What Exactly Is in the Obamacare “Stability” Deal?

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

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

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

Substance and Process Unclear

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

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

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

Then and Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Big Hospitals’ Obamacare Hypocrisy

As Republicans prepare legislation to repeal Obamacare, the health care industrial complex has raised a host of concerns. Notably, two hospital associations recently released a report highlighting the supposed negative implications of the reconciliation bill Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, late last year.

While the hospitals allege that repealing Obamacare would decimate their industry, their report cleverly omits four inconvenient truths.

1. They Pushed Bad Ideas Because They Expect Bailouts

Kahn gave a simple, yet cynical, reply: “You could say, did you make a bad deal, and fortunately, I don’t think I’ll probably be working after 2020 [Laughter.]….I’m glad my contract only goes another six years. [Laughter.]”

Fast-forward those six years to earlier this fall, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed the effects of various Obamacare provisions on hospital margins. The report concluded that even under the best-case scenario—in which hospitals achieve a level of efficiency non-partisan experts doubt they can reach—the revenue from Obamacare’s coverage expansions will barely offset the negative effects of the productivity adjustments. Under the worst-case scenario, more than half of hospitals could become unprofitable by 2025, and the entire industry could face negative profit margins.

Kahn knew full well in August 2010 that Obamacare would eventually decimate his industry, through the cumulative effect of year-over-year reductions in Medicare payments. The laughter during his comments demonstrates Kahn thought it was one big joke. He and his colleagues cynically calculated first that they wouldn’t be around when those payment reductions really started to bite; and second that Congress would bail the hospitals out of their own bad deal—essentially, that hospitals are “too big to fail.”

2. Hospitals Supported Raiding Medicare to Pay for Obamacare

Last year’s reconciliation bill essentially undid the fiscal legerdemain that allowed Obamacare to pass in the first place. In the original 2010 legislation, Democrats used savings from Medicare both to improve the solvency of Medicare (at least on paper) and to fund the new entitlements.

The reconciliation bill would have repealed the new entitlements, and—in a truly novel concept—used Obamacare’s Medicare savings to…save Medicare. Instead, the hospital industry wants to continue the budget gimmickry that allows Medicare money to be spent twice and used for other projects.

3. Hospitals Believe Entitlements Are for Them, Not You

In theory, individuals receiving cash contributions in lieu of Medicaid coverage could improve their health in all sorts of ways—buy healthier food, obtain transportation to a higher-paying job, move to a better apartment closer to parks and recreation. But who would object to giving patients cash to improve their health instead of insurance? You guessed it: Hospitals.

Hospitals view Medicaid as their entitlement, not their patients’. That’s why hospitals have worked so hard for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. It’s also why they wouldn’t support diverting money from coverage into other programs (e.g., education, housing, nutrition, etc.) that could actually improve patients’ health more than insurance, which has been demonstrated not to improve physical health outcomes.

4. Insisting Health Care Is Their Personal Jobs Program

Hospitals will claim that repealing Obamacare will cost industry jobs, just as they pushed for states to expand Medicaid as a way to create jobs. But economic experts on both sides of the aisle find this argument frivolous at best. As Zeke Emanuel, a former Obama administration official, has noted: “Health care is about keeping people healthy or fixing them up when they get sick. It is not a jobs program.”

The health-care sector seems to believe they have a God-given right to consume at least one-sixth of the economy (and growing). Rebutting hospitals’ argument—that they, and only they, can create jobs—might represent the first step in lowering health costs, which would help non-health sectors of the economy grow more quickly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Repealing “Son of Obamacare”

The election of Donald Trump brings conservatives an opportunity to repeal a misguided piece of health care legislation that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, will blow a major whole in our deficit, has led to thousands of pages of regulations, and will further undermine the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.

Think I’m talking about Obamacare?

I am — but I’m not just talking about Obamacare.

I’m also talking about the Medicare and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), which passed last year (with a surprising level of Republican support) and contains many of the same flaws as Obamacare itself.

Just as Republicans are preparing legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, they also need to figure out how to undo MACRA.

Last month, the Obama administration released a 2,398-page final regulation — let me say that again: a 2,398-page regulation — implementing MACRA’s physician reimbursement regime.

In the new Congress, Republicans can and should use the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval revoking this massive new regulation. They can then set about making the changes to Medicare that both Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have discussed: getting government out of the business of 1) fixing prices and 2) micro-managing the practice of medicine.

MACRA’S FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED, STATIST APPROACH

Since the administration released its physician-payment regulations — nearly as long as Obamacare itself – some commentary has emphasized (rightly) the burdensome nature of the new federal regulations and mandates.

