House Health Care Bills Show Misplaced Priorities

Why would House Republican leadership place the concerns of gym owners over those of pro-lifers? And why would that same leadership embrace a policy suggestion from the liberal group Families USA that could entrench Obamacare while raising premiums for young people?

While the House will consider legislation this week providing tax breaks to individuals who buy gym memberships, the House has yet to consider legislation cutting off tax breaks for abortion this Congress. On the latter front, an expansion of “copper” catastrophic insurance plans would effectively eliminate a regulatory provision that has lowered premiums for young Americans—another misplaced priority that could cause consternation for some conservatives.

What’s Inside Some Health Savings Account Legislation

However, Section 8 of one of the bills would allow for a $500 deduction for gym memberships or instruction, and a $250 deduction for safety equipment, as a qualified medical expense. The amounts would double for joint returns.

While just about everyone supports increasing Americans’ levels of physical activity, the provision seems questionable at best. The tax reform bill enacted not eight months ago attempted to eliminate these kinds of deductions from the tax code, creating a simpler, fairer process. This proposal would turn right around and add more complexity, by requiring the IRS to issue new regulations “to determine…what does not constitute a qualified physical activity, including golf, hunting, sailing, horseback riding, and other similar activities.”

The federal government already tries to do too many things, and has too great a role in Americans’ lives as it is. Do we really need the IRS determining what is, and is not, a “qualified physical activity?”

As for Abortion and HSAs

In fact, some pro-life leaders have opposed provisions that would allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund insurance premiums, because pro-lifers want to prohibit those funds from being used to pay for abortion coverage (or abortions period). But the House has yet to vote this Congress on limiting abortion as a qualified medical expense.

The pro-life legislation that the House voted on in January 2017, H.R. 7, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), prohibited taxpayer dollars from funding abortion in all cases, including Obamacare exchange plans. However, it did not address preferences in the tax code relating to abortion, such as the qualified medical expense deduction.

It seems that the House Ways and Means Committee, which marked up the bills in question, cares more about satisfying lobbyists than responding to their large pro-life constituency. From gym owners to device makers—who have lobbied intently for the Obamacare device tax repeal that the House will also consider this week—the series of health care bills contains myriad provisions, some good and some not-so-good, advocated by business lobbyists. Unfortunately, pro-life advocates have yet to receive similar consideration.

Unintended Consequences of Expanding ‘Copper’ Plans

However, because only certain individuals currently qualify for “copper” plans, insurers can adjust their premiums downward accordingly. Section 1312 of Obamacare contains a single risk pool requirement, meaning that insurers must rate all their products in a given state as a single book of business in determining premium rates. But a rule the Obama administration released in 2013 included a special exception to that provision for “copper” plans. These catastrophic plans may adjust their rates to reflect “the expected impact of the specific eligibility categories.”

In other words, because primarily young individuals enroll in catastrophic plans, insurers can at present lower their premiums to reflect that fact. However, by making everyone eligible for “copper” coverage, the House bill would effectively eliminate this adjustment, thus raising premiums for the 18- to 29-year-old individuals enrolled in the plans.

Effects of the ‘Copper’ Change

Catastrophic plans have not proven particularly popular on the exchange market, with only 1 percent of enrollees purchasing them as of earlier this year. However, that lack of popularity arises because individuals receiving premium subsidies (i.e., most of the people buying coverage directly from the exchange) cannot apply those subsidies to “copper” plans.

Paradoxical as it may sound, expanding these popular plans to all age groups could actually curb their appeal. While a recent eHealth analysis claims that an expansion of “copper” plans could save near-seniors (i.e., those aged 55-64) an average of $4,608 per year, it likely will not do so. eHealth’s analysis compares the current 41 percent differential between “copper” premiums and bronze premiums to arrive at its figure.

However, as noted above, the current “copper” rates assume enrollment primarily by individuals under 30. eHealth’s analysis thus compares rates for a market of individuals aged 18-29 to a market of individuals aged 18-64—which explains the 41-percentage point difference in premiums. But if “copper” plans expand to all ages, that premium differential will narrow—and premiums for the 18-29 population will likely increase.

Single Risk Pool Bolsters Obamacare

More to the point: The “copper” plan provision includes language reinforcing Obamacare’s single risk pool. It also undermines the intent of last year’s Consumer Freedom Amendment, offered in the Senate by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), which would have allowed for the sale of non-compliant plans alongside Obamacare-compliant plans.

The difference on this one provision speaks to a broader philosophical debate. Moderates want to support Obamacare’s exchanges by passing “stability” legislation and expanding subsidies. So does Families USA, which in December 2012 submitted a comment to the Department of Health and Human Services opposing the rate adjustment provision for catastrophic plans, because it could tend to segment the market.

By contrast, conservatives want to offer people lifeboats away from the exchanges—options such as short-term insurance plans, association health plans, and the like. On that front, this week’s legislation does not advance the ball, and expanding “copper” plans could on balance represent a step back.

