Tag Archives: Donald Trump

The “Technical” Amendment That Could Affect Millions of Veterans’ Health Coverage

As the House of Representatives steamrolls toward a vote tomorrow on Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, lawmakers weighing their vote may wish to consider a few key questions—such as:

  • How did an ostensibly “technical” amendment end up withdrawing refundable tax credits from up to seven million veterans?
  • Does Donald Trump—who released a specific plan early in his campaign to “ensure our veterans get the care they need wherever and whenever they need it”—realize the potentially broad-ranging effects of this “technical” amendment on veterans?
  • And what other supposedly “technical” language will turn out to have unintended consequences should House Republicans rush to put this legislation on the statute books without fully digesting its effects?

Conservatives have their own (justifiable) concerns with the underlying substance of the new tax credit entitlement, but this “technical” amendment provides a microcosm of the problems that result when legislators rush to judgment based on arbitrary deadlines. Just as with Obamacare itself, lawmakers may find they have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

The Issue

As I explained last week, the original House bill had a potentially fatal flaw in its tax credit “firewall.” Specifically, language designed to ensure individuals with other forms of health insurance—such as Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, and VA coverage—did not receive the credit touched upon other committees of jurisdiction in the Senate, such as Armed Services and Veterans Affairs. Under budget reconciliation procedures, a committee—the Senate Finance Committee, in this instance—cannot include subject matter outside its own jurisdiction; doing so could cause the entire bill to lose its procedural privilege as a reconciliation measure.

Due to these procedural concerns, the House released a technical amendment late Monday evening that, according to a summary, “includes the technical restructuring of the new tax credit made as a result of Senate guidance to maintain the privilege of the bill.” However, in restructuring the credit, staff—whether by accident or design—ended up eliminating eligibility for an entire class of veterans.

Pages 97-98 of the original House bill included specific language stating that veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA health benefits would qualify for the credit:

‘‘(2) SPECIAL RULE WITH RESPECT TO VETERANS HEALTH PROGRAMS.—In the case of other specified coverage described in paragraph (1)(F) [i.e., VA coverage], an individual shall not be treated as eligible for such coverage unless such individual is enrolled in such coverage.

However, the “technical” amendment released Monday evening strikes that language. The replacement language, on pages 9-10 of the amendment, states that individuals qualify for the credit only if they are “not eligible for” other types of coverage, including VA coverage:

‘‘(2) The individual is not eligible for—
‘‘(A) coverage under a group health plan (within the meaning of section 5000(b)(1)) other than coverage under a plan substantially all of the coverage of which is of excepted benefits described in section 9832(c), or
‘‘(B) coverage described in section 5000A(f)(1)(A) [which includes VA coverage]

The revised language therefore means that individuals eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA coverage cannot qualify for the new insurance subsidies created by the bill.

The Impact

The most recent estimates suggest about 9.1 million individuals are enrolled in VA health programs. However, a 2014 Congressional Budget Office score of veterans’ choice legislation concluded that “about 8 million [veterans] qualify to enroll in VA’s health system but have not enrolled.” Subtracting for VA enrollment gains since that CBO score leaves approximately seven million veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA health programs, and thus potentially affected by the House’s “technical” change.

At least some of those seven million veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA health programs may not qualify for the House’s new insurance subsidies for other reasons. For instance, some of those seven million veterans may have other forms of health coverage—from a current or former employer, Medicare, Tricare, etc.—that would render them ineligible for the credit regardless of their VA status.

However, given a universe of seven million veterans potentially affected by the changes, doubtless many veterans would be actually affected by the House language. And as a policy matter, it is unclear why the revised House language, by cutting off access to the credit for those eligible for but not enrolled in VA coverage, seeks to direct more people into a government-run VA health system still suffering from the effects of the wait time reporting scandal.

The Fallout

It is possible, and perhaps even probable, that this “technical” change—which in reality could affect millions of veterans—was entirely unintentional in nature, caused by harried, sleep-deprived congressional staff rushing to complete work on the bill. But it raises the obvious question: What other changes, tweaks, errors, or other unintended consequences might such rushed legislation contain?

We’ve seen this show before. In 2010, the text of Obamacare as passed failed to make clear that VA and Tricare coverage qualified as minimum benefits—making soldiers and veterans subject to taxes for violating the law’s individual mandate. Because of that drafting error, Republicans forced a vote on exempting soldiers and veterans from the mandate, before the issue was eventually resolved.

This week’s “technical” amendment, with potentially wide-reaching implications, reprises the errors of Obamacare, and demonstrates the dangers of House Republicans’ rushed strategy. With a highly compressed timetable seemingly dictating the entire process, unforced errors seem almost inevitable. President Trump has made clear his desire to move to tax reform as soon as possible—but how would he defend disqualifying up to seven million veterans from the bill’s tax credits?

Once finding out about the effects of this “technical” amendment, House leadership will quite probably move to change it—and fast. But what about the other “technical” problems lurking in the bill? Given the rushed process, doubtless more of these “bugs” and “glitches” exist. Who will find them—and when? What if they aren’t found until after the measure’s enactment, and then can’t be fixed legislatively? Lawmakers should think long and hard about these unintended consequences before they vote to assume responsibility for them for a long time to come.

