Tag Archives: IPAB

Liberals’ Hypocrisy on Per Capita Caps

It was, to borrow from Arthur Conan Doyle, the dog that didn’t bark. In releasing the annual report on its finances, Medicare’s actuary last month found that the program would not trigger requirements related to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) this year—or for several years to come. Although the Senate and House health-care bills avoided altering Medicare, the IPAB development—or non-development, as it were—should inject some important perspective into the legislative debate.

Many liberal critics of the Republican bills have attacked proposals to impose per capita caps on state Medicaid programs, while conveniently forgetting that Obamacare imposed similar spending caps on Medicare. In fact, Section 3403 of the law empowers IPAB—a board of unelected bureaucrats—to make binding recommendations to Congress reducing program spending if Medicare will exceed statutory limits for spending per beneficiary.

The IPAB non-event should therefore put the harsh rhetoric surrounding Medicaid caps in perspective. After all, how damaging can per capita caps be if spending remains sufficiently low not to trigger them? And why do liberals who claim that health-care delivery reforms implemented by Obamacare can slow Medicare spending not believe that, given sufficient flexibility, states could similarly reform their Medicaid programs to lower costs—as states like Rhode Island already have done?

We Care More About Politics than Policy

Some Obamacare supporters claim that statutory restrictions on IPAB—in enforcing Medicare spending caps, the board may not change Medicare benefits or “ration health care”—will protect Medicare beneficiaries in a way that the current bills do not protect Medicaid recipients. But IPAB’s supposed “protections” have their own flaws. The statute does not define “rationing,” and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius testified in 2011 that HHS would need to draft regulations to do so. But the Obama administration never even proposed rules “protecting” Medicare beneficiaries from rationing under the IPAB per capita caps—so how meaningful can those protections actually be?

When push comes to shove, few liberals can justify their support for per capita caps on Medicare, but opposition to similar caps in Medicaid. One day on Twitter, I posed a simple question to Topher Spiro, of the Center for American Progress (CAP): If the Republican proposals for per capita caps in Medicaid included the same beneficiary “protections” as IPAB creates for Medicare recipients, would he support them? I never received a substantive answer.

Therein lies the problem: Many critics of the Republican Medicaid proposals seem to prioritize political partisanship over policy consistency. Five years ago, CAP made very clear it supports IPAB’s per capita caps on Medicare spending, denouncing a 2012 legislative effort to repeal the board. But earlier this year, the organization denounced as “devastating” Republican proposals for per capita caps on Medicaid. So why exactly does this purportedly non-partisan organization support per capita caps when a Democratic Congress enacts them, but oppose similar caps proposed by a Republican Congress?

It’s Okay, It’s Just Hypocrisy

Likewise, the disability community has raised concerns about the proposed changes to Medicaid, attacking per capita caps as causing “massive cuts in Medicaid services.” But when issuing comments on the bill that became Obamacare in January 2010, the major coalition representing disability groups proposed 73 different recommendations in a document exceeding 5,500 words yet included not a sentence on the Medicare per capita caps ultimately included in the law.

Democratic senators appearing with disability advocates at events to denounce spending caps for Medicaid fail to recognize that they voted for similar caps in Medicare, which provides health coverage to 9 million Americans with disabilities. Moreover, despite being in place for several years, the Medicare caps have yet to be breached. So how damaging is a policy that hasn’t affected Medicare beneficiaries in the slightest, and which Democratic lawmakers themselves have voted for?

In his Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” Doyle wrote of the guard dog that didn’t bark because it was friendly with an intruder. Likewise, many liberal advocates and Democratic lawmakers are quite friendly with per capita entitlement caps, already having imposed such caps for Medicare. Particularly given the non-factor of such caps in the Medicare program in recent years, they should perhaps “bark” less in opposing similar caps in Medicaid. Both beneficiaries and taxpayers deserve better than opportunistic—and politically inconsistent—scaremongering.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What Killed the Senate Health Bill? Liberal Alarmism on Medicaid

The Senate health care bill is dead, and that’s at least in part due to overheated rhetoric from the left about Medicaid. Many of the over-the-top claims lacked important facts or context, and seemed primarily designed to scare people rather than prompt civil debate.

For instance, liberals claimed that Republican plans to reduce the growth of Medicaid spending by nearly $800 billion in the next decade would “unravel” the program, as Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich put it. Yet Obamacare did nearly the exact same thing to Medicare. Obamacare reduced Medicare spending by $716 billion, according to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office estimate. And it did so not to improve Medicare’s ability to pay for care for the next generation of seniors, but instead to fund new Obamacare entitlements.

