AHP Proposed Rule: Expanding Affordability, Washington Control, or Both?

Why would Sen. Rand Paul praise as “conservative care health reform” a proposed regulation that increases Washington’s power?

A proposed rule released Thursday regarding association health plans (AHPs) will likely provide more affordable health coverage options to the self-employed, or individuals working for small businesses. However, it would do so by increasing the number of individuals purchasing health coverage regulated by Washington, making it a mixed bag for conservatives.

A Look at Current Law

  1. Essential health benefits (including actuarial value requirements, limits on out-of-pocket expenses, and deductibles in the small group market);
  2. Risk adjustment payments;
  3. Single risk pool requirements (i.e., requiring insurers to consider all individual coverage, and all small group coverage, offered in a state as one block of business); and
  4. Premium variation requirements imposing strict limits on age-rating, and prohibiting variation by anything other than age, family size, geography, and tobacco use.

The absence of all these requirements gives large group coverage a decided regulatory advantage compared to individual and small group coverage. Self-insured health plans—that is, employer plans that retain the insurance risk themselves—are likewise exempt from the Obamacare requirements listed above, regardless of the business’ size (i.e., whether they have more or fewer than 50 employees).

However, for AHPs that currently buy coverage from insurance carriers (i.e., “fully insured” plans), the Obama administration in 2011 issued guidance that stated regulators would “look through” the association to its members to determine whether their coverage qualified as small group or large group. To give an example, consider an association of restaurant franchises with two members: one with 30 employees, and one with 75 employees. While the restaurant with 75 employees would meet the standard of a large group plan, the one with 30 would classify as a small group plan.

As a result of the 2011 guidance, coverage for the latter would have to meet all the Obamacare coverage requirements for small group plans listed above, making coverage for the larger employer either administratively cumbersome (because two employers would have two different regulatory benefit packages), costlier (because the larger restaurant would have to comply with the small group requirements as part of an association, even though that restaurant would not have to comply if it bought coverage on its own), or both.

What the Proposed Rule Does

In general, the proposed rule would:

  1. “Relax the existing requirement that associations sponsoring AHPs must exist for a reason other than offering health insurance.” Associations must still be run by their members—for instance, Blue Cross or other insurers couldn’t try to form, and run, an “association” just to offer group health coverage—but need not exist for other purposes.
  2. “Relax the requirement that association members share a common interest, as long as they operate in a common geographic area”—either a state, or a metropolitan area encompassing multiple states (e.g., greater Washington DC).
  3. “Make clear that associations whose members operate in the same industry can sponsor AHPs, regardless of geographic distribution.”
  4. “Clarify that working owners and their dependents,” including the self-employed, “are eligible to participate in AHPs.” These individuals must meet certain proposed requirements—working for the business at least 30 hours per week, or 120 hours per month, or generating income from the business equal to the cost of coverage for the owner and his/her family—designed to ensure individuals do not form “businesses” solely for the purposes of purchasing association health coverage.

The Effects on Insurance Offerings

Even prior to the rule’s release, liberal Obamacare supporters claimed the policy represents another attempt to “sabotage” the law, because healthier people will purchase AHP coverage lacking Obamacare’s “consumer protections.” Attempting to respond to that criticism, the proposed rule includes several non-discrimination provisions, prohibiting associations from discriminating in offering membership based on the health status of members’ employees, or varying premiums or eligibility for benefits based on health status. Liberals respond that employers could discriminate through benefit offerings—for instance, not covering chemotherapy to discourage businesses with cancer patients from applying.

However, large employers already exempted from the Obamacare benefits don’t have to offer any such coverage currently, and I have yet to hear any major reports about IBM or General Motors “discriminating” against patients with pre-existing conditions. If these employers haven’t used an exemption from Obamacare coverage requirements to offer shoddy health coverage, then why do liberals believe that other employers will?

How This Affects Federal Power

In general, the rule would expand cross-state purchasing of health insurance. However, it would not do so by allowing people to purchase coverage across state lines—for instance, allowing a Maryland resident to buy a policy regulated in Virginia. Instead, it would allow more individuals to buy federally regulated coverage, regardless of the state in which they live.

Because the rule would eliminate the need for AHPs to comply with Obamacare requirements, it would lower premiums in the short term. However, in the longer term, the nature of the proposal raises two risks. On the one hand, a future administration could revoke the rule, minimizing AHPs’ scope and impact. On the other, a new administration—or a Democratic Congress—could easily glom more federal regulatory requirements on to AHPs and other forms of group coverage.

As I have written previously, the regulatory regime represents the heart of Obamacare. The proposed rule attempts a “kludgy” work-around of that regime, but one that, by increasing federal control over health insurance, may end up causing more trouble over the long term. Congress can—and should—do far better, by repealing the regulatory regime outright, and returning control of health insurance markets where it belongs: To the states.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about President Trump’s Health Care Executive Order

On Thursday morning, President Trump signed an Executive Order regarding health care and health insurance. Here’s what you need to know about his action.

What Actions Did the President Take?

The Executive Order did not change regulations on its own; rather, it instructed Cabinet Departments to propose changes to regulations in the near future:

  1. Within 60 days, the Department of Labor will propose regulatory changes regarding Association Health Plans (AHPs). Regulations here will look to expand the definition of groups that can qualify as an “employer” under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). AHPs have two advantages: First, all association health plans regulated by ERISA are federally pre-empted from state benefit mandates; second, self-insured plans regulated by ERISA are exempt from several benefit mandates imposed by Obamacare—such as essential benefits and actuarial value standards.
  2. Within 60 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) will propose regulatory changes regarding short-term health plans. Regulations here will likely revoke rules put into place by the Obama Administration last October. Last year, the Obama Administration limited short-term plans to 90 days in duration (down from 364 days), and prevented renewals of such coverage—because it feared that such plans, which do not have to meet any of Obamacare’s benefit requirements, were drawing people away from Exchange coverage. The Trump Administration regulations will likely modify, or eliminate entirely, those restrictions, allowing people to purchase plans not compliant with the Obamacare mandates. (For more information, see my Tuesday article on this issue.)
  3. Within 120 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS will propose regulatory changes regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), vehicles where employers can deposit pre-tax dollars for their employees to use for health expenses. A 2013 IRS Notice prevented employers from using HRA dollars to fund employees’ individual health insurance premiums—because the Obama Administration worried that doing so would encourage employers to drop coverage. However, Section 18001 of the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law last December, allowed employers with under 50 employees to make HRA contributions that workers could use to pay for health insurance premiums on the individual market. The Executive Order may seek to expand this exemption to all employers, by rescinding the prior IRS notice.
  4. Within six months—and every two years thereafter—the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS, along with the Federal Trade Commission, will submit reports on industry consolidation within the health care sector, whether and how it is raising health care costs, and actions to mitigate the same.

How Will the Order Affect the Health Sector?

In general, however, the issues discussed by the Executive Order will:

  • Give individuals more options, and more affordable options. Premiums on the individual market have more than doubled since 2013, due to Obamacare’s regulatory mandates. AHPs would allow workers to circumvent state benefit mandates through ERISA’s federal pre-emption of state laws; self-insured AHPs would also gain exemption from several federal Obamacare mandates, as outlined above. Because virtually all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits do not apply to short-term plans, these would obtain the most regulatory relief.
  • Allow more small businesses to subsidize workers’ coverage—either through Association Health Plans, or by making contributions to HRAs, and allowing employees to use those pre-tax dollars to buy the health coverage of their choosing on the individual market.

When Will the Changes Occur?

The Executive Order directed the Departments to announce regulatory changes within 60-120 days; the Departments could of course move faster than that. If the Departments decide to release interim final rules—that is, rules that take effect prior to a notice-and-comment period—or sub-regulatory guidance, the changes could take effect prior to the 2018 plan year.

However, any changes that go through the usual regulatory process—agencies issuing proposed rules, followed by a notice-and-comment period, prior to the rules taking effect—likely would not take effect until the 2019 plan year. While the Executive Order directed the agencies to “consider and evaluate public comment on any regulations proposed” pursuant to the Order, it did not specify whether the Departments must evaluate said comments before the regulations take effect.

Does the Order Represent a Regulatory Overreach?

However, with respect to Association Health Plans, some conservatives may take a more nuanced view. Conservatives generally support allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines, believing that such freedom would allow consumers to buy the plans that best suit their interests.

However, AHPs accomplish this goal not through Congress’ Commerce Clause power—i.e., explicitly allowing, for instance, an individual in Maryland to buy a policy regulated in Virginia—but instead through federal pre-emption—individuals in Maryland and Virginia buying policies regulated by Washington, albeit in a less onerous manner than Obamacare’s Exchange plans. As with medical liability reform, therefore, some conservatives may support a state-based approach to achieve regulatory relief for consumers, rather than an expanded role for the federal government.

Finally, if President Trump wants to overturn his predecessor’s history of executive unilateralism, he should cease funding cost-sharing reduction payments to health insurers. The Obama Administration’s unilateral funding of these payments without an appropriation from Congress brought a sharp rebuke from a federal judge, who called the action unconstitutional. If President Trump wants to end executive overreach, he should abide by the ruling, and halt the unilateral payments to insurers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The CLASS Act’s Untold Story

A PDF copy of this report is available on Sen. John Thune’s website.

Introduction

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the Obama administration’s keystone health care legislation, established a new long-term care insurance entitlement known as the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act.1 Documents uncovered through a bicameral congressional investigation show that well before the law’s passage, warning flags were raised within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about the CLASS program’s sustainability in the long-term. The documents also describe the extent to which the Administration may shift costs and administrative burdens for the program onto states and employers.

The CLASS Act created an optional, government-backed, long-term care insurance program that would pay a daily or monthly benefit to enrolled subscribers if they become unable to perform activities of daily living, such as dressing, meal preparation, and personal grooming. Because the program requires a five-year vesting period before subscribers can collect any benefits, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculated that in the first 10 years of the program, the CLASS Act would account for $70 billion in deficit reduction. This calculation was based on the premise that during the initial years of the program, it will take in more revenue in premiums than it pays out in benefits, including the first five years of the program in which no benefits are paid at all.

This $70 billion in CBO-scored “savings” was crucial to garnering support for passage of the health care law. CBO did not make public any estimates on what would happen as the population of subscribers to the program age and the CLASS Act requires increasing amounts of money to be paid out in benefits.

It is now widely acknowledged that the alleged savings from the CLASS Act are illusory. The month after PPACA passed, Rick Foster, Chief Actuary of HHS’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), released a report indicating that the CLASS Act was not fiscally sound.2 The chief actuary is a non-partisan, high-ranking official in CMS whose estimates are critical in understanding current health care law and proposed changes to the law.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a supporter of the PPACA legislation, publicly called the CLASS program “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would be proud of.”3 In testimony before Congress, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded that the CLASS program is “totally unsustainable” in its current form.4

But these concessions came long after PPACA had been signed into law. As a result of this investigation, it is now clear that some officials inside HHS warned for months before passage that the CLASS program would be a fiscal disaster. Within HHS the program was repeatedly referred to as “a recipe for disaster” with “terminal problems.” As this report will show, the chief actuary stated on numerous occasions that the program was not fiscally sustainable and would result in what he referred to as an “insurance death spiral.”

