Tag Archives: McCarran-Ferguson Act

A “Grand Bargain” on Obamacare Repeal?

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

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

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

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

Federal Regulations Are Driving Up Health Costs

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

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

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

Yes, This Idea Is Imperfect

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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

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

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

Pre-Existing Conditions Are the Problem

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

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

This Is Not Repeal

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

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

True Federalism the Solution

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

On Health Care Bill, Federalism to the Rescue

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

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

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

The High Prices Are The Fault of Too Many Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.