Tag Archives: The Federalist

Alexander-Murray Deal Funds Insurers’ Abortion Coverage

Amidst the rumored press reports about what the supposed “insurer stabilization bill” negotiated between Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) may contain, one Twitter commenter made an astute observation: Unless the agreement contained explicit language forbidding it—language Sen. Murray likely would not endorse—the agreement will appropriate approximately $25-30 billion to subsidize insurance plans that cover abortion.

That fact alone should give conservatives pause. Coming on a week when Senate Republican leaders seek to pass a budget precluding another attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, the Alexander-Murray deal would not only not advance the pro-life cause—it would, by extending subsidies to insurers who cover abortions, actively undermine it.

Follow the Money

Some background regarding federal restrictions on abortion funding: The Hyde Amendment, named for former Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL) prohibits federal funding of abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. However, this funding restriction, first enacted in 1976 and renewed every year thereafter, only applies to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations bill to which it is attached annually. If funding flows outside the HHS appropriations measure, those funds would not be subject to the Hyde restrictions, and could therefore subsidize abortion coverage.

Obamacare contained just such funds—for instance, the premium tax credits used to subsidize plans on insurance Exchanges. While Obamacare includes a “segregation mechanism” designed to separate the portion of premium payments used to cover abortion, pro-life groups have recognized this mechanism as an accounting gimmick—one which the Obama Administration didn’t even bother to enforce.

Hyde Language Added?

Obamacare included other funding that recipients could use for abortion coverage. Section 10503 of the law appropriated $9.5 billion for community health centers from 2010 through 2015. Because the legislation made such funding mandatory—that is, appropriated federal tax dollars outside the annual HHS spending bill to which the Hyde Amendment applies—recipients of that $9.5 billion could have used the federal dollars to fund abortions.

When extending the community health center funding as part of a larger Medicare bill in spring 2015, Republican leaders recognized the lack of pro-life protections, and insisted on adding them to extend the mandatory health center funding. As a result, Section 221(c) of the bill (page 68 here) said that the same requirements that applied to other Public Health Service Act funding provisions—that is, the Hyde Amendment funding restrictions—would also apply to the community health center funding.

However, if Sen. Alexander does not explicitly add the Hyde Amendment protections to the “stabilization bill,” the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers will be used to fund plans that cover abortion. And there is little reason to believe Sen. Murray would endorse such a restriction. If the Hyde Amendment restrictions apply to the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, then in order to receive said payments, it is likely insurers would have to stop offering abortion coverage on Exchanges—an outcome Sen. Murray, and Democrats, would not wish to countenance.

Massive Funding Amounts

The “stabilization bill” would likely seek to provide massive funding amounts to insurers—roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates. These significant sums would surely represent the second-largest expansion of federal abortion funding, behind only Obamacare itself.

Some conservatives may therefore have concerns that this “stabilization bill” would violate pro-life principles, and insist on the inclusion of pro-life language as a necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) requirement for their support of the legislation. Given that House and Senate Republican leaders demanded—and received—the addition of Hyde protections regarding community health center funding two years ago, under a Democratic President, conservatives should demand—and receive—no less with a Republican in the White House.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Alexander-Murray Legislation

On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced he had reached an agreement in principle with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) regarding an Obamacare “stabilization” package. Unfortunately, legislative text has not yet been released (UPDATE: bill text was released late Tuesday evening), but based on press reports, Twitter threads, and a summary circulating on Capitol Hill, here’s what is in the final package:

Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments:             The bill appropriates roughly $25-30 billion in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, which offset their costs for providing discounts on deductibles and co-payments to certain low-income individuals enrolled on insurance Exchanges. Late last Thursday, President Trump announced he would halt the payments to insurers, concluding the Administration did not have authority to do so under the Constitution. As a result, the bill includes an explicit appropriation, totaling roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates.

For 2018 only, the bill includes language allowing states to decline the cost-sharing reduction payments—if they previously approved premium increases that assumed said payments would not be made. If states do not decline the payments, they must certify that said payments will “provide a direct financial benefit to consumers”—that is, they will result in lower premium rates, and/or rebates to consumers. The bill also includes clarifying language regarding the interactions between any such rebates and premium tax credit levels under Obamacare.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, because insurers understood for well over a year that a new Administration could terminate these payments in 2017, the agreement would effectively subsidize their flawed assumptions. Some conservatives may be concerned that action to continue the flow of payments would solidify the principle that Obamacare, and therefore insurers, are “too big to fail,” which could only encourage further risky behavior by insurers in the future. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that, absent Hyde Amendment protections, these payments would subsidize federal insurance plans covering abortion.

State Waiver Processes:     The bill would streamline the process for approving state innovation waivers, authorized by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Those waivers allow states to receive their state’s Exchange funding as a block grant, and exempt themselves from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations.

Specifically, the agreement would:

  1. Extend the waivers’ duration, from five years to six, with unlimited renewals possible;
  2. Prohibit HHS from terminating waivers during their duration (including any renewal periods), unless “the state materially failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the waiver;”
  3. Require HHS to release guidance to states within 30 days of enactment regarding waivers, including model language for waivers;
  4. Shorten the time the Department of Health and Human Services to consider waivers from 180 days to 90;
  5. Allow a 45 day review for 1) waivers currently pending; 2) waivers for areas “the Secretary determines are at risk for excessive premium increases or having no health plans offered in the applicable health insurance market for the current or following plan year; and 3) waivers that are “the same or substantially similar” to waivers previously approved for another state. These waivers would initially apply for no more than three years, with an extension possible for a full six-year term;
  6. Allow governors to apply for waivers based on their certification of authority, rather than requiring states to pass a law authorizing state actions under the waiver—a move that some conservatives may be concerned could allow state chief executives to act unilaterally, including by exiting a successful waiver on a governor’s order.

