Third Dem Debate Leaves Major Health Care Questions Unanswered

For more than two hours Thursday night in Houston, 10 presidential candidates responded to questions in the latest Democratic debate. On health care, however, most of those responses didn’t include actual answers.

As in the past several contests, health care led off the debate discussion, and took a familiar theme: former vice president Joe Biden attacked his more liberal opponents for proposing costly policies, and they took turns bashing insurance companies to avoid explaining the details behind their proposals. Among the topics discussed during the health care portion of the debate are the following.

How Much—and Who Pays?

The problems, as Biden and other Democratic critics pointed out: First, it’s virtually impossible to pay for a single-payer health care system costing $30-plus trillion without raising taxes on the middle class. Second, even though Sanders has proposed some tax increases on middle class Americans, he hasn’t proposed nearly enough to pay for the full cost of his plan.

Third, a 2016 analysis by a former Clinton administration official found that, if Sanders did use tax increases to pay for his entire plan, 71 percent of households would become worse off under his plan compared to the status quo. All of this might explain why Sanders has yet to ask the Congressional Budget Office for a score of his single-payer legislation: He knows the truth about the cost of his bill—but doesn’t want the public to find out.

Keep Your Insurance, or Your Doctor?

Believe it or not, Biden once again repeated the mantra that got his former boss Barack Obama in trouble, claiming that if people liked their current insurance, they could keep it under his plan. In reality, however, Biden’s plan would likely lead millions to lose their current coverage; one 2009 estimate concluded that a proposal similar to Biden’s would see a reduction in private coverage of 119.1 million Americans.

For his part, Sanders and Warren claimed that while private insurance would go away under a single-payer plan, people would still have the right to retain their current doctors and medical providers. Unfortunately, however, they can no more promise that than Biden can promise people can keep their insurance. Doctors would have many reasons to drop out of a government-run health plan, or leave medicine altogether, including more work, less pay, and more burdensome government regulations.

Supporting Obamacare (Sometimes)

While attacking Sanders’ plan as costly and unrealistic, Biden also threw shade in Warren’s direction. Alluding to the fact that the Massachusetts senator has yet to come up with a health plan of her own, Biden noted that “I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack.”

Biden’s big problem: He wasn’t for Obamacare—at least not for paying for it. As I have previously noted, Biden and his wife Jill specifically structured their business dealings to avoid paying nearly $500,000 in self-employment taxes—taxes that fund both Obamacare and Medicare.

A March to Government-Run Care

I’ll give the last word to my former boss, who summed up the “contrasts” among Democrats on health care.

As I have previously noted, even the “moderate” proposals would ultimately sabotage private coverage, driving everyone into a government-run system. And the many unanswered questions that Democratic candidates refuse to answer about that government-run health system provide reason enough for the American people to reject all the proposals on offer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Nancy Pelosi’s Drug Pricing Proposal

During the midterm election campaign, Democrats pledged to help lower prescription drug prices. Since regaining the House majority in January, the party has failed to achieve consensus on precise legislation to accomplish that objective.

However, on Monday a summary of proposals by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)—which became public via leaks from lobbyists, of course—provided an initial glimpse of the Democrat leadership’s policy approach. Party leaders claimed the leaked document describes an old legislative draft (they would say that, wouldn’t they?).

The Good: Realigning Incentives in Part D

Among other proposals, the Pelosi proposal would rearrange the current Part D prescription drug benefit, and “realign incentives to encourage more efficient management of drug spending.” Under current law, once beneficiaries pass through the Part D “doughnut hole” and into the Medicare catastrophic benefit, the federal government pays for 80 percent of beneficiaries’ costs, insurers pay for 15 percent, and beneficiaries pay for 5 percent.

This existing structure creates two problems. First, beneficiaries’ 5 percent exposure contains no limit, such that seniors with incredibly high drug spending could face out-of-pocket costs well into the thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars.

The Pelosi proposal follows on plans by MedPAC and others to restructure the Part D benefit. Most notably, the bill would institute an out-of-pocket spending limit for beneficiaries (the level of which the draft did not specify), while reducing the federal catastrophic subsidy to insurers from 80 percent to 20 percent. The former would provide more predictability to seniors, while the latter would reduce incentives for insurers to drive up overall drug spending by having seniors hit the catastrophic coverage threshold and thus can shift most of their costs to taxpayers.

The Bad: Price Controls

The Pelosi document talks about drug price “negotiation,” but the policy it proposes represents nothing of the sort. For the 250 largest brand-name drugs lacking two or more generic competitors, the secretary of Health and Human Services would “negotiate” prices. However, Pelosi’s bill “establishes an upper limit for the price reached in any negotiation as no more than” 120 percent of the average price in six countries—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom—making “negotiation” the de facto imposition of price controls.

Drug manufacturers who refuse to “negotiate” would “be assessed an excise tax equal to 75 percent of annual gross sales in the prior year,” what Pelosi’s office called a “steep, retroactive penalty creat[ing] a powerful financial incentive for drug manufacturers to negotiate and abide by the final price.” Additionally, the “negotiated” price would apply not just to Medicare, but would extend to other forms of coverage, including private health insurance.

