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.”

Insurance Commissioners’ CSR Malpractice

Today, a Senate committee hearing will feature testimony from insurance commissioners about the status of Obamacare in their home states. It will undoubtedly feature pleas from those commissioners for billions of new dollars in federal funds to subsidize insurance markets. But before Congress spends a single dime, it should take a hard look at insurance commissioners’ compliance with their regulatory duties regarding Obamacare. On several counts, preliminary results do not look promising.

Of particular issue at today’s hearing, and in health insurance markets generally: Federal payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions, discounts on co-payments, and deductibles provided to certain low-income individuals. Obamacare authorized those payments to insurers, but did not include an appropriation for them. Despite lacking an explicit appropriation, the Obama administration started making the payments anyway when the exchanges began operation in 2014.

By the middle of 2016, it seemed clear that the cost-sharing reduction payments lay in significant jeopardy. While the federal district court allowed the payments to continue during the Obama administration’s appeal, a final court ruling could strike them down permanently. Moreover, a new administration would commence in January 2017, and could stop the payments immediately. And neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump had publicly committed to maintaining the insurer payments upon taking office.

Let’s Let the Problem Fester to Put Trump in a Bind

How did insurance commissioners respond to this growing threat to the cost-sharing reduction payments? In at least some cases, they did nothing. For instance, in response to my public records request, the office of Dave Jones, California’s insurance commissioner, admitted that it had no documents examining the impact of last May’s court ruling on the 2017 plan bid year.

To call this lack of analysis regarding cost-sharing reductions malfeasance would put it mildly. A new president could easily have cut off those payments—payments totaling $7 billion this fiscal year—unilaterally on January 20. Yet the regulator of the state’s largest insurance market had not so much as a single e-mail considering this scenario, nor examining what his state would do in such an occurrence.

Break the Law to Fund Our Political War Against You

Indeed, insurance commissioners who remained silent last year about cost-sharing reduction payments have responded this year in alarming fashion. The commissioners’ trade association wrote to the Trump administration in May asking them “to continue full funding for the cost-sharing reduction payments for 2017 and make a commitment that such payments will continue.”

The insurance commissioners essentially demanded the Trump administration violate the Constitution. Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution grants Congress the sole power to appropriate funds, and the Supreme Court in a prior case (Train v. City of New York) ruled that the executive cannot thwart that will by declining to spend funds already appropriated. Under the Constitution, a president cannot spend money, or refuse to spend money, unilaterally—but that’s exactly what the insurance commissioners requested.

By implicitly conceding the unconstitutional actions by the Obama administration, and asking the Trump administration to continue those acts, the commissioners’ own letter exposes their dilemma. Why did commissioners ever assume the stability of a marketplace premised upon unconstitutional actions? And why did commissioners purportedly committed to the rule of law ask for those unconstitutional actions to continue?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Don’t Blame Trump When Obamacare Rates Jump

Insurers must submit applications by next Wednesday to sell plans through HealthCare.gov, and these will give us some of the first indicators of how high Obamacare costs will skyrocket in 2018. Obamacare supporters can’t wait to blame the coming premium increases on the “uncertainty” caused by President Trump. But insurers faced the same uncertainty last year under President Obama.

Consider a recent press release from California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. He announced that “in light of the market instability created by President Trump’s continued undermining of the Affordable Care Act,” he would authorize insurers to file two sets of proposed rates for 2018—“Trump rates” and “ACA rates.” Among other sources of uncertainty, Mr. Jones’s office cited the possibility that the Trump administration will end cost-sharing reduction payments.

Thus the uncertainty: The House filed a lawsuit in November 2014, alleging that the unauthorized payments were unconstitutional. Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in the House’s favor and ordered a stop to the payments. As the Obama administration appealed the ruling, the cost-sharing reduction payments continued.

The House lawsuit and the potential for a new administration that could cut off the payments unilaterally should have been red flags for regulators when insurers were preparing their rate filings for 2017. I noted this in a blog post for the Journal last May.

To maintain a stable marketplace regardless of the uncertainty, regulators should have demanded that insurers price in a contingency margin for their 2017 rates. It appears that Mr. Jones’s office did not even consider doing so. I recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to his office requesting documents related to the 2017 rate-filing process, and “whether uncertainty surrounding the cost-sharing reduction payments was considered by the Commissioner’s office in determining rates for the current plan year.” Mr. Jones’s office replied that no such documents exist.

What does that mean? At best, not one of the California Insurance Commission’s nearly 1,400 employees thought to ask whether a federal court ruling stopping an estimated $7 billion to $10 billion in annual payments to insurers throughout the country would affect the state’s health-insurance market. At worst, Mr. Jones—a Democrat running for attorney general next year—deliberately ignored the issue to avoid exacerbating already-high premium increases that could have damaged Hillary Clinton’s fall campaign and consumers further down the road.

