How D.C. Leaders Ignore Their Own Constituents on Health Care

The July 24 editorial “ ‘Here we go again’ ” misapportioned blame. Instead of attacking the House, the editorial should have examined the disregard the D.C. government has shown residents by passing a controversial requirement to purchase health coverage.

The D.C. Council opaquely enacted a major policy change, burying the provision in a 300-page bill featuring clerical amendments to things such as the Eastern Market Enterprise Fund. The council’s press release said not a word about the mandate’s enactment.

Second, the head of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority, which requested the mandate, refuses to buy the plans she sells. When I asked her about this in 2016, Mila Kofman claimed that buying an exchange plan would cause her to forfeit her employer subsidy. I find it absurd that an individual making more than $217,000 per year requires insurance subsidies yet wants to tax people such as me — who make far less yet receive no subsidies — who do not purchase a “government-approved” plan.

D.C. officials who complain about disregard from Congress should not deprecate or disregard their own residents. Unfortunately, passing laws surreptitiously, imposing requirements on others while not following them oneself, and ignoring constituent complaints all qualify.

This post was originally published at The Washington Post.

How the Obama Administration Hid Facts to Pass Obamacare

Over the weekend, Politico ran a report about how a “Trump policy shop filters facts to fit his message.” The article cited several unnamed sources complaining about the office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and its allegedly politicized role within the current administration.

One of the article’s anonymous sources called ASPE’s conduct over the past 18 months “another example of how we’re moving to a post-fact era.” Richard Frank, a former Obama appointee and one of the few sources to speak on the record, said that he found the current administration’s “attack on the integrity and the culture of the office…disturbing.”

As a congressional staffer conducting oversight of the CLASS Act in 2011-12, I reviewed thousands of pages of e-mails and documents from the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage. Those records strongly suggest that ASPE officials, including Frank, withheld material facts from Congress and the public about CLASS’s unsustainability, because full and prompt disclosure could have jeopardized Obamacare’s chances of passage.

About the CLASS Act ‘Ponzi scheme’

The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports program, or CLASS for short, intended to provide a voluntary insurance benefit for long-term care. Included as part of Obamacare, the program never got off the ground. In October 2011, HHS concluded it could not implement the program in an actuarially sound manner; Congress repealed the program entirely as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal enacted into law in the early days of 2013.

CLASS’s prime structural problem closely resembled that of the Obamacare exchanges—too many sick people, and not enough healthy ones. Disability lobbyists strongly supported the CLASS Act, hoping that it would provide financial support to individuals with disabilities. However, its voluntary nature meant that the more people already with disabilities enrolled and qualified for benefits, the higher premiums would rise, thereby discouraging healthy people from signing up.

Moreover, although actuarially questionable in the long-term, CLASS’s structure provided short-term fiscal benefits that aided Obamacare’s passage. Because CLASS required a five-year waiting period to collect benefits, the program would generate revenue early in its lifespan—and thus in the ten-year window budget analysts would use to score Obamacare—even if it could not maintain balance over a longer, 75-year timeframe.

This dynamic led the Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), to dub CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.”

Internal Concerns Minimized in Public

A report I helped draft, which several congressional offices released in September 2011—weeks before HHS concluded that program implementation would not go forward—highlighted concerns raised within the department during the debate on Obamacare about CLASS’ unsustainable nature. For instance, in September 2009, one set of talking points prepared by ASPE indicated that, even after changes made by Congress, CLASS “is still likely to create severe adverse selection problems”—i.e., too many sick people would enroll to make the program sustainable.

Frank told me that, during one public speech in October 2009, “I spent about half my time setting out the problems with CLASS that needed to be fixed.” He did indeed highlight some of the actuarial challenges the CLASS program faced. But Frank’s remarks, at a Kaiser Family Foundation event, closed thusly:

We’ve, in the department, have modeled this extensively, perhaps more extensively than anybody would want to hear about [laughter] and we’re entirely persuaded that reasonable premiums, solid participation rates, and financial solvency over the 75-year period can be maintained. So it is, on this basis, that the Administration supports it that the bill continues to sort of meet the standards of being able to stand on its own financial feet. Thanks.

Frank told me over the weekend that his comments “came at the end of my explaining that we were in the process of addressing those issues” (emphasis mine). But Frank actually said that the Obama administration was “entirely persuaded” of CLASS’ solvency, which gives the impression not that the department had begun a process of addressing those issues, but had already resolved them.

Frank’s public comments notwithstanding, ASPE had far from resolved the actuarial problems plaguing CLASS. Two days after his speech, one of Frank’s employees sent around an internal e-mail suggesting that the CLASS Act “seems like a recipe for disaster.”

But the ‘Fixes’ Fall Short

In response to these new analyses, HHS and ASPE came up with a package of technical fixes designed to make the CLASS program actuarially sound. One section of those fixes noted that “it is possible the authority in the bill to modify premiums will not be sufficient to ensure the program is sustainable.”

However, the proposed changes came too late:

  • No changes to the CLASS Act made it into the final version of Obamacare, which then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed in the Senate on December 19, 2009.
  • The election of Scott Brown (R-MA) to replace the late Kennedy in January 2010 prevented Democrats from fixing the CLASS Act through a House-Senate conference committee, as Brown had pledged to be the “41st Republican” in the Senate who would prevent a conference report from receiving a final vote.
  • While the House and Senate could (and did) pass some changes to Obamacare on a party-line vote through the budget reconciliation process, the Senate’s “Byrd rule” on inclusion of incidental matters in a budget reconciliation bill prevented them from addressing CLASS.

