How an Obscure Regulatory Change Could Transform American Health Insurance

Between the election campaign and incidents of terrorism ranging from attempted bombings to a synagogue shooting, an obscure regulatory proposal by the Trump administration has yet to captivate the public’s attention. However, it has the potential to change the way millions of Americans obtain health insurance.

In the United States, unique among industrialized countries, most Americans under age 65 receive health coverage from their employers. This occurs largely due to an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruling issued during World War II, which excluded health insurance coverage from income and payroll taxes. (Businesses viewed providing health insurance as one way around wartime wage and price controls.)

The Trump administration’s proposed rule would, if finalized, allow businesses to make a pretax contribution towards individual health insurance—that is, coverage that individuals own and select, rather than employers. This change may take time to have an impact, but it could lead to a much more portable system of health insurance—which would help to solve the pre-existing condition problem.

How Would It Work?

Under the proposed rule, employers could provide funds through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) to subsidize the purchase of individual health insurance. Employers could provide the funds on a pretax basis, and—provided that the workers purchase their coverage outside of the Obamacare exchanges—employees could pay their share of the premiums on a tax-free basis as well.

In practical terms, some employers may choose to provide a subsidy for health coverage—say, $300 per month, or $5,000 per year—in lieu of offering a firm-sponsored health plan. Individuals could go out and buy the plan they want, which covers the doctors whom they use, rather than remaining stuck with the plan their employer offers. And employers would get better predictability for their health expenses by knowing their exposure would remain fixed to the sums they contribute every year.

Could Employers Game the System?

The proposed rule acknowledged the possibility that employers might try to “offload” their costliest patients into individual health coverage, lowering expenses (and therefore premiums) for the people who remain. The rule contains several provisions designed to protect against this possibility.

Employers must choose to offer either an HRA contribution towards individual coverage or a group health plan. They cannot offer both options, and whatever option they select, they must make the same decision for an entire class of workers.

A “class” of workers would mean all full-time employees, or all part-time employees, or all employees under one collective bargaining agreement. Hourly and salaried workers would not count as separate “classes,” because firms could easily convert workers from one form of compensation to another. These provisions seek to ensure that firms will offer some employees health insurance, while “dumping” other employees on to individual coverage.

Can Workers Buy Short-Term Coverage with Employer Funds?

Yes—and no. The proposed rule would allow HRA funds to purchase only individual (i.e., Obamacare-compliant) health insurance coverage, not short-term insurance.

However, the rule creates a separate type of account to which employers could contribute that would fund workers’ “excepted benefits.” This term could include things like long-term care insurance, vision and dental insurance, and the new short-term plans the Trump administration has permitted. But employers could only fund these accounts up to a maximum of $1,800 per year, and they could create these special “excepted benefits” accounts only if they do not offer an HRA that reimburses workers for individual insurance, as outlined above.

Will Firms Drop Health Coverage?

Some firms may explore the HRA option over time. However, the extent to which businesses embrace defined-contribution coverage may depend upon the viability of the individual health insurance market, and the status of the labor market.

However, if and when more insurers return to the marketplace, firms may view the defined-contribution method of health coverage as a win-win: employees get more choices and employers get predictability over health costs. Particularly if unemployment ticks upward, or one firm in an industry makes the move towards the HRA model, other businesses may follow suit in short order.

Will the Proposal Cost Money?

It could. The proposed rule should cost the federal government $29.7 billion over the first ten years. That estimate assumes that 800,000 firms, offering coverage to 10.7 million people, will use the HRA option by 2028. (It also assumes an 800,000 reduction in the number of uninsured Americans by that same year.)