The liberals who claimed this year’s Republican health bills would “cut” Medicaid are the same ones who endorsed Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending. Just look at AARP’s framing of the issue: When Democrats reduce Medicare spending by hundreds of billions of dollars, the organization calls it “taking steps to reduce waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency.” But when Republicans reduce Medicaid spending by roughly equivalent amounts, AARP decries “unsustainable cuts” to the program.

Likewise the issue of caps on spending. A group of health care advocacy organizations sent a letter to Capitol Hill last month expressing “grave concern about potential changes to the fundamental structure and purpose of Medicaid,” saying they “vehemently oppose converting Medicaid’s funding into a capped financing structure.”

But this objection to capped payments also seems ironic at best, and disingenuous at worst. Section 3403 of Obamacare imposed per capita caps on Medicare spending, to be enforced by the Independent Payment Advisory Board — a group of unelected bureaucrats. So why did many of the same organizations who claim they “vehemently oppose” capped funding for Medicaid, endorse a health care bill that created the same funding structure for Medicare? Is it because a Democratic president proposed the former change, and a Republican Congress is debating the latter?

Then there’s the alarm raised by Andy Slavitt, a former head of Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration. He recently claimed that Republicans had a secret plan “not just to cut Medicaid, but to allow states to eliminate it.” He said a “new waiver process” in the Senate bill — really a modification of an existing Obamacare waiver — would allow states to transfer Medicaid beneficiaries to private coverage, thereby allowing them to “eliminate” Medicaid.

Yet the Obamacare waiver process explicitly prohibits changes to Medicaid — and the Senate bill would not have changed that. In addition, states have always had the ability to “eliminate” Medicaid; the federal government can’t force states to participate in the program. That’s why Arizona didn’t join until 1982, nearly two decades after Medicaid’s creation. States have remained in Medicaid because the federal government provides significant funding to them for their programs — and that funding would continue to rise, albeit more slowly, under both the House and Senate bills.

To be sure, both sides have exhibited their share of political opportunism. Republicans shouldn’t have attacked Obamacare’s Medicare savings as “cuts” — a reduction in projected growth rates should never be considered a “cut” in government spending. And conservatives were guaranteed to reap the political whirlwind sooner or later.

But the left’s hyperbolic rhetoric, coupled with some pretty apparent hypocrisy, not only helped kill the Senate health bill. It did the American people a disservice by detracting from the debate on health care that our country deserves.

This post was originally published at USA Today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obamacare Really Does Disadvantage Americans with Disabilities

My article last week regarding disability groups’ political and policy views prompted some comments and criticisms on Twitter. Rather than trying to explain detailed subjects in bursts of 140-character tweets, I considered it best to compile them into a longer-form article.

To summarize my prior work: Obamacare provides states with a greater incentive to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults than to cover services for individuals with disabilities. States receive a 95 percent match this year (declining to 90 percent in 2020 and all future years) to cover the able-bodied, but a match ranging from 50-75 percent to cover individuals with disabilities, while more than half a million are on waiting lists to receive home or attendant care.

My article raised this disparity—essentially discrimination against individuals with disabilities—pointing out that the major disability advocacy consortium failed to object to it when Obamacare passed, and questioned why the groups were so silent on this issue then, but so vocal in their opposition to Republican legislative proposals to slow the growth of Medicaid spending now.

Many of the responses I discuss in greater detail below attempt to obscure two separate and distinct issues: The question of the amount of funding for programs versus the priorities within those programs.

As a conservative, I’m likely to disagree with liberals on the ideal size of many government programs, but I thought I would at least agree with them that individuals with disabilities should receive precedence within those programs. However, Obamacare actually tilted Medicaid’s preference away from individuals with disabilities, which makes disability groups’ silence on that front surprising.

There Is No Correlation Between Waiting Lists and Medicaid Expansion

The timeliest rebuttal comes from a story on a long-term care report none other than AARP released yesterday. Susan Reinhard with that organization—no right-wing conservative group, by any stretch—said that

Many states have struggled to expand home- and community-based options for Medicaid enrollees needing long-term care because that is an optional benefit. Nursing homes are mandatory under federal law. While states focus on Medicaid coverage for children and families — as well as non-disabled adults covered by the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act — adults with disabilities have received less attention. ‘Long-term care is a stepchild of the program and not a top focus for states,’ she said. (emphasis mine.)

That statement notwithstanding, several people cited two different analyses that compare states’ decisions on expansion to the able-bodied and their waiting lists for home-based care for individuals with disabilities. But each of those “studies” (based on only one year of data available) take an overly simplistic approach, and therefore don’t get at the core issue of the extent to which the skewed incentives Obamacare created have encouraged states to prioritize the able-bodied over those with disabilities.

