Tag Archives: waivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of “Repeal and Replace” Amendments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MARCH 24 UPDATE:

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

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

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

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

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

MARCH 23 UPDATE:

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

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

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

 

Original post follows:

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

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

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

Summary of both amendments follows:

Policy Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans—not repealed fully, but will not go into effect until 2026, one year later than in the base bill;
  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars;
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions;
  • Medical device tax;
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage;
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction—this provision actually reduces the limitation below prior law (Obamacare raised the threshold from expenses in excess of 7.5% of adjusted gross income to 10%, whereas the amendment lowers that threshold to 5.8%);
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals;
  • Health insurer tax;
  • Tax on tanning services;
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives; and
  • Net investment tax.

“Technical” Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Important Concerns about the State Waiver Process

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

Specifically, states could request a waiver to:

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

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

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

How Many States Will Actually Apply for Waivers?

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

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

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

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

Can a Future Administration Deny Waiver Renewals?

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

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

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

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

A Better Solution

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

Reforming Medicaid, Beginning on Day One

A recent article listing five ways in which Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Price could reform health care surprisingly excluded solutions for our nation’s largest taxpayer-funded health care program—Medicaid. That’s right: While Medicare spends more federal dollars, state and federal taxpayers spend more on Medicaid overall. With federal program spending scheduled to top $400 billion next fiscal year, and Medicaid consuming a large and growing share of state budgets, Dr. Price should waste no time making critically important reforms.

Ultimately, conservatives should work to convert Medicaid into either a block grant or per capita cap, where states would receive fixed payments from the federal government in exchange for additional flexibility to manage their programs as they see fit. While Congress must approve the legislative changes necessary to create a block grant or per capita cap, Dr. Price and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator-designee Seema Verma—who has a great deal of experience managing state Medicaid programs—can take steps, beginning on Day One, to give states more flexibility and freedom to experiment.

The prime place for Price and Verma to start lies in Medicaid’s “1115 waivers,” so named for the section of the Social Security Act (Section 1115) that created them. Under the 1115 process, HHS can waive certain requirements under Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for “any experimental, pilot, or demonstration project which, in the judgment of the Secretary, is likely to assist in promoting the objectives” of the programs.

Unfortunately, such waiver authority is only as effective as the Administration that chooses to exercise it—or not, as has been the case for much of the last eight years. One section of Obamacare actually increased the bureaucracy associated with 1115 waivers, requiring states to undertake a lengthy process, including a series of hearings, before applying for a waiver (because Obamacare itself was written in such a transparent manner). Subsequent legislative changes have sought to streamline the process for states requesting extensions of waivers already granted.

However, Dr. Price and Ms. Verma can go further in allowing states to reform Medicaid. They can, and should, upon taking office immediately propose a template waiver application for states to utilize. They can also publicly indicate their intent to approve blanket waivers—that is, waiver applications meeting a series of policy parameters will be automatically approved. While Congress should ultimately codify state flexibility into law—so no future Administration can deny states the ability to implement needed reforms—the new Administration can put it into practice while waiting for Congress to act.

As to the types of waivers the Trump Administration should look favorably upon, House Republicans’ “Better Way” proposal and a report issued by Republican governors in 2011 provide two good sources of ideas:

Work Requirements: Despite repeated requests, the Obama Administration has steadfastly refused to allow states to impose a requirement that able-bodied Medicaid beneficiaries either work, look for work, or prepare for work through enrollment in job-training programs. Because voluntary job-referral programs have led to impressive success stories, states should have the ability to impose work requirements for Medicaid recipients.

Cost-Sharing and Benefit Design: Whether through enforceable yet reasonable premiums, modest co-payments, Health Savings Account-like mechanisms, or a combination of all three, states should have greater freedom to utilize consumer-directed health care options for beneficiaries. These innovations would not only turn Medicaid into a product more closely resembling other forms of health insurance, they can also help reduce costs—thus saving taxpayers money.