According to emails and other documents obtained pursuant to this investigation, senior leadership of HHS and Democratic staff in the Senate and House reviewed these warnings but did not change the law and did not inform the public of the doubts about the CLASS Act. Instead, the officials continued to claim that the program would be sound, sustainable, and actually produce budget savings that could help pay for other parts of the health care law.

While there has been little public discussion of the costs PPACA imposes on employers and states, this investigation revealed for the first time the extent to which HHS both anticipated these costs and yet tried to impose even more burdens. The documents we have obtained demonstrate that officials at HHS knew that the CLASS Act would saddle employers and states with, at minimum, a heavy administrative burden. The emails also reveal discussions inside HHS about combating low participation in the program by requiring employers to participate. HHS anticipated this mandate could be imposed at some future date, and it is possible they will still attempt to impose such a mandate through regulation.

The documents that were produced as part of this investigation were reviewed and analyzed by a working group of Republicans in both houses of Congress. This report is the product of our joint investigatory research and analysis.

Internal HHS Documents Questioned Fiscal Viability of CLASS

While PPACA established the long-term care program, it left many of the important details about the CLASS Act to be decided by HHS through regulation. HHS is required to issue those regulations by October 1, 2012. Until HHS issues those regulations, the public does not know how much subscribers will have to pay in premiums to enroll in the program, what benefits they will receive if they become disabled, or what level of disability will trigger the benefits.

When balancing premiums collected against benefits paid, internal HHS documents show that regulators have long been concerned about the problem of “adverse selection.” If CLASS suffers from adverse selection (also called “anti-selection”), a high proportion of people with long-term care needs enroll in the program and initial premiums will need to be very high to cover costs. Those high premiums will encourage healthy people to drop out of the program, causing premiums to rise again for the sicker individuals who remain. This could result in what is called a premium “death spiral” and massive taxpayer losses.

Internal emails from HHS and CMS show a number of officials raised alarm about the sustainability of the CLASS Act program. Between May and September of 2009, the CMS chief actuary repeatedly stated his concerns to CMS leadership. It appears from the documents that he was later cut out of the discussions regarding the CLASS Act. CMS and Democratic staff on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) instead turned to CBO, which produced more favorable estimates than the chief actuary. But others within HHS continued to question the viability of the CLASS Act. What follows is a timeline of how these discussions progressed.

May 2009
The Chief Actuary Predicted “Insurance Death Spiral”

The CMS chief actuary first analyzed the adverse selection problem in a May 19, 2009, email. (See Exhibit A.) Commenting on a draft legislative proposal from Senator Kennedy’s office, the chief actuary said, “let me offer a few preliminary comments:

I didn’t see any provision for a Federal subsidy of this program; in other words, the intention appears to be that it would be financed solely through participant premiums and interest earnings. Nonsubsidized, voluntary insurance programs generally involve substantial “antiselection” by those who choose to participate. As summarized below, this could be a terminal problem for this proposal.5

The program is intended to be “actuarially sound,” but at first glance this goal may be impossible. Due to the limited scope of the insurance coverage, the voluntary CLASS plan would probably not attract many participants other than individuals who already meet the criteria to qualify as beneficiaries. While the 5-year “vesting period” would allow the fund to accumulate a modest level of assets, all such assets could be used just to meet benefit payments due in the first few months of the 6th year.

The resulting substantial premium increases required to prevent fund exhaustion would likely reduce the number of participants, and a classic “assessment spiral” or “insurance death spiral” would ensue.

Alternatively, suppose that a significant number of people without any limitations in [activities of daily living] could be persuaded to participate in the program. How many people would be needed to cover the benefit costs for those qualifying as beneficiaries? For the sake of illustration, suppose 10 million people qualify for benefits of $50 per day (annual cost of $182.5 billion). About 234 million people, paying premiums of $65 per month, would be needed to cover this cost (ignoring administrative expenses). The size of the U.S. population aged 20 and over is about 225 million, and about 165 million of these are employed. This rough—but probably not unrealistic—example further calls into question the feasibility of the maximum financing versus the minimum benefits.

The problem identified by chief actuary at the earliest stages of the bill’s consideration remained in the legislation through subsequent drafts. The chief actuary’s concern was that it would not be possible to attract enough people to the program to maintain it as a self-funding program.

The chief actuary’s email does not include the text of the draft language from Senator Kennedy’s office, but it appears from the premium and benefit example used that the first draft of the statutory language may have required $50 a day in benefits and/or premiums of $65 per month. The final version of the CLASS Act gives the Secretary of HHS discretion to set the premiums and benefit levels as long as premiums allow the program to be fiscally sound over 75 years and benefits are at least $50 per day.

June – July 2009
The Administration Supported the CLASS Act Based on Budgetary Gimmicks, Not Long-Term Actuarial Analysis

In the summer of 2009, a series of email exchanges between the chief actuary and the CMS Office of Legislative Affairs show that support for the long-term care program was growing within the Obama administration and among Democrats in Congress, while the chief actuary’s concerns were becoming more emphatic. Despite these concerns,
supporters of the CLASS Act continued to rely on budgetary gimmicks and flawed modeling.

On June 29th, a staffer in the CMS Office of Legislative Affairs forwarded a news story to the chief actuary that discussed how the CLASS Act allegedly would save money. The email noted, “Bottom line, the CLASS Act was scored by CBO with a savings of $58 billion over 10 years, including a $2.5 billion savings in Medicaid.” A follow up email from CMS Legislative Affairs on July 8 said, “the Administration is now officially on record supporting the CLASS Act.” (See Exhibit B.)

The chief actuary responded with a critique of two studies that had been offered in support of the insurance program:

I’ve finished reviewing the two studies provided by Sen. Kennedy’s staff regarding the CLASS proposal. I’m sorry to report that I remain very doubtful that this proposal is sustainable at the specified premium and benefit amounts.

The actuarial study conducted for AARP assumed participation rates based on a portion (40% to 100%) of current rates for 401(k) plans. In practice, I think current experience for participation in employer based long-term care plans would be much more applicable, and such participation is far lower than for 401(k)’s (for fairly obvious reasons). The AARP study emphasized the sensitivity of premium levels to the number of healthy participants. Although the actuaries didn’t model a plan with participation in the few-percentage range, I strongly suspect that the resulting premiums would be so large as to further diminish the number of participants and to fail to achieve the critical mass of participants in average health needed to cover the selection and subsidy costs.

All the analysis in the Moran study is based on an assumption that the CLASS program would be mandatory. The results look legitimate for such a program, but they are not applicable to the voluntary plan proposed for CLASS.

I haven’t been able to talk to CBO yet regarding their participation assumptions. Unless they have a compelling reason to expect greater-than-[long-term care] levels of participation, however, I can’t see how there would be enough workers participating to cover the selection costs for those with existing [activities of daily living] limitations plus the costs for the internal subsidies for students and low-income persons. Thirty-six years of actuarial experience lead me to believe that this program would collapse in short order and require significant federal subsidies to continue. (See Exhibit B.)

The comments by the chief actuary demonstrate that any reduction in the federal budget deficit identified by CBO would be a function of budgetary time-shifting rather than true savings. While programs like Social Security are often analyzed on a 75-year basis of long-term actuarial solvency, congressional rules require CBO to analyze legislative proposals, like the CLASS Act, over a 10-year budget window.

But the CLASS program likely will not even begin collecting premiums until 2013, and five years of participation are required before subscribers are vested in CLASS, so the program is not likely to begin paying out any benefits until 2018. CLASS was therefore scored as a revenue raiser. Using this budget gimmick, the true costs of the program— the subsequent benefit payments—were essentially ignored, because only a few years of benefit payments were within the official 10-year CBO scoring window of 2010-2019.

CLASS Supporters Relied on Flawed Modeling

The internal documents show that advocates of the CLASS program relied on strikingly unrealistic participation estimates. One study noted above, commissioned by AARP and dated March 3, 2008, assumed nearly 50 million Americans would join the program, a level well above current participation in private long-term care insurance. The second, by the Moran Group, assumed participation would be mandatory for everyone.6

As the chief actuary pointed out, those are completely invalid assumptions on which to base estimates of a long-term care insurance program. CBO’s own estimate also assumed participation rates that were higher than long-term care insurance currently has, and higher than the chief actuary believed could plausibly be expected. By relying on unrealistic estimates of how many people would participate in the CLASS program, its supporters masked the program’s underlying viability problems.

Even with these unrealistic assumptions, the AARP-commissioned analysis also concluded that the program’s design flaws “will ultimately lead to … an unsustainable situation with respect to the premiums.” (See Exhibit C.) Emails between Obama administration officials and congressional staff show that AARP, which publicly supported PPACA, has refused to release the entire study. (See Exhibit D.)

To further rebut the AARP and Moran studies, the chief actuary also forwarded to CMS Legislative Affairs staff a report by the American Academy of Actuaries and the Society of Actuaries that substantiated his concerns about the long-term viability of the proposed CLASS program. (See Exhibit E.) The American Academy of Actuaries provided their report to the Senate HELP Committee on July 22, 2009. (See Exhibit E.)

August – September 2009
CMS and Senate HELP Democrats Ignored Warnings about Actuarial Soundness and Pressed Forward with CLASS as a New Entitlement

The chief actuary remained concerned about the soundness of the CLASS program throughout the summer of 2009, and he sought to ensure that his concerns were communicated to the senior people working on health care reform inside HHS as well as the chief architects of the program in Senator Kennedy’s office. On August 14, 2009, the chief actuary sent another email to the CMS Office of Legislative Affairs in which he said:

As you know, I continue to be convinced that the CLASS proposal is not ‘actuarially sound,’ despite Sen. Kennedy’s staff’s good intentions. I assume you’ve conveyed these concerns to the staff but, if not, let me know and we can express the concerns in a memo.

The Office of Legislative Affairs responded, “Yes, both Amy and the HHS Office of Health Reform have been in communication with [a senior democrat staff member] of the HELP Committee relaying your concerns about the actuarial soundness of the CLASS Act.” (See Exhibit F.)

A few weeks later, on August 24, 2009, the chief actuary again asked CMS to consider the American Academy of Actuaries report questioning the CLASS Act’s viability. (See Exhibit B.)

HHS Officials Effectively Silenced the Chief Actuary and Stopped Soliciting His Input

After receiving consistent negative information from the chief actuary about the financial viability of the program, Senator Kennedy’s staff moved to cut out the chief critic of the CLASS Act within HHS from providing any further analysis of the bill. On September 10, 2009, the Director of Policy Analysis in the Immediate Office of the Secretary of HHS emailed the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation saying, [a senior democrat staff member] “got back to me, and decided she does not think she needs additional work on the actuarial side.” (See Exhibit G.)