A state’s decision to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied, or reduce its waiting lists for individuals with disabilities, depends on myriad factors. For instance:

  • A wealthy state with a greater tax base would have more resources both to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied and to reduce its waiting list of individuals with disabilities, while a poorer state with a smaller tax base might not have resources to do either;
  • A state with “bad” demographics (e.g., an older and sicker population), or higher costs for health and personal care services, might have more difficulty reducing their Medicaid waiting lists;
  • A state may face other fiscal pressures—controversy over school funding, a natural disaster, a pension crisis—that could affect overall Medicaid spending.

Numerous variables affect states’ budget choices, and therefore their Medicaid waiting lists. The “studies” controlled for exactly none of them. They examined whether a state expanded Medicaid and the total number of people on a state’s waiting list, and that’s it.

It’s not entirely surprising that wealthy states like California (2015 median income: $64,500) could both reduce disability waiting lists and expand Medicaid to the able-bodied, while poorer states like Alabama (2015 median income: $44,765) could afford neither, seeing their waiting lists grow while not expanding Medicaid. In general, non-expansion states are poorer than expansion states; the latter therefore have more resources to spend on Medicaid.

Moreover, under Obamacare, all states receive the same (higher) federal match to cover able-bodied adults—another change in policy (prior to Obamacare, all Medicaid match rates were based on states’ relative income) skewing the balance in favor of wealthier expansion states. Yet, as noted above, the analyses claiming no correlation between expansion and Medicaid waiting lists didn’t even attempt to control for these variables—or any other.

Therefore, in the absence of a quality study examining the issue, I’ll go with something far simpler: Common sense. If you’re a state that wants to spend more money on Medicaid, and you can do something (i.e., cover the able-bodied) that gives you 95 cents on the dollar, or something (i.e., reduce waiting lists for individuals with disabilities) that gives you 50 cents on the dollar, which are you going to do first?

I thought so. The incentives in Obamacare strongly favor coverage of the able-bodied over coverage for individuals with disabilities. And no number of crude analyses attempting to provide retroactive justification for this bad policy can hide that fact.

Waiting Lists Are Worst In Two Non-Expansion States

This comment reinforces the crudeness of the analysis being cited. All else being equal, as the second- and third-largest states in the Union, Texas and Florida would be expected to have a larger number of people on its waiting lists for home- and community-based services than a smaller expansion state like Connecticut. All else isn’t equal, of course, but did the analysts attempt to control for these kinds of factors? Nope. They examined raw waiting list numbers, rather than waiting lists as a percentage of the population.

But just suppose for a second that the commenters above are correct, and there is no correlation between expansion to the able-bodied and waiting lists for home-based care. That means that the greater incentives Obamacare gives to states to cover the able-bodied—and while the advocacy community might not want to admit it, Obamacare clearly does give states greater incentives to cover the able-bodied—didn’t affect state behavior, or decisions about whether to reduce disability waiting lists at all.

In that case, why has the disability community expressed such outrage about the impact of per capita caps or block grants on Medicaid beneficiaries with disabilities? If states make decisions without considering federal incentives—the point of the claims that there is no correlation between expanding Medicaid to the able-bodied and longer waiting lists for individuals with disabilities—then why also claim that “cost-shifting to states will force massive cuts in Medicaid services?” Why wouldn’t states shift around resources to protect individuals with disabilities—what the disability community claims that states did to reduce waiting lists even while expanding Medicaid under Obamacare?

There are really only two credible possibilities:

  • States are affected by incentives, therefore Obamacare—by giving states a higher match to cover the able-bodied—encouraged discrimination against individuals with disabilities; or
  • States are not affected by incentives, and therefore the per capita caps—which generate a comparatively small amount of savings in the House repeal bill—will have little impact, because states will re-prioritize their budgets to protect the most vulnerable.

It’s therefore worth asking why some appear to be trying to argue both sides of this question, and doing so in a way that neatly lines up with partisan lines—trying to ignore Obamacare’s skewed incentives, while roundly castigating the House Republican bill for incentives that will “force massive cuts in Medicaid.”

Republicans’ Bill Would Cut Program Helping People Live at Home

This is a true statement: Section 111(2) of the American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” bill, would sunset the enhanced match for the Community First Choice program on January 1, 2020. That option provides states with a 6 percent increase in their federal match for home- and community-based services, including to individuals with disabilities. But here again, raising this issue demonstrates the inherent disconnect between the incentives being offered to states, and the disability community’s responses to those incentives.

  • Obamacare provides states with a match ranging from 20-45 percentage points higher to cover the able-bodied than individuals with disabilities: “No correlation between expansion and waiting lists for individuals with disabilities!”
  • Obamacare provides states with a 6 percentage point increase for home-based services: A “huge change to improve HCBS [home and community-based services] care.”
  • The Republican alternative to Obamacare would reduce Medicaid spending for traditional (i.e., non-expansion) populations by a comparatively small amount: “Massive cuts to Medicaid services.”

