Tag Archives: federalism

What You Need to Know about Trump’s Executive Order on Health Care

On Thursday morning, President Trump signed an Executive Order regarding health care and health insurance. Here’s what you need to know about his action.

What Actions Did the President Take?

The Executive Order did not change regulations on its own; rather, it instructed Cabinet Departments to propose changes to regulations in the near future:

  1. Within 60 days, the Department of Labor will propose regulatory changes regarding Association Health Plans (AHPs). Regulations here will look to expand the definition of groups that can qualify as an “employer” under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). AHPs have two advantages: First, all association health plans regulated by ERISA are federally pre-empted from state benefit mandates; second, self-insured plans regulated by ERISA are exempt from several benefit mandates imposed by Obamacare—such as essential benefits and actuarial value standards.
  2. Within 60 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) will propose regulatory changes regarding short-term health plans. Regulations here will likely revoke rules put into place by the Obama Administration last October. Last year, the Obama Administration limited short-term plans to 90 days in duration (down from 364 days), and prevented renewals of such coverage—because it feared that such plans, which do not have to meet any of Obamacare’s benefit requirements, were drawing people away from Exchange coverage. The Trump Administration regulations will likely modify, or eliminate entirely, those restrictions, allowing people to purchase plans not compliant with the Obamacare mandates. (For more information, see my Tuesday article on this issue.)
  3. Within 120 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS will propose regulatory changes regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), vehicles where employers can deposit pre-tax dollars for their employees to use for health expenses. A 2013 IRS Notice prevented employers from using HRA dollars to fund employees’ individual health insurance premiums—because the Obama Administration worried that doing so would encourage employers to drop coverage. However, Section 18001 of the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law last December, allowed employers with under 50 employees to make HRA contributions that workers could use to pay for health insurance premiums on the individual market. The Executive Order may seek to expand this exemption to all employers, by rescinding the prior IRS notice.
  4. Within six months—and every two years thereafter—the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS, along with the Federal Trade Commission, will submit reports on industry consolidation within the health care sector, whether and how it is raising health care costs, and actions to mitigate the same.

How Will the Order Affect the Health Sector?

To some extent, the full impact of the Executive Order will remain unclear until the respective Departments actually release their proposed regulatory changes. For instance, it is unclear how far the Department of Labor can go in re-defining the term “employer” with respect to who can join an Association Health Plan—so it’s hard to predict the scope of the changes the rules themselves will propose.

In general, however, the issues discussed by the Executive Order will:

  • Give individuals more options, and more affordable options. Premiums on the individual market have more than doubled since 2013, due to Obamacare’s regulatory mandates. AHPs would allow workers to circumvent state benefit mandates through ERISA’s federal pre-emption of state laws; self-insured AHPs would also gain exemption from several federal Obamacare mandates, as outlined above. Because virtually all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits do not apply to short-term plans, these would obtain the most regulatory relief.
  • Allow more small businesses to subsidize workers’ coverage—either through Association Health Plans, or by making contributions to HRAs, and allowing employees to use those pre-tax dollars to buy the health coverage of their choosing on the individual market.

When Will the Changes Occur?

The Executive Order directed the Departments to announce regulatory changes within 60-120 days; the Departments could of course move faster than that. If the Departments decide to release interim final rules—that is, rules that take effect prior to a notice-and-comment period—or sub-regulatory guidance, the changes could take effect prior to the 2018 plan year.

However, any changes that go through the usual regulatory process—agencies issuing proposed rules, followed by a notice-and-comment period, prior to the rules taking effect—likely would not take effect until the 2019 plan year. While the Executive Order directed the agencies to “consider and evaluate public comment on any regulations proposed” pursuant to the Order, it did not specify whether the Departments must evaluate said comments before the regulations take effect.

Does the Order Represent a Regulatory Overreach?

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was asked about this issue Thursday, given conservatives’ prior criticisms of Barack Obama’s “pen and a phone” strategy. In the case of short-term health plans and Health Reimbursement Arrangements, the Executive Order could lead the Departments merely to rescind President Obama’s prior regulations—which almost by definition cannot represent regulatory overreach.

