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.

How an Obscure Regulatory Change Could Transform American Health Insurance

Between the election campaign and incidents of terrorism ranging from attempted bombings to a synagogue shooting, an obscure regulatory proposal by the Trump administration has yet to captivate the public’s attention. However, it has the potential to change the way millions of Americans obtain health insurance.

In the United States, unique among industrialized countries, most Americans under age 65 receive health coverage from their employers. This occurs largely due to an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruling issued during World War II, which excluded health insurance coverage from income and payroll taxes. (Businesses viewed providing health insurance as one way around wartime wage and price controls.)

The Trump administration’s proposed rule would, if finalized, allow businesses to make a pretax contribution towards individual health insurance—that is, coverage that individuals own and select, rather than employers. This change may take time to have an impact, but it could lead to a much more portable system of health insurance—which would help to solve the pre-existing condition problem.

How Would It Work?

Under the proposed rule, employers could provide funds through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) to subsidize the purchase of individual health insurance. Employers could provide the funds on a pretax basis, and—provided that the workers purchase their coverage outside of the Obamacare exchanges—employees could pay their share of the premiums on a tax-free basis as well.

In practical terms, some employers may choose to provide a subsidy for health coverage—say, $300 per month, or $5,000 per year—in lieu of offering a firm-sponsored health plan. Individuals could go out and buy the plan they want, which covers the doctors whom they use, rather than remaining stuck with the plan their employer offers. And employers would get better predictability for their health expenses by knowing their exposure would remain fixed to the sums they contribute every year.

Could Employers Game the System?

The proposed rule acknowledged the possibility that employers might try to “offload” their costliest patients into individual health coverage, lowering expenses (and therefore premiums) for the people who remain. The rule contains several provisions designed to protect against this possibility.

Employers must choose to offer either an HRA contribution towards individual coverage or a group health plan. They cannot offer both options, and whatever option they select, they must make the same decision for an entire class of workers.

A “class” of workers would mean all full-time employees, or all part-time employees, or all employees under one collective bargaining agreement. Hourly and salaried workers would not count as separate “classes,” because firms could easily convert workers from one form of compensation to another. These provisions seek to ensure that firms will offer some employees health insurance, while “dumping” other employees on to individual coverage.

Can Workers Buy Short-Term Coverage with Employer Funds?

Yes—and no. The proposed rule would allow HRA funds to purchase only individual (i.e., Obamacare-compliant) health insurance coverage, not short-term insurance.

However, the rule creates a separate type of account to which employers could contribute that would fund workers’ “excepted benefits.” This term could include things like long-term care insurance, vision and dental insurance, and the new short-term plans the Trump administration has permitted. But employers could only fund these accounts up to a maximum of $1,800 per year, and they could create these special “excepted benefits” accounts only if they do not offer an HRA that reimburses workers for individual insurance, as outlined above.

Will Firms Drop Health Coverage?

Some firms may explore the HRA option over time. However, the extent to which businesses embrace defined-contribution coverage may depend upon the viability of the individual health insurance market, and the status of the labor market.

However, if and when more insurers return to the marketplace, firms may view the defined-contribution method of health coverage as a win-win: employees get more choices and employers get predictability over health costs. Particularly if unemployment ticks upward, or one firm in an industry makes the move towards the HRA model, other businesses may follow suit in short order.

Will the Proposal Cost Money?

It could. The proposed rule should cost the federal government $29.7 billion over the first ten years. That estimate assumes that 800,000 firms, offering coverage to 10.7 million people, will use the HRA option by 2028. (It also assumes an 800,000 reduction in the number of uninsured Americans by that same year.)

The cost, or savings, to the federal government could vary widely, depending on factors like:

  • Whether firms using the HRA option previously offered coverage. If firms that did not offer coverage take the HRA option, pretax health insurance payments would increase, reducing tax revenues. (The rule assumes a reduction in income and payroll tax revenue of $13 billion in 2028.)
  • Whether individuals enrolling in individual market coverage via the HRA option are more or less healthy than current enrollees. If the new enrollees are less healthy than current enrollees, individual market premiums will rise, as will spending on Obamacare subsidies for those individuals. (The rule assumes a 1 percent increase in individual market premiums, and thus exchange subsidies.)
  • The extent to which HRAs affect eligibility for Obamacare subsidies. If some low-income individuals whose employers previously did not offer coverage now qualify for HRA subsidies, they may lose eligibility for Obamacare subsidies on the exchanges. (The rule assumes a reduction in Obamacare subsidies of $6.9 billion in 2028.)