Isn’t there a slight contradiction in these responses—both in their tone and in their logic? And isn’t it worth noting that these contradictions all happen to align perfectly with the natural partisan response to each of these issues?

This Is A Political Problem, Not a Policy Problem

Claiming that the greater federal match to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities stems from a “political history problem” deliberately obscures its roots. This “history” did not take place half a century ago, at Medicaid’s creation, it took place in the past few years, as part of Obamacare.

When crafting that legislation, Democrats could have come up with other policy solutions that expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied without discriminating against individuals with disabilities in the process. They could have proposed increasing the federal match for coverage of individuals with disabilities, in exchange for states covering the able-bodied at the existing federal match rates. Congress enacted a similar type of “swap” in the Medicare Modernization Act. The federal government took over the prescription drug cost of Medicare-Medicaid “dual eligibles” in exchange for a series of “clawback” payments from states.

Democrats in Congress could have considered other ways to expand Medicaid without giving states a greater match to cover the able-bodied than individuals with disabilities. To the best of my knowledge, they chose not to do so. President Obama could have insisted on a more equitable Medicaid formula, but he chose not to do so. And the disability community could have pointed out this disparity to the president and leaders in Congress, but chose not to do so.

Agree or disagree with them, these were deliberate policy choices, not a mere historical accident.

How Can You Support Lower Funding While Complaining About Access?

The argument about lower funding levels misses several points. First, while the Congressional Budget Office has not released estimates of how much the per capita caps (as opposed to changes associated with scaling back Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) will reduce federal spending, multiple estimates suggest a comparatively small amount of savings from this particular change—at most 1 or 2 percent of spending on traditional Medicaid populations over the coming decade.

Second, if given sufficient flexibility from Washington, states can reduce their Medicaid spending, rendering the discussion of “cuts” under the caps moot. Rhode Island’s Global Compact Waiver, approved in January 2009, actually resulted in a year-on-year decline of Medicaid spending per beneficiary. Moreover, the non-partisan Lewin Group concluded that Rhode Island’s waiver reduced that spending by improving beneficiary access and care, not by denying medical services.

Third, if caps on Medicaid are so harmful and damaging, then why did Obamacare cap spending on Medicare—and why did disability groups remain silent about it? Current law imposes a per capita cap on Medicare spending, one enforced by Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) of unelected bureaucrats.

What’s more, Obamacare imposes an annual inflation adjustment (gross domestic product growth plus 1 percent) likely to be lower than the inflation adjustment for disabled populations included in the House-passed bill (medical inflation plus 1 percent). Yet a critique of the Medicare payment caps or IPAB appears nowhere in the disability community’s 14 pages of comments regarding the bill that became Obamacare.

So the question to the disability community is obvious: Why does a Democratic proposal to impose per capita caps on Medicare raise no objections, but a Republican proposal to impose (potentially higher) per capita caps on Medicaid guaranteed to prompt “massive cuts in Medicaid services?”

Let’s Just Pay More for Everyone

This comment attempts to obscure the distinction between the amount of funding and the priorities for that funding. I might disagree with liberals about the overall level of funding for the program—not least because efforts like that in Rhode Island demonstrate the potential for Medicaid to become more efficient—but I should agree with them about the need to prioritize care for the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion goes in the opposite direction.

In thinking about the important distinction between overall program funding and priorities within a program, I’m often reminded of a speech that former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) gave on the House floor in September 2009: “At some point in time, my friends, we have to buck up our courage and our judgment and say, if we take care of everybody, we won’t be able to take care of those who need us most. That’s my concern. If we take care of everybody…then we will not be able to take care of those most in need in America.”

Yes, Hoyer’s speech discussed Medicare, not Medicaid, and he voted for Obamacare (and its Medicaid expansion) six months after giving it. But the speech raises an important point about the need to prioritize entitlements, one that the notion of giving higher reimbursement rates to all populations ignores.

That’s what’s wrong with focusing solely on the question on the amount of funding for a program. Reasonable people can (and will) disagree about where to draw the funding line, but it has to be drawn somewhere. “Solving” the question of funding priorities by increasing reimbursements for all populations—the equivalent of promising everyone a pony—will, by failing to choose wisely now, cause even tougher fiscal choices for generations to come.

Disability Groups Have More Important Priorities

Yes, I have. For one, in 2013, I served on the Commission on Long-Term Care Congress created in the wake of the CLASS Act’s failure and repeal. We took many hours of public testimony from disability groups and others, and received dozens of other written comments—many from dedicated and passionate parents or caregivers of individuals with disabilities, and all of which I made a point to read. I won’t claim to have made disability policy my life’s work, but my jobs over the years have intersected with the disability community on several occasions.

