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CBO Estimate of American Health Care Act, As Passed by the House

On May 24, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its score of the American Health Care Act, as passed by the House on May 4. CBO found that the bill would:

  • Reduce deficits by about $119 billion over ten years—$133 billion in on-budget savings, offset by $14 billion in off-budget (i.e., Social Security) costs.
  • Increase the number of uninsured by 14 million in 2018, rising to a total of 23 million by 2026—a slight reduction from its earlier estimates.
  • Generally reduce individual market insurance premiums, “in part because the insurance, on average, would pay for a smaller proportion of health care costs.” However, those reductions would vary widely, as detailed further below.

Most of the CBO analysis focused on changes to the legislation made since the bill was originally introduced—and specifically the effects on insurance markets. The current CBO report therefore should be read in conjunction with the prior report (found online here, and my summary of same here).

Waivers:         With respect to the state waivers for insurance regulations—specifically, essential health benefits and community rating requirements—CBO categorized states as adopting one of three general approaches, based in part on the way states regulated their insurance markets prior to Obamacare. CBO did not attempt to determine which states would make which decisions, but used three categories to describe their attitude toward the waivers:

  • About half of the population would live in states that would not adopt the waivers;
  • About one-third of the population would live in states adopting “moderate” waivers; and
  • About one-sixth of the population would live in states adopting “substantial” waivers.

No Waiver States:       CBO estimated that in these states, premiums would fall by an average of 4 percent by 2026, due largely to a younger and healthier population purchasing insurance. Specifically, the greater variation in age rating that the bill permits for insurers, beginning in 2019, would raise premiums for older people while “substantially” lowering them for younger individuals.

Moderate Waiver States:        CBO estimated that in these states, premiums would fall by an average of 20 percent, with significant variations. “The estimated reductions in average premiums range from 10 percent to 30 percent in different areas of the country,” and reductions for younger people would be greater than those for older individuals. The premium reductions would come because “on average, insurance policies would provide fewer benefits;” however, plans “would still offer financial protection from most major health risks.”

CBO noted that states making moderate changes might eliminate such requirements as maternity care, mental health, substance abuse, rehabilitative and habilitative care, and pediatric dental care. In general, insurers “would not want to sell policies that included benefits that were not mandated by state law.” Carriers could sell supplemental riders for such coverage, but CBO concluded most individuals purchasing those riders would utilize them, potentially resulting in “substantially higher out-of-pocket costs” for said individuals.

In the case of states making moderate changes via waivers, CBO estimated that while premiums would be lower for individual insurance, employers would be more likely to continue offering group coverage, and therefore fewer employees would switch from employer to individual market policies. CBO estimated that, compared to the previous estimate, “slightly more people would have insurance in those states, but fewer of them would be enrolled through the non-group market.”

Substantial Waiver States:    In these states, CBO estimated that, while waivers would result in “significantly lower premiums” for those with low expected health costs, the changes could destabilize markets over time, such that less healthy individuals might be “unable to purchase comprehensive coverage with premiums close to those under current law and might not be able to purchase coverage at all.”

Essentially, CBO believes that waiving the community rating provision will create an arbitrage opportunity, whereby healthy individuals will want to undergo medical underwriting to lower premiums, while sick individuals will be unable to do so. CBO wrote that some healthy individuals will actually attempt to hide proof of continuous health insurance coverage, because they could achieve lower premiums by doing so:

CBO and JCT anticipate that, in states making substantial changes to market regulations, most healthy people applying for insurance in the nongroup market would be able to choose between underwritten premiums and community-rated premiums. If underwritten premiums were to their advantage, healthy applicants could fail to provide proof of continuous coverage when first applying for nongroup insurance—or allow their coverage to lapse for more than 63 days before applying. Moreover, insurers and states might have difficulty verifying that an applicant did not have continuous coverage. As a result, such a waiver would potentially allow the spread of medical underwriting to the entire nongroup market in a state rather than limiting it to those who did not have continuous coverage.

Essentially, CBO believes that this arbitrage opportunity could lead to a “death spiral” when it comes to coverage for individuals with high health needs—they may be unable to purchase coverage at any price. As a result, CBO concluded that in substantial waiver states, “employers would be even more likely to continue offering coverage than in states making moderate changes,” which would tend to keep individuals enrolled in group coverage, and decrease coverage in the individual insurance market overall.

CBO also noted that a “few million” (number not more specifically defined) individuals might purchase coverage that “would not cover major medical risks.” It noted the possibility that a secondary market would develop to sell insurance policies priced to match the amount of the bill’s tax credits: “Although such plans would provide some benefits, the policies would not provide enough financial protection in the event of a serious and costly illness to be considered insurance.”

Patient and State Stability Fund:            The estimate included additional details surrounding the Stability Fund, most of which CBO assumed “would be used by states to reduce premiums or increase benefits in the non-group market:”

  • The original $100 billion allocated to the fund would “exert substantial downward pressure on premiums in the non-group market and would help encourage insurers’ participation in the market.”
  • The $15 billion in invisible risk sharing funds, which “would be directed to insurers to reduce their risk of having high-cost enrollees…would have a small effect on premiums in 2018 and a larger effect on premiums in 2019.”
  • The $8 billion in funds for waiver states “would increase the number of states choosing such a waiver,” but CBO did not attempt to predict the precise way in which states would utilize those funds. While one section of the estimate alleges that “the funding would not be sufficient to substantially reduce the large increases in premiums for high-cost enrollees,” another section notes that only $6 billion of the funding would be spent over the decade—providing contradictory and unclear messages about whether the funding would be sufficient, and if it would not, why CBO thinks some of that supposedly insufficient funding would not be spent within a decade.
  • The $15 billion to cover maternity and mental health care would likely go to “health care providers rather than to insurers;” $14 billion would be spent over the decade.

Changes in Insurance Coverage:               CBO estimated that under the bill, the number of uninsured would rise by 14 million in 2018, 19 million in 2020, and 23 million in 2026. With respect to Medicaid, 14 million fewer people would have coverage than under current law; however, CBO noted that some of those individuals “would be among people who CBO projects would, under current law, become eligible in the future as additional states adopted” Medicaid expansion.

CBO estimated that the individual insurance market would decline by 8 million in 2018, 10 million in 2020, and 6 million in 2026. The estimate noted CBO’s belief that the individual market will shrink in 2020, only to expand in later years, because of implementation difficulties, particularly for states that apply for waivers and are therefore charged with certifying plans. “CBO and JCT expect that such implementation difficulties would result in some reduction in coverage and some occasions when individuals purchasing coverage would fail to get the credits. Those difficulties would probably decline over time in most markets.”

When compared to its original estimate of the bill, CBO concluded that:

  • Enrollment in the individual market would be 1 million lower in 2018 and 3 million lower in 2026, due to more employers continuing to offer coverage, while some otherwise uninsured individuals would choose to enroll in individual coverage due to lower premiums.
  • Employer based coverage would increase by 1 million in 2018 and 4 million in 2026, primarily because employers would be more likely to offer—and employees more likely to accept—group health coverage in states with insurance waivers.
  • The uninsured would decrease by 2 million in 2020 and 1 million in 2026, “primarily attributable to lower premiums for non-group coverage.” CBO concluded that, while coverage would be less robust under the waivers, “more people would choose to enroll rather than be uninsured.”

Administrative Complexity:          CBO included several passages noting the complexity and potential administrative/implementation challenges associated with the bill. It assumed that the state insurance waivers would not actually go into effect until 2020, as states would need time to prepare for same. For instance, CBO noted that Obamacare subsidies—which would remain in effect in 2018 and 2019 under the bill—are linked to the second-lowest cost silver plan. Determining the second-lowest cost silver plan in a state waiving some or all Obamacare regulations—where insurers could practice medical underwriting for individuals without continuous coverage—would require “substantial additional regulations or guidance.”

Further, because states accepting waivers would have to define qualified health plans beginning in 2020, those states would have to administer the tax credit program. The uncertainties surrounding whether and how states could administer the new programs led CBO to conclude that in waiver states “eligible people would initially be slower to take up the offer of tax credits, more claims would be made by people who are ineligible, and payments would be made for policies that do not qualify as insurance.”

Summary of Fiscal Year 2018 Budget

UPDATE: The official White House budget document, posted on Tuesday, revealed an additional policy proposal, extending a series of mandatory spending programs included in the 2015 Medicare Access and SCHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) for two more years. These programs include community health center funding, the National Health Service Corps, abstinence education programs, health profession opportunity grants, and other related public health programs. These proposals would cost a total of $9.9 billion over a decade, of which the majority ($7.2 billion) would go toward community health centers.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the Trump Administration’s proposal for a temporary, two-year extension of these mandatory spending provisions would effectively re-create the scenario caused by the Medicare sustainable growth rate — which saw mandatory spending being extended in piecemeal increments, so as to hide the spending’s full deficit impact.

Original post follows below…

Late Monday afternoon, a document briefly appeared on the Department of Health and Human Services website as the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget in Brief. It’s unclear whether the document was a draft of the HHS budget, or merely a case of a staffer posting the official document online too early (our money would be on the latter). It also must be noted that other budget materials—the White House/Office of Management and Budget document, as well as supplemental materials from the Treasury and others—provide more detail and information not present solely within the HHS budget.

That said, based on the review of the document posted, the health budget seems in many respects functionally incoherent:

  • It proposes significant entitlement savings from Medicaid, over and above those included in Obamacare repeal, while proposing no direct savings from Medicare—a program that will spend more than $9 trillion in the coming decade, and which faces insolvency by 2028;
  • It grants states more flexibility with regards to Medicaid reform, while with respect to medical liability reform, it prescribes a solution from Washington—one that conservatives have argued is inconsistent with Tenth Amendment principles; and
  • It assumes $250 billion in savings from Obamacare repeal—more than the most recent estimate of the House legislation—a “magic asterisk” not likely to be achieved, but one on which the budget relies in order to achieve balance within a decade.

A summary of the document follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days, as more materials get released.

