Analyzing the Gimmicks in Warren’s Health Care Plan

Six weeks ago, this publication published “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan…For Avoiding Your Health Care Questions.” That plan came to fruition last Friday, when Warren released a paper (and two accompanying analyses) claiming that she can fund her single-payer health care program without raising taxes on the middle class.

Both her opponents in the Democratic presidential primary and conservative commentators immediately criticized Warren’s plan for the gimmicks and assumptions used to arrive at her estimate. Her paper claims she can reduce the 10-year cost of single payer—the amount of new federal revenues needed to fund the program, over and above the dollars already spent on health care (e.g., existing federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)—from $34 trillion in an October Urban Institute estimate to only $20.5 trillion. On top of this 40 percent reduction in the cost of single payer, Warren claims she can raise the $20.5 trillion without a middle-class tax increase.

Rant by Congressional Spouse Illustrates the Problem Facing American Health Care

Last week, the wife of Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) went on a self-described “rant on social media” about her health coverage.

Amanda Cunningham’s comments echo claims by Democratic lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) about the problems with their health coverage. For many members of Congress that comes via Obamacare-compliant policies sold on health insurance exchanges.

The comments raise one obvious question: If Democrats don’t like Obamacare plans for themselves, then why did they force all Americans to buy this insurance under penalty of taxation? But beyond demonstrating the bipartisan dissatisfaction with Obamacare, Amanda Cunningham’s story illustrates the larger problems plaguing the American health care system.

Mental Health Parity

In her Instagram post, Cunningham complained that under her Blue Cross Blue Shield policy, “all of my mental health therapy sessions are denied, in addition to all of our marriage counseling sessions.” She continued: “It’s just mind-blowing to me that these basic well-known needs, that mental health is health care, are still being denied, that we’re still fighting for these absolutely basic things—it’s unbelievable to me.”

Cunningham didn’t go into many specifics about her case, but on one level, her argument sounds compelling. The opioid crisis has shone a brighter spotlight on the people who need treatment to cover mental illness or substance use disorders. Congress passed mental health parity legislation (as part of the TARP bill, of all things) in 2008, and Section 1311(j) of Obamacare extended these provisions to exchange plans.

Other People’s Money

On the other hand, consider that members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000 annually—more than most Americans (myself included). Consider also that unlike all other Americans purchasing coverage on Obamacare exchanges (myself included), Cunningham, other members of Congress, and their staff receive (likely illegal) subsidies offsetting much of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

More importantly, consider that each coverage requirement on insurers—whether to cover a certain type of treatment (e.g., mental health, in-vitro fertilization, etc.) or treatments provided by a certain type of provider (e.g., marriage counselor, podiatrist, etc.)—raise the price of health insurance each month. Collectively, the thousands of mandates imposed nationwide increase premiums by hundreds of dollars per year.

They also send a paternalistic message to Americans: The policy-makers who impose these coverage requirements would rather individuals go uninsured, because their premiums have become unaffordable, than purchase a plan without the covered benefit or treatment in question.

She didn’t say it outright, but in her “rant,” Cunningham wanted to raise premiums on other Americans—most of whom earn far less than her family—so she would receive “free” therapy. Viewed from this perspective, her objections seem somewhat self-serving from a family in the upper tier of the income spectrum.

Therein lies the problem of American health care: Everyone wants to spend everyone else’s money rather than their own. Everyone wants “their” treatments—in this case, Cunningham’s counseling sessions—covered, even if others pay more. And if their chosen therapies are covered by insurance, with little to no cost-sharing, patients will consume more health care, because they believe they are spending their insurer’s money rather than their own.

Obamacare Made It Worse

The 2010 health care law didn’t cause this problem. However, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) noted in its November 2009 analysis of the legislation’s premium impacts, the federal benefit requirements included in the measure raised insurance rates significantly:

Because of the greater actuarial value and broader scope of benefits that would be covered by new nongroup policies sold under the legislation, the average premium per person for those policies would be an estimated 27 percent to 30 percent higher than the average premium for nongroup policies under current law (with other factors held constant). The increase in actuarial value would push the average premium per person about 18 percent to 21 percent above its level under current law, before the increase in enrollees’ use of medical care resulting from lower cost sharing is considered; that induced increase, along with the greater scope of benefits, would account for the remainder of the overall difference.