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.

How A Meghan Trainor Song Explains the Obamacare Debate

Meghan Trainor may not be known as a policy wonk, but her lyrics could prove surprisingly useful for health care analysts. In constructing an Obamacare alternative, the debate really is all about that base—or, to be more specific, multiple baselines.

Despite the lyrics to Trainor’s famous hit, the intersection of those baselines—the coverage and fiscal baselines, along with the beliefs of the Republican Party base—has caused “treble” in replacing the health law.

Health Insurance Versus Health Care Prices

The first baseline—and the one currently driving the discussion—involves the number of Americans with health insurance. Right now, many Republicans believe they must try to extend coverage to the 20 million individuals Obamacare has supposedly provided with insurance.

Of course, some of those Americans—such as yours truly—had lost their prior coverage and were forced to buy exchange policies, or obtained coverage through Obamacare’s mandate for coverage of young adults under age 26, a provision ancillary to the law’s main entitlements. Moreover, other studies suggest the 20 million number is both inflated and driven largely by Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid, not individuals purchasing policies on state insurance exchanges.

The alternative to Obamacare released by America Next nearly three years ago, which I helped draft, decided to focus on what bothers Americans most about the health care system: rising costs. Any Republican alternative to Obamacare that excludes an individual mandate or employer mandate likely will not cover as many individuals as Obamacare, perhaps by a good number. That’s one reason the America Next plan centered on controlling health costs, not implementing a coverage expansion designed to compete with Obamacare.

Although conservatives would historically focus on how their policies will lower health costs, right now many Republicans appear fixated on chasing coverage numbers. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price both support refundable, advanceable tax credits, a policy Ryan has supported for many years. While incorporating a refundable tax credit into an Obamacare alternative will result in more Americans with health coverage—mitigating the first baseline issue—it could have other ramifications.

The Tax and Spend Baseline

The second baseline to consider when talking about Obamacare alternatives is the tax and spending baseline. If a replacement plan pre-supposes repeal of the law, should an alternative be viewed as raising or lowering taxes and spending relative to what existed with the law, or relative to what existed prior to the law?

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2015 that Obamacare will raise nearly $1.2 trillion in taxes over a decade. If an alternative to Obamacare would change that $1.2 trillion number to $800 billion, should that be viewed as a $400 billion tax cut relative to Obamacare itself, or a $800 billion tax increase, because Obamacare should be assumed as fully repealed?

Then There’s the Republican Base

On this front, the third base involved in this discussion, the Republican political base, has made its voice clear. Asked in a March 2014 poll conducted by America Next whether “any replacement of Obamacare must repeal all of the Obamacare taxes and not just replace them with other taxes,” 55 percent of the general public agreed. More concerning for Republican members of Congress, self-identified Republicans and conservatives agreed by much larger margins, approaching three to one. They would view any attempt to leave some of the law’s taxes or spending intact as inconsistent with pledges to repeal the law entirely.

Therein lies Republicans’ dilemma. Some Republicans believe that any credible Obamacare alternative must offer some insurance subsidy to those newly covered by the law. Several Republican alternatives already released would re-direct the funds raised by the law—whether through taxes, spending, or both—to finance new subsidy options.

However, based on the polling available, Republican voters disagree with this strategy. With Obamacare little discussed during the presidential campaign, and President Trump sending decidedly un-conservative signals about his policy priorities, Tea Party supporters may be more than a little surprised if an alternative to the law ends up retaining chunks of its spending and taxes.

This interplay among the base of new insureds, the spending and tax baselines, and the beliefs of the conservative base will define the House Republican alternative to Obamacare, and the legislative debate that continues to unfold. Meghan Trainor may never serve as a Washington policy analyst, but her mantra that it’s all about that base will ring true in the debate surrounding Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How HHS’ Proposed Rule Would Slightly Improve Obamacare

This morning, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a rule proposing several changes to Obamacare insurance offerings. The regulations are intended to help stabilize insurance markets and hopefully pave the way for a repeal and transition away from Obamacare.

Worth noting before discussing its specifics: The rule provides a period of notice-and-comment (albeit a shortened one) for individuals who wish to weigh in on its proposals. This decision to elicit feedback compares favorably to the Obama administration, which rushed out its 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters without prior public comment during the “lame duck” post-election period. Because the Obama administration wanted that regulation to take effect before January 20—so President Trump could not withdraw the regulation upon taking office—HHS declined to allow the public an opportunity to weigh in before the rules went into effect.

