Tag Archives: healthcare.gov

Three Ways Kathleen Sebelius Sabotaged the Rule of Law

Of all the people crying “sabotage” when it comes to Obamacare, Kathleen Sebelius might be the most qualified on the subject. Presiding over the disastrous “launch” of healthcare.gov in the fall of 2013, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius famously testified before Congress: “Hold me accountable for the debacle—I’m responsible.”

Likewise, in her claims this week that the Trump administration “has consistently tried to undermine the law that is the law of the land,” Sebelius knows of which she speaks. She presided over numerous actions that violated the text of Obamacare, and the Constitution, to thwart the will of Congress and undermine “the law of the land”—Obamacare as it was actually written, not as Democrats wished it were written—and the rule of law in general.

1. Unconstitutional ‘Like Your Plan’ Fix

As Sebelius presided over the healthcare.gov “debacle,” the Obama administration faced a serious political crisis. While the federally run exchange melted down, millions of Americans received cancellation notices in the mail, learning that because their plans did not meet Obamacare’s myriad new regulations, they would lose their coverage effective January 1, 2014.

The notices demonstrated the emptiness of Obama’s repeated promises that individuals who liked their plans could keep them—PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year.” Moreover, the malfunctioning website created the possibility that millions of Americans could lose their existing coverage while having no way to purchase a replacement policy.

In response to the uproar, the Obama administration essentially decided to take the law into its own hands. Sebelius’ department issued a memo saying it would refuse to enforce the law for certain categories of insurance policies, allowing states and insurers the latitude to maintain individuals’ prior coverage. Even supporters of Obamacare like Nicholas Bagley said the administration’s actions violated the Constitution—the executive refusing to enforce provisions of a law it found politically inconvenient.

This space has previously argued that the Trump administration must enforce Obamacare’s individual mandate, despite any opposition to the mandate on policy grounds, given that the executive must faithfully execute the laws—all of them. But given that Sebelius failed to enforce parts of the law as written for political reasons, who is she to argue that Trump cannot do likewise?

2. Illegal Reinsurance Subsidies

The Government Accountability Office last year ruled that the Obama administration “undermined the law that is the law of the land,” as Sebelius alleges of the Trump administration. Specifically, GAO found that the Obama administration illegally prioritized health insurance companies over American taxpayers, funneling billions of reinsurance dollars that should have remained in the U.S. Treasury (to pay for a separate Obamacare program) to corporate welfare payments to insurance companies. After this rebuke from nonpartisan auditors, the Obama administration still made no attempt to comply with the law as interpreted by GAO.

If Sebelius is as concerned about “undermin[ing] the law that is the law of the land” as she claims, she should have publicly demanded that the Obama administration comply with the law, and the GAO ruling. She did no such thing then, and is unlikely to ask the Trump administration to claw back the corporate welfare payments to insurers now.

3. Unconstitutional Payments to Insurers

The Obama administration did not just violate the law in making payments to health insurers, it violated the Constitution as well. The text of Obamacare—“the law that is the law of the land,” in Sebelius’ words—included no appropriation making payments to insurers to reimburse them for cost-sharing reductions provided to individuals. The Obama administration made the payments anyway.

A federal judge ruled against the Obama administration’s actions last year, stating that they violated the Constitution for spending money without an appropriation. While the payments have continued pending an appeal, if Sebelius worries about preserving “the law that is the law of the land,” then she would support implementing the law as written, and stopping the payments immediately, unless and until Congress approves an explicit appropriation.

Ends and Means

Sebelius’ comments show a fundamental disconnect between means and ends. The Obama administration’s actions suggest a concern largely, if not solely, about signing up as many individuals for taxpayer-funded coverage as possible. If achieving that object meant violating the law, or the Constitution, so be it—the ends justified the means.

Sebelius’ real disagreement therefore doesn’t lie with the Trump administration on “undermining the law.” She did plenty of that herself, likely with full knowledge she was doing so. Instead, her true objection lies in the fact that the Trump may have different policy ends than ones she supports.

