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.

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.

New Precedent Allows Congress to Dismantle (Some of) Obamacare

What does a ruling about automobile financing have to do with Obamacare? As it turns out, plenty.

This week the Senate acted to repeal a piece of regulatory guidance the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued back in March 2013. As a Politico report Wednesday noted, that precedent allows Congress to nullify other regulatory actions the federal government took years ago—including those on Obamacare.

1996 Law Allows for Expedited Process

Until this week, Congress has generally enacted CRA resolutions of disapproval following a change in administration, when one party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. In 2001, Republicans passed, and President George W. Bush signed, a resolution of disapproval negating an ergonomics rule promulgated in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Last year, the Republican Congress passed and President Trump signed 14 resolutions of disapproval undoing Obama administration actions.

Action on CRA resolutions of disapproval undoing Obama administration actions had largely ended last year. The CRA provides that Congress can consider resolutions of disapproval under expedited procedures only within 60 legislative days of the rule’s “submission or publication date.” Because the Obama administration’s final regulatory actions occurred early in 2017, the 60 legislative-day clock ran out last year—or so it appeared.

However, as the Heritage Foundation’s Paul Larkin has argued for many years, the CRA contains a big catch. According to the law, the expedited procedures apply for the 60 legislative days following “the later of the date on which” Congress receives a required report on the regulatory action, or the action is published in the Federal Register. If an administration never officially submitted a report to Congress, the 60 legislative-day clock never began, and the current Congress can still pass a resolution of disapproval under the CRA-expedited procedures.

Because the Obama administration did not consider the CFPB document a “rule,” it never submitted it to Congress, as required by the CRA. The 60 legislative-day clock never expired, because the Obama administration never started it by submitting the document to Congress. That meant the Senate could, and did, pass a resolution of disapproval negating the CFPB guidance this week, more than five years after CFPB first issued it.

Now Congress can do the same thing regarding Obamacare.

This Opens Lots of Doors for Obamacare Regs

To be sure, Congress cannot pass resolutions of disapproval regarding Obamacare rules that the Obama administration officially submitted years ago, which is most of them. But in some cases, the last administration may not have formally submitted sub-regulatory guidance, giving Congress an opening to repeal at least part of Obamacare’s regulatory structure.

I wrote early last year that the Trump administration should unilaterally revoke that guidance, but unfortunately, it has not done so yet. However, if the Obama administration never submitted that guidance to Congress, then Congress—using the precedent set this week—can pass a resolution of disapproval negating it. Alternatively, Congress can consider starting action on a resolution of disapproval, to get the Trump administration off the proverbial dime in revoking the guidance themselves.

The CRA precedent set this week also serves as a cautionary tale for the Trump administration, a warning to act thoroughly with its own regulatory actions. For instance, the guidance to state Medicaid programs issued earlier this year regarding work requirements likely meets the definition of a “rule” for CRA purposes. If the Trump administration never submits that action to Congress, a future Democratic administration and Democratic Congress could—and if given the chance, certainly would—act to undo the guidance, and thus the Medicaid work requirements.

But even as the Trump administration should act to cement its own regulatory legacy, Congress can act to negate portions of Obamacare through resolutions of disapproval. I know from experience that staff in Congress, and during the transition, compiled lists of rules that they can use CRA to target. During my time on Capitol Hill following Obamacare’s passage, staff kept a spreadsheet containing all the rules and notices the law generated—the source of the “Red Tape Tower” that used to appear around the Capitol.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

This American Life Doesn’t Understand This American Government

The most recent episode of NPR’s “This American Life” continues a line of liberal laments that the legislative process does not work, and blames most of that ineffectiveness on a single source: Donald Trump. (Shocker there.)

But the idea of removing Trump to Make Congress Great Again doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Even if it did, such a development would not comport with the Framers’ design of our government, which put the “deliberative” in “deliberative process” far more than the modern-day Left would prefer.

“This American Life” correspondent Zoe Chace laments that the popularity of DACA—which covers individuals brought to the United States illegally as children—has impeded its enactment into law. She thinks lawmakers have used its popularity

as a spoonful of sugar to make tougher immigration measures easier to swallow—stuff like border security, restricting visas, or on the Democrat side, legalizing even more immigrants. That’s the curse of DACA. The most valuable thing about it, on Capitol Hill anyway, is the possibility that it could be used to pass other stuff. So even though we’re a democracy, even though 80% of the country wants DACA, the country doesn’t get what it wants because there’s no incentive for Congress to just put it to a straight up or down vote.

Having castigated Congress for using DACA “to pass other stuff,” Chace spends much of the episode highlighting Flake’s attempts to use “other stuff”—namely, tax reform—to pass DACA.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Chace calls Flake “the most powerful senator in Congress right now.” Having announced his retirement, Flake has no political constituency to appease. That dynamic, combined with the current Senate split of 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats—Republican John McCain is recovering from cancer treatment in his home state of Arizona—at first blush gives Flake significant leverage.

Second, to pass the Senate, DACA requires not 50 votes, but 60, as most legislation needs a three-fifths majority to overcome a potential filibuster. The tax legislation, enacted under special budget reconciliation procedures, stands as an exception that proves the general rule that would apply to any DACA bill.

Third, by favorably viewing Flake’s attempt (which he privately admits to Chace is a bluff) to tie his tax reform vote to a commitment from leadership to take up DACA legislation, Chace supports the very problem she criticizes—namely, lawmakers using one bill or issue to “pass other stuff.”

Chace’s criticism of the legislative process therefore comes across as inherently self-serving. She doesn’t object to senators using unrelated matters as leverage. For example, she applauds Flake for threatening to hijack the tax bill over immigration, so much as she objects to senators using other matters as leverage on her issue: passing DACA. That double standard, coupled with an ignorance of basic constitutional principles, leads to some naïve misunderstandings.

Let’s Review Some of Those

That principle leads to the “other stuff” dynamic Chace described, because lawmakers have other competing priorities to navigate. Some might support DACA, but only if they receive something they perceive as more valuable in exchange—border security, for instance, or a broader immigration deal.

Occasionally lawmakers take this concept too far, but the system tends to self-correct. As the episode notes, Democrats’ tactics led to a partial government shutdown in January, as Senate Democrats refused to pass spending bills keeping the federal government operating unless Republicans committed to enact a DACA measure with it—“other stuff,” in other words.

But although most Democrats support DACA, they divided over the hardball, hostage-taking tactics that tied passing spending bills to enacting an immigration measure. That division and public pressure over the shutdown led them to beat a hasty retreat.

In 2007, under President George W. Bush an immigration bill famously failed on the Senate floor, in part because then-senator Obama and other liberals voted to restrict the number of guest workers permitted into the United States—a key provision necessary to win Republican votes.

Consider a Case Study in Virginia

To view the immigration debate in a nutshell, one need look no further than Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA). Or, to be more precise, former Rep. Eric Cantor. In June 2014, Cantor lost his Republican primary to an upstart challenger in Dave Brat. Outrage over the possibility that the House might pass an immigration bill the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” muscled through in 2013 helped Cantor go down to primary defeat, and ended any debate on immigration in the 113th Congress (again, well before most people thought Trump would run for president, let alone win).

The way Cantor’s 2014 defeat changed the landscape on immigration in Congress illustrates that, while not a direct democracy, the American system remains responsive to democratic principles, even if they resulted in an outcome (i.e., inaction on immigration) Chace would decry. Chace might argue that a June primary election where only 65,017 Virginia residents voted—only about one-sixth the number who voted in that district’s November 2016 general election—should not determine the fate of immigration legislation nationwide.

But by making it difficult to enact legislation, the American system of government accounts for intensity of opinion as well as breadth of opinion. In the case of Cantor, a group of 36,105 Virginia residents who voted for Brat—many of whom cared strongly about stopping an immigration bill—sent a message on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Virginia residents who didn’t care enough to vote in the Republican primary election. (Virginia conducts open primaries, in which voters can choose either party’s ballot, so any resident could have voted for or against Cantor in the Republican primary.)

That outcome might resonate with a former resident of Cantor’s district, Virginia’s own James Madison. In Federalist 10, Madison wrote of how a geographically diverse country would make it difficult for any one faction to command a majority, and impose its will on others. In Federalist 51, Madison returned to the topic of limiting government’s power by separating its responsibilities among co-equal branches: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

The stalemate on immigration and DACA would likely prove quite satisfactory to Framers like Madison, who feared government’s powers and purposefully looked to circumscribe them. To the modern Left, however, a constitutional government with limited authority seems an antiquated and inconvenient trifle.

‘Slow Government’ Complaints Are Way Older than Trump

Although Chace’s report claims that congressional dysfunction “has changed in ways that are very specific to Donald Trump,” liberals have criticized government inaction for decades. In “The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point,” Haynes Johnson and David Broder use their seminal analysis of the rise and fall of “HillaryCare” to decry a Washington “incapable as a nation of addressing the major long-term problems facing the society:”

At no point, we believe, has the cumulative assault on the idea of responsible government been so destructive of the very faith in the democratic system as now. A thoroughly cynical society, deeply distrustful of its institutions and leaders and the reliability of information it receives, is a society in peril of breaking apart.

Again, these words far precede any Trump administration. Broder and Johnson wrote them in 1996, while the tycoon looked to rebuild his empire following several corporate bankruptcies.

As “This American Life” notes, Trump has proved more indecisive legislatively than most presidents did. The episode highlights how Trump went from supporting any immigration bill Congress would send him to imposing major new conditions on same in the matter of hours. That series of events illustrated but one of Trump’s many reverses on legislation.

For instance, Trump famously called the American Health Care Act “mean” in a closed-door meeting weeks after Republican representatives voted to approve the legislation, and Trump publicly praised them for doing so. But presidents prior to Trump have also engaged in legislative U-turns or ill-conceived maneuvers.

In his 1994 State of the Union message, Bill Clinton threatened to veto any health-care bill that did not achieve universal coverage. As Johnson and Broder recount, that was a major tactical mistake that Clinton later attempted to undo, but ultimately contributed to the downfall of “HillaryCare.” And of course, Clinton himself might not have become president had his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, not made then violated his infamous “Read my lips—no new taxes!” pledge—the “six most destructive words in the history of presidential politics.”

While Trump undoubtedly has introduced more foibles into the legislative process, he has not changed its fundamental dynamic—a dynamic “This American Life” criticizes yet does not understand. Chace says “we’re a democracy,” but she means that she wants a Democratic—capital “D”—form of government, one in which Congress passes lots of legislation, enacts big programs (more funding for NPR, anyone?), and plays a major role in the lives of the American people.

Yet Madison and the Constitution’s Framers deliberately designed a lower-case “r” republican form of government, one with limited powers and a deliberative process designed to make enacting major legislation difficult. That reality might not suit the liberal dreams of “This American Life,” but it represents how American democratic principles actually live and work.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ Plan to Raise Health Care Costs

Who would purposefully design a legislative strategy whereby whoever wins actually loses? Congressional Republicans, that’s who.

