Tag Archives: FEHBP

John Kasich’s Obamacare Bailout Plan

On Thursday morning, governors John Kasich (R-OH) and John Hickenlooper (D-CO) released a plan to “stabilize” Obamacare insurance markets. Here’s what you need to know about the details of the proposal.

John Kasich Doesn’t Want to Repeal Obamacare

It’s worth repeating that, as recently as three years ago, Kasich said the following regarding the health care law: “From Day One, and up until today and into tomorrow, I do not support Obamacare. I never have, and I believe it should be repealed.”

Oh, how times have changed. The governors’ plan would not only not repeal Obamacare, it would further entrench the law, by giving tens of billions, and more likely hundreds of billions, of new taxpayer funds to wealthy insurance companies.

Governors Want Trump to Violate the Constitution

The plan calls on the Trump administration to “commit to making cost-sharing reduction payments.” But as this space has previously described, the United States has an interesting document—you may have heard of it—called the Constitution. That Constitution places the “power of the purse” with Congress, not the executive.

If Congress does appropriate funds—for cost-sharing reductions or anything else—the executive cannot refuse to spend that money, per a prior Supreme Court ruling. But if Congress does not appropriate funds, the executive cannot spend money. To do otherwise would violate a criminal statute.

Asking the Trump administration to violate the Constitution may seem like a natural request to someone like Kasich, a big-government liberal who ran into legal trouble for expanding his state’s Medicaid program unilaterally. But our nation is a government of laws, not men, which makes obeying the law an obligation of all citizens, let alone the chief executive.

A Selective History on Reinsurance

The blueprint cites Republicans’ proposed “stability funds” during the “repeal-and-replace” debate to suggest a “temporary” stability fund providing corporate welfare to insurers—demonstrating the lack of wisdom of the original congressional proposal. In addition to this “temporary” stability fund, the governors’ plan also claims that “the federal government has gone back on its commitment to these programs, in some cases refusing to fully fund [sic] risk sharing programs.” It goes on to propose that “Congress should modify and strengthen federal risk sharing mechanisms, including risk adjustments and reinsurance.”

The claims by the governors defy facts, particularly on reinsurance. The Government Accountability Office concluded last year that the Obama administration violated the law to give insurance companies billions more dollars in reinsurance funds than they deserved—prioritizing corporate welfare to insurers over statutorily required payments back to the U.S. Treasury.

But even after the Obama administration violated the law to give insurers billions more than they were due, the governors still feel the need to propose two separate “stability” (read: bailout) funds to prop up Obamacare. It demonstrates the massive “cash suck” that Obamacare has placed on the federal fisc.

An Impractical Proposal on Federal Employee Coverage

The plan also suggests that Congress should “allow residents in underserved counties”—defined as those with only one insurer on the exchange—“to buy into the federal employee benefit program, giving residents in rural counties access to the same health care as federal workers.”

This talking point—and it sounds like little more than a talking point—appears a solution in search of a problem, for several reasons. First, the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) has very high premiums for federal workers, masked by massive federal subsidies. To provide some context, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Option—the most popular option in FEHBP—has a monthly premium for 2017 of $709.93 for an individual. That total stands nearly 50 percent higher than the average $476 monthly premium paid by exchange participants this year. And the cost of a family plan for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Option in FEHBP—$1,645.48 per month, or $19,745.76 annually—exceeds the cost of most cars.

FEHBP has such high premiums because it provides far richer benefits than the Obamacare exchanges. A 2009 Congressional Research Service report found that the Blue Cross Blue Shield standard option pays an average percentage of health expenses—in technical terms, the plan’s actuarial value—of 87 percent. By contrast, Obamacare links its insurance subsidies to the second-least-costly silver plan, which has an actuarial value of 70 percent.

Because the federal employee plan provides such generous coverage, opening it up to exchange customers would necessitate massive new increases in subsidies, which the governors’ plan also alludes to (“provide adequate and effective subsidies”). Combined with the reinsurance and cost-sharing reduction payments, it amounts to propping up Obamacare on taxpayers’ dime.

Millions of Americans found out in 2013 that when it comes to Obamacare, if you like your plan, you may not be able to keep it. But with respect to both Obamacare and the governors’ proposal, regardless of whether you like the plan, you’ll definitely be required to pay for it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are Senate Republicans Going Soft on Obamacare’s Taxpayer Funding of Abortions?

Senate Republican leadership continue to draft their “repeal-and-replace” health care bill in secret, but it sure looks like staff are preparing for the bill to endorse Obamacare’s funding of plans that cover abortion, by re-characterizing—and mischaracterizing—how current law treats the procedure. While text is not yet publicly available and will not be until Thursday at the earliest, here’s how anonymous sources described the “new” insurance subsidies to the Wall Street Journal:

Tax credits are likely to be structured in ways similar to the [Obamacare] subsidies as a way to preserve restrictions on abortion funding, according to Senate GOP aides. Provisions restricting the use of the House bill’s tax credits to pay for abortion hit procedural hurdles in the Senate.

The [Obamacare] subsidies, which are advance tax credits paid to insurance companies to lower the cost of health-insurance premiums, currently can’t be used to cover the cost of abortions.