In CBO’s view, the law required people to buy richer insurance policies, and those richer policies encouraged people to consume more health care, both of which led to a rise in premiums. Unfortunately, that rise in premiums over the past several years has led millions of individuals who do not qualify for insurance subsidies (unlike Amanda Cunningham) to drop their coverage.

Get the Incentives Right

Sooner or later, our country will run out of other people’s money to spend on health care. Despite her impassioned plea, only a movement away from the solutions Cunningham advocated for can prevent that day from coming sooner rather than later.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Better Ways to Address Pre-Existing Conditions Than Obamacare

n a recent article, I linked to a tweet promoting alternatives to Obamacare’s pre-existing condition regulations, which have raised health insurance premiums for millions of Americans.

I offered those solutions when asked about a Republican alternative to Obamacare, and specifically the pre-existing condition provisions. While I no longer work in Congress, and therefore cannot readily get legislative provisions drafted and scored, I did want to elaborate on the concepts briefly mentioned, to show that other solutions to the pre-existing condition problem do exist.

1. Health Status Insurance

I mentioned both “renewal guarantees” and “health status insurance,” two relatively interchangeable terms, in my tweet. Both refer to the option of buying coverage at some point in the future—insurance against developing a health condition that makes one uninsurable.

Other forms of insurance use these types of riders frequently. For instance, I purchased a long-term disability policy when I bought my condo, to protect myself if I could no longer work and pay my mortgage. The policy came with two components—the coverage I have now, and pay for each year, along with a rider allowing me to double my coverage amount (i.e. the monthly payment I would receive if I became disabled) without going through the application or underwriting process again.

Since I bought that policy in 2008, my doctors diagnosed me with hypertension in 2012, and I went through two reconstructive surgeries on my left ankle. I don’t know if these ailments would prevent me from buying a disability policy now if I went out and applied for one. But because I purchased that rider with my original policy in 2008, I don’t need to worry about it. If I want more disability coverage, I can obtain it by paying the additional premium, no questions asked.

Health status insurance would complement employer-sponsored coverage. Most people get their coverage through their employers. Because employers heavily subsidize the coverage, and the federal government provides tax breaks for employer-sponsored plans, more than three in four people who are offered employer-sponsored insurance sign up for it.

But employer-based insurance by definition isn’t portable. When you switch your job, or (worse yet) lose your job because you’re too sick to work, you lose your coverage. Health status insurance would get around that portability problem. Individuals could sign up for their employer plan but pay for health status insurance “on the side.”

This coverage, which they and not their employer own, would protect them in case they develop a pre-existing condition or move to a job that doesn’t provide health insurance. It would also cost a lot less than buying a complete insurance plan—remember, they’re paying for the option to purchase insurance at a later date, not the insurance itself.

2. Insurance Portability

A proposed regulation issued by the Trump administration last month would permit just that. Under the proposal, employers could provide fixed sums to their employees to buy individually owned insurance—that is, a policy the employee buys and holds—through Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs). Employees could pay any “leftover” premiums not covered by the employer subsidy on a pre-tax basis, as they do with their current, employer-owned coverage, through paycheck withholding.

I recently wrote about the regulation; feel free to read that article for greater detail. But as with health status insurance, better portability of individual coverage would allow people to buy—and hold, and keep—coverage before they develop a pre-existing condition, reducing the number of people who have to worry about losing their coverage when battling a difficult illness.

3. High-Risk Pools

Of course, health status insurance only helps those who purchase it prior to becoming sick. For people who already have a pre-existing condition, perhaps because of an ailment acquired at birth or in one’s youth, high-risk pools provide another possible solution.

Critics of risk pools generally cite two reasons to argue against this model as a workable policy solution. First, risk pools prior to Obamacare were not well-funded—in many cases, a true enough criticism. While some state pools worked well and offered generous subsidies (even income-based subsidies in some states), others did not.

It would take a fair bit of federal funding to set up a solid network of state high-risk pools. One article, published in National Affairs a few months after Obamacare’s enactment, estimated that such pools would require $15-20 billion per year in funding—probably more like $20-30 billion now, given the constant rise in health care costs. This figure represents a sizable sum, but less than the overall cost of Obamacare, or even its insurance subsidies ($57 billion this fiscal year alone).

