Exclusive: Congress Should Investigate, Not Bail Out, Health Regulators Who Risked Billions

What if a group of regulators were collectively blindsided by a decision that cost their industry billions of dollars? One might think Congress would investigate the causes of this regulatory debacle, and take steps to ensure it wouldn’t repeat itself.

Think again. President Trump’s October decision to terminate cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidy payments to health insurers will inflict serious losses on the industry. For October, November, and December, insurers will reduce deductibles and co-payments for certain low-income exchange enrollees, but will not receive reimbursement from the federal government for doing so. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, claimed in a recent court filing that insurance carriers will suffer $1.75 billion in losses over the remainder of 2017 due to the decision.

As Dave Anderson of Duke University recently noted, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet Congress has asked not even a single question of regulators why they did not anticipate and plan for this scenario—a recipe for more costly mistakes in the future.

A Brewing Legal and Political Storm

The controversy surrounds federal payments that reimburse insurers for lower deductibles, co-payments, and out-of-pocket expenses for qualifying low-income households purchasing exchange coverage. While the text of Obamacare requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to reimburse insurers for providing the discounts, it nowhere includes an explicit appropriation for such spending.

As the exchanges launched in 2014, the Obama administration began making CSR payments to insurers. However, later that year, the House of Representatives, viewing a constitutional infringement on its “power of the purse,” sued to stop the executive from making the payments without an explicit appropriation. In May 2016, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional absent an express appropriation from Congress.

The next President could easily wade into this issue. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress. Such an action could take effect almost immediately….It’s a consideration as carriers submit their bids for next year that come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different.

One week after my article, Collyer issued her ruling calling the subsidy payments unconstitutional. At that point, CSR payments faced threats from both the legal and political realms. On the legal front, the ongoing court case could have resulted in an order terminating the payments. On the political side, the new administration would have the power to terminate the payments unilaterally—and it does not appear that either Hillary Clinton or Trump ever publicly committed to maintaining the payments upon taking office.

Yet Commissioners Stood Idly By

In the midst of this gathering storm, what actions did insurance commissioners take last year, as insurers filed their rates for the 2017 plan year—the plan year currently ongoing—to analyze whether cost-sharing payments would continue, and the effects on insurers if they did not? About a week before the Trump administration officially decided to halt the payments, I submitted public records requests to every state insurance commissioner’s office to find out.

Two states (Indiana and Oregon) are still processing my requests, but the results from most other states do not inspire confidence. Although a few states (Illinois, Utah, and California’s Department of Managed Health Care) withheld documents for confidentiality or logistical reasons, I have yet to find a single document during the filing process for the 2017 plan year contemplating the set of circumstances that transpired this fall—namely, a new administration cutting off the CSR payments.

In many cases, states indicated they did not, and do not, question insurers’ assumptions at all. North Dakota said it does not dictate terms to carriers (although the state did not allow carriers to re-submit rates for the 2018 plan year after the administration halted the CSR payments in October). Wyoming said it did not issue guidance to carriers on CSRs “because that’s not how we roll.” Missouri did not require its insurers to file 2017 rates with regulators, so it would have no way of knowing those insurers’ assumptions.

Other states admitted that they did not consider the possibility that the incoming administration would, or even could, terminate the CSR payments. North Carolina said it did not think the court case was relevant, or that cost-sharing reduction payments would be an issue. Massachusetts’ insurance Connector (its state-run exchange) responded that “there was no indication that rates for 2017 were affected by the pendency of House v. Burwell,” the case Collyer ruled on in May 2016.

Despite the ongoing court case and the deep partisan disputes over Obamacare, many commissioners’ responses indicate a failure to anticipate difficulties with cost-sharing reduction payments. Mississippi stated that, during the filing process for 2017, “CSRs weren’t a problem then, as they were being funded.” Minnesota added that “it was not until the spring of 2017 that carriers started discussing the threat [of CSR payments being terminated] was a real possibility.” Nebraska stated that “I don’t think that there’s anyone who allowed for the possibility of non-payment of CSRs for plan year 2017. We were all waiting for Congress to act.”

However, as an e-mail sent by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to state regulators demonstrates, federal authorities at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated their “serious concerns” with the Texas and New Mexico proposals. Federal law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for qualifying beneficiaries, regardless of the status of the reimbursement program, and CMS believed the contingency language—which never went into effect in either Texas or New Mexico—violated that requirement.

