Tag Archives: premiums

Top Ten Conservative Concerns with the American Health Care Act

1.     Doesn’t Improve Care.  Obamacare expanded the federal bureaucracy at the expense of quality care. Tax dollars were taken from providers and used to pay administrators, consultants, lobbyists, insurers, and regulators. The House bill does nothing to change that dynamic.

2.     Raises Insurance Premiums.  The Congressional Budget Office believes that the bill will raise insurance premiums by 15-20 percent on average in the next two years, with even higher spikes in some areas. Americans care most about lowering health costs and making coverage affordable—yet the bill falls short on that count, retaining all but one of Obamacare’s costly mandated benefits and insurance regulations.

3.     Doesn’t Repeal Obamacare.  Lost in the question of whether or not the bill’s replacement provisions represent “Obamacare Lite” is the fact that the bill as currently drafted represents “Repeal Lite”—when compared not only to full repeal, but even to the 2015 reconciliation bill that passed both houses of Congress. The bill retains all but one of Obamacare’s benefit mandates, some of its taxes, and keeps Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied in perpetuity.

4.     Expands Obamacare.     Rather than repealing all of the law, the House Republican bill instead expands Obamacare’s subsidy regime—extending it to millions of individuals off of insurance Exchanges for 2018 and 2019—and revises the subsidy regime for 2019. Some conservatives may question the need to “fix” Obamacare, when House Republicans’ legislation should revolve around repealing Obamacare.

5.     Creates New Entitlement.  Beginning in 2020, the bill creates an entirely new entitlement—advanceable, refundable tax credits—replacing Obamacare’s form of subsidized health insurance with another.

6.     Fiscal Gimmicks?  Under the bill, the transition from the Obamacare subsidy regime to the new system of tax credits, and a reformed Medicaid program, will take place beginning in January 2020—a presidential election year. If Congress or the Administration delay or abandon the transition due to political blowback, the cost of the House bill will soar.

7.     Permanent Bailout Fund for Insurers?    While failing to repeal Obamacare’s risk corridors and reinsurance bailouts, the bill also creates a new “Patient and State Stability Fund,” designed to provide most of its $100 billion in grants to subsidize health insurers. Some conservatives may question whether this grant program will end in 2026 as scheduled under the bill, or whether health insurers instead will make claims on Washington for federal bailouts to the tune of billions of dollars annually.

8.     Federally Controlled, Not Patient-Centered.    Notwithstanding some important structural changes to Medicaid that respect states, the House bill claims to be patient-centered but still denies a 60-year-old the ability to opt out of paying for maternity benefits. Supporters of the House bill talk about giving more flexibility to states, but leave all but one of the federal insurance mandates in place.

9.     Perpetuates Medicaid Expansion.    The House Republican bill allows states to keep their Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied in perpetuity—a major change compared to the 2015 repeal bill. CBO concluded that many states will in fact keep their expansions, diverting funds from covering the most vulnerable to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults. Moreover, the House bill maintains Obamacare’s enhanced Medicaid match for nearly three years, encouraging expansion states to sign up more able-bodied adults between now and January 2020 to receive additional federal funding.

10.  Inadequate Verification.  By relying on Obamacare’s system of verifying eligibility for the new tax credit entitlement, the bill requires verification of citizenship but not identity—continuing Obamacare’s problems of fraudulent applicants obtaining subsidies. In addition, some conservatives may be concerned that even these inadequate verification provisions could be stripped due to procedural concerns in the Senate.

A PDF version of this document is available on the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

Four Questions Following CBO’s Score

Yesterday’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation lead to widespread news coverage of its health coverage numbers. However, several other questions reveal the “story behind the story,” which could help determine the bill’s ultimate fate:

Who Wants to Run on Premium Increases?     While some may tout eventual premium savings under the bill (about which more below), the most immediate headline involves the estimated 15-20 percent premium increases that will hit in both 2018 and 2019, because CBO believes fewer healthy individuals will sign up for coverage. As with Obamacare’s Exchanges over the past few years, that projected national average may mask significant regional differences; some areas could see premium increases well in excess of 20 percent. These premium increases (possibly coupled with insurer exits) would be the first tangible impact of Obamacare repeal many constituents face heading into the 2018 elections—not a welcome sign for conservatives who ran for years on the promise of Obamacare repeal yielding lower premiums.

