California Is What’s Wrong with Obamacare

In recent days, California lawmakers have finalized their budget. The legislation includes several choices regarding health care and Obamacare, most of them incorrect ones. Doling out more government largesse won’t solve rising health costs, and it will cause more unintended consequences in the process.

Health Coverage for Individuals Unlawfully Present

This move has drawn the most attention, as the budget bill expands Medicaid coverage to illegally present adults aged 19-26. California will pay the full share of this Medicaid spending, as the federal government will not subsidize health coverage for foreign citizens illegally present in the United States.

As to those who disagree with this move, one can study the words of none other than Hillary Clinton. In 1993, she testified before Congress in opposition to giving illegal residents full health benefits, because “illegal aliens” were coming to the United States for health care even then:

We do not think the comprehensive health care benefits should be extended to those who are undocumented workers and illegal aliens. We do not want to do anything to encourage more illegal immigration into this country. We know now that too many people come in for medical care, as it is. We certainly don’t want them having the same benefits that American citizens are entitled to have.

If Clinton’s words don’t sound compelling enough, consider one way that California may finance these new benefits: By reinstating Obamacare’s individual mandate. To put it another way, people who obey the law (i.e., the mandate) will fund free health coverage for people who by definition have broken the law by coming to, or remaining in, the United States unlawfully.

A Questionable Individual Mandate

This issue faces multiple questions on both process and substance. First, the budget bill includes about $8 million for the state’s Franchise Tax Board to implement an individual mandate, but doesn’t actually contain language imposing the mandate. The bill that would reimpose the mandate, using definitions originally included in the federal law, passed the Assembly late last month, but faces opposition in the Senate.

Third, implementing the mandate imposes legal and logistical challenges. I argued in the Wall Street Journal last fall that states cannot require employers who self-fund health coverage to report their employees’ insurance coverage to state authorities. The mandate bill the Assembly passed does not include such a requirement.

Without a reporting requirement on employers, a mandate could become toothless, because the state would have difficulty verifying coverage to ensure compliance—people could lie on their tax forms and likely would not get caught. However, imposing a reporting regime, either through the mandate bill or regulations, would invite an employer to claim that federal labor law (namely, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act) prohibits such a state-based requirement.

More Spending on Subsidies

While the budget bill does not include an explicit insurance mandate, it does include more than $295 million to “provide advanceable premium assistance subsidies during the 2020 coverage year to individuals with projected and actual household incomes at or below 600 percent of the federal poverty level.”

Obamacare epitomized the problems that policy-makers face in subsidizing health insurance. The federal law includes a subsidy “cliff” at 400 percent of the poverty level. Households making just under that threshold can receive federal subsidies that could total as much as $5,000-$10,000 for a family, but if their income rises even one dollar above that “cliff,” they lose all eligibility for those subsidies.

By penalizing individuals whose incomes rise even marginally, the subsidy “cliff” discourages work. That’s one of the main reasons the Congressional Budget Office said Obamacare would reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs.

California decided to replace these work disincentives with yet more spending on subsidies. This year, the federal poverty level stands at $25,750 for a family of four—which makes 600 percent of poverty equal to $154,500. In other words, a family making more than $150,000 will now classify as “low-income” for purposes of the new subsidy regime.

Hypocrisy by Officials

The individual mandate bill gives a significant amount of authority for its implementation to Covered California, the state’s insurance exchange. The bill says the exchange will determine the amount of the mandate penalty, and determine who receives exemptions from the mandate.

Who runs California’s exchange? None other than Peter Lee, the man I previously profiled as someone who earns $436,800 per year, yet refuses to buy the exchange coverage he sells. Or, to put it another way, if the mandate passes, Lee will be standing in judgment of individuals who refuse to do what he will not—buy an Obamacare plan.

