CBO Tries But Fails to Defend Its Illegal Budget Gimmick

In a blog post released last Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) attempted to defend its actions regarding what I have characterized as an illegal budget gimmick designed to facilitate passage of an Obamacare bailout. When fully parsed, the response does not answer any of the key questions, likely because CBO has no justifiable answers to them.

The issue surrounds the budgetary treatment of cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), which President Trump cancelled last fall. While initially CBO said it would not change its budgetary treatment of CSRs, last month the agency changed course, saying it would instead assume that CSRs are “being funded through higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies rather than through a direct appropriation.”

That claim fails on multiple fronts. First, it fails to address the states that did not assume that CSR payments get met through “higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies.” As I noted in a March post, while most states allowed insurers to raise premiums for 2018 to take into account the loss of CSR payments, a few states—including Vermont, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, and a few other carriers in other states—did not. In those cases, the CSR payments cannot be accounted for through indirect premium subsidies, because premiums do not reflect CSR payments.

In its newest post, CBO admits that “most”—not all, but only “most”—insurers have covered the higher costs associated with lowering cost-sharing “by increasing premiums for silver plans.” But by using that phraseology, CBO cannot assume CSRs are being “fully funded” through higher premium subsidies, because not all insurers have covered their CSR costs through higher premiums. Therefore, even by CBO’s own logic, this new budgetary treatment violates the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statutory requirements.

Second, even assuming that (eventually) all states migrate to the same strategy, and do allow for insurers to recover CSR payments through premium subsidies, CBO’s rationale does not comply with the actual text of the law. The law itself—2 U.S.C. 907—requires CBO to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required by those laws” (emphasis mine).

I reached out to CBO to ask about their reasoning in the blog post—how the organization can reconcile its admission that not all, but only “most,” insurers raised premiums to account for the lack of CSR funding with CBO’s claim that the CSRs are “fully funded” in the new baseline. A spokesman declined to comment, stating that more information about this issue would be included in a forthcoming publication. However, CBO did not explain why it published a blog post on the issue “provid[ing] additional information” when it now admits that post did not include all relevant information.

In addition, CBO also has not addressed the question of why Director Keith Hall reneged on his January 30 testimony before the House Budget Committee. At that January hearing, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Dave Brat (R-VA) asked Hall about the budgetary treatment of CSRs. In both cases, the director said he would not make any changes “until we get other direction from the Budget Committees.”

That’s not what happened. CBO now claims that the change “was made by CBO after consultation with the House and Senate Budget Committees” (emphasis mine). No one directed CBO to make this change—or so the agency claims. But curiously enough, as I previously noted, Hall declined to answer a direct question from Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) at an April 12 hearing: “Why did you do that [i.e., change the baseline]?…You would have had to have gotten instruction to” make the change.

Moreover, Brat specifically asked how the agency would treat CSRs—as if they were being paid directly, or indirectly. Hall repeated the same response he gave Schakowsky, that CBO would not change its treatment “unless we get direction to do something different”—an answer which, given the agency’s later actions, could constitute a materially misleading statement to Congress.

Reasonable as it may seem from outward appearances, CBO’s excuses do not stand up to any serious scrutiny. The agency should finally come clean and admit that its recent actions do not comport with the law—as well as who put CBO up to making this change in the first place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is CBO Working with Budget Committee Staff to Hide an Illegal Obamacare Bailout?

It appears my recent article, which raised questions about whether the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) illegally manipulated the budget baseline to ease the passage of an Obamacare “stability” bill, hit a nerve. To borrow a current metaphor, if there were any more collusion between the House Budget Committee and CBO on this issue, Rod Rosenstein would need to appoint a special counsel to investigate.

Consider a series of questions asked by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) at House Budget’s April 12 hearing on the new Budget and Economic Outlook. Black asked CBO Director Keith Hall about the agency’s treatment of the law’s cost-sharing reduction payments (CSRs), which President Trump cancelled in October.

  1. Black asked about this issue, and only this issue. After completing her exchange with Hall on CSRs, she yielded back more than half of the five minutes allotted to her for questions—an unusual occurrence. Think about it: How often have you seen members of Congress take two minutes to give a five-minute speech?
  2. Black began the exchange by asking Hall a very friendly, and some would argue leading, question: “Is CBO doing this [i.e., changing the budgetary baseline] in full compliance with” the law?
  3. In response, Hall looked down at his notes no fewer than seven times in a roughly 45-second response. Particularly during the seventh and final instance, Hall quite clearly appears to be reading from his briefing materials. Members of Congress often read questions at hearings, but in nearly 15 years of working on and around Capitol Hill, I can recall precious few times where witnesses read answers.

Based on these circumstances, it seems reasonable to conclude that the exchange was scripted well in advance. If that’s the case, it appears Black, and whomever wrote her questions, worked with CBO to choreograph an exchange designed to rebut one of my allegations, namely, that CBO violated the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in making this budgetary change.

Mind you, the change does violate the law, Hall’s claims notwithstanding. CBO can claim that the budget baseline funds CSRs indirectly—via “higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies”—only by assuming that Congress does not fund CSRs directly.

Later in the April 12 hearing, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) also queried Hall on the circumstances behind this questionable change.