Spend More Now, Save More Later—Really?            While some Republican leaders touted the bill’s supposed deficit savings, a closer look reveals significant flaws. Notably, the bill will increase the deficit in its first five years by a net of $9.4 billion, while lowering the deficit by over $345 billion in its second five years. A look at Table 3 in the score—which shows the net budgetary effects of the bill’s major coverage provisions—gives important signals as to why. Take a look at the net spending on coverage—that is, reductions in Medicaid and Obamacare subsidy spending, offset by increases in spending on the bill’s new tax credits—by fiscal year:

Fiscal Year 2017: $8 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2018: $29 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2019: $42 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2020: $100 billion spending reduction
Fiscal Year 2021: $137 billion spending reduction

Note that these numbers above are NOT cumulative totals—they represent annual reductions in entitlement/subsidy spending. The numbers mean that, even after taking into account the new refundable tax credits (which would start on January 1, 2020, the day after the Obamacare subsidy regime expires), net spending would decline by nearly an additional $60 billion in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020—i.e., roughly six weeks before the next presidential election.

With numbers like these, it’s not hard to argue that the new refundable tax credit will not take effect in a presidential election year—or possibly ever. Congress may instead act to perpetuate Obamacare’s existing subsidy regime, which the House Republican bill actually expands for the supposed “transition” period, into an enhanced, entrenched, and therefore permanent, entitlement.

What Will Premiums Look Like in 2027? CBO claims that “by 2026, average premiums for single policy-holders in the non-group market under the legislation would be roughly 10 percent lower than under current law.” If accurate, that estimate means that—more than 15 years after the law’s enactment—premiums might recover most (but perhaps not all) of the average $2,100 per family premium spike CBO attributed to Obamacare.

Even then, however, initial appearances can deceive. CBO noted that premiums would decline in 2026 in part because of the new, $100 billion Patient and State Stability Fund. CBO concluded that fund grants would likely be used for reinsurance payments to insurers; “if those funds were devoted to other purposes, then premium reductions would be smaller.”

That CBO analysis raises the obvious question: What happens to premiums in 2027—when the stability fund created by the legislation would expire? Or have House Republicans created in the Stability Fund what amounts to a perpetual bailout machine, a new entitlement for health insurers that they hope will keep premiums low—albeit at taxpayers’ expense?

Why Not Repeal?      Even with a new refundable tax credit entitlement, the overall CBO coverage numbers were little higher than those associated with enacting the 2015 repeal/reconciliation bill. In fact, if that 2015 reconciliation bill had repealed Obamacare’s major insurance regulations—the major drivers of rising premiums, all of which have a clear budgetary nexus—it may have achieved coverage levels higher than this “repeal-and-replace” bill.

House leadership will now face the difficult task of mustering up votes for a plan with no natural constituency. It’s the kind of legislation that leads to cynical blandishments to win votes—arguing to conservatives that the refundable tax credit is a relatively innocuous entitlement, because no one will use it; and arguing to moderates that, while many of their constituents will lose coverage under the bill, they can extend to their constituents the promise of the new tax credits, even though few will utilize them.

Instead of passing legislation that some may vote for, but few truly support, House leadership would be wiser instead to focus on enacting a bill that Members can both vote for and support. Repealing Obamacare—including the costly regulations emanating from Washington—would lower premiums, encouraging individuals to purchase coverage, and begin the process of restoring state sovereignty over health care and health insurance, an outcome for which conservatives could be proud.

House Republicans’ Health Care Bill By the Numbers

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has compiled a list of important numbers relevant to House Republicans’ Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation:

27-30 Percent—Extent to which Obamacare’s insurance mandates would raise premiums, according to a 2009 Congressional Budget Office estimate

50 Percent—Actual increase in average premiums in 2014 when Obamacare was implemented, with another 25% increase expected in 2017

15-20 Percent—Estimated increase in individual market premiums in 2018 and 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office under GOP plan

1—Number of Obamacare insurance mandates actually repealed in the Obamacare “repeal” bill; the actuarial value mandate would end, beginning in January 2020

1,031—Number of days between the bill’s introduction (March 6, 2017) and the date on which the enhanced federal match for states that expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults would finally end

Never—Date when the Medicaid expansion ends; Section 112(a) of the bill explicitly allows states to keep their expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults—a change from the 2015 reconciliation bill, which repealed expansion outright

1,762—Approximate number of days until the bill may begin to reduce the deficit; the bill actually increases the deficit in its first five years, relying on budgetary savings in the “out years” that may or may not ever materialize

7,000,000—Estimated loss in employer-sponsored health coverage by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in part because “fewer employers would offer health insurance to their workers”

