Three Reasons to Oppose the Swampy Budget Deal

On Monday, congressional leaders and the Trump administration announced agreement on legislation that would set budget and spending parameters for the next two years. The agreement would suspend the debt limit through July 2021, and establish spending levels for lawmakers to enact appropriations measures for the remainder of this Congress.

Conservatives have rightly criticized the agreement as abandoning the principles of smaller government, with a return to the trillion-dollar deficits seen under Barack Obama (and this time under a more robust economy). Among the many reasons to oppose the agreement, three in particular stand out.

1. More Spending Now

When the Budget Control Act, which established the existing spending caps, passed in the summer of 2011, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—then the minority leader, now the majority leader—famously said it would slow down the “big government freight train.”

But in the time since that bill’s enactment, McConnell and his colleagues in Congress have repeatedly increased the Budget Control Act’s spending caps, speeding up the big government freight train over and over again.

2. More Spending Later

On one level, the agreement at least wins points for honesty, by abandoning the pretense that Congress has any interest in controlling spending. However, future generations will wish that Congress had substituted some actual fiscal discipline for profligacy.

3. No Policy Improvements

To assuage the conservative concerns about the package’s spending binge, Republican leaders have pointed to other language in the agreement. Specifically, the text states that Republican leaders and the White House would have a veto on any appropriations riders passed by the Democratic House that would seek to (for instance) defund regulatory actions by the current administration:

Congressional leaders and the Administration agree that, relative to the [Fiscal Year] 2019 regular appropriations acts, there will be no poison pills, additional new riders…other changes in policy or conventions…or any non-appropriations measures unless agreed to on a bipartisan basis by the four leaders with the approval of the President.

In theory, this language blocks Democrats from eliminating restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion, among other liberal priorities.

If Democrats could block Republicans from enacting appropriations policy riders over the past two years, despite serving in the minority, could Republicans have blocked Democrats from enacting their own policy riders with continued control of the Senate and White House? That question should answer itself—provided Republicans had any spine (admittedly an uncertain prospect).

Instead, Republicans agreed to hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending to “win” something they already had—an understanding that neither side would enact appropriations policy riders. Taken from the most cynical perspective, the agreement uses the pro-life community’s worries about Democratic riders—riders which both the White House and Republican Senate already had the means to stop—to rationalize congressional Republicans’ continued spending binge.

Trump came into office pledging to “drain the swamp.” But the new government spending contemplated by this agreement wouldn’t drain the swamp so much as grow it. Conservatives, and the American people as a whole, deserve better.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Mitch McConnell’s Amendment Dilemma

Mitch McConnell has a problem entirely of his own making. The Senate majority leader promised a vote on Obamacare “stability” legislation to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Collins wants a vote on the package as a Senate floor amendment to the omnibus appropriations legislation (that is, if and when congressional leaders emerge from their smoke-filled rooms and actually release an omnibus package for Congress to vote on).

Except that not six weeks ago, McConnell literally let the federal government shut down rather than grant his fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul a floor vote on his amendment to appropriations legislation.

It’s a fun choice McConnell gets to make—and he’s running out of time to do it.

Shutdown Showdown

Lest anyone forget what transpired a few short weeks ago, Paul asked for a clean vote on his amendment to budget and spending legislation, to preserve strict spending caps enacted as part of the Budget Control Act. (When it passed in 2011, McConnell said the Budget Control Act spending caps would slow down the “big government freight train”—a freight train that he now apparently wants to put into hyperdrive.)

McConnell and the Senate leadership refused to give Paul an up-or-down vote on his amendment. As Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) put it, “Why reward bad behavior?” Because under Senate rules Paul could speak for an extended period of time, and because Senate leadership did not allow enough time for a full floor debate on the legislation—apparently thinking it appropriate for the Senate to consider and pass in mere hours a 652-page bill allocating trillions of dollars—the federal government briefly shut down.

Susan Collins’ Precious Bailout

Enter Collins, who along with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has been pushing for a bailout of Obamacare insurers for months now. Collins claims she has a commitment from McConnell to support an insurer “stability” package. Alexander said he would demand a vote, asking for senators “to be accountable” for their positions on the issue, because he thinks bailing out Obamacare will lower premiums for 2019 (it won’t).