If you think that seems a bit rich, you would be correct. But it epitomizes the poor policy choices and hypocritical actions taken by officials to prop up Obamacare in California.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

This Presidential Candidate Loves Obamacare–But Won’t Sign Up for It

If the 2020 presidential campaign illustrates anything so far, it’s the yawning chasm between Democrats’ rhetoric and their reality. Not only do the party’s presidential candidates not practice what they preach, they seemingly have little shame in failing to do so.

Last Thursday evening, one of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), appeared on CNN for a town hall discussion. During the discussion, Bennet criticized his fellow senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for his single-payer health-care plan.

Qualifies for Obamacare Subsidy, Yet Won’t Buy a Plan

In his town hall comments, Bennet claimed that “what we would be better off doing in order to get to universal health care quickly is to finish the job we started with” Obamacare. Yet consider this paragraph from Bennet’s op-ed the week previously, in which he outlined health care, and his recent prostate cancer diagnosis, as the reason for announcing his candidacy: “My cancer was treatable because it was detected through preventive care. The $94,000 bill didn’t bankrupt my family because I had insurance through my wife’s employer” (emphasis mine).

Remember: The federal Office of Personnel Management promulgated an arguably illegal rule in October 2013 that makes members of Congress eligible for subsidies for Obamacare coverage. Yet even with access to these illegal subsidies, Bennet has no interest in buying an Obamacare plan. That might be because he knows—as I do by being forced onto an exchange plan—that these Obamacare plans are junk insurance, with high premiums, high deductibles, and in many cases poor access to physician networks.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Some may argue that because Bennet does not support Sanders’s single-payer proposal, at least he will not force others to give up their health coverage (even as he refuses to go on to Obamacare). But in 2009, one analysis of a government-run “public option,” which Bennet supports as an alternative to single-payer, concluded that it would lead to a reduction in private insurance coverage of 119.1 million people. This would shrink the employer-provided insurance market by more than half.

Even Bennet’s “moderate” proposal could lead to many millions of Americans immediately losing the coverage they have if employers drop coverage en masse. Yet will Bennet give up his employer coverage and go on to Obamacare? Not a chance.

Some may question why I write about this topic so often. After all, if every member of Congress, or every Democratic presidential candidate, suddenly decided to sign up for Obamacare, it wouldn’t significantly affect the exchange’s overall premiums and coverage numbers. But lawmakers’ coverage decisions have outsized importance because they reveal their true motivations.

Obama’s action, however, represents the exception that proves the rule. Instead, liberals want to order other people to buy Obamacare health insurance while not doing so themselves. They epitomize Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” in which he referred to a “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital,” who believe they “can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

By promising to expand Obamacare even as he fails to enroll in it himself, Bennet demonstrated himself part and parcel of that “little intellectual elite.” So have his fellow Democratic presidential candidates. Americans should take note—and vote accordingly next November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Exclusive: Inside the Trump Administration’s Debate over Expanding Obamacare

Last August, I responded to a New York Times article indicating that some within the Trump administration wanted to give states additional flexibility to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Since then, those proposals have advanced, such that staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) believe that they have official sign-off from the president to put those proposals into place.

My conversations with half a dozen sources on Capitol Hill and across the administration in recent weeks suggest that the proposal continues to move through the regulatory process. However, my sources also described significant policy pitfalls that could spark a buzz-saw of opposition from both the left and the right.

The Times reported that some within the administration—including CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House Domestic Policy Council Chairman Andrew Bremberg—have embraced the proposal. But if the plan overcomes what the Times characterized as a “furious” internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.

How It Would Work

After the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states as part of its 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate, the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting that ruling. While the court made expansion optional for states, the Obama administration made it an “all-or-nothing” proposition for them.

Under the 2012 guidance—which remains in effect—if states want to receive the enhanced 90 percent federal match associated with expansion, they must cover the entire expansion population—all able-bodied adults with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $35,000 for a family of four). If states expand only to some portion of the eligible population, they would only receive their regular Medicaid match of 50-76 percent, not the enhanced 90 percent match.

