Last Friday afternoon, Donald Trump caused a minor uproar in Washington when he signaled a major softening in his stance towards President Obama’s unpopular health-care law. “Either Obamacare will be amended, or it will be repealed and replaced,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal—a major caveat heretofore unexpressed on the campaign trail.
Why might Trump—who not one month ago, in a nationally televised debate, called Obamacare a “total disaster” that next year will “implode by itself”—embark on such a volte face about the law? Politico notes one possible answer lies in the story of Oscar, a startup insurer created to sell plans under Obamacare:
Oscar is about to have an unusually close tie to the White House: Company co-founder Josh Kushner’s brother Jared is posted to plan an influential role in shaping his father-in-law Donald Trump’s presidency. The two brothers in 2013 were also deemed ‘the ultimate controlling persons in Oscar’s holding company system,’ according to a state report.
In other words, the individual who multiple sources report personally influenced the selection of the next White House chief of staff also holds a controlling interest in a health insurance company whose primary business is selling Obamacare policies. Might that be why Trump has suddenly changed his tune on Obamacare repeal?
Government of the People—Or of the Cronies?
In 2000, while contemplating a run for the White House, Trump told Fortune magazine: “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” That previously expressed sentiment—of using political office for personal pecuniary gain—would not rule out Trump assuming policy positions designed to enrich himself and his associates.
That need might be particularly acute in the case of Oscar, of which Jared Kushner was a controlling person, and in which Josh Kushner’s venture capital firm Thrive Capital has invested. On Tuesday, the insurer reported $45 million in losses in just three states, bringing Oscar’s losses in those three states to a total of $128 million this calendar year. Bloomberg said the company “sells health insurance to individuals in new markets set up by [Obamacare,]” and described its future after last week’s election thusly:
Trump’s election could be a negative for the insurer. The Republican has promised to repeal and replace [Obamacare,] though he’s softened that stance since his victory. The uncertainty could discourage some people from signing up for health plans, or Republicans could eliminate or reduce the tax subsidies in the law that are used to help pay for coverage.
Replace “the insurer” with “Trump’s in-laws” in the above paragraph, and the president-elect’s evolving stance certainly begins to make more sense.
Pimp My Obamacare Bailout?
In last month’s second presidential debate, Trump described Democrats’ position on health care: “Their method of fixing [Obamacare] is to go back and ask Congress for more money, more and more money. We have right now almost $20 trillion in debt.”
It’s an ironic statement, given that government documents reveal how Oscar—and thus Trump’s in-laws—have made claims on Obamacare bailout programs to the tune of $47.5 million. Those claims, including $38.2 million from reinsurance and $9.3 billion from risk corridors, total more than Oscar’s losses in the past quarter. The $47.5 million amount also represents a mere fraction of what Oscar could ultimately request, and receive, from Obamacare’s bailout funds, as it does not include any claims for the current benefit year.
Given that most of the things Trump should do on Day One to dismantle Obamacare involve undoing the law’s illegal bailouts, it’s troubling to learn the extent to which a company run by his in-laws has benefited from them. Following are some examples.
Reinsurance: Administration documents reveal that during Obamacare’s first two years, Oscar received $38.2 million in payments from the law’s reinsurance program, designed to subsidize insurers for the expense associated with high-cost patients. Unfortunately, these bailout payments have come at the expense of taxpayers, who have been shortchanged money promised to the federal Treasury by law so the Obama administration can instead pay more funds to insurers.
In 2014, when Oscar only offered plans in New York, the company received $17.5 million in Obamacare reinsurance payments. In 2015, as Oscar expanded to offer coverage in New Jersey, the insurer received a total of more than $20.7 million in reinsurance funds: $19.8 million for its New York customers, and $945,000 for its New Jersey enrollees.
