More CBO Transparency Could Have Prevented Obamacare’s CLASS Debacle

Mere days into a Republican Congress, Democrats are making charges of ideological bias when it comes to the majority’s handling of the Congressional Budget Office. A group of leading Senate Democrats wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner specifically noting that “a CBO director should not be required to revise the score of the Affordable Care Act in order to please partisan interests.” It’s an ironic charge, given that it’s far from partisan to question why the CBO failed to perform analyses that could have predicted the collapse of an $86 billion Obamacare program — exactly what happened under its current director, Doug Elmendorf.

The program in question, Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, or CLASS, was designed to provide cash benefits for those needing long-term services and support. CLASS made it into Obamacare at the behest of then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, and over the objections of both Republicans and moderate Democrats, who considered it fiscally unsustainable; then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., famously dubbed CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” And so it proved — in October 2011, less than two years after the law’s passage, the Department of Health and Human Services determined CLASS could not be implemented in a fiscally solvent manner, and in January 2013, Congress repealed it entirely.

But Congress and the American people could have been spared this trouble had CBO performed a more thorough analysis of CLASS. In 2009, the budget agency assumed that CLASS’s administrative expenses would remain confined to three percent of premiums, even though HHS’ own actuary later called this requirement “unrealistic and undesirable.” The actuary hired by HHS went on to estimate total expenses at 20 percent of premiums — nearly seven times the level specified in the law.

The unrealistically low administrative expenses go to the heart of CLASS’s structural flaws. The program proved fiscally unsustainable because it faced a classic actuarial death spiral—a lack of healthy people paying into the pool to fund benefits for those needing care.

Had CBO formally analyzed CLASS’s administrative expenses, it likely would have concluded that the unrealistic assumptions written into the law meant premiums would eventually have to rise, benefits fall, or both, to meet the shortfall — making the program even more unattractive to healthy individuals, and further imperiling its solvency. The CBO does have models to estimate the cost of insurance; with Obamacare, it stated in November 2009 that insurance exchanges would reduce the administrative costs of individually-purchased coverage. But when it came to CLASS, CBO did not perform a similar analysis.

Likewise, CBO at no point attempted to quantify the potentially massive costs to states that CLASS would have imposed. The program would have required state Medicaid programs to create a benefit eligibility system similar to that used by the Social Security disability insurance program. That program costs nearly $3 billion to administer every year — meaning CLASS could easily have imposed costs to states of $20 billion-30 billion over a decade.

Within HHS, officials expressed concern that CLASS would “create significant new burdens on the states.” Coming at a time when governors of both parties were criticizing the “mother of all unfunded mandates” in the form of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, a CBO finding that CLASS imposed mandates on states in the billions, or tens of billions, would have prompted bipartisan outrage — and could have scuttled the program entirely. But from its introduction to its repeal, CBO at no point even acknowledged the significant cost to states associated with CLASS.

In fairness to CBO, the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage were by far the busiest in my time as a Capitol Hill staffer. Lack of enough hours and lack of sleep could, and did, cause details to slip through the cracks; to quote Nancy Pelosi, we really did have to pass the bill to find out what was in it. But that neither excuses nor explains why CBO has not publicly acknowledged the shortcomings outlined above, and what if anything it needs to change — whether in resources, oversight, or both — to improve its analysis going forward.

Judging from his silence on CLASS, Elmendorf may view protecting his office’s budget analysts as a prime objective of a CBO director. As much as I value loyalty, CBO’s prime loyalty should lay to Congress — and ultimately to the public, which funds both CBO and the programs it analyzes. While Elmendorf has taken measures to release more information publicly — developments I welcome — such steps generally fall into the realm of making CBO less opaque, rather than truly transparent.

Democrats’ political posturing aside, it’s not partisan to ask for a public explanation why an independent budget office did not produce analyses that could have revealed the instability of an $86 billion “Ponzi scheme” before Congress enacted it into law. In fact, the principles of good governance should compel the CBO in exactly this direction. Hopefully CBO’s next director, whoever he or she is, will move more rapidly down the road of this much-needed transparency.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.