Tag Archives: Stability Fund

A Reading Guide to the Senate Bill’s Backroom Deals

Buried within the pages of the revised Senate health-care bill are numerous formula tweaks meant to advantage certain states. Call them backroom deals, call them earmarks, call them whatever you like: several provisions were inserted into the bill over the past two weeks with the intent of appealing to certain constituents.

It appears that at least three of these provisions apply to Alaska—home of wavering Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—and another applies to Louisiana, home of undecided Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). Below please find a summary (not necessarily exhaustive) of these targeted provisions.

The Buy Off Lisa Murkowski Again Fund

Section 106 of the bill includes new language—page 13, lines 4 through 13, and page 18, line 12 through page 19, line 4—dedicating one percent of the new Stability Fund dollars to “each state where the cost of insurance premiums are at least 75 percent higher than the national average.” As a Bloomberg story noted, this provision currently applies only to Alaska, and could result in $1.32 billion in Stability Fund dollars automatically being directed to Alaska.

The Alaskan Pipeline

The revised Section 126 of the bill includes modified language—page 44, lines 9 through 17—changing certain Medicaid payments to hospitals based on a state’s overall uninsured population, not its Medicaid enrollment. As Bloomberg noted, this provision would also benefit Alaska, because Alaska recently expanded its Medicaid program, and therefore would qualify for fewer dollars under the formula in the original base bill.

The Moral Hazard Expansion

The underlying bill determined Medicaid per capita caps based on eight consecutive fiscal quarters—i.e., two years—of Medicaid spending. However, the revised bill includes language beginning on line 6 of page 59 that would allow “late expanding Medicaid states”—defined as those who expanded between and July 1, 2015 and September 30, 2016—to base their spending on only four consecutive quarters. Relevant states who qualify under this definition include Alaska (expanded effective September 1, 2015), Montana (expanded effective January 1, 2016), and Louisiana (expanded effective July 1, 2016).

The most recent actuarial report on Medicaid noted that, while the actuary originally predicted that adults in the expansion population would cost less than existing populations, in reality each newly eligible enrollee cost 13.6 percent more than existing populations in 2016. Some states have used the 100 percent federal match for their expansion populations—i.e., “free money from Washington”—to raise provider reimbursement levels. Therefore, allowing these three states to use only the quarters under which they had expanded Medicaid as their “base period” will likely allow them to draw down higher payments from Washington in perpetuity.

The South Dakota Purchase

The revised bill includes a new Section 138, which makes services provided by a state to Indian Health Service enrollees subject to a 100 percent federal Medicaid match. Under current law, only services “received through an Indian Health Service facility whether operated by the Indian Health Service or by an Indian tribe or tribal organization” are subject to a 100 percent match. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard has pushed this provision for over a year, saying he would expand Medicaid under Obamacare—but only if the federal government would agree to provide a 100 percent reimbursement for all Medicaid services provided to Indian Health Service enrollees.

The Buffalo Bribe

This provision, originally included in the House-passed bill, remains in the Senate version, beginning at line 12 of page 69. Originally dubbed the “Buffalo Bribe,” and inserted at the behest of congressmen from upstate New York, the provision would essentially penalize that state if it continues to require counties to contribute to the Medicaid program’s costs.

More to Come?

While the current bill contains at least half a dozen targeted provisions, many more could be on the way. By removing repeal of the net investment tax and Medicare “high-income” tax, the bill retains over $230 billion in revenue. Yet the revised bill spends far less than that—$70 billion more for the Stability Fund, $43 billion more in opioid funding, and a new $8 billion demonstration project for home and community-based services in Medicaid.

Even after the added revenue loss from additional health savings account incentives, Senate leadership could have roughly $100 billion more to spend in their revised bill draft—which of course they will. Recall too that the original Senate bill allowed for nearly $200 billion in “candy” to distribute to persuade wayward lawmakers. In both number and dollar amount, the number of “deals” to date may dwarf what’s to come.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.

CBO Analysis of Senate Republican Health Legislation

On June 26, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its score of the Senate Republican Obamacare legislation. CBO found that the bill would:

  • Reduce deficits by about $321 billion over ten years—$202 billion more than the House-passed legislation.
  • Increase the number of uninsured by 15 million in 2018, rising to a total of 22 million by 2026—a slight short-term increase, and slight long-term decrease, of the uninsured numbers compared to the House bill.
  • Generally increase individual market insurance premiums between now and 2020, followed by a reduction in most parts of the country. However, impacts would vary based on states’ decisions regarding benefit structures, as listed below.
  • Reduce Medicaid spending by less than the House-passed measure ($772 billion vs. $834 billion), but have greater net savings with respect to insurance subsidies ($408 billion in deficit reduction vs. $276 billion for the House bill)—calculated as repeal of the Obamacare cost-sharing and premium subsidies, offset by the new spending on “replacement” subsidies.

