Tag Archives: Politico

Why House Republicans Are Re-Writing Their Obamacare “Replacement”

On Friday, Politico reported that Republicans were considering ways to amend their Obamacare “replacement” legislation, by placing income limits on the bill’s new refundable tax credit for health insurance. The Politico story implied the income cap sought to prevent wealthy individuals like Warren Buffett from obtaining federal subsidies for health insurance, but in reality House staff are re-writing their legislation to correct a major flaw in its structure.

Based on my conversations with multiple sources close to the effort, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had indicated to congressional staff that the prior House framework could see at least 10 million, and potentially up to 20 million, individuals losing employer-sponsored health insurance. Further, CBO stated that that House framework, even after including a refundable tax credit for health insurance, would not cover many more people than repealing Obamacare outright.

By comparison, Obamacare led to about 7 million plan cancellation notices in the fall of 2013. While those cancellations caused a major political firestorm, the framework the House released prior to the recess could cause a loss of employer coverage of several times that number. What’s more, that framework as described looks for all intents and purposes like a legislative orphan appealing to no one—neither moderates nor conservatives—within the Republican party:

  • A significant erosion of up to 10-20 million individuals with employer-provided health coverage;
  • A new entitlement—the refundable tax credits—that by and large wouldn’t expand coverage, but instead cause individuals currently in employer plans to switch to the credits;
  • More federal spending via the refundable tax credits;
  • A tax increase—a cap on the current exclusion for employer-provided health coverage—to pay for the new spending on the credits; and
  • An increase in the uninsured (compared to Obamacare) of at least 15 million—nearly as much as repealing the law outright.

Details of the bill are changing constantly, and no doubt House leadership will claim these figures pertain to prior drafts of the legislation. But even if those numbers reflect outdated drafts, the combination of major re-writes to the bill and the lack of a CBO score at any point in the process thus far should cause significant pause on Capitol Hill. Members are being asked to vote on legislation before knowing its full effects, or even how it will look in its final version.

Coverage Quicksand

According to CBO, the combination of a cap on the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, coupled with an age-rated tax credit for insurance, created a dynamic where expanding health insurance coverage was all but impossible.

An age-rated credit provides much greater incentive for firms to drop coverage, because all workers, not just low-income ones, can qualify for the credit. Moreover, because an age-rated credit provides the same subsidy to all individuals, regardless of income, low-income enrollees—the only individuals who have enrolled on exchanges in significant numbers—would have much less financial incentive to purchase insurance than they do under Obamacare, hence the lower coverage numbers overall.

On their bill, House Republicans put themselves in coverage quicksand. The more they thrashed to get out of the quicksand—by increasing the subsidies or adjusting the cap on the employer exclusion, or both—the deeper they sank, by increasing the erosion of employer-sponsored insurance.

Means-Tested Credit

Moving to a means-tested credit would create the same disincentives to work—individuals taking fewer shifts, or working fewer hours, for fear of losing their subsidies—as Obamacare itself. Here’s what Speaker Ryan’s Better Way document, released last summer, said about the current law:

Obamacare penalizes work. The law’s employer mandate and definition of a ‘full-time’ employee play a significant role in reduced hours, wages, and jobs. Even more critically, Obamacare’s subsidies themselves are riddled with cliffs and phase-outs, and the law includes a direct tax on work. Taken as a whole, CBO found that the law’s policies discourage work in such a way that it will be as if 2 million full-time jobs vanish from the economy by 2025. Our plan would repeal those taxes and work disincentives and implement a flat, simple form of assistance that would grow the economy and ensure work pays.

If House Republicans have turned on a dime, and re-embraced means-tested credits after criticizing them for several years, their plan will have at least some of the same work disincentives as Obamacare. Moreover, a means-tested credit also creates administrative complexities—reconciling payments made based on estimated income with actual income at the end of the year—that make it tougher to implement, as the Obamacare experience has demonstrated.

Obamacare’s Moment of Truth

On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul sparked a Twitter meme, searching through the Capitol for copies of House Republicans’ current version of “replace” legislation. While Paul raised a valid point about the need for a transparent process, he might have been better served to search for a CBO score of the legislation, for that will show where the rubber meets the road on the bill’s fiscal effects.

House leadership has yet to release any budgetary scores of their legislation, yet apparently plan on marking up the bill this week—before a CBO score becomes available. Given the ways in which several drafts have prompted CBO to warn about a massive erosion of employer-sponsored health coverage, the phrase Caveat emptor applies. Members who vote for a bill without knowing its full fiscal effects, yet will be held politically responsible for said effects, do so entirely at their own risk.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of House Republicans’ (Leaked) Discussion Draft

On Friday, Politico released a leaked version of draft budget reconciliation legislation circulating among House staff—a version of House Republicans’ Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill. The discussion draft is time-stamped on the afternoon of Friday February 10—and according to my sources has been changed in the two weeks since then—but represents a glimpse into where House leadership was headed going into the President’s Day recess.

A detailed summary of the bill is below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Where provisions in the discussion draft were also included in the reconciliation bill passed by Congress early in 2016 (H.R. 3762, text available here), differences between the two versions, if any, are noted. In general, however, whereas the prior reconciliation bill sunset Obamacare’s entitlements after a two-year transition period, the discussion draft would sunset them at the end of calendar year 2019—nearly three years from now.

