Does the Heritage Health Plan Include Taxpayer Funding of Abortion?

When lawmakers write legislation, little details matter—a lot. In the case of a health plan that the Heritage Foundation and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) are reportedly preparing to release in the coming days, a few words indicate the plan has not considered critically important details—like how Senate procedure intertwines with abortion policy—necessary to any substantive policy endeavor.

A few short words in a summary of the Heritage plan leave the real possibility that the plan, if enacted as described, could lead to taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. Either Heritage and Santorum—both known opponents of abortion—have undertaken dramatic changes in their pro-life positions over the past few months, or they have failed to think through the full import of the policies they will release very shortly.

However, multiple individuals participating in the Heritage meetings told me that the concepts and policies Spiro’s document discusses align with Heritage discussions. Spiro may have created that document based on verbal descriptions given to him of the Heritage plan (just as the New York Times’ list of questions Robert Mueller wants to ask President Trump likely came via Trump’s attorneys and not Mueller). But regardless of who created it, people in the Heritage group told me it accurately outlined the policy proposals under discussion.

What Cost-Sharing Reductions Do

The summary describes many policies, but one in particular stands out: Under “Short-term stabilization/premium relief,” the plan “Adopts the [Lamar] Alexander and [Susan] Collins appropriation for CSRs [cost-sharing reductions] and state reinsurance/high risk pool programs for 2019 and 2020.”

On one level, this development should not come as a surprise. Party leaders often incorporate recalcitrant members’ pet projects (or, in the old days, earmarks) into a bill to obtain their votes: “See, we included the language that you wanted—you have to vote for our bill now!” Given that Collins as of last week had not even heard about the Heritage-led effort, one might think she would need some incentive to support the measure, which attaching her “stability” language might provide.

About the Hyde Amendment and Byrd Rule

The reference to CSRs takes on more importance because of the way Congress would consider Heritage’s plan. As with the Graham-Cassidy bill and other “repeal-and-replace” bills considered last year, the Senate would enact them using expedited budget reconciliation procedures.

Those procedures theoretically allow all 51 Senate Republicans to circumvent a Democratic filibuster and pass a reconciliation bill on a party-line vote. However, as I outlined last year, the reconciliation process comes with procedural restrictions (i.e., the “Byrd rule”) to prevent senators from attaching “extraneous” and non-budgetary matter to a bill that cannot be filibustered.

“Hyde amendment” restrictions—which prevent federal funding of abortion coverage, except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—represent a textbook example of the “Byrd rule,” because they have a fiscal impact “merely incidental” to the policy changes proposed. Former Senate Parliamentarian Bob Dove said as much about abortion restrictions Congress considered in 1995:

The Congressional Budget Office determined that it was going to save money. But it was my view that the provision was not there in order to save money. It was there to implement social policy. Therefore I ruled that it was not in order and it was stricken.

After pushing for a vote for months, Collins suddenly backed off and didn’t force the issue on the Senate floor. She knew she didn’t have the votes—everyone knew she didn’t have the votes—because Democrats wouldn’t support a measure that restricted taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. Exactly nothing has changed that dynamic since Congress considered the issue in March.

Why We Can’t Fund CSRs

Republicans recognize the problems the abortion funding issue creates, and the Graham-Cassidy bill attempted to solve them by providing subsidies via a block grant to states. Graham-Cassidy funneled the block grant through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), largely because the SCHIP statute includes the following language: “Funds provided to a state under this title shall only be used to carry out the purposes of this title, and any health insurance coverage provided with such funds may include coverage of abortion only if necessary to save the life of the mother or if the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.”

Because SCHIP already contains full Hyde protections on taxpayer funding of abortion, Graham-Cassidy ran the block grant program through SCHIP. Put another way, Graham-Cassidy borrowed existing Hyde amendment protections because any new protections would get in a budget reconciliation bill. It did the same thing for a “stability” fund for reinsurance or other mechanisms intended to lower premiums by subsidizing insurers, also referred to in Spiro’s document.

Creating a pot of money elsewhere in law—for instance, through the SCHIP statute, which does contain Hyde protections—and using that money to compensate insurers for reducing cost-sharing would prove just as unrealistic. The CSR payments reimburse insurers for discrete, specific discounts provided to discrete, specific low-income individuals.

If the subsidy pool gave money to all insurers equally, regardless of the number of low-income enrollees they reduced cost-sharing for, then insurers would have a ready-built incentive to avoid attracting poor people, because enrolling low-income individuals would saddle them with an unfunded (or only partially funded) mandate. If the subsidy pool gave money to insurers based on their specific obligations under the Obamacare cost-sharing reduction requirements, then the parliamentarian would likely view this language as an attempt to circumvent the Byrd rule restrictions and strike it down.