An email the following week, September 16, reiterated Democrats’ position: [a senior democrat staff member] “at HELP has done a lot of work changing the program and per CBO it is now actuarially sound.” (See Exhibit H.) There had been a clear shift from relying on the chief actuary’s 36 years of experience in favor of the flawed 10-year timeframe of CBO.

Despite the shift, the chief actuary continued to be involved in discussions as late as September 23, 2009, when he attended a meeting with CBO in which the structure and cost of the CLASS Act were discussed. (See Exhibit I.) After this date, there were apparently no other email communications from the chief actuary regarding the CLASS Act. There is no indication in the documents that the drafters of the legislation in Congress or HHS ever again sought the chief actuary’s opinion on the program before the law was enacted. However, his questions about the sustainability of the program continued to be raised in published actuarial reports.7

CBO Produced Long-Term Analyses of CLASS; Models Have Yet to Be Made Public

At the same time CLASS supporters began to marginalize the warnings from the chief actuary about the long-term viability of the program, Democratic staff on the Senate HELP Committee worked with CBO to come up with an alternative model to analyze CLASS. On September 9, 2009, an HHS official e-mailed that HELP staff “had CBO do lots and lots of runs out to 50 years to ascertain solvency. [The HELP staff member] is going to send to me to forward on.” (See Exhibit J.)

Congress relies on CBO to estimate the economic impact of proposed laws and in this role it is vital that CBO’s models be completely transparent. The formulas, algorithms and assumptions should be explicitly defined so that Congress and the public can fully understand the basis for their estimates. Yet two years after it was providing analyses to HELP Committee staff, CBO has declined to disclose the models it developed to analyze the CLASS program’s long-term solvency. CBO staff now say that they do not have the capacity to analyze the CLASS Act’s long-term solvency, despite apparently undertaking that analysis for congressional Democrats before the bill’s passage.

On August 15, 2011, HHS did provide an analysis by CBO that congressional staff gave to CMS in September 2009. That analysis is one page of a spreadsheet projecting net premium collections of $59 billion through 2019 – a 10-year budget estimate, not the 50-year solvency estimates referred to by Senate HELP Committee staff. The document does not disclose what participation rates it assumed or how it established the assumed $65 premium rate. (See Exhibit K.)

September – December 2009
HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation Began To Question CLASS but Also Was Ignored

Despite the chief actuary’s email silence after September, others within HHS began to raise red flags about the soundness of the CLASS program. On September 25, 2009, just two days after the CBO meeting with the chief actuary, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) prepared talking points for the CLASS program, including the concern that the program “is still likely to create severe adverse selection problems.” (See Exhibit L.)

On October 22, 2009, ASPE again questioned the viability of the program. One staffer wrote in an email:

You can get a policy through the [Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program] (albeit underwritten) with a higher benefit, better inflation protection, and lower premium [than CLASS]. I don’t see any reason why anyone would opt for CLASS if they could pass the underwriting. And if you couldn’t make it through underwriting, you could simply enroll in CLASS to cover some of your current or likely future [long-term care] costs. Seems like a recipe for disaster to me… (See Exhibit M.)

This staffer also said: “I can’t imagine that CLASS would not have high levels of adverse selection given the significantly higher premiums compared to similar policies in the private market.” (See Exhibit M.)

HHS Officials’ Public and Private Statements on CLASS Solvency Conflict

During this entire time, public statements by HHS officials gave no hint of the internal concerns voiced within the agency. On October 20, 2009, Richard Frank, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at HHS, gave a public speech at a Kaiser Family Foundation event in which he said:

We’ve, in the department, have modeled this extensively, perhaps more extensively than anybody would want to hear about [laughter] and we’re entirely persuaded that reasonable premiums, solid participation rates, and financial solvency over the 75-year period can be maintained. So it is, on this basis, that the administration supports it that the bill continues to sort of meet the standards of being able to stand on its own financial feet.8

It was around this same time that internal email from Frank’s staff indicated the nonpublic opinion that prospects for the program’s solvency looked more like “a recipe for disaster.”

Figures from the Social Security Chief Actuary Also Lead to Questions of Anti-Selection Problems within CLASS

HHS staff acknowledged that CLASS premiums would need to be less than $100 for the program to be viable. On November 27, 2009, an ASPE staffer commented, “I suspect that these changes would decrease the premium to well under $100, which seems to be the consensus threshold needed to get decent participation and avoid catastrophic adverse selection.” (See Exhibit N.)

But on December 8, ASPE analyzed Social Security Chief Actuary Steve Goss’ actuarial report and noted that estimated monthly premiums were approximately $177 per month (if a certain reenrollment loophole were not closed) or $140 per month (if the loophole were closed). They also noted that after five years, premiums could increase to $332.53 per month. The office concluded its analysis by noting that adverse selection was a serious threat to the program’s viability. (See Exhibit O.)

HHS Officials Question CLASS, but Their Concerns are not Addressed in the Legislation

On December 1, 2009, ASPE had prepared technical comments on the CLASS Act, in which, even before its analysis of the Social Security data, the Office pointed out:

Unlike most private insurance that reimburses policy holders for long-term care expenses, the CLASS benefit is a lifetime cash payment paid daily or weekly once a person meets the eligibility criteria of the program. … The end result could be severe adverse selection that would in turn threaten the long-run solvency of the program. (See Exhibit P.)

The technical comments also included several recommendations from the American Academy of Actuaries to increase the solvency of the program. These included adding a waiting period before benefits kick in; reducing the benefit from lifetime to a fixed number of years; using an established list of activities of daily living to determine the trigger for benefits; and moving from a daily cash benefit to one that makes reimbursements based on services used.

None of those recommendations were adopted in the final language of the bill, and the concerns expressed by ASPE were not addressed or shared with the public.

January 2010
HHS Officials Privately Conceded CLASS May Be Unsustainable, but Failed to Disclose Their Concerns Publicly

In January 2010, HHS staff prepared a list of suggested technical corrections to the CLASS Act that the Department wanted included as the House and Senate reconciled their separate versions of health care reform. However, for both political and procedural reasons, the House was forced to accept the version of health reform – and the CLASS Act – adopted by the Senate on December 24, 2009, and none of the corrections were made.

Chief among the corrections the Department wanted to make was a so-called “failsafe,” which HHS staff described this way:

In the current bills, the Secretary can alter the premiums in response to threats to financial stability of the CLASS program. However, it is possible the authority in the bill to modify premiums will not be sufficient to ensure the program is sustainable. The failsafe provision gives the Secretary authority to alter earnings and vesting provisions of the CLASS Act to further decrease adverse selection and maintain long-run stability. (See Exhibit Q.)

The documents reveal HHS’ concern that the CLASS program as written in the Senate bill – and the version signed into law – would become fiscally unsustainable. Yet at no point between the date of the document – January 4, 2010 – and the day the House voted to pass the Senate health bill – March 21, 2010 – did Secretary Sebelius or any other HHS official publicly air the Department’s concerns that the CLASS program as drafted could be unsustainable.

It appears that the significant fiscal concerns surrounding CLASS may have been silenced within the Department for political reasons and the fear that publicly discussing concerns about CLASS’ sustainability could have jeopardized the bill’s passage in the House.

The technical comments on the January 2010 document raise additional contradictions between HHS’ public and private statements. Throughout 2011, Secretary Sebelius and other HHS officials have repeatedly expressed – and have testified before Congress about – their belief that the CLASS Act legislation gives them the authority they need to construct the program in a fiscally sustainable manner.9 This public assurance stands in marked contrast with the internal corrections document asserting that it is possible the Department’s authority “will not be sufficient to ensure the program is sustainable.”

CLASS May Leave Employers On the Hook for a Failed Entitlement

Even before PPACA became law, HHS and the law’s drafters began to look for ways to pass the costs on to other parties. While it was clear that some of the future projected shortfalls in the program would add to the federal budget deficit and be borne by American taxpayers, other costs would be shifted to employers and the states. The documents show a consistent effort by HHS to impose unfunded mandates on others, so that the cost of some of the questionable decisions made by the law’s drafters would not fall on the federal government.

Employer Participation Creates Compliance and Administrative Burdens

To participate in CLASS, subscribers would pay a yet-to-be-determined premium each month that would be deposited into a trust fund established by the Secretary of the Treasury for the purpose of paying cash benefits to eligible claims. Premiums would be collected either through voluntary employer payroll withholding or by a mechanism determined by the Secretary for those who are self-employed, have more than one employer, or have an employer that does not participate in the automatic enrollment process.

The critical mechanics of how an employer would withhold CLASS program premiums from employees’ paychecks and then transfer those premiums to the U.S. Treasury could place a significant compliance and administrative burden on employers. The complexity and cost of any new payroll deduction and enrollment process could be substantial, especially for small employers.

Documents show that HHS knew of the program’s administrative burden on employers and pressed forward anyway. In the HHS ASPE office’s technical comments on the draft CLASS Act legislation from December 1, 2009, the Department acknowledged:

The collection of premiums is a fiduciary responsibility that requires employers to accurately collect and transmit premiums to the government. Collecting premiums would require a nontrivial change to existing payroll systems and additional responsibilities that employers may be reluctant to take on. (See Exhibit P.)

HHS warned that employer participation in a voluntary enrollment program was likely to be low because CLASS premiums will be difficult for employers to calculate and “employee interest in CLASS may be minimal.” (See Exhibit P.)

What was more, because employers participating in the program would be taking on a fiduciary responsibility, they could be at risk of lawsuits from their workers for calculating premiums incorrectly. Because, as HHS acknowledged, calculating premiums will be “complex” and difficult to implement, such lawsuits could become commonplace. HHS appears to have understood that the prospect of litigation and significant liability might make employers less likely to want to get involved in the program.

The Forthcoming Regulations on CLASS Could Require Employers, at a Minimum, to Provide Enrollment Information

In December 2009, HHS staff discussed how to use the regulatory process to change the not-yet-passed CLASS Act in a way that would make it even more burdensome for employers. Staff were concerned that low participation by employers would lead to fewer people signing up for the program.

One email chain included a discussion about requiring employers to play a more active part in enrollment by requiring them to issue enrollment forms to employees.

A major enrollment issue that needs to be addressed is how to identify the relevant employers/employees (i.e., the self-employed, small employers, and large employers), and determine if statutory requirements are being met. The Department of Labor may be of some assistance. (See Exhibit R.)

Another email from the same month indicates that HHS tried to make last minute changes to a manager’s amendment, though the language never made it into the final version of the amendment. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation suggested:

Employer requirements: In the current formulation of the bill, employers have complete discretion regarding whether to participate in the CLASS program and auto-enroll employees …. The provision introduced in this amendment maintains the original optional participation in autoenrollment, but adds a requirement that employers inform their employees about the CLASS program. (See Exhibit S.)