However, as I noted just last week, Collins has moved the goalposts on the bailout package significantly. Whereas she initially requested “only” $5 billion in reinsurance funds, according to her December colloquy with McConnell, the new bill she and Alexander introduced this week contains more than $30 billion in spending on reinsurance—a sixfold increase. Because Collins has demonstrably walked away from her side of whatever bargain McConnell made with her, Senate leadership should have no qualms about doing the same.

Different Treatment?

However, the McConnell office appears inclined to give Collins her way, with multiple reports saying that McConnell was “open” to such an amendment vote to the appropriations bill. Compare that to the reactions Paul received from his colleagues last month, when he wanted an amendment vote to an appropriations bill. Congressmen called it an “utterly pointless” “stunt” that “doesn’t make any d-mn sense.” One unnamed Senate Republican aide called it “the stupidest thing to happen to Congress in three weeks….This is even stupider than the kid who didn’t recognize Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl.”

Conservatives should watch with intense interest how the Senate floor debate plays out. If McConnell moves heaven and earth to get Collins a vote on her precious bailout, after moving heaven and earth to deny Paul a vote on retaining spending caps that McConnell himself used to support, they should neither quickly forgive, nor easily forget, the double standards created by Senate leadership.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Lowlights of Senate “Budget” Deal

In the budget agreement announced Wednesday between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democrat Chuck Schumer, McConnell’s negotiating position can be summed up thusly: “Give us the money we want for defense spending, and you can run the rest of the country.”

The result was a spending bonanza, with giveaways to just about every conceivable lobbying group, trade association, and special interest possible. The unseemly spectacle resembles “Oprah’s Favorite Things:” “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! EVERYONE GETS A CAR!!!”

Even reporters expressed frank astonishment at the bipartisan profligacy. Axios admitted that “there’s a ton of health care money in the Senate budget deal,” while Kaiser Health News noted that the agreement “appear[s] to include just about every other health priority Democrats have been pushing the past several months.”

Of course, McConnell and Schumer want to ram it through Congress and into law by Thursday evening—because we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

Lowlights of the Health Legislation

Repeal of Medicare Spending Restraints: The bill would repeal Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), a board of unelected bureaucrats empowered to make rulings on Medicare spending. I noted last year that conservatives could support repealing the power given to unelected bureaucrats while keeping the restraints on Medicare spending—restraints which, once repealed, will be difficult to reinstitute.

Congressional leaders did nothing of the sort. Instead the “deal” would repeal the IPAB without a replacement, raising the deficit by $17.5 billion. Moreover, because seniors pay for a portion of Medicare physician payment spending through their Part B premium, repealing this provision without an offset would raise seniors’ out-of-pocket costs. While a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score of the bill as a whole was not available as of press time Wednesday evening, this provision, on its own, would raise Medicare premiums by billions of dollars.

Big Pharma Giveaway: In a further giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry, the bill would close the Medicare Part D prescription drug “donut hole” a year earlier—that is, beginning in 2019 rather than 2020. Having failed to repeal Obamacare, Republicans apparently want to expand this portion of the law, in the hopes of attracting seniors’ votes in November’s mid-term elections.

Extension of an Unreformed SCHIP Program: The bill would extend for another four years the State Children’s Health Insurance Program—a mandatory spending program that Republicans extended for six years just last month. I previously explained in detail that last month’s reauthorization failed to include at least ten different conservative reforms that Republicans previously supported. By extending the program for another four years, the “deal” would prevent conservatives from enacting any reforms for a decade.

Back in 2015, Republican aides pledged that “Republicans would like to reform and improve this program, and the next opportunity will be in two years when we have a new President.” Not only have Republicans done nothing of the sort, the additional extension will prevent this president—and potentially the next one as well—from reforming the program.

Mandatory Funding for Community Health Centers: The bill provides for $7.8 billion in mandatory spending for community health centers over the next two years, once again extending a mandatory program created by Obamacare.