Not Ready for Prime Time

Four participants in the Heritage meetings told me the group has discussed appropriating funds for CSR payments to insurers as part of the plan. Not a single individual said the Senate’s “Byrd rule” restrictions—which make enacting pro-life protections for such CSR payments all-but-impossible—came up when discussing an appropriation for cost-sharing payments to insurers.

That silence signals one or more potential problems: A lack of regard for pro-life policy; an ignorance of Senate procedure, and its potential ramifications on the policies being considered; or a willingness to fudge details—allowing people to believe what they want to believe. Regardless, it speaks to the unformed nature of the proposal, despite meetings that have continued since the last time “repeal-and-replace” collapsed” nearly eight months ago.

Earlier this month, Santorum claimed in an interview that while the original “Graham-Cassidy was a rush…this time we have the opportunity to get the policy better.” But any serious attempt to “get the policy better” wouldn’t have major lingering questions about tens of billions of dollars in “stability” funding, and whether such funds would subsidize abortion coverage, mere days before its public release. In this case, eight months of deliberations may not lead to a deliberative and coherent policy product.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Troubling Premise Behind the Latest Obamacare Lawsuit

On Thursday, a group of Democratic attorneys general received permission to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republican officials. That lawsuit, originally filed in February, seeks to strike down all of Obamacare.

The lawsuit forces me to distinguish between policy preferences and the rule of law. Strictly on the policy, I want to repeal Obamacare as much as the next conservative does. However, in this case, striking down the law through legal fiat would represent judicial activism at its worst—asking unelected judges to do what elected members of Congress took great pains to avoid.

John Roberts’ Logic

Last December, Congress set the individual mandate penalty to zero beginning in January 2019. As others previously argued, the action eliminated the basis on which the Supreme Court found the mandate constitutional. Thus, the lawsuit alleges, the court should strike down the individual mandate—and, consistent with the reasoning of four dissenting justices (Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) in the 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius case—all of Obamacare with it.

Congress Has Spoken

There’s one major flaw with the lawsuit’s logic: While Obamacare did not contain a severability clause, Congress in its infinite wisdom last year chose to eliminate the mandate penalty—and only the mandate penalty. Severability tests the court established work to determine first and foremost “whether the provisions will work as Congress intended,” as the dissenters noted back in 2012.

Because Congress, in the time since Obamacare passed, quite clearly eliminated only the mandate penalty, it demonstrated its intent. Regardless of whether federal courts strike down the mandate—now an edict in law unenforceable by any penalty—as unconstitutional, they cannot, and should not, strike down any other portion of the law.

Anti-Democratic Principle

In essence, the lawsuit asks the federal courts to do what Congress decided last year not to do: repeal all of Obamacare. Rather than working to persuade Congress to go back, consider health care anew, and pass the full repeal lawmakers ran on for four straight election cycles, the litigants instead hope to nullify Obamacare through a deus ex machina intervention of five of nine justices on the Supreme Court.

As a matter of law, the court should do no such thing. Substituting the judgment of unelected judges for popularly elected members of Congress would further erode the institutions supporting the rule of law. The protests on both the left and right regarding last year’s health-care legislation would pale in comparison to any demonstration should five unelected judges now decide to strike down all of Obamacare, and with good reason.

Moreover, this apparent application of situational ethics—“conservatives” supporting judicial activism when it furthers their policy objectives—will only undermine future attempts to constrain legislating from the bench. When it comes to asking courts to strike down massive pieces of legislation, conservatives should be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it—not on Obamacare, but on other major bills they do support.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Return of the Individual Mandate

Well, that didn’t last long. Fewer than six months after Congress effectively repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate—and more than six months before that change actually takes effect, in January next year—another liberal group released a plan to reinstate it. The proposal comes as part of the Urban Institute’s recently released “Healthy America” plan.

In the interests of full disclosure: I criticized Republicans for repealing the individual mandate as part of the tax reform bill last fall. I did so not because I support requiring Americans to buy health insurance—I don’t—but because Republicans need to go further, and repeal the federal insurance regulations that represent the heart of Obamacare and necessitated enacting the mandate in the first place.

Lipstick on an Unpopular Pig?

The Urban Institute plan tries to re-brand a federal requirement to purchase insurance by never even using the term “mandate” in its proposal. Instead, the document says that “uninsured people would lose a percentage of their standard deduction (or the equivalent for the itemized deduction) when they pay income taxes….Half the lost deduction amount could be refunded the following year if the person enrolls in coverage and maintains it for the next full plan year.”