The California Insurance Commission is not alone in its “recent discovery” of uncertainty as a driver of premium increases. In April the left-liberal Center for American Progress published a paper claiming to quantify the “Trump uncertainty rate hike.” The center noted that the “mere possibility” of an end to cost-sharing payments would require insurers to raise premiums by hundreds of dollars a year.

Following insurers’ June 21 deadline, expect a raging blame game over next year’s premium increases. Conservatives shouldn’t hesitate to ask regulators and liberal advocates now pointing the finger at uncertainty where they were this time last year when the future of those payments was equally uncertain.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

Morning Bell: The Obamacare Scams Are Already Starting

Heritage warned that the new Obamacare insurance exchanges could threaten your privacy—and it’s already happening, before the exchanges are even open.

In a new report, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee presented these shocking findings:

there are already numerous reports of scam artists posing as Navigators and Assisters to take advantage of people’s confusion about ObamaCare. According to recent news reports, scam artists are calling individuals and asking for information to sign them up for their “ObamaCare card,” are asking seniors for their personal information to verify their Medicare and Social Security status and are going door-to-door threatening people with prison time if they do not sign up on the spot. The Administration is keenly aware of these reports and concerns, but has thus far failed to take appropriate measures.

Even when it’s not malicious, the new Obamacare system—employing “navigators” who aren’t run through background checks or adequately trained—opens up a host of opportunities for identity theft. Last week, an employee of Minnesota’s insurance exchange (MNsure) emailed out the names and Social Security numbers of 2,400 insurance agents. The insurance broker who received the email said, “If this is happening now, how can clients of MNsure be confident their data is safe?”

Indeed.

The Oversight Committee reports that the exchange system thus far is a combination of shoddy planning and bad incentives. Navigators, who are supposed to help people sign up for the exchanges, are allowed to be paid based on the number of people they enroll in Obamacare.

California’s insurance commissioner—a Democrat and strong supporter of Obamacare—raised concerns that navigators would put consumers at risk for scams: “We can have a real disaster on our hands.”

The exchanges don’t open for business until October 1, but Obamacare has already led to the release of highly sensitive personal information for thousands—and the lack of planning makes it ripe for scams. Nothing about this law is working the way it was advertised, which is why the House is voting today to defund Obamacare (while still funding normal government functions). Next week, Senators will have a chance to do the same—protect their constituents from the ravages of Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

How Obamacare Threatens Privacy in America

A PDF of this Issue Brief is available on the Heritage Foundation website.

Over the past several months, a stream of reports from government auditors and news stories has raised serious questions about the Administration’s implementation of Obamacare and its effects on the privacy of millions of Americans. The reports paint a portrait of an Administration casting aside security concerns—potentially putting Americans’ financial and health data at risk—in its push to open insurance exchanges in all 50 states by October 1. These recent developments should provide further impetus for Congress to defund the entire law before the exchanges are able to undermine personal privacy.

Security Delays, Timetables Slipping

In August, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general released a report highlighting many missed deadlines with respect to the security measures surrounding the Obamacare data hub.[1] The hub will provide access to government data from various government agencies—tax filings and Social Security records, for example—allowing exchanges to determine eligibility for subsidized insurance.

The inspector general’s report found that “several critical tasks remain to be completed in a short period of time” in order to ensure the data hub’s security.[2] Important elements of the security testing were delayed by two months. As a result, the official certification that the data hub is secure is not scheduled to occur until September 30, 2013—one day before the exchanges are scheduled to open for business.[3]

The inspector general’s report noted the obvious problem that this tight timetable presents: “If there are additional delays…the authorizing official may not have the full assessment of implemented security controls needed for the security authorization decision by” the time open enrollment begins.[4] In other words, government officials could face a choice about whether to open the exchanges despite the potential risk to Americans’ data security. Even if the security assessments are completed on time, there is no assurance they will work properly; the inspector general’s report “did not review the functionality of the [data] hub.”[5]

Warnings Ignored

Some government officials have warned of the privacy and security implications arising from shoddy data security—even as the Obama Administration ignored those concerns. Michael Astrue, a former general counsel of HHS, offered objections while serving as the commissioner of Social Security through February 2013. He has called the Administration’s exchange portal “an overly simplistic system without adequate privacy safeguards”:

The system’s lack of any substantial verification of the user would leave members of the public open to identity theft, lost periods of health insurance coverage, and exposure of address for victims of domestic abuse and others.[6]

Astrue dubbed the version of the portal “the most widespread violation of the Privacy Act in our history,” noting that both he and the head of the IRS “raised strong legal objections” with the Office of Management and Budget—objections that, Astrue argues, have been ignored in favor of what he calls “an absurdly broad interpretation of the Privacy Act’s ‘routine use’ exemption.”[7]