While many conservatives may support funding for community health centers, they may also support funding them through the discretionary appropriations process, rather than by replenishing a pot of mandatory spending created by Obamacare to subvert the normal spending cycle. The normal appropriations process consists of setting priorities among various programs; this special carve-out for community health centers subverts that process.

Mandatory Opioid Funding: The bill also provides $6 billion in mandatory spending over the next two years to address the opioid crisis. As with the community health center funding, some conservatives may support increasing grants related to the opioid crisis—through the normal spending process.

The Schumer-McConnell “deal” would bust through the Budget Control Act spending caps, increasing the amount of funds available for the normal appropriations bills. (Most of this spending increase would not be paid for.) Additional mandatory health care spending on top of the increase in discretionary funding represents a spendthrift Congress attempting to have its cake and eat it too, while sticking future generations with the bill in the form of more debt and deficits.

But Wait—There’s More!

Surprisingly, the bill does not include an Obamacare “stabilization” (i.e., bailout) package. But other reports on Wednesday suggest that will arrive in short order too. One report noted that Democrats want to increase Obamacare premium subsidies. They not only want to restore unconstitutional payments that President Trump cancelled last fall, “but to expand it—and to bolster the separate subsidy that helps people pay their premiums.”

Republican leaders want to pass a massive Obamacare bailout in the next appropriations measure, an omnibus spending bill likely to come to the House and Senate floors before the Easter break. In a sign of Republicans’ desperation to pass a bailout, Wednesday’s report quoted a Democratic aide as saying that corporate welfare to insurers in the form of a reinsurance package “has become so popular among Republicans that Democrats don’t feel like they have to push very hard.”

There are two ways to solve the problem of rising premiums in Obamacare. One way would fix the underlying problems, by repealing regulations that have led to skyrocketing premiums. The other would merely throw money at the problem by giving more corporate welfare to insurers, providing a short-term “fix” at taxpayers’ ultimate cost. Naturally, most Republicans wish to choose the latter course.

Moreover, in bailing out Obamacare, Republicans will be forced to provide additional taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. There is no way—zero—that Democrats will provide any votes for a bill that provides meaningful pro-life protections for the Obamacare exchanges. Republicans’ desperation to bail out Obamacare will compel them to abandon any pretense of pro-life funding as well.

Most Expensive Parade Ever?

Press reports this week highlighted Pentagon plans to, at President Trump’s request, put on a military spectacle in the form of a massive parade. Trump tweeted his support for the Schumer-McConnell deal on Wednesday, calling it “so important for our great Military.”

It’s an ironic statement, on several levels. First, the hundreds of billions in new deficit spending coming from the military buildup included in the agreement would make the parade the most expensive ever, by far. Second, Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called our rising debt levels our biggest national security threat, because it makes us dependent on other countries to buy our bonds. Given that statement, one can credibly argue that this deficit-driven spending binge will harm our national security much more than the defense funds will help it.

Time will tell whether or not the legislation passes. But if it does, at some point future generations will look back and wonder why the self-proclaimed “king of debt” imposed a financial burden on them that they will not be able to bear easily—if at all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are Cost-Sharing Reductions Subject to the Sequester?

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

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

Cost-Sharing Reductions and the Sequester

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

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

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

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

Statutory PAYGO and the Sequester

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Conservative’s (Sort of) Defense of IPAB

The House of Representatives will vote Thursday on whether to eliminate Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). I come not to praise IPAB, but not to bury it, either—at least, not yet.

Yes, Obamacare empowers this federal board to make binding recommendations to Congress about enforcing per capita spending caps within Medicare. Yes, that board undermines congressional sovereignty by empowering unelected bureaucrats, in what its own advocates transparently described as an attempt to minimize democracy. And yes, federal bureaucrats have no business interfering still further with physicians’ practice of medicine. But for multiple reasons, Congress should not repeal IPAB without first enacting a suitable replacement.

We Can’t Afford Medicare As It Is

The Medicare Trust Fund suffered $132.2 billion in deficits during the Great Recession, and faces insolvency in just more than a decade. Medicare needs fundamental reform now, but repealing IPAB without simultaneously enacting other reforms will only encourage partisan attacks when Congress finally must act. Witness the liberal ads throwing granny over a cliff in response to congressional Medicare reform proposals that would save both seniors and taxpayers billions of dollars annually.

