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Summary of Testimony: Risk Corridors and the Judgment Fund

Chairman King, Ranking Member Cohen, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to testify. As Chairman King stated, my name is Chris Jacobs, and I have focused my career on analyzing issues in health policy—including more than six years on Capitol Hill. My entire written statement is before you, so I will not repeat it, but instead emphasize three main points regarding the use of the Judgment Fund as it pertains to health insurer claims regarding risk corridors currently pending in the Court of Federal Claims.

First, past precedent suggests that, by prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for the risk corridor program, Congress has “otherwise provided for” claims payments, rendering the Judgment Fund inaccessible to insurers’ claims. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service reached this conclusion more than one year ago, consistent with prior opinions by both the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Second, the amount of money in dispute regarding risk corridors dwarfs most other Judgment Fund payments. Losses for the risk corridor program in 2014 and 2015 have totaled approximately $8.3 billion. When final numbers are tabulated, total losses over the program’s three years (2014-2016) will likely exceed $10 billion, at minimum. By comparison, the Washington Post noted last September that Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claims paid out from the Judgment Fund over the last decade total only $18 million. A potential Judgment Fund verdict or settlement regarding risk corridors would vastly exceed last year’s Iran settlement, and the Pigford and other settlements discussed by Professor Figley in his testimony.

Third, last fall the Obama Administration made no secret of the fact that it wished to settle risk corridor cases via the Judgment Fund to circumvent the express congressional prohibition on the Department of Health and Human Services using taxpayer dollars to fund the program. I understand that the status of risk corridors, and President Obama’s health care law in general, have become a matter of no small dispute between the parties. But Members of Congress of both political parties, whether Republican or Democrat, should beware the consequences of such an executive encroachment on Congress’ most important power—the “power of the purse”—for the roles could easily be reversed in a subsequent case regarding another issue.

For this reason, I believe Congress and this Committee should consider codifying past practice and precedents by enacting language to clarify that, where the legislature has enacted limitations or restrictions on appropriations, Congress has “otherwise provided for” payment of claims, and the Judgment Fund should remain off limits.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. I look forward to your questions.

House Judiciary Committee Testimony: Risk Corridors and the Judgment Fund

A PDF version of this testimony is available here.

Testimony before the House Judiciary

Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice

 

Hearing on “Oversight of the Judgment Fund”

 

Chairman King, Ranking Member Cohen, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to testify. My name is Chris Jacobs, and I am the Founder of Juniper Research Group, a policy and research consulting firm based in Washington. Much of my firm’s work focuses on health care policy, a field in which I have worked for over a decade—including more than six years on Capitol Hill. Given my background and work in health care, I have been asked to testify on the use of the Judgment Fund as it pertains to one particular area: Namely, the ongoing litigation regarding risk corridor payments to insurers under Section 1342 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

The risk corridor lawsuits provide a good example of a problematic use of the Judgment Fund, and not just due to the sums involved—literally billions of dollars in taxpayer funds are at issue. Any judgments paid out to insurers via the Judgment Fund would undermine the appropriations authority of Congress, in two respects. First, Congress never explicitly appropriated funds to the risk corridor program—either in PPACA or any other statute. Second, once the Obama Administration sent signals indicating a potential desire to use taxpayer dollars to fund risk corridors, notwithstanding the lack of an explicit appropriation, Congress went further, and enacted an express prohibition on such taxpayer funding. Utilizing the Judgment Fund to appropriate through the back door what Congress prohibited through the front door would represent an encroachment by the judiciary and executive on Congress’ foremost legislative power—the “power of the purse.”

Though past precedents and opinions by the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel should provide ample justification for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to deny the risk corridor claims made by insurers when it considers pending appeals of their cases, Congress can take additional action to clarify its prerogatives in this sphere. Specifically, Congress could act to clarify in the risk corridor case, and in any other similar case, that it has “otherwise provided for” funding within the meaning of the Judgment Fund when it has limited or restricted expenditures of funds.

Background on Risk Corridors

PPACA created risk corridors as one of three programs (the others being reinsurance and risk adjustment) designed to stabilize insurance markets in conjunction with the law’s major changes to the individual marketplace.  Section 1342 of the law established risk corridors for three years—calendar years 2014, 2015, and 2016. It further prescribed that insurers suffering losses during those years would have a portion of those losses reimbursed, while insurers achieving financial gains during those years would cede a portion of those profits.[1]

Notably, however, the statute did not provide an explicit appropriation for the risk corridor program—either in Section 1342 or elsewhere. While the law directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a risk corridor program,[2] and make payments to insurers,[3] it does not provide a source for those payments.

History of Risk Corridor Appropriations

The lack of an explicit appropriation for risk corridors was not an unintentional oversight by Congress. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee included an explicit appropriation for risk corridors in its health care legislation marked up in 2009.[4] Conversely, the Senate Finance Committee’s version of the legislation—the precursor to PPACA—included no appropriation for risk corridors.[5] When merging the HELP and Finance Committee bills, Senators relied upon the Finance Committee’s version of the risk corridor language—the version with no explicit appropriation.

