Tag Archives: National Association of Insurance Commissioners

Insurance Commissioners’ CSR Malpractice

Today, a Senate committee hearing will feature testimony from insurance commissioners about the status of Obamacare in their home states. It will undoubtedly feature pleas from those commissioners for billions of new dollars in federal funds to subsidize insurance markets. But before Congress spends a single dime, it should take a hard look at insurance commissioners’ compliance with their regulatory duties regarding Obamacare. On several counts, preliminary results do not look promising.

Of particular issue at today’s hearing, and in health insurance markets generally: Federal payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions, discounts on co-payments, and deductibles provided to certain low-income individuals. Obamacare authorized those payments to insurers, but did not include an appropriation for them. Despite lacking an explicit appropriation, the Obama administration started making the payments anyway when the exchanges began operation in 2014.

Rightfully objecting to an intrusion on its constitutional “power of the purse,” the House of Representatives filed suit to block the payments in November 2014. In May 2016, a federal district court judge ruled the insurer payments unconstitutional, halting them unless and until Congress granted an explicit appropriation.

By the middle of 2016, it seemed clear that the cost-sharing reduction payments lay in significant jeopardy. While the federal district court allowed the payments to continue during the Obama administration’s appeal, a final court ruling could strike them down permanently. Moreover, a new administration would commence in January 2017, and could stop the payments immediately. And neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump had publicly committed to maintaining the insurer payments upon taking office.

Let’s Let the Problem Fester to Put Trump in a Bind

How did insurance commissioners respond to this growing threat to the cost-sharing reduction payments? In at least some cases, they did nothing. For instance, in response to my public records request, the office of Dave Jones, California’s insurance commissioner, admitted that it had no documents examining the impact of last May’s court ruling on the 2017 plan bid year.

To call this lack of analysis regarding cost-sharing reductions malfeasance would put it mildly. A new president could easily have cut off those payments—payments totaling $7 billion this fiscal year—unilaterally on January 20. Yet the regulator of the state’s largest insurance market had not so much as a single e-mail considering this scenario, nor examining what his state would do in such an occurrence.

For Democrats such as Jones, last year’s silence on cost-sharing reductions represents a happy coincidence. Had insurance commissioners required insurers to price in a contingency margin for 2017—to reflect uncertainty over whether the federal payments would continue—those higher premiums would undoubtedly have hurt Clinton during last fall’s campaign. Instead, liberals like Jones who remained quiet last year have suddenly started shouting from the rooftops about “uncertainty” leading to higher premiums—because they believe Trump, not Clinton, will bear the political blame.

Break the Law to Fund Our Political War Against You

Indeed, insurance commissioners who remained silent last year about cost-sharing reduction payments have responded this year in alarming fashion. The commissioners’ trade association wrote to the Trump administration in May asking them “to continue full funding for the cost-sharing reduction payments for 2017 and make a commitment that such payments will continue.”

The insurance commissioners essentially demanded the Trump administration violate the Constitution. Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution grants Congress the sole power to appropriate funds, and the Supreme Court in a prior case (Train v. City of New York) ruled that the executive cannot thwart that will by declining to spend funds already appropriated. Under the Constitution, a president cannot spend money, or refuse to spend money, unilaterally—but that’s exactly what the insurance commissioners requested.

By implicitly conceding the unconstitutional actions by the Obama administration, and asking the Trump administration to continue those acts, the commissioners’ own letter exposes their dilemma. Why did commissioners ever assume the stability of a marketplace premised upon unconstitutional actions? And why did commissioners purportedly committed to the rule of law ask for those unconstitutional actions to continue?

Regardless of whether members of Congress wish to make the payments to insurers, they should first demand answers from insurance commissioners for their regulatory failure. Insurance commissioners’ collective ignorance that the unconstitutional cost-sharing reduction payments could disappear closely mimics banks’ flawed assumptions in the years leading up to the subprime mortgage collapse. Unless Congress relishes the thought of passing another TARP program, they would be wise to exercise their oversight authority before they even think about getting out the taxpayers’ checkbook.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AARP’s Own “Age Tax”

Over the past few weeks, AARP—an organization that purportedly advocates on behalf of seniors—has been running advertisements claiming that the House health-care bill would impose an “age tax” on seniors by allowing for greater variation in premiums. It knows of which it speaks: AARP has literally made billions of dollars by imposing its own “tax” on seniors buying health insurance policies, not to mention denying care to individuals with disabilities.

While the public may think of AARP as a membership organization that advocates for liberal causes or gives seniors discounts at restaurants and hotels, most of its money comes from selling the AARP name. In 2015, the organization received nearly three times as much revenue from “royalty fees” than it did from member dues. Most of those royalty fees come from selling insurance products issued by UnitedHealthGroup.

Only We Can Profit On the Elderly

As documented on its tax returns and in congressional oversight reports, AARP royalty fees from UnitedHealthGroup come largely from the sale of Medigap supplemental insurance plans. As the House Ways and Means Committee noted in 2011, while AARP receives a flat-sum licensing fee for branding its Medicare Advantage plans, the organization has a much sweeter deal with respect to Medigap: “State insurance rate filings show that, in 2010, AARP retained 4.95% of seniors’ premiums for every Medigap policy sold under its name. Therefore, the more seniors enroll in the AARP-branded Medigap plan, the more money AARP receives from United.”

So in the sale of Medigap plans, AARP imposes—you guessed it!—a 4.95 percent age tax on seniors. AARP not only makes more money the more people enroll in its Medigap plans, it makes more money if individuals buy more expensive insurance.

Even worse, AARP refused good governance practices that would disclose the existence of that tax to seniors at the time they apply for Medigap insurance. While working for Sen. Jim DeMint in 2012, I helped write a letter to AARP that referenced the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Producer Model Licensing Act.

Specifically, Section 18 of that act recommends that states require explicit disclosure to consumers of percentage-based compensation arrangements at the time of sale, due to the potential for abuse. DeMint’s letter asked AARP to “outline the steps [it] has taken to ensure that your Medigap percentage-based compensation model is in full compliance with the letter and spirit of” those requirements. AARP never gave a substantive reply to this congressional oversight request.

Don’t Screw With Obamacare, It’s Making Us Billions

AARP’s silence might stem from the fact that its hidden taxes have made the organization billions. Between 2010—the year Obamacare was signed into law—and 2015, the most recent year for which financial information is available, AARP received $2.96 billion in “royalty fees” from UnitedHealthGroup. During that same period, AARP made an additional $195.6 million in investment income from its grantor trust.

Essentially, AARP makes money off other people’s money—perhaps receiving insurance premium payments on the 1st of the month, transferring them to UnitedHealth or its other insurance affiliates on the 15th of the month, and pocketing the interest accrued over the intervening two weeks. That’s nearly $3.2 billion in profit over six years, just from selling insurance plans. AARP received much of that $3.2 billion in part because Medigap coverage received multiple exemptions in Obamacare. The law exempted Medigap plans from the health insurer tax, and medical loss ratio requirements.

Most importantly, Medigap plans are exempt from the law’s myriad insurance regulations, including Obamacare’s pre-existing condition exclusions—which means AARP can continue its prior practice of imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants. You read that right: Not only did Obamacare not end the denial of care for pre-existing conditions, the law allowed AARP to continue to deny care for individuals with disabilities, as insurers can and do reject Medigap applications when individuals qualify for Medicare early due to a disability.