Second, repealing IPAB would also undermine the case for reforming Medicaid. Liberals’ hue-and-cry over proposals to reform Medicaid earlier this year demonstrated an opportunistic hypocrisy, as the same groups that attacked Republican efforts to impose per capita caps on Medicaid supported per capita spending caps on Medicare when created by a Democratic president. Conservative support for IPAB repeal would reinforce this ideological incoherence, demonstrating Republicans as favoring per capita caps in Medicaid, but not Medicare, and weakening the case for reforms to either entitlement.

Third, opportunities to control spending do not come often, or easily, which should make conservatives inherently reluctant to repeal any of them. In 1985, Congress enacted the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act, designed to force lawmakers to live within statutory spending targets. But Congress weakened Gramm-Rudman’s statutory fiscal discipline within five years, and abandoned it altogether by 2002. It took the debt limit fight of 2011 to restore fiscal discipline through the Budget Control Act’s sequestration caps—conservatives’ major policy victory of the Obama era, and one that congressional spendthrifts have consistently worked to undermine since.

It’s Clumsy, But Better than Nothing

As someone who has criticized Obamacare’s overly regulatory structure since its enactment seven years ago, I recognize—and entirely agree with—objections to the way IPAB undermines congressional authority, and intrudes still further into the practice of medicine. But conservatives would do well to avoid conflating IPAB’s highly flawed means with its entirely proper ends.

The board imposes real caps on Medicare spending, however clumsy, and like the budget sequester mechanism represents a genuine, albeit flawed, attempt to reduce federal spending. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office estimates the board’s repeal would increase Medicare spending, and thus the budget deficit, by $17.5 billion over the coming decade and more after that.

Most health-care interest groups want an outright IPAB repeal immediately, which is one major reason the House will vote on its repeal this week. But conservatives should not take that bait, and should instead work to replace IPAB with constructive reforms that modernize Medicare and make the program more fiscally sustainable for future generations.

As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.” Conservatives may not wish to see spending rise on an already unsustainable entitlement. But if they follow the efforts of K Street lobbyists and repeal IPAB without an effective substitute, that’s exactly what they would end up getting.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Another Spending Standoff Between the White House and Congress?

As spring turns to summer, the House and Senate will work on the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government. The backdrop to this work? The president who signed the Budget Control Act into law four years ago wants to exceed the spending levels the legislation prescribed.

In a recent blog post, Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan made clear that the administration opposes the spending levels. Mr. Donovan wrote that “sequestration was never intended to take effect: rather, it was supposed to threaten such drastic cuts to both defense and non-defense funding that policymakers would be motivated to come to the table and reduce the deficit through smart, balanced reforms.” However, because the congressional “supercommittee” formed in 2011 did not reach agreement on entitlement and/or tax changes to reduce the deficit, automatic reductions were triggered on discretionary spending, with separate caps on defense and non-defense appropriations.

But in separate letters regarding the House’s first two spending bills, Mr. Donovan wrote that “the President has been clear that he is not willing to lock in sequestration going forward, nor will he accept fixes to defense without also fixing non-defense.” Largely because of these broad disagreements over spending levels, the administration issued veto threats on the first two appropriations measures.

Ironically, President Barack Obama now opposes a policy outcome—the “sequester” spending levels—that he introduced: Multiple fact checkers have confirmed that it was administration officials who proposed the sequester mechanism during debt-ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011. These histories directly contradict the president’s statement in an October 2012 debate with Mitt Romney that “the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed.”

The administration can say that it did not propose the sequester mechanism. It can also say—with more accuracy—that sequestration was an action-forcing mechanism that was never intended to take effect. But neither argument changes the fact that the Budget Control Act remains the law of the land. The specter of Mr. Obama vetoing spending bills—potentially setting up another government shutdown this fall—because they fail to nullify an act that he signed into law could present an optics problem for his administration.

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

How the Sequester Could Cost Obamacare Insurers

In a Think Tank post Thursday, I wrote about how insurers deciding to participate next year in the health exchanges established under Obamacare could be expecting funds that the federal government may not have legal authority to disburse. But that’s not the only potential pitfall for carriers: They could also end up on the hook for payment reductions caused by sequestration.