Likewise, the Medicare Modernization Act’s risk corridor program for the Part D prescription drug benefit included an explicit appropriation from the Medicare Prescription Drug Account, an account created by the law as an offshoot of the Medicare Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund.[6] While PPACA specifically states that its risk corridor program “shall be based on the program for regional participating provider organizations under” Medicare Part D, unlike that program, it does not include an appropriation for its operations.[7]

As the Exchanges began operations in 2014, Congress, noting the lack of an express appropriation for risk corridors in PPACA, questioned the source of the statutory authority for HHS to spend money on the program. On February 7, 2014, then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and then-Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wrote to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro requesting a legal opinion from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the availability of an appropriation for the risk corridors program.[8]

In response to inquiries from GAO, HHS replied with a letter stating the Department’s opinion that, while risk corridors did not receive an explicit appropriation in PPACA, the statute requires the Department to establish, manage, and make payments to insurers as part of the risk corridor program. Because risk corridors provide special benefits to insurers by stabilizing the marketplace, HHS argued, risk corridor payments amount to user fees, and the Department could utilize an existing appropriation—the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Program Management account—to make payments.[9] GAO ultimately accepted the Department’s reasoning, stating the Department had appropriation authority under the existing appropriation for the CMS Program Management account to spend user fees.[10]

The GAO ruling came after Health and Human Services had sent a series of mixed messages regarding the implementation of the risk corridor program. In March 2013, the Department released a final rule noting that “the risk corridors program is not statutorily required to be budget neutral. Regardless of the balance of payments and receipts, HHS will remit payments as required under Section 1342 of” PPACA.[11] However, one year later, on March 11, 2014, HHS reversed its position, announcing the Department’s intent to implement the risk corridor program in a three-year, budget-neutral manner.[12]

Subsequent to the GAO ruling, and possibly in response to the varying statements from HHS, Congress enacted in December 2014 appropriations language prohibiting any transfers to the CMS Program Management account to fund shortfalls in the risk corridor program.[13] The explanatory statement of managers accompanying the legislation, noting the March 2014 statement by HHS pledging to implement risk corridors in a budget neutral manner, stated that Congress added the new statutory language “to prevent the CMS Program Management account from being used to support risk corridor payments.”[14] This language was again included in appropriations legislation in December 2015, and remains in effect today.[15]

Losses Lead to Lawsuits

The risk corridor program has incurred significant losses for 2014 and 2015. On October 1, 2015, CMS revealed that insurers paid $387 million into the program, but requested $2.87 billion. As a result of both these losses and the statutory prohibition on the use of additional taxpayer funds, insurers making claims for 2014 received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their claims that year.[16]

Risk corridor losses continued into 2015. Last September, without disclosing specific dollar amounts, CMS revealed that “all 2015 benefit year collections [i.e., payments into the risk corridor program] will be used towards remaining 2014 benefit year risk corridors payments, and no funds will be available at this time for 2015 benefit year risk corridors payments.”[17]

In November, CMS revealed that risk corridor losses for 2015 increased when compared to 2014. Insurers requested a total of $5.9 billion from the program, while paying only $95 million into risk corridors—all of which went to pay some of the remaining 2014 claims.[18] To date risk corridors face a combined $8.3 billion shortfall for 2014 and 2015—approximately $2.4 billion in unpaid 2014 claims, plus the full $5.9 billion in unpaid 2015 claims. Once losses for 2016 are added in, total losses for the program’s three-year duration will very likely exceed $10 billion, and could exceed $15 billion.

Due to the risk corridor program losses, several insurers have filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking payment via the Judgment Fund of outstanding risk corridor claims they allege are owed. Thus far, two cases have proceeded to judgment. On November 10, 2016, Judge Charles Lettow dismissed all claims filed by Land of Lincoln Mutual Health Insurance Company, an insurance co-operative created by PPACA that shut down operations in July 2016.[19] Notably, Judge Lettow did not dismiss the case for lack of ripeness, but on the merits of the case themselves. He considered HHS’ decision to implement the program in a budget-neutral manner reasonable, using the tests in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, and concluded that neither an explicit nor implicit contract existed between HHS and Land of Lincoln.[20]

Conversely, on February 9, 2017, Judge Thomas Wheeler granted summary judgment in favor of Moda Health Plan, an Oregon health insurer, on its risk corridor claims.[21] Judge Wheeler held that PPACA “requires annual payments to insurers, and that Congress did not design the risk corridors program to be budget-neutral. The Government is therefore liable for Moda’s full risk corridors payments” under the law.[22] And, contra Judge Lettow, Judge Wheeler concluded that an implied contract existed between HHS and Moda, which also granted the insurer right to payment.[23]

Congress “Otherwise Provided For” Risk Corridor Claims

The question of whether or not insurers have a lawful claim on the United States government is separate and distinct from the question of whether or not the Judgment Fund can be utilized to pay those claims. CMS, on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, has made clear its views regarding the former question. In announcing its results for risk corridors for 2015, the agency stated that the unpaid balances for each year represented “an obligation of the United States Government for which full payment is required,” and that “HHS will explore other sources of funding for risk corridors payments, subject to the availability of appropriations. This includes working with Congress on the necessary funding for outstanding risk corridors payments.”[24]

But because insurers seek risk corridor payments from the Judgment Fund, that fund’s permanent appropriation is available only in cases where payment is “not otherwise provided for” by Congress.[25] GAO, in its Principles of Federal Appropriations Law, describes such circumstances in detail:

Payment is otherwise provided for when another appropriation or fund is legally available to satisfy the judgment….Whether payment is otherwise provided for is a question of legal availability rather than actual funding status. In other words, if payment of a particular judgment is otherwise provided for as a matter of law, the fact that the defendant agency has insufficient funds at that particular time does not operate to make the Judgment Fund available. The agency’s only recourse in this situation is to seek additional appropriations from Congress, as it would have to do in any other deficiency situation.[26]

In this circumstance, GAO ruled in September 2014 that payments from insurers for risk corridors represented “user fees” that could be retained in the CMS Program Management account, and spent from same using existing appropriation authority. However, the prohibition on transferring taxpayer dollars to supplement those user fees prevents CMS from spending any additional funds on risk corridor claims other than those paid into the program by insurers themselves.