$100,000,000,000—Spending on the Patient and State Stability Fund, a new program that some may believe could turn into a permanent bailout fund/entitlement for insurers

$361,000,000,000—Spending on the new tax credit entitlement in the Obamacare “repeal” bill

$20,000,000,000,000—Approximate level of total federal debt, which may lead some to question the wisdom of the spending on the two new programs outlined above

1411—Section of Obamacare regarding eligibility determinations; the House Republican bill would replicate that program to test eligibility for its own new insurance subsidies, even though Republicans have previously criticized Obamacare for enabling fraud and giving taxpayer subsidies to undocumented immigrants

A PDF of this document can be found at the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

How to Repeal Obamacare–And What Comes Next

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s confirmation early Friday morning marks both an end and a beginning. While his installation after a bitter nomination battle formally begins the Trump administration’s work on healthcare, Price will also seek to bring about the end of former President Barack Obama’s unpopular and unaffordable healthcare law.

Dismantling Obamacare should be a three-fold process, involving coordination among HHS, the rest of the administration, and the Republican-led Congress. The steps can occur concurrently, but all must take place to prevent people from suffering any further from Obamacare’s ill effects.

Having assumed his post, Price should use the regulatory apparatus at his disposal to bring immediate relief from Obamacare. Press reports indicate the administration has already taken steps in that regard, sending a package of insurance stabilization rules to the Office of Management and Budget for clearance prior to their release, potentially as soon as Friday afternoon.

The reports suggest the administration is considering many of the proposals to provide regulatory flexibility that I included in a report analyzing repeal last month. Specifically, the administration may reduce the length of the annual open enrollment period and require verification of individuals seeking special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment. These are two critical steps to prevent individuals from signing up for insurance after they become sick.

The administration is also considering additional flexibility with regards to Obamacare’s benefit mandates, allowing additional variation in the expected percentage of health costs plans cover, for instance.

In many cases, the administration and Price have significant latitude to provide flexibility, but that latitude is not unlimited. Until Congress acts, Obamacare remains on the statute books. While regulators can reinterpret the law, they cannot ignore it. Already, the liberal-leaning AARP has threatened legal action over one of the new administration’s rumored regulatory changes.

These legal constraints illustrate why Congress should act, preferably sooner rather than later, in passing legislation repealing Obamacare. Congress should use as the basis for action the repeal bill it passed in the fall of 2015, which Obama vetoed early last year. That bill repealed all of the law’s tax increases, and sunset the law’s coverage expansions after a two-year period to allow for an appropriate transition.

While the 2015 legislation should represent the initial template for Obamacare’s repeal, Congress can and should go further. Legislators should also seek to repeal the law’s insurance regulations, which have raised premiums and caused millions to receive cancellation notices.

Although some assume Congress cannot repeal the regulations using budget reconciliation — the special process that allows legislation to pass with a 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60 votes, in the Senate — that may not be accurate. The Congressional Budget Office and others have made estimates showing the significant budgetary impact of these costly regulations. Republicans should use those cost estimates, and past Senate precedent, to enact repeal of the major insurance provisions using the special budget reconciliation procedures.

While adding repeal of the insurance regulations to the 2015 measure, Congress should also ease the transition away from Obamacare by freezing enrollment in the law’s new entitlements upon enactment of the repeal bill. It makes no sense to allow millions of individuals to continue enrolling in a program Congress has just voted to end. Especially with respect to the law’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied, freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Obamacare to retain their coverage, while starting a process to transition away from the law’s spending and allow individuals to transition off the rolls and into employer-based coverage.

When thinking about a post-Obamacare world, Congress and the new administration should have three priorities: lowering costs, lowering costs and lowering costs.

Americans of all political stripes view lowering health costs as their number-one priority, and it isn’t even close. While candidate Obama promised in 2008 that his health plan would lower costs by an average $2,500 per family per year, the bill he signed into law instead raised costs and premiums for millions.

The answer to the top health concern lies not in new spending and taxes to subsidize health insurance (the failed Obamacare formula) but in reducing the underlying costs of care.

Reducing costs involves equalizing the tax treatment of health insurance, limiting current tax preferences that encourage over-consumption of health insurance and health care. But this must be done in a way that does not raise tax burdens overall. Lowering costs should include incentives for wellness and promote health savings accounts, the expansion of which could reduce health expenditures by billions of dollars.

States have a big role to play in the health debate, both in lowering costs and protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions.