The White House’s own health care proposal, released in February 2010, discussed “a series of changes to the Senate bill to improve the CLASS program’s financial stability and ensure its long-run solvency.” But as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius later testified before the Senate Finance Committee, the “Byrd rule” procedures for budget reconciliation meant that those changes never saw the light of day—and could not make it into law.

Kinda Looks Like a Conspiracy of Silence

By the early months of 2010, officials at ASPE knew they had a program that they could not fix legislatively, and could fail as a result. Yet at no point between January 2010, when ASPE proposed its package of technical changes, through Obamacare’s enactment, did anyone within the administration admit that the program could prove impossible to implement.

Over the weekend, I asked Frank about this silence. He responded that “when the reconciliation package was shelved”—which I take to mean that the CLASS changes did not make it into the reconciliation bill, which did pass—“we began working on regulatory remedies that might address the flaws in CLASS.” However, from the outset some of Frank’s own employees believed those changes might prove insufficient to make the program actuarially sound, as it later proved.

To put it another way: In February 2011, Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee that “the snapshot [of CLASS] in the bill, I would absolutely agree, is totally unsustainable.” She, Frank, and others within the administration had known this fact one year previously: They just hoped they could arrive at a package of regulatory changes that would overcome the law’s structural flaws.

But did anyone within the administration disclose that CLASS was “totally unsustainable” as written back in February 2010? No, because doing so could have jeopardized Obamacare’s chances of passage. The law passed the House on a narrow 219-212 margin.

If HHS had publicly conceded that CLASS could become a “zombie” program—one that they could not fix, but could not remove—it would have caused a political firestorm, and raised broader questions about the bill’s fiscal integrity that could have prevented its enactment.

Was Obamacare Sold on a Lie?

Conservatives have pilloried Obamacare for the many false statements used to sell the law, from the infamous “Lie of the Year” that “If you like your plan, you can keep it” to the repeated promises about premium reductions, Barack Obama’s “firm pledge” to avoid middle-class tax increases, and on and on.

But there are sins of both commission and omission, and the CLASS Act falls into the latter category. Regardless of whether one uses the loaded term “lie” to characterize the sequence of events described above, the public statements by HHS officials surrounding the program prior to Obamacare’s enactment fell short of the full and unvarnished truth, both as they knew it at the time, and as events later proved.

Politico can write all it wants about ASPE under Trump “filter[ing] facts to fit his message.” But ASPE’s prior failure to disclose the full scope of problems the CLASS Act faced represents a textbook example of a bureaucracy hiding inconvenient truths to enact its agenda. If anonymous HHS bureaucrats now wish to attack a “post-fact era” under Trump, they should start by taking a hard look in the mirror at what they did under President Obama to enact Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will the Senate Make Exchange Heads Purchase Exchange Coverage?

This week, the Senate will likely consider a package of several appropriations measures. The legislation provides an opportunity for senators to offer, and possibly vote on, an amendment defunding the District of Columbia’s new health insurance mandate.

Because such an amendment, proposed by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), passed in the House last week, if a similar amendment passes the Senate, it would almost certainly remain in the final version enacted into law. As a result, residents of the nation’s capital would not face the threat of having their property seized if they cannot afford to purchase “government-approved” health insurance.

A Firsthand Display of Hypocrisy

I have seen up close how the heads of exchanges do not purchase exchange coverage. In the fall of 2016, CareFirst Blue Cross cancelled my exchange insurance policy, in part due to regulations promulgated by the District’s exchange authority.

To find out the reasons for the cancellation, I attended a meeting of the authority board. When I asked whether employees of the exchange purchase exchange coverage themselves, Mila Kofman, the exchange’s director, responded that doing so would cause employees to forfeit their employer insurance subsidy, making coverage unaffordable.

That explanation makes sense for junior employees making $40,000, $60,000, or even $80,000 annually. But it seems much less justifiable for Kofman. Kofman did not disclose it at the meeting I attended, but I later learned through DC public records that in 2016, she received a salary of more than $217,000—more than Mayor Muriel Bowser herself.

If Kofman cannot, or will not, purchase the exchange plans she sells without a subsidy, why would she, and the exchange board, support requiring residents making a fraction of her income to do so, and punishing them with taxes—and the threat of property seizure—if they do not?

‘1 Percenters’ Won’t Buy Exchange Coverage

Nor do the double-standards remain confined to the District of Columbia. The head of California’s exchange receives a salary putting him in “the 1 percent,” yet refuses to purchase the plans he sells.

I had previously recounted how Peter Lee, Covered California’s executive director, admitted to me at a briefing that his health insurance coverage comes through California’s state employee plan—at taxpayer expense, of course. Yet Covered California’s website lists his current monthly salary at a rate of $36,400, or a whopping $436,800 per year.

With all that money, does Lee really need to have taxpayers fund his health benefits as well? Does he think the policies Covered California sells so unaffordable, or so poor in quality, that he refuses to buy them? Or does he just feel entitled to have taxpayers fund his benefits on top of his fat paycheck because he thinks he’s better than we are?

The Amendment Concept

In theory, the Trump administration could have solved this problem months ago, by issuing regulations requiring all CEOs of state-run exchanges—and, for that matter, their board members too—to purchase plans from the exchanges. If those individuals consider exchange plans so inferior or unaffordable that they will not purchase them for themselves, then they have no business selling them in the first place.