However, with respect to Association Health Plans, some conservatives may take a more nuanced view. Conservatives generally support allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines, believing that such freedom would allow consumers to buy the plans that best suit their interests.

However, AHPs accomplish this goal not through Congress’ Commerce Clause power—i.e., explicitly allowing, for instance, an individual in Maryland to buy a policy regulated in Virginia—but instead through federal pre-emption—individuals in Maryland and Virginia buying policies regulated by Washington, albeit in a less onerous manner than Obamacare’s Exchange plans. As with medical liability reform, therefore, some conservatives may support a state-based approach to achieve regulatory relief for consumers, rather than an expanded role for the federal government.

Finally, if President Trump wants to overturn his predecessor’s history of executive unilateralism, he should cease funding cost-sharing reduction payments to health insurers. The Obama Administration’s unilateral funding of these payments without an appropriation from Congress brought a sharp rebuke from a federal judge, who called the action unconstitutional. If President Trump wants to end executive overreach, he should abide by the ruling, and halt the unilateral payments to insurers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A “Grand Bargain” on Obamacare Repeal?

To know where you’re going, it helps to recognize where you’ve been. Examining the causes of Republicans’ legislative setbacks on health care—including last month’s dramatic failure of a “skinny” repeal bill on the Senate floor—provides the glimmer of a path forward for a legislative “repeal-and-replace” package, if they are bold enough to take it.

In both the House and the Senate, debate focused on a push-pull between two competing issues: The status of Medicaid expansion in the 31 states that accepted it, and what to do about Obamacare’s regulatory regime. During the spring and summer, congressional leaders attempted messy compromises on each issue, phasing out the higher federal match for Medicaid expansion populations over time, while crafting complex processes allowing states, insurers, or both to waive some—but not all—of Obamacare’s regulatory requirements.

But rather than constructing substantively cumbersome waiver arrangements—the legislative equivalent of a camel being a horse written by committee—Occam’s Razor suggests a simpler, cleaner solution: Preserving the status quo (i.e., the enhanced federal match) on Medicaid expansion in exchange for full repeal of Obamacare’s insurance regulations at the federal level.

A “grand bargain” in this vein would give Senate moderates a clear win on Medicaid expansion, while providing conservatives their desired outcome on Obamacare’s regulations. For this conservative at least, the regulations represent the heart of the law, prompting both its spending on exchange subsidies—to offset the higher premium costs from the regulatory mandates—and the taxes needed to fund that spending. Expelling the regulations from the federal statute books would represent a clear step towards the promise of repealing Obamacare “root and branch,” and return control of health insurance to the states, where it lay from 1947’s McCarran-Ferguson Act until Obamacare.

Federal Regulations Are Driving Up Health Costs

When coupled with structural reforms to Medicaid—a block grant or per capita caps—included in the House and Senate bills, repealing the federal regulations would enable the “laboratories of democracy” to reassert control over their health insurance markets and Medicaid programs. It would also contrast favorably with a recent proposal introduced by senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). While Graham claims his plan would “empower each individual state to choose the path that works best for them,” in reality it would retain federal dictates regarding pre-existing conditions—the most costly of all the Obamacare mandates.

In a sad irony, some of the same senators who want Congress to respect their states’ decisions to expand Medicaid also want to dictate to other states—as the Graham-Cassidy plan does—how their insurance markets should function. But the true test of federalism applies not in the principle’s convenience, but in its inconvenience.

I do not support single-payer health care, but as a federalist, I support the right of states like California and Vermont to explore a state single-payer system. There are other, arguably better, ways to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions than a Washington-imposed requirement, and true adherents of federalism would empower states to explore them.

Yes, This Idea Is Imperfect

To be sure, even this attempted “grand bargain” includes noteworthy flaws. Retaining the enhanced Medicaid match encourages states to prioritize expansion populations over individuals with disabilities in traditional Medicaid, and may lure even more states to accept the expansion. Keeping the higher Medicaid spending levels would preclude repealing all of Obamacare’s tax increases. And the Senate parliamentarian may advise that repealing Obamacare’s regulations does not comport with the budget reconciliation process. But despite the obvious obstacles, lawmakers should seriously explore this option. After Republicans promised repeal for four straight election cycles, the American people deserve no less.

