Tag Archives: double-counting

What You Need to Know about Today’s Medicare Trustees Report

Earlier this afternoon, the Medicare trustees released their annual report on the state of the program’s finances. Here’s a quick take about what you need to know in the report:

Insolvency Date:  The insolvency date for the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund is 2029, one year later than last year’s report. However, remember that, if not for the double-counting in Obamacare (about which see more below), the Trust Fund would ALREADY be insolvent, as in 2009 — the last trustees report prior to Obamacare’s enactment — the trustees projected insolvency for 2017 (i.e., this year).

IPAB NOT Triggered:  Despite prior predictions, this year’s trustees report did NOT trigger a reporting requirement related to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). In other words, Medicare spending over the relevant five year period (2015 through 2019) is not projected to exceed the per capita caps established for Medicare in Obamacare itself. Which makes one wonder — if per capita caps for Medicare haven’t yet bit, why are liberals objecting so loudly to per capita caps for Medicaid…?

A Brief Break from Massive Deficits:  For the first time in nearly a decade, the Medicare Part A Trust Fund did NOT run a deficit. However, the small $5.4 billion surplus did not even begin to overcome the $132.2 billion in deficits run by the Medicare program from 2008 through 2015.

Funding Warning:  For the first time since 2013, the trustees issued a funding warning showing that the Medicare program is taking a disproportionate share of its funding from general revenues, thus crowding out programs like defense and education. If a second warning is issued next year, the President will be required to submit legislation to Congress remedying the problem.

Unrealistic Assumptions:  As it has every year since the passage of Obamacare, the trustees issued an alternative scenario, because “absent an unprecedented change in health care delivery systems,” the payment reductions included in Obamacare mean that “access to, and delivery of, Medicare benefits would deteriorate over time for beneficiaries.”

Double Counting:  The actuary also previously confirmed that the Medicare reductions in Obamacare “cannot be simultaneously used to finance other federal outlays and to extend the [Medicare] trust fund” solvency date – rendering dubious any potential claims that Obamacare will extend Medicare’s solvency.  As Nancy Pelosi previously admitted, Democrats “took a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in [Obamacare], the health care bill” – and you can’t improve Medicare’s solvency by taking money out of the program.

A Fiscally Irresponsible Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

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

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

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

What Obamacare Hasn’t Done For Me

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

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

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

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

Obamacare Will Raise the Deficit

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

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

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

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

Obamacare’s Unspoken Opportunity Costs

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

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

We Just Can’t Afford Obamacare

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Big Hospital’s Obamacare Hypocrisy

As Republicans prepare legislation to repeal Obamacare, the health care industrial complex has raised a host of concerns. Notably, two hospital associations recently released a report highlighting the supposed negative implications of the reconciliation bill Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, in January 2016.

While the hospitals allege that repealing Obamacare would decimate their industry, their report cleverly omits four inconvenient truths.

1. They Pushed Bad Ideas Because They Expect Bailouts

In August 2010 at an American Enterprise Institute forum, then-Medicare actuary Rick Foster engaged in a discussion with Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, about the effects of Obamacare. The non-partisan actuary asked Kahn a simple question: Why did his industry agree to a series of so-called productivity adjustments, which lower hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement rates every year forever, in exchange for a one-time increase in their number of insured patients?

Kahn gave a simple, yet cynical, reply: “You could say, did you make a bad deal, and fortunately, I don’t think I’ll probably be working after 2020 [Laughter.]….I’m glad my contract only goes another six years. [Laughter.]”

Fast-forward those six years to last fall, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed the effects of various Obamacare provisions on hospital margins. The report concluded that even under the best-case scenario—in which hospitals achieve a level of efficiency non-partisan experts doubt they can reach—the revenue from Obamacare’s coverage expansions will barely offset the negative effects of the productivity adjustments. Under the worst-case scenario, more than half of hospitals could become unprofitable by 2025, and the entire industry could face negative profit margins.