Premium Assistance and Wellness Incentives: Current regulatory requirements for premium assistance—in which Medicaid pays part of the cost associated with an eligible individual’s employer-based insurance—have proven ineffective and unduly burdensome. States should have more flexibility to use Medicaid dollars to subsidize employer coverage, without providing additional wrap-around benefits. Likewise, states should have the ability to offer incentives for wellness and healthy behaviors in their Medicaid programs, just as successful employers like Safeway have done.

Payment Reforms and Managed Care: With health care moving away from a fee-for-service model, in which doctors and hospitals get paid for each service performed, states should have the ability to innovate. Some may wish to implement bundled payments, which would see Medicaid providing a lump-sum payment for all the costs of a procedure (e.g., a hip replacement and associated post-operative therapy). Others may benefit from a waiver of the current requirement that Medicaid beneficiaries have the choice of at least two managed care plans—a requirement that may not be feasible in heavily rural areas and states.

Program Integrity: With fraud endemic in federal health care programs, states should receive flexibility to track down on scofflaws—for instance, the ability to hire contingency fee-based contractors, and more scrupulously verify beneficiary eligibility and identity. By monitoring suspicious behavior patterns through the use of “big data,” these efforts could save both Washington and the states billions.

Reforming a program that will cost state and federal taxpayers an estimated $607.2 billion this fiscal year will not be easy, and will not happen overnight. But the sprawling program’s vast size and scope also demonstrate why the new Administration should start its work immediately. While Congress can and should fundamentally reform Medicaid, HHS can use blanket 1115 waivers to allow states to experiment as soon as they can. In this way, the “laboratories of democracy” can drive the innovation needed to bring Medicaid into the 21st century, lowering health costs and saving taxpayers money.

Putting Obamacare in a Deep Freeze

As they debate various ways to repeal and replace Obamacare, Republicans in Congress have proposed a transition between the current regime and the more market-oriented solution they wish to create. As part of that transition, Congress should explore putting an immediate freeze on new Obamacare enrollment. Such a freeze would allow currently enrolled Americans to maintain their coverage while halting the growth in spending on the law’s costly taxpayer subsidies.

Medicaid Freeze

There are good policy reasons to include a freeze on enrollment as part of repeal legislation. The “Better Way” alternative to Obamacare released by Speaker Ryan in June proposed that “states that have not expanded Medicaid under Obamacare as of January 1, 2016…would not be able to do so.” If the House intends to freeze enrollment by preventing new states from implementing Medicaid expansion, reason dictates that it should also prevent new individuals in states that have already expanded Medicaid from joining the entitlement.

Previous research suggests that the existence of a Medicaid entitlement for the able-bodied significantly decreases job-search activity, employment, and enrollment in employer-sponsored health coverage. The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) has demonstrated that freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Medicaid to transition out of poverty and into work in a relatively short period of time, and that there is broad public support for such a move.

Freezing enrollment would also begin to unwind the inequities in the current system, which rewards states that have expanded Medicaid for discriminating against the most vulnerable. Some governors have indicated their desire to preserve the expansion in their states. But keeping Medicaid expansion in some states would set up a direct conflict with other states that are explicitly prohibited from expanding under the House Republican plan. As a compromise, Congress should instead freeze enrollment in those states that have already expanded Medicaid, as a way to begin dismantling the new entitlement for the able-bodied.

King v. Burwell

When it comes to insurance Exchanges, Republicans had previously proposed freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s subsidy regime. Last year, the Supreme Court considered the case of King v. Burwell, which had the potential to strike down taxpayer-funded subsidies in states with a federally run insurance exchange (i.e.  most of them). Ahead of that case, Senators Ron Johnson and Ben Sasse both proposed different transitional arrangements that would allow individuals receiving subsidies at the time of the ruling to continue their coverage for some period of time, without allowing new individuals to qualify for taxpayer-funded coverage.

