Tag Archives: Social Security

Summary of House Republicans’ Managers Amendment

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.

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.

One Easy Way to Start Reforming Entitlements

During his election campaign and the subsequent presidential transition, Donald Trump expressed a high degree of discomfort with reducing Medicare benefits. His position ignores the significant financial peril Medicare faces—a whopping $132.2 billion in deficits for the Part A (Hospital Insurance) trust fund over the past eight years.

That said, there is one easy way in which the new administration could advance the cause of entitlement reform: allow individuals—including wealthy individuals, like, say, Donald Trump—to opt out of Medicare.

Under current Social Security Administration (SSA) practice dating back to at least 1993, individuals who apply for Social Security benefits are automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A (hospital coverage). While Medicare Part B (physician coverage) requires a separate application process and monthly premium payment, Part A is effectively mandatory for all Social Security recipients. Individuals who do not wish to enroll can do so only by not applying for Social Security benefits. Put another way, the federal government holds individuals’ Social Security benefits hostage as leverage to forcibly enroll them in Medicare Part A.

If you think the government holding benefits hostage to forcibly enroll seniors—even wealthy ones—in taxpayer-funded Medicare sounds more than a little absurd, you wouldn’t be the first one. Several years ago, several conservatives—including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey—filed a lawsuit in federal court, Hall v. Sebelius, seeking to overturn the SSA guidance. The plaintiffs wanted to keep their previous private coverage, and did not wish to lose the benefits of that coverage by being forcibly enrolled in Medicare Part A.

We Have A Roadmap To Remedy This Problem

Unfortunately, both a federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed with the federal government. The majority opinions held that the underlying statute distinguished being “entitled” to Medicare Part A benefits from “enrolling” in Part B, meaning the government was within its rights to deny the plaintiffs an opportunity to opt out of Part A.

However, a dissent at the Court of Appeals by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson can provide a roadmap for the Trump Administration to remedy the absurd scenario of individuals being forcibly enrolled in a taxpayer-funded program. Judge Henderson held that the Social Security Administration had no statutory authority to prohibit (via its Program Operations Manual System, or POMS) individuals from disclaiming their Medicare Part A benefits. While the law “entitles” individuals to benefits, it does not give SSA authority to force them to claim said benefits. SSA published guidance in its program manual exceeding its statutory grant—without even giving the public the opportunity for notice-and-comment before establishing its policy.

It’s Time To End The SSA’s Kafka-esque Policies

During the Cold War, East German authorities referred to the barriers surrounding West Berlin as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”—implying that the Berlin Wall stood not to keep East Berliners in East Germany, but West Berliners out. One can’t help but notice a similar irony in the Medicare opt-out policies developed by the Social Security Administration. After all, if Medicare is so good, why must SSA hold individuals’ Social Security benefits hostage to keep them enrolled in the program?

The Trump Administration can easily put an end to the Social Security Administration’s Kafka-esque policies—and take one small step towards reforming entitlements—by instructing the new Commissioner of Social Security to work with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to develop a means for individuals to opt out of the Medicare Part A benefit. The savings from such a policy would likely be modest, but why should the federal government force the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on benefits that the beneficiaries themselves do not wish to receive?

The simple answer: it shouldn’t. Perhaps Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren view forcible enrollment in Medicare as “punishment” for wealthy seniors. But at a time when our nation faces nearly $20 trillion in debt, individuals of significant means—whether Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or even Hillary Clinton—shouldn’t be forced to accept taxpayer-funded benefits. The Trump Administration eliminating this government absurdity would represent a victory for fiscal responsibility—and sheer common sense.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, Medicare Enrollees Haven’t “Earned” All Their Benefits

In his interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday night, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan made a compelling case for reforming Medicare. But in trying to make a political point about the need to maintain the status quo for beneficiaries in retirement, Speaker Ryan actually understated the problems the program faces:

We have to make sure that we shore this program up. And the reforms that we’ve been talking about don’t change the benefit for anybody who is in or near retirement. My mom’s now enjoying Medicare. She’s already retired. She earned it. But for those of us, you know, the X-Generation on down, it won’t be there for us on its current path. So we have to bring reform to this program for the younger generation, so that it’s there for us when we retire, and so that we can keep cash flowing to current generations’ commitments. And the more we kick the can down the road, the more we delay, the worse it gets.