In its analysis, CBO noted that it continues to use the March 2016 baseline to score the reconciliation legislation (as it did with the House bill). It has done so largely because 1) its updated January 2017 baseline was not available at the time Congress passed the budget resolution in early January and 2) the ten-year timeframe of the March 2016 baseline synchs with the timeframe of the current budget resolution. Had CBO used the January 2017 budget baseline to score the bill, coverage losses would likely have been smaller—CBO has reduced its estimates of Exchange coverage due to anemic enrollment. However, because premiums spiked in 2017, thus raising spending on subsidies, the fiscal effects likely would have been similar.

Premiums:    CBO believes premiums will rise by 20 percent compared to current law in 2018, and by about 10 percent compared to current law in 2019. The increases would stem largely from the effective repeal of the individual mandate (penalty set to $0), which would lead healthy individuals to drop coverage—offset in part by new “stability” funding to insurers.

In 2020, premiums would decline by about 30 percent compared to current law, and by 2026, premiums would be about 20 percent lower than current law (premium reductions declining slightly as “stability” funding declines in years after 2021). The premium reductions would come largely because of a decrease in the actuarial value (i.e., the average percentage of health expenses covered by insurance) of plans.

CBO believes that “few low-income people would purchase coverage” despite subsidies provided under the bill, because in its estimation, deductibles for low-premium plans would be prohibitively expensive for low-income individuals—and premiums for low-deductible plans would also be prohibitively expensive. In general, CBO believes out-of-pocket expenses would rise for most individuals purchasing coverage on the individual market.

Changes in Insurance Coverage:               CBO believes that under the bill, the number of uninsured would rise by 15 million in 2018, and 22 million in 2026. Moreover, “the increase [in the uninsured] would be disproportionately larger among older people with lower income—particularly people between 50 and 64 years old” with income under twice the poverty level. With respect to Medicaid, 15 million fewer people would have coverage than under current law; however, about five million 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 believes that the individual insurance market would decline by 7 million in 2018, 9 million in 2020, and 7 million in 2026. The estimate notes CBO’s belief that “a small fraction of the population” will reside in areas where no insurers would participate. A reduction in subsidies would 1) make insurers’ fixed costs a higher percentage of revenues, discouraging them from participating, and 2) reduce the overall percentage of subsidized enrollees—giving some markets a disproportionate number of unsubsidized enrollees with higher health costs. However, in these cases, CBO believes that states could take steps to restore the markets within a few years, whether by obtaining waivers and/or “stability fund” dollars.

CBO believes that effectively repealing the individual mandate would, all things equal, increase premiums in the individual market; lead some employers not to offer employer-based coverage; and discourage individuals from enrolling in Medicaid. However, CBO “do[es] not expect that, with the [mandate] penalty eliminated under this legislation, people enrolled in Medicaid would disenroll.”

Waivers:         With respect to the state waivers for insurance regulations—including essential health benefits and other Obamacare requirements—CBO believes that “about half the population would be in states receiving substantial pass-through funding” under the Obamacare Section 1332 waiver provision, which the bill would revamp. States could receive pass-through funding to reflect savings to the federal government from lower spending on insurance subsidies from the waivers. Those pass-through funds could be used to lower premiums or cost-sharing for individuals.

While CBO believes that many states would apply for waivers with respect to insurance regulations or other requirements, few would “make significant changes” to the subsidy regime, to avoid administering said regime themselves—leaving this task to the Internal Revenue Service instead. However, CBO believes that about one-fifth of the total subsidy dollars available will be provided through the waiver pass-through, rather than directly to individuals.

CBO believes that, particularly in the first few years of the waiver regime, these waivers would actually increase the budget deficit—despite a requirement in the legislation that they not do so. CBO believes that states with waivers currently pending—who can choose whether their waiver would apply under the current regime or the “new” one created by the bill—would use this arbitrage opportunity to pick the more advantageous position for their state. Likewise, the agency notes that states would use overly optimistic data estimates when defining “budget-neutrality”—and that in the first few years of the bill, “the Administration would not have enough data about experience under this legislation to fully adjust [sic] for that incentive.”