Of particular note: It is unclear whether this legislative language has been vetted with the Senate Parliamentarian. When the Senate considers budget reconciliation legislation—as it plans to do with the Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill—the Parliamentarian plays a key role in determining whether provisions are budgetary in nature and can be included in the bill (which can pass with a 51-vote simple majority), and which provisions are not budgetary in nature and must be considered separately (i.e., require 60 votes to pass).

In the absence of a fully drafted bill and complete CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not vetted this discussion draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I—Energy and Commerce

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances. This language is substantially similar to Section 101 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $285 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” below). A parenthetical note indicates intent to add Hyde amendment restrictions, to ensure this mandatory funding for health centers—which occurs outside their normal stream of funding through discretionary appropriations—retains prohibitions on federal funding of abortions. Language regarding community health centers was included in Section 102 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Medicaid:       The discussion draft varies significantly from the repeal of Medicaid expansion included in Section 207 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. The 2015/2016 reconciliation bill repealed both elements of the Medicaid expansion—the change in eligibility allowing able-bodied adults to join the program, and the enhanced (90-100%) federal match that states received for covering them.

By contrast, the House discussion draft retains eligibility for the able-bodied adult population—making this population optional for states to cover, rather than mandatory. (The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius made Medicaid expansion optional for states.) Some conservatives may be concerned that this change represents a marked weakening of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill language, one that will entrench a massive expansion of Medicaid beyond its original focus on the most vulnerable in society.

With respect to the Medicaid match rate, the discussion draft reduces the enhanced federal match to states, effective December 31, 2019. The bill provides that states receiving the enhanced match for individuals enrolled by December 31, 2019 will continue to receive that enhanced federal match, provided they do not have a break in Medicaid coverage of longer than one month. (In the case of states that already expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults prior to Obamacare’s enactment, the bill provides for an 80 percent federal match for 2017 and all subsequent years.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that—rather than representing a true “freeze” that was advertised, one that would take effect immediately upon enactment—the language in this bill would give states a strong incentive to sign up many more individuals for Medicaid over the next three years, so they can qualify for the higher federal match as long as those individuals remain in the program.

Finally, the bill repeals the requirement that Medicaid “benchmark” plans comply with Obamacare’s essential health benefits, also effective December 31, 2019.

DSH Payments:         Repeals the reduction in Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments. This language is identical to Section 208 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019 (the year is noted in brackets, however, suggesting it may change). However, the bill does not include an appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies for 2017, 2018, or 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House. Similar language regarding cost-sharing subsidies was included in Section 202(b) of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

On a related note, the House’s draft bill does NOT include provisions regarding reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment, all of which were repealed by Section 104 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. While the reinsurance and risk corridor programs technically expired on December 31, 2016, insurers have outstanding claims regarding both programs. Some conservatives may be concerned that failing to repeal these provisions could represent an attempt to bail out health insurance companies.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare). The cap would rise by medical CPI plus one percentage point annually.

While the cap would take effect in Fiscal Year 2019, the “base year” for determining cap levels would be Fiscal Year 2016 (which concluded on September 30, 2016), adjusted forward to 2019 levels using medical CPI plus one percentage point.

Creates five classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; 4) expansion enrollees (i.e., able-bodied adults enrolled under Obamacare); and 5) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Some conservatives may note the bill’s creation of a separate category of Obamacare expansion enrollees, and its use of 2016 as the “base year” for the per capita caps, benefit states who expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults under Obamacare. The most recent actuarial report on Medicaid noted that, while the actuary originally predicted that adults in the expansion population would cost less than existing populations, in reality each newly eligible enrollee cost 13.6% more than existing populations in 2016. Many states have used the 100% federal match for their expansion populations—i.e., “free money from Washington”—to raise provider reimbursement levels.

Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that the draft bill would retain the increased spending on adults in expansion states—extending in perpetuity the inequities caused by states that have used Obamacare’s “free money” to raise Medicaid spending while sending Washington the tab.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). This language is virtually identical to Section 206 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

State Innovation Grants:    Creates a new program of State Innovation Grants, to be administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for the years 2018 through 2026. Grants may be used to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions (whether through high-risk pools or another arrangement), stabilizing or reducing premiums, encouraging insurer participation, promoting access, directly paying providers, or subsidizing cost-sharing (i.e., co-payments, deductibles, etc.). A similar program was first proposed by House Republicans in their alternative to Obamacare in 2009.

Provides for $15 billion in funding for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, followed by $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 through 2026 ($100 billion total). Requires a short, one-time application from states describing their goals and objectives for use of the funding, which will be deemed approved within 60 days absent good cause.

For 2018 and 2019, funding would be provided to states on the basis of relative costs, determined by the number of Exchange enrollees and the extent to which individual insurance premiums in the state exceed the national average. Every state would receive at least 0.5% of the national total (at least $75 million in 2018 and 2019).

For 2020 through 2026, CMS would be charged with determining a formula that takes into account the percentage of low-income residents in the state (the bill text includes in brackets three possible definitions of “low-income”—138%, 250%, or 300% of the federal poverty level) and the number of residents without health insurance.

Requires that states provide a match for their grants in 2020 through 2026—7 percent of their grant in 2020, 14 percent in 2021, 21 percent in 2022, 28 percent in 2023, 35 percent in 2024, 42 percent in 2025, and 50 percent in 2026.