State Waiver Substance:    On the substance of innovation waivers, the bill would nullify regulatory guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015. Among other actions, that guidance prevented states from using savings from an Obamacare/Exchange waiver to offset higher costs to Medicaid, and vice versa. While supporting the concept of greater flexibility for states, some conservatives may note that, as this guidance was not enacted pursuant to notice-and-comment, the Trump Administration can revoke it at any time—indeed, should have revoked it months ago.

Additionally, the bill amends—but does not repeal—the “guardrails” for state innovation waivers. Under current law, Section 1332 waivers must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as” Obamacare coverage;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as Obamacare coverage;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of [a state’s] residents” as under Obamacare; and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”

Some conservatives have previously criticized these provisions as insufficiently flexible to allow for conservative health reforms like Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven options.

The bill allows states to provide coverage “of comparable affordability, including for low-income individuals, individuals with serious health needs, and other vulnerable populations” rather than the current language in the second bullet above. It also clarifies that deficit and budget neutrality will operate over the lifetime of the waiver, and that state innovation waivers under Obamacare “shall not be construed to affect any waiver processes or standards” under the Medicare or Medicaid statutes for purposes of determining the Obamacare waiver’s deficit neutrality.

The bill also makes adjustments to the “pass-through” language allowing states to receive their Exchange funding via a block grant. For instance, the bill adds language allowing states to receive any funding for the Basic Health Program—a program states can establish for households with incomes of between 138-200 percent of the federal poverty level—via the block grant.

Some conservatives may view the “comparable affordability” change as a distinction without a difference, as it still explicitly links affordability to Obamacare’s rich benefit package. Some conservatives may therefore view the purported “concessions” on the December 2015 guidance, and on “comparable affordability” as inconsequential in nature, and insignificant given the significant concessions to liberals included elsewhere in the proposed legislative package.

Catastrophic Plans:              The bill would allow all individuals to purchase “catastrophic” health plans, and keep those plans in a single risk pool with other Obamacare plans. However, this provision would not apply until 2019—i.e., not for the upcoming plan year.

Catastrophic plans—currently only available to individuals under 30, individuals without an “affordable” health plan in their area, or individuals subject to a hardship exemption from the individual mandate—provide no coverage below Obamacare’s limit on out-of-pocket spending, but for “coverage of at least three primary care visits.” Catastrophic plans are also currently subject to Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements.

Outreach Funding:               The bill requires HHS to obligate $105.8 million in Exchange user fees to states for “enrollment and outreach activities” for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Currently, the federal Exchange (healthcare.gov) assesses a user fee of 3.5 percent of premiums on insurers, who ultimately pass these fees on to consumers. In a rule released last December, the outgoing Obama Administration admitted that the Exchange is “gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs”—in part because maintaining the Exchange costs less per year than creating one did in 2013-14. However, the Obama Administration rejected any attempt to lower those fees, instead deciding to spend them on outreach efforts. The agreement would re-direct portions of the fees to states for enrollment outreach.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would create a new entitlement for states to outreach dollars. Moreover, some conservatives may object to this re-direction of funds that ultimately come from consumers towards more government spending. Some conservatives may support taking steps to reduce the user fees—thus lowering premiums, the purported intention of this “stabilization” measure—rather than re-directing them toward more government spending, as the agreement proposes.

The bill also requires a series of bi-weekly reports from HHS on metrics like call center volume, website visits, etc., during the 2018 and 2019 open enrollment periods, followed by after-action reports regarding outreach and advertising. Some conservatives may view these myriad requirements first as micro-management of the executive, and second as buying into the liberal narrative that the Trump Administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, by requiring minute oversight of the executive’s implementation of the law.

Cross-State Purchasing:     Requires HHS to issue regulations (in consultations with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners) within one year regarding health care choice compacts under Obamacare. Such compacts would allow individuals to purchase coverage across state lines. However, because states can already establish health care compacts amongst themselves, and because Obamacare’s regulatory mandates would still apply to any such coverage purchased through said compacts, some conservatives may view such language as insufficient and not adding to consumers’ affordable coverage options.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about Trump’s Executive Order on Health Care

On Thursday morning, President Trump signed an Executive Order regarding health care and health insurance. Here’s what you need to know about his action.

What Actions Did the President Take?

The Executive Order did not change regulations on its own; rather, it instructed Cabinet Departments to propose changes to regulations in the near future:

  1. Within 60 days, the Department of Labor will propose regulatory changes regarding Association Health Plans (AHPs). Regulations here will look to expand the definition of groups that can qualify as an “employer” under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). AHPs have two advantages: First, all association health plans regulated by ERISA are federally pre-empted from state benefit mandates; second, self-insured plans regulated by ERISA are exempt from several benefit mandates imposed by Obamacare—such as essential benefits and actuarial value standards.
  2. Within 60 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) will propose regulatory changes regarding short-term health plans. Regulations here will likely revoke rules put into place by the Obama Administration last October. Last year, the Obama Administration limited short-term plans to 90 days in duration (down from 364 days), and prevented renewals of such coverage—because it feared that such plans, which do not have to meet any of Obamacare’s benefit requirements, were drawing people away from Exchange coverage. The Trump Administration regulations will likely modify, or eliminate entirely, those restrictions, allowing people to purchase plans not compliant with the Obamacare mandates. (For more information, see my Tuesday article on this issue.)
  3. Within 120 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS will propose regulatory changes regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), vehicles where employers can deposit pre-tax dollars for their employees to use for health expenses. A 2013 IRS Notice prevented employers from using HRA dollars to fund employees’ individual health insurance premiums—because the Obama Administration worried that doing so would encourage employers to drop coverage. However, Section 18001 of the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law last December, allowed employers with under 50 employees to make HRA contributions that workers could use to pay for health insurance premiums on the individual market. The Executive Order may seek to expand this exemption to all employers, by rescinding the prior IRS notice.
  4. Within six months—and every two years thereafter—the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS, along with the Federal Trade Commission, will submit reports on industry consolidation within the health care sector, whether and how it is raising health care costs, and actions to mitigate the same.