But the solution to that dilemma lies in trade policy, or other solutions short of exporting other countries’ price controls to the United States, as outlined in both the Pelosi and Trump approaches. Price controls, whether through the “negotiation” provisions in the Pelosi bill, or related provisions that would require rebates for drugs that have increased at above-inflation rates since 2016, have brought unintended consequences whenever policy-makers attempted to implement them. In this case, price controls would likely lead to a significant slowdown in the development and introduction of new medical therapies.

The Ugly: New Government Spending

While the price controls in the drug pricing plan have attracted the most attention, Democrats have mooted some version of them for years. Price controls in a Democratic drug pricing bill seem unsurprising—but consider what else Democrats want to include:

With enough savings, H.R. 3 could also fund transformational improvements to Medicare that will cover more and cost less—potentially including Medicare coverage for vision, hearing, and dental, and many other vital health system needs.

In other words, Pelosi wants to take any potential savings from imposing drug price controls and use those funds to expand taxpayer-funded health care subsidies. In so doing, she would increase the fiscal obligations to a Medicare program that is already functionally insolvent, and relying solely on accounting gimmicks included in Obamacare to prevent shortfalls in current seniors’ benefits.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Rant by Congressional Spouse Illustrates the Problem Facing American Health Care

Last week, the wife of Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) went on a self-described “rant on social media” about her health coverage.

Amanda Cunningham’s comments echo claims by Democratic lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) about the problems with their health coverage. For many members of Congress that comes via Obamacare-compliant policies sold on health insurance exchanges.

The comments raise one obvious question: If Democrats don’t like Obamacare plans for themselves, then why did they force all Americans to buy this insurance under penalty of taxation? But beyond demonstrating the bipartisan dissatisfaction with Obamacare, Amanda Cunningham’s story illustrates the larger problems plaguing the American health care system.

Mental Health Parity

In her Instagram post, Cunningham complained that under her Blue Cross Blue Shield policy, “all of my mental health therapy sessions are denied, in addition to all of our marriage counseling sessions.” She continued: “It’s just mind-blowing to me that these basic well-known needs, that mental health is health care, are still being denied, that we’re still fighting for these absolutely basic things—it’s unbelievable to me.”

Cunningham didn’t go into many specifics about her case, but on one level, her argument sounds compelling. The opioid crisis has shone a brighter spotlight on the people who need treatment to cover mental illness or substance use disorders. Congress passed mental health parity legislation (as part of the TARP bill, of all things) in 2008, and Section 1311(j) of Obamacare extended these provisions to exchange plans.

Other People’s Money

On the other hand, consider that members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000 annually—more than most Americans (myself included). Consider also that unlike all other Americans purchasing coverage on Obamacare exchanges (myself included), Cunningham, other members of Congress, and their staff receive (likely illegal) subsidies offsetting much of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

More importantly, consider that each coverage requirement on insurers—whether to cover a certain type of treatment (e.g., mental health, in-vitro fertilization, etc.) or treatments provided by a certain type of provider (e.g., marriage counselor, podiatrist, etc.)—raise the price of health insurance each month. Collectively, the thousands of mandates imposed nationwide increase premiums by hundreds of dollars per year.

They also send a paternalistic message to Americans: The policy-makers who impose these coverage requirements would rather individuals go uninsured, because their premiums have become unaffordable, than purchase a plan without the covered benefit or treatment in question.

She didn’t say it outright, but in her “rant,” Cunningham wanted to raise premiums on other Americans—most of whom earn far less than her family—so she would receive “free” therapy. Viewed from this perspective, her objections seem somewhat self-serving from a family in the upper tier of the income spectrum.

Therein lies the problem of American health care: Everyone wants to spend everyone else’s money rather than their own. Everyone wants “their” treatments—in this case, Cunningham’s counseling sessions—covered, even if others pay more. And if their chosen therapies are covered by insurance, with little to no cost-sharing, patients will consume more health care, because they believe they are spending their insurer’s money rather than their own.

Obamacare Made It Worse

The 2010 health care law didn’t cause this problem. However, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) noted in its November 2009 analysis of the legislation’s premium impacts, the federal benefit requirements included in the measure raised insurance rates significantly:

Because of the greater actuarial value and broader scope of benefits that would be covered by new nongroup policies sold under the legislation, the average premium per person for those policies would be an estimated 27 percent to 30 percent higher than the average premium for nongroup policies under current law (with other factors held constant). The increase in actuarial value would push the average premium per person about 18 percent to 21 percent above its level under current law, before the increase in enrollees’ use of medical care resulting from lower cost sharing is considered; that induced increase, along with the greater scope of benefits, would account for the remainder of the overall difference.

In CBO’s view, the law required people to buy richer insurance policies, and those richer policies encouraged people to consume more health care, both of which led to a rise in premiums. Unfortunately, that rise in premiums over the past several years has led millions of individuals who do not qualify for insurance subsidies (unlike Amanda Cunningham) to drop their coverage.