On Tuesday evening, Republican leaders in the House introduced another continuing resolution to fund the federal government for four more weeks (through February 16). In an attempt to win Democratic votes, the bill includes a six-year extension of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, without any of the conservative reforms congressional leaders said they would fight for back in 2015.

Inane Tax Treatment of Health Insurance

Since an Internal Revenue Service ruling (later codified) during World War II, the federal government has excluded health insurance and other fringe employment benefits from both payroll and income taxes. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum agree that this exclusion encourages workers to over-consume health insurance, and thus health care.

Taxing wages but not health benefits encourages firms to offer more generous benefits—with lower deductibles, co-payments, and so forth—and that lower cost-sharing encourages people to consume extra health care. (“I’m not sure how sick I really am, but because I only have a $10 co-pay, I might as well go to the doctor and find out.”)

Obamacare attempted to change that dynamic through its “Cadillac tax” on “high-cost” employer plans. The tax applied for every dollar of benefits provided over a defined amount, encouraging firms to make their benefits less rich, to avoid exceeding the threshold that would trigger the tax.

As for the Bad Strategy

However, Republicans could easily remedy the “Cadillac tax’s” flaws with another alternative. The alternative could limit the tax preference for employer-provided health insurance—without a punitive 40 percent tax rate, and while not raising any additional revenue over a decade. President George W. Bush proposed this concept more than a decade ago, and the Republican Study Committee and others have since endorsed it.

However, repealing the “Cadillac tax” outright would effectively sabotage any ability to reform or replace it. As with Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), removing a constraint on health spending now with the intent of replacing it later would almost certainly mean that “later” will never arrive. That of course means Republicans, consistent with their insatiable desire to postpone difficult decisions, want to repeal both the “Cadillac tax” and IPAB without constructing replacements.

Tuesday evening’s spending bill would postpone the “Cadillac tax”—already delayed once, until 2020—for another two years, until 2022. It would likewise suspend Obamacare’s medical device tax for two years, and its health insurer tax for one year. It would also exempt these changes from the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act, which requires offsetting spending cuts to fund this tax relief—because heaven forbid Congress be forced to reduce spending.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ SCHIP Surrender

In spring 2015, Senate Republican leaders pressured their members to accept a clean, two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) added as part of a larger health spending measure.

The SCHIP reauthorization added to a larger Medicare bill included none of the reforms Republicans had proposed that year, many of which attempted to turn the program’s focus back toward covering low-income families first, as the George W. Bush administration had done. But Republican leaders said that the two-year extension, rather than the four-year extension Democrats supported, would allow conservatives to fight harder for reforms in 2017.

The press has focused on the disputes over paying for the SCHIP program, which have held up final enactment of a long-term reauthorization. (The House passed its version of the bill in November; the Senate, failing to find agreement on pay-fors, has not considered the bill on the floor.) But the focus on pay-fors has ignored Republicans’ abject surrender on the policy behind the program, because the media defines “bipartisanship” as conservatives agreeing to do liberal things. That occurred in abundance on this particular bill.

So Much for Our Promises, Voters

On the underlying policy, all the groups who pledged to fight for conservative reforms vacated the field. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who brags about how he created the program as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997, cut a deal with Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) that, as detailed below, includes virtually no conservative reforms to the program—raising questions about whether Hatch was so desperate for a deal to preserve his legacy that he failed to fight for conservative reforms.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not repudiate the agreement Hatch and Wyden struck, even though that agreement maintained virtually the provisions of the 2009 SCHIP reauthorization that Ryan himself, then the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, called “an entitlement train wreck.”

Republicans have thus suffered the worst of both worlds: getting blamed for inaction on a program’s reauthorization, while already having conceded virtually every element of that program, save for its funding.

Details About the SCHIP Proposals

A detailed examination of the Hatch-Wyden agreement (original version here, and slightly revised version in Sections 301-304 of the House-passed bill here) demonstrates how it extends provisions of the 2009 reauthorization passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama—which Republicans in large part opposed. Moreover, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and House-passed bill includes none of the reforms the House Energy and Commerce Committee proposed, but were not enacted into law, in 2015.

The only “reform” in the pending reauthorization consists of phasing out an enhanced match for states included in Section 2101(a) of Obamacare—one already scheduled to expire. Even though the enhanced match will end on its own in October 2019, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and the House-passed bill would extend that enhanced match by one year further, albeit at a reduced level, before phasing it out entirely.

Child Enrollment Contingency Fund: Created in Section 103 of the 2009 reauthorization. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned that the fund—which does not include provisions making additional payments contingent on enrolling the low-income children­ for which the program was designed—will therefore help to subsidize wealthier children in states which have expanded their programs to higher-income populations, diverting SCHIP funds from the program’s original purpose” (emphasis original). Section 301(c) of the House-passed bill would extend this fund, without any reforms.

Express Lane Eligibility: Created in Section 203 of the 2009 reauthorization, as a way of using eligibility determinations from other agencies and programs to facilitate enrollment in SCHIP. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned first that the streamlined verification processes outlined above will facilitate individuals who would not otherwise qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP, due either to their income or citizenship, to obtain federally-paid health benefits.” Section 301(e) of the House-passed bill would extend this option, without any reforms.

Citizenship Verification: Section 211 of the 2009 reauthorization created a new process for verifying citizenship, but not identity, to circumvent strict verification requirements included in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. As I wrote in 2009:

Some Members may echo the concerns of Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, who in a September 2007 letter stated that the verification process proposed in the bill would not keep ineligible individuals from receiving federal benefits—since many applicants would instead submit another person’s name and Social Security number to qualify. Some Members may believe the bill, by laying out a policy of ‘enroll and chase,’ will permit ineligible individuals, including illegal aliens, to obtain federally-paid health coverage for at least four months during the course of the verification process. Finally, some Members may be concerned that the bill, by not taking remedial action against states for enrolling illegal aliens—which can be waived entirely at the Secretary’s discretion—until states’ error rate exceeds 3%, effectively allows states to provide benefits to illegal aliens.

Legal Aliens: Section 214 of the 2009 reauthorization allowed states to cover legal aliens in their SCHIP programs without subjecting them to the five-year waiting period required for means-tested benefits under the 1996 welfare reform law.

As I wrote in 2009, “Some Members may be concerned that permitting states to cover legal aliens without imposing waiting periods will override the language of bipartisan welfare reform legislation passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democrat President, conflict with decades-long practices in other federally-sponsored entitlement health programs (i.e., Medicare), and encourage migrants to travel to the United States for the sole or primary purpose of receiving health benefits paid for by federal taxpayers.” The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this option.

Premium Assistance: Section 301 of the 2009 reauthorization created new options regarding premium assistance—allowing states to subsidize employer-sponsored coverage, rather than enrolling individuals in government-run plans. While that reauthorization contained some language designed to make premium assistance programs more flexible for states, it also expressly prohibited states from subsidizing health savings account (HSA) coverage through premium assistance. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states subsidizing HSA coverage.

Health Opportunity Accounts: Section 613 of the 2009 reauthorization prohibited the Department of Health and Human Services from approving any new demonstration programs regarding Health Opportunity Accounts, a new consumer-oriented option for low-income beneficiaries created in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states offering more consumer-oriented options.

Covering Poor Kids First: The 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore SCHIP’s focus on covering low-income children first, by 1) eliminating the enhanced federal match rate for states choosing to cover children in families between 250-300 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500-$73,800 for a family of four in 2017) and 2) eliminating the federal match entirely for states choosing to cover children in families above 300 percent of poverty. These provisions were consistent with the policy of the George W. Bush administration, which in 2007 issued guidance seeking to ensure that states covered low-income families first before expanding their SCHIP programs further up the income ladder. The House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Maintenance of Effort: Section 2001(b) of Obamacare included a requirement that states could not alter eligibility standards for children enrolled in SCHIP through October 1, 2019, limiting their ability to manage their state programs. Whereas the 2015 proposed reauthorization would have repealed this requirement, effective October 1, 2015, Section 301(f) of the House-passed bill would extend this requirement, through October 1, 2022. (However, under the House-passed bill, states could alter eligibility for children in families with incomes over 300 percent of poverty, beginning in October 2019.)

Crowd-Out: The 2015 proposed reauthorization allowed states to impose a waiting period of up to 12 months for individuals who declined an offer of, or disenrolled from, employer-based coverage—a provision designed to keep families from dropping private insurance to enroll in a government program. The House-passed bill contains no such provision.

Program Name: The 2009 reauthorization sought to remove the “state” element of the “State Children’s Health Insurance Program,” renaming the program as the “Children’s Health Insurance Program.” While the 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore the “state” element to “SCHIP,” the House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Cave, Not a Compromise

For all the focus on paying for SCHIP, the underlying policy represents a near-total cave by Republicans, who failed to obtain any meaningful reforms to the program. Granted, Democrats likely would not agree to all the changes detailed above. But the idea that a “bipartisan” bill should include exactly none of them also seems absurd—unless Republicans threw in the towel and failed to fight for any changes.

The press spent much of 2017 focused on Republican efforts to unwind Obamacare. But the SCHIP bill represents just as consequential a story. The cave on SCHIP demonstrates how many Republicans, after spending the last eight years objecting to the Obama agenda, suddenly have little interest in rolling it back.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What’s Congress Doing with SCHIP?

Amidst the wrangling over Obamacare, reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expired on September 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. The two committees of jurisdiction—energy and commerce in the House, and finance in the Senate—each marked up their reauthorization bills last week. But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said Monday the bill would not come to the House floor this week.

What’s the holdup? Why the delays in bringing to the floor for votes a bill whose authorization has already expired?

A Mixed House Package

The SCHIP reauthorization text varies little between the House and the Senate versions. On that front, conservatives may have qualms with supporting little more than a straight extension of the status quo. The bill extends—albeit for only one year, as part of a more gradual phase-out—enhanced funding to state SCHIP programs. The full 23 percent match increase would end in 2019, as under current law, while states would receive an additional 11.5 percent increase in 2020. Some states have received a 100 percent federal match for their child enrollees due to this Obamacare provision, which is a clear disincentive for states to fight fraud and improper spending.

Moreover, the bill extends Obamacare’s maintenance of effort requirement—limiting states from making changes to their programs—by an additional three years in most cases, from 2019 to 2022. The bill also does not include reforms the House proposed two years ago, which would require states to focus on covering poor children first—the program’s prime emphasis before the 2009 reauthorization signed by President Obama envisioned states expanding their programs to more affluent families.

On the positive side, however, the House did include good reforms to help pay for the new SCHIP spending. It includes several provisions designed to promote program integrity in Medicaid, including one that would effectively ensure that lottery winners, or others who receive large lump-sum payments, do not maintain coverage for this low-income program. The House bill would also increase Medicare means-testing for affluent families, reducing taxpayer subsidies for Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) coverage for individuals making over $160,000, and eliminating the subsidies entirely for individuals making more than $500,000.

In the Senate, a Stalemate

Meanwhile, over in the Senate—which has yet to decide how to pay for the new SCHIP spending—Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) demanded last week that the Republican majority “immediately bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote and include much-needed bipartisan provisions to stabilize the markets, lower premiums for 2018,” and extend other programs.