Second, risk pool critics dislike the surcharges that many risk pools applied. Most pools capped monthly premiums for enrollees at 150 or 200 percent of standard insurance rates. Of course, individuals with chronic heart failure or some other costly condition generally incur much higher actual costs—costs that the pool worked to subsidize—but some believe that making individuals with pre-existing conditions pay a 50 to 100 percent premium over healthy individuals discriminates against the sick.

Personally, when designing a high-risk pool, I would distinguish between individuals who maintained continuous coverage prior to joining the pool and those who did not. Charging higher premiums to individuals who maintained continuous coverage seems unfair. On the other hand, it seems very reasonable to impose a surcharge for individuals who joined a high-risk pool because they didn’t purchase insurance until after they became sick.

As a small government conservative, I generally oppose intrusive attempts like an individual mandate to require individuals to behave in a certain manner. While I view going without health insurance an unwise move, I believe in the right of people to make bad decisions. However, I also believe in people paying the consequences of those bad decisions—and a surcharge on individuals who sign up for a high-risk pool while lacking continuous coverage would do just that.

4. Direct Primary Care

Direct primary care, which encompasses a personal relationship with a physician or group of physicians, can help manage individuals with chronic (and potentially costly) diseases. In most cases, patients pay a monthly or annual subscription fee to the practice, which covers unlimited doctor visits, as well as phone or electronic consultations and some limited diagnostic tests. Patients can get referrals to specialist care, or purchase a catastrophic insurance policy to cover expenses not included in the subscription fee.

Of course, primary care would not work well for a patient with advanced cancer, who needs costly pharmaceutical therapies or other very specialized care. But for patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, COPD, or chronic heart failure, direct primary care may offer a way better to manage the disease, potentially reducing health care costs while improving patient access to care and quality of life—the most important objective.

As noted above, these types of solutions are not one size fits all. Health status insurance would not work for patients born with genetically based diseases, and direct primary care might not help patients with advanced tumors.

But in some respects, that’s the point. Obamacare took a comparatively small universe of truly uninsurable patients—a few million, by some estimates—and uprooted the individual market of about 20 million people (to say nothing of other Americans’ health coverage) for it. Unfortunately, millions of Americans have ended up dropping insurance as a result, because the changes have priced them out of coverage.

A better way to reform the system would use a more specialized approach—a scalpel instead of a chainsaw. Health status insurance, improved portability, high-risk pools, and direct primary care represent four potential prongs of that better alternative.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

House Health Care Bills Show Misplaced Priorities

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

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

What’s Inside Some Health Savings Account Legislation

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

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

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

As for Abortion and HSAs

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

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

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

Unintended Consequences of Expanding ‘Copper’ Plans

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

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

Effects of the ‘Copper’ Change

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

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

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

Single Risk Pool Bolsters Obamacare

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Summary of Health Care “Consensus” Group Plan

Tuesday, a group of analysts including those at the Heritage Foundation released their outline for a way to pass health-care-related legislation in Congress. Readers can find the actual health plan here; a summary and analysis follow below.

What Does the Health Plan Include?

The plan includes parameters for a state-based block grant that would combine funds from Obamacare’s insurance subsidies and its Medicaid expansion into one pot of money. The plan would funnel the block grant funds through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), using that program’s pro-life protections. In general, states using the block grant would:

  • Spend at least half of the funds subsidizing private health coverage;
  • Spend at least half of the funds subsidizing low-income individuals (which can overlap with the first pot of funds);
  • Spend an unspecified percentage of their funds subsidizing high-risk patients with high health costs;
  • Allow anyone who qualifies for SCHIP or Medicaid to take the value of their benefits and use those funds to subsidize private coverage; and
  • Not face federal requirements regarding 1) essential health benefits; 2) the single risk pool; 3) medical loss ratios; and 4) the 3:1 age ratio (i.e., insurers can charge older customers only three times as much as younger customers).

Is That It?

Pretty much. For instance, the plan remains silent on whether to support an Obamacare “stability” (read: bailout) bill intended to 1) keep insurance markets intact during the transition to the block grant, and 2) attract the votes of moderate Republicans like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

As recently as three weeks ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum was telling groups that the proposal would include the Collins “stability” language. However, as I previously noted, doing so would likely lead to taxpayer funding of abortion coverage, because there are few if any ways to attach pro-life protections to Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers under the special budget reconciliation procedures the Senate would use to consider “repeal-and-replace” legislation.

