Tag Archives: Patty Murray

Alexander-Murray Deal Funds Insurers’ Abortion Coverage

Amidst the rumored press reports about what the supposed “insurer stabilization bill” negotiated between Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) may contain, one Twitter commenter made an astute observation: Unless the agreement contained explicit language forbidding it—language Sen. Murray likely would not endorse—the agreement will appropriate approximately $25-30 billion to subsidize insurance plans that cover abortion.

That fact alone should give conservatives pause. Coming on a week when Senate Republican leaders seek to pass a budget precluding another attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, the Alexander-Murray deal would not only not advance the pro-life cause—it would, by extending subsidies to insurers who cover abortions, actively undermine it.

Follow the Money

Some background regarding federal restrictions on abortion funding: The Hyde Amendment, named for former Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL) prohibits federal funding of abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. However, this funding restriction, first enacted in 1976 and renewed every year thereafter, only applies to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations bill to which it is attached annually. If funding flows outside the HHS appropriations measure, those funds would not be subject to the Hyde restrictions, and could therefore subsidize abortion coverage.

Obamacare contained just such funds—for instance, the premium tax credits used to subsidize plans on insurance Exchanges. While Obamacare includes a “segregation mechanism” designed to separate the portion of premium payments used to cover abortion, pro-life groups have recognized this mechanism as an accounting gimmick—one which the Obama Administration didn’t even bother to enforce.

Hyde Language Added?

Obamacare included other funding that recipients could use for abortion coverage. Section 10503 of the law appropriated $9.5 billion for community health centers from 2010 through 2015. Because the legislation made such funding mandatory—that is, appropriated federal tax dollars outside the annual HHS spending bill to which the Hyde Amendment applies—recipients of that $9.5 billion could have used the federal dollars to fund abortions.

When extending the community health center funding as part of a larger Medicare bill in spring 2015, Republican leaders recognized the lack of pro-life protections, and insisted on adding them to extend the mandatory health center funding. As a result, Section 221(c) of the bill (page 68 here) said that the same requirements that applied to other Public Health Service Act funding provisions—that is, the Hyde Amendment funding restrictions—would also apply to the community health center funding.

However, if Sen. Alexander does not explicitly add the Hyde Amendment protections to the “stabilization bill,” the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers will be used to fund plans that cover abortion. And there is little reason to believe Sen. Murray would endorse such a restriction. If the Hyde Amendment restrictions apply to the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, then in order to receive said payments, it is likely insurers would have to stop offering abortion coverage on Exchanges—an outcome Sen. Murray, and Democrats, would not wish to countenance.

Massive Funding Amounts

The “stabilization bill” would likely seek to provide massive funding amounts to insurers—roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates. These significant sums would surely represent the second-largest expansion of federal abortion funding, behind only Obamacare itself.

Some conservatives may therefore have concerns that this “stabilization bill” would violate pro-life principles, and insist on the inclusion of pro-life language as a necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) requirement for their support of the legislation. Given that House and Senate Republican leaders demanded—and received—the addition of Hyde protections regarding community health center funding two years ago, under a Democratic President, conservatives should demand—and receive—no less with a Republican in the White House.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Alexander-Murray Legislation

On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced he had reached an agreement in principle with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) regarding an Obamacare “stabilization” package. Unfortunately, legislative text has not yet been released (UPDATE: bill text was released late Tuesday evening), but based on press reports, Twitter threads, and a summary circulating on Capitol Hill, here’s what is in the final package:

Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments:             The bill appropriates roughly $25-30 billion in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, which offset their costs for providing discounts on deductibles and co-payments to certain low-income individuals enrolled on insurance Exchanges. Late last Thursday, President Trump announced he would halt the payments to insurers, concluding the Administration did not have authority to do so under the Constitution. As a result, the bill includes an explicit appropriation, totaling roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates.

For 2018 only, the bill includes language allowing states to decline the cost-sharing reduction payments—if they previously approved premium increases that assumed said payments would not be made. If states do not decline the payments, they must certify that said payments will “provide a direct financial benefit to consumers”—that is, they will result in lower premium rates, and/or rebates to consumers. The bill also includes clarifying language regarding the interactions between any such rebates and premium tax credit levels under Obamacare.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, because insurers understood for well over a year that a new Administration could terminate these payments in 2017, the agreement would effectively subsidize their flawed assumptions. Some conservatives may be concerned that action to continue the flow of payments would solidify the principle that Obamacare, and therefore insurers, are “too big to fail,” which could only encourage further risky behavior by insurers in the future. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that, absent Hyde Amendment protections, these payments would subsidize federal insurance plans covering abortion.