Palmer asked Hall: “Why did you change that [i.e., raise the baseline]?…You would have had to have gotten instruction to” make the alteration. Hall didn’t directly answer the question: He claimed CBO had the authority to make the change, but never said where his instruction came from.

But the budget committees already gave CBO instructions—which CBO suddenly chose to ignore. In an October estimate of Obamacare “stability” legislation, the budget office specifically said that “after consultation with the Budget Committees, CBO has not changed its baseline” to reflect the Trump administration’s cancellation of the CSR payments. Last week’s updated CBO document, which altered the budgetary baseline, said nothing about consultation with the budget committees—a break from the October precedent, and a direct violation of Hall’s promise in his January 30 testimony.

What changed? Did the CBO director just wake up one morning and decide to make a scoring change affecting $200 billion in taxpayer dollars? Or did someone pressure the CBO director to make that change—and if so, who?

If the House Budget Committee staff knows—and I’d bet they do—they certainly don’t want to say. At first my repeated e-mails to committee staff disappeared into dead air. Once I noted this radio silence on Twitter, I got a response, but not a substantive reply. The House Budget Committee’s communications director said my queries were within CBO’s purview, and sent me to them.

However, given the opaque and questionable way this budgetary change transpired, both CBO and House Budget have very clear reasons not to answer the question:

  • If House Budget admits that CBO did reach out to them about this scoring change, that places the fingerprints of House leadership on a heavy-handed attempt to strong-arm CBO and alter scoring rules in a way that favors an Obamacare bailout—the issue I first wrote about back in January.
  • If House Budget admits that CBO did not reach out to them about this scoring change, that means CBO “went rogue,” and increased spending on Obamacare subsidies by $194 billion without guidance or direction from the elected members of Congress who govern it. It also raises questions of whether Hall materially misled the Budget Committee (a felony offense) during his January 30 testimony.

Answering my question involves someone assuming responsibility for this mysterious occurrence. Because no one wants to assume responsibility for the chicanery behind this budget gimmick, apparently people think, or hope, that ignoring questions will make them go away. (I haven’t yet reached out to CBO for a comment, but anyone want to lay odds that their spokesman says, “I’m sorry, but we can’t disclose our communications with members of Congress”?) News flash: They’re not.

If CBO and House Budget are completely blameless, and everything about this budget change occurred in an above-board manner, they seem to have a funny way of going about proving their innocence—sidestepping questions. Not two months ago, Hall testified before the House Budget Committee about the ways CBO will improve transparency surrounding the budget process. If he wants to follow through on his promise, then Hall (to say nothing of House Budget) should start by disclosing exactly who ordered CBO to make this change—the sooner, the better.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is the CBO Director Breaking the Law to Help Paul Ryan Bail Out Obamacare?

Why would an ostensibly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) director violate the law and the word he gave to Congress only a few short weeks ago? Maybe because Paul Ryan asked him to.

In late January, I wrote about how the House speaker wanted CBO to violate budget rules to make it easier for Congress to pass an Obamacare bailout. At the time, House leadership aides dismissed my theories as unfounded and inaccurate speculation. Yet buried on page 103 of Monday’s report on the budget and economic outlook, CBO did exactly what I reported on earlier this year—it changed the rules, and violated the law, to make it easier for Congress to pass an Obamacare bailout.

The Making of a Budget Gimmick

Because of the interactions between the (higher) premiums and federal premium subsidies (which went up in turn), the federal government will likely spend more on subsidies this year without making CSR payments than with them.

Therein lay the basis of the budgetary gimmick Ryan and congressional leaders wanted CBO to help them accomplish. House staffers wanted CBO to adjust its baseline and assume the higher levels of spending under the “no-CSR” scenario. By turning around and appropriating funds for CSRs, thereby lowering this higher baseline, Congress could generate budgetary “savings”—which Republicans could spend on more corporate welfare for insurers, in the form of reinsurance payments.

The Problem? It’s Illegal

As I previously noted, the House’s scheme, and CBO’s actions on Monday to perpetrate that scheme, violate the law. Section 257(b)(1) of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act (available here) requires budget scorekeeping agencies to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required by those laws.”

Following my January post, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) asked CBO Director Keith Hall about this issue at a House Budget Committee hearing. Hall noted that CBO had been treating the cost-sharing reductions “as an entitlement, so it’s”—that is, the full funding of CSRs in the baseline—“remained there, unless we get direction to do something different. We’re assuming essentially that the money will be found somewhere, because it’s an entitlement.”

In a separate exchange with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) at the same hearing, Hall went even further: He said, “We’ve treated the cost-sharing reductions actually as an entitlement, at least so far until we get other direction from the Budget Committee.”

Then Comes the Flip-Flop

Yet Monday’s document on the budget outlook did exactly what Hall said mere weeks ago that CBO would not. A paragraph deep in the section on “Technical Changes in Outlays” included this nugget:

Technical revisions caused estimates of spending for subsidies for coverage purchased through the marketplaces established under the ACA and related spending to be $44 billion higher, on net, over the 2018–2027 period than in CBO’s June baseline. A significant factor contributing to the increase is that the current baseline projections reflect that the entitlement for subsidies for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) is being funded through higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies rather than through a direct appropriation.