The Obama administration helped AARP in other important ways. Regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exempted Medigap policies from insurance rate review of “excessive” premium increases, an exemption that particularly benefited AARP. Because the organization imposes its 4.95 percent “age tax” on individuals applying for coverage, AARP has a clear financial incentive to raise premiums, sell seniors more insurance than they require, and sell seniors policies that they don’t need. Yet rather than addressing these inherent conflicts, HHS decided to look the other way and allow AARP to continue its shady practices.

The Cronyism Stinks to High Heaven

Obama administration officials not only did not scrutinize AARP’s insurance abuses, they praised the organization as a model corporate citizen. Then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, when speaking to its 2010 convention, called AARP the “gold standard” in providing seniors with “accurate information”—even though the organization declined requests to disclose the conflicts arising from its percentage-based Medigap “royalties.” However, Sebelius’ tone is perhaps not surprising from an administration whose officials plotted with AARP executives to enact Obamacare over AARP members’ strong objections.

AARP will claim in its defense that it’s not an insurance company, which is true. Insurance companies must risk capital to pay claims, and face losses if claims exceed premiums charged. By contrast, AARP need never risk one dime. It can just sit back, license its brand, and watch the profits roll in. Its $561.9 million received from UnitedHealthGroup in 2015 exceeded the profits of many large insurers that year, including multi-billion dollar carriers like Centene, Health Net, and Molina Healthcare.

But if the AARP now suddenly cares about “taxing” the aged so much, Washington should grant them their wish. The Trump administration and Congress should investigate and crack down on AARP’s insurance shenanigans. Congress should subpoena Sebelius and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, her successor, and ask why each turned a blind eye to its sordid business practices. HHS should write to state insurance commissioners, and ask them to enforce existing best practices that require greater disclosure from entities (like AARP) operating on a percentage-based commission.

And both Congress and the administration should ask why, if AARP cares about its members as much as it claims, the organization somehow “forgot” to lobby for Medigap reforms—not just prior to Obamacare’s passage, but now. AARP’s fourth quarter lobbying report showed that the organization contacted Congress on 77 separate bills, including issues as minor as the cost of lifetime National Parks passes, yet failed to discuss Medigap reform at all.

Given that AARP made more than $3 billion in profits from the status quo—denying care to individuals with pre-existing conditions, and earning more money by generating more, and higher, premiums—its silence makes sense on one level. But if AARP really wants to make insurance markets fair, and stop “taxing” the aged, all it has to do is look in the mirror.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Insurers’ Obamacare Extortion Racket

The coming weeks will see U.S. health insurance companies attempt to preserve what amounts to an extortion racket. Already, some carriers have claimed they will either exit the Obamacare exchanges entirely in 2018, or submit dramatically higher premium increases for next year, if Congress does not fund payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions. While insurers claim “uncertainty” compels them to make these business changes, in reality their roots are the companies’ gross incompetence and crass politics.

While Obamacare requires insurers to lower certain low-income individuals’ deductibles and co-payments, and directs the executive agencies to reimburse insurers for those cost-sharing reductions, it nowhere gives the administration an explicit appropriation to do so. The Obama administration made payments to insurers without an explicit appropriation from Congress, and was slapped with a federal lawsuit by the House of Representatives for it.

Insurers claim they need certainty regarding the payments before committing to the exchanges for 2018. But insurers never had a guarantee about the payments continuing in 2017. I noted in a blog post last May that the new president could easily cut off the subsidy payments unilaterally. The week after I published my post, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in favor of the House of Representatives in its lawsuit. Although Collyer stayed her order pending an appeal, she ruled that the Obama administration needed an explicit appropriation from Congress to continue paying cost-sharing reductions to insurers.

Either the Companies Are Mismanaged Or Playing Politics

For insurers to assume that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue through 2017, let alone 2018, required them to ignore 1) public warnings in articles like mine; 2) Collyer’s ruling; 3) the fact that President Obama would leave office on January 20, 2017; and 4) the apparent silence from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during last year’s campaign on whether they would continue the cost-sharing reduction payments once in office.

Given those four factors, competent insurance executives would have built in an appropriate contingency margin into their 2017 exchange bids, recognizing the uncertainty that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue during the new administration. Instead, some insurers largely ignored the issue. In its most recent 10-K annual report with the Securities and Exchange Commission, filed February 22, Anthem made not a single reference in the 520-page document to the cost-sharing reduction payments or the House lawsuit.

Therein lies the reason for insurers’ threats. All last year, several insurers assumed Clinton would win and continue the (unconstitutional) payments. Worse yet, some may have willfully ignored their fiduciary responsibility to create a contingency margin for their 2017 plan bids because they wanted to help Clinton by keeping premiums artificially low.

Insurance executives therefore do not just face exposure through their companies; they face potential personal risk arising from charges of derelict behavior. That level of desperation certainly explains why Anthem CEO Joe Swedish is threatening 20 percent premium increases if Congress does not appropriate payments for the cost-sharing reductions, mere weeks after he signed an SEC filing that failed to identify loss of the payments as a risk to his company.

How the People’s Representatives Should Respond

Responding to this extortion racket requires several layers of accountability. First, insurers must accept responsibility for their persistent refusal to address the cost-sharing reduction issue sooner. The Securities and Exchange Commission should investigate whether publicly traded insurers failed to disclose material risks in their company filings by neglecting to mention the clearly foreseeable uncertainty surrounding the payments.

Likewise, the Justice Department’s antitrust division should examine whether insurers’ 2017 premium submissions represent an instance of illegal collusion. If the insurance industry collectively neglected to include a contingency margin surrounding the cost-sharing payments—either to keep premium increases low before the election, or to strong-arm the incoming administration to continue to fund them—such a decision might warrant federal sanctions.

Finally, conservatives and the Trump administration should shine a bright light on state insurance commissioners’ review of premium submissions. Commissioners who approve large contingency margins for 2018 due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reductions, yet did not require a similar contingency margin for 2017 premiums, can be reasonably accused of gross incompetence, playing politics with health insurance premiums, or both.

The health insurers’ trade association has disputed any characterization of the cost-sharing reduction payments as a “bailout.” But in reality, Congress blindly making appropriations for the payments would bail out insurance industry executives for years of incompetence, malfeasance, and political chicanery. Conservatives—in Congress and elsewhere—should insist on accountability first. To do otherwise would imply that both Obamacare and health insurers themselves are “too big to fail,” giving our country a de facto single-payer health system.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How to Repeal Obamacare

A PDF version of this document is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Congress Should Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Administration Should Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Steps and the Pathway Forward

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[28] Ibid.

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

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

[31] Ibid., p. 94138.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[42] Ibid., p. 78134.

[43] Ibid., p. 78132.

[44] Ibid., p. 78132.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Obama Administration’s Protection Racket

Shortly, President Obama will be addressing the AARP convention via satellite.  He will undoubtedly say nice things about AARP’s role as a “senior advocate.”  But what he won’t discuss are the ways in which his own Administration has allowed AARP to continue making billions in profits on its insurance business:

  1. AARP’s lucrative Medigap insurance was exempted in Obamacare from the ban on pre-existing conditions; medical loss ratio requirements; caps on insurance industry executive compensation; and the tax on all other health insurance plans.
  2. The Department of Health and Human Services didn’t think all these Obamacare exemptions were enough; last year they also exempted Medigap insurance from premium rate review — even though AARP, which carries the plan with the largest market share, earns greater profits the more seniors pay in premiums.
  3. At a conference hosted by America’s Health Insurance Plans in March 2010, HHS Secretary Sebelius encouraged the insurance industry to give up some of its profits, at a time when health insurance profit margins were about 2 percent.  Yet neither Secretary Sebelius nor anyone else in the Administration ever criticized AARP for making a profit margin of nearly 5 percent on its Medigap insurance.
  4. In April 2010, the Administration engaged in very public efforts to “encourage” insurance companies to ban rescissions and extend coverage to young adults earlier than is required by the law.  But no one from the Administration has taken similar steps to encourage AARP to stop discriminating against sick seniors applying for Medigap coverage.
  5. In a speech at an AARP conference in October 2010, Secretary Sebelius praised AARP as the “gold standard in cutting through spin and complexity to give people the accurate information they need.”  Yet the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has previously expressed concern about the potential for conflicts-of-interest associated with percentage-based compensation arrangements.  So Secretary Sebelius praised as the “gold standard” for “accurate information” an organization that has financial conflicts her insurance commissioner colleagues have criticized as ripe for abuse.

