Tag Archives: unconstitutional

How the Media Care More About Obamacare Than the Constitution

Fewer than 12 months ago, some people—aka, yours truly—raised a warning about Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions. The text of the law nowhere provided an appropriation for them, meaning that, as I wrote last May, the next President could shut them off unilaterally. At the time, I contacted several reporters, pointing out that such a move could have major implications for the health care law. None showed any interest in writing on the topic, and to the best of my knowledge, few if any reporters did.

Having now under-reacted regarding the issue during most of 2016, the media are compensating by over-reacting now. Since the House failed to pass “repeal-and-replace” legislation, breathless articles in multiple publications have examined the issue, whether the Trump Administration will cut off the subsidies, and whether insurers will bail on the Exchanges en masse as a result.

There’s just one little detail about the issue that many of these articles are missing. You may have heard of it: it’s called the United States Constitution.

What Exactly Is Going On With Obamacare Subsidies?

For the uninitiated, the dispute involves one of two types of Obamacare subsidies: premium subsidies to lower monthly premium costs, and cost-sharing reductions that help with things like deductibles and co-payments. The law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for certain low-income individuals, and provides for a system of reimbursements to repay insurers for providing said reductions.

However, Obamacare itself failed to provide any appropriation for the reimbursement payers to insurers. The lack of an explicit appropriation violates Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which requires that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Congress has the “power of the purse,” and Members of Congress believe that the Obama Administration violated that power.

To remedy that violation, the House of Representatives authorized legal action in July 2014, and filed suit in November 2014 seeking to stop the subsidies. Last May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the Obama Administration had in fact violated the Constitution by spending money without an express appropriation. The case, House v. Price (formerly House v. Burwell), remains on hold; the Obama Administration appealed Judge Collyer’s ruling last year, and the Trump Administration and the House are attempting to resolve the status of that appeal.

Over Obamacare’s first four fiscal years, the disputed payments to insurers would total approximately $20.9 billion—$2.1 billion in fiscal year 2014, $5.1 billion in fiscal year 2015, $6.1 billion in fiscal year 2016, and an estimated $7.6 billion if they continue through fiscal year 2017 (which ends September 30). Over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the payments will total $135 billion.

What’s The Media Saying About All This?

Given that background, it’s worth examining press coverage on the issue since Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” efforts collapsed, bringing questions about the lawsuit, and the subsidy payments, to the fore:

  • Politico noted that the House’s suit argued that the Obama Administration “had paid for [the subsidies] without congressional authority”—but also quoted an expert as saying failure to appropriate funds for the subsidies would “shoot [Obamacare] in the head.”
  • A separate Politico opinion piece said that “if the Republicans want to avoid a major mess, they need to make the suit go away and make sure the subsidies keep flowing.”
  • A Wall Street Journal article said that the House calls the payments “illegal.”

All three of these stories omitted one simple word: “Constitution.” As in, a federal judge said Barack Obama’s Administration violated the Constitution. As in, one analyst thinks the House needs to make a suit protecting its constitutional authority “go away.” As in, the payments weren’t ruled “illegal”—they were ruled unconstitutional.

Granted, other stories have at least mentioned the constitutional element of the dispute. But there haven’t been many stories focusing on the constitutionality of President Obama’s actions (which even Obamacare supporters have questioned), or even how the court ruling could rein in executive unilateralism. Instead of reading about how—by spending money without an appropriation—Barack Obama “sabotaged” the Constitution, or even “shot it in the head,” the public has seen all sorts of articles suggesting that President Trump may “sabotage” Obamacare—by upholding the Constitution.

Thanks For The Double Standard, American Media

Remember: The cost-sharing subsidies involve an issue where a federal judge has already ruled that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by giving insurers tens of billions of dollars without an appropriation—yet the press seems more focused on whether or not those payments will continue.

That response merits a thought experiment in word substitution: If a federal court had ruled that the George W. Bush Administration violated the Constitution by giving tens of billions of dollars to—let’s pick a company at random here—Halliburton, do you think the press would be more focused on the violation of the rule of law and the unconstitutional payments, or on the chaos that would result if those payments to Halliburton suddenly ceased? If you think the latter, I’ve got some land I want to sell you.

If you’re still unconvinced that reporters are in the tank for Obamacare—or at minimum guilty of significant, and quite selective, double standards when it comes to their constitutional outrage—consider this recent Politico piece about a Donald Trump tweet threatening to change libel laws:

Trump’s comments on libel, coupled with his regular attacks on reporters and news organizations, have alarmed First Amendment advocates and his critics, who warned over the course of the campaign that his posture toward news organizations revealed a lack of respect for the role a free press plays in a democracy.

This high-minded rhetoric came one paragraph after Politico, citing various legal experts, pointed out “that there are virtually no steps within the President’s power to ‘open up libel laws,’ as Trump has suggested.”

When President Trump makes an empty threat against the press—one that he has no power to follow through on—the media piles on with all manner of self-righteous indignation about the integrity of the First Amendment and undermining democracy.

But when a federal judge rules that President Obama violated (not threatened to violate, mind you, but actually violated) the Constitution by paying insurers tens of billions of dollars, the media focuses largely on how remedying that violation will impact the health care law. They seem to care more about protecting Obamacare than protecting the Constitution. Is it any wonder why people boo the press?