In the span of a few weeks, then, Hall and CBO went from “We’re assuming essentially that the money [i.e., the CSR appropriation] will be found somewhere” to the exact opposite assumption. Yet the report mentions no directive from the budget committees asking CBO to change its scorekeeping methodology, likely because the committees did not give such a directive.

In analyzing the status of the Medicare trust fund, which CBO projects will become exhausted in fiscal year 2026, Footnote A of Table C-1 notes how the baseline “shows a zero [balance] rather than a cumulative negative balance in the trust fund after the exhaustion date”—because that’s what Gramm-Rudman-Hollings requires:

CBO may try to make the semantic argument, implied in the passage quoted above, that it continues to assume full funding of CSRs, albeit through indirect means (i.e., higher spending on premium subsidies) rather than “a direct appropriation.” But that violates what Hall himself said back in late January, when he laid out CBO’s position, and said it would not change absent an explicit directive—even though the budget report nowhere indicates that CBO received such direction.

It also violates sheer common sense that the budget office should assume “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments” by assuming that the administration does not make all payments, namely the direct CSR payments to insurers.

Coming Up: An Embarrassing Spectacle

During his testimony before the House and Senate Budget Committees this week, Hall may make a spectacle of himself—and not in a good way. He will have to explain why he unilaterally changed the budgetary baseline in a way that explicitly violated his January testimony. He will also have to justify why CBO believes Gramm-Rudman-Hollings’ direction to assume full funding for “all payments” allows CBO to assume that Congress will not make direct CSR payments to insurers.

Conservatives should fight to expose this absurd and costly budget gimmick, and demand answers from Hall as to what—or, more specifically, whom—prompted his U-turn. If Hall wants to transform himself into the puppet of House leadership, and break his word to Congress in the process, he should at least be transparent about it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“Stability” Bill Likely Will Not Lower Premiums in 2019

In the debate over an Obamacare “stability” bill, advocates of such a measure contend that it will lower premiums, throwing around studies and numbers to make their case. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released a handout earlier this week claiming that Oliver Wyman forecast a 40 percent reduction in premiums from a “stability” package, and that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) gave preliminary estimates of a 10 percent premium reduction in 2019, and a 20 percent reduction in 2020 and 2021.

However, all these numbers avoid — wittingly or otherwise — answering the critical question: Premium reduction compared to what? Barack Obama ran into this problem when trying to sell Obamacare. In 2008, he said repeatedly that his health care plan would “cut” people’s premiums — and then, after signing the bill into law, tried to argue that when he had said “cut,” he really meant “slow the rate of increase.”

But would a “stability” bill actually prevent those premium increases for 2019, particularly for unsubsidized enrollees? (Federal subsidies insulate individuals with incomes under 400 percent of the poverty level — $100,400 for a family of four — from much of the effects of premium hikes.) Would premiums remain flat, or even decline, next year compared to 2018 rates? Based on the studies released to date, most indications suggest otherwise — which should give conservatives pause before embracing a measure that would further entrench Obamacare, making repeal that much less likely.

Factors Affecting Premiums For 2019

Over and above annual increases in medical costs, multiple unique factors will impact premiums for the coming year:

Cost-Sharing Reductions: President Trump’s October decision to stop Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurers had a large theoretical impact — but in most states, little practical effect on unsubsidized enrollees. Estimates released prior to the President’s decision suggested that insurers would need to raise premiums for 2018 by roughly 20 percent to account for loss of the CSR payments.

An analysis of states’ decisions regarding CSRs shows that only six states applied the CSR charges to all health insurance plan rates—thereby forcing unsubsidized enrollees to pay higher premiums. Because comparatively few unsubsidized enrollees paid higher premiums due to the CSR decision, the inverse scenario applies: Few unsubsidized enrollees will receive any premium reduction from appropriating CSRs.

Individual Mandate Repeal: As I noted last fall, eliminating Obamacare’s individual mandate tax, while retaining its costly regulations, will put upward pressure on premiums — the only question is how much. Without getting taxed for not purchasing Obamacare-compliant insurance, some healthy individuals will drop coverage, raising average premiums for the remainder.

In its most recent estimate last November, the CBO stated that eliminating the tax would raise exchange premiums “by about 10 percent in most years of the decade.” The administration likewise believes that eliminating the mandate penalty will raise premiums by a similar amount. Its proposed rule on short-term health plans estimated an average monthly premium of $649 with the individual mandate penalty, and $714 without—an increase of $65 per month, or exactly 10 percent.

The administration’s proposed rule on short-term health insurance admitted that exchange premiums would rise as a result of healthy individuals choosing short-term coverage over exchange plans, but by very modest amounts. In the administration’s estimates, premiums would rise by only $2-4 per month for exchange coverage — far less than the $65 monthly estimated premium increase due to elimination of the mandate tax, as noted above. However, the administration’s estimates only assume that 100,000-200,000 individuals enroll in short-term coverage.

By contrast, the liberal Urban Institute estimated much higher take-up of short-term plans by healthy individuals, and therefore much greater premium increases for the sicker individuals who would remain in Obamacare-compliant coverage. According to Urban, 4.3 million individuals would enroll in short-term coverage — more than 20 times the administration’s highest estimate. Because of these healthy individuals migrating to short-term coverage, the Urban researchers assume much larger premium increases for Obamacare-compliant plans, averaging 18.3 percent in the 45 states (plus the District of Columbia) that currently allow the sale of short-term coverage.

