Let the Individual Mandate Die

In May New Jersey imposed a health-insurance mandate requiring all residents to buy insurance or pay a penalty. More states will feel pressure to follow suit in the coming year as the federal mandate’s penalty disappears Jan. 1 and state legislatures reconvene, some with new Democratic majorities intent on “protecting” Obamacare. But conflicts with federal law will make state-level health-insurance mandates ineffective or unduly onerous, and governors and legislatures would do well to steer clear.

While states can require citizens to purchase health coverage, they will have trouble ensuring compliance. Federal law prohibits the Internal Revenue Service from disclosing tax-return data, except under limited circumstances. And there is no clear precedent allowing the IRS to disclose coverage data to verify compliance with state insurance requirements.

Accordingly, mandates enacted in New Jersey and the District of Columbia earlier this year created their own coverage-reporting regimes. But those likely conflict with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which explicitly pre-empts “any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” The point is to protect large employers who self-insure workers from 50 sets of conflicting state laws.

No employer has used ERISA to challenge Massachusetts’ 2006 individual mandate, which includes reporting requirements, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal. Last month a Brookings Institution paper conceded that “state requirements related to employer benefits like health coverage may be subject to legal challenge based on ERISA preemption.”

A 2016 Supreme Court ruling would bolster such a challenge. In Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual, the court struck down a Vermont law that required employers to submit health-care payment claims to a state database. The court said the law was pre-empted by ERISA.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the myriad reporting requirements under federal law. Vermont’s law required additional record-keeping. Justice Kennedy concluded that “differing, or even parallel, regulations from multiple jurisdictions could create wasteful administrative costs and threaten to subject plans to wide-ranging liability.”

Justice Kennedy’s opinion provides a how-to manual for employers to challenge state-level insurance mandates. A morass of state-imposed insurance mandates and reporting requirements would unnecessarily burden employers with costs and complexity. It cries out for pre-emptive relief.

Unfortunately, policy makers have ignored these concerns. Notes from the working group that recommended the District of Columbia’s individual mandate never mention the reporting burden or ERISA pre-emption. And in August the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved New Jersey’s waiver application that relied in part upon funding from that state’s new individual mandate, even though money from the difficult-to-enforce requirement may never materialize.

States already cannot require federal agencies to report coverage. This means their mandates won’t track the 2.3 million covered by the Indian Health Service, 9.3 million receiving health care from the Veterans Administration, 8.8 million disabled under age 65 who are enrolled in Medicare, 9.4 million military Tricare enrollees and 8.2 million federal employees and retirees.

If a successful ERISA challenge also exempts some of the 181 million with employer-based insurance from coverage-reporting requirements, state insurance mandates become farcical. States would have to choose between mandates that run on the “honor system”—thus likely rife with cheating—or taking so much time and energy to verify coverage that administration becomes prohibitively expensive.

States should take the hint and refrain from even considering their own coverage mandates. But if they don’t, smart employers should challenge the mandate’s reporting requirements. They’d likely win.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

The Sordid History of the FDA’s Menthol Decision

Late last week, The New York Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will issue a regulation proposing a ban on menthol flavoring in cigarettes, potentially this week. This represents merely the latest development in a long and winding history of the mint-flavored additive lasting nearly a decade.

The Times report quoted FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb saying “it was a mistake for the agency to back away on menthol” regulation. Depending upon one’s perspective, the “menthol loophole” either represents a reasonable example of legislative compromise, or policymakers in both the legislative and executive branches valuing African-American lives less dearly than the lives of other Americans.

A Troubled Legislative History

Beginning 3 months after the date of enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a cigarette or any of its component parts (including the tobacco, filter, or paper) shall not contain, as a constituent (including a smoke constituent) or additive, an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is a characterizing flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke.

That language created two policy problems. First, as I noted in my summary of the bill at the time, because the bill banned other cigarette flavors manufactured overseas, while permitting menthol-flavored cigarettes manufactured domestically, the law would likely result in World Trade Organization (WTO) complaints for unfair trade practices. Indeed, Indonesia, which manufactures clove cigarettes, filed just such a complaint following the law’s passage—and won its case at the WTO.

