Will Disclosing Prescription Drug Prices in TV Ads Make Any Difference?

Why did the Trump administration last Monday propose requiring pharmaceutical companies to disclose their prices in television advertisements? A cynic might believe the rule comes at least in part because the drug industry opposes it.

Now, I carry no water for Big Pharma. For instance, I opposed their effort earlier this year to repeal an important restraint on Medicare spending. But this particular element of the administration’s drug pricing plan appears to work in a similar manner as some of the president’s tweets—to dominate headlines through rhetoric, rather than through substantive policy changes.

Applies Only to Television

The rule “seek[s] comment as to whether we should apply this regulation to other media formats,” but admits that the administration initially “concluded that the purpose of this regulation is best served by limiting the requirements” to television. However, five companies alone accounted for more than half of all drug advertisements in the past year. Among those five companies, the advertisements promoted 19 pharmaceuticals—meaning that new disclosure regime would apply to very few drugs.

If the “purpose of this regulation” is to affect pharmaceutical pricing, then confining disclosures only to television advertisements would by definition have a limited impact. If, however, the “purpose of this regulation” is primarily political—to force drug companies into a prolonged and public legal fight on First Amendment grounds, or to allow the administration to point to disclosures in the most prominent form of media to say, “We’re doing something on drug costs!”—then the rule will accomplish its purpose.

Rule Lacks Data to Support Its Theory

On three separate occasions, in the rule’s Regulatory Impact Analysis—the portion of the rule intended to demonstrate that the regulation’s benefits outweigh its costs—the administration admits it has very few hard facts: “We lack data to quantify these effects, and seek public comment on these impacts.”

It could encourage people to consume more expensive medicines (particularly if their insurance pays for it), because individuals may think costlier drugs are “better.” Or it could discourage companies from advertising on television at all, which could reduce drug consumption and affect people’s health (or reduce health spending while having no effect on individuals’ health).

Conservative think-tanks skewered several Obamacare rules released in 2010 for the poor quality and unreasonable assumptions in their Regulatory Impact Analyses. Although released by a different administration of a different party, this proposed regulation looks little different.

Contradictions on Forced Speech?

Finally, the rule refers on several occasions to the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in a case involving California crisis pregnancy centers. That case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, overturned a California state law requiring reproductive health clinics, including pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, to provide information on abortion to patients.

The need for that distinction arises because the pharmaceutical industry will likely challenge the rule on First Amendment grounds as an infringement on their free speech rights. However, a pro-life administration attempting to force drug companies to disclose pricing information, while protecting crisis pregnancy centers from other forced disclosures, presents some interesting political optics.

A Political ‘Shiny Object’

Ironically enough, most of the administration’s actions regarding its prescription drug pricing platform have proven effective. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has helped speed the approval of generic drugs to market, particularly in cases where no other competitors exist, to help stabilize the marketplace.

Other proposals to change incentives within Medicare and Medicaid also could bring down prices. These proposals won’t have an immediate effect—as would Democratic blunt-force proposals to expand price controls—but collectively, they will have an impact over time.

This administration can do better than that. Indeed, they already have. They should leave the political stunts to the president’s Twitter account, and get back to work on more important, and more substantive, proposals.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Smaller Premium Increases May Hurt Republicans in November

Away from last week’s three-ring circus on Capitol Hill, an important point of news got lost. In a speech on Thursday in Nashville, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar announced that benchmark premiums—that is, the plan premium that determines subsidy amounts for individuals who qualify for income-based premium assistance—in the 39 states using the federal healthcare.gov insurance platform will fall by an average of 2 percent next year.

That echoes outside entities that have reviewed rate filings for 2019. A few weeks ago, consultants at Avalere Health released an updated premium analysis, which projected a modest premium increase of 3.1 percent on average—a fraction of the 15 percent increase Avalere projected back in June. Moreover, consistent with the HHS announcement on Thursday, Avalere estimates that average premiums will actually decline in 12 states.