In its analysis, CBO concludes that “the additional waivers would have little effect on the number of people insured, on net, by 2026.” Most waivers would be used to narrow the essential health benefits, lowering premiums and giving savings to states as pass-through funds. While lower premiums would increase individual market coverage, it would in CBO’s estimate encourage some employers to drop coverage. Moreover, “people eligible for subsidies in the non-group market would receive little benefit from the lower premiums, and many would therefore decline to purchase a plan providing fewer benefits.” A small fraction of individuals might live in states that “substantially reduce the number of people insured,” either by re-directing subsidy assistance to those who would have purchased coverage even without a subsidy, or by taking pass-through funds and re-directing them for purposes other than health insurance coverage.

CBO believes that, in cases where states use waivers to narrow essential health benefits, “insurance covering certain services [could] become more expensive—in some cases, extremely expensive.” While states could use pass-through funding to subsidize coverage of these services, CBO “anticipate[s] that the funding available to help provide coverage for those high-cost services would be insufficient.”

Other Regulatory Changes:            CBO notes the two “stability funds”—the one short-term fund for insurers, and the second longer-term fund for states—and believes that about three-quarters of the $62 billion provided to states from 2019 through 2026 would go to arrangements with insurers to reduce premiums in the individual market—whether reinsurance, direct subsidies, or some other means.

CBO believes the six-month waiting period added to the legislation would “slightly increase the number of people with insurance, on net, throughout the 2018-2026 period—but not in 2019, when the incentives to obtain coverage would be weak because premiums would be relatively high.”

The changes in age-rating rules—allowing states to charge older applicants five times as much as younger ones, unless a state chooses another ratio—“would tend to reduce premiums for younger people and increase premiums for older people, resulting in a slight increase in insurance coverage, on net—mainly among people not eligible for subsidies,” as the subsidies would insulate most recipients from the effects of the age rating changes. However, net premiums for older individuals not eligible for subsidies would rise significantly.

CBO believes that about half the population will reside in states that will reduce or eliminate current medical loss ratio requirements. “In those states, in areas with little competition among insurers, the provision would cause insurers to raise premiums and would increase federal costs for subsidies,” CBO expects. However, this provision “would have little effect on the number of people coverage by health insurance.”

Insurance Subsidies:           In general, average subsidies under the bill “would be significantly lower than the average subsidy under current law,” despite some exceptions. For instance, while net premiums would be roughly equal for a 40-year-old with income of 175 percent of poverty, “the average share of the cost of medical services paid by the insurance purchased by that person would fall—from 87 percent to 58 percent,” thereby raising deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. The changes “would contribute significantly to a reduction in the number of lower-income people” obtaining coverage under the bill when compared to current law.

CBO believes that the high cost of premiums and/or deductibles under the bill would discourage many low-income individuals eligible for Medicaid under current law, and who would instead be eligible for subsidies under the bill, from enrolling. “Some people with assets to protect or who expect to have high use of health care would” enroll, but many would not.

CBO also notes that “it is difficult to design plans” that might be “more attractive to people with low income” because of the mandated benefit requirements under Obamacare. For instance, it would be difficult to design plans that provide prescription drugs with low co-payments, or services below the plan’s high deductible, while meeting the 58 percent actuarial value benchmark in the bill. However, waivers could lessen these constraints somewhat, potentially yielding more attractive benefit designs.

While the bill eliminates eligibility for subsidies for individuals making between 351-400 percent of poverty, CBO believes that net premiums for individual (but not necessarily for family) coverage would be relatively similar under both current law and the bill. With respect to age, CBO believes that the addition of age as a factor in calculating subsidies, coupled with the changes to age rating in the bill, would mean that a larger share of individual market enrollees will be younger than under current law.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps and Block Grants:                         CBO believes that, in the short term (2017 through 2024), per capita caps would reduce outlays for non-disabled children and non-disabled adults, because spending would grow faster (4.9 percent) than the medical inflation index prescribe in the law (3.7 percent). However, spending on disabled adults or seniors would grow much more slowly (3.3 percent) than medical inflation plus one percent (4.7 percent). “In 2025 and beyond, the differences between spending growth for Medicaid under current law and the growth rate of the per capita caps for all groups would be substantial,” as CBO projects general inflation will average 2.4 percent.