State Waiver Processes:     The bill would streamline the process for approving state innovation waivers, authorized by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Those waivers allow states to receive their state’s Exchange funding as a block grant, and exempt themselves from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations.

Specifically, the agreement would:

  1. Extend the waivers’ duration, from five years to six, with unlimited renewals possible;
  2. Prohibit HHS from terminating waivers during their duration (including any renewal periods), unless “the state materially failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the waiver;”
  3. Require HHS to release guidance to states within 30 days of enactment regarding waivers, including model language for waivers;
  4. Shorten the time the Department of Health and Human Services to consider waivers from 180 days to 90;
  5. Allow a 45 day review for 1) waivers currently pending; 2) waivers for areas “the Secretary determines are at risk for excessive premium increases or having no health plans offered in the applicable health insurance market for the current or following plan year; and 3) waivers that are “the same or substantially similar” to waivers previously approved for another state. These waivers would initially apply for no more than three years, with an extension possible for a full six-year term;
  6. Allow governors to apply for waivers based on their certification of authority, rather than requiring states to pass a law authorizing state actions under the waiver—a move that some conservatives may be concerned could allow state chief executives to act unilaterally, including by exiting a successful waiver on a governor’s order.

State Waiver Substance:    On the substance of innovation waivers, the bill would nullify regulatory guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015. Among other actions, that guidance prevented states from using savings from an Obamacare/Exchange waiver to offset higher costs to Medicaid, and vice versa. While supporting the concept of greater flexibility for states, some conservatives may note that, as this guidance was not enacted pursuant to notice-and-comment, the Trump Administration can revoke it at any time—indeed, should have revoked it months ago.

Additionally, the bill amends—but does not repeal—the “guardrails” for state innovation waivers. Under current law, Section 1332 waivers must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as” Obamacare coverage;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as Obamacare coverage;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of [a state’s] residents” as under Obamacare; and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”

Some conservatives have previously criticized these provisions as insufficiently flexible to allow for conservative health reforms like Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven options.

The bill allows states to provide coverage “of comparable affordability, including for low-income individuals, individuals with serious health needs, and other vulnerable populations” rather than the current language in the second bullet above. It also clarifies that deficit and budget neutrality will operate over the lifetime of the waiver, and that state innovation waivers under Obamacare “shall not be construed to affect any waiver processes or standards” under the Medicare or Medicaid statutes for purposes of determining the Obamacare waiver’s deficit neutrality.

The bill also makes adjustments to the “pass-through” language allowing states to receive their Exchange funding via a block grant. For instance, the bill adds language allowing states to receive any funding for the Basic Health Program—a program states can establish for households with incomes of between 138-200 percent of the federal poverty level—via the block grant.

Some conservatives may view the “comparable affordability” change as a distinction without a difference, as it still explicitly links affordability to Obamacare’s rich benefit package. Some conservatives may therefore view the purported “concessions” on the December 2015 guidance, and on “comparable affordability” as inconsequential in nature, and insignificant given the significant concessions to liberals included elsewhere in the proposed legislative package.

Catastrophic Plans:              The bill would allow all individuals to purchase “catastrophic” health plans, and keep those plans in a single risk pool with other Obamacare plans. However, this provision would not apply until 2019—i.e., not for the upcoming plan year.

Catastrophic plans—currently only available to individuals under 30, individuals without an “affordable” health plan in their area, or individuals subject to a hardship exemption from the individual mandate—provide no coverage below Obamacare’s limit on out-of-pocket spending, but for “coverage of at least three primary care visits.” Catastrophic plans are also currently subject to Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements.

Outreach Funding:               The bill requires HHS to obligate $105.8 million in Exchange user fees to states for “enrollment and outreach activities” for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Currently, the federal Exchange (healthcare.gov) assesses a user fee of 3.5 percent of premiums on insurers, who ultimately pass these fees on to consumers. In a rule released last December, the outgoing Obama Administration admitted that the Exchange is “gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs”—in part because maintaining the Exchange costs less per year than creating one did in 2013-14. However, the Obama Administration rejected any attempt to lower those fees, instead deciding to spend them on outreach efforts. The agreement would re-direct portions of the fees to states for enrollment outreach.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would create a new entitlement for states to outreach dollars. Moreover, some conservatives may object to this re-direction of funds that ultimately come from consumers towards more government spending. Some conservatives may support taking steps to reduce the user fees—thus lowering premiums, the purported intention of this “stabilization” measure—rather than re-directing them toward more government spending, as the agreement proposes.