On the other hand, however, given that Democrats have attempted to make Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions a focal point of their campaign, premium increases in the fall would remind voters that those supposed “protections” come with a very real cost.

How Much Did Premiums Rise?

The Heritage Foundation earlier this year concluded that the pre-existing condition provisions collectively accounted for the largest share of premium increases due to Obamacare. But how much have these “protections” raised insurance rates?

Overall premium trend data are readily available, but subject to some interpretation. An HHS analysis published last year found that in 2013—the year before Obamacare’s major provisions took effect—premiums in the 39 states using healthcare.gov averaged $232 per month, based on insurers’ filings. In 2018, the average policy purchased in those same 39 states cost $597.20 per month—an increase of $365 per month, or $4,380 per year.

Moreover, the trends hold for the individual market as a whole—which includes both exchange enrollees, most of whom qualify for subsidies, and off-exchange enrollees, who by definition cannot. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that, from 2013 to 2018, average premiums on the individual market rose from $223 to $490—an increase of $267 per month, or $3,204 per year.

Impact of Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

The HHS data suggest that premiums have risen by $4,380 since Obamacare took effect; the Kaiser data, slightly less, but still a significant amount ($3,204). But how much of those increases come directly from the pre-existing condition provisions, as opposed to general increases in medical inflation, or other Obamacare requirements?

The varying methods used in the actuarial studies make it difficult to compare them in ways that easily lead to a single answer. Moreover, insurance markets vary from state to state, adding to the complexity of analyses.

However, given the available data on both how much premiums rose and why they did, it seems safe to say that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums by several hundreds of dollars—and that, taking into account changes in the risk pool (i.e., disproportionately sicker individuals signing up for coverage), the impact reaches into the thousands of dollars in at least some markets.

Republicans’ Political Dilemma

Those premium increases due to the pre-existing condition provisions are baked into the proverbial premium cake, which presents the Republicans with their political problem. Democrats are focusing on the impending threat—sparked by several states’ anti-Obamacare lawsuit—of Republicans “taking away” the law’s pre-existing condition “protections.” Conservatives can counter, with total justification based on the evidence, that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums substantially, but those premium increases already happened.

If those premium increases that took place in the fall of 2016 and 2017 had instead occurred this fall, Republicans would have two additional political arguments heading into the midterm elections. First, they could have made the proactive argument that another round of premium increases demonstrates the need to elect more Republicans to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. Second, they could have more easily rebutted Democratic arguments on pre-existing conditions, pointing out that those “popular” provisions have sparked rapid rate increases, and that another approach might prove more effective.

Instead, because premiums for 2019 will remain flat, or even decline slightly in some states, Republicans face a more nuanced, and arguably less effective, political message. Azar actually claimed that President Trump “has proven better at managing [Obamacare] than the President who wrote the law.”

Conservatives would argue that the federal government cannot (micro)manage insurance markets effectively, and should not even try. Yet Azar tried to make that argument in his speech Thursday, even as he conceded that “the individual market for insurance is still broken.”

‘Popular’ Provisions Are Very Costly

The first round of premium spikes, which hit right before the 2016 election, couldn’t have come at a better time for Republicans. Coupled with Bill Clinton’s comments at that time calling Obamacare the “craziest thing in the world,” it put a renewed focus on the health-care law’s flaws, in a way that arguably helped propel Donald Trump and Republicans to victory.

This year, as paradoxical as it first sounds, flat premiums may represent bad news for Republicans. While liberals do not want to admit it publicly, polling evidence suggests that support for the pre-existing condition provisions plummets when individuals connect those provisions to premium increases.

The lack of a looming premium spike could also neutralize Republican opposition to Obamacare, while failing to provide a way that could more readily neutralize Democrats’ attacks on pre-existing conditions. Maybe the absence of bad news on the premium front may present its own bad political news for Republicans in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will the Trump Administration Help Republicans Expand Obamacare?

For all the allegations by the Left about how the Trump administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, a recent New York Times article revealed nothing of the sort. Instead it indicated how many senior officials within the administration want to entrench Obamacare, helping states to expand the reach of one of its costly entitlements.

