Poll: People Care MORE About Rising Costs Than Pre-Existing Conditions

Now they tell us! A Gallup poll, conducted last month to coincide with the midterm elections and released on Tuesday, demonstrated what I had posited for much of the summer: Individuals care more about rising health insurance premiums than coverage of pre-existing condition protections.

Of course, liberal think tanks and the media had no interest in promoting this narrative, posing misleading and one-sided polling questions to conclude that individuals liked Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections,” without simultaneously asking whether people liked the cost of those provisions.

Overwhelming Concern about Premiums

Ironically, a majority of 57 percent said the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions did not constitute a major concern for them, with only 42 percent agreeing with the statement. Lest one believe that the relative insouciance over pre-existing conditions came because Democrats won a majority in the House, therefore “protecting” Obamacare, Gallup conducted the survey from November 1–11, meaning more than half the survey period came before the American people knew the election outcome.

By comparison, more than three-fifths (61 percent) of respondents viewed rising premiums as a major concern, with only 37 percent not viewing it as such. Not only did premiums register as a bigger concern by 19 percentage points overall, it registered as a larger concern in each and every demographic group Gallup surveyed:

Income under $30,000: +15 percent (70 percent said premiums were a major concern, 55 percent said pre-existing condition coverage was a major concern)

Income between $30,000-$75,000: +19 percent (63 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

Income above $75,000: +24 percent (57 percent premiums, 33 percent pre-ex)

On Medicare/Medicaid: +16 percent (60 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

On private insurance: +24 percent (60 percent premiums, 36 percent pre-ex)

Republicans: +25 percent (52 percent premiums, 27 percent pre-ex)

Independents: +19 percent (64 percent premiums, 45 percent pre-ex)

Democrats: +16 percent (68 percent premiums, 52 percent pre-ex)

Aged 18-29: +16 percent (54 percent premiums, 38 percent pre-ex)

Aged 30-49: +23 percent (65 percent premiums, 42 percent pre-ex)

Aged 50-64: +21 percent (67 percent premiums, 46 percent pre-ex)

Aged over 65: +13 percent (57 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

Men: +18 percent (56 percent premiums, 38 percent pre-ex)

Women: +20 percent (67 percent premiums, 47 percent pre-ex)

With those double-digit margins (i.e., outside the poll’s margin of error) in every demographic group—including among groups more likely concerned about pre-existing conditions, for reasons either practical (i.e., older Americans) or ideological (i.e., Democrats)—Gallup has overwhelming evidence to support its claim that “concerns are greatest about the possibility of having to pay higher premiums.”

Premiums more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, as the law’s major provisions, including the pre-existing condition requirements, took effect. They again rose sharply in 2018, causing approximately 2.5 million individuals to drop their Obamacare-compliant coverage completely.

Not a Surprise Outcome

The Gallup results confirm prior surveys from the Cato Institute, which also demonstrate that support for Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions drops dramatically once people recognize the trade-offs—namely, higher premiums and a “race to the bottom” among insurers, reducing access to specialist providers and lowering the quality of care:

But the polling suggests that Democrats have no such mandate, and that they should think again in their approach. Rather than making an already bad situation worse, and potentially raising premiums yet again, they should examine alternatives that can solve the pre-existing condition problem (and yes, it is a problem) by making it easier for people to buy coverage before they develop a pre-existing condition in the first place.

As the polling indicates, the American people—to say nothing of the 2.5 million priced out of the marketplace in the past 12 months—will thank them for doing so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Elements of a Conservative Health Care Vision

Recently I wrote about how conservatives failed to articulate a coherent vision of health care, specifically issues related to pre-existing conditions, in the runup to the midterm elections. That article prompted a few Capitol Hill colleagues to ask an obvious question: What should a conservative vision for health care look like? It’s one thing to have answers on specific issues (i.e., alternatives to Obamacare’s pre-existing condition regulations), but what defines the vision of where conservatives should look to move the debate?

Henceforth, my attempt to outline that conservative health-care vision on a macro level with three relatively simple principles. Others may express these concepts slightly differently—and I take no particular pride of authorship in the principles as written—but hopefully they will help to advance thinking about where conservative health policy should lead.

Portable Insurance

Conversely, conservatives believe in insurance purchased by individuals—or, as my former boss Jim DeMint likes to describe it, an insurance policy you can buy, hold, and keep. With most Americans still obtaining health coverage from their employers, a move to individually owned coverage would mean individuals themselves would decide what kind of insurance to purchase, rather than a business’s HR executives.

