How Andy Slavitt Sabotaged Obamacare

Over the weekend, former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) acting administrator and Obamacare defender Andy Slavitt took to Twitter to denounce what he viewed as the Trump administration’s “aggressive and needless sabotage” of the health care law:

Unfortunately for Slavitt, the facts suggest otherwise. The Trump administration took actions to comply with a federal court order that vacated rules promulgated by the Obama administration—including rules CMS issued when Slavitt ran the agency. If Slavitt wants to denounce the supposed “sabotage” of Obamacare, he need look no further than the nearest mirror.

What’s the Issue?

This legal dispute involves risk adjustment payments, one of the three “Rs” Obamacare created. Unlike the risk corridor and reinsurance programs, which lasted only from 2014 through 2016, Obamacare made the risk adjustment program permanent.

In general, risk adjustment transfers funds from insurers with healthier-than-average enrollment to insurers with sicker-than-average enrollment. Without risk adjustment, plans would have perverse incentives to avoid enrolling sick people, due to the Obamacare regulations that require insurers to accept all applicants, and prohibit them from charging higher premiums due to health status.

Since the Obamacare exchanges began operations in 2014, many newer and smaller insurers say that the federal risk adjustment formula unfairly advantages incumbent carriers—in many cases, local Blue Cross Blue Shield plans. The small carriers complain that larger insurers do a better job of documenting their enrollees’ health conditions (e.g., diabetes, etc.), entitling them to larger risk adjustment payments.

A July 2016 analysis concluded that “for most co-ops, these recently announced risk adjustment payments have made a bad situation worse, and for a subset, they may prove to be the proverbial last straw.” Indeed, most Obamacare co-ops failed, and the risk adjustment methodology proved one reason. Two co-ops—Minuteman Health in Massachusetts (now in receivership) and New Mexico Health Connections—sued to challenge the risk adjustment formula.

What Happened in the Lawsuits?

On January 30, a federal district court in Massachusetts ruled in favor of the federal government with respect to Minuteman Health’s case. Judge Dennis Saylor ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner when setting the risk adjustment formula.

However, a few weeks later, on February 28, another federal district court in New Mexico granted partial summary judgement in favor of New Mexico Health Connections, ruling that one element of the risk adjustment formula—the use of statewide average premium (discussed further below)—violated the Administrative Procedure Act as arbitrary and capricious. Judge James Browning vacated that portion of the risk adjustment formula for the years 2014 through 2018, and remanded the matter back to HHS and CMS for further proceedings.

If the Trump administration wanted to use the risk adjustment ruling to “sabotage” Obamacare, as people like Slavitt claim, it would have halted the program immediately after Browning issued his order in February. Instead, the administration on March 28 filed a motion to have Browning reconsider his decision in light of the contrary ruling in the Minuteman Health case.

The administration also asked Browning to lift his order vacating the risk adjustment formula, and just remand the matter to CMS/HHS instead. In that case, the rule would remain in effect, but the administration would have to alter it to comply with Browning’s ruling. However, at a June 21 hearing, Browning seemed disinclined to accept the government’s request—which likely led to the CMS announcement this weekend.

Who Issued ‘Arbitrary and Capricious’ Rules?

The Obama administration did, in all cases. Browning’s ruling vacated a portion of the risk adjustment formula for plan years 2014 through 2018 (i.e., the current one). Even though President Trump took office on January 20, 2017, the outgoing Obama administration rushed out rules for the 2018 plan year on December 22, 2016, with the rules taking effect just prior to Obama leaving office.

However, Browning believed the statute does not require budget neutrality—it does not prohibit it, nor does it require it. Therefore, the administration needed to provide a “policy rationale” for its budget neutrality assumption. For instance, HHS could have argued that, because Obamacare did not include a separate appropriation for the risk adjustment program, implementing risk adjustment in a budget neutral manner would prevent the diversion of taxpayer resources from other programs.

But as Browning noted, “the Court must rely upon the rationale the agency articulated in its internal proceedings and not upon post hoc reasoning.” HHS did not explain the reasoning behind budget neutrality in its final rules for the 2014 plan year, nor for several years thereafter.

While both the 2011 white paper and 2014 rules (the final version of which HHS released in March 2013) preceded the July 2014 start of Slavitt’s tenure in senior management at CMS, the agency released rules for the 2016, 2017, and 2018 plan years on his watch. If Slavitt believes “sabotage” occurred as a result of Browning’s court ruling, he should accept his share of the responsibility for it, by issuing rules that a federal judge struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Ironically, as one observer noted, the federal government “argued that the court’s ruling as it applies to the 2018 benefit year should be set aside because the agency responded directly to comments regarding its rationale for budget neutrality in the final 2018 payment rule.” However, Browning held that “subsequent final rules” did “not elaborate further on [HHS’] budget neutrality rationale,” and struck down the 2018 rule along with the rules for 2014 through 2017.

Browning’s decision to strike down the 2018 rule demonstrates Slavitt’s “sabotage.” HHS released that rule months after Minuteman Health and New Mexico Health Connections filed their lawsuits, and thus had adequate time to adjust the rule in response to their claims. Regardless, Browning thought the agency did not elaborate upon or justify its policy reasoning regarding budget neutrality in the risk adjustment program—a direct swipe at Slavitt’s inability to manage the regulatory process inside his agency.

What Would Andy Slavitt Do Instead?

On Friday night, Slavitt claimed that an interim final rule could “clarify and resolve everything:”

However, on Sunday, Slavitt tweeted a link to a New York Times article entitled “A Fatal Flaw as Trump Tries to Remake Health Care: Shortcuts.” That article cited several court cases “that the Administration has lost [that] have a common theme: Federal judges have found that the Administration cut corners in trying to advance its political priorities.” It continues:

Two federal courts blocked Trump Administration rules that would have allowed employers who provide health insurance to employees to omit contraceptive coverage if the employers had moral or religious objections. Two federal judges, in separate cases, said the Administration had violated the law by adopting the rules without a public comment period, which the Trump Administration had declared ‘impracticable and contrary to the public interest.’

Those rules regarding the contraception mandate that the Trump administration adopted “without a public comment,” and which were struck down as unlawful, were both interim final rules—the same type of rule Slavitt now wants to use to change the risk adjustment formula. (Interim final rules do require the agency to take comments, but go into effect on the date of their release—thus notice-and-comment occurs retroactively.)

Nicholas Bagley, an Obamacare supporter, explained at the time of their release why he thought the contraception rules would get stricken (as they were) for violating the notice-and-comment requirement. It’s certainly possible that the administration could use Browning’s ruling as a reason to justify forgoing notice-and-comment, and releasing an interim final rule

But it also makes sense that, given the series of legal setbacks the administration has suffered in recent weeks—and the Times article highlighted—officials at CMS and HHS would take a more cautious approach to issuing regulations, to ensure their actions withstand legal scrutiny.

More to the point, it’s disingenuous of Slavitt to tweet an article criticizing the Trump administration for using interim final rules to enact policies he dislikes, then accuse the administration of “sabotage” for not using that same expedited process for policies he likes. It’s even more disingenuous for Slavitt given that the legal dilemma the Trump administration faces regarding risk adjustment comes entirely from a mess they inherited from the Obama administration—and Slavitt himself.

On Sunday, Slavitt cited a conservative article that in his view “called out Trump’s motivation for ending risk adjustment and raise [sic] premiums on millions: Punishing a former President.” Maybe the next time Slavitt makes allegations about supposed “sabotage” by the Trump administration, he should get his facts straight—CMS’s announcement didn’t “end” the risk adjustment program; only Congress can do that—rather than making unfounded against the current president.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“Stability” Bill Supporters’ Flawed Premium Study

One week after a flawed premium study tried to make the case that premiums would nearly double over the next three years, another study claims that a “stability” bill in Congress would lower premiums by “more than 40 percent.” Or so claimed Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander.

As with many things Alexander claims, however, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. In reality, the study itself admits that most of the supposed premium “reduction” for 2019 likely will not materialize — and most if not all of the remainder would be offset by the effects of repealing the individual mandate while keeping Obamacare’s onerous regulatory regime.

However, in the very next paragraph, Oliver Wyman called its own assumptions unrealistic, conceding that most states will not have time to enact their own reinsurance proposals for 2019:

In our modeling, we are presuming that states will take advantage of these pass-through savings in 2019. In reality, states that have not already begun working on a waiver will be challenged to get a 1332 waiver filed and approved under the current regulatory regime in time to impact 2019 premiums.

Oliver Wyman went on to point out that applying for such waivers currently requires states to pass their own laws, undergo a 30-day public comment period at the state level, and then navigate a federal approval process that can last nearly eight months. While Collins and Alexander might argue in reply that one potential element of “stability” legislation could speed the waiver approval process, it remains far from certain that all states 1) even have an interest in this type of reinsurance proposal, 2) have the authority they need to establish such a program, and 3) could get federal approval in time to affect the plan year that starts with open enrollment on November 1 — under eight months from now.