The problem is, though, that Obamacare does have “taxpayer-funded abortions.” And that’s not what I said—that’s what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said. Here’s his speech on March 17, 2010, as the House was preparing to vote on Obamacare (all emphasis added):

Americans woke up yesterday thinking they had seen everything in this debate already. Then they heard the latest….They heard that Democrats over in the House want to approve the Senate bill without actually voting on it. These Democrats want to approve a bill that rewrites one-sixth of the economy, forces taxpayers to pay for abortions, raises taxes in the middle of a recession, and slashes Medicare for seniors, without leaving their fingerprints on it.

Here’s McConnell the next week, the day after House Democrats voted for Obamacare and one day before it was signed into law: “Here is what the Democrats voted for last night: a vast expansion of the entitlement state that we cannot afford, massive cuts to Medicare, higher taxes, higher health care costs, worse care, taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Don’t consider McConnell a reliable source? The current vice president, Mike Pence, speaking in March 2010 during debate on the reconciliation bill intended to “fix” parts of Obamacare, noted that no provision in the reconciliation bill would fix its funding of abortion:

Mr. Speaker, the bill before us tonight doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t fix the fact that this is a government takeover of health care that’s going to mandate that every American buy health insurance whether they want it or need it or not. It doesn’t fix the fact that it includes about $600 billion in job-killing tax increases in the worst economy in 30 years. It doesn’t fix the fact this bill provides public funding for elective abortion for the first time in American history.

And then there’s former House Speaker John Boehner. During his infamous “Hell no, you can’t!” speech on the House floor as that chamber was preparing to pass Obamacare, here’s what he said about the bill (soon to become law) and abortion:

Can you go home and tell your constituents with confidence that this bill respects the sanctity of all human life and that it won’t allow for taxpayer funding of abortions for the first time in 30 years? No, you cannot.

The current majority leader, current vice president, and former House speaker are all correct, of course—or at least they were seven years ago. Obamacare provides subsidies to plans that cover abortion, a significant break from the precedent used by the federal employee health plan, and one that will see more than $700 billion in taxpayer funds in the coming decade go toward plans that could cover abortion.

To repeat, the bill text is not yet available, but if it has strict pro-life protections in it, why are Senate staff suddenly trying to claim that a bill McConnell said has “taxpayer-funded abortions” in it actually prevents funding for the procedure? Are anonymous staff trying to lay the groundwork for a massive flip-flop that will alienate the entire pro-life community? Time will tell, but for those concerned about taxpayer funding of abortion, the initial soundings do not look good.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Morning Bell: 10 Ways Obamacare Isn’t Working

Obamacare is an unworkable law.

It’s obvious because the Administration keeps trying to “fix” it—to no avail. It has delayed parts of the law, ignored others, and carved out exemptions for its political allies.

1. WAIVERS: The Administration established a legally questionable program of temporary waivers when firms announced they were considering dropping coverage rather than comply with the law’s costly requirements. Even though more than half of the recipients of these waivers were members of union plans, many union leaders are still not satisfied—they want another waiver, to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies for their employer-provided coverage.

2. ILLEGAL TAXPAYER SUBSIDIES FOR CONGRESS: Last month, following heavy lobbying from leaders in both parties—and an intervention from President Obama himself—the Administration issued a rule regarding coverage for Members of Congress and their staffs, who will retain their taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies in the exchanges. Unfortunately, as previous research has documented, the Administration had no legal basis on which to make this ruling.

3. EMPLOYER MANDATE: In July, the Administration announced it would not enforce Obamacare’s employer mandate until 2015, effectively granting big business a one-year delay. This action came despite language in Section 1514(d) of the law requiring employers to act “beginning after December 31, 2013,” and despite the fact that hard-working Americans are not getting a delay from the other harmful effects of Obamacare.

4. PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS: Immediately after Obamacare was signed, Democratic staffers admitted that under the law as written, insurers “still would be able to refuse new coverage to children because of a pre-existing medical problem.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took it upon itself to issue regulations prohibiting plans from turning down such applicants three years earlier than the law required. As a result, insurers stopped offering child-only plans in 17 states, fearing that only parents of sick children would apply for insurance coverage.

5. OUT-OF-POCKET CAPS: Section 1302(c)(1) of the law includes caps on out-of-pocket expenses and explicitly states they are to take effect “beginning in 2014.” But earlier this year, the Administration delayed these new caps from taking effect as scheduled. What’s more, as The New York Times reported, the Administration made this unilateral change not by issuing rules subject to public comment, but by posting a series of questions and answers on an obscure website.

6. BASIC HEALTH PLAN: This government-run health plan for people above the Medicaid income level was created in Section 1331 of Obamacare as a way to promote “state flexibility,” but the Administration unilaterally delayed it for one year. One Democratic Senator criticized the Administration for this move, saying it does not “live up” to the law as written.

7. TAX DISCLOSURES: Section 9002 of Obamacare requires employers to report the value of workers’ health insurance on W-2 filings, effective for all “taxable years after December 31, 2010.” But the Administration unilaterally delayed this requirement, and employers did not have to report these data until after the 2012 presidential election.