Throughout the repeal process, conservatives have bent over backwards to accommodate moderates’ shifting legislative goalposts. When moderates objected to passing the repeal legislation all but one of them voted for two years ago, conservatives helped construct a “repeal-and-replace” bill. When moderates wanted to retain the Medicaid expansion in their states—even though the 2015 repeal bill moderates voted for eliminated it entirely—conservatives agreed, albeit at the traditional match rates. And when Senate moderates complained, conservatives agreed to a longer phase-out of the higher match rate, despite justifiable fears that the phase-out would never occur.

Winston Churchill purportedly claimed that Americans will always do the right thing—once they have exhausted every other possibility. This “grand bargain” may not represent the “right” outcome, or the best outcome. But conservatives have exhausted many other possibilities in attempting to come to an agreement. Perhaps moderates will finally come to accept federalism—giving states a true choice over their insurance markets, rather than trying to dictate terms—as the solution to keeping their promise to the American people and repealing (at least part of) Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Lindsay Graham’s “State Flexibility” Plan Falls Short

Shortly after more Republican senators announced their opposition to the current “repeal-and-replace” measure Monday evening, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) took to Twitter to promote his own health-care plan. He claimed that “getting money and power out of Washington and returning it to the states is the best hope for innovative health care,” adding that such moves were an “antidote to 1-SIZE FITS ALL approach embraced in Obamacare.”

There’s just one problem: Graham’s proposal doesn’t get power out of Washington, and it doesn’t fundamentally change the one-size-fits-all Obamacare approach. It also illustrates moderates’ selective use of federalism in the health-care debate, whereby they want other senators to respect their states’ decisions on Medicaid expansion, but want to dictate to other senators how those senators’ states should regulate health insurance.

Pre-Existing Conditions Are the Problem

A summary of Graham’s proposal claims it would block-grant current Obamacare funds to the states, ostensibly giving them flexibility. But the plan comes with a big catch: “The Obamacare requirements covering pre-existing conditions would be retained.”

When it comes to one of Obamacare’s costliest insurance regulations, Washington would still be calling the shots. That significant caveat echoes an existing waiver program under Obamacare, which in essence allows states to act any way they like on health care—so long as they’re implementing the goals of Obamacare. The Graham plan continues that tradition of fraudulent federalism of Washington using states as mere vassals accomplishing objectives it dictates, but perhaps with slightly more flexibility than under Obamacare itself.

This Is Not Repeal

As I have written before, the repeal debate comes down to an inconvenient truth for many Republicans: They can repeal Obamacare, or they can keep the status quo on pre-existing conditions—but they cannot do both. Keeping the requirements on pre-existing conditions necessitates many of the other Obamacare regulations and mandates, which necessitates subsidies (because otherwise coverage would become unaffordable for most Americans), which necessitates tax increases to pay for the subsidies—and you’re left with something approaching Obamacare, regardless of what you call it.

There’s no small amount of irony in moderates’ position on pre-existing conditions. Not only is it fundamentally incongruous with repeal—which most of them voted for only two years ago—but it’s fundamentally inconsistent with their position on Medicaid expansion as well. Why do senators like Lisa Murkowski want to protect their states’ decisions to expand Medicaid, yet dictate to other states how their insurance markets should function, by keeping regulation of health insurance at the federal level?

True Federalism the Solution

If senators—whether Graham, Murkowski, or others—want to promote federalism, then they should actually promote federalism. That means repealing all of the Obamacare mandates driving up premiums, and letting states decide whether they want to have Obamacare, a free-market system, or something else within their borders.

After all, New York did an excellent job running its insurance market into the ground through over-regulation well before Obamacare. It didn’t even need a guide from Washington. If states decide they like the Obamacare regulatory regime, they can easily re-enact it on the state level. But Washington politicians shouldn’t presuppose to arrogate that power to themselves.