How Will the Order Affect the Health Sector?

To some extent, the full impact of the Executive Order will remain unclear until the respective Departments actually release their proposed regulatory changes. For instance, it is unclear how far the Department of Labor can go in re-defining the term “employer” with respect to who can join an Association Health Plan—so it’s hard to predict the scope of the changes the rules themselves will propose.

In general, however, the issues discussed by the Executive Order will:

  • Give individuals more options, and more affordable options. Premiums on the individual market have more than doubled since 2013, due to Obamacare’s regulatory mandates. AHPs would allow workers to circumvent state benefit mandates through ERISA’s federal pre-emption of state laws; self-insured AHPs would also gain exemption from several federal Obamacare mandates, as outlined above. Because virtually all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits do not apply to short-term plans, these would obtain the most regulatory relief.
  • Allow more small businesses to subsidize workers’ coverage—either through Association Health Plans, or by making contributions to HRAs, and allowing employees to use those pre-tax dollars to buy the health coverage of their choosing on the individual market.

When Will the Changes Occur?

The Executive Order directed the Departments to announce regulatory changes within 60-120 days; the Departments could of course move faster than that. If the Departments decide to release interim final rules—that is, rules that take effect prior to a notice-and-comment period—or sub-regulatory guidance, the changes could take effect prior to the 2018 plan year.

However, any changes that go through the usual regulatory process—agencies issuing proposed rules, followed by a notice-and-comment period, prior to the rules taking effect—likely would not take effect until the 2019 plan year. While the Executive Order directed the agencies to “consider and evaluate public comment on any regulations proposed” pursuant to the Order, it did not specify whether the Departments must evaluate said comments before the regulations take effect.

Does the Order Represent a Regulatory Overreach?

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was asked about this issue Thursday, given conservatives’ prior criticisms of Barack Obama’s “pen and a phone” strategy. In the case of short-term health plans and Health Reimbursement Arrangements, the Executive Order could lead the Departments merely to rescind President Obama’s prior regulations—which almost by definition cannot represent regulatory overreach.

However, with respect to Association Health Plans, some conservatives may take a more nuanced view. Conservatives generally support allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines, believing that such freedom would allow consumers to buy the plans that best suit their interests.

However, AHPs accomplish this goal not through Congress’ Commerce Clause power—i.e., explicitly allowing, for instance, an individual in Maryland to buy a policy regulated in Virginia—but instead through federal pre-emption—individuals in Maryland and Virginia buying policies regulated by Washington, albeit in a less onerous manner than Obamacare’s Exchange plans. As with medical liability reform, therefore, some conservatives may support a state-based approach to achieve regulatory relief for consumers, rather than an expanded role for the federal government.

Finally, if President Trump wants to overturn his predecessor’s history of executive unilateralism, he should cease funding cost-sharing reduction payments to health insurers. The Obama Administration’s unilateral funding of these payments without an appropriation from Congress brought a sharp rebuke from a federal judge, who called the action unconstitutional. If President Trump wants to end executive overreach, he should abide by the ruling, and halt the unilateral payments to insurers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AARP’s Medicare Amnesia

Based on its statements the past few weeks, if Obamacare extended to non-profit organizations, AARP might need to seek coverage for memory loss. While the seniors’ group opposes House Republicans’ extension of children’s health insurance because it includes provisions means-testing Medicare benefits for wealthy seniors, the Obamacare legislation it endorsed in December 2009 did the very same thing.

Obamacare Included Means-Testing

A letter the AARP sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week objected to the House’s proposals to increase Medicare means-testing, noting that wealthy seniors already pay a greater share of their Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) premiums. That statement is true—in part because of Obamacare, which AARP endorsed.

Section 3402 of that law increased the number of affluent individuals subject to means-testing for Part B premiums, by freezing the inflation measure used to calculate the means-testing thresholds from 2010 through 2019. With no annual adjustment for inflation this decade, more seniors will find themselves with income exceeding the threshold limits.

In addition, Section 3308 of Obamacare applied means-testing for affluent seniors to the Part D prescription drug program for the first time.

Obamacare Used Medicare Savings

Last week’s AARP letter also claimed that “not only is it wrong to continue to ask Medicare beneficiaries to shoulder the burden for non-Medicare expenditures, but it will make it harder to finance actual improvements and address long-term challenges in the Medicare program.” That statement contains no small amount of irony, considering that Obamacare, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi herself admitted, “took half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in [Obamacare], the health care bill”—to spend on new entitlements.

Moreover, by using savings from the Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) trust fund, Obamacare gamed the accounting to make the program’s shortfalls look less severe. When then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was asked whether the Medicare savings were being used “to save Medicare, or to fund health reform [Obamacare],” Sebelius replied, “Both.”