In at least one case, an insurer raised premiums to reflect the risk that CSR payments could disappear in 2017. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana submitted such request to that state’s insurance authorities. However, regulators rejected “contingent CSR language”—apparently an attempt to cancel the reduced cost-sharing if reimbursement from Washington was not forthcoming, a la the Texas and New Mexico proposals. The insurance commissioner’s office also objected to the carrier’s attempt to raise premiums over the issue: “We will not allow rates to be increased based on speculation about outcomes of litigation.”

Of course, had insurers requested, or had regulators either approved or demanded, premium increases last year due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reduction payments, they would not now face the prospect of over $1 billion in losses due to non-payment of CSRs for the last three months of 2017. But had regulators approved even higher premium increases last year, those increases likely would have caused political controversy during the November elections.

As it was, news of the average 25 percent premium increase for 2017 gave Trump a political cudgel to attack Clinton in the waning days of the campaign. One can certainly question why Democratic insurance commissioners who did not utter a word about premium increases and CSR “uncertainty” during Clinton’s campaign suddenly discovered the term the minute Trump was elected president.

However, at least some ardent Obamacare supporters just did not anticipate a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments. Washington state’s commissioner, Mike Kreidler, published an op-ed last October regarding the House v. Burwell court case. He did so at the behest of NAIC consumer representative Tim Jost, who wanted to cite Kreidler’s piece in an amicus curiae brief during the case’s appeal. But despite their focus on the court case regarding CSRs, it appears neither Jost nor Kreidler ever contemplated a new administration withdrawing the payments in 2017.

Congressional Oversight Needed

The evidence suggests that not a single insurance commissioner considered the impact of a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments in 2017, a series of decisions that put the entire health of the individual insurance market at risk. What policy implications follow from this conclusion?

First, it undercuts the effectiveness of Obamacare’s “rate review” process. That mechanism requires states to evaluate “excessive” premium increases. However, the program’s evaluation criteria do not explicitly include policy judgments such as those surrounding CSRs. Moreover, the political focus on lowering “excessively” high premium increases might result in cases where regulators approve premium rates set inappropriately low—as happened in 2017, where no carriers priced in a contingency margin for the termination of CSR payments, yet those payments ceased in October.

As noted above, Montana’s regulators called out that state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate for proposing a rate increase relating to CSR uncertainty. The state’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, issued a formal “letter of deficiency” in which she stated that “raising rates on the basis of this assumption [i.e., loss of cost-sharing reduction payments] is unreasonable.” But events proved Lindeen wrong—those payments did disappear in 2017. Yet the insurer in question has no recourse after their assumptions proved more accurate than Lindeen’s—nor, for that matter, will Lindeen face any consequences for the “unreasonable” assumptions she made.

Second, it suggests an inherent tension between state authorities and Washington. Several regulators specifically said they looked to CMS’ advice on the cost-sharing reduction issue. Iowa requested guidance from Washington, and Wisconsin said the status of the payments was “out of our hands.” But given the impending change of administrations, any guidance CMS provided in the spring or summer of 2016 was guaranteed to remain valid only through January 20, 2017—a problem for regulators setting rates for the 2017 plan year.

Obamacare created a new layer of federal oversight—and federal policy—surrounding regulation of insurance, which heretofore had laid primarily within the province of the states. The CSR debacle resulted from the conflict between those two layers. Unless and until our laws reconcile those tensions—in conservatives’ case, by repealing the Obamacare regime and returning regulation to the states, or in liberals’ preferred outcome, by centralizing more regulatory authority in Washington—these conflicts could well recur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it should spark Congress to examine state oversight of health insurance in greater detail. The fact that insurance commissioners escaped the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane—the withdrawal of CSR payments in January—and struggled through a mere tropical storm with payments withdrawn in October instead, had no relevance on their regulatory skill—to the contrary, in fact.

Unfortunately, Congress has demonstrated little interest in examining why the regulatory apparatus fell so short. The same Democratic Party that investigated regulators and bankers following the financial crisis has shown little interest in questioning why insurers and insurance regulators failed to anticipate the end of cost-sharing reduction payments. With their focus on getting Congress to appropriate funds restoring the CSR payments President Trump terminated, insurance commissioners’ lack of planning and preparation represents an inconvenient truth that Democrats would rather ignore.