Thankfully, a furious internal battle took the idea off the table—for now. But instead of trying to find ways to increase the reach of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which prioritizes able-bodied adults over individuals with disabilities, the Trump administration should instead pursue policies that slow the push towards expansion, by making the tough fiscal choices surrounding expansion plain for states to see.

What ‘Partial Expansion’ Means

Following the court’s decision, the Obama administration determined expansion an “all-or-nothing” proposition. If states wanted to receive the enhanced match rate for the expansion—which started at 100 percent in 2014, and is slowly falling to 90 percent for 2020 and future years—they must expand to all individuals below the 138 percent of poverty threshold.

However, some states wish to expand Medicaid only for adults with incomes below the poverty level. Whereas individuals with incomes above 100 percent of poverty qualify for premium and cost-sharing subsidies for plans on Obamacare’s exchanges, individuals with incomes below the poverty level do not. (In states that have not expanded Medicaid, individuals with incomes below poverty may fall into the so-called “coverage gap,” because they do not have enough income to qualify for subsidized exchange coverage.)

States that wish to cover only individuals with incomes below the poverty line may do so—however, under the Obama administration guidance, those states would receive only their regular federal match rate of between 50 and 74 percent, depending on a state’s income. (Wisconsin chose this option for its Medicaid program.)

How ‘Partial Expansion’ Actually Costs More Money

The Times article says several administration supporters of “partial expansion”—including Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Administrator (CMS) Seema Verma, and Domestic Policy Council Director Andrew Bremberg—believe that embracing the change would help to head off full-blown expansion efforts in states like Utah. An internal HHS memo obtained by the Times claims that “HHS believes allowing partial expansion would result in significant savings over the 10-year budget window compared to full Medicaid expansion by all.”

In reality, however, “partial expansion” would explode the budget, for at least three reasons. First, it will encourage states that have not embraced expansion to do so, by lowering the fiscal barrier to expansion. While states “only” have to fund up to 10 percent of the costs of Medicaid expansion, they pay not a dime for any individuals enrolled in exchange coverage. By shifting individuals with incomes of between 100-138 percent of poverty from Medicaid to the exchanges, “partial expansion” significantly reduces the population of individuals for whom states would have to share costs. This change could encourage even ruby red states like Texas to consider Medicaid expansion.

Second, for the same reason, such a move will encourage states that have already expanded Medicaid to switch to “partial expansion”—so they can fob some of their state costs onto federal taxpayers. The Times notes that Arkansas and Massachusetts already have such waiver applications pending with CMS. Once the administration approves a single one of these waivers, virtually every state (or at minimum, every red state with a Medicaid expansion) will run to CMS’s doorstep asking for the federal government to take these costs off their hands.

Medicaid expansion has already proved unsustainable, with exploding enrollment and costs. “Partial expansion” would make that fiscal burden even worse, through a triple whammy of more states expanding, existing states offloading costs to the federal government through “partial expansion,” and the conversion of millions of enrollees from less expensive Medicaid coverage to more costly exchange plans.

What Washington Should Do Instead

Rather than embracing the fiscally irresponsible “partial expansion,” the Trump administration and Congress should instead halt another budget gimmick that states have used to fund Medicaid expansion: The provider tax scam. As of last fall, eight states had used this gimmick to fund some or all of the state portion of expansion costs. Other states have taken heed: Virginia used a provider tax to fund its Medicaid expansion earlier this year, and Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME)—who heretofore has steadfastly opposed expansion—recently floated the idea of a provider tax to fund expansion in Maine.

The provider tax functions as a scam by laundering money to generate more federal revenue. Providers—whether hospitals, nursing homes, Medicaid managed-care plans, or others—agree to an “assessment” that goes into the state’s general fund. The state uses those dollars to draw down new Medicaid matching funds from the federal government, which the state promptly sends right back to the providers.