There’s just one problem with this explanation: the benefits Ryan claimed his mother’s generation “earned” don’t begin to match the money paid into the system.

Money In Doesn’t Equal Money Out

Strictly speaking, the benefits Ryan’s mother receive are “earned,” in the sense that beneficiaries must pay into the Social Security system for 40 quarters to qualify for Medicare eligibility. But in the actuarial sense of “earned” benefits—“I’m only getting back all the money I paid in during my working life”—most beneficiaries receive benefits that vastly exceed their payroll tax contributions to Medicare.

In its 2015 document highlighting the long-term budget outlook, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) conducted an analysis of average payroll taxes paid and benefits received. It found the latter exceeded the former by a wide margin—a margin that will grow over time:

Under the assumption that all scheduled benefits are paid, real average lifetime benefits (net of premiums paid) for each birth cohort as a percentage of lifetime savings will generally be greater than those for the preceding cohort. For example, benefits received over a lifetime are projected to equal about 7 percent of lifetime earnings for people born in the 1940s, on average, but 11 percent for people born in the 1960s. By contrast, real average lifetime payroll taxes relative to lifetime earnings will rise from 2 percent in the 1940s cohort to almost 3 percent for the 1960s cohort.

Both the text and accompanying chart come with a significant caveat: Medicare payroll taxes fund only a share of overall Medicare spending, and that share has declined significantly in recent years—from 67 percent in 2000 to about 40 percent last year. General revenue covers a growing (currently about 47 percent) percentage of Medicare’s finances; individuals do pay a portion of the federal government’s general revenue through income taxes, but it’s harder to differentiate what portion of an individual’s income taxes fund Medicare in any given year.

Regardless, the CBO analysis confirms that benefits paid out continue to rise thanks to skyrocketing health costs—and that taxes paid into the system cannot keep up. A similar CBO analysis conducted earlier this year for the 2016 long-term budget outlook likewise determined that Social Security benefits paid out will exceed taxes taken in for most seniors. (Unlike Medicare, Social Security is funded entirely by payroll taxes, so the gap between benefits and taxes is smaller, but still significant.) Both CBO reports echo research undertaken by the Urban Institute, whose most recent analysis found that a couple earning average wages who retired last year will receive $1,038,000 in Medicare and Social Security benefits after paying in only $683,000 in payroll taxes.

We Have To Fix Our Medicare System

Phasing in changes like premium support for Medicare makes both political and policy sense—to give Americans time to adjust and plan for major changes to entitlement programs, and to try and head off campaigns designed to scare current seniors. On the other hand, CBO believes the premium support proposal included in House Republicans’ budget this year would save seniors 6 percent on out-of-pocket health costs annually—raising the obvious question of why seniors should be shut out of the opportunity to save money.

No matter the details, the fact that most seniors receive more in benefits than they paid in payroll taxes speaks to the urgent need to right-size our entitlements. Regardless of how we do it, our nation will be much better off if we confront these problems sooner rather than later. Because continuing our Lake Wobegon system—in which everyone receives more than they paid in—will guarantee a fiscal crisis of epic proportions.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will Medicare Premium Increases Be an Issue in November?

Buried in the Medicare trustees report released Wednesday are a few lines that could cause political controversy. “In 2017 there may be a substantial increase in the Part B premium rate for some beneficiaries,” the actuaries write—which means seniors will find out about increases shortly before Election Day.

Higher-than-expected Medicare spending in 2014 and 2015 set the stage for a large premium adjustment in 2016. But, notably, the absence of inflation thanks to the drop in energy prices last year meant that seniors receiving Social Security benefits did not receive an annual cost-of-living adjustment.