The Internal Debate

The August Times article indicated that, after considering partial expansion, the administration postponed any decision until after November’s midterm elections. Since that time, multiple sources disclosed to me a further meeting that took place on the topic in the Oval Office late last year. While the meeting was originally intended to provide an update for the president, CMS staff left that meeting thinking they had received the president’s sign-off to implement partial expansion.

Just before Christmas, during a meeting on an unrelated matter, a CMS staffer sounded me out on the proposal. The individual said CMS was looking for ways to help give states additional flexibility, particularly states hamstrung by initiatives forcing them to expand Medicaid. However, based on my other reporting, I believe that the conversation also represented an attempt to determine the level of conservative opposition to the public announcement of a decision CMS believes the president has already made.

Why Liberals Will Object

During my meeting, I asked the CMS staffer about the fiscal impacts of partial expansion. The staffer admitted that, as I had noted in my August article, exchange plans generally have higher costs than Medicaid coverage. Therefore, moving individuals from Medicaid to exchange coverage—and the federal government paying 100 percent of subsidy costs for exchange coverage, as opposed to 90 percent of Medicaid costs—will raise federal costs for every beneficiary who shifts coverage under partial expansion.

The Medicare actuary believes that the higher cost-sharing associated with exchange coverage will lead 30 percent of the target population—that is, individuals with incomes from 100-138 percent of poverty—to drop their exchange plan. Either beneficiaries will not be able to afford the premiums and cost-sharing, or they will not consider the coverage worth the money. And because 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage, the partial expansion change will save money in a given state—despite the fact that exchange coverage costs more than Medicaid on a per-beneficiary basis.

Why Conservatives Will Object

I immediately asked the CMS staffer an obvious follow-up question: Did the actuary consider whether partial expansion, by shifting the costs of expansion from the states to the federal government, would encourage more states to expand Medicaid? The staffer demurred, saying the actuary’s analysis focused on only one hypothetical state.

However, the CMS staffer did not tell me the entire story. Subsequent to my “official” meeting with that staffer, other sources privately confirmed that the actuary does believe that roughly 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage.

But these sources and others added that both the Medicare actuary and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree that, notwithstanding the savings from current expansion states—savings associated with individuals dropping exchange coverage, as explained above—the partial expansion proposal will cost the federal government overall, because it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

For instance, the Council of Economic Advisers believes that spending on non-expansion states who use partial expansion as a reason to extend Medicaid to the able-bodied will have three times the deficit impact as the savings associated with states shifting from full to partial expansion.

Because the spending on new partial expansion states will overcome any potential savings from states shifting from full to partial expansion, the proposal, if adopted, would appreciably increase the deficit. While neither CBO nor the Medicare actuary have conducted an updated analysis since the election, multiple sources cited an approximate cost to the federal government on the order of $100-120 billion over the next decade.

One source indicated that the Medicare actuary’s analysis early last summer arrived at an overall deficit increase of $111 billion. The results of November’s elections—in which three non-expansion states voted to accept expansion due to ballot initiatives—might have reduced the cost of the administration’s proposal slightly, but likely did not change the estimate of a sizable deficit increase.

A net cost of upwards of $100 billion, notwithstanding potential coverage losses from individuals dropping exchange coverage in current expansion states, can only mean one thing. CBO and the Medicare actuary both believe that, by lowering the cost for states to expand, partial expansion will prompt major non-expansion states—such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Who Will Support This Proposal?

Based on the description of the scoring dynamic my sources described, partial expansion, if it goes forward, seems to have no natural political constituency. Red-state governors will support it, no doubt, for it allows them to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime. Once CMS approves one state’s partial expansion, the agency will likely have a line of Republican governors out its door looking to implement waivers of their own.

But it seems unlikely that Democratic-led states will follow suit. Indeed, the news that partial expansion would cause about 30 percent of the target population to drop their new exchange coverage could well prompt recriminations, investigations, and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere. Because at least 3.1 million expansion beneficiaries live in states with Republican governors, liberals likely would object to the sizable number of these enrollees who could decide to drop coverage under partial expansion.