Given the many variables in play, the rule has a highly uncertain fiscal impact. It could cost the federal government billions (or more) per year, save the federal government similar sums, or have largely offsetting effects.

An Overdue (and Welcome) Change

The proposed rule would codify the last element of last October’s executive order on health care. It follows the release of rules regarding both short-term health insurance and association health plans earlier this year.

Ironically, the Trump administration represents but the most recent Republican presidency to examine the possibility of defined-contribution health insurance. While working on Capitol Hill in 2008, I tried to encourage the Bush administration to adopt guidance similar to that in the proposed rule. However, policy disagreements—including objections raised by, of all places, scholars at the Heritage Foundation—precluded the Bush administration from finalizing the changes.

Since I’ve fought for this concept for more than a decade, and included it in a series of regulatory changes the administration needed to make in a paper released shortly before Trump took office, I can attest that this change is as welcome—and needed—since it is overdue. Although overshadowed at the time of its release, this rule could have a substantial effect on Americans’ health insurance choices over time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans Hide Obamacare Bailout Inside Health Savings Account Bill

Cue the scene from “Poltergeist”: “They’re baa-ack.” The Obamacare bailout seekers, that is.

Multiple Capitol Hill sources confirmed to me on Wednesday morning that the House Ways and Means Committee’s markup of health savings account (HSA)-related legislation later in the day comes with a potential ulterior motive: Committee and leadership staff want to resurrect this spring’s failed Obamacare “stability” legislation—and see the HSA provisions as a way to do so.

This Is a Bad Deal for Conservatives

The leadership gambit seems simple: with the HSA provisions, placate conservatives who (rightly) don’t want to bail out Obamacare, and allow the package to pass the House solely with Republican votes—because Democrats likely won’t vote to support any “stability” legislation imposing robust pro-life protections. With Democrats intending to make Obamacare premium increases an issue in the November elections, House leaders think the vote would inoculate vulnerable Republicans from political attacks by the Left.

But a “stability” vote would demoralize the Right, by showing how completely Republicans have caved on their repeal promises. It would also set a horrible precedent, officially declaring Obamacare “too big to fail,” which would put taxpayers on the hook for an ever-increasing flow of bailout funds.

That flow would soon vastly overwhelm any small amount of HSA incentives that conservatives received in exchange for their vote. Eventually, lawmakers would run out of other people’s money to spend propping up Obamacare.

Questionable Policies

The best bills on the Ways and Means agenda contain broad policies that will expand HSAs’ reach. In this group: A bill increasing HSA contribution limits; another bill allowing seniors eligible for (but not enrolled in) Medicare Part A to continue making HSA contributions; and legislation ensuring that all Obamacare bronze and catastrophic plans qualify for HSA contributions.

Other, more targeted measures that would expand the types of services HSA plans can cover could have a mixed effect. By allowing coverage for more services below a plan’s high deductible, they could draw more people to choose HSA coverage, but could also raise premiums for HSA plans.

Non-HSA Legislation Bears Attention, Too

Most troubling: The two pieces of legislation on the committee’s agenda not directly related to HSAs. The description of one bill hints at its inherent flaw:

The bill provides an off-ramp from Obamacare’s rising premiums and limited choices by allowing the premium tax credit to be used for qualified plans offered outside of the law’s exchanges and Healthcare.gov. In addition, it expands access to the lowest-premium plans available (‘catastrophic’ plans) for all individuals purchasing coverage in the individual market and allows the premium tax credit to be used to offset the cost of such plans.

Another bill suspending two Obamacare taxes sounds appealing on its face, but would have negative consequences. Suspending Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” for two more years (until 2022) would further weaken an effort in that law (albeit a poorly designed one) to change current incentives that encourage people to over-consume employer-provided health insurance and thus health care. In short, it would encourage the growth of health care costs, rather than working to lower them.

The bill’s effort to repeal the employer mandate for years 2014 through 2018 likewise could have unintended consequences. The bill only repeals the employer mandate retrospectively likely because doing so prospectively (i.e., for 2019 and future years) could encourage employer “dumping”—businesses dropping coverage and sending their workers to the exchanges, which could raise spending on Obamacare insurance subsidies. While the retrospective nature of that legislation could mitigate any “dumping” in the short term, if employers think Congress will continue to weaken the mandate in future years, they could view that as an incentive to drop coverage.