(In case you were wondering, yes, I do believe that at the federal level, the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator should buy exchange plans. I previously criticized former CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt for failing publicly to disclose that he held exchange coverage during a Democratic administration, and I would be remiss not to point that out under a Republican one.)

At that point, people like Mila Kofman and Peter Lee will have a choice to make. They can determine whether they care more about keeping their taxpayer-funded health insurance benefits, or ensuring their constituents continue to have access to insurance subsidies. In short, they can choose whether they will finally put their principles ahead of their own pocketbooks—which they should have been doing all along.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

House Health Care Bills Show Misplaced Priorities

Why would House Republican leadership place the concerns of gym owners over those of pro-lifers? And why would that same leadership embrace a policy suggestion from the liberal group Families USA that could entrench Obamacare while raising premiums for young people?

While the House will consider legislation this week providing tax breaks to individuals who buy gym memberships, the House has yet to consider legislation cutting off tax breaks for abortion this Congress. On the latter front, an expansion of “copper” catastrophic insurance plans would effectively eliminate a regulatory provision that has lowered premiums for young Americans—another misplaced priority that could cause consternation for some conservatives.

What’s Inside Some Health Savings Account Legislation

However, Section 8 of one of the bills would allow for a $500 deduction for gym memberships or instruction, and a $250 deduction for safety equipment, as a qualified medical expense. The amounts would double for joint returns.

While just about everyone supports increasing Americans’ levels of physical activity, the provision seems questionable at best. The tax reform bill enacted not eight months ago attempted to eliminate these kinds of deductions from the tax code, creating a simpler, fairer process. This proposal would turn right around and add more complexity, by requiring the IRS to issue new regulations “to determine…what does not constitute a qualified physical activity, including golf, hunting, sailing, horseback riding, and other similar activities.”

The federal government already tries to do too many things, and has too great a role in Americans’ lives as it is. Do we really need the IRS determining what is, and is not, a “qualified physical activity?”

As for Abortion and HSAs

In fact, some pro-life leaders have opposed provisions that would allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund insurance premiums, because pro-lifers want to prohibit those funds from being used to pay for abortion coverage (or abortions period). But the House has yet to vote this Congress on limiting abortion as a qualified medical expense.

The pro-life legislation that the House voted on in January 2017, H.R. 7, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), prohibited taxpayer dollars from funding abortion in all cases, including Obamacare exchange plans. However, it did not address preferences in the tax code relating to abortion, such as the qualified medical expense deduction.

It seems that the House Ways and Means Committee, which marked up the bills in question, cares more about satisfying lobbyists than responding to their large pro-life constituency. From gym owners to device makers—who have lobbied intently for the Obamacare device tax repeal that the House will also consider this week—the series of health care bills contains myriad provisions, some good and some not-so-good, advocated by business lobbyists. Unfortunately, pro-life advocates have yet to receive similar consideration.

Unintended Consequences of Expanding ‘Copper’ Plans

However, because only certain individuals currently qualify for “copper” plans, insurers can adjust their premiums downward accordingly. Section 1312 of Obamacare contains a single risk pool requirement, meaning that insurers must rate all their products in a given state as a single book of business in determining premium rates. But a rule the Obama administration released in 2013 included a special exception to that provision for “copper” plans. These catastrophic plans may adjust their rates to reflect “the expected impact of the specific eligibility categories.”

In other words, because primarily young individuals enroll in catastrophic plans, insurers can at present lower their premiums to reflect that fact. However, by making everyone eligible for “copper” coverage, the House bill would effectively eliminate this adjustment, thus raising premiums for the 18- to 29-year-old individuals enrolled in the plans.

Effects of the ‘Copper’ Change

Catastrophic plans have not proven particularly popular on the exchange market, with only 1 percent of enrollees purchasing them as of earlier this year. However, that lack of popularity arises because individuals receiving premium subsidies (i.e., most of the people buying coverage directly from the exchange) cannot apply those subsidies to “copper” plans.

Paradoxical as it may sound, expanding these popular plans to all age groups could actually curb their appeal. While a recent eHealth analysis claims that an expansion of “copper” plans could save near-seniors (i.e., those aged 55-64) an average of $4,608 per year, it likely will not do so. eHealth’s analysis compares the current 41 percent differential between “copper” premiums and bronze premiums to arrive at its figure.

However, as noted above, the current “copper” rates assume enrollment primarily by individuals under 30. eHealth’s analysis thus compares rates for a market of individuals aged 18-29 to a market of individuals aged 18-64—which explains the 41-percentage point difference in premiums. But if “copper” plans expand to all ages, that premium differential will narrow—and premiums for the 18-29 population will likely increase.

Single Risk Pool Bolsters Obamacare

More to the point: The “copper” plan provision includes language reinforcing Obamacare’s single risk pool. It also undermines the intent of last year’s Consumer Freedom Amendment, offered in the Senate by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), which would have allowed for the sale of non-compliant plans alongside Obamacare-compliant plans.

The difference on this one provision speaks to a broader philosophical debate. Moderates want to support Obamacare’s exchanges by passing “stability” legislation and expanding subsidies. So does Families USA, which in December 2012 submitted a comment to the Department of Health and Human Services opposing the rate adjustment provision for catastrophic plans, because it could tend to segment the market.

By contrast, conservatives want to offer people lifeboats away from the exchanges—options such as short-term insurance plans, association health plans, and the like. On that front, this week’s legislation does not advance the ball, and expanding “copper” plans could on balance represent a step back.