Discretionary Spending

While press reports in recent days have focused on the amount of “cuts” proposed in the President’s budget, it’s worth noting the HHS budget’s overall spending levels. When it comes to budget authority, the budget would spend $1.113 trillion in Fiscal Year 2018, which is a 1.24% reduction compared to the $1.127 trillion preliminary number for the current fiscal year, and a 0.54% reduction compared to the $1.119 trillion for Fiscal Year 2016.

Furthermore, the HHS budget actually increases the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) within the Department—from 77,499 in FY16, to 79,505 in FY17, to 80,027 in FY18.

When compared to Fiscal Year 2017 amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $850 million (31.0%) reduction for the Food and Drug Administration, as the Administration proposes increasing FDA user fees to compensate for reductions in taxpayer funding;
  • $449 million (4.2%) reduction for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $55 million (1.1%) reduction for the Indian Health Service;
  • $1.3 billion (17.2%) reduction for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $5.78 billion (18.2%) reduction for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $385 million (9.3%) reduction for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and
  • $379 million (9.6%) reduction for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

Food and Drug Administration:  As noted above, the budget envisions a “recalibration” of how to pay for FDA pre-market review activities. Specifically, the budget would increase industry user fees “to fund 100 percent of cost for pre-market review and approval activities” for brand and generic prescription drugs and medical devices.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $22.6 Billion, including interactions)

Medicare Appeals:  Proposes new mandatory spending of $127 million in Fiscal 2018, and $1.27 billion over a decade, to address the pending backlog of Medicare appeals.

IPAB Repeal:  Repeals Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), at a cost of $7.6 billion over a decade. While opposing Obamacare’s notion that a board of unelected bureaucrats should be empowered to make rulings lowering Medicare spending nationwide, some conservatives may also oppose efforts to repeal a spending constraint on our nation’s largest health care entitlement without any similar efforts to control the program’s large (and growing) outlays.

Liability Reform:  Achieves Medicare savings of $31.4 billion from medical liability reforms. The reforms would impose caps on non-economic damages, provide safe harbors for physicians based on following clinical guidelines, allow for the creation of health courts, provide for a three-year statute of limitations, eliminate joint and several liability, allow courts to modify contingency arrangements, and provide for periodic payments for large jury awards.

The proposal would yield total savings of $55 billion overall. The largest share of $31.4 billion would come from Medicare—in part because a portion of physician fees are based on medical liability insurance payments. Medicaid savings would total $399 million. Much of the remaining $23.2 billion would come from revenue interactions with the current exclusion from employer-provided health insurance—i.e., a lowering of health insurance costs and premiums resulting in workers receiving slightly less of their compensation as pre-tax health benefits, and slightly more of their compensation as after-tax cash wages.

While supporting the concept of liability reform generally, some conservatives may be concerned that the budget’s proposals violate the principles of federalism. States can enact liability reforms on their own—and many states like Texas have done so, without any mandates from Washington. Some conservatives may therefore view this proposal as an example of “big government conservatism” inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $627 Billion)

The HHS document notes that “the budget includes a net savings to Medicaid of $627 billion over 10 years, not including additional savings to Medicaid as a result of the Administration’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

Medicaid Reform:  Assumes $610 billion in savings (again, over and above Obamacare repeal) from Medicaid reform, giving states the choice between a per capita cap or a block grant beginning in 2020. The document specifically notes that this proposal will allow states to promote solutions that encourage work and promote personal responsibility.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program:  Assumes a two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The budget also proposes eliminating two Obamacare-related provisions—the increase in the enhanced federal match rate for SCHIP, and the maintenance of effort requirements imposed on states—in both cases at the end of the current fiscal year.

The budget would cap the level at which states could receive the enhanced federal SCHIP match at 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500 for a family of four in 2017). Some conservatives would argue that this provision is one way to ensure federal funds are directed towards the vulnerable populations that need them most; guidance issued by the Bush Administration in 2007 provides other examples of potential policies to include.

Finally, the budget also proposes undoing an Obamacare change that required states to transition certain children off of SCHIP and into expanded Medicaid, allowing states to re-enroll these children into SCHIP.

On net, the SCHIP extension would save the federal government $5.8 billion over ten years, reflecting new costs to the SCHIP program ($13.9 billion), savings to Medicaid ($16.7 billion), and savings to other federal health programs ($3 billion).

Liability Reform:  As noted above, the budget assumes an additional $399 million in Medicaid savings from enacting liability reform.

Repeal of Obamacare

The budget assumes a net of $250 billion in savings from an Obamacare repeal/replace measure, savings accruing to both HHS and Treasury. Some conservatives, noting that the most recent score of Obamacare legislation showed a net savings of only $150 billion—with more new spending added since then—may question whether or not this assumption is realistic.

What You Need to Know about Budget Reconciliation in the Senate

After last week’s House passage of the American Health Care Act, the Senate has begun sorting through various policy options for health care legislation. But looming over the policy discussions are procedural concerns unique to the Senate. Herewith a primer on the process under which the upper chamber will consider an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

How Will the Bill Come to the Senate Floor?

The bill that passed the House was drafted as a budget reconciliation bill. The phrase “budget reconciliation” refers to a process established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, in which congressional committees reconcile spending in programs within their jurisdiction to the budget blueprint passed by Congress. In this case, Congress passed a budget in January that required health-care committees to report legislation reducing the deficit by $1 billion—the intended vehicle for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

What’s So Important about Budget Reconciliation?

The Budget Act lays out specific time limits for debate in the Senate—20 hours of debate—and limits amendments to germane (i.e., relevant) topics. Normally, debate in the Senate is much more free-wheeling, with unlimited debate and amendments permitted on any issue. A senator could offer an amendment on Syria policy to a tax bill, for instance.

Under most circumstances, the Senate can only limit debate and amendments by invoking cloture, which requires the approval of three-fifths of all senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes). Because the reconciliation process prohibits filibusters and unlimited debate, it allows the Senate to pass reconciliation bills with a simple majority (i.e., 51-vote) threshold.

Why Does the ‘Byrd Rule’ Exist as part of Budget Reconciliation?

Named for former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV), the rule intends to protect the integrity of the legislative filibuster. By allowing only matters integral to the budget reconciliation to pass the Senate with a simple majority (as opposed to the 60-vote threshold), the rule seeks to keep the body’s tradition of extended debate.

What Is the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Simply put, the rule prohibits “extraneous” material from intruding in budget reconciliation legislation. However, the term “Byrd rule” is technically a misnomer in two respects. First, the “Byrd rule” is more than just a longstanding practice of the Senate. After several years of operation as a Senate rule, it was codified into law beginning in 1985, and can be found at 2 U.S.C. 644. Second, the rule consists of not just one test to define whether material is “extraneous,” but six.

What Are the Six Different Types of Extraneous Material?

This chart from Senate Budget Committee staff highlights the six statutory definitions of “extraneous” material, provides some examples of each, and explains how the Senate rules on, and disposes of, material falling under each test.

So the Various Types of ‘Byrd Rule’ Violations Are Not Necessarily Equivalent?

Correct. While most reporters focus on the fourth test—when a legislative provision has a budgetary impact merely incidental to the provision’s policy change—that is not the only type of rule violation. Nor in many respects is it the most significant.

While violations of the fourth test are fatal to the provision—the extraneous material is stricken from the underlying legislation—violations of the third (material outside the jurisdiction of committees charged with reporting reconciliation legislation) and sixth (changes to Title II of the Social Security Act) tests are fatal to the entire bill.

Who Determines Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

As the chart notes, those determinations are made by the Senate Budget Committee chairman—currently Mike Enzi (R-WY)—or the chair, who normally acts upon guidance from the Senate parliamentarian.

How Does One Determine Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

In some cases, determining compliance with the rule is relatively straight-forward. A provision dealing with veterans’ benefits (within the jurisdiction of the Veterans Affairs Committee) would clearly fail the third test in a tax reconciliation bill, as tax matters lie within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

However, other cases require a more nuanced, textual analysis by the parliamentarian. Such an analysis might examine Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other outside scores, to assess the provision’s fiscal impact (or lack thereof), the statute the reconciliation bill seeks to amend, other statutes cross-referenced in the legislation (to assess the impact of the programmatic changes the provision would make), and prior precedent on related matters.

When Does the Senate Assess Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’?

In some respects, assessing compliance is an iterative process. Often, the Senate parliamentarian will provide informal advice to majority staff as they begin to write reconciliation legislation. While these informal conversations help to guide bill writers during the drafting process, the parliamentarian normally notes that these discussions do not constitute a formal advisory opinion; minority party staff and other interested persons are not privy to the ex parte conversations, and could in time bring her new information that could cause her to change her opinion.

Later in the process, as the reconciliation bill makes its way to the Senate floor, majority and minority leadership staff will gather for more formal discussions to assess which provisions qualify as “extraneous” under the “Byrd rule.” This process, informally known as the “Byrd bath,” allows for all sides to put their cases before the parliamentarian, who will normally provide more definitive guidance on how she would advise the chair to rule.

Do Debates about the ‘Byrd Rule’ Take Place on the Senate Floor?

They can, and they have, but relatively rarely. As James Wallner, an expert in Senate parliamentary procedure, notes, over the last three decades, the Senate has formally adjudicated only ten instances of the fourth test—whether a provision’s fiscal impacts are merely incidental to its proposed policy changes.

Because most determinations of “Byrd rule” compliance (or non-compliance) have been made through informal, closed-door “Byrd bath” discussions in the Senate parliamentarian’s office, there are few formal precedents—either rulings from the chair or votes by the Senate itself—regarding specific examples of “extraneous” material. As a result, the Senate—whether the parliamentarian, the presiding officer, or the body itself—has significant latitude to interpret the statutory tests about what qualifies as “extraneous.”

Can the Senate Overrule the Parliamentarian about What Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes, in two respects. The presiding officer—whether the vice president as president of the Senate, the president pro tempore (currently Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT), or another senator—can disregard the parliamentarian’s guidance and issue his or her own ruling. Alternatively, a senator could appeal the chair’s decision, and a simple majority of the body could overrule that decision. There is a long history of senators doing just that.

