The CBO Report on Single Payer Isn’t the One We Deserve to See

On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a 30-page report analyzing a single-payer health insurance plan. While the publication explained some policy considerations behind such a massive change to America’s health care market, it included precious few specifics about such a change—like what it would cost.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), perhaps single payer’s biggest supporter, serves as the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. If he asked the budget scorekeepers to analyze his legislation in full to determine what it would cost, and how to go about paying for the spending, CBO would give it high-priority treatment.

But to the best of this observer’s knowledge, that hasn’t happened. Might that be because the senator does not want to know—or, more specifically, does not want the public to know—the dirty secrets behind his proposed health-care takeover?

Hypothetical Scenarios

The CBO report examined single payer as an academic policy exercise, running through various options for establishing and operating such a mechanism. In the span of roughly thirty pages, the report used the word “would” 245 times and “could” 209 times, outlining various hypothetical scenarios.

That said, CBO did highlight several potential implications of a single-payer system for both the demand and supply of care. For instance, “free” health care could lead to major increases in demand that the government system could not meet:

An expansion of insurance coverage under a single-payer system would increase the demand for care and put pressure on the available supply of care. People who are currently uninsured would receive coverage, and some people who are currently insured could receive additional benefits under the single-payer system, depending on its design. Whether the supply of providers would be adequate to meet the greater demand would depend on various components of the system, such as provider payment rates. If the number of providers was not sufficient to meet demand, patients might face increased wait times and reduced access to care.

The report noted that in the United Kingdom, a system of global budgets—a concept included in the House’s single-payer legislation—has led to massive strains on the health-care system. Because payments to hospitals have not kept up with inflation, hospitals have had to reduce the available supply of care, leading to annual “winter crises” within the National Health Service:

In England, the global budget is allocated to approximately 200 local organizations that are responsible for paying for health care. Since 2010, the global budget in England has grown by about 1 percent annually in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, compared with an average real growth of about 4 percent previously. The relatively slow growth in the global budget since 2010 has created severe financial strains on the health care system. Provider payment rates have been reduced, many providers have incurred financial deficits, and wait times for receiving care have increased.

While cutting payments to hospitals could cause pain in the short term, CBO noted that reducing reimbursement levels could also have consequences in the long term, dissuading people from taking up medicine to permanently reduce the capacity of America’s health-care market:

Changes in provider payment rates under the single-payer system could have longer-term effects on the supply of providers. If the average provider payment rate under a single-payer system was significantly lower than it currently is, fewer people might decide to enter the medical profession in the future. The number of hospitals and other health care facilities might also decline as a result of closures, and there might be less investment in new and existing facilities. That decline could lead to a shortage of providers, longer wait times, and changes in the quality of care, especially if patient demand increased substantially because many previously uninsured people received coverage and if previously insured people received more generous benefits.

That said, because the report did not analyze a specific legislative proposal, its proverbial “On the one hand, on the other hand” approach generates a distinctly muted tone.

Tax Increases Ahead

To give some perspective, the report spent a whopping two pages discussing “How Would a Single Payer System Be Financed?” (Seriously.) This raises the obvious question: If single-payer advocates think their bill would improve the lives of ordinary Americans, because the middle class would save so much money by not having to pay insurance premiums, wouldn’t they want the Congressional Budget Office to fully analyze how much money people would save?

During his Fox News town hall debate last month, Sanders claimed a large show of support from blue-collar residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for single payer. The ostensible support might have something to do with Sanders’ claim during the town hall that “the overwhelming majority of people are going to end up paying less for health care because they’re not paying premiums, co-payments, and deductibles.”

Where have we heard that kind of rhetoric before? Oh yeah—I remember:

At least one analysis has already discounted the accuracy of Sanders’ claims about people paying less. In scrutinizing Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign plan, Emory University economist Kenneth Thorpe concluded that the plan had a $10 trillion—yes, that’s $10 trillion—hole in its financing mechanism.

Filling that hole with tax increases meant that 71 percent of households would pay more under single payer than under the status quo, because taxes would have to go up by an average of 20 percentage points. Worse yet, 85 percent of Medicaid households—that is, people with the lowest incomes—would pay more, because a single-payer system would have to rely on regressive payroll taxes, which hit the poor hardest, to fund socialized medicine.