Some would argue that Obamacare’s financial chicanery has actually undermined Medicare’s solvency by giving lawmakers an excuse to postpone needed reforms. While this year’s Medicare trustees report claimed the Part A trust fund would become insolvent in 2029, the last trustees report released prior to Obamacare measured the program’s insolvency date at 2017—this year.

If it weren’t for the double-counting in Obamacare—a bill that AARP proudly endorsed—lawmakers would likely be confronting Medicare’s structural deficits this year. Instead, comforted by the false hope of Obamacare’s accounting gimmicks, Congress seems unlikely to embark on comprehensive Medicare reform to solve those deficits in the near future, which will only exacerbate the impact of legislative changes when they do take place.

The history of Obamacare lends support to AARP’s current argument that Medicare savings not finance other government spending. But given its own history in supporting Obamacare, AARP seems singularly unqualified to make it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What’s Congress Doing with SCHIP?

Amidst the wrangling over Obamacare, reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expired on September 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. The two committees of jurisdiction—energy and commerce in the House, and finance in the Senate—each marked up their reauthorization bills last week. But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said Monday the bill would not come to the House floor this week.

What’s the holdup? Why the delays in bringing to the floor for votes a bill whose authorization has already expired?

Even though Republicans proposed a generous—some conservatives might argue too generous—reauthorization of SCHIP, House Democrats object because they don’t want millionaires and billionaires to pay for the new spending on children’s health insurance, and Senate Democrats object because they want to attach tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to insurance companies.

I swear to you: I’m not making this up.

A Mixed House Package

The SCHIP reauthorization text varies little between the House and the Senate versions. On that front, conservatives may have qualms with supporting little more than a straight extension of the status quo. The bill extends—albeit for only one year, as part of a more gradual phase-out—enhanced funding to state SCHIP programs. The full 23 percent match increase would end in 2019, as under current law, while states would receive an additional 11.5 percent increase in 2020. Some states have received a 100 percent federal match for their child enrollees due to this Obamacare provision, which is a clear disincentive for states to fight fraud and improper spending.

Moreover, the bill extends Obamacare’s maintenance of effort requirement—limiting states from making changes to their programs—by an additional three years in most cases, from 2019 to 2022. The bill also does not include reforms the House proposed two years ago, which would require states to focus on covering poor children first—the program’s prime emphasis before the 2009 reauthorization signed by President Obama envisioned states expanding their programs to more affluent families.

On the positive side, however, the House did include good reforms to help pay for the new SCHIP spending. It includes several provisions designed to promote program integrity in Medicaid, including one that would effectively ensure that lottery winners, or others who receive large lump-sum payments, do not maintain coverage for this low-income program. The House bill would also increase Medicare means-testing for affluent families, reducing taxpayer subsidies for Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) coverage for individuals making over $160,000, and eliminating the subsidies entirely for individuals making more than $500,000.

Those pay-fors drew Democrats’ ire, and prompted the postponement of consideration on the House floor this week. To put it more bluntly: Democrats are holding children’s health hostage because they object to charging millionaires and billionaires more for Medicare. Should anyone remind them that Obamacare itself also increased Medicare means-testing for wealthy beneficiaries to pay for Obamacare?

In the Senate, a Stalemate

Meanwhile, over in the Senate—which has yet to decide how to pay for the new SCHIP spending—Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) demanded last week that the Republican majority “immediately bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote and include much-needed bipartisan provisions to stabilize the markets, lower premiums for 2018,” and extend other programs.

Schumer made those demands despite two inconvenient truths: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) haven’t yet reached agreement on a bipartisan “stabilization” bill—and most states finalized their 2018 insurance premiums on September 27, weeks ago. In other words, Schumer wants to enact an agreement that doesn’t exist to achieve premium reductions that can’t happen.

A cynic might surmise that, with his talk of “stabilization” measures, Schumer wants to use SCHIP to sneak through tens of billions of dollars in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers—a provision that might prove unpopular, and controversial, as a stand-alone measure, but could pass through relatively unnoticed as part of a larger, “Christmas tree”-sized bill.

For conservatives, the current mixed policy outcomes on SCHIP could deteriorate significantly. Weakening the House’s “pay-fors”—which seems bound to happen, given Walden’s further attempts to negotiate with Democrats—could eliminate some, if not most, of the reasons conservatives could see to vote for the measure.

While the policy outcomes seem uncertain, and could range from fair to poor, the political ramifications seem clear. In 2007 and 2008, when President George W. Bush vetoed SCHIP bills due to provisions that would have diverted the program from the low-income children for which it was designed, Democrats organized protests, and ran ads against him. This year, when Democrats are holding up an arguably too-generous SCHIP bill literally because they want to defend the wealthy and insurance companies, Republicans have responded by…negotiating with them.

If one wants reasons behind conservative discontent with Washington, look no further than this bill.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What to Do on Obamacare Now

The collapse of legislation proposed by senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), coupled with the near-simultaneous resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, presents a turning point in this year’s health-care debate. Given the dual disappointments, policymakers and voters looking for long-delayed progress may wonder whether, and what, conservatives can do to restore patient freedom to health-care markets.

Congress still retains procedural options to continue legislatively dismantling Obamacare. In the interim, the executive can seize important regulatory opportunities to lower premiums for millions of Americans—and it appears President Trump is finally doing just that. Press reports over the weekend suggest the administration is preparing to revoke Obama administration regulations sharply limiting the sale of short-term health insurance plans.

What Is Short-Term Health Insurance?