Spare Me Your Self-Righteousness

Within that double standard lies the major problem: the presumption that Obamacare is “too big to fail,” irrespective of whether or not the Obama Administration’s payments to insurers violated the Constitution. Some could be forgiven for thinking that the press coverage provides a disturbing lesson to future Presidents: If you violate the Constitution long enough and badly enough, it will become a norm, such that people will expect future leaders to accommodate the violation.

To all those reporters worried about President Trump’s attacks on reporters, I’ll simply posit that the Constitution is a binary choice: You either support it—all of it, even or especially the portions you find inconvenient—or you don’t. If you want the public to care about the Trump Administration’s stance towards the First Amendment, then it might be wise to give a damn about the other portions of the Constitution too.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Trump’s Solyndra? Oscar Health as a Test Case in “Draining the Swamp”

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece noting that Donald Trump had 47.5 million reasons to support Obamacare bailouts. That’s the amount an insurer formerly owned by his influential son-in-law (and transition team Executive Committee member) Jared Kushner, and currently owned by Jared’s brother Josh Kushner, had requested from the Obama administration’s bailout funds.

Unfortunately, that story proved inaccurate, or at worst premature. Trump now has more than 100 million reasons to support Obamacare bailouts. That’s because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), on the Friday before Thanksgiving, quietly released a document listing risk corridor claims for calendar year 2015. Overall, insurers requested a whopping $5.8 billion in risk corridor funds—more than double the claims made for 2014—while Oscar, the health insurer Trump’s in-laws own, requested $52.7 million.

Insurers’ growing losses come as the risk corridor program faces a crossroads. While some within the Obama administration wish to settle lawsuits insurers have filed against the program, settling those suits with billions of dollars in taxpayer cash, the Justice Department just achieved a clear-cut victory defending the federal government against the insurer lawsuits.

The incoming Trump administration will face a choice: Will it side with taxpayers, and prevent the payment of Obamacare bailout funds to insurers, or will it side with Trump’s in-laws, and allow the payment of tens of millions of dollars to an insurer owned by Josh Kushner?

The Obama Administration Wants a Bailout. Will Trump?

Considered one of Obamacare’s “risk mitigation” programs, risk corridors have been an unmitigated disaster for the administration. In theory, the program was designed so insurers with excess profits would pay into a fund to reimburse those with excess losses. Unfortunately, however, a product many individuals do not wish to buy, coupled with unilateral—and unconstitutional—decisions by the administration created massive losses for insurers, turning risk corridors into a proverbial money pit.

Nearly two years ago, Congress passed legislation prohibiting taxpayer funds from being used to bail out the program. The program’s only source of funding would be payments in from insurers with excess profits. Those have proved few and far between. As a result, insurers received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their 2014 claims, with more than $2.5 billion in claims unpaid. The meagre takings for 2015 were insufficient to pay off last year’s $2.5 billion shortfall, let alone the $5.8 billion in additional claims insurers made on risk corridors last year.

Given these mounting losses, insurers have filed suit against the administration seeking payment of their unpaid claims. Some within the Obama administration have sought to settle the lawsuits, using the obscure Judgment Fund to circumvent the spending restrictions Congress imposed in 2014.

But even as those settlement discussions continue behind closed doors, the Justice Department won a clear victory earlier this month. In the first risk corridor lawsuit to be decided, a judge in the Court of Federal Claims dismissed a lawsuit by the failed Land of Lincoln health insurance co-operative on all counts. Not only did Land of Lincoln not have a claim to make against the government for unpaid risk corridor funds now, the court ruled, it would never have a claim to make against the government.

Oscar: Bailouts to the Rescue?

While the risk corridor program faces its own problems, so does start-up Oscar. Owner Josh Kushner wrote this month that Obamacare “undoubtedly helped get us off the ground.” Unfortunately for Oscar, however, the law has seemingly done more to drive it into the ground.

In part due to regulatory decisions from the Obama dministration—allowing individuals to keep their pre-Obamacare plans temporarily—Oscar has faced an exchange market full of people with higher costs than the average employer plan. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Oscar lost $122 million in 2015 on revenue of $126 million, according to company regulatory filings.” To repeat: Oscar’s losses last year nearly totaled its gross revenues.

My earlier article explained how Oscar has already received $38.2 million in payments from Obamacare’s reinsurance program—designed to subsidize insurers for expenses associated with high-cost patients—in 2014 and 2015. That money came even as the Government Accountability Office and other nonpartisan experts concluded the Obama administration acted illegally in paying funds to insurers rather than first reimbursing the U.S. Treasury for the $5 billion cost of another program, as the text of Obamacare states.

In 2014, Oscar made a claim for a total of $9.3 million in risk corridor funds, of which it received less than $1.2 million, due to the shortfalls explained above. For 2015, the insurer made a claim of a whopping $52.7 million—more than five times its 2014 risk corridor claim—while receiving only $310,349.58 in unpaid 2014 payments.

From the risk corridor program, Oscar now has $52.7 million in 2015 claims, not a dime of which were paid, along with approximately $7.8 million in unpaid 2014 claims. For an insurer that lost $122 million in 2015, this more than $60 million in outstanding risk corridor funds are nothing to be trifled with.

Who Comes First: Taxpayers, or Family?

In a recent post-election appraisal of the policy landscape, Oscar owner Josh Kushner complained about severe shortcomings in implementing Obamacare:

The government has also not fixed or not funded [Obamacare] programs designed to help insurers deal with the uncertainty of the first few years of the market. Doing so could have prevented the plan withdrawals that have so destabilized the market.