With respect to the block grant option, CBO believes it “would be attractive to a few states that expect to decline in population (and not in most states experiencing population growth, as it would further constrain federal reimbursement).” Therefore, CBO considers the block grant to have little effect on Medicaid enrollment.

In CBO’s opinion, “states would not have substantial additional flexibility under the per capita caps. Under the block grant option, states would have additional flexibility to make changes to their Medicaid program—such as altering cost sharing and, to a limited degree, benefits.” In the absence of flexibility, CBO believes states facing the per capita caps would reduce provider reimbursements, eliminate optional services, restrict enrollment through work requirements, and/or deliver more efficient care. Specifically, “because caps on federal Medicaid spending would shift a greater share of the cost of Medicaid to state over time,” states would use work requirements to “reduce enrollment and the associated costs.”

Over the longer term, “CBO projects that the growth rate of Medicaid under current law would exceed the growth rate of the per capita caps for all groups covered by the caps starting in 2025.” As a result, CBO believes Medicaid enrollment would continue to decline after 2026 relative to current law.

Medicaid Expansion:           Currently, about half of the population resides in the 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have expanded Medicaid. CBO believes that, under current law, that percentage will rise to 80 percent of the newly eligible population by 2026. Under the bill, CBO believes that no additional states will expand Medicaid—resulting in coverage “losses” compared to current law, albeit without individuals actually losing coverage. Moreover, as the enhanced federal matching rate for the Medicaid expansion declines under the bill CBO believes the share of the newly eligible population in states that continue their Medicaid expansion will decline to 30 percent in 2026.

The Senate Health Care Bill and Premiums

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases its estimate of Senate Republicans’ Obamacare discussion draft this week, it will undoubtedly state that the bill will lower health insurance premiums. A whopping $65 billion in payments to insurers over the next three years virtually guarantees this over the short-term.

Indeed, Senate Republican staff have reportedly been telling members of Congress that the bill is designed to lower premiums between now and the 2020 election—hence the massive amounts of money for plan years through 2021, whose premiums will be announced in the heat of the next presidential campaign.

But conservatives should focus on two important “stories behind the story.” First, CBO likely will conclude that the bill will reduce premiums by much less than a bill repealing all of Obamacare’s insurance regulations. Taken on their own, the massive amounts of funding to insurers should lower premiums by at least 15 percent. If CBO does not estimate a premium reduction of at least that much, it would likely be because the bill keeps most of Obamacare’s health insurance mandates in place.

Second, conservatives should consider what will happen four years from now, once the $65 billion has been spent. Ultimately, throwing taxpayer money at skyrocketing premiums—as opposed to fixing it outright—won’t solve the problem, and will instead just create another entitlement that health insurers will want to make permanent.

Where That Figure Comes From

Section 106 of the bill creates two separate “stability funds,” one giving payments directly to insurers to “stabilize” state insurance markets, and the second giving money to states to improve their insurance markets or health care systems. The insurer stability fund contains $50 billion—$15 billion for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, and $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 and 2021. The fund for state innovation contains $62 billion, covering calendar years 2019 through 2026.

Some have stated that the bill provides $50 billion to stabilize health insurance markets. That actually underestimates the funds given to health insurers in the bill. A provision in the state innovation fund section—starting at line 21 of page 22 of the discussion draft and continuing through to line 7 of page 23—requires states to spend $15 billion of the $62 billion allotted to them—$5 billion in each of calendar years 2019, 2020, and 2021—on stabilizing health insurers. (So much for state “flexibility” from Republicans.)

Therefore, the bill spends not $50 billion, but $65 billion, on “market stabilization”—$50 billion from the insurer fund, and $15 billion from the state fund. By year, the insurer funding in the Senate bill would total $15 billion in 2018, $20 billion in 2019, $15 billion in 2020, and $15 billion in 2021. (It also appropriates an unlimited amount—estimated at roughly $25 billion—for cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers between now and January 2020.)

The Potential Impact on Premiums

What kind of per-person subsidy would these billions generate? That depends on enrollment—the number of people buying individual insurance policies, both on the exchanges and off. Earlier this month, the administration revealed that just over 10 million individuals selected a plan and paid their first month’s premium this year, and that an average 10 million Americans held exchange plans last year. Off-exchange enrollment data are harder to come by, but both the Congressional Budget Office and blogger Charles Gaba (an Obamacare supporter) estimate roughly 8 million individuals purchasing individual market plans off of the exchange.