Continuous Coverage:         Requires insurers, beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period (i.e., open enrollment for 2019, or special enrollment periods during the 2018 plan year), to increase premiums for individuals without continuous health insurance coverage. The premium could increase by 30 percent for individuals who have a coverage gap of more than 63 days during the previous 12 months. Insurers could maintain the 30 percent premium increase for a 12 month period. Requires individuals to show proof of continuous coverage, and requires insurers to provide said proof in the form of certificates. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision maintains the federal intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare, rather than devolving insurance regulation back to the states.

Essential Health Benefits:              Permits states to develop essential health benefits for insurance for all years after December 31, 2019.

Age Rating:   Changes the maximum variation in insurance markets from 3-to-1 (i.e., insurers can charge older applicants no more than three times younger applicants) to 5-to-1 effective January 1, 2018, with the option for states to provide for other age rating requirements. Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the ability for states to opt out, this provision, by setting a default federal standard, maintains the intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare.

Special Enrollment Verification:               Requires verification of all special enrollment periods beginning for plan years after January 1, 2018. This provision would effectively codify proposed regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month. Some conservatives may be concerned about the continued federal intrusion over what had heretofore been a matter left to state regulation, and question the need to verify enrollment in Exchanges, given that the underlying legislation was intended to repeal Obamacare—and thus the Exchanges—entirely.

Transitional Policies:          Permits insurers who continued to offer pre-Obamacare health coverage under President Obama’s temporary “If you like your plan, you can keep it” fix to continue to offer those policies in perpetuity in the individual and small group markets outside the Exchanges.

Title II—Ways and Means

Subsidy Recapture:              Eliminates the repayment limit on Obamacare premium subsidies for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Obamacare’s premium subsidies (which vary based upon income levels) are based on estimated income, which must be reconciled at year’s end during the tax filing season. Households with a major change in income or family status during the year (e.g., raise, promotion, divorce, birth, death) could qualify for significantly greater or smaller subsidies than the estimated subsidies they receive. While current law caps repayment amounts for households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017), the bill would eliminate the repayment limits for 2018 and 2019. This provision is similar to Section 201 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Modifications to Obamacare Premium Subsidy:         Allows non-compliant and non-Exchange plans to qualify for Obamacare premium subsidies, with the exception of grandfathered health plans (i.e., those purchased prior to Obamacare’s enactment) and plans that cover abortions (although individuals receiving subsidies can purchase separate coverage for abortion). While individuals off the Exchanges can receive premium subsidies, they cannot receive these subsidies in advance—they would have to claim the subsidy back on their tax returns instead. Only citizens and legal aliens could receive subsidies.

Modifies the existing Obamacare subsidy regime beginning in 2018, by including age as an additional factor for determining subsidy amounts. Younger individuals would have to spend a smaller percentage of income on health insurance than under current law, while older individuals would spend a higher percentage of income. For instance, an individual under age 29, making just under 400% FPL, would pay 4.3% of income on health insurance, whereas an individual between ages 60-64 at the same income level would pay 11.5% of income on health insurance. (Current law limits individuals to paying 9.69% of income on insurance, at all age brackets, for those with income just below 400% FPL.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that 1) these changes would make an already complex subsidy formula even more complicated; 2) could increase costs to taxpayers; and 3) distract from the purported goal of the legislation, which is repealing, not modifying or “fixing,” Obamacare.

Repeal of Tax Credits:         Repeals Obamacare’s premium and small business tax credits, effective January 1, 2020. This language is similar to Sections 202 and 203 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, with one major difference—the House discussion draft provides for a three-year transition period, whereas the reconciliation bill provided a two-year transition period.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. This language is similar to Sections 204 and 205 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, except with respect to timing—the House discussion draft zeroes out the penalties beginning with the previous tax year, whereas the reconciliation bill zeroed out penalties beginning with the current tax year.

Repeal of Other Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals all other Obamacare taxes, effective January 1, 2017, including:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”);
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars;
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals;
  • Medical device tax;
  • Health insurer tax;
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage;
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction;
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals;
  • Tax on tanning services;
  • Net investment tax;
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives; and
  • Economic substance doctrine.

These provisions are all substantially similar to Sections 209 through 222 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Refundable Tax Credit:       Creates a new, age-rated refundable tax credit for the purchase of health insurance. Credits total $2,000 for individuals under age 30, $2,500 for individuals aged 30-39, $3,000 for individuals aged 40-49, $3,500 for individuals aged 50-59, and $4,000 for individuals over age 60, up to a maximum credit of $14,000 per household. The credit would apply for 2020 and subsequent years, and increase every year by general inflation (i.e., CPI) plus one percent. Excess credit amounts can be deposited in individuals’ Health Savings Accounts.

The credit may be used for any individual policy sold within a state (although apparently not a policy purchased across state lines) or unsubsidized COBRA continuation coverage.

Individuals may not use the credit to purchase plans that cover abortions (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion). The credit would be advanceable (i.e., paid before individuals file their taxes), and the Treasury would establish a program to provide credit payments directly to health insurers.

Individuals eligible for or participating in employer coverage, Part A of Medicare, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Tricare, or health care sharing ministries cannot receive the credit; however, veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA health programs can receive the credit. Only citizens and legal aliens qualify for the credit; individuals with seriously delinquent tax debt can have their credits withheld.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by creating a new refundable tax credit, the bill would establish another source of entitlement spending at a time when our nation already faces significant fiscal difficulties.

