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Summary of Testimony: Risk Corridors and the Judgment Fund

Chairman King, Ranking Member Cohen, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to testify. As Chairman King stated, my name is Chris Jacobs, and I have focused my career on analyzing issues in health policy—including more than six years on Capitol Hill. My entire written statement is before you, so I will not repeat it, but instead emphasize three main points regarding the use of the Judgment Fund as it pertains to health insurer claims regarding risk corridors currently pending in the Court of Federal Claims.

First, past precedent suggests that, by prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for the risk corridor program, Congress has “otherwise provided for” claims payments, rendering the Judgment Fund inaccessible to insurers’ claims. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service reached this conclusion more than one year ago, consistent with prior opinions by both the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Second, the amount of money in dispute regarding risk corridors dwarfs most other Judgment Fund payments. Losses for the risk corridor program in 2014 and 2015 have totaled approximately $8.3 billion. When final numbers are tabulated, total losses over the program’s three years (2014-2016) will likely exceed $10 billion, at minimum. By comparison, the Washington Post noted last September that Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claims paid out from the Judgment Fund over the last decade total only $18 million. A potential Judgment Fund verdict or settlement regarding risk corridors would vastly exceed last year’s Iran settlement, and the Pigford and other settlements discussed by Professor Figley in his testimony.

Third, last fall the Obama Administration made no secret of the fact that it wished to settle risk corridor cases via the Judgment Fund to circumvent the express congressional prohibition on the Department of Health and Human Services using taxpayer dollars to fund the program. I understand that the status of risk corridors, and President Obama’s health care law in general, have become a matter of no small dispute between the parties. But Members of Congress of both political parties, whether Republican or Democrat, should beware the consequences of such an executive encroachment on Congress’ most important power—the “power of the purse”—for the roles could easily be reversed in a subsequent case regarding another issue.

For this reason, I believe Congress and this Committee should consider codifying past practice and precedents by enacting language to clarify that, where the legislature has enacted limitations or restrictions on appropriations, Congress has “otherwise provided for” payment of claims, and the Judgment Fund should remain off limits.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. I look forward to your questions.

House Judiciary Committee Testimony: Risk Corridors and the Judgment Fund

A PDF version of this testimony is available here.

Testimony before the House Judiciary

Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice

 

Hearing on “Oversight of the Judgment Fund”

 

Chairman King, Ranking Member Cohen, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to testify. My name is Chris Jacobs, and I am the Founder of Juniper Research Group, a policy and research consulting firm based in Washington. Much of my firm’s work focuses on health care policy, a field in which I have worked for over a decade—including more than six years on Capitol Hill. Given my background and work in health care, I have been asked to testify on the use of the Judgment Fund as it pertains to one particular area: Namely, the ongoing litigation regarding risk corridor payments to insurers under Section 1342 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

The risk corridor lawsuits provide a good example of a problematic use of the Judgment Fund, and not just due to the sums involved—literally billions of dollars in taxpayer funds are at issue. Any judgments paid out to insurers via the Judgment Fund would undermine the appropriations authority of Congress, in two respects. First, Congress never explicitly appropriated funds to the risk corridor program—either in PPACA or any other statute. Second, once the Obama Administration sent signals indicating a potential desire to use taxpayer dollars to fund risk corridors, notwithstanding the lack of an explicit appropriation, Congress went further, and enacted an express prohibition on such taxpayer funding. Utilizing the Judgment Fund to appropriate through the back door what Congress prohibited through the front door would represent an encroachment by the judiciary and executive on Congress’ foremost legislative power—the “power of the purse.”

Though past precedents and opinions by the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel should provide ample justification for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to deny the risk corridor claims made by insurers when it considers pending appeals of their cases, Congress can take additional action to clarify its prerogatives in this sphere. Specifically, Congress could act to clarify in the risk corridor case, and in any other similar case, that it has “otherwise provided for” funding within the meaning of the Judgment Fund when it has limited or restricted expenditures of funds.

Background on Risk Corridors

PPACA created risk corridors as one of three programs (the others being reinsurance and risk adjustment) designed to stabilize insurance markets in conjunction with the law’s major changes to the individual marketplace.  Section 1342 of the law established risk corridors for three years—calendar years 2014, 2015, and 2016. It further prescribed that insurers suffering losses during those years would have a portion of those losses reimbursed, while insurers achieving financial gains during those years would cede a portion of those profits.[1]

Notably, however, the statute did not provide an explicit appropriation for the risk corridor program—either in Section 1342 or elsewhere. While the law directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a risk corridor program,[2] and make payments to insurers,[3] it does not provide a source for those payments.

History of Risk Corridor Appropriations

The lack of an explicit appropriation for risk corridors was not an unintentional oversight by Congress. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee included an explicit appropriation for risk corridors in its health care legislation marked up in 2009.[4] Conversely, the Senate Finance Committee’s version of the legislation—the precursor to PPACA—included no appropriation for risk corridors.[5] When merging the HELP and Finance Committee bills, Senators relied upon the Finance Committee’s version of the risk corridor language—the version with no explicit appropriation.

Likewise, the Medicare Modernization Act’s risk corridor program for the Part D prescription drug benefit included an explicit appropriation from the Medicare Prescription Drug Account, an account created by the law as an offshoot of the Medicare Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund.[6] While PPACA specifically states that its risk corridor program “shall be based on the program for regional participating provider organizations under” Medicare Part D, unlike that program, it does not include an appropriation for its operations.[7]

As the Exchanges began operations in 2014, Congress, noting the lack of an express appropriation for risk corridors in PPACA, questioned the source of the statutory authority for HHS to spend money on the program. On February 7, 2014, then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and then-Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wrote to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro requesting a legal opinion from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the availability of an appropriation for the risk corridors program.[8]

In response to inquiries from GAO, HHS replied with a letter stating the Department’s opinion that, while risk corridors did not receive an explicit appropriation in PPACA, the statute requires the Department to establish, manage, and make payments to insurers as part of the risk corridor program. Because risk corridors provide special benefits to insurers by stabilizing the marketplace, HHS argued, risk corridor payments amount to user fees, and the Department could utilize an existing appropriation—the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Program Management account—to make payments.[9] GAO ultimately accepted the Department’s reasoning, stating the Department had appropriation authority under the existing appropriation for the CMS Program Management account to spend user fees.[10]