But as the saying goes, if it looks like a mandate and functions like a mandate, it’s a mandate. The paper claims that taking away a “tax benefit…would be better received politically than the additional tax penalty” under Obamacare, but functionally, that provides a distinction without a difference. Even the Urban researchers call this “loss of a tax benefit” a “penalty” later in the paper, because that’s what it is: A penalty for remaining uninsured.

The paper even includes a chart highlighting the average tax for remaining uninsured by income under the proposal, which generally mimics the tax penalties the uninsured pay under Obamacare:

Other Components of the Plan

Unfortunately, the Urban Institute plan goes well beyond merely reinstating the individual mandate, albeit in a slightly different form. It also makes other major changes to the health care system that would entrench the role of the federal government in it. It would federalize Medicaid health insurance coverage by transferring Medicaid enrollees into exchanges, supplementing benefits for low-income children and individuals with disabilities, and requiring states to keep paying their current contributions into the system. (Long-term care coverage under Medicaid would continue unchanged.)

The exchanges would have a new government-run plan—the default option for low-income enrollees automatically enrolled into coverage—and options run by private insurers. However, all plans would cap reimbursement to doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates, making premiums more “affordable” by imposing price controls that would potentially pay providers at below-market levels. The plan also proposes to “save” on prescription drugs by extending Medicaid rebates (i.e., price controls) to additional individuals.

The Urban plan also proposes much richer health coverage subsidies, consistent with its earlier 2015 proposal. Specifically:

  • Individuals with incomes below the federal poverty level would not pay either premiums or cost-sharing;
  • Individuals with incomes below 138 percent of poverty (the threshold for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) would not pay premiums;
  • Premium subsidies would be linked to a plan paying 80 percent of expected health care costs (i.e., actuarial value), as opposed to a 70 percent actuarial value plan under Obamacare;
  • Individuals would have to pay less of their income in premiums than under Obamacare—for instance, an individual with income just under four times poverty would pay 8.5 percent of income in premiums, as opposed to 9.56 percent under Obamacare; and
  • Unlike Obamacare, which limits eligibility for subsidies to those with incomes under four times poverty, the Urban plan would limit premium payments to 8.5 percent of income at all income levels (i.e., including for those making more than four times poverty).

Moreover, “short-term and other private insurance plans that do not comply with Healthy America regulations (consistent with [Obamacare’s] regulatory framework” would be prohibited, including association health plans and other concepts the Trump administration has proposed to give Americans more flexible coverage options.

The Urban researchers admit their plan would require significant new revenues to pay for the new subsidies—an estimated $98 billion in the first year alone. The plan only briefly discusses options to pay for this new spending, but it admits that, even if Congress hikes the payroll tax by an additional percent, raising an estimated $823 billion over ten years, “other adjustments to excise and income taxes would be needed.”

Where the Plan Fits In

At the end of their paper, the Urban researchers include a helpful chart comparing the various liberal proposals for expanded government involvement in health care—lest anyone claim that the left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing. In general:

  • Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bill that would not go as far as the Urban plan. It incorporates the subsidy changes Urban proposed, adds a government-run plan, and imposes other regulatory changes to the exchanges, but (unlike the Urban plan) retains the status quo for Medicaid;
  • The Center for American Progress’ “Medicare Extra” proposal, which I wrote about earlier this year, goes farther than the Urban plan, by eliminating Medicaid (which the Urban plan modifies) entirely, and including more robust auto-enrollment provisions, with “Medicare Extra” the default option for all Americans; and
  • The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would go farthest of all, abolishing virtually all forms of insurance (including Medicare) and creating a single-payer health system.

So much for “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” For that matter, so much for “If you like your freedom, you can keep it.” Like it or not, the Left seems insistent on terrifying the American public with what Ronald Reagan viewed as the nine most effective words to do so: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about President Trump’s Drug Pricing Plan

On Friday, President Trump gave a Rose Garden speech outlining his plan, entitled “America’s Patients First,” to combat rising drug prices. The plan incorporates policy ideas included in the president’s budget earlier this year, new proposals, and additional topics for discussion that could turn into more specific ideas in the future.

What’s the Problem?

Surveys suggest public frustration with the cost of prescription drugs. While such costs represent a small fraction of overall spending on health care, several dynamics help the prescription drug issue gain disproportionate attention. First, in any given year, more Americans incur drug costs than hospital costs. Whereas only 7.3 percent of Americans had an inpatient hospitalization in 2013, more than three in five (60.7 percent) had prescription drug expenses.

With more Americans incurring drug costs, and paying a larger percentage of drug costs directly from their pockets, the issue has taken on greater prominence. The rise of coinsurance (i.e., paying a percentage of drug costs, rather than having those costs capped at a set dollar amount) for pricey specialty drugs exacerbates this dynamic.

What Are the Proposed Solutions?

In general, ways to address drug prices fall into three large buckets.

