Ocasio-Cortez Suddenly Realizes She Doesn’t Like Paying Obamacare’s Pre-Existing Condition Tax

On Saturday evening, incoming U.S. representative and self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to compare her prior health coverage to the new health insurance options available to her as a member of Congress.

It shouldn’t shock most observers to realize that Congress gave itself a better deal than it gave most ordinary citizens. But Ocasio-Cortez’ complaints about the lack of affordability of health insurance demonstrate the way liberals who claim to support Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections”—and have forcibly raised others’ premiums to pay for those “protections”—don’t want to pay those higher premiums themselves.

She’s Paying the Pre-Existing Condition Tax

I wrote in August about my own (junk) Obamacare insurance. This year, I have paid nearly $300 monthly—a total of $3,479—for an Obamacare-compliant policy with a $6,200 deductible. Between my premiums and deductible, I will face paying nearly the first $10,000 in medical costs out-of-pocket myself.

Of course, as a fairly healthy 30-something, I don’t have $10,000 in medical costs in most years. In fact, this year I won’t come anywhere near to hitting my $6,200 deductible (presuming I don’t get hit by a bus in the next four weeks).

As I noted in August, my nearly $3,500 premium doesn’t just fund my health care—or, more accurately, the off-chance that I will incur catastrophic expenses such that I will meet my deductible, and my insurance policy will actually subsidize some of my coverage. Rather, much of that $3,500 “is designed to fund someone else’s medical condition. That difference between an actuarially fair premium and the $3,500 premium my insurer charged me amounts to a ‘pre-existing conditions tax.’”

Millions of People Can’t Afford Coverage

Because I work for myself, I don’t get an employer subsidy to pay the pre-existing condition tax. (I can, however, write off my premiums from my federal income taxes.) Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet referred to her coverage “as a waitress,” but didn’t specify where she purchased that coverage, nor whether she received an employer subsidy for that coverage.

However, a majority of retail firms, and the majority of the smallest firms (3-9 workers), do not offer coverage to their workers. Firms are also much less likely (only 22 percent) to offer insurance to their part-time workers. It therefore seems likely, although not certain, that Ocasio-Cortez did not receive an employer subsidy, and purchased Obamacare coverage on her own. In that case she would have had to pay the pre-existing condition tax out of her own pocket.

That pre-existing condition tax represented the largest driver of premium increases due to Obamacare, according to a March paper published by the Heritage Foundation. Just from 2013 (the last year before Obamacare) through 2017, premiums more than doubled. Within the last year (from the first quarter of 2017 through the first quarter of 2018) roughly 2.6 million people who purchased Obamacare-compliant plans without a subsidy dropped their coverage, likely because they cannot afford the higher costs.

Lawmakers Get an (Illegal) Subsidy to Avoid That Tax

Unsurprisingly, however, members of Congress don’t have to pay the pre-existing condition tax on their own. They made sure of that. Following Obamacare’s passage, congressional leaders lobbied feverishly to preserve their subsidized health coverage, even demanding a meeting with the president of the United States to discuss the matter.

Senators and representatives do have to purchase their health insurance from the Obamacare exchanges. But the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a rule allowing members of Congress and their staffs to receive an employer subsidy for that coverage. That makes Congress and their staff the only people who can receive an employer subsidy through the exchange.

Numerous analyses have found that the OPM rule violates the text of Obamacare itself. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) even sued to overturn the rule, but a court dismissed the suit on the grounds that he lacked standing to bring the case.

Liberals’ Motto: ‘Obamacare for Thee—But Not for Me’

Take, for instance, the head of California’s exchange, Peter Lee. He makes a salary of $436,800 per year, yet he won’t buy the health insurance plans he sells. Why? Because he doesn’t want to pay Obamacare’s pre-existing condition tax unless someone (i.e., the state of California) pays him to do so via an employer subsidy.

Ocasio-Cortez’ proposed “solution”—fully taxpayer-paid health care—is in search of a problem. As socialists are wont to do, Ocasio-Cortez sees a problem caused by government—in this case, skyrocketing premiums due to the pre-existing condition tax—and thinks the answer lies in…more government.

As the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. If Ocasio-Cortez really wants to get serious, instead of complaining about the pre-existing condition tax, she should work to repeal it, and replace it with better alternatives.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will the Senate Make Exchange Heads Purchase Exchange Coverage?

This week, the Senate will likely consider a package of several appropriations measures. The legislation provides an opportunity for senators to offer, and possibly vote on, an amendment defunding the District of Columbia’s new health insurance mandate.

Because such an amendment, proposed by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), passed in the House last week, if a similar amendment passes the Senate, it would almost certainly remain in the final version enacted into law. As a result, residents of the nation’s capital would not face the threat of having their property seized if they cannot afford to purchase “government-approved” health insurance.

A Firsthand Display of Hypocrisy

I have seen up close how the heads of exchanges do not purchase exchange coverage. In the fall of 2016, CareFirst Blue Cross cancelled my exchange insurance policy, in part due to regulations promulgated by the District’s exchange authority.

To find out the reasons for the cancellation, I attended a meeting of the authority board. When I asked whether employees of the exchange purchase exchange coverage themselves, Mila Kofman, the exchange’s director, responded that doing so would cause employees to forfeit their employer insurance subsidy, making coverage unaffordable.