While reinsurance claims for the 2016 plan year are still being compiled and therefore have not yet been released, it appears likely that Oscar will receive a significant payment in the tens of millions of dollars, for two reasons. First, the carrier expanded its offerings into Texas and California; more enrollees means more claims on the federal fisc. Second, Bloomberg quoted anonymous company sources as saying that part of Oscar’s losses “stem from high medical costs”—which the insurer will likely attempt to offset through the reinsurance program.
While the Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in reinsurance funds to insurers like Oscar, they have done so illegally. In September, the Government Accountability Office ruled that the administration violated the text of Obamacare itself. Although the law states that $5 billion in payments back to the Treasury must be made from reinsurance funds before insurers receive payment, the Obama administration has turned the law on its head—paying insurers first, and stiffing taxpayers out of billions.
I wrote last week that Trump can and should immediately overturn these illegal actions by the Obama Administration, and sue insurers if needed to collect for the federal government. But if those actions jeopardize tens of millions of dollars in federal payments for the Kushners, or mean the Trump administration will have to take Trump’s in-laws to court, will he?
Risk Corridors: Oscar also has made claims for millions of dollars regarding Obamacare’s risk corridor program, which as designed would see insurers with excess profits subsidize insurers with excess losses. In 2014, Oscar was one of many insurers with excess losses, making a claim for $9.3 million in risk corridor payments.
However, because Congress prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to bail out insurance companies, and because few insurers had excess profits to pay into the risk corridor program, insurers requesting payouts from risk corridors received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their claims. While Oscar requested more than $9.3 million, it received less than $1.2 million—meaning it is owed more than $8.1 million from the risk corridor program for 2014.
CMS has yet to release data on insurers’ claims for 2015, other than to say that payments to the risk corridor program for 2015 were insufficient to pay out insurers’ outstanding claims for 2014. In other words, Oscar will not be paid its full $9.3 million for 2014, even as it likely makes additional claims for 2015 and 2016.
However, Oscar yet has hope in receiving a bailout from the Obama administration. In September, the administration said it was interested in settling lawsuits brought by insurance companies seeking reimbursement for unpaid risk corridor claims. The administration hopes to use the obscure Judgment Fund to pay through the backdoor the bailout that Congress prohibited through the front door.
As with reinsurance payments, a President Trump should immediately act to block such settlements, which violate Congress’ expressed will against bailing out insurers. However, given his clear conflict-of-interest in protecting his close relatives’ investments, it’s an open question whether he will do so.
Cost-Sharing Reductions: Like other health insurers, Oscar has benefited by receiving cost-sharing subsidies—even though Congress never appropriated funds for them. In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House of Representatives that the Obama administration’s payments to insurers for cost-sharing subsidies without an appropriation violate the Constitution. Although the text of the law requires insurers to reduce deductibles and co-payments for some low-income beneficiaries, it never included an explicit appropriation for subsidy payments to insurers reimbursing them for these discounts. Despite this lack of an appropriation, the Obama administration has paid insurers like Oscar roughly $14 billion in cost-sharing subsidies anyway.
Here again, Trump should immediately concede the illegality of the Obama administration’s actions, settle the lawsuit brought by the House of Representatives, and end the unconstitutional cost-sharing subsidies on Day One. But given his close ties to individuals whose insurance model is largely based on selling Obamacare policies, will he do so? To put it bluntly, will he put the interests of Oscar—and his in-laws—ahead of the U.S. Constitution?
‘Ask Congress for More and More Money?’
In general, health insurance companies have made record profits during the Obama years—a total of a whopping $15 billion in 2015. But while insurers have made money selling employer plans, or contracting for Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid, few insurers have made money on insurance exchanges. That dynamic explains why Oscar, which has focused on exchange plans, has suffered its massive losses to date.
However, as Trump rightly pointed out just one short month ago, the answer is not to “ask Congress for more money, more and more money.” He should end the bailouts immediately upon taking office. Duty to country—and the constitutional oath—should override any personal familial conflicts.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.