What Exactly Is in the Obamacare “Stability” Deal?

Memo to Rand Paul: It’s time to fire up the copier again.

On Tuesday, the simmering controversy over Obamacare “stability” legislation came to the boil, as conservatives increasingly voiced objections at bailing out Obamacare and giving tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to fund abortion coverage in the process. But the controversy centers around a “deal” of which the precise contents remain a closely guarded secret.

But at least Democrats (eventually) made the text of the Cornhusker Kickback, Louisiana Purchase, Gator Aid, and other provisions public. For the Obamacare “stability” bill, Senate Republican leaders have yet to indicate exactly what legislation they wish to pass.

Substance and Process Unclear

As I noted last week, while Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) recently claimed in an op-ed that the “stability” legislation would appropriate $10 billion in reinsurance funds for insurers, the public version of legislation to which he referred—a bill introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL)—appropriated “only” $4.5 billion in funds to health insurers. Collins and Alexander are apparently engaging in a bidding war with themselves about how many billions worth of taxpayer dollars they wish to spend on corporate welfare payments to insurance companies.

On the policy substance, Senate leadership has refused to disclose exactly what provisions comprise the “deal” Collins supposedly cut with Senate leadership. Did they promise $4.5 billion in reinsurance funding, $10 billion, or more than $10 billion? What other promises did they make in exchange for Collins’ support for repealing the individual mandate in the tax bill?

Did Republican leaders pledge merely to support an open process and a vote on the “stability” measure—as Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-SD) implied on Tuesday—or its enactment into law? How exactly could they promise the latter, when any such bill would require 60 votes to break a potential Senate filibuster—a number that Senate Republican leaders do not have, even if they could persuade their entire conference to support bailing out Obamacare?

Then and Now

As noted above, we’ve seen this play before, when Democrats rammed through Obamacare through a series of backroom deals cobbled together behind closed doors, notwithstanding then-candidate Obama’s pledge to televise all health-care negotiations on C-SPAN. Here’s what McConnell had to say about that lack of transparency in a December 2009 floor speech:

Americans are right to be stunned because this bill is a mess. And so was the process that was used to get it over the finish line.

Americans are outraged by the last-minute, closed-door, sweetheart deals that were made to gain the slimmest margin for passage of a bill that is all about their health care. Once the Sun came up, Americans could see all the deals that were tucked inside this grab bag, and they do not like what they are finding. After all, common sense dictates that anytime Congress rushes, Congress stumbles. It is whether Senator so-and-so got a sweet enough deal to sign off on it. Well, Senator so-and-so might have gotten his deal, but the American people have not signed off.

Public opinion is clear. What have we become as a body if we are not even listening to the people we serve? What have we become if we are more concerned about a political victory or some hollow call to history than we are about actually solving the problems the American people sent us here to address?

Some may argue that passing “stability” legislation bears little comparison to home-state earmarks like the Cornhusker Kickback that plagued the Obamacare bill the Senate passed on Christmas Eve 2009. But when Alexander remains adamant about passing “stability” legislation about which senators of both parties now seem ambivalent at best, one must ask whether his insistence stems from the fact that it would provide a significant financial windfall to his biggest campaign contributor—making it a “sweet enough deal” for him too.

The fact that no Senate leaders will dare explain publicly what they have promised privately should tell the public everything they need to know about the merits of this secretive backroom deal. As McConnell might say, it’s “kind of [a] smelly proposition.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

There He Goes Again: Lamar Alexander Misrepresents His Obamacare Bailout

As Ronald Reagan might say, “There you go again.” Last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner making claims about the Obamacare “stabilization” bill he developed with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

The article tells a nice story about how conservatives should support the bill, but alas, one can consider it just that: A story. The article includes several material omissions and outright false statements about the legislation and its impact. Below are the facts and full context that Alexander wouldn’t dare admit about his bill.

Fact: In reality, the Congressional Budget Office in its score of the Alexander-Murray bill said the exact opposite:

Simply comparing outcomes with and without funding for CSRs [cost-sharing reduction payments], CBO and [the Joint Committee on Taxation] expect that federal costs in 2018 would be higher with funding for CSRs because premiums for 2018 have already been finalized and rebates related to CSRs would be less than the CSR payments themselves. [Emphasis mine.]

Insurers have already finalized their premiums for 2018 (in most states, open enrollment ends this Friday, December 15), and when doing so assumed cost-sharing reductions would not be paid. If Congress now turns around and appropriates those payments for 2018, insurers would have the possibility to “double-dip.” That means getting paid twice by the federal government to provide lower cost-sharing to low-income individuals.

While CBO believes insurers will return some of the “extra” subsidies they receive to the federal government—$3.1 billion worth, according to their estimate—they also believe that insurers will keep some portion of the excess, as much as $4-6 billion worth. That dynamic explains why CBO believes federal spending will increase, not decrease, as Alexander claims, if Congress appropriates cost-sharing reduction payments for 2018.

