Rant by Congressional Spouse Illustrates the Problem Facing American Health Care

Last week, the wife of Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) went on a self-described “rant on social media” about her health coverage.

Amanda Cunningham’s comments echo claims by Democratic lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) about the problems with their health coverage. For many members of Congress that comes via Obamacare-compliant policies sold on health insurance exchanges.

The comments raise one obvious question: If Democrats don’t like Obamacare plans for themselves, then why did they force all Americans to buy this insurance under penalty of taxation? But beyond demonstrating the bipartisan dissatisfaction with Obamacare, Amanda Cunningham’s story illustrates the larger problems plaguing the American health care system.

Mental Health Parity

In her Instagram post, Cunningham complained that under her Blue Cross Blue Shield policy, “all of my mental health therapy sessions are denied, in addition to all of our marriage counseling sessions.” She continued: “It’s just mind-blowing to me that these basic well-known needs, that mental health is health care, are still being denied, that we’re still fighting for these absolutely basic things—it’s unbelievable to me.”

Cunningham didn’t go into many specifics about her case, but on one level, her argument sounds compelling. The opioid crisis has shone a brighter spotlight on the people who need treatment to cover mental illness or substance use disorders. Congress passed mental health parity legislation (as part of the TARP bill, of all things) in 2008, and Section 1311(j) of Obamacare extended these provisions to exchange plans.

Other People’s Money

On the other hand, consider that members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000 annually—more than most Americans (myself included). Consider also that unlike all other Americans purchasing coverage on Obamacare exchanges (myself included), Cunningham, other members of Congress, and their staff receive (likely illegal) subsidies offsetting much of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

More importantly, consider that each coverage requirement on insurers—whether to cover a certain type of treatment (e.g., mental health, in-vitro fertilization, etc.) or treatments provided by a certain type of provider (e.g., marriage counselor, podiatrist, etc.)—raise the price of health insurance each month. Collectively, the thousands of mandates imposed nationwide increase premiums by hundreds of dollars per year.

They also send a paternalistic message to Americans: The policy-makers who impose these coverage requirements would rather individuals go uninsured, because their premiums have become unaffordable, than purchase a plan without the covered benefit or treatment in question.

She didn’t say it outright, but in her “rant,” Cunningham wanted to raise premiums on other Americans—most of whom earn far less than her family—so she would receive “free” therapy. Viewed from this perspective, her objections seem somewhat self-serving from a family in the upper tier of the income spectrum.

Therein lies the problem of American health care: Everyone wants to spend everyone else’s money rather than their own. Everyone wants “their” treatments—in this case, Cunningham’s counseling sessions—covered, even if others pay more. And if their chosen therapies are covered by insurance, with little to no cost-sharing, patients will consume more health care, because they believe they are spending their insurer’s money rather than their own.

Obamacare Made It Worse

The 2010 health care law didn’t cause this problem. However, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) noted in its November 2009 analysis of the legislation’s premium impacts, the federal benefit requirements included in the measure raised insurance rates significantly:

Because of the greater actuarial value and broader scope of benefits that would be covered by new nongroup policies sold under the legislation, the average premium per person for those policies would be an estimated 27 percent to 30 percent higher than the average premium for nongroup policies under current law (with other factors held constant). The increase in actuarial value would push the average premium per person about 18 percent to 21 percent above its level under current law, before the increase in enrollees’ use of medical care resulting from lower cost sharing is considered; that induced increase, along with the greater scope of benefits, would account for the remainder of the overall difference.

In CBO’s view, the law required people to buy richer insurance policies, and those richer policies encouraged people to consume more health care, both of which led to a rise in premiums. Unfortunately, that rise in premiums over the past several years has led millions of individuals who do not qualify for insurance subsidies (unlike Amanda Cunningham) to drop their coverage.

Get the Incentives Right

Sooner or later, our country will run out of other people’s money to spend on health care. Despite her impassioned plea, only a movement away from the solutions Cunningham advocated for can prevent that day from coming sooner rather than later.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What Liberals Won’t Tell You About Pre-Existing Conditions

The Kaiser Family Foundation released its monthly tracking survey on Wednesday, with results designed to give liberals a big boost: “The majority of people in a new poll say it’s important to them that Obamacare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions aren’t endangered.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell the entire story. Voters do like the idea of “protections for people with pre-existing conditions” in the abstract. But when pressed, they express significant qualms about the very real trade-offs.

Moreover, large majorities of voters said it was “very important” to retain provisions “prohibiting health insurance companies from denying coverage because of a person’s medical history” (76 percent) and “charging sick people more” (72 percent). Smaller but still sizable majorities of Republicans (58 percent in both cases) supported each issue.

What the Poll Did Not Ask

The poll looked at views about pre-existing conditions in a vacuum and did not attempt to examine trade-offs of the policy, or whether individuals valued one policy over another. For instance, among Republicans, repealing Obamacare proved more popular than preserving the pre-existing condition provisions.

Nine percent of Republicans considered Obamacare repeal the “single most important factor” in their vote, with another 49 percent calling it a “very important factor.” Compared to that combined 58 percent support, pre-existing condition provisions won 51 percent support, with 8 percent calling them the most important factor, and 43 percent calling them very important.