Conversely, conservatives will likely object to the high net cost associated with the proposal, notwithstanding the potential coverage losses in states that have already expanded. Some within the administration view Medicaid expansion, when coupled with proposals like work requirements, as a “conservative” policy. Other administration officials view expansion in all states as something approaching a fait accompli, and view partial expansion and similar proposals as a way to make the best of a bad policy outcome.

But Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable in society, because it gives states a higher match for covering able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities. In addition to objecting to a way partial expansion would increase government spending by approximately $100 billion, some conservatives would also raise fundamental objections to any policy changes that would encourage states to embrace Obamacare—and add even more able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls in the process.

Particularly given the Democratic takeover of the House last week, the multi-pronged opposition to this plan could prove its undoing. Democrats will have multiple venues available—from oversight through letters and subpoenae, to congressional hearings, to use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn any administration decisions outright—to express their opposition to this proposal.

A “strange bedfellows” coalition of liberals and conservatives outraged over the policy, but for entirely different reasons, could nix it outright. While some officials may not realize it at present, the administration may not only make a decision that conservatives will object to on policy grounds, they may end up in a political quagmire in the process.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Ocasio-Cortez Wants Congress to Stop Pretending to Pay for Its Spending

Get used to reading more storylines like this over the next two years: The left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing.

On Wednesday, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) faced a potential revolt from within her own party. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and several progressive allies threatened to vote against the rules package governing congressional procedures on the first day of the new Congress Thursday, because of proposed changes they believe would threaten their ability to pass single-payer health care.

What’s Going On?

Ocasio-Cortez and her allies object to Pelosi’s attempt to reinstate Pay-as-You-Go (PAYGO) rules for the new 116th Congress. Put simply, those rules would require that any legislation the House considers not increase the deficit over five- and ten-year periods. In short, this policy would mean that any bill proposing new mandatory spending or revenue reductions must pay for those changes via offsetting tax increases and/or spending cuts—hence the name.

Under Republican control, the House had a policy requiring spending increases—but not tax cuts—to be paid for. Pelosi would overturn that policy and apply PAYGO to both the spending and the revenue side of the ledger.

Progressives object to Pelosi’s attempt to constrain government spending, whether in the form of additional fiscal “stimulus” or a single-payer health system.

However, Pelosi’s spokesman countered with a statement indicating that the progressives’ move “is a vote to let Mick Mulvaney make across-the-board cuts.” Mulvaney heads the Office of Management and Budget, which would implement any sequester under statutory PAYGO.

Regardless of what the new House decides regarding its own procedures for considering bills, Pay-as-You-Go remains on the federal statute books. Democrats re-enacted it in 2010, just prior to Obamacare’s passage. If legislation Congress passed  violates those statutory PAYGO requirements (as opposed to any internal House rules), it will trigger mandatory spending reductions via the sequester—the “across-the-board cuts” to which Pelosi’s spokesman referred.

To Pay for Spending—Or Not?

Progressives think reinstituting PAYGO would impose fiscal constraints hindering their ability to pass massive new spending legislation. However, the reality does not match the rhetoric from Ocasio-Cortez and others. Consider, for instance, just some of the ways a Democratic Congress “paid for” the more than $1.8 trillion in new spending on Obamacare:

  • A CLASS Act that even some Democrats called “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of,” and which never went into effect because the Obama administration could not implement it in a fiscally sustainable manner;
  • Double counting the Medicare savings in the legislation as “both” improving the solvency of Medicare and paying for the new spending in Obamacare;
  • Payment reductions that the non-partisan Medicare actuary considers extremely unlikely to be sustainable, and which could cause more than half of hospitals and nursing homes to become unprofitable within a generation;
  • Tax increases that Congress has repeatedly delayed, and which could end up never going into effect.

A Bipartisan Spending Addiction

An external observer weighing the Part D and Obamacare examples would find it difficult to determine the less dishonest approach to fiscal policy. It reinforces that America’s representatives have a bipartisan addiction to more government spending, and a virtually complete unwillingness to make tough choices now, instead bequeathing massive (and growing) amounts of debt to the next generation.