Get the Incentives Right

Sooner or later, our country will run out of other people’s money to spend on health care. Despite her impassioned plea, only a movement away from the solutions Cunningham advocated for can prevent that day from coming sooner rather than later.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Fundamental Dishonesty Behind Kamala Harris’ Health Plan

When analyzing Democrats’ promises on health care ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign, a researcher with the liberal Urban Institute earlier this year proffered some sage advice: “We should always be suspect of any public policy—especially when it comes to something as complicated as health care—when anybody tells us everybody is going to get more and pay less for it. It’s really not possible.”

Someone should have given that advice to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Her health plan, a modified version of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health care program that she released on Monday in a Medium post and on her website, pledges that it will lead to the following outcomes:

Every American will be a part of this new Medicare system….Seniors will see stronger Medicare benefits than they have now. We will cover millions more people who don’t have health insurance today. And we will reduce costs, save our country money, and ensure that no American has to sacrifice getting the care they need just because the cost is a barrier.

As with Barack Obama’s salesmanship of Obamacare more than a decade ago, Harris’ health plan relies upon the exact strategy the Urban Institute researchers decried of promising everything to everybody. In her socialist utopia, everyone will have coverage—coverage that provides better benefits than the status quo—even as health costs decline dramatically.

Like Obama’s “like your plan” pledge, which PolitiFact dubbed the “Lie of the Year” for 2013, Harris’ plan rests on optimistic scenarios that have little possibility of coming to fruition. But one false premise underpins the entire plan:

We will set up an expanded Medicare system, with a 10-year phase-in period. During this transition, we will automatically enroll newborns and the uninsured into this new and improved Medicare system, give all doctors time to get into the system, and provide a commonsense path for employers, employees, the underinsured, and others on federally-designated programs, such as Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act exchanges, to transition. This will expand the number of insured Americans and create a new viable public system that guarantees universal coverage at a lower cost. Expanding the transition window will also lower the overall cost of the program. [Emphasis mine.]

As any math major can explain, extending the transition window for a move to a single-payer health-care system will not, as Harris tries to claim, lower the overall cost of the program once the entire program takes effect. But it will significantly lower the cost of the program during the transition.

Extending the single-payer transition period to ten years—which conveniently coincides with the ten-year budget window that the Congressional Budget Office uses to analyze major legislation—will keep most of the program’s costs “off the books” and hidden from the public until after her proposal makes it on to the statute books. It also means that her plan wouldn’t take full effect until well after Harris leaves office, meaning she can blame her successor for any problems that occur during the implementation phase.

This fiscal gimmick—delaying most of the spending associated with single payer to outside the ten-year budget window—allows Harris to draw a contrast with Sanders, in which she claims that many middle-class families would not have to pay a single cent in added taxes for all the “free” health care they would receive under a single-payer system:

One of Senator Sanders’ options is to tax households making above $29,000 an additional 4% income-based premium. I believe this hits the middle class too hard. That’s why I propose that we exempt households making below $100,000 [from new taxes to pay for single payer], along with a higher income threshold for middle-class families living in high-cost areas.

Analysts from across the political spectrum agree that the $30 trillion (or more) in new taxes needed to fund a single-payer health care system cannot come from the wealthy alone. Yet Harris proceeds to make that exact argument—that the middle class can have all the “free” health care they want, with someone else footing the bill.

Apart from the fiscal legerdemain, the proposal contains other controversial provisions. While she now claims she would allow private insurance to continue—a reversal of her earlier comments this past January—Harris’ plan states that these insurers would get “reimbursed less than what the [government-run] Medicare plan will cost to operate.” She may tolerate private insurers for the sake of political expediency, but her bias in favor of the government-run plan demonstrates that they would have little more than a token presence in any system of her design.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Things to Know about “Surprise” Medical Bills

In recent months, lawmakers in Washington have focused on “surprise” medical bills. In large part, this term refers to two types of incidents: 1) individuals who received pre-arranged treatment at an in-network hospital, but saw an out-of-network physician (e.g., anesthesiologist) during their stay, or 2) individuals who had to seek care at an out-of-network hospital during a medical emergency.

In both cases, the out-of-network providers can “balance bill” patients—that is, send them an invoice for the difference between an insurer’s in-network payment and what the physician actually charged. Because these bills can become quite substantial, and because patients do not have a meaningful opportunity to consent to the higher charges—many patients never meet their anesthesiologist until the day of surgery, and few people can investigate hospital networks during an ambulance ride to the ER—policy-makers see reason to intervene.

1. Few Hospitals Comprise Most of the ‘Surprise’ Incidents

As a chart from The New York Times demonstrates, most hospitals had zero, or close to zero, out-of-network emergency room bills in 2015, according to a study by three Yale University professors:

“Surprise” bills applied in 22 percent of ER visits, but as a Times reporter noted, they are “not happening to some random set of patients in every hospital. [They’re] happening to a large percentage of patients in certain hospitals.”