Conservatives should also promote the concept of portable insurance that can move from job to job, and ideally from state to state as well. If individuals can buy an insurance policy while young, and take it with them for decades, then much of the problem of covering individuals with pre-existing conditions will simply disappear—people will have the same insurance before their diagnosis that they had for years beforehand.

I wrote approvingly about the Trump administration’s proposals regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements precisely because I believe that, if implemented, they will advance both prongs of this principle. Allowing employees to receive an employer contribution for insurance they own will make coverage both individual and portable, in ways that could revolutionize the way Americans buy insurance.

A Sustainable Safety Net

As it is, the Medicare program became functionally insolvent more than a year ago. The year before Obamacare’s passage, the Medicare trustees asserted the program’s hospital insurance trust fund would become insolvent in 2017. Only the double-counting included in Obamacare—whereby the same Medicare savings were used both to “save Medicare” and fund Obamacare—has allowed the program to remain solvent, on paper if not in fact.

Reasonable people may disagree on precisely where and how to draw the line at the sustainability of our entitlements. For instance, I hold grave doubts that able-bodied adults belong on Medicaid, particularly given the way Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid has encouraged states to discriminate against individuals with disabilities and the most vulnerable.

But few could argue that the current system qualifies as sustainable. Far from it. With Medicare beneficiaries receiving more from the system in benefits than they paid in taxes—and the gap growing every year—policy-makers must make hard choices to right-size our entitlements. And they should do so sooner rather than later.

Appropriately Aligned Incentives

Four decades ago, Margaret Thatcher hinted at the primary problem in health care when she noted that socialists always run out of other people’s money. Because third-party insurers—in most cases selected by HR executives at individuals’ place of business rather than the individuals themselves—pay for a large share of health expenses, most Americans know little about the price of specific health care goods and services (and care even less).

To state the obvious: No, individuals shouldn’t try to find health care “deals” in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. But given that much health care spending occurs not for acute cases (e.g., a heart attack) but for chronic conditions (i.e., diabetes), policymakers do have levers to try to get the incentives moving in the right direction.

Reforming the tax treatment of health insurance—which both encourages individuals to over-consume care and ties most Americans to employer-based insurance—would help align incentives, while also encouraging more portable insurance. Price transparency might help, provided those prices are meaningful (i.e., they relate to what individuals will actually pay out-of-pocket). Giving individuals financial incentives to shop around for procedures like MRIs, or even surgical procedures, also would place downward pressure on prices.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hospital Monopolies Are What’s Wrong with American Health Care

Call it a sign of the times. If Rich Uncle Pennybags (a.k.a. “Mr. Monopoly”) appeared today, he would have little interest in holding properties like the Short Line Railroad. In the 21st century, acquiring railroads, or even utilities, is so Baltic Avenue. The real money—and the real monopolies—lie in health care, specifically in hospitals.

Despite the constant focus on prescription drug prices, pharmaceuticals represent a comparatively small slice of the American health care pie. In 2016, national spending on prescription drugs totaled $328.6 billion. That’s a large sum on its own, but only 9.8 percent of total health care spending. By contrast, spending on hospital care totaled nearly $1.1 trillion, or more than three times spending on prescriptions.

Hospitals’ Monopolistic Tactics

The Journal profiled several under-the-radar tactics that some large hospitals use to deter competition and pad their bottom lines. For instance, some contracts “prevent patients from seeing a hospital’s prices by allowing a hospital operator to block the information from online shopping tools that insurers offer.”

Hospitals use these tactics to oppose transparency, because they fear, correctly, that if patients know what they will pay for a service before they receive it, they may take their business elsewhere. It’s an arrogant and high-handed attitude straight out of Marxism.

Also in hospitals’ toolkits: So-called “must-carry” clauses, which require insurers to keep their hospitals in-network, regardless of the high prices they charge, or poor quality outcomes they achieve. The Journal reported that one of the nation’s largest retailers wanted to kick out the lowest-quality providers, but had no ability to do so.

Officials at Walmart a few years ago asked the insurers that administered its coverage…if the nation’s largest private employer could remove from its health-care networks the 5% of providers with the worst quality performance. The insurers told the giant retailer their contracts with certain health-care providers didn’t allow them to filter out specific doctors or hospitals, even based solely on quality measures.

Surprise! Obamacare Made It Worse

Many of these trends preceded President Obama’s health care law, of course. But it doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to see how hospital mergers accelerated after 2010, the year of Obamacare’s passage:

Hospitals responded to the law by buying up other hospitals, increasing market share in an attempt to gain more negotiating “clout” against health insurers. That leverage allows them to demand clauses such as those preventing price transparency, or preventing insurers from developing smaller networks that only include efficient or better-quality providers.