Though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the subsidies in King v. Burwell, the transition plans by Sasse and Johnson provide just as sensible a template now as they did then. Admittedly, insurers may not want to offer coverage where only unsubsidized individuals can join exchanges, as those unsubsidized individuals would likely be the costliest to insure. But the plans laid out by Sasse and Johnson provide two possible blueprints for unwinding Obamacare, including its taxpayer-funded exchange subsidies.

Obama Precedent

In considering the practical effects of an enrollment freeze, Republicans should examine how President Obama tried to minimize the impact of his “Lie of the Year” — “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” When millions of Americans received cancellation notices in the fall of 2013, the Obama Administration allowed individuals to keep their prior coverage temporarily. This reprieve was ultimately extended until December 2017.

By allowing some individuals to keep their pre-Obamacare coverage, Obama’s plan-cancellation “fix” solved a political problem, minimizing the number of individuals thrown off their current coverage at one time. Extending the “fix” for several years also limited disruption, as natural “churning” in insurance markets will reduce the number of individuals with affected policies between now and December 2017.

Of course, President Obama’s administrative actions in 2013 violated the law. Even liberals have acknowledged that Obama abrogated his constitutional duties by publicly advertising that his Administration would not enforce the ACA’s statutory requirements. But Congress can and should seek to minimize disruption in a legal way, by explicitly including an enrollment freeze in its repeal legislation. With Obamacare’s coverage gains coming almost entirely from Medicaid expansion, freezing enrollment will allow for a smoother transition into the new system Republicans intend to create.

This post was originally published at National Review.

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.

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.

How Bailing Out Health Insurers Will Lead to Single Payer Health Care

The bad news for Obamacare keeps on coming. Major health carriers are leaving insurance exchanges, and other insurance co-operatives the law created continue to fail, leaving tens of thousands without health coverage. Those on exchanges who somehow manage to hold on to their insurance will face a set of massive premium increases—which will hit millions of Americans weeks before the election.

Many on the Right believe Obamacare was deliberately designed to fail, and fear that we’re on a slippery slope toward single-payer. On the other side of the spectrum, the Left hopes conservatives’ fears—and liberals’ dreams—will be answered. But is either side right?

The reality is more nuanced than the rhetoric would suggest. Whether government runs all of health care is less material than whether government pays for all of health care. The latter will, sooner or later, lead to the former. That’s why the debate over bailing out Obamacare is so important. Ostensibly “private” health insurers want tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies—because they claim these subsidies are the only thing standing between a government-run “public option” or a single-payer system.

But the action insurers argue will prevent a government-run system will in reality create one. If insurers get their way, and establish the principle that both they and Obamacare are too big to fail, we will have created a de facto government-run insurance system. Whether such system is run through a handful of heavily regulated, crony capitalist “private” insurers or government bureaucrats represents a comparatively trifling detail.

The Biggest Wolf Is Not the Closest

In considering the likelihood of single-payer health care, one analogy lies in the axiom that one should shoot the wolf outside one’s front door. Single-payer health care obviously represents the biggest wolf—but not the closest. While liberals no doubt want to create a single-payer health care system—Barack Obama has repeatedly said as much—they face a navigational problem: Can you get there from here?

The answer is no—at least not in one fell swoop. Creating a single-payer system would throw 177.5 million Americans off their employer-provided health insurance. That level of disruption would be orders of magnitude greater than the cancellation notices associated with the 2013 “like your plan” fiasco, which itself prompted President Obama to beat a hasty, albeit temporary, retreat from Obamacare’s mandates. Recall too that the high taxes needed to fund a statewide single-payer effort prompted Vermont—Vermont—to abandon its efforts two years ago.

Understanding the political obstacles associated with throwing half of Americans off their current health insurance, liberals’ next strategy has focused on creating a government-run health plan to “compete” with private insurers. Hillary Clinton endorsed this approach, and Democratic senators made a new push on the issue this month. When stories of premium spikes and plan cancellations hit the fan next month, liberals will inevitably claim that a government-run plan will solve all of Obamacare’s woes (although even some liberal analysts admit the law’s real problem is a product healthy people don’t want to buy).