Cap on Employer-Provided Health Coverage:                    Establishes a cap on the current exclusion for employer-provided health coverage, making any amounts received above the cap taxable to the employee. Sets the cap, which includes both employer and employee contributions, at the 90th percentile of group (i.e., employer) plans for 2019. In 2020 and subsequent years, indexes the cap to general inflation (i.e., CPI) plus two percentage points. Also applies the cap on coverage to include self-employed individuals taking an above-the-line deduction on their tax returns. While the level of the cap would be set in the year 2019, the cap itself would take effect in 2020 and subsequent tax years.

Excludes contributions to Health Savings Accounts and Archer Medical Savings Accounts, as well as long-term care, dental, and vision insurance policies, from the cap. Exempts health insurance benefits for law enforcement, fire department, and out-of-hospital emergency medical personnel from the cap.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision raises taxes. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum generally agree that an unlimited exclusion for employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance, and therefore health care. However, there are other ways to reform the tax treatment of health insurance without raising taxes on net. Given the ready availability of other options, some conservatives may be concerned that the bill repeals all the Obamacare tax increases, only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses.

Abortion Coverage:             Clarifies that firms receiving the small business tax credit may not use that credit to purchase plans that cover abortion (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion).

Three Concerns with Rand Paul’s Obamacare Replacement Act

On Wednesday, Politico reported that the House Freedom Caucus, an influential group of House conservatives, was considering whether to give its official endorsement to Sen. Rand Paul’s Obamacare Replacement Act (S. 222). The report indicated that word from the Freedom Caucus about an endorsement could come as soon as next week.

To this conservative health policy analyst, this development raises some serious concerns. Although not as objectionable as the Collins-Cassidy Patient Freedom Act, Paul’s legislation contains several features that, if widely embraced by conservatives, could lead to strategic and policy missteps going forward.

1. Doesn’t Repeal Obamacare

While the Paul bill provides an alternative vision for health care, it does not repeal most of Obamacare. The bill does repeal virtually all of the law’s major mandates: the individual and employer mandates to obtain insurance, the guaranteed issue and community rating regulations, the essential health benefits, and other various insurance mandates that have raised premiums.

However, the bill does not repeal either of Obamacare’s new entitlements—the subsidies for exchange health insurance, and the massive Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied—leaving in place nearly $2 trillion in spending over the coming decade. Likewise, the bill does not repeal any of the Obamacare taxes used to fund that spending, except those associated with the individual and employer mandates.

Paul’s office may view the bill as a successor and complement to the reconciliation bill that Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, in 2016. That bill would have repealed the law’s entitlements (after two years), and its tax increases (effective immediately), but not its regulations. Paul’s office might argue that his bill repeals the critical portions of Obamacare not included in last year’s reconciliation bill—the major insurance regulations—while providing a replacement vision to go beyond repeal.

But that position assumes last year’s reconciliation bill will be the starting point for this year’s discussion—and it may not be. Politico reported Tuesday evening that Republicans were having difficulty figuring out how to square Medicaid reform with Obamacare’s massive Medicaid expansion. Likewise, some Republicans have discussed not repealing the law’s tax hikes. On these controversies, the Paul bill, by omitting any provisions relating to the entitlement expansions and tax increases, contains a deafening silence.

Paul’s bill repealed the individual and employer mandates, even though last year’s reconciliation measure also effectively repealed them. Why didn’t his bill repeal all the other tax hikes and spending increases as well? Is it because Paul, whose home state expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied under Obamacare, wants to avoid taking a position on whether to keep that expansion?

2. Tax Credit Slippery Slope

The Paul bill does provide tax credits for health coverage, but largely of the non-refundable kind, an arcane but important difference. Paul’s bill provides a $5,000 tax credit to individuals who contribute to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), but only to the extent such individuals have income tax liability. The Paul bill does include a refundable tax credit for health insurance premiums, but the refundable portion of the credit only applies up to the limit of an individual’s payroll taxes paid.

Many Republican health reform plans would offer refundable tax credits to individuals in excess of tax liabilities, which represents pure welfare/outlay spending—the government issuing “refunds” to people with no net income or payroll tax obligations. By contrast, the Paul bill would ensure that credits only apply to individuals with actual payroll and income tax obligations.

However, this critically important distinction will likely be lost on many members of the press—and perhaps members of the Freedom Caucus themselves. “House Freedom Caucus Endorses Tax Credits” will blare the headlines. Having endorsed tax credits once, the pressure on Freedom Caucus members to then go further and endorse the House leadership plan for refundable tax credits will be immense. Put simply, the slippery slope to endorsing a major spending package in the form of refundable tax credits starts with the Paul bill.

3. Budget-Busting Health Care Giveaways

While the Paul bill includes no outlay spending—its incentives all come via tax cuts—those incentives are numerous, and costly. The legislation would supplement the current, uncapped exclusion on employer-provided health insurance with a new, uncapped deduction for individual-provided health insurance. It would eliminate contribution limits to HSAs, and introduce a new federal subsidy (via the tax credits) of up to $5,000 for HSA contributions.

Apart from the fiscal implications of the tax incentives, are these tax cuts smart tax cuts? Evidence suggests they may not be. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum believe that the current uncapped exclusion for employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance, and thus health care. Rather than reining in this tax incentive as one element of pro-growth tax reform, Paul’s bill goes in the other direction, creating two new uncapped tax incentives for health insurance.