The GAO ruling came after Health and Human Services had sent a series of mixed messages regarding the implementation of the risk corridor program. In March 2013, the Department released a final rule noting that “the risk corridors program is not statutorily required to be budget neutral. Regardless of the balance of payments and receipts, HHS will remit payments as required under Section 1342 of” PPACA.[11] However, one year later, on March 11, 2014, HHS reversed its position, announcing the Department’s intent to implement the risk corridor program in a three-year, budget-neutral manner.[12]

Subsequent to the GAO ruling, and possibly in response to the varying statements from HHS, Congress enacted in December 2014 appropriations language prohibiting any transfers to the CMS Program Management account to fund shortfalls in the risk corridor program.[13] The explanatory statement of managers accompanying the legislation, noting the March 2014 statement by HHS pledging to implement risk corridors in a budget neutral manner, stated that Congress added the new statutory language “to prevent the CMS Program Management account from being used to support risk corridor payments.”[14] This language was again included in appropriations legislation in December 2015, and remains in effect today.[15]

Losses Lead to Lawsuits

The risk corridor program has incurred significant losses for 2014 and 2015. On October 1, 2015, CMS revealed that insurers paid $387 million into the program, but requested $2.87 billion. As a result of both these losses and the statutory prohibition on the use of additional taxpayer funds, insurers making claims for 2014 received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their claims that year.[16]

Risk corridor losses continued into 2015. Last September, without disclosing specific dollar amounts, CMS revealed that “all 2015 benefit year collections [i.e., payments into the risk corridor program] will be used towards remaining 2014 benefit year risk corridors payments, and no funds will be available at this time for 2015 benefit year risk corridors payments.”[17]

In November, CMS revealed that risk corridor losses for 2015 increased when compared to 2014. Insurers requested a total of $5.9 billion from the program, while paying only $95 million into risk corridors—all of which went to pay some of the remaining 2014 claims.[18] To date risk corridors face a combined $8.3 billion shortfall for 2014 and 2015—approximately $2.4 billion in unpaid 2014 claims, plus the full $5.9 billion in unpaid 2015 claims. Once losses for 2016 are added in, total losses for the program’s three-year duration will very likely exceed $10 billion, and could exceed $15 billion.

Due to the risk corridor program losses, several insurers have filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking payment via the Judgment Fund of outstanding risk corridor claims they allege are owed. Thus far, two cases have proceeded to judgment. On November 10, 2016, Judge Charles Lettow dismissed all claims filed by Land of Lincoln Mutual Health Insurance Company, an insurance co-operative created by PPACA that shut down operations in July 2016.[19] Notably, Judge Lettow did not dismiss the case for lack of ripeness, but on the merits of the case themselves. He considered HHS’ decision to implement the program in a budget-neutral manner reasonable, using the tests in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, and concluded that neither an explicit nor implicit contract existed between HHS and Land of Lincoln.[20]

Conversely, on February 9, 2017, Judge Thomas Wheeler granted summary judgment in favor of Moda Health Plan, an Oregon health insurer, on its risk corridor claims.[21] Judge Wheeler held that PPACA “requires annual payments to insurers, and that Congress did not design the risk corridors program to be budget-neutral. The Government is therefore liable for Moda’s full risk corridors payments” under the law.[22] And, contra Judge Lettow, Judge Wheeler concluded that an implied contract existed between HHS and Moda, which also granted the insurer right to payment.[23]

Congress “Otherwise Provided For” Risk Corridor Claims

The question of whether or not insurers have a lawful claim on the United States government is separate and distinct from the question of whether or not the Judgment Fund can be utilized to pay those claims. CMS, on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, has made clear its views regarding the former question. In announcing its results for risk corridors for 2015, the agency stated that the unpaid balances for each year represented “an obligation of the United States Government for which full payment is required,” and that “HHS will explore other sources of funding for risk corridors payments, subject to the availability of appropriations. This includes working with Congress on the necessary funding for outstanding risk corridors payments.”[24]

But because insurers seek risk corridor payments from the Judgment Fund, that fund’s permanent appropriation is available only in cases where payment is “not otherwise provided for” by Congress.[25] GAO, in its Principles of Federal Appropriations Law, describes such circumstances in detail:

Payment is otherwise provided for when another appropriation or fund is legally available to satisfy the judgment….Whether payment is otherwise provided for is a question of legal availability rather than actual funding status. In other words, if payment of a particular judgment is otherwise provided for as a matter of law, the fact that the defendant agency has insufficient funds at that particular time does not operate to make the Judgment Fund available. The agency’s only recourse in this situation is to seek additional appropriations from Congress, as it would have to do in any other deficiency situation.[26]

In this circumstance, GAO ruled in September 2014 that payments from insurers for risk corridors represented “user fees” that could be retained in the CMS Program Management account, and spent from same using existing appropriation authority. However, the prohibition on transferring taxpayer dollars to supplement those user fees prevents CMS from spending any additional funds on risk corridor claims other than those paid into the program by insurers themselves.

Given the fact pattern in this case, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service concluded that the Judgment Fund may not be available to insurers:

Based on the existence of an appropriation for the risk corridor payments, it appears that Congress would have “otherwise provided for” any judgments awarding payments under that program to a plaintiff. As a result, the Judgment Fund would not appear to be available to pay for such judgments under current law. This would appear to be the case even if the amounts available in the “Program Management” account had been exhausted. In such a circumstance, it appears that any payment to satisfy a judgment secured by plaintiffs seeking recovery of damages owed under the risk corridors program would need to wait until such funds were made available by Congress.[27]

Because the appropriations power rightly lies with Congress, the Judgment Fund cannot supersede the legislature’s decision regarding a program’s funding, or lack of funding. Congress chose not to provide the risk corridor program with an explicit appropriation; it further chose explicitly to prohibit transfers of taxpayer funds into the program. To allow the Judgment Fund to pay insurers’ risk corridor claims would be to utilize an appropriation after Congress has explicitly declined to do so.