In the spring of 2013, the Obama administration submitted a report to Congress indicating that, while subsidies for health insurance premiums on the exchanges were not subject to the budget sequester, the separate program of cost-sharing subsidies—reducing deductibles and co-payments for certain low-income individuals—faced a 7.2% cut in fiscal 2014. Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, confirmed this position during congressional testimony last August.

In a March report to Congress, however, the administration said that both the premium and cost-sharing subsidies were exempt from the sequester. Last month, in response to questions, Sylvia Mathews Burwell—then the head of the Office of Management and Budget, now the secretary of health and human services—told several senators that the cost-sharing and premium subsidies “will be paid out of the same account” as a way to “improve the efficiency in the administration of the subsidy payments” and that payments from that account are exempt from the budget sequester.

The problem with this? That’s not what the law says. As I pointed out last October, the premium and cost-sharing subsidies were established in two separate sections of Obamacare. The premium subsidies are codified in the Internal Revenue Code, which is administered by the Treasury Department and payable to individuals. The cost-sharing subsidies are codified in the Public Health Service Act, which is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services and payable to insurers. And while the premium subsidies are structured in a way that should exempt them from the budget sequester, the cost-sharing subsidies are not.

The administration appears to be using efficiency arguments to try to shield the cost-sharing subsidies from the sequester. But the sequester is a zero-sum proposition, so exempting the cost-sharing subsidies from sequestration means other programs would take a greater budgetary hit—and affected organizations or programs may have standing to challenge in court.

The bottom line: The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service warned in May 2013 that insurers could be on the hook to absorb the billions of dollars in sequester cuts to the cost-sharing subsidies. As with the “risk corridor” provision of Obamacare, insurers participating under the assumption that these legal questions will be easily resolved may be doing so at their own risk.

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

Will Insurers Be the Next Obamacare Dropouts?

The ongoing malfunction of HealthCare.gov has led some to wonder whether Obamacare’s exchanges are headed for a “death spiral”—one in which only highly motivated sick people enroll, resulting in higher premiums, which further drive out healthy individuals. But there’s another “death spiral” to be worried about—one in which insurers drop out of the insurance marketplaces altogether.

Insurers may still be able to withdraw from the federally run exchange through this Thursday. The contract between qualified health plan issuers (QHPIs) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) includes this provision:

Termination with Notice by QHPI. At any time prior to midnight on October 31, 2013, QHPI may terminate this Agreement upon sixty (60) Days’ written notice to CMS if CMS materially breaches any term of this Agreement, unless CMS commences curing such breach(es) within such 60-Day period to the reasonable satisfaction of QHPI in the manner hereafter described in this subsection, and thereafter diligently prosecutes such cure to completion.

The contract does state that, if insurer(s) attempt to terminate their contracts due to a material breach, CMS has “fifteen days from the date of the notice in which to propose a plan and a time frame to cure the material breaches, which…shall be accepted by QHPI unless the same is substantially unreasonable on its face.”

Granted, CMS claims it can get the website fully functioning by November 30. But with independent experts claiming the web infrastructure could require months or years to repair and rebuild—if it even can be fixed—why should CMS’ assertions now be taken with any more credibility than the Administration’s assertions that it was ready to launch the exchanges on October 1? After all, one day after the Administration claimed the exchange “data hub” was working well, the “hub” stopped functioning at all—the latest embarrassment in Obamacare’s comedy of IT errors.

Lurking behind all this is another issue raised last week—the impact of sequestration on Obamacare, and on insurance companies in particular. The Congressional Research Service believes that insurance companies will personally end up footing the bill for the sequester’s cuts to Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies. Those cuts will total $286 million in the first nine months of 2014 alone. Multiplying Congressional Budget Office projections of spending on cost-sharing subsidies by the required sequester reduction percentages yields a total sequester cut of nearly $6.8 billion through 2021.