What Parts of Obamacare Would the Plan Retain?

In short, most of them.

Taxes and Medicare Reductions: By retaining all of Obamacare’s spending, the plan would retain all of Obamacare’s tax increases—either that, or it would increase the deficit. Likewise, the plan says nothing about undoing Obamacare’s Medicare reductions. By retaining Obamacare’s spending levels, the plan would maintain the gimmick of double-counting, whereby the law’s payment reductions are used both to “save Medicare” and fund Obamacare.

Insurance Regulations: The Congressional Research Service lists 22 separate new federal requirements imposed on health insurance plans under Obamacare. The plan would retain at least 14 of them:

  1. Guaranteed issue of coverage—Section 2702 of the Public Health Service Act;
  2. Non-discrimination based on health status—Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act;
  3. Extension of dependent coverage—Section 2714 of the Public Health Service Act;
  4. Prohibition of discrimination based on salary—Section 2716 of the Public Health Service Act (only applies to employer plans);
  5. Waiting period limitation—Section 2708 of the Public Health Service Act (only applies to employer plans);
  6. Guaranteed renewability—Section 2703 of the Public Health Service Act;
  7. Prohibition on rescissions—Section 2712 of the Public Health Service Act;
  8. Rate review—Section 2794 of the Public Health Service Act;
  9. Coverage of preventive health services without cost sharing—Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act;
  10. Coverage of pre-existing health conditions—Section 2703 of the Public Health Service Act;
  11. Summary of benefits and coverage—Section 2715 of the Public Health Service Act;
  12. Appeals process—Section 2719 of the Public Health Service Act;
  13. Patient protections—Section 2719A of the Public Health Service Act; and
  14. Non-discrimination regarding clinical trial participation—Section 2709 of the Public Health Service Act.

Are Parts of the Health Plan Unclear?

Yes. For instance, the plan says that “Obamacare requirements on essential health benefits” would not apply in states receiving block grant funds. However, Section 1302 of Obamacare—which codified the essential health benefits requirement—also included two other requirements, one capping annual cost-sharing (Section 1302(c)) and another imposing minimum actuarial value requirements (Section 1302(d)).

Additionally, the plan on two occasions says that “insurers could offer discounts to people who are continuously covered.” House Republicans offered a similar proposal in their American Health Care Act last year, one that imposed penalties on individuals failing to maintain continuous coverage.

However, the plan includes no specific proposal on how insurers could go about offering such discounts, as the plan states that the 3:1 age rating requirement—and presumably only that requirement—would not apply for states receiving block grant funds. It is unclear whether or how insurers would have the flexibility under the plan to offer discounts for continuous coverage if all of Obamacare’s restrictions on premium rating, save that for age, remain.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: Updated Summary of Obamacare “Stability” Legislation

On Monday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and others introduced their latest version of an Obamacare “stability” bill. In general, the bill would appropriate more than $60 billion in funds to insurance companies, propping up and entrenching Obamacare rather than repealing it.

Also on Monday, the Congressional Budget Office released its analysis of the updated legislation. In CBO’s estimate, the bill would increase the deficit by $19.1 billion, while marginally increasing the number of insured Americans (by fewer than 500,000 per year).


Stability Fund
: Provides $500 million in funding for fiscal year 2018, and $10 billion in funding for each of fiscal years 2019, 2020, and 2021, for invisible high-risk pools and reinsurance payments. The $500 million this year would provide administrative assistance to states to establish such programs, with the $10 billion in each of the following three years maintaining them.

Grants the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), in consultation with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the authority to allocate the funds to states—which some conservatives may be concerned gives federal bureaucrats authority to spend $30.5 billion wherever they choose.

Includes a provision requiring a federal fallback for 2019 (and only 2019) in states that choose not to establish their own reinsurance or invisible high-risk program. Moreover, these federal fallback dollars must be used “for market stabilization payments to issuers.” Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—which, like the rest of the $30 billion in “stability funds,” did not appear in the original Alexander-Murray legislation—undermines state flexibility, by effectively forcing states to bail out insurers, whether they want to or not.

Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments: The bill appropriates roughly $30-35 billion in cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurers, which subsidizes their provision of discounts on deductibles and co-payments to certain low-income individuals enrolled on insurance exchanges.