That explanation makes sense for junior employees making $40,000, $60,000, or even $80,000 annually. But it seems much less justifiable for Kofman. Kofman did not disclose it at the meeting I attended, but I later learned through DC public records that in 2016, she received a salary of more than $217,000—more than Mayor Muriel Bowser herself.

If Kofman cannot, or will not, purchase the exchange plans she sells without a subsidy, why would she, and the exchange board, support requiring residents making a fraction of her income to do so, and punishing them with taxes—and the threat of property seizure—if they do not?

‘1 Percenters’ Won’t Buy Exchange Coverage

Nor do the double-standards remain confined to the District of Columbia. The head of California’s exchange receives a salary putting him in “the 1 percent,” yet refuses to purchase the plans he sells.

I had previously recounted how Peter Lee, Covered California’s executive director, admitted to me at a briefing that his health insurance coverage comes through California’s state employee plan—at taxpayer expense, of course. Yet Covered California’s website lists his current monthly salary at a rate of $36,400, or a whopping $436,800 per year.

With all that money, does Lee really need to have taxpayers fund his health benefits as well? Does he think the policies Covered California sells so unaffordable, or so poor in quality, that he refuses to buy them? Or does he just feel entitled to have taxpayers fund his benefits on top of his fat paycheck because he thinks he’s better than we are?

The Amendment Concept

In theory, the Trump administration could have solved this problem months ago, by issuing regulations requiring all CEOs of state-run exchanges—and, for that matter, their board members too—to purchase plans from the exchanges. If those individuals consider exchange plans so inferior or unaffordable that they will not purchase them for themselves, then they have no business selling them in the first place.

(In case you were wondering, yes, I do believe that at the federal level, the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator should buy exchange plans. I previously criticized former CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt for failing publicly to disclose that he held exchange coverage during a Democratic administration, and I would be remiss not to point that out under a Republican one.)

At that point, people like Mila Kofman and Peter Lee will have a choice to make. They can determine whether they care more about keeping their taxpayer-funded health insurance benefits, or ensuring their constituents continue to have access to insurance subsidies. In short, they can choose whether they will finally put their principles ahead of their own pocketbooks—which they should have been doing all along.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Unanswered Questions on Covered California’s Bogus Premium “Study”

On Thursday, Covered California, the state’s health insurance Exchange, released a purported study providing estimates of premium increases over the next three years. The report itself provides precious little specificity regarding premium increases — not least because no one can know such details so far in advance. It seems purposefully designed around a blaring headline — “Premium Increases of Up to 90 Percent!!!” — with the rest largely window dressing.

The report also contains premium estimates for all 50 states. There seems little reason for the California state Exchange to commission a report on premium levels nationwide — particularly because the report does not provide anything more than a possible range of premium increases in each state. Either the Exchange views itself as part of the #Resistance to President Trump, it wants to use the headlines to motivate Congress to pass a “stability” package — or both. (Probably both.)

Is Covered California’s Actuary Biased?

A footnote in the paper notes that “the leadership on the analysis” in the paper was “provided by Covered California’s Chief Actuary, John Bertko.” Bertko’s name came up in another document, one I received last summer, following a Public Records Act request to Covered California. In the September 2016 email exchange, Bertko forwarded an article to colleagues regarding the status of legal action on cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), along with a note stating that “I think the court case on CSRs is unlikely to go the wrong way.”

He was wrong factually, of course. Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the Obama Administration lacked a valid appropriation to make CSR payments in May 2016, and Judge Vince Chhabria last fall denied a motion by state attorneys general requiring the Trump Administration to make the payments.

Why Did Covered California Not Prepare for Instability?

When it comes to the CSR issue discussed above, I wrote back in May 2016 that the incoming administration could withdraw the payments unilaterally, and that as a result, “come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different” than it did under President Obama.

What did Covered California do regarding that warning? Exactly nothing. My Public Records Act request for all records relating to cost-sharing reductions and rates for the 2017 plan year yielded but two documents. The first, the Bertko e-mail chain referenced above, related solely to how the federal government had addressed the CSR issue. Bertko sent it two months after Covered California announced its rates for the 2017 plan year, and the Exchange’s model contract with insurers mentioned nothing about the federal government not funding CSRs — both demonstrating that Covered California failed to conduct due diligence about whether CSRs could disappear.

The second document Covered California disclosed is an e-mail chain starting on November 21, 2016, two weeks after the election. Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee requested an urgent legal analysis of the CSR issue, allowing Covered California to redact most of the email chain on attorney-client privilege grounds. (I separately removed personal contact information that Covered California left unredacted in the document sent to me.) That said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the general context: “Oh ^!%^@#!@—Trump actually got elected! What can he do about CSRs now…?”

Will Peter Lee Actually Enroll in Obamacare Himself?

The Covered California paper claims that regulatory actions taken by the Trump Administration “are expected to draw consumers out of the individual market, sowing market instability and raising the specter of large premium increases in 2019 and beyond.”

However, one person definitely won’t be drawn out of the individual market: Peter Lee, Covered California’s Executive Director — who never went into the individual market in the first place, because he refuses to buy the policies his own Exchange sells. As I have previously written, Lee lets taxpayers pay for his health insurance coverage, even though he makes a salary of $436,800 annually.

Alternatively, Lee believes the Exchange coverage he promotes throughout California is good enough for others to buy, but not good enough for him—a similarly offensive concept. What exactly is the point of an Executive Director going on a bus tour promoting “quality, affordable coverage” if that individual won’t purchase that same coverage — either because he finds it unaffordable or of low quality?