If Sebelius wants to espouse different policy positions than the current administration, that is her right. But given the ways in which the last administration repeatedly violated Obamacare to suit its own purposes, conservatives should take no lessons from Sebelius on how to avoid “undermining the law.” Physician, heal thyself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Don’t Blame Trump When Obamacare Rates Jump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

How HHS’ Proposed Rule Would Slightly Improve Obamacare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How to Repeal Obamacare

A PDF version of this document is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Congress Should Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Administration Should Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Steps and the Pathway Forward

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[28] Ibid.

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

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

[31] Ibid., p. 94138.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[42] Ibid., p. 78134.

[43] Ibid., p. 78132.

[44] Ibid., p. 78132.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Totaling Up $170.8 BILLION in Obamacare Bailouts

Obamacare has been in the news — and the courts — quite a lot recently. While much of the press attention has focused on the controversial contraception mandate, a potentially bigger issue remains largely unreported — namely, that the Obama administration has set in train an unholy trinity of bailouts that could pay health-insurance companies $170.8 billion in the coming decade.

Much of the litigation surrounds the legality — or more specifically, the lack of legality — of these bailouts. On May 12, the administration lost a case in United States District Court, U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell, in which Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that payments to insurers for cost-sharing subsidies without an express appropriation from Congress violated the Constitution. And recently, multiple insurers have filed suit against the government in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking payment for unpaid “risk corridor” funds, designed to cushion insurers from incurring major losses, or major gains, during the exchanges’ first three years.

What exactly do all these Obamacare lawsuits entail? And how much taxpayer money is the Obama administration shoveling to insurers in an attempt to keep them participating in its moribund exchanges? Herewith, a 101 tutorial on the more than $170 billion in Obamacare bailouts.

RISK CORRIDORS

What’s the issue? Risk corridors were one of two temporary programs (I discuss the other below) designed to provide stability to the law’s exchanges in their first years. From 2014 through 2016, the risk-corridor program is designed to minimize large insurer losses, as well as large insurer profits. Initially, the administration claimed risk corridors would be implemented in a budget-neutral manner — that is, outgoing payments to insurers with losses would equal incoming payments from insurers with gains. But the healthcare.gov catastrophe, coupled with policy changes unilaterally made in the fall of 2013, caused the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to float the idea of using taxpayer funds in risk corridors to offset insurer losses — in other words, bail them out.

How much has the government paid? Nothing, thankfully — at least not yet. Fearful that the administration could utilize risk corridors to implement a taxpayer-funded bailout of insurers, Congress passed in December 2014 (and subsequently renewed this past winter) appropriations language that prevents CMS from using additional taxpayer funds to pay insurers’ risk-corridor claims.

How much could the government pay? In 2014, insurers submitted $2.87 billion in risk-corridor claims, but because insurers with gains paid in only $362 million, insurers with losses received only that much in payments — approximately 12.6 percent of the requested funds. Last week insurers in North Carolina and Oregon sued to recover their unpaid risk-corridor funds, following a $5 billion class-action suit filed in February by an Obamacare co-op insurer in Oregon. While CMS has not yet settled those lawsuits seeking unpaid risk-corridor funds, in November it issued a policy memo stating that those unpaid funds represent an obligation of the federal government. Insurer losses more than doubled last year when compared with the 2014 losses.

Although CMS has not yet released data on risk-corridor claims for 2015 or 2016, it seems likely that risk corridors will incur losses similar to those for 2014. A McKinsey study released last month, “Exchanges Three Years In,” found that insurer losses more than doubled last year when compared with the 2014 losses — making $2.5 billion in claims the likely low estimate for risk corridors. A conservative assumption would estimate a total of $7.5 billion in unpaid risk-corridor claims — $2.5 billion each for 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Although the appropriations language in place currently prevents CMS from using taxpayer funds for risk-corridor claims, it is possible — even likely — that the administration could attempt to settle the insurer lawsuits as one way of getting bailout funds to insurers. Any settled lawsuits would be paid from the Judgment Fund of the Treasury, not out of a CMS budget account, thus circumventing the appropriations restrictions.