This Is Not a Good Deal

The Ways and Means Committee package includes some very good HSA-related bills, some potentially harmful bills that could further entrench Obamacare, and some bills that may not have much effect. Regardless of the individual bills’ specific merits, they certainly do not warrant conservatives’ approval for a massive “stability” package in the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Return of the Individual Mandate

Well, that didn’t last long. Fewer than six months after Congress effectively repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate—and more than six months before that change actually takes effect, in January next year—another liberal group released a plan to reinstate it. The proposal comes as part of the Urban Institute’s recently released “Healthy America” plan.

In the interests of full disclosure: I criticized Republicans for repealing the individual mandate as part of the tax reform bill last fall. I did so not because I support requiring Americans to buy health insurance—I don’t—but because Republicans need to go further, and repeal the federal insurance regulations that represent the heart of Obamacare and necessitated enacting the mandate in the first place.

Lipstick on an Unpopular Pig?

The Urban Institute plan tries to re-brand a federal requirement to purchase insurance by never even using the term “mandate” in its proposal. Instead, the document says that “uninsured people would lose a percentage of their standard deduction (or the equivalent for the itemized deduction) when they pay income taxes….Half the lost deduction amount could be refunded the following year if the person enrolls in coverage and maintains it for the next full plan year.”

But as the saying goes, if it looks like a mandate and functions like a mandate, it’s a mandate. The paper claims that taking away a “tax benefit…would be better received politically than the additional tax penalty” under Obamacare, but functionally, that provides a distinction without a difference. Even the Urban researchers call this “loss of a tax benefit” a “penalty” later in the paper, because that’s what it is: A penalty for remaining uninsured.

The paper even includes a chart highlighting the average tax for remaining uninsured by income under the proposal, which generally mimics the tax penalties the uninsured pay under Obamacare:

Other Components of the Plan

Unfortunately, the Urban Institute plan goes well beyond merely reinstating the individual mandate, albeit in a slightly different form. It also makes other major changes to the health care system that would entrench the role of the federal government in it. It would federalize Medicaid health insurance coverage by transferring Medicaid enrollees into exchanges, supplementing benefits for low-income children and individuals with disabilities, and requiring states to keep paying their current contributions into the system. (Long-term care coverage under Medicaid would continue unchanged.)

The exchanges would have a new government-run plan—the default option for low-income enrollees automatically enrolled into coverage—and options run by private insurers. However, all plans would cap reimbursement to doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates, making premiums more “affordable” by imposing price controls that would potentially pay providers at below-market levels. The plan also proposes to “save” on prescription drugs by extending Medicaid rebates (i.e., price controls) to additional individuals.

The Urban plan also proposes much richer health coverage subsidies, consistent with its earlier 2015 proposal. Specifically:

  • Individuals with incomes below the federal poverty level would not pay either premiums or cost-sharing;
  • Individuals with incomes below 138 percent of poverty (the threshold for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) would not pay premiums;
  • Premium subsidies would be linked to a plan paying 80 percent of expected health care costs (i.e., actuarial value), as opposed to a 70 percent actuarial value plan under Obamacare;
  • Individuals would have to pay less of their income in premiums than under Obamacare—for instance, an individual with income just under four times poverty would pay 8.5 percent of income in premiums, as opposed to 9.56 percent under Obamacare; and
  • Unlike Obamacare, which limits eligibility for subsidies to those with incomes under four times poverty, the Urban plan would limit premium payments to 8.5 percent of income at all income levels (i.e., including for those making more than four times poverty).

Moreover, “short-term and other private insurance plans that do not comply with Healthy America regulations (consistent with [Obamacare’s] regulatory framework” would be prohibited, including association health plans and other concepts the Trump administration has proposed to give Americans more flexible coverage options.

The Urban researchers admit their plan would require significant new revenues to pay for the new subsidies—an estimated $98 billion in the first year alone. The plan only briefly discusses options to pay for this new spending, but it admits that, even if Congress hikes the payroll tax by an additional percent, raising an estimated $823 billion over ten years, “other adjustments to excise and income taxes would be needed.”

