Three Things to Know about “Surprise” Medical Bills

In recent months, lawmakers in Washington have focused on “surprise” medical bills. In large part, this term refers to two types of incidents: 1) individuals who received pre-arranged treatment at an in-network hospital, but saw an out-of-network physician (e.g., anesthesiologist) during their stay, or 2) individuals who had to seek care at an out-of-network hospital during a medical emergency.

In both cases, the out-of-network providers can “balance bill” patients—that is, send them an invoice for the difference between an insurer’s in-network payment and what the physician actually charged. Because these bills can become quite substantial, and because patients do not have a meaningful opportunity to consent to the higher charges—many patients never meet their anesthesiologist until the day of surgery, and few people can investigate hospital networks during an ambulance ride to the ER—policy-makers see reason to intervene.

1. Few Hospitals Comprise Most of the ‘Surprise’ Incidents

As a chart from The New York Times demonstrates, most hospitals had zero, or close to zero, out-of-network emergency room bills in 2015, according to a study by three Yale University professors:

“Surprise” bills applied in 22 percent of ER visits, but as a Times reporter noted, they are “not happening to some random set of patients in every hospital. [They’re] happening to a large percentage of patients in certain hospitals.”

As noted above, most hospitals don’t have this problem, because they keep their ER physicians and other doctors in-network. Unfortunately, however, the one-quarter or so of hospitals that have not forced their physicians in-network have made life difficult for the rest of the hospital sector.

The hospital industry should have done a much better job of policing itself and weeded out these “bad actors” years ago. Had they done so, the number of “surprise” bills likely would not have risen to a level where federal lawmakers demand action. However, the fact that these incidents still only occur in a minority of hospitals suggests reason for continued caution—because why should Congress impose a far-reaching solution to a “problem” that doesn’t affect most hospitals?

2. The Federal Government Has Little Reason to Intervene

Over and above the question of whether “surprise” bills warrant a legislative response, lawmakers should also ponder why that response must come from the federal government. Even knowledgeable reporters have (incorrectly) assumed that a solution to the issue must emanate from Washington because only the federal government can address “surprise” bills for self-funded employer plans. Not so.

ERISA, in this case, refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which regulates employer-provided health insurance. ERISA states that its provisions “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.”

But as that language indicates, ERISA applies only to the regulation of employee benefit plans—i.e., the employer as an insurer. It does not apply to the regulation of providers—i.e., hospitals, doctors, etc. As a Brookings Institution analyst admitted, states can, for instance, require hospitals to issue an in-network guarantee, ensuring that all doctors at an in-network hospital are considered in-network.

For most of the past year, interest groups have lobbied Congress on “surprise” billing. As one might expect, everyone wants a solution that takes patients out of the line of fire in negotiations between doctors, hospitals, and insurers, but no one wants to take a financial haircut in any solution that emerges.

The lack of agreement on a path forward indicates that Congress should take a back seat to the states, and let them innovate solutions to the issue. Indeed, several states have already enacted legislation on out-of-network bills, suggesting that Congress might do more harm than good by weighing in with its own “solution.”

3. Some Republicans Support Socialistic Price Controls

Both the comparatively isolated nature of the problem and the lack of a clear need for federal involvement suggest that some on the left continue to raise the “surprise” billing issue as part of a larger campaign. By establishing that the federal government should regulate the prices of health-care services—even those in private insurance plans—liberals can lay down a predicate for a single-payer health-care system that would do the exact same thing, just on a larger scale.

Sure enough, congressional Republicans, like Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, have endorsed legislation establishing a statutory cap on prices for out-of-network emergency services. (Remember: In policy-making, bipartisanship only occurs when conservatives agree to liberal policies.)

Both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee have introduced proposals that would engage in such federal price-fixing, although lawmakers recently modified the House bill to allow for binding arbitration between doctors and hospitals where the disputed sums exceed certain thresholds. Alexander wants to move his legislation on the Senate floor within weeks.

Last month, Alexander said he “instinctively” liked the in-network guarantee approach—which requires hospitals to have their physicians in-network, while letting insurers, hospitals, and doctors negotiate those in-network prices without setting them through government fiat. However, he told reporters that he ultimately endorsed the price-fixing approach because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) called it “the most effective at lowering health care costs.”

The retort to Alexander’s comment seems obvious: Of course, price-fixing will lower health care costs. Indeed, CBO said the price-fixing provision would save by far the greatest amount of money of any section of the nearly 250-page bill, because it “lower[s] payment rates” to physicians.

If Alexander suddenly wants to use price controls to lower health care costs, then why not regulate the prices of all health care services ($129.95 for surgery, anyone?)—or move to full-on single-payer? Because the quality of care will suffer too—as will American patients.

A Spoonful of Socialism, Anyone?

I noted above that the hospital industry caused the “surprise” billing problem in the first place. I have little love for hospital executives, many of whom behave like greedy monopolists, and who represent the single biggest argument for single-payer health care I can think of.

Yet however much hospital executives may have earned opprobrium by their conduct, the American people don’t deserve a single-payer system, with its massive economic disruption and its inferior care, foisted on them. They deserve better than federally imposed price controls as a “solution”—whether as the mere “spoonful of socialism” in the “surprise” billing legislation, or an all-out move to single-payer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are the Heritage Foundation’s Politics Betraying Its Policy?