Nothing in the documents suggests that the Obama administration ever conducted an analysis to quantify how much these proposed unfunded mandates would cost employers in time and resources.

The Administration Considers New Mandates on Employers as a “Solution” to Low Participation

The concern inside HHS about potentially low participation by employers led to an even more burdensome suggestion: mandate that employers over a certain size offer enrollment to employees. As HHS explained, “One possible alternative is to move to a ‘mandated offer’ approach where employers over a certain size (e.g., 50 employees) would be required to offer enrollment.” (See Exhibit P.)

Documents show that the idea that the Administration should solve its participation problem by requiring employers to offer enrollment to employees continued to be a major theme of communications regarding implementation of the program. On December 11, 2009, a staffer in ASPE commented:

I am writing right now about whether we should integrate employers even more into the process by moving to a ‘mandated offer’ approach instead of just ‘mandated information.’ The major problem is that mandating that employers offer information about the program probably will not yield high enough participation; we need to have employers more integrated into the enrollment process and not have them drop off once they simply provide information about the program. (See Exhibit T.)

The recipient of that email responded:

I agree that there is a risk to the entire program if we don’t have a sufficiently robust outreach and educational campaign and one that is specifically targeted to employers. This employer notification mandate makes me think of Part D, whereby … insurers are required to notify their Medicare eligibles whether their prescription drug coverage is creditable. (See Exhibit T.)

In numerous other emails, HHS staff argued that employers should bear the responsibility to enroll employees. (See Exhibit R.) HHS envisioned this requirement increasing participation in the program, but the documents do not discuss the unfunded mandate that would be imposed on employers. The final version of the CLASS Act is silent on employer requirements, but it is entirely within the HHS Secretary’s discretion to impose the obligations on employers when she issues regulations for the program this fall.

Even if the Secretary does not require employer participation in the regulations to be released this fall, the email communications discussing mandatory employer participation and employer fiduciary responsibility foreshadow ways HHS could later modify the CLASS Act in a desperate attempt to make the program solvent.

CLASS Saddles States With Yet Another Mandate

In addition to the burdens placed on employers, the emails indicate that HHS believed many costs of implementation will be shouldered by the states.

HHS Knew CLASS Imposed Heavy Administrative Burdens and Unrealistic Deadlines

States will have a significant administrative role in the implementation of the CLASS program, including responsibility for establishing and helping to administer eligibility determination centers. For example, the CLASS Act requires the Secretary of HHS to establish an Eligibility Assessment System similar to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, to be administered by the states. That system is to be completed by January 1, 2012. The CLASS Act also requires the HHS Secretary to enter into agreements with each state’s Protection and Advocacy System, which advocate for people with disabilities, and with other groups and state agencies to provide additional counseling services.

According to several internal emails, HHS and CMS staff noted the unreasonable burdens the legislation would impose on states by requiring implementation of the Act within two years. On April 19, 2010, one email said that requiring states within two years of enactment to “designate or create entities to serve as fiscal agents for CLASS beneficiaries” would “create significant new burdens on the states.” (See Exhibit U.)

Another email from even earlier, December 18, 2009, also warned of this problem, stating that a two year deadline for states “to build the direct care workforce capacity for CLASS enrollees” is “flawed (and perhaps fatally so).” (See Exhibit V.)

HHS Underestimated Administrative Costs, Leaving States to Bear Costs of Eligibility Determinations

Even if the deadlines can be met, HHS has not released any specific estimates of how much these implementation efforts will cost or how much money the federal government will be able to offer states to help pay for the services versus how much states will have to pay on their own.

It is clear from internal HHS emails that the Department always planned to impose a number of significant administrative burdens on states. The administrative costs are expected to be significant, and HHS officials pointed out several times that cost estimates of the CLASS Act did not allocate enough money to administer the program. CLASS Act estimates only allocated three percent of premiums to run the program, while the American Academy of Actuaries recommended three percent of premiums plus five percent of benefits. (See Exhibit P and Exhibit W.)

Rather than address inadequate funding for administrative expenses, the CLASS Act imposes many administrative expenses on already-struggling states. On March 3, 2010,
when asked whether CMS analyzed implementation costs for CLASS, one CMS employee responded:

“Hate to tell you but I am almost certain that we did not do this. I really thin[k] most of the administrative costs would be in doing eligibility determinations and payments split with nursing homes and waivers, however, I think little of it is really ours versus the states.” (See Exhibit X.)

CMS Knew States Would Be Saddled With Costs But Congress Did Not Make Changes during Reconciliation

In the last few weeks before final passage of PPACA, CMS’ Office of Legislative Affairs asked staff for edits to the Senate bill that CMS deemed absolutely necessary in order to implement the Act. In a March 4, 2010, exchange, CMS specifically asked for “Not ‘nice to have’ but ‘otherwise it won’t work’” fixes. One edit provided by staff read, “require the Secretary to assume responsibility for building workforce infrastructure; otherwise, this will impose costs and burdens on states and potentially put CLASS at risk.”

CMS proposed changing the implementation date to January 2015, as “states are not uniformly equipped to perform activities related to designating existing or new entities to ensure the service infrastructure is adequate to meet the needs of beneficiaries, which will likely pose significant and potentially costly administrative challenges, particularly in light of the implementation deadline.” (See Exhibit Y.) None of these edits were included in the final version of PPACA.

Administrative Burden Likely to Get Worse Over Time

The SSDI program, on which the CLASS Act administrative structure is modeled, is experiencing significant problems in both fiscal and administrative areas. The aging of the baby boom generation has caused SSDI administrative costs to nearly double since 2000. According to a CBO report, the SSDI program will become insolvent in 2017.10 In addition, the Social Security Administration anticipates nearly 3.2 million new applicants11 for disability benefits in FY 2012. Even without those new applicants, SSDI has a huge backlog of appeals cases in which benefits have been denied. In 2007, some appeal cases had been lingering as long as 1,400 days.12

Conditions are so unstable that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has placed federal disability programs on a High-Risk Watch List since 2003. According to GAO, “the largest disability programs – managed by the Social Security Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Department of Defense – are experiencing growing workloads, creating challenges to making timely and accurate decisions.”13

As baby boomers start claiming CLASS Act benefits, program administrators can expect to see some of the problems of scale already being experienced by other federal disability programs, including rising administrative costs. However, the statute caps the program’s administrative expenses at three percent of premiums, leaving no wiggle room for states to accommodate the increased burden from an aging population. Without sufficient capital and stability from the start, it is likely the CLASS program will eventually join the other programs on GAO’s High-Risk Watch List.

The cost of administering the SSDI program state centers in 2011 was $3 billion, a cost borne exclusively by the states.14
The burdens of CLASS implementation on the states are likely to exceed that amount, because the number of CLASS beneficiaries will be significantly larger than the number of SSDI beneficiaries due to more relaxed eligibility requirements under CLASS. While HHS has not shared estimates on the costs to states to administer the CLASS Act, we feel that $3 billion per year is a conservative estimate, one that excludes additional expected start-up costs. Over the next ten years, states will be forced to bear at least $30 billion dollars for implementation of CLASS. When added on top of the mandates from the Medicaid requirements in PPACA of at least $118 billion, it is clear that states are being forced to pay the bills that Washington refuses to pay.

State Officials and Legislators Have Grave Concerns with the Solvency and Sustainability of the CLASS Act

On August 4, 2011, leaders of a key National Conference of Insurance Legislators (NCOIL) Committee expressed “grave concerns” with the CLASS Act in a letter to the HHS Secretary. The NCOIL letter asserts that the CLASS Act program “fails to apply the principles of risk management that are essential to any financially sound insurance program”. The letter went on to state, “The CLASS program risks being undercapitalized on the front end, paying more in benefits than it collects in premiums. This will drive rates up and cause adverse selection, as young and healthy consumers will not participate in the market. Also, the plan as currently configured offers little incentive for agents, brokers, and human resources professionals to encourage the enrollment needed to create a broad and stable risk pool.”15

The concerns of state legislators should be strongly heeded by HHS. Not only do states recognize that they will be on the hook for administering of the CLASS program, legislators whose policy expertise is in insurance markets recognize it is destined for failure at the expense of states, businesses, and taxpayers.

 

NOTES

1 P.L. 111-148; P.L. 111-152

2 Foster, Richard. “Estimated Financial Effects of the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’ As Amended.” Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, April 22, 2010. https://www.cms.gov/ActuarialStudies/Downloads/PPACA_2010-04-22.pdf

3 Montgomery, Lori “Proposed Long-Term Insurance Program Raises Questions.” Washington Post, October 27, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/27/AR2009102701417.html

4 Roy, Avik. “Sebelius: CLASS Act is ‘Totally Unsustainable,’ Mandate Possible,” Forbes, February, 23, 2011. http://www.forbes.com/sites/aroy/2011/02/23/sebelius-class-act-is-totally-unsustainable-mandate-possible/

5 Bold/italic emphasis throughout this report not necessarily in the original.

6 The documents provided did not include the study completed by the Moran group despite it being referenced by the chief actuary and a senior democrat staff member for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The senior democrat staff member referenced the Moran report on October 20, 2009 at the Kaiser Family Foundation event “The Sleeper Issue: Long-term Care and the CLASS Act,” page 78. http://www.kff.org/healthreform/upload/102009_KFF_CLASS_Act_Transcript_Final.pdf

7 Foster, Richard. “Estimated Financial Effects of the ‘America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009’ (H.R. 3962), as passed by the House on November 7, 2009, November 13, 2009. http://www.cms.gov/ActuarialStudies/downloads/HR3962_2009-11-13.pdf Foster, Richard. “Estimated Financial Effects of the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’ As Amended.” Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, April 22, 2010. https://www.cms.gov/ActuarialStudies/Downloads/PPACA_2010-04-22.pdf

8 Comments made on October 20, 2009 at Kaiser Family Foundation Event. “The Sleeper Issue: Long-term Care and the CLASS Act.” Page 49-50. http://www.kff.org/healthreform/upload/102009_KFF_CLASS_Act_Transcript_Final.pdf

9 Roy, Avik. “Sebelius: CLASS Act is ‘Totally Unsustainable,’ Mandate Possible,” Forbes, February, 23, 2011 http://www.forbes.com/sites/aroy/2011/02/23/sebelius-class-act-is-totally-unsustainable-mandate-possible/  House Energy & Commerce Committee. Hearing entitled, “The Implementation and Sustainability of the New, Government-Administered Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Program,” March 17, 2011. http://republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=8332

10 Congressional Budget Office, “CBO’s 2011 Long-Term Projections for Social Security: Additional Information,” August 2011. http://www.cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=12375  

11 Social Security Administration. “Annual Performance Play for Fiscal Year 2012,” page 21. http://www.socialsecurity.gov/performance/2012/APP%202012%20508%20PDF.pdf

12 Astrue, Michael, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Statement before the House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Social Security and the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law. July 11, 2011. http://www.ssa.gov/legislation/testimony_071111.html

13 Government Accountability Office. Report to Congressional Committees. “High-Risk Series: An Update.” February 2011, page 147. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11278.pdf

14 The 2011 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds. Table VI.C5. http://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/2011/tr2011.pdf

15 National Conference of Insurance Legislators. Letter to the Honorable Kathleen Sebelius. August 4, 2011. http://www.ncoil.org/Docs/2007430d.pdf

Legislative Bulletin: H.R. 6983, Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act

Order of Business:  The bill is scheduled to be considered on Tuesday, September 23, under a motion to suspend the rules and pass.

