Tag Archives: Exchanges

CBO Analysis of Senate Republican Health Legislation

On June 26, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its score of the Senate Republican Obamacare legislation. CBO found that the bill would:

  • Reduce deficits by about $321 billion over ten years—$202 billion more than the House-passed legislation.
  • Increase the number of uninsured by 15 million in 2018, rising to a total of 22 million by 2026—a slight short-term increase, and slight long-term decrease, of the uninsured numbers compared to the House bill.
  • Generally increase individual market insurance premiums between now and 2020, followed by a reduction in most parts of the country. However, impacts would vary based on states’ decisions regarding benefit structures, as listed below.
  • Reduce Medicaid spending by less than the House-passed measure ($772 billion vs. $834 billion), but have greater net savings with respect to insurance subsidies ($408 billion in deficit reduction vs. $276 billion for the House bill)—calculated as repeal of the Obamacare cost-sharing and premium subsidies, offset by the new spending on “replacement” subsidies.

In its analysis, CBO noted that it continues to use the March 2016 baseline to score the reconciliation legislation (as it did with the House bill). It has done so largely because 1) its updated January 2017 baseline was not available at the time Congress passed the budget resolution in early January and 2) the ten-year timeframe of the March 2016 baseline synchs with the timeframe of the current budget resolution. Had CBO used the January 2017 budget baseline to score the bill, coverage losses would likely have been smaller—CBO has reduced its estimates of Exchange coverage due to anemic enrollment. However, because premiums spiked in 2017, thus raising spending on subsidies, the fiscal effects likely would have been similar.

Premiums:    CBO believes premiums will rise by 20 percent compared to current law in 2018, and by about 10 percent compared to current law in 2019. The increases would stem largely from the effective repeal of the individual mandate (penalty set to $0), which would lead healthy individuals to drop coverage—offset in part by new “stability” funding to insurers.

In 2020, premiums would decline by about 30 percent compared to current law, and by 2026, premiums would be about 20 percent lower than current law (premium reductions declining slightly as “stability” funding declines in years after 2021). The premium reductions would come largely because of a decrease in the actuarial value (i.e., the average percentage of health expenses covered by insurance) of plans.

CBO believes that “few low-income people would purchase coverage” despite subsidies provided under the bill, because in its estimation, deductibles for low-premium plans would be prohibitively expensive for low-income individuals—and premiums for low-deductible plans would also be prohibitively expensive. In general, CBO believes out-of-pocket expenses would rise for most individuals purchasing coverage on the individual market.

Changes in Insurance Coverage:               CBO believes that under the bill, the number of uninsured would rise by 15 million in 2018, and 22 million in 2026. Moreover, “the increase [in the uninsured] would be disproportionately larger among older people with lower income—particularly people between 50 and 64 years old” with income under twice the poverty level. With respect to Medicaid, 15 million fewer people would have coverage than under current law; however, about five million of those individuals “would be among people who CBO projects would, under current law, become eligible in the future as additional states adopted” Medicaid expansion.

CBO believes that the individual insurance market would decline by 7 million in 2018, 9 million in 2020, and 7 million in 2026. The estimate notes CBO’s belief that “a small fraction of the population” will reside in areas where no insurers would participate. A reduction in subsidies would 1) make insurers’ fixed costs a higher percentage of revenues, discouraging them from participating, and 2) reduce the overall percentage of subsidized enrollees—giving some markets a disproportionate number of unsubsidized enrollees with higher health costs. However, in these cases, CBO believes that states could take steps to restore the markets within a few years, whether by obtaining waivers and/or “stability fund” dollars.

CBO believes that effectively repealing the individual mandate would, all things equal, increase premiums in the individual market; lead some employers not to offer employer-based coverage; and discourage individuals from enrolling in Medicaid. However, CBO “do[es] not expect that, with the [mandate] penalty eliminated under this legislation, people enrolled in Medicaid would disenroll.”

Waivers:         With respect to the state waivers for insurance regulations—including essential health benefits and other Obamacare requirements—CBO believes that “about half the population would be in states receiving substantial pass-through funding” under the Obamacare Section 1332 waiver provision, which the bill would revamp. States could receive pass-through funding to reflect savings to the federal government from lower spending on insurance subsidies from the waivers. Those pass-through funds could be used to lower premiums or cost-sharing for individuals.

While CBO believes that many states would apply for waivers with respect to insurance regulations or other requirements, few would “make significant changes” to the subsidy regime, to avoid administering said regime themselves—leaving this task to the Internal Revenue Service instead. However, CBO believes that about one-fifth of the total subsidy dollars available will be provided through the waiver pass-through, rather than directly to individuals.

CBO believes that, particularly in the first few years of the waiver regime, these waivers would actually increase the budget deficit—despite a requirement in the legislation that they not do so. CBO believes that states with waivers currently pending—who can choose whether their waiver would apply under the current regime or the “new” one created by the bill—would use this arbitrage opportunity to pick the more advantageous position for their state. Likewise, the agency notes that states would use overly optimistic data estimates when defining “budget-neutrality”—and that in the first few years of the bill, “the Administration would not have enough data about experience under this legislation to fully adjust [sic] for that incentive.”

In its analysis, CBO concludes that “the additional waivers would have little effect on the number of people insured, on net, by 2026.” Most waivers would be used to narrow the essential health benefits, lowering premiums and giving savings to states as pass-through funds. While lower premiums would increase individual market coverage, it would in CBO’s estimate encourage some employers to drop coverage. Moreover, “people eligible for subsidies in the non-group market would receive little benefit from the lower premiums, and many would therefore decline to purchase a plan providing fewer benefits.” A small fraction of individuals might live in states that “substantially reduce the number of people insured,” either by re-directing subsidy assistance to those who would have purchased coverage even without a subsidy, or by taking pass-through funds and re-directing them for purposes other than health insurance coverage.

CBO believes that, in cases where states use waivers to narrow essential health benefits, “insurance covering certain services [could] become more expensive—in some cases, extremely expensive.” While states could use pass-through funding to subsidize coverage of these services, CBO “anticipate[s] that the funding available to help provide coverage for those high-cost services would be insufficient.”

Other Regulatory Changes:            CBO notes the two “stability funds”—the one short-term fund for insurers, and the second longer-term fund for states—and believes that about three-quarters of the $62 billion provided to states from 2019 through 2026 would go to arrangements with insurers to reduce premiums in the individual market—whether reinsurance, direct subsidies, or some other means.

CBO believes the six-month waiting period added to the legislation would “slightly increase the number of people with insurance, on net, throughout the 2018-2026 period—but not in 2019, when the incentives to obtain coverage would be weak because premiums would be relatively high.”

The changes in age-rating rules—allowing states to charge older applicants five times as much as younger ones, unless a state chooses another ratio—“would tend to reduce premiums for younger people and increase premiums for older people, resulting in a slight increase in insurance coverage, on net—mainly among people not eligible for subsidies,” as the subsidies would insulate most recipients from the effects of the age rating changes. However, net premiums for older individuals not eligible for subsidies would rise significantly.

CBO believes that about half the population will reside in states that will reduce or eliminate current medical loss ratio requirements. “In those states, in areas with little competition among insurers, the provision would cause insurers to raise premiums and would increase federal costs for subsidies,” CBO expects. However, this provision “would have little effect on the number of people coverage by health insurance.”

Insurance Subsidies:           In general, average subsidies under the bill “would be significantly lower than the average subsidy under current law,” despite some exceptions. For instance, while net premiums would be roughly equal for a 40-year-old with income of 175 percent of poverty, “the average share of the cost of medical services paid by the insurance purchased by that person would fall—from 87 percent to 58 percent,” thereby raising deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. The changes “would contribute significantly to a reduction in the number of lower-income people” obtaining coverage under the bill when compared to current law.

CBO believes that the high cost of premiums and/or deductibles under the bill would discourage many low-income individuals eligible for Medicaid under current law, and who would instead be eligible for subsidies under the bill, from enrolling. “Some people with assets to protect or who expect to have high use of health care would” enroll, but many would not.

CBO also notes that “it is difficult to design plans” that might be “more attractive to people with low income” because of the mandated benefit requirements under Obamacare. For instance, it would be difficult to design plans that provide prescription drugs with low co-payments, or services below the plan’s high deductible, while meeting the 58 percent actuarial value benchmark in the bill. However, waivers could lessen these constraints somewhat, potentially yielding more attractive benefit designs.

While the bill eliminates eligibility for subsidies for individuals making between 351-400 percent of poverty, CBO believes that net premiums for individual (but not necessarily for family) coverage would be relatively similar under both current law and the bill. With respect to age, CBO believes that the addition of age as a factor in calculating subsidies, coupled with the changes to age rating in the bill, would mean that a larger share of individual market enrollees will be younger than under current law.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps and Block Grants:                         CBO believes that, in the short term (2017 through 2024), per capita caps would reduce outlays for non-disabled children and non-disabled adults, because spending would grow faster (4.9 percent) than the medical inflation index prescribe in the law (3.7 percent). However, spending on disabled adults or seniors would grow much more slowly (3.3 percent) than medical inflation plus one percent (4.7 percent). “In 2025 and beyond, the differences between spending growth for Medicaid under current law and the growth rate of the per capita caps for all groups would be substantial,” as CBO projects general inflation will average 2.4 percent.