REINSURANCE

What’s the issue? The second Obamacare temporary stabilization program, called reinsurance, requires “assessments” — some would call them taxes — on all employer-provided health-insurance plans. These assessments are designed to 1) reimburse the Treasury for the $5 billion cost of a separate reinsurance program that operated from 2010 through 2013 and 2) reimburse insurers with high-cost patients from 2014 through 2016.

How much has the government paid? In 2014, insurers received nearly $8 billion in payments from the reinsurance “slush fund.” The administration still holds nearly $1.7 billion in funds from the 2014 benefit year — money that will no doubt get shoveled insurers’ way as well. While the law explicitly stated that the Treasury should get reimbursed for its $5 billion before insurers receive payments from the reinsurance fund, the Obama administration has implemented the law in the exact opposite manner — prioritizing insurer bailouts over repaying the Treasury. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has stated that this action represents a clear violation of the text of the Obamacare statute. The Obama administration chose to violate the plain text of the law and prioritize claims to insurers over the statutory requirement to repay taxpayers.

How much could the government pay? Between 2014 and 2016, insurers appear likely to receive the full $20 billion in reinsurance payments provided for under the law. On the other hand, the Treasury will receive far less than the $5 billion it was promised, because the Obama administration chose to violate the plain text of the law and prioritize claims to insurers over the statutory requirement to repay taxpayers.

COST-SHARING SUBSIDIES 

What’s the issue? The law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing (such as deductibles and co-payments) for certain low-income individuals with incomes under 250 percent of the federal poverty level. While Section 1402 of the law authorized the Departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services to remit payments to insurers for the cost of these discounts, it did not include an explicit appropriation for them. Judge Collyer’s May 12 ruling, though stayed pending appeal by the administration, prohibits future spending on cost-sharing subsidies by the federal government unless and until Congress enacts an explicit appropriation.

How much has the government paid? In fiscal year 2014, insurers received $2.1 billion in cost-sharing subsidies. In fiscal 2015, the cost-sharing subsidies totaled $5.1 billion, and this fiscal year, spending on the subsidies will total an estimated $6.1 billion — for a total paid out (through this September 30) of $13.9 billion. How much could the government pay? If Judge Collyer’s ruling is not upheld on appeal, this bailout program — unlike the other two — will continue without end. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on cost-sharing subsidies will total $130 billion over the coming decade, unless halted by a judicial ruling — or unless a new administration decides it will not spend funds that have not been appropriated by Congress.

There you have it. Combine a total of $33.3 billion paid to date ($20 billion in reinsurance plus $13.3 billion in cost-sharing subsidies) with potential future bailouts of $137.5 billion ($7.5 billion in risk-corridor funds plus an additional $130 billion in cost-sharing subsidies) and you come up with a not-so-grand total of $170.8 billion in taxpayer-funded Obamacare bailouts to insurers.

The scope of both the bailouts and Obamacare’s failures looks truly staggering. Despite literally billions of dollars coming from three separate bailout programs, insurers still cannot make money selling Obamacare products. Most insurers continue to lose funds hand over fist, while some, such as UnitedHealthGroup, the nation’s largest health insurer, have all but exited the exchanges entirely.

The scope of the bailouts put the lie to Joe Biden’s claims just prior to Obamacare’s passage, when he claimed to ABC News, “We’re going to control the insurance companies.” Au contraire, Mr. Vice President. By requiring more than $170 billion in bailouts just to keep the sputtering exchanges afloat, the insurance companies are controlling you — and us, the taxpayers, as well.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Will Health Insurance Premiums Related to Obamacare Sway Voters?

As candidates in both parties focus on the general election campaign, some Republicans wonder if large premium increases related to the Affordable Care Act could be an “October surprise” that helps propel them to victory in November. The causes of the approaching premium increases vary, but some are rooted in a 2013 Obama administration proposal.

In reporting on premium increases by one Iowa insurer, the Des Moines Register noted that individuals who bought new plans that complied with Affordable Care Act regulations could face premium increases of 38% to 43% next year. “Another 90,000 Wellmark customers who hold older individual insurance plans are expected to face smaller increases, which will be announced in June,” the paper said.