But the more fundamental point, rarely made, is that we need more than mere tweaks to free doctors from an ever-tightening grip exercised by federal overseers. After more than a half century of failed attempts at government price-setting and micro-management of medical practice, it’s time to get Washington out of the business of playing “Dr. Sam” once and for all.

In fact, even liberals tend to acknowledge this occasionally. In a May 2011 C-SPAN interview, Noam Levey of the Los Angeles Times asked then-administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Donald Berwick why he thought the federal government could use Medicare as it exists to reform the health-care system:

In nearly half a century of federal-government oversight, the federal government hasn’t succeeded in two really important things: Number one, Medicare costs are still growing substantially more quickly than the economy; and number two, that fragmented [health care] system . . . has persisted in Medicare for 46 years now. . . . Why should the public, when it hears you, when it hears the President say, “Don’t worry, this time we’re going to make it better, we’re going to give you a more efficient, higher-quality health care system,” why should they believe that the federal government can do now what it essentially hasn’t really been able to do for close to half a century? [Emphasis added] 

Dr. Berwick didn’t really answer the question: He claimed that fragmented care issues “are not Medicare problems — they’re health system problems.” But in reality, liberal organizations like the Commonwealth Fund often argue Medicare can be leveraged as a model to reform the entire health care system — and that is exactly what MACRA, in defiance of historical precedent, tries to do.

When a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report examined the history of various Medicare payment demonstrations, it concluded that most had not saved money. A seminal study undertaken by MIT’s Amy Finkelstein concluded that the introduction of Medicare, and specifically its method of third-party payment, was one of the primary drivers of the growth in health-care spending during the second half of the 20th century.

After five decades of failed government control and rising costs driven by the existing Medicare program, the solution lies not in more tweaks and changes to the same program.

The answer lies in replacing that program with a system of premium support that gets the federal government out of the price-fixing business entirely.

The notion that the federal government can know the right price for inhalation therapy in Birmingham or the appropriate reimbursement for a wart removal in Boise is a fundamentally flawed and arrogant premise — one that conservatives should whole-heartedly reject.

Unfortunately, most critics of MACRA have not fully grasped this. A law that prompts the federal bureaucracy to issue a sprawling regulation of nearly 2,400 pages cannot on any level be considered conceptually sound.

Believing otherwise echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous maxim about consensus politicians and conviction politicians: Some analysts, seeking a consensus among their fellow technocrats, push for changes to make the 2,400-page rule more palatable. But our convictions should have us automatically reject any regulation with this level of micro-management and government-enforced minutiae.

THE NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE REFORM

It bears worth repeating that, in addition to perpetuating the statist nature of Medicare, MACRA raised the deficit by over $100 billion in its first ten years — and more thereafter — while not fundamentally solving the long-term problem of Medicare physician-payment levels.

More than a decade ago, after President Bush and a Republican Congress passed the costly Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), creating the Part D prescription-drug entitlement, conservatives argued even after the law’s passage that the new entitlement should not take effect. If the MMA was “no Medicare reform” for including only a premium-support demonstration project, conservatives should likewise reject MACRA, which includes nothing – not even a demonstration project — to advance the premium-support reform Medicare truly needs.

Any efforts focused on building a slightly better government health-care mousetrap distract from the ultimate goal: removing the mousetrap entirely. In his 1964 speech A Time for Choosing, Reagan rejected the idea “that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves” — and Republicans should do the same today.

In the context of health care, this means not debating the details of MACRA but replacing it, sending power back to where it belongs — with the people themselves.

Last week’s election results give the new Congress an opportunity to do just that, by disapproving the MACRA rule and moving to enact comprehensive Medicare reform in its place. After more than five decades of the same statist health care policies, it’s finally time for a new approach. Here’s hoping Congress agrees.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Gov. Jindal Op-Ed: On Obamacare, Better Late than Never

Little wonder why President Obama decided not to put all those health care negotiations on C-SPAN. In recent weeks, several videos have emerged featuring Jonathan Gruber—who famously received nearly $400,000 in contracts from the Department of Health and Human Services as a technical adviser on Obamacare—revealing inconvenient truths about the way the law was enacted.

In talking about “the stupidity of the American voter,” Gruber admitted several deceptions used to sell Obamacare. In discussing the individual mandate—which Barack Obama famously said was “absolutely” not a tax increase—Gruber said that if Democrats had called the mandate a tax increase in 2010, “the bill dies.” He admitted that Obamacare will substantially raise premiums on younger Americans, in a massive redistribution of wealth. And he argued that “basic exploitation of the lack of economic misunderstanding of the American voter” allowed Democrats to pass a massive tax increase on the middle class—even though candidate Obama in 2008 made a “firm pledge” that “no family making less than $250,000 a year” would see “any form of tax increase.”