Likewise, Republicans who wish to appropriate funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments have no interest in examining the roots of the CSR debacle. In September, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to take testimony from insurance commissioners on “stabilizing” insurance markets.

At the hearing, Alexander did not ask the commissioners why they did not predict the “uncertainty” surrounding cost-sharing reductions last year. HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Kreidler, her state’s insurance commissioner, about regulators’ “guessing games” regarding the status of CSRs with regard to the 2018 plan year. But neither she nor any of the members asked why those regulators made such blind and ultimately incorrect assumptions last year, by not even considering a scenario where CSR payments disappeared during the 2017 plan year.

Alexander and Murray claim the legislation they developed following the hearing, which would appropriate CSR funds for two years, does not represent a “bailout” for the insurance industry. But the fact remains that last fall, when preparing for the 2017 plan year, insurance regulators dropped the ball in a big way.

Ignoring their inaction, and appropriating funds for cost-sharing reductions without scrutinizing their conduct, would effectively bail out insurance commissioners’ own collective negligence. Congress should think twice before doing so, because next time, a regulatory debacle could have an even bigger impact on the health insurance industry—and on federal taxpayers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Jonathan Gruber, Transparency, and Obamacare’s IPAB

The administration faced a political firestorm last week, when videos emerged featuring MIT professor—and paid Obamacare consultant—Jonathan Gruber making comments on “the stupidity of the American voter,” and claiming that only a deliberately opaque and deceptive process was essential to the law’s enactment. But the administration may soon face a policy controversy as well—for the law features a board that can operate in nontransparent ways, and which will empower technocrats like Mr. Gruber himself.

While the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, may bring to mind the latest Apple product offering, the reality is far different. Designed to control health spending, the board of 15 experts—nominated by the president, based in part on suggestions from congressional leaders, and confirmed by the Senate—will have the power to make binding rulings to slow the growth in Medicare outlays. Furthermore, the administration’s budget proposed giving IPAB even more authority, by reducing the caps on Medicare spending the board will be charged to enforce.

IPAB has yet to be constituted. The budget sequester and other savings proposals have thus far kept Medicare spending below the targets that would trigger IPAB recommendations, and Republican leaders have indicated to President Barack Obama their disinclination to provide the White House suggestions for nominees. As a result, the president has yet to make formal nominations—not least because, if the Medicare spending target is reached, requiring IPAB to make formal recommendations to Congress, but IPAB does not do so, that power would then lie within the Department of Health and Human Services itself.

IPAB faces several characteristics that could imbue it with the lack of transparency Mr. Gruber infamously discussed in his speeches:

  • Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag wrote a piece for the New Republic in which he cited IPAB as one way to “counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a little less democratic.” In 2012, Politico stated that, while in the White House, Mr. Orszag had “pushed” to include the board in the law.
  • Section 3403 of Obamacare, which creates IPAB, does not require the board to conduct any open meetings. The law merely says that “the board may hold such hearings…as the board considers advisable;” it does not require IPAB to do so.
  • Likewise, while the law prohibits IPAB from “ration[ing] health care,” the term “rationing” is nowhere defined in statute. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded this point, and acknowledged that HHS would likely have to define “rationing” before the board could begin its work—but it has yet to do so.

Prior to the recent controversies, Mr. Gruber seemed like exactly the type of expert—an “individual with national recognition for [his] expertise in health finance and economics”—that might have received an appointment to IPAB. Interviewed for a 2011 article about who might serve on the board, Mr. Gruber didn’t rule it out entirely, while admitting that statutory restrictions on IPAB members’ outside activities might dissuade individuals from applying.

As it happens, Mr. Gruber currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Connector, an entity charged with implementing the Commonwealth’s health care overhaul. However, to judge from comments made to reporters last week, an aide to Gov. Deval Patrick seemed keen to downplay his influence: “When his term expires at some point, that will be a decision for someone else at that time.”