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has previously upheld the same principle that an agency’s inability to fund judgments does not automatically open the Judgment Fund up to claims:

The Judgment Fund does not become available simply because an agency may have insufficient funds at a particular time to pay a judgment. If the agency lacks sufficient funds to pay a judgment, but possesses statutory authority to make the payment, its recourse is to seek funds from Congress. Thus, if another appropriation or fund is legally available to pay a judgment or settlement, payment is “otherwise provided for” and the Judgment Fund is not available.[28]

The OLC memo reinforces the opinions of both CRS and the GAO: The Judgment Fund is a payer of last resort, rather than a payer of first instance. Where Congress has provided another source of funding, the Judgment Fund should not be utilized to pay judgments or settlements. Congress’ directives in setting limits on appropriations to the risk corridor program make clear that it has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor claims—therefore, the Judgment Fund should not apply.

Judgment Fund Settlements

Even though past precedent suggests the Judgment Fund should not apply to the risk corridor cases, a position echoed by at least one judge’s ruling on the matter, the Obama Administration prior to leaving office showed a strong desire to settle insurer lawsuits seeking payment for risk corridor claims using Judgment Fund dollars. In its September 9, 2016 memo declaring risk corridor claims an obligation of the United States government, CMS also acknowledged the pending cases regarding risk corridors, and stated that “we are open to discussing resolution of those claims. We are willing to begin such discussions at any time.”[29] That language not only solicited insurers suing over risk corridors to seek settlements from the Administration, it also served as an open invitation for other insurers not currently suing the United States to do so—in the hope of achieving a settlement from the executive.

Contemporaneous press reports last fall indicated that the Obama Administration sought to use the Judgment Fund as the source of funding to pay out risk corridor claims. Specifically, the Washington Post reported advanced stages of negotiations regarding a settlement of over $2.5 billion—many times more than the $18 million in successful Judgment Fund claims made against HHS in the past decade—with over 175 insurers, paid using the Judgment Fund “to get around a recent congressional ban on the use of Health and Human Services money to pay the insurers.”[30]

When testifying before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on September 14, 2016, then-CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt declined to state the potential source of funds for the settlements his agency had referenced in the memo released the preceding week.[31] Subsequent to that hearing, Energy and Commerce requested additional documents and details from CMS regarding the matter; that request is still pending.[32]

Even prior to this past fall, the Obama Administration showed a strong inclination to accommodate insurer requests for additional taxpayer funds. A 2014 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigative report revealed significant lobbying by insurers regarding both PPACA’s risk corridors and reinsurance programs.[33] Specifically, contacts by insurance industry executives to White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett during the spring of 2014 asking for more generous terms for the risk corridor program yielded changes to the program formula—raising the profit floor from three percent to five percent—in ways that increased payments to insurers, and obligations to the federal government.[34]

Regardless of the Administration’s desire to accommodate insurers, as evidenced by its prior behavior regarding risk corridors, past precedent indicates that the Judgment Fund should not be accessible to pay either claims or settlements regarding risk corridors. A prior OLC memo indicates that “the appropriate source of funds for a settled case is identical to the appropriate source of funds should a judgment in that case be entered against the government.”[35] If a judgment cannot come from the Judgment Fund—and CRS, in noting that Congress has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor claims, believes it cannot—then neither can a settlement come from the Fund.

Given these developments, in October 2016 the Office of the House Counsel, using authority previously granted by the House, moved to file an amicus curiae brief in one of the risk corridor cases, that filed by Health Republic.[36] The House filing, which made arguments on the merits of the case that the Justice Department had not raised, did so precisely to protect Congress’ institutional prerogative and appropriations power—a power Congress expressed first when failing to fund risk corridors in the first place, and a second, more emphatic time when imposing additional restrictions on taxpayer funding to risk corridors.[37] The House filing made clear its stake in the risk corridor dispute:

Allegedly in light of a non-existent ‘litigation risk,’ HHS recently took the extraordinary step of urging insurers to enter into settlement agreements with the United States in order to receive payment on their meritless claims. In other words, HHS is trying to force the U.S. Treasury to disburse billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to insurance companies, even though DOJ [Department of Justice] has convincingly demonstrated that HHS has no legal obligation (and no legal right) to pay these sums. The House strongly disagrees with this scheme to subvert Congressional intent by engineering a massive giveaway of taxpayer money.[38]

The amicus filing illustrates the way in which the executive can through settlements—or, for that matter, failing vigorously to defend a suit against the United States—undermine the intent of Congress by utilizing the Judgment Fund appropriation to finance payments the legislature has otherwise denied.

Conclusion

Both the statute and existing past precedent warrant the dismissal of the risk corridor claims by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Congress spoke clearly on the issue of risk corridor funding twice: First when failing to provide an explicit appropriation in PPACA itself; and second when enacting an explicit prohibition on taxpayer funding. Opinions from Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Office of Legal Counsel all support the belief that, in taking these actions, Congress has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor funding, therefore prohibiting the use of the Judgment Fund. It defies belief that, having explicitly prohibited the use of taxpayer dollars through one avenue (the CMS Program Management account), the federal government should pay billions of dollars in claims to insurers via the back door route of the Judgment Fund.

However, in the interests of good government, Congress may wish to clarify that, in both the risk corridor cases and any similar case, lawmakers enacting a limitation or restriction on the use of funds should constitute “otherwise provid[ing] for” that program as it relates to the Judgment Fund. Such legislation would codify current practice and precedent, and preserve Congress’ appropriations power by preventing the executive and/or the courts from awarding judgments or settlements using the Judgment Fund where Congress has clearly spoken.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. I look forward to your questions.



[1] Under the formulae established in Section 1342(b) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, P.L. 111-148), plans with profit margins between 3 percent and 8 percent pay half their profit margins between those two points into the risk corridor program, while plans with profit margins exceeding 8 percent pay in 2.5 percent of profits (half of their profits between 3 percent and 8 percent), plus 80 percent of any profit above 8 percent. Payments out to insurers work in the inverse manner—insurers with losses below 3 percent absorb the entire loss; those with losses of between 3 and 8 percent will have half their losses over 3 percent repaid; and those with losses exceeding 8 percent will receive 2.5 percent (half of their losses between 3 and 8 percent), plus 80 percent of all losses exceeding 8 percent. 42 U.S.C. 18062(b).

