Note to Britain: You Can Have Your NHS

As expected, the American press has heavily covered President Trump’s visit to Europe, including his time spent in Great Britain. But a row (that’s British for “argument”) that has gone under-reported on this side of the Atlantic also holds major implications for American patients.

Based on comments the President made earlier in the week, British politicians now believe they need to protect the country’s National Health Service (NHS) from “privatization” at the hands of American corporations. But even as they do so, another controversy—about the ways in which Britain denies life-saving treatments to patients, solely on cost grounds—illustrates the problems with socialized medicine, which the left wants to export to the United States.

Concern about Trade Agreements

During a press conference in London Tuesday, a British reporter questioned Trump about a post-Brexit trade deal between the U.S. and Britain. The reporter specifically asked whether “the entire economy needs to be on the table” in those discussions, “including the NHS.” Trump responded that “everything with a trade deal is on the table.”

Those comments—which Trump later attempted to walk back—prompted outrage that Britain’s “beloved” NHS was at risk. British politicians across parties raised concern that American companies could receive NHS contracts (even though subsidiaries of U.S. corporations have already done so), or that a free trade agreement could supersede legislative efforts by Parliament to prohibit additional private contracting within the health service.

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock—an announced candidate in the race to succeed Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister—epitomized the sentiments, claiming that “the NHS

NHS Denying Patients Care

The controversy continued at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons Wednesday. In that hourlong session, no fewer than five questions asked whether the NHS was “for sale,” or some variation thereof. But the sixth NHS-related question, by Labour MP Karl Turner, proved the most revealing:

Twelve months ago, the Prime Minister told this House that she wanted a speedy resolution to the funding row between NHS England and Vertex regarding the drug Orkambi to treat cystic fibrosis. My seven-year-old constituent Oliver Ward wrote to the Prime Minister recently asking what progress she has made. Could the Minister please give Oliver some good news and tell him that he need not get up every day worrying about this terrible injustice?

Turner’s question referred to Orkambi, a drug that could help thousands of British patients currently suffering from cystic fibrosis. But the NHS refuses to pay for the drug—not because it does not work, but because it does not meet cost thresholds that government bureaucrats have set.

Britain’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence decided in 2016 that the NHS would not pay for Orkambi at the price set by its manufacturer. For the three years since, British patients have not found that decision very NICE at all.

A Precursor of an American Single-Payer System?

Unfortunately, however, liberals want to export the British model of rationing health care on cost grounds to the United States. Recall President Obama’s comments about the issue a decade ago:

The chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here….There is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place.

Months after those comments, the New York Times ran an article, entitled “Why We Must Ration Health Care,” that argued for bringing a British-style rationing model to our shores.

This prevailing mentality among intellectual elites explains why neither the House nor Senate single-payer bills prohibit a government-run health plan from implementing cost-effectiveness research. In fact, the House bill explicitly provides for cost-effectiveness research as a method of determining drug prices, because most liberals believe that bureaucrats can and should have the power to restrict access to care on cost grounds. Most Americans, on the other hand, would strongly object to this rationing of care.

As for British politicians saying the NHS “isn’t for sale,” I could not care less—I wouldn’t want to buy it even if it were. The American health care system has its flaws, to be sure, but I have little interest in creating a system where government bureaucrats have near-total control over patients’ medical decisions, and use that power to deny access to life-saving care. I think most Americans would agree.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will the “Byrd Bath” Turn into a Tax Credit Bloodbath?

While most of official Washington waits for word—expected early this week—from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the fiscal effects of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, another, equally critical debate is taking place within the corridors of the Capitol. Arcane arguments behind closed doors about the nuances of parliamentary procedure will do much to determine the bill’s fate in the Senate—and could lead to a vastly altered final product.