Of course, President Obama broke many other promises to ram his unpopular law through Congress. Last year this time, millions of people found the lie in “If you like your plan, you can keep it,” receiving cancellation notices in the mail. Many other Americans have found they can’t keep their doctor—or that, if they can keep their doctor, it will cost them much more, because Obamacare’s new coverage requirements have forced insurance companies to narrow their doctor networks in a vain attempt to minimize premium increases. And of course, the “most transparent” Administration utterly failed to keep candidate Obama’s repeated pledge to negotiate the bill in the public eye, rather than in backroom dealings with Washington special interests.

But the biggest broken promise of all was the promise that Obamacare would reduce health care costs. President Obama promised repeatedly that his plan would lower premiums by $2,500 for the average family—and do so within his first four years. He hasn’t come close. Premiums for employer provided coverage have risen by an average of $4,154 per family since President Obama was first elected. Overall, American families have faced a 33 percent increase in their premiums, from $12,680 to $16,834, because premiums and health costs have risen, not fallen, under Obamacare. And things will only get worse; the law itself will raise health spending by $621 billion in the coming decade, according to the Administration’s own actuaries.

Mr. Gruber and the other know-it-alls designed Obamacare as a top down government centered approach where costs are high, and Washington bureaucrats are driving the train and making decisions about our health care. It was always meant to be a closed system that puts bureaucrats in the waiting room with you and your doctor. The Left’s mindset on expanding Medicaid was a terrible totally misguided idea, putting quantity over quality.

Expanding Medicaid represents government doubling down on a program whose health outcomes range from marginal to horrendous. Medicaid was set up by Congress in order to provide a safety net for the disabled and truly needy, yet this President has turned it into yet another massive entitlement program, while we can’t pay for our existing programs.  It is the absolute height of irresponsibility.

Real healthcare outcomes stem from patients and their doctors working together in an open health care system. Decisions about our health care should not be made top-down, politically.

Better late than never for President Obama himself to embrace reforms that can reduce costs, not raise them. As a Christian, I firmly believe in the redemptive power of second chances. Here’s hoping that the new Congress and those in Washington take the opportunity fully within their grasp.

This post was originally published at the Bossier Press.

Donald Berwick’s Rationed Transparency

Dr. Donald Berwick is back in the public eye. The former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced he will run for governor in Massachusetts.

Berwick first entered the public spotlight in April 2010, when President Obama nominated him for the CMS post. But Berwick never went through the regular confirmation process. Instead, the president granted him a surprise recess appointment that July.

The president renominated him in January 2011, but it became apparent that he could not garner enough votes for Senate confirmation. That December, Berwick resigned. Now, he is pursuing office as an elected, rather than an appointed, official.

Berwick’s short tenure at CMS was defined by a series of controversial statements he made before his appointment. He defended both Britain’s National Health Service and government rationing of health care. Most famously, in a June 2009 interview, he stated that “the decision is not whether or not we will ration care — the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”

After leaving CMS, Berwick said his comments were merely an attempt to argue for greater transparency in decision-making. “Someone, like your health-insurance company, is going to limit what you can get. That’s the way it’s set up,” he told the New York Times. “The government, unlike many private health-insurance plans, is working in the daylight,” he insisted. “That’s a strength.”

Unfortunately, Berwick himself, while head of CMS, went to great lengths to avoid transparency. He ducked reporters, in one instance even “exit[ing] behind a stage” to avoid press queries. Another time he went so far as to request a “security escort” to avoid questions.

Today, Berwick concedes his lack of transparency. According to a Politico report, he now “regrets listening to White House orders to avoid reaching out to congressional Republicans.”

The lack of transparency is endemic in the Obama administration. Case in point: the enactment of Obamacare. During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised health-care negotiations televised on C-SPAN. Instead, we got a series of notorious backroom deals: the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, the Gator Aid.

“It’s an ugly process, and it looks like there are a bunch of backroom deals,” Obama feebly admitted in January 2010 — only to retreat again to the smoke-filled rooms two months later, where he cut the final deals to ram the legislation through Congress.

Obamacare is premised on the belief that government knows best. And those who share that belief all too often regard transparency and public accountability as inconveniences.

Consider the administration’s approach to regulating the proposed health-insurance “exchanges.” Obamacare requires state-based exchanges to “hold public meetings and input sessions,” but it fails to apply these same transparency standards to the federally run exchanges Washington will create in 33 states. The result: Many key questions remain unanswered.

Thus a law written in secret is being implemented in secret, with a maximum of opacity and a minimum of accountability from the administration.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Weekly Newsletter: April 7, 2008

Democrats Plot Restrictions on Health Savings Accounts

Reports surfaced this week that the Democratic majority may be attempting to enact new restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as part of upcoming health legislation. The proposal being discussed would require that all HSA account holders submit information showing what portion of their HSA expenditures in a given year have been independently verified as constituting qualified medical expenses.

