Warren Advisor Admits Her Health Plan Raises Middle Class Taxes

That didn’t last long. Five days after Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a health plan (chock full of gimmicks) that she claimed would not raise taxes on the middle class, one of the authors of that plan contradicted her claims.

In an interview with Axios published on Wednesday, but which took place before the plan’s release, Warren advisor and former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Donald Berwick said the following:

Q: Many people may not know their employers cover 70% or more of their entire premium — money that otherwise would go to their pay. Is this the main problem when talking about reforms?

DB: The basics are not that complicated. Every single dollar — every nickel spent on health care in this country — is coming from workers. There’s no other source. [Emphasis mine.]

Compare that phraseology to what Joe Biden’s campaign spokesperson said on Friday about Warren’s plan and its effects:

For months, Elizabeth Warren has refused to say if her health care plan would raise taxes on the middle class, and now we know why: Because it does….Senator Warren would place a new tax of nearly $9 trillion that will fall on American workers. [Emphasis mine.]

In response to the Biden campaign’s criticism, Warren said last Friday that her health plan’s projections “were authenticated by President Obama’s head of Medicare”—meaning Berwick. Unfortunately for Warren, Berwick, by virtue of his comments in his interview with Axios, also “authenticated” Biden’s attack that her required employer contribution will hit workers, and thus middle-class families.

Warren also tried to defend her plan on Friday by claiming that “the employer contribution is already part of” Obamacare. Obamacare does include an employer contribution requirement, but that requirement:

  • Is capped at no more than $3,000 per worker, far less than the average employer contribution for workers’ health coverage—$14,561 for family coverage as of 2019— which will form the initial basis of Warren’s required employer contribution;
  • Does not apply to employers at all if the firm offers “affordable” coverage—an option not available under Warren’s plan, which would make private insurance coverage “unlawful;” and
  • Will raise an estimated $74 billion in the coming decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office—less than 1 percent of the $8.8 trillion Warren claims her required employer contribution would raise.

While Obamacare and Warrencare both have employer contributions, the similarities pretty much end there. Calling the two equal would equate a log cabin to Buckingham Palace. Sure, they’re both houses, but differ greatly in size. Warren’s “contribution”—which Berwick, her advisor, admits will fall on middle-class workers—stands orders of magnitude greater than anything in Obamacare.

Public Accountability?

In the same Axios interview, Berwick highlighted what he termed a tradeoff “between public accountability and private accountability.” He continued: “By not having a publicly accountable system, we are paying an enormous price in lack of transparency.”

His comments echo prior justification of his infamous “rationing with our eyes open” quote in a 2009 interview. As he explained to The New York Times as he departed CMS in late 2011, “Someone, like your health insurance company, is going to limit what you can get….The government, unlike many private health insurance plans, is working in the daylight. That’s a strength.”

Except that Berwick, as CMS administrator, went to absurd lengths to hide from public scrutiny after his series of remarks. He would gladly meet with health-care lobbyists behind closed doors, but refused to answer questions from reporters, going so far as to duck behind curtains and request security escorts to avoid doing so.

Warren apparently has taken a lesson in opacity from Berwick’s time as CMS administrator. At first, she avoided releasing a specific health care proposal at all, only to follow up by issuing a “plan” containing so many absurd assumptions as to render it irrelevant as a serious blueprint for legislating.

Unfortunately for her, however, Berwick committed the unforgivable sin of speaking an inconvenient truth about the effects of her proposal. Eight years after leaving office as CMS administrator, Berwick, however belated and however unwittingly, delivered some much-needed public accountability for Warren’s health plan.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Analyzing the Gimmicks in Warren’s Health Care Plan

Six weeks ago, this publication published “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan…For Avoiding Your Health Care Questions.” That plan came to fruition last Friday, when Warren released a paper (and two accompanying analyses) claiming that she can fund her single-payer health care program without raising taxes on the middle class.

Both her opponents in the Democratic presidential primary and conservative commentators immediately criticized Warren’s plan for the gimmicks and assumptions used to arrive at her estimate. Her paper claims she can reduce the 10-year cost of single payer—the amount of new federal revenues needed to fund the program, over and above the dollars already spent on health care (e.g., existing federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)—from $34 trillion in an October Urban Institute estimate to only $20.5 trillion. On top of this 40 percent reduction in the cost of single payer, Warren claims she can raise the $20.5 trillion without a middle-class tax increase.

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.

Do House Republicans Support Socialized Medicine?

Health care, and specifically pre-existing conditions, remain in the news. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has lined up two votes — one last week and one this week — authorizing the House to intervene in Texas’ lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., claims that the intervention will “protect” Americans with pre-existing conditions.

In reality, the pre-existing condition provisions represent Obamacare’s major flaw. According to the Heritage Foundation, those provisions have served as the prime driver of premium increases associated with the law. Since the law went into effect, premiums have indeed skyrocketed. Rates for individual health insurance more than doubled from 2013 through 2017, and rose another 30-plus percent last year to boot.

As a result of those skyrocketing premiums, more than 2.5 million people dropped their Obamacare coverage from March 2017 through March 2018. These people now have no coverage if and when they develop a pre-existing condition themselves.

A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans care far more about rising premiums than about being denied coverage for a pre-existing condition. Given the public’s focus on rising health care costs, Republicans should easily rebut Pelosi’s attacks with alternative policies that address the pre-existing condition problem while allowing people relief from skyrocketing insurance rates.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the Republican leadership in the House did. Last Thursday, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, offered a procedural motion that amounted to a Republican endorsement of Obamacare. Brady’s motion instructed House committees to draft legislation that “guarantees no American citizen can be charged higher premiums or cost sharing as the result of a previous illness or health status, thus ensuring affordable health coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.”

If adopted — which thankfully it was not — this motion would only have entrenched Obamacare further. The pre-existing condition provisions represent the heart of the law, precisely because they have raised premiums so greatly. Those premium increases necessitated the mandates on individuals to buy, and employers to offer, health insurance. They also required the subsidies to make that more-expensive coverage “affordable” — and the tax increases and Medicare reductions needed to fund those subsidies.

More to the point, what would one call a health care proposal that treats everyone equally, and ensures that no one pays more or less than the next person? If this concept sounds like “socialized medicine” to you, you’d have company in thinking so. None other than Kevin Brady denounced Obamacare as “socialized medicine” at an August 2009 town hall at Memorial Hermann Hospital.

All of this raises obvious questions: Why did someone who for years opposed Obamacare as “socialized medicine” offer a proposal that would ratify and entrench that system further?

Republicans like Brady can claim they want to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare from now until the cows come home, but if they want to retain the status quo on pre-existing conditions then as a practical matter they really want to uphold the law. Conservatives might wonder whether it’s time to “repeal-and-replace” Republicans with actual conservatives.