Why might the Administration look the other way despite these abuses?  Documents released by the Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday provide myriad reasons, showing all the political favors senior Administration officials asked of AARP as they rammed Obamacare through Congress:

  • Jim Messina, White House Deputy Chief of Staff: “We need [AARP CEO] Barry Rand to go meet with Ben Nelson personally and just lay it on the line.  ‘We will be with you, we will protect you.  But if you kill this bill, seniors will not forget.’  We are at 59 [votes in the Senate], we have to have him.” (page 7)
  • Jim Messina: “Can we get immediate robo calls into Nebraska urging [Ben] Nelson to vote for cloture?” (page 9)
  • Nancy-Ann DeParle, Director, White House Office of Health Reform: “Can AARP support accountable care orgs [sic] and some other delivery system reforms?” (page 26)
  • Jim Messina: “Latest top 25 targets list from House leadership” (page 35)
  • Ann Widger, Office of Public Engagement: “We would really like AARP to participate in this roundtable.” (page 37)
  • Ann Widger: “Did you guys put out any paper today on the McCain [Medicare] amendment?” (page 39)
  • Jim Messina: “[Rep. Larry] Kissel a problem…Help.” (pages 42-43)
  • Nancy-Ann DeParle: “Can you get me a copy of the [AARP] bulletin we discussed yesterday?” (page 64)

Secretary Sebelius has already admitted she has acted improperly in using her office to conduct political activities; the Office of Special Counsel last week concluded she violated the law to do so.  Given all of the above, it is not unreasonable to question whether the Secretary, and others within the Administration, have made a calculated political decision to grant special favors to AARP — and ignore its questionable business practices — because AARP endorsed Obamacare.

Yesterday President Obama claimed that he changed Washington “from the outside” by enacting Obamacare.  The pattern of conduct described above suggests just the opposite: That the President rammed Obamacare through only by establishing what amounts to a protection racket between the Administration and AARP – the former will allow the latter to continue overcharging seniors for insurance, so long as AARP uses its advocacy megaphone to endorse the President’s liberal causes.

Fact Check: Seniors ‘At the Mercy of Insurance Companies’

The Hill reports that, during his remarks to AARP this morning, the President attacked Republicans for leaving seniors “at the mercy of insurance companies.”  Well, in case you missed it, here are five ways the President and his Administration have left seniors at the mercy of one organization with insurance interests — AARP — by granting them special exemptions and ignoring their questionable insurance practices:

  1. AARP’s lucrative Medigap insurance was exempted in Obamacare from the ban on pre-existing conditions; medical loss ratio requirements; caps on insurance industry executive compensation; and the tax on all other health insurance plans.
  2. The Department of Health and Human Services didn’t think all these Obamacare exemptions were enough; last year they also exempted Medigap insurance from premium rate review – even though AARP, which carries the plan with the largest market share, earns greater profits the more seniors pay in premiums.
  3. At a conference hosted by America’s Health Insurance Plans in March 2010, HHS Secretary Sebelius encouraged the insurance industry to give up some of its profits, at a time when health insurance profit margins were about 2 percentYet neither Secretary Sebelius nor anyone else in the Administration ever criticized AARP for making a profit margin of nearly 5 percent on its Medigap insurance.
  4. In April 2010, the Administration engaged in very public efforts to “encourage” insurance companies to ban rescissions and extend coverage to young adults earlier than is required by the law.  But no one from the Administration has taken similar steps to encourage AARP to stop discriminating against sick seniors applying for Medigap coverage.
  5. In a speech at an AARP conference in October 2010, Secretary Sebelius praised AARP as the “gold standard in cutting through spin and complexity to give people the accurate information they need.”  Yet the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has previously expressed concern about the potential for conflicts-of-interest associated with percentage-based compensation arrangements.  So Secretary Sebelius praised as the “gold standard” for “accurate information” an organization that has the types of financial conflicts her insurance commissioner colleagues have criticized as ripe for abuse.

If the President is so worried about leaving seniors at the mercy of insurance companies, perhaps he should tell the people within his own Administration to stop granting political favors to Democrats’ cronies at the AARP.

Profits Before Principles: How AARP Wins When Seniors Lose

A staff report compiled for U.S. Senator Jim DeMint

REPORT HIGHLIGHTS

  • AARP functions as an insurance conglomerate with a liberal lobbying arm on the side.  Independent experts and former AARP executives admit that the organization’s billions of dollars raised from its business enterprises – most notably the sale of health insurance plans – have compromised the organization’s mission and independence.
  • AARP depends on profits, royalties, and commissions to make up over 50% of its annual budget.  Membership dues from seniors account for only about 20% of AARP’s revenue.
  • AARP’s $458 million in health insurance revenue in 2011 would rank it as the nation’s sixth-most profitable health insurer.
  • The health care law, which AARP lobbied heavily for, could lead to over $1 billion in new AARP health insurance profits over the next decade by forcing seniors off Medicare Advantage plans into Medigap supplemental coverage.
  • AARP earns more profit the higher premiums rise on seniors in Medigap plans, charging a “royalty fee” of 4.95% of every premium dollar paid by seniors on these plans.
  • In 2011, AARP failed to disclose to its senior membership that it lobbied Congress to oppose Medigap reform, legislation that could lower senior premiums by as much as 60%, and save seniors $415 per year on average.
  • AARP could lose as much as $1.8 billion in revenue over ten years if Medigap reforms pass and successfully lower senior premiums.
  • Documents show close coordination between Obama Administration and AARP, including efforts to deceive the public.  In November 2009, a senior AARP executive wrote to the White House saying “we will try to keep a little space between us” on health care – because AARP’s “polling shows we are more influential when we are seen as independent, so we want to reinforce that positioning….The larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”
  • AARP has benefitted by supporting the Obama Administration’s unpopular health care law.  Unlike other forms of insurance, AARP’s Medigap insurance plans were exempted from many of the health care law’s mandates, including the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination.
  • The Obama Administration has not publicly criticized AARP’s business practices, even though it has publicly attacked other insurance companies with much smaller profit margins than those generated by AARP’s Medigap insurance.
  • Democrats continue to praise AARP – HHS Secretary Sebelius called them the “gold standard” for “accurate information” – even though AARP earns more profit the higher Medigap premiums rise for seniors.
  • Even though President Obama has criticized Republicans for placing seniors at the mercy of insurance companies, the health care law he signed allows organizations like AARP to continue discriminating against Medigap applicants with pre-existing conditions.

Introduction

The AARP bills itself as the nation’s premier senior advocacy group, but has opposed important reforms to Medigap supplemental insurance that would save seniors, on average, hundreds of dollars a year.

Why? There are $1.8 billion reasons.

The reforms currently being proposed to Medigap would drastically reduce the “royalty fees” AARP generates by peddling insurance to its members by an estimated $1.8 billion over ten years. If AARP supported these reforms, which are sure to save seniors money, the lobbying group would lose billions.