By claiming that disability groups have “way more priorities than comparing their FMAP [i.e., their federal match rate],” this comment actually makes my point for me. The January 2010 letter by the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) setting out priorities for what became Obamacare was 14 pages in length, amounted to over 5,500 words, and included (by my count) 73 separate bulleted recommendations regarding the legislation. All that, and yet not one word on the bill prioritizing coverage of the able-bodied over individuals with disabilities? Frankly, the issue seems quite conspicuous by its absence.

Just Interview Someone From This Consortium

I received a series of tweets—culminating in a dramatic “Shame on you”—attacking me for not having contacted any members of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) prior to writing my piece. It is correct that I didn’t reach out to any CCD member groups before printing the article. I didn’t need to because I had already spent years working with them.

The charge that I never spoke to “ONE SINGLE CCD MEMBER” is false—and demonstrably so. For nearly four years, from the spring of 2004 until the end of 2007, I worked as a lobbyist for the National Association of Disability Representatives (NADR). During that time, I spent many hours in CCD task force meetings, interacting both directly and indirectly with CCD members. The commenter’s accusation that if I had reached out to CCD members, I would know about the lengthy adjudication process for many Social Security disability claims holds no small amount of irony—I handled those issues over a decade ago.

In reality, my time working with CCD members while representing the disability representatives prompted me to write my article last week. While attending CCD meetings, I saw firsthand how some meeting participants—several of which remain in their current positions and active in CCD activities—made offhand comments of a rather partisan nature. Not everyone joined in the political commentary, but several felt comfortable enough to make clear their partisan affiliations in open discussions, even if I and others did not.

Similarly, I recall how the disability community fought against George W. Bush’s idea for personal accounts within Social Security almost uniformly, and even before Congress and the administration had an opportunity to fully develop their proposals. At the time, my client, the National Association of Disability Representatives, took an agnostic view towards the personal account concept, focusing more on the specifics of whether and how it could work for the disability community.

For instance, NADR wanted to ensure that any personal account proposal would hold the Social Security Disability Trust Fund (separate from the Old Age and Survivors Trust Fund) harmless, and that people who spent time receiving disability benefits would not be financially harmed (e.g., lack the opportunity to save wage earnings in a personal account, yet have their retirement benefits reduced) for having done so.

By contrast, most CCD members opposed the proposal from the get-go, often coordinating with Nancy Pelosi, Sander Levin, and other Democrats for events and strategy meetings. Archives on the disability coalition’s website from that era appear incomplete, but a 2005 August recess “Action Alert: Efforts to Privatize Social Security Continue!” gives a sense of the message coming from most CCD members, and the organization as a whole.

At this point any liberals still reading might applaud the disability community for having come out so strongly against the Bush proposal. But that idea focused on the Social Security retirement system, not the disability program, and the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress wanted to engage with disability groups to ensure any reforms held the disability community harmless. So how did failing to engage them—choosing instead to oppose from the outset—help the disability community?

In truth, early and vocal opposition to personal accounts may have put the disability community at greater risk had the personal account proposal been enacted without disability groups’ technical expertise on how best to structure it. And given both the partisan comments I heard from at least some CCD members at CCD meetings, it’s worth asking whether partisan or ideological concerns—separate and distinct from the interests of the disability community—unduly or improperly influenced the organization’s collective judgment back then.

Their inherent contradictions in the current debate—remaining silent about Obamacare’s unfair Medicaid match rate disparity and Medicare payment caps, while strenuously objecting to Republican attempts to impose payment caps on Medicaid—reinforce those concerns about undue partisanship.

It isn’t always easy stating inconvenient truths—pointing out that laws one doesn’t like should be enforced along with every other law, or where policies proposed by lawmakers with whom one might ordinarily be aligned fall woefully short. But such truth-telling remains an essential ingredient to authenticity and credibility. As I argued last week, I don’t think the disability community has done that in this case. I wish they had.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Fiscal Year 2018 Budget

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

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

Original post follows below…

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

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

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

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

Discretionary Spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repeal of Obamacare

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

Three Lessons from Last Year’s Obamacare Repeal Effort

In a move virtually ignored outside Washington and largely unnoticed even within it, last December the House and Senate passed legislation repealing much of Obamacare. President Obama promptly vetoed the measure — an obstacle that will disappear come January 20. As reporters and policymakers attempt to catch up and learn the details of a process they had not closely followed, three important lessons stand out from last year’s “dry run” at repealing Obamacare.

The Senate Should Take the Lead

The legislation in question, H.R. 3762, made it to President Obama’s desk only because Republicans used a special procedure called budget reconciliation to circumvent the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to overcome a Democratic filibuster. While reconciliation allowed the bill to make it to the president’s desk, it came with several procedural strings in the Senate. Reconciliation legislation may only consider provisions that are primarily budgetary in nature; policy changes, or policy changes with an incidental fiscal impact, will get stripped from the bill. In addition, reconciliation legislation may not increase the budget deficit.