This post was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.

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 Absurdity of the Justice Department’s Obamacare Lawsuit Intervention

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

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

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

Let’s Talk Policy First

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Question 1: Constitutionality

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

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

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

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

Legal Question 2: Severability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Cute by Half Problem 1: Legal Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Cute by Half Problem 2: Legislative Action

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

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 separate poverty guidelines issued for them in 2017—a provision that by definition includes only Alaska and Hawaii, which some conservatives may view as an inappropriate earmark;
  • Strikes language allowing all individuals to purchase Obamacare catastrophic coverage beginning in 2019;
  • Strikes language clarifying enforcement provisions, particularly regarding abortion;
  • Allows states to waive certain provisions related to insurance regulations, including 1) essential health benefits; 2) cost-sharing requirements; 3) actuarial value; 4) community rating; 5) preventive health services; and 6) single risk pool;
  • Requires states to describe its new insurance rules to the federal government, “except that in no case may an issuer vary premium rates on the basis of sex or on the basis of genetic information,” a provision that some conservatives may view as less likely to subject the rules to legal challenges than the prior language; and
  • Retains language requiring each waiver participant to receive “a direct benefit” from federal funds, language that some conservatives may view as logistically problematic.

Full Summary of Bill (as Revised)

Last week, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced a new health care bill. The legislation contains some components of the earlier Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), considered by the Senate in July, with some key differences on funding streams. A full summary of the bill follows below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Cost estimates are included below come from prior Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores of similar or identical provisions in BCRA.

Of particular note: It is unclear whether this legislative language has been fully vetted with the Senate Parliamentarian. When the Senate considers budget reconciliation legislation—as it would do should the Graham-Cassidy measure receive floor consideration—the Parliamentarian advises whether provisions are budgetary in nature and can be included in the bill (which can pass with a 51-vote simple majority), and which provisions are not budgetary in nature and must be considered separately (i.e., require 60 votes to pass).

As the bill was released prior to issuance of a CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not fully vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I

Revisions to Obamacare Subsidies:             Beginning in 2018, changes the definition of a qualified health plan, to prohibit plans from covering abortion other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may eventually be eliminated under the provisions of the Senate’s “Byrd rule.” (For more information, see these two articles.)

Eliminates provisions that limit repayment of subsidies for years after 2017. Subsidy eligibility is based upon estimated income, with recipients required to reconcile their subsidies received with actual income during the year-end tax filing process. Current law limits the amount of excess subsidies households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017) must pay. This provision would eliminate that limitation on repayments, which may result in fewer individuals taking up subsidies in the first place. Saves $11.7 billion over ten years—$8.5 billion in spending, and $3.2 billion in revenue.

Repeals the subsidy regime entirely after December 31, 2019.

Small Business Tax Credit:             Repeals Obamacare’s small business tax credit, effective in 2020. Disallows the small business tax credit beginning in 2018 for any plan that offers coverage of abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother—which, as noted above, some conservatives may believe will be stricken during the Senate’s “Byrd rule” review. Saves $6 billion over ten years.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. The individual mandate provision cuts taxes by $38 billion, and the employer mandate provision cuts taxes by $171 billion, both over ten years.

Stability Fund:          Creates two state-based funds intended to stabilize insurance markets—the first giving funds directly to insurers, and the second giving funds to states. The first would appropriate $10 billion each for 2018 and 2019, and $15 billion for 2020, ($35 billion total) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “fund arrangements with health insurance issuers to address coverage and access disruption and respond to urgent health care needs within States.” Instructs the CMS Administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure for providing and distributing funds.” Does not require a state match for receipt of stability funds. Some conservatives may be concerned this provision provides excessive authority to unelected bureaucrats to distribute $35 billion in federal funds as they see fit.

Includes new language setting aside 5 percent of stability fund dollars for “low-density states”—a provision which some conservatives may oppose as an earmark for Alaska and other similar states.

Market-Based Health Care Grant Program:       Creates a longer-term stability fund for states with a total of $1.176 trillion in federal funding from 2020 through 2026—$146 billion in 2020 and 2021, $157 billion in 2022, $168 billion in 2023, $179 billion in 2024, and $190 billion in 2025 and 2026. Eliminates BCRA provisions requiring a state match. States could keep their allotments for two years, but unspent funds after that point could be re-allocated to other states. However, all funds would have to be spent by December 31, 2026.

Expands BCRA criteria for appropriate use of funds by states, to include assistance for purchasing individual insurance, and “provid[ing] health insurance coverage for individuals who are eligible for” Medicaid, as well as the prior eligible uses under BCRA: to provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals, including by reducing premium costs, “help stabilize premiums and promote state health insurance market participation and choice,” provide payments to health care providers, or reduce cost-sharing.

However, states may spend no more than 15 percent of their resources on the Medicaid population (or up to 20 percent if the state applies for a waiver, and the Department of Health and Human Services concludes that the state is using its funds “to supplement, and not supplant,” the state Medicaid match). In addition, states must spend at least half of their funds on “provid[ing] assistance” to families with incomes between 50 and 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Some conservatives may believe these restrictions belie the bill’s purported goal of giving states freedom and flexibility to spend the funds as they see fit.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by doling out nearly $1.2 trillion in spending, the bill does not repeal Obamacare, so much as it redistributes Obamacare funds from “blue states” to “red states,” per the formulae described below. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the bill creates a funding cliff—with spending dropping from $190 billion in 2026 to $0 in 2027—that will leave an impetus for future Congresses to spend massive new amounts of money in the future.

Grant Formula:         Sets a complex formula for determining state grant allocations, tied to the overall funding a state received for Medicaid expansion, the basic health program under Obamacare, and premium and cost-sharing subsidies provided to individuals in insurance Exchanges. Permits states to select any four consecutive fiscal quarters between September 30, 2013 and January 1, 2018 to establish the base period. (The bill sponsors have additional information regarding the formula calculations here.)

Intends to equalize grant amounts, with a phase-in of the new methodology for years 2021 through 2026. Ideally, the bill would set funding to a state’s number of low-income individuals when compared to the number of low-income individuals nationwide. Defines the term “low-income individuals” to include those with incomes between 50 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level (45-133% FPL, plus a 5 percent income disregard created by Obamacare). In 2017, those numbers total $12,300-$33,948 for a family of four.

Adjusts state allocations (as determined above) according to additional factors:

  1. Risk Adjustment:      The bill would phase in risk adjustment over four years (between 2023 and 2026), and limit the risk adjustment modification to no more than 10 percent of the overall allotment. Risk adjustment would be based on clinical risk factors for low-income individuals (as defined above). The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator could cancel the risk adjustment factor in the absence of sufficient data.
  2. Population Adjustment:              Permits (but does not require) the Administrator to adjust allocations for years after 2022 according to a population adjustment factor. Requires CMS to “develop a state specific population adjustment factor that accounts for legitimate factors that impact the health care expenditures in a state”—such as demographics, wage rates, income levels, etc.—but as noted above, does not require CMS to adjust allocations based upon those factors.