This report shows how the AARP has a history of being compromised by its lucrative insurance businesses.  The pressure group’s opposition to Medigap reform is just the latest instance where its financial enterprises have trumped the well-being of its members.

AARP is mounting a “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign to solicit member viewpoints about how to reform entitlements, but our examination of the organization’s actions over the years shows AARP executives, who seek to boost their bottom lines, always have the biggest say.

The AARP Empire

Founded in 1958, AARP is now an organization with an annual budget exceeding $1 billion.  The organization spent $206 million to acquire its headquarters building in Washington, DC more than a decade ago.[1]  According to its most recently filed tax returns, AARP spent more than $246 million on postage, and over $280 million on compensation in 2010.[2]  In that same year, AARP provided compensation of over $100,000 to 543 separate employees, including one senior executive who received nearly $1.2 million in compensation.[3]

While AARP claims to be a membership-driven organization, in reality most of its revenue comes not from member dues but from “royalty fees” generated from the sale of other products, namely health insurance.  “Royalty fees” are payments AARP receives for putting its brand name on certain products and services.  So while insurance companies provide a tangible product and service in exchange for the premiums they charge, AARP receives more than half a billion dollars per year for essentially playing the middle man.

According to its 2011 financial statements, more than half of AARP’s revenue came from royalty fees – over $704 million of its $1.35 billion in total revenue last year.[4]  Revenues from health insurer United Health Group comprised nearly two-thirds of AARP’s total “royalty fee” revenue, or $457.6 million.[5]  By comparison, in 2011 AARP generated only $265.8 million from membership dues – just over half the amount received from the sale of AARP-branded insurance products.[6]

AARP’s royalty fees have risen significantly in recent years, making the organization ever more dependent on the sale of insurance policies to fund AARP’s massive payroll.  Between 2001 and 2011, AARP’s total royalty fees rose by more than 350% – from $196.7 million in 2001 to over $704 million last year.[7]  Much of this increase comes from additional health insurance-related revenue.  Over the past five years, AARP has generated over $2 billion in revenue from United Health Group alone – $284 million in 2007,[8] $414 million in 2008,[9] $427 million in 2009,[10] $441 million in 2010,[11] and $458 million in 2011.[12]

AARP’s $458 million in insurance revenue in 2011 would rank it as the nation’s sixth-most profitable insurer, based on data collected by Fortune magazine.[13]  For instance, insurer Health Net generated only $204 million in net revenue last year – on over $13.6 billion in total revenue.[14]  By contrast, AARP’s $458 million in insurance-based “royalty fees” go directly to the organization’s bottom line.

AARP’s Questionable Insurance Practices

Even as it claims to be a non-profit advocacy organization, AARP has received criticism from many quarters for its heavy reliance on revenue from insurance sales.  Marilyn Moon, a former AARP executive, said “there’s an inherent conflict of interest” because AARP is “very dependent on sources of income.”[15]

AARP’s dependence on “royalty fee” income has resulted in numerous controversies over the years.  For instance, in 2008 a congressional inquiry[16] found that AARP was using potentially misleading language in its marketing materials; seniors thought they were buying comprehensive health insurance, but in reality purchased policies covering only a limited amount of health costs.  Following a public outcry, AARP ordered an investigation,[17] and eventually stopped selling these types of limited benefit plans.[18]

More recently, the tax implications of AARP’s significant “royalty fees” have come under scrutiny.  An investigation by several members of the House Ways and Means Committee last year raised questions about whether or not AARP’s licensing revenue should be considered “royalty fees” or “commissions.”[19]  If the revenue in question should in fact be classified as “commissions,” then AARP could owe significant amounts of back taxes on billions of dollars in revenue.  The Ways and Means members referred the matter to the Internal Revenue Service, and requested an IRS investigation.[20]

The Medigap Cash Cow

The Ways and Means member investigation also made clear that one of AARP’s prime sources of revenue is the sale of Medigap-branded supplemental insurance plans.  AARP does license Medicare Advantage plans, along with a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.  However, AARP receives a flat financial payment from United Health Group for its Medicare Advantage and Part D plans, regardless of the number of people enrolled in each plan.  Conversely, AARP receives a percentage of total Medigap premiums paid – meaning that while AARP receives no financial benefits if its Medicare Advantage or Part D plan enrollment rises, it will receive a windfall if its Medigap plan generates additional customers, or those customers pay higher premiums.

The health care law includes more than $300 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage.[21]  As a result of these payment reductions, enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans will be cut in half, with 7.4 million fewer seniors enrolled.[22]  Many of these 7.4 million seniors will need supplemental coverage through Medigap, to fund catastrophic expenses not covered by Medicare.

Because the health care law will have the effect of migrating millions of seniors from Medicare Advantage plans – which are less lucrative financially to AARP – to more-lucrative Medigap supplemental coverage, the Ways and Means member report concluded that the organization could receive a windfall exceeding $1 billion over the next ten years thanks to the law.[23]

Medigap Reform with Bipartisan Appeal

The potential Medigap-related windfall for AARP resulting from the health care law is not the only instance in which the organization’s financial interests have coincided with its policy positions.  In recent months, a renewed focus on reforming entitlements, and making Medicare more sustainable, has prompted new attention to various proposals to reform Medigap plans.  While these plans would benefit most seniors financially, they would harm AARP’s financial interests – so perhaps not surprisingly, AARP has decided to oppose them.

Under the proposals being discussed, the traditional Medicare program would be reformed to provide catastrophic coverage, while Medigap would provide limited supplemental coverage.  For the first time in the program’s history, seniors would know their Medicare costs would not exceed a set amount.  In exchange, Medigap supplemental coverage, which covers co-payments and deductibles, would also be reformed, so that seniors would face an out-of-pocket deductible not covered by insurance.

Reform to Medigap insurance plans has generated bipartisan appeal.  Versions of this reform have been proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[24] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits, [25] Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[26] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[27]  Policy-makers in both parties believe that, by limiting first-dollar coverage of medical expenses through Medigap, seniors would serve as smarter purchasers of health insurance, such that overall spending in Medicare might decline modestly.

Although some seniors might pay slightly more out-of-pocket under these changes, a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation said that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[28]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year – because creating a new deductible for all Medigap plans will cause premiums to fall.[29]

Under Medigap reform, seniors would spend much less money on premiums.  Just as with automobile insurance, or with Health Savings Account policies for individuals under age 65, adopting a higher deductible would yield significant premium savings for Medigap policies.  The Kaiser study found that under one proposed reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[30]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

AARP Wins When Seniors Lose

The overall premise of Medigap reform is simple: Less money going to insurance companies means greater financial savings for most seniors.

Unfortunately for AARP, things are not that simple.  As one independent financial adviser has said, AARP’s sales tactics are a “dirty little secret” that are “all about fattening the coffers of the organization.”  And the biggest “dirty little secret” of all is that AARP has a major financial incentive to keep premiums high for seniors.[31]

The House Ways and Means Committee members’ investigation last year found that AARP receives a percentage of each senior’s Medigap premium dollar.[32]  The organization’s “royalty fee” totals 4.95% of every premium dollar paid.  So, similar to a salesman pushing the most expensive product in order to receive a higher commission, regardless of the customer’s needs,  AARP has an incentive to sell more Medigap policies – and to sell the most expensive Medigap policies – even if seniors do not need the insurance.  The higher the cost of seniors’ Medigap policies, the more money AARP makes.