Kaiser also did not ask any questions about the trade-offs associated with the pre-existing condition provisions, and whether those trade-offs would soften voters’ support for them, even though it has done so on other issues in the past. Last July, a Kaiser poll demonstrated how telling people who initially support a single-payer system that such a change could lead to higher taxes or greater government control caused support for single-payer to drop by roughly 20 percentage points:

Thankfully, last year the Cato Institute conducted a survey that did examine the trade-offs of the pre-existing condition provisions, with revealing results:

  • Initially, voters approved of “requir[ing] insurance companies [to] cover anyone who applies for health insurance, including those who have a pre-existing medical condition” by a whopping 77-20 percent margin.
  • But when asked if they would approve of such a requirement “if it caused the cost of your health insurance to go up,” voters disapproved of this provision by a 35-60 percent margin. If the pre-existing condition provisions raised premiums, support declined by 42 percentage points, and opposition rose by 40 percentage points.
  • Voters likewise initially approved of the Obamacare provision “that prohibits health insurance companies from charging some customers higher premiums based on pre-existing conditions” by a 63-33 percent margin.
  • Here again, however, if charging all individuals the same rates meant “the cost of your health insurance would go up,” support dropped by 24 points (from 63 percent to 39 percent), while opposition rose by 22 points (from 33 percent to 55 percent). Opposition also rose dramatically if voters thought the pre-existing condition provisions would cause taxes to rise, or the quality of care provided to decrease.

Is This Merely Biased Polling?

I asked Kaiser why they included these types of “malleability” questions regarding single-payer but not pre-existing conditions. Ashley Kirzinger, a Kaiser researcher who worked on the poll, said they were gauging general public responses on the issue. She said Kaiser might study the trade-offs associated with the pre-existing condition policy in the future, but didn’t definitively commit to doing so.

That said, a conservative might highlight Kaiser’s liberal ideology as another possible explanation why they might not ask voters whether they would support Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions despite costly trade-offs. For instance, the organization has consistently used the phrase “Affordable Care Act” rather than “Obamacare” to describe the 2010 health care law—and as even a supporter of the law like Jimmy Kimmel found out, the two terms prompt sharply different reactions.

Here’s the Bottom Line

Conservatives have a compelling case to make on the harm that Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions have wrought—if they have the courage to make it. Thankfully, politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are doing so, and in the unlikeliest of places: a pickup charity basketball game with Jimmy Kimmel.

Conservatives do have other alternatives to Obamacare’s premium-raising requirements that address individuals with pre-existing conditions. For instance, they could revive and reform high-risk pools in place prior to the law. The Heritage Foundation last year proposed regulatory changes to provide continuity of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. While the Heritage proposal has its flaws, it would likely work better than Obamacare currently does, thereby lowering premiums in the process.

But to advance these other proposals, conservatives must first make the argument that the status quo on pre-existing conditions amounts to a tax increase on millions of Americans who buy individual health insurance. They have the facts on their side—and Kaiser’s incomplete survey notwithstanding, those facts may bring the American people to their side as well.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Health Care “Consensus” Group Plan

Tuesday, a group of analysts including those at the Heritage Foundation released their outline for a way to pass health-care-related legislation in Congress. Readers can find the actual health plan here; a summary and analysis follow below.

What Does the Health Plan Include?

The plan includes parameters for a state-based block grant that would combine funds from Obamacare’s insurance subsidies and its Medicaid expansion into one pot of money. The plan would funnel the block grant funds through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), using that program’s pro-life protections. In general, states using the block grant would:

  • Spend at least half of the funds subsidizing private health coverage;
  • Spend at least half of the funds subsidizing low-income individuals (which can overlap with the first pot of funds);
  • Spend an unspecified percentage of their funds subsidizing high-risk patients with high health costs;
  • Allow anyone who qualifies for SCHIP or Medicaid to take the value of their benefits and use those funds to subsidize private coverage; and
  • Not face federal requirements regarding 1) essential health benefits; 2) the single risk pool; 3) medical loss ratios; and 4) the 3:1 age ratio (i.e., insurers can charge older customers only three times as much as younger customers).

Is That It?

Pretty much. For instance, the plan remains silent on whether to support an Obamacare “stability” (read: bailout) bill intended to 1) keep insurance markets intact during the transition to the block grant, and 2) attract the votes of moderate Republicans like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

As recently as three weeks ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum was telling groups that the proposal would include the Collins “stability” language. However, as I previously noted, doing so would likely lead to taxpayer funding of abortion coverage, because there are few if any ways to attach pro-life protections to Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers under the special budget reconciliation procedures the Senate would use to consider “repeal-and-replace” legislation.

What Parts of Obamacare Would the Plan Retain?

In short, most of them.

Taxes and Medicare Reductions: By retaining all of Obamacare’s spending, the plan would retain all of Obamacare’s tax increases—either that, or it would increase the deficit. Likewise, the plan says nothing about undoing Obamacare’s Medicare reductions. By retaining Obamacare’s spending levels, the plan would maintain the gimmick of double-counting, whereby the law’s payment reductions are used both to “save Medicare” and fund Obamacare.

Insurance Regulations: The Congressional Research Service lists 22 separate new federal requirements imposed on health insurance plans under Obamacare. The plan would retain at least 14 of them:

  1. Guaranteed issue of coverage—Section 2702 of the Public Health Service Act;
  2. Non-discrimination based on health status—Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act;
  3. Extension of dependent coverage—Section 2714 of the Public Health Service Act;
  4. Prohibition of discrimination based on salary—Section 2716 of the Public Health Service Act (only applies to employer plans);
  5. Waiting period limitation—Section 2708 of the Public Health Service Act (only applies to employer plans);
  6. Guaranteed renewability—Section 2703 of the Public Health Service Act;
  7. Prohibition on rescissions—Section 2712 of the Public Health Service Act;
  8. Rate review—Section 2794 of the Public Health Service Act;
  9. Coverage of preventive health services without cost sharing—Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act;
  10. Coverage of pre-existing health conditions—Section 2703 of the Public Health Service Act;
  11. Summary of benefits and coverage—Section 2715 of the Public Health Service Act;
  12. Appeals process—Section 2719 of the Public Health Service Act;
  13. Patient protections—Section 2719A of the Public Health Service Act; and
  14. Non-discrimination regarding clinical trial participation—Section 2709 of the Public Health Service Act.