As a medical doctor, Paul has shown little inclination to rein in health care spending. He voted for budget-busting Medicare physician payment legislation in 2015 that raised the deficit by more than $140 billion in its first decade alone, while failing to solve the long-term problems it purported to address. He has also previously proposed budgets with minimal reductions in Medicare spending, although he has introduced more substantive reforms in recent years.

But with health care already consuming nearly one-fifth of our economy, and our national debt approaching $20 trillion, does the solution to these problems really lie in creating new, uncapped incentives for tax-free spending on health care and health insurance?

Therein lies but one of the Paul bill’s problems. While ostensibly promoting market-oriented solutions, the legislation contains several strategic trip-wires that could contaminate any attempt to repeal Obamacare, or enact a conservative alternative. Members of Congress should tread cautiously.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Fact Checking Politico’s Hit Piece on Tom Price

Earlier this evening, Politico released an “article” discussing “Tom Price’s Radically Conservative Vision for American Health Care.” The piece’s first sentence claimed that “gutting Obamacare might be the least controversial part of Tom Price’s health care agenda”—a loaded introduction if ever there were one. The article goes on to quote seven separate liberal analysts—including the President of Planned Parenthood—while not including a single substantive Republican quote until the very last paragraph of a 27-paragraph piece.

Given this opinion piece masquerading as “journalism,” it’s worth pointing out several important facts, falsehoods, and omissions in the Politico story:

CLAIM:           Republicans “may look beyond repealing and replacing Obamacare to try to scale back Medicare and Medicaid, popular entitlements that cover roughly 130 million people, many of whom are sick, poor, and vulnerable.”

FACT:                         It’s ironic that the Politico reporters suddenly care about the “sick, poor, and vulnerable.” I’ve been writing about how Obamacare encourages discrimination against the vulnerable literally for years—including a few short weeks ago. If any Politico reporters have written on how Obamacare encourages states to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults rather than to cover individuals with disabilities, I have yet to read those articles.

This week came a report that no fewer than 752 individuals with disabilities have died—yes, died—while on waiting lists to receive Medicaid services since that state expanded coverage under Obamacare to able-bodied adults. If the Politico reporters—much less the liberal advocates the reporters interviewed for the article—care so much about the “sick, poor, and vulnerable,” when will they cover this Obamacare-induced tragedy?

CLAIM:           “Price…has proposed policies that are more conservative than those of many House Republican colleagues.”

FACT:                         Dr. Price’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget—which included provisions related to Obamacare repeal, premium support for Medicare, and block grants for Medicaid—passed the House with 228 votes. How can Politico claim that Dr. Price’s policies “are more conservative than those of many House Republican colleagues,” when over 93% of them publicly endorsed his vision?

CLAIM:           “The vast majority of the 20 million people now covered under Obamacare would have far less robust coverage—if they got anything at all.”

FACT:                         This claim presupposes 1) that all individuals covered under Obamacare want to buy health coverage, and 2) that they want to buy the type of health coverage Obamacare forces them to purchase. It ignores the fact that premiums increased by thousands of dollars in 2014 because individuals were forced to buy richer coverage.

It also ignores the fact that nearly 8 million individuals have paid the tax penalty associated with not buying Obamacare-compliant health coverage—because they cannot afford it, do not want it, or both—and another 12.4 million have requested exemptions from the Obamacare mandate. Depending on the degree of overlap between individuals who paid the mandate tax penalty and individuals who claimed exemptions, the number of Obamacare refuseniks could actually exceed the number of individuals newly covered under the law.

Instead, this claim comes at the question of insurance coverage from President Obama’s liberal, paternalistic perspective. When millions of people started receiving Obamacare-related cancellation notices in the mail, the President gave a speech stating how all those plans were “substandard:” “A lot of people thought they were buying coverage, and it turned out not to be so good.” In other words, “If you liked your plan, you’re an idiot.”

CLAIM:           “Price also supports privatizing Medicare…”

FACT:                         The premium support plan included in the House Republican budget includes 1) a federal contribution that increases every year to fund 2) a federally-regulated plan with 3) federally-mandated benefits and 4) the option to continue in government-run Medicare if beneficiaries so choose. Which of these four points would the Politico reporters deem “privatizing?”

CLAIM:           “…an approach that Democrats lambaste as a voucher system…”

FACT:                         That claim is both ironic and hypocritical coming from Democrats, as a version of premium support endorsed by House Speaker Ryan and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden in 2011 would have utilized the exact same bidding mechanism as Obamacare itself. Do Democrats “lambaste” Obamacare’s Exchanges as a “voucher system?” Interestingly enough, the Politico reporters neither note this irony, nor apparently bothered to ask the question.

CLAIM:           “…that would gut a 50-year-old social contract and shift a growing share of health care costs onto seniors.”

FACT:                         The form of premium support endorsed by Rep. Price in this year’s House Republican budget would, according to a September 2013 analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), save both the federal government and seniors money. And don’t take my word for it—here’s a quote from the CBO paper:

CBO’s analysis implies that beneficiaries’ total payments would be about 6 percent lower, on average, under the average-bid option than under current law. That reduction results from the combination of the lower average premiums paid above and a reduction in average out-of-pocket costs, which would result primarily from higher enrollment in lower-bidding private plans.

Where exactly among the highlighted phrases did the Politico reporters get the idea that premium support will “shift a growing share of health care costs onto seniors?”