When Ronald Reagan used the axiom “Trust but verify,” he meant conservatives should closely monitor organizations and individuals to ensure that their deeds comport with their words. This axiom should apply to a health-care plan that a group the Heritage Foundation leads will unveil this week. While the group’s website claims its plan would “restore a properly functioning market in the health care sector to lower costs,” Heritage’s own policy analysis suggests otherwise.

Specifically, the Heritage plan would in no way alter what Heritage research describes as the biggest drivers of Obamacare’s “seismic effects on insurance markets.” Nor does the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, the legislative basis for the new effort. In fact, a recent version of the bill further undermines the purported “flexibility” that Graham-Cassidy promises to states, making it even less consistent with the federal principles Heritage invokes in lauding the measure.

Pre-Existing Condition Rules Drive Premium Increases

The largest effect on premiums consists of a cluster of [Obamacare] insurance access requirements—specifically the guaranteed issue requirement and the prohibitions on medical underwriting and applying coverage exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions under any circumstances. This cluster of regulations collectively accounts for the largest share of premium increases.

The paper discusses at length how these provisions “appear to have had the greatest effect on premiums,” raising rates for the young and healthy to subsidize the sick. While Obamacare supporters hoped the individual mandate would compel enough healthy individuals to offset those costs, high numbers of people chose to pay the mandate tax or received exemptions from the tax.

“The net result was a constellation of rules that repelled relatively healthy people and attracted those who could reasonably expect their medical bills to exceed their premiums—which Obamacare’s individual mandate simply failed to counteract,” Heritage’s report says.

Rhetoric versus Reality on Graham-Cassidy

After analyzing how the pre-existing conditions provisions proved the prime driver of premium increases, the March Heritage paper claims Graham-Cassidy provides the solution, calling it “a conceptual framework for empowering states to repair or ameliorate much of the market dislocation resulting from Obamacare.”

Leaving all those regulatory requirements in place might sound good, but—just as the March Heritage paper noted—it causes major policy problems:

Insurance companies are required to sell ‘just-in-time’ policies even if people wait until they are sick to buy coverage. That’s just like the Obama plan. There is growing evidence that many are gaming the system by purchasing health insurance when they need surgery or other expensive medical care, then dropping it a few months later.

Those words were written in 2010 to describe the effects of Massachusetts’ health care law, but they apply just as equally to the Heritage plan, and the Graham-Cassidy bill, in 2018. Surprisingly, then, they came from another member of the group that is releasing the plan this week.

Despite these organizations’ own prior statements opposing these costly insurance requirements, the plan released by Heritage and others would leave them in place at the federal level, hamstringing states’ ability to manage their own insurance markets—and belying the supposed goal of devolving power away from Washington.

The Bill Is Getting Worse

Unfortunately, however, the revised draft takes major steps that would undermine states’ ability to create multiple risk pools. Language on page 31 would reduce the block grant allotment for states maintaining multiple risk pools, by a percentage not yet specified. Other new provisions on pages 44 and 45 of the revised draft would allow states to create multiple risk pools only if they follow a series of bureaucratic parameters—parameters that a future Democratic administration would likely use to quash any state’s attempt to establish or maintain multiple risk pools.

Not Flexible, Not Federalism

Even as the Graham-Cassidy bill moves further to the left, Heritage seems insistent on chasing it ever leftward. The bill never addressed what Heritage itself called the prime drivers of premium increases. Now a more recent version further erodes the little flexibility that earlier drafts gave to states.

As I wrote more than one year ago, Republicans can choose to leave the status quo intact on Obamacare’s major regulations, or they can choose to keep their promise to voters to repeal the law. But they cannot do both. It comes down to a binary choice that simple. And Heritage has chosen a path that would effectively break the promise of repeal.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

24 New Federal Requirements Added to the Graham-Cassidy Bill

Last week, I outlined how a white paper Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) released essentially advocated for Obamacare on steroids. That plan would keep the law’s most expensive (and onerous) federal insurance requirements, while calling for more taxpayer dollars to make that expensive coverage more “affordable.”

Unfortunately, Cassidy also would extend this highly regulatory approach beyond mere white papers and into legislation. A recently disclosed copy of a revised Graham-Cassidy bill—originally developed by Cassidy and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) last fall—imposes two dozen new requirements on states. These requirements would undermine the bill’s supposed goal of “state flexibility,” and could lead to a regime more onerous and expensive than Obamacare itself.

18 New ‘Adequate and Affordable’ Coverage Rules

Specifically, that coverage must:

  • Include four categories of basic services defined in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) statute:
    • Inpatient and outpatient hospital services;
    • Physicians’ surgical and medical services;
    • Laboratory and X-ray services, and
    • Well-baby and well-child care, including age-appropriate immunizations;
  • Include three categories of additional services also defined in the SCHIP statute:
    • Coverage of prescription drugs;
    • Vision services; and
    • Hearing services;
  • Include two other categories of services as defined by Obamacare:
    • Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment; and
    • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices;
  • Comply with actuarial value standards set by the SCHIP statute:
    • Cover at least 70 percent of estimated health expenses for the average consumer; and
  • Comply with requirements included in eight separate sections of the Public Health Service Act, as amended by Obamacare:
    • Section 2701—Rating premiums only based on age (with older applicants charged no more than three times younger applicants), family size, geography, and tobacco use;
    • Section 2702—Required acceptance for every individual or employer who applies for coverage (i.e., guaranteed issue);
    • Section 2703—Guaranteed renewability of coverage;
    • Section 2704—Prohibition on pre-existing condition exclusions;
    • Section 2705—Prohibition on discriminating against individuals based on health status;
    • Section 2708—Prohibition on excessive waiting periods;
    • Section 2711—Prohibition on annual or lifetime limits; and
    • Section 2713—Requiring first-dollar coverage of preventive services without cost-sharing (i.e., deductibles and co-payments).