The Medicare statute has a “hold harmless” provision that prevents Part B premiums from rising by more than the amount of a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment. For most beneficiaries, the provision meant that in 2016, they received no such adjustment—but also did not pay a higher Part B premium. However, nearly one-third of beneficiaries—new Medicare enrollees, “dual eligibles” enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid (in places where state Medicaid programs pay the Medicare Part B premium), and wealthy seniors subject to Medicare means-testing—do not qualify for the provision.

The New York Times noted last fall that the hold-harmless provision, by protecting most beneficiaries, exposed some to higher increases: “If premiums are frozen for 70 percent of beneficiaries, premiums for the other 30 percent must be raised more to cover the expected increase in overall Medicare costs. In other words … the higher Medicare costs must be spread across a smaller group of people.”

Congress, seeing a dynamic in which some seniors could face a nearly 50% increase in premiums, crafted a provision to forestall such a high and sudden spike. The Bipartisan Budget Act capped Part B premium increases for 2016, paid for by a loan from the Treasury that would be repaid by seniors in future years.

The legislative language used, however, allows premium spikes to come back with a vengeance. The Bipartisan Budget Act provided that the Medicare Part B “smoothing” provision would be renewed in 2017—but only if Social Security beneficiaries received no cost-of-living adjustment at all. The trustees report out Wednesday says that beneficiaries are projected to receive a very modest adjustment: 0.2%. Although that change is relatively small, it means that the “smoothing” provisions in last year’s budget deal do not apply—and, as the Wednesday Medicare report notes, premiums for some beneficiaries “need to be raised substantially,” up to nearly $150 per month.

Before the trustees’ report was released, some experts had predicted that a series of payment reductions by the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) under Obamacare would spark talk of “death panels” in political campaigns this fall. Spending levels did not require the board to convene, making that issue moot for now. But that doesn’t mean that Medicare won’t be an issue on the campaign trail. Democrats raised the Part B premium issue last year; expect to hear much more about it before November.

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

For Presidential Candidates, Some Inconvenient Truths on Entitlements

News coverage regarding Hillary Clinton’s proposal to allow individuals under age 65 to buy into Medicare has focused largely on describing how her plan might work, or how it fits into her Democratic primary battle with socialist Bernie Sanders — the left hand trying to imitate what the far left hand is doing. But these political stories mask a more important policy paradigm: While Sanders and Clinton both want to expand Medicare, the program is broke — and neither Sanders, nor Clinton, nor Donald Trump have admitted that inconvenient truth, or have proposed any specific solutions to fix the problem.

Astute readers may note the verb tense in the preceding sentence. It’s not that Medicare will become insolvent in ten or twenty years’ time — it’s practically insolvent now. The program’s Part A (hospital insurance) trust fund lost a whopping $128.7 billion between 2008 and 2014, according to the program’s trustees. The Congressional Budget Office projected earlier this year that the trust dund would become insolvent within the decade.

But in reality, the only thing keeping Medicare afloat at present is the double-counting budget gimmicks created by Obamacare. In the year prior to the law’s enactment, the program’s trustees estimated that the Part A trust fund would become insolvent by 2017 — just a few short months from now. But within months after Obamacare became law, the trustees pushed back their insolvency estimate twelve years, from 2017 to 2029.

The trustees’ estimates notwithstanding, Medicare hasn’t become more solvent under President Obama — far from it. Instead, the Medicare payment reductions and tax increases used to fund Obamacare are simultaneously giving the illusion of improving Medicare’s insolvency. When former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius was asked at a congressional hearing whether those funds were being used “to save Medicare, or#…#to fund health care reform [Obamacare],” Sebelius replied, “Both.”

The Madoff-esque accounting schemes included in Obamacare do not improve Medicare’s solvency one whit. In fact, they undermine the program, because the illusion of solvency has encouraged politicians to ignore Medicare’s financial shortfalls until it’s too late.