The cost, or savings, to the federal government could vary widely, depending on factors like:

  • Whether firms using the HRA option previously offered coverage. If firms that did not offer coverage take the HRA option, pretax health insurance payments would increase, reducing tax revenues. (The rule assumes a reduction in income and payroll tax revenue of $13 billion in 2028.)
  • Whether individuals enrolling in individual market coverage via the HRA option are more or less healthy than current enrollees. If the new enrollees are less healthy than current enrollees, individual market premiums will rise, as will spending on Obamacare subsidies for those individuals. (The rule assumes a 1 percent increase in individual market premiums, and thus exchange subsidies.)
  • The extent to which HRAs affect eligibility for Obamacare subsidies. If some low-income individuals whose employers previously did not offer coverage now qualify for HRA subsidies, they may lose eligibility for Obamacare subsidies on the exchanges. (The rule assumes a reduction in Obamacare subsidies of $6.9 billion in 2028.)

Given the many variables in play, the rule has a highly uncertain fiscal impact. It could cost the federal government billions (or more) per year, save the federal government similar sums, or have largely offsetting effects.

An Overdue (and Welcome) Change

The proposed rule would codify the last element of last October’s executive order on health care. It follows the release of rules regarding both short-term health insurance and association health plans earlier this year.

Ironically, the Trump administration represents but the most recent Republican presidency to examine the possibility of defined-contribution health insurance. While working on Capitol Hill in 2008, I tried to encourage the Bush administration to adopt guidance similar to that in the proposed rule. However, policy disagreements—including objections raised by, of all places, scholars at the Heritage Foundation—precluded the Bush administration from finalizing the changes.

Since I’ve fought for this concept for more than a decade, and included it in a series of regulatory changes the administration needed to make in a paper released shortly before Trump took office, I can attest that this change is as welcome—and needed—since it is overdue. Although overshadowed at the time of its release, this rule could have a substantial effect on Americans’ health insurance choices over time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will Disclosing Prescription Drug Prices in TV Ads Make Any Difference?

Why did the Trump administration last Monday propose requiring pharmaceutical companies to disclose their prices in television advertisements? A cynic might believe the rule comes at least in part because the drug industry opposes it.

Now, I carry no water for Big Pharma. For instance, I opposed their effort earlier this year to repeal an important restraint on Medicare spending. But this particular element of the administration’s drug pricing plan appears to work in a similar manner as some of the president’s tweets—to dominate headlines through rhetoric, rather than through substantive policy changes.

Applies Only to Television

The rule “seek[s] comment as to whether we should apply this regulation to other media formats,” but admits that the administration initially “concluded that the purpose of this regulation is best served by limiting the requirements” to television. However, five companies alone accounted for more than half of all drug advertisements in the past year. Among those five companies, the advertisements promoted 19 pharmaceuticals—meaning that new disclosure regime would apply to very few drugs.

If the “purpose of this regulation” is to affect pharmaceutical pricing, then confining disclosures only to television advertisements would by definition have a limited impact. If, however, the “purpose of this regulation” is primarily political—to force drug companies into a prolonged and public legal fight on First Amendment grounds, or to allow the administration to point to disclosures in the most prominent form of media to say, “We’re doing something on drug costs!”—then the rule will accomplish its purpose.

Rule Lacks Data to Support Its Theory

On three separate occasions, in the rule’s Regulatory Impact Analysis—the portion of the rule intended to demonstrate that the regulation’s benefits outweigh its costs—the administration admits it has very few hard facts: “We lack data to quantify these effects, and seek public comment on these impacts.”

It could encourage people to consume more expensive medicines (particularly if their insurance pays for it), because individuals may think costlier drugs are “better.” Or it could discourage companies from advertising on television at all, which could reduce drug consumption and affect people’s health (or reduce health spending while having no effect on individuals’ health).

Conservative think-tanks skewered several Obamacare rules released in 2010 for the poor quality and unreasonable assumptions in their Regulatory Impact Analyses. Although released by a different administration of a different party, this proposed regulation looks little different.

Contradictions on Forced Speech?

Finally, the rule refers on several occasions to the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in a case involving California crisis pregnancy centers. That case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, overturned a California state law requiring reproductive health clinics, including pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, to provide information on abortion to patients.

The need for that distinction arises because the pharmaceutical industry will likely challenge the rule on First Amendment grounds as an infringement on their free speech rights. However, a pro-life administration attempting to force drug companies to disclose pricing information, while protecting crisis pregnancy centers from other forced disclosures, presents some interesting political optics.