If states don’t request a 1332 reinsurance waiver to supplement the federal insurance dollars, or can’t get one approved in time for the 2019 plan year, a likely scenario for many states — what does Oliver Wyman think would happen? “We estimate that premium [sic] would decline by more than 20 percent” — 10 percent from funding of cost-sharing reductions, and 10 percent coming from reinsurance.

But keep in mind that President Trump cancelled the cost-sharing reductions just last October, and Congress repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate, while keeping its costly regulations — a combination of decisions which, all else equal, will raise premiums. In other words, even after dumping tens of billions into bailouts for insurers, premiums could well end up right about where they were last year — and, after taking medical inflation into account, even increase.

Why would Oliver Wyman, let alone Collins and Alexander, put out such shoddy work? Politico got at the issue Tuesday morning: “Oliver Wyman often does analysis for insurers.” Which might explain why the actuaries there put out a headline premium number that by their own admission relies on unrealistic and fanciful assumptions. The analysts seem to have searched for the largest possible premium reduction number they could find, and then made up assumptions to match.

It also explains the statement by Collins and Alexander. If Oliver Wyman takes money from health insurers on a regular basis, as Politico noted, so too does Alexander. So much so that Alexander — who called reinsurance the “Great Obamacare Heist” not eighteen months ago, and pledged to get taxpayers’ billions back from health insurers — now instead wants to shovel more of your hard-earned dollars to insurers’ corporate welfare payments.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Lamar Alexander Wants to Bail Out Regulators Who Misjudged Billions

When a state’s insurance market stands on the verge of collapse, as Tennessee Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak claimed in 2016, why would she and her colleagues fail to consider another potential change that could precipitate a full-on implosion? Congress should analyze this question as it examines Obamacare’s health insurance markets.

Unfortunately, however, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander seems more interested in stuffing the coffers of the insurance industry than in conducting robust oversight of McPeak’s regulatory debacle.

A recent public records request confirms that when health insurers filed their 2017 rates in the summer of 2016, Tennessee’s Department of Insurance failed to contemplate that the incoming presidential administration could cancel the cost-sharing payments. As a result, Tennessee insurers will incur their share of the $1.75 billion in losses insurers face nationally this year. The department’s lack of planning and preparation left Tennessee consumers—to say nothing of health insurers themselves—exposed.

Tennessee Should Have Seen This Coming

McPeak cannot say she was not warned about the vulnerability of insurers’ cost-sharing subsidies. In May 2016, federal court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional, because Obamacare did not include an explicit appropriation for them. While Collyer stayed her ruling as the Obama administration appealed, I noted that month that the incoming president could easily concede the lawsuit and halt the payments unilaterally—exactly what President Trump did in October.

As one insurance expert noted recently, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet the recent public records request revealed that Tennessee regulators did not send so much as a single e-mail considering whether this “hand grenade” would explode—taking the state’s exchange down with it—before approving insurance rates for 2017 last fall.

Senators Seem to Prefer Bailouts to Accountability

Tennessee’s Alexander has played a leading role in ignoring insurance commissioners’ questionable behavior. In September, Alexander convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee he chairs to take testimony from insurance commissioners, including McPeak, about state insurance markets. At no point did Alexander or any other senator ask McPeak or her fellow commissioners why they failed to consider, let alone predict, the withdrawal of the cost-sharing payments last year.

Instead of examining the regulatory failures of commissioners like McPeak, Alexander has dedicated his energies toward solving the problem McPeak’s ignorance helped to create. His legislation would appropriate approximately $25 billion in taxpayer funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers.

Unfortunately, Alexander’s legislation would result in a major windfall for health insurers, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Because insurers have already raised their premiums for 2018 to compensate for the loss of the cost-sharing reduction payments, Alexander’s bill would effectively pay them twice. While the CBO believes insurers will rebate some—not all, but only some—of these “extra” payments back to the government, insurers could pocket between $4-6 billion in additional windfall profits thanks to Alexander’s legislation.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Who Will Regulate the Regulators?

My recent investigation into insurance commissioners failure’ to consider, let alone prepare for, a new presidential administration withdrawing unconstitutional cost-sharing reduction payments when examining rates for the 2017 plan year included one particular story worth highlighting.

In Montana, the insurance commissioner branded Blue Cross Blue Shield’s premium increase as “unreasonable,” in part because it wished to prepare for an eventuality—namely, withdrawal of the cost-sharing reduction payments—that the commissioner herself ignored.

Insurer’s Request for Contingencies

As noted last month, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana first requested that state regulators permit it to stop reducing cost-sharing to low-income beneficiaries if the federal government withdrew the payments reimbursing insurers for those discounts. However, federal regulators rightly noted that Obamacare requires insurers to lower cost-sharing for qualified individuals, regardless of whether the federal government provides reimbursement for this, making this proposal impossible to implement.

Because it could not stop lowering cost-sharing if the federal reimbursements ceased, Blue Cross Blue Shield requested a higher premium increase for 2017, to cushion against the risk of an unfunded mandate—the federal government requiring the company to lower cost-sharing without reimbursing it for that. However, Montana’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, dubbed the carrier’s proposed premium increase “unreasonable.”

In a letter of deficiency posted on the commission’s website, Lindeen found several portions of the premium increase proposed by Health Care Services Corporation (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana’s parent company) unreasonable, including the portion linked to uncertainty over the cost-sharing reduction payments:

HCSC has added 4.2% to its rates because it believes that the government will lose a lawsuit that concerns the validity of the appropriation for cost-sharing reductions and that CMS [the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] will not reimburse QHP [qualified health plan] issuers for cost sharing reductions in 2017. The lawsuit is currently pending appeal in the federal circuit court. Experts, including industry experts, agree that this case will not be resolved until at least 2018 and no one knows what the final outcome will be. HCSC appears to be the only health insurer in the country taking the position that its rates will be negatively impacted by this lawsuit in 2017….

In the years since CSI [the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance] has been reviewing health insurance rates, the CSI has always maintained the position that insurers may not base rating assumptions on speculation concerning the outcome of pending litigation. HCSC has stated that it will remove this rating assumption if the CSI allows HCSC to include illegal language in its policy. As the insurance regulator for this state, I cannot agree to that proposal. Raising 2017 rates on the basis of this assumption is unreasonable.

‘Unreasonable’ Regulators

The federal government withdrew the payments in October. Had the carrier not raised premiums pre-emptively to account for the possibility that the payments might disappear, it would have joined other insurers in incurring as much as $1.75 billion in losses over the final quarter of this calendar year.

Lindeen’s actions proved “unreasonable” in several respects. First, contra her claims that “experts agree” that the dispute over the payments “will not be resolved until at least 2018,” I specifically wrote in May 2016 that the incoming presidential administration could halt the payments “almost immediately.” The letter of deficiency does not even attempt to address this set of circumstances—the events that actually transpired—raising the obvious question of which “experts” Lindeen consulted, or whether indeed she consulted any “experts” at all.

Why It Matters

Liberals have worked to publicly embarrass insurance companies for years. The Obama administration stoked outrage over Anthem’s proposed 39 percent premium increase in California in early 2010 to marshal support for Obamacare’s passage, after Scott Brown’s special election Senate win made its prospects seem bleak.

The Left wants to make such “naming and shaming” de rigueur. California recently enacted a drug transparency law requiring pharmaceutical companies to justify price increases, a measure other states wish to emulate. But perhaps not surprisingly, liberals have yet to explain exactly what should happen when regulators get it wrong, as so clearly happened in Montana, where Lindeen arrived at a conclusion ultimately disproven by events.

At minimum, the Trump administration has a role to play in regulating the regulators, as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must certify each state has an “effective” rate review program. Federal authorities should ask Montana’s insurance commissioner why she considered Blue Cross’ assumptions regarding cost-sharing reduction payments “unreasonable” when Blue Cross and not she ended up being correct. Moreover, given the larger regulatory debacle over cost-sharing payments, HHS has reason to write to every state and ask why they all made the mistaken assumption that unconstitutional payments to insurers would continue.

While this conservative would much prefer states regulating insurance markets rather than the federal government, the incompetence on display over cost-sharing reductions demonstrates the need for increased accountability among state authorities. If liberals wish to persist in their efforts to “hold industry accountable” for raising prices, perhaps they should explain how they will hold regulators accountable when those regulators drop the proverbial ball. Better yet, they should stop trying to scapegoat insurance companies for higher health costs, and work instead towards reducing them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: Congress Should Investigate, Not Bail Out, Health Regulators Who Risked Billions

What if a group of regulators were collectively blindsided by a decision that cost their industry billions of dollars? One might think Congress would investigate the causes of this regulatory debacle, and take steps to ensure it wouldn’t repeat itself.

Think again. President Trump’s October decision to terminate cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidy payments to health insurers will inflict serious losses on the industry. For October, November, and December, insurers will reduce deductibles and co-payments for certain low-income exchange enrollees, but will not receive reimbursement from the federal government for doing so. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, claimed in a recent court filing that insurance carriers will suffer $1.75 billion in losses over the remainder of 2017 due to the decision.