CLAIM:           “Price also wants to limit federal Medicaid spending to give states a lump sum, or block grant, and more control over how they could use it—a dream of conservative Republicans for years, and a nightmare for advocates for the poor who fear that many would lose coverage.”

FACT:                         A block grant would increase federal spending on Medicaid annually—just by slightly less than prior estimates. Only in Washington could granting a program a three percent increase rather than a five percent increase classify as a “cut.”

Having provided actual facts to rebut the piece’s nonsensical claims, I’ll offer some free advice: If the folks on Politico’s payroll want to publish liberal talking points unchallenged, they should quit their jobs, go out on their own, and do what I do for a living. I’m all for a free press, and freedom of speech, but passing opinion—and one-sided opinion at that—as “journalism” does a disservice to the name.

Donald Trump’s 47.5 Million Reasons to Support Obamacare Bailouts

Last Friday afternoon, Donald Trump caused a minor uproar in Washington when he signaled a major softening in his stance towards President Obama’s unpopular health-care law. “Either Obamacare will be amended, or it will be repealed and replaced,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal—a major caveat heretofore unexpressed on the campaign trail.

Why might Trump—who not one month ago, in a nationally televised debate, called Obamacare a “total disaster” that next year will “implode by itself”—embark on such a volte face about the law? Politico notes one possible answer lies in the story of Oscar, a startup insurer created to sell plans under Obamacare:

Oscar is about to have an unusually close tie to the White House: Company co-founder Josh Kushner’s brother Jared is posted to plan an influential role in shaping his father-in-law Donald Trump’s presidency. The two brothers in 2013 were also deemed ‘the ultimate controlling persons in Oscar’s holding company system,’ according to a state report.

In other words, the individual who multiple sources report personally influenced the selection of the next White House chief of staff also holds a controlling interest in a health insurance company whose primary business is selling Obamacare policies. Might that be why Trump has suddenly changed his tune on Obamacare repeal?

Government of the People—Or of the Cronies?

In 2000, while contemplating a run for the White House, Trump told Fortune magazine: “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” That previously expressed sentiment—of using political office for personal pecuniary gain—would not rule out Trump assuming policy positions designed to enrich himself and his associates.

That need might be particularly acute in the case of Oscar, of which Jared Kushner was a controlling person, and in which Josh Kushner’s venture capital firm Thrive Capital has invested. On Tuesday, the insurer reported $45 million in losses in just three states, bringing Oscar’s losses in those three states to a total of $128 million this calendar year. Bloomberg said the company “sells health insurance to individuals in new markets set up by [Obamacare,]” and described its future after last week’s election thusly:

Trump’s election could be a negative for the insurer. The Republican has promised to repeal and replace [Obamacare,] though he’s softened that stance since his victory. The uncertainty could discourage some people from signing up for health plans, or Republicans could eliminate or reduce the tax subsidies in the law that are used to help pay for coverage.

Replace “the insurer” with “Trump’s in-laws” in the above paragraph, and the president-elect’s evolving stance certainly begins to make more sense.

Pimp My Obamacare Bailout?

In last month’s second presidential debate, Trump described Democrats’ position on health care: “Their method of fixing [Obamacare] is to go back and ask Congress for more money, more and more money. We have right now almost $20 trillion in debt.”

It’s an ironic statement, given that government documents reveal how Oscar—and thus Trump’s in-laws—have made claims on Obamacare bailout programs to the tune of $47.5 million. Those claims, including $38.2 million from reinsurance and $9.3 billion from risk corridors, total more than Oscar’s losses in the past quarter. The $47.5 million amount also represents a mere fraction of what Oscar could ultimately request, and receive, from Obamacare’s bailout funds, as it does not include any claims for the current benefit year.

Given that most of the things Trump should do on Day One to dismantle Obamacare involve undoing the law’s illegal bailouts, it’s troubling to learn the extent to which a company run by his in-laws has benefited from them. Following are some examples.

Reinsurance: Administration documents reveal that during Obamacare’s first two years, Oscar received $38.2 million in payments from the law’s reinsurance program, designed to subsidize insurers for the expense associated with high-cost patients. Unfortunately, these bailout payments have come at the expense of taxpayers, who have been shortchanged money promised to the federal Treasury by law so the Obama administration can instead pay more funds to insurers.

In 2014, when Oscar only offered plans in New York, the company received $17.5 million in Obamacare reinsurance payments. In 2015, as Oscar expanded to offer coverage in New Jersey, the insurer received a total of more than $20.7 million in reinsurance funds: $19.8 million for its New York customers, and $945,000 for its New Jersey enrollees.

While reinsurance claims for the 2016 plan year are still being compiled and therefore have not yet been released, it appears likely that Oscar will receive a significant payment in the tens of millions of dollars, for two reasons. First, the carrier expanded its offerings into Texas and California; more enrollees means more claims on the federal fisc. Second, Bloomberg quoted anonymous company sources as saying that part of Oscar’s losses “stem from high medical costs”—which the insurer will likely attempt to offset through the reinsurance program.

While the Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in reinsurance funds to insurers like Oscar, they have done so illegally. In September, the Government Accountability Office ruled that the administration violated the text of Obamacare itself. Although the law states that $5 billion in payments back to the Treasury must be made from reinsurance funds before insurers receive payment, the Obama administration has turned the law on its head—paying insurers first, and stiffing taxpayers out of billions.

wrote last week that Trump can and should immediately overturn these illegal actions by the Obama Administration, and sue insurers if needed to collect for the federal government. But if those actions jeopardize tens of millions of dollars in federal payments for the Kushners, or mean the Trump administration will have to take Trump’s in-laws to court, will he?