Here again, industry consolidation begets higher prices. In many cases, hospitals can charge more for services provided by an “outpatient facility” as opposed to one provided by a “doctor’s office.” In some circumstances, the patient will receive the same service, provided by the same doctor, in the same office, but will end up getting charged a higher price—merely because, by buying the physician practice, the hospital can reclassify the office and procedure as taking place in an “outpatient facility.”

Remember: Hospitals Endorsed Obamacare

In 2010, the American Hospital Association, along with other hospital associations, endorsed Obamacare. At the time the hospital lobbies claimed that the measure would increase the number of Americans with health insurance coverage. For some reason, they neglected to mention how the law would also encourage the consolidation that presents ever-upward pressure on insurance premiums.

But remember too that Obama repeatedly promised his health-care law would lower premiums by $2,500 for the average family. Unfortunately for Americans, however, Obamacare’s crony capitalism—allowing hospitals to grow their operations, and thus their bottom line, in exchange for political endorsements—continues to contribute to higher premiums, putting Obama’s promise further and further away from reality.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Single-Payer Supporters Defy Common Sense

The move to enact single-payer health care in the United States always suffered from major math problems. This week, it revived another: Common sense.

On Monday, the Mercatus Center published an analysis of single-payer legislation like that promoted by socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). While conservatives highlighted the estimated $32.6 trillion price tag for the legislation, liberals rejoiced.

Riiiiiigggggggghhhhhhhhhttttt. As the old saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Given that even single-payer supporters have now admitted that the plan will lead to rationing of health care, the public shouldn’t just walk away from Sanders’ plan—they should run.

National Versus Federal Health Spending

Sanders’ claim arises because of two different terms the Mercatus paper uses. While Mercatus emphasized the way the bill would increase federal health spending, Sanders chose to focus on the study’s estimates about national health spending.

Although it sounds large in absolute terms, the Mercatus paper assumes only a slight drop for health spending in relative terms. It estimates a total of $2.05 trillion in lower national health expenditures over a decade from single-payer. But national health expenditures would total $59.7 trillion over the same time span—meaning that, if Mercatus’ assumptions prove correct, single-payer would reduce national health expenditures by roughly 3.4 percent.

Four Favorable Assumptions Skew the Results

However, to arrive at their estimate that single-payer would reduce overall health spending, the Mercatus paper relies on four highly favorable assumptions. Removing any one of these assumptions could mean that instead of lowering health care spending, single-payer legislation would instead raise it.

First, Mercatus adjusted projected health spending upward, to reflect that single-payer health care would cover all Americans. Because the Sanders plan would also abolish deductibles and co-payments for most procedures, study author Chuck Blahous added an additional factor reflecting induced demand by the currently insured, because patients will see the doctor more when they face no co-payments for doing so.

Second, the Mercatus study assumes that a single-payer plan can successfully use Medicare reimbursement rates. However, the non-partisan Medicare actuary has concluded that those rates already will cause half of hospitals to have overall negative total facility margins by 2040, jeopardizing access to care for seniors.

Expanding these lower payment rates to all patients would jeopardize even more hospitals’ financial solvency. But paying doctors and hospitals market-level reimbursement rates for patients would raise the cost of a single-payer system by $5.4 trillion over ten years—more than wiping away any supposed “savings” from the bill.

Finally, the Mercatus paper “assumes substantial administrative cost savings,” relying on “an aggressive estimate” that replacing private insurance with one single-payer system will lower health spending. Mercatus made such an assumption even though spending on administrative costs increased by nearly $26 billion, or more than 12.3 percent, in 2014, Obamacare’s first year of full implementation.

Likewise, government programs, unlike private insurance, have less incentive to fight fraud, as only the latter face financial ruin from it. The $60 billion problem of fraud in Medicare provides more than enough reason to doubt much administrative savings from a single-payer system.

Apply the Common Sense Test

But put all the technical arguments aside for a moment. As I noted above, whether a single-payer health-care system will reduce overall health expenses rests on a relatively simple question: Will doctors and hospitals agree to provide more care to more patients for the same amount of money?

Whether single-payer will lead to less paperwork for doctors remains an open question. Given the amount of time people spend filing their taxes every year, I have my doubts that a fully government-run system would generate major improvements.