Given the fact pattern in this case, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service concluded that the Judgment Fund may not be available to insurers:

Based on the existence of an appropriation for the risk corridor payments, it appears that Congress would have “otherwise provided for” any judgments awarding payments under that program to a plaintiff. As a result, the Judgment Fund would not appear to be available to pay for such judgments under current law. This would appear to be the case even if the amounts available in the “Program Management” account had been exhausted. In such a circumstance, it appears that any payment to satisfy a judgment secured by plaintiffs seeking recovery of damages owed under the risk corridors program would need to wait until such funds were made available by Congress.[27]

Because the appropriations power rightly lies with Congress, the Judgment Fund cannot supersede the legislature’s decision regarding a program’s funding, or lack of funding. Congress chose not to provide the risk corridor program with an explicit appropriation; it further chose explicitly to prohibit transfers of taxpayer funds into the program. To allow the Judgment Fund to pay insurers’ risk corridor claims would be to utilize an appropriation after Congress has explicitly declined to do so.

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has previously upheld the same principle that an agency’s inability to fund judgments does not automatically open the Judgment Fund up to claims:

The Judgment Fund does not become available simply because an agency may have insufficient funds at a particular time to pay a judgment. If the agency lacks sufficient funds to pay a judgment, but possesses statutory authority to make the payment, its recourse is to seek funds from Congress. Thus, if another appropriation or fund is legally available to pay a judgment or settlement, payment is “otherwise provided for” and the Judgment Fund is not available.[28]

The OLC memo reinforces the opinions of both CRS and the GAO: The Judgment Fund is a payer of last resort, rather than a payer of first instance. Where Congress has provided another source of funding, the Judgment Fund should not be utilized to pay judgments or settlements. Congress’ directives in setting limits on appropriations to the risk corridor program make clear that it has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor claims—therefore, the Judgment Fund should not apply.

Judgment Fund Settlements

Even though past precedent suggests the Judgment Fund should not apply to the risk corridor cases, a position echoed by at least one judge’s ruling on the matter, the Obama Administration prior to leaving office showed a strong desire to settle insurer lawsuits seeking payment for risk corridor claims using Judgment Fund dollars. In its September 9, 2016 memo declaring risk corridor claims an obligation of the United States government, CMS also acknowledged the pending cases regarding risk corridors, and stated that “we are open to discussing resolution of those claims. We are willing to begin such discussions at any time.”[29] That language not only solicited insurers suing over risk corridors to seek settlements from the Administration, it also served as an open invitation for other insurers not currently suing the United States to do so—in the hope of achieving a settlement from the executive.

Contemporaneous press reports last fall indicated that the Obama Administration sought to use the Judgment Fund as the source of funding to pay out risk corridor claims. Specifically, the Washington Post reported advanced stages of negotiations regarding a settlement of over $2.5 billion—many times more than the $18 million in successful Judgment Fund claims made against HHS in the past decade—with over 175 insurers, paid using the Judgment Fund “to get around a recent congressional ban on the use of Health and Human Services money to pay the insurers.”[30]

When testifying before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on September 14, 2016, then-CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt declined to state the potential source of funds for the settlements his agency had referenced in the memo released the preceding week.[31] Subsequent to that hearing, Energy and Commerce requested additional documents and details from CMS regarding the matter; that request is still pending.[32]

Even prior to this past fall, the Obama Administration showed a strong inclination to accommodate insurer requests for additional taxpayer funds. A 2014 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigative report revealed significant lobbying by insurers regarding both PPACA’s risk corridors and reinsurance programs.[33] Specifically, contacts by insurance industry executives to White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett during the spring of 2014 asking for more generous terms for the risk corridor program yielded changes to the program formula—raising the profit floor from three percent to five percent—in ways that increased payments to insurers, and obligations to the federal government.[34]

Regardless of the Administration’s desire to accommodate insurers, as evidenced by its prior behavior regarding risk corridors, past precedent indicates that the Judgment Fund should not be accessible to pay either claims or settlements regarding risk corridors. A prior OLC memo indicates that “the appropriate source of funds for a settled case is identical to the appropriate source of funds should a judgment in that case be entered against the government.”[35] If a judgment cannot come from the Judgment Fund—and CRS, in noting that Congress has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor claims, believes it cannot—then neither can a settlement come from the Fund.

Given these developments, in October 2016 the Office of the House Counsel, using authority previously granted by the House, moved to file an amicus curiae brief in one of the risk corridor cases, that filed by Health Republic.[36] The House filing, which made arguments on the merits of the case that the Justice Department had not raised, did so precisely to protect Congress’ institutional prerogative and appropriations power—a power Congress expressed first when failing to fund risk corridors in the first place, and a second, more emphatic time when imposing additional restrictions on taxpayer funding to risk corridors.[37] The House filing made clear its stake in the risk corridor dispute:

Allegedly in light of a non-existent ‘litigation risk,’ HHS recently took the extraordinary step of urging insurers to enter into settlement agreements with the United States in order to receive payment on their meritless claims. In other words, HHS is trying to force the U.S. Treasury to disburse billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to insurance companies, even though DOJ [Department of Justice] has convincingly demonstrated that HHS has no legal obligation (and no legal right) to pay these sums. The House strongly disagrees with this scheme to subvert Congressional intent by engineering a massive giveaway of taxpayer money.[38]

The amicus filing illustrates the way in which the executive can through settlements—or, for that matter, failing vigorously to defend a suit against the United States—undermine the intent of Congress by utilizing the Judgment Fund appropriation to finance payments the legislature has otherwise denied.

