Liberals’ Situational Ethics on Constitutional Violations

A president requests billions of dollars to fulfill his main campaign promise. Congress turns him down, but the president finds a way to go around them and get his money anyway.

Donald Trump and his border emergency? Sure. But this description also applies to Barack Obama’s treatment of Obamacare. Examined from this context, the health care history raises questions about whether liberals’ outrage over Trump’s emergency declaration stems from his extralegal actions—or their underlying opposition to his border policies.

The Obama administration knew full well it lacked a lawful appropriation for the insurer payments. In 2013, it requested billions of dollars from Congress for such spending. But Congress refused to appropriate the money. Republicans, who by then controlled the House of Representatives, had no interest in giving dollars to prop up Obamacare, and even Democratic appropriators seemingly had other priorities to fund rather than insurer payments.

Facing a refusal from Congress to appropriate the cost-sharing subsidies, the Obama administration went ahead and spent the funds anyway. Administration officials concocted a theory that even though an express appropriation for the payments did not exist in law, the health care law implied an appropriation of funds. They paid the cost-sharing subsidies to insurers in conjunction with Obamacare’s premium subsidies, even though the two programs are authorized in different sections of the law, and should operate via two different cabinet departments.

Granted, the Obama administration used much more surreptitious means to accomplish its unconstitutional ends. Unlike Trump, who announced his emergency declaration to much fanfare, his predecessor did not draw attention to his extralegal maneuvering. It took House Republicans seven months to authorize a suit objecting to Obama’s actions. But the only two federal courts to rule on the matter found that the law did not include an appropriation for the cost-sharing payments, meaning that Obama violated the Constitution’s appropriations clause by spending funds without authorization.

In two separate legal briefs, the then-House minority leader claimed Obamacare did appropriate funds for the cost-sharing payments to insurers—a claim that federal courts rejected. But her briefs went even further, claiming that Congress had no standing to object to the executive’s encroachment on its spending power.

Pelosi’s briefs in the Obamacare case present numerous objections to Congress’ suit against the executive. She claimed that “allowing suit in this case undermines, rather than advances, [the House’s institutional] interests,” and would “subject Congress to judicial second-guessing” and allow for “legislative obstruction.” She argued that the House of Representatives had no standing to pursue claims against the executive on its own, without the Senate’s concurrence. And she pointed out that “Congress has numerous tools at its disposal to resolve routine disputes,” for instance “corrective legislation that…prohibits the disputed executive action.”

Pelosi claimed last week that Republicans’ decision to endorse Trump’s emergency declaration will set a precedent they will come to regret. She knows of which she speaks. While researching the issue in recent months, I found that Pelosi’s briefs from the Obamacare case mysteriously disappeared from her website (although thankfully are still archived online.) Quite possibly, Pelosi’s staff decided to remove the briefs from her website upon retaking the majority, because they recognize the inconvenient precedent they set—and which Pelosi will now have to explain away in both the legal and political realms.

Call this a hunch, but I doubt that…the Democratic lawmakers would content themselves with the remedies they have laid forth in their brief about Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies. Faced with a President spending billions of dollars on a deportation force never appropriated by Congress, would Nancy Pelosi merely content herself with conducting hearings and ‘appeal[ing] to the public,’ as her brief argues in the Obamacare context? Hardly.

That November 2016 article proved prescient in highlighting the dangers of situational ethics—politicians putting immediate policy wins ahead of larger constitutional principles. More than two years later, Pelosi may soon reap the whirlwind, when Trump’s Justice Department uses her Obamacare briefs to argue that the House of Representatives has no standing to challenge his emergency declaration.

Congressional Republicans should learn from Pelosi’s example, stand fast to their principles, and call Trump’s action for what it is: A usurpation of Congress’ power of the purse, a breach of the separation of powers, and a violation of the principles of limited government that conservatives hold dear.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know About Friday’s Court Ruling

Late Friday evening, a judge in Texas handed down his ruling in the latest Obamacare lawsuit. Here’s what you need to know about the ruling (if interested, you can read the opinion here), and what might happen next:

What Did the Judge Decide?

The opinion contained analyzed two different issues—the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and whether the rest of Obamacare could survive without the individual mandate (i.e., severability). In the first half of his opinion, Judge Reed O’Connor ruled the mandate unconstitutional.

Wait—Haven’t Courts Ruled on the Individual Mandate Before?

Yes—and no. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate constitutional. In his majority opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts (in)famously concluded that, even though Obamacare’s authors proclaimed the mandate was not a tax—and said as much in the law—the mandate had the characteristics of a tax. Even though Roberts concluded that the mandate exceeded Congress’ constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause, he upheld it as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power to tax.

However, in the tax bill last year Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning on January 1, 2019. The plaintiffs argued that, because the mandate will no longer bring in revenue for the federal government, it no longer qualifies as a tax. Because the mandate will not function as a tax, and violates Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, the plaintiffs argued that the court should declare the mandate unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge O’Connor agreed with this logic, and struck down the mandate.

What Impact Would Striking Down the Mandate Have?

Not much, seeing as how the penalty falls to zero in two weeks’ time. Striking the mandate from the statute books officially, as opposed to merely setting the penalty at zero, would only affect those individuals who feel an obligation to follow the law, even without a penalty for violating that law. In setting their premiums for 2019, most insurers have already assumed the mandate goes away.

Then Why Is This Ruling Front Page News?

If the court case hinged solely on whether or not the (already-defanged) mandate should get stricken entirely, few would care—indeed, the plaintiffs may not have brought it in the first place. Instead, the main question in this case focuses on severability—the question of whether, and how much, of the law can be severed from the mandate, if the mandate is declared unconstitutional.

What Happened on Severability?

Judge O’Connor quoted heavily from opinions in the prior 2012 Supreme Court case, particularly the joint dissent by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. He ruled that the justices viewed the mandate as an “essential” part of Obamacare, that the main pillars of the law were inseparable from the mandate.

The judge also noted that some of the lesser elements of Obamacare (e.g., calorie counts on restaurant menus, etc.) hitched a ride on a “moving target,” that he could not—and should not—attempt to determine which would have passed on their own. Therefore, he ruled that the entire law must be stricken.

Haven’t Things Changed Since the 2012 Ruling?

Last year, Congress famously couldn’t agree on how to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare—but then voted to set the mandate penalty to zero. A bipartisan group of legal scholars argued in this case that, because Congress eliminated the mandate penalty but left the rest of the law intact, courts should defer to Congress’ more recent judgment. Judge O’Connor disagreed.

What Happens Now?

Good question. Judge O’Connor did NOT issue an injunction with his ruling, so the law remains in effect. The White House released a statement saying as much—that it would continue to enforce the law as written pending likely appeals.

On the appeal front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general who intervened in the suit will likely request a hearing from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. From there the Supreme Court could decide to rule on the case.

Will Appellate Courts Agree with This Ruling and Strike Down Obamacare?