Schumer made those demands despite two inconvenient truths: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) haven’t yet reached agreement on a bipartisan “stabilization” bill—and most states finalized their 2018 insurance premiums on September 27, weeks ago. In other words, Schumer wants to enact an agreement that doesn’t exist to achieve premium reductions that can’t happen.

A cynic might surmise that, with his talk of “stabilization” measures, Schumer wants to use SCHIP to sneak through tens of billions of dollars in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers—a provision that might prove unpopular, and controversial, as a stand-alone measure, but could pass through relatively unnoticed as part of a larger, “Christmas tree”-sized bill.

While the policy outcomes seem uncertain, and could range from fair to poor, the political ramifications seem clear. In 2007 and 2008, when President George W. Bush vetoed SCHIP bills due to provisions that would have diverted the program from the low-income children for which it was designed, Democrats organized protests, and ran ads against him. This year, when Democrats are holding up an arguably too-generous SCHIP bill literally because they want to defend the wealthy and insurance companies, Republicans have responded by…negotiating with them.

If one wants reasons behind conservative discontent with Washington, look no further than this bill.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Yes, Obamacare Really Does Disadvantage Individuals with Disabilities

My article last week regarding disability groups’ political and policy views prompted some comments and criticisms on Twitter. Rather than trying to explain detailed subjects in bursts of 140-character tweets, I considered it best to compile them into a longer-form article.

To summarize my prior work: Obamacare provides states with a greater incentive to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults than to cover services for individuals with disabilities. States receive a 95 percent match this year (declining to 90 percent in 2020 and all future years) to cover the able-bodied, but a match ranging from 50-75 percent to cover individuals with disabilities, while more than half a million are on waiting lists to receive home or attendant care.

Many of the responses I discuss in greater detail below attempt to obscure two separate and distinct issues: The question of the amount of funding for programs versus the priorities within those programs.

As a conservative, I’m likely to disagree with liberals on the ideal size of many government programs, but I thought I would at least agree with them that individuals with disabilities should receive precedence within those programs. However, Obamacare actually tilted Medicaid’s preference away from individuals with disabilities, which makes disability groups’ silence on that front surprising.

There Is No Correlation Between Waiting Lists and Medicaid Expansion

The timeliest rebuttal comes from a story on a long-term care report none other than AARP released yesterday. Susan Reinhard with that organization—no right-wing conservative group, by any stretch—said that

Many states have struggled to expand home- and community-based options for Medicaid enrollees needing long-term care because that is an optional benefit. Nursing homes are mandatory under federal law. While states focus on Medicaid coverage for children and families — as well as non-disabled adults covered by the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act — adults with disabilities have received less attention. ‘Long-term care is a stepchild of the program and not a top focus for states,’ she said. (emphasis mine.)

That statement notwithstanding, several people cited two different analyses that compare states’ decisions on expansion to the able-bodied and their waiting lists for home-based care for individuals with disabilities. But each of those “studies” (based on only one year of data available) take an overly simplistic approach, and therefore don’t get at the core issue of the extent to which the skewed incentives Obamacare created have encouraged states to prioritize the able-bodied over those with disabilities.

A state’s decision to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied, or reduce its waiting lists for individuals with disabilities, depends on myriad factors. For instance:

  • A wealthy state with a greater tax base would have more resources both to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied and to reduce its waiting list of individuals with disabilities, while a poorer state with a smaller tax base might not have resources to do either;
  • A state with “bad” demographics (e.g., an older and sicker population), or higher costs for health and personal care services, might have more difficulty reducing their Medicaid waiting lists;
  • A state may face other fiscal pressures—controversy over school funding, a natural disaster, a pension crisis—that could affect overall Medicaid spending.

Numerous variables affect states’ budget choices, and therefore their Medicaid waiting lists. The “studies” controlled for exactly none of them. They examined whether a state expanded Medicaid and the total number of people on a state’s waiting list, and that’s it.

Moreover, under Obamacare, all states receive the same (higher) federal match to cover able-bodied adults—another change in policy (prior to Obamacare, all Medicaid match rates were based on states’ relative income) skewing the balance in favor of wealthier expansion states. Yet, as noted above, the analyses claiming no correlation between expansion and Medicaid waiting lists didn’t even attempt to control for these variables—or any other.

Therefore, in the absence of a quality study examining the issue, I’ll go with something far simpler: Common sense. If you’re a state that wants to spend more money on Medicaid, and you can do something (i.e., cover the able-bodied) that gives you 95 cents on the dollar, or something (i.e., reduce waiting lists for individuals with disabilities) that gives you 50 cents on the dollar, which are you going to do first?

I thought so. The incentives in Obamacare strongly favor coverage of the able-bodied over coverage for individuals with disabilities. And no number of crude analyses attempting to provide retroactive justification for this bad policy can hide that fact.

Waiting Lists Are Worst In Two Non-Expansion States

This comment reinforces the crudeness of the analysis being cited. All else being equal, as the second- and third-largest states in the Union, Texas and Florida would be expected to have a larger number of people on its waiting lists for home- and community-based services than a smaller expansion state like Connecticut. All else isn’t equal, of course, but did the analysts attempt to control for these kinds of factors? Nope. They examined raw waiting list numbers, rather than waiting lists as a percentage of the population.

But just suppose for a second that the commenters above are correct, and there is no correlation between expansion to the able-bodied and waiting lists for home-based care. That means that the greater incentives Obamacare gives to states to cover the able-bodied—and while the advocacy community might not want to admit it, Obamacare clearly does give states greater incentives to cover the able-bodied—didn’t affect state behavior, or decisions about whether to reduce disability waiting lists at all.

In that case, why has the disability community expressed such outrage about the impact of per capita caps or block grants on Medicaid beneficiaries with disabilities? If states make decisions without considering federal incentives—the point of the claims that there is no correlation between expanding Medicaid to the able-bodied and longer waiting lists for individuals with disabilities—then why also claim that “cost-shifting to states will force massive cuts in Medicaid services?” Why wouldn’t states shift around resources to protect individuals with disabilities—what the disability community claims that states did to reduce waiting lists even while expanding Medicaid under Obamacare?

There are really only two credible possibilities:

  • States are affected by incentives, therefore Obamacare—by giving states a higher match to cover the able-bodied—encouraged discrimination against individuals with disabilities; or
  • States are not affected by incentives, and therefore the per capita caps—which generate a comparatively small amount of savings in the House repeal bill—will have little impact, because states will re-prioritize their budgets to protect the most vulnerable.

It’s therefore worth asking why some appear to be trying to argue both sides of this question, and doing so in a way that neatly lines up with partisan lines—trying to ignore Obamacare’s skewed incentives, while roundly castigating the House Republican bill for incentives that will “force massive cuts in Medicaid.”

Republicans’ Bill Would Cut Program Helping People Live at Home

This is a true statement: Section 111(2) of the American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” bill, would sunset the enhanced match for the Community First Choice program on January 1, 2020. That option provides states with a 6 percent increase in their federal match for home- and community-based services, including to individuals with disabilities. But here again, raising this issue demonstrates the inherent disconnect between the incentives being offered to states, and the disability community’s responses to those incentives.

  • Obamacare provides states with a match ranging from 20-45 percentage points higher to cover the able-bodied than individuals with disabilities: “No correlation between expansion and waiting lists for individuals with disabilities!”
  • Obamacare provides states with a 6 percentage point increase for home-based services: A “huge change to improve HCBS [home and community-based services] care.”
  • The Republican alternative to Obamacare would reduce Medicaid spending for traditional (i.e., non-expansion) populations by a comparatively small amount: “Massive cuts to Medicaid services.”

Isn’t there a slight contradiction in these responses—both in their tone and in their logic? And isn’t it worth noting that these contradictions all happen to align perfectly with the natural partisan response to each of these issues?

This Is A Political Problem, Not a Policy Problem

Claiming that the greater federal match to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities stems from a “political history problem” deliberately obscures its roots. This “history” did not take place half a century ago, at Medicaid’s creation, it took place in the past few years, as part of Obamacare.

When crafting that legislation, Democrats could have come up with other policy solutions that expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied without discriminating against individuals with disabilities in the process. They could have proposed increasing the federal match for coverage of individuals with disabilities, in exchange for states covering the able-bodied at the existing federal match rates. Congress enacted a similar type of “swap” in the Medicare Modernization Act. The federal government took over the prescription drug cost of Medicare-Medicaid “dual eligibles” in exchange for a series of “clawback” payments from states.

Democrats in Congress could have considered other ways to expand Medicaid without giving states a greater match to cover the able-bodied than individuals with disabilities. To the best of my knowledge, they chose not to do so. President Obama could have insisted on a more equitable Medicaid formula, but he chose not to do so. And the disability community could have pointed out this disparity to the president and leaders in Congress, but chose not to do so.

Agree or disagree with them, these were deliberate policy choices, not a mere historical accident.

How Can You Support Lower Funding While Complaining About Access?

The argument about lower funding levels misses several points. First, while the Congressional Budget Office has not released estimates of how much the per capita caps (as opposed to changes associated with scaling back Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) will reduce federal spending, multiple estimates suggest a comparatively small amount of savings from this particular change—at most 1 or 2 percent of spending on traditional Medicaid populations over the coming decade.

Second, if given sufficient flexibility from Washington, states can reduce their Medicaid spending, rendering the discussion of “cuts” under the caps moot. Rhode Island’s Global Compact Waiver, approved in January 2009, actually resulted in a year-on-year decline of Medicaid spending per beneficiary. Moreover, the non-partisan Lewin Group concluded that Rhode Island’s waiver reduced that spending by improving beneficiary access and care, not by denying medical services.

Third, if caps on Medicaid are so harmful and damaging, then why did Obamacare cap spending on Medicare—and why did disability groups remain silent about it? Current law imposes a per capita cap on Medicare spending, one enforced by Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) of unelected bureaucrats.

What’s more, Obamacare imposes an annual inflation adjustment (gross domestic product growth plus 1 percent) likely to be lower than the inflation adjustment for disabled populations included in the House-passed bill (medical inflation plus 1 percent). Yet a critique of the Medicare payment caps or IPAB appears nowhere in the disability community’s 14 pages of comments regarding the bill that became Obamacare.

So the question to the disability community is obvious: Why does a Democratic proposal to impose per capita caps on Medicare raise no objections, but a Republican proposal to impose (potentially higher) per capita caps on Medicaid guaranteed to prompt “massive cuts in Medicaid services?”

Let’s Just Pay More for Everyone

This comment attempts to obscure the distinction between the amount of funding and the priorities for that funding. I might disagree with liberals about the overall level of funding for the program—not least because efforts like that in Rhode Island demonstrate the potential for Medicaid to become more efficient—but I should agree with them about the need to prioritize care for the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion goes in the opposite direction.

In thinking about the important distinction between overall program funding and priorities within a program, I’m often reminded of a speech that former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) gave on the House floor in September 2009: “At some point in time, my friends, we have to buck up our courage and our judgment and say, if we take care of everybody, we won’t be able to take care of those who need us most. That’s my concern. If we take care of everybody…then we will not be able to take care of those most in need in America.”