Conclusion

Both the statute and existing past precedent warrant the dismissal of the risk corridor claims by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Congress spoke clearly on the issue of risk corridor funding twice: First when failing to provide an explicit appropriation in PPACA itself; and second when enacting an explicit prohibition on taxpayer funding. Opinions from Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Office of Legal Counsel all support the belief that, in taking these actions, Congress has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor funding, therefore prohibiting the use of the Judgment Fund. It defies belief that, having explicitly prohibited the use of taxpayer dollars through one avenue (the CMS Program Management account), the federal government should pay billions of dollars in claims to insurers via the back door route of the Judgment Fund.

However, in the interests of good government, Congress may wish to clarify that, in both the risk corridor cases and any similar case, lawmakers enacting a limitation or restriction on the use of funds should constitute “otherwise provid[ing] for” that program as it relates to the Judgment Fund. Such legislation would codify current practice and precedent, and preserve Congress’ appropriations power by preventing the executive and/or the courts from awarding judgments or settlements using the Judgment Fund where Congress has clearly spoken.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. I look forward to your questions.



[1] Under the formulae established in Section 1342(b) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, P.L. 111-148), plans with profit margins between 3 percent and 8 percent pay half their profit margins between those two points into the risk corridor program, while plans with profit margins exceeding 8 percent pay in 2.5 percent of profits (half of their profits between 3 percent and 8 percent), plus 80 percent of any profit above 8 percent. Payments out to insurers work in the inverse manner—insurers with losses below 3 percent absorb the entire loss; those with losses of between 3 and 8 percent will have half their losses over 3 percent repaid; and those with losses exceeding 8 percent will receive 2.5 percent (half of their losses between 3 and 8 percent), plus 80 percent of all losses exceeding 8 percent. 42 U.S.C. 18062(b).

[2] Section 1342(a) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(a).

[3] Section 1342(b) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(b).

[4] Section 3106 of the Affordable Health Choices Act (S. 1679, 111th Congress), as reported by the Senate HELP Committee, established the Community Health Insurance Option. Section 3106(c)(1)(A) created a Health Benefit Plan Start-Up Fund “to provide loans for the initial operations of a Community Health Insurance Option.” Section 3106(c)(1)(B) appropriated “out of any moneys in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated an amount necessary as requested by the Secretary of Health and Human Services to,” among other things, “make payments under” the risk corridor program created in Section 3106(c)(3).

[5] Section 2214 of America’s Healthy Future Act (S. 1796, 111th Congress), as reported by the Senate Finance Committee, created a risk corridor program substantially similar to (except for date changes) that created in PPACA. Section 2214 did not include an appropriation for risk corridors.

[6] Section 101(a) of the Medicare Modernization Act (P.L. 108-173) created a program of risk corridors at Section 1860D—15(e) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—115(e). Section 101(a) of the MMA also created a Medicare Prescription Drug Account within the Medicare Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund at Section 1860D—16 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116. Section 1860D—16(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116(c)(3), “authorized to be appropriated, out of any moneys of the Treasury not otherwise appropriated,” amounts necessary to fund the Account. Section 1860D—16(b)(1)(B), 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116(b)(1)(B), authorized the use of Account funds to make payments under Section 1860D—15, the section which established the Part D risk corridor program.

[7] Section 1342(a) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(a).

[8] Letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton and Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, February 7, 2014.

[9] Letter from Department of Health and Human Services General Counsel William Schultz to Government Accountability Office Assistant General Counsel Julie Matta, May 20, 2014.

[10] Government Accountability Office legal decision B-325630, Department of Health and Human Services—Risk Corridor Program, September 30, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/666299.pdf.

[11] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2014,” Federal Register March 11, 2013, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-03-11/pdf/2013-04902.pdf, p. 15473.

[12] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2015,” Federal Register March 11, 2014, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-03-11/pdf/2014-05052.pdf, p. 13829.

[13] Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, P.L. 113-235, Division G, Title II, Section 227.

[14] Explanatory Statement of Managers regarding Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, Congressional Record December 11, 2014, p. H9838.

[15] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, P.L. 114-113, Division H, Title II, Section 225.

[16] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Proration Rate for 2014,” October 1, 2015, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Premium-Stabilization-Programs/Downloads/RiskCorridorsPaymentProrationRatefor2014.pdf.

[17] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015,” September 9, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Premium-Stabilization-Programs/Downloads/Risk-Corridors-for-2015-FINAL.PDF.

[18] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Payment and Charge Amounts for the 2015 Benefit Year,” https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/2015-RC-Issuer-level-Report-11-18-16-FINAL-v2.pdf.

[19] Land of Lincoln Mutual Health Insurance Company v. United States, Court of Federal Claims No. 16-744C, ruling of Judge Charles Lettow, November 10, 2016, https://ecf.cofc.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2016cv0744-47-0.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Moda Health Plan v. United States, Court of Federal Claims No. 16-649C, ruling of Judge Thomas Wheeler, February 9, 2017, https://ecf.cofc.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2016cv0649-23-0.

[22] Ibid., p. 2.

[23] Ibid., pp. 34-39.

[24] CMS, “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015.”

[25] 31 U.S.C. 1304(a)(1).

[26] Government Accountability Office, 3 Principles of Federal Appropriations Law 14-39, http://www.gao.gov/assets/210/203470.pdf.

[28] Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, “Appropriate Source for Payment of Judgment and Settlements in United States v. Winstar Corp.,” July 22, 1998, Opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel in Volume 22, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/olc/opinions/1998/07/31/op-olc-v022-p0141.pdf, p. 153.

[29] CMS, “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015.”

[31] Testimony of CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt before House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Hearing on “The Affordable Care Act on Shaky Ground: Outlook and Oversight,” September 14, 2016, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/IF/IF02/20160914/105306/HHRG-114-IF02-Transcript-20160914.pdf, pp. 84-89.