As the saying goes, past performance is no predictor of future results. However, it is worth noting two important facts:

1.      The five justice majority that upheld most of the law—John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotamayor—all remain on the Supreme Court.
2.      As noted above, Chief Justice Roberts went through what many conservatives attacked as a bout of legal sophistry—calling the mandate a tax, even though Congress expressly said it wasn’t—to uphold the law, more than a year before its main provisions took effect.

What About Pre-Existing Conditions?

On Friday evening, President Trump asked for Congress to pass a measure that “protects pre-existing conditions.”

I have outlined other alternatives to Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions. However, as I have explained at length over the past 18 months, if Republicans want to retain—or in this case reinstate—Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions, then they are failing in their promise to repeal the law.

The Absurdity of the Justice Department’s Obamacare Lawsuit Intervention

Last summer, I wrote about how President Trump had created the worst of all possible outcomes regarding one Obamacare program. In threatening to cancel cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, but not actually doing so, the administration forced insurers into raising premiums, while not complying with the rule of law by cutting off the payments outright.

Eventually, the administration finally did cut off the payments in October, but for several months, the uncertainty represented a self-inflicted wound. So too a brief filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) late last week regarding an Obamacare lawsuit several states brought in February, which asked the court to strike down both Obamacare’s individual mandate and the most important of its federally imposed insurance regulations.

It takes a very unique set of circumstances to arrive at this level of opposition. Herewith the policy, legal, and political implications of DOJ’s actions.

Let’s Talk Policy First

Strictly as a policy matter, I agree with the general tenor of the Justice Department’s proposals. Last April, I analyzed Obamacare’s four major federally imposed insurance regulations:

  1. Guaranteed issue—accepting all applicants, regardless of health status;
  2. Community rating—charging all applicants the same premiums, regardless of health status;
  3. Essential health benefits—requiring plans to cover certain types of services; and
  4. Actuarial value—requiring plans to cover a certain percentage of each service.

I concluded that these four regulations represented a binary choice for policymakers: Either Congress should repeal them all, and allow insurers to price individuals’ health risk accordingly, or leave them all in place. Picking and choosing would likely result in unintended consequences.

The Justice Department’s brief asks the federal court to strike down the first two federal regulations, but not the last two. This outcome could have some unintended consequences, as a New York Times analysis notes.

But repealing the guaranteed issue and community rating regulations would remove the prime driver of premium increases under Obamacare. Those two regulations led rates for individual coverage to more than double from 2013 to 2017, necessitating the requirement for individuals to purchase, and employers to offer, health coverage, the subsidies to make coverage more “affordable,” and the tax increases and Medicare reductions used to fund them.

I noted last April that Republicans have a choice: They can either keep the status quo on pre-existing conditions or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare. They cannot do both. The DOJ brief acknowledges this dilemma, and that the regulations represent the heart of the Obamacare scheme.

Legal Question 1: Constitutionality

Roberts held that, while the federal government did not have the power to compel individuals to purchase health coverage under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Congress did have the power to impose a tax penalty on the non-purchase of coverage, and upheld the individual mandate on that basis.

But late last year, Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, with the provision taking effect next January. Both the plaintiff states and DOJ argue that, because the mandate will not generate revenue for the federal government beyond 2019, it can no longer function as a tax, and should be struck down as unconstitutional.

Ironically, if Congress took an unconstitutional act in setting the mandate penalty to zero, few seem to have spent little time arguing as much prior to the tax bill’s enactment last December. I opposed Congress’ action at the time, because I thought Congress needed to repeal more of Obamacare—i.e., the regulations discussed above. But few raised any concerns that setting the mandate penalty to zero represented an unconstitutional act:

  • While one school of thought suggests presidents should not sign unconstitutional legislation, President Trump signed the tax bill into law.
  • Likewise, President Trump did not issue a signing statement about the tax bill, seemingly indicating that the Trump administration had no concerns about the bill, constitutional or otherwise.
  • While in 2009 the Senate took a separate vote on the constitutionality of Obamacare, no one raised such a point of order during the Senate’s debate on the tax bill.
  • I used to work for one of the plaintiffs in the states’ lawsuit, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. TPPF put out no statement challenging the constitutionality of Congress’ move in the tax bill.

Legal Question 2: Severability

As others have noted, a court decision striking down the individual mandate as unconstitutional would by itself have few practical ramifications, given that Congress already set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning in January. The major fight lies in severability—either striking down the entire law, as the states request, or striking down the two major federal insurance regulations, as the Justice Department suggested last week.

The DOJ brief and the states’ original complaint both cite Section 1501(a) of Obamacare in making their claims to strike down more than just the mandate. DOJ cited that section—which called the mandate “essential to creating effective health insurance markets”—13 times in a 21-page brief, while the states cited that section 18 times in a 33-page complaint.

But that claim fails, for several reasons. First, the list of findings in Section 1501(a)(2) of the law discusses the mandate’s “effects on the national economy and interstate commerce.” In other words, this section of findings attempted to defend the individual mandate as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause—an argument Roberts struck down in the NFIB v. Sebelius ruling six years ago.

Second, the plaintiffs and the Justice Department briefs focus more on what a Congress eight years ago said—i.e., their non-binding findings to defend the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause—than what the current Congress did when it set the mandate penalty to zero, but left the rest of Obamacare intact. The Justice Department tried to retain a fig leaf of consistency by taking the same position regarding severability that the Obama administration did before the Supreme Court in 2012: that if the mandate falls, the guaranteed issue and community rating provisions (and only those provisions) should as well.

However, the Justice Department’s brief all but ignores Congress’s intervention last year. In a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) regarding the lawsuit, Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that “We presume that Congress legislates with knowledge of the [Supreme] Court’s findings.” A corollary to that maxim should find that the administration takes decisions with knowledge of Congress’ actions.

But rather than observing how this Congress zeroed out the mandate penalty while leaving the rest of Obamacare intact, DOJ claimed that the 2010 findings should control, because Congress did not repeal them. (Due to procedural concerns surrounding budget reconciliation, Senate Republicans arguably could not have repealed them in last year’s tax bill even if they wanted to.)

Third, as the brief by a series of Democratic state attorneys general—who received permission to intervene in the case—makes plain, Republican members of Congress said repeatedly during the tax bill debate last year that they were not changing any other part of the law. For instance, during the Senate Finance Committee markup of the tax bill, the committee’s chairman, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), said the following:

Let us be clear, repealing the [mandate] tax does not take anyone’s health insurance away. No one would lose access to coverage or subsidies that help them pay for coverage unless they chose not to enroll in health coverage once the penalty for doing so is no longer in effect. No one would be kicked off of Medicare. No one would lose insurance they are currently getting from insurance carriers. Nothing—nothing—in the modified mark impacts Obamacare policies like coverage for preexisting conditions or restrictions against lifetime limits on coverage….

The bill does nothing to alter Title 1 of Obamacare, which includes all of the insurance mandates and requirements related to preexisting conditions and essential health benefits.