In that sense, Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow progressives should feel right at home in the new Congress. Republicans may criticize her for proposing new spending, but the difference between her and most GOP members represents one of degree rather than of kind. Therein lies the problem: In continuing to spend with reckless abandon, Congress is merely debating how quickly to sink our country’s fiscal ship.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C. Council’s Motto: “Obamacare for Thee — But Not for Me!”

On the first of the month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser held an event at Freedom Plaza to celebrate the start of Obamacare’s annual open enrollment period. She appeared with Mila Kofman, head of the District’s health insurance exchange, D.C. Health Link. In conjunction with the event, the mayor issued a proclamation declaring the open enrollment period “Get Covered, Stay Covered” months, and noting that “residents should visit [D.C. Health Link’s website] to shop for and compare health insurance.”

But in encouraging others to “get covered,” and promoting the D.C. Health Link site, Bowser omitted one key detail: She does not buy the policies that D.C. Health Link sells. My recent Freedom of Information Act request confirmed that Bowser, like most of her D.C. Council colleagues, received taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies to purchase their coverage through the District government, rather than through D.C. Health Link. Thus, DC spent nearly half a million in taxpayer funds because the mayor and council won’t be bothered to enroll in Obamacare.

Forfeiting generous employer subsidies might seem like an unreasonable request to make of the mayor and council. But earlier this year, the council passed, and Bowser signed, legislation requiring all District residents to buy health coverage or pay a tax — including tens of thousands of residents who do not qualify for subsidies.

According to public records, Bowser receives an annual salary of $200,000; council members receive $140,600 annually. This year, I will receive less income than any of them, and as a small business owner my income is far from guaranteed, unlike public officials’ salaries. Yet the mayor and council have required me to buy health coverage without a subsidy, even as they refuse to do so themselves.

I asked Bowser about this obvious inequity. Under Obamacare, an individual with income of $50,000 — one-quarter of Bowser’s salary — does not qualify for an income-based subsidy. Bowser required this individual to buy coverage without assistance, while earning much more in salary and retaining her employer subsidy. Did she see a double standard in her conduct?

When it came to the issue of equity and fairness, she didn’t have a substantive answer, nor did her council colleagues. I asked staff for each council member about their health insurance coverage, and any subsidies received. Most staff never responded to my outreach. Staff for Councilman Robert White said they would ask him about his coverage, but never sent a reply. Staff for two councilmembers, Phil Mendelson and Brandon Todd, replied with explanations about the subsidies being provided as an employer benefit.

But neither Bowser nor the council members could justify requiring other District residents, including many with lower incomes than they, from buying coverage without a subsidy even as they will not do so themselves. And how could they? Quite often, it seems liberals who preach frequently about “fairness” regarding others’ actions fall eerily silent when doing so would cost them personally. “Obamacare for thee — but not for me” doesn’t provide a particularly compelling slogan, but the mayor and council have sent that very message by their actions.

Official Washington contains numerous examples of hypocrisy and double standards, but that doesn’t make either a “D.C. value.” If Bowser wishes to abide by the D.C. values she campaigned on, she and the council members should give up their subsidies and buy health insurance just like ordinary residents do. If they find that task too difficult or costly, then perhaps they should repeal the exact same requirement they put on everyone else.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Ocasio-Cortez Suddenly Realizes She Doesn’t Like Paying Obamacare’s Pre-Existing Condition Tax

On Saturday evening, incoming U.S. representative and self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to compare her prior health coverage to the new health insurance options available to her as a member of Congress.

It shouldn’t shock most observers to realize that Congress gave itself a better deal than it gave most ordinary citizens. But Ocasio-Cortez’ complaints about the lack of affordability of health insurance demonstrate the way liberals who claim to support Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections”—and have forcibly raised others’ premiums to pay for those “protections”—don’t want to pay those higher premiums themselves.