Available data suggest that the percentage of HSA funds being used for non-medical expenses is comparatively low—particularly upon close examination. For instance, purchases in a grocery store may at first blush appear irrelevant to HSA use—but in reality many of these transactions could involve permissible medical items (over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, prescriptions, medical supplies, etc.). And in those instances when individuals do use their HSA funds to make major non-health expenditures, the Internal Revenue Service has audit procedures in place to ensure that account-holders pay income taxes on non-qualified distributions—plus a 10% penalty to discourage such behavior.

When drafting the regulations implementing Health Savings Accounts in 2004, the Treasury Department attempted to create a framework that would ensure that HSA funds would be used for bona fide medical expenses, while avoiding burdensome regulations that would inhibit the growth of this innovative consumer-driven health product. The proposal under discussion places an additional burden on account holders to document their purchases—even the $3 bottle of cough syrup an individual might choose to buy at a grocery store like Safeway rather than at a CVS or other pharmacy—and may have a similarly chilling effect on insurance carriers and banks currently offering account-based products to individuals and employers.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this proposal represents the first of many impending attempts by the Democrat majority to enact burdensome and bureaucratic regulations undermining HSAs, which in a few short years have proven successful at slowing the growth of health costs and insurance premiums for millions of individuals and small businesses. Some conservatives may also be concerned that this particular provision, brought to the attention of the Democratic Ways and Means Committee staff by a former Republican staffer-turned-lobbyist, may constitute a legislative “earmark” drafted specifically to benefit one company (Evolution Benefits) seeking to market its substantiation technology to HSA administrators.

The attached policy brief explains the issue in further detail. The RSC will continue to monitor this or any similar attempts to enact burdensome restrictions on HSAs, and will weigh in to protect the important consumer-driven health programs which Republicans have succeeded in establishing in recent years.

House Committee Attempts to Override Medicaid Regulations Restoring Fiscal Integrity…

This past Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a Subcommittee hearing on legislation (H.R. 5613) that would impose moratoria on several proposed regulations issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restore fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program. The regulations come as a response to more than a dozen Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports released since 1994 highlighting the various ways states have attempted to “game” the Medicaid program, reducing their share of program spending through various mechanisms designed primarily to increase the amount of federal matching funds received. The Energy and Commerce Committee may mark up legislation overriding the regulations as soon as this week.

While several state officials testified about the impact that the proposed regulations would have on their Medicaid programs in the current economic downturn, many conservatives may be concerned about the ways in which various questionable financing schemes—some of which have been used by states for more than a decade—have left Medicaid paying for non-health-related activities, such as trips to grocery stores and bingo games. With the proposed regulations reducing the federal share of Medicaid spending by only 1% over the next five years, some conservatives may have concerns should Congress attempt to override CMS’ modest attempts to restore fiscal integrity to Medicaid. However, some conservatives may embrace the opportunity presented by this discussion to advance concepts for more comprehensive reform of Medicaid program financing, to control health care costs and set clear fiscal priorities for the use of scarce federal dollars.

RSC Policy Briefs on the federal-state Medicaid relationship can be found here and here.

…While Marking Up New Regulations on Tobacco

Thursday’s hearing in the Health Subcommittee followed Wednesday’s full Energy and Commerce Committee markup of legislation (H.R. 1108) that would impose authority on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tobacco. While the bill as modified in Committee altered proposed “user fee” language, some conservatives may remain concerned that the bill would impose additional free speech and marketing restrictions on tobacco companies, and could increase black market activity of tobacco products. Some conservatives may also echo the statements of FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, who has stated that tobacco regulation is not in line with FDA’s core mission—and question why Congressional Democrats who have criticized the FDA’s handling of various matters related to food and drug safety now consider the agency competent to regulate tobacco products.

The RSC will be monitoring this legislation as it makes its way to the House floor, and will be weighing in during the process to express conservatives’ concerns.

Interview of Note: “Crisis? What Crisis?”

This past week, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Pete Stark (D-CA) appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss the Medicare trustees’ report released during the congressional recess. When asked about the impact of the trustees’ projection that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would become insolvent in 2019—just over one decade from now—Stark answered: “I don’t think it makes any difference what they say.” This followed on the heels of his statement at Tuesday’s Health Subcommittee hearing that “Medicare is not in crisis.”

Many conservatives may be concerned by Chairman Stark’s insouciance at a time when the federal government faces spiraling costs for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security that both the Medicare trustees and most independent observers agree are unsustainable. Many conservatives believe that the time has long since arrived for the federal government to place its own fiscal house in order, because, as countless homeowners have observed in recent months, further delay will do nothing to prevent the problem—and will only make the ultimate solution harder on all parties.