Congress can and should provide states with incentives to reduce insurance benefit mandates that drive up the cost of care. Congress should guarantee that individuals with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, but give states funding, and let them decide the best route — whether through high-risk pools, or some other risk transfer mechanism — to ensure access to care. While not the panacea President Trump and others have claimed, Congress should allow individuals to shop across state lines for the coverage that best suits their needs.

These changes will not require a 2,700-page piece of legislation like Obamacare. They should not even be considered a “replacement” for Obamacare. But they would have an impact in reducing health costs, the issue Americans care most about. They would represent a new beginning after the canceled policies and premium spikes associated with Obamacare.

 This post was originally published in the Washington Examiner.

Three Points CBO Omitted from Its Report on Obamacare Repeal

This morning, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report analyzing the effects of Obamacare repeal. Specifically, CBO claimed that enacting a reconciliation bill that the last Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, would increase the number of uninsured (even relative to pre-Obamacare numbers) while raising insurance premiums appreciably. CBO believes that leaving Obamacare’s major insurance regulations in place—which last year’s reconciliation bill did—while repealing the law’s subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, will destabilize insurance markets, cause insurers to exit the marketplace, and raise premiums.

However, there are three important facts the CBO report didn’t address:

CBO Has Gotten Previous Estimates Wrong

While no forecaster has a perfect batting average, CBO’s track record with respect to Obamacare is perhaps less ideal than most. CBO thought that the CLASS Act—which Democratic Senator Kent Conrad infamously called “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing for which Bernie Madoff would be proud of—could be implemented in an actuarially sound manner. The Obama Administration eventually had to admit that the CLASS Act was not a fiscally sound program. And CBO failed to conduct enough analysis that could have predicted the CLASS Act’s failure prior to Obamacare’s passage—a point former Director Doug Elmendorf has publicly refused to admit.

With respect to enrollment, CBO significantly over-estimated the number of individuals that would sign up for Obamacare. In March 2010, as Democrats were ready to pass the law, CBO claimed that in 2016, 21 million individuals would sign up for coverage on insurance Exchanges. The reality has proven far different: Less than half as many individuals (10.4 million) had Exchange coverage as of June 30, 2016. And this much lower enrollment comes despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling making Medicaid expansion optional for states—which actually increased Exchange enrollment in states that have declined to expand Medicaid.

CBO claimed in 2010 that the individual mandate would cause tens of millions of individuals to sign up for coverage. It hasn’t happened. Now CBO claims that effectively repealing the mandate while leaving insurance regulations in place will cause healthy individuals to cancel coverage en masse. Could that happen? Absolutely. But given their recent track record on this specific issue, should one really take CBO’s word as gospel…?

The Solution Is More Repeal, Not Less

In a paradoxical way, the CBO report actually makes a strong case for expanding the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill. The paper notes on several occasions that repealing Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, while leaving its insurance regulations in place, would harm insurance markets. For instance, CBO notes that:

The number of people without health insurance would be smaller if, in addition to the changes in [last year’s reconciliation bill], the insurance market reforms mentioned above were also repealed.

Congress chose not to litigate the question of whether Obamacare’s major insurance mandates were budgetary in nature, and thus could be included in a budget reconciliation bill, last year. It should do so now. The findings of this CBO paper, along with other scoring estimates, give ample ammunition to those who consider it entirely consistent with past Senate precedents to include repeal of the major insurance regulations in budget reconciliation.

The Trump Administration Can Mitigate Repeal’s Effects

Even if Congress cannot or will not expand the scope of the reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations under Obamacare, the Trump Administration can act to mitigate against the kinds of concerns outlined in the CBO paper. A report I released just this morning outlines some of them. The Administration can significantly shorten—to just a few weeks, or even shorter—the annual open enrollment period, which can protect against individuals signing up for coverage after they get sick. It can reduce special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment, and require verification for all special enrollment. And it can take other administrative actions to mitigate the effects of a spike in premiums.

John Cornyn Illustrates Republicans’ Obamacare Problem in One Tweet

As the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn holds significant sway in policy-making circles. In his third term, and serving on both the judiciary and finance committees—the latter of which has jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid—Cornyn should have a good working knowledge of health policy.

All of that makes this tweet, sent Friday from his account, so surprising:

How can advocates tout Obamacare a success when, among many other flaws, it leaves 30 million people uninsured?

The tweet essentially complains that Obamacare wreaked massive havoc on the health care system, while leaving 30 million uninsured. It’s similar to the Catskills joke cited by Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”: “The food at this place is really terrible—and such small portions!”