Notwithstanding the above, states could not receive a year-on-year increase in funding of more than 25 percent.

Requires the 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 inappropriate earmark for Alaska. Imposes new requirement on the 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.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the admirable intent to equalize funding between high-spending and low-spending states, the bill gives excessive discretion to unelected bureaucrats in Washington to determine the funding formulae. Some conservatives may instead support repealing all of Obamacare, and allowing states to decide for themselves what they wish to put in its place, rather than doling out federal funds from Washington. Finally, some may question why the bill’s formula criteria focus so heavily on individuals with incomes between 50-138 percent FPL, to the potential exclusion of individuals and households with slightly higher or lower incomes.

Provides $750 million for “late-expanding” Medicaid states—those that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare prior to December 31, 2015—which some conservatives may consider an earmark, one that encourages states that have embraced Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied. Also includes $500 million to allow pass-through funding under Section 1332 Obamacare waivers to continue for years 2019 through 2023.

Grant Application:  Requires states applying for grant funds to outline the intended uses of same. Specifically, the state must describe how it “shall maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” along with “such other information as necessary for the Administrator to carry out this subsection”—language that could be used by a future Democratic Administration, or federal courts, to undermine the waiver program’s intent.

Explicitly requires states to “ensure compliance” with several federal insurance mandates:

  1. Coverage of “dependents” under age 26;
  2. Hospital stays following deliveries;
  3. Mental health parity;
  4. Reconstructive surgery following mastectomies; and
  5. Genetic non-discrimination.

Some conservatives may note that these retained federal mandates belie the notion of state flexibility promised by the legislation.

Contingency Fund:               Appropriates a total of $11 billion—$6 billion for calendar year 2020, and $5 billion for calendar 2021—for a contingency fund for certain states. Half of the funding ($5.5 billion total) would go towards states that had not expanded Medicaid as of September 1, 2017, with the remaining one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards “low-density states”—those with a population density of fewer than 15 individuals per square mile—and another one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards states that did expand Medicaid.

Implementation Fund:        Provides $2 billion to implement programs under the bill. Costs $2 billion over ten years.

Repeal of Some Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals some Obamacare taxes:

  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $5.6 billion;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $100 million;
  • Medical device tax, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $19.6 billion; and
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $1.8 billion.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill barely attempts to reduce revenues, repealing only the smallest taxes in Obamacare—and the ones that corporate lobbyists care most about (e.g., medical device tax and retiree prescription drug coverage provision).

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses. Lowers revenues by a total of $19.2 billion over ten years.

Allows for Health Savings Account funds to be used for the purchase of high-deductible health plans, but only to the extent that such insurance was not purchased on a tax-preferred basis (i.e., through the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, or through Obamacare insurance subsidies).

Allows HSA dollars to be used to reimburse expenses for “dependents” under age 27, effectively extending the “under-26” provisions of Obamacare to Health Savings Accounts. Prohibits HSA-qualified high deductible health plans from covering abortions, other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—an effective prohibition on the use of HSA funds to purchase plans that cover abortion, but one that the Senate Parliamentarian may advise does not comport with procedural restrictions on budget reconciliation bills. No separate cost estimate provided for the revenue reduction associated with allowing HSA dollars to be used to pay for insurance premiums.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). CBO believes this provision would save a total of $225 million in Medicaid spending, while increasing spending by $79 million over a decade, because 15 percent of Planned Parenthood clients would lose access to services, increasing the number of births in the Medicaid program by several thousand. Saves $146 million over ten years.

Medicaid Expansion:           Phases out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, effective January 1, 2020. After such date, only members of Indian tribes who reside in states that had expanded Medicaid—and who were eligible on December 31, 2019—would qualify for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Indians could remain on the Medicaid expansion, but only if they do not have a break in eligibility (i.e., the program would be frozen to new enrollees on January 1, 2020).

Repeals the enhanced federal match (currently 95 percent, declining slightly to 90 percent) associated with Medicaid expansion, effective in 2020. Also repeals provisions regarding the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services. Saves $19.3 billion over ten years.

Retroactive Eligibility:       Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid from three months to two months. These changes would NOT apply to aged, blind, or disabled populations, who would still qualify for three months of retroactive eligibility. Saves $800 million over ten years.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Permits—but unlike the House bill, does not require—states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income every six months, or at shorter intervals. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match rate for states that elect this option. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Work Requirements:           Permits (but does not require) states to, beginning October 1, 2017, impose work requirements on “non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant” beneficiaries. States can determine the length of time for such work requirements. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match for state expenses attributable to activities implementing the work requirements.

States may not impose requirements on pregnant women (through 60 days after birth); children under age 19; the sole parent of a child under age 6, or sole parent or caretaker of a child with disabilities; or a married individual or head of household under age 20 who “maintains satisfactory attendance at secondary school or equivalent,” or participates in vocational education. Adds to existing exemptions (drafted in BCRA) provisions exempting those in inpatient or intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment and full-time students from Medicaid work requirements. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Provider Taxes:        Reduces permissible Medicaid provider taxes from 6 percent under current law to 5.6 percent in fiscal year 2021, 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2022, 4.8 percent in fiscal year 2023, 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2024, and 4 percent in fiscal year 2025 and future fiscal years—a change from BCRA, which reduced provider taxes to 5 percent in 2025 (0.2 percent reduction per year, as opposed to 0.4 percent under the Graham-Cassidy bill). Some conservatives may view provider taxes as essentially “money laundering”—a game in which states engage in shell transactions solely designed to increase the federal share of Medicaid funding and reduce states’ share. More information can be found here. CBO believes states would probably reduce their spending in response to the loss of provider tax revenue, resulting in lower spending by the federal government. Saves $13 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in fiscal year 2020. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare).

While the cap would take effect in fiscal year 2020, states could choose their “base period” based on any eight consecutive quarters of expenditures between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017. The CMS Administrator would have authority to make adjustments to relevant data if she believes a state attempted to “game” the look-back period. Late-expanding Medicaid states could choose a shorter period (but not fewer than four) quarters as their “base period” for determining per capita caps—a provision that some conservatives may view as improperly incentivizing states that decided to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied.

Creates four classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; and 4) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps. Exempts declared public health emergencies from the Medicaid per capita caps—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency—but such exemption may not exceed $5 billion.

For years before fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to medical inflation for children and all other non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation plus one percentage point for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries. Beginning in fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to overall inflation for children and non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries—a change from BCRA, which set the caps at overall inflation for all enrollees beginning in 2025.