For this reason, politicians of all parties have called on Congress to halt the provider tax gimmick. Even former vice president Joe Biden called provider taxes a “scam,” and pressed for their abolition. The final report of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission called for “restricting and eventually eliminating” the “Medicaid tax gimmick.”

If Republicans in Congress really want to oppose Obamacare—the law they ran on repealing for four straight election cycles—they should start by imposing a moratorium on any new Medicaid provider taxes, whether to fund expansion or anything else. Such a move would force states to consider whether they can afford to fund their share of expansion costs—by diverting dollars from schools or transportation, for instance—rather than using a budget gimmick to avoid those tough choices. It would also save money, by stopping states from bilking the federal government out of billions in extra Medicaid funds through what amounts to a money-laundering scam.

Rhetoric vs. Reality, Take 5,000

But of course, whether Republicans actually want to dismantle Obamacare remains a very open question. Rather than opposing “partial expansion” on fiscal grounds, the Times quotes unnamed elected officials’ response:

Republican governors were generally supportive [of “partial expansion”], but they said the change must not be seen as an expansion of the Affordable Care Act and should not be announced before the midterm elections. Congressional Republican leaders, while supportive of the option, also cautioned against any high-profile public announcement before the midterm elections.

In other words, these officials want to expand and entrench Obamacare, but don’t want to be seen as expanding and entrenching Obamacare. What courage!

Just as with congressional Republicans’ desperate moves to bail out Obamacare’s exchanges earlier this year, the Times article demonstrates how a party that repeatedly ran on repealing Obamacare, once granted with the full levers of power in Washington, instead looks to reinforce it. Small wonder that the unnamed politicians in the Times article worry about conservative voters exacting a justifiable vengeance in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will the Senate Make Exchange Heads Purchase Exchange Coverage?

This week, the Senate will likely consider a package of several appropriations measures. The legislation provides an opportunity for senators to offer, and possibly vote on, an amendment defunding the District of Columbia’s new health insurance mandate.

Because such an amendment, proposed by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), passed in the House last week, if a similar amendment passes the Senate, it would almost certainly remain in the final version enacted into law. As a result, residents of the nation’s capital would not face the threat of having their property seized if they cannot afford to purchase “government-approved” health insurance.

A Firsthand Display of Hypocrisy

I have seen up close how the heads of exchanges do not purchase exchange coverage. In the fall of 2016, CareFirst Blue Cross cancelled my exchange insurance policy, in part due to regulations promulgated by the District’s exchange authority.

To find out the reasons for the cancellation, I attended a meeting of the authority board. When I asked whether employees of the exchange purchase exchange coverage themselves, Mila Kofman, the exchange’s director, responded that doing so would cause employees to forfeit their employer insurance subsidy, making coverage unaffordable.

That explanation makes sense for junior employees making $40,000, $60,000, or even $80,000 annually. But it seems much less justifiable for Kofman. Kofman did not disclose it at the meeting I attended, but I later learned through DC public records that in 2016, she received a salary of more than $217,000—more than Mayor Muriel Bowser herself.

If Kofman cannot, or will not, purchase the exchange plans she sells without a subsidy, why would she, and the exchange board, support requiring residents making a fraction of her income to do so, and punishing them with taxes—and the threat of property seizure—if they do not?

‘1 Percenters’ Won’t Buy Exchange Coverage

Nor do the double-standards remain confined to the District of Columbia. The head of California’s exchange receives a salary putting him in “the 1 percent,” yet refuses to purchase the plans he sells.

I had previously recounted how Peter Lee, Covered California’s executive director, admitted to me at a briefing that his health insurance coverage comes through California’s state employee plan—at taxpayer expense, of course. Yet Covered California’s website lists his current monthly salary at a rate of $36,400, or a whopping $436,800 per year.

With all that money, does Lee really need to have taxpayers fund his health benefits as well? Does he think the policies Covered California sells so unaffordable, or so poor in quality, that he refuses to buy them? Or does he just feel entitled to have taxpayers fund his benefits on top of his fat paycheck because he thinks he’s better than we are?