Last October, President Trump announced he would halt the payments to insurers, concluding the administration did not have authority to do so under the Constitution. As a result, the bill includes an explicit appropriation, totaling roughly $3-4 billion for the final quarter of 2017, and $9-10 billion for each of years 2019, 2020, and 2021, based on CBO spending estimates. This language represents a change from the original Alexander-Murray bill, which appropriated payments for 2018 and 2019 only.

For 2018, the bill appropriates CSRs only for 1) states choosing the Basic Health plan option (which gives states a percentage of Obamacare subsidies as a block grant to cover low-income individuals) and 2) insurers for which HHS determines, in conjunction with state insurance commissioners, that the insurer assumed the payment of CSRs when setting rates for the 2018 plan year. This language represents a change from the original Alexander-Murray bill, which set up a complicated system of rebates that would have allowed insurers potentially to pocket billions of dollars by retaining “extra” CSR payments for 2018.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, because insurers understood for well over a year that a new administration could terminate these payments in 2017, the agreement would effectively subsidize their flawed assumptions. Some conservatives may be concerned that action to continue the flow of payments would solidify the principle that Obamacare, and therefore insurers, are “too big to fail,” which could only encourage further risky behavior by insurers in the future.

Hyde Amendment: With respect to the issue of taxpayer dollars subsidizing federal insurance plans covering abortion, the bill does not apply the Hyde Amendment protections retrospectively to the 2017 CSR payments, or to the (current) 2018 plan year. With respect to 2019 through 2021, the bill prohibits federal funding of abortions, except in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. However, the bill does allow states to use state-only dollars to fund other abortions, as many state Medicaid managed care plans do currently.

According to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, with respect to coverage of abortions in state Medicaid plans:

  • 32 states and the District of Columbia follow the federal Hyde Amendment standard, funding abortion only in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother;
  • One state provides abortion only in the case of life endangerment; and
  • 17 states provide coverage for most abortions—five voluntarily, and 12 by court order.

State Waiver Processes: The bill would streamline the process for approving state innovation waivers, authorized by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Those waivers allow states to receive their state’s exchange funding as a block grant, and exempt themselves from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations.

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Extend the waivers’ duration, from five years to six, with unlimited renewals possible;
  • Prohibit HHS from terminating waivers during their duration (including any renewal periods), unless “the state materially failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the waiver”;
  • Require HHS to release guidance to states within 60 days of enactment regarding waivers, including model language for waivers—a change from the 30 days included in the original Alexander-Murray bill;
  • Shorten the time for HHS to consider waivers from 180 days to 120—a change from 90 days in the original Alexander-Murray bill;
  • Allow a 45-day review for 1) waivers currently pending; 2) waivers for areas “the Secretary determines are at risk for excessive premium increases or having no health plans offered in the applicable health insurance market for the current or following plan year”; 3) waivers that are “the same or substantially similar” to waivers previously approved for another state; and 4) waivers related to invisible high-risk pools or reinsurance, as discussed above. These waivers would initially apply for no more than three years, with an extension possible for a full six-year term;
  • Allow governors to apply for waivers based on their certification of authority, rather than requiring states to pass a law authorizing state actions under the waiver—a move that some conservatives may be concerned could allow state chief executives to act unilaterally, including by exiting a successful waiver on a governor’s order.

State Waiver Substance: On the substance of innovation waivers, the bill would rescind regulatory guidance the Obama administration issued in December 2015. Among other actions, that guidance prevented states from using savings from an Obamacare/exchange waiver to offset higher costs to Medicaid, and vice versa.

While supporting the concept of greater flexibility for states, some conservatives may note that, as this guidance was not enacted pursuant to notice-and-comment, the Trump administration can revoke it at any time—indeed, should have revoked it last year. Additionally, the bill amends, but does not repeal, the “guardrails” for state innovation waivers. Under current law, Section 1332 waivers must:

  • “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as” Obamacare coverage;
  • “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as Obamacare coverage;
  • “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of [a state’s] residents” as under Obamacare; and
  • “Not increase the federal deficit.”

Some conservatives have previously criticized these provisions as insufficiently flexible to allow for conservative health reforms like Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven options.