As a practical matter, however, such a scenario appears unlikely during the Obamacare debate, for two reasons. First, some senators may view such a move as akin to the “nuclear option,” undermining the legislative filibuster by a simple majority vote. The recent letter signed by 61 senators pledging to uphold the legislative filibuster indicates that at least some senators in both parties want to preserve the usual 60-vote margin for passing legislation, and therefore may not wish to set a precedent of allowing potentially “extraneous” material on to a budget reconciliation bill through a simple majority.

Second, if the Senate did overrule the parliamentarian on a procedural matter related to budget reconciliation, a conservative senator would likely introduce a simple, one-line Obamacare repeal bill and ask the Senate to overrule the parliamentarian to allow it to qualify as a reconciliation matter. Since many members of the Senate, like the House, do not actually wish to repeal Obamacare, they would likely decline to head down the road of overruling the parliamentarian, for fear it may head in this direction.

Can the Senate Waive the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes—provided three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 senators) agree. In the past, many budget reconciliation bills—like the Balanced Budget Act of 1997—passed with far more than 60 Senate votes, which made waiving the rule easier.

However, Republicans did not agree to waive the rule for extraneous material included in Senate Democrats’ Obamacare “fix” bill in March 2010. That material was stricken from the legislation and did not make it into law. For this and other reasons, it seems unlikely that eight or more Senate Democrats would vote to waive the rule for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

Didn’t Democrats Pass Obamacare through Budget Reconciliation?

Yes and no. They fixed portions of Obamacare—for instance, the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback”—through a budget reconciliation measure that passed through both houses of Congress in March 2010. But the larger, 2,400-page measure that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009 was enacted into law first.

Once Scott Brown’s election to the Senate in January 2010 gave Republicans 41 votes, Democrats knew they could not go through the usual process of convening a House-Senate conference committee to consider the differences between each chamber’s legislation. A conference report is subject to a filibuster, and Republicans had the votes to sustain that filibuster.

Instead, House Democrats agreed to pass the Senate version of the legislation—the version that passed with 60 votes on Christmas Eve 2009—then have both chambers use a separate budget reconciliation bill—one that could pass the Senate with a 51-vote majority—to make changes to the bill they had just enacted.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of “Repeal and Replace” Amendments

Ahead of tomorrow’s expected vote on the American Health Care Act, below please find updates on the amendments offered to the legislation. The original summary of the bill is located here.

The bill will be considered tomorrow in the absence of a Congressional Budget Office score of any of 1) the second-degree managers amendment; 2) the Palmer-Schweikert amendment; 3) the MacArthur-Meadows amendment; and 4) the Upton amendment. Some conservatives may be concerned that both the fiscal and policy implications of these four legislative proposals will not be fully vetted until well after Members vote on the legislation. Some conservatives may also be concerned that changes to the legislation made since the last CBO analysis (released on March 23) could change its deficit impact — which could, if CBO concludes the amended bill increases the deficit, cause the legislation to lose its privilege as a reconciliation matter in the Senate.

UPTON AMENDMENT: Adds an additional $8 billion to the Stability Fund for the period 2018-2023 for the sole purpose of “providing assistance to reduce premiums or other out-of-pocket costs of individuals who are subject to an increase in the monthly premium rate for health insurance coverage” as a result of a state adopting a waiver under the MacArthur/Meadows amendment. Gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services authority to create “an allocation methodology” for such purposes.

Some conservatives may note that the adequacy (or inadequacy) of the funding remains contingent largely upon the number of states that decide to submit relevant waiver requests. Some conservatives may also be concerned by the broad grant of authority given to HHS to develop the allocation with respect to such important details as which states receive will funding (and how much), the amount of the $8 billion disbursed every year over the six-year period, and which types of waiver requests (e.g., age rating changes, other rate changes, and/or essential health benefit changes) will receive precedence for funding.

MACARTHUR/MEADOWS AMENDMENT: Creates a new waiver process for states to opt out of some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations. States may choose to opt out of:

  • Age rating requirements, beginning in 2018 (Obamacare requires that insurers may not charge older enrollees more than three times the premium paid by younger enrollees);
  • Essential health benefits, beginning in 2020; and
  • In states that have established some high-risk pool or reinsurance mechanism, the 30 percent penalty in the bill for individuals lacking continuous coverage, and/or Obamacare’s prohibition on rating due to health status (again, for individuals lacking continuous insurance coverage), beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period.

Provides that the waiver will be considered approved within 60 days, provided that the state self-certifies the waiver will accomplish one of several objectives, including lowering health insurance premiums. Allows waivers to last for up to 10 years, subject to renewal. Exempts certain forms of coverage, including health insurance co-ops and multi-state plans created by Obamacare, from the state waiver option.

Also exempts the health coverage of Members of Congress from the waiver requirement. House leadership has claimed that this language was included in the legislation to prevent the bill from losing procedural protection in the Senate (likely for including matter outside the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance and HELP Committees). The House will vote on legislation (H.R. 2192) tomorrow that would if enacted effectively nullify this exemption.

While commending the attempt to remove the regulatory burdens that have driven up insurance premiums, some conservatives may be concerned that the language not only leaves in place a federal regulatory regime, but maintains Obamacare as the default regime unless and until a state applies for a waiver — and thus far no governor or state has expressed an interest in doing so. Some conservatives may also question whether waivers will be revoked by states following electoral changes (i.e., a change in party control), and whether the amendment’s somewhat permissive language gives the Department of Health and Human Services grounds to reject waiver renewal applications — both circumstances that would further limit the waiver program’s reach.

PALMER/SCHWEIKERT AMENDMENT: Adds an additional $15 billion to the Stability Fund for the years 2018 through 2026 for the purpose of creating an invisible risk sharing program. Requires the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to establish, following consultations with stakeholders, parameters for the program, including the eligible individuals, standards for qualification (both voluntary and automatic), and attachment points and reimbursement levels. Provides that the federal government will establish parameters for 2018 within 60 days of enactment, and requires CMS to “establish a process for a state to operate” the program beginning in 2020.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this amendment is too prescriptive to states — providing $15 billion in funding contingent solely on one type of state-based insurance solution — while at the same time giving too much authority to HHS to determine the parameters of that specific solution.

 

MARCH 24 UPDATE:

On Thursday evening, House leadership released the text of a second-degree managers amendment making additional policy changes. That amendment:

  • Delays repeal of the Medicare “high-income” tax until 2023;
  • Amends language in the Patient and State Stability Fund to allow states to dedicate grant funds towards offsetting the expenses of rural populations, and clarify the maternity, mental health, and preventive services allowed to be covered by such grants;
  • Appropriates an additional $15 billion for the Patient and State Stability Fund, to be used only for maternity and mental health services; and
  • Allows states to set essential health benefits for health plans, beginning in 2018.

Earlier on Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office released an updated cost estimate regarding the managers amendment. CBO viewed its coverage and premium estimates as largely unchanged from its original March 13 projections. However, the budget office did state that the managers package would reduce the bill’s estimated savings by $187 billion — increasing spending by $49 billion, and decreasing revenues by $137 billion. Of the increased spending, $41 billion would come from more generous inflation measures for some of the Medicaid per capita caps, and $8 billion would come from other changes. Of the reduced revenues, $90 billion would come from lowering the medical care deduction from 7.5 percent to 5.8 percent of income, while $48 billion would come from accelerating the repeal of Obamacare taxes compared to the base bill. Note that this “updated” CBO score released Thursday afternoon does NOT reflect any of the changes proposed Thursday evening; scores on that amendment will not be available until after Friday’s expected House vote.

Updated ten-year costs for repeal of the Obamacare taxes include:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”)—but only through 2026 (lowers revenue by $66 billion);
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications (lowers revenue by $5.7 billion);
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars (lowers revenue by $100 million);
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Medical device tax (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage (lowers revenue by $1.8 billion);
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction (lowers revenue by $125.7 billion)
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals (lowers revenue by $126.8 billion);
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals (lowers revenue by $28.5 billion);
  • Health insurer tax (lowers revenue by $144.7 billion);
  • Tax on tanning services (lowers revenue by $600 million);
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives (lowers revenue by $500 million); and
  • Net investment tax (lowers revenue by $172.2 billion).

MARCH 23 UPDATE:

On March 23, the Congressional Budget Office released an updated cost estimate regarding the managers amendment. CBO viewed its coverage and premium estimates as largely unchanged from its original March 13 projections. However, the budget office did state that the managers package would reduce the bill’s estimated savings by $187 billion — increasing spending by $49 billion, and decreasing revenues by $137 billion. Of the increased spending, $41 billion would come from more generous inflation measures for some of the Medicaid per capita caps, and $8 billion would come from other changes. Of the reduced revenues, $90 billion would come from lowering the medical care deduction from 7.5 percent to 5.8 percent of income, while $48 billion would come from accelerating the repeal of Obamacare taxes compared to the base bill.

Updated ten-year costs for repeal of the Obamacare taxes include:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”)—but only through 2026 (lowers revenue by $66 billion);
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications (lowers revenue by $5.7 billion);
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars (lowers revenue by $100 million);
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Medical device tax (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage (lowers revenue by $1.8 billion);
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction (lowers revenue by $125.7 billion)
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals (lowers revenue by $126.8 billion);
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals (lowers revenue by $28.5 billion);
  • Health insurer tax (lowers revenue by $144.7 billion);
  • Tax on tanning services (lowers revenue by $600 million);
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives (lowers revenue by $500 million); and
  • Net investment tax (lowers revenue by $172.2 billion).

 

Original post follows:

On the evening of March 20, House Republicans released two managers amendments to the American Health Care Act—one making policy changes, and the other making “technical” corrections. The latter amendment largely consists of changes made in an attempt to avoid Senate points-of-order fatal to the reconciliation legislation.