Put Up or Shut Up, Bernie

If Sanders really wants to prove the accuracy of his statement at the Fox News town hall, he should 1) ask CBO to score his bill, 2) release specific tax increases to pay for the spending in the bill, and 3) ask CBO to analyze the number of households that would pay more, and pay less, under the bill and all its funding mechanisms.

That said, I’m not holding my breath. A full, public, and honest accounting of single payer, and how to pay for it, would expose the game of three-card monty that underpins Sanders’ rhetoric. But conservatives should keep pushing for Sanders to request that score from CBO—better yet, they should request it themselves.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Robert Francis O’Rourke Sabotaged Obamacare

On Monday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that former U.S. representative Robert Francis O’Rourke had underpaid his taxes for 2013 and 2014. When O’Rourke released his tax returns Monday night, the Journal contacted an accountant, who noticed the error:

O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, appear to have underpaid their 2013 and 2014 taxes by more than $4,000 combined because of an error in the way they reported their medical expenses, according to tax returns the couple released Monday evening.

They took deductions for those costs without regard to the limit that only allowed that break for medical and dental expenses above 10% of income for people their age. Had they not taken the nearly $16,000 in medical deductions, their taxable income would have been higher.

But why did they over-report their medical expense deduction? If you’re curious, go and fetch a copy of the Consolidated Print of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Why, lookie what we have here:

SEC. 9013. MODIFICATION OF ITEMIZED DEDUCTION FOR MEDICAL EXPENSES.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Subsection (a) of section 213 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended by striking ‘7.5 percent’ and inserting ‘10 percent’.

(b) TEMPORARY WAIVER OF INCREASE FOR CERTAIN SENIORS.— Section 213 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended by adding at the end the following new subsection:

‘(f) SPECIAL RULE FOR 2013, 2014, 2015, AND 2016.—In the case of any taxable year beginning after December 31, 2012, and ending before January 1, 2017, subsection (a) shall be applied with respect to a taxpayer by substituting ‘7.5 percent’ for ‘10 percent’ if such taxpayer or such taxpayer’s spouse has attained age 65 be- fore the close of such taxable year.’

However, seniors could report at the lower 7.5 percent level for 2013 through 2016. In 2013 and 2014, Robert Francis reported at the lower 7.5 percent level, even though he and his wife aren’t seniors. Oops.

Several things come to mind upon reading this news, the first being one word: SABOTAGE. Democrats frequently like to claim that the Trump administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare. But by failing to pay an Obamacare-related tax increase, Robert Francis quite literally did just that—he sabotaged the law, failing to fund its entitlements by failing to pay his newly increased tax bill.

Second, did Robert Francis ever bother to READ Obamacare? Sure, he wasn’t a congressman when the bill passed, because he wasn’t a congressman for long, but one would think a member of Congress would bother to educate himself about such an important, and visible, piece of legislation. I talked several times with my mother, a senior who uses the medical expense deduction, about the import of this provision on her taxes. But then again, I actually bothered to read the bill.

More to the point, this episode once again reveals how Democrats want to bequeath to the nation laws that they do not understand. Recall that Max Baucus (D-MT), then the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a main author of Obamacare, said he didn’t need to bother reading the bill because he hired “experts” to do it for him. Except that one of those supposed “experts” admitted four years later that, on the law’s employer mandate, “we didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing that provision would be at that time.” A government too big to manage—that’s liberals’ greatest legacy.

As James Madison reminded us in Federalist 51, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Maybe Robert Francis should think about that the next time he’s out on the campaign trail—or writing that check for back taxes to the IRS.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Lowlights of Democrats’ New Single-Payer Bill

Some might think that, having embraced socialism and taking away the health coverage of millions of Americans, the Democratic Party couldn’t move further to the left. Think again.

House Democrats introduced their single-payer bill on Wednesday, and claimed that it’s a “significantly different” bill compared to versions introduced in prior Congresses. It definitely meets that definition—because, believe it or not, it’s gotten significantly worse.

What Remains

Abolition of Medicare—and Most Other Insurance Coverage: As I noted last year, the bill would still eliminate the current Medicare program, by prohibiting Title XVIII of the Social Security Act from paying for any service (Section 901(a)(1)(A)) and liquidating the current Medicare trust funds (Section 701(d)). Likewise, the bill would eliminate the existing insurance coverage of all but the 2.2 million who receive care from the Indian Health Service and the 9.3 million enrolled veterans receiving care from the Veterans Administration.