The bill allows states to provide coverage “of comparable affordability, including for low-income individuals, individuals with serious health needs, and other vulnerable populations” rather than the current language in the second bullet above. It also clarifies that deficit and budget neutrality will operate over the lifetime of the waiver, and that state innovation waivers under Obamacare “shall not be construed to affect any waiver processes or standards” under the Medicare or Medicaid statutes for purposes of determining the Obamacare waiver’s deficit neutrality.

The bill also makes adjustments to the “pass-through” language allowing states to receive their exchange funding via a block grant. For instance, the bill adds language allowing states to receive any funding for the Basic Health Program—a program states can establish for households with incomes of between 138-200 percent of the federal poverty level—via the block grant.

Some conservatives may view the “comparable affordability” change as a distinction without a difference, as it still explicitly links affordability to Obamacare’s rich benefit package. Some conservatives may therefore view the purported “concessions” on the December 2015 guidance, and on “comparable affordability” as inconsequential in nature, and insignificant given the significant concessions to liberals included elsewhere in the proposed legislative package.

Catastrophic Plans: The bill would allow all individuals to purchase “catastrophic” health plans, beginning in 2019. The legislation would also require insurers to keep those plans in a single risk pool with other Obamacare plans—a change from current law.

Catastrophic plans—currently only available to individuals under 30, individuals without an “affordable” health plan in their area, or individuals subject to a hardship exemption from the individual mandate—provide no coverage below Obamacare’s limit on out-of-pocket spending, but for “coverage of at least three primary care visits.” Catastrophic plans are also currently subject to Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements.

Outreach Funding: The bill requires HHS to obligate $105.8 million in exchange user fees to states for “enrollment and outreach activities” for the 2019 and 2020 plan years—a change from the original legislation, which focused on the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Currently, the federal exchange (healthcare.gov) assesses a user fee of 3.5 percent of premiums on insurers, who ultimately pass these fees on to consumers.

In a rule released in December 2016, the outgoing Obama administration admitted that the exchange is “gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs,” in part because maintaining the exchange costs less per year than creating one did in 2013-14. However, the Obama administration rejected any attempt to lower those fees, instead deciding to spend them on outreach efforts. The agreement would re-direct portions of the fees to states for enrollment outreach.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would create a new entitlement for states to outreach dollars. Moreover, some conservatives may object to this re-direction of funds that ultimately come from consumers towards more government spending. Some conservatives may support taking steps to reduce the user fees—thus lowering premiums, the purported intention of this “stabilization” measure—rather than re-directing them toward more government spending, as the agreement proposes.

The bill also requires a series of biweekly reports from HHS on metrics like call center volume, website visits, etc., during the 2019 and 2020 open enrollment periods, followed by after-action reports regarding outreach and advertising. Some conservatives may view these myriad requirements first as micro-management of the executive, and second as buying into the liberal narrative that the Trump administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, by requiring minute oversight of the executive’s implementation of the law.

Cross-State Purchasing: Requires HHS to issue regulations (in consultation with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners) within one year regarding health care choice compacts under Obamacare. Such compacts would allow individuals to purchase coverage across state lines.

However, because states can already establish health care compacts amongst themselves, and because Obamacare’s regulatory mandates would still apply to any such coverage purchased through said compacts, some conservatives may view such language as insufficient and not adding to consumers’ affordable coverage options.

Consumer Notification: Requires states that allow the sale of short-term, limited duration health coverage to disclose to consumers that such plans differ from “Obamacare-approved” qualified health plans. Note that this provision does not codify the administration’s proposed regulations regarding short-term health coverage; a future Democratic administration could (and likely will) easily re-write such regulations again to eliminate the sale of short-term plans, as the Obama administration did in 2016.

CBO Analysis of the Legislation

As noted above, CBO believes the legislation would increase the deficit by $19.1 billion, while increasing the number of insured Americans marginally. In general, while CBO believed that changes to Obamacare’s state waivers program would increase the number of states applying for waivers, they would not have a net budgetary impact.

However, the bill does include one particular change to Obamacare Section 1332 waivers allowing existing waiver recipients to request recalculation of their funding formula. According to CBO, only Minnesota qualifies under the statutory definition, and could receive $359 million in additional funding between 2018 and 2022. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision represents a legislative earmark that by definition can only affect one state.

With respect to the invisible high-risk pools and reinsurance, CBO believes the provisions would raise spending by a net of $26.5 billion, offset by higher revenues of $7 billion. The budget office estimated that the entire country would be covered by the federal fallback option in 2019, because “it would be difficult for other states [that do not have waivers currently] to establish a state-based program in time to affect premiums.”