Lee can release all the reports about increasing Exchange enrollment that he wants, but in reality, he has failed to put his money where his mouth is — quite literally. Unless and until he swallows his pride, joins the hoi polloi, and actually purchases the coverage he himself sells, the advice Covered California gives isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

California’s Health Insurance Debacle

When it comes to the changes in health insurance markets this year, Peter Lee, the head of California’s health insurance Exchange, is quick to criticize officials in other states: “Shame on the insurance commissioners who didn’t think ahead,” he told Politico in October. But to quote Winston Churchill, Mr. Lee should be more modest—because he has much to be modest about.

Responses to Public Records Act requests reveal that neither Mr. Lee nor any official at Covered California, the state-run Exchange, even considered the withdrawal of cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers when setting rates for the 2017 plan year. Just as Mr. Lee has accused others of not preparing for insurance market changes in the coming year, so too he and his colleagues failed to anticipate the sizable changes that took place this year when setting 2017 rates last fall.

This October, President Trump withdrew those cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. His decision should not have come as a shock, and not just because he had threatened to do so for some time. The payments themselves had been on shaky ground for over a year; Judge Rosemary Collyer called the payments unconstitutional and ordered them stopped in a May 2016 ruling.

When California and other states finalized 2017 premium rates last summer, the cost-sharing payments appeared in significant jeopardy. Judge Collyer had stayed her May 2016 ruling as the Obama Administration appealed it, but another court could have ordered the payments stopped. Moreover, as I noted last year, the incoming Administration could easily stop the payments unilaterally in a matter of days—what President Trump ultimately did in October.

Given this tenuous environment for cost-sharing payments, what due diligence did Covered California undertake last year to determine whether the federal government would continue making payments in 2017? In a word, nothing. Not an e-mail, not a legal analysis, not a memo—nothing.

Only months after Covered California finalized its premium rates for 2017 did Mr. Lee finally jump into action. Two weeks after Trump’s election, a series of urgent e-mails including Mr. Lee discussed the court case regarding cost-sharing payments. Covered California invoked attorney-client privilege to redact the contents of the e-mail chain, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that the chain consisted of panicked officials responding to events they had not anticipated.

Because they did not anticipate those events when setting 2017 premiums last summer, California health insurers will suffer financial losses. Insurers must now lower deductibles and co-payments for low-income individuals—a federal requirement under the health care law—without the federal government reimbursing them for that reduced cost-sharing. As a result, insurers in the Golden State will incur their share of up to $1.75 billion in losses nationwide, according to a recent court filing by the industry’s trade association.

Just as they failed to anticipate the loss of cost-sharing subsidies when setting rates for 2017, California officials have failed to accept responsibility for their regulatory failure. When in June I wrote that California’s Insurance Commissioner, Dave Jones, also failed to consider the impact of cost-sharing payments on rates for 2017, Mr. Jones responded with a series of attacks on President Trump. But if Mr. Trump represents such a threat to California’s health insurance market, then Messrs. Jones and Lee both should have spent time analyzing the impact of a Trump presidency on that market prior to his election. The record clearly demonstrates that neither did so.

Mr. Lee’s negligent behavior towards California’s individual health insurance market may stem from the fact that he does not participate in it himself. Despite receiving an annual salary of $436,800, and bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars, Mr. Lee refuses to buy the Exchange policies he sells, choosing instead to have taxpayers fund his health insurance through CalPERS.

Perhaps Covered California should make a one-percenter like Mr. Lee purchase his insurance with the hoi polloi, so that he might understand the needs of Exchange customers by actually becoming one himself. Better yet, it could find a new Executive Director, one who spends less time tooting his own horn and more time anticipating changes in the market that were predictable—and predicted—long ago.

This post was originally published at the Orange County Register.

What You Need to Know about Cost-Sharing Reductions

A PDF version of this document is available via the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

On October 12, the Trump Administration announced it would immediately terminate a series of cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. Meanwhile policy-makers have spent time debating and discussing cost-sharing payments in the context of a “stabilization” bill for the Obamacare Exchanges. Here’s what you need to know about the issue ahead of this year’s open enrollment period, scheduled to begin on November 1.

What are cost-sharing reductions?

Cost-sharing reductions, authorized by Section 1402 of Obamacare, provide individuals with reduced co-payments, deductibles, and out-of-pocket maximum expenses.[1] The reductions apply to households who purchase Exchange coverage and have family income of between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL, $24,600 for a family of four in 2017). The system of cost-sharing reductions remains separate from the subsidies used to discount monthly insurance premiums, authorized by Section 1401 of Obamacare.[2]

What are cost-sharing reduction payments?

The payments (also referred to as CSRs) reimburse insurers for the cost of providing the discounted policies to low-income individuals. According to the January Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline, those payments will total $7 billion in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, $10 billion in the fiscal year ending this coming September 30, and $135 billion during fiscal years 2018-2027.[3]

What is the rationale for CSR payments?

Insurers argue that CSR payments reimburse them for discounts that the Obamacare statute requires them to provide to consumers. However, some conservatives would argue that the cost-sharing reduction regime might not be necessary but for the myriad new regulations imposed by Obamacare. These regulations have more than doubled insurance premiums from 2013 through 2017, squeezing middle-class families.[4] Some conservatives would therefore question providing government-funded subsidies to insurers partially to offset the cost of government-imposed mandates on insurers and individuals alike.

Why are the CSR payments in dispute?