Observers on Twitter noted the irony. Some asked Cornyn to support more government spending on subsidies; some asked him to have his home state of Texas expand Medicaid; some asked for a single-payer system that would “end” the problem of uninsurance entirely.

For that matter, increasing the mandate tax to thousands of dollars, or putting people in jail if they do not purchase coverage, would also reduce the number of uninsured. Does that mean Cornyn would support those efforts?

It’s the Costs, Stupid!

There are many reasons conservatives should not remain fixated on the number of people with health insurance when designing an Obamacare alternative.

Insurance Does Not Equal Access: The narrow networks and high deductibles plaguing Obamacare exchange plans—imposed because federally mandated benefits force insurers to find other ways to cut costs—impede access to care, making finding an in-network physician both more difficult and more costly.

Similarly for Medicaid—the prime source of Obamacare’s coverage expansions—beneficiaries themselves don’t even consider a Medicaid card “real insurance,” because they cannot find a physician who will treat them: “You feel so helpless thinking, something’s wrong with this child and I can’t even get her into a doctor….When we had real insurance, we would call and come in at the drop of a hat.”

Insurance Does Not Equal Better Health: The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment compared a group of individuals selected from a random lottery to enroll in Medicaid with similarly situated individuals who did not win the lottery and did not enroll in coverage. It found that Medicaid coverage brought no measurable improvement in physical health outcomes. Likewise, prior studies have suggested that, for health outcomes Medicaid coverage may be worse than having no health insurance at all.

Beneficiaries Do Not Value Health Insurance: Another study from the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment released last year found that most Medicaid beneficiaries valued their health insurance at between 20 and 40 cents on the dollar. In other words, if given a hypothetical choice between a Medicaid insurance policy valued at $3,000, and cash in the amount of $1,500, most beneficiaries would choose the cash.

Obama Promised to Lower Costs—And Failed to Deliver: During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama didn’t promise to reduce the number of uninsured by a certain amount. He did, however, promise to cut the average family’s health insurance costs and premiums by an average of $2,500 per year. On that count, his health law failed miserably. Since the law passed, employer-sponsored coverage has risen by more than $4,300 per family. Exchange policies spiked dramatically in 2014, when the law’s mandated benefits took effect, and are set to rise again this coming year.

Voters Care Most About Costs: Prior polling data indicates that, by a more than two-to-one margin, voters prioritize the cost of health care (45 percent) over the lack of universal coverage (19 percent). Likewise, voters prefer a health plan that would lower costs without guaranteeing universal coverage to a plan that would create universal coverage while increasing costs by a 13-point margin.

Buying into a Liberal Shibboleth

The responses from liberals to Cornyn’s tweet indicate the extent to which health coverage has become a shibboleth on the Left. There are few things liberals will not do—from spending more money on subsidies, to creating a single-payer system, to expanding coverage to illegal immigrants—to ensure everyone has a health insurance card. (Some liberals might object to putting people in jail for not buying health coverage. Might.)

The liberal fixation—some would call it an obsession—over the number of people with health insurance comes despite evidence suggesting insurance coverage does not necessarily equate with access or improved health outcomes. Over the past 40 years, 90 percent of the growth in safety net spending has come in the form of higher spending on health programs. That spending could have been more effective in alleviating poverty by improving the education system, changing transportation patterns, or enhancing nutritional options in poor communities, all of which also could foster better health outcomes. But because liberals remain singularly focused on the number of Americans with insurance cards, that’s where they want to focus all the federal government’s time and energy.

So, apparently, does John Cornyn. Rather than pledging to lower health costs—Americans’ top health care goal—or questioning the effectiveness of Democrats’ focus on health insurance above all else, his tweet looks like pure kvetching about a problem he has no interest in solving. If one wants to understand Republicans’ problems on health care—both their poor messaging, and their single-minded policy focus on replicating liberal solutions in a slightly-less-costly manner—they need look no further than this one tweet.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

On Health Care, It’s the Costs, Stupid

At his first post-election press conference Monday, President Obama attempted to sound gracious on the topic of repealing his signature health law, while simultaneously laying down a clear policy gauntlet: the number of Americans with insurance coverage under a Republican replacement.

If they can come up with something better that actually works, a year or two after they’ve replaced [Obamacare] with their own plan, and 25 million people have health insurance and it’s cheaper and better and running smoothly, I’ll be the first one to say that’s great. Congratulations (emphasis mine).