Navigators Pose a Security Risk

While the data hub creates concerns that Americans could be subjected to electronic identity fraud, Obamacare’s “navigators” could subject Americans to in-person scams.[8] HHS recently announced it was lowering by one-third—from 30 hours to 20—the minimum training time for navigators.[9] As a result, individuals can be certified as navigators with fewer than three full days’ training—and few security checks. While guidelines regarding navigators released in July permitted states to establish “minimum eligibility criteria and background checks” for navigators, it did not require them to do so.[10]

Because their job involves helping Americans figure out their insurance options, navigators will often have access to sensitive personal information—bank accounts, Social Security numbers, insurance identification, and more. Yet navigators will not be required to undergo background checks, and the process for filing complaints about unscrupulous navigators remains unclear at best. Even California’s insurance commissioner—a Democrat and strong supporter of Obamacare—raised concerns that navigators would put consumers at risk for scams: “We can have a real disaster on our hands.”[11]

Not One Dime

Federal agencies have already encountered difficulties preserving the integrity of Americans’ sensitive information. Earlier this year, a medical provider in California sued the IRS for improperly seizing 60 million records of 10 million Americans.[12] Yet under Obamacare, the IRS and other federal agencies will hold more new powers and have access to even more of Americans’ personal health and financial information.

In its mad rush to implement its unworkable law, the Obama Administration has taken a slapdash and shoddy approach to Americans’ personal security. Given these stakes, the choice for Congress could not be clearer: Congress should preserve Americans’ privacy by refusing to spend another dime implementing Obamacare.

 


[1]Gloria Jarmon, “Memorandum Report: Observations Noted During the OIG’s Review of CMS’s Implementation of the Health Insurance Exchange—Data Services Hub,” Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General Report A-18-13-30070, August 2, 2013, http://oig.hhs.gov/oas/reports/region1/181330070.pdf (accessed August 29, 2013).

[2]Ibid., p. 1.

[3]Ibid., p. 5.

[4]Ibid., p. 5.

[5]Ibid., p. 2.

[6] Michael Astrue, “Privacy Be Damned,” The Weekly Standard, August 5, 2013, http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/privacy-be-damned_741033.html (accessed August 29, 2013).

[7]Ibid.

[8]For more information on the navigator program, see Alyene Senger, “The Cost of Educating the Public on Obamacare,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3983, July 1, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/07/public-outreach-on-obamacare-cost-of-educating-the-public-on-health-care-reform.

[9]Amy Schatz, “Preparations for Health Exchanges on Tight Schedule,” The Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324170004578638100820728288.html (accessed August 29, 2013).

[10]“Department of Health and Human Services: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; Exchange Functions: Standards for Navigators and Non-Navigator Assistance Personnel; Consumer Assistance Tools and Programs of an Exchange and Certified Application Counselors; Final Rule,” Federal Register, Vol. 78, No. 137 (July 17, 2013), p. 42824, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-07-17/pdf/2013-17125.pdf (accessed August 29, 2013).

[11]“Fraud Fear Raised in California’s Health Exchange,” The Reporter, July 14, 2013, http://www.thereporter.com/rss/ci_23658245 (accessed August 29, 2013).

[12]Scott Gottlieb, “Suit Alleges IRS Improperly Seized 60 Million Personal Medical Records,” Forbes, May 15, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottgottlieb/2013/05/15/the-irs-raids-60-million-personal-medical-records/ (accessed August 29, 2013).

Obamacare Is a Fraudster’s Paradise

Ever wonder why government programs are so rife with waste, fraud and abuse? Consider what’s been happening with the Affordable Care Act.

The administration recently announced that was reducing by 50 percent — from 30 hours down to 20 — the required training for the law’s navigators, individuals paid to help Americans enroll in the health care act’s new entitlements.

The administration has thrown numerous other requirements overboard in its drive to get the law’s exchanges up and running by Oct. 1. Unfortunately, many of the requirements being jettisoned were designed to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent properly.

As a result, the law is shaping up as a fraudster’s paradise — a potential “Wild West” where individual citizens and taxpayers as a whole can easily get scammed.

Take the administration’s decision to put Americans on the “honor system” when it comes to qualifying for exchange subsidies next year. That decision will have two significant effects.

The law says that only individuals who lack access to “affordable” coverage through their employers should qualify for the subsidies. But in reality, the administration will have to take applicant’s claims at face value, because they won’t be able verify their accuracy. As the Associated Press noted, “a scofflaw could lie, and there’s no easy way to check” — a great recipe for fraud.