Despite promising to issue guidance prior to the start of open enrollment, CMS has yet to reveal how the sequester reductions will be applied—and whether individuals, or insurance companies, will be asked to foot the bill. Doubtless it will decline to do so before the October 31 deadline for carriers to terminate participation in the federal exchange. And every passing day makes it more and more likely that insurance companies, and not consumers, will end up footing the bill for the sequestration cuts. After all, will the Administration really force individuals who have endured the HealthCare.gov gauntlet to pay more in cost-sharing than advertised, because CMS failed to publicize the impact of the sequester’s cuts?

Earlier this year, many insurers declined to participate in the exchanges—one reason why, in a majority of U.S. counties, consumers face limited choices of plans. But some insurance companies decided to participate in the new marketplaces, either because they saw a business opportunity or feared the consequences if they did not.

But the HealthCare.gov rollout debacle should have those insurers—particularly those publicly accountable to shareholders—thinking again, this time with a focus on the consequences of continuing to participate in Obamacare. If (more likely when) the sequester’s spending reductions are placed on their head, insurers will have to overcome $6.8 billion in guaranteed losses over the next eight years—this while managing a balky website giving them logistical headaches and a enrollee risk profile that could prove catastrophically unsustainable.

The systemic failure augured by HealthCare.gov’s performance to date, coupled with the billions of dollars at risk from sequester, present health insurance actuaries with a dramatically different data set from those considered a year ago. Insurers still have a few days to crunch these new numbers and determine if prudence dictates they should back out of the federal exchange and escape from Obamacare’s web.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Another “Affordable Care” Sticker Shock Looms

President Obama and supporters of his health-care law have defended it by saying that the Affordable Care Act is “the law of the land.” However, the spending reductions in the 2011 Budget Control Act—the so-called sequester—also remain “the law of the land.”

In promoting the former, the Obama administration has failed to enforce the latter. As a result, people trying to buy health insurance on the new exchanges are getting incomplete and misleading information, and they may experience more sticker shock next year.

Some have claimed that the sequester “exempts” Obamacare’s subsidies from spending reductions. That is only half true. The Budget Control Act does exempt from sequestration the premium subsidies for households with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty level ($94,200 for a family of four) and that meet other eligibility criteria.

But other Obamacare subsidies, paid directly to insurance providers on behalf of eligible beneficiaries, are subject to the sequester—namely “cost-sharing subsidies.” These include subsidies for households with incomes below 250% of the federal poverty level ($58,875 for a family of four) to reduce copayments and deductibles. They also include subsidies to reduce out-of-pocket expenses for households with incomes up to 400% of the poverty level.

The Obama administration has acknowledged that the cost-sharing subsidies are subject to sequester reductions. A May report from the White House Office of Management and Budget estimated that the sequester would reduce the subsidies by 7.2% in fiscal year 2014. That amounts to a $286 million reduction through next September—the first nine months of Obamacare.

However, the administration hasn’t issued guidance on how it will implement the required cuts. Appearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Aug. 1, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner declined repeated requests to explain how the cost-sharing subsidy reductions would be applied. She did, however, pledge that the administration would release more information before the Oct. 1 start of open enrollment in Obamacare. But that deadline came and went without more information.

Clearly, someone will be left holding the bag, and the administration doesn’t want to address who that someone will be.

There are two possible outcomes. The first is that individuals who have managed to enroll in subsidized health insurance will find they’ve been misled about their copays and deductibles. Families who currently think their plan will charge a $20 copayment for doctor visits may instead face a $25 charge when the sequester kicks in. Individuals who now believe they face maximum out-of-pocket costs of $2,000 may end up paying hundreds more.

The other alternative is that insurers may be stuck with the sequester cuts. A May 31 Congressional Research Service report, noting that Obamacare requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for eligible individuals regardless of the sequester, concluded that “insurers presumably will still have to provide required coverage to qualifying enrollees but they will not receive the full subsidy to cover their increased costs.” In other words, the CRS, Congress’s own think tank, believes insurers may be forced to eat the costs of the sequester reductions—$286 million through September, and billions more through 2021.

Having first proposed the sequester two years ago, the Obama administration now finds itself on the horns of a self-imposed dilemma. It can tell the American people that the “good deal” President Obama promised isn’t as good as they thought—that those who spent hours and days signing up on Healthcare.gov bought coverage that will cost more than advertised. If full disclosure truly were to prevail, the administration would also admit that this classic bait and switch occurred solely due to its failure to account for its responsibilities under the Budget Control Act.