As noted above, I want Congress to repeal more of Obamacare—all of it, in fact. But what I want to happen and what Congress did are two different things. When Congress explicitly set the mandate penalty to zero but left the rest of the law intact, I should not (and will not) go running to an activist judge trying to get him or her to ignore the will of Congress and strike all of it down regardless. That’s what liberals do.

Too Cute by Half Problem 1: Legal Outcomes

The brief the Democratic attorneys general filed suggested another possible outcome—one that would not please the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. While the attorneys general attempted to defend the mandate’s constitutionality despite the impending loss of the tax penalty, they offered another solution should the court find the revised mandate unconstitutional:

Under long-standing principles of statutory construction, when a legislature purports to amend an existing statute in a way that would render the statute (or part of the statute) unconstitutional, the amendment is void, and the statute continues to operate as it did before the invalid amendment was enacted.

It remains to be seen whether the courts will find this argument credible. But if they do, a lawsuit seeking to strike down all of Obamacare could actually restore part of it, by getting the court to reinstate the tax penalties associated with the mandate.

This scenario could get worse. In 2015, the Senate parliamentarian offered guidance that Congress could set the mandate penalty to zero, but not repeal it outright, as part of a budget reconciliation bill. Republicans used this precedent to zero-out the mandate in last year’s tax bill. But a court ruling stating that Congress cannot constitutionally set the mandate penalty to zero, and must instead repeal it outright, means Senate Republicans would have to muster 60 votes to do so—an outcome meaning the mandate might never get repealed.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of King v. Burwell. In its opinion, the court ruled that individuals in states that did not establish their own exchanges (and used the federally run healthcare.gov instead) could qualify for health insurance subsidies. By codifying an ambiguity in the Obamacare statute in favor of the subsidies, the court’s ruling prevented the Trump administration from later taking executive action to block those subsidies.

In King v. Burwell, litigating over uncertainty in Obamacare ended up precluding a future administration from taking action to dismantle it. The same thing could happen with this newest lawsuit.

Too Cute by Half Problem 2: Legislative Action

Sooner or later, someone will recognize an easy solution exists that would solve both the problem of constitutionality and severability: Congress passing legislation to repeal the mandate outright, after the tax bill set the penalty to zero. But this scenario could lead to all sorts of inconsistent, yet politically convenient, outcomes:

  • Democrats attacking Republicans over last week’s DOJ brief might oppose repealing a (now-defanged) individual mandate, because it would remove what they view as a powerful political issue heading into November’s midterm elections;
  • Republicans afraid of Democrats’ political attacks might say they repealed a part of Obamacare (i.e., the individual mandate) outright to “protect” the rest of Obamacare (i.e., the federal regulations and other assorted components of the law) from being struck down by an activist judge; and
  • Some on the Right might oppose Congress taking action to repeal “just” the individual mandate, because they want the courts to strike down the entire law—even though such a job rightly lies within Congress’ purview.

As others have noted, these contortionistic, “Through the Looking Glass” scenarios speak volumes about the tortured basis for this lawsuit. The Trump administration should spend less time writing briefs that support legislating from the bench by unelected judges, and more time working with Congress to do its job and repeal the law itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Who Really Proposed the Obamacare Bailout in the Trump Budget?

Maybe it was Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the revolver. Or Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick.

The story behind the Obamacare bailout proposed in last week’s budget has taken on a mysterious tone, akin to a game of Clue. My Thursday story focusing on the role played by White House Domestic Policy Council Chair Andrew Bremberg prompted pushback from some quarters about the actual perpetrator of the proposal. As a result, I spent a good chunk of Friday afternoon trying to gather more facts—and found definitive ones hard to come by.

As to the accuracy of my initial theory, people I trust and respect arrived at strikingly different views. However, I found surprising unanimity on one count: No one—but no one—wants to take credit for inserting the proposal to pay $11.5 billion in risk corridor claims. As someone told me: “You raise a valid question. If Andrew Bremberg didn’t insert the proposal into the budget”—and this person didn’t think he did—“then how did it get in there?”

Therein lies a huge problem. To call the inclusion of a $11.5 billion proposal in the president’s budget that no one in the administration seemed to know about, or wants to take credit for, a prime example of managerial incompetence would put it mildly. Either career staff inserted it in the budget, and the political staff did not have the antennae or bandwidth to understand its consequences and take it out, or a few political appointees and career staff hijacked the budget process, with most other individuals unaware of the situation until the budget’s public release.

To borrow a politically loaded phrase, someone—or a group of someones—colluded to get this language included in the budget. Its inclusion could cost federal taxpayers literally billions of dollars.

Why It Matters

By submitting a budget proposal to “request mandatory appropriations for the risk corridors program,” the White House completely undermined and undercut the arguments its own Justice Department had made in court a few short weeks ago, that the federal government owes insurers nothing.

In other words, whomever inserted this policy U-turn into the budget, just as the judges ponder a ruling in the insurer lawsuits, may have effectively “tanked” the government’s case. Either by leading to an adverse ruling, or by prompting the Justice Department to settle the case at a much higher cost, this move could cost taxpayers billions.

A Pro-Life Administration, Or Not?

Unfortunately, it gets worse. While the budget did include new funds for insurers, including the controversial risk corridors bailout described above, it did not include a single word proposing that such funds prevent taxpayer dollars from going to plans that cover abortion.

There’s a reason for the deafening silence: Republicans know that any legislation that funds insurers and provides robust pro-life protections will not pass. Democrats will object to its inclusion. Given the choice between passing up on an Obamacare bailout or abandoning their pro-life principles, Republicans have given every expectation that they will choose the latter course. (They shouldn’t bail out Obamacare regardless, but that’s a separate story.)

Regardless of who proposed these, it doesn’t take a detective to understand how a policy reversal that could cost taxpayers billions and a pending U-turn by Republicans to fund abortion coverage represent a major one-two punch against conservatives. But the mysterious origins and mangled management of the risk corridor proposal adds a further layer of insult to injury, a triple whammy of a tough week for the administration.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Judge’s Ruling Prevents Sabotage…Of the Constitution

Late this afternoon, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a ruling in the recent court case surrounding cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments. Judge Vince Chhabria—notably, an appointee of President Obama—denied a request by Democratic Attorneys General for a preliminary injunction demanding that the Trump Administration keep making the CSR payments to insurers. By denying the request for an injunction, Judge Chhabria’s ruling illustrates how the Obama Administration sabotaged the Constitution by spending money without a congressional appropriation.

Notably, Judge Chhabria’s ruling came on the merits of the case for an injunction—he rejected arguments by the Justice Department that the states lacked standing to sue, or that they should have filed their case in the District of Columbia, where the House v. Hargan lawsuit initiated in 2014 remains pending. The judge observed repeatedly that “it appears initially that the Trump Administration has the stronger argument.” Specifically, he stated that the case differed from King v. Burwell—where the Supreme Court ruled that language that appeared clear in isolation (“Exchange established by the State”) was actually ambiguous in the context of the broader statute. Judge Chhabria concluded that, at this stage of the case, it appears the Administration has the stronger argument that the cost-sharing reduction payments and premium subsidies are two separate and distinct programs—meaning that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by using an appropriation for the latter to spend money on the former.

