This New Democratic Plan Would Ban Private Medicine

A few months ago, Sen. Kamala Harris raised eyebrows when she nonchalantly proclaimed her desire to abolish private health insurance: “Let’s move on.” Today, Ms. Harris’s quip seems quaint. The latest liberal policy idea would effectively end all private health care for many Americans.

The proposal, the Medicare for America Act, first appeared as a 2018 paper by the Center for American Progress. It was a plan to expand government-run health care. It’s been called “the Democratic establishment’s alternative” to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s single-payer scheme. In March, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke endorsed Medicare for America in lieu of the Sanders plan.

CNN declared that Mr. O’Rourke’s endorsement of Medicare for America demonstrates his “moderate path,” but the bill is anything but moderate. When Rep. Rosa DeLauro reintroduced Medicare for America legislation on May 1, she included a new, radical provision. The revised bill prohibits any medical provider “from entering into a private contract with an individual enrolled under Medicare for America for any item or service coverable under Medicare for America.” Essentially, this would bar program enrollees from paying for health care using their own money.

Liberals might claim this prohibition is more innocuous than it sounds, because Americans can still use private insurance under Medicare for America in some circumstances. But the legislation squeezes out the private insurance market in short order.

For starters, the law would automatically enroll babies in the new government program at birth. The Center for American Progress’s original paper admitted that the auto-enrollment language would ensure the government-run plan “would continue to grow in enrollment over time.” The bill would permit people to opt out of the government program only if they have “qualified health coverage” from an employer. And even employer-provided health insurance would soon disappear.

Under the bill, employees would be able to enroll in the government program without penalty, but their employers would have to pay a fee as soon as even one employee opts into the government insurance. It makes little sense to keep paying to provide private health coverage if you already have to pay for the public option. Small employers would get to choose between paying nothing for health care or shelling out enough for “qualified health coverage.” The migration of workers and firms into Medicare for America would be a flood more than a trickle, creating a de facto single-payer system.

With everyone enrolled in Medicare for America, truly private health care would cease to exist. You could obtain heavily regulated coverage from private insurers, similar to the Medicare Advantage plans currently available to seniors. But going to a doctor and paying $50 or $100 cash for a visit? That would be illegal.

Doctors would no longer be permitted to treat patients without the involvement of government bureaucrats. The thousands of direct primary-care physicians currently operating on a “cash and carry” basis would either have to change their business model entirely and join the government program or disappear.

Medicare for America is unique in this particular provision. Under current law, seniors in Medicare can privately contract with physicians, albeit with significant restrictions. Doctors who see Medicare patients privately must agree not to charge any patients through Medicare for two years. The House and Senate single-payer bills, while banning private health insurance entirely, would retain something approaching these current restrictions for people seeking private health care.

Rather than empowering Americans to get the health care they want, Democrats are intent on forcing them to buy what liberals say is best. They would give the government massive power over medicine—but patients would have none of their own.

This post was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

Four Better Ways to Address Pre-Existing Conditions Than Obamacare

n a recent article, I linked to a tweet promoting alternatives to Obamacare’s pre-existing condition regulations, which have raised health insurance premiums for millions of Americans.

I offered those solutions when asked about a Republican alternative to Obamacare, and specifically the pre-existing condition provisions. While I no longer work in Congress, and therefore cannot readily get legislative provisions drafted and scored, I did want to elaborate on the concepts briefly mentioned, to show that other solutions to the pre-existing condition problem do exist.

1. Health Status Insurance

I mentioned both “renewal guarantees” and “health status insurance,” two relatively interchangeable terms, in my tweet. Both refer to the option of buying coverage at some point in the future—insurance against developing a health condition that makes one uninsurable.

Other forms of insurance use these types of riders frequently. For instance, I purchased a long-term disability policy when I bought my condo, to protect myself if I could no longer work and pay my mortgage. The policy came with two components—the coverage I have now, and pay for each year, along with a rider allowing me to double my coverage amount (i.e. the monthly payment I would receive if I became disabled) without going through the application or underwriting process again.

Since I bought that policy in 2008, my doctors diagnosed me with hypertension in 2012, and I went through two reconstructive surgeries on my left ankle. I don’t know if these ailments would prevent me from buying a disability policy now if I went out and applied for one. But because I purchased that rider with my original policy in 2008, I don’t need to worry about it. If I want more disability coverage, I can obtain it by paying the additional premium, no questions asked.