[32] Letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton et al. to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell regarding risk corridor settlements, September 20, 2016, https://energycommerce.house.gov/news-center/letters/letter-hhs-regarding-risk-corridors-program.

[33] House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, staff report on “Obamacare’s Taxpayer Bailout of Health Insurers and the White House’s Involvement to Increase Bailout Size,” July 28, 2014, http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/WH-Involvement-in-ObamaCare-Taxpayer-Bailout-with-Appendix.pdf.

[34] Ibid., pp. 22-29.

[35] OLC, “Appropriate Source of Payment,” p. 141.

[36] H.Res. 676 of the 113th Congress gave the Speaker the authority “to initiate or intervene in one or more civil actions on behalf of the House…regarding the failure of the President, the head of any department or agency, or any other officer or employee of the executive branch, to act in a manner consistent with that official’s duties under the Constitution and the laws of the United States with respect to implementation of any provision of” PPACA. Section 2(f)(2)(C) of H.Res. 5, the opening day rules package for the 114th Congress, extended this authority for the duration of the 114th Congress.

[37] Motion for Leave to File Amicus Curiae on behalf of the United States House of Representatives, Health Republic Insurance Company v. United States, October 14, 2016, http://www.speaker.gov/sites/speaker.house.gov/files/documents/2016.10.13%20-%20Motion%20-%20Amicus%20Brief.pdf?Source=GovD.

[38] Ibid., p. 2.

Risk Corridors: The Obama Administration at War with Itself…?

Ferrets in a sack might prove an apt description of the internal infighting plaguing the Obama Administration regarding risk corridors. Last week, sources — whether within the Administration, amongst the insurer community, or both — wanted to portray a multi-billion dollar Judgment Fund settlement with insurers as a fait accompli, telling the Washington Post an agreement could be reached within two weeks.

But in two separate motions filed late last Friday regarding pending lawsuits, lawyers for the Department of Justice pulled a Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend!” The filings stated repeated claims made in a related lawsuit this summer that the case made by insurers is not yet ripe for adjudication in court. However, in a new development, Justice also alleged that insurers had no claim to make in court at all:

Third, Count I fails on the merits. Section 1342 [of Obamacare] does not require HHS to make risk corridors payments beyond those funded from collections. And even if that intent were unclear when the Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010, Congress removed any ambiguity when it enacted annual appropriations laws for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 that prohibited HHS from paying risk corridors amounts from appropriated funds other than collections.

Here are four things you need to know about the latest risk corridor developments:

  • DOJ vs. CMS? Whereas the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated in a September 9 document that it considered unpaid risk corridor claims “an obligation of the United States government for which full payment is required,” the Justice Department has now argued before two separate district court judges that no additional payment is required — not now, and not ever. In testifying before Congress last month, both Acting Administrator Slavitt and his Chief of Staff separately claimed that the Justice Department were consulted before CMS issued its September 9 memo. While last week’s Post article claimed that “Justice officials have privately told several health plans” they want to settle claims on insurers’ terms as quickly (and as quietly) as possible, the filings show that at least some Justice officials have no intention of “tanking” the government’s case for political reasons.
  • Political Appointees vs. Career Civil Servants: Two congressional reports provide some clues to the possible divides within the Administration. A 2014 House Oversight Committee investigative report showed how insurers immediately contacted Valerie Jarrett and other political appointees seeking increased risk corridor payments when insurers’ enrollees started skewing older and sicker than expected. And a report by two House committees earlier this year showed how political appointees have put the proverbial screws to uncooperative civil servants, threatening those civil servants if they exercised their statutory rights to provide information to Congress regarding a related program of Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies. The mixed messages regarding the risk corridor suits could represent a similar divide — political appointees want to pay the claims before President Obama leaves office, whereas career civil servants are focused on the heretofore novel notion of actually enforcing the law as written.
  • Andy Slavitt, Bailout KingDuring his own testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, CMS head Andy Slavitt made absolutely no attempt to argue the points Justice made in its filings — namely, that Congress has made its intent regarding risk corridors crystal clear, and that insurers are not owed any money. In this context, it is worth noting: 1) Administrator Slavitt’s at least $4.8 million in stock compensation from a unit of UnitedHealthGroup — the nation’s largest insurer; 2) the special ethics waiver he had to receive from the Obama Administration to make policy decisions impacting his former employer; and 3) the fact that Mr. Slavitt will likely require new employment in three months. Could Administrator Slavitt be attempting to help his once — and perhaps future — employers in the insurance industry…?
  • Constitutional “Takings,” Redefined: In one of the court cases, filed by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the Justice Department responded to claims that the risk corridor non-payment represent a Fifth Amendment violation on the part of the federal government. This Blue Cross insurer has argued — apparently with a straight face — that the federal government NOT giving it a multi-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded risk corridor payment represents a “taking” that violates its constitutional rights. To repeat: Blue Cross alleges it has a constitutional right to a multi-billion dollar bailout — even though the Justice Department notes that there is no contractual right to payment under the risk corridor program at all.

Liberals’ Agenda: Tax Health Benefits to Fund Corporate Welfare

A feature article in Sunday’s Washington Post provided the latest summary of Obamacare’s woes: Premiums set to spike dramatically, insurers leaving in droves, and millions of Americans held hostage to a lengthening comedy of errors. But liberals stand ready with their answer: More of the same government taxes and spending that created the problem in the first place. To wit, the Left would tax Americans’ employer-provided health benefits to fund a permanent bailout fund for insurance companies.