But regardless of whether providers get any paperwork relief from single-payer, the additional patients will come to their doors seeking care, and existing patients will demand more services once government provides them for “free.” Yet doctors and hospitals won’t get paid any more for providing those additional services. The Mercatus study estimates that spending reductions due to the application of Medicare’s price controls to the entire population will all but wipe out the increase in spending from new patient demand.

If Sanders wants to take a “victory lap” for a study arguing that millions of health care workers will receive the same amount of money for doing more work, I have four words for him: Good luck with that.

Health Care Rationing Ahead

I’ll give the last word to, of all things, a “socialist perspective.” One blog post yesterday actually claimed the Mercatus study underestimated the potential savings under single-payer: “[The study] assumes utilization of health services will increase by 11 percent, but aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit below the level [it] projects” (emphasis mine).

In other words, spending will fall because so many will demand “free” health care that government will have to ration it. To socialists who yearningly long to exercise such power over their fellow citizens, such rationing sounds like their utopian dream. But therein lies their logic problem, for any American with common sense would disagree.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberal Think-Tank Admits Obamacare’s Failures

Once again, the movement to expand government-run health care continues apace. No sooner had one think tank published a paper calling for the return of an individual mandate at the federal level than the liberal Commonwealth Fund published a paper, released on Friday, calling for states to impose their own Obamacare-style mandates at the state level.

However, the paper proves most interesting for what it tacitly admits. Over time, Commonwealth believes that more and more people will purchase coverage solely due to a government order—because health costs and premiums will continue to rise. Because Obamacare failed to control health costs, more and more individuals will purchase health coverage only under the threat of government-imposed taxation. That’s Commonwealth’s version of health “reform.”

Late Wednesday evening, the House of Representatives adopted the amendment by a 226-189 vote. Next week, the Senate could take up its version of the District of Columbia appropriations bill. If a similar amendment passes on the Senate floor, then the final version of the appropriations measure likely will contain the defunding language—thus preventing individuals who do not buy “government-approved” health coverage from having their property seized by DC authorities.

Longer-Term Effects of the Mandate

As to the Commonwealth report itself: It concludes that enacting an individual mandate in all 50 states would increase insurance coverage by roughly 3.9 million in 2019. Nearly half of those individuals (1.7 million) would comprise individuals purchasing unsubsidized exchange coverage—the people for whom Bill Clinton said Obamacare was the “craziest thing in the world,” because they don’t receive subsidies (which might explain why they won’t purchase insurance unless the government taxes them for not doing so). Individuals enrolling in Medicaid (600,000), subsidized exchange policies (1.1 million), and employer plans (450,000) comprise the rest of the coverage gains.

Particularly noteworthy however: In 2022—just four years from now—the mandate will lead 7.5 million people to obtain health coverage, or nearly twice the 2019 total. Commonwealth explains the reasoning:

As health care costs get more expensive relative to incomes over time, fewer people tend to purchase insurance and the number of uninsured rises. However, with an individual mandate in place, the effect of health care cost growth is lessened because more people hold on to their insurance to comply with the mandate. As a result, the effect of the individual mandate on reducing the number of people without insurance increases over time in percentage terms.

Wasn’t Obamacare Supposed to Reduce Health Costs?

The obvious question: Why would health care costs continue to “get more expensive relative to income over time”? Wasn’t Obamacare supposed to fix all that?

Recall that during his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly promised that his health plan would cut families’ premiums by $2,500 per year. Commonwealth provided some of the intellectual firepower behind the pledge, releasing in 2007 a report that it claimed could save $1.5 trillion in health expenditures over 10 years. Many of that report’s proposals, although not all (limiting Medicare’s coverage of expensive drugs and treatments being an obvious exception), made their way into the measure that became Obamacare.

In 2013, Commonwealth upped the ante, releasing another report whose recommendations promised $2 trillion in lower health spending over a decade. Yet Commonwealth’s report released Friday admits that health costs in 2022 will continue to rise faster than income, resulting in more and more people feeling squeezed to afford coverage. At this rate, Commonwealth should stop putting out reports talking about all the health costs we could save. Our country can’t afford them.

The Left’s Arrogant Conceit

I’ll give the last word to—of all people—Barack Obama. In 2010, he talked about how he didn’t want to “give the keys back” to people who “didn’t know how to drive.” The Commonwealth report makes plain that despite all the intrusions on freedom Obamacare included, it didn’t accomplish its supposed goal of making health care more affordable. (And no, using government to re-distribute money doesn’t qualify as making the underlying cost of care more “affordable.”)