In 1947, the McCarran-Ferguson Act codified a key principle of the Tenth Amendment, devolving regulation of health insurance to the states. Barring a few minor intrusions, Washington stayed out of the health insurance business for more than six decades—until Obamacare. It’s time to bring that principle of state regulation back, by repealing the Obamacare insurance regulations and restoring state sovereignty. Graham has the right rhetoric. Now he just needs the policy deeds to match his words.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

On Health Care Bill, Federalism to the Rescue

Temporary setbacks can often yield important knowledge that leads to more meaningful accomplishments—a lesson senators should remember while pondering the recent fate of their health-care legislation. This past week, frictions caused by federalism helped create the legislative stalemate, but the forces of federalism can also pave the way for a solution.

Moderates opposed to the bill raised two contradictory objections. Senators whose states expanded Medicaid lobbied hard to keep that expansion in their home states. Those same senators objected to repealing all of Obamacare’s insurance mandates and regulations, insisting that all other states keep adhering to a Washington-imposed standard.

But those Washington-imposed regulatory standards have prompted individual insurance premiums to more than double since Obamacare first took effect four years ago. While the current draft of the Senate bill allows states to waive out of some of those regulations, it outright repeals none—repeat, none—of them.

The High Prices Are The Fault of Too Many Rules

As the Congressional Budget Office score of the legislation indicates, the lack of regulatory relief under the bill would create real problems in insurance markets. Specifically, CBO found that low-income individuals likely would not purchase coverage, because such individuals would face a choice between low-premium plans with unaffordable deductibles or low-deductible plans with unaffordable premiums.

The budget analysts noted that this affordability dilemma has its roots in Obamacare’s mandated benefits package. Because of the Obamacare requirements not repealed under the bill, insurers would be “constrained” in their ability to offer plans that, for instance, provide prescription drug coverage or coverage for a few doctor visits before meeting the (high) deductible.

CBO concluded that the waiver option available under the Senate bill would, if a state chose it, ease the regulatory constraints on insurers “at least somewhat.” But those waivers only apply to some—not all—of the Obamacare regulations, and could be subject to changes in the political climate. With governors able to apply for—and presumably withdraw from—the waiver program unilaterally, states’ policy decisions could swing rapidly, and in ways that exacerbate uncertainty and instability.

If You Want Obamacare, You Can Enact It at the State Level

The Senate should go back to first principles, and repeal all of the Obamacare insurance regulations, restoring the balance of federalism under the Tenth Amendment, and the principle of state regulation of insurance that has existed since Congress passed the McCarran-Ferguson Act in 1947. If Obamacare is as popular as its supporters claim, states could easily reprise all its regulatory structures—as New York, New Jersey, and others did before the law’s passage. Likewise, senators wanting their colleagues to respect their states’ wishes on Medicaid expansion should respect those colleagues’ wishes on eliminating the entire Obamacare regulatory apparatus from their states.

On Medicaid, conservatives have already granted moderates significant concessions, allowing states to keep their expansions in perpetuity. The controversy now stems around whether the federal government should continue to keep paying states a higher federal match to cover childless adults than individuals with disabilities—a proposition that tests standards of fairness and equity.

However, critics of the bill’s changes to Medicaid raise an important point. As CBO noted, states “would not have additional flexibility” under the per capita caps created by the bill to manage their Medicaid programs. Without that flexibility, states might face greater pressure to find savings with a cleaver rather than a scalpel—cutting benefits, lowering reimbursement rates, or restricting eligibility, rather than improving care.

Several years ago, a Medicaid waiver granted to Rhode Island showed what flexibility can do for a state, reducing per-beneficiary spending for several years in a row by better managing care, not cutting it. When revising the bill, senators should give all Medicaid programs the flexibility Rhode Island received from the Bush administration when it applied for its waiver in 2009. They should also work to ensure that the bill will not fiscally disadvantage states that choose the additional flexibility of a block grant compared to the per capita caps.

