What You Need to Know About Friday’s Court Ruling

Late Friday evening, a judge in Texas handed down his ruling in the latest Obamacare lawsuit. Here’s what you need to know about the ruling (if interested, you can read the opinion here), and what might happen next:

What Did the Judge Decide?

The opinion contained analyzed two different issues—the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and whether the rest of Obamacare could survive without the individual mandate (i.e., severability). In the first half of his opinion, Judge Reed O’Connor ruled the mandate unconstitutional.

Wait—Haven’t Courts Ruled on the Individual Mandate Before?

Yes—and no. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate constitutional. In his majority opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts (in)famously concluded that, even though Obamacare’s authors proclaimed the mandate was not a tax—and said as much in the law—the mandate had the characteristics of a tax. Even though Roberts concluded that the mandate exceeded Congress’ constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause, he upheld it as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power to tax.

However, in the tax bill last year Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning on January 1, 2019. The plaintiffs argued that, because the mandate will no longer bring in revenue for the federal government, it no longer qualifies as a tax. Because the mandate will not function as a tax, and violates Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, the plaintiffs argued that the court should declare the mandate unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge O’Connor agreed with this logic, and struck down the mandate.

What Impact Would Striking Down the Mandate Have?

Not much, seeing as how the penalty falls to zero in two weeks’ time. Striking the mandate from the statute books officially, as opposed to merely setting the penalty at zero, would only affect those individuals who feel an obligation to follow the law, even without a penalty for violating that law. In setting their premiums for 2019, most insurers have already assumed the mandate goes away.

Then Why Is This Ruling Front Page News?

If the court case hinged solely on whether or not the (already-defanged) mandate should get stricken entirely, few would care—indeed, the plaintiffs may not have brought it in the first place. Instead, the main question in this case focuses on severability—the question of whether, and how much, of the law can be severed from the mandate, if the mandate is declared unconstitutional.

What Happened on Severability?

Judge O’Connor quoted heavily from opinions in the prior 2012 Supreme Court case, particularly the joint dissent by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. He ruled that the justices viewed the mandate as an “essential” part of Obamacare, that the main pillars of the law were inseparable from the mandate.

The judge also noted that some of the lesser elements of Obamacare (e.g., calorie counts on restaurant menus, etc.) hitched a ride on a “moving target,” that he could not—and should not—attempt to determine which would have passed on their own. Therefore, he ruled that the entire law must be stricken.

Haven’t Things Changed Since the 2012 Ruling?

Last year, Congress famously couldn’t agree on how to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare—but then voted to set the mandate penalty to zero. A bipartisan group of legal scholars argued in this case that, because Congress eliminated the mandate penalty but left the rest of the law intact, courts should defer to Congress’ more recent judgment. Judge O’Connor disagreed.

What Happens Now?

Good question. Judge O’Connor did NOT issue an injunction with his ruling, so the law remains in effect. The White House released a statement saying as much—that it would continue to enforce the law as written pending likely appeals.

On the appeal front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general who intervened in the suit will likely request a hearing from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. From there the Supreme Court could decide to rule on the case.

Will Appellate Courts Agree with This Ruling and Strike Down Obamacare?

As the saying goes, past performance is no predictor of future results. However, it is worth noting two important facts:

1.      The five justice majority that upheld most of the law—John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotamayor—all remain on the Supreme Court.
2.      As noted above, Chief Justice Roberts went through what many conservatives attacked as a bout of legal sophistry—calling the mandate a tax, even though Congress expressly said it wasn’t—to uphold the law, more than a year before its main provisions took effect.

What About Pre-Existing Conditions?

On Friday evening, President Trump asked for Congress to pass a measure that “protects pre-existing conditions.”

I have outlined other alternatives to Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions. However, as I have explained at length over the past 18 months, if Republicans want to retain—or in this case reinstate—Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions, then they are failing in their promise to repeal the law.

Poll: People Care MORE About Rising Costs Than Pre-Existing Conditions

Now they tell us! A Gallup poll, conducted last month to coincide with the midterm elections and released on Tuesday, demonstrated what I had posited for much of the summer: Individuals care more about rising health insurance premiums than coverage of pre-existing condition protections.

Of course, liberal think tanks and the media had no interest in promoting this narrative, posing misleading and one-sided polling questions to conclude that individuals liked Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections,” without simultaneously asking whether people liked the cost of those provisions.