The proposed regulatory action on short-term plans — which the administration hopes insurers will start selling by this fall — could have minimal impact on premiums, or lead to sizable premium increases. In general, however, the more that short-term plans succeed in attracting many (healthy) customers, the higher premiums will climb for the (sicker) individuals who maintain exchange coverage.

Premium Tax Suspension: In the January continuing resolution, Congress suspended Obamacare’s health insurance tax — currently in effect for 2018 — for 2019. An August 2017 study, paid for by health insurer UnitedHealthGroup and conducted by Oliver Wyman, found that the insurer tax would raise premiums by about 2.7 percent. Removing the tax next year would lower 2019 premiums by roughly the same amount.

Premium Estimates — Comparing 2018 And 2019

Given the above factors, will premiums go down in 2019 compared to their current 2018 levels? Based on the analyses conducted to date, most indicators suggest they will not.

Oliver Wyman: As I noted on Wednesday, the 40 percent headline figure in the Oliver Wyman study relies on an assumption that Oliver Wyman itself finds dubious. That premium reduction assumes that states apply for and receive a waiver to create their own reinsurance pool on top of the federal reinsurance funds. However, Oliver Wyman concedes that “states that have not already begun working on a waiver will be challenged to get [one] filed and approved under the current regulatory regime in time to impact 2019 premiums.”

The report continues: “In those states that are not able to obtain [a waiver]…we estimate that premium [sic] would decline by more than 20 percent across all metal levels. Those estimates include an average 10 percent reduction due to the funding of CSRs, with the remaining reduction coming from the reinsurance program.”

However, most individuals will NOT receive a 10 percent premium reduction in 2019 if Congress funds CSRs — because, as noted above, most unsubsidized individuals are not paying higher premiums in 2018 due to the non-funding of CSRs. Moreover, while Oliver Wyman said its modeling “reflects elimination of the mandate penalty,” it does not consider the impact of regulatory action on short-term plans or AHPs.

Therefore, the study conducted by Oliver Wyman — which frequently does work for the insurance industry — suggests that, at best, the “stability” package would reduce premiums in 2019 compared to current law for the average enrollee by 10 percent. However, would it actually reduce premiums compared to 2018 levels for the average enrollee? Only if one assumes that 1) health costs do not rise significantly and 2) few individuals enroll in short-term plans or AHPs. If either scenario occurs, a slight premium decrease could turn into a premium increase — and if both scenarios occur, a sizable increase at that.

Congressional Budget Office: Neither Alexander nor the CBO have released their full analysis of a “stability” package. However, according to Alexander’s characterization of the CBO score, the budget office assumes a more modest premium impact than Oliver Wyman — a 10 percent reduction in 2019, followed by a 20 percent premium reduction in 2020 and 2021. Like Oliver Wyman, the CBO likely believes that tight deadlines would make it difficult for the funds provided by the “stability” bill to lower premiums in time for the 2019 plan year. Unlike Oliver Wyman, however, the CBO does not take into account whether and how funding CSRs would lower premiums — because, as I have written previously, federal budget law requires the CBO to assume full funding for CSRs (and all other entitlements) when conducting its analyses.

As noted above, the CBO believes that eliminating the mandate penalty would raise premiums by roughly 10 percent. Put another way, then, in CBO’s estimation, the entire “stability” package would only cancel out the effect of eliminating the mandate penalty on premiums in 2019. If health costs rise — as they do every year — then premiums will rise in 2019. And if the short-term plans succeed in attracting many customers away from the exchanges, then premiums for Obamacare-compliant plans could rise substantially — by double digits — even after the “stability” package.

Conservatives have many good reasons to oppose this “stability” measure — budgetary gimmicks, potential federal funding of abortion coverage, Congress’ total lack of oversight for the bad decisions made by insurers and insurance commissioners, to name just a few. But the fact that the measure looks unlikely to achieve its central goal of lowering premiums seems the most damning indictment of the proposal — failing to solve its intended problem, while causing so many others.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Paul Ryan Flip-Flops on Fiscal Responsibility to Prop Up Obamacare

What a difference eight years makes. In February 2010, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), then Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, spoke at the White House health care summit decrying Obamacare as “a bill that is full of gimmicks and smoke-and-mirrors.” His comments became a viral sensation, so much so that the Wall Street Journal published a condensed version of his remarks as an op-ed. (Here’s the video.)

Reporters confirmed as much on Monday, when an article claimed that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) believes appropriating funds for cost-sharing reduction payments (CSRs) for three years would save the federal government $32 billion, when compared to a scenario in which Congress does not appropriate CSR payments. Not coincidentally, the article noted that a separate bill by Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) — “which House leaders have embraced” — would create a $30 billion “Stability Fund” for insurers, purportedly paid for by the $32 billion in “savings” caused from appropriating CSRs.