The disparity stems from a policy proposal in late 2013, when HealthCare.gov was not functioning, millions had received insurance cancellation notices, and President Barack Obama was being heavily criticized for pledging, “If you like your health-care plan you can keep it.” The administration allowed states to extend existing plans for one year.

Some states chose not to take this option. Those that implemented it did so for varying lengths of time. After extending the policy twice, the administration said this year that these temporary extensions would expire by the end of 2017.

States that implemented extensions created an actuarial problem for their health-care exchanges, the market where individuals not insured through their employer can buy their own plans. Enrollees seeking the enhanced benefits provided by Obamacare-compliant plans were the most likely to use them, while many people with little need for additional benefits preferred the status quo. In Iowa the problem is particularly acute: 90,000 residents have pre-Obamacare coverage, significantly more than the 55,000 who had signed up on the exchange as of February. By keeping these people, who tend to be healthier than those with ACA plans, out of the exchanges, the “fix” created another problem, laying the groundwork for the larger premium increases for next year.

The issue is more pronounced in Iowa, but other states are affected. This isn’t the only component of Obamacare that could exacerbate premium spikes. One popular feature is that parents can cover their children up to age 26. At the same time, however, this policy point discourages those young people from buying a plan of their own. Enrollment among these “young invincibles” remains well below expectations three years into the exchanges. Data from 2014 had suggested that those young people enrolling in plans were incurring high medical costs—which could also contribute to a trend of premium spikes.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Political solutions from years past may materialize in the form of rate hikes this fall–and could generate a distinct reaction among voters on Election Day.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

What’s Blocking Consensus on Health Care

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s King v. Burwell ruling, some have argued that a more bipartisan approach to health policy may emerge. But fundamental philosophical disagreements between liberals and conservatives suggest that rapprochement will be difficult.

Philosophical disagreements played into in the debate over pre-Obamacare health coverage. Many conservatives argued that people should be allowed to keep their plans (as the president originally promised). Most also want to liberalize the ACA’s definition of “insurance.” That involves widening the age rating bands—older people will pay a little more, so younger people can buy cheaper policies—and eliminating some benefit requirements so that, to use a frequently cited example, single men don’t have to purchase pregnancy coverage and retired couples don’t have to buy plans that cover well-baby visits. In a speech in October 2013, just after the failed HealthCare.gov launch, President Barack Obama talked about how some Americans have “cut-rate plans that don’t offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident.” The administration had always wanted to eliminate some plans. Political pressure and the technical meltdowns of many exchanges upon their launch that fall forced the administration to extend the period for which some plans were grandfathered. But this was a temporary concession to political reality; its objective has not changed.

Another example of administration flexibility working toward its preferred ends involves the program that allows states to seek years-long waivers from certain provisions of the ACA. By one argument, the “State Innovation Waiver” would allow states to “alter the ACA’s generous ‘minimum essential benefits’ requirements,” which mandate types of coverage. Some of those requirements involve coverage that many people don’t want or need, and that contribute to insurance premium increases. Language in section 1332 of the ACA says that states using a waiver must cover as many individuals, with at least as comprehensive insurance benefits. In other words, states can alter the “minimum essential benefits”—but only in a way that makes them more generous, not less so. If states want to prioritize resources for certain groups—say, individuals with disabilities—over coverage of able-bodied adults, the “flexibility” in Obamacare would prove elusive.

The administration has also been inflexible about some approaches to state Medicaid expansion. Utah proposed adding job search requirements as part of broadening the program, but the administration refused to go along. Last year, Pennsylvania’s then-governor, Tom Corbett (R), proposed a mandatory work/job-search requirement, but administration opposition led to the proposal becoming a voluntary job referral service.

