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Summary of Testimony: Risk Corridors and the Judgment Fund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Judiciary Committee Testimony: Risk Corridors and the Judgment Fund

A PDF version of this testimony is available here.

Testimony before the House Judiciary

Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice

 

Hearing on “Oversight of the Judgment Fund”

 

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

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

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

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

Background on Risk Corridors

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

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

History of Risk Corridor Appropriations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losses Lead to Lawsuits

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

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

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

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

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

Congress “Otherwise Provided For” Risk Corridor Claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judgment Fund Settlements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Ibid.

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

[22] Ibid., p. 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[38] Ibid., p. 2.

Responding to Nicholas Bagley on Risk Corridors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Another Illegal Obamacare Bailout on the Way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at National Review.