She’s Paying the Pre-Existing Condition Tax

I wrote in August about my own (junk) Obamacare insurance. This year, I have paid nearly $300 monthly—a total of $3,479—for an Obamacare-compliant policy with a $6,200 deductible. Between my premiums and deductible, I will face paying nearly the first $10,000 in medical costs out-of-pocket myself.

Of course, as a fairly healthy 30-something, I don’t have $10,000 in medical costs in most years. In fact, this year I won’t come anywhere near to hitting my $6,200 deductible (presuming I don’t get hit by a bus in the next four weeks).

As I noted in August, my nearly $3,500 premium doesn’t just fund my health care—or, more accurately, the off-chance that I will incur catastrophic expenses such that I will meet my deductible, and my insurance policy will actually subsidize some of my coverage. Rather, much of that $3,500 “is designed to fund someone else’s medical condition. That difference between an actuarially fair premium and the $3,500 premium my insurer charged me amounts to a ‘pre-existing conditions tax.’”

Millions of People Can’t Afford Coverage

Because I work for myself, I don’t get an employer subsidy to pay the pre-existing condition tax. (I can, however, write off my premiums from my federal income taxes.) Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet referred to her coverage “as a waitress,” but didn’t specify where she purchased that coverage, nor whether she received an employer subsidy for that coverage.

However, a majority of retail firms, and the majority of the smallest firms (3-9 workers), do not offer coverage to their workers. Firms are also much less likely (only 22 percent) to offer insurance to their part-time workers. It therefore seems likely, although not certain, that Ocasio-Cortez did not receive an employer subsidy, and purchased Obamacare coverage on her own. In that case she would have had to pay the pre-existing condition tax out of her own pocket.

That pre-existing condition tax represented the largest driver of premium increases due to Obamacare, according to a March paper published by the Heritage Foundation. Just from 2013 (the last year before Obamacare) through 2017, premiums more than doubled. Within the last year (from the first quarter of 2017 through the first quarter of 2018) roughly 2.6 million people who purchased Obamacare-compliant plans without a subsidy dropped their coverage, likely because they cannot afford the higher costs.

Lawmakers Get an (Illegal) Subsidy to Avoid That Tax

Unsurprisingly, however, members of Congress don’t have to pay the pre-existing condition tax on their own. They made sure of that. Following Obamacare’s passage, congressional leaders lobbied feverishly to preserve their subsidized health coverage, even demanding a meeting with the president of the United States to discuss the matter.

Senators and representatives do have to purchase their health insurance from the Obamacare exchanges. But the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a rule allowing members of Congress and their staffs to receive an employer subsidy for that coverage. That makes Congress and their staff the only people who can receive an employer subsidy through the exchange.

Numerous analyses have found that the OPM rule violates the text of Obamacare itself. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) even sued to overturn the rule, but a court dismissed the suit on the grounds that he lacked standing to bring the case.

Liberals’ Motto: ‘Obamacare for Thee—But Not for Me’

Take, for instance, the head of California’s exchange, Peter Lee. He makes a salary of $436,800 per year, yet he won’t buy the health insurance plans he sells. Why? Because he doesn’t want to pay Obamacare’s pre-existing condition tax unless someone (i.e., the state of California) pays him to do so via an employer subsidy.

Ocasio-Cortez’ proposed “solution”—fully taxpayer-paid health care—is in search of a problem. As socialists are wont to do, Ocasio-Cortez sees a problem caused by government—in this case, skyrocketing premiums due to the pre-existing condition tax—and thinks the answer lies in…more government.

As the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. If Ocasio-Cortez really wants to get serious, instead of complaining about the pre-existing condition tax, she should work to repeal it, and replace it with better alternatives.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What the Press Isn’t Telling You about the Politics of Pre-Existing Conditions

For months, liberals have wanted to make the midterm elections about Obamacare, specifically people with pre-existing conditions. Of late, the media has gladly played into that narrative.

Numerous articles have followed upon a similar theme: Republicans claim they want to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but they’re lying, misrepresenting their records, or both. Most carry an implicit assumption: If you don’t support Obamacare, then you cannot want to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions, because defending the law as holy writ has become a new religion for the left.