Ideally, states function as laboratories of democracy, and one state’s experiments can spark broader national trends. But when it comes to health care, the administration and Obamacare are offering little flexibility to states whose leaders have differing philosophical objectives. This suggests that, at least in the near term, bipartisan health experiments will remain an elusive goal.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

An Exchange Death Spiral?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the legality of insurance subsidies in 37 states that use the federal HealthCare.gov site. Some states have discussed creating their own exchanges in the wake of the court’s decision, but those may not be fiscally sustainable.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Covered California, the Golden State’s exchange, “is preparing to go on a diet,” cutting its budget 15% for the fiscal year beginning July 1 because of lower-than-expected enrollment. Earlier this month, Hawaii’s state exchange prepared plans to shut down this fall amid funding shortfalls. Hawaii’s exchange had technical problems that have impeded signups since its launch, but Covered California has had relatively few computer glitches. During the HealthCare.gov rollout problems in 2013, columnist Paul Krugman held up California as a model of efficiency:

What would happen if we unveiled a program that looked like Obamacare, in a place that looked like America, but with competent project management that produced a working website? Well, your wish is granted. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you California.

Mr. Krugman called California “an especially useful test case,” saying that “it’s huge: if a system can work for 38 million people, it can work for America as a whole.”

But that model has run into financial distress. After slashing its spending, Covered California achieved a balanced budget for next year by utilizing $100 million in federally provided start-up funds. The Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general and at least two U.S. senators have questioned whether exchanges are using start-up funds to plug holes in their budgets—a practice prohibited by law and one the senators called a “short term fix” in a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Using federal funds may help Covered California next year—but it will leave a multi-million-dollar hole in its budget the following year, leading to another round of belt-tightening.

The spending cuts—particularly a 33% reduction to marketing and outreach next year—will have an impact. As one report noted, “With enrollment growing more slowly than expected, a big cut in marketing might result in continued difficulties reaching target markets.” In other words, a spending cut next year could result in lower-than-expected enrollment—and budget crunches—in future years. Covered California could raise the $13.95 per policy monthly fee to generate more revenue—but that would also raise premiums, potentially driving away customers.

Before the exchanges opened, some worried about a disproportionate number of sick patients driving up premiums–and driving out healthy enrollees. A related phenomenon could be happening in state-run exchanges: in which few sign-ups result in a combination of cuts to outreach programs and/or higher monthly fees, discouraging enrollment and starting another round of the spiral. It’s possible that California’s experience could be a useful test case of that proposition—and a cautionary tale for those states contemplating their own exchanges.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

A House Budget Response to King v. Burwell

While the Supreme Court weighs King v. Burwell–the lawsuit questioning the federal government’s authority to provide financial assistance to people who buy insurance in the 37 states using federally operated insurance exchanges–many have focused on potential responses to the outcome. Language in the budget resolution unveiled this week appears to lay the groundwork for the House of Representatives to address this ruling through budget reconciliation procedures.

Section 2002 of the budget conference report lays out special procedures for budget reconciliation in the House. That section instructs the House Budget Committee chairman to use the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2015 budgetary baseline “if the estimates used to determine the compliance of such measures with the budgetary requirements included in this concurrent resolution are inaccurate because adjustments made to the baseline are inconsistent with the assumptions underlying the budgetary levels set forth in this concurrent resolution. Such inaccurate adjustments made after the adoption of this concurrent resolution may include selected adjustments for rule-making, judicial actions, adjudication, and interpretative rules that have major budgetary effects and are inconsistent with the assumptions underlying the budgetary levels set forth in this concurrent resolution.”

Simply put: This language allows the Budget Committee chairman to disregard the potential budgetary impacts of “judicial actions” and “adjudication”—such as a Supreme Court ruling in King v. Burwell—that take place after a budget is adopted. CBO is directed to do likewise.

Here’s how it might work. After the court’s ruling in King v. Burwell is issued, CBO would probably update its spending estimates to reflect any fiscal implications arising from the ruling. In the summer of 2012, the Supreme Court’s ruling in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius made Medicaid expansion optional for states; CBO said three weeks after the ruling that this change would reduce projected spending on the law by $84 billion over 10 years.