Unfortunately, the original version of the bill the House introduced did not comply with the Senate requirements. The legislation repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) — but because that change was primarily policy-related and not fiscal in nature, it did not pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. Likewise, according to a cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the House-passed bill would have increased the deficit in the “out years” beyond the ten-year budget window, making it subject to another point-of-order challenge that would require 60 votes to overcome. Ultimately, the legislation contained enough of these procedural flaws that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce a completely new substitute for the bill as it came to the Senate floor, to ensure that it would receive the procedural protections accorded to a reconciliation measure.

The arcane and technical nature of the budget-reconciliation process means that the Senate will play the key role in determining what passes — simply because Senate procedure will dictate what can pass. While the House has the constitutional prerogative to originate all tax legislation, and by custom it initiates most major spending legislation, the Senate may do well to initiate action in this particular case. House Republicans proposed an Obamacare-replacement plan earlier this year, Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way,” but what good is passing that through the House if much of it ends up on the Senate’s proverbial cutting-room floor?

Personnel Matters, Because Institutional Memory Is Scarce

The original reconciliation bill was introduced in the House on October 16, during what amounted to an interval between leaders. John Boehner had announced his intention to resign the speakership, but Paul Ryan had not yet assumed that title. And while House members played another round of “musical chairs,” staff underwent their own turnover, as Speaker Boehner’s longtime health-policy adviser departed Capitol Hill a few weeks before Boehner announced his surprise resignation.

To say that relevant leaders and committee chairs have swapped places in the House recently is putting it mildly. Not one has served in his current post for more than two years. Two years ago, Paul Ryan chaired the House Budget Committee; his reign at Ways and Means lasted a brief nine months before he assumed the speakership. Elsewhere in leadership, both Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise assumed their jobs after the defeat of Eric Cantor in August 2014. At the committees, Budget Committee chairman Tom Price and Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady succeeded Paul Ryan in leading their respective committees last year. And the Energy and Commerce and Education and Workforce Committees will soon choose new chairmen to assume their gavels in January.

While Senate leadership has remained more stable at the member level, most of the staff in both chambers has turned over since the Obamacare debate of 2009–10. I served in House leadership during 2009, and Senate leadership from 2010 to 2012; most of my former colleagues have long since moved on, whether to lobbying jobs, grad school, or even outside Washington altogether. Both at the member level and the staff level, the critically important institutional knowledge of what happened to Democrats — and when, why, and how — during the Obamacare debacle eight short years ago is dangerously thin.

The Washington gossip circles seem most interested in playing the parlor game of who will fill what post in the new administration. But particularly if the administration defers to Capitol Hill on policy, the true action in determining what happens to Obamacare — and what replaces it — may well lie at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Both reporters and would-be job applicants should react and plan accordingly.

An Influential Troika of Senate Conservatives

In addition to its procedural shortfalls, the original House reconciliation bill represented something much less than full repeal of Obamacare. While the law as enacted contains 419 sections, four of which had already been repealed prior to last October, the House’s reconciliation bill repealed just seven of them. Admittedly, much of Obamacare contains extraneous provisions unrelated to the law’s coverage expansions: nursing-home regulations, loan-forgiveness programs, and the like. But the original House reconciliation bill left intact many of Obamacare’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions, leaving it far short of anything that could be called full repeal.

Into the breach stepped three conservative senators: Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. The day before the House voted to pass its reconciliation bill, they issued a joint statement calling it thin gruel indeed:

On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of Obamacare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal Obamacare, and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk. If this bill cannot be amended so that it fully repeals Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules, we cannot support this bill. With millions of Americans now getting health premium increase notices in the mail, we owe our constituents nothing less.

Knowing that the bill lacked the votes to pass the chamber without support from the three conservatives, Senate leadership significantly broadened the bill’s scope. The revised version that went to the president’s desk repealed all of the law’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions. It was not a one-sentence repeal bill that eradicated all of Obamacare from the statute books, but it came much closer to “fully repeal[ing] Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules,” as the three senators laid out in their statement.

The conservatives’ mettle will be tested once again. Already, Republican congressional sources are telling reporters that they intend to keep the law’s Medicaid expansion, albeit in a different fashion. “One of the aides said this version of the bill [that passed last year] was mostly about ‘messaging,’ and that this time, ‘We’re not going to use that package. We’re not dumb.’”

Apart from the wisdom of calling a bill that their bosses voted for less than one year ago “dumb,” the comment clarifies the obvious fissure points that will emerge in the coming weeks. Will conservatives such as Lee, Rubio, and Cruz hold out for legislation mirroring last year’s bill — and vote no if they do not receive it? Conversely, what Republican who voted for the reconciliation bill last year will object if it returns to the Senate floor? Will senators be willing to vote against something in 2017 that they voted for in 2015?