Thankfully, House leadership did not end up attaching attach an insurer bailout to this week’s HSA bills, after early rumblings in that direction. But the fact that conservatives even need to have these discussions speak to the ways in which many House Republicans want to strengthen Obamacare rather than repealing it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberal Think-Tank Admits Obamacare’s Failures

Once again, the movement to expand government-run health care continues apace. No sooner had one think tank published a paper calling for the return of an individual mandate at the federal level than the liberal Commonwealth Fund published a paper, released on Friday, calling for states to impose their own Obamacare-style mandates at the state level.

However, the paper proves most interesting for what it tacitly admits. Over time, Commonwealth believes that more and more people will purchase coverage solely due to a government order—because health costs and premiums will continue to rise. Because Obamacare failed to control health costs, more and more individuals will purchase health coverage only under the threat of government-imposed taxation. That’s Commonwealth’s version of health “reform.”

Late Wednesday evening, the House of Representatives adopted the amendment by a 226-189 vote. Next week, the Senate could take up its version of the District of Columbia appropriations bill. If a similar amendment passes on the Senate floor, then the final version of the appropriations measure likely will contain the defunding language—thus preventing individuals who do not buy “government-approved” health coverage from having their property seized by DC authorities.

Longer-Term Effects of the Mandate

As to the Commonwealth report itself: It concludes that enacting an individual mandate in all 50 states would increase insurance coverage by roughly 3.9 million in 2019. Nearly half of those individuals (1.7 million) would comprise individuals purchasing unsubsidized exchange coverage—the people for whom Bill Clinton said Obamacare was the “craziest thing in the world,” because they don’t receive subsidies (which might explain why they won’t purchase insurance unless the government taxes them for not doing so). Individuals enrolling in Medicaid (600,000), subsidized exchange policies (1.1 million), and employer plans (450,000) comprise the rest of the coverage gains.

Particularly noteworthy however: In 2022—just four years from now—the mandate will lead 7.5 million people to obtain health coverage, or nearly twice the 2019 total. Commonwealth explains the reasoning:

As health care costs get more expensive relative to incomes over time, fewer people tend to purchase insurance and the number of uninsured rises. However, with an individual mandate in place, the effect of health care cost growth is lessened because more people hold on to their insurance to comply with the mandate. As a result, the effect of the individual mandate on reducing the number of people without insurance increases over time in percentage terms.

Wasn’t Obamacare Supposed to Reduce Health Costs?

The obvious question: Why would health care costs continue to “get more expensive relative to income over time”? Wasn’t Obamacare supposed to fix all that?

Recall that during his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly promised that his health plan would cut families’ premiums by $2,500 per year. Commonwealth provided some of the intellectual firepower behind the pledge, releasing in 2007 a report that it claimed could save $1.5 trillion in health expenditures over 10 years. Many of that report’s proposals, although not all (limiting Medicare’s coverage of expensive drugs and treatments being an obvious exception), made their way into the measure that became Obamacare.

In 2013, Commonwealth upped the ante, releasing another report whose recommendations promised $2 trillion in lower health spending over a decade. Yet Commonwealth’s report released Friday admits that health costs in 2022 will continue to rise faster than income, resulting in more and more people feeling squeezed to afford coverage. At this rate, Commonwealth should stop putting out reports talking about all the health costs we could save. Our country can’t afford them.

The Left’s Arrogant Conceit

I’ll give the last word to—of all people—Barack Obama. In 2010, he talked about how he didn’t want to “give the keys back” to people who “didn’t know how to drive.” The Commonwealth report makes plain that despite all the intrusions on freedom Obamacare included, it didn’t accomplish its supposed goal of making health care more affordable. (And no, using government to re-distribute money doesn’t qualify as making the underlying cost of care more “affordable.”)

Given that dynamic, who would want to give people like the researchers at Commonwealth even more control over the health care system? The question should answer itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Preserving Health Care Freedom in the Nation’s Capital

Two weeks ago, I described how provisions in a budget bill that the District of Columbia Council quietly passed would extend the reach of government-controlled health care in the nation’s capital. The provisions buried in that budget bill would not only reimpose the health insurance mandate penalty within the District of Columbia that Congress set to zero beginning in January, but would go further, by allowing DC authorities to place liens on, seize, and sell the property of individuals who cannot afford to pay the mandate tax.

Thankfully, my post had its intended effect in raising awareness of the issue among federal policy-makers. The office of Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) responded, introducing an amendment to appropriations legislation that the House of Representatives will consider this week.

Prevents Affordable Options from Qualifying 

The Palmer amendment would also allow individuals to purchase the type of health coverage they desire without getting hit with a “stealth” tax bill after-the-fact. If the District’s law goes into effect in January, individuals buying the new, more affordable coverage options proposed by the Trump administration could face exactly that.

The mandate the DC Council approved (see pages 168-82 here) effectively re-imposes on the District Obamacare’s individual mandate as it existed last December 15—the date the congressional conferees on the tax bill filed their conference report (i.e., before legislation setting the federal mandate penalty to zero was signed into law). By linking the District’s mandate to the policies and regulations in place as of last December 15, the DC mandate also prevents the new options the Trump administration is introducing from qualifying as “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of complying with the mandate.

For instance, the DC law defines “minimum essential coverage” as “minimum essential coverage as defined by section 5000A of the [federal] Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and its implementing regulations, as that section and its implementing regulations were in effect on December 15, 2017.” It further specifies that “minimum essential coverage” shall include:

Health coverage provided under a multiple employer welfare arrangement; provided that the multiple employer welfare arrangement provided coverage in the District on December 15, 2017, or complies with federal law and regulations applicable to multiple employer welfare arrangements that were in place as of December 15, 2017.