With respect to the block grant option, CBO believes it “would be attractive to a few states that expect to decline in population (and not in most states experiencing population growth, as it would further constrain federal reimbursement).” Therefore, CBO considers the block grant to have little effect on Medicaid enrollment.

In CBO’s opinion, “states would not have substantial additional flexibility under the per capita caps. Under the block grant option, states would have additional flexibility to make changes to their Medicaid program—such as altering cost sharing and, to a limited degree, benefits.” In the absence of flexibility, CBO believes states facing the per capita caps would reduce provider reimbursements, eliminate optional services, restrict enrollment through work requirements, and/or deliver more efficient care. Specifically, “because caps on federal Medicaid spending would shift a greater share of the cost of Medicaid to state over time,” states would use work requirements to “reduce enrollment and the associated costs.”

Over the longer term, “CBO projects that the growth rate of Medicaid under current law would exceed the growth rate of the per capita caps for all groups covered by the caps starting in 2025.” As a result, CBO believes Medicaid enrollment would continue to decline after 2026 relative to current law.

Medicaid Expansion:           Currently, about half of the population resides in the 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have expanded Medicaid. CBO believes that, under current law, that percentage will rise to 80 percent of the newly eligible population by 2026. Under the bill, CBO believes that no additional states will expand Medicaid—resulting in coverage “losses” compared to current law, albeit without individuals actually losing coverage. Moreover, as the enhanced federal matching rate for the Medicaid expansion declines under the bill CBO believes the share of the newly eligible population in states that continue their Medicaid expansion will decline to 30 percent in 2026.

Don’t Blame Trump When Obamacare Rates Jump

Insurers must submit applications by next Wednesday to sell plans through HealthCare.gov, and these will give us some of the first indicators of how high Obama Care costs will skyrocket in 2018. ObamaCare supporters can’t wait to blame the coming premium increases on the “uncertainty” caused by President Trump. But insurers faced the same uncertainty last year under President Obama.

Consider a recent press release from California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. He announced that “in light of the market instability created by President Trump’s continued undermining of the Affordable Care Act,” he would authorize insurers to file two sets of proposed rates for 2018—“Trump rates” and “ACA rates.” Among other sources of uncertainty, Mr. Jones’s office cited the possibility that the Trump administration will end cost-sharing reduction payments.

Those subsidies reimburse insurers for discounted deductibles and copayments given to certain low-income individuals. Congress has never enacted an appropriation for the payments, but the Obama administration began disbursing the funds in 2014 anyway.

Thus the uncertainty: The House filed a lawsuit in November 2014, alleging that the unauthorized payments were unconstitutional. Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in the House’s favor and ordered a stop to the payments. As the Obama administration appealed the ruling, the cost-sharing reduction payments continued.

The House lawsuit and the potential for a new administration that could cut off the payments unilaterally should have been red flags for regulators when insurers were preparing their rate filings for 2017. I noted this in a blog post for the Journal last May.

To maintain a stable marketplace regardless of the uncertainty, regulators should have demanded that insurers price in a contingency margin for their 2017 rates. It appears that Mr. Jones’s office did not even consider doing so. I recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to his office requesting documents related to the 2017 rate-filing process, and “whether uncertainty surrounding the cost-sharing reduction payments was considered by the Commissioner’s office in determining rates for the current plan year.” Mr. Jones’s office replied that no such documents exist.

What does that mean? At best, not one of the California Insurance Commission’s nearly 1,400 employees thought to ask whether a federal court ruling stopping an estimated $7 billion to $10 billion in annual payments to insurers throughout the country would affect the state’s health-insurance market. At worst, Mr. Jones—a Democrat running for attorney general next year—deliberately ignored the issue to avoid exacerbating already-high premium increases that could have damaged Hillary Clinton’s fall campaign and consumers further down the road.

The California Insurance Commission is not alone in its “recent discovery” of uncertainty as a driver of premium increases. In April the left-liberal Center for American Progress published a paper claiming to quantify the “Trump uncertainty rate hike.” The center noted that the “mere possibility” of an end to cost-sharing payments would require insurers to raise premiums by hundreds of dollars a year.

Following insurers’ June 21 deadline, expect a raging blame game over next year’s premium increases. Conservatives shouldn’t hesitate to ask regulators and liberal advocates now pointing the finger at uncertainty where they were this time last year when the future of those payments was equally uncertain.

This post was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

Insurers’ Obamacare Extortion Racket

The coming weeks will see U.S. health insurance companies attempt to preserve what amounts to an extortion racket. Already, some carriers have claimed they will either exit the Obamacare exchanges entirely in 2018, or submit dramatically higher premium increases for next year, if Congress does not fund payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions. While insurers claim “uncertainty” compels them to make these business changes, in reality their roots are the companies’ gross incompetence and crass politics.

While Obamacare requires insurers to lower certain low-income individuals’ deductibles and co-payments, and directs the executive agencies to reimburse insurers for those cost-sharing reductions, it nowhere gives the administration an explicit appropriation to do so. The Obama administration made payments to insurers without an explicit appropriation from Congress, and was slapped with a federal lawsuit by the House of Representatives for it.

Insurers claim they need certainty regarding the payments before committing to the exchanges for 2018. But insurers never had a guarantee about the payments continuing in 2017. I noted in a blog post last May that the new president could easily cut off the subsidy payments unilaterally. The week after I published my post, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in favor of the House of Representatives in its lawsuit. Although Collyer stayed her order pending an appeal, she ruled that the Obama administration needed an explicit appropriation from Congress to continue paying cost-sharing reductions to insurers.

Either the Companies Are Mismanaged Or Playing Politics

For insurers to assume that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue through 2017, let alone 2018, required them to ignore 1) public warnings in articles like mine; 2) Collyer’s ruling; 3) the fact that President Obama would leave office on January 20, 2017; and 4) the apparent silence from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during last year’s campaign on whether they would continue the cost-sharing reduction payments once in office.

Given those four factors, competent insurance executives would have built in an appropriate contingency margin into their 2017 exchange bids, recognizing the uncertainty that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue during the new administration. Instead, some insurers largely ignored the issue. In its most recent 10-K annual report with the Securities and Exchange Commission, filed February 22, Anthem made not a single reference in the 520-page document to the cost-sharing reduction payments or the House lawsuit.

Therein lies the reason for insurers’ threats. All last year, several insurers assumed Clinton would win and continue the (unconstitutional) payments. Worse yet, some may have willfully ignored their fiduciary responsibility to create a contingency margin for their 2017 plan bids because they wanted to help Clinton by keeping premiums artificially low.

Insurance executives therefore do not just face exposure through their companies; they face potential personal risk arising from charges of derelict behavior. That level of desperation certainly explains why Anthem CEO Joe Swedish is threatening 20 percent premium increases if Congress does not appropriate payments for the cost-sharing reductions, mere weeks after he signed an SEC filing that failed to identify loss of the payments as a risk to his company.

How the People’s Representatives Should Respond

Responding to this extortion racket requires several layers of accountability. First, insurers must accept responsibility for their persistent refusal to address the cost-sharing reduction issue sooner. The Securities and Exchange Commission should investigate whether publicly traded insurers failed to disclose material risks in their company filings by neglecting to mention the clearly foreseeable uncertainty surrounding the payments.

Likewise, the Justice Department’s antitrust division should examine whether insurers’ 2017 premium submissions represent an instance of illegal collusion. If the insurance industry collectively neglected to include a contingency margin surrounding the cost-sharing payments—either to keep premium increases low before the election, or to strong-arm the incoming administration to continue to fund them—such a decision might warrant federal sanctions.

Finally, conservatives and the Trump administration should shine a bright light on state insurance commissioners’ review of premium submissions. Commissioners who approve large contingency margins for 2018 due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reductions, yet did not require a similar contingency margin for 2017 premiums, can be reasonably accused of gross incompetence, playing politics with health insurance premiums, or both.

The health insurers’ trade association has disputed any characterization of the cost-sharing reduction payments as a “bailout.” But in reality, Congress blindly making appropriations for the payments would bail out insurance industry executives for years of incompetence, malfeasance, and political chicanery. Conservatives—in Congress and elsewhere—should insist on accountability first. To do otherwise would imply that both Obamacare and health insurers themselves are “too big to fail,” giving our country a de facto single-payer health system.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Questions Following CBO’s Score

Yesterday’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation lead to widespread news coverage of its health coverage numbers. However, several other questions reveal the “story behind the story,” which could help determine the bill’s ultimate fate:

Who Wants to Run on Premium Increases?     While some may tout eventual premium savings under the bill (about which more below), the most immediate headline involves the estimated 15-20 percent premium increases that will hit in both 2018 and 2019, because CBO believes fewer healthy individuals will sign up for coverage. As with Obamacare’s Exchanges over the past few years, that projected national average may mask significant regional differences; some areas could see premium increases well in excess of 20 percent. These premium increases (possibly coupled with insurer exits) would be the first tangible impact of Obamacare repeal many constituents face heading into the 2018 elections—not a welcome sign for conservatives who ran for years on the promise of Obamacare repeal yielding lower premiums.