The article doesn’t say so outright, but it’s not hard to figure out what happened behind the scenes:

  1. House Republican leadership directed CBO to score the fiscal effects of making CSR payments to insurers compared to not making the payments.
  2. House Republican leaders leaked results of the score to insurer lobbyists.
  3. Those insurer lobbyists then leaked the results to reporters — to claim their bill would generate “savings” for the federal government.

The end result sounds like a Broadway musical: “How to Spend $60 Billion in Taxpayer Funds without Really Trying.” If insurers have their way, Congress would spend roughly $30 billion in CSR payments for the next three years, and that $30 billion in spending would “save” another $32 billion — which Congress would turn right around and send to insurers, via the $30 billion “Stability Fund.”

Compare this maneuver to Obamacare — or, more specifically, Paul Ryan’s 2010 critique of Obamacare. At the White House health care summit, Ryan told President Obama in regard to Obamacare’s proposed reductions to Medicare: “You can’t say that you’re using this money to either extend Medicare solvency and also offset the cost of this new program. That’s double counting.” If claiming that Medicare savings both enhance Medicare’s solvency and pay for Obamacare constitutes double counting — and it does — then what exactly is jiggering the budgetary baseline solely to generate “savings” that Republicans can turn around and spend…?

There’s another problem too: The fraudulent “savings” are also illegal. As I previously noted, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statute requires CBO to assume full payment of CSRs — meaning the scenario that House Republicans asked CBO to score violates the statutory requirements.

Some might claim that, since President Trump stopped making CSR payments last October, a scenario in which CBO does not assume the federal government makes those payments represents a more realistic fiscal approach than that currently required by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. To which I have one simple retort: If you don’t like the law, then Change. The. Law.

Ryan and House Republican leaders don’t want to change the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law — just like they don’t want to pay for the insurer bailout. Such efforts would take time and effort, necessitate legislative transparency — as opposed to closed-door meetings and selective leaks to K Street lobbyists — and require difficult decisions about how to pay for new spending. Why make those tough choices now, when Republicans can just charge the tab for the insurer bailout on to the national credit card, and let the next generation pay the bill instead?

Congressional Republicans spent eight years decrying Obamacare’s fiscal gimmickry, and President Obama’s executive lawlessness. If they follow the example of the House Republican leadership, and engage in their own illegal budgetary gimmicks, they will have no grounds to complain about Democrats’ spending sprees or overreach. And they shouldn’t be surprised if no one believes their claims of fiscal responsibility come November 6.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The White House’s Plan to Bail Out Obamacare AND Fund Abortion Coverage

The White House released its budget proposal this morning. Apart from the fact that the budget abandons any attempt to get to balance within ten years (or ever), a footnote buried deep in the document hides key proposals: Bailing out Obamacare health insurers to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, and taxpayer funding of abortion coverage.

On page 141, footnote 6 of Table S-6, showing the president’s policy proposals, includes the following admission: “The Budget requests mandatory appropriations for the risk corridors program and for cost-sharing reduction payments.”

There you have it: At least $11.5 billion in corporate welfare payments to insurers for risk corridors, and more for cost-sharing reductions.

About Risk Corridors

While risk corridors have faded in the public debate over the past two years, they remain a potent issue for health insurers. See a full explanation of the issue, but here’s a summary.

To prevent the Obama administration from using funds from elsewhere to subsidize corporate welfare to insurers, Congress enacted restrictions prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds to bail out risk corridors. Under these restrictions, insurers with losses could only receive as much money from the risk corridor program as insurers with gains paid into the program.

In Obamacare’s first few years, most insurers suffered massive losses, so the money coming in to the risk corridor program by no means equaled the requests for funds from the program. As a result, several insurers sued in the Court of Federal Claims, requesting payment from the Judgment Fund of the Treasury for their unpaid risk corridor obligations. Many of those cases remain on appeal.

While both the White House and HHS budgets include few details about this proposal, it appears that they would pre-emptively surrender the pending legal cases by paying insurers more than $11.5 billion in risk corridor obligations that insurers claim they are owed. The budget further proposes making these payments exempt from the budget sequester.

About Cost-Sharing Reductions

The White House’s proposal on CSRs looks downright conservative, however, compared to the budget gimmick being contemplated by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI). The White House budget indicates that spending on CSRs would have no deficit effect, because the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statute requires budgetary agencies to assume full funding of entitlements (including CSR payments) when developing their fiscal baselines.

Ryan, however, finds this legal requirement an inconvenient truth. He wants to direct the budget agencies to raise the spending baseline artificially, so Congress can then “lower” the spending baseline right back to where it is now—and spend the phony “savings” from this gimmick on more corporate welfare to insurers.

Forcing Taxpayers to Fund Abortion Coverage

Another point of note: Passing either one of these proposals would by definition result in taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion. The administration did not include any language prohibiting the use of CSR or risk corridor funds for plans that cover abortion. Therefore the White House presumably endorses federal taxpayer funding of abortion coverage.

The budget proposal means Trump administration is now actively working to codify not one but two Obamacare bailouts that a Republican Congress denied to the Obama administration—doing liberals’ bidding for them. Moreover, the failure to include any pro-life protections on these bailouts represents at best a massive managerial oversight, and at worst an insult to the pro-life community. For those who thought that last week’s budget deal represented the nadir for conservative principles among this administration, think again.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Paul Ryan’s Secret, Illegal Plan to Bail Out Obamacare

While most of Washington remains consumed on the drama surrounding immigration negotiations, leaders in the House have quietly pursued other policy objectives. According to multiple sources on Capitol Hill, House leaders, particularly Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), have concocted a plan that would 1) use a budget gimmick that arguably violates the law to 2) bail out Obamacare and 3) provide taxpayer funding to plans that cover abortion.