On an average enrollment of 10 million—10 million in exchanges, and 8 million off the exchanges—the bill would provide an $833 per enrollee subsidy in 2018, 2020, and 2021, and $1,111 per enrollee in 2019. In all cases, those numbers would meet or exceed the average $833 per enrollee subsidy insurers received under Obamacare’s reinsurance program in 2014, as analyzed by the Mercatus Center last year.

How much would these subsidies lower premiums? That depends on the average premium being subsidized. For 2018 and 2019, premium subsidies would remain linked to a “benchmark” silver plan, which this year averages $5,586 for an individual. However, in 2020 and 2021, the subsidy regime would change. Subsidies would be linked to the median plan with a lower actuarial value—roughly equivalent to a bronze plan, the cheapest of which this year averages $4,392.

Using a rough estimate of an average $6,000 premium in 2018 and 2019, and a $5,000 average premium in 2020 and 2021 (reflecting the change in the subsidy formula in January 2020) yields annual premium reductions of 14 to 19 percent, as outlined below:

The bill therefore should—all else equal—reduce premiums by at least 15 percent or so, solely because of the “stability” payments to insurers. However, other changes in the bill may increase premiums. Effectively repealing the individual mandate by setting the penalty for non-compliance to $0, while not repealing most of the major Obamacare regulations will encourage healthy individuals to drop coverage, causing premiums to rise.

If CBO finds that the bill won’t reduce premiums by at least 15 percent, it’s because it doesn’t actually repeal the insurance mandates and regulations driving up premiums. The “stability” funding is simply using government funding to mask the inflationary effects of the regulations, at no small cost to taxpayers.

What About After the Presidential Election?

In a few years, the “stability” fund payments drop off a proverbial cliff. While the bill provides $15 billion in funding for insurers in calendar year 2021 and another $9 billion states can use however they like, in 2022 the bill provides only $6 billion to states, and nothing to insurers. As noted above, it’s not lost on the bill’s authors that calendar year 2021 premiums will likely be announced in the fall of 2020—just prior to that November’s election.

But what happens in years after 2021, when “stability” funding drops off by 75 percent? How “stable” is a bill creating such a dramatic falloff in insurer payments? How will such a falloff not create pressure to create a permanent new entitlement for insurers, just like insurers have pressured Republicans to create the “stability” funds after Obamacare’s “temporary” reinsurance program expired last year?

More than four decades ago, Margaret Thatcher properly pointed out that the problem with socialism is that it eventually runs out of other people’s money. Throwing money at insurers may in the short term bail them out financially and bail Republicans out politically. But it’s not sustainable—nor is it a substitute for good policy.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Top Ten Ways Senate Obamacare Bill Is #FakeRepeal

1.     Retains Obamacare Insurance Subsides.  The bill modifies, but does not repeal, Obamacare’s system of insurance subsidies—an expansion of the welfare state, administered through the tax code.

2.     Retains Obamacare Medicaid Expansion.           The bill as written would never repeal Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults, while it would not fully eliminate the enhanced match states currently receive to cover those adults until 2024—nearly seven years from now.

3.     Expands Obamacare Insurance Subsidies.             Rather than repealing all of the law “root and branch,” as Sen. McConnell claimed was his goal, the bill instead expands eligibility for Obamacare’s subsidy regime. Some conservatives may question the need to “fix” Obamacare, when the legislation should repeal Obamacare.

4.     Retains ALL Obamacare Regulations.         While modifying some and allowing states to waive others, the bill does not repeal any of Obamacare’s onerous insurance regulations—the prime drivers of the premium spikes that have seen rates more than double since Obamacare went into effect.

5.     Retains Obamacare’s Undermining of State Sovereignty.   Because the bill keeps in place the federal mandates associated with Obamacare, states must ask permission to opt-out of just some parts of Obamacare, which remains the default standard. This turning of federalism on its head will allow Democratic Governors—and/or a future Democratic Administration—to reinstitute Obamacare mandates quickly and easily.

6.     Appropriates Obamacare Cost-Sharing Reductions.    Unlike Obamacare itself, the bill actually spends federal tax dollars on cost-sharing reductions authorized, but not appropriated, under the law. While conservatives might support a temporary appropriation to ensure a stable transition as Obamacare is fully repealed, the bill does the former—but certainly not the latter.