But beneath the political controversy lies a philosophical question. Fifty years ago last month, Ronald Reagan summarized the concern in his “A Time for Choosing” speech:

This is the issue of this election—whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Therein lies the Obama administration’s bigger problem—how to reconcile a law that increases the influence of independent experts with a high-profile example of such an expert who repeatedly treated American voters with open hostility and contempt. At a time when both the health care law and the federal government itself remain historically unpopular with voters, the Gruber controversy only heightens the perceived distance between the governing and the governed.

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

Health Insurance Connectors and Exchanges

History and Background:  The 2006 Massachusetts health reform act signed into law by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney contained several concepts designed to expand insurance coverage and access.  These ideas included a health insurance “Connector,” which would allow employees at businesses not offering coverage to their workers to purchase insurance on the same tax-free basis as those covered under a group insurance plan.[1]  Because the Connector’s structure ensures that participants would be eligible for the federal tax subsidies provided to employer-sponsored coverage through the use of cafeteria plans (also named Section 125 plans after their location in the Internal Revenue Code), the state-based program provides a “back door” way to equalize the tax treatment of health insurance in the absence of federal legislation to do so.

Public vs. Private:  Although one of the more innovative concepts behind the Massachusetts plan, some conservatives may view the Connector as one of the least necessary.  While the head of a leading organization supporting the Massachusetts plan called the Connector concept “fairly unprecedented in US insurance history” for its ability to allow individuals to comparison shop between and among plans online, the private marketplace has provided that service to consumers for over a decade.[2]  Companies like eHealthInsurance, created in 1998, and Revolution Health have served for years as online insurance clearing-houses, enabling and empowering consumers to compare the features of plans offered in their area and select a plan best meeting their needs.

Given the private marketplace’s willingness to offer services comparable to the Massachusetts Connector, some conservatives may therefore view its creation as a symptom of two larger problems: the inequitable tax treatment of health insurance by the federal government and costly regulations imposed by state governments.  In an attempt to encourage younger individuals to take the step of buying insurance coverage, the Connector does sell streamlined benefit packages to 19-26 year-olds at lower costs—but some conservatives may believe that these individuals, and all Massachusetts residents, would be better served by more comprehensive insurance reform that repeals costly benefit mandates entirely, rather than loosening them only for certain populations under certain conditions.

Likewise, while the Connector concept provides an innovative way to extend current-law tax incentives for the purchase of health insurance to all individuals, some conservatives may be concerned that, should such an idea extend to other states, such a development would have the effect of perpetuating a system that depresses cash wages, encourages over-consumption of care, and results in hundreds of billions of dollars of tax subsidies annually—more than $168 billion in FY09, and more than $1.05 trillion over the next five years.[3]  Were the tax subsidies reformed, and the state benefit mandates streamlined, pre-empted, or eliminated, some conservatives may believe that the need for a government-run bureaucratic entity such as the Connector to administer health insurance plans would be minimized.

Legal Issues:  Although the Connector received significant attention from both the press and policy-makers at the time the Massachusetts plan was unveiled, some within the insurance community have raised potential concerns about the implications of super-imposing the Connector purchasing model on the existing legal framework for health insurance.  The National Association of Health Underwriters has released a paper raising several questions about the ramifications of Connector-based coverage, including whether Connector-purchased policies meets the current definition of group health insurance under applicable federal laws.

It is also possible that state-based health insurance Connectors, whether in Massachusetts or other states, could have provisions interfering with language in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) pre-empting “any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee health benefit plan.”[4]  Given the potential legal scrutiny, as well as the implications for individuals who may need to transfer their Connector-based coverage to another state or employer, some conservatives may urge caution with any state efforts to enact other versions of Massachusetts’ creation.

Connector vs. Regulator:  The relative novelty of the Connector concept has resulted in several attempts in the two years since the Massachusetts plan was first adopted to capitalize upon its perceived success by creating similar sounding models in other states and venues.  However, these models often vary widely in their structure and approach, with the major differences lying in the extent to which the Connector or Exchange represents an attempt by a bureaucratic entity to use its collective purchasing power to regulate or otherwise influence private insurance markets.

