The Bigger Problem with SCOTUS’ Obamacare Bailout Ruling

I’ll start with the bad news: The Supreme Court granted insurers nearly $12 billion in Obamacare bailout funds. And now the worse news: It allowed the executive to stick Congress with the bill for unconstitutional actions lawmakers never authorized.

The ruling, issued on Monday after the Court heard oral arguments in December, made the case sound simple: Obamacare created an obligation on the federal government to pay insurers’ risk corridor claims. Congress refused to appropriate the money. Therefore insurers can go to court and obtain the $12 billion in question from the Judgment Fund, which has a permanent, unlimited appropriation to pay legal claims against the government.

But the reality doesn’t match the ruling’s cut-and-dried approach. Unilateral actions by the executive paved the way for risk corridors’ massive losses, a fact neither insurers nor liberal Obamacare supporters like to admit.

The Bailout’s Origins

In many ways, the Supreme Court case has its roots in guidance released by the Obama administration in November 2013. At that point, millions of people had received plan cancellation notices, but couldn’t buy health insurance plans while healthcare.gov remained in meltdown. President Obama faced withering and justified criticism for his “Lie of the Year”—the promise that “If you like your plan, you can keep it.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tried to stanch the political bleeding. Instead of sending cancellation notices, states and insurers could allow individuals to retain plans purchased after Obamacare’s March 2010 enactment, but before the major insurance regulations went into effect on January 1, 2014.

Coming at a very late date, HHS’s unilateral action threatened to create more chaos for insurers. The carriers had priced their policies assuming millions of individuals with pre-Obamacare policies would lose their existing plans and sign up for exchange coverage. Instead, these largely healthy individuals would remain outside of Obamacare, as millions of sicker individuals flooded onto exchanges to obtain the richer Obamacare coverage.

How did HHS propose to offset insurers’ potential losses from this late change to their enrollee profile? The same November 2013 guidance allowing pre-Obamacare policies to remain in place proposed risk corridors as the solution:

Though this transitional policy was not anticipated by health insurance issuers when setting rates for 2014, the risk corridor program should help ameliorate unanticipated changes in premium revenue. We intend to explore ways to modify the risk corridor program final rules to provide additional assistance.

In theory, risk corridors required plans with outsized profits on Obamacare policies to subsidize insurers with outsized losses. But because many insurers kept their pre-Obamacare policies in place, many more insurers suffered losses than gains. The program suffered approximately $12 billion in losses during its three years (2014-16), losses which prompted insurers’ suit, to recover the billions they consider themselves owed.

Unconstitutional Actions

But as law professor Nicholas Bagley (an Obamacare supporter) and others have pointed out, HHS’s November 2013 guidance came with a big catch: It violated the president’s constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” In essence, the Obama administration had stated that it would not enforce the law—the new insurance regulations coming into effect, which had led insurers to send the cancellation notices in the first place—because it found doing so politically inconvenient. (Sadly, the Trump administration has continued the unconstitutional behavior, by similarly allowing the plans to remain in effect.)

Those unconstitutional actions imposed major financial losses on insurers, an assertion that comes not just from the HHS guidance quoted above, but from the insurers themselves. An amicus brief submitted in the Supreme Court case by Americans for Prosperity noted that the insurer plaintiffs themselves admitted the administration’s unilateral actions represented the root cause of much of their financial losses:

As one Petitioner notes, this ‘unexpected policy change had marked and predictable effects.’ It lowered enrollment and since ‘the announcement came after premiums had been set[,]’ Petitioners were stuck with the prices they set, forced to ‘[b]ear greater risk than they accounted for[.]’ Petitioners argue that HHS recognized ‘that its unexpected policy shift could subject insurers on the exchanges to unanticipated higher average claims costs … [b]ut,’ the agency allayed their fears by providing reassurance that the risk corridors program would cover any losses. The Petitioners go through a lengthy history of HHS’s actions, pinning much of the blame on HHS’s ‘rosy scenario’ of how things would work out. [Internal citations omitted.]

Sticking Taxpayers with the Tab

Insurers could have responded in a different manner to the HHS guidance. They could have cancelled all their pre-Obamacare policies anyway, or they could have challenged the guidance in court. Some took the former action, because some states forced carriers to cancel all pre-Obamacare plans—but none took the latter course. In the main, insurers decided to take their chances, roll the dice, and not take a confrontational tack with the Obama administration, largely hoping they would receive the risk corridor bailout HHS alluded to in its guidance.

But Congress can, and should, have a say in the matter. A policy enacted unilaterally, and unconstitutionally, by HHS resulted in a financial impact (in the form of risk corridors) to the tune of billions of dollars.