In general, the managers amendment proposes additional spending (increasing the inflation measure for the Medicaid per capita caps) and reduced revenues (accelerating repeal of the Obamacare taxes) when compared to the base bill. However, that base bill already would increase the deficit over its first five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Moreover, neither the base bill nor the managers amendment—though ostensibly an Obamacare “repeal” bill—make any attempt to undo what Paul Ryan himself called Obamacare’s “raid” on Medicare, diverting hundreds of billions of dollars from that entitlement to create new entitlements. Given this history of financial gimmickry and double-counting, not to mention our $20 trillion debt, some conservatives may therefore question the fiscal responsibility of the “sweeteners” being included in the managers package.

Summary of both amendments follows:

Policy Changes

Medicaid Expansion:           Ends the enhanced (i.e., 90-95%) federal Medicaid match for all states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs as of March 1, 2017. Any state that has not expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults after that date could do so—however, that state would only receive the traditional (50-83%) federal match for their expansion population. However, the amendment prohibits any state from expanding to able-bodied adults with incomes over 133% of the federal poverty level (FPL) effective December 31, 2017.

With respect to those states that have expanded, continues the enhanced match through December 31, 2019, with states receiving the enhanced match for all beneficiaries enrolled as of that date as long as those beneficiaries remain continuously enrolled in Medicaid. Some conservatives may be concerned that this change, while helpful, does not eliminate the perverse incentive that current expansion states have to sign up as many beneficiaries as possible over the next nearly three years, to receive the higher federal match rate.

Work Requirements:           Permits (but does not require) states to, beginning October 1, 2017, impose work requirements on “non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant” beneficiaries. States can determine the length of time for such work requirements. Provides a 5 percentage point increase in the federal match for state expenses attributable to activities implementing the work requirements.

States may not impose requirements on pregnant women (through 60 days after birth); children under age 19; the sole parent of a child under age 6, or sole parent or caretaker of a child with disabilities; or a married individual or head of household under age 20 who “maintains satisfactory attendance at secondary school or equivalent,” or participates in vocational education.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Increases the inflation measure for Medicaid per capita caps for elderly, blind, and disabled beneficiaries from CPI-medical to CPI-medical plus one percentage point. The inflation measure for all other enrollees (e.g., children, expansion enrollees, etc.) would remain at CPI-medical.

Medicaid “New York Fix:”               Reduces the federal Medicaid match for states that require their political subdivisions to contribute to the costs of the state Medicaid program. Per various press reports, this provision was inserted at the behest of certain upstate New York congressmen, who take issue with the state’s current policy of requiring some counties to contribute towards the state’s share of Medicaid spending. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision represents a parochial earmark, and question its inclusion in the bill.

Medicaid Block Grant:        Provides states with the option to select a block grant for their Medicaid program, which shall run over a 10-year period. Block grants would apply to adults and children ONLY; they would not apply with respect to the elderly, blind, and disabled population, or to the Obamacare expansion population (i.e., able-bodied adults).

Requires states to apply for a block grant, listing the ways in which they shall deliver care, which must include 1) hospital care; 2) surgical care and treatment; 3) medical care and treatment; 4) obstetrical and prenatal care and treatment; 5) prescription drugs, medicines, and prosthetics; 6) other medical supplies; and 7) health care for children. The application will be deemed approved within 30 days unless it is incomplete or not actuarially sound.

Bases the first year of the block grant based on a state’s federal Medicaid match rate, its enrollment in the prior year, and per beneficiary spending. Increases the block grant every year with CPI inflation, but does not adjust based on growing (or decreasing) enrollment. Permits states to roll over block grant funds from year to year.

Some conservatives, noting the less generous inflation measure for block grants compared to per capita caps (CPI inflation for the former, CPI-medical inflation for the latter), and the limits on the beneficiary populations covered by the block grant under the amendment, may question whether any states will embrace the block grant proposal as currently constructed.

Implementation Fund:        Creates a $1 billion fund within the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the Medicaid reforms, the Stability Fund, the modifications to Obamacare’s subsidy regime (for 2018 and 2019), and the new subsidy regime (for 2020 and following years). Some conservatives may be concerned that this money represents a “slush fund” created outside the regular appropriations process at the disposal of the executive branch.

Repeal of Obamacare Tax Increases:             Accelerates repeal of Obamacare’s tax increases from January 2018 to January 2017, including:

  • “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans—not repealed fully, but will not go into effect until 2026, one year later than in the base bill;
  • 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;
  • Medical device 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—this provision actually reduces the limitation below prior law (Obamacare raised the threshold from expenses in excess of 7.5% of adjusted gross income to 10%, whereas the amendment lowers that threshold to 5.8%);
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals;
  • Health insurer tax;
  • Tax on tanning services;
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives; and
  • Net investment tax.

“Technical” Changes

Retroactive Eligibility:       Strikes Section 114(c), which required Medicaid applicants to provide verification of citizenship or immigration status prior to becoming presumptively eligible for benefits during the application process. The section was likely stricken for procedural reasons to avoid potentially fatal points-of-order, for imposing new programmatic requirements outside the scope of the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction and/or related to Title II of the Social Security Act.

Safety Net Funding:              Makes changes to the new pool of safety net funding for non-expansion states, tying funding to fiscal years instead of calendar years 2018 through 2022.

Medicaid Per Capita Cap:   Makes changes to cap formula, to clarify that all non-Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) supplemental payments are accounted for and attributable to beneficiaries for purposes of calculating the per capita cap amounts.

Stability Fund:          Makes technical changes to calculating relative uninsured rates under formula for allocating Patient and State Stability Fund grant amounts.

Continuous Coverage:         Strikes language requiring 30 percent surcharge for lack of continuous coverage in the small group market, leaving the provision to apply to the individual market only. With respect to the small group market, prior law HIPAA continuation coverage provisions would still apply.

Re-Write of Tax Credit:      Re-writes the new tax credit entitlement as part of Section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code—the portion currently being used for Obamacare’s premium subsidies. In effect, the bill replaces the existing premium subsidies (i.e., Obamacare’s refundable tax credits) with the new subsidies (i.e., House Republicans’ refundable tax credits), effective January 1, 2020.

The amendment was likely added for procedural reasons, attempting to “bootstrap” on to the eligibility verification regime already in place under Obamacare. Creating a new verification regime could 1) exceed the Senate Finance Committee’s jurisdiction and 2) require new programmatic authority relating to Title II of the Social Security Act—both of which would create a point-of-order fatal to the entire bill in the Senate.

In addition, with respect to the “firewall”—that is, the individuals who do NOT qualify for the credit based on other forms of health coverage—the amendment utilizes a definition of health insurance coverage present in the Internal Revenue Code. By using a definition of health coverage included within the Senate Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, the amendment attempts to avoid exceeding the Finance Committee’s remit, which would subject the bill to a potentially fatal point of order in the Senate.

However, in so doing, this ostensibly “technical” change restricts veterans’ access to the tax credit. The prior language in the bill as introduced (pages 97-98) allowed veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, coverage through the Veterans Administration to receive the credit. The revised language states only that individuals “eligible for” other forms of coverage—including Medicaid, Medicare, SCHIP, and Veterans Administration coverage—may not qualify for the credit. Thus, with respect to veterans’ coverage in particular, the managers package is more restrictive than the bill as introduced, as veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA coverage cannot qualify for credits.

Finally, the amendment removes language allowing leftover credit funds to be deposited into individuals’ health savings accounts—because language in the base bill permitting such a move raised concerns among some conservatives that those taxpayer dollars could be used to fund abortions in enrollees’ HSAs.

 

Important Concerns about the State Waiver Process

On Tuesday evening, legislative language emerged regarding a proposal negotiated by conservative and centrist House Republicans. The proposal, which would further amend the Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation, would allow states to waive some (but not all) of the law’s major insurance regulations.

Specifically, states could request a waiver to:

  • Beginning in January 2018, vary rating by age more than Obamacare (current law says that insurers cannot charge older individuals more than three times the premiums paid by younger enrollees);
  • Beginning in January 2020, set their own essential health benefits—the categories of services all insurance sold must cover; and
  • Beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period, permit insurers to vary premiums by health status and/or eliminate the mandatory 30 percent penalty for individuals who do not maintain continuous insurance coverage—provided that the state has established a program of actual or invisible high-risk pools, or some other mechanism through the bill’s Stability Fund to stabilize its insurance markets.

Some conservatives may have philosophical concerns with this approach, on several levels. It perpetuates a federal regulatory regime for health insurance, maintaining Obamacare as the default option. Not only does the bill take the position that “If you like your Obamacare, you can keep it,” it ensures that states will keep Obamacare unless and until they affirmatively do something to opt out of the law—a position that turns federalism on its head.

Over and above those philosophical concerns, two very practical matters lurk.

How Many States Will Actually Apply for Waivers?

While Washington has discussed this waiver concept for nearly a month, exactly zero Republican governors have publicly expressed an interest in applying for a waiver. Granted, details have been scarce to find, and frequently changing. But with Republicans occupying literally two-thirds of the nation’s governorships, the silence from state houses seems deafening.

Two plausible theories could explain the silence. First, in some states, governors need explicit authority from their legislatures to take an action like applying for a waiver. Unless and until their legislatures provide explicit authorization, governors cannot apply for anything, even if they wanted to.

With most legislatures heading out of session, and filing deadlines for the 2018 plan year fast approaching, it seems a stretch to think that many, if any, states will apply for a waiver for next year, even if the bill gets signed into law within a month. And with 36 governors’ races on the line next fall, how many governors will want to implement waivers for the 2019 plan year—thus guaranteeing Obamacare will be an issue in the last week of their campaigns, with open enrollment starting mere days before the November 6 plebiscite?

Moreover, on the political front, the waiver process essentially punts to the states a decision—repeal of the Obamacare regulatory regime—that Congress can, and should, have taken on its own. Why should anyone believe that states will request waivers from the Obamacare regulations, when it was Congress’ own lack of political will that shifted the decision to the states in the first place?

Can a Future Administration Deny Waiver Renewals?