Summary:  H.R. 6983 would amend the Internal Revenue Code, the Public Health Service Act, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to require equity in the provision of mental health disorder benefits for group health insurance plans that offer both mental health benefits and medical and surgical benefits.  Previously, the Mental Health Parity Act—first enacted in 1996, and extended in subsequent legislation—required only that plans choosing to offer both mental health and medical and surgical benefits must have equal annual and lifetime limits on coverage for both types of treatments.  Specific details of the federal mandates in the bill include the following:

Treatment Limits and Beneficiary Financial Requirements:  The bill would require group health plans to offer a financial benefit structure for mental and substance abuse disorders that is no more restrictive than the predominant requirements applied to substantially all medical and surgical benefits.  The federal mandate would apply to overall coverage limits on treatment (e.g. number of days or visits) as well as deductibles, out-of-pocket limits, and similar beneficiary financial requirements.

Expansion of Definition:  The bill would expand the definition of “mental health benefits” subject to the federal mandate to include substance abuse and disorder treatments.

Medical Necessity:  The bill would permit plans to make coverage decisions for mental health and substance abuse disorders based on medical necessity criteria, but would require employers and insurers to disclose such criteria pursuant to regulations.

Out-of-Network Benefits:  The bill would mandate plans that offer out-of-network insurance coverage for medical and surgical benefits provide out-of-network coverage for mental health benefits in a manner consistent with the financial requirements listed above.

Increased Cost Exemption:  The bill would raise the level at which employers whose health insurance costs rise as a result of implementing mental health parity in benefits may claim an exemption from the federal mandate.  The bill would exempt employers whose costs due to mental health claims rise by more than 2% in the first year of implementation, and by more than 1% in subsequent years.  The more limited version of the Mental Health Parity Act first enacted in 1996 exempted employers whose claim costs rose 1%.  Employers with fewer than 50 workers would be exempt from federal mandates under the legislation, consistent with current law.

GAO Study:  The bill would require a study by the Government Accountability Office evaluating the law’s impact on the cost of health insurance coverage, access to mental health care, and related issues.

Worldwide Interest Allocation:  H.R. 6983 would delay by two years (from 2011 to 2013) the implementation of the worldwide allocation of interest, and reduces the first-year implementation of this rule.  In 2004, Congress gave taxpayers the option of using a liberalized rule for allocating interest expense between United States sources and foreign sources for the purposes of determining a taxpayer’s foreign tax credit limitation.  This is a multi-billion-dollar tax increase on Americans, taking particular aim at people who have financial dealings abroad.

Additional Background—Differences from Earlier Legislation:  On March 5, 2008, the House by a 268-148 vote passed mental health parity legislation in the form of H.R. 1424.  Subsequent negotiations with the Senate made modifications to the House-passed language that incorporated several key provisions in bipartisan Senate legislation (S. 558), and removed some provisions objectionable to conservatives.  Specifically, the compromise language in H.R. 6983:

  • Retains ERISA pre-emption for the large employers (those with more than 50 employees) subject to the law—states would not have the option of enacting more stringent and conflicting laws and regulations, as was proposed in H.R. 1424;
  • Remains silent on codifying classes of mental disorders—the compromise language removes provisions included in H.R. 1424 requiring group health plans to offer coverage for all disorders under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, including psycho-sexual disorders many conservatives find objectionable;
  • Does not mandate an out-of-network coverage benefit—plans must offer out-of-network coverage for mental disorders only to the extent they do so for medical and surgical benefits; and
  • Includes language stating that mental health parity provisions do not affect the “terms and conditions” of insurance contracts to the extent they do not conflict with the bill language—permitting employers and carriers to continue making medical necessity and related determinations—while requiring plans to make information on these medical management practices transparent.

While some conservatives may still have concerns with the mandates imposed by mental health parity legislation and the way in which these mandates would increase health insurance premiums, some segments of the business community have embraced the compromise as a reasonable attempt to achieve the goal of both bills without eroding ERISA pre-emption or imposing undue restrictions on benefit plan design.

Additional Background on Benefit Mandates:  Since the 1960s, state legislatures have considered—and adopted—legislation requiring health insurance products sold within the state to cover various products and services.  These benefit mandates are frequently adopted at the behest of disease groups advocating for coverage of particular treatments (e.g. mammograms) or physician groups concerned that patients have access to specialists’ services (e.g. optometrists).

A recent survey by the Council for Affordable Health Insurance found that as of 2007, states had enacted a total of 1,961 mandates for benefits and services—an increase of 60 (more than one per state) when compared to the 2006 total.[1]  The number of state mandates varies from a low of 15 in Idaho to a high of 64 in Minnesota.  However, because employer-sponsored health insurance is pre-empted from state-based laws and regulations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), benefit mandates do not apply to employers who self-fund their health insurance plans—one reason why H.R. 6983 seeks to impose those mandates on group plans (as well as state-regulated individual plans) on the federal level.

The cost and impact of benefit mandates on health insurance premiums have been the subject of several studies in recent years.  For instance, the Heritage Foundation prepared an analysis suggesting that each individual benefit mandate could raise the cost of health insurance premiums by $0.75 monthly.[2]  Although the cost of a single mandate appears small, the aggregate impact—particularly given the recent growth of benefit mandates nationwide—can be significant: For instance, Massachusetts’ 43 benefit mandates would raise the cost of health insurance by more than $30 monthly under the Heritage analysis.

Although well-intentioned, some conservatives may view the groups who advocate for benefit mandates as operating from fundamentally flawed logic: that individuals should go without health insurance entirely rather than purchase coverage lacking the “consumer protection” of dozens of mandates.  In addition, some conservatives note that the prospect of increasing the number of uninsured due to rising premium costs resulting from benefit mandates may precipitate a “crisis” surrounding the uninsured, increasing calls for a government-run health system.  In short, many conservatives may believe individuals should have the “consumer protection” to purchase the insurance plan they desire—rather than the “protection” from being a consumer by a government which seeks to define their options, and raise the cost of health insurance in the process.

Committee Action:  None; the bill was introduced on September 22, 2008.

Possible Conservative Concerns:  Several aspects of H.R. 6983 may raise concerns for conservatives, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:

  • Process.  Multiple sources and press reports indicate that numerous stakeholders involved in negotiating the bipartisan Senate compromise have concerns with the House’s consideration of stand-alone mental health parity legislation—as opposed to its inclusion in the tax extenders package.  As recently as Monday, September 22, House Democrat leadership indicated they would not attempt to pass the mental health parity provisions separately; however, the majority later switched course.  Some conservatives may be concerned by reports indicating that this separate House vote is intended to provide “political cover” for Blue Dogs who may oppose the tax extenders bill (with mental health parity included) because it does not include enough tax increases to offset extensions of existing tax relief.
  • Tax Increase.  In order to pay for the nearly $4 billion cost of mental health parity, H.R. 6983 would delay by a further two years a provision allowing taxpayers flexibility in allocating worldwide interest for the purposes of determining a taxpayer’s foreign tax credit limitation.  Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision increases taxes on Americans in order to pay for H.R. 6983’s benefit mandates.
  • Increase Health Insurance Costs and Number of Uninsured.  As noted above, benefit mandates generally have the effect of increasing the cost of health insurance.  Moreover, some estimates suggest that every 1% increase in premium costs has a corresponding increase in the number of uninsured by approximately 200,000-300,000 individuals nationwide.[3]  Therefore, some conservatives may be concerned that H.R. 6983 will actually increase the number of uninsured Americans.
  • Private-Sector Mandates on Businesses; UMRA Violation.  As detailed above, the bill contains multiple new federal mandates on the private sector, affecting the design and structure of health insurance plans.  CBO has previously estimated that mental health parity would impose mandates on the private sector totaling $1.3 billion in 2008, rising to $3 billion in 2012, thus exceeding the annual threshold established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act or UMRA ($131 million in FY2007, adjusted annually for inflation).  These costs will ultimately be borne by employers offering health insurance and employees seeking to obtain coverage.

Administration Position:  Although the Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) was not available, the Administration has previously supported the goal of mental health parity—and previously opposed the worldwide interest allocation provision used to pay for H.R. 6983.

Cost to Taxpayers:  A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score of H.R. 6983 was not available at press time.  However, CBO estimates of previously considered (H.R. 1424) mental health parity legislation noted that the bill would cost the federal government nearly $4 billion over ten years.  Direct federal outlays would increase by $820 million through increased Medicaid costs.  In addition, federal revenues would decline by more than $3.1 billion due to increases in the cost of health insurance, as employees with group coverage would exclude more of their income from payroll and income taxes.

The bill proposes to offset the costs outlined above by delaying by two years (from 2011 to 2013) the implementation of the worldwide allocation of interest, and reducing the first-year implementation of this rule. In 2004, Congress gave taxpayers, beginning in tax years after 2008, the option of using a liberalized rule for allocating interest expense between United States sources and foreign sources for the purposes of determining a taxpayer’s foreign tax credit limitation.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill would impose new federal mandates with respect to health insurance coverage requirements.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?:  Yes, the bill would impose significant new mandates on private insurance carriers (and large employers who self-insure their workers) with respect to the structure and design of their benefit packages.  CBO has previously estimated that the direct costs of the private-sector mandates would total $1.3 billion in 2008, rising to $3 billion in 2012, significantly in excess of the annual threshold ($131 million in 2007, adjusted for inflation) established by the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA).

In addition, the bill would also impose an intergovernmental mandate as defined by UMRA by pre-empting some state laws in conflict with the bill, but CBO estimates that this mandate would impose no significant costs on state, local, or tribal governments.

However, costs to state, local, and tribal governments would increase under the bill, for two reasons.  First, a prior CBO cost estimate indicated that state spending for Medicaid would increase by $235 million between 2008-2012.  Second, while state, local, and tribal governments that self-insure their workers would be able to opt-out of H.R. 6983’s federal mandates, some governments that fully insure their workers (i.e. purchase coverage through an insurance carrier, as opposed to paying benefits directly) would see their costs rise under the legislation.  CBO has estimated that the bill would increase state, local, and tribal expenditures by $10 million in 2008, rising to $155 million by 2012.  However, because these increased costs result from mandate costs initially borne by the private sector and passed on to the governments while purchasing insurance, CBO did not consider them intergovernmental mandates as such.