As Dave Anderson of Duke University recently noted, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet Congress has asked not even a single question of regulators why they did not anticipate and plan for this scenario—a recipe for more costly mistakes in the future.

A Brewing Legal and Political Storm

The controversy surrounds federal payments that reimburse insurers for lower deductibles, co-payments, and out-of-pocket expenses for qualifying low-income households purchasing exchange coverage. While the text of Obamacare requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to reimburse insurers for providing the discounts, it nowhere includes an explicit appropriation for such spending.

As the exchanges launched in 2014, the Obama administration began making CSR payments to insurers. However, later that year, the House of Representatives, viewing a constitutional infringement on its “power of the purse,” sued to stop the executive from making the payments without an explicit appropriation. In May 2016, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional absent an express appropriation from Congress.

The next President could easily wade into this issue. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress. Such an action could take effect almost immediately….It’s a consideration as carriers submit their bids for next year that come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different.

One week after my article, Collyer issued her ruling calling the subsidy payments unconstitutional. At that point, CSR payments faced threats from both the legal and political realms. On the legal front, the ongoing court case could have resulted in an order terminating the payments. On the political side, the new administration would have the power to terminate the payments unilaterally—and it does not appear that either Hillary Clinton or Trump ever publicly committed to maintaining the payments upon taking office.

Yet Commissioners Stood Idly By

In the midst of this gathering storm, what actions did insurance commissioners take last year, as insurers filed their rates for the 2017 plan year—the plan year currently ongoing—to analyze whether cost-sharing payments would continue, and the effects on insurers if they did not? About a week before the Trump administration officially decided to halt the payments, I submitted public records requests to every state insurance commissioner’s office to find out.

Two states (Indiana and Oregon) are still processing my requests, but the results from most other states do not inspire confidence. Although a few states (Illinois, Utah, and California’s Department of Managed Health Care) withheld documents for confidentiality or logistical reasons, I have yet to find a single document during the filing process for the 2017 plan year contemplating the set of circumstances that transpired this fall—namely, a new administration cutting off the CSR payments.

In many cases, states indicated they did not, and do not, question insurers’ assumptions at all. North Dakota said it does not dictate terms to carriers (although the state did not allow carriers to re-submit rates for the 2018 plan year after the administration halted the CSR payments in October). Wyoming said it did not issue guidance to carriers on CSRs “because that’s not how we roll.” Missouri did not require its insurers to file 2017 rates with regulators, so it would have no way of knowing those insurers’ assumptions.

Other states admitted that they did not consider the possibility that the incoming administration would, or even could, terminate the CSR payments. North Carolina said it did not think the court case was relevant, or that cost-sharing reduction payments would be an issue. Massachusetts’ insurance Connector (its state-run exchange) responded that “there was no indication that rates for 2017 were affected by the pendency of House v. Burwell,” the case Collyer ruled on in May 2016.

Despite the ongoing court case and the deep partisan disputes over Obamacare, many commissioners’ responses indicate a failure to anticipate difficulties with cost-sharing reduction payments. Mississippi stated that, during the filing process for 2017, “CSRs weren’t a problem then, as they were being funded.” Minnesota added that “it was not until the spring of 2017 that carriers started discussing the threat [of CSR payments being terminated] was a real possibility.” Nebraska stated that “I don’t think that there’s anyone who allowed for the possibility of non-payment of CSRs for plan year 2017. We were all waiting for Congress to act.”

However, as an e-mail sent by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to state regulators demonstrates, federal authorities at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated their “serious concerns” with the Texas and New Mexico proposals. Federal law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for qualifying beneficiaries, regardless of the status of the reimbursement program, and CMS believed the contingency language—which never went into effect in either Texas or New Mexico—violated that requirement.

In at least one case, an insurer raised premiums to reflect the risk that CSR payments could disappear in 2017. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana submitted such request to that state’s insurance authorities. However, regulators rejected “contingent CSR language”—apparently an attempt to cancel the reduced cost-sharing if reimbursement from Washington was not forthcoming, a la the Texas and New Mexico proposals. The insurance commissioner’s office also objected to the carrier’s attempt to raise premiums over the issue: “We will not allow rates to be increased based on speculation about outcomes of litigation.”

Of course, had insurers requested, or had regulators either approved or demanded, premium increases last year due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reduction payments, they would not now face the prospect of over $1 billion in losses due to non-payment of CSRs for the last three months of 2017. But had regulators approved even higher premium increases last year, those increases likely would have caused political controversy during the November elections.

As it was, news of the average 25 percent premium increase for 2017 gave Trump a political cudgel to attack Clinton in the waning days of the campaign. One can certainly question why Democratic insurance commissioners who did not utter a word about premium increases and CSR “uncertainty” during Clinton’s campaign suddenly discovered the term the minute Trump was elected president.

However, at least some ardent Obamacare supporters just did not anticipate a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments. Washington state’s commissioner, Mike Kreidler, published an op-ed last October regarding the House v. Burwell court case. He did so at the behest of NAIC consumer representative Tim Jost, who wanted to cite Kreidler’s piece in an amicus curiae brief during the case’s appeal. But despite their focus on the court case regarding CSRs, it appears neither Jost nor Kreidler ever contemplated a new administration withdrawing the payments in 2017.

Congressional Oversight Needed

The evidence suggests that not a single insurance commissioner considered the impact of a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments in 2017, a series of decisions that put the entire health of the individual insurance market at risk. What policy implications follow from this conclusion?

First, it undercuts the effectiveness of Obamacare’s “rate review” process. That mechanism requires states to evaluate “excessive” premium increases. However, the program’s evaluation criteria do not explicitly include policy judgments such as those surrounding CSRs. Moreover, the political focus on lowering “excessively” high premium increases might result in cases where regulators approve premium rates set inappropriately low—as happened in 2017, where no carriers priced in a contingency margin for the termination of CSR payments, yet those payments ceased in October.

As noted above, Montana’s regulators called out that state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate for proposing a rate increase relating to CSR uncertainty. The state’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, issued a formal “letter of deficiency” in which she stated that “raising rates on the basis of this assumption [i.e., loss of cost-sharing reduction payments] is unreasonable.” But events proved Lindeen wrong—those payments did disappear in 2017. Yet the insurer in question has no recourse after their assumptions proved more accurate than Lindeen’s—nor, for that matter, will Lindeen face any consequences for the “unreasonable” assumptions she made.

Second, it suggests an inherent tension between state authorities and Washington. Several regulators specifically said they looked to CMS’ advice on the cost-sharing reduction issue. Iowa requested guidance from Washington, and Wisconsin said the status of the payments was “out of our hands.” But given the impending change of administrations, any guidance CMS provided in the spring or summer of 2016 was guaranteed to remain valid only through January 20, 2017—a problem for regulators setting rates for the 2017 plan year.

Obamacare created a new layer of federal oversight—and federal policy—surrounding regulation of insurance, which heretofore had laid primarily within the province of the states. The CSR debacle resulted from the conflict between those two layers. Unless and until our laws reconcile those tensions—in conservatives’ case, by repealing the Obamacare regime and returning regulation to the states, or in liberals’ preferred outcome, by centralizing more regulatory authority in Washington—these conflicts could well recur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it should spark Congress to examine state oversight of health insurance in greater detail. The fact that insurance commissioners escaped the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane—the withdrawal of CSR payments in January—and struggled through a mere tropical storm with payments withdrawn in October instead, had no relevance on their regulatory skill—to the contrary, in fact.

Unfortunately, Congress has demonstrated little interest in examining why the regulatory apparatus fell so short. The same Democratic Party that investigated regulators and bankers following the financial crisis has shown little interest in questioning why insurers and insurance regulators failed to anticipate the end of cost-sharing reduction payments. With their focus on getting Congress to appropriate funds restoring the CSR payments President Trump terminated, insurance commissioners’ lack of planning and preparation represents an inconvenient truth that Democrats would rather ignore.

Likewise, Republicans who wish to appropriate funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments have no interest in examining the roots of the CSR debacle. In September, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to take testimony from insurance commissioners on “stabilizing” insurance markets.

At the hearing, Alexander did not ask the commissioners why they did not predict the “uncertainty” surrounding cost-sharing reductions last year. HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Kreidler, her state’s insurance commissioner, about regulators’ “guessing games” regarding the status of CSRs with regard to the 2018 plan year. But neither she nor any of the members asked why those regulators made such blind and ultimately incorrect assumptions last year, by not even considering a scenario where CSR payments disappeared during the 2017 plan year.

Alexander and Murray claim the legislation they developed following the hearing, which would appropriate CSR funds for two years, does not represent a “bailout” for the insurance industry. But the fact remains that last fall, when preparing for the 2017 plan year, insurance regulators dropped the ball in a big way.