In recent days, House leaders have made numerous comments highlighting the procedural limitations of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate. However, those statements do not necessarily mean the legislation released last week comports with all of those Senate strictures. Indeed, my conversations with more than half a dozen current and former senior Senate staff, all of whom have years of expertise in the minutiae of Senate rules and procedure, have revealed at least four significant procedural issues—one regarding abortion, two regarding immigration, and one regarding a structural “firewall”—surrounding the bill’s tax credit regime.

It is far too premature to claim that any of these potential flaws will necessarily be fatal. The Senate parliamentarian’s guidance to senators depends on textual analysis—of the bill’s specific wording, the underlying statutes to which it refers, and the CBO scores (not yet available)—and arguments about precedent made by both parties. Senate staff could re-draft portions of the House bill to make it pass procedural muster, or make arguments to preserve the existing language that the parliamentarian accepts as consistent with Senate precedents.

Nevertheless, if the parliamentarian validates even one of the four potential procedural problems, Republicans could end up with a tax credit regime that is politically unsustainable, or whose costs escalate appreciably.

In 2009, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad famously opined that passing health care legislation through budget reconciliation would make the bill look like “Swiss cheese.” (While Democrats did not pass Obamacare through reconciliation, they did use the reconciliation process to “fix” the bill that cleared the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009.)

In reality, it’s much easier to repeal provisions of a budgetary nature—like Obamacare’s taxes, entitlements, and even its major regulations—through reconciliation than to create a new replacement regime. The coming week may provide firsthand proof of Conrad’s 2009 axiom.

The ‘Byrd Rule’ and Abortion

The Senate’s so-called “Byrd rule” governing debate on budget reconciliation rules, named after former Senate Majority Leader and procedural guru Robert Byrd (D-WV), consists of not one rule, but six. The six points of order (codified here) seek to keep extraneous material out of the expedited reconciliation process, preserving the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, subject to the usual 60-vote margin to break a filibuster.

The Byrd rule’s most famous test states that “a provision shall be considered extraneous if it produces changes in outlays or revenues which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the legislation.” If the section in question primarily makes a policy change, and has a minimal budgetary impact, it remains in the bill only if 60 senators (the usual margin necessary to break a filibuster) agree to waive the Byrd point of order.

One example of this test may apply to the House bill’s tax credits: “Hyde amendment” language preventing the credits from funding plans that cover abortion. Such language protecting taxpayer funding of abortion coverage occurs several places throughout the bill, including at the top of page 25 of the Ways and Means title.

The question will then occur as to what becomes of both the credit and the Hyde protections. Some within the administration have argued that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can institute pro-life protections through regulations, but administration insiders doubt HHS’ authority to do so. Moreover, most pro-life groups publicly denounced President Obama’s March 2010 executive order, which he claimed would prevent taxpayer funding of abortion coverage in Obamacare, as 1) insufficient and 2) subject to change under a future administration. How would those pro-life groups view a regulatory change by the current administration any differently?

Two Procedural Problems Related to Immigration

A similarly controversial issue—immigration—brings an even larger set of procedural challenges. Apart from the separate question of whether the current verification provisions in the House bill are sufficiently robust, any eligibility verification regime for tax credits faces not one, but two major procedural obstacles in the Senate.

Of the six tests under the Byrd rule, some are more fatal than others. For instance, if the Hyde amendment restrictions outlined above are ruled incidental in nature, then those provisions merely get stricken from the bill unless 60 Senators vote to retain them—a highly improbable scenario in this case.

Page 37 of the Ways and Means title of the bill requires creation of a verification regime for tax credits similar to that created under Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare. As Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Tom Barthold testified last week during the Ways and Means Committee markup, verifying citizenship requires use of a database held by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

That admission creates a big problem: The tax credit lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee, but CIS lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And because the Finance Committee’s portion of the reconciliation bill can affect only programs within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, imposing programmatic requirements on CIS to verify citizenship status could exceed the Finance Committee’s scope—potentially jeopardizing the entire bill.