8. HONOR SYSTEM: In July, the Administration announced it was placing most Americans on the “honor system” when it came to verifying their income and access to employer-provided health coverage. As prior research has documented, this move, coupled with loopholes written into the law, gives many Americans a strong incentive to “game the system” and obtain more in taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies than they should actually receive.

9. PRIVACY: Former HHS General Counsel Michael Astrue, when serving as Commissioner of Social Security earlier this year, complained strongly within the Administration about the security risks posed by Obamacare’s new data hub. However, the Administration overrode his objections, using what Astrue called “an absurdly broad interpretation of the Privacy Act’s ‘routine use’ exemption.”

10. TOBACCO PENALTIES: Section 1201 of the law allows insurance companies to charge smokers up to 50 percent more in premiums. But due to a “computer glitch,” those penalties will be limited for “at least a year”—meaning non-smokers may have to pay more as a result.

In the end, Nancy Pelosi was wrong. Congress passed the bill, but we still don’t know what’s in it—because the Obama Administration keeps changing rules and ignoring the law. That’s why Congress should use its power of the purse and stop a single dime from being spent on this unworkable, unfair, and unpopular measure.

This post was originally published at the Daily Signal.

For Congress, Obamacare Finally Hits Home

The quotes are certainly ominous:

  • Employees are so worried “thanks to Obamacare that they are thinking about retiring early or just quitting.”
  • Workers fear being pushed “on to the government health exchanges, which could make their benefits exorbitantly expensive.”
  • “The chatter about retiring now, to remain on the current health care plan, is constant.”
  • Employees “young and old [are] worried about skyrocketing health care premiums cutting deeply into their already small paychecks.”
  • “The focus right now is…trying to figure out how to offset potential increases in premiums.”

Those quotes could refer to any number of employers and firms dealing with the effects of Obamacare. But, as this morning’s Politico reports, the quotes taken above come from Capitol Hill, where aides are terrified of a provision in Obamacare that dumps them onto the exchanges come January 1.

Federal employees, including those on Capitol Hill, currently receive generous “corporate level” health insurance benefits and a broad range of personal plan choice—from high-cost, comprehensive plans to low-cost, high-deductible plans—that is denied the vast majority of Americans.

Like all enrollees in employer-based coverage, Capitol Hill employees (and all federal workers) get employer subsidies for the cost of their coverage. It’s a flat, fixed-dollar amount and, like all employer-based contributions, is also tax-free.

When Members and staff are forced out of their existing coverage into Obamacare’s exchanges, they will lose both the generous subsidy and the tax break. Many on Capitol Hill will not qualify for subsidies in the exchanges—just like many private-sector employees who will lose their existing coverage.

Members and staff have another big problem. Obamacare was drafted so clumsily that it’s unclear precisely how placing Members of Congress and their staff in exchanges will work. Politico notes that “there has been no guidance” from the Office of Personnel Management on the issue, and fear levels have been rising as a result.

This is what happens when we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

The Politico story really just shows the broader themes that have been playing out around the country: Regulators causing uncertainty for businesses and their workers? Check. Skyrocketing premiums in the exchanges? Check. Firms dumping their workers onto exchanges? Check. In other words, all of Obamacare’s chickens have finally come home to roost on Capitol Hill.

This post was originally published at the Daily Signal.

How About MEDICAID for Members?

The Twitterverse exploded with outrage today, following last night’s Politico story indicating that congressional leadership have engaged in secret conversations attempting to craft an Obamacare waiver for Members of Congress and/or their staffs.  As with the rest of Obamacare, the problem lies in the botched way the legislation was enacted — drafted in secret, then rammed through Congress on a party-line vote.  Harry Reid drafted this particular section of the bill behind closed doors; Senator Grassley later offered an amendment clarifying the provisions, but Democrats defeated it three years ago. (Text of the Grassley amendment available here; my summary of the amendment here; Senate floor vote here).  So there’s one important principle at play: Having rammed the bill through while claiming that reading the bill was a waste of time, because we had to act “real fast” and didn’t have two lawyers over two days to understand the legislation, Democrats now want to exempt themselves from the mess they created.  As we’ve said before, you break it, you own it.

But there’s another important principle as well regarding Members’ health coverage, and the ongoing state-level debate regarding Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid: How many state legislators who want to expand Medicaid FOR OTHERS want to go on Medicaid THEMSELVES?  We know the answer to this question at the federal level — Sen. LeMieux offered a “Medicaid for Members” amendment in March 2010, which received not a single vote from Senate Democrats. (Text of the amendment here; my summary here; Senate floor vote here.)  In 2009, Rep. Henry Waxman publicly admitted that “it is highly unlikely that you are going to find millionaires who would like to go on Medicaid.”  In other words, Medicaid provides such inferior coverage that millionaires — and wealthy Members of Congress — wouldn’t dream of enrolling in it themselves, but have no qualms about putting low-income individuals on this “insurance.”

So to the original story: The root problem is not that Congress drafted the law sloppily — although that did happen in spades.  The problem is that not enough individuals have been exposed to Obamacare’s underlying flaws.  Because it’s easy to see how requiring federal and state representatives to go on Medicaid themselves would make many legislators much less enthusiastic about expanding “coverage” under Obamacare.