Eliminates provisions in the House bill regarding “required expenditures by certain political subdivisions,” which some had derided as a parochial New York-related provision.

Provides a provision—not included in the House bill—for effectively re-basing the per capita caps. Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase the caps by between 0.5% and 3% (a change from BCRA, which set a 2% maximum increase) for low-spending states (defined as having per capita expenditures 25% below the national median), and lower the caps by between 0.5% and 2% (unchanged from BCRA) for high-spending states (with per capita expenditures 25% above the national median). The Secretary may only implement this provision in a budget-neutral manner, i.e., one that does not increase the deficit. However, this re-basing provision shall NOT apply to any state with a population density of under 15 individuals per square mile.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent. Requires new state reporting on inpatient psychiatric hospital services and children with complex medical conditions. Requires the HHS Inspector General to audit each state’s spending at least every three years.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Home and Community-Based Services:             Creates a four-year, $8 billion demonstration project from 2020 through 2023 to expand home- and community-based service payment adjustments in Medicaid, with such payment adjustments eligible for a 100 percent federal match. The 15 states with the lowest population density would be given priority for funds.

Medicaid Block Grants:      Creates a Medicaid block grant, called the “Medicaid Flexibility Program,” beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Requires interested states to submit an application providing a proposed packet of services, a commitment to submit relevant data (including health quality measures and clinical data), and a statement of program goals. Requires public notice-and-comment periods at both the state and federal levels.

The amount of the block grant would total the regular federal match rate, multiplied by the target per capita spending amounts (as calculated above), multiplied by the number of expected enrollees (adjusted forward based on the estimated increase in population for the state, per Census Bureau estimates). In future years, the block grant would be increased by general inflation.

Prohibits states from increasing their base year block grant population beyond 2016 levels, adjusted for population growth, plus an additional three percentage points. This provision is likely designed to prevent states from “packing” their Medicaid programs full of beneficiaries immediately prior to a block grant’s implementation, solely to achieve higher federal payments.

In a change from BCRA, the bill removes language permitting states to roll over block grant payments from year to year—a move that some conservatives may view as antithetical to the flexibility intended by a block grant, and biasing states away from this model. Reduces federal payments for the following year in the case of states that fail to meet their maintenance of effort spending requirements, and permits the HHS Secretary to make reductions in the case of a state’s non-compliance. Requires the Secretary to publish block grant amounts for every state every year, regardless of whether or not the state elects the block grant option.

Permits block grants for a program period of five fiscal years, subject to renewal; plans with “no significant changes” would not have to re-submit an application for their block grants. Permits a state to terminate the block grant, but only if the state “has in place an appropriate transition plan approved by the Secretary.”

Imposes a series of conditions on Medicaid block grants, requiring coverage for all mandatory populations identified in the Medicaid statute, and use of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) standard for determining eligibility. Includes 14 separate categories of services that states must cover for mandatory populations under the block grant. Requires benefits to have an actuarial value (coverage of average health expenses) of at least 95 percent of the benchmark coverage options in place prior to Obamacare. Permits states to determine the amount, duration, and scope of benefits within the parameters listed above.

Applies mental health parity provisions to the Medicaid block grant, and extends the Medicaid rebate program to any outpatient drugs covered under same. Permits states to impose premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing, provided such efforts do not exceed 5 percent of a family’s income in any given year.

Requires participating states to have simplified enrollment processes, coordinate with insurance Exchanges, and “establish a fair process” for individuals to appeal adverse eligibility determinations. Allows for modification of the Medicaid block grant during declared public health emergencies—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency.

Exempts states from per capita caps, waivers, state plan amendments, and other provisions of Title XIX of the Social Security Act while participating in Medicaid block grants.

Performance Bonus Payments:             Provides an $8 billion pool for bonus payments to state Medicaid and SCHIP programs for Fiscal Years 2023 through 2026. Allows the Secretary to increase federal matching rates for states that 1) have lower than expected expenses under the per capita caps and 2) report applicable quality measures, and have a plan to use the additional funds on quality improvement. While noting the goal of reducing health costs through quality improvement, and incentives for same, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—as with others in the bill—gives near-blanket authority to the HHS Secretary to control the program’s parameters, power that conservatives believe properly resides outside Washington—and power that a future Democratic Administration could use to contravene conservative objectives. CBO believes that only some states will meet the performance criteria, leading some of the money not to be spent between now and 2026. Costs $3 billion over ten years.

Inpatient Psychiatric Services:             Provides for optional state Medicaid coverage of inpatient psychiatric services for individuals over 21 and under 65 years of age. (Current law permits coverage of such services for individuals under age 21.) Such coverage would not exceed 30 days in any month or 90 days in any calendar year. In order to receive such assistance, the state must maintain its number of licensed psychiatric beds as of the date of enactment, and maintain current levels of funding for inpatient services and outpatient psychiatric services. Provides a lower (i.e., 50 percent) match for such services, furnished on or after October 1, 2018; however, in a change from BCRA, allows for higher federal match rates for certain services and individuals to continue if they were in effect prior to September 30, 2018. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Medicaid and Indian Health Service:             Makes a state’s expenses on behalf of Indians eligible for a 100 percent match, irrespective of the source of those services. Current law provides for a 100 percent match only for services provided at an Indian Health Service center. Costs $3.5 billion over ten years.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments:     Adjusts reductions in DSH payments to reflect shortfalls in funding for the state grant program described above. For fiscal years 2021 through 2025, states receiving grant allocations that do not keep up with medical inflation will have their DSH reductions reduced or eliminated; in fiscal year 2026, states with grant shortfalls will have their DSH payments increased. Costs $17.9 billion over ten years.

High-Poverty States:            Provides for a permanent increase in the federal Medicaid match for two states, based on poverty guidelines established for 2017. Specifically, provides for a 25 percent increase to the state with the “highest separate poverty guideline for 2017,” and a 15 percent increase to the state with the “second highest separate poverty guideline for 2017”—provisions that by definition would apply only to Alaska and Hawaii, respectively. Some conservatives may be concerned first that these provisions represent inappropriate earmarks, and further that they would change federal spending in perpetuity based on poverty determinations made for a single year. Costs $7.2 billion over ten years.

Title II

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. Saves $7.9 billion over ten years.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” above). Spends $422 million over ten years.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019, and does not appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidy claims for plan years through 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House.

Grant Conditions:    Sets additional conditions for the grant program established in Title I of the bill. States may submit applications waiving certain provisions currently in federal statute:

  1. Essential health benefits;
  2. Cost-sharing requirements;
  3. Actuarial value requirements, including plan metal tiers (e.g., bronze, silver, gold, and platinum);
  4. Community rating—although states may not be able to vary premiums based on health status, due to contradictory language in this section;
  5. Preventive health services; and
  6. Single risk pool.