In complaining specifically that the risk corridor programs were “not funded,” Kushner takes aim at Congress, when in reality he might want to look more closely at President Obama’s actions in letting individuals keep their pre-Obamacare health plans, which upended insurers’ expectations for the new market. Congress, let alone taxpayers, should not have to fund a blank check for the president’s decision to violate the law for political reasons.

In the past two years, Oscar has claimed $38.2 million in reinsurance funds, even though nonpartisan experts believe those funds were illegally diverted to insurers and away from the U.S. Treasury. While it has received only about $1.5 million in risk corridor payments, it has claims for more than $60 million more, and its claims on the federal fisc are likely to rise much higher. The $100 million total doesn’t even include reinsurance and risk corridor claims for this calendar year, which are likely to total tens of millions more, given Oscar’s ongoing losses during the year to date.

Four years ago, Donald Trump sent out this tweet:

After Solyndra, @BarackObama is stil intent on wasting our tax dollars on unproven technologies and risky companies. He must be accountable.

Trump was correct then, but the question is whether he will remain so when his in-laws’ sizable financial interests are at stake. Signing off on a taxpayer-funded bailout of the risk corridor program—already at $8.3 billion in unpaid claims, a total which could easily rise well above $10 billion—to help prop up his in-laws’ insurer would represent “Solyndra capitalism” at its worst. Instead, the Obama administration—and the Trump administration—should refuse to settle the risk corridor lawsuits, and encourage Congress to pass additional legislation blocking use of the Judgment Fund to pay risk corridor claims. Taxpayers deserve nothing less.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Ways Donald Trump Can Start Dismantling Obamacare on Day One

Having led a populist uprising that propelled him to the presidency, Donald Trump will now face pressure to make good on his campaign promise to repeal Obamacare. However, because President Obama used executive overreach to implement so much of the law, Trump can begin dismantling it immediately upon taking office.

The short version comes down to this: End cronyist bailouts, and confront the health insurers behind them. Want more details? Read on.

1. End Unconstitutional Cost-Sharing Subsidies

In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in a lawsuit brought by the House of Representatives that the Obama administration had illegally disbursed cost-sharing subsidies to insurers without an appropriation. These subsidies—separate and distinct from the law’s premium subsidies—reimburse insurers for discounted deductibles and co-payments they provide to some low-income beneficiaries.

While the text of the law provides an explicit appropriation for the premium subsidies, Congress nowhere granted the executive authority to spend money on the cost-sharing subsidies. President Obama, ignoring this clear legal restraint, has paid out roughly $14 billion in cost-sharing subsidies anyway.

Trump should immediately 1) revoke the Obama administration’s appeal of Collyer’s ruling in the House’s lawsuit, House v. Burwell, and 2) stop providing cost-sharing subsidies to insurers unless and until Congress grants an explicit appropriation for same.

2. Follow the Law on Reinsurance

House v. Burwell represents but one case in which legal experts have ruled the Obama administration violated the law by bailing out insurers. In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) handed down a ruling in the separate case of Obamacare’s reinsurance program.

The law states that, once reinsurance funds come in, Treasury should get repaid for the $5 billion cost of a transitional Obamacare program before insurers receive reimbursement for their high-cost patients. GAO, like the non-partisan Congressional Research Service before it, concluded that the Obama administration violated the text of Obamacare by prioritizing payments to insurers over and above payments to the Treasury.

Trump should immediately ensure that Treasury is repaid all the $5 billion it is owed before insurance companies get repaid, as the law currently requires. He can also look to sue insurance companies to make the Treasury whole.

3. Prevent a Risk Corridor Bailout

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has sought to settle lawsuits raised by insurance companies looking to resolve unpaid claims on Obamacare’s risk corridor program. While Congress prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to bail out insurance companies—twice—the administration apparently wishes to enact a backdoor bailout prior to leaving office.

Under this mechanism, Justice Department attorneys would sign off on using the obscure Judgment Fund to settle the risk corridor lawsuits, in an attempt to circumvent the congressional appropriations restriction.

Trump should immediately 1) direct the Justice Department and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) not to settle any risk corridor lawsuits, 2) direct the Treasury not to make payments from the Judgment Fund for any settlements related to such lawsuits, and 3) ask Congress for clarifying language to prohibit the Judgment Fund from being used to pay out any settlements related to such lawsuits.

4. Rage Against the (Insurance) Machine

Trump ran as a populist against the corrupting influence of special interests. To that end, he would do well to point out that health insurance companies have made record profits, nearly doubling during the Obama years to a whopping $15 billion in 2015. It’s also worth noting that special interests enthusiastically embraced Obamacare as a way to fatten their bottom lines—witness the pharmaceutical industry’s “rock solid deal” supporting the law, and the ads they ran seeking its passage.

As others have noted elsewhere, if Trump ends the flow of cost-sharing subsidies upon taking office, insurers may attempt to argue that legal clauses permit them to exit the Obamacare exchanges immediately. Over and above the legal question of whether CMS had the authority to make such an agreement—binding the federal government to a continuous flow of unconstitutional spending—lies a broader political question: Would insurers, while making record profits, deliberately throw the country’s insurance markets into chaos because a newly elected administration would not continue paying them tribute in the form of unconstitutional bailouts?