7.     Extends and Expands Obamacare’s Corporate Welfare Bailouts.    The bill includes not one, but two, separate “stability funds” designed to make slush fund payments to insurance companies. Between now and 2021, the bill would spend at least $65 billion on such payments—over and above the cost-sharing reduction subsidies listed above.

8.     Includes Obamacare’s Work Disincentives.    The Congressional Budget Office previously estimated that the subsidy “cliffs” included in Obamacare would discourage work—because individuals could lose thousands of dollars in subsidies by gaining one additional dollar of income—and that the law would reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of over two million jobs. The Senate bill retains those subsidy “cliffs.”

9.     Continues Obamacare Pattern of Giving Too Much Authority to Federal Bureaucrats.      The bill gives near-blanket authority to the Administration on several fronts—from creating the “stability funds” to giving Medicaid incentives to states—that would allow federal bureaucrats to abuse this excessive grant of power.

10.  Obamacare Architect Admits It’s Not Repeal.  Speaking on CNN Thursday, famed Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber said that “this is no longer an Obamacare repeal bill—that’s good.” He continued: “If you look at what’s criticized [about] Obamacare, it was subsidies, it was regulations…this law wouldn’t really change those…It really [doesn’t] change very much.” Those admissions come from an individual who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Obama Administration to consult on Obamacare.

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

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.

What You Need to Know about Invisible High Risk Pools

Last Thursday afternoon, the House Rules Committee approved an amendment providing an additional $15 billion for “invisible high risk pools.” That surprising development, after several days of frenetic closed-door negotiations and a study on the pools released Friday, may have some in Washington trying to make sense of it all.

If you want the short and dirty, here it is: Thursday’s amendment doesn’t resemble the model cited by pool proponents, undermines principles of federalism, relies on government price controls to achieve much of its premium savings, and requires far more taxpayer funding than the amendment actually provided. But other than that, it’s great!

Want more info? Read on.

The Amendment Text Does Not Match Its Maine Model

The legislative text the Rules Committee adopted last week bears little resemblance to the invisible risk pool model the amendment’s proponents have described.

In response to my article last week asking whether the invisible risk pool funding differs from Obamacare’s reinsurance program, supporters cited a blog post highlighting the way such a pool works in Maine. Under Maine’s program, insurers cede their highest risks to the pool prospectively—i.e., when individuals apply for insurance. Insurers also cede to the pool most of those high-risk patients’ premium payments, to help pay for the patients’ health claims.

Conversely, insurers participating in Obamacare’s reinsurance program receive retrospective payments (i.e., after the patients incur high health costs), and keep all of the premium payments those patients make. In theory, then, those two differences do distinguish the Obamacare reinsurance program from the Maine pool.

But there’s one other key distinction: The amendment the Rules Committee adopted last week doesn’t include the parameters of the Maine model. The original version proposed by Rep. Gary Palmer—the amendment language upon which the Milliman study was based—more closely tracked the Maine model. But the Rules Committee instead passed an amendment with generic language leaving much more discretion to the Trump administration. On Friday, Politico explained why:

The [Milliman] study…assumes that insurers would agree up front to surrender most of the premiums paid by high-risk enrollees, in exchange for protection against potentially costly claims down the line… Palmer included those specifics the first time he proposed adding a risk-sharing program to the [American Health Care Act], roughly two weeks ago. But they were stripped out of the final version presented Tuesday, and likely for good reason…Insurers likely wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about having that much skin in the game. Instead, the amendment essentially tells state and federal officials to sort out the details later—and most importantly, after the program is passed into law.

The federal pools may end up looking nothing like the Maine program advocates are citing as the model—because the administration will determine all those critically important details after the fact. Or, to coin a phrase, we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.

The Amendment Undermines State Sovereignty

As currently constructed, the pool concept undermines state sovereignty over insurance markets. Paradoxical as it may sound, the amendment adopted last Thursday is both too broad and too narrow. With respect to the invisible high risk pool concept, the legislation doesn’t include enough details to allow policy-makers and insurers to determine how they will function. As noted above, all of those details were essentially punted to the administration to determine.

But the amendment is also too narrow, in that it conditions the $15 billion on participation in the invisible risk pool model. If a state wants to create an actual high risk pool, or use some other concept to stabilize their insurance markets, they’re out of luck—they can’t touch the $15 billion pot of money.