Yes, Hoyer’s speech discussed Medicare, not Medicaid, and he voted for Obamacare (and its Medicaid expansion) six months after giving it. But the speech raises an important point about the need to prioritize entitlements, one that the notion of giving higher reimbursement rates to all populations ignores.

That’s what’s wrong with focusing solely on the question on the amount of funding for a program. Reasonable people can (and will) disagree about where to draw the funding line, but it has to be drawn somewhere. “Solving” the question of funding priorities by increasing reimbursements for all populations—the equivalent of promising everyone a pony—will, by failing to choose wisely now, cause even tougher fiscal choices for generations to come.

Disability Groups Have More Important Priorities

Yes, I have worked with disability groups. For one, in 2013, I served on the Commission on Long-Term Care Congress created in the wake of the CLASS Act’s failure and repeal. We took many hours of public testimony from disability groups and others, and received dozens of other written comments—many from dedicated and passionate parents or caregivers of individuals with disabilities, and all of which I made a point to read. I won’t claim to have made disability policy my life’s work, but my jobs over the years have intersected with the disability community on several occasions.

By claiming that disability groups have “way more priorities than comparing their FMAP [i.e., their federal match rate],” this comment actually makes my point for me. The January 2010 letter by the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) setting out priorities for what became Obamacare was 14 pages in length, amounted to over 5,500 words, and included (by my count) 73 separate bulleted recommendations regarding the legislation. All that, and yet not one word on the bill prioritizing coverage of the able-bodied over individuals with disabilities? Frankly, the issue seems quite conspicuous by its absence.

Just Interview Someone From This Consortium

I received a series of tweetsculminating in a dramatic “Shame on you”—attacking me for not having contacted any members of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) prior to writing my piece. It is correct that I didn’t reach out to any CCD member groups before printing the article. I didn’t need to because I had already spent years working with them.

The charge that I never spoke to “ONE SINGLE CCD MEMBER” is false—and demonstrably so. For nearly four years, from the spring of 2004 until the end of 2007, I worked as a lobbyist for the National Association of Disability Representatives (NADR). During that time, I spent many hours in CCD task force meetings, interacting both directly and indirectly with CCD members. The commenter’s accusation that if I had reached out to CCD members, I would know about the lengthy adjudication process for many Social Security disability claims holds no small amount of irony—I handled those issues over a decade ago.

In reality, my time working with CCD members while representing the disability representatives prompted me to write my article last week. While attending CCD meetings, I saw firsthand how some meeting participants—several of which remain in their current positions and active in CCD activities—made offhand comments of a rather partisan nature. Not everyone joined in the political commentary, but several felt comfortable enough to make clear their partisan affiliations in open discussions, even if I and others did not.

Similarly, I recall how the disability community fought against George W. Bush’s idea for personal accounts within Social Security almost uniformly, and even before Congress and the administration had an opportunity to fully develop their proposals. At the time, my client, the National Association of Disability Representatives, took an agnostic view towards the personal account concept, focusing more on the specifics of whether and how it could work for the disability community.

For instance, NADR wanted to ensure that any personal account proposal would hold the Social Security Disability Trust Fund (separate from the Old Age and Survivors Trust Fund) harmless, and that people who spent time receiving disability benefits would not be financially harmed (e.g., lack the opportunity to save wage earnings in a personal account, yet have their retirement benefits reduced) for having done so.

By contrast, most CCD members opposed the proposal from the get-go, often coordinating with Nancy Pelosi, Sander Levin, and other Democrats for events and strategy meetings. Archives on the disability coalition’s website from that era appear incomplete, but a 2005 August recess “Action Alert: Efforts to Privatize Social Security Continue!” gives a sense of the message coming from most CCD members, and the organization as a whole.

At this point any liberals still reading might applaud the disability community for having come out so strongly against the Bush proposal. But that idea focused on the Social Security retirement system, not the disability program, and the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress wanted to engage with disability groups to ensure any reforms held the disability community harmless. So how did failing to engage them—choosing instead to oppose from the outset—help the disability community?

In truth, early and vocal opposition to personal accounts may have put the disability community at greater risk had the personal account proposal been enacted without disability groups’ technical expertise on how best to structure it. And given both the partisan comments I heard from at least some CCD members at CCD meetings, it’s worth asking whether partisan or ideological concerns—separate and distinct from the interests of the disability community—unduly or improperly influenced the organization’s collective judgment back then.

Their inherent contradictions in the current debate—remaining silent about Obamacare’s unfair Medicaid match rate disparity and Medicare payment caps, while strenuously objecting to Republican attempts to impose payment caps on Medicaid—reinforce those concerns about undue partisanship.

It isn’t always easy stating inconvenient truths—pointing out that laws one doesn’t like should be enforced along with every other law, or where policies proposed by lawmakers with whom one might ordinarily be aligned fall woefully short. But such truth-telling remains an essential ingredient to authenticity and credibility. As I argued last week, I don’t think the disability community has done that in this case. I wish they had.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Reforming Medicaid to Serve Wyoming Better

A PDF of this document is available on the Wyoming Liberty Group website.

In the past several years, Wyoming has accomplished several key changes to its Medicaid program. A series of reforms regarding long-term care, and other methods to improve care delivery and coordination, have stabilized the overall spending on Medicaid—and reduced expenditures on a per-beneficiary basis.

However, the commitment by both the new Administration and Congressional leaders to examine Medicaid reform closely presents Wyoming with the possibility to accelerate its current reform efforts. Seema Verma, the new head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and a former Medicaid consultant, has publicly committed to provide states with greater flexibility and freedom to innovate.[1] Likewise, legislation advancing fundamental Medicaid reform has begun to advance in Congress.

Whether through a block grant, per capita allotments, or enhanced waiver authority from the federal government, states like Wyoming can and should receive greater freedom to manage their programs, in exchange for a series of fixed federal payments. Upon receiving this flexibility, Wyoming can put into place additional reforms that will improve care for beneficiaries, encourage transitions to employment and employer-based health coverage where appropriate, reduce health costs, and save taxpayer funds. These reforms would modernize Medicaid to incorporate the best of 21st century medicine, help Baby Boomers as that generation ages into retirement, and alleviate the fiscal challenges Wyoming faces in managing its Medicaid program.

 

The Problem

Enacted into law in 1965, the Medicaid program as originally designed provided federal matching funds to states to cover discrete populations, including the blind, needy seniors, and individuals with disabilities. Over time, expansions of the program to new populations, and changes in the delivery of health care, have made the Medicaid program large, costly, and unwieldy for states to manage. A significant body of evidence demonstrates that, after more than a half-century, Medicaid is long overdue for a modernization.

Cost:    According to government-provided data, Medicaid now approaches Medicare for the title of largest taxpayer-funded health care program. According to non-partisan government actuaries, state and federal taxpayers combined will spend an estimated $595.5 billion on Medicaid in the current fiscal year—$368.9 billion by the federal government, and $226.6billion by states.[2] By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office projects that this fiscal year, Medicare will spend a net of $598 billion, excluding premium payments by enrollees.[3] Even as the Baby Boomers retire in the coming decade, Medicaid will stay on pace with Medicare when it comes to total expenditures—Medicaid spending will total an estimated $57.5 billion in fiscal year 2025, compared to an estimated $1.005 trillion in net Medicare spending the same fiscal year.[4]

On the state level, rising spending on Medicaid has crowded out other key state priorities like education, transportation, and law enforcement. While states often cut back on those other programs during recessions, Medicaid spending continues to grow in both good economic times and bad. For instance, for fiscal year 2017, states adopted a total of $7.7 billion in spending increases on Medicaid when compared to fiscal 2016—less than the growth of K-12 education spending ($8.9 billion increase), but more than spending on higher education or corrections (both $1.1 billion increases).[5] But in fiscal year 2012—as states recovered from the last recession—states sharply cut K-12 education ($2.5 billion decrease) and higher education ($5 billion decrease) to finance a massive increase in Medicaid spending ($15 billion increase).[6]

With program spending growing at a near-constant pace, Medicaid has grown substantially over the past several decades to become the largest line-item in most state budgets. In fiscal year 2016, Medicaid consumed an average of 29.0 percent of state spending from all fund sources, and 20.3 percent of general fund expenditures.[7] By comparison, in fiscal year 1996, Medicaid consumed 20.3 percent of state spending, and 14.8 percent of general fund spending—and in fiscal year 1987, Medicaid consumed only 10.2 percent of state spending, and 8.1 percent of general fund spending.[8] With program spending nearly tripling as a size of their overall budgets from 1987 through 2016, Medicaid growth has limited states’ ability to provide for other critical state priorities—or return some of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash back into their pockets.

Quality:            Unfortunately, many Medicaid programs suffer from poor access to physicians, high rates of emergency room usage, and poor quality outcomes. A New England Journal of Medicine survey using “secret shopper” methods found that two-thirds of Medicaid children were denied appointments with specialty physicians, compared to only 11% of patients with private insurance coverage. Moreover, those Medicaid patients that did receive appointments had to wait an average of more than three weeks longer than privately insured children.[9] Perhaps unsurprisingly, beneficiaries themselves think much less of Medicaid coverage due to their lack of access:

You feel so helpless thinking, something’s wrong with this child and I can’t even get her into a doctor….When we had real insurance, we could call and come in at the drop of a hat.[10]

Even supporters of Medicaid call an enrollment card nothing more than a “hunting license”—a card that grants beneficiaries the ability to go try to find a physician that will actually treat them.[11]

Because of the difficulties beneficiaries face in obtaining timely access to physicians, Medicaid patients often end up with worse outcomes than the general population as a whole. The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment—which compared outcomes for identically situated groups of uninsured individuals, some of whom enrolled in Medicaid and some of whom did not—concluded that patients who enrolled in Medicaid received no measurable improvements in their physical health than those that remained uninsured.[12] Moreover, the newly enrolled Medicaid patients increased their emergency room usage by 40 percent when compared to those who did not obtain coverage—and those disparities persisted over time.[13] Such results tend to bolster previous findings that patients with Medicaid coverage may end up with worse outcomes than uninsured patients.[14]

Impact in Wyoming:  A January 2015 brief by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Medicaid variations by state, provide helpful metrics comparing Wyoming’s Medicaid program to its peers. The Kaiser brief analyzed per-beneficiary spending in Medicaid for “full-benefit” patients—that is, excluding any partial benefit enrollees.[15] As the table below shows, as of 2011, Wyoming’s spending on aged beneficiaries led the nation—nearly double the national average—and its spending on individuals with disabilities ranked high as well.