Covering People Before They Develop Conditions

The Kaiser Family Foundation noted in a study earlier this year that the off-exchange individual insurance market shrank by 38 percent in just one year, from the beginning of 2017 to the beginning of 2018. Overall, enrollment in Obamacare-compliant plans for people who do not qualify for income-based subsidies fell by 2.6 million:

Most of these individuals likely dropped their plan because the rapid rise in insurance rates under Obamacare has priced them out of coverage. As a Heritage Foundation study from March noted, the pre-existing condition provisions represent the largest component of those premium increases.

Or consider the at least 4.7 million people who received cancellation notices a few short years ago, because their plan didn’t comport with Obamacare’s new regulations. The father of a friend and former colleague received such a notice. He lost his plan, couldn’t afford a new Obamacare-compliant policy, then got diagnosed with colon cancer. His “coverage” has consisted largely of a GoFundMe page, where friends and colleagues can help his family pay off tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt.

How exactly did Obamacare “protect” him—by stripping him of his coverage, or by pricing the new coverage so high he and his wife couldn’t afford it, and had to go without at the exact time they developed a pre-existing condition?

In fact, by getting politicians of both parties to claim that they want to cover people with pre-existing conditions, this campaign may actually encourage more healthy people to drop their insurance, thinking they can easily buy coverage if they do develop a costly condition.

Obamacare Plans Discriminate Too

The left’s messaging also ignores another inconvenient truth: Because they must accept all applicants, Obamacare plans have a strong incentive to avoid sick people. They can accomplish this goal through tactics like narrow provider networks. Because plans must offer rich benefits and accept all applicants, shrinking doctor and hospital networks provides one of the few ways to moderate premiums. Of course, keeping a clinic like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center out of one’s network—which all Texas-based Obamacare plans do—also discourages cancer patients from signing up for coverage, a “win-win” from the insurer’s perspective.

Some plans have used more overt forms of discrimination. For instance, in 2014 a group of HIV patients filed a complaint against several Florida insurers. The complaint alleged that the carriers placed all their HIV drugs into the highest formulary tier, to discourage HIV-positive patients from signing up for coverage.

Problem with Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

More than 18 months ago, I wrote that Republicans could either maintain the status quo on pre-existing conditions, or they could repeal Obamacare, but they could not do both. That scenario remains as true today as it did then.

Also true: As long as the pre-existing condition “protections” remain in place, millions of individuals will likely remain priced out of coverage, and insurers will have reason to discriminate against the sick. In fact, the last several years of premium spikes have already turned the exchanges into a de facto high-risk pool, where only the sickest (or most heavily subsidized) patients bother enrolling.

For individuals with pre-existing conditions, there are several—and, in my view, better—alternatives to both the status quo and the status quo ante that preceded Obamacare. But we will never have a chance to have that conversation if few will examine the very real trade-offs the law has created. Based on the past few months, neither the left nor the media appear interested in doing so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How an Obscure Regulatory Change Could Transform American Health Insurance

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

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

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

How Would It Work?

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

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

Could Employers Game the System?

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

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

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

Can Workers Buy Short-Term Coverage with Employer Funds?

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

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

Will Firms Drop Health Coverage?

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

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

Will the Proposal Cost Money?

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

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

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

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

An Overdue (and Welcome) Change

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Smaller Premium Increases May Hurt Republicans in November

Away from last week’s three-ring circus on Capitol Hill, an important point of news got lost. In a speech on Thursday in Nashville, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar announced that benchmark premiums—that is, the plan premium that determines subsidy amounts for individuals who qualify for income-based premium assistance—in the 39 states using the federal healthcare.gov insurance platform will fall by an average of 2 percent next year.

That echoes outside entities that have reviewed rate filings for 2019. A few weeks ago, consultants at Avalere Health released an updated premium analysis, which projected a modest premium increase of 3.1 percent on average—a fraction of the 15 percent increase Avalere projected back in June. Moreover, consistent with the HHS announcement on Thursday, Avalere estimates that average premiums will actually decline in 12 states.