Locks Out Short-Term Coverage, Too

The District’s statute also would exclude short-term health plans from qualifying as “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of its health insurance mandate. Obamacare itself defined “minimum essential coverage” to include “coverage under a health plan offered in the individual market within a state.” But because another portion of federal law says “‘individual health insurance coverage’ means health insurance coverage offered to individuals in the individual market, but does not include short-term limited duration insurance,” short-term plans would not qualify.

Obamacare did give the secretary of Health and Human Services, along with the secretary of the Treasury, discretion in determining other forms of “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of the federal mandate. However, because the District linked its mandate to those federal definitions in effect as of December 15, 2017—well before the Trump administration first proposed its changes to the regulation of short-term plans on February 20, 2018—short-term plans would not qualify as acceptable coverage under the District’s mandate.

District residents who purchase short-term plans, like those who access the expanded association health plans, would not comply with the new coverage requirements. Particularly given the very quiet way the DC Council enacted the legislation, many individuals may not know that the District re-imposed a health insurance mandate or that certain types of coverage do not comply with it, and face an unpleasant tax “surprise” in the spring of 2020 (as they file their DC tax returns for 2019). Unless, of course, Congress enacts the Palmer amendment into law.

Congress’s Constitutional Duty

Moreover, it also belies the fact that DC officials made little attempt—one could argue purposefully made little attempt—to publicize the council’s deliberations over this change. I e-mailed three people in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s press office about the council’s actions two weeks ago, and still have yet to receive so much as an acknowledgement.

Bowser can argue all she wants about “Taxation without Representation,” but given that her office made zero attempt to represent me, she has little right to complain. The House should pass the Palmer amendment this week, and prevent the strong-arm tactics associated with government-controlled health care from taking root in the nation’s capital.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ Ridiculous Health Care Charges Against Brett Kavanaugh

So much for subtle. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) placed health care at the top of the list of reasons to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, throwing in some over-the-top rhetoric in the process:

We Democrats believe the No. 1 issue in America is health care and the ability for people to get good health care at prices they can afford. The nomination of Mr. Kavanaugh would put a dagger through the heart of that cherished belief that most Americans have.

Put aside for a moment that Obamacare itself has “put a dagger through the heart” of people’s ability “to get good health care at prices they can afford” by more than doubling individual insurance premiums during President Obama’s second term. The idea that a pending lawsuit would allow the Supreme Court to strike down Obamacare, and that a Justice Kavanaugh would cast the deciding vote to do so, ranges from implausible to ridiculous, for at least three reasons.

Second, as I previously noted, Kavanaugh wrote an opinion in 2011 that, while deferring a definitive judgment on the merits, suggested an inclination to uphold Obamacare’s mandate as constitutional. In one footnote of his opinion, Kavanaugh noted that “the fact that an exaction is not labeled a tax does not vitiate Congress’s [sic] power under the Taxing Clause.” To Kavanaugh, it mattered not that Congress said the mandate was not a tax to justify it as such under the Constitution—the same logic that troubled conservatives about Roberts’ ruling in the mandate case.

Kavanaugh did seem troubled by the fact that Obamacare contains both a statutory requirement to buy coverage and a penalty (“tax”) for those who fail to do so. But another footnote suggested a way out:

At oral argument, counsel for the Government argued that a citizen who refused to obtain health insurance would still be acting lawfully. If that were true, the mandate would presumably pass muster under the Taxing Clause. But it is not evident that the statutory language is fairly susceptible to such an interpretation. That said, perhaps the canon of constitutional avoidance would allow such an interpretation of this provision and thereby squeeze it within the Taxing Clause.

Roberts did exactly what Kavanaugh suggested, eliminating the “perhaps” from Kavanaugh’s last sentence, and defending the mandate as permissible under Congress’ Taxing Clause power.

Wall Street firms often note that past performance does not equate to future results, a motto worth noting here. But it seems highly unlikely that a judge willing to justify what Congress itself termed a “penalty” as a tax, and who cited the “canon of constitutional avoidance” as a way to uphold Obamacare, would suddenly vote to strike down the entire law—after Congress just last year declined to do so. (In fact, the Supreme Court may not even vote to hear the case at all.) All this makes Schumer’s talk of “dagger[s] through the heart” so much noise.

Schumer’s Strategy Could Be Improved

One could make a compelling argument that, if Schumer really wanted to defeat the Kavanaugh nomination, he would take the opposite tack, and “hug him close” on Obamacare. An exercise in trolling conservatives could cause them some serious discomfort: “We know Judge Kavanaugh would uphold Obamacare at the Supreme Court, because he laid the roadmap for saving Obamacare there six years ago.”

But Schumer has instead tried to play the health care card against Kavanaugh, for any number of potential reasons.

  • He worries about over-emphasizing abortion rights during the confirmation process, which could cause political heartburn for several Senate Democrats running for re-election this year in states Donald Trump won in 2016;
  • He wants to preview themes Democrats will push in the election campaign this fall;
  • He doesn’t want to anger Democrats’ base by conceding the health care issue, as they want him to fight Kavanaugh’s nomination and support Obamacare, even if doing so could improve the chances of defeating the nomination; and/or
  • He thinks it unlikely he can defeat Kavanaugh, and wants to keep his caucus united rather than make a long-shot tactical gamble that could divide Democrats.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans Hide Obamacare Bailout Inside Health Savings Account Bill

Cue the scene from “Poltergeist”: “They’re baa-ack.” The Obamacare bailout seekers, that is.