Moreover, per-beneficiary spending in Wyoming grew at a rapid, above-average pace for the aged and disabled populations. During the years 2000 to 2011, costs per beneficiary nationally grew by an average of 3.7% for aged beneficiaries and 4.5% for individuals with disabilities. By comparison, in Wyoming spending rose an average of 6.8%—again, nearly twice the national average—for aged beneficiaries, and an above-average 5.45% for individuals with disabilities during the same 2000-2011 period.[16]

 

 

Aged

Individuals with Disabilities  

Adults

 

Children

United States $17,522 $18,518 $4,141 $2,492
Wyoming $32,199 $25,346 $3,986 $1,967
Difference $14,677 $6,828 -$155 -$525
Wyoming Rank Highest 7th Highest 31st Highest 46th Highest

The 2014 GAO report provides additional context as to why Wyoming has relatively high levels of spending on aged and disabled populations.[17] Whereas the Kaiser report studied spending for the years 2000 through 2011, GAO analyzed spending for federal fiscal year 2008 only. However, like Kaiser, GAO also found that Wyoming’s per-enrollee spending on aged ($21,662) and disabled ($24,644) beneficiaries significantly exceeded national averages ($17,609 and $19,135, respectively).[18]

In addition to analyzing per-beneficiary spending by state, the GAO study also examined factors known to influence spending—and on these, Wyoming and its rural neighbors also ranked high. Wyoming ranked more than ten percentage points above the national average for the percentage of aged beneficiaries receiving long-term care services (48.7% in Wyoming vs. 37.7% nationally), and for the percentage of aged Medicaid enrollees ever institutionalized during the year (35.7% in Wyoming vs. 24.5% nationally).[19] Crucially, most of Wyoming’s neighbors—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Colorado—also have percentages of aged seniors receiving long-term care services, and receiving institutional care, well above national averages, and in some cases higher than Wyoming. These data suggest that the difficulties of life in rural and frontier communities may result in above-average rates of institutionalization, as aged or disabled individuals cannot live far from care support structures.

The prior reports indicating high levels of spending on Wyoming’s Medicaid program do not consider the significant reforms the state has implemented to date. Efforts to increase the percentage of beneficiaries receiving home and community-based services, rather than institutional care, have driven the percentage of members receiving long-term care in the home above 50%.[20] As a result, spending on Medicaid has remained relatively flat from fiscal years 2010 through 2015. Per enrollee costs have actually declined over that period, particularly for the aged population.[21]

However, the Kaiser and GAO studies illustrate the challenges and the opportunities the Medicaid program faces in Wyoming. Despite the reforms put in place to date, spending on the aged and disabled population remains at comparatively high levels. While spending on aged beneficiaries has declined from $32,199 per enrollee in 2011 to $26,222 in fiscal 2015, even that lower level remains higher than the national per-beneficiary average in 2011 ($17,522).

But if Wyoming can build upon its existing Medicaid reforms to improve care for the aged and vulnerable population—coordinating care better, and ensuring that individuals who can be treated at home are not inappropriately diverted into institutional settings—then beneficiaries will benefit, as will taxpayers. If Medicaid enrollees receive better care, their lives will improve in both measurable and immeasurable ways. Likewise, simply bringing spending on aged and disabled beneficiaries down to national averages will drive millions of dollars in savings to the Medicaid program.

 

The Vision

Ultimately, the Medicaid program would work best if transformed into a block grant or per capita allotment to states. Under either of these proposals, states would receive additional flexibility from the federal government to manage their health care programs, in exchange for a series of fixed payments from Washington. The American Health Care Act, passed by the House of Representatives on May 4, contains both options, creating a new system of per capita spending caps for Medicaid, while allowing states to choose a block grant for some of their Medicaid populations.[22]

While fundamental changes to Medicaid’s funding formulae must pass through Congress, the incoming Administration can work from its first days to give states more freedom and flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs. Specifically, Section 1115 of the Social Security Act gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to waive certain requirements under Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for “any experimental, pilot, or demonstration project which, in the judgment of the Secretary, is likely to assist in promoting the objectives” of the programs.[23]

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration often refused or watered down Section 1115 waiver requests from Republican governors. For instance, the last Administration repeatedly refused requests from governors to impose work requirements for able-bodied adults as a condition of participation in the Medicaid program.[24] Ironically, Obamacare actually made the process of obtaining waivers more difficult; one section of the law imposed new requirements, including a series of hearings, that states must undertake when applying for a waiver.[25] In the years since, federal legislative changes have sought to streamline the process for states requesting extensions of waivers already granted.[26]

In the hands of the right Administration, waiver authority could provide states with a significant amount of flexibility to reform their Medicaid programs. Among the finest examples of such reform is the Rhode Island Global Compact Waiver, approved in the waning days of the George W. Bush Administration on January 16, 2009. The waiver combined and consolidated myriad Medicaid waivers into one comprehensive waiver, with a capped allotment on overall spending. Rather than considering the silos of various program requirements, or specific waivers on discrete issues, Rhode Island was able to examine Medicaid reform holistically—focusing on the big picture, rather than specific bureaucratic dictates from Washington.[27]

Given flexibility from Washington, Rhode Island succeeded in controlling Medicaid expenditures—indeed, in reducing them on a per beneficiary basis. Overall spending remained roughly constant from 2010 through 2013, while enrollment grew by 6.6%.[28] Per beneficiary costs declined by 5.2% over that four-year period—a decline in absolute terms, even before factoring in inflation.[29] Perhaps most importantly, an independent report from the Lewin Group found that the Global Compact was “highly effective in controlling Medicaid costs,” while “improving members’ access to more appropriate services.”[30] In other words, Rhode Island reduced its Medicaid costs not by providing less care to beneficiaries—but providing more, and more appropriate, care to them.

The Rhode Island example has particular applicability to Wyoming’s Medicaid program. Just as Wyoming spends above national averages on Medicaid care for the aged and individuals with disabilities, so too did Rhode Island have a highly institutionalized population prior to implementing its Global Compact. Moreover, Wyoming’s current system of discrete waivers—two (including one pending with CMS) under Section 1115, and seven separate long-term care waivers under Section 1915 of the Social Security Act—lends itself towards potential care silos and unnecessary duplication. Consolidating these myriad waivers into one global waiver would allow Wyoming to “see the forest for the trees”—focusing on overall changes that will improve the quality of care. Implementing a global waiver will also give Wyoming the flexibility to accelerate reforms regarding delivery of long-term supports and services to the aged and disabled population, while introducing new consumer-oriented options for non-disabled beneficiaries.

 

Specific Solutions

A block grant, per capita allotment, or waiver along the lines of Rhode Island’s Global Compact provides the vision that will give states the tools needed to reform Medicaid for the 21st century. Fortunately, states have experimented with several specific reforms that can provide more granular details regarding how a reformed Medicaid program might look. Proposals in documents such as House Republicans’ “Better Way” plan, released last year, and a report issued by Republican governors in 2011, provide good sources of ideas.[31] Both individually and collectively, these solutions can 1) improve the quality of care beneficiaries receive; 2) better engage beneficiaries with the health care system, and where appropriate, provide a transition to employment and employer-sponsored coverage; 3) reduce health costs overall; and 4) provide sound stewardship of the taxpayer dollars funding the Medicaid program.

 

Delivery System Reform

With a Medicaid program based around fee-for-service medicine—which pays doctors and hospitals for every service they perform—Wyoming in particular would benefit from reforms that encourage greater value and coordination in health care delivery. As explained above, the state’s above-average spending on aged and disabled beneficiaries speaks to the way in which uncoordinated care can result in health problems for patients—and ultimately, greater expenses for taxpayers.

Promote Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS):         The Lewin Group’s analysis of Rhode Island’s Global Compact Waiver delineated many of the ways in which that state reformed its Medicaid program to de-institutionalize aged and disabled beneficiaries. Between the January 2009 approval of the waiver and the December 2011 report, Rhode Island achieved impressive savings from providing more coordinated, and “right-sized,” care to patients:

  • Shifting nursing home services into the community saved $35.7 million during the period examined by the study;
  • More accurate rate setting in nursing homes saved an additional $15 million in 2010 alone;
  • Better care management for adults with disabilities and special needs children saved between $4.5 and $11.9 million; and
  • Enrollment in managed care significantly increased the access of adults with disabilities to physician services.[32]

The results from the Rhode Island waiver demonstrate the possible savings to Wyoming associated with reform of long-term services and supports (LTSS)—savings that the Lewin report confirms came not from denying care to beneficiaries, but by improving it.

Other states have also taken actions to promote HCBS. Testifying before the Congressionally-chartered Commission on Long-Term Care in 2013, Tennessee’s head of Long-Term Supports and Services proposed several solutions, focused largely on turning the bias in favor of nursing home care toward a bias in favor of HCBS—to use nursing homes as a last resort, rather than a first resort.[33] Her proposals included a possible limit on nursing home capacity; converting nursing home “slots” into HCBS care “slots;” and requiring patients to try HCBS as the default option before moving to a more intense (i.e., institutional) setting.[34] Integrating these proposals into a comprehensive waiver would not only provide Wyoming residents with more appropriate care, it could also save taxpayers money.

Managed Care:            Wyoming could benefit by exploring the use of managed care plans to deliver Medicaid services to beneficiaries. Providing plans with a capitated payment—that is, a flat payment per beneficiary per month—would give them an incentive to streamline care. Moreover, a transition to managed care would provide more fiscal certainty to the state, as payment levels would not change during a fiscal or contract year.

In June 2014, a report commissioned by the Wyoming Legislature and prepared for the Wyoming Department of Health recommended against pursuing full-risk managed care, despite an admitted high level of vendor interest in doing so.[35] Three years later, Wyoming should explore the issue again, as both the Department of Health and medical providers in Wyoming have additional experience implementing other forms of coordinated care. The 2014 report notes that managed care plans have numerous tools available that could help reduce costs, particularly for high-cost patients, including data analytics, case managers, and quality metric incentives. Given the unique capacities that managed care plans bring to the table, it is worth exploring again the issue of whether full-risk plans could improve care to Wyoming beneficiaries while providing fiscal stability to the state.

While managed care could provide significant benefits to Wyoming, the state may be hamstrung by Medicaid’s current requirement that beneficiaries have the choice of at least two managed care plans. Given that Wyoming has only one insurer participating on its insurance Exchange this year, and a heavily rural population, this requirement may not be realistic or feasible. If approved by CMS, a waiver application could enable only one managed care plan to deliver care to rural Wyomingites.

Provider-Led Groups:              In addition to managed care products organized and sold by insurance companies, Wyoming could also explore the possibility of creating groups led by teams of providers to manage care delivery. Similar to the accountable care organization (ACO) model promoted through the Medicare program, these provider-led groups could provide coordinated care to patients, either on a fully- or partially-capitated payment model.

In recent years, at least 18 state Medicaid programs have either adopted or studied the creation of various provider-led organizations.[36] Adopters include neighboring states like Utah and Colorado, as well as southern states like Louisiana and Alabama. Whether a hospital-led ACO, or a group of doctors providing direct primary care to patients, these provider-led organizations would have greater incentives to coordinate care for patients, hopefully resulting in better health outcomes, and reduced spending for the Medicaid program.