Ignoring their inaction, and appropriating funds for cost-sharing reductions without scrutinizing their conduct, would effectively bail out insurance commissioners’ own collective negligence. Congress should think twice before doing so, because next time, a regulatory debacle could have an even bigger impact on the health insurance industry—and on federal taxpayers.

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.

John Kasich’s Obamacare Bailout Plan

On Thursday morning, governors John Kasich (R-OH) and John Hickenlooper (D-CO) released a plan to “stabilize” Obamacare insurance markets. Here’s what you need to know about the details of the proposal.

John Kasich Doesn’t Want to Repeal Obamacare

It’s worth repeating that, as recently as three years ago, Kasich said the following regarding the health care law: “From Day One, and up until today and into tomorrow, I do not support Obamacare. I never have, and I believe it should be repealed.”

Governors Want Trump to Violate the Constitution

The plan calls on the Trump administration to “commit to making cost-sharing reduction payments.” But as this space has previously described, the United States has an interesting document—you may have heard of it—called the Constitution. That Constitution places the “power of the purse” with Congress, not the executive.

If Congress does appropriate funds—for cost-sharing reductions or anything else—the executive cannot refuse to spend that money, per a prior Supreme Court ruling. But if Congress does not appropriate funds, the executive cannot spend money. To do otherwise would violate a criminal statute.

Asking the Trump administration to violate the Constitution may seem like a natural request to someone like Kasich, a big-government liberal who ran into legal trouble for expanding his state’s Medicaid program unilaterally. But our nation is a government of laws, not men, which makes obeying the law an obligation of all citizens, let alone the chief executive.

A Selective History on Reinsurance

The claims by the governors defy facts, particularly on reinsurance. The Government Accountability Office concluded last year that the Obama administration violated the law to give insurance companies billions more dollars in reinsurance funds than they deserved—prioritizing corporate welfare to insurers over statutorily required payments back to the U.S. Treasury.

But even after the Obama administration violated the law to give insurers billions more than they were due, the governors still feel the need to propose two separate “stability” (read: bailout) funds to prop up Obamacare. It demonstrates the massive “cash suck” that Obamacare has placed on the federal fisc.

An Impractical Proposal on Federal Employee Coverage

The plan also suggests that Congress should “allow residents in underserved counties”—defined as those with only one insurer on the exchange—“to buy into the federal employee benefit program, giving residents in rural counties access to the same health care as federal workers.”

FEHBP has such high premiums because it provides far richer benefits than the Obamacare exchanges. A 2009 Congressional Research Service report found that the Blue Cross Blue Shield standard option pays an average percentage of health expenses—in technical terms, the plan’s actuarial value—of 87 percent. By contrast, Obamacare links its insurance subsidies to the second-least-costly silver plan, which has an actuarial value of 70 percent.

Because the federal employee plan provides such generous coverage, opening it up to exchange customers would necessitate massive new increases in subsidies, which the governors’ plan also alludes to (“provide adequate and effective subsidies”). Combined with the reinsurance and cost-sharing reduction payments, it amounts to propping up Obamacare on taxpayers’ dime.

Millions of Americans found out in 2013 that when it comes to Obamacare, if you like your plan, you may not be able to keep it. But with respect to both Obamacare and the governors’ proposal, regardless of whether you like the plan, you’ll definitely be required to pay for it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Fulfilling the Promise of Obamacare Repeal

A PDF of this document is available here.

 

For years, the American people have suffered from the ill effects of Obamacare’s federal intrusions into the health care system. Millions of Americans received cancellation notices telling them that the plans they had, and liked, would disappear—a direct violation of President Obama’s repeated promises.[1] Insurance premiums have skyrocketed, rising nearly 50 percent in 2014, followed by another increase of over 20 percent this year.[2] Insurance options have disappeared, with Americans in approximately one-third of all U.S. counties having the “choice” of only one insurer in 2017.[3]

But as the 115th Congress begins, the new Republican majority, and President-elect Donald Trump, have pledged to bring the American people desperately needed relief, by fulfilling their long-stated promise to repeal Obamacare. Congressional leaders have stated their intention to bring forward legislation that repeals key portions of Obamacare using budget reconciliation procedures. Such legislation would likely resemble the reconciliation bill that the prior 114th Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed on January 8, 2016.

That legislation, H.R. 3762 of the last Congress, repealed funding for Obamacare’s new entitlements—Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, and coverage subsidies for individuals of low and moderate incomes purchasing coverage on insurance Exchanges—effective January 1, 2018, approximately two years after enactment. It repealed all of the law’s tax increases—including the tax penalties associated with the individual and employer mandates—beginning January 1, 2016, effectively coinciding with the date of enactment. The bill also included other important provisions, restricting federal Medicaid payments to certain providers.[4]

Critics have argued that, having voted for this legislation once under President Obama, Members of Congress should not pass this bill again, sending it to President Trump’s desk for immediate signature.[5] These critics argue that Congress cannot repeal Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations under the special budget reconciliation procedures, which require all provisions in reconciliation legislation to have a significant budgetary impact. The critics fear that passing such legislation would effectively nullify Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates immediately, and its subsidies eventually, while keeping in place its costly insurance regulations that have significantly raised premiums. They believe that these steps would exacerbate adverse selection—a scenario whereby only sick individuals purchase health insurance coverage—de-stabilize insurance markets, and lead more insurers to drop out of insurance Exchanges altogether.

Those concerns, while legitimate, are misplaced on several fronts. First, Congress has not yet litigated whether or not some or all of the major Obamacare insurance regulations are budgetary in nature, and can be considered as part of reconciliation legislation. Second, Congress can and should take steps to modify last year’s reconciliation bill in ways that will stabilize insurance markets in the near-term, and create a transition to alternative legislation Congress constructs. Third, the incoming Trump Administration has significant regulatory powers within its purview, which can minimize the adverse selection effects critics fear from repeal legislation, and modify the federal mandates that have driven up premiums in recent years.

While not perfect, and less ideal than starting from scratch, last year’s reconciliation legislation represents a solid base from which to construct a legislative and regulatory framework for repealing Obamacare. It also represents the fastest approach for Congress to deliver on the promise it has made to its constituents for over six years: Unwinding an unaffordable and unworkable health care law.

 

What Congress Should Do

Last year’s reconciliation measure provides a good starting point for Congress when drafting repeal legislation to consider this year. However, Congress should attempt both to expand and revise the measure. These efforts would both mitigate against any adverse selection concerns, and stabilize insurance markets while Congress considers alternative legislation.

Expand Reconciliation to Insurance Regulations:               Critics have claimed that Obamacare’s major insurance regulations “were not altered in H.R. 3762; they could not be altered in a reconciliation bill taken up in 2017, either,” due to procedural restrictions inherent in the budget reconciliation process.[6] Such a definitive assertion is at best premature. Observers have noted that “Congress chose not to litigate” the issue of whether and what restrictions are budgetary in nature, and therefore eligible for repeal in reconciliation legislation, when considering H.R. 3762 in the fall of 2015.[7]

However, Congress can, and should, choose to litigate those issues with the Senate parliamentarian now. Rulings by the Senate parliamentarian will guide lawmakers as they determine which provisions of repeal legislation meet budget reconciliation guidelines, and can therefore be approved using a simple, 51-vote majority without being subject to the 60-vote threshold used for other legislation subject to a filibuster.

The Congressional Budget Office, think-tanks, and other actuarial organizations have produced estimates showing the significant costs of many of Obamacare’s insurance mandates—including requirements related to pre-existing conditions; essential health benefits; community rating requirements; actuarial value; medical loss ratios; preventive care coverage requirements; and other major mandates. The Obama Administration itself has produced cost estimates for several of the law’s mandates—and argued twice before the Supreme Court that its regulatory mandates are critical to the law’s structure.[8]

Congress can and should expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations. Doing so would be consistent with both the existing scoring estimates and past practice under budget reconciliation. Moreover, expanding the scope of repeal to include the largest insurance mandates would mitigate against adverse selection effects that might result if Congress repealed the individual mandate while leaving the major insurance regulations in place.

Freeze Enrollment in Entitlements:            Consistent with the transition period provided for in the 2015 reconciliation legislation, any repeal measure should also include steps to freeze enrollment in the law’s new entitlements. Such actions would be particularly pertinent to Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid—the source of most of the law’s spending, and the vast majority of its coverage expansions.[9]

Research indicates that past states that froze enrollment in Medicaid allowed the vast majority of enrollees to transition off of the program, and into work, within a short period of time.[10] Moreover, another study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Tennessee’s decision to roll back its unsustainable Medicaid expansion in 2005 led to “large increases in [the] labor supply” and increases in employment, as individuals dis-enrolled from Medicaid looked for—and obtained—employment, and employer-sponsored health insurance.[11] Freezing enrollment would hold existing beneficiaries harmless, while beginning to transition away from Obamacare’s unsustainable levels of spending—and encouraging economic activity and job growth.