Controlling costs through competition: These solutions would involve bringing down price levels by encouraging generic competition, or substituting one type of drug for another.

Shifting costs: These solutions would alter who pays for drugs among insurers, pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs), or consumers. While they may make drugs more “affordable” for consumers, they will not change overall spending levels. In fact, if done poorly, these types of proposals could actually increase overall spending, by encouraging individuals to increase their consumption of costly brand-name drugs.

Drug company and PBM stocks went up Friday following the blueprint’s release, largely because the plan eschews actions in the second bucket. The president’s plan includes a few tweaks to the system of “rebates” (de facto price controls) the Medicaid program uses, but includes none of the major Democratic proposals to use blunt government action to drive down prices.

In fact, the plan criticizes foreign price controls, attacking the “global freeloading” by which other countries gain the research and development benefits of the pharmaceutical industry without paying their “fair share” of those R&D costs. While the plan frequently mentions the disproportionate share of costs American consumers pay, it includes few specific proposals to rebalance these costs to other countries. It also remains unclear whether, if successfully implemented, any such rebalancing would successfully lower prices in the United States.

Other competitive proposals include giving Medicare Part D plans more flexibility to adjust their formularies mid-year to respond to changes in the generic drug marketplace, and prohibiting Part D plans from including “gag clauses.” These clauses prohibit pharmacies from telling consumers that they would actually save money by paying cash for certain drugs, rather than using their insurance.

In the cost-shifting bucket lie several of the proposals incorporated into the president’s budget. For instance, a cap on out-of-pocket expenses for the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit would provide important relief to seniors with very high annual drug costs. However, to the extent that such a proposal would encourage seniors to over-consume drugs, or purchase more costly brand-name drugs, once they reach such a cap, this proposal could also increase overall Part D spending.

In a similar vein lie proposals about PBMs passing drug rebates directly to consumers at the point of sale. In most cases, PBMs had previously passed on those savings indirectly to insurers in the form of lower premiums. Giving rebates directly to consumers—a practice some insurers have begun to adopt—would provide relief to those with high out-of-pocket costs, but could raise premiums overall, particularly for those with relatively low prescription spending.

What’s Next?

The plan raises more questions than it answers—quite literally. The last and longest section of the blueprint includes 136 separate questions about how the administration should structure and implement some of the proposals discussed in the document.

Some proposals, while eye-catching, seem ill-advised. For instance, the proposal to “evaluate the inclusion of list prices in direct-to-consumer advertising” raises potential First Amendment concerns—government dictating the content of drugmakers’ communications with patients. Moreover, with many Americans viewing health care as a superior good, some consumers may view a more expensive product as “better” than its alternative. In that case this proposal, if ever implemented, could have the opposite of its intended effect, encouraging people to consume more expensive drugs.

The plan did not include the heavy-handed approaches to the prescription drug issue—Medicare price “negotiation” and drug reimportation—that Democrats favor, and that President Trump endorsed in his 2016 campaign. The document also makes clear the iterative nature of the process, with additional proposals likely coming after feedback from industry and others.

But to the extent that Washington has become consumed by the midterm elections fewer than six months away, the high-profile event Friday allowed Republicans and the president to say they have a plan to bring down drug prices—an important political objective in and of itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Michael Cohen and “The Swamp”

Recent revelations surrounding the business clients of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, demonstrate the seedy underbelly of the lobbying business in Washington. At least one company that hired Cohen admitted that it got suckered by someone who couldn’t deliver what he promised. Many companies consider these types of expenditures the cost of doing business.

Last Tuesday, attorney Michael Avenatti released a report claiming that Cohen’s firm, Essential Consultants, received millions of dollars in payments from various companies, including one linked to a Russian oligarch. Avenatti, a Trump critic, represents onscreen prostitute Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit seeking to nullify a non-disclosure agreement Daniels and Cohen reached regarding the former’s alleged affair with Trump.

While Avenatti’s original report claimed Novartis paid Cohen just under $400,000, the company later confirmed payments totaling three times that amount, or $1.2 million. In an interview, an unnamed Novartis employee gave commentary into what amounts to a corporate comedy of errors:

He [Cohen] reached out to us…With a new Administration coming in, basically, all the traditional contacts disappeared and they were all new players. We were trying to find an inroad into the Administration. Cohen promised access to not just Trump, but also the circle around him. It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist.

To paraphrase the British phrase used when a new sovereign assumes the throne: “The (Old) Swamp is dead! Long live The (New) Swamp!”

Unfortunately for Novartis, however, the firm locked itself in to a one-year agreement at a $100,000 monthly retainer—ridiculously high by most Washington lobbying standards—only to discover that Cohen could not deliver. According to the Novartis employee, it took but one meeting for the bloom to come off of the rose: “At first it all sounded impressive, but toward the end of the meeting, everyone realized this was probably a slippery slope to engage him. So they decided not to really engage Cohen for any activities after that.”