Spend More Now, Save More Later—Really?            While some Republican leaders touted the bill’s supposed deficit savings, a closer look reveals significant flaws. Notably, the bill will increase the deficit in its first five years by a net of $9.4 billion, while lowering the deficit by over $345 billion in its second five years. A look at Table 3 in the score—which shows the net budgetary effects of the bill’s major coverage provisions—gives important signals as to why. Take a look at the net spending on coverage—that is, reductions in Medicaid and Obamacare subsidy spending, offset by increases in spending on the bill’s new tax credits—by fiscal year:

Fiscal Year 2017: $8 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2018: $29 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2019: $42 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2020: $100 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2021: $137 billion spending reduction

Note that these numbers above are NOT cumulative totals—they represent annual reductions in entitlement/subsidy spending. The numbers mean that, even after taking into account the new refundable tax credits (which would start on January 1, 2020, the day after the Obamacare subsidy regime expires), net spending would decline by nearly an additional $60 billion in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020—i.e., roughly six weeks before the next presidential election.

With numbers like these, it’s not hard to argue that the new refundable tax credit will not take effect in a presidential election year—or possibly ever. Congress may instead act to perpetuate Obamacare’s existing subsidy regime, which the House Republican bill actually expands for the supposed “transition” period, into an enhanced, entrenched, and therefore permanent, entitlement.

What Will Premiums Look Like in 2027? CBO claims that “by 2026, average premiums for single policy-holders in the non-group market under the legislation would be roughly 10 percent lower than under current law.” If accurate, that estimate means that—more than 15 years after the law’s enactment—premiums might recover most (but perhaps not all) of the average $2,100 per family premium spike CBO attributed to Obamacare.

Even then, however, initial appearances can deceive. CBO noted that premiums would decline in 2026 in part because of the new, $100 billion Patient and State Stability Fund. CBO concluded that fund grants would likely be used for reinsurance payments to insurers; “if those funds were devoted to other purposes, then premium reductions would be smaller.”

That CBO analysis raises the obvious question: What happens to premiums in 2027—when the stability fund created by the legislation would expire? Or have House Republicans created in the Stability Fund what amounts to a perpetual bailout machine, a new entitlement for health insurers that they hope will keep premiums low—albeit at taxpayers’ expense?

Why Not Repeal?      Even with a new refundable tax credit entitlement, the overall CBO coverage numbers were little higher than those associated with enacting the 2015 repeal/reconciliation bill. In fact, if that 2015 reconciliation bill had repealed Obamacare’s major insurance regulations—the major drivers of rising premiums, all of which have a clear budgetary nexus—it may have achieved coverage levels higher than this “repeal-and-replace” bill.

House leadership will now face the difficult task of mustering up votes for a plan with no natural constituency. It’s the kind of legislation that leads to cynical blandishments to win votes—arguing to conservatives that the refundable tax credit is a relatively innocuous entitlement, because no one will use it; and arguing to moderates that, while many of their constituents will lose coverage under the bill, they can extend to their constituents the promise of the new tax credits, even though few will utilize them.

Instead of passing legislation that some may vote for, but few truly support, House leadership would be wiser instead to focus on enacting a bill that Members can both vote for and support. Repealing Obamacare—including the costly regulations emanating from Washington—would lower premiums, encouraging individuals to purchase coverage, and begin the process of restoring state sovereignty over health care and health insurance, an outcome for which conservatives could be proud.

This post was published at The Federalist.

Obamacare versus the American Health Care Act

A PDF version of this document can be found on the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

Obamacare

House GOP Proposal

Refundable tax credit entitlement

Check

Section 1401, Page 129

Check

Page 23 of Ways and Means bill

Raid Medicare to pay for new entitlement

Check

“President [Obama] took $716 billion from the Medicare program—he raided it—to pay for Obamacare” (Rep. Paul Ryan)

Check

Medicare savings RETAINED to pay for Ryancare entitlement spending

Allow illegal aliens to receive new entitlement

Check

“Insufficient and ineffective verification methods…allow for illegal immigrants to access the Exchange and subsidies” (Rep. Tom Price)

Check

Retains same verification system—Page 41 of Ways and Means bill

Federal bailouts for health insurers

Check

Sections 1341-42, Page 124

Check

Page 45 of Energy and Commerce bill

Medicaid expansion to able-bodied adults

Check

Section 2001, Page 198

Check

Page 5 of Energy and Commerce bill

Federal control of insurance markets
  • Pre-existing conditions

Check

Section 1201(1), Page 64

Check

Page 61 of Energy and Commerce bill

  • Insurance Exchanges

Check

Section 1311, Page 88

Check

RETAINED

  • 26-year-old mandate

Check

Section 1001(1), Page 34

Check

RETAINED

  • Essential health benefits

Check

Section 1302(b), Page 78

Check

RETAINED

  • Medical loss ratios

Check

Section 1001(1), Page 40

Check

RETAINED

  • Annual/lifetime limits

Check

Section 1001(1), Page 33

Check

RETAINED

  • Prevention and contraception mandate

Check

Section 1001(1), Page 33

Check

RETAINED

  • Actuarial value

Check

Section 1302(d), Page 82

X

Repealed in 2020—Page 65 of Energy and Commerce bill

 

Three Points CBO Omitted from Its Report on Obamacare Repeal

This morning, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report analyzing the effects of Obamacare repeal. Specifically, CBO claimed that enacting a reconciliation bill that the last Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, would increase the number of uninsured (even relative to pre-Obamacare numbers) while raising insurance premiums appreciably. CBO believes that leaving Obamacare’s major insurance regulations in place—which last year’s reconciliation bill did—while repealing the law’s subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, will destabilize insurance markets, cause insurers to exit the marketplace, and raise premiums.

However, there are three important facts the CBO report didn’t address:

CBO Has Gotten Previous Estimates Wrong

While no forecaster has a perfect batting average, CBO’s track record with respect to Obamacare is perhaps less ideal than most. CBO thought that the CLASS Act—which Democratic Senator Kent Conrad infamously called “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing for which Bernie Madoff would be proud of—could be implemented in an actuarially sound manner. The Obama Administration eventually had to admit that the CLASS Act was not a fiscally sound program. And CBO failed to conduct enough analysis that could have predicted the CLASS Act’s failure prior to Obamacare’s passage—a point former Director Doug Elmendorf has publicly refused to admit.

With respect to enrollment, CBO significantly over-estimated the number of individuals that would sign up for Obamacare. In March 2010, as Democrats were ready to pass the law, CBO claimed that in 2016, 21 million individuals would sign up for coverage on insurance Exchanges. The reality has proven far different: Less than half as many individuals (10.4 million) had Exchange coverage as of June 30, 2016. And this much lower enrollment comes despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling making Medicaid expansion optional for states—which actually increased Exchange enrollment in states that have declined to expand Medicaid.

CBO claimed in 2010 that the individual mandate would cause tens of millions of individuals to sign up for coverage. It hasn’t happened. Now CBO claims that effectively repealing the mandate while leaving insurance regulations in place will cause healthy individuals to cancel coverage en masse. Could that happen? Absolutely. But given their recent track record on this specific issue, should one really take CBO’s word as gospel…?

The Solution Is More Repeal, Not Less

In a paradoxical way, the CBO report actually makes a strong case for expanding the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill. The paper notes on several occasions that repealing Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, while leaving its insurance regulations in place, would harm insurance markets. For instance, CBO notes that:

The number of people without health insurance would be smaller if, in addition to the changes in [last year’s reconciliation bill], the insurance market reforms mentioned above were also repealed.

Congress chose not to litigate the question of whether Obamacare’s major insurance mandates were budgetary in nature, and thus could be included in a budget reconciliation bill, last year. It should do so now. The findings of this CBO paper, along with other scoring estimates, give ample ammunition to those who consider it entirely consistent with past Senate precedents to include repeal of the major insurance regulations in budget reconciliation.

The Trump Administration Can Mitigate Repeal’s Effects

Even if Congress cannot or will not expand the scope of the reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations under Obamacare, the Trump Administration can act to mitigate against the kinds of concerns outlined in the CBO paper. A report I released just this morning outlines some of them. The Administration can significantly shorten—to just a few weeks, or even shorter—the annual open enrollment period, which can protect against individuals signing up for coverage after they get sick. It can reduce special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment, and require verification for all special enrollment. And it can take other administrative actions to mitigate the effects of a spike in premiums.

How to Repeal Obamacare

A PDF version of this document is available here.

For years, the American people have suffered from the ill effects of Obamacare’s federal intrusions into the health care system. Millions of Americans received cancellation notices telling them that the plans they had, and liked, would disappear—a direct violation of President Obama’s repeated promises.[1] Insurance premiums have skyrocketed, rising nearly 50 percent in 2014, followed by another increase of over 20 percent this year.[2] Insurance options have disappeared, with Americans in approximately one-third of all U.S. counties having the “choice” of only one insurer in 2017.[3]

But as the 115th Congress begins, the new Republican majority, and President-elect Donald Trump, have pledged to bring the American people desperately needed relief, by fulfilling their long-stated promise to repeal Obamacare. Congressional leaders have stated their intention to bring forward legislation that repeals key portions of Obamacare using budget reconciliation procedures. Such legislation would likely resemble the reconciliation bill that the prior 114th Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed on January 8, 2016.