Yes, Congress could have passed more stringent language blocking any appropriation for a risk corridor bailout. But following that logic to its conclusion would have effectively turned the Constitution on its head: The executive can make a unilateral, and unconstitutional, change, and both Congress and taxpayers have to pay the bill for it—unless and until Congress passes legislation by a veto-proof majority to undo the financial consequences of an action the executive never had authority to take in the first place.

A Costly ‘Bait-and-Switch’

Insurers decried the risk corridor funding shortfall as a “bait-and-switch” by Congress: Lawmakers authorized the payments as part of Obamacare, but never ponied up an appropriation for an obligation Congress created.

Risk corridors did suffer from a “bait-and-switch,” but it came from the Obama administration, not Congress. HHS changed the rules of the game, causing insurers major losses on their Obamacare plans—and sticking taxpayers with much of that tab via risk corridors.

But neither the majority opinion in the Supreme Court ruling, nor Justice Alito’s dissent, addressed the Obama administration’s “bait-and-switch.” As a result, the court created a bad precedent that empowers the executive, further diminishes the role of Congress, and places taxpayers at risk for more unilateral bailouts in the future.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Congress’ Coronavirus Legislation Could See Millionaires on Medicaid

Congress’ urge to legislate quickly on the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in all manner of unintended policy consequences. Numerous reports indicate that the Internal Revenue Service has sent coronavirus relief payments to deceased individualsLarge restaurant chains have received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program intended for businesses that have less access to capital, even as small businesses struggling to survive report being shut out of the PPP.

Even more worrisome than these reports: A series of Medicaid-related provisions that provide a potential steppingstone toward a single-payer health-care system. These provisions not only encourage waste, fraud, and abuse, but will also further entrench government-run health care—the left’s ultimate objective.

Maintenance of Effort Provisions

Section 6008 of pandemic relief legislation the president signed on March 18 provides states a 6.2 percent increase in the federal Medicaid match. But the funds, designed in part to offset states’ revenue loss during the economic downturn, come with a huge catch.

To receive the additional federal funding, states may not adopt more restrictive Medicaid eligibility standards, impose new premiums, or otherwise restrict benefits. These “maintenance of effort” requirements echo provisions included in the 2009 “stimulus” legislation, which also raised states’ Medicaid match. But this year’s bill went even further, prohibiting states from terminating benefits for any enrollee during the coronavirus public health emergency “unless the individual requests a voluntary termination of eligibility or the individual ceases to be a resident of the State.”

In layman’s terms, this provision prohibits state Medicaid programs from terminating the enrollment of individuals with income that exceeds state eligibility limits. For instance, following a scathing report by the state’s legislative auditor, Louisiana last year disenrolled 1,672 individuals with incomes of more than $100,000 from the state’s Medicaid program—including some with income higher than Gov. John Bel Edwards’ salary.

But the provisions Congress enacted in March now prohibit Louisiana, or any other state, from disenrolling these ineligible individuals during the coronavirus outbreak. To put it another way, an individual who enrolled in Medicaid while unemployed could take a new job making $1 million per year, and the state would have absolutely no recourse to kick that individual off of the government rolls, so long as he wants to remain enrolled in “free,” taxpayer-funded health coverage.

Pave the Way for Single Payer?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how the next president could use these provisions to empower a vast expansion of government-run care. A Biden administration could leave the public health emergency declaration in place for its entire presidency—and would have strong policy incentives to do so. By preventing states from removing ineligible beneficiaries for its entire presidency, a Biden administration could massively expand Medicaid, turning the program into something approaching liberals’ dream of a single-payer system.

The Louisiana experience also shows the direct correlation between eligibility checks, enrollment, and spending on Medicaid. State officials removed at least 30,000 individuals from the program last spring, reducing enrollment in expansion by more than 10 percent, and lowering program spending by approximately $400 million. A Biden administration that prohibits states from removing ineligible beneficiaries for four or eight years would see taxpayers spending billions of dollars funding millions of ineligible enrollees—an enrollment explosion that could prove difficult to unwind.

Don’t Bail Out the States

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already begun work on the next coronavirus package, with she and her fellow Democrats adamantly insisting that a bailout of states stands next on Congress’ “to-do” list.

But it seems highly disingenuous for Pelosi and Democrats to call for bailing out state budgets, even as they prohibit those same states from removing ineligible individuals from the Medicaid program. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has called the new requirements on state Medicaid programs absurd: “Why would the federal government say, ‘I’m going to trample the state’s right to redesign its Medicaid program, that it runs—that saves money?’”