Short-term health insurance plans generally do not comply with Obamacare’s myriad new insurance mandates—the same mandates that have more than doubled average individual market premiums since Obamacare’s major provisions took effect. Previously, insurers sold short-term health insurance for durations of up to 364 days. However, when liberals noticed how some individuals started using short-term plans as a lifeboat to save themselves from Obamacare’s crushing premiums, Obama’s HHS crushed short-term plans.

The short-term plan regulations, finalized by the Obama administration one week before last year’s election, demonstrate how liberals hope “consumer protections” protect individuals from becoming consumers. Administration officials expressed “concern” that the policies have “significant limitations”—for instance, Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements do not apply to short-term coverage—and “may not provide meaningful health coverage.” As a result, bureaucrats prohibited short-term plans from exceeding 90 days in duration, and banned carriers from automatically renewing such coverage.

Jimmy Kimmel forgot to mention it, but prohibiting coverage renewals harms individuals with pre-existing conditions, because it forbids customers who develop a pre-existing condition while on short-term plans from continuing their coverage. In discouraging these short-term plans, the Obama administration preferred individuals going without coverage entirely over seeing anyone purchase a policy lacking the full panoply of “government-approved” benefits. The Trump administration can and should rescind this coercive rule and its perverse consequences immediately.

What Else the Trump Administration Can Do

Upon completing regulatory action to return to the status quo ante on short-term plans, the administration can take action it should have taken months ago: Restoring constitutional order by stopping the unilateral payment of cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurers. Congress could also repeal the individual mandate penalty, allowing those who wish to purchase non-compliant short-term plans rather than taxing them for not buying costly Obamacare coverage.

Heretofore, administration officials had declined to act on short-term plans—the same reluctance that has prevented the administration from ending the unilateral payments to insurers. Perhaps federal bureaucrats fear de-stabilizing rickety insurance exchanges. But because this series of administrative actions would open new insurance options, failing to act perpetuates Obamacare, consigns millions of families to perpetually higher premiums, and in the case of the unilateral insurer payments, undermines the rule of law—all higher priorities than the “stability” of insurers whose profits nearly doubled during the Obama administration.

Obamacare advocates may complain that this series of actions would bifurcate insurance markets—a reasonable assumption. The exchanges would likely morph into something approaching a high-risk pool, with federal subsidies available to cover the cost of more expensive insurance for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Meanwhile, other individuals would have more, and more affordable, options.

That said, executive action should not prompt Congress to walk away from attempts to reform health care (or vice versa, for that matter). Whether through reconciliation instructions in the fiscal year 2018 budget this fall, the fiscal year 2019 budget next year, or other means, Congress should keep searching for opportunities to return patient-centered forces to health care, and provide needed relief from skyrocketing premiums.

When they next face voters, both President Trump and Republicans in Congress should prepare to tell them they did everything they could to fulfill their eight-year promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. They have much work yet to do to make such a claim credibly. Following the setback on Graham-Cassidy, they should roll up their sleeves and do just that.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

On the Importance of Listening

The Catholic Church provides a three-year rotation for Sunday scripture readings. The rotation allows the faithful to hear the same readings at regular intervals, applying the lessons from familiar biblical passages to the changing times and seasons.

So it happened that, one weekend last month, I went to church and heard a reading from the first book of Kings, one in which the Lord instructs Elijah to go outside on Mount Horeb and await God’s passage. The reading resonated with me for its relevance in our current climate—one dominated by noise and shouting rather than deliberation and contemplation.

For instance, compare and contrast just a few recent incidents with the biblical passage from Kings. At Howard University last week, a group of protestors shouted throughout a speech given former FBI Director James Comey, despite pleas from other attendees and administrators to allow Comey to speak uninterrupted.

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.

NFL games across the country became the scene of protests and booing, as players’ reactions to the national anthem and President Trump’s related comments almost eclipsed on-the-field activities.

After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.

At my alma mater, The American University, an incident where individuals hung Confederate flag posters around campus on the same night as a speech on racial equality prompted a statement from the student government referencing the nation’s “history of white supremacy,” as if recalling the sins of past generations—too numerous to count—would cause boorish and offensively provocative behavior to cease.

After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.

So many of our current culture wars center around symbols—flags, anthems, ceremonies. But almost by definition, symbols carry different meanings to different people. A Confederate flag that symbolizes ancestral heritage to some symbolizes a system of racial oppression and exploitation to others.

The repeated, and seemingly intensifying, conflicts over these symbols stem not just from disparate definitions of what they mean, but a growing sense of disempowerment, disillusionment, and even alienation, numerous groups feel—from each other, and from the country as a whole. From Black Lives Matter to the white working class, the burgeoning protest movements and last November’s “primal scream” election illustrate how alienated segments of society believe amplifying their tone will allow them to regain power taken from them.

But as the reading from Kings reminds us, wisdom does not always lie with the loudest and strongest. It requires us to listen to discern its voice:

After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Lost in last weekend’s debate about football protests lies a simple question: If NFL players, faced with the prospect of suspensions or other costly sanctions, all suddenly decide to stand at attention for the national anthem, what exactly have critics of the anthem protests achieved? Would those players have suddenly changed their opinions of the police, the military, or the judicial system? Likewise, if the gay rights movement wins court rulings requiring bakers to make cakes for same-sex weddings, would such a move ensure the entire country “approves” of gay marriage?

Groups’ sense of alienation might prompt them to seek the imprimatur of a sanctioning body—whether NFL owners or a court of law—to demonstrate theirs as the “official” or “correct” position. But while sanctioning bodies might be able, given enough force, to impact behavior, no sanctioning body can ultimately change one’s beliefs.