The Amendment Concept

In theory, the Trump administration could have solved this problem months ago, by issuing regulations requiring all CEOs of state-run exchanges—and, for that matter, their board members too—to purchase plans from the exchanges. If those individuals consider exchange plans so inferior or unaffordable that they will not purchase them for themselves, then they have no business selling them in the first place.

(In case you were wondering, yes, I do believe that at the federal level, the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator should buy exchange plans. I previously criticized former CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt for failing publicly to disclose that he held exchange coverage during a Democratic administration, and I would be remiss not to point that out under a Republican one.)

At that point, people like Mila Kofman and Peter Lee will have a choice to make. They can determine whether they care more about keeping their taxpayer-funded health insurance benefits, or ensuring their constituents continue to have access to insurance subsidies. In short, they can choose whether they will finally put their principles ahead of their own pocketbooks—which they should have been doing all along.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Just the Facts on Drug Negotiation

Congressional hearings often serve as elaborate theatrical productions. Members ask pre-written questions, receive formulaic answers, and in many cases use witnesses as props to engage in rhetorical grandstanding. The grandstanding element was on full display Tuesday during the confirmation hearing for Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) wanted to beat up on “evil” drug companies, and she wasn’t going to let facts get in her way.

McCaskill spent two minutes attacking pharmaceutical advertisements, including a reference to “the one for erectile dysfunction where they have them in two bathtubs,” before she tackled the issue of Medicare “negotiating” prices with drug companies. At this point she demonstrated ignorance on several issues.

Second, McCaskill failed to grasp that Medicare drug plans already negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, and that the discounts they obtain have helped keep overall premiums for the prescription drug Part D plan low. It may sound radical to McCaskill, who has spent practically her entire adult life working in government, but the private sector can negotiate just like the government, and probably do so more effectively than a government entity.

Third, McCaskill refused to believe that getting the government involved in “negotiating” drug prices would not save money. When Azar explained that removing a provision prohibiting federal bureaucrats from “negotiating” prices wouldn’t save money, McCaskill called his explanation “just crazy” and “nuts.”

It isn’t nuts, it’s economics. Even though McCaskill tried to lecture Azar on economics and markets at the beginning of her questioning, her queries themselves showed very little understanding of either concept. In a negotiation, the ability to drive a hard bargain ultimately derives from the ability to seek out other options. If Medicare must cover all or most prescription drugs, such that it can’t walk away from the proverbial bargaining table, it will by definition be limited in its ability to put downward pressure on prices.

But don’t take my word for it. As Azar pointed out to McCaskill, none other than Peter Orszag, who directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President Obama — said as much in an April 2007 Congressional Budget Office letter:

By itself, giving the Secretary broad authority to negotiate drug prices would not provide the leverage necessary to generate lower prices than those obtained by PDPs and thus would have a negligible effect on Medicare drug spending. Negotiation is likely to be effective only if it is accompanied by some source of pressure on drug manufacturers to secure price concessions. The authority to establish a formulary, set prices administratively, or take other regulatory actions against firms failing to offer price reductions could give the Secretary the ability to obtain significant discounts in negotiations with drug manufacturers.

Only the ability to limit access to drugs by setting a formulary or imposing  administrative prices, i.e. “negotiating” by dictating prices to drug companies, would have any meaningful impact on pricing levels. But this truth proved inconvenient to McCaskill, who admitted she “refuse[d] to acknowledge it.”

Instead, McCaskill continued haranguing him about the evils of drug companies. She pointed out that one congressman who helped negotiate the prescription drug benefit, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), “went to run PhRMA after he finished getting it through.”

Indeed he did. And as the head of PhRMA, he bragged about the “rock-solid deal” he cut with the Obama administration to help his industry. Big Pharma’s “deal” as part of Obamacare encouraged seniors to purchase costlier brand-name drugs instead of cheaper generics, which the CBO concluded would raise Part D premiums by nearly 10 percent. And who voted for that “rock-solid deal?” None other than Claire McCaskill.

As the old saying goes: If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. But if you don’t, pound the table.