Admittedly, the amendment the Rules Committee adopted last Thursday isn’t nearly as bad as the original Palmer amendment on invisible pools. That original amendment required all insurers to participate in the invisible pools “as a condition of doing business in a state”—potentially violating both the Fifth Amendment for an unconstitutional taking against insurers, and the Tenth Amendment by undermining states’ sovereignty over their insurance markets and business licensing.

In a post last week, I cited House Speaker Paul Ryan’s February criticism of Obamacare: “They’re subsidies that say, ‘We will pay some people some money if you do what the government makes you do.’” That’s exactly what this amendment does: It conditions some level of funding on states taking some specific action—not the only action, perhaps not even the best action, to stabilize their insurance markets, just the one Washington politically favors, therefore the one Washington will attempt to make all states take.

Ryan was right to criticize the Obamacare insurance subsidy system as “not freedom.” The same criticism applies to the invisible pool funding—it isn’t freedom. It also isn’t federalism—it’s big-government, nanny-state “conservatism.”

The Pools’ Claimed Benefits Derive From Price Controls

Much of the supposed benefits of the pools come as a result of government-imposed price controls. The Milliman study released Friday—and again, conditioned upon parameters not present in the amendment the Rules Committee adopted Thursday—models two possible scenarios.

The first scenario would create a new insurance pool in “repeal-and-replace” legislation, with the invisible pools applying only to the new market (some individuals currently on Obamacare may switch to the new market, but would not have to). The second scenario envisions a single risk pool for insurers, combining existing enrollees and new enrollees under the “replace” plan.

In both cases, Milliman modeled assumptions from the original Palmer amendment (i.e., not the one the Rules Committee adopted last Thursday) that linked payments from the invisible risk pools to 100 percent of Medicare reimbursement rates. The study specifically noted the “favorable spread” created as a result of this requirement: the pool reduces premiums because it pays doctors and hospitals less than insurers would.

Under the first scenario, in which Obamacare enrollees remain in a separate market than the new participants in “replace” legislation, a risk pool reimbursing at Medicare rates would yield total average rate reductions of between 16 and 31 percent. But “if [risk pool] benefits are paid based on regular commercially negotiated fees, the rate reduction becomes 12% to 23%”—about one-third less than with the federally dictated reimbursement levels.

Under the second scenario, in which Obamacare and “replace” enrollees are combined into one marketplace, premiums barely drop when linked to commercial payment rates. Premiums would fall by a modest 4 to 14 percent using Medicare reimbursement levels, and a miniscule 1 to 4 percent using commercial reimbursement levels.

Admittedly, the structure of the risk pool creates an inherent risk of gaming—insurers could try to raise their reimbursement rates to gain more federal funds from the pool. But if federal price controls are the way to lower premiums (and for the record, they aren’t), why not just create a government-run “public option” linked to Medicare reimbursement levels and be done with it?

The Study Says This Doesn’t Provide Enough Money

According to the study, the amendment adopted doesn’t include enough federal funding for invisible risk pools. The Milliman study found that invisible risk pools will require more funding than last Thursday’s amendment provided—and potentially even more funding than the entire Stability Fund. Under both scenarios, the invisible risk pools would require anywhere from $3.3 billion to $17 billion per year in funding, or from $35 billion to nearly $200 billion over a decade.

By contrast, Thursday’s amendment included only $15 billion in funding to last from 2018 through 2026. And the Stability Fund itself includes a total of $130 billion in funding—$100 billion in general funds, $15 billion for maternity and mental health coverage, and the $15 billion specifically for invisible risk pools. If all 50 states participate, the entire Stability Fund may not hold enough money needed to fund invisible risk pools.

Remember too that the Milliman study assumes that 1) insurers will cede most premium payments from risk pool participants to help finance the pool’s operations and 2) the pool will pay claims using Medicare reimbursement rates. If either or both of those two assumptions do not materialize—and insurers and providers will vigorously oppose both—spending for the pools will increase still further, making the Milliman study a generous under-estimate of the program’s ultimate cost.

Let States Take the Reins

All of the above notwithstanding, the invisible high risk pool model could work for some states—emphasis on “could” and “some.” If states want to explore this option, they certainly have the right to do so.

But, as Obamacare itself has demonstrated, Washington does not represent the source and summit of all the accumulated wisdom in health care policy. States are desperate for the opportunity to innovate, and create new policies in the marketplace of ideas—not have more programs foisted upon them by Washington, as the Rules Committee amendment attempts to do. Moving in the direction of the former, and not the latter, would represent a true change of pace. Here’s hoping that Congress finally has the courage to do so.