On whether or not the states would suffer irreparable harm without a preliminary injunction, Judge Chhabria noted (as this author has done previously) that cutting off CSR payments would actually increase overall spending on health subsidies, and reduce the number of uninsured—outcomes that liberals would normally support. He pointed out this scenario to the plaintiffs—and their response, as cited in the ruling, speaks for itself:

When counsel for the State of California was confronted at oral argument with the fact that the relief sought by the states [i.e., a preliminary injunction] could cause this harm [i.e., a reduction in subsidy spending], he responded by suggesting that perhaps the Court could order the Administration to resume the CSR payments even while the states continue to allow the insurance companies to charge higher premiums on the exchanges, with the idea that the numbers would reconciled later, through some unexplained process. In other words, allow the insurance companies to collect double payments in 2018. This argument does not even merit a response.

But it does raise the question: why, in light of this discussion, have all these Attorneys General rushed to court seeking an emergency ruling against President Trump?

The answer might best be explained by the last two words: “President Trump.” To demonstrate themselves as part of “The Resistance,” the Democratic Attorneys General were willing to bring a case that might actually harm their constituents more than it helps them.

In his conclusion, Judge Chhabria had little patience for the liberal strategy of “talking down Obamacare”—making “doom-and-gloom” predictions prior to open enrollment, just to score political points by accusing President Trump of “sabotage:”

If the states are so concerned that people will be scared away from the exchanges by the thought of higher premiums, perhaps they should stop yelling about higher premiums. With open enrollment just days away, perhaps the states should focus instead on communicating the message that they have devised a response to the CSR payment termination that will prevent harm to the large majority of people while in fact allowing millions of lower-income people to get a better deal on health insurance in 2018. [Emphasis mine.]

Which raises an important question: Do Democrats actually WANT Obamacare to succeed—or do they secretly want it to fail, because they believe President Trump will get the blame if it does?

Regardless, today’s ruling upholds the argument that Obamacare does NOT include an appropriation for cost-sharing reduction payments, and that the Obama Administration sabotaged the Constitution and the rule of law by spending funds never appropriated by Congress. Perhaps now that one of President Obama’s own judicial nominees has ratified that conclusion, people can focus on that sabotage, instead of the supposed “sabotage” of Obamacare.

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.”

Insurers’ Obamacare Extortion Racket

The coming weeks will see U.S. health insurance companies attempt to preserve what amounts to an extortion racket. Already, some carriers have claimed they will either exit the Obamacare exchanges entirely in 2018, or submit dramatically higher premium increases for next year, if Congress does not fund payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions. While insurers claim “uncertainty” compels them to make these business changes, in reality their roots are the companies’ gross incompetence and crass politics.

While Obamacare requires insurers to lower certain low-income individuals’ deductibles and co-payments, and directs the executive agencies to reimburse insurers for those cost-sharing reductions, it nowhere gives the administration an explicit appropriation to do so. The Obama administration made payments to insurers without an explicit appropriation from Congress, and was slapped with a federal lawsuit by the House of Representatives for it.

Either the Companies Are Mismanaged Or Playing Politics

For insurers to assume that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue through 2017, let alone 2018, required them to ignore 1) public warnings in articles like mine; 2) Collyer’s ruling; 3) the fact that President Obama would leave office on January 20, 2017; and 4) the apparent silence from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during last year’s campaign on whether they would continue the cost-sharing reduction payments once in office.

Given those four factors, competent insurance executives would have built in an appropriate contingency margin into their 2017 exchange bids, recognizing the uncertainty that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue during the new administration. Instead, some insurers largely ignored the issue. In its most recent 10-K annual report with the Securities and Exchange Commission, filed February 22, Anthem made not a single reference in the 520-page document to the cost-sharing reduction payments or the House lawsuit.

Therein lies the reason for insurers’ threats. All last year, several insurers assumed Clinton would win and continue the (unconstitutional) payments. Worse yet, some may have willfully ignored their fiduciary responsibility to create a contingency margin for their 2017 plan bids because they wanted to help Clinton by keeping premiums artificially low.

How the People’s Representatives Should Respond

Responding to this extortion racket requires several layers of accountability. First, insurers must accept responsibility for their persistent refusal to address the cost-sharing reduction issue sooner. The Securities and Exchange Commission should investigate whether publicly traded insurers failed to disclose material risks in their company filings by neglecting to mention the clearly foreseeable uncertainty surrounding the payments.

Likewise, the Justice Department’s antitrust division should examine whether insurers’ 2017 premium submissions represent an instance of illegal collusion. If the insurance industry collectively neglected to include a contingency margin surrounding the cost-sharing payments—either to keep premium increases low before the election, or to strong-arm the incoming administration to continue to fund them—such a decision might warrant federal sanctions.

Finally, conservatives and the Trump administration should shine a bright light on state insurance commissioners’ review of premium submissions. Commissioners who approve large contingency margins for 2018 due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reductions, yet did not require a similar contingency margin for 2017 premiums, can be reasonably accused of gross incompetence, playing politics with health insurance premiums, or both.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Testimony on Risk Corridors and the Judgment Fund

A PDF of this testimony is available at the House Judiciary Committee website.

Testimony before the House Judiciary

Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice

 

Hearing on “Oversight of the Judgment Fund”

March 2, 2017

 

Chairman King, Ranking Member Cohen, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to testify. My name is Chris Jacobs, and I am the Founder of Juniper Research Group, a policy and research consulting firm based in Washington. Much of my firm’s work focuses on health care policy, a field in which I have worked for over a decade—including more than six years on Capitol Hill. Given my background and work in health care, I have been asked to testify on the use of the Judgment Fund as it pertains to one particular area: Namely, the ongoing litigation regarding risk corridor payments to insurers under Section 1342 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

The risk corridor lawsuits provide a good example of a problematic use of the Judgment Fund, and not just due to the sums involved—literally billions of dollars in taxpayer funds are at issue. Any judgments paid out to insurers via the Judgment Fund would undermine the appropriations authority of Congress, in two respects. First, Congress never explicitly appropriated funds to the risk corridor program—either in PPACA or any other statute. Second, once the Obama Administration sent signals indicating a potential desire to use taxpayer dollars to fund risk corridors, notwithstanding the lack of an explicit appropriation, Congress went further, and enacted an express prohibition on such taxpayer funding. Utilizing the Judgment Fund to appropriate through the back door what Congress prohibited through the front door would represent an encroachment by the judiciary and executive on Congress’ foremost legislative power—the “power of the purse.”

Though past precedents and opinions by the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel should provide ample justification for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to deny the risk corridor claims made by insurers when it considers pending appeals of their cases, Congress can take additional action to clarify its prerogatives in this sphere. Specifically, Congress could act to clarify in the risk corridor case, and in any other similar case, that it has “otherwise provided for” funding within the meaning of the Judgment Fund when it has limited or restricted expenditures of funds.