Does the Bill Comply with House Rules Regarding Earmarks/Limited Tax Benefits/Limited Tariff Benefits?:  A Committee report citing compliance with clause 9 of rule XXI was unavailable.

Constitutional Authority:  A Committee report citing Constitutional authority was unavailable.

 

[1] Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2008” and “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2007,” available online at http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/HealthInsuranceMandates2008.pdf and http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/MandatesInTheStates2007.pdf, respectively (accessed July 19, 2008).

[2] Michael New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” (Washington, Heritage Center for Data Analysis Paper CDA06-04, July 25, 2006), available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HealthCare/upload/CDA_06-04.pdf (accessed July 19, 2008), p. 5.

[3] See, for instance, Todd Gilmer and Richard Kronick, “It’s the Premiums, Stupid: Projections of the Uninsured through 2013,” Health Affairs Web Exclusive April 5, 2008, available online at http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/full/hlthaff.w5.143/DC1 (accessed July 19, 2008), and Government Accountability Office, Impact of Premium Increases on Number of Covered Individuals is Uncertain (Washington, Report GAO/HEHS-98-203R, June 11, 1999), available online at http://archive.gao.gov/paprpdf2/160930.pdf (accessed July 19, 2008), pp. 3-4.

Question and Answer: Health Savings Account Restrictions

On April 9, 2008, the House Ways and Means Committee passed legislation (H.R. 5719) with provisions placing additional restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  In anticipation of floor consideration of the measure, the RSC has prepared the following document providing context and background information on the proposal.

What change to Health Savings Accounts are Democrats proposing?

Section 17 of H.R. 5719 requires “substantiation” of all HSA transactions from an independent third party, to ensure that money withdrawn from an HSA pays for qualified medical expenses.  Specifically, the section would make the income tax deduction associated with HSA contributions contingent on substantiation of all withdrawals, beginning in 2011.  This oversight of every single account transaction would make HSAs similar to Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSAs), an earlier consumer-driven health care model.

How are FSAs and HSAs different?

One of the prime differences between the two account-based models lies in the control source for the funds in the account.  The Internal Revenue Code makes clear that FSA accounts are held by employers, while HSA funds remain exclusively the property of the employee.  This distinction explains why unused FSA funds in an employee’s account at the time of departure revert back to the employer, while HSA funds always remain with the employee, and remain portable from job to job and into retirement.  Some conservatives may be concerned about the potential implications of transferring a “substantiation” system designed for employer-owned FSAs to individually-owned HSAs—both in terms of the legal liabilities placed on employers and administrators to verify transactions, and the restrictions placed on individuals to control their HSA account dollars.

How are HSA and FSA withdrawals administered?

Right now, most HSA transactions take place using point-of-sale debit cards that make electronic fund transfers directly from the account.  Conversely, most FSA transactions remain paper-based, requiring out-of-pocket spending by the individual and subsequent reimbursement from the FSA after approval by an administrator.  While Treasury has released new regulations to make FSA reimbursement simpler, some conservatives may remain concerned that the Democrats’ proposed change may make the HSA model less attractive to consumers.

What penalties are currently in place to ensure HSA funds are spent on qualified medical expenses?

Under the Internal Revenue Code, non-qualified withdrawals from an HSA are subject to individual income taxes, as well as a 10% penalty.  HSA account activity is subject to audits from the Internal Revenue Service, and account holders are advised to retain their receipts documenting qualified medical expenses in the event of an audit.

What measures do HSA administrators currently have in place to ensure that withdrawals from the account are made for qualified medical expenses?

Right now, some banks that administer HSAs have electronic debit cards that can “read” the merchant code where the transaction is taking place (e.g. a doctor’s office).  If a request for transaction is occurring at a location not normally associated with qualified medical expenses, the debit card can decline the transaction.  Some administrators have developed more advanced technology to differentiate product codes within a merchant’s offerings—for instance, accepting grocery store transactions for cough syrup (a permissible over-the-counter drug) while rejecting attempts to purchase items within the same store for items without a clear medical use, such as beer or wine.  This advanced technology is in the process of being rolled out; however, many banks and account administrators have expressed their view that enactment of this legislative provision could prompt their withdrawal from the HSA marketplace.

Does the fact that some HSA withdrawals are made at places like grocery stores mean that these withdrawals are not for qualified medical expenses?

Not necessarily.  The list of qualified medical expenses is quite broad, and generally includes most items reimbursable from a Flexible Spending Arrangement or deductible on an individual tax return if total medical expenses exceed 7.5% of an individual’s adjusted gross income.  Under certain circumstances, legal expenses (to authorize mental health care), lodging and travel expenses (related to medical treatment) and even the cost of a telephone (for the hearing impaired) can be considered medical expenses.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the proposal under consideration would essentially shift the burden of proof from the government (to prove that an expenditure was improper in the context of a tax audit) to the consumer to prove compliance at the time of withdrawal, causing additional inconvenience to the HSA holder.

Are withdrawals made for causes other than qualified medical expenses unlawful?

Only if the account holder does not pay income taxes and a 10% penalty.  Under current law, it is the account holder’s obligation to declare such non-qualified withdrawals—a policy comparable to withdrawals from an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).  Account holders who do not pay appropriate taxes and penalties on withdrawals not for qualified medical expenses are subject to an Internal Revenue Service audit.

How many HSA withdrawals are unlawful?

The percentage is unclear for two reasons.  First, estimates of the amount of withdrawals made that do not involve qualified medical expenses vary.  While one HSA administrator claimed that 12% of withdrawals were made at vendors not normally associated with qualified medical expenses, HSA administrators affiliated with the American Bankers Association claim that only 2.7% of their withdrawals took place at such vendors—and, for the reasons explained above, the fact that a vendor is not a qualified health provider does not mean that a transaction itself is not a qualified medical expense.  A 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on HSA usage found that 10% of all withdrawals were made for purposes other than qualified medical expenses; however, GAO had only a single year (2004) of HSA withdrawal data available at the time it compiled its report.

What remains largely unknown is the percentage of transactions not associated with qualified medical expenses for which the account holder does not pay appropriate taxes and penalties.  At the Ways and Means markup, Treasury Department officials presented preliminary data indicating a relatively high rate of compliance with respect to self-attestation of non-qualified withdrawals, which if proven accurate would obviate the need for the legislative change.  Even as the Ways and Means Committee passed the substantiation language, both Democrats and Republicans decried the lack of available evidence to judge the need for this particular provision.

How does this provision save money for the federal government?

The Joint Committee on Taxation notes that Section 17 of H.R. 5719 would save $151 million over five years and $308 million over ten years.  However, the cause for this savings is unclear.  During the Ways and Means markup, Joint Tax staff admitted their inability to determine how much of the savings would result from newly captured penalties and taxes and how much of the savings would come from lower HSA take-up rates and/or lower contribution levels to HSAs.  Some conservatives may be concerned that it remains unclear whether this provision would achieve its stated purpose by increasing oversight of questionable HSA withdrawals—or will instead achieve budgetary savings by making HSAs less attractive to consumers.

Employers contribute money to their employees’ HSAs.  Shouldn’t they have a right to know that their contributions are being spent for medical purposes?

Unlike FSAs, which are considered as being held by the employer, an HSA is considered the employee’s property, and any cash contributions immediately accrue to the worker.  Thus an employer has no more or less right to know the employer’s contributions are spent on qualified medical expenses than a business has a right to determine that the employer’s share of 401(k) contributions is ultimately spent on retirement expenses.  In both cases, the penalties for a non-qualified distribution are the same—income taxes owed, plus a 10% penalty.

In an advisory opinion on the status of HSAs, the Department of Labor (DOL) held that an employer’s transfer of cash contributions into an employee’s HSA does not constitute group coverage under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) because of the employer’s inability to control the funds in the employee’s account.  Many small businesses—who have heretofore not been able to finance health insurance coverage for their workers—have used the flexibility provided by the DOL opinion to place cash contributions into their employees’ HSAs without triggering the regulatory burdens imposed on ERISA group health insurance plans, benefiting both the business and the worker.

What may be the practical implications of this proposed change to HSAs?

In addition to increased inconvenience for end users, introducing a new step of independent “substantiation” may well increase costs for banks and account administrators, who are likely to pass these costs on to employers and/or consumers.  While Democrats have complained in recent months about the charges which banks and other commercial lending institutions pass on to their customers, this provision carries a strong likelihood of increasing those costs further.  In addition, some conservatives may also be concerned that should this proposal pass, an HSA mechanism created to reduce the growth of health care costs—and which has achieved some noteworthy successes in the time since its introduction—would lead to increased costs for businesses and individuals.

What organizations oppose this proposed change to HSAs?

Although some members of the business community support other provisions included in H.R. 5719, many organizations have expressed concern about the substantiation requirements—including the company (Evolution Benefits) that first brought the issue to the Committee’s attention.  A partial list of organizations opposing the HSA substantiation provision includes:

  • America’s Health Insurance Plans
  • Business Roundtable
  • Credit Union National Association
  • Financial Services Roundtable
  • HSA Council (part of American Bankers Association)
  • International Franchise Association
  • National Association of Health Underwriters
  • National Association of Manufacturers
  • National Federation of Independent Business
  • National Restaurant Association
  • National Retail Federation
  • National Taxpayers Union
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Legislative Bulletin: H.R. 1424, Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act

Order of Business:  The bill is reportedly scheduled to be considered on Wednesday, March 5th, subject to a likely structured rule.

Summary:  H.R. 1424 would amend the Internal Revenue Code, the Public Health Service Act, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to require equity in the provision of mental health disorder benefits for group health insurance plans that offer both mental health benefits and medical and surgical benefits.  Previously, the Mental Health Parity Act—first enacted in 1996, and extended in subsequent legislation until it lapsed in December 2007—required only that plans choosing to offer both mental health and medical and surgical benefits must have equal annual and lifetime limits on coverage for both types of treatments.  Specific details of the federal mandates in the bill include the following:

Treatment Limits and Beneficiary Financial Requirements:  H.R. 1424 would require group health plans to offer the same financial benefit structure for both mental and physical disorders.  The federal mandate would apply to overall coverage limits on treatment as well as deductibles, out-of-pocket limits, and similar beneficiary financial requirements.

Expansion of Definition:  The bill would expand the definition of “mental health benefits” subject to the federal mandate to include substance abuse and disorder treatments. (See Additional Background section below.)

Minimum Scope of Benefits:  H.R. 1424 would require all group health insurance plans offering mental health benefits to offer coverage for any mental health and substance-related disorder included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  (See Additional Background section below.)

Out-of-Network Benefits:  The bill would mandate plans that offer out-of-network insurance coverage for medical and surgical benefits to provide out-of-network coverage for mental health benefits, and at the same benefit levels.  This provision exceeds the standards required by the Office of Personnel Management for insurance carriers participating in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP); plans offered through the federal program need only provide mental health parity with respect to in-network benefit packages.