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).

A Fiscally Irresponsible Bill

Last week the Wall Street Journal, in endorsing House Republicans’ American Health Care Act, highlighted the legislation’s “fiscal bonus.” Yes, the bill’s Medicaid reforms warrant praise as a good effort to control entitlement spending. But that meritorious effort notwithstanding, the bill contains numerous structural flaws, with potentially more on the way, that could bust budgets for decades to come.

Some of the same leaders decrying or explaining away Congressional Budget Office scores showing large coverage losses due to the bill have proved far too willing to take the bill’s supposed deficit savings at face value. But a good CBO score doesn’t necessarily mean legislation will reduce the deficit; instead, it means that lawmakers and staff have worked hard to achieve a good CBO score.

CBO scores have inherent limitations — notably, the discipline (or lack thereof) on the part of lawmakers to adhere to a bill’s parameters. Two years ago this month, the Wall Street Journal endorsed a Medicare “doc fix” bill that increased the deficit by more than $140 billion in its first decade alone. In doing so, the editorial page argued that Congress’ “cycle[s] of fiscal deception” required a return to “honest budgeting,” stopping budget games by making spending increases more transparent.

Given this history, one question naturally follows: Does the American Health Care Act engage in similar cycles of fiscal deception likely to bust future budgets? Many signs point to yes. First, the bill expands access to Obamacare’s subsidy regime for calendar years 2018 and 2019. CBO believes the bill will reduce entitlement spending only slightly in its first few fiscal years — by $29 billion next year, and $42 billion the following — as the individual mandate’s repeal will cause some to drop coverage.

But in fiscal year 2020 — when the Obamacare entitlements would end and the new tax credit would begin — the bill assumes a massive $100 billion net reduction in entitlement spending. Net entitlement spending would fall still further, to $137 billion in fiscal year 2021, which begins on October 1, 2020, mere weeks before the presidential election.

With the bill’s major “cliff” in entitlement spending coming in a year divisible by four, it’s fair for conservatives to question whether these reductions will ever go into effect, and the promised deficit reduction will ever be achieved. If the “transition” provisions end up extended in perpetuity, conservatives will end up with “Obamacare Max” — an expanded Obamacare subsidy regime available to millions more individuals.

Second, the bill does not even attempt to undo the fraudulent entitlement accounting created by Obamacare. Section 223 of the reconciliation measure passed in January 2016 transferred $379.3 billion of that bill’s deficit savings back to the Medicare trust fund. That provision represented a recognition that, as vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said on the campaign trail back in August 2012, “President [Obama] took $716 billion from the Medicare program—he raided it—to pay for Obamacare.” Not only does Speaker Ryan’s bill not attempt to make Medicare whole from the Obamacare “raid,” the managers amendment released Monday evening consumed much of the bill’s supposed savings.

Third, while conservatives have focused on the bill’s tax credits as a new entitlement, the measure effectively creates a second new entitlement, this one for insurers. CBO’s estimate of possible premium reductions by 2026 hinged in no small part on creation of a “Patient and State Stability Fund,” and use of grants from the fund to subsidize insurers’ high-cost patients. However, the bill stops federal payments to the “Stability Fund” in 2026—and therefore the score does not take into consideration that this $10-15 billion annual bailout fund for health insurers could become permanent.

Fourth, reports suggest that House lawmakers are relying upon a bipartisan group in the Senate to repeal outright Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” (delayed until 2026 in the most recent bill), which would worsen deficits in future decades. Leadership sources pushing this move would then argue that the bill blows a hole in the budget not because it spends more money, but because it reduces revenue.

However, the 2016 reconciliation bill repealed all of Obamacare’s tax increases and its new entitlements, while leaving the deficit virtually unchanged over the next 50 years. By contrast, if lawmakers create two entitlements — the new tax credit regime and the “Stability Fund” — while also repealing the “Cadillac tax,” they will create a fiscal hole likely to reach into the trillions. To borrow a phrase, the American Health Care Act doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.

Budgetary “out-years” gimmicks brought us the Medicare “doc fix” mess in the first place, which should embolden conservatives to recognize fiscal chicanery and legerdemain when they see it.

Positive Medicaid reforms notwithstanding, the structure on which the American Health Care Act is based does fiscal responsibility a disservice. A conservative-controlled Congress can and should do better.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

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.