Thankfully, House leadership did not end up attaching attach an insurer bailout to this week’s HSA bills, after early rumblings in that direction. But the fact that conservatives even need to have these discussions speak to the ways in which many House Republicans want to strengthen Obamacare rather than repealing it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals Suddenly Rediscover Federalism — Will Conservatives?

On Thursday, a series of liberal groups sent a letter to the nation’s insurance departments, asking them to effectively undermine President Trump’s October executive order on health care. In so doing, the Left suddenly rediscovered the virtues of federalism in setting an independent policy course from Washington, particularly when governed by an executive of the opposite party.

Unfortunately, however, because Congress has yet to repeal Obamacare’s federally imposed regulations—as I noted just yesterday—legislators in conservative states will have little such recourse to seek freedom from Obamacare unless and until Congress takes action.

Liberals Want to Thwart More Affordable Coverage

For instance, the Trump administration likely will revoke an Obama administration rule prohibiting short-term insurance policies—which need not comply with any of Obamacare’s statutory requirements—from offering plans of longer than 90 days in duration. In such a circumstance, the liberal groups want states to “act swiftly if the federal rulemaking allows these plans to last beyond a reasonable ‘short term’”—in other words, reimpose the 90-day limit on short-term plans, currently codified via federal regulations, on the state level.

The liberal groups also asked states to “consider ways to protect against potential harm from” other elements of the executive order, including association health plans (AHPs) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs): “If the proposed federal rules are weakened for short-term plans, AHPs, or HRAs, we urge state insurance regulators to take action to protect consumers in your states.”

In this case, as in most cases with liberal groups, “consumer protection” means protecting individuals from becoming consumers—preventing them from buying insurance plans that liberals do not approve of.

One-Way Federalism, In the Wrong Direction

As a supporter of the Tenth Amendment, while I might not agree with state actions designed to prevent the sale of more affordable insurance options, I respect the rights of states to take such measures. Likewise, if Congress repeals Obamacare’s mandate to purchase insurance, and states wish to reimpose such a requirement at the state level, they absolutely should have the ability to do so.

Unfortunately, however, Congress’ failure to repeal Obamacare’s regulations has created a one-way federalism ratchet. Liberal areas can re-impose Obamacare’s regime at the state level, by blocking the sale of more affordable insurance plans, or re-imposing a mandate to purchase insurance. But because Congress has left all of Obamacare’s federally set regulations in place, conservative states cannot de-impose Obamacare at the state level, to allow more affordable coverage that does not meet all of the law’s requirements.

Admittedly, by not thwarting Trump’s regulatory actions, conservative states can allow the sale of more affordable insurance products—for now. However, those executive actions have real limits when compared to statutory changes.

Moreover, another president could—and in the case of a Democratic president, almost certainly would—undo those actions, collapsing what little freedom the executive order might infuse into the market. Regardless, states will remain hostage to actions in Washington to determine control of their health insurance marketplaces.

This dynamic brings no small amount of irony: Liberal groups have suddenly discovered the benefits of federalism to “resist” a Trump administration initiative, even as Republican senators like Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, by keeping the federally imposed pre-existing condition mandate in place, want to dictate to other states how their insurance markets should function.

At the risk of sounding like an apostate, liberals are on to something—not with respect to their policy recommendations, but to federalism as a means of achieving them. Perhaps one day, the party that purports to believe in the Tenth Amendment will follow suit, by getting rid of Obamacare’s federal regulations once and for all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Gov. Jindal Op-Ed: The GOP Mustn’t Offer Obamacare Lite

There is a secret that people outside of Washington, D.C., aren’t aware of right now: Some Republicans in Congress are on the verge of proposing an alternative to Obamacare that imposes new tax hikes on the American people.

On March 4, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could upend Obamacare completely. In King v. Burwell, the court — if it follows the plain text of the law, which says that only individuals purchasing coverage on an “exchange established by the state” are eligible for federal insurance subsidies — could cause disruption to individuals in the 36 states that did not establish a state exchange, and instead rely on the federally run healthcare.gov exchange. For this reason, many observers have argued that conservatives need to present an alternative vision of health reform before the court rules.

Take one major issue related to Obamacare: taxes. The law is chock full of them — no fewer than 18 revenue raisers totaling over $1 trillion through 2022.Yet several alternative proposals being discussed by Republicans don’t actually repeal the law’s tax increases. Instead, they repeal the law’s tax increases, only to replace them with new revenue hikes. So, rather than raise taxes by more than $1 trillion, as Obamacare did, these plans raise taxes by perhaps, say, “only” $500 billion.

This puts Republicans in the positions of being “cheap” Democrats, or Democrat-lite. We’ll raise taxes — but just … less than Obamacare. We’ll spend hundreds of billions on new entitlement programs — but just … less than Obamacare.

But the problem with programs that look like Obamacare is that they bring with them many of Obamacare’s problems. Remember when the Congressional Budget Office concluded that Obamacare will result in more than 2 million Americans working fewer hours, or leaving the labor force altogether? That’s because the law’s insurance subsidies are structured in ways that will cause individuals to work fewer hours, keeping their income low to maintain eligibility for subsidized insurance. Some so-called conservative health plans also have characteristics that will discourage work — even if perhaps less than Obamacare does.

