How a CBO Error Could Cost the Pharmaceutical Industry Billions

Government officials often attempt to bury bad news. Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” even coined a term for it: “Take Out the Trash Day.” So it proved last week. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) document released quietly on Thursday hinted at a major gaffe by the budget agency and its efforts to conceal that gaffe.

In a series of questions for the record submitted following Director Keith Hall’s April 11 hearing before the Senate Budget Committee, CBO admitted the following regarding a change to the Medicare Part D prescription drug program included in this past February’s budget agreement:

When the legislation was being considered, CBO estimated that provision would reduce net Medicare spending for Part D by $7.7 billion over the 2018-2027 period. CBO subsequently learned of a relevant analysis by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and incorporated that analysis in its projections for the April 2018 Medicare baseline. The current baseline incorporates an estimate that, compared with prior law, [the relevant provision] will reduce net Medicare spending for Part D by $11.8 billion over the 2018-2027 period.

As I wrote at the time, the provision attracted no small amount of controversy at its passage—or, for that matter, since. The provision accelerated the closing of the Part D “donut hole” faced by seniors with high prescription drug costs, but it did so by shifting costs away from the Part D program run by health insurers and on to drug companies.

The pharmaceutical industry was, and remains, livid at the change, which it did not expect, and tried to undo in the March omnibus spending bill. CBO didn’t just get its score wrong on a minor, non-controversial provision—it messed up on a major provision that will over the next decade affect both drug companies and health insurers.

Because the provision substitutes mandatory “discounts” by drug companies for government spending through the Part D program, it saves the government money through smaller Part D subsidies—at least on paper. (That said, the score doesn’t take into account whether drug manufacturers will raise prices in response to the change, which they could well do.) Because seniors actually spend more in the “donut hole” than CBO’s initial projections said, the provision will have a greater impact—i.e., cost the pharmaceutical industry billions more—than the February budget estimate says.

In its response last week, CBO tried to cover its tracks by claiming that “the $4 billion change…accounts for about 2 percent” of the total of $186 billion reduction in estimated Medicare spending over the coming decade due to technical changes incorporated into the revised baseline. But a $4.1 billion scoring error on a provision first projected to save $7.7 billion means CBO messed up its score by more than 53 percent of its original budgetary impact. That’s not exactly a small error.

Moreover, CBO didn’t come clean and publicly admit this error of its own volition. It did so only because Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) forced the budget office to do so.

Enzi submitted a question noting that “CBO realized its estimate of a provision [in the budget agreement] was incorrect. Where is the correction featured in the new report?” CBO didn’t “feature” the correction in its April Budget and Economic Outlook report at all—it incorporated the change into the revised baseline without disclosing it, hoping to sneak it by without anyone calling the budget office out on its error.

Since that time, the purportedly “nonpartisan” organization realized it published an incorrect score—off by more than 50 percent—on a high-profile and controversial issue, changed its baseline to account for the scoring error, and said exactly nothing in a 166-page report on the federal budget about the change. If CBO won’t disclose this kind of major mistake on its own, then its “transparency efforts” seem like so much noise—a distraction designed to keep people preoccupied from focusing on errors like the Part D debacle.

To view it from another perspective: Any head of a private company whose analysis of a multi-billion-dollar transaction proved off by more than 50 percent, because his staff did not access relevant information available to them at the time of the analysis, would face major questions about his leadership, and could well lose his job. But judging from his desire to conceal this scoring mistake, the CBO director apparently feels no such sense of accountability.

Thankfully, however, members of Congress have tools available to fix the rot at CBO, up to and including replacing the director. Given the way CBO attempted to conceal the Part D scoring fiasco, they should start using them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is CBO Working with Budget Committee Staff to Hide an Illegal Obamacare Bailout?

It appears my recent article, which raised questions about whether the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) illegally manipulated the budget baseline to ease the passage of an Obamacare “stability” bill, hit a nerve. To borrow a current metaphor, if there were any more collusion between the House Budget Committee and CBO on this issue, Rod Rosenstein would need to appoint a special counsel to investigate.

Consider a series of questions asked by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) at House Budget’s April 12 hearing on the new Budget and Economic Outlook. Black asked CBO Director Keith Hall about the agency’s treatment of the law’s cost-sharing reduction payments (CSRs), which President Trump cancelled in October.

