Let the Individual Mandate Die

In May New Jersey imposed a health-insurance mandate requiring all residents to buy insurance or pay a penalty. More states will feel pressure to follow suit in the coming year as the federal mandate’s penalty disappears Jan. 1 and state legislatures reconvene, some with new Democratic majorities intent on “protecting” Obamacare. But conflicts with federal law will make state-level health-insurance mandates ineffective or unduly onerous, and governors and legislatures would do well to steer clear.

While states can require citizens to purchase health coverage, they will have trouble ensuring compliance. Federal law prohibits the Internal Revenue Service from disclosing tax-return data, except under limited circumstances. And there is no clear precedent allowing the IRS to disclose coverage data to verify compliance with state insurance requirements.

Accordingly, mandates enacted in New Jersey and the District of Columbia earlier this year created their own coverage-reporting regimes. But those likely conflict with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which explicitly pre-empts “any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” The point is to protect large employers who self-insure workers from 50 sets of conflicting state laws.

No employer has used ERISA to challenge Massachusetts’ 2006 individual mandate, which includes reporting requirements, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal. Last month a Brookings Institution paper conceded that “state requirements related to employer benefits like health coverage may be subject to legal challenge based on ERISA preemption.”

A 2016 Supreme Court ruling would bolster such a challenge. In Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual, the court struck down a Vermont law that required employers to submit health-care payment claims to a state database. The court said the law was pre-empted by ERISA.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the myriad reporting requirements under federal law. Vermont’s law required additional record-keeping. Justice Kennedy concluded that “differing, or even parallel, regulations from multiple jurisdictions could create wasteful administrative costs and threaten to subject plans to wide-ranging liability.”

Justice Kennedy’s opinion provides a how-to manual for employers to challenge state-level insurance mandates. A morass of state-imposed insurance mandates and reporting requirements would unnecessarily burden employers with costs and complexity. It cries out for pre-emptive relief.

Unfortunately, policy makers have ignored these concerns. Notes from the working group that recommended the District of Columbia’s individual mandate never mention the reporting burden or ERISA pre-emption. And in August the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved New Jersey’s waiver application that relied in part upon funding from that state’s new individual mandate, even though money from the difficult-to-enforce requirement may never materialize.

States already cannot require federal agencies to report coverage. This means their mandates won’t track the 2.3 million covered by the Indian Health Service, 9.3 million receiving health care from the Veterans Administration, 8.8 million disabled under age 65 who are enrolled in Medicare, 9.4 million military Tricare enrollees and 8.2 million federal employees and retirees.

If a successful ERISA challenge also exempts some of the 181 million with employer-based insurance from coverage-reporting requirements, state insurance mandates become farcical. States would have to choose between mandates that run on the “honor system”—thus likely rife with cheating—or taking so much time and energy to verify coverage that administration becomes prohibitively expensive.

States should take the hint and refrain from even considering their own coverage mandates. But if they don’t, smart employers should challenge the mandate’s reporting requirements. They’d likely win.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

Do Democrats Want Obamacare to Fail under Donald Trump?

In their quest to take back the House and Senate in November’s midterm elections, Democrats have received a bit of bad news. The Hill recently noted:

Health insurers are proposing relatively modest premium bumps for next year, despite doomsday predictions from Democrats that the Trump administration’s changes to Obamacare would bring massive increases in 2019. That could make it a challenge for Democrats looking to weaponize rising premiums heading into the midterm elections.

Administration officials confirmed the premium trend last Friday, when they indicated that proposed 2019 rates for the 38 states using healthcare.gov averaged a 5.4 percent increase—a number that may come down even further after review by state insurance commissioners. So much for that “sabotage.”

The messaging strategy once again illustrates the political peril of rooting for something—particularly legislation Democrats worked so hard to enact in the first place—to fail on someone else’s watch. Like officials accused of “talking down the economy” so they can benefit politically, Democrats face the unique task of trying to talk down their own creation, while blaming someone else for all its problems.

The Obamacare Exchanges’ Prolonged Malaise

While Obamacare hasn’t failed due to President Trump, it hasn’t succeeded much, either. Enrollment continues to fall, particularly for those who do not qualify for subsidies. Two years ago—long before Donald Trump had any power to “sabotage” Obamacare as president—Bill Clinton called Obamacare “the craziest thing in the world” for these unsubsidized persons, and their collective behavior demonstrates that fact.