Conservatives in Congress should demand that lawmakers fix the Medicaid provisions, either by allowing states to remove ineligible beneficiaries, setting a specific end-date for the increased federal matching funds, or (more preferably) both. Otherwise, by prohibiting states from purging their rolls of Medicaid enrollees who don’t belong in the program, the United States could find itself with a single-payer system by the back door.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

We Should Move Away from Employer-Based Insurance, But NOT Towards Single Payer

The left continues to seek ways to politically capitalize on the coronavirus crisis. Multiple proposals in the past several weeks would replace a potential decline in employer-provided health insurance with government-run care.

One analysis released earlier this month found the coronavirus pandemic could cause anywhere from 12 to 35 million Americans to lose their employer-provided coverage, as individuals lose jobs due to virus-related shutdowns. Of course, these coverage losses could remain temporary in some cases, as firms reopen and rehire furloughed workers.

But these lefties do have a point: The United States should move away from employer-provided health coverage. It just shouldn’t rely upon a government-run model to do so.

Biden: Let’s Expand an Insolvent Program

Days after his last remaining rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, former vice president and presumptive nominee Joe Biden endorsed a plan to expand Medicare. Biden’s statement didn’t include details. Instead, he “directed [his] team to come up with a plan to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60.”

One big problem with Biden’s proposed expansion: Medicare already faces an insolvency date of 2026, a date the current economic turmoil will almost certainly accelerate. He claimed that “any new federal cost associated with this option would be financed out of general revenues to protect the Medicare trust fund.” But Biden didn’t explain why he would choose to expand a program rapidly approaching insolvency as it is.

Another problem for Biden seems more political. As this space has previously noted, in 2017 and 2018, the former vice president and his wife received more than $13 million in book and speech revenue as profits from a corporation rather than wage income. By doing so, they avoided paying nearly $400,000 in payroll taxes that fund—you guessed it!—Medicare.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to ask the obvious question: If Biden loves Medicare so much that he wants to expand it, why didn’t he pay his Medicare taxes?

Medicare Extra

Other liberals have proposals that would expand the government’s role in health care still further. Examining the impact of coronavirus on coverage, and analyzing a movement away from employer-provided care, Ezra Klein endorsed the Medicare Extra plan as superior to Biden’s original health-care proposal for a so-called “public option.” Towards the end of his analysis, Klein makes crystal clear why he supports this approach:

[Medicare Extra] creates a system that, while not single-payer, is far more integrated than anything we have now: A public system with private options, rather than a private system with fractured public options.

Medicare Extra, originally developed by the Center for American Progress and introduced in legislative form as the Medicare for America Act by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), goes beyond the Biden plan. Both would likely lead to a single-payer system, but Medicare Extra would do so much more quickly.

Biden’s original health care plan would create a government-run “option,” similar to Medicare, into which anyone could enroll. Individuals could use Obamacare subsidies (which Biden’s proposal would increase) to enroll in the government-run plan.

Notably, Biden’s proposal eliminates Obamacare’s subsidy “firewall,” in which anyone with an offer of “affordable” employer coverage does not qualify for subsidized exchange coverage. Removing this “firewall” will encourage a migration towards the exchanges, and the government-run plan.

By contrast, Medicare Extra would go three steps further in consolidating government-run care. First, it would combine existing government programs like Medicare and Medicaid into the new “Medicare Extra” rubric. Second, the legislation would automatically enroll people into Medicare Extra at birth, giving the government-run program an in-built bias, and a clear path towards building a coverage monopoly.

Third, Medicare Extra would not just allow individuals with an offer of employer-sponsored coverage to enroll in the Medicare Extra program, it would require the employer to “cash out” the dollar value of his contribution, and give those funds to the employee to fund that worker’s Medicare Extra plan.

The combination of this “cash out” requirement (not included in Biden’s proposal) and the other regulations on employer coverage included in Medicare Extra would result in a totally government-run system within a few short years. After all, if businesses have to pay the same amount to fund their employees’ coverage whether they maintain an employer plan or not, what incentive do they have to stay in the health insurance game?

Let Individuals Maintain Their Own Coverage

Both Biden’s proposals and Medicare Extra would consolidate additional power and authority within the government system—liberals’ ultimate objective. By contrast, the Trump administration has worked to give Americans access to options other than employer-provided insurance that individuals control, not the government.

Regulations finalized by the administration last year could in time revolutionize health insurance coverage. The rules allow for employers to provide tax-free contributions to employees through Health Reimbursement Arrangements, which workers can use to buy the health insurance plans they prefer. Best of all, employees will own these health plans, not the business, so they can take their coverage with them when they change jobs or retire.

It will of course take time for this transition to take root, as businesses learn more about Health Reimbursement Arrangements and workers obtain private insurance plans that they can buy, hold, and keep. But if allowed to flourish, this reform could remove Americans’ reliance on employers to provide health coverage, while preventing a further expansion of government meddling in our health-care system—both worthy objectives indeed.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hospitals’ Corona Cash Crunch Shows Problems of Government-Run Care

The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted such vast damage on the American economy that one damaged sector has gone relatively unnoticed. Despite incurring a massive influx of new patients, the hospital industry faces what one executive called a “seismic financial shock” from the virus.