Where the Plan Fits In

At the end of their paper, the Urban researchers include a helpful chart comparing the various liberal proposals for expanded government involvement in health care—lest anyone claim that the left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing. In general:

  • Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bill that would not go as far as the Urban plan. It incorporates the subsidy changes Urban proposed, adds a government-run plan, and imposes other regulatory changes to the exchanges, but (unlike the Urban plan) retains the status quo for Medicaid;
  • The Center for American Progress’ “Medicare Extra” proposal, which I wrote about earlier this year, goes farther than the Urban plan, by eliminating Medicaid (which the Urban plan modifies) entirely, and including more robust auto-enrollment provisions, with “Medicare Extra” the default option for all Americans; and
  • The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would go farthest of all, abolishing virtually all forms of insurance (including Medicare) and creating a single-payer health system.

So much for “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” For that matter, so much for “If you like your freedom, you can keep it.” Like it or not, the Left seems insistent on terrifying the American public with what Ronald Reagan viewed as the nine most effective words to do so: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ New Plan to Take Over the Health Care System

The Center for American Progress proposed a plan for government-run health care Thursday, which the liberal think tank calls “Medicare Extra.”

Unlike Bernie Sanders’ single-payer system, which would abolish virtually all other forms of insurance, the plan would not ban employer coverage outright — at least not yet. In broad strokes, CAP would combine Medicaid and the individual insurance market into Medicare Extra, and allow individuals with other coverage, such as employer plans, traditional Medicare or VA coverage, to enroll in Medicare Extra instead.

The goal of CAP’s plan is to grow government, and to grow dependence on government. The paper omits many important policies, such as how to pay for the new spending. Here are some of the major objectives and concerns.

If You Like Your Obamacare, Too Bad

After attacking Republicans for wanting to “taking away health insurance from millions,” CAP would … take away health insurance from millions. The plan would effectively eliminate Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, and all individual health insurance: “With the exception of employer-sponsored insurance, private insurance companies would be prohibited from duplicating Medicare Extra benefits, but they could offer complementary benefits during an open enrollment period.”

Other sections of the plan (discussed further below) suggest that private insurers could offer Medicare Choice coverage as one element of Medicare Extra. CAP indicates that persons purchasing coverage on the individual market would have a “choice of plans.” But didn’t Obamacare promise that already — and how’s that working out? For that matter, what happened to that whole “If you like your plan, you can keep it” concept?

Mandatory Health Insurance — And A $12,550 Tax

The plan reinstates a mandate to purchase health insurance: “Individuals who are not enrolled in other coverage would be automatically enrolled in Medicare Extra … Premiums for individuals who are not enrolled in other coverage would be automatically collected through tax withholding and on tax returns.”

While the plan says that those with incomes below the tax filing threshold “would not pay any premiums,” it excludes one important detail — the right to opt out of coverage. Therefore, the plan includes a mandate, enforced through the tax code, and with the full authority of the Internal Revenue Service. (Because you can’t spell “insurance” without I-R-S.) The plan indicates that for families with incomes between 150 and 500 percent of the poverty level, “caps on premiums would range from 0 percent to 10 percent of income. For families with income above 500 percent of [poverty], premiums would be capped at 10 percent of income.”

In 2018, the federal poverty level stands at $25,100 for a family of four, making 500 percent of poverty $125,500. If that family lacks employer coverage (remember, the plan prohibits individuals from buying any other form of private insurance), CAP would tax that family 10 percent of income — $12,550 — to pay for its Medicare Extra plan.

Wasteful Overpayments Controlled By Government Bureaucrats

As noted above, the plan would allow insurers to bid to offer Medicare Choice coverage, but with a catch: Payments provided to these plans “could be no more than 95 percent of the Medicare Extra premium.” CAP claims that “this competitive bidding structure would guarantee that plans are offering value that is comparable with Medicare Extra.”

It does no such thing. By paying private plans only 95 percent of the government-run plan’s costs, the bidding structure guarantees that private plans will provide better value than the government-run plan. Just as CAP decried “wasteful overpayments” to private insurers in Medicare Advantage, the CAP proposal will allow government bureaucrats to control billions of dollars in wasteful federal government spending on Medicare Extra.

Costs To States

As noted above, CAP envisions the federal government taking over Medicaid from the states, “given the continued refusal of many states to expand Medicaid and attempts to use federal waivers to undermine access to health care.”