As noted above, most hospitals don’t have this problem, because they keep their ER physicians and other doctors in-network. Unfortunately, however, the one-quarter or so of hospitals that have not forced their physicians in-network have made life difficult for the rest of the hospital sector.

The hospital industry should have done a much better job of policing itself and weeded out these “bad actors” years ago. Had they done so, the number of “surprise” bills likely would not have risen to a level where federal lawmakers demand action. However, the fact that these incidents still only occur in a minority of hospitals suggests reason for continued caution—because why should Congress impose a far-reaching solution to a “problem” that doesn’t affect most hospitals?

2. The Federal Government Has Little Reason to Intervene

Over and above the question of whether “surprise” bills warrant a legislative response, lawmakers should also ponder why that response must come from the federal government. Even knowledgeable reporters have (incorrectly) assumed that a solution to the issue must emanate from Washington because only the federal government can address “surprise” bills for self-funded employer plans. Not so.

ERISA, in this case, refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which regulates employer-provided health insurance. ERISA states that its provisions “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.”

But as that language indicates, ERISA applies only to the regulation of employee benefit plans—i.e., the employer as an insurer. It does not apply to the regulation of providers—i.e., hospitals, doctors, etc. As a Brookings Institution analyst admitted, states can, for instance, require hospitals to issue an in-network guarantee, ensuring that all doctors at an in-network hospital are considered in-network.

For most of the past year, interest groups have lobbied Congress on “surprise” billing. As one might expect, everyone wants a solution that takes patients out of the line of fire in negotiations between doctors, hospitals, and insurers, but no one wants to take a financial haircut in any solution that emerges.

The lack of agreement on a path forward indicates that Congress should take a back seat to the states, and let them innovate solutions to the issue. Indeed, several states have already enacted legislation on out-of-network bills, suggesting that Congress might do more harm than good by weighing in with its own “solution.”

3. Some Republicans Support Socialistic Price Controls

Both the comparatively isolated nature of the problem and the lack of a clear need for federal involvement suggest that some on the left continue to raise the “surprise” billing issue as part of a larger campaign. By establishing that the federal government should regulate the prices of health-care services—even those in private insurance plans—liberals can lay down a predicate for a single-payer health-care system that would do the exact same thing, just on a larger scale.

Sure enough, congressional Republicans, like Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, have endorsed legislation establishing a statutory cap on prices for out-of-network emergency services. (Remember: In policy-making, bipartisanship only occurs when conservatives agree to liberal policies.)

Both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee have introduced proposals that would engage in such federal price-fixing, although lawmakers recently modified the House bill to allow for binding arbitration between doctors and hospitals where the disputed sums exceed certain thresholds. Alexander wants to move his legislation on the Senate floor within weeks.

Last month, Alexander said he “instinctively” liked the in-network guarantee approach—which requires hospitals to have their physicians in-network, while letting insurers, hospitals, and doctors negotiate those in-network prices without setting them through government fiat. However, he told reporters that he ultimately endorsed the price-fixing approach because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) called it “the most effective at lowering health care costs.”

The retort to Alexander’s comment seems obvious: Of course, price-fixing will lower health care costs. Indeed, CBO said the price-fixing provision would save by far the greatest amount of money of any section of the nearly 250-page bill, because it “lower[s] payment rates” to physicians.

If Alexander suddenly wants to use price controls to lower health care costs, then why not regulate the prices of all health care services ($129.95 for surgery, anyone?)—or move to full-on single-payer? Because the quality of care will suffer too—as will American patients.

A Spoonful of Socialism, Anyone?

I noted above that the hospital industry caused the “surprise” billing problem in the first place. I have little love for hospital executives, many of whom behave like greedy monopolists, and who represent the single biggest argument for single-payer health care I can think of.

Yet however much hospital executives may have earned opprobrium by their conduct, the American people don’t deserve a single-payer system, with its massive economic disruption and its inferior care, foisted on them. They deserve better than federally imposed price controls as a “solution”—whether as the mere “spoonful of socialism” in the “surprise” billing legislation, or an all-out move to single-payer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Republicans Should Preserve Obamacare’s Cadillac Tax

Those seeking to understand why the United States faces out-of-control health-care costs need look no further than this week’s congressional agenda. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will likely vote on legislation to repeal Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans, a provision Congress has already delayed repeatedly.

Most economists agree that reforming the tax treatment of health insurance represents one key way to slow the growth of health-care costs. Yet neither party wants to take the courageous decisions required to do just that — even when, in this case, the “action” involved merely requires allowing a legislative provision already enacted to take effect.

The Conservative Approach to Controlling Costs

But from a conservative perspective, controlling health care costs in a broader sense involves getting incentives right. Reforming incentives can involve injecting more competition into the health care system — for instance, by improving generic drugs faster to help bring down prices. But it also requires reforms that encourage people to serve as smarter consumers of health care.

Health costs continue to skyrocket, in large part because individuals love to spend other people’s money. Few people can afford to pay for all their health care, such as major surgeries, out-of-pocket. Funding more care through third-party payments — a majority of Americans consume most of their health care through an insurer, and many insurers are chosen by an employer — increases spending.