For years, Democrats sought political profit by portraying Republicans as “the handmaidens of the insurance companies.” Anger against premium increases by Anthem in 2010 helped compel Democrats to enact Obamacare, even after Scott Brown’s stunning Senate upset in Massachusetts. It would be a delicious irony indeed for a Trump administration to continue the political realignment begun last evening by demonstrating to the American public just how much Democrats have relied upon crony capitalism and corrupting special interests to enact their agenda. Nancy Pelosi and K Street lobbyists were made for each other—perhaps it only took Donald Trump to bring them together.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What Will Republicans Do about Obamacare Now?

For the past six years, Republicans — across Washington, and across the country — have virtually to a person run against Obamacare. Their campaign has helped them win numerous House and Senate seats, a majority of governorships, and now has given them unified control of Washington for the first time in 15 years. Like the dog that finally caught the proverbial car, Republicans will wake up Wednesday morning asking themselves — on Obamacare, as on many other issues — “What now?”

The answer might be less obvious than it first appears. Democrats used the decade and a half between the defeat of Hillary Clinton’s health plan in 1993–94 and the 2008 election to develop a consensus architecture about what their ideal health-care plan would look like. In the Democratic primaries that year, Senators Clinton and Obama disagreed strongly on the necessity of an individual mandate to purchase coverage — a difference they litigated very publicly, and at great length, during the primary campaign — but agreed on virtually everything else.

By contrast, Republicans spent comparatively little time debating the finer points of an Obamacare alternative during the presidential cycle just concluded. Donald Trump promised “something terrific” that would tear down “the lines around the states,” but details were few and far between (and occasionally self-contradictory). Speaker Ryan’s House Republican task force produced a plan, but one with few fiscal details attached, and one that few in Washington — whether media analysts or policy-makers themselves — spent time dissecting or debating.

As a result, Republicans differ on some fundamental issues — chief of which is whether an alternative to Obamacare should focus on lowering costs or expanding coverage. While conservatives have historically focused on reducing costs, some on the right have argued that any alternative to Obamacare must provide a landing point for the individuals who gained health coverage under the law. Others have dubbed any alternative plan including mechanisms such as refundable tax credits to expand coverage “Obamacare Lite” — a term likely to resurface with a vengeance in the coming days and weeks.

Speaker Ryan and Mr. Trump thus face a potential squeeze between a Republican political base adamantly opposed to Obamacare, which wants the law repealed — in its entirety, immediately — and the ramifications of doing just that. Would Republicans who passed a repeal bill through Congress last fall, only to see it vetoed by President Obama, do so again knowing it would actually get signed into law? Some lawmakers likely supported repeal in theory, not expecting that the repeal would ever get put into practice. They will face no such “easy” votes in 2017.

It remains an open question whether a bill that repealed Obamacare without a “replace” plan attached could receive enough votes from Republican lawmakers to reach a President Trump’s desk. It likewise remains an open question whether Republicans can coalesce around the details of an alternative to place on the statute books. Anyone who believes that debate or discussion will be easy, or quick, did not spend time covering the circular firing squad that enveloped congressional Democrats in both 1993–94 and 2009–10.

A major initial test for Mr. Trump: What to do about Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, funds that the Obama administration has provided to insurers even though the text of the law itself nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for such spending. As I previously noted, Mr. Trump could immediately cut off these funds to insurers upon taking office. Such an action would be entirely consistent with House Republicans’ lawsuit against the administration for spending money not appropriated — and with the initial legal victory they received from the courts in May.

But others have reported that the Obama administration has negotiated language in insurers’ contracts for next year allowing them to cancel plans immediately should a future Trump administration cut off insurers’ access to the cost-sharing subsidies during the middle of the 2017 plan year. So what does a President Trump do? Block the subsidies — and potentially get blamed for chaos if millions of people lose their plans overnight? Or continue spending on subsidies that House Republicans have called unconstitutional, and face a federal lawsuit from members of his own party? Neither answer presents an appetizing option for the incoming administration.

After the battle of El Alamein changed the tide of World War II, Churchill remarked that the Allied victory marked not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning. In the fight against Obamacare, Tuesday likewise marked not the fulfillment of a Republican campaign promise but merely the initial prerequisite necessary to reach that goal. The goal is in sight, but farther away than some might believe. Having spent years running against Obamacare, Republicans must now determine what to do about it — an outcome that few would have dreamed of even 24 short hours ago.

This post was originally published at National Review.

House Democrats Endorse a President Trump Power Grab

Last week, eleven leading House Democrats released a brief in a lawsuit regarding Obamacare, but one that could have implications far beyond this President’s health care law. Essentially, the Democratic leaders argued that courts had no power to intervene where a President spends money not appropriated by Congress—a position that the Democrats may endorse when the President in question is one of their own party, but one they will live to regret when the executive holds differing political views.

The brief in question was an amicus curiae filing in House v. Burwell, a case involving the legality of Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies. The text of the law nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for such subsidies—but the Obama Administration has disbursed funds to insurers regardless. In May, United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled for the House of Representatives, ordering the Administration to stop the subsidy payments. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several of her Democratic colleagues filed the brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, currently considering the Administration’s appeal of the District Court ruling.

The Democrats’ brief argues that the text of the law implies a subsidy for the cost-sharing subsidies, even if it did not say so outright. But more troublingly, the amicus filing discourages the Court of Appeals from even considering the merits of the case—encouraging the court instead to dismiss the case for lack of standing.

