Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s confirmation early Friday morning marks both an end and a beginning. While his installation after a bitter nomination battle formally begins the Trump administration’s work on healthcare, Price will also seek to bring about the end of former President Barack Obama’s unpopular and unaffordable healthcare law.
Dismantling Obamacare should be a three-fold process, involving coordination among HHS, the rest of the administration, and the Republican-led Congress. The steps can occur concurrently, but all must take place to prevent people from suffering any further from Obamacare’s ill effects.
Having assumed his post, Price should use the regulatory apparatus at his disposal to bring immediate relief from Obamacare. Press reports indicate the administration has already taken steps in that regard, sending a package of insurance stabilization rules to the Office of Management and Budget for clearance prior to their release, potentially as soon as Friday afternoon.
The reports suggest the administration is considering many of the proposals to provide regulatory flexibility that I included in a report analyzing repeal last month. Specifically, the administration may reduce the length of the annual open enrollment period and require verification of individuals seeking special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment. These are two critical steps to prevent individuals from signing up for insurance after they become sick.
In many cases, the administration and Price have significant latitude to provide flexibility, but that latitude is not unlimited. Until Congress acts, Obamacare remains on the statute books. While regulators can reinterpret the law, they cannot ignore it. Already, the liberal-leaning AARP has threatened legal action over one of the new administration’s rumored regulatory changes.
These legal constraints illustrate why Congress should act, preferably sooner rather than later, in passing legislation repealing Obamacare. Congress should use as the basis for action the repeal bill it passed in the fall of 2015, which Obama vetoed early last year. That bill repealed all of the law’s tax increases, and sunset the law’s coverage expansions after a two-year period to allow for an appropriate transition.
While the 2015 legislation should represent the initial template for Obamacare’s repeal, Congress can and should go further. Legislators should also seek to repeal the law’s insurance regulations, which have raised premiums and caused millions to receive cancellation notices.
Although some assume Congress cannot repeal the regulations using budget reconciliation — the special process that allows legislation to pass with a 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60 votes, in the Senate — that may not be accurate. The Congressional Budget Office and others have made estimates showing the significant budgetary impact of these costly regulations. Republicans should use those cost estimates, and past Senate precedent, to enact repeal of the major insurance provisions using the special budget reconciliation procedures.
While adding repeal of the insurance regulations to the 2015 measure, Congress should also ease the transition away from Obamacare by freezing enrollment in the law’s new entitlements upon enactment of the repeal bill. It makes no sense to allow millions of individuals to continue enrolling in a program Congress has just voted to end. Especially with respect to the law’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied, freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Obamacare to retain their coverage, while starting a process to transition away from the law’s spending and allow individuals to transition off the rolls and into employer-based coverage.
When thinking about a post-Obamacare world, Congress and the new administration should have three priorities: lowering costs, lowering costs and lowering costs.
Americans of all political stripes view lowering health costs as their number-one priority, and it isn’t even close. While candidate Obama promised in 2008 that his health plan would lower costs by an average $2,500 per family per year, the bill he signed into law instead raised costs and premiums for millions.
The answer to the top health concern lies not in new spending and taxes to subsidize health insurance (the failed Obamacare formula) but in reducing the underlying costs of care.
Reducing costs involves equalizing the tax treatment of health insurance, limiting current tax preferences that encourage over-consumption of health insurance and health care. But this must be done in a way that does not raise tax burdens overall. Lowering costs should include incentives for wellness and promote health savings accounts, the expansion of which could reduce health expenditures by billions of dollars.
States have a big role to play in the health debate, both in lowering costs and protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions.
Congress can and should provide states with incentives to reduce insurance benefit mandates that drive up the cost of care. Congress should guarantee that individuals with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, but give states funding, and let them decide the best route — whether through high-risk pools, or some other risk transfer mechanism — to ensure access to care. While not the panacea President Trump and others have claimed, Congress should allow individuals to shop across state lines for the coverage that best suits their needs.
These changes will not require a 2,700-page piece of legislation like Obamacare. They should not even be considered a “replacement” for Obamacare. But they would have an impact in reducing health costs, the issue Americans care most about. They would represent a new beginning after the canceled policies and premium spikes associated with Obamacare.
This post was originally published in the Washington Examiner.