Or the administration can try to force insurers to bear the full costs of the sequester reductions—and watch them promptly drop out of the exchanges.

This is no mere “glitch” in the website, nor was it unforeseen. The administration has known for years that the cost-sharing subsidies were subject to sequester, but has failed to plan for its impact.

In her Aug. 1 appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Ms. Tavenner testifed that it is the administration’s “strong preference that the issue of sequestration go away entirely.”

But neither Ms. Tavenner nor President Obama can pick and choose which laws they wish to enforce. And the administration’s rush to implement one law, while ignoring the requirements of another, means Americans could face a rude awakening when they discover what their Obamacare coverage will cost them.

This post was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

Budget Sequestration’s Impact on Obamacare Subsidies

A PDF of this Issue Brief is available on the Heritage Foundation website.

Many Americans could face a rude awakening when they discover that the subsidies they thought they were getting to offset their health care costs are less than what they were promised. Some claim that the Obamacare subsidies are exempt from the spending reductions established by the Budget Control Act (BCA), but that is only half right.[1]

The BCA exempts only the premium subsidies, not the cost-sharing subsidies, from upcoming cuts. Regrettably, the Obama Administration has not taken steps to inform the American people of this fact as they navigate coverage options in the government exchanges.

The Sequester’s Impact on Obamacare Subsidies

Obamacare provides two forms of subsidies:

  1. Premium subsidy. Section 1401 provides that individuals with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($94,200 for a family of four) who do not have access to “affordable” employer-based coverage and meet other relevant criteria are eligible to receive refundable tax credits for coverage purchased in the exchanges.
  2. Cost-sharing subsidy. Section 1402 provides cost-sharing subsidies to reduce maximum out-of-pocket expenses for households with incomes below four times the federal poverty level. Other language in Section 1402 directs cost-sharing subsidies to increase the actuarial value—the average amount of expected health expenses paid by insurance—for households with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty level.

The BCA exempted the premium subsidies from sequestration—not explicitly but by definition. The sequester mechanism in the BCA was largely based on formulae developed by the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Act of 1985, which exempts refundable tax credits under the Internal Revenue Code from any federal sequestration.[2] Because Obamacare structured the premium subsidies as refundable tax credits, they remain exempt from the BCA sequestration.

However, with regard to sequestration’s spending reductions, the cost-sharing subsidies under Section 1402 of Obamacare are distinct from the premium subsidies under Section 1401 of the law in at least two significant ways:

  1. The language authorizing Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies is included as part of the Public Health Service Act (Title 42 of the U.S. Code). The sequester exemption for refundable tax credits requires that they be “made pursuant to provisions of Title 26” of the Internal Revenue Code.[3]
  2. Obamacare specifically requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “make periodic and timely payments to the issuer” of the insurance policy reflecting the increased cost-sharing. The sequester exemption in Gramm–Rudman–Hollings for refundable tax credits provides that only “payments to individuals,” not to insurance companies, are exempt from sequester reductions.[4]

For these reasons, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has concluded that the cost-sharing subsidies under Section 1402 of Obamacare “appear to be fully sequestrable” under the BCA.[5]

Administration Confirms Cuts but Has No Plan

The Administration has likewise agreed that the cost-sharing subsidies are subject to sequestration spending reductions. An Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report issued in May 2013 categorized the cost-sharing subsidies as mandatory spending subject to sequestration.[6]

The report further estimated that a 7.2 percent cut in these subsidies, as required by sequestration, would reduce spending by $286 million in fiscal year 2014—a period that covers the first nine months of Obamacare’s coverage expansions, from January through September 2014.[7]

However, the Administration has not been similarly forthcoming about how the 7.2 percent spending reductions will be applied. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Marilyn Tavenner acknowledged that CMS had not communicated to officials who are operating exchanges, both federal and state, how this sequestration will be applied to the cost-sharing subsidies. However, she pledged to do so “before open enrollment, which starts on October 1, 2013.”[8] To date, no guidance has been released by either CMS or OMB.

