Six Reasons the Mandate “Deal” Is Bad Health Policy

After their member lunch Tuesday, Senate Republican leadership announced they would work to include a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate as part of tax reform. The Senate leaders also announced they would bring the Obamacare “stability” legislation written by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) to the floor for a vote.

Repealing Obamacare’s tax on individuals who do not buy health coverage, and using the proceeds to reduce taxes overall, may represent sound tax policy. However, for several reasons, both the mandate repeal, and the “stability” legislation linked to it, represent unsound health policy.

1. This Will Raise Premiums

For these reasons, a tax reform bill repealing the individual mandate cannot repeal the regulations that caused premiums to more than double over the past four years, and necessitated the mandate in the first place. As I previously noted, repealing a penalty that encourages healthy people to purchase insurance, while retaining the regulations that have attracted a sicker-than-average population to Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, will raise premiums—the only question is by how much.

2. It Bails Out Insurers—And Obamacare

The “stability” legislation would provide two years of cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies to health insurers, which reimburse them for the cost of discounting deductibles and co-payments to certain insurers. Three years ago, the House of Representatives sued the Obama administration challenging the constitutionality of these payments, which the House contended were being made without an explicit appropriation from Congress.

In May 2016, Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed. While she stayed her ruling stopping the payments while the Obama administration appealed, the Trump administration used her logic—that the payments lacked a constitutional appropriation—to halt the payments unilaterally last month.

3. This Establishes De Facto Single Payer

In choosing to appropriate CSR funds mere weeks after the Trump administration cancelled the payments, a Republican Congress would send a very clear message: Health insurers—and Obamacare itself—are too big to fail.

This message to health insurers, who last year ignored the risk that CSR payments would disappear, will only encourage them to take further reckless risks, knowing the federal government will provide a backstop if they fail. In other words, a Republican Congress would create a de facto single-payer health system, by establishing the principle that insurers are too big to fail.

Some might argue, as Alexander did Tuesday, that the “stability” fund will lower premiums and mitigate the effects from repealing the mandate outlined above. In one sense, throwing taxpayer funds at a problem will always “fix” it—at least in the short term. But with our nation $20 trillion in debt and repeated years of federal deficits, the federal government has a diminishing ability to spend other people’s money to “solve” problems. Moreover, in the longer term, a Republican Congress will have set an incredibly dangerous—and costly—precedent by telling insurers the federal government will cover their losses.

4. Insurers Could Reap Billions in Windfall Profits

The CBO score also provided some sense of the money insurers might keep. The Alexander-Murray bill would appropriate roughly $7-9 billion in CSR funds for the coming plan year. Yet CBO believes insurers would return only about $3.1 billion in rebates back to the federal government, meaning the insurers themselves could keep some, or all, of the remaining $4-6 billion. All this after insurer profits nearly doubled during the Obama era, to $15 billion per year.

5. There’s Not Enough Flexibility for States

Over and above the question of bailing insurers out of their strategic mistakes by making CSR payments, the Alexander-Murray bill provides nowhere near enough flexibility for states in return. The bill provides for several process improvements regarding applications for state innovation waivers under Obamacare, but it does not fundamentally change the substance of those waivers.

States must still provide as many individuals with health insurance as Obamacare, and much provide a benefit package “of comparable affordability” as Obamacare coverage. Because the Alexander-Murray bill does not substantively change Obamacare’s regulatory straight-jacket, it still will not allow states to provide consumer-driven health care options, or plans that might have lower premiums for consumers.

6. This Means Federal Funding of Plans that Pay for Abortion

If the above six reasons weren’t enough evidence of the questionable policy merits of the mandate “deal,” the video should serve as the coup de grace. That the bill’s sponsor seemed blissfully unaware of all the policy implications of a bill he sponsored—and worked feverishly to sell to his colleagues—should function as a warning to lawmakers. In their haste to pass a tax bill, they are blundering into some serious strategic and policy errors in health policy, which could come back to bite them for many years to come.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Questions about the Alexander-Murray Bill

Upon its unveiling last week, the health insurance “stabilization” measure drafted by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) received praise from some lawmakers. For instance, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stated that “health care reform ought to be the product of regular order in the Senate, and the bill [the sponsors] introduced today is an important step towards that end.”