Supporters of the waiver concept have attempted to reassure conservatives that the state waivers would be automatic from Washington, and could not be held up by a future Democrat Administration. And with respect to initial approval of waiver applications, the language released does seem fairly straight-forward: It allows states to self-certify they are applying to achieve at least one of several stated objectives, and deems waivers approved, allowing the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to deny them only in the case of an incomplete application.

But the language in subsection (4)(A), reproduced in full below, suggests that extending waivers once granted could be far from a sure thing:

No waiver for a State under this subsection may extend over a period of longer than 10 years unless the State requests continuation of such waiver, and such request shall be deemed granted unless the Secretary, within 90 days after the date of its submission to the Secretary, either denies such request in writing or informs the State in writing with respect to any additional information which is needed in order to make a final determination with respect to the request. [Emphasis mine.]

The bill text distinguishes between “an application submitted in paragraph (1)”—the initial waiver application—and a “continuation of such waiver.” That distinction, coupled with the permissive language given to the HHS Secretary—who has the power to “den[y] such request in writing,” for reasons not explicitly stated—could give a future Administration all the opening it needs to deny future waiver extensions.

A Better Solution

The above concerns notwithstanding, the waiver debate has put paid to the notion that Congress cannot repeal Obamacare’s major insurance regulations as part of a repeal bill passed through budget reconciliation. In other words, the question is not one of process, and what the Senate parliamentarian will allow, but one of political will—whether Republicans want to repeal Obamacare or not. Rather than punting those decisions off to governors, and keeping the law’s regulatory structure firmly intact in Washington, Congress should finish its job and deliver the repeal it has promised the American people for the past seven years.

Lessons of the AHCA Collapse

Like the British evacuation of Dunkirk more than seven decades ago, Friday’s abrupt decision to halt proceedings on the American Health Care Act (AHCA) prior to a House vote represented victory only in that it averted an even costlier defeat—an embarrassing floor vote seemingly destined to fail, or passage of a bill unloved by wide swathes of the public and lawmakers alike.

Whether that decision is ultimately viewed as a “deliverance”—as Winston Churchill dubbed the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation—will depend in no small part on whether lawmakers can, both individually and collectively, learn the right lessons from an entirely predictable defeat.

“What went wrong?” poses an erroneous query about this bill. The question is not why it failed, but why anyone thought it might succeed. Virtually all of the premises upon which the legislation was based proved faulty, and were easily proven faulty prior to its introduction. There’s little need for Monday-morning quarterbacking if only one can see the flaws in one’s strategy on the Sunday morning prior to the game.

Republicans Need to Remember How to Govern

Leadership outlined its strategy—such as it was—in a February 27 Wall Street Journal article: “Republican leaders are betting that the only way for Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act is to set a bill in motion and gamble that fellow GOP lawmakers won’t dare to block it.”

Irrespective of what one thinks of the bill’s policy particulars—whether the bill represents a positive, coherent governing document and vision for the health care system—this thinking demonstrates that Republicans have to re-learn not just how to govern, but also how to legislate.

As a legislative strategy, the House’s gambit represented a puerile cross between the “chickie run” in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Hans Christen Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Daring lawmakers to challenge the process, and attempting to bully and browbeat them into submission—“testosterone can get you in trouble,” as Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) reportedly noted during one meeting—does not a durable process make. Unsurprisingly, that process broke down after a mere 18 days.

While many stories have focused on Speaker Paul Ryan, some minds might turn instead to one of his predecessors, and an axiom used by the longest-tenured House speaker, Sam Rayburn: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.” That the outcome seems predictable—indeed, was predicted by many in private conversations—makes it no less painful politically, or personally.

In circumstances such as these, there is a fine line between learning lessons and pointing fingers. Focusing on the personalities behind the legislative failure would only further enflame tensions, while serving little productive purpose. On the other hand, understanding the reasons the legislation was in many ways doomed from the start can help prevent future calamities. Of the flawed premises that lay behind the legislative strategy, three seem particularly problematic.

1. Starting with the House

The House’s decision to consider the legislation first seemed ill-considered at the time, given the difficulties the chamber encountered the last time it moved first on repealing Obamacare. In the fall 2015, Congress considered and passed, but President Obama vetoed, repeal legislation under special budget reconciliation procedures. Passing the bill represented a “dry run” testing what a Republican Congress could do to dismantle Obamacare, but for the Democratic president who remained in the White House.

But as I noted the week after last November’s election, the House’s 2015 repeal reconciliation bill suffered from numerous procedural flaws. That legislation originally repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), even though such Senate procedures meant that this provision, with an incidental fiscal impact, could not remain on a budget reconciliation bill. The House-reported legislation also increased the deficit in the years beyond the 10-year budget window, subjecting it to a potentially fatal point-of-order in the Senate.

The House’s 2015 reconciliation bill contained so many procedural flaws that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce an entirely new substitute version of the legislation. Had he not, the Senate parliamentarian would have advised the Senate to strip the bill of its procedural protection as a reconciliation matter, forcing the House to start its process all over again.

Given that near-death experience fewer than 18 months ago, it made much more sense for the Senate to take the lead in crafting a reconciliation measure. At minimum, House staff needed to solicit greater feedback from the Senate regarding that chamber’s procedures during the drafting process, to ensure they wrote the bill consistent with the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules. Neither happened.

House leadership claimed they wrote their bill to comply with the Senate’s reconciliation rules. But experts in Senate procedure could readily see that AHCA as released suffered from multiple procedural flaws, several potentially fatal to the entire bill. Last week, days before its scheduled floor consideration, the relevant House committees released a managers amendment re-drafting the measure’s tax credit, precisely because of the procedural flaws in the initial version.

All of which makes one wonder why the House insisted on initiating action. The Senate not only has more detailed and arcane procedures to follow than the House, Republicans also hold a narrower majority in the upper chamber. While no more than 21 of 237  House Republicans (8.9 percent) can defect on a bill passing solely with Republican votes, no more than two of 52 Senate Republicans can defect in the upper chamber, a much narrower (3.9 percent) margin.

Due to both its procedural quirks and tighter vote margins, it made far more sense for the Senate to initiate legislative action. Yet this year, as in 2015, the House took the lead—and ran into the same procedural problems.

2. The Unrealistic Timetable

The day before House leadership released a document outlining their vision for what became AHCA, I published a lengthy analysis of the legislative environment. I concluded that any legislation featuring either comprehensive changes to Medicaid or a refundable tax credit—the former I generally favored, the latter I did not—just could not pass in the timetable allotted for it:

The likelihood that House Republicans can get a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill—defined as one with either tax credits, Medicaid reform, or both—1) drafted; 2) cleared by the Senate parliamentarian; 3) scored favorably by CBO [the Congressional Budget Office]; and 4) with enough Member support to ensure it passes in time for a mark-up on March 1—two weeks from now—is a nice round number: Zero-point-zero percent.

Likewise the chances of enacting a comprehensive ‘repeal-and-replace’ bill by Congress’ Easter recess. It just won’t happen. For a bill signing ceremony for a comprehensive ‘repeal-and-replace’ bill, August recess seems a likelier, albeit still ambitious, target.

Nothing in the above passage proved inaccurate. House leadership even skipped steps in the process I outlined—going forward with markups without a CBO score, and not writing the bill to comply with Senate procedure until just before a scheduled House vote—yet still couldn’t meet their targets. This would lead most people to believe those targets were just too ambitious.

Two vignettes show the problems caused by the sheer haste of the process. First, the managers amendments released last Monday night had to be re-written on Tuesday night. In both cases, the House committees had to submit second-degree amendments “to address drafting issues,” because the original managers amendments had no fewer than ten separate drafting errors among them.

Second, the managers amendment included an extra pot of funds to increase the refundable tax credits given to those near retirement age. However, the legislation created that pot of money not by increasing the refundable credits, but by lowering thresholds for a deduction available to those who itemize medical expenses on their tax returns.

The decision to provide the additional funds through a deduction, rather than by adjusting the credits themselves, was almost certainly driven by the mechanics of budgetary scoring, and ultimately the bill’s timetable. While the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) could estimate the relatively straightforward financial effects of a deduction quickly, altering the tax credit levels for individuals aged 50-64 would create knock-on effects—would more individuals take the credit, would more individuals retire early and drop employer-sponsored coverage, etc.—taking CBO staff a week or more to model.

So, rather than “wasting” time coming up with a policy and finding out the effects of said policy, prior to House passage, congressional staff instead created a $90 billion “slush fund” and pledged to sort the details out later.

Just before Obamacare’s passage in March 2010, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously said “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” House Republicans took her multiple steps further: By including a “slush fund” designed to change later in the process, and proceeding to both committee markups and a vote on House passage without a final CBO score, congressional leadership guaranteed that anyone who voted for AHCA would not by definition have known what was intended to be in the bill, let alone the fiscal effects of such policies.

The end result was a group of members in vulnerable districts who voted for the bill in committee without a CBO score—and could suffer serious, if not fatal, political consequences for having done so. Some of these moderates hold substantial disagreements with conservatives on how to structure an Obamacare repeal. But it was not conservatives that compelled the moderates to cast a tough vote for the legislation in committee without a CBO score analyzing the bill’s fiscal and coverage impacts—it was the hyper-aggressive timetable.

3. Unproductive White House Coordination

While publicly President Trump and others made statements insisting that his administration was “100 percent behind” the House Republican plan, the divisions within the administration were an open secret on Capitol Hill. From staff to officials, many had misgivings about the policy behind the bill, the legislative tactics and strategy, or both.

Those differences helped affect the ultimate outcome. Ryan attempted to turn his legislation into a “binary choice”—either support this bill, or support Obamacare—granting conservatives some concessions during the drafting process, but few thereafter. By contrast, factions within the administration attempted to woo conservatives and fought House leadership, which resisted making changes.

Ironically, had the administration halted negotiations sooner, and demanded an immediate vote earlier last week, they might have had a better chance of winning that tally. (Whether that victory would have ultimately proved Pyrrhic is another story, but they might have eked out a victory nonetheless.) But because the White House and congressional leadership weren’t on the same page, the former’s negotiations with conservatives left moderates to slowly trickle away from the bill, such that by Friday, it was virtually impossible to find a coalition to reach 216 votes whichever way leadership turned.