 

Background on Risk Corridors

PPACA created risk corridors as one of three programs (the others being reinsurance and risk adjustment) designed to stabilize insurance markets in conjunction with the law’s major changes to the individual marketplace.  Section 1342 of the law established risk corridors for three years—calendar years 2014, 2015, and 2016. It further prescribed that insurers suffering losses during those years would have a portion of those losses reimbursed, while insurers achieving financial gains during those years would cede a portion of those profits.[1]

Notably, however, the statute did not provide an explicit appropriation for the risk corridor program—either in Section 1342 or elsewhere. While the law directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a risk corridor program,[2] and make payments to insurers,[3] it does not provide a source for those payments.

 

History of Risk Corridor Appropriations

The lack of an explicit appropriation for risk corridors was not an unintentional oversight by Congress. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee included an explicit appropriation for risk corridors in its health care legislation marked up in 2009.[4] Conversely, the Senate Finance Committee’s version of the legislation—the precursor to PPACA—included no appropriation for risk corridors.[5] When merging the HELP and Finance Committee bills, Senators relied upon the Finance Committee’s version of the risk corridor language—the version with no explicit appropriation.

Likewise, the Medicare Modernization Act’s risk corridor program for the Part D prescription drug benefit included an explicit appropriation from the Medicare Prescription Drug Account, an account created by the law as an offshoot of the Medicare Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund.[6] While PPACA specifically states that its risk corridor program “shall be based on the program for regional participating provider organizations under” Medicare Part D, unlike that program, it does not include an appropriation for its operations.[7]

As the Exchanges began operations in 2014, Congress, noting the lack of an express appropriation for risk corridors in PPACA, questioned the source of the statutory authority for HHS to spend money on the program. On February 7, 2014, then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and then-Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wrote to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro requesting a legal opinion from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the availability of an appropriation for the risk corridors program.[8]

In response to inquiries from GAO, HHS replied with a letter stating the Department’s opinion that, while risk corridors did not receive an explicit appropriation in PPACA, the statute requires the Department to establish, manage, and make payments to insurers as part of the risk corridor program. Because risk corridors provide special benefits to insurers by stabilizing the marketplace, HHS argued, risk corridor payments amount to user fees, and the Department could utilize an existing appropriation—the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Program Management account—to make payments.[9] GAO ultimately accepted the Department’s reasoning, stating the Department had appropriation authority under the existing appropriation for the CMS Program Management account to spend user fees.[10]

The GAO ruling came after Health and Human Services had sent a series of mixed messages regarding the implementation of the risk corridor program. In March 2013, the Department released a final rule noting that “the risk corridors program is not statutorily required to be budget neutral. Regardless of the balance of payments and receipts, HHS will remit payments as required under Section 1342 of” PPACA.[11] However, one year later, on March 11, 2014, HHS reversed its position, announcing the Department’s intent to implement the risk corridor program in a three-year, budget-neutral manner.[12]

Subsequent to the GAO ruling, and possibly in response to the varying statements from HHS, Congress enacted in December 2014 appropriations language prohibiting any transfers to the CMS Program Management account to fund shortfalls in the risk corridor program.[13] The explanatory statement of managers accompanying the legislation, noting the March 2014 statement by HHS pledging to implement risk corridors in a budget neutral manner, stated that Congress added the new statutory language “to prevent the CMS Program Management account from being used to support risk corridor payments.”[14] This language was again included in appropriations legislation in December 2015, and remains in effect today.[15]

 

Losses Lead to Lawsuits

The risk corridor program has incurred significant losses for 2014 and 2015. On October 1, 2015, CMS revealed that insurers paid $387 million into the program, but requested $2.87 billion. As a result of both these losses and the statutory prohibition on the use of additional taxpayer funds, insurers making claims for 2014 received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their claims that year.[16]

Risk corridor losses continued into 2015. Last September, without disclosing specific dollar amounts, CMS revealed that “all 2015 benefit year collections [i.e., payments into the risk corridor program] will be used towards remaining 2014 benefit year risk corridors payments, and no funds will be available at this time for 2015 benefit year risk corridors payments.”[17]

In November, CMS revealed that risk corridor losses for 2015 increased when compared to 2014. Insurers requested a total of $5.9 billion from the program, while paying only $95 million into risk corridors—all of which went to pay some of the remaining 2014 claims.[18] To date risk corridors face a combined $8.3 billion shortfall for 2014 and 2015—approximately $2.4 billion in unpaid 2014 claims, plus the full $5.9 billion in unpaid 2015 claims. Once losses for 2016 are added in, total losses for the program’s three-year duration will very likely exceed $10 billion, and could exceed $15 billion.

Due to the risk corridor program losses, several insurers have filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking payment via the Judgment Fund of outstanding risk corridor claims they allege are owed. Thus far, two cases have proceeded to judgment. On November 10, 2016, Judge Charles Lettow dismissed all claims filed by Land of Lincoln Mutual Health Insurance Company, an insurance co-operative created by PPACA that shut down operations in July 2016.[19] Notably, Judge Lettow did not dismiss the case for lack of ripeness, but on the merits of the case themselves. He considered HHS’ decision to implement the program in a budget-neutral manner reasonable, using the tests in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, and concluded that neither an explicit nor implicit contract existed between HHS and Land of Lincoln.[20]

Conversely, on February 9, 2017, Judge Thomas Wheeler granted summary judgment in favor of Moda Health Plan, an Oregon health insurer, on its risk corridor claims.[21] Judge Wheeler held that PPACA “requires annual payments to insurers, and that Congress did not design the risk corridors program to be budget-neutral. The Government is therefore liable for Moda’s full risk corridors payments” under the law.[22] And, contra Judge Lettow, Judge Wheeler concluded that an implied contract existed between HHS and Moda, which also granted the insurer right to payment.[23]

 

Congress “Otherwise Provided For” Risk Corridor Claims

The question of whether or not insurers have a lawful claim on the United States government is separate and distinct from the question of whether or not the Judgment Fund can be utilized to pay those claims. CMS, on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, has made clear its views regarding the former question. In announcing its results for risk corridors for 2015, the agency stated that the unpaid balances for each year represented “an obligation of the United States Government for which full payment is required,” and that “HHS will explore other sources of funding for risk corridors payments, subject to the availability of appropriations. This includes working with Congress on the necessary funding for outstanding risk corridors payments.”[24]

But because insurers seek risk corridor payments from the Judgment Fund, that fund’s permanent appropriation is available only in cases where payment is “not otherwise provided for” by Congress.[25] GAO, in its Principles of Federal Appropriations Law, describes such circumstances in detail:

Payment is otherwise provided for when another appropriation or fund is legally available to satisfy the judgment….Whether payment is otherwise provided for is a question of legal availability rather than actual funding status. In other words, if payment of a particular judgment is otherwise provided for as a matter of law, the fact that the defendant agency has insufficient funds at that particular time does not operate to make the Judgment Fund available. The agency’s only recourse in this situation is to seek additional appropriations from Congress, as it would have to do in any other deficiency situation.[26]

In this circumstance, GAO ruled in September 2014 that payments from insurers for risk corridors represented “user fees” that could be retained in the CMS Program Management account, and spent from same using existing appropriation authority. However, the prohibition on transferring taxpayer dollars to supplement those user fees prevents CMS from spending any additional funds on risk corridor claims other than those paid into the program by insurers themselves.