While Section 1402 of Obamacare authorized reimbursement payments to insurers for their cost-sharing reduction costs, the text of the law did not include an explicit appropriation for them. Some conservatives have argued that the Obama Administration’s willingness to make the payments, despite the lack of an explicit appropriation, violated Congress’ constitutional “power of the purse.” In deciding to terminate the CSR payments, the Trump Administration agreed with this rationale.

What previously transpired in the court case over CSR payments?

In November 2014, the House of Representatives filed suit in federal court over the CSR payments, claiming the Obama Administration violated both existing law and the Constitution, and seeking an injunction blocking the Administration from making the payments unless and until Congress grants an explicit appropriation.[5] In September 2015, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the House of Representatives had standing to sue, rejecting a Justice Department attempt to have the case dismissed. Judge Collyer ruled that the House as an institution had the right to redress for a potential violation of its constitutional “power of the purse.”[6]

On May 12, 2016, Judge Collyer issued her ruling on the case’s merits, concluding that no valid appropriation for the CSR payments exists, and that the Obama Administration had violated the Constitution by making payments to insurers. She ordered the payments halted unless and until Congress passed a specific appropriation—but stayed that ruling pending an appeal.[7]

How did the Obama Administration justify making the CSR payments?

In its court filings in the lawsuit, the Obama Administration argued that the structure of Obamacare implied an appropriation for CSR payments through the Treasury appropriation for premium subsidy payments—an appropriation clearly made in the law and not in dispute.[8] President Obama’s Justice Department made this argument despite the fact that CSR and premium subsidy regimes occur in separate sections of the law (Sections 1402 and 1401 of Obamacare, respectively), amend different underlying statutes (the Public Health Service Act and the Internal Revenue Code), and fall within the jurisdiction of two separate Cabinet Departments (Health and Human Services and Treasury).

The Obama Administration also argued, in court and before Congress, that it could make an appropriation because Congress had not prohibited the Administration from doing so—effectively turning the Constitution on its head, by saying the executive can spend funds however it likes unless and until Congress prohibits it from doing so.[9] In her ruling, Judge Collyer rejected those and other arguments advanced by the Obama Justice Department.

Did Congress investigate the history, legality, and constitutionality of the Obama Administration’s CSR payments to insurers?

Yes. Last year, the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees organized and released a 158-page report on the CSR payments.[10] While congressional investigators received some documents relating to the Obama Administration’s defense of the CSR payments, the report described an overall pattern of secrecy surrounding critical details—portions of documents, attendees at meetings, etc.—of the CSR issue. For instance, the Obama Administration did not fully comply with valid subpoenae issued by the committees, and attempted to prohibit Treasury appointees who volunteered to testify before committee staff from doing so. However, despite the extensive oversight work put in by two congressional committees, and the pattern of secrecy observed, neither of the committees have taken action to compel compliance, or redress the Obama Administration’s obstruction of Congress’ legitimate oversight work.

What has the Trump Administration done about the CSR payment lawsuit?

After the election, the Justice Department and the House of Representatives filed a motion with the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.[11] The parties stated that they were in negotiations to settle the lawsuit, and sought to postpone proceedings in the appeal (which the Obama Administration had filed last year). The Justice Department and the House have filed several extensions of that request with the court, but have yet to present a settlement agreement, or provide any substantive updates surrounding the issues in dispute. In announcing its decision to terminate the CSR payments, the Trump Administration said it would provide the court with a further update on October 30.

In August, the Court of Appeals granted a motion by several Democratic state attorneys general seeking to intervene in the suit (originally called House v. Burwell, and renamed House v. Price when Dr. Tom Price became Secretary of Health and Human Services).[12] The attorneys general claimed that the President’s frequent threats to settle the case, and cut off CSR payments, meant their states’ interests would not be represented during the litigation, and sought to intervene to prevent the House and the Trump Administration from settling the case amongst themselves—which could leave an injunction permanently in place blocking future CSR payments.

Upon what basis did President Trump stop the CSR payments to insurers?

Under existing law, court precedent, and constitutional principles, a determination by the executive about whether or not to make the CSR payments (or any other payment) depends solely upon whether or not a valid appropriation exists:

  • If a valid appropriation does not exist, the executive cannot disburse funds. The Anti-Deficiency Act prescribes criminal penalties, including imprisonment, for any executive branch employee who spends funds not appropriated by Congress, consistent with Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”[13]
  • If a valid appropriation exists, the executive cannot withhold funds. The Supreme Court held unanimously in Train v. City of New York that the executive cannot unilaterally impound (i.e., refuse to spend) funds appropriated by Congress, which would violate a President’s constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”[14]

Has a court forced President Trump to keep making the CSR payments?

No. In fact, until the Administration had announced its decision late Thursday, no one—from insurers to insurance commissioners to governors to Democratic attorneys general to liberal activists and Obamacare advocates—had filed suit seeking to force the Trump Administration to make the payments. (While the Democratic attorneys general sought, and received, permission to intervene in the House’s lawsuit, that case features the separate question of whether or not the House had standing to bring its matter to court in the first place. It is possible that appellate courts could, unlike Judge Collyer, dismiss the House’s case on standing grounds without proceeding to the merits of whether or not a valid appropriation exists.)

Given the crystal-clear nature of existing Supreme Court case law—if a valid appropriation exists, an Administration must make the payments—some would view the prolonged unwillingness by Obamacare supporters to enforce this case law in court as tacit evidence that a valid appropriation does not exist, and that the Obama Administration exceeded its constitutional authority in starting the flow of payments.