That legislation, H.R. 3762 of the last Congress, repealed funding for Obamacare’s new entitlements—Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, and coverage subsidies for individuals of low and moderate incomes purchasing coverage on insurance Exchanges—effective January 1, 2018, approximately two years after enactment. It repealed all of the law’s tax increases—including the tax penalties associated with the individual and employer mandates—beginning January 1, 2016, effectively coinciding with the date of enactment. The bill also included other important provisions, restricting federal Medicaid payments to certain providers.[4]

Critics have argued that, having voted for this legislation once under President Obama, Members of Congress should not pass this bill again, sending it to President Trump’s desk for immediate signature.[5] These critics argue that Congress cannot repeal Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations under the special budget reconciliation procedures, which require all provisions in reconciliation legislation to have a significant budgetary impact. The critics fear that passing such legislation would effectively nullify Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates immediately, and its subsidies eventually, while keeping in place its costly insurance regulations that have significantly raised premiums. They believe that these steps would exacerbate adverse selection—a scenario whereby only sick individuals purchase health insurance coverage—de-stabilize insurance markets, and lead more insurers to drop out of insurance Exchanges altogether.

Those concerns, while legitimate, are misplaced on several fronts. First, Congress has not yet litigated whether or not some or all of the major Obamacare insurance regulations are budgetary in nature, and can be considered as part of reconciliation legislation. Second, Congress can and should take steps to modify last year’s reconciliation bill in ways that will stabilize insurance markets in the near-term, and create a transition to alternative legislation Congress constructs. Third, the incoming Trump Administration has significant regulatory powers within its purview, which can minimize the adverse selection effects critics fear from repeal legislation, and modify the federal mandates that have driven up premiums in recent years.

While not perfect, and less ideal than starting from scratch, last year’s reconciliation legislation represents a solid base from which to construct a legislative and regulatory framework for repealing Obamacare. It also represents the fastest approach for Congress to deliver on the promise it has made to its constituents for over six years: Unwinding an unaffordable and unworkable health care law.

What Congress Should Do

Last year’s reconciliation measure provides a good starting point for Congress when drafting repeal legislation to consider this year. However, Congress should attempt both to expand and revise the measure. These efforts would both mitigate against any adverse selection concerns, and stabilize insurance markets while Congress considers alternative legislation.

Expand Reconciliation to Insurance Regulations:               Critics have claimed that Obamacare’s major insurance regulations “were not altered in H.R. 3762; they could not be altered in a reconciliation bill taken up in 2017, either,” due to procedural restrictions inherent in the budget reconciliation process.[6] Such a definitive assertion is at best premature. Observers have noted that “Congress chose not to litigate” the issue of whether and what restrictions are budgetary in nature, and therefore eligible for repeal in reconciliation legislation, when considering H.R. 3762 in the fall of 2015.[7]

However, Congress can, and should, choose to litigate those issues with the Senate parliamentarian now. Rulings by the Senate parliamentarian will guide lawmakers as they determine which provisions of repeal legislation meet budget reconciliation guidelines, and can therefore be approved using a simple, 51-vote majority without being subject to the 60-vote threshold used for other legislation subject to a filibuster.

The Congressional Budget Office, think-tanks, and other actuarial organizations have produced estimates showing the significant costs of many of Obamacare’s insurance mandates—including requirements related to pre-existing conditions; essential health benefits; community rating requirements; actuarial value; medical loss ratios; preventive care coverage requirements; and other major mandates. The Obama Administration itself has produced cost estimates for several of the law’s mandates—and argued twice before the Supreme Court that its regulatory mandates are critical to the law’s structure.[8]

Congress can and should expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations. Doing so would be consistent with both the existing scoring estimates and past practice under budget reconciliation. Moreover, expanding the scope of repeal to include the largest insurance mandates would mitigate against adverse selection effects that might result if Congress repealed the individual mandate while leaving the major insurance regulations in place.

Freeze Enrollment in Entitlements:            Consistent with the transition period provided for in the 2015 reconciliation legislation, any repeal measure should also include steps to freeze enrollment in the law’s new entitlements. Such actions would be particularly pertinent to Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid—the source of most of the law’s spending, and the vast majority of its coverage expansions.[9]

Research indicates that past states that froze enrollment in Medicaid allowed the vast majority of enrollees to transition off of the program, and into work, within a short period of time.[10] Moreover, another study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Tennessee’s decision to roll back its unsustainable Medicaid expansion in 2005 led to “large increases in [the] labor supply” and increases in employment, as individuals dis-enrolled from Medicaid looked for—and obtained—employment, and employer-sponsored health insurance.[11] Freezing enrollment would hold existing beneficiaries harmless, while beginning to transition away from Obamacare’s unsustainable levels of spending—and encouraging economic activity and job growth.

Beginning this year, states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare will also face added fiscal burdens, as they must finance a portion (in 2017, 5 percent) of the cost of coverage for the first time. Even Democratic state legislators in “blue states” like Oregon and New Mexico have raised concerns about what the cost of this massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied will do to other important state programs targeting “the most vulnerable of our citizens.”[12] For all these reasons, Congress should insert language into the reconciliation freezing enrollment upon enactment—or perhaps shortly after enactment, to allow expansion states time to submit amendments to their existing state plans reflecting this legislative change.

Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in the law’s program of Exchange subsidies. In the spring of 2015, as the Supreme Court considered the case of King v. Burwell—which affected subsidies provided to individuals in states using the federal insurance Exchange, healthcare.gov—multiple Members of Congress introduced legislation that would have frozen enrollment. These bills would have allowed individuals who qualified for subsidies prior to the Court’s ruling to continue to receive them for a transitional period of time, but made other individuals ineligible for such subsidies.[13]

Though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the subsidies in King v. Burwell, ruling that the words “an Exchange established by the State” also referred to an Exchange run by the federal government, Congress could utilize a similar regime in the reconciliation bill with respect to insurance subsidies—that is, freezing eligibility and enrollment effective the date of the bill’s enactment.[14] However, Congress should only act to freeze eligibility for insurance subsidies if it believes doing so would not cause existing insurance market risk pools to deteriorate during the transition period.

Appropriate Cost-Sharing Subsidies:            Any repeal measure should include a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies currently in dispute. Those subsidies reimburse insurers for the expense of cost-sharing reductions—lower deductibles and co-payments—provided to certain low-income enrollees under Obamacare. In the case of House v. Burwell, the House of Representatives has argued that the text of Obamacare nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies, and that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by funding this spending without an express appropriation.

On May 12, 2016, United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House’s position, imposing an injunction (stayed pending appeal) prohibiting the Administration from appropriating funds for the cost-sharing subsidies.[15] The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is currently considering the Obama Administration’s appeal of Judge Collyer’s ruling, with further actions on hold until the new Administration takes office.

Some insurers argue that, should the incoming Trump Administration withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies, they have the right to terminate their plans from the Exchanges immediately. The arguments that insurers can withdraw from the markets in 2017 lack merit.[16] Furthermore, analysts have warned for months that an incoming Administration could withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies unilaterally upon taking office.[17] Insurers saw fit to ignore those warnings, and signed up to offer 2017 coverage knowing full well that the cost-sharing subsidies could disappear on short notice, through either court rulings or regulatory action by a new Administration.

However, to provide certainty, Congress should appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal bill—but only for the length of the transition period provided for in that measure. The Trump Administration should encourage Congress to appropriate funds for the transition period. Once Congress does so, the Trump Administration’s Justice Department can move to dismiss the Obama Administration’s appeal of the case against the House of Representatives, conceding the point that the executive never had authority to appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidies absent express direction by Congress.

Utilize the Congressional Review Act:            The election outcome notwithstanding, President Obama’s outgoing Administration continues to use the regulatory process to attempt to “box in” his successor. On December 22, 2016, the Administration published a Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for the 2018 plan year.[18] In doing so, the Administration specifically waived provisions of the Congressional Review Act, which generally requires a 60-day delayed effective date for major rules. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claimed that such a delay was impracticable for good cause reasons.[19] The 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters will therefore take effect 30 days following its display, on January 17, 2017—during President Obama’s last week in office. As a result, President Trump will be unable simply to revoke this regulation unilaterally upon taking office.

However, the Congressional Review Act does provide a vehicle for Congress, in concert with a President Trump, to take action revoking the newest Obamacare regulation. Specifically, the Act provides that a resolution of disapproval, passed by both houses of Congress, will have the effect of nullifying the rule or administrative action proposed.[20] Of particular import, the Congressional Review Act provides for expedited consideration of resolutions of disapproval in the Senate; those limits on debate preclude filibusters, meaning that resolutions of disapproval require a simple, 51-vote majority to pass, rather than the usual 60 votes for legislation subject to a filibuster.

Congress should explore using the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. Regardless of whether or not Congress strikes down this last-minute rule, the Trump Administration should act expeditiously—including through use of the “good cause” exemption the Obama Administration cited to rush through its own regulations last month—to provide needed relief to consumers.

What the Administration Should Do

The Trump Administration can also play its part in bringing about the promise of repeal, by acting in concert with Congress to undo the effects of Obamacare’s major insurance mandates. Consistent with the actions Congress should take listed above, the incoming Administration should immediately use flexibility to provide relief from Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Whether through a new 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, a series of interim final regulations, or both, these regulations would provide a vehicle for incorporating many of the changes needed to undo Obamacare’s harmful effects, including those listed below.

While the Administration cannot unilaterally change the law—such actions lie solely within the purview of Congress—it can and should take steps to soften the impact of existing mandates, and provide maximum flexibility wherever possible. These steps would stabilize insurance markets during the period following repeal, and provide for an orderly transition to an alternative regime.