A recent study from the liberal Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that, away from Obamacare exchanges, where individuals cannot receive insurance subsidies, enrollment fell by nearly 40 percent in just one year, from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of this year. However, the rich subsidies provided to those who qualify for them—particularly those with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, who receive reduced cost-sharing as well—strongly encourage enrollment by this population, making it unlikely that the insurance exchanges will collapse on their own.

President Trump can talk all he wants about Obamacare imploding, but so long as the federal government props tens of billions of dollars into the exchanges, it probably won’t happen.

Good Reasons for Premium Moderation

Those premium subsidies, which cushion most low-income enrollees from the effects of premium increases, coupled with a lack of competition among insurers in large areas of the country, have allowed premiums to more-or-less stabilize, albeit at levels much of the unsubsidized population finds unaffordable. Think about it: If you have a monopoly, and a sizable population of individuals either desperate for coverage (i.e., the very sick) or heavily subsidized to buy your product, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to break even, much less turn a profit.

As a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, insurers spent the past several years ratcheting up premiums, for a variety of reasons: A sicker pool of enrollees than they expected when the exchanges started in 2014; a recognition that some insurers’ initial strategy of underpricing products to attract market share backfired; and the end of Obamacare’s “transitional” reinsurance and risk corridor programs, which expired in 2016.

While some carriers have adjusted 2019 premiums upward to reflect the elimination of the individual mandate penalty beginning in January, some had already “baked in” lax enforcement of the mandate into their rates for 2018. Some have long called the mandate too weak and ineffective to have much effect on Americans’ decision to buy coverage.

It Could Have Been Worse?

Liberals have started to make the argument that, but for the Trump administration’s so-called “sabotage” of insurance markets, premiums would fall instead of rise in 2019. (Some insurers have proposed premium reductions regardless.) The Brookings Institution recently released a paper claiming that in a “stable policy environment” without repeal of the mandate, or the impending regulatory changes regarding short-term insurance and Association Health Plans, premiums would fall by an average of approximately 4.3 percent.

But as the saying goes, “‘It could have been worse’ isn’t a great political bumper sticker.” Democrats tried to make this point regarding the economic “stimulus” bill they passed in 2009, after the infamous chart claiming unemployment would remain below 8 percent if the “stimulus” passed didn’t quite turn out as promised:

In 2011, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tried to make the “It could have been worse” argument, claiming that unemployment would have risen to 15 percent without the “stimulus”:

But even she acknowledged the futility of giving such a message to the millions of people still lacking jobs at that point (to say nothing of the minor detail that studies reinforcing Pelosi’s point didn’t exist).

There’s No Need for a Bailout

While the apparent moderation of premium increases complicates Democrats’ political message, it also undermines the Republicans who spent the early part of this year pressing for an Obamacare bailout. Apart from the awful policy message it would have sent by making Obamacare’s exchanges “too big to fail,” such a measure would have depressed turnout among demoralized grassroots conservatives who want Congress to repeal Obamacare.

As it happens, most state markets didn’t need a bailout. That’s a good thing on multiple levels, because a “stability” bill passed this year would have had little effect on 2019 premiums anyway.

That said, if Democrats want to make political arguments about premiums in this year’s elections, maybe they can tell the American people where they can find the $2,500 in annual premium reductions that Barack Obama repeatedly promised would come from his health care law. Given the decade that has passed since Obama first made those claims without any hint of them coming true, trying to answer for that broken promise should keep Democrats preoccupied well past November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Note to Harry Reid, Thanks to Obamacare, People Are Dying on Waiting Lists

He’s at it again—Harry Reid, that is. Thursday morning, the outgoing Senate minority leader claimed that if “you get rid of Obamacare, people are going to die.”

Apparently Reid forgot to heed Hillary Clinton’s warning about fake news, because the idea that thousands of people die from lack of health insurance has been rebutted by, of all people, a member of the Obama administration.

Richard Kronick, President Obama’s former director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, in 2009 published a paper that “found that uninsured participants had no different risk of dying than those [who] were covered by employer-sponsored group insurance.”