Are Parts of the Health Plan Unclear?

Yes. For instance, the plan says that “Obamacare requirements on essential health benefits” would not apply in states receiving block grant funds. However, Section 1302 of Obamacare—which codified the essential health benefits requirement—also included two other requirements, one capping annual cost-sharing (Section 1302(c)) and another imposing minimum actuarial value requirements (Section 1302(d)).

Additionally, the plan on two occasions says that “insurers could offer discounts to people who are continuously covered.” House Republicans offered a similar proposal in their American Health Care Act last year, one that imposed penalties on individuals failing to maintain continuous coverage.

However, the plan includes no specific proposal on how insurers could go about offering such discounts, as the plan states that the 3:1 age rating requirement—and presumably only that requirement—would not apply for states receiving block grant funds. It is unclear whether or how insurers would have the flexibility under the plan to offer discounts for continuous coverage if all of Obamacare’s restrictions on premium rating, save that for age, remain.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

24 New Federal Requirements Added to the Graham-Cassidy Bill

Last week, I outlined how a white paper Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) released essentially advocated for Obamacare on steroids. That plan would keep the law’s most expensive (and onerous) federal insurance requirements, while calling for more taxpayer dollars to make that expensive coverage more “affordable.”

Unfortunately, Cassidy also would extend this highly regulatory approach beyond mere white papers and into legislation. A recently disclosed copy of a revised Graham-Cassidy bill—originally developed by Cassidy and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) last fall—imposes two dozen new requirements on states. These requirements would undermine the bill’s supposed goal of “state flexibility,” and could lead to a regime more onerous and expensive than Obamacare itself.

18 New ‘Adequate and Affordable’ Coverage Rules

Specifically, that coverage must:

  • Include four categories of basic services defined in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) statute:
    • Inpatient and outpatient hospital services;
    • Physicians’ surgical and medical services;
    • Laboratory and X-ray services, and
    • Well-baby and well-child care, including age-appropriate immunizations;
  • Include three categories of additional services also defined in the SCHIP statute:
    • Coverage of prescription drugs;
    • Vision services; and
    • Hearing services;
  • Include two other categories of services as defined by Obamacare:
    • Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment; and
    • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices;
  • Comply with actuarial value standards set by the SCHIP statute:
    • Cover at least 70 percent of estimated health expenses for the average consumer; and
  • Comply with requirements included in eight separate sections of the Public Health Service Act, as amended by Obamacare:
    • Section 2701—Rating premiums only based on age (with older applicants charged no more than three times younger applicants), family size, geography, and tobacco use;
    • Section 2702—Required acceptance for every individual or employer who applies for coverage (i.e., guaranteed issue);
    • Section 2703—Guaranteed renewability of coverage;
    • Section 2704—Prohibition on pre-existing condition exclusions;
    • Section 2705—Prohibition on discriminating against individuals based on health status;
    • Section 2708—Prohibition on excessive waiting periods;
    • Section 2711—Prohibition on annual or lifetime limits; and
    • Section 2713—Requiring first-dollar coverage of preventive services without cost-sharing (i.e., deductibles and co-payments).

As noted above, “adequate and affordable health insurance coverage” would include many of Obamacare’s insurance requirements, and in at least one way would exceed them. Whereas Section 1302(d) of Obamacare requires selling insurance with an actuarial value—that is, the percentage of medical expenses paid for the average individual—of at least 60 percent, the revised Graham-Cassidy would require “adequate and affordable” coverage with an actuarial value of at least 70 percent.

If asked, Graham and Cassidy might state that these requirements would only apply to a certain subset of the population. After all, the revised bill text indicates that each state “shall ensure access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage (as defined in clause (ii))”—the clause referring to the 18 separate requirements listed above—“for [high-risk individuals].” The bill lists the brackets in the original, which might indicate that Cassidy’s office intends to apply these 18 separate coverage requirements only to plans that high-risk persons purchase.

Thankfully, the new draft removes the “population adjustment factor” allowing CMS to rewrite the block grant formula unilaterally. But even as it took away CMS’ power to alter the funding formula, new language on page 15 of the revised draft allows CMS to cancel states’ block grant funds for “substantial noncompliance.” That provision, coupled with the revised bill’s lack of definition regarding “affordable” coverage and “high-risk individual” provides a future Democratic administration with two clear ways to hijack the block grant program.

For instance, a new administration could define “high-risk individual” so broadly that it would apply to virtually all Americans, subjecting them to the 18 costly coverage requirements. A new administration could also define “affordable” in such a manner—for instance, premiums may not exceed 5 percent of an individual’s income—that states would have to subsidize insurance with sizable amounts of state funds, in addition to the federal dollars included in the block grant. Any state failing to comply with these edicts could see its entire block grant yanked for “substantial noncompliance” with the bureaucratically imposed guidelines.

It seems paradoxical to assert that a bill can be both too prescriptive, imposing far too many requirements on states that undermine the supposed goal of “state flexibility,” and too vague, giving vast amounts of authority to federal bureaucrats. Yet somehow the section on “adequate and affordable health coverage” manages to do both.