But the plan also requires states to continue to make maintenance-of-effort payments even after the federal government takes Medicaid away from state jurisdiction. Moreover, the plan by its own admission “giv[es] a temporary discount [on the maintenance-of-effort provisions] to states that expanded their Medicaid programs” under Obamacare — effectively punishing states for a choice (i.e., to expand or not expand) that the Supreme Court made completely voluntary. And finally, it requires “states that currently provides benefits … not offered by Medicare Extra … to maintain those benefits,” leaving states perpetually on the hook for such spending.

Would Employer Coverage Really Remain?

The plan gives employers theoretical options regarding their health coverage. Employers could continue to offer coverage themselves, subject to certain minimum requirements. Alternatively, they could enroll their employees in Medicare Extra, with three possible sources of employer funding: Paying 70 percent of workers’ premiums, making maintenance-of-effort payments equal to their spending in the year preceding enactment, adjusted for inflation, or “simpler aggregated payments in lieu of premium contributions,” ranging from 0 to 8 percent of payroll. (The plan would exempt employers with under 100 full-time equivalent workers from making any payments.)

Two questions linger over these options: First, would employer coverage remain? CAP obviously wishes that it would not in the long-term, while recognizing the political problems associated with an abrupt transition. Second, could employers game the system among the various contribution options? While details remain unclear, any plan that sets up two systems (let alone four) represents a classic arbitrage opportunity. If employers act rationally, they could end up reducing their own costs in a way that significantly increases the federal government’s obligations.

Higher Health Spending

CAP advertises its plan as providing “zero or low deductibles, free preventive care, free treatment for chronic disease” — the source of 75 percent of American health care spending — and “free generic drugs.” It would also expand coverage of long-term care services not covered by Medicare (and only partially covered by Medicaid). But all this “free” stuff won’t come cheap.

In analyzing Bernie Sanders’ health care plan, the liberal Urban Institute estimated that it would increase overall health spending by 22.1 percent. Notably, the Urban researchers estimated that Sanders’ plan would raise spending by people who currently have health insurance by almost the same amount, or 15.1 percent, because the lack of cost-sharing will encourage individuals to increase their consumption of care. With the CAP plan apparently proposing that government fully subsidize more than three quarters of health care spending, its proposal will increase health care costs almost as much as Sanders’.

The CAP plan proposes measures to lower costs — namely price controls (i.e., Medicare dictating prices to doctors, hospitals, and drug companies), with some token references to other policies like bundled payments and limiting the tax preference for employer-sponsored insurance. But if those proposals go the way of Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” — potentially never implemented because politicians of both parties lack the discipline to control health care spending — then the plan will only raise health costs rather than lower them.

Something For Nothing

The plan proposes that families with incomes below 150 percent of poverty ($37,150 for a family of four this year) pay for their coverage the princely sum of … zero dollars. No premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

And while CAP does not include specific ideas to pay for all the associated new spending, the concepts it does propose largely involve taxing “the rich” (which includes small businesses).

While it doesn’t work as it should — most people “get back” far more than they “pay in” — at least Medicare makes an attempt to have all individuals pay for coverage through the payroll tax. CAP’s plan amounts to a transfer of wealth from one group to another.

Even The New York Times this week highlighted dissent from middle-class families upset at the thought of having to pay for low-income individuals to receive “free” Medicaid. So, CAP might want to rethink what Bill Clinton called “the craziest thing in the world” — making middle-class families pay even more for mandatory insurance ($12,550, anyone?) while certain families contribute not so much as a dime for coverage — along with just about every other element of its health care plan.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why House Republicans Are Rewriting Their Obamacare “Replacement”

On Friday, Politico reported that Republicans were considering ways to amend their Obamacare “replacement” legislation, by placing income limits on the bill’s new refundable tax credit for health insurance. The Politico story implied the income cap sought to prevent wealthy individuals like Warren Buffett from obtaining federal subsidies for health insurance, but in reality House staff are re-writing their legislation to correct a major flaw in its structure.

Based on my conversations with multiple sources close to the effort, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had indicated to congressional staff that the prior House framework could see at least 10 million, and potentially up to 20 million, individuals losing employer-sponsored health insurance. Further, CBO stated that that House framework, even after including a refundable tax credit for health insurance, would not cover many more people than repealing Obamacare outright.