Unfortunately, the process to date has not resembled the “regular order” its sponsors have claimed. Drafted behind closed doors, by staff for a committee with only partial jurisdiction over health care, the bill’s provisions remained in flux as of last week. Moreover, the bill apparently will not undergo a mark-up or other committee action before the bill is either considered on the Senate floor—or, as some have speculated, “air-dropped” into a massive catch-all spending bill, where it will receive little to no legislative scrutiny.

Why didn’t Alexander know his bill provided taxpayer funding of abortion coverage?

Following my article last week highlighting how the cost-sharing reduction payments appropriated in the legislation would represent taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion, a reporter for the Catholic-run Eternal Word Television Network interviewed senators Alexander and Murray (along with myself) about the issue.

Alexander told reporter Jason Calvi that he “hadn’t discussed” the life issue with staff, indicating he had little inkling of the effects of the legislation he sponsored:

Alexander then claimed that “I’m sure the president will address” the abortion funding issue. But executive action—which a future president can always rescind—is no substitute for legislative language. The pro-life community derided President Obama’s executive order designed to segregate abortion payments and federal funding as an accounting sham.

As I wrote in June, Republican leaders—including Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Mike Pence, the current vice president—clearly noted during debates on Obamacare that the law would provide for taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. The Alexander-Murray bill would do likewise unless and until the legislation includes an explicit ban on abortion funding.

Who inserted the earmark for Minnesota into the legislation?

Call it the “Klobuchar Kickback,” call it the “Golden Gopher Giveaway,” but Section 2(b) of the bill contains provisions relevant only to Minnesota. Specifically, that provision would allow a state’s basic health program—which states can establish for individuals with incomes between 133 and 200 percent of the federally defined poverty level—to receive “pass-through” block grant funding under a waiver.

Currently, only New York and Minnesota have implemented basic health programs, and of those two states, only Minnesota has also sought a state innovation waiver under Obamacare. Last month, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), in approving Minnesota’s application for an innovation waiver, said it could not allow the state to receive “pass through” funds equal to spending on the basic health program, because the statute did not permit such an arrangement. The Alexander-Murray bill would explicitly permit basic health program spending to qualify for the “pass through” arrangement, allowing Minnesota—the only state with such an arrangement—to benefit.

Will a committee mark up the Alexander-Murray bill?

Alexander notably demurred on this topic when asked last week. One reason: As Politico has noted, it remains unclear whether or the extent to which Alexander’s committee has jurisdiction over the legislation he wrote. Revisions to the Obamacare state innovation waiver process comprise roughly half of the 26-page bill, yet the Senate HELP Committee shares jurisdiction over those matters with the Senate Finance Committee, whose chairman has derided legislation giving cost-sharing payments to insurers as a “bailout.”

Even as he praised the Alexander-Murray bill as a return to “regular order,” McCain—himself a committee chairman—doubtless would take issue with another committee “poaching” the Senate Armed Services panel’s jurisdiction, or failing to hold a mark-up entirely. Yet the process regarding the Alexander-Murray bill could include two noteworthy legislative “shortcuts”—which some may view as a deviation from “regular order.”

Are HELP Committee staff still re-writing the legislation?

A close review of the documents indicates that HELP Committee staff made changes to the bill even after Alexander and Murray announced their agreement last Tuesday. The version of the bill obtained by Axios and released last Tuesday evening—version TAM17J75, per the notation made in the top left corner of the bill text by the Office of Legislative Counsel—differs from the version (TAM17K02) publicly released by the HELP Committee on Thursday.

The revisions to the legislation, coupled with Alexander’s apparent lack of understanding regarding its implications, raise questions about what other “surprises” may lurk within its contents. For all the justifiable complaints regarding the lack of transparency over Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation earlier this year, the process surrounding Alexander-Murray seems little changed—and far from “regular order.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.