Harry Reid, Science Denier

As multiple articles by fact-checking organizations have explained, it’s very difficult to control for all the variables associated with health, mortality, and lack of insurance. It’s a tough question to analyze: Do the uninsured die because they lack health insurance, or do they die because they are more likely to be poor? As Kronick himself stated:

It seems likely that if we were able to control for additional factors, such as health-related behaviors (smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, and risk-taking behaviors more generally), wealth, or value placed on health or health care, the estimated [mortality] effect of being uninsured would be reduced further. What is uncertain is whether the reduction would being the estimated hazard ratio all the way down to 1.0 or whether an independent effect of being uninsured would remain.

Even liberals like the Brookings Institution’s Henry Aaron have conceded that much of the evidence—including a study from the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, which showed that access to health insurance had no measurable effect on physical health outcomes for patients—shows an unclear effect between insurance and mortality: “I am a strong advocate of measures to achieve universal insurance coverage and would rather that Kronick’s study and the Oregon project provided evidence in support of my policy preference. But, as far as mortality is concerned, they just don’t.”

Apparently things like evidence in support of one’s policy preferences present a novel concept to the outgoing leader. So much for the liberal allegation that conservatives are science deniers.

Obamacare Made Vulnerable People Die on Wait Lists

Except for those who die before they can access care. Last month, reports from Illinois noted that no fewer than 752 individuals with disabilities have died—yes, died—while on waiting lists to receive Medicaid services since that state expanded coverage under Obamacare. Ironically enough, on the very same day that Illinois’ legislature expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied under Obamacare, it cut medication funding to special-needs children.

This is “compassion” in the Obama administration’s eyes: Expanding services to the able-bodied while cutting services for special-needs kids.

As I have previously noted, this dynamic hasn’t just happened in Illinois. It has occurred all over the country. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson pledged to cut waiting lists for individuals with disabilities in half. Instead, they have grown by 25 percent, even as the state expanded coverage to the able-bodied. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich cut Medicaid eligibility for individuals with disabilities by 34,000, even as he unilaterally expanded the program to other Ohioans.

Making irresponsible claims about the effect of repealing Obamacare is bad enough. Making those claims in a vain attempt to justify a law that encourages discrimination against the most vulnerable really takes the cake. The American people deserve better than Reid’s false comments—and they deserve better than Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Does Brookings Have a “Wonk Gap?”

Yesterday two researchers at the Brookings Institution released an article claiming that “people are getting more for less” in the individual market under Obamacare.  The piece claims that people are getting “better” coverage, so I asked one of the authors on Twitter: What proof do you have that the coverage is better?  Do people like PPACA plans more than their prior coverage?  Are these new plans leading to better health outcomes for patients?

In an exchange of tweets, Brookings’ Loren Adler said that surveys show people are satisfied with their PPACA coverage — a nice point, but one that doesn’t prove people think it’s “better” than what they had before.  And he admitted that studying the trade-offs PPACA created — in which generally plans have a higher actuarial value, but smaller doctor and hospital networks — “wasn’t the focus of the research piece.”  All well and good, but if that’s the case, why go out on a limb and make an unsubstantiated claim that PPACA coverage is “better?”

He didn’t have a good answer.  He tweeted that the claim of “better” coverage “has nothing to do with the analysis itself of premium comparison,” and that “the wording used in the intro/conclusion has nothing to do w/ analysis itself.”

Think about those words for a second.  Is that the standard we want for research — that people can reach “conclusions” that have “nothing to do with the analysis itself?”  On that basis, I wrote an e-mail to Brookings (pasted below) requesting a retraction or clarification on the specific point that coverage is “better” and people are getting “more” under PPACA.

As I pointed out last night, the Brookings researchers MADE the nature of PPACA coverage a focal point of the analysis, by including unsubstantiated claims to fit a political talking point: “You’re getting more/better coverage for less!”  Having been called out on it, they should prove the claim, or withdraw it.

Folks on the Left complain frequently about a supposed “wonk gap” among conservatives.  I’d be VERY interested to hear from Paul Krugman, or any other observer, who would defend a researcher who makes conclusions that — by his own admission — have “nothing to do with the analysis itself.”