Increased Cost Exemption:  H.R. 1424 would raise the level at which employers whose health insurance costs rise as a result of implementing mental health parity in benefits may claim an exemption from the federal mandate.  The bill would exempt employers whose costs due to mental health claims rise by more than 2% in the first year of implementation, and by more than 1% in subsequent years.  The more limited version of the Mental Health Parity Act first enacted in 1996 exempted employers whose claim costs rose 1%.  Employers with fewer than 50 workers would be exempt from federal mandates under the legislation.

Federal Pre-emption:  H.R. 1424 would not preclude states from imposing on employers who offer group health insurance coverage more stringent requirements with respect to “consumer protections, benefits, methods of access to benefits, rights, or remedies.”  This provision constitutes a significant variation from past federal policy with respect to employer-provided health insurance dating to ERISA’s enactment in 1974.  (See Additional Background section below.)

Random Federal Audits:  The bill would require the Department of Labor to conduct annual audits of a random sample of group health insurance plans to ensure compliance with the federal mandates included in H.R. 1424.

GAO Study:  The bill would require a study by the Government Accountability Office evaluating the law’s impact on the cost of health insurance coverage, access to mental health care, and related issues.

Medicaid Drug Rebate:  The bill would increase the rebate required of pharmaceutical companies offering single source (i.e. protected under federal patent laws) and innovator multiple source (i.e. formerly protected under federal patent law, but now subject to generic competition) pharmaceuticals in the Medicaid program from at least 15.1% of the Average Manufacturer Price (AMP) to at least 20.1% of the AMP.  The increase would apply for the years 2009 through 2015.  (See Additional Background section below.)

Specialty Hospitals:  H.R. 1424 would impose additional restrictions on so-called specialty hospitals by limiting the “whole hospital” exemption against physician self-referral.  Specifically, the bill would only extend the exemption to facilities with a Medicare reimbursement arrangement in place at the time of the bill’s enactment, and generally prohibit facilities from expanding their total number of operating rooms or beds.  Facilities may be able to expand their number of beds by up to 50%, provided that a) the population within the area has grown at more than double the national average over a five-year period; b) the facility has an above-average rate of Medicaid admissions when compared to the statewide average; c) the facility is located in a state with average bed capacity below the national average; and d) average bed occupancy within the area is at least 80%.  The bill also imposes additional reporting and related requirements regarding the nature of physician ownership arrangements.  (See Additional Background section below.)

Additional Background on ERISA Pre-Emption:  The Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) has served as the primary federal standard for the regulation of employee benefit plans since its enactment in September 1974 as Public Law 93-406.  One of its key provisions, Section 514 (29 U.S.C. 1144), states that ERISA “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan,” except in limited instances.  As Rep. John Dent (D-PA), then-Chairman of the House Labor Subcommittee and sponsor of the bill which became the ERISA statute, noted during debate on the conference report:

I wish to make note of what is to many the crowning achievement of this legislation, the reservation to federal authority the sole power to regulate the field of employee benefit plans.  With the pre-emption of the field, we round out the protection afforded participants by eliminating the threat of conflicting and inconsistent state and local regulation. [Emphasis added.]

The strong pre-emption provisions have been upheld by numerous federal courts since the enactment of ERISA more than 30 years ago.  In 2004, the Supreme Court in the case of Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila (542 U.S. 200) ruled that a Texas state law permitting lawsuits against managed care companies could not be enforced against plans provided by private employers due to ERISA’s pre-emption provisions and remedies already available under federal law.  More recently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals cited ERISA pre-emption as the basis for striking down Maryland’s so-called Wal-Mart bill, which attempted to enact a “pay-or-play” mandate on large employers by requiring them to contribute a percentage of payroll expenses to their employees’ health care.

Over more than three decades, ERISA pre-emption has permitted thousands of employers to offer group health insurance coverage to millions of workers nationwide without the fear of becoming bogged down in complex and conflicting health insurance regulations in the several states.  This system currently provides more than 177 million Americans—more than half the national population—with health insurance coverage, according to Census Bureau data.  If passed, H.R. 1424 would permit states to pass laws with more stringent consumer protections, and could subject group health insurance plans to those state laws, creating the first significant erosion of ERISA pre-emption since its enactment.

Additional Background on Scope of Mental Health Benefits:  H.R. 1424 would incorporate into federal statute the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as the basis for which group health plans offer coverage for mental health conditions.  Specifically, the bill would require plans to cover any mental disorder listed in the most recent edition of the manual, currently in its fourth edition (DSM-IV).

A 1999 executive order signed by President Clinton incorporated DSM-IV into the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program (FEHBP), beginning in January 2001.  However, the Office of Personnel Management requires FEHBP carriers to cover “all categories of…conditions” within DSM-IV, while H.R. 1424 requires overage of “any mental health condition”—a more expansive requirement for plans.  Moreover, plans offering coverage within FEHBP are permitted discretion to require an “authorized treatment plan” based on medical necessity—but are given no discretion to determine necessity under H.R. 1424.  The Office of Personnel Management has estimated that implementation of the executive order increased premium costs by 1.64% for fee-for-service plans participating in FEHBP.

The DSM-IV standards, first published in 1994 and revised slightly in 2000, include a wide variety of classifications for mental disorders, several of which are considered by some in the psychiatric community to have dubious value.  In addition, the number and breadth of declared psycho-sexual disorders included in the DSM have sparked controversy between homosexual activists and traditional values supporters.  Among the more troubling diagnoses incorporated into DSM-IV are:

  • Nightmare disorder;
  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorder (jet lag type);
  • Caffeine-induced sleep disorder;
  • Caffeine intoxication;
  • Substance-induced sexual dysfunction;
  • Gender identity disorder;
  • Transvestic fetishism; and
  • Pedophilia.

Under H.R. 1424, employers offering group coverage would be required to provide benefits related to these and similar diagnoses included in DSM-IV.

The expansive definitions of mental disorders included in DSM-IV have led to charges that psychiatric diagnoses have become politicized.  In response, the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the DSM guidebook, included the following explanation on its website:

Q:        Aren’t some of the diagnoses included in the DSM there for political reasons?

A:        Decisions to include a diagnosis in the DSM are based on a careful consideration of the research underlying the disorder.  This is not to say that decisions are made without regard to other considerations.  Scientific data cannot be interpreted in a vacuum.  Sociological and other considerations must also be taken into account.   For example, each proposed new diagnosis carries with it the risk of making a false positive diagnosis (i.e., making a diagnosis when no disorder is present).  Since false positives can never be completely eliminated, we must consider instead how to balance the advantages of including the diagnosis in the DSM (e.g., increased detection of a treatable disorder with consequent reduction in morbidity and cost to the patient, his or her family, and to society at large) against the risks of making a false positive diagnosis (e.g., risk of stigmatization, cost and potential morbidity of unnecessary treatment, etc.).  However, the overall driving force in the decision to include or exclude a potential diagnosis from the DSM is the availability of scientific data. [Emphasis added.][1]

The American Psychiatric Association is tentatively scheduled to publish the fifth version of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) in 2011 or 2012, and any new disorders included in the revised version will be included in the federal mandate under the provisions of H.R. 1424.

Additional Background on Specialty Hospitals:  The past few years have seen the significant growth of so-called specialty hospitals.  These facilities, which generally concentrate on one medical practice area (often cardiac or orthopedic care), are often able to provide higher-quality care than general hospitals due to their focused mission.  Critics of specialty hospitals claim that, by “cherry-picking” the best—and therefore most lucrative—candidates for surgical procedures, they siphon off revenues from general and community hospitals, threatening their future viability.

The ownership arrangements of many specialty hospitals have also been questioned.  While federal law against physician self-referral prohibits doctors from holding an ownership stake in a particular department of a hospital facility, the “whole hospital” exemption permits physicians to hold an ownership stake in an entire facility.  Because many specialty hospitals are physician-owned in whole or in part, some critics believe that physicians owning a stake in a specialty hospital may be inclined to perform additional tests and procedures on patients due to a stronger profit motive.

In July 2007, Section 651 of H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act, proposed several modifications to the “whole hospital” exemption for physician self-referral.  Most notably, the bill applied the exemption only to those facilities with Medicare provider agreements in place prior to July 2007—excluding new specialty hospitals or other facilities, including those currently under construction, from protection under the self-referral statute—and prohibited existing facilities from expanding their number of operating rooms or beds.  While the bill passed the House by a 225-204 vote, the Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Amidst spiraling costs and uneven quality, some conservatives may believe that the health sector warrants more competition, not less: new entrants to introduce innovative techniques and practices improving the quality of care; greater transparency of both price and quality information, so patients can make rational choices about the nature of their treatment options; and a funding system that reduces where possible the distortionary effects of third-party payment and empowers consumers to take control of their health.  Viewed from this perspective, opposition to undue and onerous restrictions on the specialty hospitals that have driven innovation within health care may strike many conservatives as a return to first principles.

Additional Background on Medicaid Drug Rebates:  As part of a drug payment policy designed to ensure that Medicaid paid the “best price” available, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 included provisions requiring manufacturers of pharmaceuticals desiring to offer their products to Medicaid enrollees to enter into rebate agreements with the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).  As of 2003, over 550 manufacturers have entered into rebate agreements, which apply to all pharmaceuticals separately billed to Medicaid.  In 2005, states reported receiving $11.1 billion in federally required drug rebates, constituting 26% of all outpatient pharmaceutical spending.  In addition, many states have their own additional rebate policies in effect; in 2005, 22 states reported collecting an additional $1.3 billion in supplemental rebates.  However, a 2005 survey by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation reported that nearly half of states surveyed (17 of 37) do not return their rebates to Medicaid, choosing instead to apply rebates to the general fund to finance other state spending.[2]

In determining rebate levels, federal law establishes two classes of pharmaceuticals.  For single source drugs (those still under federal patent protection) and “innovator” multiple source drugs (those formerly marketed under a patent, but where generic competition now exists), rebate amounts are determined by comparing the Average Manufacturer Price (AMP) to the “best price”—the lowest price offered by the manufacturer to any retailer, wholesaler, or other entity.  The basic rebate is equal to either 15.1% of the AMP or difference between the AMP and the “best price,” whichever greater.  Additional rebates for these drugs are required if their price rises faster than inflation, as measured by the consumer price index for urban areas.  For “non-innovator” multiple source (i.e. generic) drugs, rebates are equal to 11% of AMP; “best prices” are not considered, and there are no additional rebates linked to price inflation.

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) made several changes related to the Medicaid rebate system, particularly with respect to reporting of prices used to compute the pharmaceutical rebates owed.  Specifically, DRA required states to report data regarding certain physician-administered outpatient pharmaceuticals, in an attempt to ensure that rebates for chemotherapy and other drugs administered in physician settings were properly paid.  In addition, the DRA required that, for manufacturers who both produce a brand-name drug and license another manufacturer to produce a generic version, that the manufacturer-reported price include the price of these “authorized generics.”  In its cost estimate for DRA, CBO scored these changes as generating $220 million in additional federal revenues over five years, and $720 million over ten years.