Sen. Barack Obama’s health care plan would establish a National Health Insurance Exchange, to allow individuals who do not wish to purchase coverage through his proposed new public health insurance program a choice of privately-run plans from which to buy a policy.  However, the language of his proposal makes clear that the Exchange would perform a highly active role as both a facilitator of coverage and a regulator of those plans participating in it:

The Exchange will act as a watchdog and help reform the private insurance market by creating rules and standards for participating insurance plans to ensure fairness and to make individual coverage more affordable and accessible….Insurers would have to issue every applicant a policy, and charge fair and stable premiums that will not depend upon health status.  The Exchange will require that all the plans offered are at least as generous as the new public plan and meet the same standards for quality and efficiency.  Insurers would be required to justify an above-average premium increase to the Exchange.  The Exchange would evaluate plans and make the differences among the plans, including the cost of services, transparent.[5]

The clear language of the Obama plan may give some conservatives pause that a purported health insurance “Exchange” will in fact serve more as a regulator than a mere facilitator for the purchase of insurance policies, imposing additional mandates and controls on carriers that will stifle the innovation of new insurance products and raise the cost of coverage.  Some conservatives may also be concerned that the Obama plan could in time turn into a government-run monopsony, where the Exchange as the largest and/or sole purchaser of health insurance would use its power to dominate the insurance marketplace, imposing arbitrary and damaging price controls on plans as a precondition to their participation in a venue where many Americans would seek to purchase coverage.

By contrast, several Republican Senators produced legislation (S. 1886) last year with language ensuring that state-based Connectors serve only as a purchasing tool and not as a blunt instrument to allow the federal government to intervene in health insurance markets.  The legislation provides that the health insurance tax credits created under the bill would be refundable (i.e. extended to those individuals with tax liability less than or equal to the amount of the credit) only in the case of policies purchased through a state-based Exchange.  Title II of the legislation establishes strict parameters on the actions that an Exchange may take with respect to insurance policies offered through it, prohibiting the Exchange from setting prices, imposing additional benefit mandates or guidelines, or restricting participation for any state-licensed plan.  The legislation also provides the opportunity for health insurance plans or other third parties to contract with states to organize the exchange, rather than forcing states to spend additional taxpayer resources to create something readily available in the private marketplace, as occurred in Massachusetts.

Conclusion:  Although a significant element of the Massachusetts reform law, some conservatives may believe that the Connector’s creation achieved little in practice that the private marketplace was not already working to develop—namely, an easy method for individuals to find, compare, and purchase health insurance plans.  While the tax advantages of purchases made through the Connector (as opposed to on the individual market) cannot be denied, the advisability of using the Connector as anything more than a stopgap solution until Congress debates and passes fundamental tax reform—including reform of the inequities of the tax treatment of health insurance—may be questioned.  Moreover, Internal Revenue Service guidance released last August found that individual health insurance policies purchased through tax-free Section 125 cafeteria plans established by employers need not be acquired solely by means of a Connector mechanism to receive favorable tax treatment, raising additional questions as to whether an additional state-based bureaucracy for the purchase of health insurance is necessary or desirable.[6]

To the extent that Connector-like mechanisms provide additional information and transparency to potential purchasers of health insurance, some conservatives may support these efforts as one way to replicate the information and advice which individuals may previously have received solely from employers.  However, to the extent state or federal lawmakers seek to utilize the Connector concept in an attempt for government to dominate the private insurance marketplace, many conservatives may oppose these efforts as antithetical to the principles of freedom and likely unworkable in practice.

 

[1] While the Massachusetts Connector also offers access to state-subsidized Commonwealth Care plans for low-income individuals, references to “Connectors” in this paper speak solely to mechanisms that facilitate the purchase of unsubsidized insurance from the private marketplace.

[2] Statement of John McDonough, Executive Director, Health Care for All, Alliance for Health Reform briefing on “Massachusetts Health Reform: Bragging Rights and Growing Pains,” (Washington, DC, May 19, 2008), available online at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/Transcript-1219.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008), p. 9.

[3] Table 19-1, Estimates of Total Income Tax Expenditures, Analytical Perspectives, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009, available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2009/pdf/spec.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008), p. 302.

[4] 29 U.S.C. §1144a.

[5] “Barack Obama’s Plan for a Healthy America,” available online at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/HealthCareFullPlan.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008), p. 4.

[6] Internal Revenue Service Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued August 6, 2007 and available online at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/pdf/E7-14827.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008).  Language relating to reimbursement of individual health insurance premiums is in proposed 26 CFR §1.125-7(m) at pp. 43952-53.