Based on AARP’s existing contractual arrangements and the Kaiser Family Foundation study projections, it is relatively simple to calculate the projected financial loss to AARP under Medigap reform.[33]   If premiums decline by more than $1,200 per year, as the Kaiser study predicted, AARP stands to lose an average of $62 in “royalty fees” for every senior enrolled in its Medigap insurance.  With nearly 3 million seniors enrolled in AARP’s Medigap plan, those numbers add up – over $181 million in one year, and $1.8 billion over the course of a decade.[34]  With the organization generating total revenue of $1.35 billion in 2011, Medigap reform would result in an immediate loss of over 13% of AARP’s annual revenue.[35]

AARP’s Covert Campaign to Kill Medigap Reform

Given its financial interest in keeping Medigap premiums high, it is perhaps unsurprising that AARP engaged in a covert lobbying campaign designed to kill Medigap reform, and keep its existing “royalty fee” regime in place.  Last year AARP wrote to members of the congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction, asking them not to include Medigap reforms – which, as noted above, would benefit four out of five Medigap policy-holders, but significantly harm AARP’s financial interests.

AARP published excerpts of their letter to the “supercommittee” on its website.[36]  But AARP has yet to put anything on its website indicating that the organization has been privately contacting Members of Congress, asking them not to reform Medigap – and preserve AARP’s lucrative Medigap commissions.

Two years ago, an AARP spokesman told CNN that the organization doesn’t lobby Congress on Medigap issues “at all.”[37]  While the organization is apparently trying to keep its actions secret, the fact remains that AARP is lobbying Congress against Medigap reform, opposing changes that will just so happen to save AARP members tens of billions, but that would also cost AARP billions.

AARP Works Against Its Members

Whereas last year AARP actively lobbied against Medigap reforms that would help its members but hurt AARP financially, three years ago the organization did NOT lobby for Medigap reforms that would help its members but could hurt AARP financially.  Specifically, even after enactment of the health care law, Medigap plans are still permitted to impose waiting periods on senior citizen applicants with pre-existing conditions.  AARP, despite its stated support for ending pre-existing condition restrictions,[38] imposes waiting periods on its own members applying for Medigap coverage[39] – and stood idly by as an attempt to end this practice within Medigap was stricken from the health care bill before it became law.

Section 1234 of House Democrats’ June 2009 health care discussion draft would have prohibited pre-existing condition discrimination for certain Medigap applicants – achieving one of AARP’s chief goals.[40]  However, last year the Washington Post claimed that the Medigap provision “was dropped from the legislation during congressional negotiations because it would have increased Medicare costs, according to a House Democratic congressional aide.”[41]

The Congressional Budget Office scored provisions eliminating pre-existing condition discrimination in Medigap as costing about $400 million per year.[42]  However, AARP had previously stated that the organization “would gladly forego every dime of revenue to fix the health care system.”[43]  As noted above, its $700 million in “royalty fees” last year far exceeds the $400 million annual cost of ending Medigap pre-existing condition discrimination.  It remains unclear why this provision was dropped from the bill, if AARP was so interested in foregoing profits in order to help its members.

In addition to allowing AARP to continue imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants, the law enacted in March 2010 also exempted AARP’s lucrative Medigap policies from several other new insurance regulations.[44]  At a December 2009 hearing,[45] AARP’s Board Chair claimed to have no idea that legislation that she and the AARP had previously endorsed included numerous exemptions for Medigap plans, including an exemption from the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination.[46]

After the numerous Medigap-related exemptions included in the health care law were publicly exposed, AARP eventually endorsed legislative changes to end some of the exemptions.[47]  However, despite this public turn-around, AARP has yet to explain to the public why it allowed these exemptions to be enacted in the first place – if the organization is not motivated by its own financial interests, as it claims.  Moreover, the organization has not apologized to its members for failing to act and end pre-existing condition discrimination in Medigap plans two years ago, and the impact such failure has had on AARP’s own members.

Members Revolt

Documents released by a House Energy and Commerce Committee oversight investigation reveal just how strongly AARP members opposed their organization’s behavior during the health care debate three years ago.  The files show overwhelming opposition from AARP members to the legislation, based on summaries of AARP call center activity:

July 23, 2009 – 77 members support; 1,031 oppose

July 28, 2009 – 36 members support; 4,174 oppose

July 29, 2009 – 23 members support; 2,656 oppose[48]

On a single day (July 28, 2009) during the height of the debate, 1,897 individuals cancelled their membership in AARP to protest its position on the health care bill.[49]

The documents also reveal that AARP members were well aware of the organization’s financial conflicts, and believed that these conflicts were influencing AARP policy.  One member from Oklahoma called in and complained that:

AARP has a conflict of interest between selling insurance and helping senior citizens.  Until it decides which one is more important, the $$$ or the people, it is deceiving old folks into thinking it works for their benefit.  Actually it works for the insurance companies [sic] benefit and interests, which is why it is so gung-ho on the health care reform bill….Not OK with me.[50]

Members also complained about “perceived partisanship on AARP’s part” – and the documents reveal this to be an accurate concern.  In November 2009, a senior AARP executive wrote to the White House saying “we will try to keep a little space between us” on health care – because AARP’s “polling shows we are more influential when we are seen as independent, so we want to reinforce that positioning….The larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”[51]  In other words, the organization was attempting to protect its image by publicly deceiving its members – acting detached in public, even as AARP was frantically lobbying behind the scenes to ram the legislation through for the good of the liberal cause.

AARP’s Misguided Political Focus

It is perhaps unsurprising that AARP would focus on “serv[ing] the cause” of liberalism, because many of its senior executives have strong liberal connections.  When the organization hired its current CEO, Barry Rand, one Capitol Hill publication noted that “New AARP Chief Gave Big to Obama.”[52]  Indeed, Mr. Rand has given tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to liberal Democrats over the years.[53]  Many other members of AARP’s executive team also have strong connections to liberal causes; the head of AARP’s government relations and advocacy program was a senior adviser in the Clinton Administration,[54] while other AARP key executives have worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy,[55] Rep. Geraldine Ferraro,[56] and the National Wildlife Federation, a liberal environmental group.[57]

The political philosophy of the organization’s leadership results in AARP mounting advocacy campaigns trumpeting liberal talking points that frequently have little basis in fact.  For instance, in September 2011 AARP released an advertisement with seniors claiming that “I paid into my Medicare,” and decrying any efforts to “cut our benefits.”[58]  However, the ad did not acknowledge what an Urban Institute study makes clear: Most seniors receive more in Social Security and Medicare benefits than they paid in taxes during their lifetime.[59]  An Associated Press story based on the Urban Institute study – “What You Pay for Medicare Won’t Cover Your Costs” – was initially placed on aarp.org, but was later removed from the website, perhaps because its conclusions represent inconvenient truths to AARP.[60]

Other ads run by the AARP during last year’s debt limit debate were also debunked as false and misleading.  In June 2011, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column awarded an AARP ad four “Pinocchios” for “perpetuat[ing] the worse stereotypes about how easy it would be to balance the budget.  At a time when the nation’s fiscal crisis – amid the looming retirement of the baby-boom generation – demands informed and reasoned debate, the AARP misinforms its members about the choices the nation faces.”[61]

Of course, AARP has a financial interest in misinforming its members – because the organization derives much of its revenue from preserving the status quo.  In launching a “multi-million dollar” ad campaign featuring misleading claims, AARP made clear it wanted no changes to the existing Medicare benefit structure.[62]  As outlined above, changes to the Medicare benefit – such as Medigap reform – would cost AARP billions, while saving many seniors hundreds of dollars per year.  By blocking reforms that would dent its profits, AARP hurts seniors two ways – first, by preventing seniors from saving hundreds of dollars in Medigap premiums, and second, by leaving the Medicare program less solvent for future generations.