The types of shocks hospitals currently face also illustrate the problems inherent in Democrats’ proposed expansions of government-run health care. Likewise, the pay and benefit cuts and furloughs that some hospitals have enacted in response to these financial shocks provide a potential preview of Democrats’ next government takeover of health care.

Massive Disruptions

The health-care sector faces two unique, virus-related problems. The lockdowns in many states have forced physician offices to close, or scale back services to emergencies only. The cancellation of routine procedures (e.g., dental cleanings, check-ups, etc.) has caused physician income to plummet, just like restaurants and other shuttered businesses.

While many physician practices have seen a dramatic drop-off in patients, hospitals face an influx of cases—but the wrong kind of cases. According data from the Health Care Cost Institute, in 2018 a hospital surgical stay generated an average $43,810 in revenue, while the average non-surgical stay generated only $19,672.

The pandemic has raised hospitals’ costs, as they work to increase bed capacity and obtain additional personal protective equipment for their employees. But as one Dallas-based hospital system noted, coronavirus’ true “seismic financial shock” has come from the cancellations of elective surgeries that “are the cornerstone of our hospital system’s operating model.”

This rapid change in hospitals’ case mix—the type of patient facilities treat—has inflicted great damage. Replacing millions of higher-paying patients with lower-paying ones will rapidly unbalance a hospital’s books. Changing patient demographics, in the form of additional uninsured patients and patients from lower-paying government programs, only compounds hospitals’ financial difficulties.

A Preview of Democrats’ Health Care Future

The shock hospitals face from the rapid change in their case mix previews an expansion of government-run health care. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission noted in a report released last month that in 2018, hospitals incurred a 9.3 percent loss on their Medicare inpatient admissions. To attempt to offset these losses as hospitals treat coronavirus patients, Section 3710 of the $2 trillion stimulus bill increased Medicare payments for COVID-related treatment by 20 percent.

With respect to the single-payer bill promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), neither the conservative Mercatus Center nor the liberal Urban Institute assumed the higher reimbursement rates included in the stimulus bill. Mercatus’ $32.6 trillion cost estimate assumed no increase in current Medicare hospital or physician payments, while Urban’s $32 trillion cost estimate assumed a 15 percent increase in hospital payments and no increase in physician payments. Raising Medicare reimbursements to match the 20 percent increase included in the stimulus bill would substantially hike the cost of Sanders’ plan.

Conversely, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden believes his “public option” proposal, by making enrollment in a government plan voluntary, represents much less radical change. But his plan increases the generosity of Obamacare subsidies and repeals current restrictions prohibiting workers with an offer of employer coverage from receiving those subsidies—both of which would siphon patients toward the government plan.

In 2009, the Lewin Group concluded that a government plan open to all workers would result in 119 million Americans dropping their private coverage. Such a massive influx of patients into a lower-paying government system would destabilize hospitals’ finances much the same way as coronavirus.

Economic Cutbacks and Job Losses

Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic has allowed us to see what a rapid influx of lower-paying patients will do to the hospital sector. A few weeks into the crisis, many systems have already resorted to major cost-cutting measures. Tenet Healthcare, which runs 65 hospitals, has postponed 401(k) matches for employees. In Boston, Beth Israel Deaconess has withheld some of emergency room physicians’ accrued pay, a measure sure to harm morale as first responders face long hours and difficult working conditions.

This economic damage from a rapid change in hospitals’ payer mix echoes a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association last spring. That study concluded that a single-payer health care system paying at Medicare rates would reduce hospital revenues by $151 billion annually, resulting in up to 1.5 million job losses for hospitals alone. Robust enrollment in the government-run health plan Biden supports would have only marginally lower effects.

Hospitals, like the rest of our economy, will in time recover from the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. But they may not bounce back quickly, or at all, from another expansion of government-run health care—a fact that hospital workers facing cutbacks, and patients needing care, should take to heart in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Coronavirus and Advance Directives

Sometimes, the right policy can come at the wrong time. Consider an article on how the coronavirus has upended nursing homes, hundreds of which have at least one—and in many cases far more than one—case among residents.

A Politico newsletter discussing the article last Monday included an ominous blurb: “The National Hospice and Palliative Care Association has been pushing Congress to give more support to advance care planning, perhaps in the next stimulus bill.” While the advocates may have the best of intentions, discussing advance care directives in the context of a global pandemic raises serious ethical questions.