Beginning this year, states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare will also face added fiscal burdens, as they must finance a portion (in 2017, 5 percent) of the cost of coverage for the first time. Even Democratic state legislators in “blue states” like Oregon and New Mexico have raised concerns about what the cost of this massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied will do to other important state programs targeting “the most vulnerable of our citizens.”[12] For all these reasons, Congress should insert language into the reconciliation freezing enrollment upon enactment—or perhaps shortly after enactment, to allow expansion states time to submit amendments to their existing state plans reflecting this legislative change.

Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in the law’s program of Exchange subsidies. In the spring of 2015, as the Supreme Court considered the case of King v. Burwell—which affected subsidies provided to individuals in states using the federal insurance Exchange, healthcare.gov—multiple Members of Congress introduced legislation that would have frozen enrollment. These bills would have allowed individuals who qualified for subsidies prior to the Court’s ruling to continue to receive them for a transitional period of time, but made other individuals ineligible for such subsidies.[13]

Though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the subsidies in King v. Burwell, ruling that the words “an Exchange established by the State” also referred to an Exchange run by the federal government, Congress could utilize a similar regime in the reconciliation bill with respect to insurance subsidies—that is, freezing eligibility and enrollment effective the date of the bill’s enactment.[14] However, Congress should only act to freeze eligibility for insurance subsidies if it believes doing so would not cause existing insurance market risk pools to deteriorate during the transition period.

Appropriate Cost-Sharing Subsidies:            Any repeal measure should include a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies currently in dispute. Those subsidies reimburse insurers for the expense of cost-sharing reductions—lower deductibles and co-payments—provided to certain low-income enrollees under Obamacare. In the case of House v. Burwell, the House of Representatives has argued that the text of Obamacare nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies, and that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by funding this spending without an express appropriation.

On May 12, 2016, United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House’s position, imposing an injunction (stayed pending appeal) prohibiting the Administration from appropriating funds for the cost-sharing subsidies.[15] The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is currently considering the Obama Administration’s appeal of Judge Collyer’s ruling, with further actions on hold until the new Administration takes office.

Some insurers argue that, should the incoming Trump Administration withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies, they have the right to terminate their plans from the Exchanges immediately. The arguments that insurers can withdraw from the markets in 2017 lack merit.[16] Furthermore, analysts have warned for months that an incoming Administration could withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies unilaterally upon taking office.[17] Insurers saw fit to ignore those warnings, and signed up to offer 2017 coverage knowing full well that the cost-sharing subsidies could disappear on short notice, through either court rulings or regulatory action by a new Administration.

However, to provide certainty, Congress should appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal bill—but only for the length of the transition period provided for in that measure. The Trump Administration should encourage Congress to appropriate funds for the transition period. Once Congress does so, the Trump Administration’s Justice Department can move to dismiss the Obama Administration’s appeal of the case against the House of Representatives, conceding the point that the executive never had authority to appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidies absent express direction by Congress.

Utilize the Congressional Review Act:            The election outcome notwithstanding, President Obama’s outgoing Administration continues to use the regulatory process to attempt to “box in” his successor. On December 22, 2016, the Administration published a Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for the 2018 plan year.[18] In doing so, the Administration specifically waived provisions of the Congressional Review Act, which generally requires a 60-day delayed effective date for major rules. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claimed that such a delay was impracticable for good cause reasons.[19] The 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters will therefore take effect 30 days following its display, on January 17, 2017—during President Obama’s last week in office. As a result, President Trump will be unable simply to revoke this regulation unilaterally upon taking office.

However, the Congressional Review Act does provide a vehicle for Congress, in concert with a President Trump, to take action revoking the newest Obamacare regulation. Specifically, the Act provides that a resolution of disapproval, passed by both houses of Congress, will have the effect of nullifying the rule or administrative action proposed.[20] Of particular import, the Congressional Review Act provides for expedited consideration of resolutions of disapproval in the Senate; those limits on debate preclude filibusters, meaning that resolutions of disapproval require a simple, 51-vote majority to pass, rather than the usual 60 votes for legislation subject to a filibuster.

Congress should explore using the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. Regardless of whether or not Congress strikes down this last-minute rule, the Trump Administration should act expeditiously—including through use of the “good cause” exemption the Obama Administration cited to rush through its own regulations last month—to provide needed relief to consumers.

 

What the Administration Should Do

The Trump Administration can also play its part in bringing about the promise of repeal, by acting in concert with Congress to undo the effects of Obamacare’s major insurance mandates. Consistent with the actions Congress should take listed above, the incoming Administration should immediately use flexibility to provide relief from Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Whether through a new 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, a series of interim final regulations, or both, these regulations would provide a vehicle for incorporating many of the changes needed to undo Obamacare’s harmful effects, including those listed below.

While the Administration cannot unilaterally change the law—such actions lie solely within the purview of Congress—it can and should take steps to soften the impact of existing mandates, and provide maximum flexibility wherever possible. These steps would stabilize insurance markets during the period following repeal, and provide for an orderly transition to an alternative regime.

Limit Open Enrollment:      Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS the authority to “require an Exchange to provide for…annual open enrollment periods, as determined by the Secretary for calendar years after the initial enrollment period.”[21] The law requires insurers to accept all applicants without regard to pre-existing conditions or health status—in industry parlance, guaranteed issue—but only within certain limits. Specifically, health insurers may “restrict enrollment in coverage described in such subsection [i.e., guaranteed issue coverage] to open or special enrollment periods.”[22] In other words, the requirement that insurers accept all applicants only applies during open enrollment periods—and the HHS Secretary has the sole power to determine when, and for how long, those open enrollment periods run.

The existing Code of Federal Regulations states that for the 2018 benefit year, open enrollment for individual health insurance will run from November 1, 2017 through January 31, 2018—the exact same three-month period as the 2016 and 2017 open enrollment periods.[23] The incoming Administration can—and should—issue new regulations limiting those open enrollment periods to a much narrower window, to prevent individuals from “gaming the system” and enrolling only after they incur costly medical conditions.

At minimum, it appears eminently reasonable for the new Administration to shorten the open enrollment window down to 30 days—a significant reduction from 2016 and 2017, which saw open enrollment last for one-quarter of the year. If logistical obstacles can be overcome—i.e., could Exchanges process applicants in a shorter period?—the Administration could restrict the open enrollment period even further, to a period of perhaps a couple of weeks. Other observers have suggested tying open enrollment to a period surrounding an individual’s birth date, thus preventing a surge of applicants at one particular point in the year.

Narrowing the length of open enrollment periods, coupled with restrictions on special enrollment periods outlined below, will provide a more controlled and contained environment for insurers to issue policies. Limiting enrollment periods will mitigate against an insurance market that requires carriers to issue policies without imposing financial penalties on individuals who fail to purchase insurance—indeed, will mitigate against the adverse selection insurers suffer from currently, even with the individual mandate in full effect. Because Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS extremely broad authority to define “open enrollment periods”—other than stating these must occur annually, the statute includes few prescriptions on administrative authority—the Trump Administration should use this authority to maximum effect.

Restrict Special Enrollment Periods:            Insurers have raised numerous complaints about individuals using special periods outside open enrollment to obtain coverage, incur large medical claims, and then drop that coverage upon regaining health. Early in 2016, Blue Cross Blue Shield calculated that special enrollment period customers were 55 percent more costly than those enrolling during the usual annual enrollment period. Likewise, Aetna found that one-quarter of its entire enrollment came from these “special” enrollment periods, and that said enrollees remained on the rolls for an average of fewer than four months—an indication that many only enrolled in the first place to obtain coverage for a specific medical condition or ailment.[24]

Even as insurers demonstrate that individuals have abused special enrollment periods to incur costly medical bills and subsequently cancel coverage, the Obama Administration actually exacerbated the problem its last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. That rule expanded the number of special enrollment periods, codifying an additional five exemptions allowing eligible individuals to qualify for coverage outside of open enrollment periods.[25]

That said, the Obama Administration has taken some steps to restrict abuse of special enrollment periods. In June 2016, it implemented a process announced in February 2016, which requires documentation from applicants seeking special enrollment periods for the most common conditions—a move, loss of coverage, marriage, birth, or adoption.[26] The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) claims this documentation requirement reduced the number of special enrollment period applicants by 20 percent.[27] However, a separate effort to require verification of special enrollment period eligibility prior to enrollment will not begin until this coming June, with results only coming in spring 2018.[28]

With respect to special enrollments, the incoming Administration should 1) eliminate all special enrollment periods, other than those required under existing law; and/or 2) accelerate the process of pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods.[29]

Use Exchange User Fees to Lower Premiums:     In its Notice of Benefit Parameters, the Obama Administration has annually imposed a 3.5 percent surcharge, dubbed an “Exchange user fee,” on issuers offering coverage using healthcare.gov, the federally-run Exchange, which those insurers then pass on to consumers. The 2018 version of the document, released December 22, specifically suggested that the 3.5 percent fee paid by insurers (and ultimately by consumers) now exceeds the costs associated with running the federal Exchange:

We have received feedback suggesting that the FFEs [federally-facilitated Exchanges] would be able to increase enrollment by allocating more funds to outreach and education, a benefit to both consumers and issuers. We sought comment on how much funding to devote to outreach and education, and on whether HHS should expressly designate a portion or amount of the FFE user fee to be allocated directly to outreach and enrollment activities, recognizing the need for HHS to continue to adequately fund other critical Exchange operations, such as the call center, healthcare.gov, and eligibility and enrollment activities.[30]

Some commenters regarding the Exchange user fee proposal specifically requested that the Exchange “user fee rate should decrease over time.” HHS rejected this approach for 2018. It did note that “we do anticipate gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs, and if so, may consider reducing the FFE user fee based on increased enrollment and premiums in the future.”[31]

Upon taking office, the Trump Administration should act immediately to ensure that the Exchange user fee funds essential Exchange operations only. With the Exchanges now in their fourth year of operation, HHS will not need to spend as much on technological infrastructure as the Department did while standing up the Exchange—and should not, as the Obama Administration suggested, spend the difference on new “slush funds” designed to promote enrollment outreach.