Overwhelming Concern about Premiums

Ironically, a majority of 57 percent said the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions did not constitute a major concern for them, with only 42 percent agreeing with the statement. Lest one believe that the relative insouciance over pre-existing conditions came because Democrats won a majority in the House, therefore “protecting” Obamacare, Gallup conducted the survey from November 1–11, meaning more than half the survey period came before the American people knew the election outcome.

By comparison, more than three-fifths (61 percent) of respondents viewed rising premiums as a major concern, with only 37 percent not viewing it as such. Not only did premiums register as a bigger concern by 19 percentage points overall, it registered as a larger concern in each and every demographic group Gallup surveyed:

Income under $30,000: +15 percent (70 percent said premiums were a major concern, 55 percent said pre-existing condition coverage was a major concern)

Income between $30,000-$75,000: +19 percent (63 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

Income above $75,000: +24 percent (57 percent premiums, 33 percent pre-ex)

On Medicare/Medicaid: +16 percent (60 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

On private insurance: +24 percent (60 percent premiums, 36 percent pre-ex)

Republicans: +25 percent (52 percent premiums, 27 percent pre-ex)

Independents: +19 percent (64 percent premiums, 45 percent pre-ex)

Democrats: +16 percent (68 percent premiums, 52 percent pre-ex)

Aged 18-29: +16 percent (54 percent premiums, 38 percent pre-ex)

Aged 30-49: +23 percent (65 percent premiums, 42 percent pre-ex)

Aged 50-64: +21 percent (67 percent premiums, 46 percent pre-ex)

Aged over 65: +13 percent (57 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

Men: +18 percent (56 percent premiums, 38 percent pre-ex)

Women: +20 percent (67 percent premiums, 47 percent pre-ex)

With those double-digit margins (i.e., outside the poll’s margin of error) in every demographic group—including among groups more likely concerned about pre-existing conditions, for reasons either practical (i.e., older Americans) or ideological (i.e., Democrats)—Gallup has overwhelming evidence to support its claim that “concerns are greatest about the possibility of having to pay higher premiums.”

Premiums more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, as the law’s major provisions, including the pre-existing condition requirements, took effect. They again rose sharply in 2018, causing approximately 2.5 million individuals to drop their Obamacare-compliant coverage completely.

Not a Surprise Outcome

The Gallup results confirm prior surveys from the Cato Institute, which also demonstrate that support for Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions drops dramatically once people recognize the trade-offs—namely, higher premiums and a “race to the bottom” among insurers, reducing access to specialist providers and lowering the quality of care:

But the polling suggests that Democrats have no such mandate, and that they should think again in their approach. Rather than making an already bad situation worse, and potentially raising premiums yet again, they should examine alternatives that can solve the pre-existing condition problem (and yes, it is a problem) by making it easier for people to buy coverage before they develop a pre-existing condition in the first place.

As the polling indicates, the American people—to say nothing of the 2.5 million priced out of the marketplace in the past 12 months—will thank them for doing so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C. Council’s Motto: “Obamacare for Thee — But Not for Me!”

On the first of the month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser held an event at Freedom Plaza to celebrate the start of Obamacare’s annual open enrollment period. She appeared with Mila Kofman, head of the District’s health insurance exchange, D.C. Health Link. In conjunction with the event, the mayor issued a proclamation declaring the open enrollment period “Get Covered, Stay Covered” months, and noting that “residents should visit [D.C. Health Link’s website] to shop for and compare health insurance.”

But in encouraging others to “get covered,” and promoting the D.C. Health Link site, Bowser omitted one key detail: She does not buy the policies that D.C. Health Link sells. My recent Freedom of Information Act request confirmed that Bowser, like most of her D.C. Council colleagues, received taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies to purchase their coverage through the District government, rather than through D.C. Health Link. Thus, DC spent nearly half a million in taxpayer funds because the mayor and council won’t be bothered to enroll in Obamacare.

Forfeiting generous employer subsidies might seem like an unreasonable request to make of the mayor and council. But earlier this year, the council passed, and Bowser signed, legislation requiring all District residents to buy health coverage or pay a tax — including tens of thousands of residents who do not qualify for subsidies.

According to public records, Bowser receives an annual salary of $200,000; council members receive $140,600 annually. This year, I will receive less income than any of them, and as a small business owner my income is far from guaranteed, unlike public officials’ salaries. Yet the mayor and council have required me to buy health coverage without a subsidy, even as they refuse to do so themselves.

I asked Bowser about this obvious inequity. Under Obamacare, an individual with income of $50,000 — one-quarter of Bowser’s salary — does not qualify for an income-based subsidy. Bowser required this individual to buy coverage without assistance, while earning much more in salary and retaining her employer subsidy. Did she see a double standard in her conduct?