As a certain congressman from Wisconsin said back in 2012: “With allies like that, who needs the Left?”

Budgetary Smoke and Mirrors

In a nutshell, the gimmick under consideration would have the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) raise the budgetary baseline so Congress can lower the baseline and spend the artificial “savings.” It’s a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of. Here’s how it would work.

Congress would direct CBO to assume that Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) would not be paid. While the Trump administration did cut those subsidies off last October, due to the lack of a constitutional appropriation for them, the budget scorekeeping conventions (discussed in detail below) indicate that CBO should still assume the subsidies would continue. However, Congress would instruct CBO to override that precedent.

CBO would then increase the spending baseline for Obamacare, because of the interactions between CSRs and the law’s insurance premium subsidies. Essentially, eliminating the former would cause spending on the latter to rise, as insurers raise premiums to reflect the lack of CSR payments. (Under the law, insurers must reduce cost-sharing for low-income individuals regardless, so they would adjust premiums upward—as they did in most states for 2018—to reflect the cost of this regulatory mandate.) Higher premiums will lead to higher federal subsidies for those premiums, at $194 billion over a decade, according to an estimate CBO released last August.

Congress would then take the “savings” from appropriating funds for CSRs—which, as explained above, consists not of legitimate deficit reduction so much as a phony gimmick derived from playing budgetary games—and spend that money on reinsurance and other corporate welfare payments to health insurers.

There you have it: A fiscal Ponzi scheme that would give health insurers their two major desires—cost-sharing reductions and reinsurance—in one big bailout. If it passes once for a two- or three-year period, you can bet your life this scheme would turn into an Obamacare perpetual bailout machine, with insurers coming back time and time again for more crony capitalist cash.

Violates Budgeting Principles

This plan not only violates the pretense that Republicans care about repealing—as opposed to bailing out—Obamacare, but it also violates budget scorekeeping principles laid out in statute. Specifically, Section 257(b)(1) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 (the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statute) includes the following direction when developing the budgetary baseline: “Laws providing or creating direct spending and receipts are assumed to operate in the manner specified in those laws for each year and funding for entitlement authority is assumed to be adequate to make all payments required by those laws” (emphasis mine).

Granted, the law does not include an appropriation for HHS to make those payments. That lack of appropriation prompted the House of Representatives to sue the Obama administration for exceeding its constitutional authority, and caused the Trump administration to stop the payments last fall.

But whether an appropriation actually exists is immaterial to the separate and distinct question of whether the law requires the secretary to make payments. Obamacare includes such entitlement authority over CSRs. Therefore, under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, the budget baseline should assume that those cost-sharing reductions will be paid.

In its August 2017 report on CSRs, CBO agreed. In a section regarding the budgetary treatment of the cost-sharing payments, the budget analysts noted that “the agencies have recorded the CSR payments as direct spending (that is, spending that does not require appropriation action)—a conclusion reached because the cost-sharing subsidies were viewed as a form of entitlement authority” (parentheses in original; italics mine).

All budgetary scorekeepers—both CBO and the Office of Management and Budget—have never disputed the validity of the entitlement, as opposed to the separate and distinct legal question of whether a valid appropriation exists. That entitlement language remains unchanged; therefore, the budgetary treatment of CSRs should remain unchanged—unless Republican leaders attempt to strong-arm CBO as an accomplice to their scheme for bailing out Obamacare.

Dropping Principles and Promises to Win An Election

After reading all this, some may wonder why Republican congressional leaders have taken the time to concoct such a scheme. In part because Congress (wrongly) repealed only the individual mandate as part of the tax reform bill, members worry about big premium spikes as a result of their actions, which will hit right around the time of the midterm elections this fall. Just as Senate staff talked openly last summer about how they structured their “stability funds” to yield premium reductions in November 2018, House leaders now want to “stabilize” the insurance markets this fall.

Or, to put it more cynically, they value preserving power more than they do their principles. Make no mistake, this plot would violate just about every principle conservatives hold dear. It makes no attempt to repeal Obamacare. Instead, it strengthens and entrenches it. It relies on budgetary smoke-and-mirrors to raise federal spending—a gimmick so laughable that it would destroy any credible claim Ryan could make toward fiscal responsibility and honest budgeting. It would also increase taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion, because Democrats will never agree to this scheme if it includes robust pro-life protections in law, as doing so would effectively prohibit exchange plans from covering abortion.

Back in 2012, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacked conservative proposals to reform Medicare, Ryan famously asked, “With allies like that, who needs the Left?” Six years later, given the shady nature of the Republican leadership scheme to bail out Obamacare, some may be saying the same thing about him.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Conservative’s (Sort of) Defense of IPAB

The House of Representatives will vote Thursday on whether to eliminate Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). I come not to praise IPAB, but not to bury it, either—at least, not yet.