Given that dynamic, who would want to give people like the researchers at Commonwealth even more control over the health care system? The question should answer itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans Hide Obamacare Bailout Inside Health Savings Account Bill

Cue the scene from “Poltergeist”: “They’re baa-ack.” The Obamacare bailout seekers, that is.

Multiple Capitol Hill sources confirmed to me on Wednesday morning that the House Ways and Means Committee’s markup of health savings account (HSA)-related legislation later in the day comes with a potential ulterior motive: Committee and leadership staff want to resurrect this spring’s failed Obamacare “stability” legislation—and see the HSA provisions as a way to do so.

This Is a Bad Deal for Conservatives

The leadership gambit seems simple: with the HSA provisions, placate conservatives who (rightly) don’t want to bail out Obamacare, and allow the package to pass the House solely with Republican votes—because Democrats likely won’t vote to support any “stability” legislation imposing robust pro-life protections. With Democrats intending to make Obamacare premium increases an issue in the November elections, House leaders think the vote would inoculate vulnerable Republicans from political attacks by the Left.

But a “stability” vote would demoralize the Right, by showing how completely Republicans have caved on their repeal promises. It would also set a horrible precedent, officially declaring Obamacare “too big to fail,” which would put taxpayers on the hook for an ever-increasing flow of bailout funds.

That flow would soon vastly overwhelm any small amount of HSA incentives that conservatives received in exchange for their vote. Eventually, lawmakers would run out of other people’s money to spend propping up Obamacare.

Questionable Policies

The best bills on the Ways and Means agenda contain broad policies that will expand HSAs’ reach. In this group: A bill increasing HSA contribution limits; another bill allowing seniors eligible for (but not enrolled in) Medicare Part A to continue making HSA contributions; and legislation ensuring that all Obamacare bronze and catastrophic plans qualify for HSA contributions.

Other, more targeted measures that would expand the types of services HSA plans can cover could have a mixed effect. By allowing coverage for more services below a plan’s high deductible, they could draw more people to choose HSA coverage, but could also raise premiums for HSA plans.

Non-HSA Legislation Bears Attention, Too

Most troubling: The two pieces of legislation on the committee’s agenda not directly related to HSAs. The description of one bill hints at its inherent flaw:

The bill provides an off-ramp from Obamacare’s rising premiums and limited choices by allowing the premium tax credit to be used for qualified plans offered outside of the law’s exchanges and Healthcare.gov. In addition, it expands access to the lowest-premium plans available (‘catastrophic’ plans) for all individuals purchasing coverage in the individual market and allows the premium tax credit to be used to offset the cost of such plans.

Another bill suspending two Obamacare taxes sounds appealing on its face, but would have negative consequences. Suspending Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” for two more years (until 2022) would further weaken an effort in that law (albeit a poorly designed one) to change current incentives that encourage people to over-consume employer-provided health insurance and thus health care. In short, it would encourage the growth of health care costs, rather than working to lower them.

The bill’s effort to repeal the employer mandate for years 2014 through 2018 likewise could have unintended consequences. The bill only repeals the employer mandate retrospectively likely because doing so prospectively (i.e., for 2019 and future years) could encourage employer “dumping”—businesses dropping coverage and sending their workers to the exchanges, which could raise spending on Obamacare insurance subsidies. While the retrospective nature of that legislation could mitigate any “dumping” in the short term, if employers think Congress will continue to weaken the mandate in future years, they could view that as an incentive to drop coverage.

This Is Not a Good Deal

The Ways and Means Committee package includes some very good HSA-related bills, some potentially harmful bills that could further entrench Obamacare, and some bills that may not have much effect. Regardless of the individual bills’ specific merits, they certainly do not warrant conservatives’ approval for a massive “stability” package in the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ New Plan to Take Over the Health Care System

The Center for American Progress proposed a plan for government-run health care Thursday, which the liberal think tank calls “Medicare Extra.”

Unlike Bernie Sanders’ single-payer system, which would abolish virtually all other forms of insurance, the plan would not ban employer coverage outright — at least not yet. In broad strokes, CAP would combine Medicaid and the individual insurance market into Medicare Extra, and allow individuals with other coverage, such as employer plans, traditional Medicare or VA coverage, to enroll in Medicare Extra instead.

The goal of CAP’s plan is to grow government, and to grow dependence on government. The paper omits many important policies, such as how to pay for the new spending. Here are some of the major objectives and concerns.

If You Like Your Obamacare, Too Bad

After attacking Republicans for wanting to “taking away health insurance from millions,” CAP would … take away health insurance from millions. The plan would effectively eliminate Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, and all individual health insurance: “With the exception of employer-sponsored insurance, private insurance companies would be prohibited from duplicating Medicare Extra benefits, but they could offer complementary benefits during an open enrollment period.”