Even as the momentum slowly sapped from the bill, the administration and Capitol Hill leaders remained at odds on tactics. The New York Times reported on Saturday that some in the administration wanted to hold a House vote, even an unsuccessful one, to find out who opposed President Trump. But making such a demand misunderstands the dynamic nature of votes in the House of Representatives.

While AHCA might have passed narrowly, it would not have failed narrowly. Once a critical mass of 30 or so Republican “noes” signaled the bill’s clear failure, members would have abandoned the politically unpopular legislation en masse—likely with the implicit or explicit support of House leadership. Having witnessed these “jailbreak” votes in the House, it’s possible that, had the White House forced the issue, the bottom could have fallen out on support for the bill. As a tactic to snuff out disloyal behavior, calling a vote on a doomed bill would have yielded little in the way of political intelligence—only more political damage.

Underneath Tactical Errors Is Philosophical Disagreement

Beneath the obvious tactical errors lie some fundamental disagreements within the Republican party and the conservative movement about Obamacare, the future of our health-care system, and even the role of government. As I have written elsewhere, those differences do not represent mere window-dressing. They are as sizable as they are substantive.

On the one hand, the conservative wing of the party has focused on repealing Obamacare, and lowering health costs—namely, the premiums that have risen substantially under the law. By contrast, moderates and centrists remain focused on its replacement, and ensuring that those who benefited from the law continue to have coverage under the new regime.

That divide between “repealers” and “replacers” represents a proxy for the debate between reducing costs and maximizing coverage, a debate that precedes Obamacare by several decades, if not several generations. Some have argued that facts on the ground—the individuals gaining coverage as a result of Obamacare—necessitate an approach focused on maintaining coverage numbers.

Others believe that “repeal means repeal,” that Republicans ran, and won, elections on repealing the law—including as recently as five months ago—and that breaking such a deeply ingrained pledge to voters would represent political malpractice of the highest order.

The drafters of the House bill attempted to split the ideological divide, in part by retaining the popular parts of Obamacare while minimizing the law’s drawbacks. Both the House bill and the Better Way plan that preceded it maintained Obamacare’s restrictions on pre-existing conditions, its requirement that insurers cover dependents under age 26, and its prohibition on annual and lifetime limits for health insurance.

But policy decisions come with trade-offs, and in health care in particular those trade-offs can prove troublesome. Barack Obama did not wish to impose a mandate to purchase health insurance, having fought against one during his 2008 primary campaign; but CBO scoring considerations forced him to endorse one in the bill that became Obamacare. Similarly, the “popular” insurance regulations that Republican leadership maintained in its bill were the same ones that raised premiums so appreciably when Obamacare went into effect.

The AHCA approach of repealing Obamacare’s mandates and subsidies while retaining most of its insurance regulations created what Yuval Levin, a policy wonk close to Ryan, called a “twisted, fun-house mirror approach” to prior conservative health policy that yielded “substantive incoherence.” Dropping the individual mandate while retaining most of the insurance regulations created a CBO score that showed substantial coverage losses while failing to lower premiums appreciably—the worst of all possible policy outcomes.

The ideological divisions within the Republican Party, and the incoherent muddle of legislation that attempted to bridge the two, may have been overcome had the House released its bill the morning after the election, on November 9. But it did not release the bill on November 9, or on December 9, or on January 9, or even on February 9. The House introduced its bill on March 6, with the goal of passing legislation through both chambers by April 6. That timetable didn’t envision reconciling ideological differences so much as it hoped to steamroll them. It was all-but-guaranteed not to end well.

Lessons For the Future

What then of the future? One can only but hope that Republicans follow the example of Kipling’s poem “The Lesson,” written during the Boer War: “Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should; We have had no end of a lesson: It will do us no end of good.”

But what are those lessons, and what good might result from heeding them? While the policy differences within factions of the Republican Party are sizable, the only way to bridge them lies through an open, transparent, and deliberative process—negotiating outcomes among all sides from the start, rather than imposing them from on high through fiat.

If, as President Reagan famously noted, “personnel is policy,” so too then process provides a key to optimal policy making. A good process by itself cannot create good policy, but bad process will almost assuredly result in bad policy outcomes. In the short- and long-term, five principles can provide the initial glimmer of a path forward from last Friday’s dark outcome.

1. Let the Senate Lead

The procedural details surrounding budget reconciliation, and the narrower margins in the upper chamber, both augur toward the Senate re-starting any action on health care. As a practical matter, tensions remain far too high—with tempers short, friendships among members and staff frayed, and patience thin—for the House to initiate any legislative action for at least the next few weeks.

On upcoming legislation ranging from appropriations to tax reform to additional action regarding Obamacare, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” will have to exercise its deliberative powers. The ideological gaps are no less narrow in the House than in the Senate—can Mike Lee and Susan Collins reach consensus on a path forward regarding Obamacare?—but the recriminations and scars of the past month smaller.

If the Senate, with its smaller margins and arcane procedures, can deliver a quality policy product, the House, having seen its legislation sink in mere weeks, might be much more inclined to adopt it as its own.

2. Listen

House leadership rightfully notes AHCA had its origins in the Better Way policy white paper released last June. Prior to that document’s release, leadership staff spent significant time and effort reaching out to members, interest groups, the think-tank community, and others to gain thoughts and feedback on their proposals.

But actual legislation is orders of magnitude more complex than a white paper. Moreover, Better Way and AHCA deviate from each other in multiple important respects. The Better Way proposal includes numerous provisions—incentives for wellness, conscience protections for health care professionals, and proposals to repeal sections of Obamacare regarding Medicare, and Medicare Advantage—never included in AHCA, or mentioned in any great detail as part of the House’s “three-phase” approach.

Meanwhile, AHCA doubles the funding for grants to states when compared to the Better Way proposal, and uses significantly different parameters for the state grants than the 2009 House Republican alternative to Obamacare referenced in the Better Way document.

It’s possible to speculate on why House leadership made all these changes, but leadership itself made very little attempt to communicate exactly why they made them, or even that they were making them at all. Saying that Better Way led to AHCA is like saying the Model T led to the DeLorean. The former are both health-care proposals just as the latter are both cars, but each differ in significant ways.

The process that led from Better Way to AHCA was almost as significant as the process that led from the Model T to the DeLorean, but was opaque to all but a few closely held staff. Even lawmakers who understood and supported every single element of the Better Way plan could rightfully feel whipsawed when presented with AHCA, told it was a “binary choice,” and they had to publicly support it within a few weeks of its introduction, or otherwise they would be voting to keep Obamacare in place and undermine a new president.

When the Republican Study Committee unveiled its health-care legislation in 2013, its public release culminated a months-long process of consultation and scrutiny of the legislative text itself. RSC staff reached out to dozens of policy experts (myself included), and spent hours going through the bill line-by-line to make sure the legislation would accomplish its intended goals, while keeping unintended consequences to a minimum.

AHCA would have benefited immensely from this type of under-the-radar analysis, rather than subjecting legislation not yet ready for prime time to the intense scrutiny that came with a white-hot political debate and a hyper-accelerated timeline.

3. Trust Experts

A note at the bottom of page 25 of a leaked draft of AHCA provides an important hint toward a larger issue. The bracketed note, in a passage regarding per capita cap reforms to Medicaid, calls for staff to “review with CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] any conforming amendments required.”

Congressional staff I spoke with over the past few weeks questioned whether anyone within the relevant agencies had in fact reviewed the legislation, to provide the technical expertise necessary to ensure that AHCA could be implemented as written, and would actually result in a workable health-care system.

At the time the legislative process began, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had relatively few political appointees—no more than a few dozen out of about 150 total spots filled, and a CMS administrator not confirmed until the week prior to the scheduled House vote. The combination of a stretched staff and mistrust between political and career appointees within the agencies could well have limited the exchange of critically important details regarding how to draft, and implement, the legislation.

In addition to working with career personnel at the agencies, congressional staff should also utilize the institutional knowledge of their predecessors. While working for the House Republican Conference in 2009, I made it a point to start the Obamacare debate by finding out what I didn’t know, reaching out to those who had gone through the “Hillarycare” debate 15 years prior. My idea came from an unlikely source—former senator Tom Daschle, who in his 2008 book “Critical” described how lawmakers went through a “Health Care University” of policy seminars in 1993. In trying to replicate those seminars for both members and staff, I hoped we could obtain some of the collective wisdom of the past that I knew I lacked.

As I had previously noted in November, most of the senior Republican health-care staff working on Capitol Hill during the Obamacare debate in 2009-10 have moved on to other posts. But they, and others like them, are not far removed from the process. Based on my experience, most would gladly offer technical guidance and expertise; in many cases, even the lobbyists would do so with “client hats” removed, in the hopes of arriving at the best possible product.

But reaching out in such a manner requires a deliberative and inclusive process; games of legislative hide-and-seek and talk of “binary choices” preclude the received wisdom of all but the select few participating in the policy-making.

4. Be Honest

The House Ways and Means Committee’s section-by-section summary of AHCA illustrates the dilemma lawmakers faced. Page three of the document, discussing verification of eligibility for the new tax credit, states that “the Secretary of the Treasury is empowered to create a system—building upon already developed systems—to deliver the credit.”

There’s just one minor detail missing: The “already developed systems” for verifying eligibility Ways and Means referenced are Obamacare eligibility systems. This goes a long way toward explaining the omission: If the House is using an Obamacare eligibility system to deliver a refundable tax credit (also included in Obamacare), how much of the law is it really repealing?

Capitol Hill leadership could never reconcile the inherent contradictions in their product. On MSNBC, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) called AHCA “the best opportunity to deliver on our promise to repeal the awful law of Obamacare”—eliding the fact that the bill explicitly retains and utilizes portions of that “awful law.” When pressed, leadership staff relied upon absurd, legalistically parsed statements, afraid to admit that the bill retained portions of Obamacare’s infrastructure.