How will the decision to stop CSR payments affect individuals in Exchange plans?

In the short- to medium-term, it will not. Insurers must provide the cost-sharing reductions to individuals in qualified Exchange plans, regardless of whether or not they get reimbursed for them.

Can insurers drop out of the Exchanges immediately due to the lack of CSR payments?

No—at least not in most cases in 2017. The contract between the federal government and insurers on the federal Exchange for 2017 notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw from the Exchanges if they are not.[15] However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause may therefore have limited applicability to withdrawal of CSR payments. It appears insurers have little ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers.

If insurers faced a potential unfunded obligation—providing cost-sharing reductions without federal reimbursement—to the tune of billions of dollars, how did they react to Judge Collyer’s ruling last year?

Based on their public filings and statements, several did not appear to react at all. While Aetna and Centene referenced loss of CSR payments as impacting their firms’ outlooks and risk profiles in their first Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) quarterly filings after Judge Collyer’s ruling, most other companies ignored the potential impact until earlier this year.[16] Some carriers have given decidedly mixed messages on the issue—for instance, as Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish claimed on his company’s April 26 earnings call that lack of CSR payments would cause Anthem to seek significant price hikes and/or drop out of state Exchanges,[17] his company’s quarterly SEC filing that same day indicated no change in material risks, and no reference to the potential disappearance of CSR payments.[18]

Even before Judge Collyer’s ruling in May 2016, one could have easily envisioned a scenario whereby a new President in January 2017 stopped defending the CSR lawsuit, and immediately halted the federal CSR payments: “Come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different” than in mid-2016.[19] However, despite public warnings to said effect—and the apparent lack of public statements by either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to continue the CSR payments should they win the presidency—insurers apparently assumed maintenance of the status quo, disregarding these potential risks when bidding to offer Exchange coverage in 2017.

Did insurance regulators fail to anticipate or plan for changes to CSR payments following Judge Collyer’s ruling?

It appears that many did. For instance, the office of California’s state insurance commissioner reported having no documents—not even a single e-mail—analyzing the impact of Judge Collyer’s May 2016 ruling on insurers’ bids for the 2017 plan year.[20] Likewise, California’s health insurance Exchange disclosed only two relevant documents: A brief e-mail sent months after the state finalized plan rates for the 2017 year, and a more detailed legal analysis of the issues surrounding CSR payments—but one not undertaken until mid-November, after Donald Trump won the presidential election.[21]

Some conservatives may be concerned that insurance commissioners’ failure to examine the CSR payment issue in detail—when coupled with insurers’ similar actions—represents the same failed thinking that caused the financial crisis. That herd behavior—an insurer business model founded upon a new Administration continuing unconstitutional actions, and regulators blindly echoing insurers’ assumptions—represents the same “too big to fail” mentality that brought us a subprime mortgage scandal, a massive financial crash on Wall Street, a period of prolonged economic stagnation, and a taxpayer-funded bailout of big banks.

How can Congress restore its Article I power?

With respect to the CSR payments, conservatives looking to restore its Article I power—as Speaker Ryan recently claimed he wanted to do by maintaining the debt limit as the prerogative of Congress—could take several appropriate actions:[22]

  • Insist on a settlement of the lawsuit in the House’s favor, consistent with the last Congress’ belief that 1) Obamacare lacks a valid appropriation for CSR payments and 2) decisions regarding appropriations always rest with Congress, and not the executive;
  • Ask the Justice Department to investigate whether any Obama Administration officials violated the Anti-Deficiency Act by making CSR payments without a valid congressional appropriation; and
  • Insist on enforcement of the subpoenae issued by the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees during the last Congress, and pursue contempt of Congress charges against any individuals who fail to comply.

How can Congress exercise its oversight power regarding the CSR payments?

Before even debating whether or not to create a valid appropriation for the CSR payments, Congress should first examine in great detail whether and why insurers and insurance commissioners ignored the issue in 2016 (and prior years); any potential changes to remedy an apparent lack of oversight by insurance commissioners; and appropriate accountability for any unconstitutional and illegal actions as outlined above.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by blindly making a CSR appropriation without conducting this critically important oversight, Congress would make a clear statement that Obamacare is “too big to fail.” Such a scenario—in addition to creating a de facto single-payer health care system—would, by establishing a government backstop for insurers’ risky behaviors, bring about additional, and potentially even larger, bailouts in the future.

What are the implications of providing CSR payments to insurers?

Given the way in which many insurers and insurance regulators blindly assumed cost-sharing reduction payments would continue, despite the lack of an express appropriation in the law, some conservatives may be concerned that making CSR payments would exacerbate moral hazard. Specifically, when filing their rates for the 2017 plan year, insurers appear to have assumed they would receive over $7 billion in CSR payments—despite the uncertainty surrounding 1) the lack of a clear CSR appropriation in the statute; 2) the May 2016 court ruling calling the payments unconstitutional; 3) the unknown outcome of the 2016 presidential election; and 4) the apparent lack of a firm public commitment by either major candidate in the 2016 election to continue the CSR payments upon taking office in January 2017.

Some conservatives may therefore oppose rewarding this type of reckless behavior by granting them the explicit taxpayer subsidies they seek, for fear that it would only encourage additional irresponsible risk-taking by insurance companies—and raise the likelihood of an even larger taxpayer-funded bailout in the future.