Limit Open Enrollment:      Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS the authority to “require an Exchange to provide for…annual open enrollment periods, as determined by the Secretary for calendar years after the initial enrollment period.”[21] The law requires insurers to accept all applicants without regard to pre-existing conditions or health status—in industry parlance, guaranteed issue—but only within certain limits. Specifically, health insurers may “restrict enrollment in coverage described in such subsection [i.e., guaranteed issue coverage] to open or special enrollment periods.”[22] In other words, the requirement that insurers accept all applicants only applies during open enrollment periods—and the HHS Secretary has the sole power to determine when, and for how long, those open enrollment periods run.

The existing Code of Federal Regulations states that for the 2018 benefit year, open enrollment for individual health insurance will run from November 1, 2017 through January 31, 2018—the exact same three-month period as the 2016 and 2017 open enrollment periods.[23] The incoming Administration can—and should—issue new regulations limiting those open enrollment periods to a much narrower window, to prevent individuals from “gaming the system” and enrolling only after they incur costly medical conditions.

At minimum, it appears eminently reasonable for the new Administration to shorten the open enrollment window down to 30 days—a significant reduction from 2016 and 2017, which saw open enrollment last for one-quarter of the year. If logistical obstacles can be overcome—i.e., could Exchanges process applicants in a shorter period?—the Administration could restrict the open enrollment period even further, to a period of perhaps a couple of weeks. Other observers have suggested tying open enrollment to a period surrounding an individual’s birth date, thus preventing a surge of applicants at one particular point in the year.

Narrowing the length of open enrollment periods, coupled with restrictions on special enrollment periods outlined below, will provide a more controlled and contained environment for insurers to issue policies. Limiting enrollment periods will mitigate against an insurance market that requires carriers to issue policies without imposing financial penalties on individuals who fail to purchase insurance—indeed, will mitigate against the adverse selection insurers suffer from currently, even with the individual mandate in full effect. Because Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS extremely broad authority to define “open enrollment periods”—other than stating these must occur annually, the statute includes few prescriptions on administrative authority—the Trump Administration should use this authority to maximum effect.

Restrict Special Enrollment Periods:            Insurers have raised numerous complaints about individuals using special periods outside open enrollment to obtain coverage, incur large medical claims, and then drop that coverage upon regaining health. Early in 2016, Blue Cross Blue Shield calculated that special enrollment period customers were 55 percent more costly than those enrolling during the usual annual enrollment period. Likewise, Aetna found that one-quarter of its entire enrollment came from these “special” enrollment periods, and that said enrollees remained on the rolls for an average of fewer than four months—an indication that many only enrolled in the first place to obtain coverage for a specific medical condition or ailment.[24]

Even as insurers demonstrate that individuals have abused special enrollment periods to incur costly medical bills and subsequently cancel coverage, the Obama Administration actually exacerbated the problem its last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. That rule expanded the number of special enrollment periods, codifying an additional five exemptions allowing eligible individuals to qualify for coverage outside of open enrollment periods.[25]

That said, the Obama Administration has taken some steps to restrict abuse of special enrollment periods. In June 2016, it implemented a process announced in February 2016, which requires documentation from applicants seeking special enrollment periods for the most common conditions—a move, loss of coverage, marriage, birth, or adoption.[26] The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) claims this documentation requirement reduced the number of special enrollment period applicants by 20 percent.[27] However, a separate effort to require verification of special enrollment period eligibility prior to enrollment will not begin until this coming June, with results only coming in spring 2018.[28]

With respect to special enrollments, the incoming Administration should 1) eliminate all special enrollment periods, other than those required under existing law; and/or 2) accelerate the process of pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods.[29]

Use Exchange User Fees to Lower Premiums:     In its Notice of Benefit Parameters, the Obama Administration has annually imposed a 3.5 percent surcharge, dubbed an “Exchange user fee,” on issuers offering coverage using healthcare.gov, the federally-run Exchange, which those insurers then pass on to consumers. The 2018 version of the document, released December 22, specifically suggested that the 3.5 percent fee paid by insurers (and ultimately by consumers) now exceeds the costs associated with running the federal Exchange:

We have received feedback suggesting that the FFEs [federally-facilitated Exchanges] would be able to increase enrollment by allocating more funds to outreach and education, a benefit to both consumers and issuers. We sought comment on how much funding to devote to outreach and education, and on whether HHS should expressly designate a portion or amount of the FFE user fee to be allocated directly to outreach and enrollment activities, recognizing the need for HHS to continue to adequately fund other critical Exchange operations, such as the call center, healthcare.gov, and eligibility and enrollment activities.[30]

Some commenters regarding the Exchange user fee proposal specifically requested that the Exchange “user fee rate should decrease over time.” HHS rejected this approach for 2018. It did note that “we do anticipate gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs, and if so, may consider reducing the FFE user fee based on increased enrollment and premiums in the future.”[31]

Upon taking office, the Trump Administration should act immediately to ensure that the Exchange user fee funds essential Exchange operations only. With the Exchanges now in their fourth year of operation, HHS will not need to spend as much on technological infrastructure as the Department did while standing up the Exchange—and should not, as the Obama Administration suggested, spend the difference on new “slush funds” designed to promote enrollment outreach.

Because the Exchange user fee is based on a percentage of premium, this year’s 20 percent spike in premiums for Obamacare plans has significantly increased funding for the federal Exchange as it is.[32] Moreover, the vast majority of Exchange participants—84 percent, per the most recent enrollee data—receive federal subsidies for their health insurance premiums.[33] Because those federal subsidies directly relate to premium costs, federal taxpayers—and not enrollees themselves—are in many cases paying for any additional, and unnecessary, spending undertaken by the federal Exchange.

To save taxpayers, and to lower premiums for all consumers, the Trump Administration should take immediate steps to reduce the Exchange user fee to the minimum necessary to support Exchange operations—and instruct insurers to rebate the difference to consumers in the form of lower premiums.

Revise Medical Loss Ratio:  Obamacare requires insurers to spend a minimum percentage of premiums on medical claims—a medical loss ratio (MLR).[34] Insurers in the individual market face an 80 percent MLR, while employer plans have an 85 percent requirement. Plans that do not meet the minimum MLR thresholds must return the difference to beneficiaries in the form of rebates.

During Obamacare’s first several years, the MLR requirements have not proven a concern to insurers—largely because they significantly under-estimated premiums for 2014, 2015, and 2016. In fact, the average MLR for individual market plans skyrocketed from 62.3% in 2011 to 93.3% in 2015.[35] Because enrollees proved sicker than anticipated, insurers have paid out a high percentage of premiums in medical claims—indeed, in some cases, have paid out more in claims than they received in premium payments from enrollees (i.e., an MLR over 100%).

However, should the Trump Administration desire to provide additional flexibility for insurers, it could take a more expansive view of “activities that improve health care quality,” considered equivalent to medical claims paid under the MLR formula.[36] Obamacare required the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to, by December 31, 2010, “establish uniform definitions of the activities” under the MLR, including the definition of activities to improve health care quality.[37] However, the statute makes those definitions “subject to the certification of the Secretary,” and while then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accepted the NAIC recommendations, the new Administration is not necessarily obliged to do so.

The interim final rule regarding the medical loss ratio requirement provides a roadmap for a Trump Administration to provide regulatory flexibility regarding the MLR, including the definition of “activities that improve health care quality.”[38] The new Administration could also provide relief regarding agents’ and brokers’ fees and commissions—an issue HHS acknowledged in the rule, but did little to ameliorate—and taxes and fees paid by insurers due to regulatory and other requirements.

Reform State Innovation Waivers:            Section 1332 of Obamacare provides for “state innovation waivers,” which can take effect beginning on or after January 1, 2017. The waivers allow states to obtain exemptions from most of the law’s major insurance requirements, as well as the employer and individual mandates, to provide an alternative system of health insurance for its residents. However, the statute requires that any waiver must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as the coverage” defined under the law, as certified by the Medicare actuary;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as the law;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of its residents;” and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”[39]

The Obama Administration released a final rule regarding the process for applying for a Section 1332 waiver in early 2012.[40] However, it did not release information regarding the substance of the waivers themselves until late 2015—and then did so only through informal guidance, not a formal regulation subject to notice-and-comment.[41]

The December 2015 guidance exceeded the requirements of the statute in several ways. First, it said the Administration would not consider potential combined savings from a Section 1332 state innovation waiver when submitted in conjunction with a Medicaid Section 1115 reform waiver. In other words, when meeting the deficit neutrality requirement of Section 1332, Medicaid savings could not be used to offset higher costs associated with Exchange reforms, or vice versa.[42]

The guidance also said the Obama Administration would impose additional tests with respect to coverage and affordability—not just examining the impact on state populations as a whole, but effects on discrete groups of individuals.[43] For instance, the guidance noted that “waivers that reduce the number of people with insurance coverage that provides both an actuarial value equal to or greater than 60 percent and an out-of-pocket maximum that complies with Section 1302(c)(1) of [Obamacare] would fail” the affordability requirement.[44] These new mandates effectively prohibit states from using waiver programs to expand access to more affordable catastrophic coverage for individuals.

Due to the four statutory requirements listed above, the Section 1332 waiver program suffers from inherent shortcomings.[45] But because the added restrictions proposed in December 2015 came through informal regulatory guidance, the Trump Administration can and should immediately withdraw that guidance upon taking office. It should also work immediately to establish a more flexible rubric for states wishing to utilize Section 1332 waivers—with respect to both the application process itself and more flexible insurance design that can expand access and affordability for a state’s residents.