If senators’ desire to protect their home states helped prompt this week’s legislative morass, then a willingness to allow other senators to protect their home states can help unwind it. Maintaining Obamacare’s regulatory structure at the federal level, while cutting the spending and taxes used to alleviate the higher costs from that structure, might represent the worst of all possible outcomes—an unfunded mandate passed down to millions of Americans. By contrast, eliminating the Washington-based regulatory apparatus and giving states a free choice whether to re-impose it would represent federalism at its best.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Fiscal Year 2018 Budget

UPDATE: The official White House budget document, posted on Tuesday, revealed an additional policy proposal, extending a series of mandatory spending programs included in the 2015 Medicare Access and SCHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) for two more years. These programs include community health center funding, the National Health Service Corps, abstinence education programs, health profession opportunity grants, and other related public health programs. These proposals would cost a total of $9.9 billion over a decade, of which the majority ($7.2 billion) would go toward community health centers.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the Trump Administration’s proposal for a temporary, two-year extension of these mandatory spending provisions would effectively re-create the scenario caused by the Medicare sustainable growth rate — which saw mandatory spending being extended in piecemeal increments, so as to hide the spending’s full deficit impact.

Original post follows below…

Late Monday afternoon, a document briefly appeared on the Department of Health and Human Services website as the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget in Brief. It’s unclear whether the document was a draft of the HHS budget, or merely a case of a staffer posting the official document online too early (our money would be on the latter). It also must be noted that other budget materials—the White House/Office of Management and Budget document, as well as supplemental materials from the Treasury and others—provide more detail and information not present solely within the HHS budget.

That said, based on the review of the document posted, the health budget seems in many respects functionally incoherent:

  • It proposes significant entitlement savings from Medicaid, over and above those included in Obamacare repeal, while proposing no direct savings from Medicare—a program that will spend more than $9 trillion in the coming decade, and which faces insolvency by 2028;
  • It grants states more flexibility with regards to Medicaid reform, while with respect to medical liability reform, it prescribes a solution from Washington—one that conservatives have argued is inconsistent with Tenth Amendment principles; and
  • It assumes $250 billion in savings from Obamacare repeal—more than the most recent estimate of the House legislation—a “magic asterisk” not likely to be achieved, but one on which the budget relies in order to achieve balance within a decade.

A summary of the document follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days, as more materials get released.

Discretionary Spending

While press reports in recent days have focused on the amount of “cuts” proposed in the President’s budget, it’s worth noting the HHS budget’s overall spending levels. When it comes to budget authority, the budget would spend $1.113 trillion in Fiscal Year 2018, which is a 1.24% reduction compared to the $1.127 trillion preliminary number for the current fiscal year, and a 0.54% reduction compared to the $1.119 trillion for Fiscal Year 2016.

Furthermore, the HHS budget actually increases the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) within the Department—from 77,499 in FY16, to 79,505 in FY17, to 80,027 in FY18.

When compared to Fiscal Year 2017 amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $850 million (31.0%) reduction for the Food and Drug Administration, as the Administration proposes increasing FDA user fees to compensate for reductions in taxpayer funding;
  • $449 million (4.2%) reduction for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $55 million (1.1%) reduction for the Indian Health Service;
  • $1.3 billion (17.2%) reduction for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $5.78 billion (18.2%) reduction for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $385 million (9.3%) reduction for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and
  • $379 million (9.6%) reduction for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

Food and Drug Administration:  As noted above, the budget envisions a “recalibration” of how to pay for FDA pre-market review activities. Specifically, the budget would increase industry user fees “to fund 100 percent of cost for pre-market review and approval activities” for brand and generic prescription drugs and medical devices.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $22.6 Billion, including interactions)

Medicare Appeals:  Proposes new mandatory spending of $127 million in Fiscal 2018, and $1.27 billion over a decade, to address the pending backlog of Medicare appeals.

IPAB Repeal:  Repeals Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), at a cost of $7.6 billion over a decade. While opposing Obamacare’s notion that a board of unelected bureaucrats should be empowered to make rulings lowering Medicare spending nationwide, some conservatives may also oppose efforts to repeal a spending constraint on our nation’s largest health care entitlement without any similar efforts to control the program’s large (and growing) outlays.

Liability Reform:  Achieves Medicare savings of $31.4 billion from medical liability reforms. The reforms would impose caps on non-economic damages, provide safe harbors for physicians based on following clinical guidelines, allow for the creation of health courts, provide for a three-year statute of limitations, eliminate joint and several liability, allow courts to modify contingency arrangements, and provide for periodic payments for large jury awards.