The Times alluded to the other complication presented by the “menthol loophole” in its article this week: “According to the N.A.A.C.P.’s Youth Against Menthol campaign, about 85 percent of African-American smokers aged 12 and up smoke menthol cigarettes, compared with 29 percent of white smokers, which the organization calls a result of decades of culturally tailored tobacco company promotion.”

That “decades of culturally tailored tobacco company promotion” also included contributions to organizations like the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Industry documents released as part of the 1998 master settlement agreement demonstrated that “the tobacco industry established relationships with virtually every African-American leadership organization”—both to increase tobacco use, and to head off tobacco control efforts.

The FDA Looked the Other Way

Despite the condemnation from the HHS secretaries for its double standards against African-Americans, the bill passed as written in 2009. In an irony of ironies, the first African-American president signed it into law in June that year.

While it did not ban menthol outright, the legislation required a study on its effects, and gave the FDA the authority to ban the additive. Despite occasional rumors that FDA might outlaw menthol—and appeals from the African-American community for a ban—the Obama administration did not take action on the matter.

As a small government conservative, I question the value of establishing and maintaining an FDA bureaucracy to regulate an inherently unhealthful product. I by no means condone the decades of deception the tobacco industry used to sell their products.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Better Ways to Address Pre-Existing Conditions Than Obamacare

n a recent article, I linked to a tweet promoting alternatives to Obamacare’s pre-existing condition regulations, which have raised health insurance premiums for millions of Americans.

I offered those solutions when asked about a Republican alternative to Obamacare, and specifically the pre-existing condition provisions. While I no longer work in Congress, and therefore cannot readily get legislative provisions drafted and scored, I did want to elaborate on the concepts briefly mentioned, to show that other solutions to the pre-existing condition problem do exist.

1. Health Status Insurance

I mentioned both “renewal guarantees” and “health status insurance,” two relatively interchangeable terms, in my tweet. Both refer to the option of buying coverage at some point in the future—insurance against developing a health condition that makes one uninsurable.

Other forms of insurance use these types of riders frequently. For instance, I purchased a long-term disability policy when I bought my condo, to protect myself if I could no longer work and pay my mortgage. The policy came with two components—the coverage I have now, and pay for each year, along with a rider allowing me to double my coverage amount (i.e. the monthly payment I would receive if I became disabled) without going through the application or underwriting process again.

Since I bought that policy in 2008, my doctors diagnosed me with hypertension in 2012, and I went through two reconstructive surgeries on my left ankle. I don’t know if these ailments would prevent me from buying a disability policy now if I went out and applied for one. But because I purchased that rider with my original policy in 2008, I don’t need to worry about it. If I want more disability coverage, I can obtain it by paying the additional premium, no questions asked.

Health status insurance would complement employer-sponsored coverage. Most people get their coverage through their employers. Because employers heavily subsidize the coverage, and the federal government provides tax breaks for employer-sponsored plans, more than three in four people who are offered employer-sponsored insurance sign up for it.

But employer-based insurance by definition isn’t portable. When you switch your job, or (worse yet) lose your job because you’re too sick to work, you lose your coverage. Health status insurance would get around that portability problem. Individuals could sign up for their employer plan but pay for health status insurance “on the side.”

This coverage, which they and not their employer own, would protect them in case they develop a pre-existing condition or move to a job that doesn’t provide health insurance. It would also cost a lot less than buying a complete insurance plan—remember, they’re paying for the option to purchase insurance at a later date, not the insurance itself.

2. Insurance Portability

A proposed regulation issued by the Trump administration last month would permit just that. Under the proposal, employers could provide fixed sums to their employees to buy individually owned insurance—that is, a policy the employee buys and holds—through Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs). Employees could pay any “leftover” premiums not covered by the employer subsidy on a pre-tax basis, as they do with their current, employer-owned coverage, through paycheck withholding.