To read the lawmakers’ brief, Congress would have little recourse to the courts for relief should the executive spend money not appropriated. So long as a President at least makes an attempt to argue the existence of some appropriation, then the matter becomes what the Democrat lawmakers call “a quintessential disagreement about the proper interpretation of” statutes, one that the judicial branch should leave to the political branches. To Pelosi and her colleagues, the President violates the Constitution “any time the executive branch takes some affirmative action based on a misinterpretation of a federal statute,” since such actions involve spending money—but few if any of these violations warrant judicial intervention.

Surprisingly for a brief filed by a group of legislators, the amicus does not even articulate a clear set of circumstances when the legislature could legitimately sue the executive, other than to argue that House v. Burwell does not warrant such action. The Pelosi brief argues that not just one, but both Houses of Congress, must authorize such a suit—in other words, a Democratic-controlled Senate could block a Republican-led House from suing the President, and vice versa. It claims that a Congress injured by the President should use non-judicial means to remedy disputes, by passing corrective legislation—even though the President could veto such legislation, allowing his violations to stand unless 2/3rds of Congress agrees to rebuke him—or conducting Congressional oversight. As comforting as these remedies might sound in theory, few would likely prove effective in practice.

In an Obamacare context, House Democrats may consider complaints about the Constitution and the “power of the purse” mere trifling inconveniences. But they have just as much reason to be concerned as Republicans, for a future Administration could use the Obamacare precedents as grounds to make policy decisions few Democrats would favor.

To use a totally hypothetical example, suppose that a future President believed that—as this Administration has argued in court—that the context and structure of our nation’s immigration laws give the executive unlimited funding to build a big, beautiful wall—a yuuuuge wall, even—without Congress’ consent. Suppose also that said future President argued—as the House Democrats argued in their brief, and an Obama Administration official testified with a straight face before the House Ways and Means Committee in July—that because Congress didn’t pass legislation explicitly prohibiting it from doing so, it could spend unlimited funds on a deportation force to remove undocumented immigrants? Would Democrats value their constitutional prerogatives so lightly under those circumstances?

Call this a hunch, but I doubt that, under the immigration scenarios outlined above, the Democratic lawmakers would content themselves with the remedies they have laid forth in their brief about Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies. Faced with a President spending billions of dollars on a deportation force never appropriated by Congress, would Nancy Pelosi merely content herself with conducting hearings and “appeal[ing] to the public,” as her brief argues in the Obamacare context? Hardly.

The core issue surrounding the cost-sharing subsidies is not Obamacare, but the rule of law—a principle that, as Churchill noted, has existed since the barons met King John at Runnymede eight centuries ago: “Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege—the king should not be below man, but below God and the law.” A President cannot assume regal powers by spending money never granted by the peoples’ tribunes, essentially daring the courts and Congress to stop him.

That’s the point of House Republicans’ suit on the cost-sharing subsidies, and Judge Collyer’s ruling in May upholding the House’s position. And it’s a point that, their amicus brief notwithstanding, House Democrats should learn to discover and embrace. Because at some point in the future—whether immediately after tomorrow’s election, or years from now—they will find reason aplenty to cling to those important constitutional principles.

Explaining Both of the Obamacare Risk Corridor Bailouts

It never rains that it doesn’t pour. Even as nonpartisan experts at the Government Accountability Office concluded that the Obama administration broke the law with Obamacare’s reinsurance program, the Washington Post reported the administration could within weeks pay out a massive settlement to insurers through another Obamacare slush fund—this one, risk corridors.

The Post article quoted Republicans criticizing risk corridor “bailouts.” But in reality, the Obama administration itself has admitted using risk corridors as a bailout mechanism—trying to pay insurers to offset the costs of unilateral policy changes made to get President Obama out of a political jam. These two interlinked bailouts—one political, the other financial—explain this administration’s rush to pay off insurers on its way out the door.

Let’s Go Back to 2013

To understand the risk corridor story, one must head back to fall 2013. Millions of Americans received cancellation notices in the mail, informing them that their existing health insurance would disappear once Obamacare’s major provisions took effect. Those individuals also faced long odds to buy replacement policies, given that healthcare.gov and related insurance exchanges remained in a near-constant state of meltdown. Amid the controversy, President Obama had to apologize publicly for misleading the American people with his “like your plan” pledge—which Politifact later dubbed the “Lie of the Year.”

To fix the problem, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) tried a stopgap solution. Essentially, CMS said it would ignore the law’s requirements, and allow people to keep their prior coverage—albeit temporarily. States and insurers could allow individuals who purchased coverage after the law’s enactment, but before October 2013, to keep their plan for a few more months (later extended until December 2017). The final paragraph of CMS’ November 14, 2013 announcement of this policy included an important message:

Though this transitional policy was not anticipated by health insurance issuers when setting rates for 2014, the risk corridor program should help ameliorate unanticipated changes in premium revenue. We intend to explore ways to modify the risk corridor program final rules to provide additional assistance.

CMS offered insurers a quid pro quo: If you let Americans keep their existing plan a little longer—getting the administration out of the political controversy President Obama’s repeated falsehoods had caused—we’ll turn on the bailout taps on the back end to make you whole. You scratch my back…

I’ll Pay You Tax Dollars to Play

But this arrangement created several problems. First, CMS cannot decide that it just doesn’t feel like enforcing the law. In a paper analyzing the administration’s implementation of Obamacare, University of Michigan professor Nicholas Bagley called the non-enforcement of the law’s provisions “bald efforts to avoid unwanted consequences associated with full implementation of” the law. He argued the administration’s inaction abdicated the president’s constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed:”

The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.