The proposal would yield total savings of $55 billion overall. The largest share of $31.4 billion would come from Medicare—in part because a portion of physician fees are based on medical liability insurance payments. Medicaid savings would total $399 million. Much of the remaining $23.2 billion would come from revenue interactions with the current exclusion from employer-provided health insurance—i.e., a lowering of health insurance costs and premiums resulting in workers receiving slightly less of their compensation as pre-tax health benefits, and slightly more of their compensation as after-tax cash wages.

While supporting the concept of liability reform generally, some conservatives may be concerned that the budget’s proposals violate the principles of federalism. States can enact liability reforms on their own—and many states like Texas have done so, without any mandates from Washington. Some conservatives may therefore view this proposal as an example of “big government conservatism” inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $627 Billion)

The HHS document notes that “the budget includes a net savings to Medicaid of $627 billion over 10 years, not including additional savings to Medicaid as a result of the Administration’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

Medicaid Reform:  Assumes $610 billion in savings (again, over and above Obamacare repeal) from Medicaid reform, giving states the choice between a per capita cap or a block grant beginning in 2020. The document specifically notes that this proposal will allow states to promote solutions that encourage work and promote personal responsibility.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program:  Assumes a two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The budget also proposes eliminating two Obamacare-related provisions—the increase in the enhanced federal match rate for SCHIP, and the maintenance of effort requirements imposed on states—in both cases at the end of the current fiscal year.

The budget would cap the level at which states could receive the enhanced federal SCHIP match at 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500 for a family of four in 2017). Some conservatives would argue that this provision is one way to ensure federal funds are directed towards the vulnerable populations that need them most; guidance issued by the Bush Administration in 2007 provides other examples of potential policies to include.

Finally, the budget also proposes undoing an Obamacare change that required states to transition certain children off of SCHIP and into expanded Medicaid, allowing states to re-enroll these children into SCHIP.

On net, the SCHIP extension would save the federal government $5.8 billion over ten years, reflecting new costs to the SCHIP program ($13.9 billion), savings to Medicaid ($16.7 billion), and savings to other federal health programs ($3 billion).

Liability Reform:  As noted above, the budget assumes an additional $399 million in Medicaid savings from enacting liability reform.

Repeal of Obamacare

The budget assumes a net of $250 billion in savings from an Obamacare repeal/replace measure, savings accruing to both HHS and Treasury. Some conservatives, noting that the most recent score of Obamacare legislation showed a net savings of only $150 billion—with more new spending added since then—may question whether or not this assumption is realistic.

Five Questions About This Week’s “Repeal-and-Replace” Developments

At a Thursday morning press conference, Speaker Ryan and House leaders unveiled amendment language providing an additional $15 billion in funding for “invisible high risk pools,” which the House Rules Committee was scheduled to consider Thursday afternoon. That amendment was released following several days of conversations, but no bill text, surrounding state waivers for some (or all—reports have varied on this front) of Obamacare’s “Big Four” regulations—guaranteed issue, community rating, essential health benefits, and actuarial value. Theoretically, states could use the risk pool funds to subsidize the costs of individuals with pre-existing conditions, should they decide to waive existing Obamacare regulations regarding same.

Given these developments regarding risk pools and waivers and regulations (oh my!), it’s worth posing several key questions about the still-fluid discussions:

Do Republicans believe in limited executive authority, or not?

The text of the amendment regarding risk pool funding states that the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) “shall establish…parameters for the operation of the program consistent with this section.”

That’s essentially all the guidance given to CMS to administer a $15 billion program. Following consultations with stakeholders—the text requires such discussions, but doesn’t necessarily require CMS to listen to stakeholder input—the Administration can define eligible individuals, the standards for qualification for the pools (both voluntary or automatic), the percentage of insurance premiums paid into the program, and the attachment points for insurers to receive payments from the program.

This extremely broad language raises several potential concerns:

  • Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has previously cited the number of references to “the Secretary shall” or “the Secretary may” in Obamacare as showing his ability to modify, change, or otherwise undermine the law. Republicans who give such a broad grant of authority to the executive would allow a future Democrat Administration to return the favor.
  • Nothing in the amendment text directs funding towards the states that actually utilize the waiver process being discussed. In other words, states that opt-out of the Obamacare regulations, and wish to utilize the funds to help individuals with pre-existing conditions affected by same, could lose out on funding to those states that retain all of the Obamacare regulations.
  • The wide executive authority does little to preclude arbitrary decisions by the executive. If the Administration wants to “come after” a state or an insurer, this broad grant of power may give the Administration the ability to do so, by limiting their ability to claim program funds.