And ignore it they have. Sanders has proposed a “Medicare for all” plan that a liberal think tank this week estimated would cost the federal government $32 trillion over ten years. Hillary Clinton has proposed creating another new entitlement — this one a refundable tax credit of up to $5,000 per family to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses, for which many of the 175 million Americans with employer-sponsored coverage could qualify. And Donald Trump has run ads, in states including Pennsylvania, claiming he will “save Social Security and Medicare without cuts.”

But none of them have provided specifics about how they would reform our existing entitlements to prevent a fiscal collapse and preserve them for current seniors and future generations. The collective silence might stem from the fact that Medicare alone faces unfunded obligations of $27.9 trillion over the next 75 years — and that’s after the Obamacare accounting gimmicks that make Medicare’s deficits look smaller on paper. Shortfalls that large will require making tough choices; greater economic growth will make the deficits more manageable, but we can’t grow our way out of a $28 trillion shortfall.

Reaction to Speaker Paul Ryan’s comments about Trump last week has largely focused on the latter’s tone and temperament in his presidential campaign. But if Ryan has stood for anything in Washington, it is fiscal responsibility and entitlement reform. Conversely, by claiming he can “save Social Security and Medicare without cuts,” Trump is effectively signing Republicans up for a $28 trillion tax increase to “save Medicare” — and more besides for Social Security. Little wonder, then, that the Speaker expressed his reluctance to endorse Trump; at their meeting today, they could well address this topic in detail.

Four decades ago, as Britain plunged into its Winter of Discontent, Prime Minister James Callaghan returned from a South American summit and denied any sense of “mounting chaos.” The next day, the Sun’s famous headline shouted “Crisis? What Crisis?” Clinton, Trump, and Sanders should take note. For while the remaining candidates for president seem more interested in creating new entitlements than in making existing ones sustainable, ultimately voters will not look kindly on those who fiddled while our fiscal future burned.

This post was originally published at National Review.

The House “Doc Fix” and the Obama Budget

Last month, in writing about how the president’s budget would forestall changes to entitlements for several years, I said that while the budget “would include some modest changes to Medicare benefits, the overall document postpones most of the fiscal pain until after President Barack Obama leaves office.” The same might be true of bipartisan Medicare legislation that addresses physician payments.

House leaders filed “doc fix” legislation Thursday afternoon, but they have not yet released the legislative language surrounding the parts of the bill that would be paid for. A summary circulating among lobbyists in Washington suggests as one of the “pay-fors” a Medicare Advantage timing shift—a budget gimmick that would shift plan payments into a future fiscal year, masking overall Medicare spending levels.

The document also discusses more substantive changes to the Medicare program: Federal Part B and Part D subsidies would be reduced for individuals with incomes greater than $133,000. And first-dollar coverage for new beneficiaries purchasing supplemental coverage—which studies have shown encourages seniors to over-consume care–would be limited.

These changes may start to address Medicare’s structural shortfalls, but they seem relatively paltry next to some of the Obama administration’s budget proposals. The president’s plan proposed increasing the Medicare Part B deductible and introducing home health co-payments—actions that could reduce incentives for over-consumption of care and crack down on fraud, a particular problem in the home health program. But while the president’s proposed changes would not take effect until 2019, the House proposal would delay them one additional year, until 2020.

Demographics will define our fiscal future for the generation to come. The Congressional Budget Office noted this year that Social Security, health programs, and interest payments represent 84% of the increase in federal spending over the coming decade, largely because an average of 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day. Yet the House legislation could end up exempting from any structural reforms the more than 16 million individuals forecast to join Medicare by 2020.

Unsustainable trends will, at some point, give out. As I wrote last month, putting dessert before spinach by kicking tough choices to future political leaders might lead to short-term political gains but could also produce long-term fiscal and political pain. And when the fiscal reckoning occurs, voters are not likely to look kindly on those who created the problems.