Given the fact pattern in this case, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service concluded that the Judgment Fund may not be available to insurers:

Based on the existence of an appropriation for the risk corridor payments, it appears that Congress would have “otherwise provided for” any judgments awarding payments under that program to a plaintiff. As a result, the Judgment Fund would not appear to be available to pay for such judgments under current law. This would appear to be the case even if the amounts available in the “Program Management” account had been exhausted. In such a circumstance, it appears that any payment to satisfy a judgment secured by plaintiffs seeking recovery of damages owed under the risk corridors program would need to wait until such funds were made available by Congress.[27]

Because the appropriations power rightly lies with Congress, the Judgment Fund cannot supersede the legislature’s decision regarding a program’s funding, or lack of funding. Congress chose not to provide the risk corridor program with an explicit appropriation; it further chose explicitly to prohibit transfers of taxpayer funds into the program. To allow the Judgment Fund to pay insurers’ risk corridor claims would be to utilize an appropriation after Congress has explicitly declined to do so.

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has previously upheld the same principle that an agency’s inability to fund judgments does not automatically open the Judgment Fund up to claims:

The Judgment Fund does not become available simply because an agency may have insufficient funds at a particular time to pay a judgment. If the agency lacks sufficient funds to pay a judgment, but possesses statutory authority to make the payment, its recourse is to seek funds from Congress. Thus, if another appropriation or fund is legally available to pay a judgment or settlement, payment is “otherwise provided for” and the Judgment Fund is not available.[28]

The OLC memo reinforces the opinions of both CRS and the GAO: The Judgment Fund is a payer of last resort, rather than a payer of first instance. Where Congress has provided another source of funding, the Judgment Fund should not be utilized to pay judgments or settlements. Congress’ directives in setting limits on appropriations to the risk corridor program make clear that it has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor claims—therefore, the Judgment Fund should not apply.

 

Judgment Fund Settlements

Even though past precedent suggests the Judgment Fund should not apply to the risk corridor cases, a position echoed by at least one judge’s ruling on the matter, the Obama Administration prior to leaving office showed a strong desire to settle insurer lawsuits seeking payment for risk corridor claims using Judgment Fund dollars. In its September 9, 2016 memo declaring risk corridor claims an obligation of the United States government, CMS also acknowledged the pending cases regarding risk corridors, and stated that “we are open to discussing resolution of those claims. We are willing to begin such discussions at any time.”[29] That language not only solicited insurers suing over risk corridors to seek settlements from the Administration, it also served as an open invitation for other insurers not currently suing the United States to do so—in the hope of achieving a settlement from the executive.

Contemporaneous press reports last fall indicated that the Obama Administration sought to use the Judgment Fund as the source of funding to pay out risk corridor claims. Specifically, the Washington Post reported advanced stages of negotiations regarding a settlement of over $2.5 billion—many times more than the $18 million in successful Judgment Fund claims made against HHS in the past decade—with over 175 insurers, paid using the Judgment Fund “to get around a recent congressional ban on the use of Health and Human Services money to pay the insurers.”[30]

When testifying before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on September 14, 2016, then-CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt declined to state the potential source of funds for the settlements his agency had referenced in the memo released the preceding week.[31] Subsequent to that hearing, Energy and Commerce requested additional documents and details from CMS regarding the matter; that request is still pending.[32]

Even prior to this past fall, the Obama Administration showed a strong inclination to accommodate insurer requests for additional taxpayer funds. A 2014 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigative report revealed significant lobbying by insurers regarding both PPACA’s risk corridors and reinsurance programs.[33] Specifically, contacts by insurance industry executives to White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett during the spring of 2014 asking for more generous terms for the risk corridor program yielded changes to the program formula—raising the profit floor from three percent to five percent—in ways that increased payments to insurers, and obligations to the federal government.[34]

Regardless of the Administration’s desire to accommodate insurers, as evidenced by its prior behavior regarding risk corridors, past precedent indicates that the Judgment Fund should not be accessible to pay either claims or settlements regarding risk corridors. A prior OLC memo indicates that “the appropriate source of funds for a settled case is identical to the appropriate source of funds should a judgment in that case be entered against the government.”[35] If a judgment cannot come from the Judgment Fund—and CRS, in noting that Congress has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor claims, believes it cannot—then neither can a settlement come from the Fund.

Given these developments, in October 2016 the Office of the House Counsel, using authority previously granted by the House, moved to file an amicus curiae brief in one of the risk corridor cases, that filed by Health Republic.[36] The House filing, which made arguments on the merits of the case that the Justice Department had not raised, did so precisely to protect Congress’ institutional prerogative and appropriations power—a power Congress expressed first when failing to fund risk corridors in the first place, and a second, more emphatic time when imposing additional restrictions on taxpayer funding to risk corridors.[37] The House filing made clear its stake in the risk corridor dispute:

Allegedly in light of a non-existent ‘litigation risk,’ HHS recently took the extraordinary step of urging insurers to enter into settlement agreements with the United States in order to receive payment on their meritless claims. In other words, HHS is trying to force the U.S. Treasury to disburse billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to insurance companies, even though DOJ [Department of Justice] has convincingly demonstrated that HHS has no legal obligation (and no legal right) to pay these sums. The House strongly disagrees with this scheme to subvert Congressional intent by engineering a massive giveaway of taxpayer money.[38]

The amicus filing illustrates the way in which the executive can through settlements—or, for that matter, failing vigorously to defend a suit against the United States—undermine the intent of Congress by utilizing the Judgment Fund appropriation to finance payments the legislature has otherwise denied.

 

Conclusion

Both the statute and existing past precedent warrant the dismissal of the risk corridor claims by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Congress spoke clearly on the issue of risk corridor funding twice: First when failing to provide an explicit appropriation in PPACA itself; and second when enacting an explicit prohibition on taxpayer funding. Opinions from Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Office of Legal Counsel all support the belief that, in taking these actions, Congress has “otherwise provided for” risk corridor funding, therefore prohibiting the use of the Judgment Fund. It defies belief that, having explicitly prohibited the use of taxpayer dollars through one avenue (the CMS Program Management account), the federal government should pay billions of dollars in claims to insurers via the back door route of the Judgment Fund.

However, in the interests of good government, Congress may wish to clarify that, in both the risk corridor cases and any similar case, lawmakers enacting a limitation or restriction on the use of funds should constitute “otherwise provid[ing] for” that program as it relates to the Judgment Fund. Such legislation would codify current practice and precedent, and preserve Congress’ appropriations power by preventing the executive and/or the courts from awarding judgments or settlements using the Judgment Fund where Congress has clearly spoken.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. I look forward to your questions.