Planning for Worst-Case Scenarios

End-of-life care remains a touchy political subject. In 2009, following comments by Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) about “death panels,” she defended her characterization of Democrats’ health care effort by pointing to a provision in a House draft allowing Medicare to cover end-of-life counseling. While the controversy prompted congressional Democrats to drop the provision from the bill that became Obamacare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2015 approved regulatory changes allowing Medicare to pay physicians for end-of-life consultations with their patients.

In most cases, talking through options and allowing patients to determine their intended course of treatment gives patients a voice in their own care. Advance care planning—whether through a formal directive, or even informal conversations amongst family members—also takes a weighty burden off of loved ones at a time of immense stress and emotional anguish.

My mother has told me throughout my adult life that, in extreme circumstances, she does not want medical personnel using extraordinary means to extend her life. Heart-breaking as it would be for me to relay that decision to her doctors, I could at least know I did not make that decision, but instead merely relayed a wish that my mother has expressed, consistently and repeatedly, over many years.

The Power of Persuasion

Under most circumstances, encouraging individuals to have these types of end-of-life conversations with their family members and physicians represents sound medical practice and wise public policy. But the middle of a global pandemic by definition does not constitute ordinary circumstances.

Here’s one telling example from Britain’s National Health Service. The BBC obtained a document from a regional medical group based in Sussex. The document, which sets out guidance for treating coronavirus patients in nursing homes, prompted one care manager to become “deeply concerned that residents and families are being pushed to sign” do-not-resuscitate forms:

The…guidance even provides a suggested script for GPs [general practitioners] to use in conversations with residents and families, part of which says ‘frail elderly people do not respond to the sort of intensive treatment required for the lung complications of coronavirus and indeed the risk of hospital admission may be to exacerbate pain and suffering.’

It goes on: ‘We may therefore recommend that in the event of coronavirus infection, hospital admission is undesirable.’

One care manager…[said] their GP had even told them ‘none of your residents aged over 75 will be admitted to hospital.’ They said they felt ‘shocked and numb’ to hear that. Another said: ‘We have been told flatly that it would be highly unlikely that they would be accepted into hospital.’

Put aside for a moment the fact that Britain’s system of socialized medicine has prompted at least some physicians to believe they should flatly refuse medical care to senior citizens (even though Health Secretary Matt Hancock denied such a policy exists). That such a system has also pressured family members to sign do-not-resuscitate orders for their loved ones speaks to the potential dangers of combining end-of-life counseling with the pressures faced by health care providers during a pandemic.

Preserve a Culture of Life

A content-neutral conversation among a doctor and a patient about constructing an advance directive, and what instructions to put in that advance directive, is one thing, but pressuring vulnerable patients to sign do-not-resuscitate orders during a global pandemic is quite another. Common sense, confirmed by the example from Britain, suggests that given the current medical crisis, the conversations could easily veer off-track from the former to the latter.

Advance care planning has its place in health care, but now seems an inauspicious time to push for its more widespread adoption. At present, our efforts should focus not just on preserving life, but on preserving a culture of life—and hurried conversations about end-of-life care in the current pandemic could undermine that culture significantly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Economy Won’t Recover Until Americans’ Coronavirus Fears Fade

If we reopen it, will they come? That paraphrase of the signature line from “Field of Dreams” illustrates a dilemma facing the Trump administration, along with state and local leaders, as they contemplate when and how to reopen elements of the economy shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

Just because the Trump administration gives word that individuals and businesses can reopen doesn’t mean that most, or even any, of them will do so.

A dozen years ago, former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) caused a minor uproar during the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign when he characterized the nation as in a “mental recession.” His remarks drew outrage, but they accurately describe one of the two predicaments the American economy faces: Both the coronavirus and the fear caused by the virus.

Even as the nation’s leaders work to resolve the first problem, they also must work diligently to resolve the second. When restarting economic activity, all Americans have a voice: They can spend, or not spend, money as they please. If the American public stays home en masse even after public officials lift stay-at-home orders, the “re-opened” economy will look nearly as morose as the current one.

Big Support for Forcing People to Stay Home

Polling shows a surprising level of support for most of the actions taken to curb the virus, even at the expense of the nation’s economy. A Fox News poll taken last week showed that 80 percent of Americans support “a national stay-at-home order for everyone except essential workers.” That comes despite the fact that 50 percent of Americans said they, or someone in their household, had lost a job or had hours reduced because of the virus and related shutdowns.

Why do an overwhelming majority of Americans support such a drastic shutdown of the nation’s economy? The polling shows that, as of April 4-7, most Americans fear the virus:

  • A total of 94 percent are very or somewhat concerned about the spread of the virus in the United States;
  • More than three in four (76 percent) are very or somewhat concerned about catching the coronavirus;
  • Nearly four in five (79 percent) are very or somewhat concerned that they or someone in their family could die from the virus; and
  • Three-quarters (75 percent) believe the worst is yet to come regarding the pandemic.