The bill also requires a series of bi-weekly reports from HHS on metrics like call center volume, website visits, etc., during the 2018 and 2019 open enrollment periods, followed by after-action reports regarding outreach and advertising. Some conservatives may view these myriad requirements first as micro-management of the executive, and second as buying into the liberal narrative that the Trump Administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, by requiring minute oversight of the executive’s implementation of the law.

Cross-State Purchasing:     Requires HHS to issue regulations (in consultations with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners) within one year regarding health care choice compacts under Obamacare. Such compacts would allow individuals to purchase coverage across state lines. However, because states can already establish health care compacts amongst themselves, and because Obamacare’s regulatory mandates would still apply to any such coverage purchased through said compacts, some conservatives may view such language as insufficient and not adding to consumers’ affordable coverage options.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What’s Congress Doing with SCHIP?

Amidst the wrangling over Obamacare, reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expired on September 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. The two committees of jurisdiction—energy and commerce in the House, and finance in the Senate—each marked up their reauthorization bills last week. But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said Monday the bill would not come to the House floor this week.

What’s the holdup? Why the delays in bringing to the floor for votes a bill whose authorization has already expired?

Even though Republicans proposed a generous—some conservatives might argue too generous—reauthorization of SCHIP, House Democrats object because they don’t want millionaires and billionaires to pay for the new spending on children’s health insurance, and Senate Democrats object because they want to attach tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to insurance companies.

I swear to you: I’m not making this up.

A Mixed House Package

The SCHIP reauthorization text varies little between the House and the Senate versions. On that front, conservatives may have qualms with supporting little more than a straight extension of the status quo. The bill extends—albeit for only one year, as part of a more gradual phase-out—enhanced funding to state SCHIP programs. The full 23 percent match increase would end in 2019, as under current law, while states would receive an additional 11.5 percent increase in 2020. Some states have received a 100 percent federal match for their child enrollees due to this Obamacare provision, which is a clear disincentive for states to fight fraud and improper spending.

Moreover, the bill extends Obamacare’s maintenance of effort requirement—limiting states from making changes to their programs—by an additional three years in most cases, from 2019 to 2022. The bill also does not include reforms the House proposed two years ago, which would require states to focus on covering poor children first—the program’s prime emphasis before the 2009 reauthorization signed by President Obama envisioned states expanding their programs to more affluent families.

On the positive side, however, the House did include good reforms to help pay for the new SCHIP spending. It includes several provisions designed to promote program integrity in Medicaid, including one that would effectively ensure that lottery winners, or others who receive large lump-sum payments, do not maintain coverage for this low-income program. The House bill would also increase Medicare means-testing for affluent families, reducing taxpayer subsidies for Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) coverage for individuals making over $160,000, and eliminating the subsidies entirely for individuals making more than $500,000.

Those pay-fors drew Democrats’ ire, and prompted the postponement of consideration on the House floor this week. To put it more bluntly: Democrats are holding children’s health hostage because they object to charging millionaires and billionaires more for Medicare. Should anyone remind them that Obamacare itself also increased Medicare means-testing for wealthy beneficiaries to pay for Obamacare?

In the Senate, a Stalemate

Meanwhile, over in the Senate—which has yet to decide how to pay for the new SCHIP spending—Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) demanded last week that the Republican majority “immediately bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote and include much-needed bipartisan provisions to stabilize the markets, lower premiums for 2018,” and extend other programs.

Schumer made those demands despite two inconvenient truths: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) haven’t yet reached agreement on a bipartisan “stabilization” bill—and most states finalized their 2018 insurance premiums on September 27, weeks ago. In other words, Schumer wants to enact an agreement that doesn’t exist to achieve premium reductions that can’t happen.

A cynic might surmise that, with his talk of “stabilization” measures, Schumer wants to use SCHIP to sneak through tens of billions of dollars in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers—a provision that might prove unpopular, and controversial, as a stand-alone measure, but could pass through relatively unnoticed as part of a larger, “Christmas tree”-sized bill.

For conservatives, the current mixed policy outcomes on SCHIP could deteriorate significantly. Weakening the House’s “pay-fors”—which seems bound to happen, given Walden’s further attempts to negotiate with Democrats—could eliminate some, if not most, of the reasons conservatives could see to vote for the measure.

While the policy outcomes seem uncertain, and could range from fair to poor, the political ramifications seem clear. In 2007 and 2008, when President George W. Bush vetoed SCHIP bills due to provisions that would have diverted the program from the low-income children for which it was designed, Democrats organized protests, and ran ads against him. This year, when Democrats are holding up an arguably too-generous SCHIP bill literally because they want to defend the wealthy and insurance companies, Republicans have responded by…negotiating with them.

If one wants reasons behind conservative discontent with Washington, look no further than this bill.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.