Taxpayer Funding of Abortion: As before, Section 701(b)(3) of the bill contains provisions prohibiting “any other provision of law…restricting the use of federal funds for any reproductive health service” from applying to the single-payer system. This language would put the single-payer system outside the scope of the Hyde Amendment, thereby permitting taxpayer funding for all abortions.

Lack of Accountability: As with the prior bill, the legislation would give massive amounts of power to bureaucrats within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). For instance, the legislation would establish new regional directors of the single-payer system—none of whom would be subject to Senate confirmation.

What Lawmakers Added

More Spending: Section 204 of the new bill federalizes the provision of long-term supports and services as part of the single-payer benefit package. Prior versions of the bill had retained those services as part of the Medicaid program, implemented by states with matching funds from the federal government.

In addition, the revised bill eliminated language in Section 202(b) of the Sanders legislation, which permitted co-payments for prescription drugs to encourage the use of generics. With the co-payments (capped at an annual maximum of $200 in the Sanders bill from last Congress) eliminated, the bill envisions the federal government providing all health services without cost-sharing. This change, coupled with the federalization of long-term supports and services, will result in increased spending—as more people demand “free” health care.

Faster Elimination of Private Coverage: Rather than envisioning a four-year transition to the single-payer system, the revised bill would eliminate all private health insurance within a two-year period. Over and above the myriad philosophical concerns associated with single-payer health care, this accelerated transition period raises obvious questions about whether the new system could get up and running so quickly. After all, Obamacare had an implementation period of nearly four years—yet healthcare.gov failed miserably during its initial launch phase.

In theory, moving away from a fee-for-service method of paying medical providers would eliminate their incentive to perform more procedures—a worthy goal. But in practice, global budgets could also lead to de facto rationing, as hospitals that exceed their budgets might have to stop providing care to patients—just as under-funding within Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) has led to chronic hospital overcrowding.

Compensation Caps: Section 611(b)(5) of the new bill would limit “compensation costs for any employee or any contractor or any subcontractor employee of an institutional provider receiving global budgets,” by applying existing pay restrictions on government contractors to hospitals and facilities in the single-payer program. These restrictions might lead some to wonder whether hospitals could truly be considered independent entities, or merely an arm of the state.

Effective Abolition of For-Profit Medicine: Section 614(a) of the revised bill states that “payments to providers…may not take into account…or be used by a provider for” marketing; “the profit or net revenue of the provider, or increasing the profit or net revenue of the provider;” any type of incentive payment—“including any value-based payment;” and political contributions prohibited by government contractors.

Liberals would argue that eliminating the profit motive will encourage doctors to provide better care, by focusing on patients rather than ways to enrich themselves. But the profit motive also encourages individuals to invest in health care—as opposed to other sectors of the economy—by allowing them to recover a return on their investment.

Effective Elimination of Patents: Section 616(c)(1) of the bill states that “if the manufacturer of a covered pharmaceutical, medical supply, medical technology, or medically necessary assistive equipment refuses to negotiation a reasonable price, the Secretary shall waive or void any government-granted exclusivities with respect to such drug or product,” and shall allow other companies to manufacture the product. By allowing the federal government to march in on a whim and seize a company’s intellectual property, the bill would discourage individuals from investing in such intellectual property in the first place.

“Reasonable” Prices and Rationing: As noted above, Section 616 of the bill requires HHS to determine when the prices of drugs and medical devices are “not reasonable,” by taking into account among other things “the therapeutic value of the drug or product, including cost-effectiveness and comparative effectiveness.” This provision could lead to the federal government denying patients access to drugs deemed too expensive, as occurs currently within Britain’s National Health Service.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Six Things about Pre-Existing Conditions Republican “Leaders” Still Don’t Get

“If at first you don’t succeed, go ahead and quit.” That might be the takeaway from excerpts of a conference call held earlier this month by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and published in the Washington Post.

McCarthy claimed that Republicans’ “repeal and replace” legislation last Congress “put [the] pre-existing condition campaign against us, and so even people who are [sic] running for the very first time got attacked on that. And that was the defining issue and the most important issue in the [midterm election] race.” He added: “If you’ll notice, we haven’t done anything when it comes to repealing Obamacare this time.”