While disagreeing that “President Obama has systematically disregarded” the text of the statute, Bagley explicitly conceded that—with respect to the “like your plan” fix and other administrative delays—“the President appears to have broken the law.”

That law-breaking brought with it major financial implications. While healthy individuals kept their existing plans and stayed out of the Obamacare risk pool, sicker individuals signed up in droves. Because the Obama administration unilaterally—and unlawfully—changed the rules after the exchanges had opened, insurers found they had substantially under-priced their products. A 2014 House Oversight Committee report found major impacts after the administration announced the “like your plan” fix:

Insurers immediately started lobbying for additional risk corridor payments, meeting with and e-mailing Valerie Jarrett the day after the Administration’s announcement;

Insurers actually enrolled many fewer young people, and many more older people, than their original estimates made before the Exchanges opened for business on October 1, 2013—consistent with other contemporaneous news reports and industry analyses; and

‘One insurer told the Committee that it expects greater risk corridor receipts because of a sicker risk pool than it anticipated on October 1, 2013 due, in part, to the President’s transitional policy.’

All these developments are entirely consistent with CMS’ November 2013 bulletin announcing the arrangement. CMS pledged to use risk corridors to make insurers whole because it knew insurers would suffer losses as a result of the administration’s unilateral—and illegal—“like your plan” fix.

How About You Pay for Me to Break the Law

To sum up: The administration conjured a political bailout. It pledged not to enforce the law, so people could keep their plans, and President Obama could get off the hook for misleading the American people. This necessitated a financial bailout through risk corridors. Actuaries can debate how much of the unpaid risk corridor claims stem from this specific policy change, but there can be no doubt that the “like your plan” fix increased those claims. CMS itself admitted as much when announcing the policy.

Ironically, Bagley admits the first bailout, but denies the second. His paper concedes the “like your plan” violated the law, and the president’s constitutional duties, largely for political reasons. But he believes the administration can, and should, pay outstanding risk corridor claims using the Judgment Fund. All of this raises an interesting question: Why should the executive be allowed to break the law, abdicate its constitutional obligations, and then force Congress—and ultimately taxpayers—to pay the tab for the financial consequences of that lawbreaking?

The answer is simple: It shouldn’t. While insurers stand in the middle of this tug-of-war, they could have acted differently when President Obama announced his “like your plan” fix. They could have cancelled all pre-Obamacare plans regardless of the president’s announced policy, demanded the opportunity to adjust their premium rates in response, pulled off the exchanges altogether, taken legal action against the administration—or all of the above. They chose instead to complain behind closed doors, get their lobbying machine to work, and hope to cut yet another backroom deal to save their bacon.

But there are two political parties, and two branches of government. To say that Congress should have to write bailout checks to insurers as a result of the executive’s lawbreaking quite literally adds injury—to taxpayers, to the legislative power of the purse, and to the separation of powers—to insult. Any judges to whom the administration will try to bless a risk corridor settlement with insurers should ask many questions about the linked bailouts motivating this corrupt bargain.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Totaling Up $170.8 BILLION in Obamacare Bailouts

Obamacare has been in the news — and the courts — quite a lot recently. While much of the press attention has focused on the controversial contraception mandate, a potentially bigger issue remains largely unreported — namely, that the Obama administration has set in train an unholy trinity of bailouts that could pay health-insurance companies $170.8 billion in the coming decade.

Much of the litigation surrounds the legality — or more specifically, the lack of legality — of these bailouts. On May 12, the administration lost a case in United States District Court, U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell, in which Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that payments to insurers for cost-sharing subsidies without an express appropriation from Congress violated the Constitution. And recently, multiple insurers have filed suit against the government in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking payment for unpaid “risk corridor” funds, designed to cushion insurers from incurring major losses, or major gains, during the exchanges’ first three years.

What exactly do all these Obamacare lawsuits entail? And how much taxpayer money is the Obama administration shoveling to insurers in an attempt to keep them participating in its moribund exchanges? Herewith, a 101 tutorial on the more than $170 billion in Obamacare bailouts.

RISK CORRIDORS

What’s the issue? Risk corridors were one of two temporary programs (I discuss the other below) designed to provide stability to the law’s exchanges in their first years. From 2014 through 2016, the risk-corridor program is designed to minimize large insurer losses, as well as large insurer profits. Initially, the administration claimed risk corridors would be implemented in a budget-neutral manner — that is, outgoing payments to insurers with losses would equal incoming payments from insurers with gains. But the healthcare.gov catastrophe, coupled with policy changes unilaterally made in the fall of 2013, caused the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to float the idea of using taxpayer funds in risk corridors to offset insurer losses — in other words, bail them out.

How much has the government paid? Nothing, thankfully — at least not yet. Fearful that the administration could utilize risk corridors to implement a taxpayer-funded bailout of insurers, Congress passed in December 2014 (and subsequently renewed this past winter) appropriations language that prevents CMS from using additional taxpayer funds to pay insurers’ risk-corridor claims.