The verification provisions in Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare also require using  Social Security numbers, triggering another potentially fatal blow to the entire bill. Senate sources report that, during drafting the original reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare in the fall of 2015, Republicans attempted to repeal the language in Obamacare (Section 1414(a)(2), to be precise) giving the HHS secretary authority to collect and use Social Security numbers to establish eligibility. However, because Section 1414(a)(2) of Obamacare amended Title II of the Social Security Act, Republicans ultimately did not repeal this section of Obamacare in the reconciliation bill because it could have triggered a point of order fatal to the legislation.

If both the points of order against the verification regime are sustained, Congress will have to re-write the bill to create an eligibility verification system that 1) does not rely on the Department of Homeland Security and 2) does not use Social Security numbers. Doing so would create both political and policy problems. On the political side, the revised verification regime would exacerbate existing concerns that undocumented immigrants may have access to federal tax credits.

But the policy implications of a weaker verification regime might actually be more profound. Weaker verification would likely result in a higher score from CBO and JCT—budget scorekeepers would assume a higher incidence of fraud, raising the credits’ costs. House leaders might then have to reduce the amount of their tax credit to reflect the higher take-up of the credit by fraudsters taking advantage of lax verification. Any reduction in the credit amounts would bring with it additional political and policy implications, including lower coverage rates.

Concerns over the Tax Credit Firewall

Finally, the tax credit “firewall”—designed to ensure that only individuals without access to other health insurance options receive federal subsidies—could also present procedural concerns. Specifically, pages 27 and 28 of the bill make ineligible for the credit individuals participating in other forms of health insurance, several of which—Tricare, Veterans Administration coverage, coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, etc.—lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

If the Senate parliamentarian advises for the removal of references to these programs because they lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, then participants in those programs will essentially be able to “double-dip”—to receive both the federal tax credit and maintain their current coverage. As with the immigration provision outlined above, such a scenario could significantly increase the tax credits’ cost, requiring offsetting cuts elsewhere, which would have their own budgetary implications.

Senate sources indicate this “firewall” concern could prove less problematic than the immigration concern outlined above. While the immigration provision extends new programmatic authority to the administration to develop a revised eligibility verification system, the “firewall” provisions have the opposite effect—essentially excluding Tricare and other program recipients from the credit. However, if the parliamentarian gives guidance suggesting that some or all of the “firewall” provisions must go, that will have a significant impact on the bill’s fiscal impact.

Broader Implications Of These Procedural Problems

Both individually and collectively, these four potential procedural concerns hint at an intellectual inconsistency in the House bill’s approach, one Yuval Levin highlighted in National Review last week. House leaders claim their bill was drafted to comply with the Senate reconciliation procedures. But the bill itself contains numerous actual or potential violations of those procedures and amends some of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, rather than repealing them outright, making their argument incoherent.

Particularly on Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations, there seems little reason not to make the “ol’ college try,” and attempt to repeal the major mandates that have raised premium levels. According to prior CBO scores, other outside estimates, and the Obama administration’s own estimates, the major regulations have significant budgetary effects.

Republicans can and should argue to the parliamentarian that the regulations’ repeal would be neither incidental nor extraneous—their repeal would remove the terms and conditions under which Obamacare created its insurance subsidies in the first place, thus meeting the Byrd test. If successful, such efforts would provide relief on the issue Americans care most about: Reducing health costs and staggering premium increases.

On the tax credit itself, Republicans may face some difficult choices. Abortion and immigration present thorny—and controversial—issues, either of which could sink the legislation. On the bill’s tax credits, the “Byrd bath,” in which the parliamentarian gives guidance on what provisions can remain in the reconciliation bill, could become a bloodbath. If pro-life protections and eligibility verification come out of the bill, a difficult choice for conservatives on whether to support tax credits will become that much harder.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Automatic Renewal Could Cost Obamacare Enrollees

Last month I wrote that as the Obamacare open-enrollment period for 2015 approaches, the administration “faces a double-edged sword: Making reenrollment easier could result in premium increases for many individuals, particularly because the most widely subscribed plans have proposed significant rate hikes.” Two developments last Thursday appear to confirm that analysis.