In other words, as I noted last month, the president will happily support others’ legislation—so long as it accomplishes exactly what he wants. Ironically enough, when campaigning for the presidency eight years ago, Barack Obama campaigned on one number, but one that had nothing to do with the number of Americans with health coverage. It was $2,500—the premium reduction he promised to the average family.

While Obama said his law would reduce health costs—Americans’ top health-care concern—the media has yet to focus either on how his law singularly failed to keep that promise, or how a Republican alternative would affect premium levels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media has thus far viewed the debate on an Obamacare replacement entirely through one liberal policy frame: How many people have health insurance cards.

Obamaspeak: ‘Lower Premiums’ Means Massive Increases

President Obama’s 2016 focus on how many people have health insurance coverage stands in stark contrast to candidate Obama, circa 2008. In the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton, he famously opposed an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, because “the reason people don’t have health insurance isn’t because they don’t want it; it’s because they can’t afford it.”

While then-senator Obama did not promise to achieve a certain level of health insurance coverage, he did make a very specific promise to lower premiums. As this video shows, Obama promised—over and over and over again—that his health-care plan would lower premiums by an average of $2,500 per family. Note also that Obama promised to “lower” and “cut” premiums. That means he didn’t promise that premiums would rise by slightly less than predicted—he pledged to reduce them in absolute terms.

On any count, President Obama’s pledge lies in tatters. Since he signed Obamacare in 2010, the average employer-sponsored health plan has risen by more than $3,300 per family—from $13,770 in 2010 to $18,142 this year. Obamacare’s massive benefit mandates raised the average premium for individually purchased coverage by about 40 percent overnight, as the main provisions of the law took effect in 2014. Premiums are also set to spike on Obamacare exchanges again, with an average of another 25 percent rise for the plan year beginning January 1.

Cost Is Voters’ Top Concern

In reality, Obamacare stands as living proof that affordability matters most for health care and health insurance. While the Medicaid rolls have exploded far beyond most states’ original estimates—perhaps because the program charges no premiums to most beneficiaries—enrollment in exchange plans remains far below projections. Obamacare’s benefit mandates have so raised the cost of coverage that everyone but individuals qualifying for the richest subsidies has stayed away from the exchanges in droves.

Polling data also speaks to voters’ concern about reducing health costs. A survey conducted for America Next in February 2014 (while I served as America Next’s policy director) reveals that voters judge costs as a larger concern than universal coverage by a more than two-to one margin. In addition, by 13 percentage points voters prefer a system that lowers costs but does not guarantee coverage over a system that guarantees health insurance but increases costs.

The Media Is Out of Touch with Americans

In covering a post-Obamacare universe, most media stories in the past week have focused solely on the number of individuals with health insurance. That’s one key metric, but so are whether health insurance results in access to actual health care, whether coverage improves health outcomes, and the extent to which individuals value health insurance over other goods.

Voters care most about reducing the underlying cost of health care. Only lowering costs, not creating new ways for the federal government to subsidize them, will make health care fiscally sustainable in the long term, while increasing the number of Americans with health coverage. That’s the prime metric for judging Obamacare, a metric by which, according to its eponymous creator, it has fallen short, and the metric for judging Republican proposals to replace it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare’s Exchanges Have Become Medicaid-Like Ghettoes

The October surprise that Washington knew about all along finally arrived yesterday, as the Obama administration announced that premiums would increase by nearly 25 percent nationally for Obamacare’s individual insurance. With the exchanges already struggling to maintain their long-term viability, the premium increases place the administration in a political vise, as it tries to encourage people to buy a product whose price is rising even as it presents a poor value for most potential enrollees.

In the 40-page report the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released, breaking down premium and plan information for 2017, one interesting number stands out. Among states using Healthcare.gov, the federally run exchange, the median income of enrollees in 2016 topped out at 165 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). In other words, half of enrollees made less $40,095 for a family of four. And 81 percent earned less than $60,750 for a family of four, or less than 250 percent of the FPL.

The new data from the report further confirm that the only people buying exchange plans are those receiving massive subsidies — both the richest premium subsidies, which phase out significantly above 250 percent FPL, and cost-sharing subsidies, which phase out entirely for enrollees above the 250 percent FPL threshold. If the House of Representatives’ suit challenging the constitutionality of spending on the cost-sharing subsidies succeeds, and those funds stop flowing to insurers, Obamacare may then face an existential crisis.