Democrats Encourage AARP’s Abuses

Even as AARP racks up billions of dollars in insurance profits by overcharging seniors for Medigap plans, Democrats encourage these abuses by giving AARP special favors, and ignoring its questionable sales tactics.  As noted above, the health care law exempted AARP’s lucrative Medigap insurance plans from the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination, thus allowing AARP to continue to impose waiting periods on individuals applying for coverage.  However, that’s not the only exemption that Medigap coverage received in the law; Medigap insurance was also exempted from:

  • The law’s $500,000 cap on executive compensation for insurance industry executives. [63]  Thanks to this exemption, AARP can continue to pay its senior executives more than $1 million in annual compensation.[64]
  • The tax on insurance companies that will total more than $14 billion per year.[65]   Medigap insurance received this exemption even though AARP generates more money from insurance industry “royalty fees” than it received from membership dues, grant revenues, and private contributions combined.[66]
  • The requirement imposed on other health insurance plans to spend at least 85 percent of their premium dollars on medical claims.[67]  Medigap policies are currently held to a far less restrictive 65 percent standard, and the difference can be used to fund higher profits to AARP paid out of the pockets of its senior citizen members.[68]

In addition to these numerous exemptions for Medigap insurance provided in law, the Administration provided a further exemption for Medigap coverage during the rulemaking process.  The Department of Health and Human Services’ rule on insurance rate review exempted Medigap plans from further scrutiny of their premium increases.[69]  In arriving at this determination, HHS concluded that insurance plans like Medigap coverage “do not appear to be a principal focus of the Affordable Care Act” – meaning that because Medigap plans were exempted from the law’s other regulatory requirements, they should be exempted from rate review as well.[70]

Obama Administration Hypocrisy

The frequent exemptions given to Medigap insurance – a product line where AARP holds the largest market share – directly contradict the claims made by Democrats about the 2,700 page health care law.  For instance, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ official biography claims that she “is implementing reforms that end many of the insurance industry’s worst abuses.”[71]  However, with respect to Medigap insurance, that claim is entirely false.  Because Medigap plans were exempted from the law’s new requirements, organizations like AARP can continue to discriminate against applicants with pre-existing conditions, and overcharge seniors in order to generate greater profits.

Even as the Obama Administration fails to acknowledge that the health care law exempts Medigap insurance from all of its new requirements, it has attacked conservatives’ Medicare reform proposals for granting too much power to insurers.  In her speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Secretary Sebelius criticized Republicans for “let[ting] insurance companies continue to cherry-pick who gets coverage and who gets left out, priced out, or locked out of the market.”[72]  And in his speech to the same convention, President Obama said that “no American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies.”[73]  Given that the legislation President Obama signed into law exempted Medigap coverage for seniors from virtually all of its new regulatory requirements, it is more than a little hypocritical for his Administration to criticize others for leaving seniors to the mercy of insurers.

The Administration has yet to answer a basic question at the heart of the numerous exemptions granted to Medigap insurers in their 2,700 page health care law: If the law’s protections are so good, then why are seniors left out of its supposed benefits when it comes to their supplemental insurance?  Unfortunately, the answer could be that AARP has been unwilling to forfeit its profits, and so the Obama Administration has looked the other way as the organization continues to take advantage of seniors.

Kathleen Sebelius: Watchdog or Lapdog?

Even as it has been willing to politically strong-arm insurance companies with whom it disagrees, the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has failed to confront AARP about its questionable business practices.  In March 2010, as the Administration was gearing up to ram through its health care law, Secretary Sebelius asked other insurers to “give up some short-term profits” for the nation’s good.[74]  At the time, estimates by Fortune magazine indicated that health insurer profits averaged about 2.2 percent.[75]  Yet Secretary Sebelius made no such request of AARP to give up some of its revenues – even though its Medigap profit margin was 4.95 percent, more than double that of the insurance industry as a whole.

Shortly after the health law passed, Secretary Sebelius undertook a publicity campaign to “encourage” insurance companies to ban rescissions and extend coverage to young adults under age 26 earlier than was required under the law.  While the Secretary made very public efforts to have insurance companies “abandon…efforts to rescind health insurance coverage from patients who need it most,” she made no attempt to encourage AARP and other Medigap insurers to stop discriminating against applicants with pre-existing conditions.[76]  At an implementation briefing to Congress shortly after the law passed, Senate Republican staff asked HHS officials why the Department was asking other insurers voluntarily to change their business practices, but was not asking AARP to stop discriminating against Medigap applicants.  While Jeanne Lambrew, head of the Department’s Office of Health Reform, promised to look into the matter, the Department never took action.

Rather than ask AARP to reform its business practices, Secretary Sebelius instead has blindly offered the organization praise.  In an October 2010 speech to the AARP convention, she hailed the organization as “the gold standard in cutting through spin and complexity to give people the accurate information they need to make the best choices.”[77]  Even though AARP has a strong financial conflict-of-interest in its Medigap insurance – because the organization earns more profit when seniors pay more in premiums – Secretary Sebelius still claimed that AARP constituted “the gold standard” in giving “accurate information.”

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has previously expressed strong concerns about the percentage-based compensation model under which AARP receives much of its revenue.  In fact, Section 18 of NAIC’s Producer Model Licensing Act recommends that states require explicit disclosure by insurers, and clear written acknowledgement by consumers, of any percentage-based compensation arrangement, due to the potential for abuse.  As a former insurance commissioner, Secretary Sebelius should be well aware of the financial conflicts inherent when an organization like AARP receives a percentage of every Medigap dollar paid by seniors.  Yet the Secretary apparently ignored these concerns, and went on to praise AARP as a source of impartial advice, even though even former AARP executives have criticized the organization as hopelessly compromised by financial conflicts-of-interest.

In her time heading HHS, Secretary Sebelius has undertaken clearly political actions, including those that violated the law.  Just last week, the Office of the Special Counsel publicly released a report concluding that the Secretary engaged in political activity that violated the Hatch Act prohibitions on federal officials campaigning for partisan political causes.[78]  It is therefore quite reasonable to ask whether Secretary Sebelius has also engaged in a pattern of politically-motivated selective enforcement – attacking other insurers when convenient, but failing to examine AARP’s questionable business practices, because AARP supports the President’s liberal causes.

As noted above, AARP executives e-mailed the White House in November 2009 stating that “the larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”  It would thus appear that both AARP and the Administration recognize their political interests are aligned.  Certainly the Administration’s actions – exemptions for Medigap coverage included both in statute and in rulemaking; attacks on insurers with smaller profit margins than AARP; failure to criticize AARP’s percentage-based compensation model – are consistent with a governing philosophy that permits AARP to engage in questionable and abusive behavior towards seniors, so long as AARP funnels the profits from said behavior back into supporting the Administration’s liberal causes.

In April 2010, Secretary Sebelius wrote to insurers to stop rescinding insurance policies earlier than required under the law, encouraging them “not to wait until the fall to do the right thing.”[79]  America’s seniors have been waiting for years for Secretary Sebelius, and the entire Obama Administration, to do the right thing – to apply the law fairly, without regard to political persuasion.  Unfortunately, the facts suggest that the Administration has knowingly looked the other way, and failed to take on AARP over its business practices – because political advantage outweighs the need for impartial enforcement, or extending the supposed benefits of the health care law to senior citizens.