A Political ‘Shiny Object’

Ironically enough, most of the administration’s actions regarding its prescription drug pricing platform have proven effective. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has helped speed the approval of generic drugs to market, particularly in cases where no other competitors exist, to help stabilize the marketplace.

Other proposals to change incentives within Medicare and Medicaid also could bring down prices. These proposals won’t have an immediate effect—as would Democratic blunt-force proposals to expand price controls—but collectively, they will have an impact over time.

This administration can do better than that. Indeed, they already have. They should leave the political stunts to the president’s Twitter account, and get back to work on more important, and more substantive, proposals.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What Mitch McConnell and Congressional Democrats Get Wrong about Entitlements

Sometimes, as parents often remind children in their youth, two wrongs don’t make a right. This held true on Tuesday, when Democrats erupted over comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on entitlement reform.

In returning to “Mediscare” tactics, Democrats made several false claims about entitlements. But so did McConnell, who blithely omitted what a Republican majority did earlier this year to worsen the country’s entitlement shortfall.

What McConnell Got Wrong

McConnell spoke accurately when he said in an interview that Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid serve as the primary drivers of our long-term debt. He stood on less firm ground when he told Bloomberg that “the single biggest disappointment of my time in Congress has been our failure to address the entitlement issue.” Contra McConnell’s claim, Congress—a Republican Congress—actually did address the entitlement issue this year: they made the problem worse.

This Republican Congress repealed a cap on Medicare spending—the first such cap in that program’s history. It did so as part of a budget-busting fiscal agreement that increased the debt by hundreds of billions of dollars. It did so even though Republicans could have retained the cap on Medicare spending while repealing the unelected, unaccountable board that Democrats included in Obamacare to enforce that spending cap.

By and large, both parties have tried for years to avoid taking on entitlement reform. But Democrats included an actual cap on Medicare spending as part of Obamacare, and Republicans turned around and repealed it at their first possible opportunity. That makes entitlements not just a bipartisan problem—it makes them a Republican problem too.

What Democrats Got Wrong

But McConnell’s comments suggested just the opposite. He noted that, while entitlements serve as the prime driver of the nation’s long-term debt, any changes to those programs “may well be difficult if not impossible to achieve when you have unified government.” McConnell said the same thing in a separate interview with Reuters on Wednesday: “We all know that there will be no solution to that, short of some kind of bipartisan grand bargain that makes the very, very popular entitlement programs in a position to be sustained. That hasn’t happened since the ’80s.”

Even though Congress needs to start reforming entitlements sooner rather than later—even if that means one political party must take the lead—McConnell indicated he would do nothing of the sort. In fact, his comments implied that Congress would not do so unless and until Democrats agreed to entitlement reform, giving the party an effective veto over any changes. Yet Democrats, who never fail to demagogue an issue, attacked him for those comments anyway.

Actually, they haven’t “earned” those benefits. Seniors may have “paid into” the system during their working lives, but the average senior citizen receives far more in benefits than he or she paid in taxes, and the gap continues to grow.

Making a Tough Job Worse

In this case, two wrongs not only did not make a right, they made our country worse off. Like outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), McConnell wishes to absolve himself of blame for the entitlement crisis, when he made the situation worse.

On the other side, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats continue the partisan demagoguery, perpetuating the myth that seniors have “earned” their benefits because they see political advantage in defending nearly infinite amounts of government subsidies to nearly infinite numbers of people. For all their love of attacking “science deniers,” much of the left’s politics requires denying math—that unsustainable trends can continue in perpetuity.

At some point, this absurd game will have to end. When it finally does, our country might not have any money left.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How AARP Made BILLIONS Denying Care to People with Pre-Existing Conditions

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted to maintain access to short-term health coverage. Senate Democrats offered a resolution disapproving of the Trump administration’s new rules regarding the more affordable plans, but the resolution did not advance on a 50-50 tie vote.