Brookings v. Dartmouth on Health Costs

The Brookings Institution released a study last week that could turn the debate over health spending on its head. While many health analysts—including several key advisers to the administration during the debate over Obamacare—believe that variations in physician practice patterns could represent the key to unlocking a more efficient health system, the Brookings paper questions the degree to which such variations even exist.

At its core, the debate boils down to a difference in two econometric models, both of which attempt to explain geographic variations in spending— for instance, why Medicare spends so much more per patient in Miami than in Minneapolis. Researchers affiliated with the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care previously found what they consider large, unexplained variations in health spending. Their research—which examines data from individual Medicare beneficiaries, controlled for health status—led them to conclude that differences in physician behavior may account for much of the unexplained spending variations.

The Brookings study, however, uses a different model, one that examines spending data from the state level, and controls those state data using average health attributes in that state, rather than using data from individual Medicare beneficiaries. This state-based model explains much more of the previously unexplained geographic variation in spending, arguing that states with similar demographics have similar spending levels. As a result, the Brookings paper concludes—contra­ Dartmouth—that “geographic variation in health spending does not provide a useful way to examine the inefficiencies of our health system.”

It’s unclear who has the more accurate model, and why. While Brookings’ state-level model incorporates data from both Medicare and non-Medicare beneficiaries, the Dartmouth research focuses just on Medicare patients—and may therefore be skewed by traits particular to the Medicare program, or Medicare beneficiaries, that do not apply to the population as a whole.

The debate over spending variations has profound policy implications. Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag, who has cited Dartmouth research in his writings, believes that variations in physician practice patterns—doctors performing too many tests, for instance—lie at the root of the unexplained variations in spending.  Mr. Orszag and others used this theory to inform many policy choices related to Obamacare, which included a variety of carrots and sticks that attempted to change physician behavior and reduce spending variations.

The Brookings study undermines the basis of the Dartmouth thesis, and one of the reasons why Obamacare’s adherents believe the law will ultimately reduce health costs. Despite its arcane details, the debate between Dartmouth and Brookings will have profound real-world consequences for our health system in the coming years.

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

Obamacare, Health Costs, and Jobs

Yesterday, the Brookings Institution released updated statistics on the role of health care jobs in the broader economy. The study’s findings provide interesting grist for the ongoing debate about Obamacare’s impact on jobs. Three theories follow from the data.

1. Obamacare Has Not Affected Health Care Jobs

The chart showing a steady-state rise in health care employment over the past decade illustrates this point perfectly. As costs continue to rise, and our society continues to age with the impending retirement of the baby boomers, health care employment has steadily grown.

But the fact that health care hiring has increased at virtually the same pace since 2003 demonstrates the law’s minimal to nonexistent effect on employment trends that preceded its enactment.

Brookings Institution

Brookings Institution

2. Obamacare: Little Effect on Health Care Jobs, Little Effect on Health Care Costs

Labor costs comprise one of the major components of health care spending. A report from the American Hospital Association last year found that labor costs were the largest single driver of health cost growth, accounting for more than one-third of the overall rise in hospital prices—a percentage that has remained fairly constant over time.

It’s therefore difficult to assert that Obamacare has permanently “bent the curve” on health costs if the largest driver of health costs—the labor force—has grown unabated. Rather, it seems more likely that the recent slowdown in costs stems largely from the recession and struggling families forgoing health expenses, as a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded.

3. Not Reducing Health Costs = Reducing Non-Health Jobs

Nancy Pelosi’s infamous claim at the White House health summit that Obamacare would “create 4 million jobs–400,000 jobs almost immediately” wasn’t based on the health sector creating more jobs—in many respects, it was based on the sector creating fewer new positions.

A 2010 Center for American Progress report, the basis for Pelosi’s claim, asserted that Obamacare would create more jobs outside the health sector by slowing the growth of costs within the sector—essentially, a rebalancing of costs and jobs away from health care and toward other industries.

Of course, as other analysts have noted, the converse is also true: If health care jobs continue to grow—as they have since Obamacare’s enactment—those growing health costs will hinder the competitiveness of non-health industries, to say nothing of our massive entitlement deficits.

It’s why anyone who wants to preserve American economic preeminence should want health care growth to slow, even if it means that some new health care jobs aren’t created. It’s also why analysts should be worried that Obamacare hasn’t fixed that problem in the slightest.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.