Multiple Capitol Hill sources confirmed to me on Wednesday morning that the House Ways and Means Committee’s markup of health savings account (HSA)-related legislation later in the day comes with a potential ulterior motive: Committee and leadership staff want to resurrect this spring’s failed Obamacare “stability” legislation—and see the HSA provisions as a way to do so.

This Is a Bad Deal for Conservatives

The leadership gambit seems simple: with the HSA provisions, placate conservatives who (rightly) don’t want to bail out Obamacare, and allow the package to pass the House solely with Republican votes—because Democrats likely won’t vote to support any “stability” legislation imposing robust pro-life protections. With Democrats intending to make Obamacare premium increases an issue in the November elections, House leaders think the vote would inoculate vulnerable Republicans from political attacks by the Left.

But a “stability” vote would demoralize the Right, by showing how completely Republicans have caved on their repeal promises. It would also set a horrible precedent, officially declaring Obamacare “too big to fail,” which would put taxpayers on the hook for an ever-increasing flow of bailout funds.

That flow would soon vastly overwhelm any small amount of HSA incentives that conservatives received in exchange for their vote. Eventually, lawmakers would run out of other people’s money to spend propping up Obamacare.

Questionable Policies

The best bills on the Ways and Means agenda contain broad policies that will expand HSAs’ reach. In this group: A bill increasing HSA contribution limits; another bill allowing seniors eligible for (but not enrolled in) Medicare Part A to continue making HSA contributions; and legislation ensuring that all Obamacare bronze and catastrophic plans qualify for HSA contributions.

Other, more targeted measures that would expand the types of services HSA plans can cover could have a mixed effect. By allowing coverage for more services below a plan’s high deductible, they could draw more people to choose HSA coverage, but could also raise premiums for HSA plans.

Non-HSA Legislation Bears Attention, Too

Most troubling: The two pieces of legislation on the committee’s agenda not directly related to HSAs. The description of one bill hints at its inherent flaw:

The bill provides an off-ramp from Obamacare’s rising premiums and limited choices by allowing the premium tax credit to be used for qualified plans offered outside of the law’s exchanges and Healthcare.gov. In addition, it expands access to the lowest-premium plans available (‘catastrophic’ plans) for all individuals purchasing coverage in the individual market and allows the premium tax credit to be used to offset the cost of such plans.

Another bill suspending two Obamacare taxes sounds appealing on its face, but would have negative consequences. Suspending Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” for two more years (until 2022) would further weaken an effort in that law (albeit a poorly designed one) to change current incentives that encourage people to over-consume employer-provided health insurance and thus health care. In short, it would encourage the growth of health care costs, rather than working to lower them.

The bill’s effort to repeal the employer mandate for years 2014 through 2018 likewise could have unintended consequences. The bill only repeals the employer mandate retrospectively likely because doing so prospectively (i.e., for 2019 and future years) could encourage employer “dumping”—businesses dropping coverage and sending their workers to the exchanges, which could raise spending on Obamacare insurance subsidies. While the retrospective nature of that legislation could mitigate any “dumping” in the short term, if employers think Congress will continue to weaken the mandate in future years, they could view that as an incentive to drop coverage.

This Is Not a Good Deal

The Ways and Means Committee package includes some very good HSA-related bills, some potentially harmful bills that could further entrench Obamacare, and some bills that may not have much effect. Regardless of the individual bills’ specific merits, they certainly do not warrant conservatives’ approval for a massive “stability” package in the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Andy Slavitt Sabotaged Obamacare

Over the weekend, former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) acting administrator and Obamacare defender Andy Slavitt took to Twitter to denounce what he viewed as the Trump administration’s “aggressive and needless sabotage” of the health care law:

Unfortunately for Slavitt, the facts suggest otherwise. The Trump administration took actions to comply with a federal court order that vacated rules promulgated by the Obama administration—including rules CMS issued when Slavitt ran the agency. If Slavitt wants to denounce the supposed “sabotage” of Obamacare, he need look no further than the nearest mirror.

What’s the Issue?

This legal dispute involves risk adjustment payments, one of the three “Rs” Obamacare created. Unlike the risk corridor and reinsurance programs, which lasted only from 2014 through 2016, Obamacare made the risk adjustment program permanent.

In general, risk adjustment transfers funds from insurers with healthier-than-average enrollment to insurers with sicker-than-average enrollment. Without risk adjustment, plans would have perverse incentives to avoid enrolling sick people, due to the Obamacare regulations that require insurers to accept all applicants, and prohibit them from charging higher premiums due to health status.

Since the Obamacare exchanges began operations in 2014, many newer and smaller insurers say that the federal risk adjustment formula unfairly advantages incumbent carriers—in many cases, local Blue Cross Blue Shield plans. The small carriers complain that larger insurers do a better job of documenting their enrollees’ health conditions (e.g., diabetes, etc.), entitling them to larger risk adjustment payments.

A July 2016 analysis concluded that “for most co-ops, these recently announced risk adjustment payments have made a bad situation worse, and for a subset, they may prove to be the proverbial last straw.” Indeed, most Obamacare co-ops failed, and the risk adjustment methodology proved one reason. Two co-ops—Minuteman Health in Massachusetts (now in receivership) and New Mexico Health Connections—sued to challenge the risk adjustment formula.

What Happened in the Lawsuits?