Two New Required Uses of Block-Grant Funds

Supporters of the bill would argue that these supposed “guardrails” will prevent states from subsidizing Medicaid coverage, or creating some other government-run health program. But as I noted last week, Obamacare has its own “guardrails” regarding state waivers, which undermine any attempt to deregulate insurance markets.

By adding these new “guardrails,” Graham-Cassidy would essentially replicate Obamacare, albeit with slightly different policy objectives: “The Cassidy plan would give states the ‘flexibility’ to do what Bill Cassidy wants them to do, and only what Bill Cassidy wants them to do. That isn’t flexibility at all.”

Block Grant Reductions with Multiple Risk Pools

On Page 31, the bill includes new language requiring a reduction in block-grant funds, by a percentage not specified, for states electing to create multiple risk pools. Under current law, Section 1312(c) of Obamacare requires insurers to place all individual insurance market enrollees—whether they purchase coverage through the exchange or not—in a single risk pool.

If a state elects to choose multiple risk pools and uses a “substantial portion” of its block grant to subsidize insurance with an actuarial value of under 50 percent, then the state would see an unspecified reduction in its block grant. This language contains many of the flaws of the other provisions described above: It nowhere defines what comprises a “substantial portion” of the block grant, and penalizes states that may choose to create multiple risk pools and subsidize only catastrophic insurance coverage, thus belying Graham-Cassidy’s promise of “state flexibility.”

3 New Requirements for State Waivers

The revised Graham-Cassidy text moves and alters language regarding state waivers of Obamacare’s federal insurance requirements, and in so doing makes three substantive changes. (The original language started in the middle of page 143 of the bill; the new language begins on the top of page 42 of the revised bill.)

First, and perhaps most disturbingly, the revised bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to waive Obamacare’s insurance requirements for a state only if “such state establishes an equivalent requirement applicable to such coverage in such state.” Taken literally, this provision could mean that states could “opt-out” of Obamacare’s federal requirements if and only if they enshrine those exact same requirements in state law—rendering any supposed “flexibility” under Graham-Cassidy completely nonexistent.

Graham and Cassidy may not have meant to craft language with such a literal interpretation. They may mean to say, for instance, that a state can waive out of Obamacare’s age-rating requirements (which prohibit insurers from charging older people more than three times what they charge younger people) if they establish a more permissive regime—for instance, five-to-one age rating—on the state level.

But taken literally, that’s not what the current bill text says. That vague language raises serious questions about the authors’ intent, and why they chose such unclear, and arguably sloppy, bill language.

Second, the section imposes two new requirements on states selecting multiple risk pools. As noted above, those states would have to comply with the 18 new requirements regarding “adequate and affordable” health coverage, and states creating multiple risk pools could see their block grant reduced as a result.

In addition, however, states must also guarantee that insurers offering coverage in one risk pool offer coverage in all of them. Moreover, premiums charged “by a health insurance issuer for the same health coverage offered in different risk pools in the state [may] not vary by more than 3 to 1.”

The first requirement echoes the Consumer Freedom Amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) last year. That amendment allowed insurers to offer plans that did not comply with Obamacare’s requirements, so long as they continued to offer one Obamacare-compliant plan. The second requirement would effectively limit the extent to which insurers could charge individuals more on the basis of pre-existing conditions or health status.

Two Dozen (More) Reasons for State Concern

Both individually and collectively, these two dozen new requirements inserted into the most recent version of Graham-Cassidy present problems for conservatives. The myriad requirements would sharply limit the bill’s ability to deliver lower premiums to consumers—one major goal of “repeal-and-replace” legislation.

More broadly, though, the revised bill drifts further away from any semblance of conservative objectives. While Graham-Cassidy purports to provide more flexibility to states, the revised bill would instead ensnare them in numerous requirements that would impede any attempt at innovation.

Like the proverbial Lilliputians who attempted to tie down Gulliver, the new bill looks to rob states of their ability to manage their own insurance markets and lower premiums for residents, one federal requirement at a time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Did Orrin Hatch Call the Wrong Party “Stupid” Over Obamacare?

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called Obamacare “the stupidest, dumbass bill” he’s ever seen at a recent American Enterprise Institute forum. “Some of you may have loved it,” he said. “And if you do, you are one of the stupidest, dumbass people I’ve ever met.”

Hatch ended up apologizing for his comment, but the question remains: If the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee considers Obamacare the “stupidest, dumbass” law on earth, then why on earth are his fellow Republicans so desperate to bail it out?

But of course, that approach would involve actually repealing Obamacare. And instead of solving the underlying problem, by repealing the regulations that led premiums to increase, Republicans want to throw money at the problem, giving insurance companies corporate welfare payments hand-over-fist in the hope that these efforts will mitigate ever-rising premiums.

This strategy does seem like a “dumbass” approach for several reasons. First, it does not repeal Obamacare. Numerous studies have demonstrated that Obamacare’s regulations have raised premiums. Occam’s Razor concludes that, if Congress wants to solve the problem of higher premiums, it should start by fixing the underlying reason for those higher premiums.

Second, this approach not only does not repeal Obamacare, it also entrenches it by making it the federal government’s business to “lower” health insurance premiums. The federal government has no more business dictating the price of health insurance than it does the price of homes, or food, or shoes. But by throwing more money at the Exchanges, Republicans will make it the business of the federal government — and federal taxpayers — to “lower” health insurance premiums.