As I have previously written, some conservatives may believe that the answer to Barack Obama’s executive unilateralism is not executive unilateralism from a Republican Administration. Such a broad grant of authority to the executive in the risk pool program undermines that principle, and ultimately Congress’ Article I constitutional power.

Do Republicans believe in federalism, or not?

Section (c)(3) of the amendment text allows states to operate risk pools in their respective states, beginning in 2020. However, the text also states that the parameters under which those state pools will operate will be set at the federal level by CMS. Some may find it slightly incongruous that, even as Congress debates allowing states to opt-out of some of Obamacare’s regulations, it wants to retain control of this new pot of money at the federal level, albeit while letting states implement the federally-defined standards.

How is the new funding for “invisible high risk pools” substantively different from Obamacare’s reinsurance program?

Section (d)(5) of the amendment text requires CMS to establish “the dollar amount of claims for eligible individuals after which the program will provide payments to health insurance issuers and the proportion of such claims above such dollar amount that the program will pay.”

The amendment language echoes Section 1341(b)(2) of Obamacare, which required the Administration to establish payments to insurers for Obamacare’s reinsurance program. That existing reinsurance mechanism, like the proposed amendment text, has attachment points (an amount at which reinsurance kicks in) and co-insurance (health insurers will pay a certain percentage of claims above the attachment point, while the program funding will pay a certain percentage).

Congressional leadership previously called the $20 billion in Obamacare reinsurance funding a “bailout” and “corporate welfare.” But the $15 billion in funding under the proposed amendment echoes the Obamacare mechanism—only with more details missing and less oversight. Why do Republicans now support a program suspiciously similar to one that they previously opposed?

Why do conservatives believe any states will actually apply for regulatory waivers?

The number of states that have repealed Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion thus far is a nice round figure: Zero. Given this experience, it’s worth asking whether any state would actually take Washington up on its offer to provide regulatory relief—particularly because Congress could decide to repeal all the regulations outright, but thus far has chosen not to do so.

Moreover, if Congress places additional conditions on these waivers, as some Members have discussed, even states that want to apply for them may not qualify. Obamacare already has a waiver process under which states can waive some of the law’s regulations—including the essential health benefits and actuarial value (but not guaranteed issue and community rating). However, those waiver requirements are so strict that no states have applied for these types of waivers—Health Savings Account and other consumer-directed health care options likely do not meet the law’s criteria. If the House plan includes similarly strict criteria, the waivers will have little meaning.

Will the Administration actively encourage states to apply for regulatory waivers?

President Trump has previously stated that he wants to keep Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions provisions in place. Those statements raise questions about how exactly the Administration would implement a program seeking to waive those very protections. Would the Administration actively encourage states to apply? If so, why won’t the Administration support repealing those provisions outright—rather than requiring states to come to the federal government to ask permission?

Conversely, if the Administration wishes to discourage states from using this waiver program, it has levers to do so. As noted above, the current amendment language gives the Administration very broad leeway regarding the $15 billion risk pool program—such that the Administration could potentially deny funds to states that move to waive portions of the Obamacare regulations.

The combination of the broad grant of authority to the executive, coupled with the President’s prior comments wanting to keep Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions provision, could lead some conservatives to question whether or not they are being led into a potential “bait-and-switch” scenario, whereby the regulatory flexibility promised prior to the bill’s passage suddenly disappears upon enactment.

This post was published at The Federalist.

Federalism’s Quiet Victory

More than a week after the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, some have discovered the ruling was not the unqualified victory for the Obama Administration that reporters made it out to be on the day of the decision.  Multiple press reports have focused on statements by governors indicating they may not, or will not, participate in the law’s now-optional expansion of Medicaid. (A good summary of where states stand on the expansion based on public comments to date can be found here.)