Because short-term plans need not comply with Obamacare’s restrictions on covering prior health ailments, Senate Democrats used the resolution to claim they will protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. But what if I told you that, in the years since Obamacare passed, one organization has made more than $4.5 billion in profits, largely from denying care to vulnerable individuals with pre-existing conditions?

You might feel surprised. After all, didn’t Obamacare supposedly prohibit “discrimination” against individuals with pre-existing conditions? But what if I told you that the organization raking in all those profits was none other than AARP, the organization that claims to represent seniors? Then the profits might make more sense.

Obamacare and Pre-Existing Conditions

Even though an article on AARP’s own website states that, as of 2014, “insurance companies [are] required to sell policies to anyone, regardless of their pre-existing medical conditions,” that claim isn’t quite accurate. Obamacare exempted Medigap supplemental insurance plans from all of its “reforms,” including the prohibition on “discriminating” against individuals with pre-existing conditions.

As a 2011 Washington Post article noted, individuals can apply for Medigap plans when they first turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare. “However, when Congress created this protection in 1992…it exempted disabled Medicare beneficiaries under age 65, a group that now totals 8 million people.”

In other words, the most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries—those enrolled because they receive Social Security disability benefits—often cannot obtain Medigap coverage due to pre-existing conditions. And because traditional Medicare does not provide a catastrophic cap on patient cost-sharing (Medigap plans often provide that coverage instead), disabled beneficiaries who want to remain in traditional Medicare (as opposed to Medicare Advantage plans offered by private insurers) may face unlimited out-of-pocket spending.

The Post article conceded that Obamacare “does not address this issue. A provision to provide disabled Medicare beneficiaries better coverage was dropped from the legislation during congressional negotiations because it would have increased Medicare costs, according to a House Democratic congressional aide.” That’s where AARP comes in.

Why Didn’t AARP ‘Show Congress the Money’?

In July 2009, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed a House Democrat bill that, among other things, would have made Medigap coverage available to all individuals, regardless of pre-existing conditions. CBO stated that the Medigap provisions in Section 1234 of the bill would have raised federal spending by $4.1 billion over ten years—a sizable sum, but comparatively small in the context of Obamacare itself.

Contrary to the anonymous staffer’s claims to the Washington Post, if House Democrats truly wanted to end pre-existing condition “discrimination” against individuals with disabilities enrolling in Medicare, they had an easy source of revenue: AARP. As Democrats were drafting Obamacare, in November 2009, the organization wrote in a letter to Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) that AARP “would gladly forego every dime of revenue to fix the health care system.”

Since that time, AARP has made quite a few dimes—about 45,090,743,700, in fact—from keeping the health care system just the way it was.

Billions in Profits, But Few Principles

A review of AARP’s financial statements shows that since 2010, AARP has made more than $4.5 billion in income from selling health insurance plans, and generating investment income from plan premiums:

AARP makes its money several ways. As the chart demonstrates, a large and growing percentage of its “royalty” money comes from United Healthcare. United Healthcare sells AARP-branded Medigap plans, Part D prescription drug coverage, and Medicare Advantage insurance.

However, as a 2011 House Ways and Means Committee report made clear, in AARP receiving royalty revenues, not all forms of coverage are created equal. While the organization receives a flat fee for the branding of its Part D and Medicare Advantage plans, it receives a percentage (4.95 percent) of revenue with respect to its Medigap coverage. This dynamic means Medigap royalties make up the majority of AARP’s revenue from United Healthcare, giving AARP a decided bias in favor of the status quo, even if it means continuing to discriminate against individuals with disabilities.

AARP’s Deafening Silence

So if in the seven years since Obamacare’s enactment, AARP has earned more than enough in profits and investment income to offset the cost of changes to Medigap, and AARP publicly told Congress that it would gladly forego all its profits to achieve health care reform, why didn’t AARP make this change happen back in 2010?

AARP occasionally claims it supports reforming Medigap, normally in response to negative publicity about its shady business practices. But by and large, it avoids the subject entirely, preferring to cash in on its Medigap business by flying under the radar.