For 2020 and 2021, CBO believes that 60 and 80 percent of the country, respectively, would be covered by state waivers; “the remainder of the population in those years would be without a federally-funded reinsurance program or invisible high-risk pool.” The $7 billion in offsetting savings referenced in CBO’s score comes from lower premiums, and thus lower spending on federal premium subsidies. In 2019, CBO believes “about 60 percent of the federal cost for the default federal reinsurance program would be offset by other sources of savings.”

CBO believes that, under the bill, premiums would be 10 percent lower in 2019, and 20 percent lower in 2020 and 2021, compared to current law. Some conservatives may note that lower premiums relative to current law does not equate to lower premiums relative to 2018 levels. Particularly because CBO expects elimination of the individual mandate tax will raise premiums by 10 percent in 2019, many conservatives may doubt that premiums will go down in absolute terms, notwithstanding the sizable spending on insurer subsidies under the bill.

CBO noted that premium changes would largely affect unsubsidized individuals—i.e., families with incomes more than four times the federal poverty level ($100,400 for a family of four in 2018)—a small portion of whom would sign up for coverage as a result of the reductions. However, “in states that did not apply for a waiver, premiums would be the same under current law as under the legislation starting in 2020.”

Moreover, even in states with a reinsurance waiver, CBO believes that insurers will “tend to set premiums conservatively to hedge against uncertainty” regarding the reinsurance programs—meaning that CBO “expect[s] that total premiums would not be reduced by the entire amount of available federal funding.”

As noted in prior posts, CBO is required by law to assume full funding of entitlement spending, including cost-sharing reductions. Therefore, the official score of the bill included no net budget impact for the CSR appropriation. However, Alexander received a supplemental letter from CBO indicating that, compared to a scenario where the federal government did not make CSR payments, appropriating funds for CSRs would result in a notional deficit reduction of $29 billion.

The notional deficit reduction arises because, in the absence of CSR payments, insurers would “load” the cost of reducing cost-sharing on to health insurance premiums—thus raising premium subsidies for those who qualify for them. CBO believes these higher subsidies would entice more families with incomes between two and four times the federal poverty definition ($50,200-$100,400 for a family of four in 2018) to sign up for coverage. Compared to a “no-CSR” baseline, appropriating funds for CSRs, as the bill would do, would reduce spending on premium subsidies, but it would also increase the number of uninsured by 500,000-1,000,000, as some families receiving lower subsidies would drop coverage.

Lastly, the expanded sale of catastrophic plans, coupled with provisions including those plans in a single risk pool, would slightly improve the health of the overall population purchasing Obamacare coverage. While individuals cannot receive federal premium subsidies for catastrophic coverage, enticing more healthy individuals to sign up for coverage will improve the exchanges’ overall risk pool slightly, lowering federal spending on those who do qualify for exchange subsidies by $849 million.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ SCHIP Surrender

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

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

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

So Much for Our Promises, Voters

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

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

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

Details About the SCHIP Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cave, Not a Compromise

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

There He Goes Again: Lamar Alexander Misrepresents His Obamacare Bailout

As Ronald Reagan might say, “There you go again.” Last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner making claims about the Obamacare “stabilization” bill he developed with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

The article tells a nice story about how conservatives should support the bill, but alas, one can consider it just that: A story. The article includes several material omissions and outright false statements about the legislation and its impact. Below are the facts and full context that Alexander wouldn’t dare admit about his bill.

Fact: In reality, the Congressional Budget Office in its score of the Alexander-Murray bill said the exact opposite:

Simply comparing outcomes with and without funding for CSRs [cost-sharing reduction payments], CBO and [the Joint Committee on Taxation] expect that federal costs in 2018 would be higher with funding for CSRs because premiums for 2018 have already been finalized and rebates related to CSRs would be less than the CSR payments themselves. [Emphasis mine.]

Insurers have already finalized their premiums for 2018 (in most states, open enrollment ends this Friday, December 15), and when doing so assumed cost-sharing reductions would not be paid. If Congress now turns around and appropriates those payments for 2018, insurers would have the possibility to “double-dip.” That means getting paid twice by the federal government to provide lower cost-sharing to low-income individuals.