AT&T and Novartis admitted on Wednesday that the office of special counsel Robert Mueller contacted both about their relationships with Cohen. In analyzing their behavior, assume that both companies acted legally—that their payments to Cohen were solely for consulting services, and not as part of some quid pro quo scheme directly tied to an official act, whether by Cohen, Trump, or anyone else.

On one hand, the companies exercised exceedingly poor judgment. Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan (who was not running the company when Novartis signed its 2017 agreement with Cohen) admitted on Thursday that the company “made a mistake in entering into this engagement,” signing away more than a million dollars in shareholder money to someone without undertaking any due diligence as to whether he could deliver what he had promised.

Novartis also vastly overpaid Cohen, even if it had engaged him for more activities than a single meeting. As I noted on Twitter, I could have cautioned them about the dim chances for Obamacare repeal for half the $1.2 million they paid Cohen. (If they had asked nicely, I might have done so for even one-quarter that sum.) Very few if any Washington lobbying firms can command a six-figure monthly retainer from one client, yet Novartis paid that much to a single individual.

As Politico noted, Trump’s “2016 victory rattled corporations enough that clients were eager to pay top dollar to anyone who could help them understand the Administration in its first months.” Because no one thought Trump could win—and therefore spent little time reaching out to him or his campaign in the summer and fall of 2016— after the election corporations felt the need to overcompensate, throwing money at anyone with a connection to Trump, in the hopes of ingratiating themselves with the new administration. I saw some of this myself in late 2016 and early 2017, when companies and financial firms came out of the woodwork asking me to predict what the new Congress and administration would do on health care. (Trust me: My offers didn’t come anywhere close to $1.2 million.)

Firms often spend sizable sums on lobbying. Novartis has “nearly a dozen lobbying firms on retainer,” for which it paid $8.6 million last year. In some cases, companies or industries have so many lobbying firms on retainer that the ineffective ones often attempt to take credit for the “wins” achieved by the effective ones. However, given how federal policy initiatives can affect both a company’s revenue and its stock price—witness the market volatility surrounding President Trump’s proposals on drug pricing—companies have little choice but to play the K Street game.

It seems ridiculous to pay $1.2 million to an individual for a single meeting, and it is. But only a smaller role for the federal government—in taxing, spending, and regulations—would bring an end to the types of influence-peddling stories like those surrounding Cohen this week. Unfortunately, it’s the price of doing business for many companies—and a symptom of a government run amok.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

CBO Tries But Fails to Defend Its Illegal Budget Gimmick

In a blog post released last Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) attempted to defend its actions regarding what I have characterized as an illegal budget gimmick designed to facilitate passage of an Obamacare bailout. When fully parsed, the response does not answer any of the key questions, likely because CBO has no justifiable answers to them.

The issue surrounds the budgetary treatment of cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), which President Trump cancelled last fall. While initially CBO said it would not change its budgetary treatment of CSRs, last month the agency changed course, saying it would instead assume that CSRs are “being funded through higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies rather than through a direct appropriation.”

That claim fails on multiple fronts. First, it fails to address the states that did not assume that CSR payments get met through “higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies.” As I noted in a March post, while most states allowed insurers to raise premiums for 2018 to take into account the loss of CSR payments, a few states—including Vermont, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, and a few other carriers in other states—did not. In those cases, the CSR payments cannot be accounted for through indirect premium subsidies, because premiums do not reflect CSR payments.

In its newest post, CBO admits that “most”—not all, but only “most”—insurers have covered the higher costs associated with lowering cost-sharing “by increasing premiums for silver plans.” But by using that phraseology, CBO cannot assume CSRs are being “fully funded” through higher premium subsidies, because not all insurers have covered their CSR costs through higher premiums. Therefore, even by CBO’s own logic, this new budgetary treatment violates the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statutory requirements.

Second, even assuming that (eventually) all states migrate to the same strategy, and do allow for insurers to recover CSR payments through premium subsidies, CBO’s rationale does not comply with the actual text of the law. The law itself—2 U.S.C. 907—requires CBO to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required by those laws” (emphasis mine).

I reached out to CBO to ask about their reasoning in the blog post—how the organization can reconcile its admission that not all, but only “most,” insurers raised premiums to account for the lack of CSR funding with CBO’s claim that the CSRs are “fully funded” in the new baseline. A spokesman declined to comment, stating that more information about this issue would be included in a forthcoming publication. However, CBO did not explain why it published a blog post on the issue “provid[ing] additional information” when it now admits that post did not include all relevant information.