Today’s proposed rule contains reforms designed to bring relief and stability to insurance markets:

  • A shortening of next year’s open enrollment period from three months to six weeks—a solution included in my report on ways the new administration can mitigate the effects of Obamacare. In theory, the rule could (and perhaps should) have proposed an even shorter open enrollment window, to prevent individuals from signing up after they develop health conditions.
  • A requirement for pre-enrollment verification of all special enrollment periods for people signing up on the federal exchange, healthcare.gov—again outlined in my report, and again to cut down on reports that individuals are signing up for coverage outside the annual open enrollment period, incurring costly expenses, then dropping coverage.
  • Permitting insurers to require individuals who have unpaid premium bills to pay their debts before enrolling in coverage—an attempt to stop the gaming of Obamacare’s 90-day “grace period” provision, which a sizable proportion of enrollees have used to avoid paying their premiums for up to three months.
  • Increasing the permitted range of actuarial value variation—also outlined in my report—to give insurers greater flexibility.
  • Additional flexibility on network adequacy requirements, both devolving enforcement to states and allowing insurers greater flexibility in those requirements. Some might find this change ironic—critics of Obamacare have complained about narrow physician networks, and this change will allow insurers to narrow them even further. Yet the problem with Obamacare and physician access is that insurers have been forced to narrow networks. The law’s new benefit mandates have made increasing deductibles, or cutting provider reimbursements, the only two realistic ways of controlling costs. Unless and until those statutory benefit requirements are repealed, those incentives will remain.

One key question is whether these changes by themselves will be enough to stabilize markets, and keep carriers offering coverage in 2018. Given that Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini this morning called Obamacare in a “death spiral,” and Humana announced yesterday it will exit all exchanges next year, that effect is not certain.

As my report last month outlined, the new administration can go further with regulatory relief for carriers, from further narrowing open enrollment, to reducing exchange user fees charged to insurers (and ultimately enrollees), to providing flexibility on medical loss ratio and essential benefits requirements, to withdrawing mandates to provide contraception coverage. All these changes would further improve the environment for insurers, and could induce more to remain in exchanges for 2018.

However, as my post this morning noted, the ultimate action lies with Congress. The Trump administration, and HHS under new Secretary Tom Price, have started to lay a foundation providing relief from Obamacare. Now it’s time for the legislature to take action, and deliver on their promise to the American people to repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare Repeal Will Destroy the Republican Agenda Unless Congress Gets Smart

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

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

What Has Happened In the Last Month

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

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

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

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

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

Adding Layers of Complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running the CBO Gauntlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay-For Problems

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

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

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

Then There Are the Political Obstacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now We Come to the Opportunity Costs

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

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

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

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

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

The Available Political Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time’s a Wastin’

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How to Repeal Obamacare–And What Comes Next

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s confirmation early Friday morning marks both an end and a beginning. While his installation after a bitter nomination battle formally begins the Trump administration’s work on healthcare, Price will also seek to bring about the end of former President Barack Obama’s unpopular and unaffordable healthcare law.

Dismantling Obamacare should be a three-fold process, involving coordination among HHS, the rest of the administration, and the Republican-led Congress. The steps can occur concurrently, but all must take place to prevent people from suffering any further from Obamacare’s ill effects.

Having assumed his post, Price should use the regulatory apparatus at his disposal to bring immediate relief from Obamacare. Press reports indicate the administration has already taken steps in that regard, sending a package of insurance stabilization rules to the Office of Management and Budget for clearance prior to their release, potentially as soon as Friday afternoon.

The reports suggest the administration is considering many of the proposals to provide regulatory flexibility that I included in a report analyzing repeal last month. Specifically, the administration may reduce the length of the annual open enrollment period and require verification of individuals seeking special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment. These are two critical steps to prevent individuals from signing up for insurance after they become sick.

The administration is also considering additional flexibility with regards to Obamacare’s benefit mandates, allowing additional variation in the expected percentage of health costs plans cover, for instance.

In many cases, the administration and Price have significant latitude to provide flexibility, but that latitude is not unlimited. Until Congress acts, Obamacare remains on the statute books. While regulators can reinterpret the law, they cannot ignore it. Already, the liberal-leaning AARP has threatened legal action over one of the new administration’s rumored regulatory changes.

These legal constraints illustrate why Congress should act, preferably sooner rather than later, in passing legislation repealing Obamacare. Congress should use as the basis for action the repeal bill it passed in the fall of 2015, which Obama vetoed early last year. That bill repealed all of the law’s tax increases, and sunset the law’s coverage expansions after a two-year period to allow for an appropriate transition.

While the 2015 legislation should represent the initial template for Obamacare’s repeal, Congress can and should go further. Legislators should also seek to repeal the law’s insurance regulations, which have raised premiums and caused millions to receive cancellation notices.

Although some assume Congress cannot repeal the regulations using budget reconciliation — the special process that allows legislation to pass with a 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60 votes, in the Senate — that may not be accurate. The Congressional Budget Office and others have made estimates showing the significant budgetary impact of these costly regulations. Republicans should use those cost estimates, and past Senate precedent, to enact repeal of the major insurance provisions using the special budget reconciliation procedures.

While adding repeal of the insurance regulations to the 2015 measure, Congress should also ease the transition away from Obamacare by freezing enrollment in the law’s new entitlements upon enactment of the repeal bill. It makes no sense to allow millions of individuals to continue enrolling in a program Congress has just voted to end. Especially with respect to the law’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied, freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Obamacare to retain their coverage, while starting a process to transition away from the law’s spending and allow individuals to transition off the rolls and into employer-based coverage.