Payment Bundling:     One other option for reforming delivery systems lies in bundled payments, which would see Medicaid providing a lump-sum payment for all the costs of a procedure (e.g., a hip replacement and associated post-operative therapy). Such concepts date back more than a quarter-century; a Medicare demonstration that began in the summer of 1991 reduced spending on heart bypass patients by $42.3 million—a savings of nearly 10 percent.[37] More recently, Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Health System helped bring the payment bundle model into the national lexicon, implementing a 90-day “warranty” on heart bypass patients beginning in February 2006.[38]

In recent years, government payers have increasingly adopted the payment bundle as a means to improve care quality and limit spending increases. Beginning in 2011, Arkansas’ Medicaid program worked with its local Blue Cross affiliate to improve health care delivery through payment improvement, and has implemented an episode-of-care payment model (i.e., a payment bundle) as one of its efforts.[39] Likewise, Medicare has moved ahead with efforts to embrace bundled payments—offering providers the option of a retrospective or prospective lump-sum payment for an inpatient stay, post-acute care provided after the stay, or both.[40]

A reformed Medicaid program in Wyoming could offer providers the opportunity to utilize bundled payment models as one vehicle to deliver better care. Ideally, Medicaid need not mandate participation from providers, as Medicare has done for some payment bundles, but instead help to encourage broader trends in the industry.[41] While not as dramatic a change as a move toward managed care, the bundled payment option may appeal to some providers as a “middle ground” for those not yet ready to embrace a fully capitated payment model.

De-Identified Patient Data:   In a bid to harness the power of “big data,” the federal government has made de-identified Medicare patient claims information available to companies that can analyze the information for patterns of care usage. Those initiatives have recently expanded to Medicaid, with one start-up compiling a database of 74 million Medicaid patients.[42] Wyoming could ask outside vendors or consultants to analyze its claims data for relevant patterns and trends—yielding valuable insights into the delivery of care, and potentially improving outcomes for beneficiaries. By releasing its own Medicaid data and encouraging companies to analyze it, Wyoming will encourage the development of Wyoming-specific solutions to the state’s unique health care needs.

 

Consumer-Directed Options

As part of a move towards modernizing Medicaid, Wyoming should adopt several different consumer-directed elements for its health coverage. These provisions would give beneficiaries incentives to act as smart shoppers, using ideas proven to lower the growth of health care costs. Providing appropriate incentives to beneficiaries will also make Medicaid coverage more closely resemble private health insurance plans—providing an easy transition for beneficiaries who move into employer-based coverage as their income rises.

Health Opportunity Accounts:            In 2005, provisions in the Deficit Reduction Act created Health Opportunity Accounts.[43] The language in the statute called for several demonstration projects by states, who could offer non-elderly and non-disabled beneficiaries the choice to enroll in Health Opportunity Accounts on a voluntary basis. The Opportunity Accounts would be used to pay for medical expenses up to a deductible, at which point traditional insurance coverage would take over. While the Opportunity Accounts under the demonstration would function in many respects like a Health Savings Account (HSA)—the state and/or charities would fund the accounts, and beneficiaries could build up savings within them—they included a twist. Upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid, beneficiaries could access most of their remaining Opportunity Account balance for a period of up to three years, to purchase either health insurance coverage or “job training and tuition expenses.”[44]

By creating an HSA-like account mechanism, and giving beneficiaries the flexibility to use their Opportunity Account funds on job training or health insurance expenses upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid, the Opportunity Account demonstration promoted both smart health care shopping and employment opportunities for Medicaid beneficiaries. Unfortunately, in 2009 a Democratic Congress and President Obama passed legislation prohibiting the approval of any new Health Opportunity Account demonstrations— effectively killing this innovative program before it had a chance to take root.[45]

Thankfully, some states have continued to incorporate HSA-like incentives into their Medicaid programs. In the non-Medicaid space, HSAs and consumer-directed options have demonstrated their ability to reduce health care costs. A 2012 study in the prestigious journal Health Affairs found that broader adoption of the HSA model could reduce health care costs by more than $57 billion annually.[46] If extended into the Medicaid realm, slower growth of health costs would save taxpayers—in Wyoming and elsewhere.

The upcoming reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)—currently due to expire on September 30, 2017—gives Congress an opportunity to re-examine Health Opportunity Accounts. Regardless of whether lawmakers in Washington reinstate this particular model, however, account-based health coverage in Medicaid deserves a close look in Wyoming as part of a comprehensive reform waiver. Although the Opportunity Account mechanism was somewhat prescriptive in its approach, allowing beneficiaries to keep some portion of remaining account balances upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid represents an innovative and sound concept. Such a program could represent a true win-win: Both the state and beneficiaries receive a portion of the benefits from lower health spending—cash which the beneficiary can use to help adjust to life after Medicaid.

Right to Shop:              Thanks to several states’ reform of transparency laws, patients can now engage in a “right to shop” in many locations across the country.[47] The movement centers around the basic principle that consumers should share in the benefits of savings from choosing less expensive locations for medical and health procedures. Particularly for non-urgent care—for instance, medical tests or radiological procedures—variations among medical facilities provide patients with the opportunity to achieve significant savings by choosing a less costly provider.

Results from large employers illustrate how price transparency and competition have yielded savings for payers and consumers alike. A California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) program of reference pricing—in which CalPERS set a maximum price of $30,000 for hip and knee replacements—led to savings of $2.8 million ($7,000 per patient) to CalPERS, and $300,000 (nearly $700 per patient) in lower cost-sharing, in its first year alone. The program led hospitals to renegotiate their rates with CalPERS, which expanded its reference pricing program to other procedures the very next year.[48]

Other estimates suggest that the potential savings from transparency and competition could range into the tens of billions of dollars. One study concluded that reference pricing for a handful of specific procedures could reduce health spending by 1.6 percent—or nearly $10 billion, if applied to all individuals with employer-sponsored health coverage.[49] A separate estimate found that eliminating variation in “shoppable” (i.e., high-cost and known in advance) health services could reduce spending on individuals with employer health coverage by $36 billion.[50]

A reformed Medicaid program should look to bring these positive effects of “patient power” to Medicaid—by allowing consumers to share in the savings from choosing wisely among providers. The right to shop could work particularly well in conjunction with an account-based model for Medicaid reform, which provides a ready vehicle for the state to deposit a portion of savings to beneficiaries. Citizens have literally saved millions of dollars using the right to shop; tapping into those savings for the Medicaid program would benefit taxpayers significantly.[51] Moreover, by incentivizing all providers to price their services more competitively, right to shop will exert downward pressure on health costs—an important goal for our nation’s health care system.

Wellness Incentives:   Over the past several years, successful employers have used incentives for healthy behaviors to help control the skyrocketing growth in health care costs. For instance, Safeway used such incentives to keep overall health costs flat over four years—at a time when costs for the average employer plan grew by 38 percent.[52]

Many large employers have increasingly embraced the results of the “Safeway model,” offering employees incentives for participating in healthy behaviors. According to the most recent annual survey of employer-provided health plans, approximately one-third of large employers (those with over 200 workers) offer employees incentives to complete a health risk assessment (32%), undergo biometric screening (31%), or participate or complete a wellness program (35%).[53] Among the largest employers—those with over 5,000 workers—nearly half offer incentives for risk assessments (50%), biometric screening (44%), and wellness programs (48%).[54] The trend of employer wellness incentives suggests Wyoming should bring this innovation to its Medicaid program.

Even though Obamacare passed on a straight party-line vote, expanding employer wellness incentives represented one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Language in the law permitted employers to increase the permitted variation for participation in wellness programs from 20 percent of premiums to 30 percent.[55] Medicaid programs should have the flexibility to implement such changes to their programs without requesting permission from Washington—and Wyoming should incorporate incentives for healthy behaviors into its revised Medicaid program as part of a comprehensive waiver.

Premiums and Co-Payments:              In addition to more innovative models discussed above, a revised Medicaid program in Wyoming could look to impose modest cost-sharing on beneficiaries through a combination of premiums and co-payments. Applying cost-sharing to specific services—for instance, unnecessary use of the emergency room for non-urgent care—should encourage beneficiaries to find the most appropriate source of care. Reasonable, enforceable cost-sharing would encourage beneficiaries to take responsibility for their care, making them partners in the road to better health.

 

Transition to Employment and Employer-Based Health Insurance

In many cases, individuals on Medicaid can, and ultimately should, make the transition to employment, and to the employer-based health insurance that comes with many quality jobs. However, the benefits currently provided by Medicaid bear little resemblance to most forms of employer-based coverage. In conjunction with the consumer-directed options discussed above, Wyoming should implement other steps to encourage beneficiaries to make the transition into work, and encourage the adoption of employer-based health insurance.

Work Requirements:               Fortunately, the Trump Administration has indicated a willingness to embrace state flexibility in Medicaid—which with respect to work requirements in particular would represent a welcome change from the Obama Administration.[56] A requirement that able-bodied Medicaid beneficiaries either work, look for work, or prepare for work through enrollment in job-training programs would help transform state economies, as even voluntary job-referral programs have led to some impressive success stories. In the neighboring state of Montana, one participant obtained skills that helped her find not just a job, but a new career:

“I think it’s a success story,” [Ruth] McCafferty says about the [Medicaid] jobs program. “I love this. I’m the poster child!”

McCafferty is a 53-year-old single mom with three kids living at home. Seven months ago, she lost her job in banking, and interviews for new jobs weren’t panning out.…

The jobs component of [her Medicaid coverage] means she also got a phone call from her local Job Service office, saying they might be able to hook her up with a grant to pay for training to help her get a better job than the one she lost. She was pretty skeptical, but came in anyway…

Job Service ended up paying not just for online training, but a trip to Helena to take a certification exam. Now, they’re funding an apprenticeship at a local business until she can start bringing in her own clients and get paid on commission.

“I’m able to support my family,” [McCafferty] says. “I’ve got a career opportunity that’s more than just a job.”[57]

Ruth McCafferty is not the only success story associated with Montana’s Medicaid Job Service program. Five in six individuals who participated in the program are now employed, and with an average 50 percent increase in pay, to about $40,000 per year—enough in some cases to transition off of Medicaid.[58] Unfortunately, however, because the program is not mandatory for beneficiaries, only a few thousand out of 53,000 Medicaid enrollees have embraced this life-changing opportunity.[59]

In December 2015, the Congressional Budget Office noted that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will reduce beneficiaries’ labor force participation by about 4 percent, “creat[ing] a tax on additional earnings for those considering job changes” that would raise their income above the threshold for eligibility.[60] Rather than discouraging work, as under Obamacare, Medicaid should encourage work, and a transition into working life. Imposing a work requirement for Medicaid recipients, coupled with appropriate resources for job training and education, would help beneficiaries, taxpayers—and ultimately, Wyoming’s economy.

Flexible Benefits:         Particularly for non-disabled adults and optional coverage populations, Wyoming should consider offering a more flexible and limited set of insurance benefits than the standard Medicaid package. Congress moved down this route in 2005, using a section of the Deficit Reduction Act to create a set of “benchmark” benefits that certain populations could receive.[61] However, the “benchmark” plan section limits eligibility to certain populations, and excludes provisions permitting states to impose modest cost-sharing for beneficiaries.

As part of a comprehensive waiver, Wyoming should request the ability to shift non-disabled beneficiaries into “benchmark” plans. Moreover, the waiver application should include provisions for modest cost-sharing for beneficiaries, and make those cost-sharing payments enforceable. Receiving authority from Washington to customize health coverage options for non-traditional beneficiaries would give the state the ability to innovate, and tailor benefit packages to beneficiary needs and fiscal realities.