President Trump hinted at the fundamental problems this approach brings last month, when he tweeted about protests in Britain over the National Health Service (NHS). One need only watch Prime Minister’s Questions to observe the ways in which Members of Parliament in Britain turn the NHS into a political tool. Most opposition parties pledge to “fix” the NHS by throwing more money at it. And last month, Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, attacked the Conservative Government for “refusing to give our NHS the money it needs and needs now.”

If the federal government takes political responsibility for health insurance premiums, the “stability” fund would soon turn into a perpetual — and perpetually expanding — money pit. Even with a theoretical expiration date, Congress would face pressure to renew the fund, lest premiums increase if it lapses. And if premiums continue to rise, politicians would propose even greater corporate welfare payments, to “stabilize” the markets with yet more taxpayer dollars.

That scenario leads to the third problem, which Margaret Thatcher famously described four decades ago: Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money.

That quote, coupled with our existing $20 trillion in federal debt, explains why, in their attempts to micro-manage the health insurance system from Washington, the Republican-Socialists who wish to bail out Obamacare have proposed much the same kind of “dumbass” policies as Hatch himself criticized.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about the Proposed Short-Term Plans Rule

On Tuesday morning, the Trump administration issued a proposed rule regarding short-term health insurance plans. The action represents the second prong of the Trump administration’s strategy, outlined in last October’s executive order, to offer regulatory relief to insurance markets. The Department of Labor acted on the first prong, issuing a proposed rule expanding access to association health plans, in January.

As I noted in October, the Obama administration issued a rule in October 2016 designed to limit short-term plans. The Public Health Service Act specifically exempts “short-term, limited-duration insurance” from the definition of “individual health insurance coverage,” exempting such plans from all of Obamacare’s new, federally imposed regulatory regime (though they are regulated by states).

The Trump Administration’s Proposal

The Trump administration’s proposed rule would revise the disclosure slightly (in part to reflect the repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, set to take effect in January 2019), and restore the prior definition of short-term coverage to “less than 12 months.”

The proposed rule also requests comment on the ways to facilitate streamlined renewal of short-term plans. As I noted in an article last year, limiting individuals’ ability to renew policies harmed people who develop illnesses while on short-term plans:

Jimmy Kimmel forgot to mention it, but prohibiting coverage renewals harms individuals with pre-existing conditions, because it forbids customers who develop a pre-existing condition while on short-term plans from continuing their coverage. In discouraging these short-term plans, the Obama administration preferred individuals going without coverage entirely over seeing anyone purchase a policy lacking the full panoply of ‘government-approved’ benefits.

The Trump administration can and should rescind this coercive rule and its perverse consequences immediately.

Effective Dates and Impact

The administration estimates that the proposed rule would lead only about 100,000-200,000 individuals to switch from individual coverage to short-term plans, only about 10 percent of whom would have qualified for Obamacare insurance subsidies on exchanges. The administration also estimates the rule would raise spending on premium subsidies by $96-168 million annually. Because the individuals shifting to short-term coverage would be younger and healthier than average, they would slightly increase premiums, and thus premium subsidies, on the insurance exchanges.

However, these comparatively modest estimates on both the coverage and cost fronts suggest that short-term plans may have less of an impact than conservatives had hoped—or liberals have feared. Time will tell if the predictions prove an over-estimate or under-estimate; perhaps more definitive actions to allow for the guaranteed renewal of short-term coverage will increase their popularity.

What Should Be the Next Steps?

Now that it has proposed this rule, the administration should take regulatory action on another front, by stopping a movement in Idaho to offer non-compliant health plans. Last month, the state’s insurance department offered guidance to insurers about new coverage offerings. The new plans could:

  • Impose limits on pre-existing conditions for individuals without continuous coverage;
  • Limit benefits provided to $1 million annually;
  • Not offer maternity care in all cases (although each carrier must sell one plan with maternity coverage); and
  • Charge older individuals up to five times as much as younger individuals when calculating premium rates.

But the Idaho guidance hints at one big problem. It instructs insurers selling the plans in question to disclose to consumers that “This policy is not fully compliant with federal health insurance requirements.”

Therefore, as a matter of law, I cannot support the Idaho effort, not because I support or want to sustain Obamacare—I don’t—but because I support and want to sustain the rule of law, which is more important than any single piece of legislation. Unfortunately in this instance, federal law supersedes state law, which means the federal law must prevail.

I wrote in January 2017 that the Trump administration had an obligation to enforce the individual mandate. Likewise here, the administration has an obligation to enforce the Obamacare statute, and either redirect Idaho’s efforts to bring them into compliance with the law—perhaps through a Section 1332 innovation waiver, although that waiver may not bring the state sufficient flexibility—or quash them. The administration has a constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and it should not follow the Obama administration’s example of picking and choosing which laws it wishes to enforce.

Better yet, Congress can and should repeal the regulations that represent the beating heart of Obamacare. They have a roadmap to do so, even with a slim Senate majority. Such action would allow Idaho, and 49 other states, to innovate to their heart’s content to provide more affordable coverage to their residents—an outcome consistent with the rule of law, and federalism, that conservatives could embrace whole-heartedly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals Suddenly Rediscover Federalism — Will Conservatives?

On Thursday, a series of liberal groups sent a letter to the nation’s insurance departments, asking them to effectively undermine President Trump’s October executive order on health care. In so doing, the Left suddenly rediscovered the virtues of federalism in setting an independent policy course from Washington, particularly when governed by an executive of the opposite party.

Unfortunately, however, because Congress has yet to repeal Obamacare’s federally imposed regulations—as I noted just yesterday—legislators in conservative states will have little such recourse to seek freedom from Obamacare unless and until Congress takes action.