 

 

[1] Under the formulae established in Section 1342(b) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, P.L. 111-148), plans with profit margins between 3 percent and 8 percent pay half their profit margins between those two points into the risk corridor program, while plans with profit margins exceeding 8 percent pay in 2.5 percent of profits (half of their profits between 3 percent and 8 percent), plus 80 percent of any profit above 8 percent. Payments out to insurers work in the inverse manner—insurers with losses below 3 percent absorb the entire loss; those with losses of between 3 and 8 percent will have half their losses over 3 percent repaid; and those with losses exceeding 8 percent will receive 2.5 percent (half of their losses between 3 and 8 percent), plus 80 percent of all losses exceeding 8 percent. 42 U.S.C. 18062(b).

[2] Section 1342(a) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(a).

[3] Section 1342(b) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(b).

[4] Section 3106 of the Affordable Health Choices Act (S. 1679, 111th Congress), as reported by the Senate HELP Committee, established the Community Health Insurance Option. Section 3106(c)(1)(A) created a Health Benefit Plan Start-Up Fund “to provide loans for the initial operations of a Community Health Insurance Option.” Section 3106(c)(1)(B) appropriated “out of any moneys in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated an amount necessary as requested by the Secretary of Health and Human Services to,” among other things, “make payments under” the risk corridor program created in Section 3106(c)(3).

[5] Section 2214 of America’s Healthy Future Act (S. 1796, 111th Congress), as reported by the Senate Finance Committee, created a risk corridor program substantially similar to (except for date changes) that created in PPACA. Section 2214 did not include an appropriation for risk corridors.

[6] Section 101(a) of the Medicare Modernization Act (P.L. 108-173) created a program of risk corridors at Section 1860D—15(e) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—115(e). Section 101(a) of the MMA also created a Medicare Prescription Drug Account within the Medicare Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund at Section 1860D—16 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116. Section 1860D—16(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116(c)(3), “authorized to be appropriated, out of any moneys of the Treasury not otherwise appropriated,” amounts necessary to fund the Account. Section 1860D—16(b)(1)(B), 42 U.S.C. 1395w—116(b)(1)(B), authorized the use of Account funds to make payments under Section 1860D—15, the section which established the Part D risk corridor program.

[7] Section 1342(a) of PPACA, 42 U.S.C. 18062(a).

[8] Letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton and Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, February 7, 2014.

[9] Letter from Department of Health and Human Services General Counsel William Schultz to Government Accountability Office Assistant General Counsel Julie Matta, May 20, 2014.

[10] Government Accountability Office legal decision B-325630, Department of Health and Human Services—Risk Corridor Program, September 30, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/666299.pdf.

[11] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2014,” Federal Register March 11, 2013, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-03-11/pdf/2013-04902.pdf, p. 15473.

[12] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2015,” Federal Register March 11, 2014, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-03-11/pdf/2014-05052.pdf, p. 13829.

[13] Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, P.L. 113-235, Division G, Title II, Section 227.

[14] Explanatory Statement of Managers regarding Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, Congressional Record December 11, 2014, p. H9838.

[15] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, P.L. 114-113, Division H, Title II, Section 225.

[16] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Proration Rate for 2014,” October 1, 2015, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Premium-Stabilization-Programs/Downloads/RiskCorridorsPaymentProrationRatefor2014.pdf.

[17] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015,” September 9, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Premium-Stabilization-Programs/Downloads/Risk-Corridors-for-2015-FINAL.PDF.

[18] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, memorandum regarding “Risk Corridors Payment and Charge Amounts for the 2015 Benefit Year,” https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/2015-RC-Issuer-level-Report-11-18-16-FINAL-v2.pdf.

[19] Land of Lincoln Mutual Health Insurance Company v. United States, Court of Federal Claims No. 16-744C, ruling of Judge Charles Lettow, November 10, 2016, https://ecf.cofc.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2016cv0744-47-0.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Moda Health Plan v. United States, Court of Federal Claims No. 16-649C, ruling of Judge Thomas Wheeler, February 9, 2017, https://ecf.cofc.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2016cv0649-23-0.

[22] Ibid., p. 2.

[23] Ibid., pp. 34-39.

[24] CMS, “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015.”

[25] 31 U.S.C. 1304(a)(1).

[26] Government Accountability Office, 3 Principles of Federal Appropriations Law 14-39, http://www.gao.gov/assets/210/203470.pdf.

[27] Congressional Research Service, memo to Sen. Marco Rubio on the risk corridor program, January 5, 2016, http://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/1dc92ef8-c340-4cfd-95c0-67369a557f1e/2AA5EF8F125279800BFABC8B8BA37072.05.24.2016-crs-rubio-memo-risk-corridors-1-5-16-1-redacted.pdf.

[28] Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, “Appropriate Source for Payment of Judgment and Settlements in United States v. Winstar Corp.,” July 22, 1998, Opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel in Volume 22, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/olc/opinions/1998/07/31/op-olc-v022-p0141.pdf, p. 153.

[29] CMS, “Risk Corridors Payments for 2015.”

[30] Amy Goldstein, “Obama Administration May Use Obscure Fund to Pay Billions to ACA Insurers,” Washington Post September 29, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/obama-administration-may-use-obscure-fund-to-pay-billions-to-aca-insurers/2016/09/29/64a22ea4-81bc-11e6-b002-307601806392_story.html?utm_term=.361888177f81.

[31] Testimony of CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt before House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Hearing on “The Affordable Care Act on Shaky Ground: Outlook and Oversight,” September 14, 2016, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/IF/IF02/20160914/105306/HHRG-114-IF02-Transcript-20160914.pdf, pp. 84-89.

[32] Letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton et al. to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell regarding risk corridor settlements, September 20, 2016, https://energycommerce.house.gov/news-center/letters/letter-hhs-regarding-risk-corridors-program.

[33] House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, staff report on “Obamacare’s Taxpayer Bailout of Health Insurers and the White House’s Involvement to Increase Bailout Size,” July 28, 2014, http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/WH-Involvement-in-ObamaCare-Taxpayer-Bailout-with-Appendix.pdf.

[34] Ibid., pp. 22-29.

[35] OLC, “Appropriate Source of Payment,” p. 141.

[36] H.Res. 676 of the 113th Congress gave the Speaker the authority “to initiate or intervene in one or more civil actions on behalf of the House…regarding the failure of the President, the head of any department or agency, or any other officer or employee of the executive branch, to act in a manner consistent with that official’s duties under the Constitution and the laws of the United States with respect to implementation of any provision of” PPACA. Section 2(f)(2)(C) of H.Res. 5, the opening day rules package for the 114th Congress, extended this authority for the duration of the 114th Congress.

[37] Motion for Leave to File Amicus Curiae on behalf of the United States House of Representatives, Health Republic Insurance Company v. United States, October 14, 2016, http://www.speaker.gov/sites/speaker.house.gov/files/documents/2016.10.13%20-%20Motion%20-%20Amicus%20Brief.pdf?Source=GovD.