These Clintonian definitions—“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘repeal’ is”—do nothing but build mistrust among members and staff alike. At least some in the policy community felt that House leaders were relying upon Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s parliamentarian, as a de facto human shield—claiming the House couldn’t repeal portions of Obamacare under budget reconciliation, when in fact leadership wouldn’t, for policy or political reasons.

The fact that House leaders claimed their bill comported with reconciliation requirements, yet had to re-write major portions of AHCA at the last minute because it did not, gives added credence to this theory.

Whenever “repeal-and-replace” legislation comes back before Congress, the leaders and committees preparing the legislation should include a list of all the major provisions of Obamacare not repealed by the measure, along with clear reasons why. Even if some members want a more robust repeal than that offered, transparency would at least prevent the corrosive mistrust—“You’re not being up-front about this, so what other things are you hiding?”—that comes from an opaque process.

5. Be Humble

More than perhaps any bill in recent memory, AHCA represented a feat of legislative hubris. As a policy matter, Obamacare imposed a more sweeping scope on the nation’s health-care system. But the tactics used to “sell” AHCA—“We’re doing this now, and in this way. Get on board, or get out of the way”—were far more brutal, and resulted in a brutal outcome, an outcome easily predicted, but the one its authors did not intend.

There is a different approach, one I’ve seen on display. Some job interviews are thoroughly unremarkable, but two during my tenure on Capitol Hill stand out—the chief of staff who described himself as a “servant leader,” one who ensures all the members of the team have the tools they need to succeed; and the legislative director who told me, “We want to make sure you have a voice.” Of course I took both jobs, and felt myself privileged to work in such inclusive and empowering environments.

In some ways, the process that led to AHCA represents the antithesis of servant leadership, with members being given a virtual ultimatum to support legislation many neither liked nor understood. But in its purest form, public service should be just that—service—to one’s constituents, and, in the case of elected congressional leaders, to the members who chose them.

A more humble, inclusive, open, and transparent process will not guarantee success. The policy differences among the disparate Republican factions are real, and may not ultimately be bridgeable. But an opaque, authoritarian, and rushed process will almost certainly guarantee failure, as it did in the case of AHCA.

Listening Is Crucial

Ultimately, the failure to legislate on AHCA lay in a failure to listen to the policy concerns of Members, and to the warning signs present from the start. One can only hope that Republicans learn from this proverbial mule-kick, and start listening to each other more carefully and more closely. That process can yield the wisdom and judgment that comes from understanding, which can only help to heal the many breaches within the party following the events of recent weeks.

On November 8, Republicans received an important gift from voters—the chance to serve the country. Recovering from last week’s setback will require leaders of a humbled party to recommit themselves to service, both to the American people and to each other, in service of a common good. The chance to serve the American people is solely within the public’s gift. That gift, if and when squandered, will likely not be renewed for a long time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Updates to House Republicans’ Managers Amendments

On Thursday evening, House leadership released the text of a second-degree managers amendment making additional policy changes. That amendment:

  • Delays repeal of the Medicare “high-income” tax until 2023;
  • Amends language in the Patient and State Stability Fund to allow states to dedicate grant funds towards offsetting the expenses of rural populations, and clarify the maternity, mental health, and preventive services allowed to be covered by such grants;
  • Appropriates an additional $15 billion for the Patient and State Stability Fund, to be used only for maternity and mental health services; and
  • Allows states to set essential health benefits for health plans, beginning in 2018.

Earlier on Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office released an updated cost estimate regarding the managers amendment. CBO viewed its coverage and premium estimates as largely unchanged from its original March 13 projections. However, the budget office did state that the managers package would reduce the bill’s estimated savings by $187 billion — increasing spending by $49 billion, and decreasing revenues by $137 billion. Of the increased spending, $41 billion would come from more generous inflation measures for some of the Medicaid per capita caps, and $8 billion would come from other changes. Of the reduced revenues, $90 billion would come from lowering the medical care deduction from 7.5 percent to 5.8 percent of income, while $48 billion would come from accelerating the repeal of Obamacare taxes compared to the base bill. Note that this “updated” CBO score released Thursday afternoon does NOT reflect any of the changes proposed Thursday evening; scores on that amendment will not be available until after Friday’s expected House vote.

Updated ten-year costs for repeal of the Obamacare taxes include:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”)—but only through 2026 (lowers revenue by $66 billion);
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications (lowers revenue by $5.7 billion);
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars (lowers revenue by $100 million);
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Medical device tax (lowers revenue by $19.6 billion);
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage (lowers revenue by $1.8 billion);
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction (lowers revenue by $125.7 billion)
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals (lowers revenue by $126.8 billion);
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals (lowers revenue by $28.5 billion);
  • Health insurer tax (lowers revenue by $144.7 billion);
  • Tax on tanning services (lowers revenue by $600 million);
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives (lowers revenue by $500 million); and
  • Net investment tax (lowers revenue by $172.2 billion).

Despite Trump Intervention, House GOP Still Not Repealing Obamacare

President Trump bragged that he won over many new converts to House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation following a Friday meeting with Members of Congress at the White House. After the meeting, House leaders scheduled a vote for later this week on the measure, and introduced provisions implementing the agreement in a managers amendment package late last night.

So what tweaks did Trump promise to Congress members on Friday—and will they improve or detract from the legislation itself?

What Changes Were Announced After The Meeting?

The agreement in principle with the House Members includes several components:

  1. Abortion restrictions for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs): RSC Chairman Mark Walker (R-NC) and other pro-life Members asked for further restrictions on abortion funding. As a result, the agreement eliminates language allowing unspent tax credit dollars to get transferred into Health Savings Accounts, for fear those taxpayer dollars moved into HSAs could be used to cover abortions. However, as I noted recently, many of the other restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion could well get stripped in the Senate, consistent with past precedent indicating that pro-life riders are incidental in their budgetary impact, and thus subject to the Senate’s “Byrd rule” preventing their inclusion on budget reconciliation.
  2. Prohibiting more states from expanding Medicaid: While this provision has been sold as ensuring no new states would expand Medicaid to able-bodied people, it does not do so—it only ensures that states that decide to expand after March 1 will receive the regular federal match levels for their able-bodied populations (i.e., not the 90-95 percent enhanced match). Neither the bill nor the managers package permanently ends the expansion to able-bodied adults—which the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill did—or ends the enhanced federal match for expansion states until January 2020, nearly three years from now.
  3. Medicaid work requirements: The agreement permits—but does not require—states to impose work requirements, a point of contention between some states and the Obama Administration. However, non-expansion states will have comparatively few beneficiaries on which to impose such requirements. Medicaid programs in non-expansion states consist largely of pregnant women, children, and elderly or disabled beneficiaries, very few of whom would qualify for the work requirements in the first place.

Medicaid: Block Grant vs. Per Capita Cap

The fourth component—allowing states to take their federal payments from a reformed Medicaid program as a block grant, instead of a per capita cap—warrants greater examination. In general, per capita caps have been viewed as a compromise between the current Medicaid program and a straight block grant fixed allotment. In the 1994-95 budget showdown with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton proposed per capita caps for Medicaid as an alternative to the Republican House’s block grant plan.

A block grant and a per capita cap differ primarily in how the two handle fluctuations in enrollment: the latter adjusts federal matching funds to reflect changes in enrollment, whereas the former does not. Supporters of per capita caps often cite economic recessions as the rationale for considering their approach superior to block grants. Medicaid’s counter-cyclical nature—more people enroll during economic downturns, after losing employer-sponsored coverage—coupled with states’ balanced budget requirements, means that during recessions, states often contend with a “double whammy” of rising Medicaid rolls and declining tax revenues. Medicaid per capita caps would mitigate the effects of the first variable, giving states more latitude during tough economic times.

On the other hand, per capita caps give states a greater incentive to enroll more beneficiaries—and a greater disincentive to scrutinize potentially fraudulent applicants—because every new enrollee means greater revenue for the state (albeit capped per beneficiary).  Most notably, the per capita caps in the House bill grow at a faster rate than the block grant proposal in the managers package—per capita caps would grow at medical inflation, whereas block grants would grow with general inflation.

In general, while conservatives would support block grants to reduce the federal Medicaid commitment and encourage state economies, it remains unlikely that many states would embrace them—because it is not in their fiscal self-interest to do so,because it is not in their fiscal self-interest to do so, particularly given the disparity in the inflation measures in the House language. If true, this language may end up meaning very little.

Will This Be A Good Deal For Americans?

If Medicaid reforms comprised the entirety of the bill, they would likely be worth supporting, despite the complexities associated with the debate between expansion and non-expansion states. The move to per capita caps represents significant entitlement reform, and is consistent with the principles of federalism.

As a repeal bill, however, the measure as currently constituted falls short. The agreement on Friday made zero progress on repealing any other insurance benefit mandates in Obamacare—the primary drivers of higher premiums under the law. That’s one reason why CBO believes premiums will actually rise by 15-20 percent over the next two years. House leadership claims that the mandates must remain in place due to the procedural strictures of budget reconciliation in the Senate. But the inconsistencies in their bill—which repeals one of the mandates, modifies others, and leaves most others fully intact—contradict that rhetoric.

Moreover, by modifying rather than repealing some of the Obamacare mandates, the bill preserves the Washington-centered regulatory structure created by the law, undermining federalism and Tenth Amendment principles.

AHCA Leaves Much To Be Desired

From a fiscal standpoint generally, the bill also leaves much to be desired. It creates at least one new entitlement: refundable tax credits to purchase health insurance. It may create a second new entitlement, this one for insurance companies in the form of a “Patient and State Stability Fund,” totaling $100 billion over 10 years, which insurers will no doubt attempt to renew in a decade’s time. (The bill also does not repeal Obamacare’s risk corridor and reinsurance bailout provisions, allowing them to continue to disburse billions of dollars in claims owed to insurers.)

While CBO claimed the bill would reduce the deficit by $337 billion, the managers amendment goes to great lengths to spend all of that supposed savings—accelerating the repeal of Obamacare’s tax increases, and increasing the inflation measure for some of the per capita caps.