Requires states to submit their revised rules to the federal government, “except that in no case may an issuer vary premium rates on the basis of sex or on the basis of genetic information.” Some conservatives may view this language as less likely to spark new legal challenges than the prior wording, which prohibited insurance changes based on “membership in a protected class.” However, some conservatives may also find that the mutually contradictory provisions over whether and how states can vary insurance rates may spark other legal challenges.

The waivers only apply to an insurer receiving funding under the state program, and “to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit” from the grant—which does not include reinsurance. In other words, each individual must receive some direct subsidy, rather than just general benefits derived from the broader insurance pool. Some conservatives may be concerned that, by tying waiver of regulations so closely to receipt of federal grant funds, this provision would essentially provide limited regulatory relief. Furthermore, such limited relief would require states to accept federal funding largely adjudicated and doled out by unelected bureaucrats.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, while well-intentioned, these provisions do not represent a true attempt at federalism—one which would repeal all of Obamacare’s regulations and devolve health insurance oversight back to the states. It remains unclear whether any states would actually waive Obamacare regulations under the bill; if a state chooses not to do so, all of the law’s costly mandates will remain in place there, leaving Obamacare as the default option.

Some conservatives may view provisions requiring anyone to whom a waiver applies to receive federal grant funding as the epitome of moral hazard—ensuring that individuals who go through health underwriting will receive federal subsidies, no matter their level of wealth or personal circumstances. By requiring states to subsidize bad actors—for instance, an individual making $250,000 who knowingly went without health coverage for years—with federal taxpayer dollars, the bill could actually raise health insurance premiums, not lower them. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that—because the grant program funding ends in 2027, and because all individuals subject to waivers must receive grant funding—the waiver program will effectively end in 2027, absent a new infusion of taxpayer dollars.

Legislative Bulletin: Summary of Graham-Cassidy Health Care Bill

Last week, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced a new health care bill. The legislation contains some components of the earlier Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), considered by the Senate in July, with some key differences on funding streams. A full summary of the bill follows below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Cost estimates are included below come from prior Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores of similar or identical provisions in BCRA.

Of particular note: It is unclear whether this legislative language has been fully vetted with the Senate Parliamentarian. When the Senate considers budget reconciliation legislation—as it would do should the Graham-Cassidy measure receive floor consideration—the Parliamentarian advises whether provisions are budgetary in nature and can be included in the bill (which can pass with a 51-vote simple majority), and which provisions are not budgetary in nature and must be considered separately (i.e., require 60 votes to pass).

As the bill was released prior to issuance of a CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not fully vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I

Revisions to Obamacare Subsidies:             Beginning in 2018, changes the definition of a qualified health plan, to prohibit plans from covering abortion other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may eventually be eliminated under the provisions of the Senate’s “Byrd rule.” (For more information, see these two articles.)

Eliminates provisions that limit repayment of subsidies for years after 2017. Subsidy eligibility is based upon estimated income, with recipients required to reconcile their subsidies received with actual income during the year-end tax filing process. Current law limits the amount of excess subsidies households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017) must pay. This provision would eliminate that limitation on repayments, which may result in fewer individuals taking up subsidies in the first place.

Repeals the subsidy regime entirely after December 31, 2019.

Small Business Tax Credit:             Repeals Obamacare’s small business tax credit, effective in 2020. Disallows the small business tax credit beginning in 2018 for any plan that offers coverage of abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother—which, as noted above, some conservatives may believe will be stricken during the Senate’s “Byrd rule” review. Saves $6 billion over ten years.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. The individual mandate provision cuts taxes by $38 billion, and the employer mandate provision cuts taxes by $171 billion, both over ten years.

Stability Fund:          Creates two state-based funds intended to stabilize insurance markets—the first giving funds directly to insurers, and the second giving funds to states. The first would appropriate $10 billion each for 2018 and 2019, and $15 billion for 2020, ($35 billion total) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “fund arrangements with health insurance issuers to address coverage and access disruption and respond to urgent health care needs within States.” Instructs the CMS Administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure for providing and distributing funds.” Does not require a state match for receipt of stability funds. Some conservatives may be concerned this provision provides excessive authority to unelected bureaucrats to distribute $35 billion in federal funds as they see fit.

Eliminates language in BCRA requiring CMS to reserve one percent of fund monies “for providing and distributing funds to health insurance issuers in states where the cost of insurance premiums are at least 75 percent higher than the national average”—a provision which some conservatives opposed as an earmark for Alaska.

Market-Based Health Care Grant Program:       Creates a longer-term stability fund for states with a total of $1.176 trillion in federal funding from 2020 through 2026—$146 billion in 2020 and 2021, $157 billion in 2022, $168 billion in 2023, $179 billion in 2024, and $190 billion in 2025 and 2026. Eliminates BCRA provisions requiring a state match. States could keep their allotments for two years, but unspent funds after that point could be re-allocated to other states. However, all funds would have to be spent by December 31, 2026.

Expands BCRA criteria for appropriate use of funds by states, to include assistance for purchasing individual insurance, and “provid[ing] health insurance coverage for individuals who are eligible for” Medicaid, as well as the prior eligible uses under BCRA: to provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals, including by reducing premium costs, “help stabilize premiums and promote state health insurance market participation and choice,” provide payments to health care providers, or reduce cost-sharing. However, states may spend no more than 15 percent of their resources on the Medicaid population (or up to 20 percent if the state applies for a waiver, and the Department of Health and Human Services concludes that the state is using its funds “to supplement, and not supplant,” the state Medicaid match)—a restriction that some may believe belies the bill’s purported goal of giving states freedom and flexibility to spend the funds as they see fit.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by doling out nearly $1.2 trillion in spending, the bill does not repeal Obamacare, so much as it redistributes Obamacare funds from “blue states” to “red states,” per the formulae described below. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the bill creates a funding cliff—with spending dropping from $190 billion in 2026 to $0 in 2027—that will leave an impetus for future Congresses to spend massive new amounts of money in the future.

Grant Formula:         Sets a complex formula for determining state grant allocations, tied to the overall funding a state received for Medicaid expansion, the basic health program under Obamacare, and premium and cost-sharing subsidies provided to individuals in insurance Exchanges. Permits states to select any four consecutive fiscal quarters between September 30, 2013 and January 1, 2018 to establish the base period. (The bill sponsors have additional information regarding the formula calculations here.)

Intends to equalize grant amounts by 2026, with a phase-in of the new methodology for years 2021 and 2025. Specifically, the bill would by 2026 set funding to a state’s number of low-income individuals when compared to the number of low-income individuals nationwide. Defines the term “low-income individuals” to include those with incomes between 50 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level (45-133% FPL, plus a 5 percent income disregard created by Obamacare). In 2017, those numbers total $12,300-$33,948 for a family of four.