That’s where the lesson from Kings comes in. Changing others’ beliefs involves listening for the whisper amidst the wind, the earthquakes, and the fire—the modern noise that has coarsened our debate. It requires understanding the sense of concern, or even disillusionment, that may have prompted the protests in the first place. It involves seeing others as they are, not as we wish they would be.

Listening isn’t always easy, but it is worthwhile. I won’t claim perfection on this front—far from it. But over the past week, I’ve run into some more diverse perspectives on the health-care debate, which is my professional specialty. In several cases, they’ve imparted factual knowledge, and while they haven’t necessarily changed my beliefs, they have modified my perspective and allowed me to see things from a different light.

At times, the cacophony of voices on Twitter, cable news, and in myriad other cultural venues might prompt us to wonder if anyone can make sense of it all, and maintain that inner peace. The story of Elijah on Horeb reminds us that wisdom and understanding remain always present in our lives—if only we search hard enough to find them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Five Factors That Could Interfere with Graham-Cassidy’s State Health Care Waivers

Some conservative writers—including others who write for this publication—have opined that the legislation written by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) offers states the ability to innovate and reform their health care systems. Most conservatives, including this one, consider state flexibility an admirable goal.

Certainly reforming Medicaid—through a block grant or per capita cap, coupled with additional flexibility to allow states to manage their programs more freely—would go a long way towards improving care, and reducing health care costs.

But does Graham-Cassidy as written deliver on its promise regarding Obamacare insurance regulations? On the two critical questions surrounding the legislation—will it lower insurance premiums, and will it generate a system that works for states?—a textual analysis of the bill yields significant doubts. At least five issues could hinder the results its sponsors have promised, and which all conservatives hope for.

1. Subsidizing Moral Hazard

The language on the top of page 15 explicitly links waivers to funding from the new system of block grants the bill creates. Any waiver will only apply to 1) coverage provided by an insurer receiving block grant funding and 2) coverage “provided to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit (including reduced premium costs or reduced out-of-pocket costs)” under the block grant.

This requirement that each and every person subjected to a non-Obamacare-compliant plan must receive a “direct benefit” subsidized by federal taxpayers has several potential perverse consequences. By definition, it encourages moral hazard. Because individuals will know that if they are subjected to health underwriting, or an otherwise noncompliant plan, they must receive federal subsidies, it will encourage them not to buy health insurance until they need it.

It means that either states will have to extend taxpayer-subsidized benefits to highly affluent individuals (allowing them to buy noncompliant plans), or have to permit only low- and middle-income families to buy noncompliant plans (to restrict the subsidies to low-income families). Both scenarios seem politically problematic to the point of being untenable.

If states try to provide a de minimis direct benefit—say, a $1 monthly premium subsidy—to some enrollees to minimize the two problems described above, they would face high overhead costs, and a complex system to administer.

When considering the two considerations above—will the bill lower premiums, and will it work?—this provision alone seems destined to preclude either from occurring. The moral hazard could increase premiums, not lower them, driving more healthy people out of the marketplace by telling them they will receive subsidies if and when they become sick and need coverage. The requirement that every person subjected to a waiver must receive subsidized benefits appears potentially destabilizing to insurance markets, while also creating political problems and administrative complexity.

2. Encouraging Lawsuits

The provision on page 12 requiring states applying for waivers to describe “how the state intends to maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions” presents two concerns. First, a future Democratic administration could use rulemaking to define “adequate and affordable health insurance coverage” so narrowly—prohibiting co-payments or cost-sharing of more than $5, for instance—that no state could maintain access to “adequate and affordable” coverage, thereby eliminating their ability to apply for and receive a waiver.

Second, courts have ruled that Medicaid waiver applications are subject to judicial review, a standard that would presumably apply to the Graham-Cassidy waivers as well. While a Congressional Research Service report notes that courts have traditionally given deference to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on waiver applications, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1994 did in fact strike down a California waiver application that CMS had previously approved.

If a state receives a waiver, it seems highly likely that individuals affected, with the strong encouragement of liberal activists, will seek relief in court, and point to the page 12 language to argue that the court should strike down the waiver for not providing “adequate and affordable coverage” to people with pre-existing conditions. At minimum, the ensuing legal uncertainty could place states’ waiver programs in limbo for months or even years. And only one judge, or one circuit court, that views the pre-existing condition language as applying to more than states’ waiver application could undermine the program.

Congress could theoretically include language in Graham-Cassidy precluding judicial review of administrative decisions regarding waivers, as Democrats did 13 separate times in Obamacare. But on this particular bill, such a provision likely would not pass muster with the “Byrd rule” that applies to budget reconciliation measures.

Specifically, language prohibiting judicial review would have no (or a minimal) budgetary impact, and would represent matter outside the committees with jurisdiction over the reconciliation bill (Senate Judiciary versus Senate Finance and HELP Committees), both points of order that would see the provision stricken absent 60 Senate votes (which the bill does not have) to retain it.

Given the ongoing political controversy surrounding pre-existing conditions, some moderates may view the inclusion of this phrase as critical to their support for the bill. But its inclusion could ultimately undermine the entire waiver process and one of conservatives’ prime goals from the “repeal-and-replace” process, namely relief from Washington-imposed regulatory burdens.

3. Encourages Activist Judges and Bureaucrats

Language on page 13 of the bill includes language limiting any regulatory waiver: “A health insurance issuer may not vary premium rates based on an individual’s sex or membership in a protected class under the Constitution of the United States.” Here again, a future Democratic administration, or activist judges, could easily take an expansive view of “protected class” to include age, family status, gender identity, etc., in ways that undermine the waivers’ supposed regulatory relief.