Other sections of the plan (discussed further below) suggest that private insurers could offer Medicare Choice coverage as one element of Medicare Extra. CAP indicates that persons purchasing coverage on the individual market would have a “choice of plans.” But didn’t Obamacare promise that already — and how’s that working out? For that matter, what happened to that whole “If you like your plan, you can keep it” concept?

Mandatory Health Insurance — And A $12,550 Tax

The plan reinstates a mandate to purchase health insurance: “Individuals who are not enrolled in other coverage would be automatically enrolled in Medicare Extra … Premiums for individuals who are not enrolled in other coverage would be automatically collected through tax withholding and on tax returns.”

While the plan says that those with incomes below the tax filing threshold “would not pay any premiums,” it excludes one important detail — the right to opt out of coverage. Therefore, the plan includes a mandate, enforced through the tax code, and with the full authority of the Internal Revenue Service. (Because you can’t spell “insurance” without I-R-S.) The plan indicates that for families with incomes between 150 and 500 percent of the poverty level, “caps on premiums would range from 0 percent to 10 percent of income. For families with income above 500 percent of [poverty], premiums would be capped at 10 percent of income.”

In 2018, the federal poverty level stands at $25,100 for a family of four, making 500 percent of poverty $125,500. If that family lacks employer coverage (remember, the plan prohibits individuals from buying any other form of private insurance), CAP would tax that family 10 percent of income — $12,550 — to pay for its Medicare Extra plan.

Wasteful Overpayments Controlled By Government Bureaucrats

As noted above, the plan would allow insurers to bid to offer Medicare Choice coverage, but with a catch: Payments provided to these plans “could be no more than 95 percent of the Medicare Extra premium.” CAP claims that “this competitive bidding structure would guarantee that plans are offering value that is comparable with Medicare Extra.”

It does no such thing. By paying private plans only 95 percent of the government-run plan’s costs, the bidding structure guarantees that private plans will provide better value than the government-run plan. Just as CAP decried “wasteful overpayments” to private insurers in Medicare Advantage, the CAP proposal will allow government bureaucrats to control billions of dollars in wasteful federal government spending on Medicare Extra.

Costs To States

As noted above, CAP envisions the federal government taking over Medicaid from the states, “given the continued refusal of many states to expand Medicaid and attempts to use federal waivers to undermine access to health care.”

But the plan also requires states to continue to make maintenance-of-effort payments even after the federal government takes Medicaid away from state jurisdiction. Moreover, the plan by its own admission “giv[es] a temporary discount [on the maintenance-of-effort provisions] to states that expanded their Medicaid programs” under Obamacare — effectively punishing states for a choice (i.e., to expand or not expand) that the Supreme Court made completely voluntary. And finally, it requires “states that currently provides benefits … not offered by Medicare Extra … to maintain those benefits,” leaving states perpetually on the hook for such spending.

Would Employer Coverage Really Remain?

The plan gives employers theoretical options regarding their health coverage. Employers could continue to offer coverage themselves, subject to certain minimum requirements. Alternatively, they could enroll their employees in Medicare Extra, with three possible sources of employer funding: Paying 70 percent of workers’ premiums, making maintenance-of-effort payments equal to their spending in the year preceding enactment, adjusted for inflation, or “simpler aggregated payments in lieu of premium contributions,” ranging from 0 to 8 percent of payroll. (The plan would exempt employers with under 100 full-time equivalent workers from making any payments.)

Two questions linger over these options: First, would employer coverage remain? CAP obviously wishes that it would not in the long-term, while recognizing the political problems associated with an abrupt transition. Second, could employers game the system among the various contribution options? While details remain unclear, any plan that sets up two systems (let alone four) represents a classic arbitrage opportunity. If employers act rationally, they could end up reducing their own costs in a way that significantly increases the federal government’s obligations.

Higher Health Spending

CAP advertises its plan as providing “zero or low deductibles, free preventive care, free treatment for chronic disease” — the source of 75 percent of American health care spending — and “free generic drugs.” It would also expand coverage of long-term care services not covered by Medicare (and only partially covered by Medicaid). But all this “free” stuff won’t come cheap.

In analyzing Bernie Sanders’ health care plan, the liberal Urban Institute estimated that it would increase overall health spending by 22.1 percent. Notably, the Urban researchers estimated that Sanders’ plan would raise spending by people who currently have health insurance by almost the same amount, or 15.1 percent, because the lack of cost-sharing will encourage individuals to increase their consumption of care. With the CAP plan apparently proposing that government fully subsidize more than three quarters of health care spending, its proposal will increase health care costs almost as much as Sanders’.