Problem 1: Pre-Existing Condition Provisions In Context

I first noted this dilemma last summer: Liberals call the pre-existing condition provisions “popular” because their polls only ask about the policy, and not its costs. If you ask Americans whether they would like a “free” car, how many people do you think would turn it down? The same principle applies here.

When polls ask about the trade-offs associated with the pre-existing condition provisions—which a Heritage Foundation study called the largest driver of premium increases under Obamacare—support plummets. Cato surveys in both 2017 and 2018 confirmed this fact. Moreover, a Gallup poll released after the election shows that, by double-digit margins, Americans care more about rising health premiums and costs than about losing coverage due to a pre-existing condition.

The overall polling picture provided an opportunity for Republicans to push back and point out that the pre-existing condition provisions have led to skyrocketing premiums, which priced 2.5 million people out of the insurance marketplace from 2017 to 2018. Instead, most Republicans did nothing.

Problem 2: Republicans’ Awful Legislating

The bills’ flaws came from a failure to understand how Obamacare works. The law’s provisions requiring insurers to offer coverage to everyone (guaranteed issue) and price that coverage the same regardless of health status (community rating) make insurers want to avoid covering sick people. Those two provisions necessitate another two requirements, which force insurers to cover certain conditions (essential health benefits) and a certain percentage of expected health costs (actuarial value).

In general, the House and Senate bills either repealed, or allowed states to waive, the latter two regulations, while keeping the former two in place. If Republicans had repealed all of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, they could have generated sizable premium savings—an important metric, and one they could tout to constituents. Instead, they ended up in a political no man’s land, with people upset about losing their pre-existing condition “protections,” and no large premium reductions to offset that outrage.

Looking at this dynamic objectively, it isn’t surprising that McCarthy and his colleagues ended up with a political loser on their hands. The true surprise is why anyone ever thought the legislative strategy made for good politics—or, for that matter, good (or even coherent) policy.

Problem 3: Pre-Existing Conditions Aren’t Going Away

Within hours after Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced a bill last year maintaining Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions—the requirement that all insurers offer coverage at the same rates to all individuals, regardless of health status—liberals weighed in to call it insufficient.

As noted above, Obamacare encourages insurers to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. Repealing only some of the law’s regulations would exacerbate that dynamic, by giving insurers more tools with which to avoid enrolling sick people. Liberals recognize this fact, and will say as much any time Republicans try to modify any of Obamacare’s major insurance regulations.

Problem 4: Better Policies Exist

According to the Post, McCarthy said he wants to recruit candidates who would “find a solution at the end of the day.” A good thing that, because better solutions for the problems of pre-existing conditions do exist (I’ve written about several) if McCarthy had ever bothered to look for them.

Their political attacks demonstrate that liberals focus on supporting “insurance” for people once they develop a pre-existing condition. (Those individuals’ coverage by definition really isn’t “insurance.”) By contrast, conservatives should support making coverage more affordable, such that people can buy it before they develop a pre-existing condition—and keep it once they’re diagnosed with one.

Regulations proposed by the Trump administration late last year could help immensely on this front, by allowing employers to subsidize insurance that individuals hold and keep—that is, coverage that remains portable from job to job. Similar solutions, like health status insurance, would also encourage portability of insurance throughout one’s lifetime. Other options, such as direct primary care and high-risk pools, could provide care for people who have already developed pre-existing conditions.

Using a series of targeted alternatives to reduce and then to solve the pre-existing condition problem would prove far preferable than the blunt alternative of one-size-fits-all government regulations that have made coverage unaffordable for millions. However, such a solution would require political will from Republicans—which to date they have unequivocally lacked.

Problem 5: Republicans’ Alternative Is Socialized Medicine

Instead of promoting those better policies, House Republican leaders would like to cave in the most efficient manner possible. During the first day of Congress, they offered a procedural motion that, had it been adopted, would have instructed the relevant committees of jurisdiction to report legislation that:

(1) Guarantees no American citizen can be denied health insurance coverage as the result of a previous illness or health status; and (2) Guarantees no American citizen can be charged higher premiums or cost sharing as the result of a previous illness or health status, thus ensuring affordable health coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

Guaranteeing that everyone gets charged the same price for health care? I believe that’s called socialism—and socialized medicine.