In addition, CBO also has not addressed the question of why Director Keith Hall reneged on his January 30 testimony before the House Budget Committee. At that January hearing, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Dave Brat (R-VA) asked Hall about the budgetary treatment of CSRs. In both cases, the director said he would not make any changes “until we get other direction from the Budget Committees.”

That’s not what happened. CBO now claims that the change “was made by CBO after consultation with the House and Senate Budget Committees” (emphasis mine). No one directed CBO to make this change—or so the agency claims. But curiously enough, as I previously noted, Hall declined to answer a direct question from Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) at an April 12 hearing: “Why did you do that [i.e., change the baseline]?…You would have had to have gotten instruction to” make the change.

Moreover, Brat specifically asked how the agency would treat CSRs—as if they were being paid directly, or indirectly. Hall repeated the same response he gave Schakowsky, that CBO would not change its treatment “unless we get direction to do something different”—an answer which, given the agency’s later actions, could constitute a materially misleading statement to Congress.

Reasonable as it may seem from outward appearances, CBO’s excuses do not stand up to any serious scrutiny. The agency should finally come clean and admit that its recent actions do not comport with the law—as well as who put CBO up to making this change in the first place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How a CBO Error Could Cost the Pharmaceutical Industry Billions

Government officials often attempt to bury bad news. Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” even coined a term for it: “Take Out the Trash Day.” So it proved last week. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) document released quietly on Thursday hinted at a major gaffe by the budget agency and its efforts to conceal that gaffe.

In a series of questions for the record submitted following Director Keith Hall’s April 11 hearing before the Senate Budget Committee, CBO admitted the following regarding a change to the Medicare Part D prescription drug program included in this past February’s budget agreement:

When the legislation was being considered, CBO estimated that provision would reduce net Medicare spending for Part D by $7.7 billion over the 2018-2027 period. CBO subsequently learned of a relevant analysis by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and incorporated that analysis in its projections for the April 2018 Medicare baseline. The current baseline incorporates an estimate that, compared with prior law, [the relevant provision] will reduce net Medicare spending for Part D by $11.8 billion over the 2018-2027 period.

As I wrote at the time, the provision attracted no small amount of controversy at its passage—or, for that matter, since. The provision accelerated the closing of the Part D “donut hole” faced by seniors with high prescription drug costs, but it did so by shifting costs away from the Part D program run by health insurers and on to drug companies.

The pharmaceutical industry was, and remains, livid at the change, which it did not expect, and tried to undo in the March omnibus spending bill. CBO didn’t just get its score wrong on a minor, non-controversial provision—it messed up on a major provision that will over the next decade affect both drug companies and health insurers.

Because the provision substitutes mandatory “discounts” by drug companies for government spending through the Part D program, it saves the government money through smaller Part D subsidies—at least on paper. (That said, the score doesn’t take into account whether drug manufacturers will raise prices in response to the change, which they could well do.) Because seniors actually spend more in the “donut hole” than CBO’s initial projections said, the provision will have a greater impact—i.e., cost the pharmaceutical industry billions more—than the February budget estimate says.

In its response last week, CBO tried to cover its tracks by claiming that “the $4 billion change…accounts for about 2 percent” of the total of $186 billion reduction in estimated Medicare spending over the coming decade due to technical changes incorporated into the revised baseline. But a $4.1 billion scoring error on a provision first projected to save $7.7 billion means CBO messed up its score by more than 53 percent of its original budgetary impact. That’s not exactly a small error.

Moreover, CBO didn’t come clean and publicly admit this error of its own volition. It did so only because Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) forced the budget office to do so.

Enzi submitted a question noting that “CBO realized its estimate of a provision [in the budget agreement] was incorrect. Where is the correction featured in the new report?” CBO didn’t “feature” the correction in its April Budget and Economic Outlook report at all—it incorporated the change into the revised baseline without disclosing it, hoping to sneak it by without anyone calling the budget office out on its error.

Since that time, the purportedly “nonpartisan” organization realized it published an incorrect score—off by more than 50 percent—on a high-profile and controversial issue, changed its baseline to account for the scoring error, and said exactly nothing in a 166-page report on the federal budget about the change. If CBO won’t disclose this kind of major mistake on its own, then its “transparency efforts” seem like so much noise—a distraction designed to keep people preoccupied from focusing on errors like the Part D debacle.

To view it from another perspective: Any head of a private company whose analysis of a multi-billion-dollar transaction proved off by more than 50 percent, because his staff did not access relevant information available to them at the time of the analysis, would face major questions about his leadership, and could well lose his job. But judging from his desire to conceal this scoring mistake, the CBO director apparently feels no such sense of accountability.