On January 30, a federal district court in Massachusetts ruled in favor of the federal government with respect to Minuteman Health’s case. Judge Dennis Saylor ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner when setting the risk adjustment formula.

However, a few weeks later, on February 28, another federal district court in New Mexico granted partial summary judgement in favor of New Mexico Health Connections, ruling that one element of the risk adjustment formula—the use of statewide average premium (discussed further below)—violated the Administrative Procedure Act as arbitrary and capricious. Judge James Browning vacated that portion of the risk adjustment formula for the years 2014 through 2018, and remanded the matter back to HHS and CMS for further proceedings.

If the Trump administration wanted to use the risk adjustment ruling to “sabotage” Obamacare, as people like Slavitt claim, it would have halted the program immediately after Browning issued his order in February. Instead, the administration on March 28 filed a motion to have Browning reconsider his decision in light of the contrary ruling in the Minuteman Health case.

The administration also asked Browning to lift his order vacating the risk adjustment formula, and just remand the matter to CMS/HHS instead. In that case, the rule would remain in effect, but the administration would have to alter it to comply with Browning’s ruling. However, at a June 21 hearing, Browning seemed disinclined to accept the government’s request—which likely led to the CMS announcement this weekend.

Who Issued ‘Arbitrary and Capricious’ Rules?

The Obama administration did, in all cases. Browning’s ruling vacated a portion of the risk adjustment formula for plan years 2014 through 2018 (i.e., the current one). Even though President Trump took office on January 20, 2017, the outgoing Obama administration rushed out rules for the 2018 plan year on December 22, 2016, with the rules taking effect just prior to Obama leaving office.

However, Browning believed the statute does not require budget neutrality—it does not prohibit it, nor does it require it. Therefore, the administration needed to provide a “policy rationale” for its budget neutrality assumption. For instance, HHS could have argued that, because Obamacare did not include a separate appropriation for the risk adjustment program, implementing risk adjustment in a budget neutral manner would prevent the diversion of taxpayer resources from other programs.

But as Browning noted, “the Court must rely upon the rationale the agency articulated in its internal proceedings and not upon post hoc reasoning.” HHS did not explain the reasoning behind budget neutrality in its final rules for the 2014 plan year, nor for several years thereafter.

While both the 2011 white paper and 2014 rules (the final version of which HHS released in March 2013) preceded the July 2014 start of Slavitt’s tenure in senior management at CMS, the agency released rules for the 2016, 2017, and 2018 plan years on his watch. If Slavitt believes “sabotage” occurred as a result of Browning’s court ruling, he should accept his share of the responsibility for it, by issuing rules that a federal judge struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Ironically, as one observer noted, the federal government “argued that the court’s ruling as it applies to the 2018 benefit year should be set aside because the agency responded directly to comments regarding its rationale for budget neutrality in the final 2018 payment rule.” However, Browning held that “subsequent final rules” did “not elaborate further on [HHS’] budget neutrality rationale,” and struck down the 2018 rule along with the rules for 2014 through 2017.

Browning’s decision to strike down the 2018 rule demonstrates Slavitt’s “sabotage.” HHS released that rule months after Minuteman Health and New Mexico Health Connections filed their lawsuits, and thus had adequate time to adjust the rule in response to their claims. Regardless, Browning thought the agency did not elaborate upon or justify its policy reasoning regarding budget neutrality in the risk adjustment program—a direct swipe at Slavitt’s inability to manage the regulatory process inside his agency.

What Would Andy Slavitt Do Instead?

On Friday night, Slavitt claimed that an interim final rule could “clarify and resolve everything:”

However, on Sunday, Slavitt tweeted a link to a New York Times article entitled “A Fatal Flaw as Trump Tries to Remake Health Care: Shortcuts.” That article cited several court cases “that the Administration has lost [that] have a common theme: Federal judges have found that the Administration cut corners in trying to advance its political priorities.” It continues:

Two federal courts blocked Trump Administration rules that would have allowed employers who provide health insurance to employees to omit contraceptive coverage if the employers had moral or religious objections. Two federal judges, in separate cases, said the Administration had violated the law by adopting the rules without a public comment period, which the Trump Administration had declared ‘impracticable and contrary to the public interest.’

Those rules regarding the contraception mandate that the Trump administration adopted “without a public comment,” and which were struck down as unlawful, were both interim final rules—the same type of rule Slavitt now wants to use to change the risk adjustment formula. (Interim final rules do require the agency to take comments, but go into effect on the date of their release—thus notice-and-comment occurs retroactively.)

Nicholas Bagley, an Obamacare supporter, explained at the time of their release why he thought the contraception rules would get stricken (as they were) for violating the notice-and-comment requirement. It’s certainly possible that the administration could use Browning’s ruling as a reason to justify forgoing notice-and-comment, and releasing an interim final rule

But it also makes sense that, given the series of legal setbacks the administration has suffered in recent weeks—and the Times article highlighted—officials at CMS and HHS would take a more cautious approach to issuing regulations, to ensure their actions withstand legal scrutiny.

More to the point, it’s disingenuous of Slavitt to tweet an article criticizing the Trump administration for using interim final rules to enact policies he dislikes, then accuse the administration of “sabotage” for not using that same expedited process for policies he likes. It’s even more disingenuous for Slavitt given that the legal dilemma the Trump administration faces regarding risk adjustment comes entirely from a mess they inherited from the Obama administration—and Slavitt himself.