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

More CBO Transparency Could Have Prevented Obamacare’s CLASS Debacle

Mere days into a Republican Congress, Democrats are making charges of ideological bias when it comes to the majority’s handling of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Last Friday, a group of leading Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Speaker Boehner specifically noting that “a CBO director should not be required to revise the score of the Affordable Care Act in order to please partisan interests.” It’s an ironic charge, given that it’s far from partisan to question why the CBO failed to perform analyses that could have predicted the collapse of an $86 billion Obamacare program—exactly what happened under its current director, Doug Elmendorf.

The program in question, Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, or CLASS, was designed to provide cash benefits for those needing long-term services and supports. CLASS made it into Obamacare at the behest of then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, and over the objections of both Republicans and moderate Democrats, who considered it fiscally unsustainable; then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) famously dubbed CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” And so it proved—in October 2011, less than two years after the law’s passage, the Department of Health and Human Services determined CLASS could not be implemented in a fiscally solvent manner, and in January 2013, Congress repealed it entirely.

But Congress and the American people could have been spared this trouble had CBO performed a more thorough analysis of CLASS. In 2009, the budget agency assumed that CLASS’ administrative expenses would remain confined to three percent of premiums, even though HHS’ own actuary later called this requirement “unrealistic and undesirable.” The actuary hired by HHS went on to estimate total expenses at 20 percent of premiums—nearly seven times the level specified in the law.

The unrealistically low administrative expenses go to the heart of CLASS’ structural flaws. The program proved fiscally unsustainable because it faced a classic actuarial death spiral—a lack of healthy people paying into the pool to fund benefits for those needing care.

Had CBO formally analyzed CLASS’ administrative expenses, it likely would have concluded that the unrealistic assumptions written into the law meant premiums would eventually have to rise, benefits fall, or both, to meet the shortfall—making the program even more unattractive to healthy individuals, and further imperiling its solvency. The Congressional Budget Office does have models to estimate the cost of insurance; with Obamacare, it stated in November 2009 that insurance Exchanges would reduce the administrative costs of individually-purchased coverage. But when it came to CLASS, CBO did not perform a similar analysis.

Likewise, CBO at no point attempted to quantify the potentially massive costs to states that CLASS would have imposed. The program would have required state Medicaid programs to create a benefit eligibility system similar to that used by the Social Security disability insurance program. That program costs nearly $3 billion to administer every year—meaning CLASS could easily have imposed costs to states of $20-30 billion over a decade.

Within HHS, officials expressed concern that CLASS would “create significant new burdens on the states.” Coming at a time when governors of both parties were criticizing the “mother of all unfunded mandates” in the form of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, a CBO finding that CLASS imposed mandates on states in the billions, or tens of billions, would have prompted bipartisan outrage—and could have scuttled the program entirely. But from its introduction to its repeal, CBO at no point even acknowledged the significant cost to states associated with CLASS.

In fairness to CBO, the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage were by far the busiest in my time as a Capitol Hill staffer. Lack of enough hours and lack of sleep could, and did, cause details to slip through the cracks; to quote Nancy Pelosi, we really did have to pass the bill to find out what was in it. But that neither excuses nor explains why CBO has not publicly acknowledged the shortcomings outlined above, and what if anything it needs to change—whether in resources, oversight, or both—to improve its analysis going forward.

Judging from his silence on CLASS, Dr. Elmendorf may view protecting his office’s budget analysts as a prime objective of a CBO director. As much as I value loyalty, CBO’s prime loyalty should lay to Congress—and ultimately to the public, which funds both CBO and the programs it analyzes. While Dr. Elmendorf has taken measures to release more information publicly—developments I welcome—such steps generally fall into the realm of making CBO less opaque, rather than truly transparent.