When thinking about a post-Obamacare world, Congress and the new administration should have three priorities: lowering costs, lowering costs and lowering costs.

Americans of all political stripes view lowering health costs as their number-one priority, and it isn’t even close. While candidate Obama promised in 2008 that his health plan would lower costs by an average $2,500 per family per year, the bill he signed into law instead raised costs and premiums for millions.

The answer to the top health concern lies not in new spending and taxes to subsidize health insurance (the failed Obamacare formula) but in reducing the underlying costs of care.

Reducing costs involves equalizing the tax treatment of health insurance, limiting current tax preferences that encourage over-consumption of health insurance and health care. But this must be done in a way that does not raise tax burdens overall. Lowering costs should include incentives for wellness and promote health savings accounts, the expansion of which could reduce health expenditures by billions of dollars.

States have a big role to play in the health debate, both in lowering costs and protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions.

Congress can and should provide states with incentives to reduce insurance benefit mandates that drive up the cost of care. Congress should guarantee that individuals with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, but give states funding, and let them decide the best route — whether through high-risk pools, or some other risk transfer mechanism — to ensure access to care. While not the panacea President Trump and others have claimed, Congress should allow individuals to shop across state lines for the coverage that best suits their needs.

These changes will not require a 2,700-page piece of legislation like Obamacare. They should not even be considered a “replacement” for Obamacare. But they would have an impact in reducing health costs, the issue Americans care most about. They would represent a new beginning after the canceled policies and premium spikes associated with Obamacare.

 This post was originally published in the Washington Examiner.

One Easy Way to Start Reforming Entitlements

During his election campaign and the subsequent presidential transition, Donald Trump expressed a high degree of discomfort with reducing Medicare benefits. His position ignores the significant financial peril Medicare faces—a whopping $132.2 billion in deficits for the Part A (Hospital Insurance) trust fund over the past eight years.

That said, there is one easy way in which the new administration could advance the cause of entitlement reform: allow individuals—including wealthy individuals, like, say, Donald Trump—to opt out of Medicare.

Under current Social Security Administration (SSA) practice dating back to at least 1993, individuals who apply for Social Security benefits are automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A (hospital coverage). While Medicare Part B (physician coverage) requires a separate application process and monthly premium payment, Part A is effectively mandatory for all Social Security recipients. Individuals who do not wish to enroll can do so only by not applying for Social Security benefits. Put another way, the federal government holds individuals’ Social Security benefits hostage as leverage to forcibly enroll them in Medicare Part A.

If you think the government holding benefits hostage to forcibly enroll seniors—even wealthy ones—in taxpayer-funded Medicare sounds more than a little absurd, you wouldn’t be the first one. Several years ago, several conservatives—including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey—filed a lawsuit in federal court, Hall v. Sebelius, seeking to overturn the SSA guidance. The plaintiffs wanted to keep their previous private coverage, and did not wish to lose the benefits of that coverage by being forcibly enrolled in Medicare Part A.

We Have A Roadmap To Remedy This Problem

Unfortunately, both a federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed with the federal government. The majority opinions held that the underlying statute distinguished being “entitled” to Medicare Part A benefits from “enrolling” in Part B, meaning the government was within its rights to deny the plaintiffs an opportunity to opt out of Part A.

However, a dissent at the Court of Appeals by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson can provide a roadmap for the Trump Administration to remedy the absurd scenario of individuals being forcibly enrolled in a taxpayer-funded program. Judge Henderson held that the Social Security Administration had no statutory authority to prohibit (via its Program Operations Manual System, or POMS) individuals from disclaiming their Medicare Part A benefits. While the law “entitles” individuals to benefits, it does not give SSA authority to force them to claim said benefits. SSA published guidance in its program manual exceeding its statutory grant—without even giving the public the opportunity for notice-and-comment before establishing its policy.

It’s Time To End The SSA’s Kafka-esque Policies

During the Cold War, East German authorities referred to the barriers surrounding West Berlin as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”—implying that the Berlin Wall stood not to keep East Berliners in East Germany, but West Berliners out. One can’t help but notice a similar irony in the Medicare opt-out policies developed by the Social Security Administration. After all, if Medicare is so good, why must SSA hold individuals’ Social Security benefits hostage to keep them enrolled in the program?

The Trump Administration can easily put an end to the Social Security Administration’s Kafka-esque policies—and take one small step towards reforming entitlements—by instructing the new Commissioner of Social Security to work with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to develop a means for individuals to opt out of the Medicare Part A benefit. The savings from such a policy would likely be modest, but why should the federal government force the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on benefits that the beneficiaries themselves do not wish to receive?

The simple answer: it shouldn’t. Perhaps Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren view forcible enrollment in Medicare as “punishment” for wealthy seniors. But at a time when our nation faces nearly $20 trillion in debt, individuals of significant means—whether Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or even Hillary Clinton—shouldn’t be forced to accept taxpayer-funded benefits. The Trump Administration eliminating this government absurdity would represent a victory for fiscal responsibility—and sheer common sense.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Conservatives’ Choice: Power or Principle?