The American people do worry about the virus’ potential to cause a recession (91 percent are very or somewhat concerned), and inflict economic hardship on their families (79 percent very or somewhat concerned). But the survey shows that, at least as of last week, they fear the virus more than they fear the economic consequences of the virus. Perhaps for this reason, a 47 percent plurality believe President Trump has not taken the virus seriously enough, whereas only 4 percent believe he has overreacted to the pandemic.

Don’t Just Tell Me, Show Me

Some might believe the American people have in fact overreacted to the coronavirus. They of course have their right to hold those beliefs. But trivializing people’s fears—as opposed to reasoning with them in a way that puts them at ease—won’t encourage people to begin resuming their normal lives, and will likely keep the economy stuck in neutral (or sliding further backwards).

Despite the lack of focus on the topic to date, the messaging component of reopening the economy seems critically important to its success—as important as getting the timing right of the reopening. The administration needs to approach the American people where they are—anxious about the virus’ spread—and offer clear explanations not just for what they are doing, but why:

  • Why reopen a given area, sector, or activity now? Why not two weeks ago, or two weeks (or two months) from now?
  • What will the federal government do (and what can it do) regarding interstate travel? What happens to the businessman who needs to fly for work—will a governor in another state attempt to stop him or her from traveling?
  • The administration’s initial proposal to classify areas as high, medium, or low risk makes a great deal of sense. But what metrics will go into those classifications—number of cases, growth in cases, number of deaths, health-care capacity, or something else? Will the criteria remain transparent and objective, and not subject to political manipulation or pressure?
  • What metrics will determine any potential need to reactivate shutdown orders?

This advice applies not just to President Trump, but to governors and other policy makers as well. For instance, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases said Friday that he envisioned a “real degree of normality” by around the time of this fall’s elections. His statement seemed somewhat surprising, given prior comments by Fauci and others about a possible “second wave” of coronavirus infections hitting this fall.

In an evolving response to a pandemic, facts and circumstances can change rapidly, as scientists learn more about the virus, and humans’ responses to it. But whenever scientists change their models, or political leaders alter their guidance and recommendations, both must explain to the public why they have done so. Only transparent data, communications, and explanations can ensure the public buy-in necessary to bring the economy back to life at the appropriate time.

Fix Both the Problems

Half a century ago this week, the Apollo 13 mission—where an on-board explosion turned a potential moon landing into a struggle for three astronauts to survive—captivated the nation. As staffers at NASA’s Mission Control worked feverishly to bring the space travelers safely home, Flight Director Gene Kranz instructed his employees to “Work the problem” (or words to that effect).

With the current pandemic, policymakers need to work the problem—both of them. They must break down the component parts associated with reopening our economic and civic institutions: the conditions that must be met prior to a reopening, the sequencing behind such an effort, and so forth.

But they also must explain openly, clearly, and repeatedly to the American people how and why they are doing so. Doing the former without the latter could result in more confusion, uncertainty, and continued economic stagnation.

The fact that Jim Lovell, the commander of the fateful Apollo 13 mission, survived to write about that experience 50 years on this past weekend speaks to the power of American ingenuity in solving problems, overcoming obstacles, and saving lives. Here’s hoping we see a reprise of that ingenuity for the coronavirus.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Colorado Plan Shows the Coercion Behind the Public “Option”

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s political comeback prompted health care stocks to surge last month following the Super Tuesday primaries. The rally, which occurred before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States, stemmed in large part from Wall Street’s belief that Biden represents less of a threat to the sector as a potential president than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health-care system.

But anyone who considers Biden’s alternative to single payer, the so-called “public option,” innocuous should look to Colorado. Lawmakers in the Centennial State recently revealed their version of the concept, and it represents an “option” in name only. Indeed, the state’s plan contemplates a level of coercion that in some respects exceeds that of Sanders’ system of socialized medicine.

Big Government Forces Hospitals’ Participation

For starters, the legislative proposal dictates prices for hospitals, based on a percentage of Medicare rates. As one might expect, the bill’s supporters believe the rates proposed in the legislation represent fair reimbursement levels, while some hospital executives disagree.

But the bill would also take away hospitals’ negotiating leverage, by requiring all Colorado facilities to participate in the new insurance offering. Hospitals refusing to participate would face fines of up to $40,000 per day. And if the prospect of nearly $1.5 million in government-imposed sanctions does not force a recalcitrant facility into submission, the bill also permits Colorado’s insurance commissioner to “suspend, revoke, or impose conditions on the hospital’s license.”

Think about that for a moment: The government forces hospitals to offer patients a service—even if the government’s price for that service could lead them to incur financial losses—and threatens to take away their license to do business if they refuse. That level of heavy-handed government involvement far exceeds the individual mandate in Obamacare.