  • A significant erosion of up to 10-20 million individuals with employer-provided health coverage;
  • A new entitlement—the refundable tax credits—that by and large wouldn’t expand coverage, but instead cause individuals currently in employer plans to switch to the credits;
  • More federal spending via the refundable tax credits;
  • A tax increase—a cap on the current exclusion for employer-provided health coverage—to pay for the new spending on the credits; and
  • An increase in the uninsured (compared to Obamacare) of at least 15 million—nearly as much as repealing the law outright.

Details of the bill are changing constantly, and no doubt House leadership will claim these figures pertain to prior drafts of the legislation. But even if those numbers reflect outdated drafts, the combination of major re-writes to the bill and the lack of a CBO score at any point in the process thus far should cause significant pause on Capitol Hill. Members are being asked to vote on legislation before knowing its full effects, or even how it will look in its final version.

Coverage Quicksand

According to CBO, the combination of a cap on the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, coupled with an age-rated tax credit for insurance, created a dynamic where expanding health insurance coverage was all but impossible.

An age-rated credit provides much greater incentive for firms to drop coverage, because all workers, not just low-income ones, can qualify for the credit. Moreover, because an age-rated credit provides the same subsidy to all individuals, regardless of income, low-income enrollees—the only individuals who have enrolled on exchanges in significant numbers—would have much less financial incentive to purchase insurance than they do under Obamacare, hence the lower coverage numbers overall.

Means-Tested Credit

Moving to a means-tested credit would create the same disincentives to work—individuals taking fewer shifts, or working fewer hours, for fear of losing their subsidies—as Obamacare itself. Here’s what Speaker Ryan’s Better Way document, released last summer, said about the current law:

Obamacare penalizes work. The law’s employer mandate and definition of a ‘full-time’ employee play a significant role in reduced hours, wages, and jobs. Even more critically, Obamacare’s subsidies themselves are riddled with cliffs and phase-outs, and the law includes a direct tax on work. Taken as a whole, CBO found that the law’s policies discourage work in such a way that it will be as if 2 million full-time jobs vanish from the economy by 2025. Our plan would repeal those taxes and work disincentives and implement a flat, simple form of assistance that would grow the economy and ensure work pays.

If House Republicans have turned on a dime, and re-embraced means-tested credits after criticizing them for several years, their plan will have at least some of the same work disincentives as Obamacare. Moreover, a means-tested credit also creates administrative complexities—reconciling payments made based on estimated income with actual income at the end of the year—that make it tougher to implement, as the Obamacare experience has demonstrated.

Obamacare’s Moment of Truth

On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul sparked a Twitter meme, searching through the Capitol for copies of House Republicans’ current version of “replace” legislation. While Paul raised a valid point about the need for a transparent process, he might have been better served to search for a CBO score of the legislation, for that will show where the rubber meets the road on the bill’s fiscal effects.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Dirty Little Secret of Hillary Clinton’s Health Plan

On Monday, President Bill Clinton committed a Kinsley gaffe, criticizing Obamacare as “the craziest thing in the world,” whereby small business owners “wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” In response to her husband’s accurate depiction of Obamacare’s problems, Hillary said on Tuesday: “We got to fix what’s broken and keep what works, . . . We’re going to tackle it and we’re going to fix it.” Secretary Clinton is exactly correct — if by “fix” she means enacting a proposal that could line the pockets of businesses to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars while simultaneously jacking up premiums and deductibles for millions of Americans.

Hillary Clinton’s plan for a new federal tax credit to subsidize out-of-pocket costs for all Americans will encourage businesses to make their health benefits skimpier — raising premiums, co-payments, and deductibles — because they know that the new tax credit will pick up the difference for the hardest-hit families. While Secretary Clinton’s other major health-care proposals (to increase federal subsidies on insurance exchanges and to create a government-run “public option” on them) would apply only to those without employer-based coverage, the out-of-pocket tax credit would apply to both insurance that is employer-based and insurance that is individually purchased.

In analyzing her proposals, the liberal Commonwealth Fund noted that Secretary Clinton’s out-of-pocket tax credit would affect a pool of 177.5 million potentially eligible Americans, which is more than four times as many as those who would be eligible to avail themselves of the government-run “public option.” The broader reach for the tax credit, plus its generous amount (up to $2,500 per individual or $5,000 per family for out-of-pocket spending that exceeds 5 percent of income) creates a sizable cost for the federal government: net spending of $90.3 billion in 2018 alone, according to the Commonwealth analysis. In 2009, President Obama made this pledge to Congress: “The plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years.” But one element alone of Secretary Clinton’s plan will cost at least that much — and probably more than $1 trillion.