I recently wrote about the regulation; feel free to read that article for greater detail. But as with health status insurance, better portability of individual coverage would allow people to buy—and hold, and keep—coverage before they develop a pre-existing condition, reducing the number of people who have to worry about losing their coverage when battling a difficult illness.

3. High-Risk Pools

Of course, health status insurance only helps those who purchase it prior to becoming sick. For people who already have a pre-existing condition, perhaps because of an ailment acquired at birth or in one’s youth, high-risk pools provide another possible solution.

Critics of risk pools generally cite two reasons to argue against this model as a workable policy solution. First, risk pools prior to Obamacare were not well-funded—in many cases, a true enough criticism. While some state pools worked well and offered generous subsidies (even income-based subsidies in some states), others did not.

It would take a fair bit of federal funding to set up a solid network of state high-risk pools. One article, published in National Affairs a few months after Obamacare’s enactment, estimated that such pools would require $15-20 billion per year in funding—probably more like $20-30 billion now, given the constant rise in health care costs. This figure represents a sizable sum, but less than the overall cost of Obamacare, or even its insurance subsidies ($57 billion this fiscal year alone).

Second, risk pool critics dislike the surcharges that many risk pools applied. Most pools capped monthly premiums for enrollees at 150 or 200 percent of standard insurance rates. Of course, individuals with chronic heart failure or some other costly condition generally incur much higher actual costs—costs that the pool worked to subsidize—but some believe that making individuals with pre-existing conditions pay a 50 to 100 percent premium over healthy individuals discriminates against the sick.

Personally, when designing a high-risk pool, I would distinguish between individuals who maintained continuous coverage prior to joining the pool and those who did not. Charging higher premiums to individuals who maintained continuous coverage seems unfair. On the other hand, it seems very reasonable to impose a surcharge for individuals who joined a high-risk pool because they didn’t purchase insurance until after they became sick.

As a small government conservative, I generally oppose intrusive attempts like an individual mandate to require individuals to behave in a certain manner. While I view going without health insurance an unwise move, I believe in the right of people to make bad decisions. However, I also believe in people paying the consequences of those bad decisions—and a surcharge on individuals who sign up for a high-risk pool while lacking continuous coverage would do just that.

4. Direct Primary Care

Direct primary care, which encompasses a personal relationship with a physician or group of physicians, can help manage individuals with chronic (and potentially costly) diseases. In most cases, patients pay a monthly or annual subscription fee to the practice, which covers unlimited doctor visits, as well as phone or electronic consultations and some limited diagnostic tests. Patients can get referrals to specialist care, or purchase a catastrophic insurance policy to cover expenses not included in the subscription fee.

Of course, primary care would not work well for a patient with advanced cancer, who needs costly pharmaceutical therapies or other very specialized care. But for patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, COPD, or chronic heart failure, direct primary care may offer a way better to manage the disease, potentially reducing health care costs while improving patient access to care and quality of life—the most important objective.

As noted above, these types of solutions are not one size fits all. Health status insurance would not work for patients born with genetically based diseases, and direct primary care might not help patients with advanced tumors.

But in some respects, that’s the point. Obamacare took a comparatively small universe of truly uninsurable patients—a few million, by some estimates—and uprooted the individual market of about 20 million people (to say nothing of other Americans’ health coverage) for it. Unfortunately, millions of Americans have ended up dropping insurance as a result, because the changes have priced them out of coverage.

A better way to reform the system would use a more specialized approach—a scalpel instead of a chainsaw. Health status insurance, improved portability, high-risk pools, and direct primary care represent four potential prongs of that better alternative.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Republicans Shot Themselves in the Foot on Pre-Existing Conditions

Republicans who want to blame their election shortcomings on last year’s attempt to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare will have all the fodder they need from the media. A full two weeks before Election Day, the bedwetters caucus was already out in full force:

House Republicans are increasingly worried that Democrats’ attacks on their votes to repeal and replace Obamacare could cost them the House. While the legislation stalled in the Senate, it’s become a toxic issue on the campaign trail for the House Republicans who backed it.