The CAP plan proposes measures to lower costs — namely price controls (i.e., Medicare dictating prices to doctors, hospitals, and drug companies), with some token references to other policies like bundled payments and limiting the tax preference for employer-sponsored insurance. But if those proposals go the way of Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” — potentially never implemented because politicians of both parties lack the discipline to control health care spending — then the plan will only raise health costs rather than lower them.

Something For Nothing

The plan proposes that families with incomes below 150 percent of poverty ($37,150 for a family of four this year) pay for their coverage the princely sum of … zero dollars. No premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

And while CAP does not include specific ideas to pay for all the associated new spending, the concepts it does propose largely involve taxing “the rich” (which includes small businesses).

While it doesn’t work as it should — most people “get back” far more than they “pay in” — at least Medicare makes an attempt to have all individuals pay for coverage through the payroll tax. CAP’s plan amounts to a transfer of wealth from one group to another.

Even The New York Times this week highlighted dissent from middle-class families upset at the thought of having to pay for low-income individuals to receive “free” Medicaid. So, CAP might want to rethink what Bill Clinton called “the craziest thing in the world” — making middle-class families pay even more for mandatory insurance ($12,550, anyone?) while certain families contribute not so much as a dime for coverage — along with just about every other element of its health care plan.

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.

CBO, the Individual Mandate, and Tax Reform

This week, word that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was preparing to re-estimate the fiscal impact of repealing the individual mandate prompted consternation among Republican ranks. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) claimed the budget office was playing a game of “Calvinball,” constantly revising its estimates and making up rules a la the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.

CBO is reassessing the effectiveness of the mandate in light of research published earlier this year by a team of researchers including Jonathan Gruber—yes, that Jonathan Gruber—that examined the effectiveness of the Obamacare mandate in the law’s first few years.

Consternation about CBO aside, the debate speaks to larger concerns about the effects on both health policy and tax policy of repealing the mandate.

Inconvenient Truths are Truths Nonetheless

Lee will find no argument from this observer about the need for CBO to increase its transparency. As previously noted, I’ve seen it up close and personal. Former CBO Director Doug Elmendorf repeatedly failed to disclose to Congress material omissions in CBO’s analysis of Obamacare’s CLASS Act—omissions that could have led the budget office to conclude that the program was financially unstable before Congress enacted Obamacare (with the CLASS Act included) into law.

That said, some people on the Right apparently think that difficulties with CBO allow them simply to ignore or dismiss its opinions. Witness this response back in July, when I noted that CBO believed one version of the Senate “repeal-and-replace” bill would raise premiums by 20 percent in its first few years:

The reconciliation bill being used as the vehicle for tax reform does not include reconciliation instructions to the House Energy and Commerce and Senate HELP Committees, the primary committees of jurisdiction over Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Because the tax reform bill cannot repeal, waive, or otherwise alter any of the Obamacare regulations, repealing the mandate as part of tax reform will definitely raise premiums.

Do Republicans Want to Repeal Obamacare’s Regulations?

This criticism shouldn’t apply to Lee, who fought hard to repeal as much of the Obamacare regulations as possible during the budget reconciliation debate in July. However, many other Republicans have demonstrated a significant lack of policy forthrightness on the issue of Obamacare’s regulatory regime. For many reasons, the claim that Republicans can “repeal” Obamacare while retaining the status quo on pre-existing conditions presents an inherent policy contradiction.

Health Policy Is Taking a Back Seat to Tax Policy

Whatever the merits of using the revenue from the mandate’s repeal to help the tax reform effort, Republicans did not campaign for four straight election cycles on enacting tax reform. They campaigned on repealing Obamacare.

From a health policy perspective, enacting a “solution” that involves repealing the mandate and walking away from the issue would represent a bad outcome—one measurably worse than the status quo. Insurance costs—the health care priority that Americans care most about—would rise, only alienating voters who objected to Democrats not delivering on the $2,500 per-family reduction in premiums Barack Obama promised in 2008.

Done right, tax reform can rise and pass on its own merits. But using repeal of the mandate to pass tax reform—which would lead to another round of high premium increases in (you guessed it!) the fall of 2018—represents a game of policy and political Russian roulette that Congress should not even contemplate.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“Repeal and Replace” Becomes “Repeal vs. Replace”

In the past few weeks, various articles summarizing Republican moves on health care have attempted to analyze the factions and dynamics driving the debate. Why, some reporters have asked, are Republicans struggling to draft a consensus alternative to Obamacare, given that the party had seven years to create such a plan?