Conclusion

Though it purports to be a seniors advocacy organization, AARP functions in many respects as an insurance conglomerate with a liberal lobbying arm on the side.  Independent experts and even former AARP executives have admitted that the organization’s billions of dollars raised from its business enterprises – most notably the sale of health insurance plans – have compromised the organization’s mission and independence.  As one consultant put it: “Either you’re a voice for the elderly or you’re an insurance company – choose one.”[80]

As this report has demonstrated, AARP has acted against its members’ interest, but in its own financial interests, on several occasions during the major health care debates of the past several years.  First AARP endorsed a health care law that gave its most lucrative product offering – Medigap insurance – a major opportunity to solicit new members, exempted those Medigap plans from the law’s regulatory regime, and allowed AARP to continue imposing waiting periods on the sickest seniors looking to buy Medigap coverage.  More recently, AARP has engaged in a covert lobbying campaign designed to kill Medigap reforms that would benefit nearly four in five policy-holders and improve Medicare’s solvency – but could cost AARP billions.

This year, AARP has embarked upon a “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign, purportedly designed to solicit members’ opinions on ways to reduce the deficit.  However, the organization has yet to solicit members’ viewpoints about its own actions.  For instance:

  1. How many members know that senior AARP executives have received over $1 million in compensation from the organization – and that 543 individuals received over $100,000 in compensation last year?
  2. How many members know that AARP has generated over $2 billion in revenue from selling health insurance plans in the past five years?
  3. How many members know that AARP imposes waiting periods on Medigap applicants with pre-existing conditions – and stood idly by as provisions to eliminate Medigap pre-existing condition discrimination were stricken from the health care law?
  4. How many members know that nearly four in five Medigap plan holders would financially benefit from reforms, to the tune of several hundred dollars per year?
  5. How many members know that Medigap reforms that would help seniors could cost AARP billions of dollars in lost revenue?

At the very least, AARP should be up-front and honest with its members about the massive financial stake it has in this debate.  Better yet, the organization should start thinking less about its bottom line and more about its members, and endorse reforms that will help the vast majority of Medigap policy-holders.

 


[1]Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, report by Reps. Wally Herger and Dave Reichert, March 29, 2011,  http://herger.house.gov/images/stories/pdf/20110329aarpreport.pdf, p. 6.

[2]AARP Inc., 2010 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2010_990_aarp.pdf, p. 1.

[3] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[5] Page 9 of the AARP 2011 financial statements notes that “the service provider United Healthcare Corporation accounted for 65% of total royalties earned in 2011 and 2010.”  65% of the total $704 million in royalties equates to $457.6 million received from United Healthcare.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Letter from AARP Chief Operating Officer Thomas Nelson to Rep. Dave Reichert, November 2, 2009, pp. 3-4.

[9]Ibid., pp. 3-9.

[12] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements.

[13] Fortune 500, Health Care: Insurance and Managed Care, May 23, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2011/industries/223/index.html.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston, “AARP’s Stealth Fees Often Sting Seniors With Costlier Insurance,” Bloomberg December 4, 2008,  http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&refer=&sid=a4OkPQIPF6Kg.

[16] Letter from Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley to AARP CEO William Novelli, November 3, 2008, http://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/upload/110320081.pdf.

[17] Robert Pear, “AARP Orders Investigation Concerning Its Marketing,” New York Times November 18, 2008,   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/us/19insure.html?_r=1.

[18] Emily Berry, “United Stops Selling AARP Limited-Benefit Insurance,” Amednews.com May 28, 2009,  http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2009/05/25/bisd0528.htm.

[19] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.

[20] Letter from House Ways and Means Committee Members Wally Herger, Charles Boustany, and Dave Reichert to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman, December 21, 2011,  http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/letter_to_irs-shulman_12-15-11.pdf.

[21] Congressional Budget Office, score of H.R. 6079, Repeal of Obamacare Act, July 24, 2012, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43471-hr6079.pdf.

[22] Robert Book and Michael Ramlet, What Changes will Health Care Reform Bring to Medicare Advantage Plan Benefits and Enrollment?, Medical Industry Leadership Institute- Carlson School of Management, October 2011, http://americanactionforum.org/sites/default/files/Embargoed_Book+Ramlet_MILI-Working-Paper_2011-10-13_Final.pdf.

[23] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, Table 4, p. 16.

[24] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010,

http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

[25] Restoring America’s Future, report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Tax Force, November 2010, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, pp. 52-53.

[27] White House Fiscal Year 2013 budget submission to Congress, February 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/budget.pdf, p. 35.

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, p. 8.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[31] “AARP’s Stealth Fees Often Sting Seniors With Costlier Insurance.”

[32] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.

[33] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[34] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, Table 2, p. 9.

[35] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements, p. 3.

[36] AARP Press Release, “AARP to Super Committee: Don’t Cut Medicare, Social Security Benefits,” October 19, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-10-2011/aarp-to-super-committee-dont-cut-medicare-social-security-benefits.html.

[37] Carol Costello, “150,000 Seniors In Revolt,” CNN American Morning January 6, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/politics/2010/01/06/costello.aarp.health.care.cnn.

[38] AARP Press Release, “AARP Thanks Senate for Passing Health Care Reform,” December 24, 2009,  http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-03-2010/aarp_thanks_senateforpassinghealthcarereform.html.

[39] New York State Department of Financial Services, list of insurers offering Medicare supplemental coverage, http://www.dfs.ny.gov/insurance/caremain.htm#insurer.

[40] House Tri-Committee Health Reform Discussion Draft, June 19, 2009, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090619/healthcarereform_discussiondraft.pdf, p. 358.

[41] Susan Jaffe, “Medigap Supplemental Coverage Can Be Too Pricey for Younger Medicare Beneficiaries,” Kaiser Health News March 7, 2011,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/07/AR2011030703978.html.

[42] Congressional Budget Office, preliminary estimate of House Tri-Committee Health Reform Discussion Draft, July 7, 2009, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090708/cbomedicare.pdf, p. 4.

[43] Letter from AARP Chief Operating Officer Thomas Nelson to Rep. Dave Reichert, November 2, 2009, p. 4.

[44] Karl Rove, “ObamaCare Rewards Friends, Punishes Enemies,” Wall Street Journal January 6, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704405704576063892468779556.html.

[45] House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing, “Prescription Drug Price Inflation: Are Prices Rising Too Fast?” December 8, 2009, http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=7588.

[46] AARP Press Release, “AARP Endorses Affordable Health Care for America Act,” November 5, 2009, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-11-2009/affordable_health_care_act_endorsement.html.

[47] Letter to the Editor, Wall Street Journal, by AARP President Lee Hammond, January 11, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-01-2011/aarp_letter_to_theeditor.html.

[48] House Energy and Commerce Committee, investigation into closed-door Obamacare negotiations, supplemental materials for June 8, 2012 memorandum, http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/Media/file/PDFs/060812relevantdocsmemoIII.pdf, pp. 63-68.

[49] Ibid., p. 73.

[50] Ibid., p. 79.

[51] Ibid., p. 88.

[52] Jeffrey Young, “New AARP Chief Gave Big to Obama,” The Hill March 12, 2009, http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/3963-new-aarp-chief-gave-big-to-obama.

[53] Ibid.

[55] “AARP Leadership Profile: Debra Whitman,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/debra_whitman/.

[58] Michael Muskal, “AARP Ads: Hands Off Social Security and Medicare,” Los Angeles Times September 21, 2011, http://www.standard.net/stories/2011/09/21/aarp-ads-hands-social-security-and-medicare.

[59] Gene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane, “Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime,” Tax Policy Center, June 2011, http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/social-security-medicare-benefits-over-lifetime.pdf.

[60] While the Associated Press story from December 30, 2010 has been removed from the AARP website, it can still be found at http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-204_162-7197847.html.