Liberals Want to Thwart More Affordable Coverage

For instance, the Trump administration likely will revoke an Obama administration rule prohibiting short-term insurance policies—which need not comply with any of Obamacare’s statutory requirements—from offering plans of longer than 90 days in duration. In such a circumstance, the liberal groups want states to “act swiftly if the federal rulemaking allows these plans to last beyond a reasonable ‘short term’”—in other words, reimpose the 90-day limit on short-term plans, currently codified via federal regulations, on the state level.

The liberal groups also asked states to “consider ways to protect against potential harm from” other elements of the executive order, including association health plans (AHPs) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs): “If the proposed federal rules are weakened for short-term plans, AHPs, or HRAs, we urge state insurance regulators to take action to protect consumers in your states.”

In this case, as in most cases with liberal groups, “consumer protection” means protecting individuals from becoming consumers—preventing them from buying insurance plans that liberals do not approve of.

One-Way Federalism, In the Wrong Direction

As a supporter of the Tenth Amendment, while I might not agree with state actions designed to prevent the sale of more affordable insurance options, I respect the rights of states to take such measures. Likewise, if Congress repeals Obamacare’s mandate to purchase insurance, and states wish to reimpose such a requirement at the state level, they absolutely should have the ability to do so.

Unfortunately, however, Congress’ failure to repeal Obamacare’s regulations has created a one-way federalism ratchet. Liberal areas can re-impose Obamacare’s regime at the state level, by blocking the sale of more affordable insurance plans, or re-imposing a mandate to purchase insurance. But because Congress has left all of Obamacare’s federally set regulations in place, conservative states cannot de-impose Obamacare at the state level, to allow more affordable coverage that does not meet all of the law’s requirements.

Admittedly, by not thwarting Trump’s regulatory actions, conservative states can allow the sale of more affordable insurance products—for now. However, those executive actions have real limits when compared to statutory changes.

Moreover, another president could—and in the case of a Democratic president, almost certainly would—undo those actions, collapsing what little freedom the executive order might infuse into the market. Regardless, states will remain hostage to actions in Washington to determine control of their health insurance marketplaces.

This dynamic brings no small amount of irony: Liberal groups have suddenly discovered the benefits of federalism to “resist” a Trump administration initiative, even as Republican senators like Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, by keeping the federally imposed pre-existing condition mandate in place, want to dictate to other states how their insurance markets should function.

At the risk of sounding like an apostate, liberals are on to something—not with respect to their policy recommendations, but to federalism as a means of achieving them. Perhaps one day, the party that purports to believe in the Tenth Amendment will follow suit, by getting rid of Obamacare’s federal regulations once and for all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Barack Obama “Sabotaged” Obamacare

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the demise of bipartisanship in health care are greatly exaggerated. While Republicans and Democrats claim different principles on health policy, their actions indicate a surprising level of agreement.

To wit: Both President Trump and President Obama took action to prevent Americans from suffering dramatic premium spikes due to Obamacare’s insurance mandates. Yet somehow the Left’s indignation over Trump’s alleged “sabotage,” in the form of his recent executive order on health care, has not extended to Obama’s actions four years ago.

It’s Cool Only If Obama Does It?

Following its initial decision to permit non-compliant plans, the Obama administration repeatedly extended these “transitional” arrangements. In March 2014, after the insurance exchanges began to function more smoothly, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services extended the non-compliant plans through October 2016, followed by a further extension through October 2017. Upon taking office earlier this year, the Trump administration extended the non-compliant plans a fourth time, through December 2018.

On no fewer than three separate occasions, then, the Obama administration expressly permitted Americans to hold policies that did not comply with Obamacare’s new regulatory regime—its prohibition on pre-existing condition restrictions, its essential health benefits requirements, and its myriad other new mandated subsidies. In perpetuating these non-compliant plans, the Obama administration’s actions parallel President Trump’s recent executive order, which among other proposals would expand access to short-term insurance policies.

As with the plans that Obama thrice permitted, short-term insurance policies need not adhere to the regulations Obamacare permitted, from the pre-existing conditions requirements to age rating bands to mandatory benefits like maternity care. Short-term plans, like the non-compliant plans the Obama administration permitted, can provide a much more affordable alternative to Obamacare-compliant coverage, for which premiums have more than doubled since 2013.

Actually, Trump’s Actions Are Better than Obama’s

Conversely, Obamacare expressly exempts coverage of less than one year in duration from its regulatory requirements, allowing for lawful action by the Trump administration in this sphere. Expanding access to short-term insurance plans of up to 364 days in length, while ending the existing non-compliant plans arrangement the Obama administration started, would create more affordable coverage options, while ceasing President Obama’s sabotage of the rule of law.

Critics claim that expanding access to short-term insurance coverage would bifurcate insurance markets, thereby “sabotaging” exchange regimes. But in some states, President Obama’s actions regarding non-compliant plans undermined the exchanges well before Trump ever took office.

For instance, in 2016 90,000 Iowa residents retained non-compliant plans—compared to only 55,000 enrolled in the Obamacare-compliant exchange coverage—and the latter endured higher premium increases than the former. Liberals attacking Trump over reports he personally intervened in Iowa’s application for a federal waiver to change its insurance markets fail to recognize that executive actions by Obama, not Trump, created the conditions where Hawkeye State officials felt the need to apply for a waiver in the first place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: Summary of Alexander-Murray “Stability” Bill

On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced he had reached an agreement in principle with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) regarding an Obamacare “stabilization” package. Unfortunately, legislative text has not yet been released (UPDATE: bill text was released late Tuesday evening), but based on press reports, Twitter threads, and a summary circulating on Capitol Hill, here’s what is in the final package:

Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments:             The bill appropriates roughly $25-30 billion in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, which offset their costs for providing discounts on deductibles and co-payments to certain low-income individuals enrolled on insurance Exchanges. Late last Thursday, President Trump announced he would halt the payments to insurers, concluding the Administration did not have authority to do so under the Constitution. As a result, the bill includes an explicit appropriation, totaling roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates.