4. Allows States to Waive Only Some Regulations

While states may waive some Obamacare regulations, they can’t waive others, an internal inconsistency that belies the promise of “flexibility.” For instance, states cannot waive the under-26 mandate if they so choose. Moreover, language on page 15 prohibiting a waiver of “any requirement under a federal statute enacted before January 1, 2009” precludes states from waiving regulations that preceded Obamacare, such as those related to mental health parity.

If the sponsors believe in state flexibility, they should allow states to waive all federal insurance regulations, even ones, such as the under-26 mandate or mental health parity, they may personally support. Or better yet, they should move to repeal the regulations entirely, and let states decide which ones they want to re-enact on the state level.

5. No Funding Equals No Waivers

Because the bill explicitly ties waivers to federal funding, as noted above, the “cliff” whereby block grant funding ends in 2027 effectively ends waiver programs then as well. Such a scenario would put conservative policy-makers in the perverse position of asking Washington to increase federal spending, because any regulatory relief under Obamacare would otherwise cease.

Meaning of Federalism

The potential concerns above demonstrate how Graham-Cassidy may not provide full flexibility to states. Whether through cumbersome administrative requirements, a future Democratic administration, court rulings, or key omissions, states could find that as written, the bill’s promise of flexibility might turn into a mirage.

Given that, it’s worth remembering the true definition of federalism in the first place. Federalism should not represent states getting permission from Washington to take certain actions (and only certain actions). It should represent the people delegating some authority to the federal government, and some to the states. A bill that looked to do that—to remove the Obamacare regulatory apparatus entirely, and allow states to decide whether and what portions of the law they wish to reimpose—would help to restore the principles of federalism, and a true balance between Washington and the states.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Graham-Cassidy’s Funding Formula Gives Washington Unprecedented Power

The past several days have seen competing analyses over the block-grant funding formula proposed in health-care legislation by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). The bill’s sponsors have one set of spreadsheets showing the potential allocation of funds to states under their plan, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has another, and consultants at Avalere (funded in this case by the liberal Center for American Progress) have a third analysis quantifying which states would gain or lose under the bill’s funding formula.

So who’s right? Which states will end up the proverbial winners and losers under the Graham-Cassidy bill? The answer is simple: Nope.

Policy-makers arguing over minute intricacies of the funding formula miss the fact that the bill gives the executive virtually unlimited discretion to change that funding formula. Whether the statutory formula benefits a given state could well matter less than what federal bureaucrats want to do to tilt the formula in favor of, or against, that state.

While the bill’s proponents claim the legislation will increase state authority, in reality the bill gives unelected bureaucrats the power to distribute nearly $1.2 trillion in taxpayer dollars unilaterally. In so doing, the bill concentrates rather than diminishes Washington’s power—and could set the course for the “mother of all backroom deals” to pass the legislation.

A Complicated Spending Formula

To start with, the bill repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and exchange subsidies, effective in January 2020. It then replaces those two programs with a block grant totaling $1.176 trillion from 2020 through 2026. All else equal, this set of actions would disadvantage states that expanded Medicaid, because the Medicaid expansion money currently being received by 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) would be re-distributed among all 50 states.

From there the formula gets more complicated. (You can read the sponsors’ description of it here.) The bill attempts to equalize per-person funding among all states by 2026, with funds tied to a state’s number of individuals with incomes between 50 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level.

The bill would adjust the funding formula to reflect both risk adjustment and actuarial value—in laymen’s terms, it would work to ensure that states with sicker-than-average individuals get more funding, and that states that choose to offer richer-than-average benefits don’t draw down excess federal funds as a result. Those adjustments would phase in over several years, with the goal of reaching per-person parity among states by 2026.

Thus far, the formula carries a logic to it. For years conservatives have complained that Medicaid’s match rate formula gives wealthy states more incentives to draw down federal funds than poor states, and that rich states like New York and New Jersey have received a disproportionate share of Medicaid funds as a result. The bill’s sponsors claim that the bill “treats all Americans the same no matter where they live.”

Would that that claim were true. Page 30 of the bill demonstrates otherwise.

The Trillion-Dollar Loophole

Page 30 of the Graham-Cassidy bill, which creates a “state specific population adjustment factor,” completely undermines the rest of the bill’s funding formula:

IN GENERAL.—For calendar years after 2020, the Secretary may adjust the amount determined for a State for a year under subparagraph (B) or (C) and adjusted under subparagraphs (D) and (E) according to a population adjustment factor developed by the Secretary.

In other words, if the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) doesn’t like the funding formula, he can change it however he likes. That’s a trillion-dollar loophole that leaves HHS bureaucrats with the ultimate say over how much money states will receive.

The bill does say that HHS must develop “legitimate factors” that affect state health expenditures—so it can’t allocate funding based on, say, the number of people who own red socks in Alabama. But beyond those two words, pretty much anything goes.

The bill says the “legitimate factors” for population adjustment “may include state demographics, wage rates, [and] income levels,” but it doesn’t limit the factors to those three characteristics—and it doesn’t limit the amount that HHS can adjust the funding formula to reflect those characteristics either. If a hurricane like Harvey struck Texas three years from now, Secretary Tom Price would be within his rights under the bill to cite a public health emergency and dedicate 100 percent of the federal grant funds—which total $146 billion in 2020—solely to Texas.