Budget Summary — Obama’s “One Percent” Solution

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baselines, the federal government will spend a total of $6.87 trillion on Medicare and $4.36 trillion on Medicaid over the next ten years – that’s $11.2 trillion total, not even counting additional state spending on Medicaid.  Yet President Obama’s budget, released today, contains net deficit savings of only $152 billion from health care programs.  That’s a total savings of only 1.35 percent of the trillions the federal government will spend on health care in the coming decade.  Sadly, it’s another sign the President isn’t serious about real budget and deficit reform.

Overall, the budget:

  • Proposes a total of $401 billion in savings, yet calls for $249 billion in unpaid-for spending due to the Medicare physician reimbursement “doc fix” – thus resulting in only $152 billion in net deficit savings. (The $249 billion presumes a ten year freeze of Medicare physician payments; however, the budget does NOT propose ways to pay for this new spending.)
  • Proposes few structural reforms to Medicare; those that are included – weak as they are – are not scheduled to take effect until 2017, well after President Obama leaves office.  If the proposals are so sound, why the delay?
  • Requests a more than 50% increase – totaling $1.4 billion – for program management at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, of which the vast majority would be used to implement Obamacare.
  • Includes mandatory proposals in the budget that largely track last year’s budget and the President’s September 2011 deficit proposal to Congress, with a few exceptions.  The largest difference between this year’s budget and the prior submissions is a massive increase in savings from reductions to nursing and rehabilitation facilities – $79 billion, compared to a $32.5 billion estimated impact in September 2011.

A full summary follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days.

Discretionary Spending

When compared to Fiscal Year 2013 appropriated amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $37 million (1.5%) increase for the Food and Drug Administration (not including $770 million in increased user fees);
  • $435 million (4.9%) increase for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $97 million (2.2%) increase for the Indian Health Service;
  • $344 million (5.7%) increase for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $274 million (0.9%) increase for the National Institutes of Health; and
  • $1.4 billion (52.9%) increase for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

With regard to the above numbers for CDC and HRSA, note that these are discretionary numbers only.  The Administration’s budget also would allocate an additional $1 billion mandatory spending from the Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in Obamacare, further increasing spending levels.  For instance, CDC spending would be increased by an additional $755 million.

Obamacare Implementation Funding and Personnel:  As previously noted, the budget includes more than $1.4 billion in discretionary spending increases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the HHS Budget in Brief claims would be used to “continue implementing key provisions of [Obamacare].”  This funding would finance 712 new bureaucrats within CMS when compared to last fiscal year – a massive increase when compared to a request of 256 new FTEs in last year’s budget proposal.  Overall, the HHS budget proposes an increase of 1,311 full-time equivalent positions within the bureaucracy compared to projections for the current fiscal cycle, and an increase of 3,327 bureaucrats compared to last fiscal year.

The budget includes specific requests related to Obamacare totaling over $2 billion, including:

  • $803.5 million for “CMS activities to support [Exchanges] in FY 2014,” including funding for the federally-funded Exchange, for which the health law itself did not appropriate funding;
  • $837 million for “beneficiary education and outreach activities through the National Medicare Education program and consumer support…including $554 million for the [Exchanges];”
  • $519 million for “general IT systems and other support,” including funding for the federal Exchange;
  • $3.8 million for updates to healthcare.gov;
  • $18.4 million to oversee the medical loss ratio regulations; and
  • $24 million for administrative activities in Medicaid related to “implement[ing] new responsibilities” under Obamacare.

Exchange Funding:  The budget envisions HHS spending $1.5 billion on Exchange grants in 2013.  That’s an increase of over $300 million compared to last year’s estimate of fiscal year 2013 spending – despite the fact that most states have chosen not to create their own Exchanges.  The budget anticipates a further $2.1 billion in spending on Exchange grants in fiscal year 2014.  The health care law provides the Secretary with an unlimited amount of budget authority to fund state Exchange grants through 2015.  However, other reports have noted that the Secretary does NOT have authority to use these funds to construct a federal Exchange.

Abstinence Education Funding:  The budget proposes eliminating the abstinence education funding program, and converting those funds into a new pregnancy prevention program.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $359.9 Billion, including interactions)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 65 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2014.  The Simpson-Bowles Commission made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $25.5 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals beginning in 2014, saving $11 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1.4 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $700 million.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $400 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging; no savings are assumed, a change from the September 2011 deficit proposal, which said prior authorization would save $900 million.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $123.2 billion according to OMB.  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

Medicare Drug Discounts:  Proposes accelerating the “doughnut hole” drug discount plan included in PPACA, filling in the “doughnut hole” completely by 2015.  While the budget claims this proposal will save $11.2 billion over ten years, some may be concerned that – by raising drug spending, and eliminating incentives for seniors to choose generic pharmaceuticals over brand name drugs, this provision will actually INCREASE Medicare spending, consistent with prior CBO estimates at the time of PPACA’s passage.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) and equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $79 billion – a significant increase compared to the $56.7 billion in last year’s budget and the $32.5 billion in proposed savings under the President’s September 2011 deficit proposal.  Equalizes payments between IRFs and SNFs for certain conditions, saving $2 billion.  Adjusts payments to inpatient rehabilitation facilities and skilled nursing facilities to account for unnecessary hospital readmissions and encourage appropriate care, saving a total of $4.7 billion.  Restructures post-acute care reimbursements through the use of bundled payments, saving $8.2 billion.