The Commonwealth analysis of Clinton’s plan attempts to estimate how much the out-of-pocket tax credit will reduce health-care expenses for middle-class and working-class families. What the Commonwealth researchers did not mention in the report, and instead buried in a technical appendix, is this doozy of an asterisk: “Potentially, this [tax credit] approach gives firms an incentive to increase workers’ premium contributions, so that more workers are eligible to claim the credit.”

The Commonwealth researchers did not even attempt to model the impact of the tax credit on the actual behavior of businesses, claiming that employers might not know their workers’ income or out-of-pocket expenses, and saying they could not make decisions based on incomplete information. Nonsense. Even if businesses decide not to increase employees’ premium contributions, they could jack up deductibles instead. A firm could raise its deductible by $2,500, offer all workers a $1,000 bonus — to help employees whose out-of-pocket costs don’t meet the 5 percent of income threshold to obtain the tax credit, or assist workers’ cash flow until they receive it — and still come out ahead.

Whether by accident or design, the Commonwealth researchers assumed that employers will not respond to incentives — an assumption that belies three years of experience with Obamacare’s exchanges. Thousands of Americans have gamed the law’s special enrollment periods to sign up for coverage outside the annual enrollment window, incurred above-average costs – and then dropped their coverage at above-average rates, un-enrolling after returning to health. And because Section 1412 of the law allows enrollees a three-month grace period before insurers can drop their coverage for non-payment, one insurer found that 21 percent of its customers didn’t bother to pay their premiums last December, because the law effectively said they didn’t have to.

Given the ways in which Americans have gamed Obamacare’s morass of new regulations to create a system of barely functioning insurance exchanges, it beggars belief to think that businesses would not similarly work to maximize profit. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey of employer-sponsored health plans, only 23 percent of workers face a deductible above $2,000. With the average deductible rising 12 percent last year, firms would now have an even greater incentive to privatize their gains – because the new tax credit would allow them to socialize their workers’ losses by moving them to the federal fisc.

Why would Secretary Clinton propose a costly plan that encourages large businesses to pocket profits while jacking up costs on struggling families? Simple: The plan will make employer coverage less desirable, and it might even make the Obamacare exchanges look attractive by comparison. If liberals’ end goal is to erode employer-provided health coverage and migrate all Americans to government-run exchanges, offering a tax credit that will effectively erode that coverage faster isn’t a bad way to start.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Are Millions of Americans Leaving Employer Coverage to Join Obamacare?

In defending the relatively small enrollment of health insurance Exchanges to date, the Obama Administration has claimed that fewer employers have dropped health insurance coverage than expected. However, results from a recent survey indicate that approximately 6.8 million enrollees in Obamacare coverage have come directly from the employer market—suggesting the phenomenon may be more widespread than originally thought.

The survey, from the Commonwealth Fund, found that a majority of individuals with Medicaid coverage (62%), and a plurality of individuals with Exchange coverage (45%), lacked health insurance prior to obtaining their new coverage. But sizable percentages of individuals with Exchange coverage (34%) and Medicaid insurance (20%) said they had been enrolled in employer-provided health insurance immediately prior to obtaining their current Obamacare-related plan.

The responses suggest the presence of crowd-out, in which government-subsidized insurance takes the place of privately-sponsored coverage. Prior studies suggest that, in some cases, crowd-out can reach as high 60%. While not approaching those levels, the survey data do demonstrate that public programs have attracted many individuals with employer coverage.

Extrapolating the Commonwealth data to existing enrollment figures suggests that Obamacare programs may have prompted 6.8 million enrollees to drop their employer coverage. That number includes 34% of the 11.1 million Exchange enrollees as of March 31 (3.8 million), plus 20% of the approximately 15 million increase in Medicaid enrollment since Obamacare’s first open enrollment period in 2014 (3.0 million).

The publicly released data associated with the Commonwealth do not provide income information for the individuals who dropped employer coverage to join an Obamacare plan, or the reasons for their change in coverage. However, other studies suggest that Exchanges have appealed primarily, if not exclusively, to those individuals with low incomes eligible for the greatest subsidies.