On the substance, it’s easy to see why states would be greatly concerned.  As Matt Salo, head of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, stated, the idea that the Medicaid expansion is “free” to states is nothing but a massive prevarication:

State officials retort that the notion that expansion is free for states until 2017 is “a big lie,” in Salo’s words.  While the federal government will pay many of the administrative costs, states will share in the expense of some information technology and personnel.  And the requirement that most individuals carry insurance is expected to spur at least some of an estimated 13 million people who currently qualify for Medicaid, but are not enrolled to sign up, Salo said.  States will receive their traditional federal funding match for those people.

Those administrative costs will be significant — one Heritage Foundation study pegged them at nearly $12 billion in the first six years alone.  And there’s also the fact that the law’s spending reductions are widely predicted by experts to be unsustainable, meaning it’s entirely possible Congress could reduce the federal Medicaid match –sticking the states with even more added costs – down the line if lawmakers need to undo Medicare payment reductions to ensure seniors still have access to care.

More fundamentally, however, the ruling gives states something they have not had in their relations with the federal government in quite some time – leverage.  The federal government will no longer be able blithely to dismiss state concerns, or order them to expand Medicaid just as Washington says — or else.  It’s particularly noteworthy that just one day after the Supreme Court ruling, former Speaker Pelosi publicly floated the idea of “re-thinking” the federal Medicaid match — increasing the federal share to compensate states for their unfunded mandates.  It’s unclear whether that would actually happen — or if so how the increased federal payments would be paid for — but it shows that in light of the ruling, federal politicians cannot ignore states’ concerns, a step in the right direction in restoring the long-lost balance between Washington and the states.

And that is as the Framers intended it to be.  In Federalist 46, James Madison wrote that federal infringements on the states would spark popular outrage, just as Obamacare sparked a majority of states to sue the federal government for exercising unconstitutional coercive power on their sovereignty:

Should an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a warrantable measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand.  The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.

But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only.  They would be signals of general alarm.  Every government would espouse the common cause.  A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole.  The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other.

The Court’s ruling echoed Madison’s comments about the “general alarm” that the law has inflicted upon the states; it struck down the coercive requirements of the Medicaid expansion as “economic dragooning” that puts “a gun to the head” of states.  What’s more, Chief Justice Roberts’ ruling laid down a marker implying that additional laws could also be struck down as unconstitutional impositions on states: “We have no need to fix a line [defining coercion] either.  It is enough for today that wherever that line may be, this statute is surely beyond it.”

Whatever one thinks of the merits of the Chief Justice’s opinion on the individual mandate, the Court’s ruling on the Medicaid expansion is already having an impact on politics and policy in dozens of states — and the constitutional implications of the decision could influence the state-federal relationship for years to come.  This at least is an outcome many conservatives can value.

George Will on Obamacare and Federalism

If you have some time this snowy Saturday, I would highly recommend George Will’s Sunday column (pasted in full below) as a good read.  The piece summarizes the lesser-known element of the Obamacare challenges to be heard by the Supreme Court in two months’ time – the argument that the law’s Medicaid expansion represents a commandeering of the states, in violation of the Tenth Amendment.  The article notes that any state refusing to expand its Medicaid program under Obamacare will forfeit ALL Medicaid funding; studies have demonstrated such a scenario would be so economically (therefore politically) remote as to be all but impossible.  And as the states’ brief to the Court noted a few weeks ago, the Court has already adopted the principle that federal strings attached to spending programs can become so great as to be coercive; if the Court will not reject as coercive the largest ever mandated expansion of the program that represents the largest portion of state budgets, what will it reject?  Will notes that it is this argument – limiting principles (or lack thereof) on Congressional power – that unites the challenges to the individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion:

“The Obamacare issues of Medicaid coercion and the individual mandate are twins.  They confront the court with the same challenge, that of enunciating judicially enforceable limiting principles.  If there is no outer limit on Congress’s power to regulate behavior in the name of regulating interstate commerce, then the Framers’ design of a limited federal government is nullified.  And if there is no outer limit on the capacity of this government to coerce the states, then federalism, which is integral to the Framers’ design, becomes evanescent.”

Therein lie the stakes for the American people that the Court will consider later this spring.