First, the administration released proposed regulations regarding reenrollment for 2015. As some expected, the regulations confirmed that insurance exchanges would reenroll individuals in their existing plans if enrollees remain eligible for qualified health plans through the exchange and the plan in which they were enrolled remains available for renewal.

The same day, consultants at Avalere Health released an analysis showing that most low-cost plans have proposed sizable rate increases for 2015. In seven of the nine states Avalere analyzed, the lowest-cost “silver” plan would change; in six of the nine states, the second-lowest-cost silver plan would change.

These pricing changes have special importance: Federal insurance subsidies are tied to the price of the second-lowest-cost silver plan. Enrollees in plans with premiums greater than that benchmark stand to pay the full difference in premiums–without additional federal subsidies. The Avalere analysis demonstrates how costly such a decision could be. One hypothetical enrollee in Maryland would see her out-of-pocket premiums rise from $58 per month to $94, a 62 percent increase. In this instance, $32 of the $36 monthly premium increase stems from staying in a plan more costly than Maryland’s benchmark premium.

The administration no doubt views auto-enrollment as a way to minimize what even a supporter of the health-care law called the “massive technological challenge” associated with redetermining eligibility. But as The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago, the lowest-cost plans for 2014 have recorded some of the highest enrollments this year—and have proposed large increases for 2015. Unless millions of individuals switch plans, they could be in for some nasty spikes in their out-of-pocket premium costs come Jan. 1.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Ezra Klein Can’t Save Obamacare’s Broken Premium Promise

Ezra Klein’s column in Bloomberg this week attempted to defend then-Senator Barack Obama’s repeated promises to lower premiums by $2,500. Unfortunately for Klein, virtually all of his defenses fall short.

First, Klein claims that “there was no time frame attached to the promise.” On this count, he’s flat-out wrong. Campaign advisor Jason Furman—the President’s recent nominee to head the Council of Economic Advisors—told the New York Times in July 2008 that “We think we could get to $2,500 in [premium] savings [per family] by the end of the first term, or be very close to it.” If Klein wants to argue that Americans’ premiums have gone down by $2,500 since 2009, he’s welcome to do so—but I doubt many Americans would believe him.

Second, Klein claims that “the [health care] savings are actually materializing.” He cites a recent study from David Cutler to make his claim, but that study doesn’t actually say health costs and premiums are falling—it just says they’re rising by less than they otherwise would have. Similarly, the Administration has often cited a 2009 study from the Business Roundtable to defend its “lower premiums” claim. I don’t think many Americans would look at the chart from that study and define its projected trend—a line showing premiums going up by “only” $12,400 from 2009 to 2019—as “lowering” premiums.

Premiumchart

Source: Report to Business Roundtable by Hewitt Associates, November 2009.

Third, Klein doesn’t point out that many studies view Obamanomics, not Obamacare, as the root cause of the current slowdown in health spending. One study recently released by the Kaiser Family Foundation—not exactly a group of firebrand conservatives—concluded:

Our analysis suggests that the vast majority (77%) of the recent decline in the health spending trend can be attributed to broader changes in the economy.

Of course, if Klein and the Obama Administration want to take credit for the lousy economy that’s slowing down the growth of costs, they’re welcome to do so.

Finally, Klein spends the second half of his column arguing that people on the exchanges will pay more for insurance, but will get better coverage. Trouble is, that’s not what then-Senator Obama promised. His plan promised that “For those who have insurance now, nothing will change under the Obama plan—except that you will pay less.” Klein effectively admits that neither of those provisions is true—at least some individuals will be forced to buy more expensive coverage.

The fact that Klein’s arguments are so far removed from the purported intent of Obamacare—defining premium savings down, and admitting millions of Americans will lose their current coverage and be forced into more expensive insurance—shows the massive gap between the law’s rhetoric and its reality. If he wants to mount an intellectually honest defense of the law, Klein should start by acknowledging the false promises upon which it was sold to the American people.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.