As I previously noted, in the fourth quarter of 2016 AARP lobbied on 77 separate bills, including such obscure topics as lifetime National Park Service passes, but took absolutely no action to support Medigap reform.

So the next time a liberal Democrat wants to get on his or her high horse and attack conservative policy on pre-existing conditions, ask why they support AARP making $4.5 billion in profits by denying care for individuals with disabilities. Then maybe—just maybe—one day someone could get AARP to put its money where its mouth is.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

If Republicans Can Confirm Kavanaugh, They Can Repeal Obamacare

So Republican lawmakers do have spines after all. Who knew? Last weekend’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, notwithstanding the controversies surrounding his nomination, stemmed primarily from two sources.

First, many Republican lawmakers objected to how Democrats politicized the nomination—holding allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh for more than a month, then leaking them days before his confirmation.

Lawmakers defied the political controversies, protests, and Kavanaugh’s middling poll numbers, because they felt the need to deliver on a promise they made to voters. Well, if Republicans are going to go all crazy by starting to deliver on their promises, why don’t they deliver on the promise they made for the last four election cycles, by eliminating the health care law that has raised premiums for millions?

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Senate Republicans’ bout of political courage in confirming Kavanaugh belies their other actions in the past several weeks. Even as most of the media generated ridiculous amounts of coverage on the Supreme Court nomination, the noise surrounding such topics as “boofing” allowed Republican lawmakers to renege on other political promises under the radar.

Case in point: The massive spending bill that Congress approved, and President Trump signed, last month. Despite funding most of the federal government, it does not include funding for a border wall. Republicans punted on that fight until after the election—ensuring they’ll never have it.

Mr. ‘Don’t Blink’ Blinked

But the piece de resistance of the spending bill had to come from the way that it fully funded all of Obamacare. Despite funding Obamacare—and breaking so many other promises to voters—only 56 Republicans in the House, and seven in the Senate, voted against the measure.

One Republican who supported rather than opposed the spending bill that broke so many Republican promises? None other than Sen. Ted Cruz. You may recall that in 2013, Cruz mounted a 21-hour speech prodding the Senate to defund Obamacare:

He pleaded with Republican lawmakers to deliver on their promise to voters, exhorting them, “Don’t blink!”

Last month, by voting for legislation that funded Obamacare, Cruz blinked. With “courage” like this, is it any wonder that Cruz faces the fight of his political life in his re-election campaign against Rep. Robert O’Rourke?

It’s no secret why Cruz faces problems, even in a ruby red state like Texas: Conservatives don’t feel particularly motivated to support his re-election. Given that Cruz said one thing about Obamacare five years ago, and acted in a completely contrary manner just before his election, their apathy is not without reason.

Do Your Job, And Keep Your Promises

For the past eight years, Republicans have promised to repeal Obamacare. They have control of Congress for at least the next three months. They could easily pass legislation undoing the measure in that time—provided they have the kind of backbone seen on display during the Kavanaugh nomination.

Some Senate Republicans may have voted for Kavanaugh not just because they support the nominee on his merits, but because they feared what voters would do to them if they did not support him. They should ponder that same dynamic when considering the fate of the health care law. And then they should get back to work, deliver on another promise to voters, and repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The High Costs of Medicaid Expansion in Louisiana

The data indicates that as a result of Medicaid expansion, taxpayers face an ever-growing tab for benefits provided to able-bodied adults — many of whom already had health insurance prior to Obamacare — even as the most vulnerable wait and wait for care. Louisiana can — and should — do better.

This post was originally published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Why Smaller Premium Increases May Hurt Republicans in November

Away from last week’s three-ring circus on Capitol Hill, an important point of news got lost. In a speech on Thursday in Nashville, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar announced that benchmark premiums—that is, the plan premium that determines subsidy amounts for individuals who qualify for income-based premium assistance—in the 39 states using the federal healthcare.gov insurance platform will fall by an average of 2 percent next year.