For 2018 only, the bill includes language allowing states to decline the cost-sharing reduction payments—if they previously approved premium increases that assumed said payments would not be made. If states do not decline the payments, they must certify that said payments will “provide a direct financial benefit to consumers”—that is, they will result in lower premium rates, and/or rebates to consumers. The bill also includes clarifying language regarding the interactions between any such rebates and premium tax credit levels under Obamacare.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, because insurers understood for well over a year that a new Administration could terminate these payments in 2017, the agreement would effectively subsidize their flawed assumptions. Some conservatives may be concerned that action to continue the flow of payments would solidify the principle that Obamacare, and therefore insurers, are “too big to fail,” which could only encourage further risky behavior by insurers in the future. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that, absent Hyde Amendment protections, these payments would subsidize federal insurance plans covering abortion.

State Waiver Processes:     The bill would streamline the process for approving state innovation waivers, authorized by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Those waivers allow states to receive their state’s Exchange funding as a block grant, and exempt themselves from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations.

Specifically, the agreement would:

  1. Extend the waivers’ duration, from five years to six, with unlimited renewals possible;
  2. Prohibit HHS from terminating waivers during their duration (including any renewal periods), unless “the state materially failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the waiver;”
  3. Require HHS to release guidance to states within 30 days of enactment regarding waivers, including model language for waivers;
  4. Shorten the time the Department of Health and Human Services to consider waivers from 180 days to 90;
  5. Allow a 45 day review for 1) waivers currently pending; 2) waivers for areas “the Secretary determines are at risk for excessive premium increases or having no health plans offered in the applicable health insurance market for the current or following plan year; and 3) waivers that are “the same or substantially similar” to waivers previously approved for another state. These waivers would initially apply for no more than three years, with an extension possible for a full six-year term;
  6. Allow governors to apply for waivers based on their certification of authority, rather than requiring states to pass a law authorizing state actions under the waiver—a move that some conservatives may be concerned could allow state chief executives to act unilaterally, including by exiting a successful waiver on a governor’s order.

State Waiver Substance:    On the substance of innovation waivers, the bill would regulatory guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015. Among other actions, that guidance prevented states from using savings from an Obamacare/Exchange waiver to offset higher costs to Medicaid, and vice versa. While supporting the concept of greater flexibility for states, some conservatives may note that, as this guidance was not enacted pursuant to notice-and-comment, the Trump Administration can revoke it at any time—indeed, should have revoked it months ago.

Additionally, the bill amends—but does not repeal—the “guardrails” for state innovation waivers. Under current law, Section 1332 waivers must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as” Obamacare coverage;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as Obamacare coverage;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of [a state’s] residents” as under Obamacare; and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”

Some conservatives have previously criticized these provisions as insufficiently flexible to allow for conservative health reforms like Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven options.

The bill allows states to provide coverage “of comparable affordability, including for low-income individuals, individuals with serious health needs, and other vulnerable populations” rather than the current language in the second bullet above. It also clarifies that deficit and budget neutrality will operate over the lifetime of the waiver, and that state innovation waivers under Obamacare “shall not be construed to affect any waiver processes or standards” under the Medicare or Medicaid statutes for purposes of determining the Obamacare waiver’s deficit neutrality.

The bill also makes adjustments to the “pass-through” language allowing states to receive their Exchange funding via a block grant. For instance, the bill adds language allowing states to receive any funding for the Basic Health Program—a program states can establish for households with incomes of between 138-200 percent of the federal poverty level—via the block grant.

Some conservatives may view the “comparable affordability” change as a distinction without a difference, as it still explicitly links affordability to Obamacare’s rich benefit package. Some conservatives may therefore view the purported “concessions” on the December 2015 guidance, and on “comparable affordability” as inconsequential in nature, and insignificant given the significant concessions to liberals included elsewhere in the proposed legislative package.

Catastrophic Plans:              The bill would allow all individuals to purchase “catastrophic” health plans, and keep those plans in a single risk pool with other Obamacare plans. However, this provision would not apply until 2019—i.e., not for the upcoming plan year.

Catastrophic plans—currently only available to individuals under 30, individuals without an “affordable” health plan in their area, or individuals subject to a hardship exemption from the individual mandate—provide no coverage below Obamacare’s limit on out-of-pocket spending, but for “coverage of at least three primary care visits.” Catastrophic plans are also currently subject to Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements.

Outreach Funding:               The bill requires HHS to obligate $105.8 million in Exchange user fees to states for “enrollment and outreach activities” for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Currently, the federal Exchange (healthcare.gov) assesses a user fee of 3.5 percent of premiums on insurers, who ultimately pass these fees on to consumers. In a rule released last December, the outgoing Obama Administration admitted that the Exchange is “gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs”—in part because maintaining the Exchange costs less per year than creating one did in 2013-14. However, the Obama Administration rejected any attempt to lower those fees, instead deciding to spend them on outreach efforts. The agreement would re-direct portions of the fees to states for enrollment outreach.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would create a new entitlement for states to outreach dollars. Moreover, some conservatives may object to this re-direction of funds that ultimately come from consumers towards more government spending. Some conservatives may support taking steps to reduce the user fees—thus lowering premiums, the purported intention of this “stabilization” measure—rather than re-directing them toward more government spending, as the agreement proposes.