In the days immediately preceding and following the November 8 election, I observed a distinct evolution in thinking among some rightist thinkers. Some went into the election pledging an outright rebellion in the Senate should a Majority Leader Chuck Schumer use the “nuclear option” to muscle through a Hillary Clinton Supreme Court nominee, but mere days later thought that a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should consider abolishing the filibuster to allow President Trump’s nominee a smoother path to confirmation.

One couldn’t help but hold on to one’s neck for the bad case of whiplash. Some who proudly defended the filibuster as a bastion of deliberative legislating when they feared Democrats would win the White House and take back the Senate suddenly, instead, when presented with a Republican Senate and president-elect, considered this principle a trifling inconvenience. Those situational ethics present a more fundamental question: Are conservatives willing to forego policy “victories” that might result from a raw use of power, when exercising that power violates critical philosophical principles rooted in a belief in limited government?

That’s one prism through which to view Kellyanne Conway’s announcement that the Trump administration may not enforce Obamacare’s individual mandate. Besides the fact that non-enforcement presents policy problems and makes repeal of Obamacare less likely, it violates a principle at the heart of conservatism: The rule of law.

Not Within the Law

The new president’s executive order on Obamacare, released Friday evening, instructed executive agencies to take actions “to the maximum extent permitted by law” to blunt the effects of Obamacare. There are indeed many ways the Trump administration can act within the scope of existing law to provide relief to consumers, many of which I outlined in a report last week. But blanket non-enforcement of the individual mandate doesn’t qualify as being within the law, any more than President Obama’s policy of blanket non-enforcement for certain classes of immigrants fit within statutory parameters.

Observers have noted the last administration’s many examples of executive overreach on Obamacare have given the new administration grounds to provide regulatory relief on multiple fronts. But two wrongs do not make a right. Take, for instance, the following analysis:

The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.

The quote comes from a paper by University of Michigan professor Nicholas Bagley, talking about President Obama’s 2013 “transitional policy” that allowed people facing cancellation notices to temporarily keep their pre-Obamacare plans. But the same description could apply to not enforcing the individual mandate as well. Conservatives believe that forcing individuals to purchase a product is unconstitutional—but so is an executive refusing to enforce the law. Is the answer to a constitutional violation really another constitutional violation?

Major Practical Concerns

Not enforcing portions of Obamacare also presents logistical questions. Effectively eliminating the individual mandate through non-enforcement could worsen adverse selection—when only sick individuals purchase coverage, raising premiums and driving out additional healthy enrollees. As I noted last week, the new administration does have ways within the law to mitigate against this particular problem, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be.

In many cases, non-enforcement could result in lawsuits. The Obama administration’s unilateral actions generally led to more people getting benefits—insurance subsidies, immigration status, etc.—which made it difficult to find someone with standing to sue.

By contrast, if the Trump administration decides (as some have suggested) to give insurers permission to sell policies that do not meet all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits, purchasers of said policies would have grounds to sue insurers. Obamacare’s mandated benefits are prescribed in law, and if the law is clear, its text trumps (pardon the pun) any regulatory edict from the new administration. Most insurers probably wouldn’t even bother offering such policies because of the legal jeopardy and uncertainty they would face in doing so.

Making Repeal Less Likely?

There’s another practical implication of not enforcing the mandate that should worry conservatives: ironically, it could make Obamacare’s repeal more difficult.

Over the past few weeks Washington has debated whether Congress should repeal Obamacare without enacting a simultaneous replacement. Some pundits have been forthright in admitting that they wish to do so because they fear some members of Congress have a different vision of what an alternative regime should look like. To put it bluntly, they wish to hold repeal hostage to their vision for an Obamacare “replacement.”

The executive unilaterally ending some of Obamacare’s worst effects—albeit temporarily—will take the pressure off members of Congress to do so themselves. The justifiable fear is that action on repeal will get bogged down by internecine squabbling over a vision for “replace,” making the sole movement on Obamacare an executive action—which any future president (or even the current one) could overturn.

Reinforce Congress’ Role

If President Trump unilaterally eliminating the individual mandate isn’t the answer, then what is? For conservatives, the solution should lie with the branch the Constitution’s Framers considered the most important: Congress, the legislative branch Article I of the Constitution establishes. Through its oversight powers, Congress has the ability to investigate and act upon regulatory overreach.

The last Congress was less feckless in blunting unilateral executive actions than some might think. Its preliminary victory in the case of House v. Burwell, regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies to insurers, set a critical precedent that Congress has the right to litigate on matters of constitutional import—namely, the executive (in this case, the Obama administration) spending funds without an express appropriation from Congress. Hopefully the Trump administration will vacate the Obama administration’s appeal of the District Court ruling, allowing this precedent to stand.