Limited Options

It is impossible to predict how CMS intends to implement the required sequestration reductions. In the absence of clear guidance from the Administration about the impact of sequestration, one can envision two possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Consumers Pay. Under this scenario, the individuals eligible for cost-sharing subsidies would face higher cost-sharing. Eligible individuals would face some combination of higher co-payments, higher deductibles, higher co-insurance, or the loss of some benefits to make up for the reduced cost-sharing subsidies.

The structure and requirements of sequestration place a high emphasis on regulatory guidance from CMS. The sequestration law requires that spending reductions “shall apply to all programs, projects, and activities within a budget account.”[9] But it remains unclear how the Administration will implement this requirement. For instance, CMS could decide to reduce all eligible individuals’ cost-sharing subsidies by an equal 7.2 percent. Alternatively, the Administration could try to implement the reductions on a sliding-scale basis so that households with lower incomes face a smaller-scale reduction.

However, because the Administration has not issued any form of guidance, the cost-sharing information currently published on the exchanges does not accurately reflect the impact of sequestration on the cost-sharing subsidies.[10] Thus, for those few individuals who have actually enrolled in subsidized health insurance on exchanges, their co-payments and cost-sharing may increase next year. Accurate information cannot exist until CMS publicly states how it intends to implement the required sequestration reductions.

Scenario 2: Insurers Pay. A second possible scenario would see insurers being forced to absorb the costs of the sequester reductions in cost-sharing subsidies themselves. CRS, examining Obamacare’s statutory requirements on insurers to provide cost-sharing reductions, considered this scenario a likely outcome:

The impact of sequestration is unclear. [Obamacare] entitles certain low-income exchange enrollees to coverage with reduced cost-sharing and requires the participating insurers to provide that coverage. Sequestration does not change that requirement. Insurers presumably will still have to provide required coverage to qualifying enrollees but they will not receive the full subsidy to cover their increased costs.[11]

This scenario would see insurers absorbing $286 million in losses in the law’s first nine months alone—losses that would grow over time. Citing estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, CRS noted that the federal government is scheduled to spend $149 billion on cost-sharing subsidies between 2014 and 2023.[12] Given that sequestration is scheduled to remain in place through 2021, the reductions in cost-sharing subsidies under current law would likely total several billion dollars at a minimum.

The scale of the numbers at issue raises questions about whether and under what circumstances insurance companies would actually continue to offer exchange coverage, knowing they would be guaranteed to incur losses if they do so.

More Than a “Glitch”

While Obamacare’s defenders are fond of claiming that “glitches” are the only thing holding back the law’s implementation, the Administration’s failure to confront the impact of BCA cuts signed into law two years ago is no mere “glitch.” Either individuals who endure an arduous process to sign up for insurance on balky exchanges will face a “bait-and-switch,” with cost-sharing levels higher than advertised, or insurers will face the prospect of billions of dollars in losses. Neither option is acceptable.

The Administration that promised to be the “most transparent and accountable” in history has neglected to inform the American people about the impact of sequestration on its prized accomplishment.

 



[1]See, for instance, Ezra Klein, “Democrats Should Surrender on Taxes,” Bloomberg, October 16, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-16/democrats-should-surrender-on-taxes.html (accessed October 24, 2013).

[2]2 U.S. Code 905(d).

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]C. Stephen Redhead, “Budget Control Act: Potential Impact of Sequestration on Health Reform Spending,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, May 31, 2013, Table 4, p. 22, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42051.pdf (accessed October 24, 2013).

[6]Office of Management and Budget, Revised Sequestration Preview Report for Fiscal Year 2014, May 20, 2013, p. 23, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/assets/legislative_reports/fy14_preview_and_joint_committee_reductions_reports_05202013.pdf, (accessed October 24, 2013).

[7]Ibid.

[8]Marilyn Tavenner, “PPACA Pulse Check,” testimony before the Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, August 1, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearing/ppaca-pulse-check (accessed October 24, 2013).

[9]2 U.S. Code 906(k)(2).

[10]Tavenner, “PPACA Pulse Check.”

[11]Redhead, “Budget Control Act,” p. 15.

[12]Ibid., Table 4, p. 23.