Apart from the point that Democrats faced their own not-insignificant divisions on health care eight years ago, much of the debate within Republican ranks has its roots in fundamental disagreement about what an alternative to Obamacare should do. If two people or factions can’t agree about the ultimate goals of legislation, it shouldn’t be surprising to find them disagreeing on the policies to include in said bill.

For all the emphasis on the “repeal and replace” slogan since the day Obamacare passed Congress in March 2010, the current debate might be characterized as “repeal vs. replace.” Repealers focus more on eradicating the law, while replacers wish to make sure that an alternative does not leave many of Obamacare’s newly covered uninsured.

Repealers
The repeal faction generally comes from the conservative wing of the party. It wants every word of Obamacare repealed — lock, stock, and barrel — and, in some cases at least, is willing to consider blowing up the Senate filibuster (aka the “nuclear option”) to do it. Repealers generally do not want to maintain many, or any, federal regulations on health insurance, deferring to the states (as was largely the case prior to Obamacare).

When it comes to alternative policies, some repealers don’t care about “replacing” Obamacare at all and would content themselves with a return to the status quo ante. Other repealers would focus more on enacting reforms to lower health-care costs rather than expanding coverage or providing subsidies to previous Obamacare recipients. Some repealers would go beyond repeal to examine prior federal encroachments on health policy that preceded President Obama’s tenure.

Of particular import: Repealers believe that repeal means the elimination of all of Obamacare’s taxes and spending — and that these should go away, not to return. That directly contrasts with the approach of replacers, who focus on another policy objective.

Replacers
Whereas repealers want to eradicate the health law’s spending and taxes — to use the Washington lingo, they would return to the pre-Obamacare fiscal baseline — replacers focus on maintaining, or at least not eliminating, Obamacare’s coverage baseline. They would like an alternative to Obamacare to at least be competitive with current law when it comes to the number of individuals with health insurance — although for different reasons. Some replacers believe in the goal of universal health coverage, while others simply believe that an alternative, to be politically viable must offer something to those currently covered by Obamacare.

Coming from more moderate or establishment wings of the Republican party, replacers focus on preserving coverage gains as an objective of any alternative legislation, whereas repealers focus solely on lowering health-care costs. To preserve Obamacare’s expansion of coverage (albeit perhaps with reduced benefits), replacers would either preserve some of Obamacare’s tax increases, or repeal them all but institute new measures to raise revenue in their place.

Replacers also would maintain a greater level of federal oversight of health insurance than repealers. They would attempt to preserve policies such as Obamacare’s under-26 insurance mandate, ban on annual and lifetime limits, and the ban on preexisting conditions; repealers would either devolve these policies to the states or scrap them entirely.

As for the president, he has — as on many issues — given mixed messages. His public statements — “insurance for everybody,” “simultaneous repeal-and-replace” — tend to put him in the replacer camp. But candidate Trump’s platform on health care, with a minimalist approach focused largely on reducing health-care costs, emphasized the repealer elements of his agenda during the contentious Republican primaries last spring.

Rorschach Test
It is perhaps oversimplifying matters to view these two schools of thought as diametrically opposed. Members of Congress could agree with elements of both factions, depending on the specific issue.

But it does not oversimplify to say that the question of emphasis — who cares more about repeal, and who cares more about replace? — has driven much of the debate since the November 8 election results gave Republicans an opportunity to impose their will on health care. It explains why some replacers have argued in favor of keeping some or all of Obamacare’s tax increases, and it explains why conservative repealers have expressed opposition to replacing Obamacare’s subsidies with another system of refundable tax credits.

The New York Times recently profiled Josh Holmes, the former aide to Senator Mitch McConnell who coined the “repeal-and-replace” phrase when working for the Republican leader seven years ago. But while the phrase proved catchy among elected leaders, it did not solve the debate about which policies to include in an alternative plan. Instead, by creating a new Rorschach test, in which candidates could emphasize either the “repeal” or the “replace” elements depending on their political views and the audience of the moment, it effectively postponed the day of decision within the party.

With views on Obamacare alternatives not fully litigated during the 2016 campaign cycle (or, for that matter, the cycles preceding it), that day of reckoning has finally arrived. Whether and how Republicans resolve the conflict between the repealers and the replacers will help determine whether the catchy phrase “repeal-and-replace” gets dubbed with a catchphrase of its own: Too cute by half.

This post was originally published at National Review.