In a brief released earlier this month, the liberal Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had several possible “solutions” to solve the problem of low enrollment, and low insurer participation, in Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges. In the document, the foundation suggested making program of reinsurance now scheduled to expire at year’s end permanent:

Extending [Obamacare’s] reinsurance program and its mechanism of financing would more likely have a stabilizing influence [on insurers]. The program could be authorized permanently…or for a set period of time, with authority for CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] to continue it if needed….Funds for the reinsurance pool would need to be, as they are currently, collected from individual market insurers, group market insurers, and self-funded plans.

In other words, individuals who do not purchase coverage from an exchange should have their benefits taxed, to fund more corporate welfare subsidies to health insurers, in the hopes that they will continue to offer exchange coverage.

That was the basic premise of the law’s reinsurance mechanism. Put slightly more charitably, Section 1341 of Obamacare imposed an assessment on Americans with employer-provided coverage, or those who purchase health coverage directly from an insurance carrier rather than through a government-run exchange, to help subsidize exchange insurers with high-cost patients.

The assessments were set to last three years—from 2014 through 2016—serving as a transition while the new marketplaces developed. But after three years, the exchanges are in worse shape than ever. Healthy and wealthy individuals have not purchased coverage, making the exchange population sicker than the average employer plan.

Rather than fixing a problem that onerous government regulations—a mandated package of benefits, and rating requirements that have raised premiums so substantially for healthy individuals that many have chosen to forgo coverage—the Left just wants more of the same. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation paper included numerous “solutions” straight out of the liberal playbook: Requiring insurers to participate on exchanges; a government-run “public option” intended to destroy private coverage, richer subsidies; and new penalties for late enrollment. In other words, more of the taxes, spending, and regulations that brought us this mess in the first place—not to mention the permanent insurer bailout fund.

Two clear ironies stand out when it comes to the reinsurance proposal. First, the Obama administration has already given insurers far more than they expected—or the law allows—on the reinsurance front. Government officials have repeatedly increased reinsurance reimbursement levels, giving insurers nearly 50% more support from the program in 2014 than they originally expected. And the non-partisan Congressional Research Service believes that the Administration has violated the law by prioritizing payments to insurers over payments to the Treasury—giving insurers billions of dollars in extra funding that legally should be returned to taxpayers.

Second, Barack Obama himself campaigned vigorously against “taxing health benefits” in 2008. He ran ads attacking John McCain for making health insurance subject to income tax, saying the tax would fund subsidies that would go straight to insurance companies. Yet Obamacare contained not one, but two, separate “assessments” (read: taxes) on health plans—the first to fund comparative effectiveness research that could be utilized by health plans reimbursement and coverage decisions, and the second for the “temporary” reinsurance program. After violating his campaign pledge not once, but twice, in Obamacare itself, the president’s allies want Congress to make permanent the tax on health benefits—to finance a bailout fund that will go—you guessed it!—straight to the insurance companies.

With labor force participation still historically low, and Americans struggling with high health costs, now is certainly not the time to tax the health coverage that businesses provide to working families so that insurers can receive billions more dollars in bailout funds. Congress should not even think about throwing good money after bad in a vain attempt to keep the sinking Obamacare ship afloat.

King v. Burwell and Congressional Intent on Exchange Subsidies

In the big case to be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, supporters of the health-care law maintain that nonpartisan congressional analyses of Obamacare make clear that lawmakers intended on making subsidies available to individuals in all states, even if the precise language is open to interpretation.

But  in at least one other case, the law’s supporters took the opposite tack—ignoring a bipartisan congressional analysis that came up with a conclusion they didn’t like.

Here is what’s happening:

King v. Burwell, the case to be heard Wednesday, centers on the legality of insurance subsidies being provided in states that use the federal HealthCare.gov platform. Some congressional sponsors of the health-care law have said that they clearly intended to make subsidies available to individuals in all states, regardless of whether states used their own or the federal insurance exchange.

In op-eds and amicus briefs, several members of Congress have argued that an Internal Revenue Service rule proposed in August 2011 and finalized in May 2012 that extended subsidies to individuals in both state- and federally run insurance exchanges was consistent with their intent at the time the health-care law was passed. The Congressional Budget Office “came to the same conclusion,” five lawmakers wrote in the Washington Post last October. The legislators say that because CBO assumed that subsidies would be available in all 50 states, as expressed by CBO scores for the bill when it passed, Congress’s intent was clear. But on a different issue of interpretation, several of the law’s authors undermined that logic.

The issue that prompted the about-face involves the “family glitch” related to eligibility for insurance subsidies. If one parent is offered health insurance through an employer, the entire family does not qualify for subsidies to purchase coverage through the marketplace. In March 2010, the same week the health-care bill was signed into law, the Joint Committee on Taxation issued an analysis of the legislation that said, in part, that even though “family coverage costs more than 9.5 percent of income, the family does not qualify for a tax credit regardless of whether the employee purchases self-only coverage or does not purchase self-only coverage through the employer.”

The same August 2011 proposed rule that prompted King v. Burwell also included Treasury proposals to codify the “family glitch,” consistent with the March 2010 technical explanation provided by the Joint Committee on Taxation. Yet Reps. Sander Levin and Henry Waxman—who, respectively, chaired the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the ACA was passed—wrote to Treasury in December 2011 complaining about this interpretation of the statute. Their letter argued that the Treasury interpretation of the glitch was “simply incongruent” with congressional intent and a “wrong interpretation of the law.”

When it came to the exchange subsidies, the Congressional Budget Office undertook no textual analysis of the statutory provisions at dispute in King v. Burwell. But the Joint Tax Committee did. It released a contemporaneous analysis of the provisions at issue with respect to the “family glitch.” Although Mr. Levin and Mr. Waxman say CBO’s silence suggests a presumption that subsidies should be available in all 50 states, they disregarded the contemporaneous analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Now, the former House committee chairmen could have been unaware of the JCT analysis at the time the law was passed. They could wish to argue for the most generous subsidy regime possible, regardless of the law’s technical specifics. There may be some other policy or political explanation.