Withdraw Contraception Mandate:            Among the “early benefits” of the law taking effect six months after its enactment was a mandate for preventive care. Specifically, the law requires first-dollar coverage (i.e., without cost-sharing) of several preventive services, including women’s preventive health screenings.[46]

On December 20, 2016, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) released the most recent women’s preventive services guidelines. These guidelines, as before, required that “the full range of female-controlled U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, effective family planning practices, and sterilization procedures be available as part of contraceptive care.”[47]

The Trump Administration should upon taking office withdraw the HRSA benefit mandates—including the requirement to provide contraception coverage. While these particular mandates may have a slight impact on premiums, removing them would reduce premiums nonetheless. More importantly, they would restore the rights of conscience to those individuals and organizations who have been forced to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs to cover contraception and other procedures they object to.[48]

Modify Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value:        Among Obamacare’s many new mandated insurance benefits, two in particular stand out. First, the law provides for a series of “essential health benefits”—ten categories of health services that all qualified plans must cover.[49] While the essential health benefits address the breadth of health insurance coverage, actuarial value—or the percentage of annual health expenses paid by an insurance policy on average—addresses the depth of that coverage. The law categorizes individual health plans in four “tiers” based on actuarial value: Bronze plans with an average actuarial value of 60 percent; silver plans, 70 percent; gold plans, 80 percent; and platinum plans, 90 percent.[50]

Both directly and indirectly, the essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements raise premiums—by forcing individuals to buy richer coverage, and then by inducing additional demand for health care through that richer coverage. The Administration’s own rule regarding essential health benefits admitted that the law’s requirements include provisions not previously covered by most forms of health insurance, including “rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices.”[51] Likewise, a study in the journal Health Affairs concluded that the actuarial value requirements would raise premiums, as most pre-Obamacare individual market policies did not meet the new mandated benefit thresholds.[52]

However, the final rules regarding essential health benefits and plan actuarial value provide opportunities to expand benefit flexibility.[53] For instance, the new Administration could provide states with more options for declaring benchmark plans that meet the essential health benefit requirements under the statute. The new Administration could also expand the de minimis variation standards for actuarial value measures required by the law.[54] Allowing for additional variation and flexibility could have a significant impact in reducing premiums, as the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2009 that the essential benefits and actuarial value standards would collectively raise premiums by 27 to 30 percent, all else equal.[55]

Enhanced Flexibility for Businesses:             On September 13, 2013, the Treasury Department issued Notice 2013-54, which stated that an arrangement whereby an employer reimburses some or all of an employee’s expenses for the purchase of individual health insurance—whether through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) or some other means—would be considered a group health plan.[56] As a result, businesses using HRAs need to meet all of Obamacare’s regulatory reforms, such as prohibiting annual limits on the dollar value of essential health benefits.[57] Group health plans failing to meet those requirements trigger a penalty of $100 per day, per individual.[58]

This provision sparked widespread uproar when it first went into effect in July 2015, as the Obama Administration threatened fines of $36,500 per employee for employers who helped fund their employees’ health coverage.[59] Members of Congress introduced standalone legislation exempting small businesses from this requirement.[60] This provision was eventually incorporated into the 21st Century Cures Act, which President Obama himself signed into law on December 13, 2016.[61] As a result, small businesses with under 50 employees can now provide contributions to their workers’ individual health insurance premiums without triggering Obamacare’s regulatory regime.

Expanding upon the precedent of a law President Obama himself signed, the Trump Administration should withdraw Notice 2013-54, build on Congress’ actions, and allow businesses of all sizes the ability to reimburse employees’ premium costs without triggering massive fines. Actions in this vein would have salutary benefits in two respects: They would remove more businesses from Obamacare’s onerous regulatory requirements, while encouraging the use of defined contribution health insurance for employees.

Next Steps and the Pathway Forward

Following more than six years of frustration for the American people, the promise of repealing Obamacare is finally within reach. While passing legislation that unwinds Obamacare in an orderly, stable manner will require policy-makers to act with care, Congress and the new Trump Administration can use last year’s reconciliation legislation as the basis for action. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Seek to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation legislation to encompass Obamacare’s major insurance regulations, consistent with budgetary scores and past practice and precedents within the Senate;
  • Add a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Medicaid expansion, effective either upon enactment or shortly thereafter;
  • Explore adding a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Exchange subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets;
  • Appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies in reconciliation legislation, but only for the defined length of the Obamacare transition period; and
  • Explore use of the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2018.

Likewise, the Trump Administration can take several regulatory steps to enhance flexibility and provide certainty during the transition period:

  • Limit annual open enrollment to the shortest period feasible, and in no case longer than one month;
  • Restrict the use of special enrollment periods, by withdrawing all those added by the Obama Administration and not included in statute, and/or requiring pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods;
  • Provide that, for states using the federal Exchange, any portion of the 3.5 percent Exchange user fee not used to cover annual operating costs be refunded to enrollees, thus lowering their premiums;
  • Revise the medical loss ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers;
  • Immediately withdraw the December 2015 guidance regarding Section 1332 state innovation waivers, and provide maximum flexibility within the existing statutory requirements for states seeking to mitigate the harmful effects of Obamacare’s insurance mandates;
  • Withdraw the contraception mandate that raises premiums and hinders freedom of conscience;
  • Modify essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements to provide maximum flexibility within the statutory framework;
  • Expand upon Congress’ efforts allowing small businesses to reimburse their employees’ health insurance premiums without facing massive fines, by withdrawing the September 2013 IRS notice and extending flexibility to as many employers as possible; and
  • Drop the Obama Administration’s appeal of House v. Burwell once Congress provides a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal reconciliation bill.

Collectively, this menu of actions would help to unwind most of Obamacare’s harmful effects, provide for an orderly transition, and pave the way for Congress to consider and pass alternative legislation designed to lower health care costs. The promise of Obamacare repeal is within reach; it’s time for Congress and the new Administration to seize it.



[1] “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” Associated Press December 26, 2013, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/policy-notifications-current-status-state-204701399.html; Angie Drobnic Holan, “Lie of the Year: ‘If You Like Your Health Care Plan, You Can Keep It,’” Politifact December 12, 2013, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2013/dec/12/lie-year-if-you-like-your-health-care-plan-keep-it/.

[2] Drew Gonshorowski, “How Will You Fare in the Obamacare Exchanges?” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4068, October 16, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/10/enrollment-in-obamacare-exchanges-how-will-your-health-insurance-fare; Department of Health and Human Services, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in the 2017 Health Insurance Marketplace,” ASPE Research Brief, October 24, 2016, https://aspe.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/212721/2017MarketplaceLandscapeBrief.pdf.

[3] Cynthia Cox and Ashley Semanskee, “Preliminary Data on Insurer Exits and Entrants in 2017 Affordable Care Act Marketplaces,” Kaiser Family Foundation, August 28, 2016, http://kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/preliminary-data-on-insurer-exits-and-entrants-in-2017-affordable-care-act-marketplaces/.

[4] Section 206 of H.R. 3762 had the effect of preventing Medicaid plans from providing reimbursements to certain providers, including Planned Parenthood.

[5] Joe Antos and Jim Capretta, “The Problems with ‘Repeal and Delay,’” Health Affairs January 3, 2017, http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2017/01/03/the-problems-with-repeal-and-delay/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Winfree and Brian Blase, “How to Repeal Obamacare: A Roadmap for the GOP,” Politico November 11, 2016, http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2016/11/repeal-obamacare-roadmap-republicans-000230.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, baseline estimates for federal subsidies for health insurance, March 2016, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2016-03-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 3, p. 5; Edmund Haislmaier and Drew Gonshorowski, “2015 Health Insurance Enrollment: Net Increase of 4.8 Million, Trends Slowing,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4620, October 31, 2016, http://thf-reports.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/IB4620.pdf.

[10] Jonathan Ingram, Nic Horton, and Josh Archambault, “Welfare to Work: How States Can Unwind Obamacare Expansion and Restore the Working Class,” Forbes December 3, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2014/12/03/welfare-to-work-how-states-can-unwind-obamacare-expansion-and-restore-the-working-class/#455cad6923ec.

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

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

[13] See for instance Section 4 of Winding Down Obamacare Act, S. 673 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Section 4(b) of Preserving Freedom and Choice in Health Care Act, S. 2016 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).

[14] King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. __ (2015).

[15] United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 14-1967, House v. Burwell, ruling by Judge Rosemary Collyer, May 12, 2016, https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2014cv1967-73.

[16] The contract between CMS and insurers on the federal Exchange notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw if they are not. However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause was poorly drafted by insurers’ counsel, and therefore has no applicability to House v. Burwell; insurers have no ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers. See https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.

[17] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies for Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.

[18] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters,” Federal Register December 22, 2016, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-12-22/pdf/2016-30433.pdf.

[19] Ibid., pp. 94159-60.

[20] 5 U.S.C. 802. For more information, see Maeve Carey, Alissa Dolan, and Christopher Davis, “The Congressional Review Act: Frequently Asked Questions,” Congressional Research Service Report R43992, November 17, 2016, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43992.pdf.

[21] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(B), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(B) of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.