Risk Corridors: Oscar also has made claims for millions of dollars regarding Obamacare’s risk corridor program, which as designed would see insurers with excess profits subsidize insurers with excess losses. In 2014, Oscar was one of many insurers with excess losses, making a claim for $9.3 million in risk corridor payments.

However, because Congress prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to bail out insurance companies, and because few insurers had excess profits to pay into the risk corridor program, insurers requesting payouts from risk corridors received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their claims. While Oscar requested more than $9.3 million, it received less than $1.2 million—meaning it is owed more than $8.1 million from the risk corridor program for 2014.

CMS has yet to release data on insurers’ claims for 2015, other than to say that payments to the risk corridor program for 2015 were insufficient to pay out insurers’ outstanding claims for 2014. In other words, Oscar will not be paid its full $9.3 million for 2014, even as it likely makes additional claims for 2015 and 2016.

However, Oscar yet has hope in receiving a bailout from the Obama administration. In September, the administration said it was interested in settling lawsuits brought by insurance companies seeking reimbursement for unpaid risk corridor claims. The administration hopes to use the obscure Judgment Fund to pay through the backdoor the bailout that Congress prohibited through the front door.

As with reinsurance payments, a President Trump should immediately act to block such settlements, which violate Congress’ expressed will against bailing out insurers. However, given his clear conflict-of-interest in protecting his close relatives’ investments, it’s an open question whether he will do so.

Cost-Sharing Reductions: Like other health insurers, Oscar has benefited by receiving cost-sharing subsidies—even though Congress never appropriated funds for them. In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House of Representatives that the Obama administration’s payments to insurers for cost-sharing subsidies without an appropriation violate the Constitution. Although the text of the law requires insurers to reduce deductibles and co-payments for some low-income beneficiaries, it never included an explicit appropriation for subsidy payments to insurers reimbursing them for these discounts. Despite this lack of an appropriation, the Obama administration has paid insurers like Oscar roughly $14 billion in cost-sharing subsidies anyway.

Here again, Trump should immediately concede the illegality of the Obama administration’s actions, settle the lawsuit brought by the House of Representatives, and end the unconstitutional cost-sharing subsidies on Day One. But given his close ties to individuals whose insurance model is largely based on selling Obamacare policies, will he do so? To put it bluntly, will he put the interests of Oscar—and his in-laws—ahead of the U.S. Constitution?

Ask Congress for More and More Money?’

In general, health insurance companies have made record profits during the Obama years—a total of a whopping $15 billion in 2015. But while insurers have made money selling employer plans, or contracting for Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid, few insurers have made money on insurance exchanges. That dynamic explains why Oscar, which has focused on exchange plans, has suffered its massive losses to date.

However, as Trump rightly pointed out just one short month ago, the answer is not to “ask Congress for more money, more and more money.” He should end the bailouts immediately upon taking office. Duty to country—and the constitutional oath—should override any personal familial conflicts.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Gruber, Transparency, and IPAB

The administration faced a political firestorm last week, when videos emerged featuring MIT professor—and paid Obamacare consultant—Jonathan Gruber making comments on “the stupidity of the American voter,” and claiming that only a deliberately opaque and deceptive process was essential to the law’s enactment. But the administration may soon face a policy controversy as well—for the law features a board that can operate in nontransparent ways, and which will empower technocrats like Mr. Gruber himself.

While the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, may bring to mind the latest Apple product offering, the reality is far different. Designed to control health spending, the board of 15 experts—nominated by the president, based in part on suggestions from congressional leaders, and confirmed by the Senate—will have the power to make binding rulings to slow the growth in Medicare outlays. Furthermore, the administration’s budget proposed giving IPAB even more authority, by reducing the caps on Medicare spending the board will be charged to enforce.

IPAB has yet to be constituted. The budget sequester and other savings proposals have thus far kept Medicare spending below the targets that would trigger IPAB recommendations, and Republican leaders have indicated to President Barack Obama their disinclination to provide the White House suggestions for nominees. As a result, the president has yet to make formal nominations—not least because, if the Medicare spending target is reached, requiring IPAB to make formal recommendations to Congress, but IPAB does not do so, that power would then lie within the Department of Health and Human Services itself.

IPAB faces several characteristics that could imbue it with the lack of transparency Mr. Gruber infamously discussed in his speeches:

  • Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag wrote a piece for the New Republic in which he cited IPAB as one way to “counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a little less democratic.” In 2012, Politico stated that, while in the White House, Mr. Orszag had “pushed” to include the board in the law.
  • Section 3403 of Obamacare, which creates IPAB, does not require the board to conduct any open meetings. The law merely says that “the board may hold such hearings…as the board considers advisable;” it does not require IPAB to do so.
  • Likewise, while the law prohibits IPAB from “ration[ing] health care,” the term “rationing” is nowhere defined in statute. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded this point, and acknowledged that HHS would likely have to define “rationing” before the board could begin its work—but it has yet to do so.