As noted above, “adequate and affordable health insurance coverage” would include many of Obamacare’s insurance requirements, and in at least one way would exceed them. Whereas Section 1302(d) of Obamacare requires selling insurance with an actuarial value—that is, the percentage of medical expenses paid for the average individual—of at least 60 percent, the revised Graham-Cassidy would require “adequate and affordable” coverage with an actuarial value of at least 70 percent.

If asked, Graham and Cassidy might state that these requirements would only apply to a certain subset of the population. After all, the revised bill text indicates that each state “shall ensure access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage (as defined in clause (ii))”—the clause referring to the 18 separate requirements listed above—“for [high-risk individuals].” The bill lists the brackets in the original, which might indicate that Cassidy’s office intends to apply these 18 separate coverage requirements only to plans that high-risk persons purchase.

Thankfully, the new draft removes the “population adjustment factor” allowing CMS to rewrite the block grant formula unilaterally. But even as it took away CMS’ power to alter the funding formula, new language on page 15 of the revised draft allows CMS to cancel states’ block grant funds for “substantial noncompliance.” That provision, coupled with the revised bill’s lack of definition regarding “affordable” coverage and “high-risk individual” provides a future Democratic administration with two clear ways to hijack the block grant program.

For instance, a new administration could define “high-risk individual” so broadly that it would apply to virtually all Americans, subjecting them to the 18 costly coverage requirements. A new administration could also define “affordable” in such a manner—for instance, premiums may not exceed 5 percent of an individual’s income—that states would have to subsidize insurance with sizable amounts of state funds, in addition to the federal dollars included in the block grant. Any state failing to comply with these edicts could see its entire block grant yanked for “substantial noncompliance” with the bureaucratically imposed guidelines.

It seems paradoxical to assert that a bill can be both too prescriptive, imposing far too many requirements on states that undermine the supposed goal of “state flexibility,” and too vague, giving vast amounts of authority to federal bureaucrats. Yet somehow the section on “adequate and affordable health coverage” manages to do both.

Two New Required Uses of Block-Grant Funds

Supporters of the bill would argue that these supposed “guardrails” will prevent states from subsidizing Medicaid coverage, or creating some other government-run health program. But as I noted last week, Obamacare has its own “guardrails” regarding state waivers, which undermine any attempt to deregulate insurance markets.

By adding these new “guardrails,” Graham-Cassidy would essentially replicate Obamacare, albeit with slightly different policy objectives: “The Cassidy plan would give states the ‘flexibility’ to do what Bill Cassidy wants them to do, and only what Bill Cassidy wants them to do. That isn’t flexibility at all.”

Block Grant Reductions with Multiple Risk Pools

On Page 31, the bill includes new language requiring a reduction in block-grant funds, by a percentage not specified, for states electing to create multiple risk pools. Under current law, Section 1312(c) of Obamacare requires insurers to place all individual insurance market enrollees—whether they purchase coverage through the exchange or not—in a single risk pool.

If a state elects to choose multiple risk pools and uses a “substantial portion” of its block grant to subsidize insurance with an actuarial value of under 50 percent, then the state would see an unspecified reduction in its block grant. This language contains many of the flaws of the other provisions described above: It nowhere defines what comprises a “substantial portion” of the block grant, and penalizes states that may choose to create multiple risk pools and subsidize only catastrophic insurance coverage, thus belying Graham-Cassidy’s promise of “state flexibility.”

3 New Requirements for State Waivers

The revised Graham-Cassidy text moves and alters language regarding state waivers of Obamacare’s federal insurance requirements, and in so doing makes three substantive changes. (The original language started in the middle of page 143 of the bill; the new language begins on the top of page 42 of the revised bill.)

First, and perhaps most disturbingly, the revised bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to waive Obamacare’s insurance requirements for a state only if “such state establishes an equivalent requirement applicable to such coverage in such state.” Taken literally, this provision could mean that states could “opt-out” of Obamacare’s federal requirements if and only if they enshrine those exact same requirements in state law—rendering any supposed “flexibility” under Graham-Cassidy completely nonexistent.

Graham and Cassidy may not have meant to craft language with such a literal interpretation. They may mean to say, for instance, that a state can waive out of Obamacare’s age-rating requirements (which prohibit insurers from charging older people more than three times what they charge younger people) if they establish a more permissive regime—for instance, five-to-one age rating—on the state level.

But taken literally, that’s not what the current bill text says. That vague language raises serious questions about the authors’ intent, and why they chose such unclear, and arguably sloppy, bill language.

Second, the section imposes two new requirements on states selecting multiple risk pools. As noted above, those states would have to comply with the 18 new requirements regarding “adequate and affordable” health coverage, and states creating multiple risk pools could see their block grant reduced as a result.

In addition, however, states must also guarantee that insurers offering coverage in one risk pool offer coverage in all of them. Moreover, premiums charged “by a health insurance issuer for the same health coverage offered in different risk pools in the state [may] not vary by more than 3 to 1.”

The first requirement echoes the Consumer Freedom Amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) last year. That amendment allowed insurers to offer plans that did not comply with Obamacare’s requirements, so long as they continued to offer one Obamacare-compliant plan. The second requirement would effectively limit the extent to which insurers could charge individuals more on the basis of pre-existing conditions or health status.