An Individual Mandate to Purchase Health Insurance

Background:  Proposals requiring all individuals to obtain health insurance coverage date to the debate surrounding President Clinton’s health reform package in the early 1990s.  Supporters of an individual mandate often utilize two linked arguments in favor of this approach to health care reform.  First, an individual mandate promotes personal responsibility, ending the “free rider” problem whereby individuals who choose to go without health insurance pass on their costs to various publicly-funded safety net programs in the event of a medical emergency.  Second, some advocates of insurance “reforms” such as guaranteed issue and community rating—which require health insurance carriers to disregard applicants’ health status when extending offers of insurance—accept that placing such restrictions on carriers in the absence of a mandate to purchase insurance would only encourage individuals to “game” the system by waiting until they become sick to submit an insurance application.

Recent Proposals:  An individual mandate regained national prominence when then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) signed into law a comprehensive health reform plan in April 2006.  The mandate formed one of the bill’s central planks, which, when coupled with expansions of Medicaid and various low-income subsidies, was designed to achieve universal coverage within the state.  Although Romney had initially proposed that individuals be permitted to post a bond in lieu of proof of insurance coverage, the Legislature excluded this alternative from the final package.

In the time since enactment of the Massachusetts plan, some states (most notably California) have also studied the creation of a health insurance mandate, as have several federal policy-makers.  In January 2007, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) reintroduced the Healthy Americans Act (S. 334), co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT), and introduced in the House as H.R. 3163 by Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA).  Section 102(a) of the legislation requires all individuals to enroll in a Healthy Americans Private Insurance plan, unless the individual is covered under Medicare, other federal coverage for servicemen or veterans, or has a religious objection to purchasing health insurance.  The bill also defines a minimum benefit standard for insurance coverage, requiring all policies sold in compliance with the individual mandate to include health benefits actuarially equivalent to the benefit package offered in the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard option in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) as of January 1, 2007.

The Democratic presidential candidates have both supported mandates to purchase health insurance, although the scope of their respective mandates has become a subject of widespread debate during the primary season.  Sen. Hillary Clinton’s platform will require all individuals “to get and keep insurance in a system where insurance is affordable and accessible,” consistent with “promoting shared responsibility.”[1]  By contrast, Sen. Barack Obama’s plan “will require that all children have health care coverage,” but does not advocate a mandate for all individuals—although he has indicated an openness to consider one in the future should large numbers of adults choose not to purchase insurance.[2]  Although Clinton and Obama have promised all individuals access to insurance plans that would be “at least as good as” and “similar to” FEHBP coverage, respectively, neither candidate has elaborated on whether individuals (or children) with employer-sponsored or other coverage would need to maintain a benefit package equivalent to FEHBP standards in order to comply with the federal mandate.

Scope of the Mandate:  Key to determining the effectiveness of any health reform plan incorporating an individual mandate is the minimum level of coverage required to comply with the mandate.  In Massachusetts, a Connector Board comprised of various stakeholders decided that minimum creditable coverage for purposes of the mandate would include a maximum deductible of $2,000 per individual; prescription drug coverage will be required for plans beginning in 2009.  However, this mandated benefit package was not without consequences: As many as 15-20% of the uninsured were exempted from the mandate due to affordability issues—a number projected to increase in coming years—while more than 160,000 insured individuals could lose their creditable coverage when the prescription drug component of the mandate takes effect next year.[3]

During the Democratic presidential primaries, neither Sens. Clinton nor Obama have offered a comparable level of detail about the intended scope of their mandates.  However, their frequent repetition of the mantra that all Americans deserve coverage equivalent to Members of Congress could result in a threshold similar to the Wyden-Bennett bill’s Blue Cross Blue Shield FEHBP Standard plan.  But unstated in their rhetoric is the fact that the $431 monthly premium charged for this plan during 2007 exceeds by more than 15% the average cost of group health insurance in the same year, according to the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation.[4]  Thus, despite the promises made in her health plan that families who like the coverage they have now can keep it, adopting the FEHBP standard as part of Sen. Clinton’s individual mandate could force many Americans to drop their existing coverage.