Even as it stands now, however, the exchanges are little more than Medicaid-like ghettoes, attracting a largely low-income population most worried about their monthly costs. To moderate premium spikes, insurers have done what Medicaid managed-care plans do: Narrow networks. Consultants at McKinsey note that three-quarters of exchange plans in 2017 will have no out-of-network coverage, except in emergency cases. And those provider networks themselves are incredibly narrow: one-third fewer specialists than the average employer plan, and hospital networks continuing to shrink.

In short, exchange coverage looks nothing like the employer plans that more affluent Americans have come to know and like. Case in point: At a briefing last month, I asked Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California, what health insurance he purchased for himself. He responded that he was not covered on the exchange that he himself runs but instead obtained coverage through California’s state-employee plan. Which raises obvious questions: If Covered California’s offerings aren’t good enough to compel Lee to give up his state-employee plan, how good are they? Or, to put it another way, if exchange plans aren’t good enough for someone making a salary of $420,000 a year, why are they good enough for low-income enrollees?

Therein lies Obamacare’s problem — both a political dilemma and a policy one. Insurers who specialize in Medicaid managed-care plans using narrow networks have managed to eke out small profits amid other insurers’ massive exchange losses. As a result, other carriers have narrowed their product offerings, making Obamacare plans look more and more alike: narrow networks, tightly managed care — yet ever-rising premiums.

While restrictive HMOs with few provider choices may not dissuade heavily subsidized enrollees from signing up for exchange coverage, it likely will discourage more affluent customers. The exchanges need to increase their enrollment base. The combination of high premiums, tight provider networks, and deductibles so high as to render coverage “all but useless” will not help the exchanges attract the wealthier, and healthier, enrollees needed to create a stable risk pool. By reacting so sharply to its current customer base, insurers on exchanges could well alienate the base of potential customers they need to maintain their long-term viability. In that sense, Obamacare’s race to the bottom could become the exchanges’ undoing.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Barack Obama’s Anti-Democratic Speech

In Miami on Thursday afternoon, President Obama gave a speech ostensibly updating the American people on the status of his health care law. But beneath the wonky explanations lay several dark—one might even call them intolerant—undercurrents.

As much as Donald Trump’s recent comments suggesting he won’t accept the results of November’s election violate democratic norms—and they do—President Obama’s demeanor provides a more subtle, but perhaps no less insidious, threat to democratic pluralism.

When it comes to his eponymous law, President Obama thinks only policy outcomes to his liking warrant an end to debate, will only acknowledge ideas and philosophies consonant with his own, and refuses to acknowledge the extent of the deception needed to pass the measure in the first place.

Granted, the President didn’t follow Donald Trump’s (bad) example in saying he would only accept the election results “if I win.” But when it comes to the policy consequences arising from said elections, the President’s attitude essentially echoes Trump’s: The outcomes only matter if he wins.

“Going Back” to Hillarycare

As his is wont, the President on Thursday cited multiple votes on repeal bills in Congress, and questioned why Republicans wouldn’t want to “go back” to the days before Obamacare. But to this historian, it’s worth taking at least minute to do just that.

A certain former Secretary of State often likes to point out that “it was called Hillarycare before it was called Obamacare.” She’s right, of course. It was called Hillarycare—and the voters overwhelmingly rejected it, handing control of both chambers of Congress to Republicans for the first time in 40 years. And before that, voters and legislators rejected universal coverage schemes under Presidents Nixon, Truman, and both Presidents Roosevelt, to name but a few.

Viewed from this prism, why did Democrats in 2009 “go back” to try and enact Hillarycare after voters soundly rejected it—not just during the Clinton Administration, but time after time after time over a span of nearly a century? Because, for good or for ill, they believed in the objective of universal coverage—and they would not take repeated “nos” from the voters for an answer.

Why then should those concerned about the impact of Obamacare—or for that matter, any program promoted by this President—not demonstrate the same level of passion, and the same level of sustained enthusiasm, to obtain their objectives? The answer is simple: They absolutely should—at least, if you believe in democracy. But to judge from his speech, President Obama apparently places a higher priority on denigrating those who would undermine his agenda.

Granted, if you believe government only exists to provide an ever-larger amount of largesse to individuals—a boundless array of programs, generating an ever-growing level of federal munificence—you might think the only outcomes that matter are ones that increase government’s scope and reach. But if you believe that lawmakers, in their rush to obtain short-term political advantage, might be spending their way into unsustainable levels of debt for future generations, you probably take issue with the President’s one-sided perspective.