[2] Section 1342(a) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(a).

[3] Section 1342(b) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(b).

[4] Section 3106 of the Affordable Health Choices Act (S. 1679, 111th Congress), as reported by the Senate HELP Committee, established the Community Health Insurance Option. Section 3106(c)(1)(A) created a Health Benefit Plan Start-Up Fund “to provide loans for the initial operations of a Community Health Insurance Option.” Section 3106(c)(1)(B) appropriated “out of any moneys in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated an amount necessary as requested by the Secretary of Health and Human Services to,” among other things, “make payments under” the risk corridor program created in Section 3106(c)(3).

[5] Section 2214 of America’s Healthy Future Act (S. 1796, 111th Congress), as reported by the Senate Finance Committee, created a risk corridor program substantially similar to (except for date changes) that created in PPACA. Section 2214 did not include an appropriation for risk corridors.

[6] Section 101(a) of the Medicare Modernization Act (P.L. 108-173) created a program of risk corridors at Section 1860D—15(e) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—115(e). Section 101(a) of the MMA also created a Medicare Prescription Drug Account within the Medicare Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund at Section 1860D—16 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116. Section 1860D—16(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116(c)(3), “authorized to be appropriated, out of any moneys of the Treasury not otherwise appropriated,” amounts necessary to fund the Account. Section 1860D—16(b)(1)(B), 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116(b)(1)(B), authorized the use of Account funds to make payments under Section 1860D—15, the section which established the Part D risk corridor program.

[7] Section 1342(a) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(a).

[8] Letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton and Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, February 7, 2014.

[9] Letter from Department of Health and Human Services General Counsel William Schultz to Government Accountability Office Assistant General Counsel Julie Matta, May 20, 2014.

[10] Government Accountability Office legal decision B-325630, Department of Health and Human Services—Risk Corridor Program, September 30, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/666299.pdf.

[11] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2014,” Federal Register March 11, 2013, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-03-11/pdf/2013-04902.pdf, p. 15473.

[12] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2015,” Federal Register March 11, 2014, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-03-11/pdf/2014-05052.pdf, p. 13829.

[13] Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, P.L. 113-235, Division G, Title II, Section 227.

[14] Explanatory Statement of Managers regarding Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, Congressional Record December 11, 2014, p. H9838.

[15] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, P.L. 114-113, Division H, Title II, Section 225.

[16] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Proration Rate for 2014,” October 1, 2015, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Premium-Stabilization-Programs/Downloads/RiskCorridorsPaymentProrationRatefor2014.pdf.

[17] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015,” September 9, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Premium-Stabilization-Programs/Downloads/Risk-Corridors-for-2015-FINAL.PDF.

[18] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Payment and Charge Amounts for the 2015 Benefit Year,” https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/2015-RC-Issuer-level-Report-11-18-16-FINAL-v2.pdf.

[19] Land of Lincoln Mutual Health Insurance Company v. United States, Court of Federal Claims No. 16-744C, ruling of Judge Charles Lettow, November 10, 2016, https://ecf.cofc.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2016cv0744-47-0.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Moda Health Plan v. United States, Court of Federal Claims No. 16-649C, ruling of Judge Thomas Wheeler, February 9, 2017, https://ecf.cofc.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2016cv0649-23-0.

[22] Ibid., p. 2.

[23] Ibid., pp. 34-39.

[24] CMS, “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015.”

[25] 31 U.S.C. 1304(a)(1).

[26] Government Accountability Office, 3 Principles of Federal Appropriations Law 14-39, http://www.gao.gov/assets/210/203470.pdf.

[28] Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, “Appropriate Source for Payment of Judgment and Settlements in United States v. Winstar Corp.,” July 22, 1998, Opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel in Volume 22, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/olc/opinions/1998/07/31/op-olc-v022-p0141.pdf, p. 153.

[29] CMS, “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015.”

[31] Testimony of CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt before House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Hearing on “The Affordable Care Act on Shaky Ground: Outlook and Oversight,” September 14, 2016, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/IF/IF02/20160914/105306/HHRG-114-IF02-Transcript-20160914.pdf, pp. 84-89.

[32] Letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton et al. to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell regarding risk corridor settlements, September 20, 2016, https://energycommerce.house.gov/news-center/letters/letter-hhs-regarding-risk-corridors-program.

[33] House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, staff report on “Obamacare’s Taxpayer Bailout of Health Insurers and the White House’s Involvement to Increase Bailout Size,” July 28, 2014, http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/WH-Involvement-in-ObamaCare-Taxpayer-Bailout-with-Appendix.pdf.

[34] Ibid., pp. 22-29.

[35] OLC, “Appropriate Source of Payment,” p. 141.

[36] H.Res. 676 of the 113th Congress gave the Speaker the authority “to initiate or intervene in one or more civil actions on behalf of the House…regarding the failure of the President, the head of any department or agency, or any other officer or employee of the executive branch, to act in a manner consistent with that official’s duties under the Constitution and the laws of the United States with respect to implementation of any provision of” PPACA. Section 2(f)(2)(C) of H.Res. 5, the opening day rules package for the 114th Congress, extended this authority for the duration of the 114th Congress.

[37] Motion for Leave to File Amicus Curiae on behalf of the United States House of Representatives, Health Republic Insurance Company v. United States, October 14, 2016, http://www.speaker.gov/sites/speaker.house.gov/files/documents/2016.10.13%20-%20Motion%20-%20Amicus%20Brief.pdf?Source=GovD.

[38] Ibid., p. 2.

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.

Four Ways Donald Trump Can Start Dismantling Obamacare on Day One

Having led a populist uprising that propelled him to the presidency, Donald Trump will now face pressure to make good on his campaign promise to repeal Obamacare. However, because President Obama used executive overreach to implement so much of the law, Trump can begin dismantling it immediately upon taking office.

The short version comes down to this: End cronyist bailouts, and confront the health insurers behind them. Want more details? Read on.

1. End Unconstitutional Cost-Sharing Subsidies

In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in a lawsuit brought by the House of Representatives that the Obama administration had illegally disbursed cost-sharing subsidies to insurers without an appropriation. These subsidies—separate and distinct from the law’s premium subsidies—reimburse insurers for discounted deductibles and co-payments they provide to some low-income beneficiaries.