Can the Left succeed at creating a government-run health plan? Probably not at the federal level. Liberals have noted that only one Democratic Senate candidate running this year references the so-called “public option” on his website. Thirteen Senate Democrats have yet to co-sponsor a resolution by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) calling for a government-run plan. Such legislation faces a certain dead-end as long as Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress. Given the failure to enact a government-run plan with a 60-vote majority in 2009, an uncertain future even under complete Democratic control.

What About Single-Payer Inside States?

What then of state efforts to create a government-run health plan? The Wall Street Journal featured a recent op-ed by Scott Gottlieb on this subject. Gottlieb notes that Section 1332 of Obamacare allows for states to create and submit innovation waivers—waivers that a Hillary Clinton administration would no doubt eagerly approve from states wanting to create government-run plans. He also rightly observes that the Obama administration has abused its authority to approve costly Medicaid waivers despite supposed requirements that these waivers not increase the deficit; a Clinton administration can be counted on to do the same.

But another element of the state innovation waiver program limits the Left’s ability to generate 50 government-run health plans. Section 1332(b)(2) requires states to enact a law “that provides for state actions under a waiver.” The requirement that legislation must accompany a state waiver application will likely limit a so-called “public option” to those states with unified Democratic control. Because Obamacare, and the 2010 and 2014 wave elections it helped spark, decimated the Democratic Party, Democrats currently hold unified control in only seven states.

Even at the state level, liberals will be hard-pressed to find many states in which to create their socialist experiment of a government-run health plan. In those few targets, health insurers and medical providers—remember that government-run health plans can only “lower” costs by arbitrarily restricting payments to doctors and hospitals—will make a powerful coalition for the Left to try and overcome. Also, in the largest state, California, the initiative process means that voters—and the television ads health-care interests will use to influence them—could ultimately decide the issue, one way or the other.

So if single-payer represents the biggest wolf, but not the one closest to the door, and government-run plans represent a closer wolf, but only a limited threat at present, what does represent the wolf at the door? Simple: the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Too Big To Fail, Redux

The wolf in sheep’s clothing comes in the form of insurance industry lobbyists, who have been arguing to Republican staff that only making the insurance exchanges work will fend off calls for a government-run plan—or, worse, single-payer. They claim that extending and expanding the law’s current bailouts—specifically, risk corridors and reinsurance—can stabilize the market, and prevent further government intrusion.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. But examining the logic reveals its hollowness: If Republicans pass bad policy now, they can fend off even worse policy later. There is of course another heretofore unknown concept of conservative Republicans choosing not to pass bad policy at all.

That’s why comments suggesting that at least some Republicans believe Obamacare must be fixed no matter who is elected president on November 8 are so damaging. That premise that Congress must do something because Obamacare and its exchanges are “too big to fail” means health insurers are likewise “too big to fail.” If this construct prevails, Congress will do whatever it takes for the insurers to stay in the marketplace; if that means turning on the bailout taps again, so be it.

But once health insurers have a clear backstop from the federal government, they will take additional risk. Insurers have said so themselves. In documents provided to Congress, carriers admitted they under-priced premiums in the law’s first three years precisely because they believed they had an unlimited tap on the federal fisc to cushion their losses. Republican efforts in Congress to rein in that bailout spigot have met furious lobbying by health insurers—and attempts by the Obama administration to strike a corrupt bargain circumventing Congress’ restrictions.

Efforts to end the bailouts and claw back as much money as possible to taxpayers would shoot the wolf at the door. Giving insurers more by way of bailout funds—socializing their risk—will only encourage them to take additional risk, exacerbating a boom-and-bust cycle that will inevitably result in a federal takeover of all that risk. When the federal government provides the risk backstop, you have a government-run system, regardless of who administers it.