Physician Payment:  Includes language extending accountability standards to physicians who self-refer for radiation therapy, therapy services, and advanced imaging services, saving $6.1 billion.  Makes adjustments to clinical laboratory payments, designed to align Medicare with private payment rates, saving $9.5 billion.  Expands availability of Medicare data for performance and quality improvement; no savings assumed.

Medicare Drugs:  Reduces payment of physician administered drugs from 106 percent of average sales price to 103 percent of average sales price.  Some may note reports that similar payment reductions, implemented as part of the sequester, have caused some cancer clinics to limit their Medicare patient load.  By including a similar proposal in his budget, President Obama has effectively endorsed these policies.  Saves $4.5 billion.

Medicare Advantage:  Resurrects a prior-year proposal to increase Medicare Advantage coding intensity adjustments; this provision would have the effect of reducing MA plan payments, based on an assumption that MA enrollees are healthier on average than those in government-run Medicare.  Saves $15.3 billion over ten years.  Also proposes $4.1 billion in additional savings by aligning employer group waiver plan payments with average MA plan bids.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by five percentage points, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $50 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subjecting them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $3.3 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Beginning in 2017, introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $730 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.9 billion.

Generic Drug Incentives:  Proposes increasing co-payments for certain brand-name drugs for beneficiaries receiving the Part D low-income subsidy, while reducing co-payments for relevant generic drugs by 15 percent, in an attempt to increase generic usage among low-income seniors currently insulated from much of the financial impact of their purchasing decisions.  Saves $6.7 billion, according to OMB.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  The Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.  According to the budget, this proposal would save $4.1 billion, mainly in 2023.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $41.1 Billion)

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2014.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  Saves $4.5 billion over ten years.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  Proposes beginning DSH payment reductions in 2015 instead of 2014, and “to determine future state DSH allotments based on states’ actual DSH allotments as reduced” by PPACA.  Saves $3.6 billion, all in fiscal 2023.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $3.7 billion in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions.  Included in this amount are proposals that would remove exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim.  A separate proposal related to the tracking of pharmaceutical price controls would save $8.8 billion.

Transitional Medical Assistance/QI Program:  Provides for temporary extensions of the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work, along with the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  The extensions cost $1.1 billion and $590 million, respectively.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs. Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $11 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $3.3 billion.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  No cost is assumed; however, in its re-estimate of the President’s budget last year, CBO scored this proposal as costing $4.5 billion.

Implementation “Slush Fund:”  Proposes $400 million in new spending for HHS to implement the proposals listed above.

FEHB Contracting:  Similar to last year’s budget, proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), saving $1.6 billion.  However, this year’s budget goes further in restructuring FEHBP – OPM would also be empowered to modernize benefit designs (savings of $264 million); create a “self-plus-one” benefit option for federal employees and extend benefits to domestic partners (total savings of $5.2 billion, despite the costs inherent in the latter option); and adjust premium levels based on tobacco usage and/or participation in wellness programs (savings of $1.3 billion).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.

Other Health Care Proposal of Note

Tax Credit:  The Treasury Green Book proposes expanding the small business health insurance tax credit included in the health care law.   Specifically, the budget would expand the number of employers eligible for the credit to include all employers with up to 50 full-time workers; firms with under 20 workers would be eligible for the full credit.  (Currently those levels are 25 and 10 full-time employees, respectively.)  The budget also changes the coordination of the two phase-outs based on a firm’s average wage and number of employees, with the changes designed to make more companies eligible for a larger credit.  The changes would begin in the current calendar and tax year (i.e., 2013).  According to OMB, these changes would cost $10.4 billion over ten years – down from last year’s estimate of $14 billion over ten years.  Many may view this proposal as a tacit admission that the credit included in the law was a failure, because its limited reach and complicated nature – firms must fill out seven worksheets to determine their eligibility – have deterred American job creators from receiving this subsidy.  Moreover, the reduced score in this year’s budget compared to last year’s implies that even this expansion of the credit will have a less robust impact than originally anticipated.

Summary of President’s Budget Proposals

Overall, the budget:

  • Proposes $362 billion in savings, yet calls for $429 billion in unpaid-for spending due to the Medicare physician reimbursement “doc fix” – thus resulting in a net increase in the deficit. (The $429 billion presumes a ten year freeze of Medicare physician payments; however, the budget does NOT propose ways to pay for this new spending.)
  • Proposes few structural reforms to Medicare; those that are included – weak as they are – are not scheduled to take effect until 2017, well after President Obama leaves office.  If the proposals are so sound, why the delay?
  • Requests just over $1 billion for program management at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, of which the vast majority – $864 million – would be used to implement the health care law.
  • Requests more than half a billion dollars for comparative effectiveness research, which many may be concerned could result in government bureaucrats imposing cost-based limits on treatments.
  • Includes mandatory proposals in the budget that largely track the September deficit proposal to Congress, with a few exceptions.  The budget does NOT include proposals to reduce Medicare frontier state payments, even though this policy was included in the September proposal.  The budget also does not include recovery provisions regarding Medicare Advantage payments to insurers; however, the Administration has indicated they intend to implement this provision administratively.
  • Does not include a proposal relating to Medicaid eligibility levels included in the September submission, as that proposal was enacted into law in November (P.L. 112-56).

