political side, the revised verification regime would exacerbate existing concerns that undocumented immigrants may have access to federal tax credits.

But the policy implications of a weaker verification regime might actually be more profound. Weaker verification would likely result in a higher score from CBO and JCT—budget scorekeepers would assume a higher incidence of fraud, raising the credits’ costs. House leaders might then have to reduce the amount of their tax credit to reflect the higher take-up of the credit by fraudsters taking advantage of lax verification. And any reduction in the credit amounts would bring with it additional political and policy implications, including lower coverage rates.

Firewall Concerns

Finally, the tax credit “firewall”—designed to ensure that only individuals without access to other health insurance options receive federal subsidies—could also present procedural concerns. Specifically, pages 27 and 28 of the bill make ineligible for the credit individuals participating in other forms of health insurance, several of which—Tricare, Veterans Administration coverage, coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, etc.—lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

If the Senate parliamentarian advises for the removal of references to these programs because they lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, then participants in those programs will essentially be able to “double-dip”—to receive both the federal tax credit AND maintain their current coverage. As with the immigration provision outlined above, such a scenario could significantly increase the tax credits’ cost—requiring offsetting cuts elsewhere, which would have their own budgetary implications.

Senate sources indicate that this “firewall” concern could prove less problematic than the immigration concern outlined above. While the immigration provision extends new programmatic authority to the Administration to develop a revised eligibility verification system, the “firewall” provisions have the opposite effect—essentially excluding Tricare and other program recipients from the credit. However, if the parliamentarian gives guidance suggesting that some or all of the “firewall” provisions must go, that will have a significant impact on the bill’s fiscal impact.

Broader Implications

Both individually and collectively, these four potential procedural concerns hint at an intellectual inconsistency in the House bill’s approach—one Yuval Levin highlighted in National Review last week. House leaders claim that their bill was drafted to comply with the Senate reconciliation procedures. But the bill itself contains numerous actual or potential violations of those procedures—and amends some of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, rather than repealing them outright—making their argument incoherent.

Particularly when it comes to Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations, there seems little reason not to make the “ol’ college try,” and attempt to repeal the major mandates that have raised premium levels. According to prior CBO scores, other outside estimates, and the Obama Administration’s own estimates when releasing the regulations, the major regulations have significant budgetary effects. Republicans can and should argue to the parliamentarian that the regulations’ repeal would be neither incidental nor extraneous—their repeal would remove the terms and conditions under which Obamacare created its insurance subsidies in the first place, thus meeting the Byrd test. If successful, such efforts would provide relief on the issue Americans care most about: Reducing health costs and staggering premium increases.

When it comes to the tax credit itself, Republicans may face some difficult choices. Abortion and immigration present thorny—and controversial—issues, either one of which could sink the legislation. When it comes to the bill’s tax credits, the “Byrd bath,” in which the parliamentarian gives guidance on what provisions can remain in the reconciliation bill, could become a bloodbath. If pro-life protections and eligibility verification come out of the bill, a difficult choice for conservatives on whether or not to support tax credits will become that much harder.