Their position makes it very ironic that the same Republican committee leaders are pushing for hearings on Democrats’ single-payer legislation. It’s a bit rich to endorse one form of socialism, only to denounce another form as something that will destroy the country. (Of course, Republican leaders will only take that position unless and until a single-payer bill passes, at which point they will likely try to embrace it themselves.)

Problem 6: Health Care Isn’t Going Away As An Issue

The federal debt this month passed $22 trillion, and continues to rise. Most of our long-term government deficits arise from health care—the ongoing retirement of the baby boomers, and our corresponding obligations to Medicare, Medicaid, and now Obamacare.

Any Republican who cares about a strong national defense, or keeping tax rates low—concerns most Republicans embrace—should care about, and take an active interest in, health care and health policy. Given his comments about not repealing, or even talking about, Obamacare, McCarthy apparently does not.

But unsustainable trends are, in the long run, unsustainable. At some point in the not-too-distant future, skyrocketing spending on health care will mean that McCarthy will have to care—as will President Trump, and the Democrats who have gone out of their way to avoid talking about Medicare’s sizable financial woes. Here’s hoping that by that point, McCarthy and Republican leaders will have a more coherent—and conservative—policy than total surrender to the left.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

One Way for Florida’s Legislature to Respond to a Medicaid Expansion Referendum

Last week, Politico reported on a burgeoning effort by unions and other groups to collect signatures on a ballot initiative designed to expand Medicaid in Florida. As the article notes, the effort comes after last fall’s approval of Medicaid ballot initiatives in Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska.

The effort comes as liberals try to extend “free” health care to more and more Americans. But that “free” health care comes with significant costs, and policymakers in Florida have opportunities to make those costs apparent to voters.

‘Free’ Money Isn’t Free

By contrast, the petition being circulated in Florida includes no source of funding for the state’s 10 percent share of Medicaid expansion funding under Obamacare. The failure to specify a funding source represents a typical liberal tactic. Advocates seeking to expand Medicaid have traditionally focused on the “free” money from Washington available for states that do expand. “Free” money from Washington and “free” health care for low-income individuals—what’s not to like?

Of course, Medicaid expansion has very real costs for states, without even considering the effects on their taxpayers of the federal tax increases needed to fund all that “free” money from Washington. Every dollar that states spend on providing health care to the able-bodied represents another dollar that they cannot spend elsewhere.

I have previously noted how spending on Medicaid has crowded out funding for higher education, thus limiting mobility among lower-income populations, and encourages states to prioritize the needs of able-bodied adults over individuals with disabilities, for whom states receive a lower federal Medicaid match.

Taxes Ahead? Oh Yeah, Baby

Proposing a state income tax to fund Medicaid expansion would certainly make the cost of expansion readily apparent to Florida voters, especially the retirees who moved to the Sunshine State due to its combination of warm weather and no individual income tax. Voters would likely think twice if Medicaid expansion came with an income tax—which of course lawmakers could raise in the future, to fund all manner of government spending.

Prior efforts suggest that making the costs of Medicaid expansion apparent to voters appreciably dampens support. Utah approved its ballot initiative, which included a sales tax increase, with a comparatively small (53.3 percent) approval margin. In Montana, a referendum proposing a tobacco tax increase to fund a continuation of that state’s Medicaid expansion (which began in 2016) went down to defeat in November.

New Taxes Are an Uphill Battle

Liberal groups already face challenges in getting a Medicaid ballot initiative approved in Florida. The state constitution requires 60 percent approval for all initiative measures intended to change that document, a higher bar than advocates for expansion have had to clear elsewhere. Of the four states where voters approved Medicaid expansion—Maine, Nebraska, Utah, and Idaho—only the margin in Idaho exceeded 60 percent, and then just barely (60.58 percent).

Disclosure: While the author served on the health care transition advisory committee of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the views expressed above represent his personal views only.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: D.C. Exchange Website Misled Customers about Individual Mandate

Last year, in response to Congress repealing the Obamacare individual mandate penalty beginning this January, the D.C. Council established its own requirement for District residents to maintain health coverage. If D.C. leaders wished to replicate Obamacare on the local level, they have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations—right down to the non-functioning website.