The facts indicate that McCaskill voted for a “rock-solid deal” with Big Pharma that raised premiums on millions of seniors, which actually makes her part of the problem, not part of the solution. Of course, that also makes her willingness to grandstand at Tuesday’s hearing, and her unwillingness to face facts she now finds politically inconvenient, less “crazy” than it first seemed.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ “Alternative Facts” on Capping Entitlement Spending

Here’s a policy riddle for you: When is a spending cap not a spending cap? The answer: When a liberal finds it politically inconvenient.

During the confirmation hearing for Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Alex Azar, a staffer for the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities tweeted that Azar supported capping Medicaid. I noted that meant he supported capping Medicaid spending like the caps Democrats enacted as part of Obamacare—and that’s when the fun began.

Then I pointed out that Section 3403 of Obamacare charges the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) with enforcing a cap on per-beneficiary spending in Medicare. She responded by saying that IPAB contains restrictions on “rationing health care, raising Medicare’s premiums or cost sharing, cutting benefits, or restricting eligibility.”

That response, while accurate, misses the point. First of all, while the law prohibits Medicare from “rationing” benefits, neither Obamacare nor any other law “defines” rationing. Former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified to Congress in 2011 that HHS would need to undertake rulemaking to define “rationing.” However, as I noted this summer, “the Obama Administration never even proposed rules ‘protecting’ Medicare beneficiaries from rationing under the IPAB per capita caps—so how meaningful can those protections actually be?”

Capping Spending Does Indeed Reduce It

Second, a cap on spending, by definition, will reduce spending. The implication that one form of cap on spending in Medicare will have no ramifications whatsoever for beneficiaries, while another form of cap on spending in Medicaid will lead to proverbial death and destruction, strains credulity.

But putting those distinctions aside for a second, I asked whether Obamacare capped Medicare spending. I sent links to the portions of Section 3403 that 1) establish a target growth rate for Medicare and 2) instruct IPAB to develop recommendations to reduce spending to meet that target—the definition of a cap in my book, and probably anyone else’s as well.

I asked a simple yes-no question: While they might be implemented in different ways than the caps in Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” bills, doesn’t IPAB limit the growth rate of Medicare spending to meet a cap?

Answer came there none.

Politically Inconvenient Truths

The political hack—erm, I mean, “analyst”—in question, from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, has more than enough health policy experience to recognize a spending cap. According to the center’s website, she served in senior roles in California’s Medicaid program, worked as the primary health staffer for former U.S. senator Al Franken (D-MN), and holds a master’s degree in health policy. She knows better—she just chose not to.

As I have written previously, Democrats don’t want to admit that they imposed per capita spending caps in Medicare as part of Obamacare. They may still fear the political consequences of capping Medicare spending—and more importantly, do not want to give Republicans political “cover” to impose similar caps in Medicaid.

So rather than admit the obvious—yes, Democrats did impose spending caps in Medicare (albeit in a slightly different form than Republicans’ Medicaid proposals last year) as part of Obamacare—this person chose to obfuscate, deflect, deny, and ultimately join Twitter’s version of the Witness Protection Program rather than admit the politically inconvenient truth. And beclowned herself in the process.

After the “repeal-and-replace” process of 2017, I know full well what it means to tell politically inconvenient truths. Going out on a limb to point out flaws in alternatives to Obamacare won me no small amount of flack from others on the Right, and may have cost me business to boot.

But at bottom, I consider myself a conservative health policy analyst, not a Republican one. As such, I feel an obligation to call “balls-and-strikes” based solely on policy, regardless of party. Doing otherwise would harm my reputation and integrity. And in policy circles in this town, one’s good name is the only thing you’ve got.

People can propose “alternative facts” all they like, but not without cost. After our Twitter tete-a-tete, I think less of the analyst in question, and of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities for employing her. While liberals can talk all they like about a “wonk gap,” or about Republican “science deniers,” they appear to have some in their own midst as well. Just ask liberal health analysts about IPAB’s per capita caps.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.