Because the Exchange user fee is based on a percentage of premium, this year’s 20 percent spike in premiums for Obamacare plans has significantly increased funding for the federal Exchange as it is.[32] Moreover, the vast majority of Exchange participants—84 percent, per the most recent enrollee data—receive federal subsidies for their health insurance premiums.[33] Because those federal subsidies directly relate to premium costs, federal taxpayers—and not enrollees themselves—are in many cases paying for any additional, and unnecessary, spending undertaken by the federal Exchange.

To save taxpayers, and to lower premiums for all consumers, the Trump Administration should take immediate steps to reduce the Exchange user fee to the minimum necessary to support Exchange operations—and instruct insurers to rebate the difference to consumers in the form of lower premiums.

Revise Medical Loss Ratio:  Obamacare requires insurers to spend a minimum percentage of premiums on medical claims—a medical loss ratio (MLR).[34] Insurers in the individual market face an 80 percent MLR, while employer plans have an 85 percent requirement. Plans that do not meet the minimum MLR thresholds must return the difference to beneficiaries in the form of rebates.

During Obamacare’s first several years, the MLR requirements have not proven a concern to insurers—largely because they significantly under-estimated premiums for 2014, 2015, and 2016. In fact, the average MLR for individual market plans skyrocketed from 62.3% in 2011 to 93.3% in 2015.[35] Because enrollees proved sicker than anticipated, insurers have paid out a high percentage of premiums in medical claims—indeed, in some cases, have paid out more in claims than they received in premium payments from enrollees (i.e., an MLR over 100%).

However, should the Trump Administration desire to provide additional flexibility for insurers, it could take a more expansive view of “activities that improve health care quality,” considered equivalent to medical claims paid under the MLR formula.[36] Obamacare required the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to, by December 31, 2010, “establish uniform definitions of the activities” under the MLR, including the definition of activities to improve health care quality.[37] However, the statute makes those definitions “subject to the certification of the Secretary,” and while then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accepted the NAIC recommendations, the new Administration is not necessarily obliged to do so.

The interim final rule regarding the medical loss ratio requirement provides a roadmap for a Trump Administration to provide regulatory flexibility regarding the MLR, including the definition of “activities that improve health care quality.”[38] The new Administration could also provide relief regarding agents’ and brokers’ fees and commissions—an issue HHS acknowledged in the rule, but did little to ameliorate—and taxes and fees paid by insurers due to regulatory and other requirements.

Reform State Innovation Waivers:            Section 1332 of Obamacare provides for “state innovation waivers,” which can take effect beginning on or after January 1, 2017. The waivers allow states to obtain exemptions from most of the law’s major insurance requirements, as well as the employer and individual mandates, to provide an alternative system of health insurance for its residents. However, the statute requires that any waiver must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as the coverage” defined under the law, as certified by the Medicare actuary;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as the law;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of its residents;” and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”[39]

The Obama Administration released a final rule regarding the process for applying for a Section 1332 waiver in early 2012.[40] However, it did not release information regarding the substance of the waivers themselves until late 2015—and then did so only through informal guidance, not a formal regulation subject to notice-and-comment.[41]

The December 2015 guidance exceeded the requirements of the statute in several ways. First, it said the Administration would not consider potential combined savings from a Section 1332 state innovation waiver when submitted in conjunction with a Medicaid Section 1115 reform waiver. In other words, when meeting the deficit neutrality requirement of Section 1332, Medicaid savings could not be used to offset higher costs associated with Exchange reforms, or vice versa.[42]

The guidance also said the Obama Administration would impose additional tests with respect to coverage and affordability—not just examining the impact on state populations as a whole, but effects on discrete groups of individuals.[43] For instance, the guidance noted that “waivers that reduce the number of people with insurance coverage that provides both an actuarial value equal to or greater than 60 percent and an out-of-pocket maximum that complies with Section 1302(c)(1) of [Obamacare] would fail” the affordability requirement.[44] These new mandates effectively prohibit states from using waiver programs to expand access to more affordable catastrophic coverage for individuals.

Due to the four statutory requirements listed above, the Section 1332 waiver program suffers from inherent shortcomings.[45] But because the added restrictions proposed in December 2015 came through informal regulatory guidance, the Trump Administration can and should immediately withdraw that guidance upon taking office. It should also work immediately to establish a more flexible rubric for states wishing to utilize Section 1332 waivers—with respect to both the application process itself and more flexible insurance design that can expand access and affordability for a state’s residents.

Withdraw Contraception Mandate:            Among the “early benefits” of the law taking effect six months after its enactment was a mandate for preventive care. Specifically, the law requires first-dollar coverage (i.e., without cost-sharing) of several preventive services, including women’s preventive health screenings.[46]

On December 20, 2016, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) released the most recent women’s preventive services guidelines. These guidelines, as before, required that “the full range of female-controlled U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, effective family planning practices, and sterilization procedures be available as part of contraceptive care.”[47]

The Trump Administration should upon taking office withdraw the HRSA benefit mandates—including the requirement to provide contraception coverage. While these particular mandates may have a slight impact on premiums, removing them would reduce premiums nonetheless. More importantly, they would restore the rights of conscience to those individuals and organizations who have been forced to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs to cover contraception and other procedures they object to.[48]

Modify Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value:        Among Obamacare’s many new mandated insurance benefits, two in particular stand out. First, the law provides for a series of “essential health benefits”—ten categories of health services that all qualified plans must cover.[49] While the essential health benefits address the breadth of health insurance coverage, actuarial value—or the percentage of annual health expenses paid by an insurance policy on average—addresses the depth of that coverage. The law categorizes individual health plans in four “tiers” based on actuarial value: Bronze plans with an average actuarial value of 60 percent; silver plans, 70 percent; gold plans, 80 percent; and platinum plans, 90 percent.[50]

Both directly and indirectly, the essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements raise premiums—by forcing individuals to buy richer coverage, and then by inducing additional demand for health care through that richer coverage. The Administration’s own rule regarding essential health benefits admitted that the law’s requirements include provisions not previously covered by most forms of health insurance, including “rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices.”[51] Likewise, a study in the journal Health Affairs concluded that the actuarial value requirements would raise premiums, as most pre-Obamacare individual market policies did not meet the new mandated benefit thresholds.[52]

However, the final rules regarding essential health benefits and plan actuarial value provide opportunities to expand benefit flexibility.[53] For instance, the new Administration could provide states with more options for declaring benchmark plans that meet the essential health benefit requirements under the statute. The new Administration could also expand the de minimis variation standards for actuarial value measures required by the law.[54] Allowing for additional variation and flexibility could have a significant impact in reducing premiums, as the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2009 that the essential benefits and actuarial value standards would collectively raise premiums by 27 to 30 percent, all else equal.[55]

Enhanced Flexibility for Businesses:             On September 13, 2013, the Treasury Department issued Notice 2013-54, which stated that an arrangement whereby an employer reimburses some or all of an employee’s expenses for the purchase of individual health insurance—whether through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) or some other means—would be considered a group health plan.[56] As a result, businesses using HRAs need to meet all of Obamacare’s regulatory reforms, such as prohibiting annual limits on the dollar value of essential health benefits.[57] Group health plans failing to meet those requirements trigger a penalty of $100 per day, per individual.[58]

This provision sparked widespread uproar when it first went into effect in July 2015, as the Obama Administration threatened fines of $36,500 per employee for employers who helped fund their employees’ health coverage.[59] Members of Congress introduced standalone legislation exempting small businesses from this requirement.[60] This provision was eventually incorporated into the 21st Century Cures Act, which President Obama himself signed into law on December 13, 2016.[61] As a result, small businesses with under 50 employees can now provide contributions to their workers’ individual health insurance premiums without triggering Obamacare’s regulatory regime.

Expanding upon the precedent of a law President Obama himself signed, the Trump Administration should withdraw Notice 2013-54, build on Congress’ actions, and allow businesses of all sizes the ability to reimburse employees’ premium costs without triggering massive fines. Actions in this vein would have salutary benefits in two respects: They would remove more businesses from Obamacare’s onerous regulatory requirements, while encouraging the use of defined contribution health insurance for employees.