A full summary follows below.

 

Discretionary Spending

When compared to Fiscal Year 2012 appropriated amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $12 million (0.5%) increase for the Food and Drug Administration – along with a separate proposed $643 million increase in FDA user fees;
  • $138 million (2.2%) decrease for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $116 million (2.7%) increase for the Indian Health Service;
  • $664 million (11.5%) decrease for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • No net change in funding for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $1 billion (26.2%) increase for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account; and
  • $29 million (5.0%) increase for the discretionary Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control fund.

With regard to the above numbers for CDC and HRSA, note that these are discretionary numbers only.  The Administration’s budget also would allocate additional $1.25 billion in mandatory spending from the new Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in the health care law, likely eliminating any real budgetary savings (despite the appearance of same above).

Other Health Care Points of Note

Tax Credit:  The Treasury Green Book proposes expanding the small business health insurance tax credit included in the health care law.   Specifically, the budget would expand the number of employers eligible for the credit to include all employers with up to 50 full-time workers; firms with under 20 workers would be eligible for the full credit.  (Currently those levels are 25 and 10 full-time employees, respectively.)  The budget also changes the coordination of the two phase-outs based on a firm’s average wage and number of employees, with the changes designed to make more companies eligible for a larger credit.  According to OMB, these changes would cost $14 billion over ten years.  Many may view this proposal as a tacit admission that the credit included in the law was a failure, because its limited reach and complicated nature – firms must fill out seven worksheets to determine their eligibility – have deterred American job creators from receiving this subsidy.

Comparative Effectiveness Research:  The budget proposes a total of $599 million in funding for comparative effectiveness research.  Only $78 million of this money comes from existing funds included in the health care law – meaning the Administration has proposed discretionary spending of more than $500 million on comparative effectiveness research.  Some have previously expressed concerns that this research could be used to restrict access to treatments perceived as too costly by federal bureaucrats.  It is also worth noting that this new $520 million in research funding would NOT be subject to the anti-rationing provisions included in the health care law.  Section 218 of this year’s omnibus appropriations measure included a prohibition on HHS using funds to engage in cost-effectiveness research, a provision which this budget request would presumably seek to overturn.

Obamacare Implementation Funding and Personnel:  As previously noted, the budget includes more than $1 billion in discretionary spending increases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the HHS Budget in Brief claims would be used to “continue implementing [Obamacare], including Exchanges.”  This funding would finance 256 new bureaucrats within CMS, many of whom would likely be used to implement the law.  Overall, the HHS budget proposes an increase of 1,393 full-time equivalent positions within the bureaucracy.

Specific details of the $1 billion in implementation funding include:

  • $290 million for “consumer support in the private marketplace;”
  • $549 million for “general IT systems and other support,” including funding for the federally-funded Exchange, for which the health law itself did not appropriate funding;
  • $18 million for updates to healthcare.gov;
  • $15 million to oversee the medical loss ratio regulations; and
  • $30 million for consumer assistance grants.

Exchange Funding:  The budget envisions HHS spending $1.1 billion on Exchange grants in 2013, a $180 million increase over the current fiscal year.  The health care law provides the Secretary with an unlimited amount of budget authority to fund state Exchange grants through 2015.  However, other reports have noted that the Secretary does NOT have authority to use these funds to construct a federal Exchange, in the event some states choose not to implement their own state-based Exchanges.

Abstinence Education Funding:  The budget proposes eliminating the abstinence education funding program, and converting those funds into a new pregnancy prevention program.

 

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $292.2 Billion)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 70 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2013.  The Fiscal Commission had made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $35.9 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals by 10 percent beginning in 2014, saving $9.7 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1.4 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $590 million.  The budget does NOT include a proposal to end add-on payments for providers in frontier states, which was included in the President’s September deficit proposal.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) during the years 2013 through 2022, saving $56.7 billion – a significant increase compared to the $32.5 billion in savings under the President’s September deficit proposal.  Equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $2 billion.  Increases the minimum percentage of inpatient rehabilitation facility patients that require intensive rehabilitation from 60 percent to 75 percent, saving $2.3 billion.  Reduces skilled nursing facility payments by up to 3%, beginning in 2015, for preventable readmissions, saving $2 billion.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $155.6 billion according to OMB.  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $450 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

EHR Penalties:  Re-directs Medicare reimbursement penalties against physicians who do not engage in electronic prescribing beginning in 2020 back into the Medicare program.  The “stimulus” legislation that enacted the health IT provisions had originally required that penalties to providers be placed into the Medicare Improvement Fund; the budget would instead re-direct those revenues into the general fund, to finance the “doc fix” and related provisions.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $590 million; when included in last year’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $3.2 billion.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Also imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging; no savings are assumed, a change from the September deficit proposal, which said prior authorization would save $900 million.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by 15%, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $27.6 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subject them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $2 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Beginning in 2017, introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $350 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.5 billion.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  This approach has two potential problems:

  • First, under the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baseline, IPAB recommendations would not be triggered at all – so it’s unclear whether the new, lower target level would actually generate measurable budgetary savings.  (In August 2010, CBO concluded an IPAB with an overall cap of GDP+1 would yield $13.8 billion in savings through 2020 – not enough to make a measurable impact on a program spending $500 billion per year.)
  • Second, the Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.