That echoes outside entities that have reviewed rate filings for 2019. A few weeks ago, consultants at Avalere Health released an updated premium analysis, which projected a modest premium increase of 3.1 percent on average—a fraction of the 15 percent increase Avalere projected back in June. Moreover, consistent with the HHS announcement on Thursday, Avalere estimates that average premiums will actually decline in 12 states.

On the other hand, however, given that Democrats have attempted to make Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions a focal point of their campaign, premium increases in the fall would remind voters that those supposed “protections” come with a very real cost.

How Much Did Premiums Rise?

The Heritage Foundation earlier this year concluded that the pre-existing condition provisions collectively accounted for the largest share of premium increases due to Obamacare. But how much have these “protections” raised insurance rates?

Overall premium trend data are readily available, but subject to some interpretation. An HHS analysis published last year found that in 2013—the year before Obamacare’s major provisions took effect—premiums in the 39 states using healthcare.gov averaged $232 per month, based on insurers’ filings. In 2018, the average policy purchased in those same 39 states cost $597.20 per month—an increase of $365 per month, or $4,380 per year.

Moreover, the trends hold for the individual market as a whole—which includes both exchange enrollees, most of whom qualify for subsidies, and off-exchange enrollees, who by definition cannot. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that, from 2013 to 2018, average premiums on the individual market rose from $223 to $490—an increase of $267 per month, or $3,204 per year.

Impact of Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

The HHS data suggest that premiums have risen by $4,380 since Obamacare took effect; the Kaiser data, slightly less, but still a significant amount ($3,204). But how much of those increases come directly from the pre-existing condition provisions, as opposed to general increases in medical inflation, or other Obamacare requirements?

The varying methods used in the actuarial studies make it difficult to compare them in ways that easily lead to a single answer. Moreover, insurance markets vary from state to state, adding to the complexity of analyses.

However, given the available data on both how much premiums rose and why they did, it seems safe to say that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums by several hundreds of dollars—and that, taking into account changes in the risk pool (i.e., disproportionately sicker individuals signing up for coverage), the impact reaches into the thousands of dollars in at least some markets.

Republicans’ Political Dilemma

Those premium increases due to the pre-existing condition provisions are baked into the proverbial premium cake, which presents the Republicans with their political problem. Democrats are focusing on the impending threat—sparked by several states’ anti-Obamacare lawsuit—of Republicans “taking away” the law’s pre-existing condition “protections.” Conservatives can counter, with total justification based on the evidence, that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums substantially, but those premium increases already happened.

If those premium increases that took place in the fall of 2016 and 2017 had instead occurred this fall, Republicans would have two additional political arguments heading into the midterm elections. First, they could have made the proactive argument that another round of premium increases demonstrates the need to elect more Republicans to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. Second, they could have more easily rebutted Democratic arguments on pre-existing conditions, pointing out that those “popular” provisions have sparked rapid rate increases, and that another approach might prove more effective.

Instead, because premiums for 2019 will remain flat, or even decline slightly in some states, Republicans face a more nuanced, and arguably less effective, political message. Azar actually claimed that President Trump “has proven better at managing [Obamacare] than the President who wrote the law.”

Conservatives would argue that the federal government cannot (micro)manage insurance markets effectively, and should not even try. Yet Azar tried to make that argument in his speech Thursday, even as he conceded that “the individual market for insurance is still broken.”

‘Popular’ Provisions Are Very Costly

The first round of premium spikes, which hit right before the 2016 election, couldn’t have come at a better time for Republicans. Coupled with Bill Clinton’s comments at that time calling Obamacare the “craziest thing in the world,” it put a renewed focus on the health-care law’s flaws, in a way that arguably helped propel Donald Trump and Republicans to victory.

This year, as paradoxical as it first sounds, flat premiums may represent bad news for Republicans. While liberals do not want to admit it publicly, polling evidence suggests that support for the pre-existing condition provisions plummets when individuals connect those provisions to premium increases.

The lack of a looming premium spike could also neutralize Republican opposition to Obamacare, while failing to provide a way that could more readily neutralize Democrats’ attacks on pre-existing conditions. Maybe the absence of bad news on the premium front may present its own bad political news for Republicans in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.