How much could the government pay? In 2014, insurers submitted $2.87 billion in risk-corridor claims, but because insurers with gains paid in only $362 million, insurers with losses received only that much in payments — approximately 12.6 percent of the requested funds. Last week insurers in North Carolina and Oregon sued to recover their unpaid risk-corridor funds, following a $5 billion class-action suit filed in February by an Obamacare co-op insurer in Oregon. While CMS has not yet settled those lawsuits seeking unpaid risk-corridor funds, in November it issued a policy memo stating that those unpaid funds represent an obligation of the federal government. Insurer losses more than doubled last year when compared with the 2014 losses.

Although CMS has not yet released data on risk-corridor claims for 2015 or 2016, it seems likely that risk corridors will incur losses similar to those for 2014. A McKinsey study released last month, “Exchanges Three Years In,” found that insurer losses more than doubled last year when compared with the 2014 losses — making $2.5 billion in claims the likely low estimate for risk corridors. A conservative assumption would estimate a total of $7.5 billion in unpaid risk-corridor claims — $2.5 billion each for 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Although the appropriations language in place currently prevents CMS from using taxpayer funds for risk-corridor claims, it is possible — even likely — that the administration could attempt to settle the insurer lawsuits as one way of getting bailout funds to insurers. Any settled lawsuits would be paid from the Judgment Fund of the Treasury, not out of a CMS budget account, thus circumventing the appropriations restrictions.

REINSURANCE

What’s the issue? The second Obamacare temporary stabilization program, called reinsurance, requires “assessments” — some would call them taxes — on all employer-provided health-insurance plans. These assessments are designed to 1) reimburse the Treasury for the $5 billion cost of a separate reinsurance program that operated from 2010 through 2013 and 2) reimburse insurers with high-cost patients from 2014 through 2016.

How much has the government paid? In 2014, insurers received nearly $8 billion in payments from the reinsurance “slush fund.” The administration still holds nearly $1.7 billion in funds from the 2014 benefit year — money that will no doubt get shoveled insurers’ way as well. While the law explicitly stated that the Treasury should get reimbursed for its $5 billion before insurers receive payments from the reinsurance fund, the Obama administration has implemented the law in the exact opposite manner — prioritizing insurer bailouts over repaying the Treasury. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has stated that this action represents a clear violation of the text of the Obamacare statute. The Obama administration chose to violate the plain text of the law and prioritize claims to insurers over the statutory requirement to repay taxpayers.

How much could the government pay? Between 2014 and 2016, insurers appear likely to receive the full $20 billion in reinsurance payments provided for under the law. On the other hand, the Treasury will receive far less than the $5 billion it was promised, because the Obama administration chose to violate the plain text of the law and prioritize claims to insurers over the statutory requirement to repay taxpayers.

COST-SHARING SUBSIDIES 

What’s the issue? The law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing (such as deductibles and co-payments) for certain low-income individuals with incomes under 250 percent of the federal poverty level. While Section 1402 of the law authorized the Departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services to remit payments to insurers for the cost of these discounts, it did not include an explicit appropriation for them. Judge Collyer’s May 12 ruling, though stayed pending appeal by the administration, prohibits future spending on cost-sharing subsidies by the federal government unless and until Congress enacts an explicit appropriation.

How much has the government paid? In fiscal year 2014, insurers received $2.1 billion in cost-sharing subsidies. In fiscal 2015, the cost-sharing subsidies totaled $5.1 billion, and this fiscal year, spending on the subsidies will total an estimated $6.1 billion — for a total paid out (through this September 30) of $13.9 billion. How much could the government pay? If Judge Collyer’s ruling is not upheld on appeal, this bailout program — unlike the other two — will continue without end. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on cost-sharing subsidies will total $130 billion over the coming decade, unless halted by a judicial ruling — or unless a new administration decides it will not spend funds that have not been appropriated by Congress.

There you have it. Combine a total of $33.3 billion paid to date ($20 billion in reinsurance plus $13.3 billion in cost-sharing subsidies) with potential future bailouts of $137.5 billion ($7.5 billion in risk-corridor funds plus an additional $130 billion in cost-sharing subsidies) and you come up with a not-so-grand total of $170.8 billion in taxpayer-funded Obamacare bailouts to insurers.

The scope of both the bailouts and Obamacare’s failures looks truly staggering. Despite literally billions of dollars coming from three separate bailout programs, insurers still cannot make money selling Obamacare products. Most insurers continue to lose funds hand over fist, while some, such as UnitedHealthGroup, the nation’s largest health insurer, have all but exited the exchanges entirely.

The scope of the bailouts put the lie to Joe Biden’s claims just prior to Obamacare’s passage, when he claimed to ABC News, “We’re going to control the insurance companies.” Au contraire, Mr. Vice President. By requiring more than $170 billion in bailouts just to keep the sputtering exchanges afloat, the insurance companies are controlling you — and us, the taxpayers, as well.

This post was originally published at National Review.

A Victory for the House — And the Constitution

This afternoon Judge Rosemary Collyer dropped another mess into the Obama administration’s continuing Obamacare quagmire. Her ruling in House of Representatives v. Burwell jeopardizes a major source of funding for health-insurance marketplaces, which were already barely sustainable at best. Perhaps more important, however, it represents a major defeat for the administration’s constant pattern of executive unilateralism by preserving the House’s most important constitutional prerogative, the power of the purse.

The case centers around Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, which provide additional assistance to help low-income individuals pay for things like co-payments and deductibles. While the Obamacare law explicitly appropriated funds to subsidize premiums on insurance exchanges, it did not provide such an appropriation for these cost-sharing subsidies. The Obama administration acknowledged this in 2013, requesting such an appropriation from the House of Representatives. But months later, the administration did an about-face and proceeded to start paying cost-sharing subsidies to insurers. The House viewed this action as a unilateral usurpation of its most important constitutional prerogative — to fund, or refuse to fund, government programs.