While the text of the law provides an explicit appropriation for the premium subsidies, Congress nowhere granted the executive authority to spend money on the cost-sharing subsidies. President Obama, ignoring this clear legal restraint, has paid out roughly $14 billion in cost-sharing subsidies anyway.

Trump should immediately 1) revoke the Obama administration’s appeal of Collyer’s ruling in the House’s lawsuit, House v. Burwell, and 2) stop providing cost-sharing subsidies to insurers unless and until Congress grants an explicit appropriation for same.

2. Follow the Law on Reinsurance

House v. Burwell represents but one case in which legal experts have ruled the Obama administration violated the law by bailing out insurers. In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) handed down a ruling in the separate case of Obamacare’s reinsurance program.

The law states that, once reinsurance funds come in, Treasury should get repaid for the $5 billion cost of a transitional Obamacare program before insurers receive reimbursement for their high-cost patients. GAO, like the non-partisan Congressional Research Service before it, concluded that the Obama administration violated the text of Obamacare by prioritizing payments to insurers over and above payments to the Treasury.

Trump should immediately ensure that Treasury is repaid all the $5 billion it is owed before insurance companies get repaid, as the law currently requires. He can also look to sue insurance companies to make the Treasury whole.

3. Prevent a Risk Corridor Bailout

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has sought to settle lawsuits raised by insurance companies looking to resolve unpaid claims on Obamacare’s risk corridor program. While Congress prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to bail out insurance companies—twice—the administration apparently wishes to enact a backdoor bailout prior to leaving office.

Under this mechanism, Justice Department attorneys would sign off on using the obscure Judgment Fund to settle the risk corridor lawsuits, in an attempt to circumvent the congressional appropriations restriction.

Trump should immediately 1) direct the Justice Department and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) not to settle any risk corridor lawsuits, 2) direct the Treasury not to make payments from the Judgment Fund for any settlements related to such lawsuits, and 3) ask Congress for clarifying language to prohibit the Judgment Fund from being used to pay out any settlements related to such lawsuits.

4. Rage Against the (Insurance) Machine

Trump ran as a populist against the corrupting influence of special interests. To that end, he would do well to point out that health insurance companies have made record profits, nearly doubling during the Obama years to a whopping $15 billion in 2015. It’s also worth noting that special interests enthusiastically embraced Obamacare as a way to fatten their bottom lines—witness the pharmaceutical industry’s “rock solid deal” supporting the law, and the ads they ran seeking its passage.

As others have noted elsewhere, if Trump ends the flow of cost-sharing subsidies upon taking office, insurers may attempt to argue that legal clauses permit them to exit the Obamacare exchanges immediately. Over and above the legal question of whether CMS had the authority to make such an agreement—binding the federal government to a continuous flow of unconstitutional spending—lies a broader political question: Would insurers, while making record profits, deliberately throw the country’s insurance markets into chaos because a newly elected administration would not continue paying them tribute in the form of unconstitutional bailouts?

For years, Democrats sought political profit by portraying Republicans as “the handmaidens of the insurance companies.” Anger against premium increases by Anthem in 2010 helped compel Democrats to enact Obamacare, even after Scott Brown’s stunning Senate upset in Massachusetts. It would be a delicious irony indeed for a Trump administration to continue the political realignment begun last evening by demonstrating to the American public just how much Democrats have relied upon crony capitalism and corrupting special interests to enact their agenda. Nancy Pelosi and K Street lobbyists were made for each other—perhaps it only took Donald Trump to bring them together.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Speaker Ryan Protects Congress’ “Power of the Purse”

This morning, Speaker Ryan’s office announced that it had filed an amicus curiae brief in one of the pending lawsuits regarding Obamacare’s risk corridors — this one filed by Health Republic. Here’s a quick explainer on the filing and its importance:

What’s Happening? Filed by a failed Oregon co-op, the Health Republic case was the first case filed over unpaid risk corridor claims, back in February. Over the summer, the Justice Department moved to dismiss the case — but solely on the grounds that the case was not yet ripe to be heard by the federal courts.

In the past few weeks, as filing deadlines in other, later risk corridor cases arose, the Justice Department shifted tactics by embarking on a more robust defense. In those later filings, Justice argued not only that insurers do not have a claim for unpaid risk corridor funds now, but that they will not ever have a claim to those funds — because Obamacare never included an explicit appropriation for risk corridors in the law itself, and because Congress further clarified its position when it explicitly made the program budget-neutral in December 2014.

Speaker Ryan’s filing today officially makes the court hearing the Health Republic case aware of the Justice Department’s new position. It argues that the Health Republic case, like the other risk corridor cases, should not just be dismissed due to lack of ripeness, but should be dismissed with prejudice on the merits.

Why Does It Matter? The House’s filing today matters for three reasons:

  1. It signifies the willingness of Congress to intervene to protect its institutional prerogatives — namely its “power of the purse,” which it has exercised in this case, by explicitly denying the transfer of taxpayer funds to the risk corridor program;
  2. It officially makes the court aware of the arguments on the merits — making it tougher for the Justice Department subsequently to settle the claims, as some within the Administration apparently wish to do; and
  3. It introduces a new legal precedent NOT previously cited by the Justice Department in its other risk corridor briefs earlier this month — specifically, the case of Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery School District v. United States. In that case, a statute created an entitlement to benefits for school districts, but Congress later appropriated less than the full amount under the statutory formula — causing the Highland Falls district to sue to obtain the shortfall. That lawsuit was dismissed by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which found that “we have great difficulty imagining a more direct statement of congressional intent than the instructions in the appropriations statutes at issue here.” In other words, when Congress speaks with a clear voice — as it did by choosing to make the risk corridor program budget-neutral — Congress gets the last word.

In keeping with the Highland Falls precedent, I’ll give Congress, in the form of Speaker Ryan’s amicus filing, the last word here as well:

Allegedly in light of a non-existent “litigation risk,” HHS recently took the extraordinary step of urging insurers to enter into settlement agreements with the United States in order to receive payment on their meritless claims. In other words, HHS is trying to force the U.S. Treasury to disburse billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to insurance companies even though DOJ has convincingly demonstrated that HHS has no legal obligation (and no legal right) to pay these sums. The House strongly disagrees with this scheme to subvert Congressional intent by engineering a massive giveaway of taxpayer money.