The bill also requires a series of bi-weekly reports from HHS on metrics like call center volume, website visits, etc., during the 2018 and 2019 open enrollment periods, followed by after-action reports regarding outreach and advertising. Some conservatives may view these myriad requirements first as micro-management of the executive, and second as buying into the liberal narrative that the Trump Administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, by requiring minute oversight of the executive’s implementation of the law.

Cross-State Purchasing:     Requires HHS to issue regulations (in consultations with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners) within one year regarding health care choice compacts under Obamacare. Such compacts would allow individuals to purchase coverage across state lines. However, because states can already establish health care compacts amongst themselves, and because Obamacare’s regulatory mandates would still apply to any such coverage purchased through said compacts, some conservatives may view such language as insufficient and not adding to consumers’ affordable coverage options.

What You Need to Know about President Trump’s Health Care Executive Order

On Thursday morning, President Trump signed an Executive Order regarding health care and health insurance. Here’s what you need to know about his action.

What Actions Did the President Take?

The Executive Order did not change regulations on its own; rather, it instructed Cabinet Departments to propose changes to regulations in the near future:

  1. Within 60 days, the Department of Labor will propose regulatory changes regarding Association Health Plans (AHPs). Regulations here will look to expand the definition of groups that can qualify as an “employer” under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). AHPs have two advantages: First, all association health plans regulated by ERISA are federally pre-empted from state benefit mandates; second, self-insured plans regulated by ERISA are exempt from several benefit mandates imposed by Obamacare—such as essential benefits and actuarial value standards.
  2. Within 60 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) will propose regulatory changes regarding short-term health plans. Regulations here will likely revoke rules put into place by the Obama Administration last October. Last year, the Obama Administration limited short-term plans to 90 days in duration (down from 364 days), and prevented renewals of such coverage—because it feared that such plans, which do not have to meet any of Obamacare’s benefit requirements, were drawing people away from Exchange coverage. The Trump Administration regulations will likely modify, or eliminate entirely, those restrictions, allowing people to purchase plans not compliant with the Obamacare mandates. (For more information, see my Tuesday article on this issue.)
  3. Within 120 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS will propose regulatory changes regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), vehicles where employers can deposit pre-tax dollars for their employees to use for health expenses. A 2013 IRS Notice prevented employers from using HRA dollars to fund employees’ individual health insurance premiums—because the Obama Administration worried that doing so would encourage employers to drop coverage. However, Section 18001 of the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law last December, allowed employers with under 50 employees to make HRA contributions that workers could use to pay for health insurance premiums on the individual market. The Executive Order may seek to expand this exemption to all employers, by rescinding the prior IRS notice.
  4. Within six months—and every two years thereafter—the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS, along with the Federal Trade Commission, will submit reports on industry consolidation within the health care sector, whether and how it is raising health care costs, and actions to mitigate the same.

How Will the Order Affect the Health Sector?

In general, however, the issues discussed by the Executive Order will:

  • Give individuals more options, and more affordable options. Premiums on the individual market have more than doubled since 2013, due to Obamacare’s regulatory mandates. AHPs would allow workers to circumvent state benefit mandates through ERISA’s federal pre-emption of state laws; self-insured AHPs would also gain exemption from several federal Obamacare mandates, as outlined above. Because virtually all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits do not apply to short-term plans, these would obtain the most regulatory relief.
  • Allow more small businesses to subsidize workers’ coverage—either through Association Health Plans, or by making contributions to HRAs, and allowing employees to use those pre-tax dollars to buy the health coverage of their choosing on the individual market.

When Will the Changes Occur?

The Executive Order directed the Departments to announce regulatory changes within 60-120 days; the Departments could of course move faster than that. If the Departments decide to release interim final rules—that is, rules that take effect prior to a notice-and-comment period—or sub-regulatory guidance, the changes could take effect prior to the 2018 plan year.

However, any changes that go through the usual regulatory process—agencies issuing proposed rules, followed by a notice-and-comment period, prior to the rules taking effect—likely would not take effect until the 2019 plan year. While the Executive Order directed the agencies to “consider and evaluate public comment on any regulations proposed” pursuant to the Order, it did not specify whether the Departments must evaluate said comments before the regulations take effect.

Does the Order Represent a Regulatory Overreach?

However, with respect to Association Health Plans, some conservatives may take a more nuanced view. Conservatives generally support allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines, believing that such freedom would allow consumers to buy the plans that best suit their interests.

However, AHPs accomplish this goal not through Congress’ Commerce Clause power—i.e., explicitly allowing, for instance, an individual in Maryland to buy a policy regulated in Virginia—but instead through federal pre-emption—individuals in Maryland and Virginia buying policies regulated by Washington, albeit in a less onerous manner than Obamacare’s Exchange plans. As with medical liability reform, therefore, some conservatives may support a state-based approach to achieve regulatory relief for consumers, rather than an expanded role for the federal government.

Finally, if President Trump wants to overturn his predecessor’s history of executive unilateralism, he should cease funding cost-sharing reduction payments to health insurers. The Obama Administration’s unilateral funding of these payments without an appropriation from Congress brought a sharp rebuke from a federal judge, who called the action unconstitutional. If President Trump wants to end executive overreach, he should abide by the ruling, and halt the unilateral payments to insurers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.