Additional Background on Senate Legislation:  On September 18, 2007, the Senate passed its version of the Mental Health Parity Act.  This legislation, S. 558, sponsored by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), contains significant variations when compared to H.R. 1424.  Specifically, the Senate-passed language:

  • Retains ERISA pre-emption for the large employers (those with more than 50 employees) subject to the law—states would not have the option of enacting more stringent and conflicting laws and regulations;
  • Remains silent on codifying classes of mental disorders—the language does not require group health plans to offer coverage for all disorders under DSM-IV;
  • Does not mandate an out-of-network coverage benefit—plans must offer out-of-network coverage only to the extent they do so for medical and surgical benefits, while the House bill mandates out-of-network coverage for all plans offering mental health benefits; and
  • Permits group health insurance plans to utilize medical management practices, including utilization review, authorization, medical necessity and appropriateness criteria, and use of network providers—the House bill includes no such “safe harbor” for plans.

While some conservatives may still have concerns with the mandates imposed by the Senate legislation and the way in which these mandates would increase health insurance premiums, many segments of the business community have embraced the Senate compromise as a reasonable attempt to achieve the goal of both bills without eroding ERISA pre-emption or imposing undue restrictions on benefit plan design.  Many of those same trade organizations are opposing H.R. 1424, as listed below, as a legislative over-reach that will impede their ability to offer quality coverage through group health insurance plans.

Committee Action:  On March 9, 2007, the bill was introduced and referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Education and Labor Committee, and the Ways and Means Committee.  On July 18, 2007, the Education and Labor Committee reported the bill to the full House by a vote of 33-9.  On September 26, 2007, the Ways and Means Committee reported the bill to the full House by a vote of 27-13.  On October 16, 2007, the Energy and Commerce Committee reported the bill to the full House by a vote of 32-13.

Possible Conservative Concerns:  Numerous aspects of this legislation may raise concerns for conservatives, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:

  • Increase Health Insurance Costs.  As noted below, CBO estimates that H.R. 1424 would impose mandates on private insurance companies totaling $3 billion annually by 2012.  These costs will ultimately be borne by employers offering health insurance and employees seeking to obtain coverage.  Moreover, by increasing the cost of health insurance, H.R. 1424 will lead directly to an increase in the number of uninsured Americans.
  • Private-Sector Mandates on Small and Large Businesses.  As detailed below, the bill contains multiple new federal mandates on the private sector, affecting the design and structure of health insurance plans.   Among other mandates, the bill would require plan sponsors to provide out-of-network benefits for mental health services if the sponsors provide out-of-network benefits for medical and surgical services, exceeding the standard mandated of insurance carriers participating in the FEHBP.
  • Decrease in Mental Health Coverage.  While the bill imposes several new federal mandates on those employers who choose to offer mental health coverage, there is nothing in H.R. 1424 that would impose a mental health mandate on all group health plans.  Thus H.R. 1424 could have the perverse effect of actually decreasing mental health coverage, by encouraging employers frustrated with the bill’s onerous burdens to drop mental health insurance altogether.
  • Intergovernmental Mandate.  The bill would pre-empt state laws governing mental health coverage that conflict with the bill—but would not pre-empt laws providing more stringent consumer protections for employees.  Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) notes that some state and local governments would face increased costs for health insurance provided to their employees.  However, as these higher costs would be in the form of increased insurance premiums borne by government entities, CBO does not consider these higher costs a direct intergovernmental mandate.
  • Violation of UMRA.  CBO estimates that the costs of the mandates to the private sector in the bill would be at least $1.3 billion in 2008, rising to $3 billion in 2012 and thus exceed the annual threshold established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act or UMRA ($131 million in FY2007, adjusted annually for inflation).
  • Codification of Treatment Mandate for Health Plans.  H.R. 1424 would incorporate into federal law the DSM-IV classification definitions as the parameter of mental health treatment for health plans.  The broad parameters included in the DSM-IV categories will obligate employers to cover “disorders” such as “jet lag” and “caffeine intoxication.”  The DSM-IV standards incorporated into federal law would also require employers to cover a broad array of sexual “disorders” that many conservatives may find objectionable, as noted above.
  • Lack of Conscience Clause.  H.R. 1424 would subject all employers with over 50 employees—including faith-based organizations—to federal mandates to cover all diagnoses under DSM-IV.  The bill does not include an exemption for faith-based groups to exclude coverage of mental disorders, particularly psycho-sexual disorders, for which they have religious or moral objections.
  • Erode Federal Pre-emption for Employers under ERISA.  While H.R. 1424 does pre-empt state laws that conflict with the bill, it also explicitly permits additional state laws that provide more stringent consumer protections.  This provision could undo a history of strict federal pre-emption dating to ERISA’s enactment in 1974, creating a patchwork of laws across all 50 states with which major employers would have to comply.  Some employers could decide to drop group health insurance coverage altogether rather than face a potentially conflicting array of state mandates and regulations to which they could be subjected under H.R. 1424.
  • Lack of Medical Management Tools.  H.R. 1424 does not include language explicitly permitting group health plans to negotiate separate reimbursement rates or provider payment rates and delivery service systems for different benefits.  These tools would empower plans to utilize medical management practices in order to reduce claim costs.

  • Decreased Access to Pharmaceuticals for Medicaid Patients.  H.R. 1424 increases from 15.1% to 20.1% the minimum rebate amount which certain pharmaceutical manufacturers must pay to offer their drugs to patients within the Medicaid program.  These tightened government price controls may cause some manufacturers to leave the program altogether, resulting in the loss of available prescription drugs for low-income beneficiaries.
  • Restrictions on Specialty Hospitals.  The bill would limit the “whole hospital” exemption under physician self-referral laws, such that any new specialty hospital—including those currently under development or construction—would not be eligible for the self-referral exemption, and any existing specialty hospital would be unable to expand its facilities, except under very limited circumstances.  Given the advances which several specialty hospitals have made in increasing quality of care and decreasing patient infection rates, these additional restrictions may impede the development of new innovations within the health care industry.
  • Budgetary Gimmick.  In order to comply with PAYGO rules, H.R. 1424 would rely upon an increase in the Medicaid rebate for pharmaceuticals lasting from 2009 through 2015.  The fact that the rebate levels are scheduled to increase and then return to current levels suggests that the legislative change proposed has as its primary motive the financing of the costs associated with an expansion of mental health parity.  Some conservatives may believe this temporary increase violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the PAYGO requirement under House rules.

Administration Position:  Although the Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) was not available at press time, reports indicate that the SAP will strongly oppose the legislation; a veto threat is possible but not certain.  In September 2007, Labor Secretary Chao and HHS Secretary Leavitt wrote to the Senate HELP Committee expressing support for the Senate mental health legislation (S. 558), and stating “concern” with the bill introduced in the House (H.R. 1424).

Cost to Taxpayers:  A final score of the substitute bill presented to the Rules Committee was not available at press time.  However, according to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score of the bill as marked up before the Ways and Means Committee, H.R. 1424 would cost the federal government nearly $4 billion over ten years.  Direct federal outlays would increase by $820 million through increased Medicaid costs.  In addition, federal revenues would decline by more than $3.1 billion due to increases in the cost of health insurance, as employees with group coverage would exclude more of their income from payroll and income taxes.

The bill proposes to offset the costs outlined above by increasing the rebate rate required of drug manufacturers participating in the Medicaid program with respect to certain classes of pharmaceuticals.  In addition, the bill places additional restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals.  In July 2007, CBO scored similar provisions included in H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act as saving $3.5 billion over ten years by directing more patients from specialty hospitals and to general hospitals, due to CBO’s belief that such a transition would result in overall savings to Medicare based on lower utilization rates for outpatient services and related reimbursement changes.  However, as noted previously, such savings may not be realized.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill would authorize the Department of Labor to conduct random audits of plan to ensure they are in compliance with the bill’s requirements, which according to CBO would require estimated appropriations of $330 million over ten years.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?:  Yes, the bill would impose significant new mandates on private insurance carriers (and large employers who self-insure their workers) with respect to the structure and design of their benefit packages.  CBO estimates that the direct costs of the private-sector mandates would total $1.3 billion in 2008, rising to $3 billion in 2012, significantly in excess of the annual threshold ($131 million in 2007, adjusted for inflation) established by the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA).

In addition, the bill would also impose an intergovernmental mandate as defined by UMRA by pre-empting some state laws in conflict with the bill, but CBO estimates that this mandate would impose no significant costs on state, local, or tribal governments.

However, costs to state, local, and tribal governments would increase under the bill, for two reasons.  First, the CBO cost estimate indicates that state spending for Medicaid would increase by $235 million between 2008-2012.  Second, while state, local, and tribal governments that self-insure their workers would be able to opt-out of H.R. 1424’s federal mandates, some governments that fully insure their workers (i.e. purchase coverage through an insurance carrier, as opposed to paying benefits directly) would see their costs rise under the legislation.  CBO estimates that the bill would increase state, local, and tribal expenditures by $10 million in 2008, rising to $155 million by 2012.  However, because these increased costs result from mandate costs initially borne by the private sector and passed on to the governments while purchasing insurance, CBO did not consider them intergovernmental mandates as such.

Does the Bill Comply with House Rules Regarding Earmarks/Limited Tax Benefits/Limited Tariff Benefits?:  The Education and Labor Committee, in House Report 110-374, Part I, asserts that, “H.R. 1424 does not contain any congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits as defined in clause 9 of rule XXI.”

Constitutional Authority:  The Education and Labor Committee, in House Report 110-374, Part I, cites constitutional authority in Article I, Section 8, Clauses 1 (the congressional power to provide for the general welfare of the United States) and 3 (the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce). (emphasis added)

Outside Organizations:  The following organizations are opposing H.R. 1424:

  • Aetna;
  • American Association of Physicians and Surgeons;
  • American Benefits Council;
  • America’s Health Insurance Plans;
  • Assurant;
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield Association;
  • CIGNA;
  • Concerned Women of America (*potential key vote);
  • Family Research Council (*potential key vote);
  • National Association of Health Underwriters;
  • National Association of Manufacturers (*key vote);
  • National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (*key vote);
  • National Business Group on Health;
  • National Restaurant Association;
  • National Retail Federation (*key vote);
  • Retail Industry Leaders Association;
  • Society for Human Resource Management;
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce (*key vote).

 

 

[1] Available at http://www.dsmivtr.org/2-1faqs.cfm (accessed February 21, 2008).

[2] Kaiser Family Foundation, State Medicaid Outpatient Prescription Drug Policies: Findings from a National Survey, 2005 Update, available online at http://kff.org/medicaid/7381.cfm (accessed March 3, 2008).