Risk Corridors: The Obama Administration at War with Itself…?

Ferrets in a sack might prove an apt description of the internal infighting plaguing the Obama Administration regarding risk corridors. Last week, sources — whether within the Administration, amongst the insurer community, or both — wanted to portray a multi-billion dollar Judgment Fund settlement with insurers as a fait accompli, telling the Washington Post an agreement could be reached within two weeks.

But in two separate motions filed late last Friday regarding pending lawsuits, lawyers for the Department of Justice pulled a Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend!” The filings stated repeated claims made in a related lawsuit this summer that the case made by insurers is not yet ripe for adjudication in court. However, in a new development, Justice also alleged that insurers had no claim to make in court at all:

Third, Count I fails on the merits. Section 1342 [of Obamacare] does not require HHS to make risk corridors payments beyond those funded from collections. And even if that intent were unclear when the Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010, Congress removed any ambiguity when it enacted annual appropriations laws for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 that prohibited HHS from paying risk corridors amounts from appropriated funds other than collections.

Here are four things you need to know about the latest risk corridor developments:

  • DOJ vs. CMS? Whereas the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated in a September 9 document that it considered unpaid risk corridor claims “an obligation of the United States government for which full payment is required,” the Justice Department has now argued before two separate district court judges that no additional payment is required — not now, and not ever. In testifying before Congress last month, both Acting Administrator Slavitt and his Chief of Staff separately claimed that the Justice Department were consulted before CMS issued its September 9 memo. While last week’s Post article claimed that “Justice officials have privately told several health plans” they want to settle claims on insurers’ terms as quickly (and as quietly) as possible, the filings show that at least some Justice officials have no intention of “tanking” the government’s case for political reasons.
  • Political Appointees vs. Career Civil Servants: Two congressional reports provide some clues to the possible divides within the Administration. A 2014 House Oversight Committee investigative report showed how insurers immediately contacted Valerie Jarrett and other political appointees seeking increased risk corridor payments when insurers’ enrollees started skewing older and sicker than expected. And a report by two House committees earlier this year showed how political appointees have put the proverbial screws to uncooperative civil servants, threatening those civil servants if they exercised their statutory rights to provide information to Congress regarding a related program of Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies. The mixed messages regarding the risk corridor suits could represent a similar divide — political appointees want to pay the claims before President Obama leaves office, whereas career civil servants are focused on the heretofore novel notion of actually enforcing the law as written.
  • Andy Slavitt, Bailout KingDuring his own testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, CMS head Andy Slavitt made absolutely no attempt to argue the points Justice made in its filings — namely, that Congress has made its intent regarding risk corridors crystal clear, and that insurers are not owed any money. In this context, it is worth noting: 1) Administrator Slavitt’s at least $4.8 million in stock compensation from a unit of UnitedHealthGroup — the nation’s largest insurer; 2) the special ethics waiver he had to receive from the Obama Administration to make policy decisions impacting his former employer; and 3) the fact that Mr. Slavitt will likely require new employment in three months. Could Administrator Slavitt be attempting to help his once — and perhaps future — employers in the insurance industry…?
  • Constitutional “Takings,” Redefined: In one of the court cases, filed by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the Justice Department responded to claims that the risk corridor non-payment represent a Fifth Amendment violation on the part of the federal government. This Blue Cross insurer has argued — apparently with a straight face — that the federal government NOT giving it a multi-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded risk corridor payment represents a “taking” that violates its constitutional rights. To repeat: Blue Cross alleges it has a constitutional right to a multi-billion dollar bailout — even though the Justice Department notes that there is no contractual right to payment under the risk corridor program at all.

Responding to Nicholas Bagley on Risk Corridors

Over at the Incidental Economist, Nicholas Bagley has a post that finally acknowledges some legal precedent for the argument I and others have been making for months, most recently on Monday—that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to settle lawsuits regarding Obamacare’s risk corridors. I noted in my Monday post that three non-partisan sources have issued rulings agreeing with my argument: The Justice Department’s own Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the Comptroller General, and the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Unfortunately, Bagley mis-represented the first opinion, ignored the second entirely, and called the third one an outlier (which it isn’t) that he didn’t agree with.

While Bagley agrees that the Judgment Fund cannot be utilized where Congress has “otherwise provided for” payment, he argues that the circumstances where Congress has “otherwise provided for” payment are exceedingly rare. He claims “the Judgment Fund is unavailable only if Congress has designated an alternative source of funds to pay judgments arising from litigation.” [Emphasis original.]

Bagley alleges that the 1998 opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, cited in my Monday post, illustrates his point. He claims the OLC opinion “offers an example of how ‘specific and express’ a statute has to be before Congress will be understood to have ‘otherwise provided for’ the payment of money damages.” But, funny enough, he doesn’t quote from the memo itself. That might be because, as I noted on Monday, the memo contradicts Bagley:

The Judgment Fund does not become available simply because an agency may have insufficient funds at a particular time to pay a judgment. If the agency lacks sufficient funds to pay a judgment, but possesses statutory authority to make the payment, its recourse is to seek funds from Congress. Thus, if another appropriation or fund is legally available to pay a judgment or settlement, payment is “otherwise provided for” and the Judgment Fund is not available.

The memo says nothing about how specific and express a statute must be for the Judgment Fund not to apply, as Bagley claims. Instead, it sets up a rather broad rule of construction: If a source of funding exists to pay claims, the Judgment Fund cannot be used to pay claims—it only serves as a payer of last resort. If another source of funding exists, but lacks sufficient cash to pay the judgment in full, then Congress—and not the Judgment Fund or the courts—must fill in the deficit through a new appropriation.