When it came to the issue of equity and fairness, she didn’t have a substantive answer, nor did her council colleagues. I asked staff for each council member about their health insurance coverage, and any subsidies received. Most staff never responded to my outreach. Staff for Councilman Robert White said they would ask him about his coverage, but never sent a reply. Staff for two councilmembers, Phil Mendelson and Brandon Todd, replied with explanations about the subsidies being provided as an employer benefit.

But neither Bowser nor the council members could justify requiring other District residents, including many with lower incomes than they, from buying coverage without a subsidy even as they will not do so themselves. And how could they? Quite often, it seems liberals who preach frequently about “fairness” regarding others’ actions fall eerily silent when doing so would cost them personally. “Obamacare for thee — but not for me” doesn’t provide a particularly compelling slogan, but the mayor and council have sent that very message by their actions.

Official Washington contains numerous examples of hypocrisy and double standards, but that doesn’t make either a “D.C. value.” If Bowser wishes to abide by the D.C. values she campaigned on, she and the council members should give up their subsidies and buy health insurance just like ordinary residents do. If they find that task too difficult or costly, then perhaps they should repeal the exact same requirement they put on everyone else.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Elements of a Conservative Health Care Vision

Recently I wrote about how conservatives failed to articulate a coherent vision of health care, specifically issues related to pre-existing conditions, in the runup to the midterm elections. That article prompted a few Capitol Hill colleagues to ask an obvious question: What should a conservative vision for health care look like? It’s one thing to have answers on specific issues (i.e., alternatives to Obamacare’s pre-existing condition regulations), but what defines the vision of where conservatives should look to move the debate?

Henceforth, my attempt to outline that conservative health-care vision on a macro level with three relatively simple principles. Others may express these concepts slightly differently—and I take no particular pride of authorship in the principles as written—but hopefully they will help to advance thinking about where conservative health policy should lead.

Portable Insurance

Conversely, conservatives believe in insurance purchased by individuals—or, as my former boss Jim DeMint likes to describe it, an insurance policy you can buy, hold, and keep. With most Americans still obtaining health coverage from their employers, a move to individually owned coverage would mean individuals themselves would decide what kind of insurance to purchase, rather than a business’s HR executives.

Conservatives should also promote the concept of portable insurance that can move from job to job, and ideally from state to state as well. If individuals can buy an insurance policy while young, and take it with them for decades, then much of the problem of covering individuals with pre-existing conditions will simply disappear—people will have the same insurance before their diagnosis that they had for years beforehand.

I wrote approvingly about the Trump administration’s proposals regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements precisely because I believe that, if implemented, they will advance both prongs of this principle. Allowing employees to receive an employer contribution for insurance they own will make coverage both individual and portable, in ways that could revolutionize the way Americans buy insurance.

A Sustainable Safety Net

As it is, the Medicare program became functionally insolvent more than a year ago. The year before Obamacare’s passage, the Medicare trustees asserted the program’s hospital insurance trust fund would become insolvent in 2017. Only the double-counting included in Obamacare—whereby the same Medicare savings were used both to “save Medicare” and fund Obamacare—has allowed the program to remain solvent, on paper if not in fact.

Reasonable people may disagree on precisely where and how to draw the line at the sustainability of our entitlements. For instance, I hold grave doubts that able-bodied adults belong on Medicaid, particularly given the way Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid has encouraged states to discriminate against individuals with disabilities and the most vulnerable.

But few could argue that the current system qualifies as sustainable. Far from it. With Medicare beneficiaries receiving more from the system in benefits than they paid in taxes—and the gap growing every year—policy-makers must make hard choices to right-size our entitlements. And they should do so sooner rather than later.

Appropriately Aligned Incentives

Four decades ago, Margaret Thatcher hinted at the primary problem in health care when she noted that socialists always run out of other people’s money. Because third-party insurers—in most cases selected by HR executives at individuals’ place of business rather than the individuals themselves—pay for a large share of health expenses, most Americans know little about the price of specific health care goods and services (and care even less).

To state the obvious: No, individuals shouldn’t try to find health care “deals” in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. But given that much health care spending occurs not for acute cases (e.g., a heart attack) but for chronic conditions (i.e., diabetes), policymakers do have levers to try to get the incentives moving in the right direction.