How can Congress solve the larger issue of CSRs creating an unfunded mandate on insurance companies absent an explicit appropriation?

One possible way would involve elimination of Obamacare’s myriad insurance regulations, which have led to insurance premiums more than doubling in the individual market over the past four years.[23] Repealing these new and costly regulations would lower insurance premiums, reducing the need for cost-sharing reductions, and allowing Congress to consider whether to eliminate the CSR regime altogether.


[1] 42 U.S.C. 18071, as created by Section 1402 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.
[2] 26 U.S.C. 36B, as created by Section 1401 of PPACA.
[3] Congressional Budget Office, January 2017 baseline for coverage provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2017-01-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 2.
[4] Department of Health and Human Services Office of Planning and Evaluation, “Individual Market Premium Changes: 2013-2017,” ASPE Data Point May 23, 2017, https://aspe.hhs.gov/system/files/pdf/256751/IndividualMarketPremiumChanges.pdf.
[5] The House’s original complaint, filed November 21, 2014, can be found at https://jonathanturley.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/house-v-burwell-d-d-c-complaint-filed.pdf.
[6] Judge Collyer’s ruling on motions to dismiss, dated September 9, 2015, can be found at https://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2014cv01967/169149/41.
[8] Links to the filings at the District Court level can be found at https://dockets.justia.com/docket/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2014cv01967/169149.
[9] Testimony of Mark Mazur, Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee hearing on “Cost Sharing Reduction Investigation and the Executive Branch’s Constitutional Violations,” July 7, 2016, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/event/hearing-cost-sharing-reduction-investigation-executive-branchs-constitutional-violations/.
[10] House Energy and Commerce and House Ways and Means Committees, “Joint Congressional Investigative Report into the Source of Funding for the ACA’s Cost Sharing Reduction Program,” July 7, 2016, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/20160707Joint_Congressional_Investigative_Report-2.pdf
[13] The statutory prohibition on executive branch employees occurs at 31 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1); 31 U.S.C. 1350 provides that any employee knowingly and willfully violating such provision “shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.”
[14] Train v. City of New York, 420 U.S. 35 (1975).
[15] Qualified Health Plan Agreement between issuers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for 2017 plan year, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.
[16] Aetna Inc., Form 10-Q Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the second quarter of calendar year 2016, http://services.corporate-ir.net/SEC/Document.Service?id=P3VybD1hSFIwY0RvdkwyRndhUzUwWlc1cmQybDZZWEprTG1OdmJTOWtiM2R1Ykc5aFpDNXdhSEEvWVdOMGFXOXVQVkJFUmlacGNHRm5aVDB4TVRBMk5qa3hOQ1p6ZFdKemFXUTlOVGM9JnR5cGU9MiZmbj1BZXRuYUluYy5wZGY=
p. 44; Centene, Inc., Form 10-Q Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the second quarter of calendar year 2016, https://centene.gcs-web.com/static-files/23fd1935-32de-47a8-bc03-cbc2c4d59ea6, p. 42.
[17] Transcript of Anthem, Inc. quarterly earnings call for the first quarter of calendar year 2017, April 26, 2017, http://phx.corporate-ir.net/External.File?item=UGFyZW50SUQ9NjY3NTM5fENoaWxkSUQ9Mzc1Mzg1fFR5cGU9MQ==&t=1, p. 5.
[19] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies to Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, https://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.
[20] Chris Jacobs, “Don’t Blame Trump When Obamacare Rates Jump,” Wall Street Journal June 16, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-blame-trump-when-obamacare-rates-jump-1497571813.
[21] Covered California response to Public Records Act request, August 25, 2017.
[22] Burgess Everett and Josh Dawsey, “Trump Suggested Scrapping Future Debt Ceiling Votes to Congressional Leaders,” Politico September 7, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/07/trump-end-debt-ceiling-votes-242429.
[23] HHS, “Individual Market Premium Changes: 2013-2017.”

The Limousine Liberals Who Won’t Join Obamacare

Even by government standards, it’s an outlandish story of wealth and hypocrisy: A bureaucrat who made more than one million dollars selling Obamacare insurance plans, but won’t buy one for himself? The sad thing is, it also happens to be true.

Meet Peter Lee, Executive Director of Covered California. In the past three years alone, Mr. Lee has made well over one million dollars running California’s Obamacare Exchange. He received massive raises the past two years, going from a salary of $262,644 in 2014 to $420,000 beginning this July. On top of that nearly $160,000 raise, Peter Lee received two other whopping bonuses of $52,258 in 2014 and $65,000 in 2015—winning more in one lump sum than many families make in an entire year. But at a September briefing, I asked Mr. Lee point blank what type of health coverage he holds, and he said he was enrolled in California’s state employee plan.

Think about that: a bureaucrat whose salary comes from selling Exchange plans—Covered California’s operating budget derives from surcharges on plans sold through the Exchange—but yet won’t buy one of the plans he sells for himself. It’s enough to make a person ask how much Mr. Lee would have to make before he would actually break down and buy one of the plans he sells—a million dollars? Two million? Five million?

Liberal One-Percenters: Good for You, Not for Me

I’ll concede right now that Obamacare’s Exchanges were designed primarily for those without employer coverage. Individuals whose employers do offer “affordable” coverage cannot receive subsidies on Exchanges, although they can enroll without a subsidy, if they so choose. Most Americans choose employer coverage, because firms heavily subsidize them—to the tune of an average of $12,865 for family coverage. For the average worker making $60,000, or even $80,000, per year, turning down the employer subsidy to purchase an unsubsidized Exchange plan represents a substantial pay cut, one many families could not afford.