Responding to the CBO report, the Federation of American Hospitals put out a statement from none other than Chip Kahn, wailing that “Medicare cuts are taking a punishing toll on the hospitals that serve all of us.” Translation: “Save me from my own stupidity—and the bad deal I cut six years ago!”

Kahn knew full well in August 2010 that Obamacare would eventually decimate his industry, through the cumulative effect of year-over-year reductions in Medicare payments. The laughter during his comments demonstrates Kahn thought it was one big joke. He and his colleagues cynically calculated first that they wouldn’t be around when those payment reductions really started to bite; and second that Congress would bail the hospitals out of their own bad deal—essentially, that hospitals are “too big to fail.”

2. Hospitals Supported Raiding Medicare to Pay for Obamacare

Last year’s reconciliation bill essentially undid the fiscal legerdemain that allowed Obamacare to pass in the first place. In the original 2010 legislation, Democrats used savings from Medicare both to improve the solvency of Medicare (at least on paper) and to fund the new entitlements.

The reconciliation bill would have repealed the new entitlements, and—in a truly novel concept—used Obamacare’s Medicare savings to…save Medicare. Instead, the hospital industry wants to continue the budget gimmickry that allows Medicare money to be spent twice and used for other projects.

3. Hospitals Believe Entitlements Are for Them, Not You

Last year, researchers from MIT released a major paper using the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment—in which winners of a random lottery won the right to Medicaid benefits, while others did not—to calculate the utility of Medicaid coverage. The study found that most beneficiaries valued their coverage at between 20 and 40 cents on the dollar. In other words, if given the choice between Medicaid coverage valued at $3,000 and cash in the amount of $1,500, most beneficiaries would take the cash.

In theory, individuals receiving cash contributions in lieu of Medicaid coverage could improve their health in all sorts of ways—buy healthier food, obtain transportation to a higher-paying job, move to a better apartment closer to parks and recreation. But who would object to giving patients cash to improve their health instead of insurance? You guessed it: Hospitals.

Hospitals view Medicaid as their entitlement, not their patients’. That’s why hospitals have worked so hard for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. It’s also why they wouldn’t support diverting money from coverage into other programs (e.g., education, housing, nutrition, etc.) that could actually improve patients’ health more than insurance, which has been demonstrated not to improve physical health outcomes.

4. Insisting Health Care Is Their Personal Jobs Program

Hospitals will claim that repealing Obamacare will cost industry jobs, just as they pushed for states to expand Medicaid as a way to create jobs. But economic experts on both sides of the aisle find this argument frivolous at best. As Zeke Emanuel, a former Obama administration official, has noted: “Health care is about keeping people healthy or fixing them up when they get sick. It is not a jobs program.”

Likewise, conservative economist Katherine Baicker has questioned “The Health Care Jobs Fallacy.” All spending will create jobs, one way or another. After all, if you’re looking to keep people employed, paying them to dig ditches and fill them in again will do the trick. But Baicker notes that it’s a far different thing to argue that health care represents the best and most efficient use of resources—better than, say, building roads and bridges, lowering taxes, or even repaying the deficit.

The health-care sector seems to believe they have a God-given right to consume at least one-sixth of the economy (and growing). Rebutting hospitals’ argument—that they, and only they, can create jobs—might represent the first step in lowering health costs, which would help non-health sectors of the economy grow more quickly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

For Presidential Candidates, Some Inconvenient Truths on Entitlements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at National Review.

Democrats’ Medicare Chutzpah

One little-noticed element in the “fiscal cliff” debate hasn’t attracted much attention – the glaring hypocrisy of Democrats when it comes to the Medicare program.  Last Thursday, Democrats in the House offered a motion to recommit spending reduction legislation (full text available here) that would have required HHS to disclose:

1)      The number of Medicare beneficiaries in such district…who, at any time during the ten-year period beginning on the first day of the first fiscal year that begins after the date of the enactment of this Act, will A) lose coverage under the Medicare program… or B) experience an increase in premiums, cost-sharing, or other out-of-pocket costs under such respective program as a result of the implementation of this Act; and

2)      The name and location of each hospital and nursing facility that would experience a reduction in payments under the Medicare program…as a result of the implementation of this Act.