[61] Glenn Kessler, “AARP’s Misleading Ad about Balancing the Budget,” Washington Post June 20, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/aarps-misleading-ad-about-balancing-the-budget/2011/06/17/AGQKRsYH_blog.html.

[62] AARP Press Release, “AARP Launches New TV Ad Calling on Congress to Protect Medicare and Social Security from Harmful Cuts,” June 16, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-06-2011/aarp-launches-new-tv-ad-calling-on-congress-to-protect-medicare-and-social-security-from-harmful-cuts.html.

[63] Section 9014 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) as amended, http://housedocs.house.gov/energycommerce/ppacacon.pdf, pp. 816-18.

[64] AARP Inc., 2010 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, pp. 8-9.

[65] PPACA, Section 9010(h)(3)(C) as amended, p. 815.

[66] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements,  p. 3.

[67] PPACA, Section 1001, p. 22.

[68] Section 1882(r)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395ss(r)(1).

[69] Department of Health and Human Services, Rate Increase Disclosure and Review, Final Rule, Federal Register May 23, 2011, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-05-23/pdf/2011-12631.pdf, pp. 29966-67, 29985.

[70] Department of Health and Human Services, Rate Increase Disclosure and Review, Proposed Rule, Federal Register 23 December 2010, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-23/pdf/2010-32143.pdf, pp. 81007, 81009, 81026.

[71] Official HHS Biography of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/biography/index.html.

[72] Remarks by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the Democratic National Convention, September 4, 2012, http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=CB187143-9624-3760-BC9CC2DBE9C60BD7.

[73] Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention, September 6, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/07/remarks-president-democratic-national-convention.

[74] Jane Norman, “Sebelius Urges Health Care Insurers to Trim Their Profits,” CQ HealthBeat March 10, 2010, http://www.commonwealthfund.org/Newsletters/Washington-Health-Policy-in-Review/2010/Mar/March-15-2010/Sebelius-Urges-Health-Insurers-to-Trim-Their-Profits.aspx.

[75] “Top Industries: Most Profitable,” 2009 Fortune 500, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2009/performers/industries/profits/.

[76] HHS Press Release, “HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Urges Wellpoint to Immediately Stop Dropping Coverage for Women with Breast Cancer,” April 23, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2010pres/04/20100423a.html.

[77] Remarks of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at AARP Orlando@50+ Conference, October 1, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/speeches/sp20101001.html.

[78] Office of Special Counsel, File No. HA-12-1989 (Kathleen G. Sebelius), September 12, 2012, http://www.osc.gov/documents/hatchact/Hatch%20Act%20Report%20on%20HHS%20Secretary%20Kathleen%20Sebelius.pdf.

[79] HHS News Release, “Momentum Building on Sebelius’ Challenge to Insurers to Ban Rescission Before Law Takes Effect in September,” April 28, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2010pres/04/20100428a.html.

[80] Cited in Dan Eggen, “AARP: Reform Advocate and Insurance Salesman,” Washington Post October 27, 2009,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR2009102603392_pf.html.

Obamacare Has NOT Contained Skyrocketing Premiums

Health insurance premiums and Obamacare were again in the news over the holiday week.  The Administration made its first decision to publicize one 12 percent premium increase as “unjustified” under Obamacare’s new rate review procedures.  However, the Washington Post noted that HHS had previously approved an 11 percent increase and an 18 percent increase for other plans.  Separately, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ endorsement of actions to protect health insurance brokers drew criticism from the liberal organization Health Care for America Now, which stated the action was “tone-deaf to the skyrocketing health premium costs of average Americans.”

Both these events have one thing in common: They prove how Obamacare is not living up to its own promises.  Remember that candidate Obama repeatedly promised his health care plan would lower premiums by $2,500 per family, and do so within his first termSo the 18 percent premium increases the Obama Administration itself approved – and the “skyrocketing health premium costs” criticized by a pro-Obamacare group – all should be a thing of the past.  That they are not only reinforces the conventional wisdom that Obamacare is not helping struggling American families.

Obamacare’s Latest Waiver Program

Late Friday afternoon, CMS released several draft payment rules for calendar year 2012.  Included among the 2012 payment regulations was the outpatient hospital proposed rule.  That regulation includes what The Hill described as a waiver program for certain physician-owned hospitals.  While Obamacare prevents most physician-owned hospitals from expanding (and prohibits the construction of new facilities), the regulation provides a process for facilities to seek exemptions to that expansion ban.

CMS’ establishment of this latest waiver program makes it a good time to highlight all the other entities who have already asked for or received waivers from portions of Obamacare:

Unions:  As we’ve previously reported, nearly half of the 3.2 million individuals in plans receiving waivers from the onerous new mandates on annual and lifetime limits are members of union plans.  There has been no official explanation from the Administration why so many recipients of this exemption belong to union plans.  However, Vice President Biden shed some light on this issue over the weekend, when he told a Teamsters rally that “Any of you guys vote Republican…don’t come to me if you do.  You’re on your own, Jack!

AARP:  Recent press coverage has highlighted the fact that AARP’s lucrative insurance business was exempted from many of the law’s mandates – even though AARP claims it never wanted to receive the exemption in the first place.

Nursing Homes:  The New York Times recently reported that the nursing home industry – which supported Obamacare when it passed – is “working with the Administration to figure out if there is some accommodation that can be made” when it comes to exempting nursing homes from the costly employer mandate.

States:  A total of 12 states have already applied for waivers from the medical loss ratio provision – three have been granted, with another nine state applications pending – on the grounds that the regulations will cause insurance carriers to leave the marketplace.

Insurance Brokers:  On Thursday the National Association of Insurance Commissioners task force recommended that insurance agent and broker commissions be removed from the calculation of medical loss ratio.  Due to Obamacare’s new medical loss ratio requirements, broker commissions have been cut so drastically that some agents have lost their jobs – undermining Speaker Pelosi’s claim that the law would create 4 million new jobs.

All these developments raise one obvious question:  If Obamacare is so good, why are so many individuals requesting waivers from it – and why is the Administration granting them?

Yet Another Way Obamacare Will Raise Costs

The New York Times had a story on Sunday outlining how “the health care law could worsen some of the very problems it was meant to solve – by reducing competition, driving up costs, and creating incentives for doctors and hospitals to stint on care, in order to retain their cost-saving bonuses.”  The front-page article outlines how the new law has sparked “a growing frenzy of mergers involving hospitals, clinics, and doctor groups eager to share costs and savings, and cash in on the incentives.”  Consumer advocates and others fear that the newly merged entities will use their market clout to demand higher prices; the article also interviews the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission about the potential antitrust implications of the new law.

The article concludes that the increase in mergers, and potential increase in prices for consumers, is largely a direct result of government involvement in health care brought on by the new law, yet several of the quotes in the piece imply that the “solution” to the problem is…yet more government involvement, through antitrust enforcement and regulations.  Some may find it baffling that government can solve problems its own perverse incentives and myriad regulations have created.  For instance, Kansas insurance commissioner Sandy Praeger recently noted that that as a result of new regulations on insurance companies, “There will be some companies that I think will decide, they have a very small book of business in a state and they’ll decide maybe it’s not worthwhile to stay in the state.”  Such a development will give LESS choice to consumers, resulting in higher premiums for insurance.

Creating a few large group medical practices and hospitals organized under the aegis of accountable care organizations to negotiate with a few select insurers who will remain once the law’s new regulations have taken effect is not a recipe for competition and lower costs, as the Administration asserts.  It’s a recipe for higher costs and less market choice for individuals and businesses alike – and it’s yet another reason why the health care law falls short of its promises.