[38] Ibid., p. 2.

Four Ways Donald Trump Can Start Dismantling Obamacare on Day One

Having led a populist uprising that propelled him to the presidency, Donald Trump will now face pressure to make good on his campaign promise to repeal Obamacare. However, because President Obama used executive overreach to implement so much of the law, Trump can begin dismantling it immediately upon taking office.

The short version comes down to this: End cronyist bailouts, and confront the health insurers behind them. Want more details? Read on.

1. End Unconstitutional Cost-Sharing Subsidies

In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in a lawsuit brought by the House of Representatives that the Obama administration had illegally disbursed cost-sharing subsidies to insurers without an appropriation. These subsidies—separate and distinct from the law’s premium subsidies—reimburse insurers for discounted deductibles and co-payments they provide to some low-income beneficiaries.

Trump should immediately 1) revoke the Obama administration’s appeal of Collyer’s ruling in the House’s lawsuit, House v. Burwell, and 2) stop providing cost-sharing subsidies to insurers unless and until Congress grants an explicit appropriation for same.

2. Follow the Law on Reinsurance

House v. Burwell represents but one case in which legal experts have ruled the Obama administration violated the law by bailing out insurers. In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) handed down a ruling in the separate case of Obamacare’s reinsurance program.

The law states that, once reinsurance funds come in, Treasury should get repaid for the $5 billion cost of a transitional Obamacare program before insurers receive reimbursement for their high-cost patients. GAO, like the non-partisan Congressional Research Service before it, concluded that the Obama administration violated the text of Obamacare by prioritizing payments to insurers over and above payments to the Treasury.

Trump should immediately ensure that Treasury is repaid all the $5 billion it is owed before insurance companies get repaid, as the law currently requires. He can also look to sue insurance companies to make the Treasury whole.

3. Prevent a Risk Corridor Bailout

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has sought to settle lawsuits raised by insurance companies looking to resolve unpaid claims on Obamacare’s risk corridor program. While Congress prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to bail out insurance companies—twice—the administration apparently wishes to enact a backdoor bailout prior to leaving office.

Under this mechanism, Justice Department attorneys would sign off on using the obscure Judgment Fund to settle the risk corridor lawsuits, in an attempt to circumvent the congressional appropriations restriction.

Trump should immediately 1) direct the Justice Department and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) not to settle any risk corridor lawsuits, 2) direct the Treasury not to make payments from the Judgment Fund for any settlements related to such lawsuits, and 3) ask Congress for clarifying language to prohibit the Judgment Fund from being used to pay out any settlements related to such lawsuits.

4. Rage Against the (Insurance) Machine

Trump ran as a populist against the corrupting influence of special interests. To that end, he would do well to point out that health insurance companies have made record profits, nearly doubling during the Obama years to a whopping $15 billion in 2015. It’s also worth noting that special interests enthusiastically embraced Obamacare as a way to fatten their bottom lines—witness the pharmaceutical industry’s “rock solid deal” supporting the law, and the ads they ran seeking its passage.

As folks have noted elsewhere, if Trump ends the flow of cost-sharing subsidies upon taking office, insurers may attempt to argue that legal clauses permit them to exit the Obamacare exchanges immediately. Over and above the legal question of whether CMS had the authority to make such an agreement—binding the federal government to a continuous flow of unconstitutional spending—lies a broader political question: Would insurers, while making record profits, deliberately throw the country’s insurance markets into chaos because a newly elected administration would not continue paying them tribute in the form of unconstitutional bailouts?

For years, Democrats sought political profit by portraying Republicans as “the handmaidens of the insurance companies.” Anger against premium increases by Anthem in 2010 helped compel Democrats to enact Obamacare, even after Scott Brown’s stunning Senate upset in Massachusetts. It would be a delicious irony indeed for a Trump administration to continue the political realignment begun last evening by demonstrating to the American public just how much Democrats have relied upon crony capitalism and corrupting special interests to enact their agenda. Nancy Pelosi and K Street lobbyists were made for each other—perhaps it only took Donald Trump to bring them together.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Speaker Ryan Protects Congress’ “Power of the Purse”

This morning, Speaker Ryan’s office announced that it had filed an amicus curiae brief in one of the pending lawsuits regarding Obamacare’s risk corridors — this one filed by Health Republic. Here’s a quick explainer on the filing and its importance:

What’s Happening? Filed by a failed Oregon co-op, the Health Republic case was the first case filed over unpaid risk corridor claims, back in February. Over the summer, the Justice Department moved to dismiss the case — but solely on the grounds that the case was not yet ripe to be heard by the federal courts.

In the past few weeks, as filing deadlines in other, later risk corridor cases arose, the Justice Department shifted tactics by embarking on a more robust defense. In those later filings, Justice argued not only that insurers do not have a claim for unpaid risk corridor funds now, but that they will not ever have a claim to those funds — because Obamacare never included an explicit appropriation for risk corridors in the law itself, and because Congress further clarified its position when it explicitly made the program budget-neutral in December 2014.

Speaker Ryan’s filing today officially makes the court hearing the Health Republic case aware of the Justice Department’s new position. It argues that the Health Republic case, like the other risk corridor cases, should not just be dismissed due to lack of ripeness, but should be dismissed with prejudice on the merits.

Why Does It Matter? The House’s filing today matters for three reasons:

  1. It signifies the willingness of Congress to intervene to protect its institutional prerogatives — namely its “power of the purse,” which it has exercised in this case, by explicitly denying the transfer of taxpayer funds to the risk corridor program;
  2. It officially makes the court aware of the arguments on the merits — making it tougher for the Justice Department subsequently to settle the claims, as some within the Administration apparently wish to do; and
  3. It introduces a new legal precedent NOT previously cited by the Justice Department in its other risk corridor briefs earlier this month — specifically, the case of Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery School District v. United States. In that case, a statute created an entitlement to benefits for school districts, but Congress later appropriated less than the full amount under the statutory formula — causing the Highland Falls district to sue to obtain the shortfall. That lawsuit was dismissed by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which found that “we have great difficulty imagining a more direct statement of congressional intent than the instructions in the appropriations statutes at issue here.” In other words, when Congress speaks with a clear voice — as it did by choosing to make the risk corridor program budget-neutral — Congress gets the last word.

In keeping with the Highland Falls precedent, I’ll give Congress, in the form of Speaker Ryan’s amicus filing, the last word here as well:

Allegedly in light of a non-existent “litigation risk,” HHS recently took the extraordinary step of urging insurers to enter into settlement agreements with the United States in order to receive payment on their meritless claims. In other words, HHS is trying to force the U.S. Treasury to disburse billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to insurance companies even though DOJ has convincingly demonstrated that HHS has no legal obligation (and no legal right) to pay these sums. The House strongly disagrees with this scheme to subvert Congressional intent by engineering a massive giveaway of taxpayer money.