Two Dozen (More) Reasons for State Concern

Both individually and collectively, these two dozen new requirements inserted into the most recent version of Graham-Cassidy present problems for conservatives. The myriad requirements would sharply limit the bill’s ability to deliver lower premiums to consumers—one major goal of “repeal-and-replace” legislation.

More broadly, though, the revised bill drifts further away from any semblance of conservative objectives. While Graham-Cassidy purports to provide more flexibility to states, the revised bill would instead ensnare them in numerous requirements that would impede any attempt at innovation.

Like the proverbial Lilliputians who attempted to tie down Gulliver, the new bill looks to rob states of their ability to manage their own insurance markets and lower premiums for residents, one federal requirement at a time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Bill Cassidy’s New Health Plan Is Obamacare on Steroids

On Tuesday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) released a policy white paper with ideas he claimed would “make health care affordable again.” By and large, however, the plan would do no such thing.

Some of the plan’s ideas—promoting consumer transparency in health care, for instance, promoting primary care, and cracking down on monopolistic practices that impede competition—have merit, although people can quibble with the extent to which Washington can, or should, solve those problems.

Fake Flexibility

Cassidy bases his plan on a state-based block-grant funding model, similar to the legislation he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) developed last fall. Cassidy cites various state experimental programs to argue that a block-grant approach would allow more room for innovation.

However, the last sentence of the proposal undermines the rest of the discussion: “Flexibility to states would not jeopardize protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions.” That phrase implies that Cassidy believes, as the Graham-Cassidy bill indicated, that Obamacare’s federal insurance requirements regarding pre-existing conditions should remain in place.

That sentence belies the idea that states would get true flexibility to construct their insurance markets however they like. Instead, the Cassidy plan would represent a variation on Obamacare, whose state waiver program essentially lets them add more requirements and more government to their insurance markets, but not take requirements away. Put another way, the Cassidy plan would give states the “flexibility” to do what Bill Cassidy wants them to do, and only what Bill Cassidy wants them to do. That isn’t flexibility at all.

Costly Requirements Remain in Place

For instance, loosening Obamacare’s essential health benefits while keeping the pre-existing condition requirements will encourage insurers to stop covering treatments like chemotherapy. Because they must continue to accept all sick patients, and charge them the same rates as healthy ones, insurers will try to limit their losses by not covering cancer drugs, thereby discouraging cancer patients from applying for coverage.

The combination of these two policy dilemmas could result in the worst of all possible worlds, from both a political and policy standpoint: A plan that does not reduce premiums appreciably—because it keeps the most costly federal insurance requirements intact—yet still encourages insurers to discriminate against the sick.

Throwing Money at the Problem

Rather than trying to solve the problems Obamacare’s federal insurance requirements have caused, as I previously suggested, Cassidy’s plan goes to great lengths to avoid them. He endorses the health insurance “stability” (read: bailout) measure proposed by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) earlier this year. Rather than lowering premiums by removing the federal insurance requirements, that plan would lower premiums—albeit only temporarily—by throwing more taxpayer funds at insurers.

Moreover, the need for more federal funding belies Cassidy’s claim that his plan would “make health care affordable again.” States should not need any more funding to encourage insurance enrollment, particularly if they receive sufficient flexibility from federal requirements to bring down premiums. Cassidy knows that any flexibility will prove illusory. As with a “stability” package, he proposes making coverage more “affordable” by throwing other people’s money at the problem.

Neither Repeal Nor Reform

I wrote last April, well before lawmakers ever contemplated the Graham-Cassidy measure, that “Republicans have a choice: They can either retain the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination—and the regulations and subsidies that go with it—or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare.” Judging from the ideas in his policy paper, Cassidy has made his choice: He supports Obamacare.

But more of the same—more spending to finance the same costly insurance because of the same costly federal insurance requirements—doesn’t constitute a repeal of Obamacare. It doesn’t even come close. Would that Cassidy, and his colleagues in Congress, actually thought about keeping their word and enacting the repeal they promised.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Graham-Cassidy and Conservative Health Reform

In its February budget submission to Congress, the Trump administration endorsed legislation “modeled after” the bill Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced last year, which would devolve much of Obamacare’s entitlement spending to the states.

The budget claims this legislation “would allow states to use the block grant for a variety of approaches in order to help their citizens.” But based on the most recent public version, the Graham-Cassidy bill needs significant changes to deliver true flexibility to states.

The administration endorsed Graham-Cassidy because it believes the legislation would give states flexibility to embrace a “variety of approaches” to health care and health insurance. But would the most recent version of the bill allow Idaho to implement its reforms without federal intrusion? In a word, no.

In at least two respects, Idaho’s plan violates the many federal requirements that would remain intact under Graham-Cassidy. Idaho’s proposal to allow annual limits of over $1,000,000, and its proposal to allow surcharges of up to 50 percent for individuals who do not maintain continuous coverage, both contravene the Washington-imposed regulatory apparatus Graham-Cassidy retains.

This raises an obvious question: If the only state-based insurance reform plan proposed to date violates Graham-Cassidy, then how much “flexibility” does the legislation really provide? To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, conservatives have not spent the past eight years fighting to roll back a Washington-based, regulatory leviathan imposed by a Democratic Congress, only to see that leviathan reimposed by a Republican one.