Congress should continue to use its investigatory powers to explore executive overreach. It should obtain from the Trump administration documents regarding the cost-sharing subsidies that the Obama administration refused to disclose, despite subpoenae from Congress ordering them to do so. These documents will reveal why and how the Obama administration created an appropriation these subsidies out of whole cloth. More importantly, continuing to investigate the lawless actions of the Obama administration will send a clear message to dissuade its successors from acting similarly.

Obamacare Is Ultimately About Power

Obamacare was really never about health care so much as power—the power of government to regulate health care, tax health care, and force people to purchase health care (or at least health insurance). It seems somehow fitting that Obamacare gave the nation so many examples of executive unilateralism.

But to conservatives, the rule of law—in many ways the antithesis of raw power—stands pre-eminent. A Republican administration should not be tempted to “use unilateral actions to achieve conservative ends.” Such behavior represents a contradiction in terms. That’s why it’s important to watch the new administration’s actions closely in the coming days and weeks. Obamacare may not be worth keeping, but the rule of law is.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Trump’s Solyndra? Oscar Health as a Test Case in “Draining the Swamp”

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece noting that Donald Trump had 47.5 million reasons to support Obamacare bailouts. That’s the amount an insurer formerly owned by his influential son-in-law (and transition team Executive Committee member) Jared Kushner, and currently owned by Jared’s brother Josh Kushner, had requested from the Obama administration’s bailout funds.

Unfortunately, that story proved inaccurate, or at worst premature. Trump now has more than 100 million reasons to support Obamacare bailouts. That’s because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), on the Friday before Thanksgiving, quietly released a document listing risk corridor claims for calendar year 2015. Overall, insurers requested a whopping $5.8 billion in risk corridor funds—more than double the claims made for 2014—while Oscar, the health insurer Trump’s in-laws own, requested $52.7 million.

Insurers’ growing losses come as the risk corridor program faces a crossroads. While some within the Obama administration wish to settle lawsuits insurers have filed against the program, settling those suits with billions of dollars in taxpayer cash, the Justice Department just achieved a clear-cut victory defending the federal government against the insurer lawsuits.

The incoming Trump administration will face a choice: Will it side with taxpayers, and prevent the payment of Obamacare bailout funds to insurers, or will it side with Trump’s in-laws, and allow the payment of tens of millions of dollars to an insurer owned by Josh Kushner?

The Obama Administration Wants a Bailout. Will Trump?

Considered one of Obamacare’s “risk mitigation” programs, risk corridors have been an unmitigated disaster for the administration. In theory, the program was designed so insurers with excess profits would pay into a fund to reimburse those with excess losses. Unfortunately, however, a product many individuals do not wish to buy, coupled with unilateral—and unconstitutional—decisions by the administration created massive losses for insurers, turning risk corridors into a proverbial money pit.

Nearly two years ago, Congress passed legislation prohibiting taxpayer funds from being used to bail out the program. The program’s only source of funding would be payments in from insurers with excess profits. Those have proved few and far between. As a result, insurers received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their 2014 claims, with more than $2.5 billion in claims unpaid. The meagre takings for 2015 were insufficient to pay off last year’s $2.5 billion shortfall, let alone the $5.8 billion in additional claims insurers made on risk corridors last year.

Given these mounting losses, insurers have filed suit against the administration seeking payment of their unpaid claims. Some within the Obama administration have sought to settle the lawsuits, using the obscure Judgment Fund to circumvent the spending restrictions Congress imposed in 2014.

But even as those settlement discussions continue behind closed doors, the Justice Department won a clear victory earlier this month. In the first risk corridor lawsuit to be decided, a judge in the Court of Federal Claims dismissed a lawsuit by the failed Land of Lincoln health insurance co-operative on all counts. Not only did Land of Lincoln not have a claim to make against the government for unpaid risk corridor funds now, the court ruled, it would never have a claim to make against the government.

Oscar: Bailouts to the Rescue?

While the risk corridor program faces its own problems, so does start-up Oscar. Owner Josh Kushner wrote this month that Obamacare “undoubtedly helped get us off the ground.” Unfortunately for Oscar, however, the law has seemingly done more to drive it into the ground.

In part due to regulatory decisions from the Obama dministration—allowing individuals to keep their pre-Obamacare plans temporarily—Oscar has faced an exchange market full of people with higher costs than the average employer plan. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Oscar lost $122 million in 2015 on revenue of $126 million, according to company regulatory filings.” To repeat: Oscar’s losses last year nearly totaled its gross revenues.

My earlier article explained how Oscar has already received $38.2 million in payments from Obamacare’s reinsurance program—designed to subsidize insurers for expenses associated with high-cost patients—in 2014 and 2015. That money came even as the Government Accountability Office and other nonpartisan experts concluded the Obama administration acted illegally in paying funds to insurers rather than first reimbursing the U.S. Treasury for the $5 billion cost of another program, as the text of Obamacare states.

In 2014, Oscar made a claim for a total of $9.3 million in risk corridor funds, of which it received less than $1.2 million, due to the shortfalls explained above. For 2015, the insurer made a claim of a whopping $52.7 million—more than five times its 2014 risk corridor claim—while receiving only $310,349.58 in unpaid 2014 payments.