[22] Section 2702(b)(1) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-1(b)(1), as modified by Section 1201(2)(A) of PPACA.

[23] 45 C.F.R. 155.410(e)(2).

[24] Paul Demko, “Gaming Obamacare,” Politico January 12, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/01/gaming-obamacare-insurance-health-care-217598.

[25] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, pp. 94127-31.

[26] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Fact Sheet: Special Enrollment Confirmation Process,” February 24, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-02-24.html.

[27] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Pre-Enrollment Verification for Special Enrollment Periods,” https://www.cms.gov/cciio/resources/fact-sheets-and-faqs/downloads/pre-enrollment-sep-fact-sheet-final.pdf.

[28] Ibid.

[29] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(C), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(C) of PPACA, requires the Secretary to establish special enrollment periods for individual coverage as specified by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) for group coverage, codified at 26 U.S.C. 9801.

[30] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, p. 94138.

[31] Ibid., p. 94138.

[32] HHS published an average 2017 premium increase for healthcare.gov states of 25 percent, and a median increase of 16 percent. See HHS, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in 2017,” Table 2, p. 6.

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

[34] Section 2718 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18, as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[35] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “The 80/20 Rule Increases Value for Consumers for Fifth Year in a Row,” November 18, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Forms-Reports-and-Other-Resources/Downloads/Medical-Loss-Ratio-Annual-Report-2016-11-18-FINAL.pdf.

[36] Section 2718(a)(3) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg18(a)(3), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[37] Section 2718(c) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18(c), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[38] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “Implementing Medical Loss Ratio Requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Federal Register December 1, 2010, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-01/pdf/2010-29596.pdf.

[39] 42 U.S.C. 18052(b)(1)(A), as codified by Section 1332(b)(1)(A) of PPACA.

[40] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, final rule regarding “Application, Review, and Reporting Process for Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register February 27, 2012, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-02-27/pdf/2012-4395.pdf.

[41] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, guidance regarding “Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register December 16, 2015, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-12-16/pdf/2015-31563.pdf.

[42] Ibid., p. 78134.

[43] Ibid., p. 78132.

[44] Ibid., p. 78132.

[45] Chris Jacobs, “What’s Blocking Consensus on Health Care?” Wall Street Journal July 17, 2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/07/17/whats-blocking-consensus-on-health-care/.

[46] Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-13, as revised by PPACA Section 1001(1).

[47] Health Resources and Services Administration, “Women’s Preventive Services Guidelines,” December 20, 2016, https://www.hrsa.gov/womensguidelines2016/index.html.

[48] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The HHS Mandate for Contraception/Sterilization Coverage: An Attack on Rights of Conscience,” January 20, 2012, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/upload/preventiveqanda2012-2.pdf.

[49] 42 U.S.C. 18022, as codified by Section 1302 of PPACA.

[50] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d), as codified by Section 1302(d) of PPACA.

[51] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Standards Related to Essential Health Benefits, Actuarial Value, and Accreditation,” Federal Register February 25, 2013, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-02-25/pdf/2013-04084.pdf, pp. 12860-61.

[52] Jon Gabel, et al., “More Than Half of Individual Health Plans Offer Coverage That Falls Short of What Can Be Sold through Exchanges as of 2014,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2012/05/22/hlthaff.2011.1082.abstract.

[53] HHS, final rule on “Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value.”

[54] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d)(3), as codified by Section 1302(d)(3) of PPACA.

[55] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding health insurance premiums, November 30, 2009, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/111th-congress-2009-2010/reports/11-30-premiums.pdf, pp. 9-10.

[56] Internal Revenue Service, Notice 2013-54, September 13, 2016, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-13-54.pdf.

[57] Section 1563(f) of PPACA added Section 9815 to the Internal Revenue Code, which incorporated most of the regulatory requirements of the law to group health plans.

[58] 26 U.S.C. 4980D(b)(1).

[59] Grace-Marie Turner, “Small Businesses Threatened with $36,500 IRS Fines for Helping Employees with Health Costs,” Forbes June 30, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/gracemarieturner/2015/06/30/small-businesses-threatened-with-36500-irs-fines-for-helping-employees-with-health-costs/#53750b3d4a0e.

[60] The Small Business Healthcare Relief Act, introduced by Reps. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), H.R. 2911 of the 114th Congress; a companion measure was introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) as S. 1697 of the 114th Congress.

[61] Section 18001 of 21st Century Cures Act, P.L. 114-255.

Fulfilling the Promise of Obamacare Repeal

Two months ago, the American people gave lawmakers a clear mandate: Save our nation’s health-care system from the harmful effects of Obamacare. They’re sick of exorbitant premium increases. They’re frustrated with insurer drop-outs and narrow provider networks that stifle access. They want change, and they want it now.

Congress’s votes last week on a budget were the first steps toward repeal. Last January, Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, a reconciliation bill that would eliminate more than $1 trillion in Obamacare tax increases and wind down spending on the law’s new entitlements by the time Congress can pass more sensible health-care reforms.

Now, with Republicans set to take control of the White House, that bill could be passed again and signed into law. Some have argued that doing so this year would disrupt the health-care industry, prompting insurers to exit more markets and leaving the American people in the lurch. But these critics should first acknowledge that Obamacare is leaving millions of Americans in the lurch right now. In one-third of counties, Americans have a “choice” of only one insurer on their Exchange.

That said, conservatives must proceed carefully when unraveling the government mandates crippling our health-care system. Thankfully, as I outline in a report released today, Congress and the incoming Administration have numerous tools at their disposal to bring the American people relief.

As it repeals Obamacare, Congress should work to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the law’s costly insurance mandates. Because reconciliation legislation must involve matters primarily of a budgetary nature, critics argue that the process cannot be used to repeal Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and that leaving the regulations in place without the subsidies will collapse insurance markets.

But Congress did not attempt to repeal the major insurance regulations during last year’s debate; it avoided the issue entirely. Consistent with past practice, Senate procedure, and the significant fiscal impact of the major regulations, it should seek to incorporate them into the measure this time around.

Congress should also include provisions in the reconciliation bill freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion upon its enactment. Currently eligible beneficiaries should be held harmless, but lawmakers should begin a path to allow those on Medicaid to transition off the rolls and into work. In a similar vein, Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets.

The Trump administration has an important part to play as well, as it can provide regulatory flexibility to insurers and states — even within Obamacare’s confines. For instance, Obamacare gives the secretary of health and human services the sole authority to determine the time and length of the law’s open-enrollment periods. In both 2016 and 2017, those periods stretched on for three months, meaning that for at least one-quarter of the year, any American could sign up for insurance — no questions asked — immediately following a severe medical incident.

To guard against adverse selection — whereby more sick individuals than healthy ones sign up for coverage, raising insurance premiums for everyone — the Trump administration can significantly shorten enrollment periods. Next year’s open enrollment should last no more than 30 days if logistics will permit. Similar actions would restrict special enrollment periods that individuals have gamed under Obamacare, purchasing coverage outside open enrollment, racking up medical bills, and then cancelling their coverage. The Trump administration can eliminate special enrollment periods not required by statute, and require verification prior to enrollment in all other cases.

Another place for regulatory flexibility lies in the 3.5 percent “user fee” assessed for all those purchasing coverage on the federal exchange. In regulations released last month, the Obama administration essentially admitted that the actual cost of running the federal Exchange has dropped below 3.5 percent of premiums, but kept the “user fee” at current levels to increase funds for enrollment and outreach. The Trump administration should lower premiums by cutting user fees to the amount necessary for critical exchange functions, rather than spending hard-earned premium dollars promoting the partisan agenda the law represents.

The Trump administration can take other actions within the scope of Obamacare to provide a stable path to repeal. It can withdraw the mandated coverage of contraceptive services that raises premiums while forcing individuals and organizations to violate their deeply held religious beliefs. It can expand and revise the scope of essential health benefits, actuarial value, and medical-loss-ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers. It can immediately withdraw guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015 that paradoxically made an Obamacare “state innovation waiver” program less flexible for states. And it can build upon legislation Congress passed last month, which allowed small businesses to reimburse their employees’ insurance premiums without facing thousands of dollars in crippling fines, by extending the same flexibility to all employers.

Congress and the Trump administration have many tools at their disposal to provide an orderly, stable transition toward a new, better system of health care — one that focuses on reducing costs rather than expanding government control. They can and should use every one of these tools to bring about that change, fulfilling the promise of repeal.

This post was originally published at National Review.

On Health Care, It’s the Costs, Stupid

At his first post-election press conference Monday, President Obama attempted to sound gracious on the topic of repealing his signature health law, while simultaneously laying down a clear policy gauntlet: the number of Americans with insurance coverage under a Republican replacement.

If they can come up with something better that actually works, a year or two after they’ve replaced [Obamacare] with their own plan, and 25 million people have health insurance and it’s cheaper and better and running smoothly, I’ll be the first one to say that’s great. Congratulations (emphasis mine).

In other words, as I noted last month, the president will happily support others’ legislation—so long as it accomplishes exactly what he wants. Ironically enough, when campaigning for the presidency eight years ago, Barack Obama campaigned on one number, but one that had nothing to do with the number of Americans with health coverage. It was $2,500—the premium reduction he promised to the average family.

While Obama said his law would reduce health costs—Americans’ top health-care concern—the media has yet to focus either on how his law singularly failed to keep that promise, or how a Republican alternative would affect premium levels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media has thus far viewed the debate on an Obamacare replacement entirely through one liberal policy frame: How many people have health insurance cards.