The 1998 memo from the Justice Department mirrors another 1998 ruling by the Comptroller General—the keeper of the handbook of appropriations law. In that case, Congress had imposed appropriations restrictions prohibiting the federal government from paying the cost of re-running a Teamsters union election. This fact pattern mirrors the statutory restrictions Congress imposed to prevent additional taxpayer funds being used to bail out risk corridors. And the Comptroller General’s ruling made clear that the Judgment Fund could not be utilized to circumvent the appropriations restriction:

The costs of supervising the 1996 election rerun, like the 1996 election, are programmatic costs that, but for the restrictions in sections 619 and 518 of the 1998 Justice and Labor Appropriations Acts, would be payable from available Justice and Labor operating accounts. The fact that Congress has chosen to bar the use of funds made available in the 1998 Justice and Labor Appropriations Acts to pay the cost of the Election Officer’s supervision of the 1996 election rerun should not be viewed as an open invitation to convert the Judgment Fund from an appropriation to pay damage awards against the United States to a program account to circumvent congressional restrictions on the appropriations that would otherwise be available to cover these expenses. Accordingly, we believe that the Judgment Fund would not be available to pay such an order, even if the court were to award a specific sum equivalent to the actual or anticipated costs of supervising the rerun.

While Bagley chose to ignore this ruling entirely, the precedent again indicates that the Judgment Fund cannot be utilized as a “piggy bank”—in this case, that it cannot fund that which Congress has expressly forbidden.

Particularly viewed in combination with these other two rulings, the Congressional Research Service report then stands not as the anomaly Bagley portrays it, but as illustrating the consistent principle that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to circumvent appropriations decisions rightly within the purview of Congress. The CRS memo references the prior opinions by the Comptroller General and OLC discussed above, as well as a separate legal precedent involving payments under the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program. In that case, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also held that a lack of funds in program coffers did not make the Judgment Fund available—instead, the plaintiffs had to appeal to Congress for additional appropriations to pay claims.

Though Bagley does not admit it in his piece, all the non-partisan experts in appropriations law—the Comptroller General, the Congressional Research Service, and even the Justice Department’s own legal team—agree that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to pay claims where Congress has provided another avenue of payment. Despite this overwhelming evidence, Bagley attempts to argue that “every entitlement program has some source of appropriated funds, suggesting that the Judgment Fund would be unavailable in every lawsuit involving an entitlement.” [Emphasis original.]

Here again, Bagley errs—there are entitlements without a permanent appropriations source, including risk corridors. The Comptroller General’s opinion classifying risk corridors as “user fees” notes very clearly that “Section 1342 [of Obamacare, which established risk corridors], by its terms, did not enact an appropriation to make the payments specified [by the law]”—in other words, it created an entitlement without an appropriation. Moreover, Judge Rosemary Collyer’s May ruling in House v. Burwell, litigation regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies—which also lacked an explicit statutory appropriation—noted multiple examples of entitlements without a permanent appropriation, including a 1979 Comptroller General opinion relating to payments to Guam. As her ruling noted:

The [Comptroller General’s] risk corridors decision illustrates that a statute can authorize a program, mandate that payments be made, and yet fail to appropriate the necessary funds. Thus, not only is it possible for a statute to authorize and mandate payments without making an appropriation, but [the Comptroller General] has found a prime example in [Obamacare].

Bagley’s argument therefore fails due to his faulty premise—that every entitlement must have an appropriated source of funds.

One other matter worth noting: The Clinton administration’s 1998 Office of Legal Counsel opinion should also prevent settlements—as opposed to judicial verdicts—from being paid from the Judgment Fund. The opinion cites a prior 1989 OLC memo to note that “The appropriate source of funds for a settled case is identical to the appropriate source of funds should a judgment in that case be entered against the government.” Again, the Comptroller General agrees in its Principles of Federal Appropriations Law:

A compromise settlement is payable from the same source that would apply to a judgment in the same suit….The resolution of a case does not alter the source of funds. A contrary view, as Justice points out, might encourage settlements driven by source-of-funds considerations rather than the best interests of the United States.

If the Obama administration cannot pay out a judgment regarding risk corridors—and for all the reasons above, it cannot—then it also cannot settle the lawsuit using Judgment Fund dollars. But that’s exactly what this administration intends to do—circumvent the express will of Congress, and opinions by his own Justice Department, to muscle through a massive insurer bailout “on the nod.”

Mr. Bagley has been encouraging such a backdoor bailout for months, claiming that insurers can claim risk corridor cash via the Judgment Fund. But only this week did he finally “discover” the Congressional Research Service memo directly contradicting his claims, which Sen. Marco Rubio’s office publicly released in May. And in attempting to rebut that memo, he did not acknowledge the Comptroller General’s similar opinion, mis-represented the Office of Legal Counsel’s position, and falsely claimed every entitlement must have an appropriation. Regardless of whether motivated by a lack of information or a desire to avoid inconvenient truths, his flawed and incomplete analysis vastly understates the strength of the argument that the actions the Obama administration contemplates in settling the risk corridor lawsuits violate appropriations law and practice.

Is Another Illegal Obamacare Bailout on the Way?

As Ronald Reagan might say, “There they go again.” The Obamacare Perpetual Bailout Machine went into high gear again on Friday, in a typical late-afternoon news dump released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). In a five-paragraph memo, CMS invited insurers to settle outstanding lawsuits regarding an Obamacare bailout program — providing K Street a handy roadmap to obtaining more of federal taxpayers’ hard-earned cash, which administration officials apparently will distribute to insurers on their way out the door.

The lawsuits revolve around Obamacare’s risk-corridor program, one of two ostensibly temporary programs, scheduled to expire this December, that provided a transition to the new Obamacare regime. Plans with high profits would pay into the risk-corridor program, and their spending would offset deficits incurred by insurers with large losses.

As with most things Obamacare, risk corridors haven’t turned out quite like the administration promised. In 2014, insurers paid in a total of $362 million into the risk-corridor program — but requested $2.87 billion in disbursements. Fortunately, an appropriations rider enacted in December 2014, and subsequently renewed, has thus far prevented CMS from using taxpayer funds to bail out the risk-corridor losses. But where there’s a will to give a bailout, the Obama administration thinks it has a way. CMS in the last paragraph of its Friday memo states:

We know that a number of issuers have sued in federal court seeking to obtain the risk corridors amounts that have not been paid to date. As in any lawsuit, the Department of Justice is vigorously defending those claims on behalf of the United States. However, as in all cases where there is litigation risk, we are open to discussing resolution of those claims. We are willing to begin such discussions at any time.