In reality, however, the seeds of this problem go well beyond this Congress, or even the last election cycle. A health care strategy based on a simple but contradictory slogan created a policy orphan that few Republicans could readily defend.

A Dumb Political Slogan

Around the same time last year, I wrote an article explaining why the “repeal-and-replace” mantra would prove so problematic for the Republican Congress trying to translate the slogan into law. Conservatives seized on the “repeal” element to focus on eradicating the law, and taking steps to help lower health costs.

By contrast, moderates assumed that “replace” meant Republican lawmakers had embraced the mantra of universal health coverage, and would maintain most of the benefits—both the number of Americans with insurance and the regulatory “protections”—of Obamacare itself. Two disparate philosophies linked by a conjunction does not a governing platform make. The past two years proved as much.

A Non-Sensical Bill

In life, one mistake can often lead to another, and so it proved in health care. After having created an internal divide through the “repeal-and-replace” mantra over four election cycles, Republicans had to put policy meat on the details they had papered over for seven years. In so doing, they ended up with a “solution” that appealed to no one.

  1. Removed Obamacare’s requirements for what treatments insurers must cover (e.g., essential health benefits);
  2. Removed Obamacare’s requirements about how much of these treatments insurers must cover (e.g., actuarial value, which measures a percentage of expected health expenses covered by insurance); but
  3. Retained Obamacare’s requirements about whom insurance must cover—the requirement to cover all applicants (guaranteed issue), and the related requirement not to vary premiums based on health status (community rating).

As I first outlined early last year, this regulatory combination resulted in a witch’s brew of bad outcomes on both the policy and political fronts:

  • Because lawmakers retained the requirements for insurers to cover all individuals, regardless of health status, the bills didn’t reduce premiums much. If insurers must charge all individuals the same rates regardless of their health, they will assume that a disproportionately sicker population will sign up. That dynamic meant the bills did little to reverse the more-than-doubling of individual market insurance premiums from 2013-17. What little premium reduction did materialize came largely due to the corporate welfare payments the bills funneled to insurers in the form of a “Stability Fund.”
  • However, because lawmakers removed the requirements about what and how much insurers must cover, liberal groups raised questions about access to care, particularly for sicker populations. This dynamic led to the myriad charges and political attacks about Republicans “gutting” care for people with pre-existing conditions.

You couldn’t have picked a worse combination for lawmakers to try to defend. The bills as written created a plethora of “losers” and very few clear “winners.” Legislators absorbed most of the political pain regarding pre-existing conditions that they would have received had they repealed those regulations (i.e., guaranteed issue and community rating) outright, but virtually none of the political gain (i.e., lower premiums) from doing so.

Some people—including yours truly—predicted this outcome. Before the House voted on its bill, I noted that this combination would prove untenable from a policy perspective, and politically problematic to boot. Republicans plowed ahead anyway, likely because they saw this option as the only way to breach the policy chasm caused by bad sloganeering, and paid the price.

Lawmaker Ignorance and Apathy

That apathy continued after Obamacare’s enactment. While Suderman articulated an alternative vision to the law, he admitted that “Republicans can’t make the case for that plan because they’ve never figured out what it would look like. The GOP plan is always in development but never ready for final release.”

Emphasizing the “repeal-and-replace” mantra allowed Republicans to avoid face the very real trade-offs that come with making health policy. When a Republican Congress finally had to look those trade-offs in the face, it couldn’t. Many didn’t know what they wanted, or wanted a pain-free solution (“Who knew health care could be so complicated?”). Difficulty regarding trade-offs led to the further difficulty of unifying behind a singular policy.

Can’t Avoid Health Care

Many conservative lawmakers face something that could be described as “health policy PTSD”—they don’t understand it, so they don’t study it; they only define their views by what they oppose (e.g., “Hillarycare” and Obamacare); and when they put out proposals (e.g., premium support for Medicare and “repeal-and-replace” on Obamacare), they get attacked. So they conclude that they should never talk about the issue or put out proposals. Doubtless Tuesday’s election results will confirm that tendency for some.