The tax code exacerbates the third-party payment problem by allowing employers to provide health insurance to their workers on a tax-free basis. Economists agree that this tax preference encourages people to use more expensive health insurance than they need, and thus more health care than they need.

Why Do Conservatives Oppose a Conservative Reform?

However, the law used a clumsy approach to imposing this tax, on two levels. First, it applied the same 40 percent rate to all employer-provided policies, regardless of whether the particular affected workers came from a high-tax bracket, such as corporate CEOs, or a low-tax bracket, such as office janitors. Second, it imposed the tax as part of an overall package of revenue increases used to fund Obamacare.

Nonetheless, the “Cadillac tax” represents an important measure to control health care costs. Because Congress included this provision as part of Obamacare, Republicans could easily allow the measure to take effect while disclaiming responsibility for having enacted it. After all, everyone knows Obamacare passed with only Democratic votes.

Yet Republicans have spent the better part of the past decade trying to repeal this measure, without enacting a similar or better replacement that could control health care costs. Moreover, the House will apparently vote on the repeal this week without a full Congressional Budget Office score showing the sizable fiscal impact of that action.

Liberals’ Approach To Controlling Health Costs

Conservatives might not think a battle over the “Cadillac tax” is worth fighting. President Barack Obama’s attack ads from 2008 showed that “taxing health benefits” can prove incredibly politically powerful. (All the more ironic since the Obama White House insisted on including the “Cadillac tax” as part of Obamacare.)

But after watching the Democratic debates last month, conservatives should know that liberals have an “easy solution” to controlling health care costs: price controls, greater regulations, and more government control. After all, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer legislation exists in no small part to extend Medicare’s price controls over health care goods and services to all Americans, rather than just seniors.

If conservatives cannot support and implement changes that reform the incentives in the health care system, including reasonable limits on the tax treatment of employer-provided health coverage, they may end up bringing about the liberal alternative. And sooner than they think.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

California Is What’s Wrong with Obamacare

In recent days, California lawmakers have finalized their budget. The legislation includes several choices regarding health care and Obamacare, most of them incorrect ones. Doling out more government largesse won’t solve rising health costs, and it will cause more unintended consequences in the process.

Health Coverage for Individuals Unlawfully Present

This move has drawn the most attention, as the budget bill expands Medicaid coverage to illegally present adults aged 19-26. California will pay the full share of this Medicaid spending, as the federal government will not subsidize health coverage for foreign citizens illegally present in the United States.

As to those who disagree with this move, one can study the words of none other than Hillary Clinton. In 1993, she testified before Congress in opposition to giving illegal residents full health benefits, because “illegal aliens” were coming to the United States for health care even then:

We do not think the comprehensive health care benefits should be extended to those who are undocumented workers and illegal aliens. We do not want to do anything to encourage more illegal immigration into this country. We know now that too many people come in for medical care, as it is. We certainly don’t want them having the same benefits that American citizens are entitled to have.

If Clinton’s words don’t sound compelling enough, consider one way that California may finance these new benefits: By reinstating Obamacare’s individual mandate. To put it another way, people who obey the law (i.e., the mandate) will fund free health coverage for people who by definition have broken the law by coming to, or remaining in, the United States unlawfully.

A Questionable Individual Mandate

This issue faces multiple questions on both process and substance. First, the budget bill includes about $8 million for the state’s Franchise Tax Board to implement an individual mandate, but doesn’t actually contain language imposing the mandate. The bill that would reimpose the mandate, using definitions originally included in the federal law, passed the Assembly late last month, but faces opposition in the Senate.

Third, implementing the mandate imposes legal and logistical challenges. I argued in the Wall Street Journal last fall that states cannot require employers who self-fund health coverage to report their employees’ insurance coverage to state authorities. The mandate bill the Assembly passed does not include such a requirement.

Without a reporting requirement on employers, a mandate could become toothless, because the state would have difficulty verifying coverage to ensure compliance—people could lie on their tax forms and likely would not get caught. However, imposing a reporting regime, either through the mandate bill or regulations, would invite an employer to claim that federal labor law (namely, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act) prohibits such a state-based requirement.

More Spending on Subsidies

While the budget bill does not include an explicit insurance mandate, it does include more than $295 million to “provide advanceable premium assistance subsidies during the 2020 coverage year to individuals with projected and actual household incomes at or below 600 percent of the federal poverty level.”

Obamacare epitomized the problems that policy-makers face in subsidizing health insurance. The federal law includes a subsidy “cliff” at 400 percent of the poverty level. Households making just under that threshold can receive federal subsidies that could total as much as $5,000-$10,000 for a family, but if their income rises even one dollar above that “cliff,” they lose all eligibility for those subsidies.

By penalizing individuals whose incomes rise even marginally, the subsidy “cliff” discourages work. That’s one of the main reasons the Congressional Budget Office said Obamacare would reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs.

California decided to replace these work disincentives with yet more spending on subsidies. This year, the federal poverty level stands at $25,750 for a family of four—which makes 600 percent of poverty equal to $154,500. In other words, a family making more than $150,000 will now classify as “low-income” for purposes of the new subsidy regime.