As I noted last week, Republicans’ path on Obamacare could prove more complicated than the new conventional wisdom in Washington suggests. If past is prologue, last year’s reconciliation bill provides one possible roadmap for how the congressional debate may play out.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Will Medicare Premium Increases Be an Issue in November?

Buried in the Medicare trustees report released Wednesday are a few lines that could cause political controversy. “In 2017 there may be a substantial increase in the Part B premium rate for some beneficiaries,” the actuaries write—which means seniors will find out about increases shortly before Election Day.

Higher-than-expected Medicare spending in 2014 and 2015 set the stage for a large premium adjustment in 2016. But, notably, the absence of inflation thanks to the drop in energy prices last year meant that seniors receiving Social Security benefits did not receive an annual cost-of-living adjustment.

The Medicare statute has a “hold harmless” provision that prevents Part B premiums from rising by more than the amount of a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment. For most beneficiaries, the provision meant that in 2016, they received no such adjustment—but also did not pay a higher Part B premium. However, nearly one-third of beneficiaries—new Medicare enrollees, “dual eligibles” enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid (in places where state Medicaid programs pay the Medicare Part B premium), and wealthy seniors subject to Medicare means-testing—do not qualify for the provision.

The New York Times noted last fall that the hold-harmless provision, by protecting most beneficiaries, exposed some to higher increases: “If premiums are frozen for 70 percent of beneficiaries, premiums for the other 30 percent must be raised more to cover the expected increase in overall Medicare costs. In other words … the higher Medicare costs must be spread across a smaller group of people.”

Congress, seeing a dynamic in which some seniors could face a nearly 50% increase in premiums, crafted a provision to forestall such a high and sudden spike. The Bipartisan Budget Act capped Part B premium increases for 2016, paid for by a loan from the Treasury that would be repaid by seniors in future years.

The legislative language used, however, allows premium spikes to come back with a vengeance. The Bipartisan Budget Act provided that the Medicare Part B “smoothing” provision would be renewed in 2017—but only if Social Security beneficiaries received no cost-of-living adjustment at all. The trustees report out Wednesday says that beneficiaries are projected to receive a very modest adjustment: 0.2%. Although that change is relatively small, it means that the “smoothing” provisions in last year’s budget deal do not apply—and, as the Wednesday Medicare report notes, premiums for some beneficiaries “need to be raised substantially,” up to nearly $150 per month.

Before the trustees’ report was released, some experts had predicted that a series of payment reductions by the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) under Obamacare would spark talk of “death panels” in political campaigns this fall. Spending levels did not require the board to convene, making that issue moot for now. But that doesn’t mean that Medicare won’t be an issue on the campaign trail. Democrats raised the Part B premium issue last year; expect to hear much more about it before November.

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

How Obama’s Budget Delays Fiscal Pain

In its 2016 budget, the Obama administration proposed approximately $400 billion in health-care savings. While this would include some modest changes to Medicare benefits, the overall document postpones most of the fiscal pain until after President Barack Obama leaves office.

The budget proposes additional increases to Medicare means-testing: reducing federal Part B and Part D subsidies to higher-income households. It also would increase the Medicare Part B deductible, introduce a Part B surcharge for beneficiaries who purchase rich supplemental Medigap coverage, and introduce home health co-payments. The latter three changes would apply only to new beneficiaries—and all the changes would take effect in 2019, more than a year after President Obama leaves office.

In its updated economic outlook last month, the Congressional Budget Office made clear that the United States faces an entitlement problem. CBO’s Figure 1-3 shows that Social Security, health programs, and interest represent 84% of the increase in federal spending over the coming decade. With an average of 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, President Obama’s proposals would permanently exempt approximately 14 million individuals who will join Medicare by January 2019—making the task of bringing entitlement commitments into balance that much more difficult.

President Obama has a history of prioritizing political expediency over fiscal rectitude. His first submission proposing additional Medicare cost-sharing—in September 2011—delayed the implementation until 2017. Obamacare has followed the same course: Two of the law’s biggest long-term “pay-fors”—provisions slowing the growth in insurance exchange subsidies and the law’s “Cadillac tax“—won’t take effect until a new president is in office. A third provision, the controversial Independent Payment Advisory Board, has been left unaddressed by the administration.

This strategy of pursuing dessert before spinach—of kicking tough choices down the road to future political leaders—may lead to short-term political gains but could result in long-term fiscal and political pain. Unsustainable trends will not continue forever—and whenever the fiscal reckoning comes, voters are unlikely to look kindly on those whose actions helped bring about the mess.

