Jonathan Gruber, Transparency, and Obamacare’s IPAB

The administration faced a political firestorm last week, when videos emerged featuring MIT professor—and paid Obamacare consultant—Jonathan Gruber making comments on “the stupidity of the American voter,” and claiming that only a deliberately opaque and deceptive process was essential to the law’s enactment. But the administration may soon face a policy controversy as well—for the law features a board that can operate in nontransparent ways, and which will empower technocrats like Mr. Gruber himself.

While the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, may bring to mind the latest Apple product offering, the reality is far different. Designed to control health spending, the board of 15 experts—nominated by the president, based in part on suggestions from congressional leaders, and confirmed by the Senate—will have the power to make binding rulings to slow the growth in Medicare outlays. Furthermore, the administration’s budget proposed giving IPAB even more authority, by reducing the caps on Medicare spending the board will be charged to enforce.

IPAB has yet to be constituted. The budget sequester and other savings proposals have thus far kept Medicare spending below the targets that would trigger IPAB recommendations, and Republican leaders have indicated to President Barack Obama their disinclination to provide the White House suggestions for nominees. As a result, the president has yet to make formal nominations—not least because, if the Medicare spending target is reached, requiring IPAB to make formal recommendations to Congress, but IPAB does not do so, that power would then lie within the Department of Health and Human Services itself.

IPAB faces several characteristics that could imbue it with the lack of transparency Mr. Gruber infamously discussed in his speeches:

  • Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag wrote a piece for the New Republic in which he cited IPAB as one way to “counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a little less democratic.” In 2012, Politico stated that, while in the White House, Mr. Orszag had “pushed” to include the board in the law.
  • Section 3403 of Obamacare, which creates IPAB, does not require the board to conduct any open meetings. The law merely says that “the board may hold such hearings…as the board considers advisable;” it does not require IPAB to do so.
  • Likewise, while the law prohibits IPAB from “ration[ing] health care,” the term “rationing” is nowhere defined in statute. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded this point, and acknowledged that HHS would likely have to define “rationing” before the board could begin its work—but it has yet to do so.

Prior to the recent controversies, Mr. Gruber seemed like exactly the type of expert—an “individual with national recognition for [his] expertise in health finance and economics”—that might have received an appointment to IPAB. Interviewed for a 2011 article about who might serve on the board, Mr. Gruber didn’t rule it out entirely, while admitting that statutory restrictions on IPAB members’ outside activities might dissuade individuals from applying.

As it happens, Mr. Gruber currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Connector, an entity charged with implementing the Commonwealth’s health care overhaul. However, to judge from comments made to reporters last week, an aide to Gov. Deval Patrick seemed keen to downplay his influence: “When his term expires at some point, that will be a decision for someone else at that time.”

But beneath the political controversy lies a philosophical question. Fifty years ago last month, Ronald Reagan summarized the concern in his “A Time for Choosing” speech:

This is the issue of this election—whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Therein lies the Obama administration’s bigger problem—how to reconcile a law that increases the influence of independent experts with a high-profile example of such an expert who repeatedly treated American voters with open hostility and contempt. At a time when both the health care law and the federal government itself remain historically unpopular with voters, the Gruber controversy only heightens the perceived distance between the governing and the governed.

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

Weekly Newsletter: April 21, 2008

Full House to Vote on Overriding Medicaid Fiscal Integrity Regulations

This Tuesday, the full House is scheduled to vote on legislation (H.R. 5613) that would impose moratoria on several proposed regulations issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restore fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program. The bill will be considered under suspension of the rules, which limits debate and requires a 2/3 vote for passage. Some conservatives may be concerned that a bill costing more than $1.5 billion is scheduled to be considered under such an expedited process normally reserved for naming of post offices and other smaller pieces of legislation.

In addition, some conservatives may remain concerned by congressional actions to block regulations that respond to more than a dozen Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports released since 1994 highlighting the various ways states have attempted to “game” the Medicaid program and increase the amount of federal matching funds received. The history of these abuses has prompted the Administration to threaten a veto of any measure attempting to block CMS’ attempts to restore the fiscal integrity of the Medicaid program.