Hypocrisy by Officials

The individual mandate bill gives a significant amount of authority for its implementation to Covered California, the state’s insurance exchange. The bill says the exchange will determine the amount of the mandate penalty, and determine who receives exemptions from the mandate.

Who runs California’s exchange? None other than Peter Lee, the man I previously profiled as someone who earns $436,800 per year, yet refuses to buy the exchange coverage he sells. Or, to put it another way, if the mandate passes, Lee will be standing in judgment of individuals who refuse to do what he will not—buy an Obamacare plan.

If you think that seems a bit rich, you would be correct. But it epitomizes the poor policy choices and hypocritical actions taken by officials to prop up Obamacare in California.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The CBO Report on Single Payer Isn’t the One We Deserve to See

On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a 30-page report analyzing a single-payer health insurance plan. While the publication explained some policy considerations behind such a massive change to America’s health care market, it included precious few specifics about such a change—like what it would cost.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), perhaps single payer’s biggest supporter, serves as the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. If he asked the budget scorekeepers to analyze his legislation in full to determine what it would cost, and how to go about paying for the spending, CBO would give it high-priority treatment.

But to the best of this observer’s knowledge, that hasn’t happened. Might that be because the senator does not want to know—or, more specifically, does not want the public to know—the dirty secrets behind his proposed health-care takeover?

Hypothetical Scenarios

The CBO report examined single payer as an academic policy exercise, running through various options for establishing and operating such a mechanism. In the span of roughly thirty pages, the report used the word “would” 245 times and “could” 209 times, outlining various hypothetical scenarios.

That said, CBO did highlight several potential implications of a single-payer system for both the demand and supply of care. For instance, “free” health care could lead to major increases in demand that the government system could not meet:

An expansion of insurance coverage under a single-payer system would increase the demand for care and put pressure on the available supply of care. People who are currently uninsured would receive coverage, and some people who are currently insured could receive additional benefits under the single-payer system, depending on its design. Whether the supply of providers would be adequate to meet the greater demand would depend on various components of the system, such as provider payment rates. If the number of providers was not sufficient to meet demand, patients might face increased wait times and reduced access to care.

The report noted that in the United Kingdom, a system of global budgets—a concept included in the House’s single-payer legislation—has led to massive strains on the health-care system. Because payments to hospitals have not kept up with inflation, hospitals have had to reduce the available supply of care, leading to annual “winter crises” within the National Health Service:

In England, the global budget is allocated to approximately 200 local organizations that are responsible for paying for health care. Since 2010, the global budget in England has grown by about 1 percent annually in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, compared with an average real growth of about 4 percent previously. The relatively slow growth in the global budget since 2010 has created severe financial strains on the health care system. Provider payment rates have been reduced, many providers have incurred financial deficits, and wait times for receiving care have increased.

While cutting payments to hospitals could cause pain in the short term, CBO noted that reducing reimbursement levels could also have consequences in the long term, dissuading people from taking up medicine to permanently reduce the capacity of America’s health-care market:

Changes in provider payment rates under the single-payer system could have longer-term effects on the supply of providers. If the average provider payment rate under a single-payer system was significantly lower than it currently is, fewer people might decide to enter the medical profession in the future. The number of hospitals and other health care facilities might also decline as a result of closures, and there might be less investment in new and existing facilities. That decline could lead to a shortage of providers, longer wait times, and changes in the quality of care, especially if patient demand increased substantially because many previously uninsured people received coverage and if previously insured people received more generous benefits.

That said, because the report did not analyze a specific legislative proposal, its proverbial “On the one hand, on the other hand” approach generates a distinctly muted tone.

Tax Increases Ahead

To give some perspective, the report spent a whopping two pages discussing “How Would a Single Payer System Be Financed?” (Seriously.) This raises the obvious question: If single-payer advocates think their bill would improve the lives of ordinary Americans, because the middle class would save so much money by not having to pay insurance premiums, wouldn’t they want the Congressional Budget Office to fully analyze how much money people would save?

During his Fox News town hall debate last month, Sanders claimed a large show of support from blue-collar residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for single payer. The ostensible support might have something to do with Sanders’ claim during the town hall that “the overwhelming majority of people are going to end up paying less for health care because they’re not paying premiums, co-payments, and deductibles.”

Where have we heard that kind of rhetoric before? Oh yeah—I remember:

At least one analysis has already discounted the accuracy of Sanders’ claims about people paying less. In scrutinizing Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign plan, Emory University economist Kenneth Thorpe concluded that the plan had a $10 trillion—yes, that’s $10 trillion—hole in its financing mechanism.

Filling that hole with tax increases meant that 71 percent of households would pay more under single payer than under the status quo, because taxes would have to go up by an average of 20 percentage points. Worse yet, 85 percent of Medicaid households—that is, people with the lowest incomes—would pay more, because a single-payer system would have to rely on regressive payroll taxes, which hit the poor hardest, to fund socialized medicine.