Rather than using the election results to avoid health care, Republican lawmakers instead should lean in to the issue, to understand it and ascertain what concepts and policies they support. The left knows exactly what it wants from health care: More regulation, more spending, and more government control—leading ultimately to total government control.

Conservatives must act now to articulate an alternative vision, because the 800-pound gorilla of Washington policy will not disappear any time soon.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What the Press Isn’t Telling You about the Politics of Pre-Existing Conditions

For months, liberals have wanted to make the midterm elections about Obamacare, specifically people with pre-existing conditions. Of late, the media has gladly played into that narrative.

Numerous articles have followed upon a similar theme: Republicans claim they want to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but they’re lying, misrepresenting their records, or both. Most carry an implicit assumption: If you don’t support Obamacare, then you cannot want to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions, because defending the law as holy writ has become a new religion for the left.

Covering People Before They Develop Conditions

The Kaiser Family Foundation noted in a study earlier this year that the off-exchange individual insurance market shrank by 38 percent in just one year, from the beginning of 2017 to the beginning of 2018. Overall, enrollment in Obamacare-compliant plans for people who do not qualify for income-based subsidies fell by 2.6 million:

Most of these individuals likely dropped their plan because the rapid rise in insurance rates under Obamacare has priced them out of coverage. As a Heritage Foundation study from March noted, the pre-existing condition provisions represent the largest component of those premium increases.

Or consider the at least 4.7 million people who received cancellation notices a few short years ago, because their plan didn’t comport with Obamacare’s new regulations. The father of a friend and former colleague received such a notice. He lost his plan, couldn’t afford a new Obamacare-compliant policy, then got diagnosed with colon cancer. His “coverage” has consisted largely of a GoFundMe page, where friends and colleagues can help his family pay off tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt.

How exactly did Obamacare “protect” him—by stripping him of his coverage, or by pricing the new coverage so high he and his wife couldn’t afford it, and had to go without at the exact time they developed a pre-existing condition?

In fact, by getting politicians of both parties to claim that they want to cover people with pre-existing conditions, this campaign may actually encourage more healthy people to drop their insurance, thinking they can easily buy coverage if they do develop a costly condition.

Obamacare Plans Discriminate Too

The left’s messaging also ignores another inconvenient truth: Because they must accept all applicants, Obamacare plans have a strong incentive to avoid sick people. They can accomplish this goal through tactics like narrow provider networks. Because plans must offer rich benefits and accept all applicants, shrinking doctor and hospital networks provides one of the few ways to moderate premiums. Of course, keeping a clinic like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center out of one’s network—which all Texas-based Obamacare plans do—also discourages cancer patients from signing up for coverage, a “win-win” from the insurer’s perspective.

Some plans have used more overt forms of discrimination. For instance, in 2014 a group of HIV patients filed a complaint against several Florida insurers. The complaint alleged that the carriers placed all their HIV drugs into the highest formulary tier, to discourage HIV-positive patients from signing up for coverage.

Problem with Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

More than 18 months ago, I wrote that Republicans could either maintain the status quo on pre-existing conditions, or they could repeal Obamacare, but they could not do both. That scenario remains as true today as it did then.

Also true: As long as the pre-existing condition “protections” remain in place, millions of individuals will likely remain priced out of coverage, and insurers will have reason to discriminate against the sick. In fact, the last several years of premium spikes have already turned the exchanges into a de facto high-risk pool, where only the sickest (or most heavily subsidized) patients bother enrolling.

For individuals with pre-existing conditions, there are several—and, in my view, better—alternatives to both the status quo and the status quo ante that preceded Obamacare. But we will never have a chance to have that conversation if few will examine the very real trade-offs the law has created. Based on the past few months, neither the left nor the media appear interested in doing so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.