That scenario seems unlikely, but it shows the massive and virtually unprecedented power HHS would have under the bill to control more than $1 trillion in federal spending by executive fiat. To top it off, pages 6 through 8 of the bill create a separate pot of $25 billion to subsidize insurers for 2019 and 2020, and tell the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure” for allocating the funds. That’s another blank check of $25,000,000,000 in taxpayer funds, given to federal bureaucrats to spend as they see fit.

In an op-ed over the weekend, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) rightly criticized Obamacare for “put[ting] enormous power in the hands of a few people in Washington.” But the Graham-Cassidy proposal he endorses would imbue federal bureaucrats with an authority over spending the likes of which Obamacare never even contemplated.

Backroom Deals Ahead

With an unprecedented level of authority granted to federal bureaucrats to determine how much funding states receive, you can easily guess what’s coming next. Unnamed Senate staffers already invoked strip-club terminology in July, claiming they would “make it rain” on moderates with hundreds of billions of dollars in “candy.” Under the current version of the bill, HHS staff now have virtual carte blanche to promise all sorts of “state specific population adjustment factors” to influence the votes of wavering senators.

The potential for even more backroom deals than the prior versions of “repeal-and-replace” demonstrates the pernicious power that trillions of dollars in spending delivers to Washington. Draining the swamp shouldn’t involve distributing money from Washington out to states, whether under a simple formula or executive discretion. It should involve eliminating Washington’s role in doling out money entirely.

That’s what Republicans promised when they said they would repeal Obamacare—to end the law’s spending, not work on “spreading the wealth around.” That’s what they should deliver.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.

September 30 “Deadline” for Obamacare Repeal Is Fake News

Over the past several days, congressional leaders in both the House and Senate have claimed that a bill by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is “our best, last chance to get repeal and replace done.” They have made such claims because the press keeps “reporting” that Republicans’ “power to pass health care legislation through a party-line vote in the Senate expires on September 30.”

Don’t you believe it. The Senate’s 52 Republicans have multiple options open to keep the Obamacare repeal process alive after September 30. The only question is whether they have the political will to do so.

Option 1: Set a Senate Precedent

Democrats started the misinformation campaign regarding a supposed September 30 “deadline.” Politico reported at the start of the month that “the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that Republicans face a September 30 deadline to kill or overhaul the law with only 50 votes, Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee said.”

That assertion carries one big flaw: The Senate parliamentarian does not “rule.” The Senate as a body does—and that distinction makes a big difference. The procedural question centers around when, and whether, budget reconciliation instructions expire.

Budget reconciliation provides an expedited process for the Senate to consider matters of a fiscal nature. Reconciliation’s limits on debate and amendments preclude filibusters, allowing the bill to pass with a simple (i.e., 51-vote) majority rather than the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and halt debate. (For additional background, see my May primer on budget reconciliation here.)

In one of its first acts upon convening in January, Congress passed a budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2017, which included instructions for health-related committees in the House and Senate to produce reconciliation legislation—legislation intended to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. But Fiscal Year 2017 ends on September 30, and Congress (thus far at least) hasn’t completed work on the reconciliation bill yet. So what happens on September 30? Does a reconciliation measure fail? Or can Congress continue work on the legislation, because the budget resolution set fiscal parameters for ten fiscal years (through 2026), not just the one ending on September 30?

Earlier this month, the parliamentarian advised Senate staff of her viewpoint that the reconciliation instructions would terminate on September 30—meaning the bill and process would lose their privileged status and access to the expedited Senate procedures. But her opinion remains advisory and not binding on either the chair or the body as a whole.

There is literally no precedent on this particular Senate procedural question of whether and when reconciliation instructions expire. If the chair—either Vice President Mike Pence, Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-UT), or another Senate Republican presiding—wishes to disregard the parliamentarian’s opinion, he or she is free to do so.

Alternatively, if the chair decides to agree with the parliamentarian’s opinion, a 51-vote majority of Republicans could decide to overturn that ruling by appealing the chair’s decision. In either event, the action by the Senate—either the chair or the body itself—would set the precedent, not the opinion of a Senate official who currently has no precedent to guide her.

Option 2: Pass a New Budget

Because there is no precedent to the question of when reconciliation instructions expire, Republican senators can set a precedent on this question themselves—keeping in mind it will apply equally when Republicans are in the minority. But if senators believe that disregarding the parliamentarian’s opinion—even on a question where she has no precedent to guide her—might jeopardize the legislative filibuster, they can simply pass a new budget for Fiscal Year 2018, one that includes reconciliation instructions to allow for Obamacare “repeal-and-replace.”

While the Congressional Budget Act limits the use of reconciliation to one reconciliation measure (one tax bill and one spending bill, or one with both tax and spending provisions) per budget, it does not limit the number of budgets a Congress can pass in a given fiscal year. Indeed, as the Congressional Research Service notes, the Budget Act as originally written required adopting two budget resolutions per year.

While that requirement has since been changed, Congress could still pass multiple budget resolutions in a given year, along with a reconciliation measure for each. Congress could pass a Fiscal Year 2018 budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for Obamacare repeal this month, complete work on the Obamacare bill, then pass another budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for tax reform.

Political Will

Congressional leaders apparently want to portray the Graham-Cassidy bill as a binary choice—either support it, or support keeping Obamacare in place. The facts turn that binary choice into a false one. Republicans have every opportunity to work to enact the repeal of Obamacare they promised the American people, regardless of the opinion of an unelected Senate official. No legislator should use an arbitrary—and false—deadline of next week to rationalize voting for a bad bill, or abandoning his or her promises altogether.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.