Put Up or Shut Up, Bernie

If Sanders really wants to prove the accuracy of his statement at the Fox News town hall, he should 1) ask CBO to score his bill, 2) release specific tax increases to pay for the spending in the bill, and 3) ask CBO to analyze the number of households that would pay more, and pay less, under the bill and all its funding mechanisms.

That said, I’m not holding my breath. A full, public, and honest accounting of single payer, and how to pay for it, would expose the game of three-card monty that underpins Sanders’ rhetoric. But conservatives should keep pushing for Sanders to request that score from CBO—better yet, they should request it themselves.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Bill Clinton’s Right: Pre-Existing Condition Vote IS “The Craziest Thing in the World”

The new House Democratic majority is bringing to the floor a resolution on Wednesday seeking to intervene in Texas’ Obamacare lawsuit. The House already voted to approve the legal intervention, as part of the rules package approved on the first day of the new Congress Thursday, but Democrats are making the House vote on the subject again, solely as a political stunt.

I have previously discussed what the media won’t tell you about the pre-existing condition provisions—that approval of these Obamacare “protections” drops precipitously when people are asked if they support the provisions even if they would cause premiums to go up. I have also outlined how a Gallup poll released just last month shows how all groups of Americans—including Democrats and senior citizens—care more about rising premiums than about losing their coverage due to a pre-existing condition.

Bill Clinton Got This One Right

The current system works fine if you’re eligible for Medicaid, if you’re a lower income working person, if you’re already on Medicare, or if you get enough subsidies on a modest income that you can afford your health care. But the people that are getting killed in this deal are small business people and individuals who make just a little too much to get any of these subsidies. Why? Because they’re not organized, they don’t have any bargaining power with insurance companies, and they’re getting whacked. So you’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have health care, and then the people who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It’s the craziest thing in the world.

Why did people “who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half”? Because of the pre-existing condition provisions in Obamacare.

Clinton knew of which he spoke. Premiums more than doubled from 2013 to 2017 for Obamacare-compliant individual coverage, only to rise another 30 percent in 2018. A Heritage Foundation paper just last March concluded that the pre-existing condition provisions—which allow anyone to sign up for coverage at the same rate, even after he or she develops a costly medical condition—represented the largest driver of premium increases due to Obamacare.

The Congressional Budget Office concluded that the law would reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2.5 million workers. Because so many people cannot afford their Obamacare coverage without a subsidy now that the law has caused premiums to skyrocket, millions of Americans are working fewer hours and earning less income precisely to ensure they maintain access to those subsidies. Obamacare has effectively raised their taxes by taking away their subsidies if they earn additional income, so they have decided not to work as hard.

Why Do Republicans Support This ‘Crazy’ Scheme?

Given this dynamic—skyrocketing premiums, millions dropping coverage, taxes on success—you would think that Republicans would oppose the status quo on pre-existing conditions, and all the damage it has wrought. But no.

Guarantees no American citizen can be charged higher premiums or cost sharing as the result of a previous illness or health status, thus ensuring affordable health coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: As a matter of policy, any proposal that retains the status quo on pre-existing conditions by definition cannot repeal Obamacare. In essence, this Republican proposal amounted to a plan to “replace” Obamacare with the Affordable Care Act.

Even more to the point: What’s a good definition for a plan that charges everyone the exact same amount for health coverage? How about “I’ll take ‘Socialized Medicine’ for $800, Alex”?

There are better, and more effective, ways to handle the problem of pre-existing conditions than Obamacare. I’ve outlined several of them in these pages of late. But if Republicans insist on ratifying Obama’s scheme of socialized medicine, then they are—to use Bill Clinton’s own words—doing “the craziest thing in the world.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: Inside the Trump Administration’s Debate over Expanding Obamacare

Last August, I responded to a New York Times article indicating that some within the Trump administration wanted to give states additional flexibility to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Since then, those proposals have advanced, such that staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) believe that they have official sign-off from the president to put those proposals into place.

My conversations with half a dozen sources on Capitol Hill and across the administration in recent weeks suggest that the proposal continues to move through the regulatory process. However, my sources also described significant policy pitfalls that could spark a buzz-saw of opposition from both the left and the right.

The Times reported that some within the administration—including CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House Domestic Policy Council Chairman Andrew Bremberg—have embraced the proposal. But if the plan overcomes what the Times characterized as a “furious” internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.

How It Would Work

After the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states as part of its 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate, the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting that ruling. While the court made expansion optional for states, the Obama administration made it an “all-or-nothing” proposition for them.

Under the 2012 guidance—which remains in effect—if states want to receive the enhanced 90 percent federal match associated with expansion, they must cover the entire expansion population—all able-bodied adults with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $35,000 for a family of four). If states expand only to some portion of the eligible population, they would only receive their regular Medicaid match of 50-76 percent, not the enhanced 90 percent match.