Differing Goals

Likewise, the President refuses to acknowledge that conservatives have any “serious alternatives” to the law. As someone who helped draft not one, but two, such alternatives, I can categorically call that claim false. President Obama likely knows such alternatives exist—but because they disagree with his objectives, he refuses to acknowledge them.

There’s an ironic contradiction between the President’s refusal to acknowledge conservative alternatives to Obamacare and his self-proclaimed willingness to accept ideas from any quarter. In his speech Thursday, the President joked that he would even change the name of Obamacare to “Reagancare” or “Paul Ryancare,” if Republicans would agree to improve the measure.

But there’s a not-insignificant catch: President Obama will discuss ideas from anyone—but only if they accomplish his objectives. If the ideas don’t synch up with his objectives—if he doesn’t win on the policy, to echo Trump—then to the President, those ideas simply don’t exist.

The President once again talked about Obamacare’s program of state waivers, which he claimed would provide flexibility to states. But as I have previously noted, the law permits states to waive some of the law’s requirements only if they agree to accomplish the law’s objectives. States can impose more mandates and regulations, and cover more people, but not fewer. Conservatives who wish to emphasize solutions that focus on lowering health care costs over expanding coverage will find little comfort from the law’s waivers—and little acknowledgement from this President.

Win at All Costs?

One might not recognize it at first glance, but the President’s speech implicitly admitted many of the deceptions needed to pass Obamacare in the first place. In calling the law a “starter home,” and calling for increased subsidies, he conceded that his remarks to Congress stating “the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion” amounted to a bait-and-switch. Ditto his claims that premiums are rising at their slowest rate—far from the $2,500 per family premium reduction he promised in 2008.

But to President Obama, when it comes to policy, winning is all that matters. And just as with Trump’s comments on the election in November, the only outcomes that matter to President Obama—and the only ideas he will acknowledge—are those in agreement with him. Regardless of whether you believe Obamacare should be preserved, improved, or repealed, that’s bad for democracy.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are Exchanges’ Dual Dilemmas Mutually Exclusive?

Amidst the spike in health insurance premiums set to hit just before the November elections, health insurance Exchanges face two distinct dilemmas: Too few people enrolled overall—coupled with a disproportionate number of sick individuals. Unfortunately, solving these dual problems may prove mutually exclusive, as scrutinizing efforts of sick individuals seeking to obtain coverage could lead healthier people to abandon their efforts to enroll.

In recent months, insurers have raised concerns about special enrollment periods (SEPs), designed to allow individuals to sign up for coverage outside the usual fall open enrollment due to “life changes” like a move, a loss of employer coverage, or a change in marital status. Insurers believe those enrolling through special enrollment periods 1) incur more costs than those customers who sign up using the fall open enrollment and 2) are disproportionately likely to drop their coverage after several months. They believe a significant proportion of special enrollment period sign-ups come from individuals who obtain coverage due to a health crisis, obtain care with that coverage, and promptly drop it once they return to health.

In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which sets federal policy for Exchanges, has proposed eliminating some special enrollment periods, and requiring documentation for others. However, an Urban Institute paper released earlier this summer noted that

This higher cost [to insurers] results from three factors: (1) enrollment by costly consumers who are ineligible for SEPs, (2) enrollment by costly consumers who are eligible for SEPs, and (3) limited enrollment by healthy and eligible consumers. CMS’s policy to verify eligibility by requesting consumer documentation addresses the first factor. However, it does not address the second, and it worsens the third by adding procedural requirements that are likely to lessen eligible consumers’ participation, especially among the healthy.

Therein lies the dilemma—both for the Administration, and for insurers. Verifying special enrollment periods will discourage those trying to “game the system” by inventing a “life change” where none exists, but it will do nothing to discourage sick individuals with a bona fide reason for claiming special enrollment—and it may also dissuade healthy individuals from signing up when they change jobs. If the second and third effects outweigh the first, the changes could actually worsen the overall health of Exchange enrollees.

Enrollment in Exchange plans remains moribund compared to original expectations. Administration data show total enrollment of 11.1 million on March 31—a decrease of 1.6 million compared to the beginning of the year, and just over half the 2016 enrollment originally projected by the Congressional Budget Office at the time of the law’s passage. While verifying special enrollment periods will help crack down on abuses of the system, they may do so by further diminishing enrollment. And the changes could actually worsen the problem of adverse selection—enrollment by too few healthy individuals, and too many sick ones—they were meant to fix.