Thankfully, however, members of Congress have tools available to fix the rot at CBO, up to and including replacing the director. Given the way CBO attempted to conceal the Part D scoring fiasco, they should start using them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is Buying Health Insurance a Political Statement?

A recent Commonwealth Fund analysis of survey data concluded that the number of uninsured Americans rose over the past two years, by the equivalent of approximately 4 million individuals. The Commonwealth researchers claim Trump administration policy decisions explain the decline in the number of Americans with health insurance.

But the data themselves suggest another theory: Some Americans may have made a political decision to drop health coverage.

But consider that Obamacare subsidizes insurance rates for low-income households, capping their premium costs as a percentage of income, and insulating them from most of the effects of premium increases. Consider too that over the past several years, only low-income individuals have purchased coverage on insurance exchanges in significant numbers, precisely because of the rich premium subsidies and lower co-payments and deductibles taxpayers provide to households with income below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The high subsidies for low-income individuals would not appear to explain the increase in the uninsured among this group. And a marginal decrease in the uninsured rate this year among those with incomes over 250 percent of poverty—including those who do not qualify for insurance subsidies at all—suggests premium increases may not have led affluent Americans to drop coverage (at least not yet).

What might more logically explain the increase in the number of uninsured? In a word, politics. The Commonwealth researchers note that between 2016 and 2018, the uninsured rate among Republicans aged 19-64 nearly doubled, from 7.9 percent to 13.9 percent. By contrast, the uninsured rate among self-identified Democrats actually declined, albeit not in a statistically significant fashion.

The increase in the uninsured also occurred almost exclusively in states that did not expand Medicaid. From 2016 through 2018, the uninsured rate in those states rose by more than one-third, from 16.1 percent to 21.9 percent, while the rate in states that did expand Medicaid remained relatively constant. Given that the 18 states that have not expanded Medicaid under Obamacare are overwhelmingly southern and red ideologically, this data point confirms a political tinge regarding health coverage decisions.

In all, the uninsured data suggest that a small but measurable percentage of red-state Americans have decided to drop health coverage over the past two years. Because many of those individuals come from working-class backgrounds and could qualify for sizable subsidies, affordability may not have driven their decision to forego insurance. Moreover, three times as many Republicans (6 percent) as Democrats (2 percent) plan to drop health coverage when Obamacare’s individual mandate tax disappears next year, further indicating that politics plays into Americans’ coverage decisions.

The Commonwealth researchers ignore the policy implications of a political divide over purchasing health coverage. They propose reducing the uninsured rate through the usual toolkit Obamacare supporters rely upon to bolster the law: More funding for outreach; more affordability subsidies; more “stability” funding for insurers; more government-run insurance options, including the “public option.”

But if some Americans have purposefully dropped health coverage as a political statement—in opposition to Obamacare in general, the individual mandate in particular, or in solidarity with President Trump—no increase in subsidies, or cajoling via outreach programs, will persuade them to change their decisions. In fact, further policy debates about reinforcing Obamacare may only inflame partisan passions, recalling Ronald Reagan’s famous axiom about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

In the run-up to this November’s elections, Democrats plan to attack Republicans’ so-called “sabotage” of Obamacare. Senate Democrats’ campaign arm did just that within hours of the Commonwealth study’s release. But the evidence suggests that the partisanship of the past two years has contributed to the increase in the uninsured rate—meaning Democrats may be the ones sabotaging themselves.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Tom Price Accidentally Exposes Republicans’ Obamacare Problem

The Trump administration’s former Health and Human Services secretary could have changed his surname to Kinsley this week. Kinsley refers to columnist Michael, creator of the “Kinsley gaffe,” defined as “When a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

Price did just that on Tuesday, when in a speech he said provisions in the tax legislation effectively eliminating the individual mandate penalty “will actually harm the pool in the exchange market, because you’ll have individuals who are younger and healthier not participating in that market, and consequently, that drives up the cost for other folks within that market.”

But the remarks prompted the typical Washington food fight. Democrats had a field day, claiming that Republicans “sabotaged” Obamacare, and that Price took a contrary position last year, when he said repealing the mandate would lower health costs.

Within 24 hours, Price attempted to “clarify” his original comments, in a statement saying that “repealing the individual mandate was exactly the right thing to do. Forcing Americans to buy something they don’t want undermines individual liberty as well as free markets.”

Ironically enough given the controversy, it’s relatively easy to reconcile both Price’s original Tuesday comments and his Wednesday statement, when taking his earlier comments in their full context.

On Tuesday, Price said repealing the individual mandate “may help, but it still is nibbling at the side.” Price is exactly right. Repealing the individual mandate, while keeping the rest of Obamacare in place, only undoes a portion of the law—and a relatively small portion at that.