If the court strikes down federal insurance subsidies, CBO is likely to reduce its spending estimates for the health-care law, to reflect fewer people receiving subsidies, and could also reduce its revenue estimates because fewer people receiving subsidies would eliminate the employer and individual mandate penalties in many cases. Once CBO revises its baseline, any legislative action restoring prior spending levels—whether as a temporary transition to prevent dislocation for those who purchased coverage through the exchanges, a block grant to states providing additional flexibility, or a permanent extension of subsidies—would ordinarily be scored by CBO as increasing both spending and the deficit.

But the language in the budget resolution would allow the House Budget Committee chairman to revert to the pre-King baseline—meaning that legislation designed to address the ruling would not be scored as a spending increase and could be scored as a spending cut, when compared to the spending baseline currently in effect.

The resolution applies these special procedures only in the House; other procedural hurdles could apply in the Senate. But the inclusion of this language in the budget suggests that the House leadership wants to address any King v. Burwell ruling legislatively—and do so through budget reconciliation.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.

King v. Burwell and Congressional Intent on Exchange Subsidies

In the big case to be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, supporters of the health-care law maintain that nonpartisan congressional analyses of Obamacare make clear that lawmakers intended on making subsidies available to individuals in all states, even if the precise language is open to interpretation.

But  in at least one other case, the law’s supporters took the opposite tack—ignoring a bipartisan congressional analysis that came up with a conclusion they didn’t like.

Here is what’s happening:

King v. Burwell, the case to be heard Wednesday, centers on the legality of insurance subsidies being provided in states that use the federal HealthCare.gov platform. Some congressional sponsors of the health-care law have said that they clearly intended to make subsidies available to individuals in all states, regardless of whether states used their own or the federal insurance exchange.

In op-eds and amicus briefs, several members of Congress have argued that an Internal Revenue Service rule proposed in August 2011 and finalized in May 2012 that extended subsidies to individuals in both state- and federally run insurance exchanges was consistent with their intent at the time the health-care law was passed. The Congressional Budget Office “came to the same conclusion,” five lawmakers wrote in the Washington Post last October. The legislators say that because CBO assumed that subsidies would be available in all 50 states, as expressed by CBO scores for the bill when it passed, Congress’s intent was clear. But on a different issue of interpretation, several of the law’s authors undermined that logic.

The issue that prompted the about-face involves the “family glitch” related to eligibility for insurance subsidies. If one parent is offered health insurance through an employer, the entire family does not qualify for subsidies to purchase coverage through the marketplace. In March 2010, the same week the health-care bill was signed into law, the Joint Committee on Taxation issued an analysis of the legislation that said, in part, that even though “family coverage costs more than 9.5 percent of income, the family does not qualify for a tax credit regardless of whether the employee purchases self-only coverage or does not purchase self-only coverage through the employer.”

The same August 2011 proposed rule that prompted King v. Burwell also included Treasury proposals to codify the “family glitch,” consistent with the March 2010 technical explanation provided by the Joint Committee on Taxation. Yet Reps. Sander Levin and Henry Waxman—who, respectively, chaired the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the ACA was passed—wrote to Treasury in December 2011 complaining about this interpretation of the statute. Their letter argued that the Treasury interpretation of the glitch was “simply incongruent” with congressional intent and a “wrong interpretation of the law.”

When it came to the exchange subsidies, the Congressional Budget Office undertook no textual analysis of the statutory provisions at dispute in King v. Burwell. But the Joint Tax Committee did. It released a contemporaneous analysis of the provisions at issue with respect to the “family glitch.” Although Mr. Levin and Mr. Waxman say CBO’s silence suggests a presumption that subsidies should be available in all 50 states, they disregarded the contemporaneous analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Now, the former House committee chairmen could have been unaware of the JCT analysis at the time the law was passed. They could wish to argue for the most generous subsidy regime possible, regardless of the law’s technical specifics. There may be some other policy or political explanation.

But this situation highlights the pitfalls of claims regarding a law’s intent. All types of retrospective analyses could turn into self-justifying ones—which may provide little use to courts attempting to discern what a statute actually means.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.