News articles have generally focused on the lack of disruption to employer coverage caused by the Obamacare rollout. It remains unclear whether those surveyed by Commonwealth voluntarily relinquished employer coverage (in which case they should not have received Exchange insurance subsidies), saw themselves “dumped” into the Exchange by an employer dropping their plan, or a mix of the two. But the survey data suggest policy-makers need examine the crowd-out phenomenon more closely—not just for those facing potential dislocations in coverage, but for taxpayers footing the bill for insurance subsidies.

How Hillary Clinton’s Credit for Out-of-Pocket Health Costs Could Backfire on Taxpayers

Hillary Clinton said recently that she supports efforts to allow some under 65 to buy into Medicare and suggested that this would help lower health-care costs. A key element of her broader health-care platform could, however, increase them–at a sizable cost to the federal government.

A plan the Clinton campaign unveiled in September would create a refundable tax credit worth as much as $2,500 per individual and $5,000 per family to cover out-of-pocket health-care expenses. The campaign has said that the credit would be “available to insured Americans with qualifying out-of-pocket health expenses in excess of five percent of their income, and who are not eligible for Medicare or claiming existing deductions for medical costs.” This means people eligible for the credit would include not only those who have plans through the Obamacare exchanges but also those insured through their employer. Making the credit refundable could allow individuals with little or no income tax liability to receive a refund from the federal government toward their out-of-pocket health costs.

The potential breadth of this proposal could prove its undoing. For one thing, the most recent Census Bureau survey, published in September, estimates that 175 million Americans are covered by employer plans. That’s nearly 14 times the 12.7 million individuals covered by plans through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. While there have been proposals to increase federal subsidies provides to those enrolled through the ACA exchanges, this is the only plan suggesting new federal subsidies for those with employer coverage.

Extending federal subsidies for out-of-pocket costs incurred by those with employer-provided plans could dramatically remake that market. Companies could opt to increase employee cost-sharing, knowing that workers would recoup some or possibly all of their new costs through the federal program. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of employer plans last year found that only 19% of workers with single coverage faced a deductible of more than $2,000. The Clinton plan sets the maximum credit for individuals at $2,500. If the federal government provides individuals with high health costs a refundable credit to help subsidize their expenses, employers would have reason to try to offload their costs onto employees—which ultimately could end up costing the U.S. Treasury more.

Details of the Clinton plan are still limited. Should it be implemented, policy makers could attempt to shape or amend the tax credit’s effects. Still, it’s possible that a policy designed to absorb higher health costs would shift them from employers and workers to federal taxpayers. That cost-shifting wouldn’t lower spending–and could increase it. Knowing there is a federal credit might give employees incentive to incur additional expenses to exceed the subsidy threshold. That would mean a credit aimed at mitigating the effects of rising health costs for some families could end up exacerbating the problem on a broader scale.

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

From CBO, A Suggestion That Firms Can Profit by Dropping Health Coverage

In its updated economic forecast last week, the Congressional Budget Office made a series of comments regarding Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax.” Most notably, CBO appeared to suggest that employers could increase corporate profits by dropping their health plans for workers.

The budget office had previously noted an interaction between untaxed benefits such as health insurance and taxable wage compensation—namely, that reductions in the latter can lead to increases in the former, thereby increasing federal revenues. Last week, however, CBO went further, suggesting that reducing health benefits could lead to higher corporate profits:

Less employment-based coverage means that nontaxable compensation in the form of health benefits provided by employers will be less and taxable compensation in the form of wages and salaries will be greater, as total compensation is expected to remain roughly the same. And to the extent that wages and salaries do not increase as much as payments for health benefits are reduced, corporate profits—which are also taxable—would increase. Therefore, the decrease in the estimate of employment-based coverage implies higher federal revenues than projected previously.

In other words, CBO believes that dropping health benefits could raise federal revenues not because firms increase their workers’ taxable wages to compensate for the loss of subsidized insurance coverage but because they choose to improve their own bottom lines instead.

This could have both political and policy ramifications. The statement comes as CBO slightly lowered estimates for the number of individuals with employer-sponsored coverage. This will affect policy debates over the future of employer-provided health care (Will firms continue to provide coverage for the foreseeable future?) and the Cadillac tax: Will firms that reduce health benefits to avoid the tax provide higher wages to workers or pocket the savings instead? And it may provide supporters of the health-care law with a new political headache, because nonpartisan analysts are suggesting that corporations may use Obamacare to fatten their own bottom line.

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