Yes, Obamacare empowers this federal board to make binding recommendations to Congress about enforcing per capita spending caps within Medicare. Yes, that board undermines congressional sovereignty by empowering unelected bureaucrats, in what its own advocates transparently described as an attempt to minimize democracy. And yes, federal bureaucrats have no business interfering still further with physicians’ practice of medicine. But for multiple reasons, Congress should not repeal IPAB without first enacting a suitable replacement.

We Can’t Afford Medicare As It Is

The Medicare Trust Fund suffered $132.2 billion in deficits during the Great Recession, and faces insolvency in just more than a decade. Medicare needs fundamental reform now, but repealing IPAB without simultaneously enacting other reforms will only encourage partisan attacks when Congress finally must act. Witness the liberal ads throwing granny over a cliff in response to congressional Medicare reform proposals that would save both seniors and taxpayers billions of dollars annually.

Second, repealing IPAB would also undermine the case for reforming Medicaid. Liberals’ hue-and-cry over proposals to reform Medicaid earlier this year demonstrated an opportunistic hypocrisy, as the same groups that attacked Republican efforts to impose per capita caps on Medicaid supported per capita spending caps on Medicare when created by a Democratic president. Conservative support for IPAB repeal would reinforce this ideological incoherence, demonstrating Republicans as favoring per capita caps in Medicaid, but not Medicare, and weakening the case for reforms to either entitlement.

Third, opportunities to control spending do not come often, or easily, which should make conservatives inherently reluctant to repeal any of them. In 1985, Congress enacted the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act, designed to force lawmakers to live within statutory spending targets. But Congress weakened Gramm-Rudman’s statutory fiscal discipline within five years, and abandoned it altogether by 2002. It took the debt limit fight of 2011 to restore fiscal discipline through the Budget Control Act’s sequestration caps—conservatives’ major policy victory of the Obama era, and one that congressional spendthrifts have consistently worked to undermine since.

It’s Clumsy, But Better than Nothing

As someone who has criticized Obamacare’s overly regulatory structure since its enactment seven years ago, I recognize—and entirely agree with—objections to the way IPAB undermines congressional authority, and intrudes still further into the practice of medicine. But conservatives would do well to avoid conflating IPAB’s highly flawed means with its entirely proper ends.

The board imposes real caps on Medicare spending, however clumsy, and like the budget sequester mechanism represents a genuine, albeit flawed, attempt to reduce federal spending. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office estimates the board’s repeal would increase Medicare spending, and thus the budget deficit, by $17.5 billion over the coming decade and more after that.

Most health-care interest groups want an outright IPAB repeal immediately, which is one major reason the House will vote on its repeal this week. But conservatives should not take that bait, and should instead work to replace IPAB with constructive reforms that modernize Medicare and make the program more fiscally sustainable for future generations.

As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.” Conservatives may not wish to see spending rise on an already unsustainable entitlement. But if they follow the efforts of K Street lobbyists and repeal IPAB without an effective substitute, that’s exactly what they would end up getting.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Budget Sequestration’s Impact on Obamacare Subsidies

A PDF of this Issue Brief is available on the Heritage Foundation website.

Many Americans could face a rude awakening when they discover that the subsidies they thought they were getting to offset their health care costs are less than what they were promised. Some claim that the Obamacare subsidies are exempt from the spending reductions established by the Budget Control Act (BCA), but that is only half right.[1]

The BCA exempts only the premium subsidies, not the cost-sharing subsidies, from upcoming cuts. Regrettably, the Obama Administration has not taken steps to inform the American people of this fact as they navigate coverage options in the government exchanges.

The Sequester’s Impact on Obamacare Subsidies

Obamacare provides two forms of subsidies:

  1. Premium subsidy. Section 1401 provides that individuals with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($94,200 for a family of four) who do not have access to “affordable” employer-based coverage and meet other relevant criteria are eligible to receive refundable tax credits for coverage purchased in the exchanges.
  2. Cost-sharing subsidy. Section 1402 provides cost-sharing subsidies to reduce maximum out-of-pocket expenses for households with incomes below four times the federal poverty level. Other language in Section 1402 directs cost-sharing subsidies to increase the actuarial value—the average amount of expected health expenses paid by insurance—for households with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty level.

The BCA exempted the premium subsidies from sequestration—not explicitly but by definition. The sequester mechanism in the BCA was largely based on formulae developed by the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Act of 1985, which exempts refundable tax credits under the Internal Revenue Code from any federal sequestration.[2] Because Obamacare structured the premium subsidies as refundable tax credits, they remain exempt from the BCA sequestration.