Because HR 5613 only places a moratorium on further administrative action until April 2009, the stated cost of the legislation is $1.65 billion. However, some conservatives may be skeptical that Congress would ever let this moratorium be lifted, and thus may be concerned that passage of the legislation ultimately could result in the nullification of approximately $16-18 billion in proposed savings—which, though significant, will lower federal Medicaid spending by just over 1% over the next five years.

In December 2005, 212 Members of Congress—all Republicans—voted to reduce Medicaid spending by less than $4.8 billion as part of the Deficit Reduction Act. If these moratoria remain intact, some conservatives may be concerned that Congress will have more than undone the modest savings which a Republican-led Congress enacted over sharp Democrat protests.

RSC Policy Briefs on the federal-state Medicaid relationship can be found here and here.

Democrats Pass Restrictions on Health Savings Accounts

The full House last week passed legislation that would enact new restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as part of broader tax legislation (HR 5719). The legislation requires all HSA account holders to independently verify the qualified nature of medical expenses for all withdrawals, subjecting those transactions not substantiated to income taxes. This language prompted the White House to threaten a Presidential veto of the bill, which the Office of Management and Budget argued “would impose new administrative burdens on the trustees of HSAs…[that] could undermine efforts by employers, individuals, and insurers to reduce health care costs and improve health outcomes by empowering consumers to take greater control of health care decision-making.”

The bill passed by a 239-178 vote, but only after the Republican motion to recommit failed on a 210-210 tie. This vote on the motion to recommit was extended after the motion’s proponents had received a majority of votes cast after the allotted 15-minute vote time.

The outlook for action in the Senate is unclear, and the threat of a Presidential veto on these HSA restrictions looms as well. However, the RSC will continue to weigh in on the need to protect the important consumer-driven health programs which Republicans have succeeded in establishing in recent years.

An RSC Policy Brief discussing this issue can be found here.

Specialty Hospital Provisions Possible Farm Bill Offset

As conferees attempt to reach agreement on a farm bill reauthorization, some Democrats have introduced a potential new offset: Restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals. This particular offset has already been proposed twice by House Democrats to pay for expansions of the government’s role in health care—the first as part of legislation (HR 3162) placing millions of children on government-funded health insurance rolls, the second in legislation (HR 1424) that would increase health insurance premiums by forcing employers and insurance carriers to cover such mental health disorders as caffeine addiction and jet lag.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—which, because it was included in neither the House nor Senate versions of farm bill legislation, is outside the scope of the conference—would undermine and stifle the innovative practices developed at physician-owned hospitals in order to pay for additional farm subsidies. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scoring assumptions regarding these provisions remain in dispute, yet the Democrat majority is considering using “savings” that may or may not exist in order to finance additional government aid to the agricultural sector.

An RSC Policy Brief discussing specialty hospitals can be found here.

Article of Note: Free Health Care Isn’t Cheap

This week, Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA) delivered the budgetary verdict on Massachusetts’ novel health reform act passed in 2006—and the statistics raised into question whether and how long the lauded Massachusetts experiment can be sustained. Only about half of the state’s estimated 600,000 uninsured have gained access to coverage since the Massachusetts law imposed an individual mandate to purchase health insurance. Moreover, many more individuals than expected claimed free or reduced-cost plans available through the state’s Commonwealth Care program, creating a $153 million budget gap for the program’s first year of operation—and aides admit that future years face similar funding difficulties.

Gov. Patrick has proposed a $1-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes in order to finance the shortfall created by rising enrollment in government-funded health insurance. This comes on the heels of reports that 748 employers have already been taxed a total of $6.6 million in “assessments” for failing to provide health insurance to their employees.

Some conservatives may not be surprised by the rising health care costs associated with Massachusetts’ plan, and may be concerned by the increasing reliance on additional taxes to finance the program. The state’s many benefit mandates and insurance regulations have consistently resulted in insurance premiums amongst the highest in the nation, and higher taxes on businesses and individuals will do nothing to control skyrocketing health care costs. Instead, many conservatives may support additional reforms to decrease costly regulations and reform the state’s health care market, reducing the growth of health care costs by empowering consumers to make wise choices about their health options.

Read the article here: “Universal Health Care to Cost Massachusetts More than Was Budgeted