But this situation highlights the pitfalls of claims regarding a law’s intent. All types of retrospective analyses could turn into self-justifying ones—which may provide little use to courts attempting to discern what a statute actually means.

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

The Middle Class Is Already Paying Higher Taxes

The Washington Post’s Zachary A. Goldfarb penned a blog post this week arguing that taxes on the middle class look destined to rise, in order to sustain additional spending on research and development, paid family leave, and other federal programs. But his analysis misses several key points: Taxes are already going up on the middle class—and raising them further won’t solve our fiscal woes.

Candidate Obama’s “firm pledge” from 2008 notwithstanding, the president has signed numerous tax increases that affect the middle class. For instance, a reauthorization of children’s health insurance signed in the president’s first month in office raised tobacco taxes. And Obamacare includes direct tax increases—on tanning products, for instance—along with indirect tax increases such as those on drug manufacturers, device makers and insurers, that the Congressional Budget Office and other experts agree will be “passed through to consumers in the form of higher premiums.”

Obamacare also stretches the definition of “middle class,” by failing to index its “high-income” tax for inflation—meaning more individuals will be ensnared by this tax every year. The nonpartisan Medicare actuary concluded that, while only 3% of households were subject to the tax in 2013, nearly 79% will be by 2080.  For these and other reasons, Politifact has said that the president broke his campaign promise not to raise middle-class taxes.

As to Mr. Goldfarb’s point that a middle-class tax increase would make the federal budget more sustainable, one quote provides the contrary argument:

If you look at the numbers, then Medicare in particular will run out of money and we will not be able to sustain that program no matter how much taxes go up.  I mean, it’s not an option for us to just sit by and do nothing.

Those words were spoken by none other than Barack Obama, in a July 2011 news conference. So while Mr. Goldfarb says that “it’s hard to see a way to preserve the nation’s entitlements without raising taxes further,” the reverse scenario is more accurate: Medicare needs significant reforms, regardless of whether taxes go up, down or stay the same.

Mr. Goldfarb is well within his rights to call for higher taxes on the middle class as a way to fund additional federal spending. But the facts are clear: The middle class is already absorbing higher taxes due to Obamacare—and higher taxes won’t solve our fundamental fiscal shortfalls. As the president himself might say, that’s not class warfare; that’s math.

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

Democrats’ Obamacare “Fix”

front-page story in Saturday’s Washington Post discussing Republican candidates’ positions on the Affordable Care Act included a curious quote from Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of House Democrats’ campaign committee, who said that Republicans are “promising fixes but won’t be specific.”

Actually, many conservatives have outlined numerous alternatives to Obamacare. Republicans in the House have written at least 200 separate bills showing their ideas on health care, large and small. My own organization, America Next, released its blueprint for health reform earlier this year.

Conversely, the comparatively small universe of “fixes” advocated by supporters of the health legislation omit major fiscal details. Here are three examples:

In a March Politico op-ed, several Democratic senators (and one independent, Sen. Angus King) proposed allowing the broader sale of low-cost, high-deductible health plans, whose availability is currently limited under the ACA. The senators also advocated expanding the law’s tax credits for small business—making them available to more firms and for longer periods—and further diluting the ACA’s employer mandate on businesses, which already has been delayed twice.

Former President Bill Clinton last year called for fixing a provision that disqualifies families for insurance subsidies if one member of the family can get “affordable” health coverage from an employer.

Others have discussed repealing a provision in the law that would slow the growth in premium subsidies beginning in 2019.

Most of these “fixes” come with price tags—and potentially large ones at that. A 2011 study by the Employment Policies Institute found that fixing the affordability definition, as President Clinton proposed, could increase spending by nearly $50 billion per year.

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act suggesting modifications have a duty to explain whether and how any spending increases would be paid for—through tax increases or other spending reductions.  Because proposing new federal spending without a way to pay for it could put Democrats—and taxpayers—in, well, a bit of a fix.

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

IT Failure at the Immigration Courts

One of the most underreported stories in Washington is a massive IT failure—lasting more than a month—that slowed legal proceedings at the nation’s immigration courts.

In its reporting last week, Politico quoted Dana Marks, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, describing the work environment: “We are now limping along, keeping the system running with paper clips and scotch tape.  It’s appalling.”

“Look at all the publicity over” HealthCare.gov, Ms. Marks went on. “Shouldn’t this have the same level of outcry and shock?  This is the docketing system for cases involving 360,000 people allegedly in US illegally.  Not all are removable, but it’s a law enforcement function.”

Reports of chaos in the nation’s immigration courts will do little to allay the concerns of House Republicans who think that the Obama administration will not—or cannot—faithfully implement any immigration legislation Congress might pass.

The immigration courts’ IT meltdown–the Justice Department announced Monday that the electronic databases that went offline April 12 are functioning again–represents another prominent example of botched implementation by federal agencies. It comes amid congressional inquiries into allegations of mismanagement and misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs. And the Washington Post reported this week on another facet of the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov: “The government may be paying incorrect subsidies to more than 1 million Americans for their health plans in the new federal insurance marketplace and has been unable so far to fix the errors.”

President Obama came into office attempting to restore faith and trust in government. Individually and collectively, these competency difficulties can only detract from his objective.