 

Next Steps and the Pathway Forward

Following more than six years of frustration for the American people, the promise of repealing Obamacare is finally within reach. While passing legislation that unwinds Obamacare in an orderly, stable manner will require policy-makers to act with care, Congress and the new Trump Administration can use last year’s reconciliation legislation as the basis for action. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Seek to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation legislation to encompass Obamacare’s major insurance regulations, consistent with budgetary scores and past practice and precedents within the Senate;
  • Add a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Medicaid expansion, effective either upon enactment or shortly thereafter;
  • Explore adding a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Exchange subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets;
  • Appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies in reconciliation legislation, but only for the defined length of the Obamacare transition period; and
  • Explore use of the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2018.

Likewise, the Trump Administration can take several regulatory steps to enhance flexibility and provide certainty during the transition period:

  • Limit annual open enrollment to the shortest period feasible, and in no case longer than one month;
  • Restrict the use of special enrollment periods, by withdrawing all those added by the Obama Administration and not included in statute, and/or requiring pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods;
  • Provide that, for states using the federal Exchange, any portion of the 3.5 percent Exchange user fee not used to cover annual operating costs be refunded to enrollees, thus lowering their premiums;
  • Revise the medical loss ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers;
  • Immediately withdraw the December 2015 guidance regarding Section 1332 state innovation waivers, and provide maximum flexibility within the existing statutory requirements for states seeking to mitigate the harmful effects of Obamacare’s insurance mandates;
  • Withdraw the contraception mandate that raises premiums and hinders freedom of conscience;
  • Modify essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements to provide maximum flexibility within the statutory framework;
  • Expand upon Congress’ efforts allowing small businesses to reimburse their employees’ health insurance premiums without facing massive fines, by withdrawing the September 2013 IRS notice and extending flexibility to as many employers as possible; and
  • Drop the Obama Administration’s appeal of House v. Burwell once Congress provides a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal reconciliation bill.

Collectively, this menu of actions would help to unwind most of Obamacare’s harmful effects, provide for an orderly transition, and pave the way for Congress to consider and pass alternative legislation designed to lower health care costs. The promise of Obamacare repeal is within reach; it’s time for Congress and the new Administration to seize it.

 

 

[1] “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” Associated Press December 26, 2013, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/policy-notifications-current-status-state-204701399.html; Angie Drobnic Holan, “Lie of the Year: ‘If You Like Your Health Care Plan, You Can Keep It,’” Politifact December 12, 2013, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2013/dec/12/lie-year-if-you-like-your-health-care-plan-keep-it/.

[2] Drew Gonshorowski, “How Will You Fare in the Obamacare Exchanges?” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4068, October 16, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/10/enrollment-in-obamacare-exchanges-how-will-your-health-insurance-fare; Department of Health and Human Services, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in the 2017 Health Insurance Marketplace,” ASPE Research Brief, October 24, 2016, https://aspe.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/212721/2017MarketplaceLandscapeBrief.pdf.

[3] Cynthia Cox and Ashley Semanskee, “Preliminary Data on Insurer Exits and Entrants in 2017 Affordable Care Act Marketplaces,” Kaiser Family Foundation, August 28, 2016, http://kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/preliminary-data-on-insurer-exits-and-entrants-in-2017-affordable-care-act-marketplaces/.

[4] Section 206 of H.R. 3762 had the effect of preventing Medicaid plans from providing reimbursements to certain providers, including Planned Parenthood.

[5] Joe Antos and Jim Capretta, “The Problems with ‘Repeal and Delay,’” Health Affairs January 3, 2017, http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2017/01/03/the-problems-with-repeal-and-delay/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Winfree and Brian Blase, “How to Repeal Obamacare: A Roadmap for the GOP,” Politico November 11, 2016, http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2016/11/repeal-obamacare-roadmap-republicans-000230.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, baseline estimates for federal subsidies for health insurance, March 2016, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2016-03-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 3, p. 5; Edmund Haislmaier and Drew Gonshorowski, “2015 Health Insurance Enrollment: Net Increase of 4.8 Million, Trends Slowing,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4620, October 31, 2016, http://thf-reports.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/IB4620.pdf.

[10] Jonathan Ingram, Nic Horton, and Josh Archambault, “Welfare to Work: How States Can Unwind Obamacare Expansion and Restore the Working Class,” Forbes December 3, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2014/12/03/welfare-to-work-how-states-can-unwind-obamacare-expansion-and-restore-the-working-class/#455cad6923ec.

[11] Craig Garthwaite, Tal Gross, and Matthew Notowidigdo, “Public Health Insurance, Labor Supply, and Employment Lock,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 19220, July 2013, http://www.nber.org/papers/w19220.

[12] Christina Cassidy, “Medicaid Enrollment Surges, Stirs Worry about State Budgets,” Associated Press July 19, 2015, http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/c158e3b3ad50458b8d6f8f9228d02948/medicaid-enrollment-surges-stirs-worry-about-state-budgets.

[13] See for instance Section 4 of Winding Down Obamacare Act, S. 673 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Section 4(b) of Preserving Freedom and Choice in Health Care Act, S. 2016 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).

[14] King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. __ (2015).

[15] United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 14-1967, House v. Burwell, ruling by Judge Rosemary Collyer, May 12, 2016, https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2014cv1967-73.

[16] The contract between CMS and insurers on the federal Exchange notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw if they are not. However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause was poorly drafted by insurers’ counsel, and therefore has no applicability to House v. Burwell; insurers have no ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers. See https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.

[17] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies for Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.

[18] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters,” Federal Register December 22, 2016, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-12-22/pdf/2016-30433.pdf.

[19] Ibid., pp. 94159-60.

[20] 5 U.S.C. 802. For more information, see Maeve Carey, Alissa Dolan, and Christopher Davis, “The Congressional Review Act: Frequently Asked Questions,” Congressional Research Service Report R43992, November 17, 2016, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43992.pdf.

[21] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(B), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(B) of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.

[22] Section 2702(b)(1) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-1(b)(1), as modified by Section 1201(2)(A) of PPACA.

[23] 45 C.F.R. 155.410(e)(2).

[24] Paul Demko, “Gaming Obamacare,” Politico January 12, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/01/gaming-obamacare-insurance-health-care-217598.

[25] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, pp. 94127-31.

[26] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Fact Sheet: Special Enrollment Confirmation Process,” February 24, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-02-24.html.

[27] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Pre-Enrollment Verification for Special Enrollment Periods,” https://www.cms.gov/cciio/resources/fact-sheets-and-faqs/downloads/pre-enrollment-sep-fact-sheet-final.pdf.

[28] Ibid.

[29] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(C), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(C) of PPACA, requires the Secretary to establish special enrollment periods for individual coverage as specified by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) for group coverage, codified at 26 U.S.C. 9801.

[30] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, p. 94138.

[31] Ibid., p. 94138.

[32] HHS published an average 2017 premium increase for healthcare.gov states of 25 percent, and a median increase of 16 percent. See HHS, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in 2017,” Table 2, p. 6.

[33] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “First Half of 2016 Enrollment Snapshot,” October 19, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-10-19.html.

[34] Section 2718 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18, as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[35] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “The 80/20 Rule Increases Value for Consumers for Fifth Year in a Row,” November 18, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Forms-Reports-and-Other-Resources/Downloads/Medical-Loss-Ratio-Annual-Report-2016-11-18-FINAL.pdf.

[36] Section 2718(a)(3) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg18(a)(3), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[37] Section 2718(c) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18(c), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[38] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “Implementing Medical Loss Ratio Requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Federal Register December 1, 2010, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-01/pdf/2010-29596.pdf.

[39] 42 U.S.C. 18052(b)(1)(A), as codified by Section 1332(b)(1)(A) of PPACA.

[40] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, final rule regarding “Application, Review, and Reporting Process for Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register February 27, 2012, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-02-27/pdf/2012-4395.pdf.

[41] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, guidance regarding “Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register December 16, 2015, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-12-16/pdf/2015-31563.pdf.

[42] Ibid., p. 78134.

[43] Ibid., p. 78132.

[44] Ibid., p. 78132.

[45] Chris Jacobs, “What’s Blocking Consensus on Health Care?” Wall Street Journal July 17, 2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/07/17/whats-blocking-consensus-on-health-care/.

[46] Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-13, as revised by PPACA Section 1001(1).

[47] Health Resources and Services Administration, “Women’s Preventive Services Guidelines,” December 20, 2016, https://www.hrsa.gov/womensguidelines2016/index.html.

[48] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The HHS Mandate for Contraception/Sterilization Coverage: An Attack on Rights of Conscience,” January 20, 2012, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/upload/preventiveqanda2012-2.pdf.

[49] 42 U.S.C. 18022, as codified by Section 1302 of PPACA.