On the other hand, however, given that Democrats have attempted to make Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions a focal point of their campaign, premium increases in the fall would remind voters that those supposed “protections” come with a very real cost.

How Much Did Premiums Rise?

The Heritage Foundation earlier this year concluded that the pre-existing condition provisions collectively accounted for the largest share of premium increases due to Obamacare. But how much have these “protections” raised insurance rates?

Overall premium trend data are readily available, but subject to some interpretation. An HHS analysis published last year found that in 2013—the year before Obamacare’s major provisions took effect—premiums in the 39 states using healthcare.gov averaged $232 per month, based on insurers’ filings. In 2018, the average policy purchased in those same 39 states cost $597.20 per month—an increase of $365 per month, or $4,380 per year.

Moreover, the trends hold for the individual market as a whole—which includes both exchange enrollees, most of whom qualify for subsidies, and off-exchange enrollees, who by definition cannot. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that, from 2013 to 2018, average premiums on the individual market rose from $223 to $490—an increase of $267 per month, or $3,204 per year.

Impact of Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

The HHS data suggest that premiums have risen by $4,380 since Obamacare took effect; the Kaiser data, slightly less, but still a significant amount ($3,204). But how much of those increases come directly from the pre-existing condition provisions, as opposed to general increases in medical inflation, or other Obamacare requirements?

The varying methods used in the actuarial studies make it difficult to compare them in ways that easily lead to a single answer. Moreover, insurance markets vary from state to state, adding to the complexity of analyses.

However, given the available data on both how much premiums rose and why they did, it seems safe to say that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums by several hundreds of dollars—and that, taking into account changes in the risk pool (i.e., disproportionately sicker individuals signing up for coverage), the impact reaches into the thousands of dollars in at least some markets.

Republicans’ Political Dilemma

Those premium increases due to the pre-existing condition provisions are baked into the proverbial premium cake, which presents the Republicans with their political problem. Democrats are focusing on the impending threat—sparked by several states’ anti-Obamacare lawsuit—of Republicans “taking away” the law’s pre-existing condition “protections.” Conservatives can counter, with total justification based on the evidence, that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums substantially, but those premium increases already happened.

If those premium increases that took place in the fall of 2016 and 2017 had instead occurred this fall, Republicans would have two additional political arguments heading into the midterm elections. First, they could have made the proactive argument that another round of premium increases demonstrates the need to elect more Republicans to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. Second, they could have more easily rebutted Democratic arguments on pre-existing conditions, pointing out that those “popular” provisions have sparked rapid rate increases, and that another approach might prove more effective.

Instead, because premiums for 2019 will remain flat, or even decline slightly in some states, Republicans face a more nuanced, and arguably less effective, political message. Azar actually claimed that President Trump “has proven better at managing [Obamacare] than the President who wrote the law.”

Conservatives would argue that the federal government cannot (micro)manage insurance markets effectively, and should not even try. Yet Azar tried to make that argument in his speech Thursday, even as he conceded that “the individual market for insurance is still broken.”

‘Popular’ Provisions Are Very Costly

The first round of premium spikes, which hit right before the 2016 election, couldn’t have come at a better time for Republicans. Coupled with Bill Clinton’s comments at that time calling Obamacare the “craziest thing in the world,” it put a renewed focus on the health-care law’s flaws, in a way that arguably helped propel Donald Trump and Republicans to victory.

This year, as paradoxical as it first sounds, flat premiums may represent bad news for Republicans. While liberals do not want to admit it publicly, polling evidence suggests that support for the pre-existing condition provisions plummets when individuals connect those provisions to premium increases.

The lack of a looming premium spike could also neutralize Republican opposition to Obamacare, while failing to provide a way that could more readily neutralize Democrats’ attacks on pre-existing conditions. Maybe the absence of bad news on the premium front may present its own bad political news for Republicans in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.