Health status insurance would complement employer-sponsored coverage. Most people get their coverage through their employers. Because employers heavily subsidize the coverage, and the federal government provides tax breaks for employer-sponsored plans, more than three in four people who are offered employer-sponsored insurance sign up for it.

But employer-based insurance by definition isn’t portable. When you switch your job, or (worse yet) lose your job because you’re too sick to work, you lose your coverage. Health status insurance would get around that portability problem. Individuals could sign up for their employer plan but pay for health status insurance “on the side.”

This coverage, which they and not their employer own, would protect them in case they develop a pre-existing condition or move to a job that doesn’t provide health insurance. It would also cost a lot less than buying a complete insurance plan—remember, they’re paying for the option to purchase insurance at a later date, not the insurance itself.

2. Insurance Portability

A proposed regulation issued by the Trump administration last month would permit just that. Under the proposal, employers could provide fixed sums to their employees to buy individually owned insurance—that is, a policy the employee buys and holds—through Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs). Employees could pay any “leftover” premiums not covered by the employer subsidy on a pre-tax basis, as they do with their current, employer-owned coverage, through paycheck withholding.

I recently wrote about the regulation; feel free to read that article for greater detail. But as with health status insurance, better portability of individual coverage would allow people to buy—and hold, and keep—coverage before they develop a pre-existing condition, reducing the number of people who have to worry about losing their coverage when battling a difficult illness.

3. High-Risk Pools

Of course, health status insurance only helps those who purchase it prior to becoming sick. For people who already have a pre-existing condition, perhaps because of an ailment acquired at birth or in one’s youth, high-risk pools provide another possible solution.

Critics of risk pools generally cite two reasons to argue against this model as a workable policy solution. First, risk pools prior to Obamacare were not well-funded—in many cases, a true enough criticism. While some state pools worked well and offered generous subsidies (even income-based subsidies in some states), others did not.

It would take a fair bit of federal funding to set up a solid network of state high-risk pools. One article, published in National Affairs a few months after Obamacare’s enactment, estimated that such pools would require $15-20 billion per year in funding—probably more like $20-30 billion now, given the constant rise in health care costs. This figure represents a sizable sum, but less than the overall cost of Obamacare, or even its insurance subsidies ($57 billion this fiscal year alone).

Second, risk pool critics dislike the surcharges that many risk pools applied. Most pools capped monthly premiums for enrollees at 150 or 200 percent of standard insurance rates. Of course, individuals with chronic heart failure or some other costly condition generally incur much higher actual costs—costs that the pool worked to subsidize—but some believe that making individuals with pre-existing conditions pay a 50 to 100 percent premium over healthy individuals discriminates against the sick.

Personally, when designing a high-risk pool, I would distinguish between individuals who maintained continuous coverage prior to joining the pool and those who did not. Charging higher premiums to individuals who maintained continuous coverage seems unfair. On the other hand, it seems very reasonable to impose a surcharge for individuals who joined a high-risk pool because they didn’t purchase insurance until after they became sick.

As a small government conservative, I generally oppose intrusive attempts like an individual mandate to require individuals to behave in a certain manner. While I view going without health insurance an unwise move, I believe in the right of people to make bad decisions. However, I also believe in people paying the consequences of those bad decisions—and a surcharge on individuals who sign up for a high-risk pool while lacking continuous coverage would do just that.

4. Direct Primary Care

Direct primary care, which encompasses a personal relationship with a physician or group of physicians, can help manage individuals with chronic (and potentially costly) diseases. In most cases, patients pay a monthly or annual subscription fee to the practice, which covers unlimited doctor visits, as well as phone or electronic consultations and some limited diagnostic tests. Patients can get referrals to specialist care, or purchase a catastrophic insurance policy to cover expenses not included in the subscription fee.

Of course, primary care would not work well for a patient with advanced cancer, who needs costly pharmaceutical therapies or other very specialized care. But for patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, COPD, or chronic heart failure, direct primary care may offer a way better to manage the disease, potentially reducing health care costs while improving patient access to care and quality of life—the most important objective.

As noted above, these types of solutions are not one size fits all. Health status insurance would not work for patients born with genetically based diseases, and direct primary care might not help patients with advanced tumors.