Democrats’ political posturing aside, it’s not partisan to ask for a public explanation why an independent budget office did not produce analyses that could have revealed the instability of an $86 billion “Ponzi scheme” before Congress enacted it into law. In fact, the principles of good governance should compel the Congressional Budget Office in exactly this direction. Hopefully CBO’s next director, whoever he or she is, will move more rapidly down the road of this much-needed transparency.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

How Proposals for Obamacare Subsidies in 2015 Could Cost Taxpayers

In a Think Tank post last week, I explained why the number of unresolved inconsistencies in applications on the federal insurance exchanges probably exceeds the 2.9 million cited in two recent Department of Health and Human Services reports. Recent HHS proposals could allow many income-related inconsistencies to persist in 2015–potentially risking taxpayer funds.

In its proposed rule and related guidance for the 2015 open-enrollment season, the administration made two key decisions about determining re-eligibility for insurance subsidies. First, the guidance indicates that the exchanges would request updated tax return information solely from the IRS to determine eligibility for 2015 subsidies. Currently, the exchanges determine eligibility using information from the Social Security Administration and other income data sources, as well as tax information.

Second, most individuals who do not respond to requests to update their information would remain eligible for subsidies in 2015 at the same amount they received this year. (Their subsidies would not increase because of higher age or any premium changes.) Only individuals whose incomes appear to vastly exceed the thresholds for subsidies—what’s likely to be a “very small” group, HHS said in its guidance–or those who did not authorize the exchanges to review tax return data would not automatically receive subsidies in 2015.

The administration is seeking to streamline the process to determine eligibility, but the HHS inspector general’s investigations found the existing processes to be largely ineffective. An HHS report last week noted nearly 1 million inconsistencies relating to income reporting on applications. Because that includes only the federally run exchanges and only cases handled through Feb. 23, the number of inconsistencies is probably significantly understated. The inspector general’s office also found that HHS had resolved only about 1% of inconsistencies that occurred on the federal exchange between Oct. 1, 2013, and Feb. 23, though the health-reform law requires the department to resolve issues within 90 days.

With 1 million—and probably many more—applications containing inconsistencies over income, further liberalizing the subsidy eligibility criteria could create more problems. At best, individuals with inconsistencies that persist could eventually be forced to repay excess subsidies for 2014 and 2015. At worst, taxpayers could be on the hook for significant amounts of improperly paid subsidies.

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

Who’s Responsible for the Shutdown?

All around the country, Americans are asking one question: Who’s responsible for the shutdown? And no, we’re not talking about the government slowdown—we’re talking about the Obamacare shutdown.

All claims to the contrary, Obamacare has been effectively shut down—people are running into roadblocks and error messages when trying to enroll in plans. And the New York Times this morning explains that one of the major problems in getting exchanges to work has been a database created by the federal government:

One bottleneck identified by state officials on Wednesday seemed to be occurring when state-run exchanges communicate with the federal data “hub” to verify a person’s citizenship, identity and income through agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security.

About 18,000 people had created accounts on Nevada’s exchange by midafternoon Wednesday, said C. J. Bawden, a spokesman. But he said processing was slowed by trouble communicating with the federal system to establish their identity and eligibility, one of the last steps in the process. Minnesota officials also reported problems with the identity checking process. “We have it corrected as of now, but it was a federal-side problem,” Mr. Bawden said.In other words, both state-based and federally run exchanges can’t function properly, because the federal government dropped the ball in creating a technically competent database.

The data hub brings with it other concerns, over and above the current inability for applicants to enroll in plans. Because the hub links to many government databases containing Social Security, tax, and other sensitive personal data, a breach of the hub could lead to identity theft and other frauds.

Given the rushed implementation process, and the federal government’s poor track record when it comes to cybersecurity, many Americans should be worried that the data hub’s initial problems may represent the tip of the iceberg.

Despite the fact that Obamacare seems to be doing a good job of collapsing under its own weight, Congress should still act to prevent any more federal taxpayer dollars from being used to implement this inherently unworkable law—and to keep taxpayers’ information safe.

This post was originally published at the Daily Signal.