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

Phantom Savings in Obama’s Budget

In the president’s budget released this week, the Obama administration proposed approximately $400 billion in health-care savings. While that sounds impressive, the number might actually be less—for one proposal relies on a board that does not yet exist and that the administration has made no effort to establish.

As it has in previous years, the president’s 2016 budget proposal relies on savings achieved by strengthening the Independent Payment Advisory Board–this time to the tune of more than $20 billion. Created as part of Obamacare, IPAB was intended to be a group of non-partisan experts, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, who would make recommendations on slowing the growth of Medicare costs. The recommendations were to take effect automatically unless overruled by Congress.

Although the health-care law was enacted nearly five years ago, the administration has made no attempt to constitute IPAB:

* The president has not nominated members to the board for Senate confirmation;

* The president has signed appropriations legislation rescinding spending reserved for the board, most recently in Section 522 of last year’s “cromnibus” legislation;

* While secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius testified before Congress in 2011 that her agency would undertake a rule-making process to define “rationing.” Obamacare prohibits IPAB from rationing, but the term is not defined in statute. The administration, however, has not begun such a regulatory process.

When questioned on this issue, the administration has argued that the slowdown in Medicare spending makes the board unnecessary at the moment. Administration officials could also make the accurate—if politically unpopular—assertion that the Department of Health and Human Services has the power to implement Medicare savings proposals unilaterally in the absence of a fully functioning board.

Nevertheless, the administration continues to rely on budgetary savings presumed to come from “strengthen[ing]” a board that President Obama has not moved to establish. That raises questions about its commitment to budgetary savings—and to IPAB itself.

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

Gruber, Transparency, and IPAB

The administration faced a political firestorm last week, when videos emerged featuring MIT professor—and paid Obamacare consultant—Jonathan Gruber making comments on “the stupidity of the American voter,” and claiming that only a deliberately opaque and deceptive process was essential to the law’s enactment. But the administration may soon face a policy controversy as well—for the law features a board that can operate in nontransparent ways, and which will empower technocrats like Mr. Gruber himself.

While the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, may bring to mind the latest Apple product offering, the reality is far different. Designed to control health spending, the board of 15 experts—nominated by the president, based in part on suggestions from congressional leaders, and confirmed by the Senate—will have the power to make binding rulings to slow the growth in Medicare outlays. Furthermore, the administration’s budget proposed giving IPAB even more authority, by reducing the caps on Medicare spending the board will be charged to enforce.

IPAB has yet to be constituted. The budget sequester and other savings proposals have thus far kept Medicare spending below the targets that would trigger IPAB recommendations, and Republican leaders have indicated to President Barack Obama their disinclination to provide the White House suggestions for nominees. As a result, the president has yet to make formal nominations—not least because, if the Medicare spending target is reached, requiring IPAB to make formal recommendations to Congress, but IPAB does not do so, that power would then lie within the Department of Health and Human Services itself.

IPAB faces several characteristics that could imbue it with the lack of transparency Mr. Gruber infamously discussed in his speeches:

  • Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag wrote a piece for the New Republic in which he cited IPAB as one way to “counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a little less democratic.” In 2012, Politico stated that, while in the White House, Mr. Orszag had “pushed” to include the board in the law.
  • Section 3403 of Obamacare, which creates IPAB, does not require the board to conduct any open meetings. The law merely says that “the board may hold such hearings…as the board considers advisable;” it does not require IPAB to do so.
  • Likewise, while the law prohibits IPAB from “ration[ing] health care,” the term “rationing” is nowhere defined in statute. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded this point, and acknowledged that HHS would likely have to define “rationing” before the board could begin its work—but it has yet to do so.

Prior to the recent controversies, Mr. Gruber seemed like exactly the type of expert—an “individual with national recognition for [his] expertise in health finance and economics”—that might have received an appointment to IPAB. Interviewed for a 2011 article about who might serve on the board, Mr. Gruber didn’t rule it out entirely, while admitting that statutory restrictions on IPAB members’ outside activities might dissuade individuals from applying.

As it happens, Mr. Gruber currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Connector, an entity charged with implementing the Commonwealth’s health care overhaul. However, to judge from comments made to reporters last week, an aide to Gov. Deval Patrick seemed keen to downplay his influence: “When his term expires at some point, that will be a decision for someone else at that time.”

But beneath the political controversy lies a philosophical question. Fifty years ago last month, Ronald Reagan summarized the concern in his “A Time for Choosing” speech:

This is the issue of this election—whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Therein lies the Obama administration’s bigger problem—how to reconcile a law that increases the influence of independent experts with a high-profile example of such an expert who repeatedly treated American voters with open hostility and contempt. At a time when both the health care law and the federal government itself remain historically unpopular with voters, the Gruber controversy only heightens the perceived distance between the governing and the governed.

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