Premium Assistance:               Premium assistance—in which Medicaid helps subsidize premiums for employer-sponsored health coverage—could play an important role in encouraging the use of private insurance where available, while also keeping all members of a family on the same health insurance policy. Unfortunately, however, current regulatory requirements for premium assistance have proven ineffective and unduly burdensome. All current premium assistance programs require Medicaid programs to provide wrap-around benefits to beneficiaries.[62] In addition, two premium assistance options created by Congress in 2009 explicitly prohibit states from using high-deductible health plans—regardless of whether or not the state funds an HSA to subsidize beneficiaries’ medical expenses in conjunction with the high-deductible plan.[63]

As part of its comprehensive waiver application, Wyoming should ask for more flexibility to use Medicaid dollars to subsidize employer coverage, without providing additional wrap-around benefits. In addition, the state’s application should require non-disabled adults to utilize premium assistance where available—another policy consistent with maximizing the use of private health coverage.

Preventing “Crowd-Out”:        Many government-run health programs face the problem of “crowd-out”—individuals purposefully dropping their private health coverage to enroll in taxpayer-funded insurance. Prior studies have estimated the “crowd-out” rate for certain coverage expansions at around 60 percent.[64] In these cases, coverage expansions enrolled more people who dropped their private coverage than previously uninsured individuals—a poor use of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

States like Wyoming should have the ability to impose reasonable restrictions on enrollment as one way to prevent “crowd-out.” For instance, ensuring enrollees do not have an available offer of employer coverage, or only enrolling persistently uninsured individuals (e.g., those uninsured for at least 90-180 days prior to enrollment), would prevent individuals from attempting to “game the system” and ensure efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

 

Program Integrity

Estimates suggest that health care fraud represents an industry of massive proportions, with tens of billions in taxpayer dollars lost every year to fraudulent activities.[65] Medicaid has remained on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) list of “high-risk” programs since 2003 “due to its size, growth, diversity of programs, and concerns about the adequacy of fiscal oversight.”[66] In its most recent update, GAO noted that improper payments—whether erroneous or fraudulent in nature—increased from a total of $29.1 billion in fiscal year 2015 to $36.3 billion in fiscal 2016—an increase of nearly 25 percent.[67]

A reformed Medicaid program in Wyoming would use flexibility provided by the federal government to strengthen programs and methods ensuring proper use of taxpayer dollars. Because any dollar stolen by a fraudster represents one dollar not used to help the patients—many of them aged and vulnerable—that Medicaid treats, policy-makers should work diligently to ensure that scarce taxpayer funds are used solely by the populations for whom Medicaid was designed.

Verify Eligibility and Identity:            A 2015 report by the Foundation for Government Accountability provides numerous cases of ineligible—or in some cases deceased—beneficiaries remaining on state Medicaid rolls:

  • Arkansas identified thousands of individuals not qualified for Medicaid benefits in 2014, including 495 deceased beneficiaries;
  • Pennsylvania removed over 160,000 individuals from benefit rolls in 2011, including individuals in prison and million-dollar lottery winners; and
  • In Illinois, state officials removed over 400,000 ineligible beneficiaries in one year alone, saving taxpayers approximately $400 million annually.[68]

In the past two years, Wyoming has taken decisive action to crack down on fraud. The eligibility checks begun in mid-2015 removed several thousand ineligible individuals from the Medicaid rolls.[69] Moreover, Act 57, passed by the state legislature last year, introduced a new comprehensive program to stop fraud.[70] By verifying eligibility and identity upon enrollment, monitoring eligibility through quarterly database checks, and prosecuting offenders where found, Act 57 should save Wyoming taxpayers, while ensuring that eligible beneficiaries can continue to receive the health services they need.[71]

Asset Recovery:            A 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report raised concerns about whether Wyoming’s Medicaid program is appropriately protecting taxpayer dollars. GAO concluded that Wyoming ranks second in the percentage of Medicaid beneficiaries (20.6%) with additional private health insurance coverage, and third in the percentage of Medicaid beneficiaries (26.02%) with additional public health insurance coverage.[72] By comparison, GAO concluded that only 13.4% of Medicaid beneficiaries nationwide had an additional source of private insurance coverage—meaning Wyoming has a rate of additional private coverage among Medicaid beneficiaries roughly 50 percent higher than the national average.[73]

As with the concept of crowd-out—individuals dropping private coverage entirely to enroll in Medicaid—discussed above, Medicaid should serve as the payer of last resort, not of first instance. If another payer has liability with respect to a Medicaid beneficiary’s claims, the state has the duty—both a statutory obligation under the federal Medicaid law, and a moral obligation to its taxpayers—to avoid incurring those claims, and seek to recover payments already made when it is cost-effective to do so.

Asset recovery can take several forms. Improving recovery for third-party liability claims could involve participation in electronic data matching between Medicaid enrollment files and private insurer files; empowering any managed care organizations contracted to the Medicaid program to adjudicate third-party liability claims; and prohibiting insurers from denying third-party liability claims for purely procedural reasons, such as failure to obtain prior authorization.[74] As part of these efforts, Wyoming should have the freedom to hire contingency fee-based contractors as one means to stem the flow of improper payments to health care providers.

Long-term services and supports represent another area where Wyoming can take steps to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent on the vulnerable populations for whom Medicaid was designed. The state can and should utilize existing authority to recover funds from estates, or impose sanctions on individuals who transferred assets at below-market rates in their efforts to qualify for Medicaid.[75]

 

Conclusion

In the past decade, Wyoming has made numerous reforms to its Medicaid program. The state has begun to re-balance care away from institutional settings where possible, and has implemented several programs to improve care coordination. These changes have helped stabilize Medicaid spending as a share of the budget, and reduce spending on a per-beneficiary basis.

However, given freedom and flexibility from Washington—flexibility which should be forthcoming under the new Administration—Wyoming can go further. This vision would see additional reforms designed to keep patients out of intensive and costly settings—whether the hospital or a nursing home—and an exploration of managed care options. Beyond the aged population, Wyoming would implement consumer-driven principles into Medicaid, giving beneficiaries greater incentives to take responsibility for their own care, and the tools to do so. And many recipients would ultimately transition out of Medicaid entirely, using skills they learned through Medicaid-sponsored job training programs to build a better life.

This vision stands within Wyoming’s reach—indeed, it stands within every state’s reach. All it takes is flexibility from Washington, and the desire on the part of policy-makers to embrace the vision for a modern Medicaid system. With a comprehensive waiver, Wyoming can transform and revitalize Medicaid. It’s time to embrace the opportunity and do just that.

 

[1] Letter by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma to state governors regarding Medicaid reform, March 14, 2017, https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sec-price-admin-verma-ltr.pdf.

[2] Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “2016 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2016.pdf, Table 3, p. 15.

[3] Congressional Budget Office, January 2017 Medicare baseline, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51302-2017-01-medicare.pdf.

[4] 2016 Actuarial Report, Table 3, p. 15; CBO January 2017 Medicare baseline.

[5] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2016, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Reports/Spring%202016%20Fiscal%20Survey%20of%20States-S.pdf, Table 11: Fiscal Year 2017 Recommended Program Area Adjustments by Value, p. 16.

[6] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2011, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Fiscal%20Survey/Spring%202011%20Fiscal%20Survey.pdf, Table 11: Fiscal Year 2012 Recommended Program Area Adjustments by Value, p. 13.

[7] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fall 2016 Fiscal Survey of States, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Fiscal%20Survey/Fall%202016%20Fiscal%20Survey%20of%20States%20-%20S.pdf, p. 1.

[8] National Association of State Budget Officers, 1996 State Expenditure Report, April 1997, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/SER%20Archive/ER_1996.PDF, Table 3, p. 11.

[9] Joanna Bisgaier and Karin Rhodes, “Auditing Access to Specialty Care for Children with Public Insurance,” New England Journal of Medicine June 16, 2011, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1013285.

[10] Vanessa Fuhrmans, “Note to Patients: The Doctor Won’t See You,” Wall Street Journal July 19, 2007, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB118480165648770935.

[11] Statement by DeAnn Friedholm, Consumers Union, at Alliance for Health Reform Briefing on “Affordability and Health Reform: If We Mandate, Will They (and Can They) Pay?” November 20, 2009, http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/TranscriptFINAL-1685.pdf, p. 40.

[12] Katherine Baicker, et al., “The Oregon Experiment—Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes,” New England Journal of Medicine May 2, 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321.

[13] Amy Finklestein et al., “Effect of Medicaid Coverage on ED Use—Further Evidence from Oregon’s Experiment,” New England Journal of Medicine October 20, 2016, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1609533.

[14] Scott Gottlieb, “Medicaid Is Worse than No Coverage at All,” Wall Street Journal March 10, 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704758904576188280858303612.

[15] Katherine Young et al., “Medicaid Per Enrollee Spending: Variation Across States,” http://files.kff.org/attachment/issue-brief-medicaid-per-enrollee-spending-variation-across-states-2, Appendix Table 1, p. 9.

[16] Ibid., Appendix Table 2, p. 11.

[17] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Assessment of Variation among States in Per-Enrollee Spending,” Report GAO-14-456, June 16, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664115.pdf.

[18] Ibid., Appendix II, pp. 40-41.

[19] Ibid., Appendix VII, pp. 53-54.

[20] Wyoming Department of Health, “Introduction to Wyoming Medicaid,” p. 31.

[21] Ibid., pp. 11, 14.

[22] Section 121 of H.R. 1628, the American Health Care Act, as passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 4, 2017.

[23] Section 1115 of the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1315.

[24] Mattie Quinn, “On Medicaid, States Won’t Take Feds’ No for an Answer,” Governing October 11, 2016, http://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/gov-medicaid-waivers-arizona-ohio-cms.html.

[25] Section 10201 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148, created a new Section 1115(d) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1315(d)) imposing such requirements.

[26] Section 1115 (e) and (f) of the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1315(e) and (f).

[27] Testimony of Gary Alexander, former Rhode Island Secretary of Health and Human Services, on “Strengthening Medicaid Long-Term Supports and Services” before the Commission on Long Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[28] Ibid., p. 4.

[29] Ibid., p. 4.

[30] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf, p. 3.

[31] House of Representatives Republican Task Force, “A Better Way—Our Vision for a Confident America: Health Care,” June 22, 2016, http://abetterway.speaker.gov/_assets/pdf/ABetterWay-HealthCare-PolicyPaper.pdf, pp. 23-28; Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, https://www.scribd.com/document/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[32] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation.”

[33] The author served as a member of the commission, whose work can be found at www.ltccommission.org.

[34] Testimony of Patti Killingsworth, TennCare Chief of Long-Term Supports and Services, before the Commission on Long-Term Care on “What Would Strengthen Medicaid LTSS?” August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Patti-Killingsworth-Testimony.pdf.

[35] Health Management Associates, “Wyoming Coordinated Care Study,” June 27, 2014, http://legisweb.state.wy.us/InterimCommittee/2014/WyoCoordinatedCareReportAppendices.pdf.