  1. Black asked about this issue, and only this issue. After completing her exchange with Hall on CSRs, she yielded back more than half of the five minutes allotted to her for questions—an unusual occurrence. Think about it: How often have you seen members of Congress take two minutes to give a five-minute speech?
  2. Black began the exchange by asking Hall a very friendly, and some would argue leading, question: “Is CBO doing this [i.e., changing the budgetary baseline] in full compliance with” the law?
  3. In response, Hall looked down at his notes no fewer than seven times in a roughly 45-second response. Particularly during the seventh and final instance, Hall quite clearly appears to be reading from his briefing materials. Members of Congress often read questions at hearings, but in nearly 15 years of working on and around Capitol Hill, I can recall precious few times where witnesses read answers.

Based on these circumstances, it seems reasonable to conclude that the exchange was scripted well in advance. If that’s the case, it appears Black, and whomever wrote her questions, worked with CBO to choreograph an exchange designed to rebut one of my allegations, namely, that CBO violated the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in making this budgetary change.

Mind you, the change does violate the law, Hall’s claims notwithstanding. CBO can claim that the budget baseline funds CSRs indirectly—via “higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies”—only by assuming that Congress does not fund CSRs directly.

Later in the April 12 hearing, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) also queried Hall on the circumstances behind this questionable change.

Palmer asked Hall: “Why did you change that [i.e., raise the baseline]?…You would have had to have gotten instruction to” make the alteration. Hall didn’t directly answer the question: He claimed CBO had the authority to make the change, but never said where his instruction came from.

But the budget committees already gave CBO instructions—which CBO suddenly chose to ignore. In an October estimate of Obamacare “stability” legislation, the budget office specifically said that “after consultation with the Budget Committees, CBO has not changed its baseline” to reflect the Trump administration’s cancellation of the CSR payments. Last week’s updated CBO document, which altered the budgetary baseline, said nothing about consultation with the budget committees—a break from the October precedent, and a direct violation of Hall’s promise in his January 30 testimony.

What changed? Did the CBO director just wake up one morning and decide to make a scoring change affecting $200 billion in taxpayer dollars? Or did someone pressure the CBO director to make that change—and if so, who?

If the House Budget Committee staff knows—and I’d bet they do—they certainly don’t want to say. At first my repeated e-mails to committee staff disappeared into dead air. Once I noted this radio silence on Twitter, I got a response, but not a substantive reply. The House Budget Committee’s communications director said my queries were within CBO’s purview, and sent me to them.

However, given the opaque and questionable way this budgetary change transpired, both CBO and House Budget have very clear reasons not to answer the question:

  • If House Budget admits that CBO did reach out to them about this scoring change, that places the fingerprints of House leadership on a heavy-handed attempt to strong-arm CBO and alter scoring rules in a way that favors an Obamacare bailout—the issue I first wrote about back in January.
  • If House Budget admits that CBO did not reach out to them about this scoring change, that means CBO “went rogue,” and increased spending on Obamacare subsidies by $194 billion without guidance or direction from the elected members of Congress who govern it. It also raises questions of whether Hall materially misled the Budget Committee (a felony offense) during his January 30 testimony.

Answering my question involves someone assuming responsibility for this mysterious occurrence. Because no one wants to assume responsibility for the chicanery behind this budget gimmick, apparently people think, or hope, that ignoring questions will make them go away. (I haven’t yet reached out to CBO for a comment, but anyone want to lay odds that their spokesman says, “I’m sorry, but we can’t disclose our communications with members of Congress”?) News flash: They’re not.

If CBO and House Budget are completely blameless, and everything about this budget change occurred in an above-board manner, they seem to have a funny way of going about proving their innocence—sidestepping questions. Not two months ago, Hall testified before the House Budget Committee about the ways CBO will improve transparency surrounding the budget process. If he wants to follow through on his promise, then Hall (to say nothing of House Budget) should start by disclosing exactly who ordered CBO to make this change—the sooner, the better.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is the CBO Director Breaking the Law to Help Paul Ryan Bail Out Obamacare?

Why would an ostensibly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) director violate the law and the word he gave to Congress only a few short weeks ago? Maybe because Paul Ryan asked him to.