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

Obamacare’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

It’s now been seven days since Obamacare’s exchanges officially launched. In reality, however, the “launch” has more closely resembled a blooper reel of rocket failures than a smooth takeoff. Here is but a sampling of the problems, failures, and glitches that have turned the exchanges into a comedy of errors:

TUESDAY

  • Some state exchanges delay their opening to address technical problems; Maryland’s exchange postpones its launch by four hours.
  • When the federally run exchanges in 36 states open, they are immediately overwhelmed by massive volume and technical errors. One MSNBC reporter spends more than half an hour trying in vain to establish an account and compare insurance options.
  • Reuters reports that in total, 47 state exchange websites “turned up frequent error messages.”

WEDNESDAY

  • The Los Angeles Times reports that California’s state exchange vastly overstated its first-day web traffic. Instead of receiving 5 million hits, the exchange actually received 645,000 visitors.
  • The Washington Examiner notes that new co-operative health insurance programs funded by billions of Obamacare dollars featured “sites [that] were difficult to navigate and provided little understandable insurance information on topics like eligibility, costs, and benefits.”

THURSDAY

  • The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff writes a story, illustrated with a picture of a unicorn, asking whether anyone has actually purchased health insurance on from the federally run exchange—or whether these individuals are just “mythical creature[s].”
  • An Arizona television station profiles a leukemia survivor who “just got a letter from his insurance carrier saying as of January 1, he would be dropped from coverage because of new regulations under Obamacare. His doctor at the Mayo Clinic may be gone as well.”

FRIDAY

  • Liberal blogger Ezra Klein admits that the Administration “did a terrible disservice by building a website that, four days into launch, is still unusable for most Americans.”
  • CNBC reports that “as few as 1 in 100 applications on the federal exchange contains enough information to enroll the applicant in a plan.”
  • One of the few individuals claiming to have enrolled in a federally run insurance exchange admits that “he has not in fact enrolled in a health-care plan.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announces it will take major portions of its website offline over the weekend for repairs and major upgrades.

SATURDAY

  • Reuters interviews IT experts who believe the exchange contains major design flaws: “so much traffic was going back and forth between [exchange] users’ computers and the server hosting the government website, it was as if the system was attacking itself.”
  • The San Jose Mercury News profiles people suffering premium increases due to Obamacare—including one whose premiums may increase by nearly $10,000 for his family of four.

SUNDAY

  • Treasury Secretary Jack Lew refuses to tell Fox News’s Chris Wallace how many people have, or have not, enrolled in coverage.
  • The Charlotte Observer profiles one Charlotte family, whose premiums could rise from $228 per month to $1,208 per month—a 430 percent increase—because their current health insurance does not meet Obamacare’s standards.
  • The Wall Street Journal quotes technology consultants as saying that the federal exchange site “appeared to be built on a sloppy software foundation,” and that “basic Web-efficiency techniques weren’t used…clog[ging] the website’s plumbing.”

MONDAY

  • Politico finds many individuals are resorting to paper applications for coverage, due to the continued problems with online exchanges.
  • The New York Post reports that navigators were entirely unprepared for the launch of Obamacare’s exchanges last week; many staffers working for purported navigators seemed unaware the program existed.
  • HHS announces it is taking the exchange website offline again for more repairs.

Given this track record, some may find the words of Saturday’s Reuters piece prescient: “Five outside technology experts interviewed by Reuters…say they believe flaws in system architecture, not traffic alone, contributed to the problems” with the exchanges.

That quote is an apt metaphor for the entire law itself. Just as the exchanges’ problems stem from fundamental “flaws in system architecture,” so do these “glitches” prove that the entire law is unworkable—not just parts of the measure. It’s why Congress should act now to save America from this unpopular, unfair, and unworkable law.

This post was originally published at the Daily Signal.

The Case for Medicare Reform

The panel meets in secret, is controlled by special interests, and helps determine the allocation of nearly $100 billion in federal health care spending.

Is it some clandestine panel created by Obamacare? Hardly. It’s a panel controlled by the American Medical Association (AMA)—and, as The Washington Post reported in a front-page article yesterday, it has been micro-managing the way Medicare pays physicians for nearly a quarter-century.

The panel is just one part of the complex bureaucratic machinery that sets Medicare physician payment enacted by Congress in 1989. Instead of payment set by the free market forces of supply and demand, the panel assigns “value” to different medical procedures. So, in theory, a doctor performing an hour-long surgery should be paid four times as much as a physician undertaking a 15-minute procedure.

In practice, however, the process is far from straightforward. As the Post article demonstrates, the panel operates with virtually no public transparency, little government oversight, and a structural bias toward specialty physicians over primary care procedures. Curiously, in 1989 one of the arguments advanced for this payment system is that it would rectify the bias against primary care doctors.

Worse than the inaccuracies in the current payment system is the premise underlying it: That the Medicare bureaucracy and its group of “experts” can determine the “right” price of nearly every service performed by physicians nationwide.

Later this afternoon, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will begin its markup of Medicare physician payment legislation. While the legislation would revamp the process for setting Medicare reimbursements, as a Heritage Backgrounder released last week demonstrates, it does not represent fundamental reform of the Medicare program. Instead, many of the same medical specialty societies that have abused the current rate-setting process would receive new powers to control patient care—by setting guidelines that physicians must follow and cutting doctors’ pay if they do not.

True reform of the Medicare program would use a premium support system and market forces to unleash competition that will drive down health costs. Getting the federal government out of the price-control business would allow innovative reimbursement solutions to take root.

As usual, Ronald Reagan said it best:

This is the issue:… whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

When revamping Medicare physician payment, Congress has the opportunity to take power away from that “little intellectual elite” and should not hesitate to do so. And, rather than attempting to empower other bureaucratic entities to micromanage the health system, it should return that power back to the place where it belongs—with the people themselves.

This post was originally published at the Daily Signal.