According to the budget, this proposal would NOT achieve additional deficit savings.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $70.4 Billion)

Medicaid Provider Taxes:  Reduces limits on Medicaid provider tax thresholds, beginning in 2015; the tax threshold would be reduced over a three year period, to 3.5 percent in 2017 and future years.  State provider taxes are a financing method whereby states impose taxes on medical providers, and use these provider tax revenues to obtain additional federal Medicaid matching funds, thereby increasing the federal share of Medicaid expenses paid while decreasing the state share of expenses.  The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, enacted by a Republican Congress, capped the level of Medicaid provider taxes, and the Bush Administration proposed additional rules to reform Medicaid funding rules – rules that were blocked by the Democrat-run 110th Congress.  However, there is bipartisan support for addressing ways in which states attempt to “game” the Medicaid system, through provider taxes and other related methods, to obtain unwarranted federal matching funds – the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities previously wrote about a series of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “do not improve the quality of health care provided” and “frequently operate in a manner that siphons extra federal money to state coffers without affecting the provision of health care.”  This issue was also addressed in the fiscal commission’s report, although the commission exceeded the budget proposals by suggesting that Congress enact legislation “restricting and eventually eliminating” provider taxes, saving $44 billion.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $21.8 billion.

Blended Rate:  Proposes “replac[ing]…complicated federal matching formulas” in Medicaid “with a single matching rate specific to each state that automatically increases if a recession forces enrollment and state costs to rise.”  Details are unclear, but the Administration claims $17.9 billion in savings from this proposal – much less than the $100 billion figure bandied about in previous reports last summer.  It is also worth noting that the proposal could actually INCREASE the deficit, if a prolonged recession triggers the automatic increases in the federal Medicaid match referenced in the proposal.  On a related note, the budget once again ignores the governors’ multiple requests for flexibility from the mandates included in the health care law – unfunded mandates on states totaling at least $118 billion.

Transitional Medical Assistance/QI Program:  Provides for temporary extensions of the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work, along with the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  The extensions cost $815 million and $1.7 billion, respectively.

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2013.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $3 billion; when included in the President’s budget last year, these changes were scored as saving $6.4 billion.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  In 2021 and 2022, reallocates Medicaid DSH payments to hospitals treating low-income patients, based on states’ actual 2020 allotments (as amended and reduced by the health care law).  Saves $8.3 billion.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $3.2 billion in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions, largely through tracking and enforcement of various provisions related to pharmaceuticals.  Included in this amount are proposals that would remove exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim.

Flexibility on Benchmark Plans:  Proposes some new flexibility for states to require Medicaid “benchmark” plan coverage for non-elderly, non-disabled adults – but ONLY those with incomes above 133 percent of the federal poverty level (i.e., NOT the new Medicaid population obtaining coverage under the health care law).  No savings assumed.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs.  Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $11 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $3.8 billion.

FEHB Contracting:  Proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $1.7 billion.

Prevention “Slush Fund:”  Reduces spending by $4 billion on the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care law.  Some Members have previously expressed concern that this fund would be used to fund projects like jungle gyms and bike paths, questionable priorities for the use of federal taxpayer dollars in a time of trillion-dollar deficits.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  The proposal states that “the Administration is committed to the budget neutrality of these waivers;” however, the plan allocates $4 billion in new spending “to account for the possibility that CBO will estimate costs for this proposal.”

Implementation “Slush Fund:”  Proposes $400 million in new spending for HHS to implement the proposals listed above.

Obamacare’s Next Phase: Pay for Rationing?

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza is out with an extended feature article chronicling key moments of the Obama presidency, based in large part on a review internal White House memoranda not publicly released.  The piece features several enlightening vignettes related to health care, including one regarding a proposal never broached in public:  “In January, 2010,… [OMB Director Peter] Orszag and Ezekiel Emanuel, the chief of staff’s brother and a health-care adviser, recommended that the government pay federal employees to participate in a pilot program to study the most effective treatments for patients.”

Many would argue that, based upon the policy description included in the article, this policy would represent the worst of both worlds – giving already-overpaid federal bureaucrats additional dollars to sign away their right to access treatments that the government might deem too expensive.  But what did President Obama think of it?

“Unfortunately I think the political guys are right about how it would be characterized.  Let’s go back at it in future years, when the temperature on health care and the economy has gone down.”

Sadly, this desire to restrict access to treatment is consistent with the President’s prior history – along with the positions of the advisors who proposed it.  In a famous 2009 New York Times interview, the President called for a “difficult democratic conversation” about what he perceived as too much spending on end-of-life care.  Orszag was one of the prime architects of Obamacare’s IPAB, which he admitted will have “an enormous amount of potential power” and “the largest yielding of sovereignty from the Congress” in nearly a century.  And Emanuel offered the infamous chart for prioritizing scarce medical resources, in a journal article in which Emanuel admitted that his system “discriminates against older people….[However,] age, like income, is a ‘non-medical criterion’ inappropriate for allocation of medical resources.”