Adjusts state allocations (as determined above) according to three additional factors:

  1. Risk Adjustment:      The bill would phase in risk adjustment over four years (between 2021 and 2024), and limit the risk adjustment modification to no more than 10 percent of the overall allotment. Risk adjustment would be based on clinical risk factors for low-income individuals (as defined above).
  2. Coverage Value:        The coverage value adjustment would phase in over four years (between 2024 and 2027), based on whether the average actuarial value (percentage of expected health expenses paid) of coverage for low-income individuals (as defined above) in a given state exceeded the “lowest possible actuarial value of health benefits” satisfying State Children’s Health Insurance Program benefit requirements.
  3. Population Adjustment:              Permits (but does not require) the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adjust allocations according to a population adjustment factor. Requires HHS to “develop a state specific population adjustment factor that accounts for legitimate factors that impact the health care expenditures in a state”—such as demographics, wage rates, income levels, etc.—but as noted above, does not require HHS to adjust allocations based upon those factors.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the admirable intent to equalize funding between high-spending and low-spending states, the bill gives excessive discretion to unelected bureaucrats in Washington to determine the funding formulae. Some conservatives may instead support repealing all of Obamacare, and allowing states to decide for themselves what they wish to put in its place, rather than doling out federal funds from Washington. Finally, some may question why the bill’s formula criteria focus so heavily on individuals with incomes between 50-138 percent FPL, to the potential exclusion of individuals and households with slightly higher or lower incomes.

Waivers:         In conjunction with the health care grant program above, allows (but does not require) states to waive certain regulatory requirements. Specifically, states could waive any provision that:

  1. Restricts criteria for insurers to vary premiums on the individual and small group markets, “except that a health insurance issuer may not vary premium rates based on an individual’s sex or membership in a protected class under the Constitution of the United States;”
  2. Prevents premium contributions from varying “on the basis of any health status-related factor” in the individual and small group markets;
  3. Requires coverage of certain benefits in the individual and small group markets; and
  4. Requires insurers in the individual and small group markets to offer rebates to enrollees if their spending fails to meet certain limits (i.e., a medical loss ratio requirement).

To receive the waiver, the state must describe how it “intends to maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” along with “such other information as necessary for the Administrator to carry out this subsection”—language that could be used by a future Democratic Administration to undermine the waiver program’s intent. States can only waive federal statutory requirements enacted after January 1, 2009—i.e., under the Obama Administration.

Moreover, any provision waived “shall only be waived with respect to health insurance coverage” provided by an insurer receiving funding under the state program—and “to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit (including reduced premium costs or reduced out-of-pocket costs) under a state program that is funded by a grant under this subsection.” Some conservatives may be concerned that, by tying waiver of regulations so closely to receipt of federal grant funds, this provision would essentially provide limited regulatory relief. Furthermore, such limited relief would require states to accept federal funding largely adjudicated and doled out by unelected bureaucrats.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, while well-intentioned, these provisions do not represent a true attempt at federalism—one which would repeal all of Obamacare’s regulations and devolve health insurance oversight back to the states. It remains unclear whether any states would actually waive Obamacare regulations under the bill; if a state chooses not to do so, all of the law’s costly mandates will remain in place there, leaving Obamacare as the default option. Moreover, the language requiring states “to maintain adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions” could lead to a private right of action against states utilizing the waivers—and judicial rulings that either undermine, or eliminate, the regulatory relief the waivers intend to provide.

Some conservatives may view provisions requiring anyone to whom a waiver applies to receive federal grant funding as the epitome of moral hazard—ensuring that individuals who go through health underwriting will receive federal subsidies, no matter their level of wealth or personal circumstances. By requiring states to subsidize bad actors—for instance, an individual making $250,000 who knowingly went without health coverage for years—with federal taxpayer dollars, the bill could actually raise health insurance premiums, not lower them.

Some may note that the bill could allow a future Democratic Administration—or, through its reference to “membership in a protected class under the Constitution,” activist judges—to inhibit future waiver applications, and/or impose undue and counter-productive restrictions on the supposed state “flexibility” in the bill. Finally, some conservatives may be concerned that—because the grant program funding ends in 2027, and because all individuals subject to waivers must receive grant funding—the waiver program will effectively end in 2027, absent a new infusion of taxpayer dollars.

Contingency Fund:               Appropriates a total of $11 billion—$6 billion for calendar year 2020, and $5 billion for calendar 2021—for a contingency fund for certain states. Three-quarters of the funding ($8.25 billion total) would go towards states that had not expanded Medicaid as of September 1, 2017, with the remaining one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards “low-density states”—those with a population density of fewer than 15 individuals per square mile.

Implementation Fund:        Provides $500 million to implement programs under the bill. Costs $500 million over ten years.

Repeal of Some Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals some Obamacare taxes:

  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $5.6 billion;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $100 million;
  • Medical device tax, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $19.6 billion; and
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $1.8 billion.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill barely attempts to reduce revenues, repealing only the smallest taxes in Obamacare—and the ones that corporate lobbyists care most about (e.g., medical device tax and retiree prescription drug coverage provision).

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses. Lowers revenues by a total of $19.2 billion over ten years.

Allows for Health Savings Account funds to be used for the purchase of high-deductible health plans, but only to the extent that such insurance was not purchased on a tax-preferred basis (i.e., through the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, or through Obamacare insurance subsidies).

Allows HSA dollars to be used to reimburse expenses for “dependents” under age 27, effectively extending the “under-26” provisions of Obamacare to Health Savings Accounts. Prohibits HSA-qualified high deductible health plans from covering abortions, other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—an effective prohibition on the use of HSA funds to purchase plans that cover abortion, but one that the Senate Parliamentarian may advise does not comport with procedural restrictions on budget reconciliation bills. No separate cost estimate provided for the revenue reduction associated with allowing HSA dollars to be used to pay for insurance premiums.

In an addition from BCRA, permits periodic fees for direct primary care to physicians to be 1) reimbursed from a Health Savings Account without being considered “insurance” and 2) considered a form of “medical care” under the Internal Revenue Code.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). CBO believes this provision would save a total of $225 million in Medicaid spending, while increasing spending by $79 million over a decade, because 15 percent of Planned Parenthood clients would lose access to services, increasing the number of births in the Medicaid program by several thousand. Saves $146 million over ten years.

Medicaid Expansion:           Phases out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, effective January 1, 2020. After such date, only members of Indian tribes who reside in states that had expanded Medicaid—and who were eligible on December 31, 2019—would qualify for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Indians could remain on the Medicaid expansion, but only if they do not have a break in eligibility (i.e., the program would be frozen to new enrollees on January 1, 2020).