For nearly six months—including the first month of open enrollment—the District failed to inform visitors to its online insurance exchange about the new coverage requirement. When District officials finally discovered their webpage fail, what did they do to admit their fault, and tell the public? Nothing.

The Webpage Fail, Explained

At the start of the open enrollment period in early November, I went to the District’s health insurance exchange website, D.C. Health Link, to evaluate my coverage options for 2019. While there, I found an intriguing—and misleading—webpage. When discussing whether individuals should purchase coverage, the webpage noted that “federal law requires most Americans to have a minimum level of health coverage,” a requirement that was “still in effect for the 2017 and 2018 tax years.”

By stating that the requirement remained in effect for 2017 and 2018, the webpage implied that the mandate will disappear in 2019. But while the federal penalty disappeared on January 1, the District’s own insurance mandate replaced the federal requirement on that date. However, the webpage I saw did not mention the D.C. mandate at all.

By discussing the expiring federal mandate and not the new D.C. requirement, the webpage I viewed did not just provide misleading statements about the need to maintain coverage in 2019, it contained inaccurate information, too. The webpage noted that the federal mandate did not penalize individuals with short gaps of coverage of under three months—but the District’s stricter law requires individuals to maintain health coverage every single month.

The webpage also directed individuals seeking exemptions from the mandate to apply to federal authorities, even though the D.C. exchange has assumed that role for the District’s mandate, effective January 1.

In fairness, I, and presumably other prior customers, did receive a mailer from D.C. Health Link discussing the District’s new coverage requirement for 2019. However, the mailer did not mention the mandate until the top of its second page—an area where casual readers could easily miss it. Instead, the mailer spent prime real estate on the first page discussing “our award-winning reputation as one of the best health Exchange websites in the nation:”

Which do you think is more important for District residents to know: That the website won some awards, or that if they do not buy “government-approved” coverage, they could have their property seized and sold?

Why District Officials Don’t Care

District officials seem more pre-occupied with bragging about their website than updating their website. For instance, during the November meeting of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority, no one discussed the flawed webpage about the District’s individual mandate, even though D.C. Health Link staff conducted a presentation for the board explaining the website that showed a link to the flawed webpage.

The November board meeting also showed a video of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s appearance at the launch event for open enrollment. During that event, Bowser gave remarks claiming that “D.C. Health Link has made navigating its website even easier.” Bowser failed to mention that, even as she spoke, that “easier” website included incorrect, flawed, and misleading information about the individual mandate she had signed into law months previously.

Ignoring the ‘Debacle’

Nearly one month into open enrollment, on November 28, it appears D.C. Health Link finally discovered their error. Officials removed access to the page discussing the expiring federal mandate—the Internet Archive captured the old page—and created a new page discussing the District’s new coverage requirement for 2019.

But did District officials publicly admit that their website included incorrect information, try to inform the public, or make things right with those who viewed that incorrect information? No, no, and no. The Exchange Authority board held their most recent monthly meeting in mid-December, and the incident did not come up at all.

When healthcare.gov famously crashed and burned in 2013, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius publicly accepted responsibility for the website “debacle.” By contrast, Mila Kofman, executive director of the Exchange Authority, apparently wants to pretend that the problems with the website she runs never took place.

Congress Should Fix This Mess

Beyond raising obvious questions of competence, the flawed webpage could have very real consequences for District residents. Any individuals who went to the incorrect webpage during the first month of open enrollment, and used its erroneous information to decide not to purchase health coverage for 2019, will face tax penalties when filing their 2019 returns in April 2020—penalties directly resulting from the bungling of District bureaucrats.

While District officials may try to give individuals who suffered from the incorrect webpage exemptions from the mandate penalty, it does not appear they can do so. The District’s mandate uses the same criteria as the federal one to determine hardship exemptions, namely, whether circumstances “prevented [an individual] from obtaining coverage.”

But in this case, circumstances didn’t prevent individuals from obtaining coverage—they prevented individuals from understanding the consequences of not doing so. D.C. Health Link therefore may not have the authority to solve a problem its own staff caused.

To ensure that no one incurs financial penalties because of the botched exchange website, the D.C. Council—or, better yet, Congress—will have to intervene. They should take the opportunity presented by this affair to repeal the mandate entirely.