Reforming the tax treatment of health insurance—which both encourages individuals to over-consume care and ties most Americans to employer-based insurance—would help align incentives, while also encouraging more portable insurance. Price transparency might help, provided those prices are meaningful (i.e., they relate to what individuals will actually pay out-of-pocket). Giving individuals financial incentives to shop around for procedures like MRIs, or even surgical procedures, also would place downward pressure on prices.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Ocasio-Cortez Suddenly Realizes She Doesn’t Like Paying Obamacare’s Pre-Existing Condition Tax

On Saturday evening, incoming U.S. representative and self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to compare her prior health coverage to the new health insurance options available to her as a member of Congress.

It shouldn’t shock most observers to realize that Congress gave itself a better deal than it gave most ordinary citizens. But Ocasio-Cortez’ complaints about the lack of affordability of health insurance demonstrate the way liberals who claim to support Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections”—and have forcibly raised others’ premiums to pay for those “protections”—don’t want to pay those higher premiums themselves.

She’s Paying the Pre-Existing Condition Tax

I wrote in August about my own (junk) Obamacare insurance. This year, I have paid nearly $300 monthly—a total of $3,479—for an Obamacare-compliant policy with a $6,200 deductible. Between my premiums and deductible, I will face paying nearly the first $10,000 in medical costs out-of-pocket myself.

Of course, as a fairly healthy 30-something, I don’t have $10,000 in medical costs in most years. In fact, this year I won’t come anywhere near to hitting my $6,200 deductible (presuming I don’t get hit by a bus in the next four weeks).

As I noted in August, my nearly $3,500 premium doesn’t just fund my health care—or, more accurately, the off-chance that I will incur catastrophic expenses such that I will meet my deductible, and my insurance policy will actually subsidize some of my coverage. Rather, much of that $3,500 “is designed to fund someone else’s medical condition. That difference between an actuarially fair premium and the $3,500 premium my insurer charged me amounts to a ‘pre-existing conditions tax.’”

Millions of People Can’t Afford Coverage

Because I work for myself, I don’t get an employer subsidy to pay the pre-existing condition tax. (I can, however, write off my premiums from my federal income taxes.) Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet referred to her coverage “as a waitress,” but didn’t specify where she purchased that coverage, nor whether she received an employer subsidy for that coverage.

However, a majority of retail firms, and the majority of the smallest firms (3-9 workers), do not offer coverage to their workers. Firms are also much less likely (only 22 percent) to offer insurance to their part-time workers. It therefore seems likely, although not certain, that Ocasio-Cortez did not receive an employer subsidy, and purchased Obamacare coverage on her own. In that case she would have had to pay the pre-existing condition tax out of her own pocket.

That pre-existing condition tax represented the largest driver of premium increases due to Obamacare, according to a March paper published by the Heritage Foundation. Just from 2013 (the last year before Obamacare) through 2017, premiums more than doubled. Within the last year (from the first quarter of 2017 through the first quarter of 2018) roughly 2.6 million people who purchased Obamacare-compliant plans without a subsidy dropped their coverage, likely because they cannot afford the higher costs.

Lawmakers Get an (Illegal) Subsidy to Avoid That Tax

Unsurprisingly, however, members of Congress don’t have to pay the pre-existing condition tax on their own. They made sure of that. Following Obamacare’s passage, congressional leaders lobbied feverishly to preserve their subsidized health coverage, even demanding a meeting with the president of the United States to discuss the matter.

Senators and representatives do have to purchase their health insurance from the Obamacare exchanges. But the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a rule allowing members of Congress and their staffs to receive an employer subsidy for that coverage. That makes Congress and their staff the only people who can receive an employer subsidy through the exchange.

Numerous analyses have found that the OPM rule violates the text of Obamacare itself. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) even sued to overturn the rule, but a court dismissed the suit on the grounds that he lacked standing to bring the case.

Liberals’ Motto: ‘Obamacare for Thee—But Not for Me’

Take, for instance, the head of California’s exchange, Peter Lee. He makes a salary of $436,800 per year, yet he won’t buy the health insurance plans he sells. Why? Because he doesn’t want to pay Obamacare’s pre-existing condition tax unless someone (i.e., the state of California) pays him to do so via an employer subsidy.

Ocasio-Cortez’ proposed “solution”—fully taxpayer-paid health care—is in search of a problem. As socialists are wont to do, Ocasio-Cortez sees a problem caused by government—in this case, skyrocketing premiums due to the pre-existing condition tax—and thinks the answer lies in…more government.

As the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. If Ocasio-Cortez really wants to get serious, instead of complaining about the pre-existing condition tax, she should work to repeal it, and replace it with better alternatives.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.