Fact: The $194 billion figure has no bearing to the Alexander-Murray legislation. Elsewhere in the op-ed, Alexander admits his bill would include “two years of temporary cost-sharing reduction payments.” If these payments would be “temporary,” then why cite a purported savings figure for an entire decade? Is Alexander trying to elide the fact that he wants to continue both Obamacare and these taxpayer payments to insurance companies in perpetuity?

Claim: “This bill includes new waiver authority for states to come up with their ideas to reduce premiums.”

Fact: The bill includes precious little new waiver authority for states. On substance, it retains virtually all of the “guardrails” in Obamacare that make implementing conservative ideas—like consumer-driven health-care options that use health savings accounts—impossible in a state waiver. While the bill does provide for a faster process for the federal government to consider waiver applications, without changing the substance of what provisions states can waive, the bill would just result in conservative states getting their waivers rejected more quickly.

Fact: This provision appears nowhere in the Alexander-Murray measure. Instead, it comprises a separate bill, introduced by senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL). And that bill, as originally introduced, would appropriate not $10 billion in reinsurance funds, but “only” $4.5 billion.

Some conservatives may find it bad enough that, in addition to appropriating roughly $20-25 billion straight to insurance companies in the Alexander-Murray bill, Alexander now wants a second source of taxpayer funds to subsidize insurers. Moreover, by more than doubling the amount of reinsurance funds compared to the original Collins-Nelson bill, Alexander seems to be engaging in a bidding war with himself to determine the greatest amount of taxpayers’ money he can shovel insurers’ way.

Claim: “Almost all House Republicans have already voted for its provisions earlier this year.”

At this point readers may question why Alexander made such a series of incomplete, misleading, and outright false claims in his op-ed. One other tidbit might explain the article’s dissociation with the truth.

Fact: Since 2013, the largest contributor to Alexander’s re-election campaign and leadership PAC has been…Blue Cross Blue Shield.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are Cost-Sharing Reductions Subject to the Sequester?

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) thinks she has a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to attach two provisions to a short-term spending bill later this month: The Alexander-Murray legislation to appropriate funds for cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurers, and a separate bill she and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) have developed regarding reinsurance proposals.

Collins also thinks these two provisions will have a “net downward effect on premiums,” even after repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate as part of the tax bill the Senate is currently considering. However, it appears that Alexander-Murray and Collins-Nelson’s net effect on premiums could end up being a nice round number: Zero.

Cost-Sharing Reductions and the Sequester

The statute that created the budget sequester applies a list of programs and accounts not subject to sequestration spending reductions. For instance, the law exempts refundable tax credits, like those provided to low-income individuals who buy coverage on Obamacare’s exchanges, from sequestration reductions.

However, neither cost-sharing reduction payments nor reinsurance would qualify as refundable tax credits. They are paid directly to insurers, not individuals, and are not part of the Internal Revenue Code. Also, neither cost-sharing reductions nor reinsurance are on a list of other accounts and programs exempted from the sequester.

The Obama administration previously admitted that cost-sharing reduction payments were subject to the sequester, in a sequestration report to Congress in April 2013, and in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in August of that year. In a separate 2014 report, the Obama administration also admitted that Obamacare’s transitional reinsurance program (which expired in 2016, and which senators Collins and Nelson effectively want to re-create) was subject to the sequester.

However, last year Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled these actions unconstitutional, because the treasury lacks a valid appropriation to pay out CSR funds. The Trump administration last month stopped the CSR payments to insurers, citing the lack of an appropriation. While the Alexander-Murray bill would appropriate funds for the CSR payments, it would do so through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, not the treasury—meaning that the sequester would apply.

Statutory PAYGO and the Sequester

Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a letter to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) indicating that legislation increasing the budget deficit (on a static basis, i.e., not accounting for economic growth) by $1.5 trillion would result in a sequester order of approximately $136 billion for 2018. The existing statutory formula would deliver a 4 percent, or approximately $25 billion, reduction in Medicare spending, followed by about $111 billion in reductions elsewhere.

However, because the sequestration statute exempts many major spending programs like Social Security and Medicaid, CBO believes that only about $85-90 billion in existing federal resources would be subject to the sequester. This means an additional $20-25 billion in mandatory spending, if appropriated, would immediately get sequestered to make up the difference.

On the one hand, conservatives who oppose paying CSRs to insurers may support an outcome where insurers do not actually receive these payments. On the other hand, however, some may view this outcome as the worst of all possible worlds: Having surrendered the principle that the federal government must prop up insurers—and Obamacare—without receiving any actual premium reductions, because the payments to insurers never get made.

This scenario, when coupled with repeal of the individual mandate, could result in a legislative outcome that raises premiums next year—a contradiction of the promises Republicans made to voters.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.