While the insurance industry may view more bailouts as their salvation, Obamacare’s version of TARP looks more like a TRAP. By socializing losses, purportedly to prevent single-payer health care, creating a permanent insurer bailout fund will effectively create one. While remaining mindful of the other wolves lurking, Congress should focus foremost on eliminating the one at its threshold: Undo the Obamacare bailouts, and prove this law is not too big to fail.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Republican Health Platform and Options for a New President

The platform approved Monday at the Republican National Convention suggests that a future Republican administration could dismantle Obamacare using regulatory authority. A Republican president could not waive portions of the law, but he could act to stop controversial payments that are being made to insurers.

In its section on health care, the platform pledged of Obamacare: “a Republican president, on the first day in office, will use legitimate waiver authority under the law to halt its advance and then, with the unanimous support of Congressional Republicans, will sign its repeal.” The waiver concept echoes language used by 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who pledged that “If I were president, on Day One I would issue an executive order paving the way for Obamacare waivers to all 50 states.”

The “legitimate waiver authority” provided under the law is unlikely to grant the type of relief the Republican delegates or Mr. Romney envisioned. Language in section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act addresses the waiver of some provisions of the law. The waivers, however, apply only to states, not to individuals. They also apply only to a few delineated sections of the law, including the individual and employer mandates.

As I wrote last July, the waiver authority in the law allows changes in just one direction. States can cover more people or provide more generous insurance coverage than Obamacare does, but they cannot make changes that deviate from the law’s objectives—such as implementing health savings accounts or consumer-directed health plans. This amounts to the administration and Obamacare offering little flexibility to states whose leaders’ philosophical objectives differ from their own. A Republican administration is likely to bring in regulators with a different philosophy, but the statutory strictures would not change unless and until Congress acted.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Obama administration has made several unilateral decisions about a series of supplemental payments to insurers—regarding reinsurance, risk corridors, and cost-sharing subsidies. Because these payments were provided without the usual notice-and-comment period in rule-making, a Republican administration could take its own steps to end the billions of dollars in payments to insurers. If a future president wants to “waive” portions of Obamacare on Day One, these controversial payments would be the most feasible objective.

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

Is the Administration Offering Insurers an Obamacare Bailout?

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) today released guidance to state insurance commissioners implementing President Obama’s “fix” for people losing their insurance. Not only does it violate the explicit text of Obamacare itself, but it also raises the possibility of insurers getting access to a new pool of bailout funds.

As previously reported, the Administration’s latest plan waives many of the costly mandates included in Obamacare that are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2014. The guidance says that these requirements will be waived—in clear violation of the text of the law—for one year for all plans renewed between January 1, 2014, and October 1, 2014. CMS also implies these waivers could be extended, stating it will “assess…whether to extend [the waivers] beyond the specified timeframe.”

However, the real story is buried in the final paragraph of the three-page memo, where CMS implies it is exploring options to provide additional payments to insurers to offset their losses from this Obamacare debacle:

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.

To translate into English: If some Americans can keep their pre-Obamacare health plans next year, they will not enroll in the Obamacare exchanges. That means the enrollees in the exchanges are likely to be sicker than insurers previously expected. Already this afternoon, the health insurance industry trade association has alleged the President’s “fix” could have a significant impact on premiums in the marketplace, for that very reason.

The CMS guidance today raises the possibility of using Obamacare’s risk corridor program to compensate insurers for these losses. Briefly stated, the risk corridor program shifts funds among insurers—it minimizes losses from carriers with sicker-than-expected enrollees, by redistributing gains from carriers with healthier-than-expected enrollees.

But as has been noted elsewhere, the risk corridor program “doesn’t need to be budget neutral; if the math demands it, the government can pay out more than it collects through the program.” CMS’s comments today imply that it’s contemplating exactly that—undoing the concept of budget neutrality for the risk corridor program, and using it to compensate insurers for their losses.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, Obamacare already gives more than $1 trillion in subsidies to insurance companies over the next 10 years. President Obama’s extra-legal “fix” could now result in the Administration offering insurers a bailout totaling billions of dollars more. It’s one more reason why there is only one real Obamacare “fix,” and that’s scrapping the law entirely.

This post was originally published at the Daily Signal.