So why talk about “conservative” health care reform if our vision turns us into cheap liberals? Why complain that Obamacare is expanding welfare and dependency, only to propose a similar — albeit smaller — program that could well have the same effects? If conservatives oppose Obamacare’s tax increases on the middle class, then why did one “conservative” health adviser propose accelerating the law’s tax on health plans by phasing it in sooner?

The reality is that while Beltway insiders in the elite salons of Washington can do and say whatever they want, the American people know better. A majority of voters — and even larger majorities of conservative and Republican voters — believe that “any replacement of Obamacare must repeal all of the Obamacare taxes and not just replace them with other taxes.” In other words, the voters won’t be fooled by quasi-liberal health plans masquerading in conservative clothing.

The other good news is that truly conservative health plans exist. Last year, I outlined a plan with America Next, the conservative policy group I founded. The plan focuses like a laser beam on controlling the health care issue that matters most to Americans — skyrocketing health costs. The plan empowers the states to enact reforms that can bring down costs, while also guaranteeing access for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Rather than stifling states with additional regulations from Washington, the America Next plan offers them incentives to improve their insurance markets in ways that offer more choices and lower costs. As a result, Americans should benefit from new avenues to buy portable health insurance they can own themselves — through their church, alumni group or trade association — and lower premiums, too. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office previously analyzed reforms similar to those in the America Next plan and found that they could reduce individual health insurance premiums by thousands of dollars per family.

I recognize there are other good conservative plans out there — and that’s great. For instance, the Republican Study Committee proposed reforming the tax treatment of health insurance without repealing and replacing the tax increases in Obamacare. We should have a robust debate and show both the Supreme Court and the American people that there are better ways to enact true reforms. But I don’t believe that any plan that repeals and replaces Obamacare’s trillions in taxes and spending is a conservative alternative — and the American people agree.

Recently, the left gave us an instructive lesson on why this debate about a conservative alternative is so important. The advocacy group Families USA released a report calling for a veritable orgy of new Obamacare-related spending — new subsidies, insurance mandates, even a proposal to extend subsidized insurance to illegal immigrants. It’s an important reminder, first that the left will always want more government intrusion in health care, and second that conservatives can never hope to outspend the left by acting as cheap liberals. That’s why it’s so important for our party to outline a conservative — repeat, conservative — vision for health care.

This post was originally published at Politico.

Who’s Going to Pay for This Obamacare Wish List?

I wrote in this space last June that supporters of the president’s health-care law had not made many specific suggestions about how to amend or otherwise change the Affordable Care Act. Last week, the advocacy group Families USA attempted to change that, releasing its “Health Reform 2.0” agenda of how to expand on Obamacare. But the paper also raises an important question for the law’s supporters—including presidential candidates running in 2016: How to pay for the myriad promises that liberal groups want to add to the health-care agenda?

The Families USA paper includes a full—and costly—wish list of new spending programs related to the law, including:

* Fixing the “family glitch,” in which families are ineligible for federal insurance subsidies if one member of the family has an offer of “affordable” employer-sponsored health coverage;

* Extending funding for children’s health insurance, a program that Obamacare funded only through September;

* Increasing federal cost-sharing subsidies—raising the amount of subsidies, currently provided to families with incomes under 250% of the federal poverty level, so as further to reduce deductibles and co-payments, and potentially raising the income cutoff for subsidies;

* Making permanent an increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates included in Obamacare that expired on Dec. 31, 2014;

* Extending coverage to immigrant populations (the report does not specify whether such coverage should also apply to the undocumented); and

* Increasing federal premium subsidies. Amending the current subsidy set-up in this way would necessitate two changes to current law, both of which would require an increase in federal spending. Congress would need to repeal the provision, set to kick in after 2019, scheduled to reduce the subsidies’ annual rate of growth; then lawmakers would have to pass the subsidy increase that Families USA advocates.

The proposal also contains numerous mandates on insurance plans—for instance, to cover adult dental care, all forms of pediatric care, and expand access to provider networks. These would come at a cost, raising insurance premiums for individuals and families—and raising costs for the federal government as well, related to the 87% of exchange participants receiving premium assistance subsidies.

While specific cost estimates for these proposals are unavailable, they are likely to be substantial. Cost concerns meant that the children’s health insurance program received funding for just a two-year extension in Obamacare. Likewise, the Medicaid reimbursement bump was so expensive—$8.3 billion—that lawmakers financed it for only 2013 and 2014 as part of the law. And Families USA’s proposed changes to the subsidy regime could cost far more: a 2011 study found that fixing just the “family glitch” could increase spending by nearly $50 billion per year.

In other words, a liberal group has proposed spending hundreds of billions—at minimum—on expanding Obamacare programs. And other than some suggestions about using government-imposed price controls—“direct intervention in pricing may ultimately be necessary”—the Families USA report contains precious little on paying for these expanded entitlements. It may have answered the “What?” when it comes to proposed “fixes” to the law, but it did not answer the “How much?” And as the law remains divisive, and federal debt continues to rise, the latter question must remain on the public agenda for some time to come.

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