In late January, I wrote about how the House speaker wanted CBO to violate budget rules to make it easier for Congress to pass an Obamacare bailout. At the time, House leadership aides dismissed my theories as unfounded and inaccurate speculation. Yet buried on page 103 of Monday’s report on the budget and economic outlook, CBO did exactly what I reported on earlier this year—it changed the rules, and violated the law, to make it easier for Congress to pass an Obamacare bailout.

The Making of a Budget Gimmick

Because of the interactions between the (higher) premiums and federal premium subsidies (which went up in turn), the federal government will likely spend more on subsidies this year without making CSR payments than with them.

Therein lay the basis of the budgetary gimmick Ryan and congressional leaders wanted CBO to help them accomplish. House staffers wanted CBO to adjust its baseline and assume the higher levels of spending under the “no-CSR” scenario. By turning around and appropriating funds for CSRs, thereby lowering this higher baseline, Congress could generate budgetary “savings”—which Republicans could spend on more corporate welfare for insurers, in the form of reinsurance payments.

The Problem? It’s Illegal

As I previously noted, the House’s scheme, and CBO’s actions on Monday to perpetrate that scheme, violate the law. Section 257(b)(1) of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act (available here) requires budget scorekeeping agencies to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required by those laws.”

Following my January post, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) asked CBO Director Keith Hall about this issue at a House Budget Committee hearing. Hall noted that CBO had been treating the cost-sharing reductions “as an entitlement, so it’s”—that is, the full funding of CSRs in the baseline—“remained there, unless we get direction to do something different. We’re assuming essentially that the money will be found somewhere, because it’s an entitlement.”

In a separate exchange with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) at the same hearing, Hall went even further: He said, “We’ve treated the cost-sharing reductions actually as an entitlement, at least so far until we get other direction from the Budget Committee.”

Then Comes the Flip-Flop

Yet Monday’s document on the budget outlook did exactly what Hall said mere weeks ago that CBO would not. A paragraph deep in the section on “Technical Changes in Outlays” included this nugget:

Technical revisions caused estimates of spending for subsidies for coverage purchased through the marketplaces established under the ACA and related spending to be $44 billion higher, on net, over the 2018–2027 period than in CBO’s June baseline. A significant factor contributing to the increase is that the current baseline projections reflect that the entitlement for subsidies for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) is being funded through higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies rather than through a direct appropriation.

In the span of a few weeks, then, Hall and CBO went from “We’re assuming essentially that the money [i.e., the CSR appropriation] will be found somewhere” to the exact opposite assumption. Yet the report mentions no directive from the budget committees asking CBO to change its scorekeeping methodology, likely because the committees did not give such a directive.

In analyzing the status of the Medicare trust fund, which CBO projects will become exhausted in fiscal year 2026, Footnote A of Table C-1 notes how the baseline “shows a zero [balance] rather than a cumulative negative balance in the trust fund after the exhaustion date”—because that’s what Gramm-Rudman-Hollings requires:

CBO may try to make the semantic argument, implied in the passage quoted above, that it continues to assume full funding of CSRs, albeit through indirect means (i.e., higher spending on premium subsidies) rather than “a direct appropriation.” But that violates what Hall himself said back in late January, when he laid out CBO’s position, and said it would not change absent an explicit directive—even though the budget report nowhere indicates that CBO received such direction.

It also violates sheer common sense that the budget office should assume “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments” by assuming that the administration does not make all payments, namely the direct CSR payments to insurers.

Coming Up: An Embarrassing Spectacle

During his testimony before the House and Senate Budget Committees this week, Hall may make a spectacle of himself—and not in a good way. He will have to explain why he unilaterally changed the budgetary baseline in a way that explicitly violated his January testimony. He will also have to justify why CBO believes Gramm-Rudman-Hollings’ direction to assume full funding for “all payments” allows CBO to assume that Congress will not make direct CSR payments to insurers.

Conservatives should fight to expose this absurd and costly budget gimmick, and demand answers from Hall as to what—or, more specifically, whom—prompted his U-turn. If Hall wants to transform himself into the puppet of House leadership, and break his word to Congress in the process, he should at least be transparent about it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.