But well-paid liberals like Peter Lee—who over the last two years received raises more than twelve times the average employer’s subsidy for health coverage—have no real financial excuse not to join the Exchanges—other than liberal elitism. As the owner of a new small business who likely won’t make six figures this year, I have little patience to hear supposed believers in Obamacare with far more means than I who won’t give up a few thousand dollars in employer subsidies to enroll on the Exchanges themselves. After all, aren’t liberals the ones who believe in social solidarity and “paying your fair share” anyway…?

Well-Heeled Bureaucrats and Think Tankers’ Hypocrisy

For instance, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt literally cashed in to the tune of over $4.8 million in stock options on joining the Administration—more than enough to forego any employer subsidy for his health coverage. He recently responded to a questioner on Twitter asking him why he wasn’t on Medicare by stating that he was only 49 years of age—too young to qualify. Within minutes, I sent Slavitt a follow-up tweet: “If Obamacare is so great, are you on the Exchange—and if not, why not?” Slavitt has yet to reply.

Both Slavitt, and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell (net worth: $4.6 million), have plenty of financial resources to forego an employer subsidy and purchase Exchange coverage. Even at a total premium of $15,000 for his family, one year’s insurance costs would total less than 0.3% of the stock gains Slavitt cashed in on when joining the Administration—to say nothing of the millions he likely will make when he “cashes in” on his government experience in just a few months.

Did Slavitt just not see my tweet asking him about his health coverage? Did he not reply because the person in charge of selling Exchange policies doesn’t think they’re good enough to buy one himself? Or does he believe that someone who made millions a few short years ago is too “poor” to give up a few thousand dollars in employer subsidies for his health care?

The ranks of well-paid liberals clamming up when asked about their health benefits extends beyond government, into the think-tank ranks as well. In September, the Urban Institute published a paper claiming that Exchange coverage was actually cheaper than the average employer plan. I e-mailed the papers’ authors, asking them a simple question: Had they taken steps to enroll in Exchange coverage themselves—and encouraged the Urban Institute to send all its employees to the Exchanges?

I have yet to receive a reply from the three researchers. But after doing some digging, I found the Urban Institute’s Form 990 filing with the IRS. The form reveals that one of the study’s authors, John Holahan, received a total of $313,932 in compensation in 2014—$267,051 in salary, and $46,881 in other compensation and benefits. Does Mr. Holahan therefore believe that giving up his subsidized benefits, and relying “only” upon his $267,051 salary, presents too great a sacrifice for him to bear financially? If he and his colleagues truly believe Exchange plans are more efficient than employer coverage—as opposed to just coming up with a talking point to rebut Obamacare’s massive premium increases—then shouldn’t they enroll themselves?

I Make $400,000—So Quit Whining about Your Cost Hike

Then there’s Larry Levitt, a Senior Vice President at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Last week Levitt tweeted that Exchange premium increases don’t apply to many people—a talking point that Drew Altman, Kaiser’s CEO, has also made in blog posts. I replied asking whether Levitt himself, or other people using this talking point, actually have Exchange coverage—to which Levitt gave no response.

Care to guess how much these scholars claiming Exchange premium increases are overrated make themselves? According to Kaiser’s IRS filing, Levitt received $333,048 in salary, and $48,563 in benefits, in 2014. His boss, Drew Altman, pulled down a whopping $642,927 in salary, $149,509 in retirement plan contributions, and a $13,545 expense account—nearly $806,000 in total compensation.

The contradictions from the Kaiser researchers are ironic on two levels. One could certainly argue that an executive making nearly $400,000, let alone over $800,000, doesn’t need comprehensive health insurance—except to protect from severe emergencies, like getting hit by the proverbial bus. However, both appear loathe to give up their employer-provided health coverage—and equally quick to minimize the impact of Obamacare’s premium increases nationwide. As I noted on Twitter, that’s easy for people who refuse to join the Exchanges to say.

Stupid Is What Stupid Does?

Last, but certainly not least, on the hit parade is MIT professor Jonathan “Stupidity of the American Voter” Gruber. Last week Gruber said both that the law “was working as designed” and that people who lost their coverage thanks to the law “never had real insurance to begin with.” Unfortunately, MIT’s tax filings don’t include his salary. However, given that Gruber’s infamous undisclosed contract with the Obama Administration totaled nearly $400,000, and that he literally made millions from other contracts, it’s fair to say Gruber could afford to purchase his own health insurance outside his employer—if he wanted to. So I e-mailed him, and asked him whether he gave up his employer coverage to purchase that “real insurance” that Obamacare provides. Wouldn’t you know, I have yet to receive a reply.

It’s bad enough that the individuals above apparently refuse to give up their platinum-plated health plans to join the Exchanges—even though it would cost them at most a few percentage points of their total compensation to do so. They also wish to cast stones from their ivory towers at those of us who are facing higher premiums, rising deductibles, fewer (if any) choices of insurers, and smaller doctor networks thanks to the law they claim to support.