The Internal Debate

The August Times article indicated that, after considering partial expansion, the administration postponed any decision until after November’s midterm elections. Since that time, multiple sources disclosed to me a further meeting that took place on the topic in the Oval Office late last year. While the meeting was originally intended to provide an update for the president, CMS staff left that meeting thinking they had received the president’s sign-off to implement partial expansion.

Just before Christmas, during a meeting on an unrelated matter, a CMS staffer sounded me out on the proposal. The individual said CMS was looking for ways to help give states additional flexibility, particularly states hamstrung by initiatives forcing them to expand Medicaid. However, based on my other reporting, I believe that the conversation also represented an attempt to determine the level of conservative opposition to the public announcement of a decision CMS believes the president has already made.

Why Liberals Will Object

During my meeting, I asked the CMS staffer about the fiscal impacts of partial expansion. The staffer admitted that, as I had noted in my August article, exchange plans generally have higher costs than Medicaid coverage. Therefore, moving individuals from Medicaid to exchange coverage—and the federal government paying 100 percent of subsidy costs for exchange coverage, as opposed to 90 percent of Medicaid costs—will raise federal costs for every beneficiary who shifts coverage under partial expansion.

The Medicare actuary believes that the higher cost-sharing associated with exchange coverage will lead 30 percent of the target population—that is, individuals with incomes from 100-138 percent of poverty—to drop their exchange plan. Either beneficiaries will not be able to afford the premiums and cost-sharing, or they will not consider the coverage worth the money. And because 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage, the partial expansion change will save money in a given state—despite the fact that exchange coverage costs more than Medicaid on a per-beneficiary basis.

Why Conservatives Will Object

I immediately asked the CMS staffer an obvious follow-up question: Did the actuary consider whether partial expansion, by shifting the costs of expansion from the states to the federal government, would encourage more states to expand Medicaid? The staffer demurred, saying the actuary’s analysis focused on only one hypothetical state.

However, the CMS staffer did not tell me the entire story. Subsequent to my “official” meeting with that staffer, other sources privately confirmed that the actuary does believe that roughly 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage.

But these sources and others added that both the Medicare actuary and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree that, notwithstanding the savings from current expansion states—savings associated with individuals dropping exchange coverage, as explained above—the partial expansion proposal will cost the federal government overall, because it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

For instance, the Council of Economic Advisers believes that spending on non-expansion states who use partial expansion as a reason to extend Medicaid to the able-bodied will have three times the deficit impact as the savings associated with states shifting from full to partial expansion.

Because the spending on new partial expansion states will overcome any potential savings from states shifting from full to partial expansion, the proposal, if adopted, would appreciably increase the deficit. While neither CBO nor the Medicare actuary have conducted an updated analysis since the election, multiple sources cited an approximate cost to the federal government on the order of $100-120 billion over the next decade.

One source indicated that the Medicare actuary’s analysis early last summer arrived at an overall deficit increase of $111 billion. The results of November’s elections—in which three non-expansion states voted to accept expansion due to ballot initiatives—might have reduced the cost of the administration’s proposal slightly, but likely did not change the estimate of a sizable deficit increase.

A net cost of upwards of $100 billion, notwithstanding potential coverage losses from individuals dropping exchange coverage in current expansion states, can only mean one thing. CBO and the Medicare actuary both believe that, by lowering the cost for states to expand, partial expansion will prompt major non-expansion states—such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Who Will Support This Proposal?

Based on the description of the scoring dynamic my sources described, partial expansion, if it goes forward, seems to have no natural political constituency. Red-state governors will support it, no doubt, for it allows them to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime. Once CMS approves one state’s partial expansion, the agency will likely have a line of Republican governors out its door looking to implement waivers of their own.

But it seems unlikely that Democratic-led states will follow suit. Indeed, the news that partial expansion would cause about 30 percent of the target population to drop their new exchange coverage could well prompt recriminations, investigations, and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere. Because at least 3.1 million expansion beneficiaries live in states with Republican governors, liberals likely would object to the sizable number of these enrollees who could decide to drop coverage under partial expansion.

Conversely, conservatives will likely object to the high net cost associated with the proposal, notwithstanding the potential coverage losses in states that have already expanded. Some within the administration view Medicaid expansion, when coupled with proposals like work requirements, as a “conservative” policy. Other administration officials view expansion in all states as something approaching a fait accompli, and view partial expansion and similar proposals as a way to make the best of a bad policy outcome.

But Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable in society, because it gives states a higher match for covering able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities. In addition to objecting to a way partial expansion would increase government spending by approximately $100 billion, some conservatives would also raise fundamental objections to any policy changes that would encourage states to embrace Obamacare—and add even more able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls in the process.

Particularly given the Democratic takeover of the House last week, the multi-pronged opposition to this plan could prove its undoing. Democrats will have multiple venues available—from oversight through letters and subpoenae, to congressional hearings, to use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn any administration decisions outright—to express their opposition to this proposal.

A “strange bedfellows” coalition of liberals and conservatives outraged over the policy, but for entirely different reasons, could nix it outright. While some officials may not realize it at present, the administration may not only make a decision that conservatives will object to on policy grounds, they may end up in a political quagmire in the process.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.