To its credit, the Trump administration has worked to roll back Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Consistent with its promise in the budget to generate “relie[f] from many of [Obamacare’s] insurance rules and pricing restrictions,” the administration has proposed rules allowing greater access to short-term insurance coverage and association health plans, both of which are exempt from some or all of the Obamacare statutory restrictions.

But make no mistake: While these actions will give some individuals freedom from Obamacare’s restrictions, they will not give states the control they deserve over their own insurance markets. To give the states the freedom that the Trump administration promised, Congress must repeal the federally imposed regulatory superstructure Obamacare created. Only by doing so will Washington give states the true flexibility to explore alternative visions of health care for their citizens—Graham-Cassidy’s stated goal.

If Congress does not act to give states freedom, a future Democratic administration will reimpose each and every health care regulation the Trump administration loosened—and many more besides. The Center for American Progress made as much crystal-clear recently, when in releasing the Left’s next plan for (more) government-run health care, it proposed legislation that would “leave little to no discretion to the Administration [of the day] on policy matters.”

To the Left, Obamacare isn’t about power so much as control. As President Reagan famously stated, the “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital” think they can “plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” To liberals’ unquenchable desire to arrogate more power in Washington, conservatives must respond with freedom—freedom for states, and ultimately to businesses and individuals, to buy the coverage they want, and innovate in ways that can lower health spending.

The Graham-Cassidy bill has other flaws. It retains most of Obamacare’s spending (albeit disbursed to the states through the block grant) and all of its major tax increases. But at its core, the debate over health care remains one of control: Whether Washington will try to micromanage 50 states and more than 300 million people, or whether states and citizens can lead the way. We stand with the people—and hope that, after eight years of promises, the Republican Congress finally does likewise.

This post, co-written with former Sen. Jim DeMint, was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans, Stop Avoiding Obamacare’s Problems and Start Fixing Them

With Congress having barely staved off attempts at a massive bailout of health insurers and Obamacare, the obvious question in health policy becomes: What should Congress do now?

Unfortunately, Republicans seem insistent on doing anything but solving the ultimate problem. As I have written on more occasions than I care to count, Obamacare’s regulatory scheme—particularly its requirements for pre-existing conditions—explain why premiums more than doubled from 2013 to 2017. That onerous regime necessitated requiring individuals to purchase, and employers to offer, health coverage; subsidies to make the (newly expensive) coverage more “affordable”; and tax increases and Medicare reductions to fund the subsidies.

One other option discussed of late would avoid addressing the problem entirely, by codifying the Trump administration’s proposed changes to short-term health plans. On one hand, this approach would provide a benefit, as short-term plans remain exempt from all the new requirements Obamacare imposes.

But the health care law’s regulatory regime created not one, but two, related problems. First, it raised premiums for most forms of insurance. But just as importantly, it did so via a massive federal intrusion into a realm—health insurance—where states had virtual free rein for nearly seven decades. Following passage of the McCarran-Ferguson Act in 1947, the federal government exercised minimal control of states’ individual health insurance markets, until Obamacare.

To see the effects of Obamacare on state markets, take the case of Idaho. The state wants to permit the sale of insurance plans that meet some, but not all, of the law’s regulatory requirements. But unfortunately, because the federal statute supersedes a state’s wishes, the Trump administration recently told Idaho it cannot offer policies that do not comply with federal law.

However, the idea that a Republican Congress would codify the rules on short-term plans, while keeping in place the onerous federally imposed regime that micro-manages all 50 states’ health insurance markets, defies any commitment to the principles of federalism. At least one state has publicly called short-term plans an insufficient option for its residents. Others very likely agree. If they believe in federalism, why would lawmakers in Washington purposefully deny Idahoans the freedom to make their own choices?

Last month’s White House budget claimed the Graham-Cassidy health care legislation would “support states as they transition to more sustainable health care programs that provide appropriate choices for their citizens.” But a bill keeping Obamacare’s regulatory regime in place, while allowing short-term plans as a “lifeboat” for those who wish it, would do the exact opposite. Such legislation might give freedom to some individuals, but it would not give any freedom to states to manage their own health insurance markets as they see fit, or to “provide appropriate choices for their citizens.”

I wrote last April that Republicans faced a binary choice: They could keep the status quo on pre-existing conditions, or they could repeal Obamacare—but they cannot do both. Instead of throwing money at the problem, or using political dodges like short-term plans to avoid it, they should get about actually fixing the underlying problem. Or come clean with the American people, and admit that they never wanted to repeal Obamacare in the first place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AHP Proposed Rule: Expanding Affordability, Washington Control, or Both?

Why would Sen. Rand Paul praise as “conservative care health reform” a proposed regulation that increases Washington’s power?

A proposed rule released Thursday regarding association health plans (AHPs) will likely provide more affordable health coverage options to the self-employed, or individuals working for small businesses. However, it would do so by increasing the number of individuals purchasing health coverage regulated by Washington, making it a mixed bag for conservatives.

A Look at Current Law

  1. Essential health benefits (including actuarial value requirements, limits on out-of-pocket expenses, and deductibles in the small group market);
  2. Risk adjustment payments;
  3. Single risk pool requirements (i.e., requiring insurers to consider all individual coverage, and all small group coverage, offered in a state as one block of business); and
  4. Premium variation requirements imposing strict limits on age-rating, and prohibiting variation by anything other than age, family size, geography, and tobacco use.

The absence of all these requirements gives large group coverage a decided regulatory advantage compared to individual and small group coverage. Self-insured health plans—that is, employer plans that retain the insurance risk themselves—are likewise exempt from the Obamacare requirements listed above, regardless of the business’ size (i.e., whether they have more or fewer than 50 employees).