Today Judge Collyer unequivocally agreed:

Paying out [cost-sharing subsidies] without an appropriation thus violates the Constitution. Congress authorized reduced cost sharing [in Obamacare] but did not appropriate monies for it, in the [Fiscal Year] 2014 budget or since. Congress is the only source for such an appropriation, and no public money can be spent without one.

In so deciding, Judge Collyer rejected what she called the “extra-textual arguments” put forth by the administration, which claimed that an appropriation in Obamacare for premium subsidies meant that Congress had also appropriated funds for cost-sharing subsidies. In her view, the law creates two separate and distinct programs. An appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies doesn’t exist in Obamacare and hasn’t been included in any other subsequent legislation, and therefore the House has every right to obtain injunctive relief from any further cost-sharing subsidies’ being paid — unless or until Congress enacts such a specific appropriation.

Insurers will take little solace in the fact that Judge Collyer stayed her injunction pending an expected appeal from the administration. At a time when insurance marketplaces already face sustainability issues, her ruling creates another major element of uncertainty. For them, the timing couldn’t be worse, coming one day after the deadline to submit 2017 bids for healthcare.gov offerings. If Judge Collyer’s ruling is upheld on appeal, the policy landscape facing insurers could prove far different than they envisioned when submitting their plans for next year.

But the bigger winner in this case is the Constitution. In attempting to defend the money it was shoveling toward insurers, the administration took positions both dangerous and absurd. In its briefs, the administration’s attorneys argued that because the House did not pass legislation explicitly defunding the cost-sharing subsidies, the administration was permitted to fund them — a contention that would turn the Constitution on its head. Judge Collyer rightly rejected this brazen attempt by the executive to arrogate the spending power to itself.

No doubt the D.C. Court of Appeals, and perhaps the Supreme Court, will weigh in on the topics addressed by House v. Burwell in due course. But while Judge Collyer’s ruling inflicts another defeat on an already wobbly Obamacare regime, it more importantly represents a victory for the separation of powers and the rule of law. That’s an outcome all conservatives can cheer.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Obamacare Challenges: Where the Conventional Wisdom Falls Short

Since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down an Internal Revenue Service regulation implementing Obamacare, some observers have predicted that the IRS rule would ultimately be upheld. The regulation extends federal subsidies to individuals purchasing insurance from federal exchanges and not just state-run exchanges, as the Affordable Care Act specifies. But when it comes to legal challenges regarding the health-care law, the conventional wisdom has sometimes been wrong.

Consider, for instance, the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Obamacare two years ago. The day that the court ruled in June 2012, President Barack Obama said: “Earlier today, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Actually, the court was more nuanced. On Page 58 of the ruling in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the justices wrote: “The Affordable Care Act is constitutional in part and unconstitutional in part.” While the court upheld the individual mandate as a permissible exercise of the taxation power, it struck down provisions of the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid as unconstitutional “economic dragooning that leaves the States with no real option but to acquiesce in the Medicaid expansion.”

Two years later, a digital campaign on the White House Web site argues for states to expand Medicaid under the ACA–and warns of dire consequences for those that do not. But the administration embarked on the campaign because the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states.

It’s also worth noting that seven of the nine Supreme Court justices agreed that it was unconstitutional to mandate Medicaid’s expansion. Those seven justices included Stephen Breyer, previously a staffer for Sen. Edward Kennedy, and Elena Kagan, a former solicitor general in the Obama administration. So those predicting that some judges and justices would preserve the IRS rule based solely on which president appointed them to the bench may yet be disappointed.

Legal decisions don’t always break down along party lines or meet political talking points. That’s something to bear in mind as the cases wind through the courts.

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

Constitutional Professor Obama Unconcerned by Constitutional Niceties?

The New York Times has an article this morning providing additional context on the way the Obama campaign, and later the Obama Administration, handled an individual mandate to purchase health insurance.  Among the interesting tidbits was the following sentence: “While the White House may have been prepared for the public unhappiness over the provision, it appears to have been caught off guard by the constitutional challenge – in part because Obama advisers regarded the mandate as a conservative notion.”

That government requiring all individuals to purchase a (government-defined) product should not have come as a shock to anyone within the Obama Administration, or for that matter the Obama presidential campaign:

“A mandate requiring all individuals to purchase health insurance would be an unprecedented form of federal action.  The government has never required people to buy any good or service as a condition of lawful residence in the United States.  An individual mandate would have two features that, in combination, would make it unique.  First, it would impose a duty on individuals as members of society.  Second, it would require people to purchase a specific service that would be heavily regulated by the federal government.”

The above quote was written by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Officeback in 1994When Barack Obama was a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. (Guess this topic never came up in any of his lectures…)

That Barack Obama – and for that matter, Nancy Pelosi and others – would so blithely impose new federal requirements on individuals to purchase goods as a condition of their existence, without concern for the constitutional implications of their actions, reinforces the way in which the 2700-page health care law was cobbled together and rammed through Congress.  Even more ominously, it also speaks to the way in which similar mandates are likely to proliferate if this one is upheld – for if Democrats are so unconcerned about the constitutional implications of their actions now, does anyone believe they will stop at only one federally imposed requirement on all Americans?