Particularly when viewed from a freedom perspective, repealing the mandate seems quite insufficient. Republicans prevented some Americans from incurring tax penalties for buying a product they may not want or could not afford. But what does repealing the mandate do to give Americans the affirmative choice to buy a product they can afford? Absolutely nothing

Admittedly, the administration has put forward some helpful proposals to give consumers more choices. But any fix done solely through regulations by definition carries major limitations—most notably the fact that any future presidential administration could, and any Democratic administration likely will, attempt to undermine or reverse the executive actions.

Price’s Tuesday comments hit at the point I originally made last fall, when Congress considered the tax bill: Repealing the individual mandate while leaving the regulations in place will raise premiums. The only question is how much. Healthy individuals will have a greater reason to avoid costly Obamacare coverage, making the remaining population sicker and costlier. This dynamic also motivated Congress to consider a “stability” (i.e., bailout) bill earlier this year, which sought to blunt the effects of premium increases by throwing taxpayer money at the problem.

But as I have previously written, “It’s the regulations, stupid!” Throwing money at the problem won’t fix the underlying problem. Only fixing the problem will. Rather than criticizing Price for his candid and impolitic comments, Republicans would do better to go back and work to pass legislation repealing the Obamacare regulations—to give people the freedom to buy coverage they want, rather than just eliminating penalties for people who refuse to buy coverage they don’t need or can’t afford.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Members of Congress Secretly Like Unpopular Omnibus Bills

On this website last week, conservative leaders Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) wrote a joint op-ed echoing my column from a few weeks previously, saying Congress remains on course for yet another omnibus spending bill debacle unless and until it reforms its procedures, and specifically starts considering, and passing, spending bills one-by-one, rather than in a catch-all bill enacted in a lame-duck session after the November elections.

All that sounds logical enough, at least to most individuals outside the Beltway. Why shouldn’t Congress do its job, and consider bills in a deliberative fashion, rather than jamming an entire year’s work into one must-pass vehicle totaling thousands of pages—a literal and figurative “Christmas tree” that usually passes in the waning days of December?

Reason 1: Members of Congress Are Lazy

I don’t mean “lazy” in the sense of goofing around. Most members work long hours, including difficult commutes back and forth to their districts every week. I mean “lazy” in the sense of not wanting to vote on difficult or politically controversial issues. In 2015, the House halted its consideration of appropriations bills because Republican leaders “worried that Democrats could try to offer more amendments related to the display of the Confederate flag that could again tie the GOP into knots.”

In Congress, appropriations bills generally operate under free-wheeling procedures, in which members can offer germane (i.e., relevant) amendments. Because the appropriations bills collectively cover all federal operations, and because members have few opportunities to offer amendments to other bills in both the House and the Senate, the spending bills become magnets for every conceivable controversy.

Consider some amendments that might get offered this year were Congress to consider spending bills individually:

  • Conservatives, particularly in the House, could seek to reduce or even eliminate funding for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation—amendments that moderate Republicans, or even Republican leaders, might oppose.
  • A bipartisan coalition would again offer amendments regarding medical marijuana—amendments that the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Pete Sessions (R-TX), has largely prevented from being considered on the House floor.
  • Democrats could offer political messaging amendments on issues ranging from President Trump’s tax returns to cabinet officers’ travel-related controversies to the emoluments clause—all issues that moderate Republicans, or Republicans with tough re-election campaigns, would not want to vote on prior to the midterm elections.

Members of Congress have become so accustomed to avoiding votes on tough issues that many recoil at the thought of reinstituting an open process. They may not say so outright, but many would prefer that leadership make the tough decisions for them behind closed doors, rather than forcing them into votes that could undermine their re-election prospects.

Reason 2: Members Want to Rig Outcomes

The Confederate flag flap also illustrated this dilemma for congressional leaders: “Some Republicans, primarily representing Southern states, found out about the amendment [banning display of the Confederate flag] after the fact and threatened to vote against the entire bill if it remained intact.” In other words, because some members did not achieve an outcome they wanted on the specific amendment, they were willing to take down the entire measure.

As I noted last fall, the House Freedom Caucus, which Jordan helped to found, has engaged in these kinds of tactics. Last summer, after moderate Republicans and Democrats combined to defeat an amendment prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for soldiers’ gender-reassignment surgery, conservatives went to congressional leaders and told them to insert the amendment in a spending bill, the prior vote notwithstanding.

As the old saying goes, the true test of a principle comes not when that principle proves convenient, but when it proves inconvenient. Only when members find themselves willing to take tough votes, and to abide by the outcome of those votes, even if it results in policy outcomes they disfavor, will the process become more open and transparent.

As I noted a few weeks ago, members already have the power to bring about that open and transparent process—the only question is if they have the wherewithal to use it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.