However, for AHPs that currently buy coverage from insurance carriers (i.e., “fully insured” plans), the Obama administration in 2011 issued guidance that stated regulators would “look through” the association to its members to determine whether their coverage qualified as small group or large group. To give an example, consider an association of restaurant franchises with two members: one with 30 employees, and one with 75 employees. While the restaurant with 75 employees would meet the standard of a large group plan, the one with 30 would classify as a small group plan.

As a result of the 2011 guidance, coverage for the latter would have to meet all the Obamacare coverage requirements for small group plans listed above, making coverage for the larger employer either administratively cumbersome (because two employers would have two different regulatory benefit packages), costlier (because the larger restaurant would have to comply with the small group requirements as part of an association, even though that restaurant would not have to comply if it bought coverage on its own), or both.

What the Proposed Rule Does

In general, the proposed rule would:

  1. “Relax the existing requirement that associations sponsoring AHPs must exist for a reason other than offering health insurance.” Associations must still be run by their members—for instance, Blue Cross or other insurers couldn’t try to form, and run, an “association” just to offer group health coverage—but need not exist for other purposes.
  2. “Relax the requirement that association members share a common interest, as long as they operate in a common geographic area”—either a state, or a metropolitan area encompassing multiple states (e.g., greater Washington DC).
  3. “Make clear that associations whose members operate in the same industry can sponsor AHPs, regardless of geographic distribution.”
  4. “Clarify that working owners and their dependents,” including the self-employed, “are eligible to participate in AHPs.” These individuals must meet certain proposed requirements—working for the business at least 30 hours per week, or 120 hours per month, or generating income from the business equal to the cost of coverage for the owner and his/her family—designed to ensure individuals do not form “businesses” solely for the purposes of purchasing association health coverage.

The Effects on Insurance Offerings

Even prior to the rule’s release, liberal Obamacare supporters claimed the policy represents another attempt to “sabotage” the law, because healthier people will purchase AHP coverage lacking Obamacare’s “consumer protections.” Attempting to respond to that criticism, the proposed rule includes several non-discrimination provisions, prohibiting associations from discriminating in offering membership based on the health status of members’ employees, or varying premiums or eligibility for benefits based on health status. Liberals respond that employers could discriminate through benefit offerings—for instance, not covering chemotherapy to discourage businesses with cancer patients from applying.

However, large employers already exempted from the Obamacare benefits don’t have to offer any such coverage currently, and I have yet to hear any major reports about IBM or General Motors “discriminating” against patients with pre-existing conditions. If these employers haven’t used an exemption from Obamacare coverage requirements to offer shoddy health coverage, then why do liberals believe that other employers will?

How This Affects Federal Power

In general, the rule would expand cross-state purchasing of health insurance. However, it would not do so by allowing people to purchase coverage across state lines—for instance, allowing a Maryland resident to buy a policy regulated in Virginia. Instead, it would allow more individuals to buy federally regulated coverage, regardless of the state in which they live.

Because the rule would eliminate the need for AHPs to comply with Obamacare requirements, it would lower premiums in the short term. However, in the longer term, the nature of the proposal raises two risks. On the one hand, a future administration could revoke the rule, minimizing AHPs’ scope and impact. On the other, a new administration—or a Democratic Congress—could easily glom more federal regulatory requirements on to AHPs and other forms of group coverage.

As I have written previously, the regulatory regime represents the heart of Obamacare. The proposed rule attempts a “kludgy” work-around of that regime, but one that, by increasing federal control over health insurance, may end up causing more trouble over the long term. Congress can—and should—do far better, by repealing the regulatory regime outright, and returning control of health insurance markets where it belongs: To the states.

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.

Repealing Obamacare Is about the Regulations, Stupid

As Congress considers repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate as part of tax reform, some conservatives believe doing so would “fulfill [Republicans’] promise to the American people” by “return[ing] personal decisions about health care choices to patients.”

In reality, however, repealing only the mandate would accomplish little of the former, and virtually none of the latter. For this conservative, at least, the answer to what would fulfill Republicans’ promise echoes James Carville: At its core, an Obamacare repeal is about the regulations, stupid.

We Don’t Want to Own the Consequences of Our Policies

In 2009, Democrats probably didn’t want to subject themselves to attacks for spending trillions of dollars on new entitlements. They didn’t want to take the political hit for raising taxes and reducing Medicare spending to pay for those entitlements. Also, Democrats—not least Barack “Mandate to Buy a House” Obama, who ran against the mandate in the 2008 presidential primaries—certainly didn’t want to require individuals to purchase government-mandated insurance.

But they realized that imposing unprecedented federal regulations on insurers would raise premiums, necessitating requirements on employers to offer, and individuals to purchase, that costlier coverage, higher spending on subsidies to make that more expensive coverage “affordable,” and new taxes to pay for that higher spending.

By contrast, repealing only the mandate would do nothing to restore health-care freedom, or “return health care choices to patients.” While Americans would not face taxes for not buying coverage they may not want, need, or afford, they would have no greater or lesser ability to buy coverage they do want and can afford than they did in the first place, because all of Obamacare’s regulations would remain in place.

But neither proposal undermined Obamacare’s central principle: That Washington can and should impose myriad regulations on insurers. In fact, by creating an opt-out process at the federal level, both bills effectively reinforced Washington’s control of health insurance.