From the risk corridor program, Oscar now has $52.7 million in 2015 claims, not a dime of which were paid, along with approximately $7.8 million in unpaid 2014 claims. For an insurer that lost $122 million in 2015, this more than $60 million in outstanding risk corridor funds are nothing to be trifled with.

Who Comes First: Taxpayers, or Family?

In a recent post-election appraisal of the policy landscape, Oscar owner Josh Kushner complained about severe shortcomings in implementing Obamacare:

The government has also not fixed or not funded [Obamacare] programs designed to help insurers deal with the uncertainty of the first few years of the market. Doing so could have prevented the plan withdrawals that have so destabilized the market.

In complaining specifically that the risk corridor programs were “not funded,” Kushner takes aim at Congress, when in reality he might want to look more closely at President Obama’s actions in letting individuals keep their pre-Obamacare health plans, which upended insurers’ expectations for the new market. Congress, let alone taxpayers, should not have to fund a blank check for the president’s decision to violate the law for political reasons.

In the past two years, Oscar has claimed $38.2 million in reinsurance funds, even though nonpartisan experts believe those funds were illegally diverted to insurers and away from the U.S. Treasury. While it has received only about $1.5 million in risk corridor payments, it has claims for more than $60 million more, and its claims on the federal fisc are likely to rise much higher. The $100 million total doesn’t even include reinsurance and risk corridor claims for this calendar year, which are likely to total tens of millions more, given Oscar’s ongoing losses during the year to date.

Four years ago, Donald Trump sent out this tweet:

After Solyndra, @BarackObama is stil intent on wasting our tax dollars on unproven technologies and risky companies. He must be accountable.

Trump was correct then, but the question is whether he will remain so when his in-laws’ sizable financial interests are at stake. Signing off on a taxpayer-funded bailout of the risk corridor program—already at $8.3 billion in unpaid claims, a total which could easily rise well above $10 billion—to help prop up his in-laws’ insurer would represent “Solyndra capitalism” at its worst. Instead, the Obama administration—and the Trump administration—should refuse to settle the risk corridor lawsuits, and encourage Congress to pass additional legislation blocking use of the Judgment Fund to pay risk corridor claims. Taxpayers deserve nothing less.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Donald Trump’s 47.5 Million Reasons to Support Obamacare Bailouts

Last Friday afternoon, Donald Trump caused a minor uproar in Washington when he signaled a major softening in his stance towards President Obama’s unpopular health-care law. “Either Obamacare will be amended, or it will be repealed and replaced,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal—a major caveat heretofore unexpressed on the campaign trail.

Why might Trump—who not one month ago, in a nationally televised debate, called Obamacare a “total disaster” that next year will “implode by itself”—embark on such a volte face about the law? Politico notes one possible answer lies in the story of Oscar, a startup insurer created to sell plans under Obamacare:

Oscar is about to have an unusually close tie to the White House: Company co-founder Josh Kushner’s brother Jared is posted to plan an influential role in shaping his father-in-law Donald Trump’s presidency. The two brothers in 2013 were also deemed ‘the ultimate controlling persons in Oscar’s holding company system,’ according to a state report.

In other words, the individual who multiple sources report personally influenced the selection of the next White House chief of staff also holds a controlling interest in a health insurance company whose primary business is selling Obamacare policies. Might that be why Trump has suddenly changed his tune on Obamacare repeal?

Government of the People—Or of the Cronies?

In 2000, while contemplating a run for the White House, Trump told Fortune magazine: “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” That previously expressed sentiment—of using political office for personal pecuniary gain—would not rule out Trump assuming policy positions designed to enrich himself and his associates.

That need might be particularly acute in the case of Oscar, of which Jared Kushner was a controlling person, and in which Josh Kushner’s venture capital firm Thrive Capital has invested. On Tuesday, the insurer reported $45 million in losses in just three states, bringing Oscar’s losses in those three states to a total of $128 million this calendar year. Bloomberg said the company “sells health insurance to individuals in new markets set up by [Obamacare,]” and described its future after last week’s election thusly:

Trump’s election could be a negative for the insurer. The Republican has promised to repeal and replace [Obamacare,] though he’s softened that stance since his victory. The uncertainty could discourage some people from signing up for health plans, or Republicans could eliminate or reduce the tax subsidies in the law that are used to help pay for coverage.

Replace “the insurer” with “Trump’s in-laws” in the above paragraph, and the president-elect’s evolving stance certainly begins to make more sense.

Pimp My Obamacare Bailout?

In last month’s second presidential debate, Trump described Democrats’ position on health care: “Their method of fixing [Obamacare] is to go back and ask Congress for more money, more and more money. We have right now almost $20 trillion in debt.”

It’s an ironic statement, given that government documents reveal how Oscar—and thus Trump’s in-laws—have made claims on Obamacare bailout programs to the tune of $47.5 million. Those claims, including $38.2 million from reinsurance and $9.3 billion from risk corridors, total more than Oscar’s losses in the past quarter. The $47.5 million amount also represents a mere fraction of what Oscar could ultimately request, and receive, from Obamacare’s bailout funds, as it does not include any claims for the current benefit year.