Prior to the recent controversies, Mr. Gruber seemed like exactly the type of expert—an “individual with national recognition for [his] expertise in health finance and economics”—that might have received an appointment to IPAB. Interviewed for a 2011 article about who might serve on the board, Mr. Gruber didn’t rule it out entirely, while admitting that statutory restrictions on IPAB members’ outside activities might dissuade individuals from applying.

As it happens, Mr. Gruber currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Connector, an entity charged with implementing the Commonwealth’s health care overhaul. However, to judge from comments made to reporters last week, an aide to Gov. Deval Patrick seemed keen to downplay his influence: “When his term expires at some point, that will be a decision for someone else at that time.”

But beneath the political controversy lies a philosophical question. Fifty years ago last month, Ronald Reagan summarized the concern in his “A Time for Choosing” speech:

This is the issue of this election—whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Therein lies the Obama administration’s bigger problem—how to reconcile a law that increases the influence of independent experts with a high-profile example of such an expert who repeatedly treated American voters with open hostility and contempt. At a time when both the health care law and the federal government itself remain historically unpopular with voters, the Gruber controversy only heightens the perceived distance between the governing and the governed.

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

A Jab from Washington at State and Local Educators

Politico reported last week about how education leaders in red and blue states alike have pushed back against federal control in education policy. Given this environment, Washington would do well not to patronize state and local leaders’ ability to manage schools and their desire to do right by their students. Yet it appears that the Department of Education has done just that.

Consider a series of proposed requirements released last month for the federal School Improvement Grants program. In examining alternatives to the requirements, the Education Department noted that it could allocate funds “without establishing any new requirements governing their use.” However, the proposal stated, in such a circumstance state and local education authorities would have to implement the congressional requirements “without key regulatory support from the Department.” The relevant passage concluded: “We do not believe that states generally possess the capacity or expertise needed to meet this responsibility with the amount of rigor expected by Congress.”

The language sends a clear message that the Department of Education does not trust state and local education leaders’ competence to implement “evidence-based, whole-school reform strateg[ies]” without “key regulatory support” from Washington–or does not trust their intentions to act in the best interests of their schoolchildren. Either way, the message does a disservice to the many men and women who put in countless hours to reform America’s schools and educate our children. It also raises the question of whether “key regulatory support” from the Department of Education means advice and technical guidance, or more federal requirements and paperwork.

The Education Department’s attitude calls to mind Ronald Reagan’s comment about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Small wonder that parents and local politicians of both parties are giving that supposed assistance a second look.

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

Who Would Pay for This Medicaid Expansion?

Even as states continue to debate the costs of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, some in the medical field are proposing new commitments for the program.

Last week Politico reported on a letter to Congress by several physician groups asking that increased reimbursements for primary-care physicians participating in Medicaid be extended. Low reimbursement levels in many states have led to low physician participation in Medicaid. The budget reconciliation bill passed just after Obamacare in March 2010 included payment increases for primary-care physicians participating in Medicaid—bumping up reimbursements to Medicare levels. But only two years’ worth of payment increases, in 2013 and 2014, were funded.

With the temporary bump expiring soon, physician groups have asked for this provision to be extended for at least two years and be expanded in scope; under the broadened provision, obstetricians and gynecologists would qualify as primary-care physicians eligible for the higher payment levels.

The proposal raises several questions, including whether states would cover any of the cost of extending the increased payments. The federal government fully funded the first two years of payment increases, but federal debt is now more than $17 trillion. Washington may decide that states should pay for some of what amounts to an average 73% increase in primary-care reimbursement levels.

States considering whether to expand their Medicaid programs under Obamacare, and whether the federal government will honor its fiscal commitments for that program’s enhanced match, would be wise to watch the debate around this reimbursement bump. As with other costly Obamacare “fixes” for which advocates have not yet outlined budgetary savings, they could one day be on the hook for more than they bargained for.

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

Democrats’ Obamacare “Fix”

front-page story in Saturday’s Washington Post discussing Republican candidates’ positions on the Affordable Care Act included a curious quote from Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of House Democrats’ campaign committee, who said that Republicans are “promising fixes but won’t be specific.”

Actually, many conservatives have outlined numerous alternatives to Obamacare. Republicans in the House have written at least 200 separate bills showing their ideas on health care, large and small. My own organization, America Next, released its blueprint for health reform earlier this year.

Conversely, the comparatively small universe of “fixes” advocated by supporters of the health legislation omit major fiscal details. Here are three examples:

In a March Politico op-ed, several Democratic senators (and one independent, Sen. Angus King) proposed allowing the broader sale of low-cost, high-deductible health plans, whose availability is currently limited under the ACA. The senators also advocated expanding the law’s tax credits for small business—making them available to more firms and for longer periods—and further diluting the ACA’s employer mandate on businesses, which already has been delayed twice.

Former President Bill Clinton last year called for fixing a provision that disqualifies families for insurance subsidies if one member of the family can get “affordable” health coverage from an employer.

Others have discussed repealing a provision in the law that would slow the growth in premium subsidies beginning in 2019.

Most of these “fixes” come with price tags—and potentially large ones at that. A 2011 study by the Employment Policies Institute found that fixing the affordability definition, as President Clinton proposed, could increase spending by nearly $50 billion per year.

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act suggesting modifications have a duty to explain whether and how any spending increases would be paid for—through tax increases or other spending reductions.  Because proposing new federal spending without a way to pay for it could put Democrats—and taxpayers—in, well, a bit of a fix.

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

IT Failure at the Immigration Courts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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