[50] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d), as codified by Section 1302(d) of PPACA.

[51] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Standards Related to Essential Health Benefits, Actuarial Value, and Accreditation,” Federal Register February 25, 2013, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-02-25/pdf/2013-04084.pdf, pp. 12860-61.

[52] Jon Gabel, et al., “More Than Half of Individual Health Plans Offer Coverage That Falls Short of What Can Be Sold through Exchanges as of 2014,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2012/05/22/hlthaff.2011.1082.abstract.

[53] HHS, final rule on “Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value.”

[54] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d)(3), as codified by Section 1302(d)(3) of PPACA.

[55] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding health insurance premiums, November 30, 2009, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/111th-congress-2009-2010/reports/11-30-premiums.pdf, pp. 9-10.

[56] Internal Revenue Service, Notice 2013-54, September 13, 2013, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-13-54.pdf.

[57] Section 1563(f) of PPACA added Section 9815 to the Internal Revenue Code, which incorporated most of the regulatory requirements of the law to group health plans.

[58] 26 U.S.C. 4980D(b)(1).

[59] Grace-Marie Turner, “Small Businesses Threatened with $36,500 IRS Fines for Helping Employees with Health Costs,” Forbes June 30, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/gracemarieturner/2015/06/30/small-businesses-threatened-with-36500-irs-fines-for-helping-employees-with-health-costs/#53750b3d4a0e.

[60] The Small Business Healthcare Relief Act, introduced by Reps. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), H.R. 2911 of the 114th Congress; a companion measure was introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) as S. 1697 of the 114th Congress.

[61] Section 18001 of 21st Century Cures Act, P.L. 114-255.

Risk Corridors: The Obama Administration at War with Itself?

Ferrets in a sack might prove an apt description of the internal infighting plaguing the Obama Administration regarding risk corridors. Last week, sources — whether within the Administration, amongst the insurer community, or both — wanted to portray a multi-billion dollar Judgment Fund settlement with insurers as a fait accompli, telling the Washington Post an agreement could be reached within two weeks.

But in two separate motions filed late last Friday regarding pending lawsuits, lawyers for the Department of Justice pulled a Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend!” The filings stated repeated claims made in a related lawsuit this summer that the case made by insurers is not yet ripe for adjudication in court. However, in a new development, Justice also alleged that insurers had no claim to make in court at all:

Third, Count I fails on the merits. Section 1342 [of Obamacare] does not require HHS to make risk corridors payments beyond those funded from collections. And even if that intent were unclear when the Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010, Congress removed any ambiguity when it enacted annual appropriations laws for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 that prohibited HHS from paying risk corridors amounts from appropriated funds other than collections.

Here are four things you need to know about the latest risk corridor developments:

  • DOJ vs. CMS? Whereas the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated in a September 9 document that it considered unpaid risk corridor claims “an obligation of the United States government for which full payment is required,” the Justice Department has now argued before two separate district court judges that no additional payment is required — not now, and not ever. In testifying before Congress last month, both Acting Administrator Slavitt and his Chief of Staff separately claimed that the Justice Department were consulted before CMS issued its September 9 memo. While last week’s Post article claimed that “Justice officials have privately told several health plans” they want to settle claims on insurers’ terms as quickly (and as quietly) as possible, the filings show that at least some Justice officials have no intention of “tanking” the government’s case for political reasons.
  • Political Appointees vs. Career Civil Servants: Two congressional reports provide some clues to the possible divides within the Administration. A 2014 House Oversight Committee investigative report showed how insurers immediately contacted Valerie Jarrett and other political appointees seeking increased risk corridor payments when insurers’ enrollees started skewing older and sicker than expected. And a report by two House committees earlier this year showed how political appointees have put the proverbial screws to uncooperative civil servants, threatening those civil servants if they exercised their statutory rights to provide information to Congress regarding a related program of Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies. The mixed messages regarding the risk corridor suits could represent a similar divide — political appointees want to pay the claims before President Obama leaves office, whereas career civil servants are focused on the heretofore novel notion of actually enforcing the law as written.
  • Andy Slavitt, Bailout King? During his own testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, CMS head Andy Slavitt made absolutely no attempt to argue the points Justice made in its filings — namely, that Congress has made its intent regarding risk corridors crystal clear, and that insurers are not owed any money. In this context, it is worth noting: 1) Administrator Slavitt’s at least $4.8 million in stock compensation from a unit of UnitedHealthGroup — the nation’s largest insurer; 2) the special ethics waiver he had to receive from the Obama Administration to make policy decisions impacting his former employer; and 3) the fact that Mr. Slavitt will likely require new employment in three months. Could Administrator Slavitt be attempting to help his once — and perhaps future — employers in the insurance industry…?
  • Constitutional “Takings,” Redefined: In one of the court cases, filed by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the Justice Department responded to claims that the risk corridor non-payment represent a Fifth Amendment violation on the part of the federal government. This Blue Cross insurer has argued — apparently with a straight face — that the federal government NOT giving it a multi-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded risk corridor payment represents a “taking” that violates its constitutional rights. To repeat: Blue Cross alleges it has a constitutional right to a multi-billion dollar bailout — even though the Justice Department notes that there is no contractual right to payment under the risk corridor program at all.

A Victory for Taxpayers — And the Rule of Law

Once again, President Obama’s vaunted pen and phone have run into trouble with the law. This time, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), acting in its function as comptroller general, concluded that the administration has implemented Obamacare’s reinsurance program in an illegal and impermissible manner. Rather than focusing first on repaying the Treasury, as the text of the statute requires, the administration has placed its first and highest priority on bailing out insurers.

In an opinion requested by numerous members of Congress and released this afternoon, the GAO explained:

We conclude that HHS [Health and Human Services] lacks authority to ignore the statute’s directive to deposit amounts from collections under the transitional reinsurance program in the Treasury and instead make deposits to the Treasury only if its collections reach the amounts for reinsurance payments specified in section 1341. This prioritization of collections for payment to issuers over payments to the Treasury is not authorized. 

As I have previously explained at NRO, the reinsurance funds collected from employers had two – distinct purposes: first, to repay Treasury for the $5 billion cost of a separate program in place from 2010 through 2013; and, second to subsidize insurers selling Obamacare plans to high-cost patients during the law’s first three years.

When collections from employers turned out to be less than expected, HHS prioritized the second objective to the exclusion of the first – an action that, according to the GAO, violates the plain text of the statute. As the opinion noted, “the fact that HHS’s collections ultimately fell short of the projected amounts does not alter the meaning of the statute.” The memo continued that, because agencies must “‘effectuate the statutory scheme as much as possible’ . . . HHS continues to have an obligation to carry out the statutory scheme using a method reflective of the specified amounts even though actual collections were lower than projected.” As a result, the GAO concluded that the Department has no authority to divert to insurers approximately $3 billion in reinsurance contributions that should be allocated to the Treasury.

The GAO legal team found HHS’s justification for its actions to date unpersuasive:

HHS’s position regarding prioritization of collections for reinsurance payments appears to be driven solely by the factual circumstances presented here, namely, lower than expected collections. However, a funding shortfall does not give an agency “a hinge for enlarging its discretion to decide which [priorities] to fund.” 

The law isn’t a Chinese menu, where federal bureaucrats can pick and choose which portions they wish to follow. They must follow all of the law, as closely as possible — even the portions they disagree with.

In reaching its conclusion, the GAO agreed with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and with other outside experts, each of whom said that HHS had violated the law in a way that was not subject to regulatory deference. And while the GAO’s reinsurance opinion is the most recent legal smackdown of the Obama administration’s craven efforts to bail out insurers, it is by no means the first: In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the administration violated the constitution by spending funds on cost-sharing subsidies that Congress never appropriated.

More and more insurers are announcing their departure from Obamacare’s exchanges — Blue Cross Blue Shield announced this month that it is pulling out of the Obamacare marketplace in Nebraska and in most of Tennessee. Given these implosions, the return of $3 billion in taxpayer funds to the Treasury represents a blow to HHS’s bailout strategy. It demonstrates the law’s fundamentally flawed design, whereby the administration can keep insurers offering coverage on exchanges only by flouting the law to give them billions of dollars in taxpayer funds they do not deserve.

Conservatives should applaud the members of Congress who requested this ruling, which helps to staunch the flow of crony-capitalist dollars to insurers. Much more work remains, however. Congress should also act to protect its power of the purse with respect to Obamacare’s risk corridors — ensuring that the administration does not fund through a backroom legal settlement the payments to insurers that Congress explicitly prohibited two years ago. When they return in November, members should step up their oversight of both the risk-corridor and reinsurance programs: They should find out why HHS acted in such an illegal manner in the first place and whether insurance-company lobbyists encouraged the administration to violate the statute’s plain text.

For now, however, conservatives should rightly celebrate the legal victory that GAO’s opinion represents. Obamacare represented a massive increase in government spending and a similarly large increase in government authority. Today’s opinion has clipped both — a victory for taxpayers and the rule of law.

This post was originally published at National Review.