Obamaspeak: ‘Lower Premiums’ Means Massive Increases

President Obama’s 2016 focus on how many people have health insurance coverage stands in stark contrast to candidate Obama, circa 2008. In the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton, he famously opposed an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, because “the reason people don’t have health insurance isn’t because they don’t want it; it’s because they can’t afford it.”

While then-senator Obama did not promise to achieve a certain level of health insurance coverage, he did make a very specific promise to lower premiums. As this video shows, Obama promised—over and over and over again—that his health-care plan would lower premiums by an average of $2,500 per family. Note also that Obama promised to “lower” and “cut” premiums. That means he didn’t promise that premiums would rise by slightly less than predicted—he pledged to reduce them in absolute terms.

On any count, President Obama’s pledge lies in tatters. Since he signed Obamacare in 2010, the average employer-sponsored health plan has risen by more than $3,300 per family—from $13,770 in 2010 to $18,142 this year. Obamacare’s massive benefit mandates raised the average premium for individually purchased coverage by about 40 percent overnight, as the main provisions of the law took effect in 2014. Premiums are also set to spike on Obamacare exchanges again, with an average of another 25 percent rise for the plan year beginning January 1.

Cost Is Voters’ Top Concern

In reality, Obamacare stands as living proof that affordability matters most for health care and health insurance. While the Medicaid rolls have exploded far beyond most states’ original estimates—perhaps because the program charges no premiums to most beneficiaries—enrollment in exchange plans remains far below projections. Obamacare’s benefit mandates have so raised the cost of coverage that everyone but individuals qualifying for the richest subsidies has stayed away from the exchanges in droves.

Polling data also speaks to voters’ concern about reducing health costs. A survey conducted for America Next in February 2014 (while I served as America Next’s policy director) reveals that voters judge costs as a larger concern than universal coverage by a more than two-to one margin. In addition, by 13 percentage points voters prefer a system that lowers costs but does not guarantee coverage over a system that guarantees health insurance but increases costs.

The Media Is Out of Touch with Americans

In covering a post-Obamacare universe, most media stories in the past week have focused solely on the number of individuals with health insurance. That’s one key metric, but so are whether health insurance results in access to actual health care, whether coverage improves health outcomes, and the extent to which individuals value health insurance over other goods.

Voters care most about reducing the underlying cost of health care. Only lowering costs, not creating new ways for the federal government to subsidize them, will make health care fiscally sustainable in the long term, while increasing the number of Americans with health coverage. That’s the prime metric for judging Obamacare, a metric by which, according to its eponymous creator, it has fallen short, and the metric for judging Republican proposals to replace it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Limousine Liberals Who Won’t Buy Obamacare Plans

Even by government standards, it’s an outlandish story of wealth and hypocrisy: A bureaucrat who made more than $1 million selling Obamacare insurance plans, but won’t buy one for himself? The sad thing is, it also happens to be true.

Meet Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California. In the past three years alone, Lee has made well over $1 million running California’s Obamacare exchange. He received massive raises in the past two years, going from a salary of $262,644 in 2014 to $420,000 beginning this July.

On top of that nearly $160,000 raise, Lee received two other whopping bonuses of $52,258 in 2014 and $65,000 in 2015—winning more in one lump sum than many families make in an entire year. But at a September briefing, I asked Lee point-blank what type of health coverage he holds. He said he was enrolled in California’s state employee plan.

Think about that: a bureaucrat whose salary comes from selling exchange plans—Covered California’s operating budget derives from surcharges on plans sold through the exchange—but yet won’t buy one of the plans he sells for himself. It’s enough to make a person ask how much Lee would have to make before he would actually break down and buy one of the plans he sells—a million dollars? Two million? Five million?

Liberal One-Percenters: Good for You, Not For Me

I’ll concede right now that Obamacare’s exchanges were designed primarily for those without employer coverage. Individuals whose employers do offer “affordable” coverage cannot receive subsidies on the exchanges, although they can enroll without a subsidy, if they so choose.

Most Americans choose employer coverage, because firms heavily subsidize them—to the tune of an average of $12,865 for family coverage. For the average worker making $60,000, or even $80,000, per year, turning down the employer subsidy to purchase an unsubsidized exchange plan represents a substantial pay cut, one many families could not afford.

But well-paid liberals like Lee—who over the last two years received raises more than 12 times the average employer’s subsidy for health coverage—have no real financial excuse not to join the exchanges—other than liberal elitism. As the owner of a new small business who likely won’t make six figures this year, I have little patience to hear supposed believers in Obamacare with far more means than I who won’t give up a few thousand dollars in employer subsidies to enroll on the exchanges themselves. After all, aren’t liberals the ones who believe in social solidarity and “paying your fair share”?

Well-Heeled Bureaucrats and Think Tankers’ Hypocrisy

For instance, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt literally cashed in to the tune of over $4.8 million in stock options on joining the Obama administration, more than enough to forego any employer subsidy for his health coverage. He recently responded to a questioner on Twitter asking him why he wasn’t on Medicare by stating that he was only 49 years of age—too young to qualify. Within minutes, I sent Slavitt a follow-up tweet: “If Obamacare is so great, are you on the Exchange—and if not, why not?” Slavitt has yet to reply.

Both Slavitt and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell (net worth: $4.6 million) have plenty of financial resources to forego an employer subsidy and purchase exchange coverage. Even at a total premium of $15,000 for his family, one year’s insurance costs would total less than 0.3 percent of the stock gains Slavitt cashed in on when joining the administration—to say nothing of the millions he likely will make when he “cashes in” on his government experience in just a few months.

Did Slavitt just not see my tweet asking him about his health coverage? Did he not reply because the person in charge of selling exchange policies doesn’t think they’re good enough to buy for himself? Or does he believe that someone who made millions a few short years ago is too “poor” to give up a few thousand dollars in employer subsidies for his health care?

The ranks of well-paid liberals clamming up when asked about their health benefits extends beyond government into the think-tank ranks. In September, the Urban Institute published a paper claiming that exchange coverage was actually cheaper than the average employer plan. I e-mailed the papers’ authors, asking them a simple question: Had they taken steps to enroll in exchange coverage themselves, and encouraged the Urban Institute to send all its employees to the exchanges?

I have yet to receive a reply from the three researchers. But after doing some digging, I found the Urban Institute’s Form 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service. The form reveals that one of the study’s authors, John Holahan, received a total of $313,932 in compensation in 2014—$267,051 in salary, and $46,881 in other compensation and benefits.

Does Holahan therefore believe that giving up his subsidized benefits and relying “only” upon his $267,051 salary presents too great a sacrifice for him to bear financially? If he and his colleagues truly believe exchange plans are more efficient than employer coverage—as opposed to just coming up with a talking point to rebut Obamacare’s massive premium increases—then shouldn’t they enroll themselves?

I Make $400,000, So Quit Whining about Your Cost Hike 

Then there’s Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Last week Levitt tweeted that exchange premium increases don’t apply to many people—a talking point that Drew Altman, Kaiser’s CEO, has also made in blog posts. I replied asking whether Levitt himself, or other people using this talking point, actually have exchange coverage, to which Levitt gave no response.

Care to guess how much these scholars claiming exchange premium increases are overrated make themselves? According to Kaiser’s IRS filing, Levitt received $333,048 in salary and $48,563 in benefits in 2014. His boss, Altman, pulled down a whopping $642,927 in salary, $149,509 in retirement plan contributions, and a $13,545 expense account—nearly $806,000 in total compensation.

The contradictions from the Kaiser researchers are ironic on two levels. One could certainly argue that an executive making nearly $400,000, let alone more than $800,000, doesn’t need comprehensive health insurance, except to protect from severe emergencies, like getting hit by the proverbial bus. However, both appear loath to give up their employer-provided health coverage, and equally quick to minimize the impact of Obamacare’s premium increases nationwide. As I noted on Twitter, that’s easy for people who refuse to join the exchanges to say.

Last, but certainly not least, on the hit parade is Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jonathan “Stupidity of the American Voter” Gruber. Last week, Gruber said Obamacare “was working as designed” and that people who lost their coverage thanks to the law “never had real insurance to begin with.”

Unfortunately, MIT’s tax filings don’t include his salary. However, given that Gruber’s infamous undisclosed contract with the Obama administration totaled nearly $400,000, and that he literally made millions from other contracts, it’s fair to say Gruber could afford to purchase his own health insurance outside his employer—if he wanted to. So I e-mailed and asked him whether he gave up his employer coverage to purchase the “real insurance” Obamacare provides. Wouldn’t you know, I have yet to receive a reply.

It’s bad enough that the individuals above apparently refuse to give up their platinum-plated health plans to join the exchanges, even though it would cost them at most a few percentage points of their total compensation to do so. They also wish to cast stones from their ivory towers at those of us who are facing higher premiums, rising deductibles, fewer (if any) choices of insurers, and smaller doctor networks thanks to the law they claim to support.

So to all those well-heeled Obamacare supporters who can afford to enroll in Obamacare themselves, but simply won’t, I’ll make one final point: Disagree with me if you like, but I’m working my damnedest to stop Obamacare’s bailouts—even though I know that if I “win” on the policy, I could lose my health coverage. It’s called standing on principle. It’s a novel concept. You might want to try it sometime.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.