Both Parties Want to Control Americans’ Health Choices

It’s worth emphasizing the unprecedented nature of the change Obamacare wrought. Since 1947’s McCarran-Ferguson Act, which devolved regulation of insurance to states, the federal government made few and minimal intrusions into health insurance markets—until Obamacare. Yet purportedly conservative lawmakers have not pushed back on this breach of Tenth Amendment principles, with Washington intruding into states’ business.

For instance, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claimed the proposal he and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced would “empower each individual state to choose the path that works best for them.” Unfortunately, however, that plan would keep in place federal dictates regarding pre-existing conditions—the most costly of all the Obamacare mandates. There are other, arguably better, ways to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions than a federally imposed requirement, but by keeping control in Washington, the Graham-Cassidy plan would effectively preclude states from exploring them.

Two years ago, for procedural and tactical reasons, Republicans chose not to attach provisions repealing Obamacare’s insurance regulations to the repeal bill that went to President Obama’s desk. If they fail to repeal—not waive, or opt-out, but repeal—the regulations this time around, they will undermine federalism and fail to meet their promise to eradicate Obamacare “root and branch.”

For both the Tenth Amendment and the American people looking for relief from Obamacare’s spiraling costs, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: Congress Should Investigate, Not Bail Out, Health Regulators Who Risked Billions

What if a group of regulators were collectively blindsided by a decision that cost their industry billions of dollars? One might think Congress would investigate the causes of this regulatory debacle, and take steps to ensure it wouldn’t repeat itself.

Think again. President Trump’s October decision to terminate cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidy payments to health insurers will inflict serious losses on the industry. For October, November, and December, insurers will reduce deductibles and co-payments for certain low-income exchange enrollees, but will not receive reimbursement from the federal government for doing so. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, claimed in a recent court filing that insurance carriers will suffer $1.75 billion in losses over the remainder of 2017 due to the decision.

As Dave Anderson of Duke University recently noted, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet Congress has asked not even a single question of regulators why they did not anticipate and plan for this scenario—a recipe for more costly mistakes in the future.

A Brewing Legal and Political Storm

The controversy surrounds federal payments that reimburse insurers for lower deductibles, co-payments, and out-of-pocket expenses for qualifying low-income households purchasing exchange coverage. While the text of Obamacare requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to reimburse insurers for providing the discounts, it nowhere includes an explicit appropriation for such spending.

As the exchanges launched in 2014, the Obama administration began making CSR payments to insurers. However, later that year, the House of Representatives, viewing a constitutional infringement on its “power of the purse,” sued to stop the executive from making the payments without an explicit appropriation. In May 2016, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional absent an express appropriation from Congress.

The next President could easily wade into this issue. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress. Such an action could take effect almost immediately….It’s a consideration as carriers submit their bids for next year that come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different.

One week after my article, Collyer issued her ruling calling the subsidy payments unconstitutional. At that point, CSR payments faced threats from both the legal and political realms. On the legal front, the ongoing court case could have resulted in an order terminating the payments. On the political side, the new administration would have the power to terminate the payments unilaterally—and it does not appear that either Hillary Clinton or Trump ever publicly committed to maintaining the payments upon taking office.

Yet Commissioners Stood Idly By

In the midst of this gathering storm, what actions did insurance commissioners take last year, as insurers filed their rates for the 2017 plan year—the plan year currently ongoing—to analyze whether cost-sharing payments would continue, and the effects on insurers if they did not? About a week before the Trump administration officially decided to halt the payments, I submitted public records requests to every state insurance commissioner’s office to find out.

Two states (Indiana and Oregon) are still processing my requests, but the results from most other states do not inspire confidence. Although a few states (Illinois, Utah, and California’s Department of Managed Health Care) withheld documents for confidentiality or logistical reasons, I have yet to find a single document during the filing process for the 2017 plan year contemplating the set of circumstances that transpired this fall—namely, a new administration cutting off the CSR payments.

In many cases, states indicated they did not, and do not, question insurers’ assumptions at all. North Dakota said it does not dictate terms to carriers (although the state did not allow carriers to re-submit rates for the 2018 plan year after the administration halted the CSR payments in October). Wyoming said it did not issue guidance to carriers on CSRs “because that’s not how we roll.” Missouri did not require its insurers to file 2017 rates with regulators, so it would have no way of knowing those insurers’ assumptions.

Other states admitted that they did not consider the possibility that the incoming administration would, or even could, terminate the CSR payments. North Carolina said it did not think the court case was relevant, or that cost-sharing reduction payments would be an issue. Massachusetts’ insurance Connector (its state-run exchange) responded that “there was no indication that rates for 2017 were affected by the pendency of House v. Burwell,” the case Collyer ruled on in May 2016.

Despite the ongoing court case and the deep partisan disputes over Obamacare, many commissioners’ responses indicate a failure to anticipate difficulties with cost-sharing reduction payments. Mississippi stated that, during the filing process for 2017, “CSRs weren’t a problem then, as they were being funded.” Minnesota added that “it was not until the spring of 2017 that carriers started discussing the threat [of CSR payments being terminated] was a real possibility.” Nebraska stated that “I don’t think that there’s anyone who allowed for the possibility of non-payment of CSRs for plan year 2017. We were all waiting for Congress to act.”

However, as an e-mail sent by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to state regulators demonstrates, federal authorities at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated their “serious concerns” with the Texas and New Mexico proposals. Federal law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for qualifying beneficiaries, regardless of the status of the reimbursement program, and CMS believed the contingency language—which never went into effect in either Texas or New Mexico—violated that requirement.