Second, the administration will conduct limited checks of applicants’ income, giving individuals a strong incentive to under-report their earnings on their application, to receive the maximum possible insurance subsidy. Individuals can lowball their income numbers on the application, and receive thousands — even tens of thousands — of dollars in taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies. While those who receive subsidies improperly will have to pay some of the subsidies back, in many cases individuals can receive much more in improper subsidies than Obamacare ever requires them to repay.

You might think that the federal government itself, or its contractors creating the exchanges, would have the tools to protect taxpayer dollars from being abused through these loopholes. But the contractor that just won a multi-year contract valued at up to $1 billion to verify exchange applicants’ claims was just placed under investigation in Britain for over-billing the British government to the tune of tens of millions of pounds.

In addition to fraud against the federal government, the health-care law could also lead to a rise in fraud against individual Americans. The training program prescribed by the government does not require anti-fraud training for navigators. It also does not require “minimum eligibility criteria and background checks” for those participating in the program.

The lack of background checks means scam artists could easily use the navigator program to prey on vulnerable individuals. Even California’s insurance commissioner — a strong supporter of the law — said, “We can have a real disaster on our hands” when it comes to navigators.

More than three years ago, Nancy Pelosi famously claimed that we had to pass the law to find out what’s in it. Over the past several months, we have seen a series of announcements and policies that show why it could be a fraudster’s dream — and a nightmare for the American taxpayers who will pay the bill for con artists’ scams.

This post was originally published in McClatchy.

Morning Bell: The Next Threat to Your Privacy

Who has access to your Social Security number, your bank information, and your tax records?

When Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges open, your data could be exposed to shysters and hackers, thanks to serious vulnerabilities in the system.

The exchanges are scheduled to open on October 1 (just 53 days away). But the list of implementation failures keeps growing, and the security of Americans’ data is threatened.

THREAT #1: Obamacare “Navigators”

Navigators are a group of people and organizations that are going to be facilitating signups for Obamacare’s insurance exchanges.

  • Example: Planned Parenthood has applied for navigator grants to work with consumers.
  • Danger: HHS will not require navigators to undergo “minimum eligibility criteria and background checks.” The Administration’s training program does not require navigators to participate in anti-fraud classes. And many states do not have plans for investigating unscrupulous navigators who may attempt to prey on vulnerable and unsuspecting Americans. Even California’s Democratic insurance commissioner—a strong supporter of Obamacare—admitted “we can have a real disaster on our hands” if scam artists posing as navigators get access to applicants’ Social Security numbers, bank accounts, and other personal information.

THREAT #2: Obamacare’s Data Hub

The data hub is a massive compilation of tax filings, Social Security reports, and other government data that will be used to determine eligibility for subsidized insurance.

  • Insecure? The hub isn’t scheduled to be certified as secure until September 30—only one day before the exchanges open for business.
  • Cutting Corners: The HHS inspector general recently released a report highlighting major delays in implementation of Obamacare’s data hub. The report amplifies what former HHS officials have been saying for months: The Administration has been cutting corners on data privacy for the exchanges, raising major questions about whether the data on the hub can be certified as secure—or whether Obamacare will place Americans’ tax and other personal information at risk.

The Obama Administration’s shoddy, slapdash approach to Obamacare implementation is placing the sensitive personal data of millions of Americans at risk. It’s one more reason why Congress should refuse to spend a single dime implementing this unfair, unworkable, and unpopular law.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

Another Insurer Leaves California Market

The Los Angeles Times reports this morning on another disturbing Obamacare-related development in California:

The nation’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group Inc., is leaving California’s individual health insurance market, the second major company to exit in advance of major changes under [Obamacare].

Due to UnitedHealth’s decision, thousands of individuals will be forced to find a new health insurance option. However, those options keep dwindling; as the article notes, today’s development comes just a few weeks after Aetna announced it was also pulling out of the California market, leaving nearly 50,000 California residents searching for new health coverage.

Even advocates of Obamacare could not hide their dismay about today’s development. As the Times article notes:

The departure of another big-name insurer raised concerns about the effect of reduced competition on California consumers. “I don’t think this is a good result for consumers,” said California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. “It means less choice, less competition and even more consolidation of the individual market with three big carriers.”

However, as The Wall Street Journal reported last month, these two California announcements could represent merely the leading edge of bad news for policyholders: “Insurance-industry experts say similar moves by other carriers in other states may emerge in coming months, as companies with limited market share decide to avoid the uncertainty tied to [Obamacare’s] changes.”

Recall that in 2008, then-Senator Obama promised that “for those who have insurance now, nothing will change under the Obama plan—except that you will pay less.” Recall too that the Obama Administration intends to use California as “proof that [Obamacare] is working.” Obamacare is working, all right—but not exactly as promised. A month’s worth of stories about skyrocketing premiums and thousands losing their health insurance demonstrates how Obamacare’s supposed “success story” is shaping up to be a significant failure.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.