On Sunday, Slavitt cited a conservative article that in his view “called out Trump’s motivation for ending risk adjustment and raise [sic] premiums on millions: Punishing a former President.” Maybe the next time Slavitt makes allegations about supposed “sabotage” by the Trump administration, he should get his facts straight—CMS’s announcement didn’t “end” the risk adjustment program; only Congress can do that—rather than making unfounded against the current president.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C.’s Latest Health “Reform:” Seizing People’s Property

Just when you think the move for government control of health care couldn’t get any worse, somehow it manages to. Last Wednesday, the District of Columbia City Council approved a requirement for all DC residents to purchase health insurance. The mandate would take effect in January, right when the federal mandate penalty drops to $0, as per last year’s tax law.

The D.C. mandate contains three elements that make it just as bad as, if not worse than, the federal mandate it is intended to replace.

A (Deliberately?) Opaque Process

A cynic might believe that the D.C. Council acted in such a low-key manner by design. The council did not approve the mandate as a stand-alone bill, but wrapped it into a 297-page Budget Support Act. That bill contains such unrelated provisions as an amendment regarding the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, technical corrections to a supermarket tax incentive program, and amendments regarding civic associations using public schools.

Likewise, a press release by the D.C. Council summarizing Wednesday’s meeting contained not a word about imposing the individual mandate, nor did the council website show any stand-alone votes on the mandate itself. This lack of disclosure pushed me to contact my council member, Charles Allen, to find out what had happened at the council meeting Wednesday.

Upon hearing that the mandate as passed of a much larger package, I asked one of Allen’s staffers whether this provision had been “snuck in at the last minute.” The staffer said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had proposed the mandate as part of her budget submission to the council back in March. He then rather sheepishly added that, while people had testified on behalf of other portions of the Budget Support Act, no one had spoken about the mandate specifically.

For a district that decries “Taxation Without Representation,” this Nancy Pelosi-esque behavior—where we literally had to pass the bill to find out what was in it—seems to embody the very congressional tactics that DC leaders love to hate.

Harsher Penalties for Violators

During the 2009-10 debate on Obamacare, the threat of penalties for violating the individual mandate became a source of intense controversy. During the Senate Finance Committee’s markup, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) received a handwritten note from Thomas Barthold, head of the Joint Committee on Taxation, stating that, under federal law, non-payment of the mandate tax could result in imprisonment. Democrats buckled under this political pressure, removing from the Internal Revenue Service the power to imprison violators, or impose liens on personal property, for non-payment of the mandate tax.

By contrast, the district’s mandate—which comprises pages 168-182 of the Budget Support Act—includes this language at the bottom of page 180: “A taxpayer who fails to pay the District of Columbia shared responsibility payment imposed…shall be subject to all collection, enforcement, and administrative provisions applicable to unpaid taxes or fees, as provided in Chapter 18, Chapter 41, Chapter 42, Chapter 43, and Chapter 44 of this title [emphasis mine].”

Unlike the federal Internal Revenue Code, it does not appear at first glance that the district’s tax law allows for imprisoning individuals for non-payment of taxes (as opposed to deliberate tax evasion or fraud). However, Chapter 44 includes the following language:

If a person determined to be liable to the District of Columbia for a tax neglects or refuses to pay the tax within 10 days after notice and demand, the Mayor may collect the tax, with interest and penalties thereon (and an amount sufficient to cover the expenses of the levy), by levy upon all property (including rights to property) of the person or on which there is a lien provided in this chapter for the payment of the tax.

No wonder the D.C. Council didn’t want to hold an up-or-down vote on just this provision.

Hypocrisy Much?

Another relevant fact to the district’s mandate: The head of the District’s health insurance exchange—which recommended creating a DC mandate following the removal of the federal tax penalty—doesn’t buy exchange coverage herself. As I previously noted, many exchange heads (and Obamacare supporters) refuse to buy the coverage they promote, including the head of the district’s exchange, Mila Kofman.

When I discovered in late 2016 that I could not retain that plan in 2017, due in part to regulations imposed by the district’s exchange, I attended a meeting of the exchange authority. I asked Kofman whether she, and other exchange employees, purchased exchange coverage. She claimed that she and her colleagues could not purchase exchange policies, because they would lose their employer subsidy in the process.

I don’t know whether Bowser and the DC Council behave similarly to Kofman, but I can guess. On Thursday afternoon, I e-mailed Bowser’s office asking about the DC insurance mandate, and whether Bowser received a taxpayer subsidy for her insurance coverage. (The district’s mayor receives a salary of $200,000 annually.) I also asked what Bowser would “say to District residents like me—who make far less in salary than she does, yet do not receive [taxpayer-]subsidized benefits—being forced to buy coverage under penalty not just of taxation, but of property seizures through DC’s tax enforcement mechanisms?”

Wouldn’t you know it: I have yet to receive a response.

Here Are Some Policy Solutions

Thankfully, several of the policy and process problems outlined above contain within them readily achievable solutions:

  • The D.C. Council should pass legislation requiring the mayor, council, exchange CEO, and exchange board members to buy coverage through the exchange—without using separate taxpayer-funded benefits available to other district employees.
  • If the council will not act, the Trump administration could promulgate regulations requiring the CEOs and board members of all state-run exchanges (including the district’s) to buy the coverage they promote and oversee.
  • Congress could also exercise its constitutional prerogatives and strike down the district’s individual mandate, ensuring that no individuals will have their property seized by an overzealous government if they cannot afford to buy “bureaucrat-approved” health insurance.

Better yet: The District of Columbia Council could decide to stop micromanaging its residents’ health care by surreptitiously passing onerous mandates in legislation that few district residents know about.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.