But in some respects, that’s the point. Obamacare took a comparatively small universe of truly uninsurable patients—a few million, by some estimates—and uprooted the individual market of about 20 million people (to say nothing of other Americans’ health coverage) for it. Unfortunately, millions of Americans have ended up dropping insurance as a result, because the changes have priced them out of coverage.

A better way to reform the system would use a more specialized approach—a scalpel instead of a chainsaw. Health status insurance, improved portability, high-risk pools, and direct primary care represent four potential prongs of that better alternative.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: Summary of Revised Graham-Cassidy Legislation

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

Summary of CBO Score

On Monday evening, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a preliminary estimate of the Graham-Cassidy bill. CBO concluded that the bill would comply with reconciliation parameters—namely, that it would reduce the deficit by at least as much as the underlying reconciliation vehicle (the House-passed American Health Care Act), reduce the deficit by at least $1 billion in each of its two titles in its first ten years, and not increase the deficit overall in any of the four following decades.

Although it did not include any specific coverage or premium numbers, CBO did conclude that the bill would likely decrease coverage by millions compared to the current policy baseline. The report estimated that the bill’s block grant would spend about $230 billion less than current law—a 10 percent reduction overall (an average 30 percent reduction for Medicaid expansion states, but an average 30 percent increase for non-expansion states). Moreover, CBO believes at least $150 billion in block grant funding would not be spent by the end of the ten-year budget window.

CBO believes that “most states would eventually make changes in the regulations for their non-group market in order to stabilize it and would use some funds from the block grants to facilitate those changes.” Essentially, current insurance regulations mean that markets would become unstable without current law subsidies, such that states would use a combination of subsidies and changes in regulations to preserve market stability.

CBO believes that most Medicaid expansion states would attempt to use block grant funding to create Medicaid-like programs for their low-income residents. However, the analysis concludes that by 2026, those states’ block grants would roughly equal the projected cost of their current Medicaid expansion—forcing them to choose between “provid[ing] similar benefits to people in a [Medicaid] alternative program and extend[ing] support to others” further up the income scale. In those cases, CBO believes “most of those states would then choose to provide little support to people in the non-group market because doing so effectively would be the more difficult task.”

Overall, CBO believes that the bill would reduce insurance coverage, because of its repeal of the subsidies, Medicaid expansion, and the individual mandate. The budget office believes that states with high levels of coverage under Obamacare would not receive enough funds under the revised block grant to match their current coverage levels, while states with lower levels of coverage would spend the money slowly, in part because they lack the infrastructure (i.e., technology, etc.) to distribute subsidies easily. CBO also believes that employment-based coverage would increase under the bill, because some employers would respond to changes in the individual market by offering coverage to their workers.

With respect to the Medicaid reforms in the bill, CBO concludes that most “states would not have substantial additional flexibility” under the per capita caps. Some states with declining populations might choose the block grant option, but the grant “would not be attractive in most states experiencing population growth, as the fixed block grant would not be adjusted for such growth.” States could reduce their spending by reducing provider payment rates; optional benefit categories; limiting eligibility; improving care delivery; or some combination of the approaches.

For the individual market, CBO expresses skepticism about the timelines in the bill. Specifically, its analysis found that states’ initial options would “be limited,” because implementing new health programs by 2020 would be “difficult:”

To establish its own system of subsidies for coverage in the nongroup market related to people’s income, a state would have to enact legislation and create a new administrative infrastructure. A state would not be able to rely on any existing system for verifying eligibility or making payments. It would need to establish a new system for enrolling people in nongroup insurance, verify eligibility for tax credits or other subsidies, certify insurance as eligible for subsidies, and ultimately ensure that the payments were correct. Those steps would be challenging, particularly if the state chose to simultaneously change insurance market regulations.

While CBO believes that states that expanded Medicaid would be likely to create programs for populations currently eligible for subsidies (i.e., those households with incomes between one and four times poverty), it notes that such states “would be facing large reductions in funding compared with the amounts under current law and thus would have trouble paying for a new program or subsidies for those people.”

CBO believes that without subsidies, and with current insurance regulations in place, a “death spiral” would occur, whereby premiums would gradually increase and insurers would drop out of markets. (However, “if a state required individuals to have insurance, some healthier people would enroll, and premiums would be lower.”) To avoid this scenario, CBO believes that “most states would eventually modify various rules to help stabilize the non-group market,” thereby increasing coverage take-up when compared to not doing so. However, “coverage for people with pre-existing conditions would be much more expensive in some of those states than under current law.”