Repeals the enhanced federal match (currently 95 percent, declining slightly to 90 percent) associated with Medicaid expansion, effective in 2020. Also reduces the federal Medicaid match for Puerto Rico and U.S. territories from 55 percent to 50 percent. (The federal Medicaid match for the District of Columbia would remain at 70 percent.)

The bill repeals provisions regarding the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services.

Retroactive Eligibility:       Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid from three months to two months. These changes would NOT apply to aged, blind, or disabled populations, who would still qualify for three months of retroactive eligibility.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Permits—but unlike the House bill, does not require—states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income every six months, or at shorter intervals. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match rate for states that elect this option. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Work Requirements:           Permits (but does not require) states to, beginning October 1, 2017, impose work requirements on “non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant” beneficiaries. States can determine the length of time for such work requirements. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match for state expenses attributable to activities implementing the work requirements.

States may not impose requirements on pregnant women (through 60 days after birth); children under age 19; the sole parent of a child under age 6, or sole parent or caretaker of a child with disabilities; or a married individual or head of household under age 20 who “maintains satisfactory attendance at secondary school or equivalent,” or participates in vocational education. Adds to existing exemptions (drafted in BCRA) provisions exempting those in inpatient or intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment and full-time students from Medicaid work requirements. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Provider Taxes:        Reduces permissible Medicaid provider taxes from 6 percent under current law to 5.6 percent in fiscal year 2021, 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2022, 4.8 percent in fiscal year 2023, 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2024, and 4 percent in fiscal year 2025 and future fiscal years—a change from BCRA, which reduced provider taxes to 5 percent in 2025 (0.2 percent reduction per year, as opposed to 0.4 percent under the Graham-Cassidy bill). Some conservatives may view provider taxes as essentially “money laundering”—a game in which states engage in shell transactions solely designed to increase the federal share of Medicaid funding and reduce states’ share. More information can be found here. CBO believes states would probably reduce their spending in response to the loss of provider tax revenue, resulting in lower spending by the federal government.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in fiscal year 2020. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare).

While the cap would take effect in fiscal year 2020, states could choose their “base period” based on any eight consecutive quarters of expenditures between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017. The CMS Administrator would have authority to make adjustments to relevant data if she believes a state attempted to “game” the look-back period. Removes provisions in BCRA allowing late-expanding Medicaid states to choose a shorter period as their “base period” for determining per capita caps, which may have improperly incentivized states that decided to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied.

Creates four classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; and 4) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps. Exempts declared public health emergencies from the Medicaid per capita caps—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency—but such exemption may not exceed $5 billion.

For years before fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to medical inflation for children and all other non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation plus one percentage point for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries. Beginning in fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to overall inflation for children and non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries—a change from BCRA, which set the caps at overall inflation for all enrollees beginning in 2025.

Eliminates provisions in the House bill regarding “required expenditures by certain political subdivisions,” which some had derided as a parochial New York-related provision.

Provides a provision—not included in the House bill—for effectively re-basing the per capita caps. Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase the caps by between 0.5% and 3% (a change from BCRA, which set a 2% maximum increase) for low-spending states (defined as having per capita expenditures 25% below the national median), and lower the caps by between 0.5% and 2% (unchanged from BCRA) for high-spending states (with per capita expenditures 25% above the national median). The Secretary may only implement this provision in a budget-neutral manner, i.e., one that does not increase the deficit. However, this re-basing provision shall NOT apply to any state with a population density of under 15 individuals per square mile.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent. Requires new state reporting on inpatient psychiatric hospital services and children with complex medical conditions. Requires the HHS Inspector General to audit each state’s spending at least every three years.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Exempts low-density states (those with a population density of fewer than 15 individuals per square mile) from the caps, if that state’s grant program allocation (as described above) fails to increase with medical inflation, or if the Secretary determines the allotment “is insufficient…to provide comprehensive and adequate assistance to individuals in the state” under the grant program described above. Some conservatives may question the need for this carve-out for low density states—which the Secretary of HHS can apparently use at will—and why a small allocation for a program designed to “replace” Obamacare should have an impact on whether or not states reform their Medicaid programs.

Home and Community-Based Services:             Creates a four year, $8 billion demonstration project from 2020 through 2023 to expand home- and community-based service payment adjustments in Medicaid, with such payment adjustments eligible for a 100 percent federal match. The 15 states with the lowest population density would be given priority for funds.

Medicaid Block Grants:      Creates a Medicaid block grant, called the “Medicaid Flexibility Program,” beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Requires interested states to submit an application providing a proposed packet of services, a commitment to submit relevant data (including health quality measures and clinical data), and a statement of program goals. Requires public notice-and-comment periods at both the state and federal levels.

The amount of the block grant would total the regular federal match rate, multiplied by the target per capita spending amounts (as calculated above), multiplied by the number of expected enrollees (adjusted forward based on the estimated increase in population for the state, per Census Bureau estimates). In future years, the block grant would be increased by general inflation.

Prohibits states from increasing their base year block grant population beyond 2016 levels, adjusted for population growth, plus an additional three percentage points. This provision is likely designed to prevent states from “packing” their Medicaid programs full of beneficiaries immediately prior to a block grant’s implementation, solely to achieve higher federal payments.

In a change from BCRA, the bill removes language permitting states to roll over block grant payments from year to year—a move that some conservatives may view as antithetical to the flexibility intended by a block grant, and biasing states away from this model. Reduces federal payments for the following year in the case of states that fail to meet their maintenance of effort spending requirements, and permits the HHS Secretary to make reductions in the case of a state’s non-compliance. Requires the Secretary to publish block grant amounts for every state every year, regardless of whether or not the state elects the block grant option.

Permits block grants for a program period of five fiscal years, subject to renewal; plans with “no significant changes” would not have to re-submit an application for their block grants. Permits a state to terminate the block grant, but only if the state “has in place an appropriate transition plan approved by the Secretary.”

Imposes a series of conditions on Medicaid block grants, requiring coverage for all mandatory populations identified in the Medicaid statute, and use of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) standard for determining eligibility. Includes 14 separate categories of services that states must cover for mandatory populations under the block grant. Requires benefits to have an actuarial value (coverage of average health expenses) of at least 95 percent of the benchmark coverage options in place prior to Obamacare. Permits states to determine the amount, duration, and scope of benefits within the parameters listed above.

Applies mental health parity provisions to the Medicaid block grant, and extends the Medicaid rebate program to any outpatient drugs covered under same. Permits states to impose premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing, provided such efforts do not exceed 5 percent of a family’s income in any given year.

Requires participating states to have simplified enrollment processes, coordinate with insurance Exchanges, and “establish a fair process” for individuals to appeal adverse eligibility determinations. Allows for modification of the Medicaid block grant during declared public health emergencies—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency.