Apart from the costs associated with subsidizing an FEHBP-like benefit package for low-income families, some conservatives may have concerns about the implications of such coverage with regard to controlling health care costs.  Utilizing the low-deductible, high-cost plans common in FEHBP could prove antithetical to slowing the growth in health spending, as the third-party payment and first-dollar coverage in such plans tends to encourage beneficiaries to over-consume coverage, particularly for routine expenses.  Furthermore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jonathan Gruber, a key member of the Connector Board that defined Massachusetts’ mandate, notes that a mandate linked to the FEHBP standard would “rule out high-deductible plans…it would make it very difficult to design one that would qualify.”[5]  Conservatives may be concerned that the millions of individuals and businesses who have utilized Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to build savings and reduce their premium costs could be forced to find new coverage, potentially increasing costs for business and creating additional disruption in insurance markets.

In addition to requiring an overall level of coverage, a federal mandate could include prescriptions on the types of benefits plans must offer and individuals must purchase.  Although economists such as Mark Pauly of the Wharton School of Business have advocated for an actuarial equivalence model—whereby individuals subject to the mandate would have to purchase benefits equal to a certain dollar level, but carriers could remain innovative in creating benefit packages as they see fit—previous experience from the federal and state levels suggests that such a “hands-off” scenario is unlikely to emerge.[6]  For instance, section 113(b)(3) of the Wyden-Bennett bill requires carriers to make coverage for abortion services available, troubling many conservatives.  Similarly, influence from disease and medical specialty groups in recent years has led to the enactment of nearly 2,000 various state benefit mandates—in 2007, the number of mandates grew at the rate of more than one per state.[7]  On the federal level, the nearly 700 clients registered to lobby on Medicare coverage and reimbursement issues for various constituencies provides some inkling of the way in which health care groups could attempt to influence the construction of a federal health insurance mandate.[8]

Enforcement:  Equally important in determining the effectiveness of an individual mandate are the penalties for non-compliance, and the enforcement mechanisms designed to ensure all individuals purchase and retain coverage.  Sen. Clinton recently suggested that enforcing her mandate might involve “going after people’s wages,” consistent with the Massachusetts health reform proposal that uses the tax code to implement and enforce the mandate.[9]  However, recent experience suggests that enforcing an individual mandate may be neither easy nor clear-cut.

Although the Massachusetts individual insurance mandate is too new to yield much data about its effectiveness, a recent Health Affairs article analyzed previous examples of state and federal mandates to examine their impact.  While the article cites Census data demonstrating that Hawaii—which has had a “pay-or-play” mandate requiring many employers to provide health insurance since the 1970s—has a comparatively low rate of uninsurance, nearly one in ten Hawaiians still lack coverage—and “employment appears to have shifted toward sectors that are not subject to the mandate.”[10]  In addition, state-by-state enforcement of automobile insurance mandates is spotty at best; despite a mandate to purchase automobile insurance, California has more uninsured motorists than uninsured individuals, while the two states lacking mandates have shown rates of uninsured motorists well below the national average.[11]

The practical details of creating a bureaucracy to implement and enforce an individual mandate for health insurance could yield similarly questionable results.  Data matching and coordination among dozens of insurance carriers large and small, tens of thousands of employers, state agencies providing public insurance coverage or pooling options for their citizens, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and a new federal agency charged with enforcing the mandate would likely require a level of efficiency heretofore unseen from the federal government.  The years of logistical difficulties for employers associated with the rollout of the “basic pilot” system of employee verification could provide some indication of what individuals subject to a health insurance mandate could face upon its introduction.

Conclusion:  Although some health policy-makers have come to view an individual mandate to purchase insurance as the key step in achieving universal coverage for all Americans, this “single bullet” solution could in practice prove largely unworkable.  No initiative featuring an individual mandate has proposed an enforcement mechanism covering the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants, as many as two-thirds of whom lack health insurance, for whom a federal mandate would likely be ineffective.[12]  Moreover, at a time when recent IRS estimates indicate that individuals underreport their taxes by nearly $200 billion annually, or more than 18% of all individual income taxes, the concept of enforcing a health insurance mandate through the tax code, as Sen. Clinton has suggested, appears a dubious proposition at best.[13]

Some conservatives may also be concerned about two policy “solutions” that have frequently been attached to an individual mandate—“pay-or-play” requirements on business and guaranteed issue and community rating provisions on insurance carriers.  Although Sen. Clinton’s plan claims to exempt small businesses from a requirement to provide health insurance or finance their employees’ coverage, her plan, like the Obama plan and the Wyden-Bennett bill, would impose new taxes on employers that could have a significant negative effect on economic growth.  In addition, all three proposals would require insurance carriers to accept all applicants, and charge all applicants the same premium for insurance coverage.  While the concept of ending “insurance company discrimination” against less healthy people sounds politically appealing, some conservatives might question whether and how charging smokers with lung cancer or other individuals with behaviorally-acquired diseases the same insurance premiums as their healthier counterparts comports with the concept of “personal responsibility” advanced by advocates of an individual mandate.