Given that most of the things Trump should do on Day One to dismantle Obamacare involve undoing the law’s illegal bailouts, it’s troubling to learn the extent to which a company run by his in-laws has benefited from them. Following are some examples.

Reinsurance: Administration documents reveal that during Obamacare’s first two years, Oscar received $38.2 million in payments from the law’s reinsurance program, designed to subsidize insurers for the expense associated with high-cost patients. Unfortunately, these bailout payments have come at the expense of taxpayers, who have been shortchanged money promised to the federal Treasury by law so the Obama administration can instead pay more funds to insurers.

In 2014, when Oscar only offered plans in New York, the company received $17.5 million in Obamacare reinsurance payments. In 2015, as Oscar expanded to offer coverage in New Jersey, the insurer received a total of more than $20.7 million in reinsurance funds: $19.8 million for its New York customers, and $945,000 for its New Jersey enrollees.

While reinsurance claims for the 2016 plan year are still being compiled and therefore have not yet been released, it appears likely that Oscar will receive a significant payment in the tens of millions of dollars, for two reasons. First, the carrier expanded its offerings into Texas and California; more enrollees means more claims on the federal fisc. Second, Bloomberg quoted anonymous company sources as saying that part of Oscar’s losses “stem from high medical costs”—which the insurer will likely attempt to offset through the reinsurance program.

While the Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in reinsurance funds to insurers like Oscar, they have done so illegally. In September, the Government Accountability Office ruled that the administration violated the text of Obamacare itself. Although the law states that $5 billion in payments back to the Treasury must be made from reinsurance funds before insurers receive payment, the Obama administration has turned the law on its head—paying insurers first, and stiffing taxpayers out of billions.

wrote last week that Trump can and should immediately overturn these illegal actions by the Obama Administration, and sue insurers if needed to collect for the federal government. But if those actions jeopardize tens of millions of dollars in federal payments for the Kushners, or mean the Trump administration will have to take Trump’s in-laws to court, will he?

Risk Corridors: Oscar also has made claims for millions of dollars regarding Obamacare’s risk corridor program, which as designed would see insurers with excess profits subsidize insurers with excess losses. In 2014, Oscar was one of many insurers with excess losses, making a claim for $9.3 million in risk corridor payments.

However, because Congress prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to bail out insurance companies, and because few insurers had excess profits to pay into the risk corridor program, insurers requesting payouts from risk corridors received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their claims. While Oscar requested more than $9.3 million, it received less than $1.2 million—meaning it is owed more than $8.1 million from the risk corridor program for 2014.

CMS has yet to release data on insurers’ claims for 2015, other than to say that payments to the risk corridor program for 2015 were insufficient to pay out insurers’ outstanding claims for 2014. In other words, Oscar will not be paid its full $9.3 million for 2014, even as it likely makes additional claims for 2015 and 2016.

However, Oscar yet has hope in receiving a bailout from the Obama administration. In September, the administration said it was interested in settling lawsuits brought by insurance companies seeking reimbursement for unpaid risk corridor claims. The administration hopes to use the obscure Judgment Fund to pay through the backdoor the bailout that Congress prohibited through the front door.

As with reinsurance payments, a President Trump should immediately act to block such settlements, which violate Congress’ expressed will against bailing out insurers. However, given his clear conflict-of-interest in protecting his close relatives’ investments, it’s an open question whether he will do so.

Cost-Sharing Reductions: Like other health insurers, Oscar has benefited by receiving cost-sharing subsidies—even though Congress never appropriated funds for them. In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House of Representatives that the Obama administration’s payments to insurers for cost-sharing subsidies without an appropriation violate the Constitution. Although the text of the law requires insurers to reduce deductibles and co-payments for some low-income beneficiaries, it never included an explicit appropriation for subsidy payments to insurers reimbursing them for these discounts. Despite this lack of an appropriation, the Obama administration has paid insurers like Oscar roughly $14 billion in cost-sharing subsidies anyway.

Here again, Trump should immediately concede the illegality of the Obama administration’s actions, settle the lawsuit brought by the House of Representatives, and end the unconstitutional cost-sharing subsidies on Day One. But given his close ties to individuals whose insurance model is largely based on selling Obamacare policies, will he do so? To put it bluntly, will he put the interests of Oscar—and his in-laws—ahead of the U.S. Constitution?

Ask Congress for More and More Money?’

In general, health insurance companies have made record profits during the Obama years—a total of a whopping $15 billion in 2015. But while insurers have made money selling employer plans, or contracting for Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid, few insurers have made money on insurance exchanges. That dynamic explains why Oscar, which has focused on exchange plans, has suffered its massive losses to date.

However, as Trump rightly pointed out just one short month ago, the answer is not to “ask Congress for more money, more and more money.” He should end the bailouts immediately upon taking office. Duty to country—and the constitutional oath—should override any personal familial conflicts.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.