Exempts states from per capita caps, waivers, state plan amendments, and other provisions of Title XIX of the Social Security Act while participating in Medicaid block grants.

Performance Bonus Payments:             Provides an $8 billion pool for bonus payments to state Medicaid and SCHIP programs for Fiscal Years 2023 through 2026. Allows the Secretary to increase federal matching rates for states that 1) have lower than expected expenses under the per capita caps and 2) report applicable quality measures, and have a plan to use the additional funds on quality improvement. While noting the goal of reducing health costs through quality improvement, and incentives for same, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—as with others in the bill—gives near-blanket authority to the HHS Secretary to control the program’s parameters, power that conservatives believe properly resides outside Washington—and power that a future Democratic Administration could use to contravene conservative objectives. CBO believes that only some states will meet the performance criteria, leading some of the money not to be spent between now and 2026. Costs $3 billion over ten years.

Inpatient Psychiatric Services:             Provides for optional state Medicaid coverage of inpatient psychiatric services for individuals over 21 and under 65 years of age. (Current law permits coverage of such services for individuals under age 21.) Such coverage would not exceed 30 days in any month or 90 days in any calendar year. In order to receive such assistance, the state must maintain its number of licensed psychiatric beds as of the date of enactment, and maintain current levels of funding for inpatient services and outpatient psychiatric services. Provides a lower (i.e., 50 percent) match for such services, furnished on or after October 1, 2018; however, in a change from BCRA, allows for higher federal match rates for certain services and individuals to continue if they were in effect prior to September 30, 2018. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Medicaid and Indian Health Service:             Makes a state’s expenses on behalf of Indians eligible for a 100 percent match, irrespective of the source of those services. Current law provides for a 100 percent match only for services provided at an Indian Health Service center. Costs $3.5 billion over ten years.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments:     Adjusts reductions in DSH payments to reflect shortfalls in funding for the state grant program described above. For fiscal years 2021 through 2025, states receiving grant allocations that do not keep up with medical inflation will have their DSH reductions reduced or eliminated; in fiscal year 2026, states with grant shortfalls will have their DSH payments increased.

Title II

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. Saves $7.9 billion over ten years.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” above). Spends $422 million over ten years.

Catastrophic Coverage:      Allows all individuals to buy Obamacare catastrophic plans, currently only available to those under 30, beginning on January 1, 2019.

Enforcement:            Clarifies existing law to specify that states may require that plans comply with relevant laws, including Section 1303 of Obamacare, which permits states to prohibit coverage of abortion in qualified health plans. While supporting this provision’s intent, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may ultimately not comply with the Senate’s Byrd rule regarding the inclusion of non-fiscal matters on a budget reconciliation bill.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019, and does not appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidy claims for plan years through 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House.

The Binary Choice Behind a “Skinny” Health Care Bill

Are you for The Swamp—or are you against it?

It’s really that simple. Text of the supposed “skinny” bill—or the “lowest-common denominator” approach, if one prefers—has not yet been released. But based on press reports, it appears the legislation will repeal the individual and employer mandate penalties, along with the medical device tax, and little else, so the House and Senate can set up a conference committee to re-write the bill—if the House does not decide to pass this “skinny” bill outright.

  • It will embolden Senate leadership to keep bullying rank-and-file members on future pieces of legislation, pulling bait-and-switch moves at the last minute and daring members to vote no;
  • It will move the health-care debate from an open Senate floor process into a conference committee, where after one token public meeting most legislative work will occur behind closed doors;
  • It will concede that the “world’s greatest deliberative body” cannot deliberate as an institution, and instead empower unelected leadership staff in a secretive process to cobble together a new bill that can pass both chambers;
  • It will continue a process that Republican staffers themselves have described as “making it rain” on moderate senators through various backroom deals and spending sprees—bringing parlance heretofore used in strip clubs to the U.S. Congress;
  • It will raise premiums an estimated 20 percent, by eliminating the individual mandate penalty, but leaving all of Obamacare’s regulations intact;
  • It will all-but-guarantee a future Obamacare bailout, destabilizing insurance markets such that carriers will come running to Congress demanding corporate welfare payments to keep offering exchange coverage; and
  • It will prioritize K Street lobbyists who have fought for years to repeal the medical device tax, virtually guaranteeing that provision will remain in the final legislation, while raising premiums on hard-working American families.

If senators support the above scenarios, then they should vote for the bill. If not, perhaps they should consider another course.

Blast from the Past

Conservatives have seen these games played before—and rejected them. In 2015, House Republican leaders initially offered a bill eerily similar to the rumored “skinny” legislation. That bill repealed the individual and employer mandates, the medical device tax, the “Cadillac tax,” the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and a few other ancillary provisions. Conservative groups could have supported it—just to keep the process moving, and continue the momentum for a broader repeal—as leadership is asking them to do right now. They did not because:

The bill would not restore Americans’ health care freedom because it leaves the main pillars of Obamacare in place, nor would it actually defund abortion giant Planned Parenthood. This bill violates an explicit promise made in the budget, which ‘affirm[ed] the use of reconciliation for the sole purpose of repealing the President’s job-killing health care law.’

That statement comes from Heritage Action, which key-voted against passage of the “skinny” repeal bill in 2015. Likewise, in the fall of 2015 conservative senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) said publicly they could not support what they viewed as an insufficient attempt at repeal:

On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of Obamacare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal Obamacare and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk. If this bill cannot be amended so that it fully repeals Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules, we cannot support this bill. With millions of Americans now getting health premium increase notices in the mail, we owe our constituents nothing less.

The bill does not even touch Obamacare’s main two entitlement expansions: The Medicaid expansion and the Exchange subsidies. The bill leaves all of Obamacare’s new insurance rules and regulations in place. It also leaves many of Obamacare’s taxes in place….

The Obamacare repeal movement has been successful in the last 5 years in keeping full repeal intact. It has recognized that it will be much easier to repeal Obamacare as a whole if all of the mandates and entitlement expansions are repealed at once, since we know that the law is vastly unpopular when taken as a whole. The threat is that ‘repeal’ is defined-down to simply mean repealing a couple high-profile provisions, while allowing the main pillars of the law to continue untouched. This package threatens that very outcome: defining down ‘full repeal’ and jeopardizing the entire repeal effort. [Emphasis mine.]

Need for Consistency

In the past several days, conservatives have attacked Senate moderates—rightly—for flip-flopping on a full repeal of Obamacare, voting for it in 2015 but opposing it now. Those who face a similar situation from the Right—that is, those who opposed a “skinny” bill two years ago—should not fall into the same trap as those from the center. On both policy and process, conservatives should reject the minimalist approach floated by leadership, and continue working to repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.