The broader concerns surrounding an individual mandate focus on its significant new intrusion by the state into the lives of all Americans.  In critiquing the proposals by Sens. Clinton and Obama, former Clinton Administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich conceded as much, noting that a mandate is “to many Americans, the least attractive [aspect] because it conjures up a big government bullying people into doing what they’d rather not do.”[14]  Secretary Reich’s description of an individual mandate closely mirrors that of F. A. Hayek, who in his landmark work The Road to Serfdom discussed the inherently arbitrary nature of central government planning and the ways in which its growth tends to undermine personal liberty and freedom.  Some conservatives, reflecting anew upon Hayek’s warnings more than half a century ago, may believe that “bullying” the American people into purchasing health insurance, to the extent to which such a mandate would actually be effective, is inconsistent with a belief in individual liberty.

 

[1] “American Health Choices Plan,” available online at http://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/healthcare/americanhealthchoicesplan.pdf (accessed March 14, 2008), p. 6.

[2] “Barack Obama’s Plan for a Healthy America,” available online at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/HealthCareFullPlan.pdf (accessed March 14, 2008), p. 5.

[3] Jonathan Gruber, “Massachusetts Health Care Reform: The View from One Year Out,” (Washington, DC: Paper Presented at the Cornell University Symposium on Health Care Reform, September 2007), available online at http://www.epionline.org/downloads/hc_symposium_Gruber.pdf (accessed March 16, 2008), pp. 14-17.  See also Laura Meckler, “How Ten People Reshaped Massachusetts Health Care,” The Wall Street Journal 30 May 2007, available online at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/WSJ-MAConnector-941.pdf (accessed March 16, 2008).

[4] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Employer Health Benefits: 2007 Annual Survey,” available online at http://kff.org/insurance/7672/upload/76723.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 2.

[5] Quoted in Shawn Tully, “Why McCain Has the Best Health Care Plan,” Fortune 11 March 2008, available online at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/Fortune-Tully-1122.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008).

[6] Mark Pauly, “Is Massachusetts a Model at Last?” AEI Health Policy Outlook No. 1 (January 2007), available online at http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.25372,filter.all/pub_detail.asp (accessed March 16, 2008).

[7] Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2008” and “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2007,” available online at http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/HealthInsuranceMandates2008.pdf and http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/MandatesInTheStates2007.pdf, respectively (accessed March 15, 2008).

[8] Heritage Foundation analysis of Lobbying Disclosure Act reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records.

[9] Quoted in “The Wages of HillaryCare,” The Wall Street Journal 8 February 2008, available online at http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB120243891249052861.html (accessed March 15, 2008).

[10] US Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006,” available online at http://www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/p60-233.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 24; Sherry Giled, Jacob Hartz, and Genessa Giorgi, “Consider It Done? The Likely Efficacy of Mandates for Health Insurance,” Health Affairs 26:6 (November/December 2007), available online at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/HealthAff-Glied-1118.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 1614.

[11] Cited in Glen Whitman, “Hazards of the Individual Health Mandate,” Cato Policy Report 29:5 (September/October 2007), available online at http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/v29n5/cpr29n5-1.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 10; Giled et al., “Consider it Done?” p. 1615.

[12] Dana Goldman, James Smith, and Neeraj Sood, “Legal Status and Health Insurance among Immigrants,” Health Affairs 24:6 (November/December 2005), pp. 1640-1653.

[13] Internal Revenue Service, “Tax Gap Update: February 2007,” available online at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-utl/tax_gap_update_070212.pdf (accessed March 16, 2008).

[14] Robert Reich, “The Road to Universal Coverage,” The Wall Street Journal 9 January 2008, available online at http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB119984199293776549.html (accessed March 16, 2008).