However, with regard to sequestration’s spending reductions, the cost-sharing subsidies under Section 1402 of Obamacare are distinct from the premium subsidies under Section 1401 of the law in at least two significant ways:

  1. The language authorizing Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies is included as part of the Public Health Service Act (Title 42 of the U.S. Code). The sequester exemption for refundable tax credits requires that they be “made pursuant to provisions of Title 26” of the Internal Revenue Code.[3]
  2. Obamacare specifically requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “make periodic and timely payments to the issuer” of the insurance policy reflecting the increased cost-sharing. The sequester exemption in Gramm–Rudman–Hollings for refundable tax credits provides that only “payments to individuals,” not to insurance companies, are exempt from sequester reductions.[4]

For these reasons, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has concluded that the cost-sharing subsidies under Section 1402 of Obamacare “appear to be fully sequestrable” under the BCA.[5]

Administration Confirms Cuts but Has No Plan

The Administration has likewise agreed that the cost-sharing subsidies are subject to sequestration spending reductions. An Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report issued in May 2013 categorized the cost-sharing subsidies as mandatory spending subject to sequestration.[6]

The report further estimated that a 7.2 percent cut in these subsidies, as required by sequestration, would reduce spending by $286 million in fiscal year 2014—a period that covers the first nine months of Obamacare’s coverage expansions, from January through September 2014.[7]

However, the Administration has not been similarly forthcoming about how the 7.2 percent spending reductions will be applied. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Marilyn Tavenner acknowledged that CMS had not communicated to officials who are operating exchanges, both federal and state, how this sequestration will be applied to the cost-sharing subsidies. However, she pledged to do so “before open enrollment, which starts on October 1, 2013.”[8] To date, no guidance has been released by either CMS or OMB.

Limited Options

It is impossible to predict how CMS intends to implement the required sequestration reductions. In the absence of clear guidance from the Administration about the impact of sequestration, one can envision two possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Consumers Pay. Under this scenario, the individuals eligible for cost-sharing subsidies would face higher cost-sharing. Eligible individuals would face some combination of higher co-payments, higher deductibles, higher co-insurance, or the loss of some benefits to make up for the reduced cost-sharing subsidies.

The structure and requirements of sequestration place a high emphasis on regulatory guidance from CMS. The sequestration law requires that spending reductions “shall apply to all programs, projects, and activities within a budget account.”[9] But it remains unclear how the Administration will implement this requirement. For instance, CMS could decide to reduce all eligible individuals’ cost-sharing subsidies by an equal 7.2 percent. Alternatively, the Administration could try to implement the reductions on a sliding-scale basis so that households with lower incomes face a smaller-scale reduction.

However, because the Administration has not issued any form of guidance, the cost-sharing information currently published on the exchanges does not accurately reflect the impact of sequestration on the cost-sharing subsidies.[10] Thus, for those few individuals who have actually enrolled in subsidized health insurance on exchanges, their co-payments and cost-sharing may increase next year. Accurate information cannot exist until CMS publicly states how it intends to implement the required sequestration reductions.

Scenario 2: Insurers Pay. A second possible scenario would see insurers being forced to absorb the costs of the sequester reductions in cost-sharing subsidies themselves. CRS, examining Obamacare’s statutory requirements on insurers to provide cost-sharing reductions, considered this scenario a likely outcome:

The impact of sequestration is unclear. [Obamacare] entitles certain low-income exchange enrollees to coverage with reduced cost-sharing and requires the participating insurers to provide that coverage. Sequestration does not change that requirement. Insurers presumably will still have to provide required coverage to qualifying enrollees but they will not receive the full subsidy to cover their increased costs.[11]

This scenario would see insurers absorbing $286 million in losses in the law’s first nine months alone—losses that would grow over time. Citing estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, CRS noted that the federal government is scheduled to spend $149 billion on cost-sharing subsidies between 2014 and 2023.[12] Given that sequestration is scheduled to remain in place through 2021, the reductions in cost-sharing subsidies under current law would likely total several billion dollars at a minimum.

The scale of the numbers at issue raises questions about whether and under what circumstances insurance companies would actually continue to offer exchange coverage, knowing they would be guaranteed to incur losses if they do so.

More Than a “Glitch”

While Obamacare’s defenders are fond of claiming that “glitches” are the only thing holding back the law’s implementation, the Administration’s failure to confront the impact of BCA cuts signed into law two years ago is no mere “glitch.” Either individuals who endure an arduous process to sign up for insurance on balky exchanges will face a “bait-and-switch,” with cost-sharing levels higher than advertised, or insurers will face the prospect of billions of dollars in losses. Neither option is acceptable.

The Administration that promised to be the “most transparent and accountable” in history has neglected to inform the American people about the impact of sequestration on its prized accomplishment.

 



[1]See, for instance, Ezra Klein, “Democrats Should Surrender on Taxes,” Bloomberg, October 16, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-16/democrats-should-surrender-on-taxes.html (accessed October 24, 2013).

[2]2 U.S. Code 905(d).

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]C. Stephen Redhead, “Budget Control Act: Potential Impact of Sequestration on Health Reform Spending,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, May 31, 2013, Table 4, p. 22, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42051.pdf (accessed October 24, 2013).

[6]Office of Management and Budget, Revised Sequestration Preview Report for Fiscal Year 2014, May 20, 2013, p. 23, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/assets/legislative_reports/fy14_preview_and_joint_committee_reductions_reports_05202013.pdf, (accessed October 24, 2013).

[7]Ibid.

[8]Marilyn Tavenner, “PPACA Pulse Check,” testimony before the Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, August 1, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearing/ppaca-pulse-check (accessed October 24, 2013).

[9]2 U.S. Code 906(k)(2).

[10]Tavenner, “PPACA Pulse Check.”

[11]Redhead, “Budget Control Act,” p. 15.

[12]Ibid., Table 4, p. 23.