Translation: “Insurers — you want a bailout? Come right in and let’s chat. After all, we’re here only until January 20 . . . ”

Apart from being bad policy — and a violation of Congress’s express language forbidding a taxpayer bailout — such a settlement could also violate the Justice Department’s own legal guidelines. Insurers are seeking to obtain from the Judgment Fund, the entity that pays out claims stemming from federal lawsuits, what they could not obtain from Congress. But a 1998 opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) called these backdoor bailouts improper and illegal:

The Judgment Fund does not become available simply because an agency may have insufficient funds at a particular time to pay a judgment. If the agency lacks sufficient funds to pay a judgment, but possesses statutory authority to make the payment, its recourse is to seek funds from Congress. Thus, if another appropriation or fund is legally available to pay a judgment or settlement, payment is “otherwise provided for” and the Judgment Fund is not available.

That’s exactly the situation facing CMS regarding risk corridors. Risk corridors are considered “user fees,” and CMS has a statutory appropriation to make those payments. But Congress explicitly prohibited CMS from using taxpayer funds to supplement those user fees. In other words, Congress has “otherwise provided for” risk-corridor payments — and insurers can’t use the Judgment Fund as an alternative source for bailout because they didn’t like Congress’s prohibition on a taxpayer-funded bailout. Friday’s memo clearly indicates the Obama administration’s desire for some type of corrupt bargain on its way out the door.

At least, so say the Office of Legal Counsel in its 1998 memo (issued by the Clinton administration, remember), the comptroller general, and the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. But CMS, and possibly the Obama Justice Department, have other ideas. In defending the insurer lawsuits, Justice has not yet cited the OLC memo or made any claim that Congress, consistent with both the law and past precedent, should have the last word on any judgment. Friday’s memo clearly indicates the Obama administration’s desire for some type of corrupt bargain on its way out the door.

Congress could try to act legislatively to block a potential settlement, but it has another option at its disposal. Section 2(f)(2)(C) of the rules package adopted by the House of Representatives on the first day of the 114th Congress last January provided that “the authorities provided by House Resolution 676 of the 113th Congress remain in full force and effect in the 114th Congress.” That resolution, which led to the filing of the House v. Burwell case regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, gave the House speaker authorization

to initiate or intervene in one or more civil actions on behalf of the House . . . regarding the failure of the President, the head of any department or agency, or any other officer or employee of the executive branch, to act in a manner consistent with that official’s duties under the Constitution and the laws of the United States with respect to implementation of any provision of [Obamacare].

In other words, Speaker Ryan already has the authority necessary to intervene in the risk-corridor cases — to ensure that any potential “settlement” adheres to both Congress’s express will regarding bailouts and existing legal practice as outlined by both the comptroller general and the Department of Justice itself.

Whether judicially, legislatively, or both, Congress should act — and act now. The time between now and January 20 is short, and the potential for mischief high. The legislature should go to work immediately to stop both a massive illegal bailout and another massive usurpation of Congress’s own authority by an imperial executive.

This post was originally published at National Review.

IT Failure at the Immigration Courts

One of the most underreported stories in Washington is a massive IT failure—lasting more than a month—that slowed legal proceedings at the nation’s immigration courts.

In its reporting last week, Politico quoted Dana Marks, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, describing the work environment: “We are now limping along, keeping the system running with paper clips and scotch tape.  It’s appalling.”

“Look at all the publicity over” HealthCare.gov, Ms. Marks went on. “Shouldn’t this have the same level of outcry and shock?  This is the docketing system for cases involving 360,000 people allegedly in US illegally.  Not all are removable, but it’s a law enforcement function.”

Reports of chaos in the nation’s immigration courts will do little to allay the concerns of House Republicans who think that the Obama administration will not—or cannot—faithfully implement any immigration legislation Congress might pass.

The immigration courts’ IT meltdown–the Justice Department announced Monday that the electronic databases that went offline April 12 are functioning again–represents another prominent example of botched implementation by federal agencies. It comes amid congressional inquiries into allegations of mismanagement and misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs. And the Washington Post reported this week on another facet of the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov: “The government may be paying incorrect subsidies to more than 1 million Americans for their health plans in the new federal insurance marketplace and has been unable so far to fix the errors.”

President Obama came into office attempting to restore faith and trust in government. Individually and collectively, these competency difficulties can only detract from his objective.

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

A Modest Proposal to Solve Europe’s Debt Crisis

The New York Times today outlined one of the major uncertainties facing the global economy this year: The more than $1 trillion dollars of debt that countries like Italy and France need to sell just this year, in order to finance their current deficits and roll over existing debt.  Amidst sluggish to non-existent economic growth and entitlement policies that are at best marginally sustainable, many European economies face challenges in finding buyers for their debt auctions.  Observers have said Europe faces “enormous” risk as a result, and the Times article suggested that dealing with the debt problem “may take several, more drastic approaches” than those currently on offer.  In reality, however, solving Europe’s debt crisis need not involve drastic new approaches so much as it requires a modest one:

Congress can solve Europe’s debt crisis once and for all – just by requiring all Americans to purchase European debt.

The policy is not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds.  The Administration has endorsed a mandate requiring all individuals to purchase a product – health insurance – for the first time ever, and the Justice Department has stated that the executive branch does not need to define a limit on where the federal government’s “power to require a specific purchase would stop.”*  All agree that a fiscal and banking crisis in Europe would harm the American economy. (The Administration also thinks Europe is “the single most important factor that will determine [Barack] Obama’s re-election chances,” but who’s counting?)  So why shouldn’t Congress use its power under the Commerce Clause to force all Americans to fund the debt of countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy?

Treasury Secretary Geithner has been attempting to co-ordinate policies with his European counterparts, and a new mandate for Americans to purchase European debt would give him and the Administration the tools to export the policies that have brought economic recovery to Americans beyond their wildest dreams and expectations.  It’s also obvious that forcing Americans to buy into Spanish, Italian, and Greek economies represents a sound investment, given their economic activity, dynamism, and engaged populations.  And why wouldn’t Americans support bailing out countries with unsustainable levels of spending and debt?  After all, nothing else promotes “spreading the wealth around” like sending American treasure off to far-flung countries.

It can’t fail!  Just like Obamacare can’t fail.  Right…?