As indicated by the quotes above, this Administration has shown a proclivity towards reductions in health spending based upon cost-effectiveness – as well as a willingness to grant bureaucrats virtually unlimited power in the process.  The article confirms all those beliefs, while at the same time showing yet another way in which the Administration would use government bureaucrats to restrict access to treatments.  Federal workers – and the American people – should take note.

The Essential Cynicism Behind HHS’ Decision on Essential Health Benefits

Various press reports regarding Friday’s HHS guidance on essential health benefits have highlighted the fact that the “decision” amounted to a political punt for the Administration.  The Wall Street Journal noted how the guidance “sidestepp[ed] contentious fights” as part of “an attempt by the Administration to defuse Republican criticism that the law gives the federal government too much control over Americans’ medical care.”

The political gamesmanship by the Administration goes even further than that.  The guidance noted that if a state chooses not to select a benchmark for the essential health benefits, the default benchmark will be a typical small employer plan, a position consistent with the Institute of Medicine report on the essential health benefits released in October.  But HHS also allowed states the “flexibility” to benchmark their coverage package to the federal employees’ Blue Cross plan, which HHS stated contains 95 percent of all benefit mandates.

As we noted on Friday, had HHS chosen to keep the essential health benefits benchmark to the cost of a typical small business plan, states that wanted to require additional mandates would have had to foot the bill for those mandates themselves, under Section 1311 of the Obamacare statute.  Instead, HHS’ “flexibility” gave the states carte blanche to impose all the new mandates they like – knowing that federal taxpayers will foot the bill through higher subsidy payments.

CongressDaily reported that the guidance “likely means that the intense lobbying efforts to ensure certain benefits are in or out of the package will now shift from the federal government to the states, as interest groups try to influence which plan state officials choose as their model.”  In other words, the Administration just gave “consumer groups” – i.e., their liberal base – a nice big incentive to go out and mount political campaigns in the states to tack on even more benefit mandates, because states imposing additional mandates won’t have to pay the bill for their own decisions.

The political undertones of incentivizing liberal groups to go out and mount a series of pro-Obamacare lobbying campaigns in an election year cannot be denied.  Unfortunately though, taxpayers are likely to foot the bill for this gamesmanship.  States have collectively imposed more than 2,000 separate benefit mandates to date due to lobbying from special interest groups.  And the “beggar thy neighbor” attitude promoted by the HHS guidance, whereby Washington foots the bill for state giveaways to special interest groups, will only encourage more feats of fiscal irresponsibility.

Essential Health Benefits Provide Flexibility…For States to Raise Premiums

We previously noted that Obamacare’s essential health benefits would raise Americans’ insurance premiums.  The 15-page guidance released by HHS this afternoon shows just how much it could cause premiums to skyrocket.

While the guidance claims to create state flexibility, it largely does so by giving states the “flexibility” to impose more benefit mandates, not fewer.  Through 2016, HHS proposes to allow states to set benefits according to one of the following benchmarks – one of the three largest small group plans in the state; one of the three largest state employee plans in the state; one of the largest federal employee plans; or the largest HMO in that state.

In reality though, the “flexibility” provided to states could allow them to let premiums skyrocket.  Take for instance the largest federal employee plan – the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Option.  According to the Office of Personnel Management, in 2012 the average monthly premium for that plan will be a whopping $587.88 per month, or $7,054.56 per yearThat’s for an individual policyThe cost of a family plan is even higher – $1,327.80 per month, or $15,933.60 annually.  Premiums by 2014 will obviously be even higher yet.

As a reminder, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that in 2014, average premiums of Exchange policies will be $5,200 for an individual plan, and $14,100 for a family plan.  In other words, the cost of the most popular federal employee plan in 2012 already exceeds by several thousand dollars what CBO estimated plans would cost on Exchanges in 2014.  And the regulation allows states to require this rich benefit package in their Exchanges.

Some of the reason for the higher premiums in the federal Blue Cross plan is the relatively low cost-sharing associated with it.  But the HHS guidance also notes that the plan “covers about 95 percent of the benefit and provider mandate categories required under state mandates.”  In other words, by selecting the federal Blue Cross plan as their benchmark, states will be permitted to incorporate virtually every benefit mandate under the sun into their required benefit package.  What’s more, Page 10 of the HHS guidance suggests that the federal Blue Cross plan will be the default plan for determining benefit packages: “If none of the benchmark options in that benchmark type offer the benefit, the benefit will be supplemented using the FEHBP plan with the largest enrollment” – i.e., the extremely rich Blue Cross plan.

It’s worth noting that Section 1311 of the Obamacare statute requires states to pay for the increased cost associated with mandated benefits.  But because the federal Blue Cross plan effectively covers EVERY benefit mandate in existence, states can choose to mandate an extremely rich benefit package, and not pay for the financial consequences of this decision – the costs instead will be foisted on the federal taxpayers funding insurance subsidies in that state.  And remember too that individuals CANNOT buy insurance across state lines without permission – they are essentially a captive audience, and will be forced to pay the cost of the mandated benefits, without shopping across the border in another state.

Today’s guidance may provide “flexibility” to states – but individuals could be paying for that flexibility for a long time to come.