While widening age bands would “somewhat increase insurance coverage, on net,” CBO notes that “insurance covering certain services not included in the scope of benefits to become more expensive—in some cases, extremely expensive.” Moreover, some medically underwritten individuals (i.e., subject to premium changes based on health status) would become uninsured, while others would instead obtain employer coverage.

Finally, CBO estimated that the non-coverage provisions of the bill would increase the deficit by $22 billion over ten years. Specific estimates for those provisions are integrated into the summary below.

Summary of Changes Made

On Sunday evening, the bill’s sponsors released revised text of their bill. Compared to the original draft, the revised bill:

  • Strikes language repealing sections of Obamacare related to eligibility determinations (likely to comply with the Senate’s “Byrd rule” regarding budget reconciliation);
  • Changes the short-term “stability fund” to set aside 5 percent of funds for “low-density states,” which some conservatives may view as a carve-out for certain states similar to that included in July’s Better Care Reconciliation Act;
  • Re-writes waiver authority, but maintains (and arguably strengthens) language requiring states to “maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” which some conservatives may view as imposing limiting conditions on states that wish to reform their insurance markets;
  • Requires states to certify that they will “ensure compliance” with sections of the Public Health Service Act relating to: 1) the under-26 mandate; 2) hospital stays following births; 3) mental health parity; 4) re-constructive surgery following mastectomies; and 5) genetic non-discrimination;
  • Strikes authority given to the Health and Human Services Secretary in several sections, and replaces it with authority given to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator;
  • Includes a new requirement that at least half of funds provided under the Obamacare replacement block grant must be used “to provide assistance” to households with family income between 50 and 300 percent of the poverty level;
  • Requires CMS Administrator to adjust block grant spending upward for a “low-density state” with per capita health care spending 20 percent higher than the national average, increasing allocation levels to match the higher health costs—a provision some conservatives may consider an earmark for specific states;
  • Imposes new requirement on CMS Administrator to notify states of their 2020 block grant allocations by November 1, 2019—a timeline that some may argue will give states far too little time to prepare and plan for major changes to their health systems;
  • Slows the transition to the new Obamacare replacement block grant formula outlined in the law, which now would not fully take effect until after 2026—even though the bill does not appropriate block grant funds for years after 2026;
  • Gives the Administrator the power not to make an annual adjustment for risk in the block grant;
  • Strikes the block grant’s annual adjustment factor for coverage value;
  • Delays the block grant’s state population adjustment factor from 2020 until 2022—but retains language giving the CMS Administrator to re-write the entire funding allocation based on this factor, which some conservatives may view as an unprecedented power grab by federal bureaucrats;
  • Re-writes rules re-allocating unspent block grant allocation funds;
  • Prohibits states from receiving more than a 25 percent year-on-year increase in their block grant allocations;
  • Makes other technical changes to the block grant formula;
  • Changes the formula for the $11 billion contingency fund provided to low-density and non-expansion states—25 percent ($2.75 billion) for low-density states, 50 percent ($5.5 billion) for non-Medicaid expansion states, and 25 percent ($2.75 billion) for Medicaid expansion states;
  • Includes a $750 million fund for “late-expanding” Medicaid states (those that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare prior to December 31, 2016), which some conservatives may consider an earmark, and one that encourages states to embrace Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied;
  • Includes $500 million to allow pass-through funding under Section 1332 Obamacare waivers to continue for years 2019 through 2023 under the Obamacare replacement block grant;
  • Strikes language allowing for direct primary care to be purchased through Health Savings Accounts, and as a medical expense under the Internal Revenue Code;
  • Strikes language reducing American territories’ Medicaid match from 55 percent to 50 percent;
  • Restores language originally in BCRA allowing for “late-expanding Medicaid states” to select a shorter period for their per capita caps—a provision that some conservatives may view as an undue incentive for certain states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare;
  • Restores language originally in BCRA regarding reporting of data related to Medicaid per capita caps;
  • Strikes language delaying Medicaid per capita caps for certain “low-density states;”
  • Includes new language perpetually increasing Medicaid match rates on the two highest states with