[36] National Academy for State Health Policy, “State ‘Accountable Care’ Activity Map,” http://nashp.org/state-accountable-care-activity-map/.

[37] Health Care Financing Administration, “Medicare Participating Heart Bypass Demonstration,” Extramural Research Report, September 1998, https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/Reports/downloads/oregon2_1998_3.pdf.

[38] Reed Abelson, “In Bid for Better Care, Surgery with a Warranty,” New York Times May 17, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/business/17quality.html?pagewanted=all.

[39] State of Arkansas, “Health Care Payment Improvement Initiative—Episodes of Care,” http://www.paymentinitiative.org/episodesOfCare/Pages/default.aspx.

[40] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Initiative: General Information,” https://innovation.cms.gov/initiatives/Bundled-Payments/.

[41] On December 20, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that participation in new cardiac and orthopedic bundles would be mandatory for all hospitals in selected metropolitan statistical areas beginning July 1, 2017; see https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-12-20.html. Both lawmakers and provider groups have suggested that CMS is imposing too many mandates on providers and exceeding its statutory and constitutional authority; see http://tomprice.house.gov/sites/tomprice.house.gov/files/assets/September%2029%2C%202016%20CMMI%20Letter.pdf.

[42] Steve Lohr, “Medicaid’s Data Gets an Internet-Era Makeover,” New York Times January 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/technology/medicaids-data-gets-an-internet-era-makeover.html.

[43] Section 6082 of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, P.L. 109-171, which created a new Section 1938 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1396u-8).

[44] The statute provided that, upon a beneficiary becoming ineligible for Medicaid, 25 percent of state contributions to the Opportunity Account would be returned to the state, but the beneficiary would retain 100 percent of any other contributions to the account, along with 75 percent of state contributions.

[45] Section 613 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-3.

[46] Amelia Haviland et al., “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.full.

[47] Josh Archambault and Nic Horton, “Right to Shop: The Next Big Thing in Health Care,” Forbes August 5, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2016/08/05/right-to-shop-the-next-big-thing-in-health-care/#6f0ebcd91f75.

[48] Amanda Lechner et al., “The Potential of Reference Pricing to Generate Savings: Lessons from a California Pioneer,” Center for Studying Health System Change Issue Brief No. 30, December 2013, http://hschange.org/CONTENT/1397/1397.pdf.

[49] Paul Fronstin and Christopher Roebuck, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits,” Employee Benefit Research Institute Issue Brief No. 398, April 2014, https://www.ebri.org/pdf/briefspdf/EBRI_IB_398_Apr14.RefPrcng.pdf.

[50] Bobbi Coluni, “Save $36 Billion in U.S. Health Care Spending through Price Transparency,” Thomson Reuters, February 2012, https://www.scribd.com/document/83286153/Health-Plan-Price-Transparency.

[51] Archambault and Horton, “Right to Shop.”

[52] Steven Burd, “How Safeway is Cutting Health Care Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[53] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2016 Annual Survey,” September 14, 2016, http://files.kff.org/attachment/Report-Employer-Health-Benefits-2016-Annual-Survey, Exhibit 12.20, p. 227.

[54] Ibid.

[55] PPACA Section 1201, which re-wrote Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg-4).

[56] Quinn, “States Won’t Take Feds’ No.”

[57] Eric Whitney, “Montana’s Medicaid Expansion Jobs Program Facing Scrutiny,” Montana Public Radio November 21, 2016, http://mtpr.org/post/montanas-medicaid-expansion-jobs-program-facing-scrutiny.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Edward Harris and Shannon Mok, “How CBO Estimates Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Labor Market,” Congressional Budget Office Working Paper 2015-09, December 2015, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/workingpaper/51065-ACA_Labor_Market_Effects_WP.pdf, p. 12.

[61] Section 6044 of the Deficit Reduction Act, P.L. 109-171, codified at Section 1937 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1396u-7.

[62] Joan Aiker et al., “Medicaid Premium Assistance Programs: What Information Is Available about Benefit and Cost-Sharing Wrap-Around Coverage?” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured Issue Brief, December 2015, http://files.kff.org/attachment/issue-brief-medicaid-premium-assistance-programs-what-information-is-available-about-benefit-and-cost-sharing-wrap-around-coverage; Joan Aiker, “Premium Assistance in Medicaid and CHIP: An Overview of Current Options and Implications of the Affordable Care Act,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured Issue Brief, March 2013, https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/8422.pdf.

[63] Section 301 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-3, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(c)(10)(B)(ii)(II) and 42 U.S.C. 1396e-1(b)(2)(B).

[64] Jonathan Gruber and Kosali Simon, “Crowd-Out 10 Years Later: Have Recent Public Insurance Expansions Crowded Out Private Health Insurance?” Journal of Health Economics February 21, 2008, http://economics.mit.edu/files/6422.

[65] “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes October 23, 2009, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/medicare-fraud-a-60-billion-crime-23-10-2009/.

[66] Government Accountability Office, “High-Risk Series: An Update,” Report GAO-15-290, February 2015, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668415.pdf, p. 366.

[67] Government Accountability Office, “High-Risk Series: Progress on Many High-Risk Areas, While Substantial Efforts Needed on Others,” Report GAO-17-317, February 2017,  http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/682765.pdf, p. 579.

[68] Jonathan Ingram, “Stop the Scam: How to Prevent Welfare Fraud in Your State,” Foundation for Government Accountability, April 2, 2015.

[69] Wyoming Department of Health, “Introduction to Wyoming Medicaid,” p. 13.

[70] Enrolled Act 57, Wyoming Legislature, 63rd Session.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Additional Federal Action Needed to Further Improve Third Party Liability Efforts,” GAO Report GAO-15-208, January 2015, http://gao.gov/assets/670/668134.pdf, Appendix II, Table 3, pp. 27-28.

[73] Ibid., Figure 1, p. 10.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Kirsten Colello, “Medicaid Financial Eligibility for Long-Term Services and Supports,” Congressional Research Service Report R43506, April 24, 2014, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43506.pdf.

How the Media Care More About Obamacare Than the Constitution

Fewer than 12 months ago, some people—aka, yours truly—raised a warning about Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions. The text of the law nowhere provided an appropriation for them, meaning that, as I wrote last May, the next President could shut them off unilaterally. At the time, I contacted several reporters, pointing out that such a move could have major implications for the health care law. None showed any interest in writing on the topic, and to the best of my knowledge, few if any reporters did.

Having now under-reacted regarding the issue during most of 2016, the media are compensating by over-reacting now. Since the House failed to pass “repeal-and-replace” legislation, breathless articles in multiple publications have examined the issue, whether the Trump Administration will cut off the subsidies, and whether insurers will bail on the Exchanges en masse as a result.

What Exactly Is Going On With Obamacare Subsidies?

For the uninitiated, the dispute involves one of two types of Obamacare subsidies: premium subsidies to lower monthly premium costs, and cost-sharing reductions that help with things like deductibles and co-payments. The law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for certain low-income individuals, and provides for a system of reimbursements to repay insurers for providing said reductions.

 However, Obamacare itself failed to provide any appropriation for the reimbursement payers to insurers. The lack of an explicit appropriation violates Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which requires that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Congress has the “power of the purse,” and Members of Congress believe that the Obama Administration violated that power.

To remedy that violation, the House of Representatives authorized legal action in July 2014, and filed suit in November 2014 seeking to stop the subsidies. Last May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the Obama Administration had in fact violated the Constitution by spending money without an express appropriation. The case, House v. Price (formerly House v. Burwell), remains on hold; the Obama Administration appealed Judge Collyer’s ruling last year, and the Trump Administration and the House are attempting to resolve the status of that appeal.

What’s The Media Saying About All This?

Given that background, it’s worth examining press coverage on the issue since Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” efforts collapsed, bringing questions about the lawsuit, and the subsidy payments, to the fore:

  • Politico noted that the House’s suit argued that the Obama Administration “had paid for [the subsidies] without congressional authority”—but also quoted an expert as saying failure to appropriate funds for the subsidies would “shoot [Obamacare] in the head.”
  • A separate Politico opinion piece said that “if the Republicans want to avoid a major mess, they need to make the suit go away and make sure the subsidies keep flowing.”
  • A Wall Street Journal article said that the House calls the payments “illegal.”

All three of these stories omitted one simple word: “Constitution.” As in, a federal judge said Barack Obama’s Administration violated the Constitution. As in, one analyst thinks the House needs to make a suit protecting its constitutional authority “go away.” As in, the payments weren’t ruled “illegal”—they were ruled unconstitutional.

Granted, other stories have at least mentioned the constitutional element of the dispute. But there haven’t been many stories focusing on the constitutionality of President Obama’s actions (which even Obamacare supporters have questioned), or even how the court ruling could rein in executive unilateralism. Instead of reading about how—by spending money without an appropriation—Barack Obama “sabotaged” the Constitution, or even “shot it in the head,” the public has seen all sorts of articles suggesting that President Trump may “sabotage” Obamacare—by upholding the Constitution.

Thanks For The Double Standard, American Media

That response merits a thought experiment in word substitution: If a federal court had ruled that the George W. Bush Administration violated the Constitution by giving tens of billions of dollars to—let’s pick a company at random here—Halliburton, do you think the press would be more focused on the violation of the rule of law and the unconstitutional payments, or on the chaos that would result if those payments to Halliburton suddenly ceased? If you think the latter, I’ve got some land I want to sell you.

If you’re still unconvinced that reporters are in the tank for Obamacare—or at minimum guilty of significant, and quite selective, double standards when it comes to their constitutional outrage—consider this recent Politico piece about a Donald Trump tweet threatening to change libel laws:

Trump’s comments on libel, coupled with his regular attacks on reporters and news organizations, have alarmed First Amendment advocates and his critics, who warned over the course of the campaign that his posture toward news organizations revealed a lack of respect for the role a free press plays in a democracy.

This high-minded rhetoric came one paragraph after Politico, citing various legal experts, pointed out “that there are virtually no steps within the President’s power to ‘open up libel laws,’ as Trump has suggested.”

But when a federal judge rules that President Obama violated (not threatened to violate, mind you, but actually violated) the Constitution by paying insurers tens of billions of dollars, the media focuses largely on how remedying that violation will impact the health care law. They seem to care more about protecting Obamacare than protecting the Constitution. Is it any wonder why people boo the press?

Spare Me Your Self-Righteousness

Within that double standard lies the major problem: the presumption that Obamacare is “too big to fail,” irrespective of whether or not the Obama Administration’s payments to insurers violated the Constitution. Some could be forgiven for thinking that the press coverage provides a disturbing lesson to future Presidents: If you violate the Constitution long enough and badly enough, it will become a norm, such that people will expect future leaders to accommodate the violation.

To all those reporters worried about President Trump’s attacks on reporters, I’ll simply posit that the Constitution is a binary choice: You either support it—all of it, even or especially the portions you find inconvenient—or you don’t. If you want the public to care about the Trump Administration’s stance towards the First Amendment, then it might be wise to give a damn about the other portions of the Constitution too.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.