Insurers Required to Participate, Too

The bill similarly requires all Colorado insurers to offer the new government-dictated “option” in each county in which they offer Obamacare exchange products. In counties where only one insurer currently offers coverage, the bill directs the insurance commissioner to “require carriers to offer the Colorado option in specific counties,” such that at least two carriers offer the plan in every county.

According to one report, the bill’s sponsors called their new offering the “Colorado option” rather than the “public option” because lawmakers did “not want to put the state budget at risk by creating a government-run insurance company.” Instead, lawmakers want to dragoon insurers into assuming that risk, even as the bill prohibits efforts by insurers to absorb potential losses from the “Colorado option” by raising rates elsewhere.

Worse Than Berniecare?

Sanders’ legislation would effectively put private insurers out of business, by making coverage for services covered by the single-payer system “unlawful.” The issue of whether to ban private insurance, and take away individuals’ ability to keep their current coverage, became a defining characteristic of Democrats’ nominating contest.

But the Colorado legislation could put private insurers and hospitals out of business, if they refuse the state’s commands. At least Sanders’ proposal allows hospitals to opt out of the government system if they decide—few would, but they do have that choice.

The Colorado legislation shows how Obamacare set a dangerous precedent, which Democrats want to extend throughout the health-care system. Just as Obamacare forced all Americans to buy a product for the first time ever, now lawmakers want to force hospitals and insurers to treat patients, even at their financial peril. Each could face a Hobson’s choice: Putting themselves out of business by incurring losses on “Colorado option” patients, or taking the “option” to decline to participate, at which point the state will regulate them out of business.

Colorado’s proposal of dubious merit and equally dubious constitutionality demonstrates the way in which even purported moderates like Biden have embraced a health-care agenda defined by ever-increasing levels of government intrusion and coercion. At present, Sanders’ single-payer legislation represents the far end of that continuum, but liberals will use proposals like Colorado’s “public option” to get there.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Democrats in Congress Won’t Let Andrew Cuomo Fight Medicaid Fraud

Over the past several weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken several shots at Sen. Chuck Schumer, his fellow New York Democrat, about the coronavirus “stimulus” bills passed by Congress. Cuomo has repeatedly attacked Schumer for not looking out for their home state’s interests, calling the most recent measure, which cost more than $2 trillion, “terrible” for the Empire State.

The intraparty feuding seems all the more noteworthy for one reason Cuomo found the “stimulus” terrible: It precludes New York from taking steps to right-size its Medicaid program. That senior Democrats in Congress tied the hands of a governor from their own party as he works to enact reforms, and combat fraud, in the costly program speaks to how leftists will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain every facet of the welfare state.

New York’s Medicaid Mess

Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, New York’s state Medicaid program faced major difficulties. In fiscal year 2018, New York’s Medicaid program spent nearly as much ($74.8 billion) as California’s ($83.9 billion), even though California has more than twice the population (39.5 million vs. 19.5 million for New York).

Some of New York’s high Medicaid spending stems from rampant waste and fraud. A 2005 in-depth investigation by The New York Times quoted a former investigator as saying that 10 percent of all Medicaid spending constituted outright fraud, with another 20-30 percent representing “unnecessary spending that might not be criminal.”

New York’s Medicaid program also spends disproportionate sums on institutional care for individuals with disabilities. The state spends more than twice as much on nursing home care ($5.5 billion) as California ($2.5 billion), despite having less than half the population. New York also exceeds California’s spending on intermediate care facilities for the intellectually disabled.

Smart reforms to Medicaid would attempt to keep individuals in their own homes wherever possible. Paying for home and community-based services would save taxpayers money. More importantly, it would also treat patients in the location the vast majority of patients prefer: Their own homes. Changes to move in this direction, coupled with efforts to fight waste and fraud, would bring long-overdue reform to Medicaid in New York.

Cuomo Tried to Fix the Problem

Prior to the pandemic, New York faced a $6 billion budget shortfall that Cuomo blamed (correctly) on the Medicaid mess. He asked a commission to recommend reforms, and the commission came back with a series of proposals that would save more than $1.6 billion in state dollars during the coming fiscal year, and additional sums thereafter. (Because the federal government provides at least a 50 percent Medicaid match to New York, the changes would save federal taxpayers at least as much as they would save state taxpayers.)

While the recommendations do include across-the-board reductions in provider payment levels, changes to long-term care represent the largest amount of savings ($715 million of the $1.65 billion total). The package includes a focus on home- and community-based services, tightens restrictions on households who attempt to hide assets to have Medicaid cover their long-term care costs, and includes reforms to program integrity as well.

Did Schumer Stop Reform?