Or Congress could use the pending appropriations legislation to include the provisions adopted last summer defunding the District’s mandate. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), who sponsored the defunding amendment last summer, once again offered his amendment earlier this month, when the House considered anew the District of Columbia appropriations measure. Unfortunately, however, the new House Democrat majority refused to make a vote on the amendment in order. This means that, absent additional action, individuals may face sizable tax penalties due to a website mess caused entirely by District officials.

No matter what form it takes, the website mess demonstrates that the District’s insurance mandate should go. Given that D.C. Health Link spends $11 million on IT, yet took six months to update a webpage, it should spend less time ordering District residents to buy insurance and more time getting its own house in order.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

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.

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.

Republicans’ Spending Dilemma, In One Tweet

Most of official Washington woke up apoplectic on Sunday, when a tweet from President Trump invoked “the Swamp’s” most dreaded word: “Shutdown.”

Put aside for a moment specific questions about the wall itself—whether it will deter illegal immigration, how much to spend on it, or even whether to build it. The Trump tweet illustrates a much larger problem facing congressional Republicans: They don’t want to fight—about the wall, or about much of anything, particularly spending.

Voting for the Mandate after They Voted Against It?

Take for instance an issue I helped raise awareness of, and have helped spend the past several weeks tracking: The District of Columbia’s move to re-establish a requirement on district residents to purchase health insurance.

As I wrote last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered an amendment in the Senate that would defund this mandate. The amendment resembles one that Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) offered in the House, and which representatives voted to add to the bill. If a successful vote on the Cruz amendment inserted the provision in the Senate version of the bill, the defunding amendment would presumably have a smooth passage to enactment.

So what’s holding it up? In a word, Republicans. According to Senate sources, Republican leaders—and Republican members of the Appropriations Committee—don’t want to vote on Cruz’s amendment. Several outside groups have stated they will key-vote in favor of the amendment, and the leadership types don’t want to vote against something that many conservative groups support.

Are Democrats Running Congress?

In short, because Democrats might object. Appropriations measures need 60 votes to break a Senate filibuster, and Democrats have said they will not vote for any bill that includes so-called “poison pill” appropriations riders. The definition of a “poison pill” of course lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Politico wrote about the spending process six weeks ago, noting that new Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Ranking Member Pat Leahy (D-VT) “have resolved to work out matters privately. Both parties have agreed to hold their noses to vote for a bill that they consider imperfect, but good enough.”

That “kumbaya” dynamic has led Senate Republican leaders and appropriators to try and avoid the Cruz amendment entirely. They don’t want to vote against the amendment, because conservatives like me support it and will (rightly) point out their hypocrisy if they do. But they don’t want the amendment to pass either, because they fear that Democrats won’t vote to pass the underlying bill if it does. So they hope the amendment will die a quiet death.

Conservatives Get the Shaft—Again

At this point some leadership types might point out that it’s easy for people like me to sit on the sidelines and criticize, but that Republicans in Congress must actually govern. That point has more than a grain of truth to it.

On the other hand, “governing” for Republicans usually means “governing like Democrats.” Case in point: The sorry spectacle I described in March, wherein Republican committee chairmen—who, last I checked, won election two years ago on a platform of repealing Obamacare—begged Democrats to include a bailout of Obamacare’s exchanges in that month’s 2,200-page omnibus appropriations bill.

The chairmen in question, and many Republican leaders, feared the party will get blamed in the fall for premium increases. So they decided to “govern” by abandoning all pretense of repealing Obamacare and trying to bolster the law instead, even though their failure to repeal Obamacare is a key driver of the premium increases driving Americans crazy.

With an election on the horizon, bicameral negotiations surrounding the spending bill could get hairy in September, because two of the parties come to the table with fundamentally different perspectives. Republican congressional leaders worry about what might happen in November if they fail to govern because they stood up for conservative policies. Trump worries about what might happen if they don’t.

UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate voted to table the Cruz amendment blocking DC’s individual mandate. Five Republicans who voted to repeal the individual mandate in tax reform legislation last fall — Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch — voted to table, or kill, the amendment.

Because the vote came on a motion to table, senators may attempt to argue that the vote was procedural in nature, and did not represent a change in position on the mandate. Shelby, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, said he supported the underlying policy behind the Cruz amendment, but voted not to advance the amendment because Democrats objected to its inclusion.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.