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.

Gov. Jindal Op-Ed: Your Health Care: Obama’s $18,000 Broken Promise

How would you feel if someone promised to give you a car, and then reneged on that pledge?  That’s how all Americans should feel when it comes to Obamacare — because Barack Obama’s failed and discredited campaign promise to lower health insurance premiums has cost the average American family an amount equal to the price of many new cars.

During his 2008 campaign, one of then-Senator Obama’s most audacious promises was that his health plan would reduce premiums by $2,500 for the average family.  His repeatedly made his pledge on videotape; you can view those promises here.  But health insurance premiums have continued to rise — not just despite Obamacare, but in many cases because of the law’s new regulations and mandates.

A new analysis by the think-tank America Next, where I serve as honorary chairman, quantifies the massive scope of the broken promise.  Compared to 2008 — the year President Obama was elected — Americans have faced a cumulative $6,388 per individual, and $18,610 per family, in higher costs because President Obama’s health plan has failed to achieve its promised premium reductions.  Overall, that amounts to $1.2 trillion in higher premium costs due to Obamacare’s failure to deliver.

The administration has put forth all sorts of excuses about why its law hasn’t met the expectations the president himself set. One of them is that the law’s major provisions only took effect in January, so Obamacare needs more time to achieve savings.

But, in July 2008, Jason Furman—then the Obama campaign’s economic policy director, and now the Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors—told the New York Times that “we think we could get to $2,500 in savings by the end of the first term, or be very close to it.”

The fact that Democrats delayed full Obamacare implementation until 2014 to hide the legislation’s true cost shouldn’t absolve President Obama for failing to deliver on his promise one whit.

The administration also now claims that Obamacare is working, because premiums are “only” rising by 6 or 8 percent per year.  But that’s not what then-candidate Obama himself promised in 2008; he spoke frequently of “cutting,” “reducing,” and “lowering” premium costs.  Whether premiums go up by 1 percent or 101 percent, any increase represents a promise broken.

In August 2012, Politifact nicely summed up Obamacare’s discredited premium pledge: “An author of the $2,500 figure has disavowed its use as it relates to premiums alone.  An independent health care analyst projects that premiums will go up for the typical family.  The federal agency implementing [Obamacare] did not provide evidence that premiums will go down for the typical family.  We rate this a Promise Broken.”

Even as Obamacare has failed to deliver, there is a better way.  The America Next health plan can provide the relief from rising costs that Americans need and deserve.  Rather than focusing on a massive expansion and restructuring of the health care system, the America Next plan focuses like a laser beam on reducing health costs. The plan creates incentives for states to reform their insurance markets, thereby reducing plan premiums. It also includes other reforms with a proven track record of lowering costs, including tax equity between employer-based and individually-purchased insurance plans, lawsuit reforms, and new incentives for Health Savings Accounts.

Analysis by independent, non-partisan experts confirm the plan’s effectiveness.  When considering proposals similar to those in the America Next plan, the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2009 that they would lower small business health insurance premiums by 7 to 10 percent, and reduce individual health insurance premiums by 5 to 8 percent.  Compared to the premium increases projected under Obamacare, the reforms in the America Next plan could provide thousands of dollars in real relief for families struggling from high insurance premiums.

The America Next report confirms that the average American family has paid a price equal to the sum of many new cars because Obamacare has failed to meet the president’s commitments. And, as with any balky automobile, it’s time for the American people to trade in this Obamacare lemon, and replace it with something that works. Coupled with Obamacare’s full repeal, the America Next health plan can provide what the American people need—real relief from skyrocketing health costs.

This post was originally published at Fox News.

Why States Are Hesitating to Expand Medicaid

Just before the July 4 holiday the White House Council of Economic Advisers released a report titled “Missed Opportunities: The Consequences of State Decisions Not to Expand Medicaid.” The Pew Trusts also released a data compilation last week. But that one showed why many states, which had large and growing Medicaid programs even before Obamacare, have not rushed to embrace greater expansion.

Pew examined data from 2000 to 2012 and found large increases in state Medicaid spending even after adjusting for inflation. Nationally, Medicaid spending grew an average of 4% more than inflation every year during this period. All but two state Medicaid programs grew at real (inflation-adjusted) rates greater than 2% annually. In addition, programs in eight states and the District of Columbia grew at rates exceeding 5.9% per year–meaning that spending doubled during the 12-year period, even after accounting for inflation.

Some might argue that robust economic growth, which leads to an expanding revenue base, could allow states to absorb sustained increases in Medicaid spending greater than the level of inflation. But the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis found that inflation-adjusted gross domestic product grew 23.1% from 2000 through 2012. Meanwhile, Medicaid spending grew nearly three times as fast in inflation-adjusted terms: an average of 63% nationally. Only one state, New Hampshire, increased its Medicaid spending at a rate slower than the national economy grew from 2000 through 2012.

So during the decade before Obamacare took effect, states had dramatically increased their Medicaid expenditures—spending well above inflation and exceeding the economic growth their revenue forecasts are based on. Greater Medicaid expenditures have an opportunity cost: Many states have had to divert funds from education or other priorities to cover increased spending on health. Little wonder that many states have decided not to expand Medicaid further. In some respects, it may be smarter to ask why so many decided to embrace expansion.

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