As New York’s Democrat governor proposed a Medicaid reform package, what did New York’s senior senator do? By one account he worked to ensure that his fellow Democrat could not enact the needed changes.

As I previously noted, the second “stimulus” bill included a Medicaid bailout for states, coupled with maintenance of effort provisions. These provisions prohibit states from making any changes to eligibility or benefits in exchange for the 6.2 percent increase in the federal Medicaid match (which will last for the duration of the coronavirus public health emergency). States that increase cost-sharing, change benefits, impose premiums—pretty much any change to the Medicaid benefit package, other than arbitrary reductions in provider payments—lose eligibility for the increased federal match.

Cuomo railed against these restrictions: “Why would the federal government say, ‘I’m going to trample the state’s right to redesign its Medicaid program, that it runs—that saves money?’…I don’t even know what the political interest is they’re trying to protect.”

The governor appeared to win the argument—at first. Section 3720 of a draft version of the third “stimulus” bill (beginning at page 394 here) would have amended the second “stimulus” bill to allow New York to go ahead with its reforms, while still receiving the 6.2 percent increase in the federal Medicaid match.

But Section 3720 of the version that made it into law (page 147 here) stripped out the original language that allowed New York to proceed with its Medicaid changes. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) claims Schumer got the language removed, presumably because he opposes Cuomo’s reform package:

Lee Zeldin

@RepLeeZeldin

Re-upping here for additional background on what Gov Cuomo is talking about right now re FMAP and the stimulus bill.

McConnell offered Schumer exactly what Cuomo asked for on this fix and Schumer rejected it. https://twitter.com/RepLeeZeldin/status/1243210360334815232 

Lee Zeldin

@RepLeeZeldin

Gov. Cuomo just said the stimulus package could’ve & should’ve provided additional support for the NYS budget.

He is right.

Here’s the context not mentioned:

McConnell offered the FMAP language Cuomo asked for & Schumer blocked it, resulting in the loss of SIX BILLION for NY.

Stop Defending Fraudsters

Who exactly nixed the language helping New York, and why, may remain a mystery. But it seems highly unlikely that Senate Republicans would have insisted on its removal. Most conservatives support states’ Medicaid reform proposals, and fought maintenance of effort requirements included in the 2009 “stimulus” and Obamacare that thwarted state flexibility. The objection that led to the New York provision’s removal almost certainly came from the Democrat side of the aisle.

As to why, consider this quote from Politico: “Critics argue…that even if there is some sense in targeting waste and fraud, it also makes sense to raise taxes on the wealthy to support a program that poor New Yorkers rely on.”

Yes, by all means let’s raise taxes during the midst of an economic cataclysm. If we crack down on fraud too much, the fraudsters might go out of business—and they need to eat just like the rest of us!

It’s exactly this kind of mentality that left the United States with $23 trillion in debt (and rising). Cuomo rightly called out the members of his own party for their socialistic games, because the American people deserve better than the left’s welfare-industrial complex.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Coronavirus Medal of Freedom

President Trump has drawn fire for referring to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” Critics accuse him of racism, and they are right that Americans should bear no ill will toward people of Chinese ethnicity. But the Chinese Communist regime is culpable in the pandemic. It worked to suppress news about the virus, persecuted medical workers who told the truth, expelled reporters from American outlets (including the Journal), and has attempted to deflect blame by falsely asserting that the U.S. created the virus.

There’s a better way for Mr. Trump to make his point: He could posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Li Wenliang.

Li, a physician at Wuhan Central hospital, raised the alarm early. After seeing patient reports discussing a new “SARS coronavirus,” he warned colleagues via an Internet chat room on Dec. 30 and urged them to “take caution.”

When Li’s warnings circulated widely, Wuhan police summoned him and other “rumormongers,” giving them an official admonishment on Jan. 3. A week later, Li developed a fever and cough; subsequent tests confirmed he had contracted the coronavirus. After several weeks in intensive care, he died Feb. 7 at 33.

Three days earlier, after internal and international outrage, China’s Supreme Court had negated his punishment. Yet the fact remains that Chinese leaders inflicted incalculable damage on their own nation and the rest of the world by trying to suppress news of the coronavirus rather than marshal global efforts to fight it.

By raising concerns about the novel coronavirus before Chinese authorities did, Li meets the medal’s criteria of making “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace . . . or other significant public or private endeavors.” Since President John F. Kennedy instituted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, presidents have awarded it to a broad swathe of international leaders, including Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and Margaret Thatcher. It has also been awarded posthumously, including to JFK himself two weeks after his assassination.

Awarding the Medal of Freedom to Li Wenliang would recognize the role of free speech in maintaining a healthy society and serve as a a fitting tribute to the role that millions of other first responders are playing in this pandemic.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.