In at least one case, an insurer raised premiums to reflect the risk that CSR payments could disappear in 2017. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana submitted such request to that state’s insurance authorities. However, regulators rejected “contingent CSR language”—apparently an attempt to cancel the reduced cost-sharing if reimbursement from Washington was not forthcoming, a la the Texas and New Mexico proposals. The insurance commissioner’s office also objected to the carrier’s attempt to raise premiums over the issue: “We will not allow rates to be increased based on speculation about outcomes of litigation.”

Of course, had insurers requested, or had regulators either approved or demanded, premium increases last year due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reduction payments, they would not now face the prospect of over $1 billion in losses due to non-payment of CSRs for the last three months of 2017. But had regulators approved even higher premium increases last year, those increases likely would have caused political controversy during the November elections.

As it was, news of the average 25 percent premium increase for 2017 gave Trump a political cudgel to attack Clinton in the waning days of the campaign. One can certainly question why Democratic insurance commissioners who did not utter a word about premium increases and CSR “uncertainty” during Clinton’s campaign suddenly discovered the term the minute Trump was elected president.

However, at least some ardent Obamacare supporters just did not anticipate a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments. Washington state’s commissioner, Mike Kreidler, published an op-ed last October regarding the House v. Burwell court case. He did so at the behest of NAIC consumer representative Tim Jost, who wanted to cite Kreidler’s piece in an amicus curiae brief during the case’s appeal. But despite their focus on the court case regarding CSRs, it appears neither Jost nor Kreidler ever contemplated a new administration withdrawing the payments in 2017.

Congressional Oversight Needed

The evidence suggests that not a single insurance commissioner considered the impact of a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments in 2017, a series of decisions that put the entire health of the individual insurance market at risk. What policy implications follow from this conclusion?

First, it undercuts the effectiveness of Obamacare’s “rate review” process. That mechanism requires states to evaluate “excessive” premium increases. However, the program’s evaluation criteria do not explicitly include policy judgments such as those surrounding CSRs. Moreover, the political focus on lowering “excessively” high premium increases might result in cases where regulators approve premium rates set inappropriately low—as happened in 2017, where no carriers priced in a contingency margin for the termination of CSR payments, yet those payments ceased in October.

As noted above, Montana’s regulators called out that state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate for proposing a rate increase relating to CSR uncertainty. The state’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, issued a formal “letter of deficiency” in which she stated that “raising rates on the basis of this assumption [i.e., loss of cost-sharing reduction payments] is unreasonable.” But events proved Lindeen wrong—those payments did disappear in 2017. Yet the insurer in question has no recourse after their assumptions proved more accurate than Lindeen’s—nor, for that matter, will Lindeen face any consequences for the “unreasonable” assumptions she made.

Second, it suggests an inherent tension between state authorities and Washington. Several regulators specifically said they looked to CMS’ advice on the cost-sharing reduction issue. Iowa requested guidance from Washington, and Wisconsin said the status of the payments was “out of our hands.” But given the impending change of administrations, any guidance CMS provided in the spring or summer of 2016 was guaranteed to remain valid only through January 20, 2017—a problem for regulators setting rates for the 2017 plan year.

Obamacare created a new layer of federal oversight—and federal policy—surrounding regulation of insurance, which heretofore had laid primarily within the province of the states. The CSR debacle resulted from the conflict between those two layers. Unless and until our laws reconcile those tensions—in conservatives’ case, by repealing the Obamacare regime and returning regulation to the states, or in liberals’ preferred outcome, by centralizing more regulatory authority in Washington—these conflicts could well recur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it should spark Congress to examine state oversight of health insurance in greater detail. The fact that insurance commissioners escaped the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane—the withdrawal of CSR payments in January—and struggled through a mere tropical storm with payments withdrawn in October instead, had no relevance on their regulatory skill—to the contrary, in fact.

Unfortunately, Congress has demonstrated little interest in examining why the regulatory apparatus fell so short. The same Democratic Party that investigated regulators and bankers following the financial crisis has shown little interest in questioning why insurers and insurance regulators failed to anticipate the end of cost-sharing reduction payments. With their focus on getting Congress to appropriate funds restoring the CSR payments President Trump terminated, insurance commissioners’ lack of planning and preparation represents an inconvenient truth that Democrats would rather ignore.

Likewise, Republicans who wish to appropriate funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments have no interest in examining the roots of the CSR debacle. In September, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to take testimony from insurance commissioners on “stabilizing” insurance markets.

At the hearing, Alexander did not ask the commissioners why they did not predict the “uncertainty” surrounding cost-sharing reductions last year. HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Kreidler, her state’s insurance commissioner, about regulators’ “guessing games” regarding the status of CSRs with regard to the 2018 plan year. But neither she nor any of the members asked why those regulators made such blind and ultimately incorrect assumptions last year, by not even considering a scenario where CSR payments disappeared during the 2017 plan year.

Alexander and Murray claim the legislation they developed following the hearing, which would appropriate CSR funds for two years, does not represent a “bailout” for the insurance industry. But the fact remains that last fall, when preparing for the 2017 plan year, insurance regulators dropped the ball in a big way.

Ignoring their inaction, and appropriating funds for cost-sharing reductions without scrutinizing their conduct, would effectively bail out insurance commissioners’ own collective negligence. Congress should think twice before doing so, because next time, a regulatory debacle could have an even bigger impact on the health insurance industry—and on federal taxpayers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.