Moreover, it remains unclear whether the “transition” from Obamacare to the new tax credit regime will take place in January 2020 as scheduled. The CBO tables analyzing the bill’s fiscal impact clearly delineated how most of the measure’s spending reductions will hit in fiscal years 2020 and 2021—right in the middle of the presidential election cycle.

AHCA Doesn’t Fully ‘Repeal And Replace’

If President Trump or Republicans in Congress flinch on letting the transition take place as scheduled, the bill’s supposed deficit savings will disappear rapidly. Instead, conservatives could be left with “Obamacare Max”—the House bill actually expands and extends Obamacare insurance subsidies for 2018 and 2019—in perpetuity.

The bill’s lack of full repeal, the premium increases scheduled to take effect over the next two years, and the spending “cliff” hitting in 2020 leave the bill with little natural political constituency to support it. The way in which the bill falls short of repeal—by keeping Medicaid expansion, keeping Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and creating a new entitlement—makes it difficult to support from a policy perspective as well. Friday’s meeting may have brought new concessions at the margins, but it did not alter the bill’s fundamental structure, leaving it short of the repeal conservatives had been promised—and voted for mere months ago.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Will the “Byrd Bath” Turn Into a Tax Credit Bloodbath?

While most of official Washington waits for word—expected early this week—from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the fiscal effects of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, another, equally critical debate is taking place within the corridors of the Capitol. Arcane arguments behind closed doors about the nuances of parliamentary procedure will do much to determine the bill’s fate in the Senate—and could lead to a final product vastly altered compared to its current form.

In recent days, House leaders have made numerous comments highlighting the procedural limitations of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate. However, those statements do not necessarily mean that the legislation released last week comports with all of those Senate strictures. Indeed, my conversations with more than half a dozen current and former senior Senate staff, all of whom have long expertise in the minutiae of Senate rules and procedure, have revealed at least four significant procedural issues—one regarding abortion, two regarding immigration, and one regarding a structural “firewall”—surrounding the bill’s tax credit regime.

Those and other procedural questions explain why, according to my sources, Senate staff will spend the coming week determining whether they will need to write an entirely new bill to substitute for the House’s proposed language. The stakes involved are high: Guidance from the parliamentarian suggesting that the House bill contains fatal procedural flaws, meaning it does not qualify as a reconciliation bill, could force the House to repeat the process, starting again with a new, “clean” reconciliation measure.

It is far too premature to claim that any of these potential flaws will necessarily be fatal. The Senate parliamentarian’s guidance to senators depends on textual analysis—of the bill’s specific wording, the underlying statutes to which it refers, and the CBO scores (not yet available)—and arguments about precedent made by both parties. Senate staff could re-draft portions of the House bill to make it pass procedural muster, or make arguments to preserve the existing language that the parliamentarian accepts as consistent with Senate precedents. Nevertheless, if the parliamentarian validates even one of the four potential procedural problems, Republicans could end up with a tax credit regime that is politically unsustainable, or whose costs escalate appreciably.

In 2009, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad famously opined that passing health care legislation through budget reconciliation would make the bill look like “Swiss cheese.” (While Democrats did not pass Obamacare through reconciliation, they did use the reconciliation process to “fix” the bill that cleared the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009.) In reality, it’s much easier to repeal provisions of a budgetary nature—like Obamacare’s taxes, entitlements, and even its major regulations—through reconciliation than to create a new replacement regime. The coming week may provide firsthand proof of Conrad’s 2009 axiom.

“Byrd Rule” and Abortion

The Senate’s so-called “Byrd rule” governing debate on budget reconciliation rules—named after former Senate Majority Leader and procedural guru Robert Byrd (D-WV)— in fact consists of not one rule, but six. The six points of order (codified here) seek to keep extraneous material out of the expedited reconciliation process, preserving the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, subject to the usual 60-vote margin to break a filibuster.

The Byrd rule’s most famous test states that “a provision shall be considered extraneous if it produces changes in outlays or revenues which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the legislation.” If the section in question primarily makes a policy change, and has a minimal budgetary impact, it remains in the bill only if 60 senators (the usual margin necessary to break a filibuster) agree to waive the Byrd point of order.

One example of this test may apply to the House bill’s tax credits: “Hyde amendment” language preventing the credits from funding plans that cover abortion. Such language protecting taxpayer funding of abortion coverage occurs several places throughout the bill, including at the top of page 25 of the Ways and Means title.

Over multiple decades, and numerous parliamentarians, Republican efforts to enact Hyde amendment protections through budget reconciliation have all failed. It is possible that Republicans could in the next few weeks find new arguments that allow these critical protections to remain in the House bill—but that scenario cannot be viewed as likely.

The question will then occur as to what becomes of both the credit and the Hyde protections. Some within the Administration have argued that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can institute pro-life protections through regulations—but Administration insiders doubt HHS’ authority to do so. Moreover, most pro-life groups publicly denounced President Obama’s March 2010 executive order—which he claimed would prevent taxpayer funding of abortion coverage in Obamacare—as 1) insufficient and 2) subject to change under a future Administration. How would those pro-life groups view a regulatory change by the current Administration any differently?

Immigration

A similarly controversial issue—immigration—brings an even larger set of procedural challenges. Apart from the separate question of whether the current verification provisions in the House bill are sufficiently robust, ANY eligibility verification regime for tax credits faces not one, but two major procedural obstacles in the Senate.

Of the six tests under the Byrd rule, some are more fatal than others. For instance, if the Hyde amendment restrictions outlined above are ruled incidental in nature, then those provisions merely get stricken from the bill unless 60 Senators vote to retain them—a highly improbable scenario in this case.

But two other tests under the Byrd rule—provisions outside a committee’s jurisdiction, and provisions making changes to Title II of the Social Security Act—are fatal not just to that particular provision, but to the entire bill, potentially forcing the process to begin all over again in the House. The eligibility verification regime touches them both.

Page 37 of the Ways and Means title of the bill requires creation of a verification regime for tax credits similar to that created under Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare. As Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Tom Barthold testified last week during the Ways and Means Committee markup, verifying citizenship requires use of a database held by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

That admission creates a big problem: The tax credit lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee—but CIS lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And because the Finance Committee’s portion of the reconciliation bill can affect only programs within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, imposing programmatic requirements on CIS to verify citizenship status could exceed the Finance Committee’s scope—potentially jeopardizing the entire bill.

The verification provisions in Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare also require the use of Social Security numbers—triggering another potentially fatal blow to the entire bill. Senate sources report that, during when drafting the original reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare in the fall of 2015, Republicans attempted to repeal the language in Obamacare (Section 1414(a)(2), to be precise) giving the Secretary of HHS authority to collect and use Social Security numbers to establish eligibility. However, because Section 1414(a)(2) of Obamacare amended Title II of the Social Security Act, Republicans ultimately did not repeal this section of Obamacare in the reconciliation bill—because it could have triggered a point of order fatal to the legislation.

If both the points of order against the verification regime are sustained, Congress will have to re-write the bill to create an eligibility verification system that 1) does not rely on the Department of Homeland Security AND 2) does not use Social Security numbers. Doing so would create both political and policy problems. On the political side, the revised verification regime would exacerbate existing concerns that undocumented immigrants may have access to federal tax credits.

But the policy implications of a weaker verification regime might actually be more profound. Weaker verification would likely result in a higher score from CBO and JCT—budget scorekeepers would assume a higher incidence of fraud, raising the credits’ costs. House leaders might then have to reduce the amount of their tax credit to reflect the higher take-up of the credit by fraudsters taking advantage of lax verification. And any reduction in the credit amounts would bring with it additional political and policy implications, including lower coverage rates.

Firewall Concerns

Finally, the tax credit “firewall”—designed to ensure that only individuals without access to other health insurance options receive federal subsidies—could also present procedural concerns. Specifically, pages 27 and 28 of the bill make ineligible for the credit individuals participating in other forms of health insurance, several of which—Tricare, Veterans Administration coverage, coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, etc.—lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

If the Senate parliamentarian advises for the removal of references to these programs because they lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, then participants in those programs will essentially be able to “double-dip”—to receive both the federal tax credit AND maintain their current coverage. As with the immigration provision outlined above, such a scenario could significantly increase the tax credits’ cost—requiring offsetting cuts elsewhere, which would have their own budgetary implications.

Senate sources indicate that this “firewall” concern could prove less problematic than the immigration concern outlined above. While the immigration provision extends new programmatic authority to the Administration to develop a revised eligibility verification system, the “firewall” provisions have the opposite effect—essentially excluding Tricare and other program recipients from the credit. However, if the parliamentarian gives guidance suggesting that some or all of the “firewall” provisions must go, that will have a significant impact on the bill’s fiscal impact.

Broader Implications

Both individually and collectively, these four potential procedural concerns hint at an intellectual inconsistency in the House bill’s approach—one Yuval Levin highlighted in National Review last week. House leaders claim that their bill was drafted to comply with the Senate reconciliation procedures. But the bill itself contains numerous actual or potential violations of those procedures—and amends some of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, rather than repealing them outright—making their argument incoherent.

Particularly when it comes to Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations, there seems little reason not to make the “ol’ college try,” and attempt to repeal the major mandates that have raised premium levels. According to prior CBO scores, other outside estimates, and the Obama Administration’s own estimates when releasing the regulations, the major regulations have significant budgetary effects. Republicans can and should argue to the parliamentarian that the regulations’ repeal would be neither incidental nor extraneous—their repeal would remove the terms and conditions under which Obamacare created its insurance subsidies in the first place, thus meeting the Byrd test. If successful, such efforts would provide relief on the issue Americans care most about: Reducing health costs and staggering premium increases.

When it comes to the tax credit itself, Republicans may face some difficult choices. Abortion and immigration present thorny—and controversial—issues, either one of which could sink the legislation. When it comes to the bill’s tax credits, the “Byrd bath,” in which the parliamentarian gives guidance on what provisions can remain in the reconciliation bill, could become a bloodbath. If pro-life protections and eligibility verification come out of the bill, a difficult choice for conservatives on whether or not to support tax credits will become that much harder.