So to all those well-heeled Obamacare supporters who can afford to enroll in Obamacare themselves, but simply won’t, I’ll make one final point: Disagree with me if you like, but I’m working my damnedest to stop Obamacare’s bailouts—even though I know that if I “win” on the policy, I could lose my health coverage. It’s called standing on principle. It’s a novel concept—you might want to try it sometime.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare’s Exchanges Have Become Medicaid-Like Ghettoes

The October surprise that Washington knew about all along finally arrived yesterday, as the Obama administration announced that premiums would increase by nearly 25 percent nationally for Obamacare’s individual insurance. With the exchanges already struggling to maintain their long-term viability, the premium increases place the administration in a political vise, as it tries to encourage people to buy a product whose price is rising even as it presents a poor value for most potential enrollees.

In the 40-page report the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released, breaking down premium and plan information for 2017, one interesting number stands out. Among states using Healthcare.gov, the federally run exchange, the median income of enrollees in 2016 topped out at 165 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). In other words, half of enrollees made less $40,095 for a family of four. And 81 percent earned less than $60,750 for a family of four, or less than 250 percent of the FPL.

The new data from the report further confirm that the only people buying exchange plans are those receiving massive subsidies — both the richest premium subsidies, which phase out significantly above 250 percent FPL, and cost-sharing subsidies, which phase out entirely for enrollees above the 250 percent FPL threshold. If the House of Representatives’ suit challenging the constitutionality of spending on the cost-sharing subsidies succeeds, and those funds stop flowing to insurers, Obamacare may then face an existential crisis.

Even as it stands now, however, the exchanges are little more than Medicaid-like ghettoes, attracting a largely low-income population most worried about their monthly costs. To moderate premium spikes, insurers have done what Medicaid managed-care plans do: Narrow networks. Consultants at McKinsey note that three-quarters of exchange plans in 2017 will have no out-of-network coverage, except in emergency cases. And those provider networks themselves are incredibly narrow: one-third fewer specialists than the average employer plan, and hospital networks continuing to shrink.

In short, exchange coverage looks nothing like the employer plans that more affluent Americans have come to know and like. Case in point: At a briefing last month, I asked Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California, what health insurance he purchased for himself. He responded that he was not covered on the exchange that he himself runs but instead obtained coverage through California’s state-employee plan. Which raises obvious questions: If Covered California’s offerings aren’t good enough to compel Lee to give up his state-employee plan, how good are they? Or, to put it another way, if exchange plans aren’t good enough for someone making a salary of $420,000 a year, why are they good enough for low-income enrollees?

Therein lies Obamacare’s problem — both a political dilemma and a policy one. Insurers who specialize in Medicaid managed-care plans using narrow networks have managed to eke out small profits amid other insurers’ massive exchange losses. As a result, other carriers have narrowed their product offerings, making Obamacare plans look more and more alike: narrow networks, tightly managed care — yet ever-rising premiums.

While restrictive HMOs with few provider choices may not dissuade heavily subsidized enrollees from signing up for exchange coverage, it likely will discourage more affluent customers. The exchanges need to increase their enrollment base. The combination of high premiums, tight provider networks, and deductibles so high as to render coverage all but useless will not help the exchanges attract the wealthier, and healthier, enrollees needed to create a stable risk pool. By reacting so sharply to its current customer base, insurers on exchanges could well alienate the base of potential customers they need to maintain their long-term viability. In that sense, Obamacare’s race to the bottom could become the exchanges’ undoing.

This post was originally published at National Review.

In California’s Health Exchange Cuts, A Preview of Other States’ Woes?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the legality of insurance subsidies in 37 states that use the federal HealthCare.gov site. Some states have discussed creating their own exchanges in the wake of the court’s decision, but those may not be fiscally sustainable.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Covered California, the Golden State’s exchange, “is preparing to go on a diet,” cutting its budget 15% for the fiscal year beginning July 1 because of lower-than-expected enrollment. Earlier this month, Hawaii’s state exchange prepared plans to shut down this fall amid funding shortfalls. Hawaii’s exchange had technical problems that have impeded signups since its launch, but Covered California has had relatively few computer glitches. During the HealthCare.gov rollout problems in 2013, columnist Paul Krugman held up California as a model of efficiency:

What would happen if we unveiled a program that looked like Obamacare, in a place that looked like America, but with competent project management that produced a working website? Well, your wish is granted. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you California.

Mr. Krugman called California “an especially useful test case,” saying that “it’s huge: if a system can work for 38 million people, it can work for America as a whole.”

But that model has run into financial distress. After slashing its spending, Covered California achieved a balanced budget for next year by utilizing $100 million in federally provided start-up funds. The Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general and at least two U.S. senators have questioned whether exchanges are using start-up funds to plug holes in their budgets—a practice prohibited by law and one the senators called a “short term fix” in a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Using federal funds may help Covered California next year—but it will leave a multi-million-dollar hole in its budget the following year, leading to another round of belt-tightening.

The spending cuts—particularly a 33% reduction to marketing and outreach next year—will have an impact. As one report noted, “With enrollment growing more slowly than expected, a big cut in marketing might result in continued difficulties reaching target markets.” In other words, a spending cut next year could result in lower-than-expected enrollment—and budget crunches—in future years. Covered California could raise the $13.95 per policy monthly fee to generate more revenue—but that would also raise premiums, potentially driving away customers.

Before the exchanges opened, some worried about a disproportionate number of sick patients driving up premiums–and driving out healthy enrollees. A related phenomenon could be happening in state-run exchanges: in which few sign-ups result in a combination of cuts to outreach programs and/or higher monthly fees, discouraging enrollment and starting another round of the spiral. It’s possible that California’s experience could be a useful test case of that proposition—and a cautionary tale for those states contemplating their own exchanges.

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