It’s more than a bit rich for the Democrat leadership to offer such a motion, given that Obamacare:

  • Takes “half a trillion dollars out of Medicare” to pay for Obamacare’s new programs, according to none other than Nancy Pelosi;
  • Raises Part D premiums, according to the Congressional Budget Office, so that Big Pharma can benefit from its “rock-solid deal” struck behind closed doors with President Obama and Congressional Democrats;
  • Cuts Medicare Advantage by more than $300 billion, which will reduce the program’s enrollment by half and plan choices by two-thirds, causing millions of seniors to lose their current health insurance; and
  • Makes up to 40 percent of providers unprofitable over the long-term, according to the non-partisan Medicare actuary, potentially forcing providers “to withdraw from providing services to Medicare beneficiaries.”

The Medicare program is in dire need of reform to make it fiscally sustainable.  But no one should take lessons on entitlement “reform” from the crowd that – by its own admission – raided the Medicare program to pay for yet more irresponsible entitlement spending.

More Misinformation from the Obama Campaign

The President’s campaign is releasing a booklet this morning featuring the President’s re-election “plans.” Unfortunately, many of them involve funny money and fuzzy math. Take for instance the section on retirement security, which claims that Obamacare “strengthened Medicare by cutting overpayments to insurance companies and cracking down on billions in health care waste, fraud and abuse. The President added eight years to the Medicare Trust Fund.”

There’s just one problem with these assertions — they aren’t true. Take the claims about “waste, fraud, and abuse.” First, Obamacare’s $300 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage will reduce the program’s enrollment by half and plan choices by two-thirds. Moreover, the non-partisan Medicare actuary said that Obamacare would have a direct impact on beneficiaries in traditional Medicare as well. He has concluded that over the long-term, up to 40 percent of providers would become unprofitable due to Obamacare, and could “have to withdraw from providing services to Medicare beneficiaries.” Earlier this month, an Alabama hospital took a different course– it decided to shut down entirely, due to the impact of Obamacare on its business model.

As to the claims that Obamacare extends the life of the Medicare trust fund, the Congressional Budget Office takes a dim view toward such statements. The non-partisan CBO said that the Medicare reductions in Obamacare “will not enhance the ability of the government to pay for future Medicare benefits” — because those savings will be used to fund other unsustainable entitlements. If the President wants to use the Medicare savings provisions to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund — and not to fund the new entitlements created by the law — the Congressional Budget Office previously estimated what the fiscal impact would be: “A net increase in federal deficits of $260 billion” through 2019.

In 2010, President Obama himself admitted in an interview that Obamacare could not rely on double counting, when he stated that “You can’t say that you are saving on Medicare and then spending the money twice.” The fact that the President is now reversing his own earlier claims shows how badly Obamacare has failed, and how desperate the President is to win re-election.

Fact Check: College Affordability

The President just claimed that he took $60 billion from banks participating in the student loan program and gave it to students.  There’s just one detail he left out: The Obama Administration raided those funds by billions of dollars to pay for new health spending as part of Obamacare.  Don’t believe me?  Look at pages 35 and 36 of the Congressional Budget Office score of the bill.  Those graphs illustrate the billions in spending diverted from students to fund Obamacare’s massive new programs.

The problem with the President’s claims about making college more affordable?  Obamacare made that problem worse. As the Congressional Budget Office noted in its score of the final legislation, Obamacare took tens of billions of dollars in higher education funding and re-directed it to pay for Obamacare. That’s not “reform” — and it won’t help make education more affordable either.