While CBO believes insurers will return some of the “extra” subsidies they receive to the federal government—$3.1 billion worth, according to their estimate—they also believe that insurers will keep some portion of the excess, as much as $4-6 billion worth. That dynamic explains why CBO believes federal spending will increase, not decrease, as Alexander claims, if Congress appropriates cost-sharing reduction payments for 2018.

Fact: The $194 billion figure has no bearing to the Alexander-Murray legislation. Elsewhere in the op-ed, Alexander admits his bill would include “two years of temporary cost-sharing reduction payments.” If these payments would be “temporary,” then why cite a purported savings figure for an entire decade? Is Alexander trying to elide the fact that he wants to continue both Obamacare and these taxpayer payments to insurance companies in perpetuity?

Claim: “This bill includes new waiver authority for states to come up with their ideas to reduce premiums.”

Fact: The bill includes precious little new waiver authority for states. On substance, it retains virtually all of the “guardrails” in Obamacare that make implementing conservative ideas—like consumer-driven health-care options that use health savings accounts—impossible in a state waiver. While the bill does provide for a faster process for the federal government to consider waiver applications, without changing the substance of what provisions states can waive, the bill would just result in conservative states getting their waivers rejected more quickly.

Fact: This provision appears nowhere in the Alexander-Murray measure. Instead, it comprises a separate bill, introduced by senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL). And that bill, as originally introduced, would appropriate not $10 billion in reinsurance funds, but “only” $4.5 billion.

Some conservatives may find it bad enough that, in addition to appropriating roughly $20-25 billion straight to insurance companies in the Alexander-Murray bill, Alexander now wants a second source of taxpayer funds to subsidize insurers. Moreover, by more than doubling the amount of reinsurance funds compared to the original Collins-Nelson bill, Alexander seems to be engaging in a bidding war with himself to determine the greatest amount of taxpayers’ money he can shovel insurers’ way.

Claim: “Almost all House Republicans have already voted for its provisions earlier this year.”

At this point readers may question why Alexander made such a series of incomplete, misleading, and outright false claims in his op-ed. One other tidbit might explain the article’s dissociation with the truth.

Fact: Since 2013, the largest contributor to Alexander’s re-election campaign and leadership PAC has been…Blue Cross Blue Shield.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: Summary of Alexander-Murray “Stability” Bill

On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced he had reached an agreement in principle with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) regarding an Obamacare “stabilization” package. Unfortunately, legislative text has not yet been released (UPDATE: bill text was released late Tuesday evening), but based on press reports, Twitter threads, and a summary circulating on Capitol Hill, here’s what is in the final package:

Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments:             The bill appropriates roughly $25-30 billion in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, which offset their costs for providing discounts on deductibles and co-payments to certain low-income individuals enrolled on insurance Exchanges. Late last Thursday, President Trump announced he would halt the payments to insurers, concluding the Administration did not have authority to do so under the Constitution. As a result, the bill includes an explicit appropriation, totaling roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates.

For 2018 only, the bill includes language allowing states to decline the cost-sharing reduction payments—if they previously approved premium increases that assumed said payments would not be made. If states do not decline the payments, they must certify that said payments will “provide a direct financial benefit to consumers”—that is, they will result in lower premium rates, and/or rebates to consumers. The bill also includes clarifying language regarding the interactions between any such rebates and premium tax credit levels under Obamacare.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, because insurers understood for well over a year that a new Administration could terminate these payments in 2017, the agreement would effectively subsidize their flawed assumptions. Some conservatives may be concerned that action to continue the flow of payments would solidify the principle that Obamacare, and therefore insurers, are “too big to fail,” which could only encourage further risky behavior by insurers in the future. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that, absent Hyde Amendment protections, these payments would subsidize federal insurance plans covering abortion.

State Waiver Processes:     The bill would streamline the process for approving state innovation waivers, authorized by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Those waivers allow states to receive their state’s Exchange funding as a block grant, and exempt themselves from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations.

Specifically, the agreement would:

  1. Extend the waivers’ duration, from five years to six, with unlimited renewals possible;
  2. Prohibit HHS from terminating waivers during their duration (including any renewal periods), unless “the state materially failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the waiver;”
  3. Require HHS to release guidance to states within 30 days of enactment regarding waivers, including model language for waivers;
  4. Shorten the time the Department of Health and Human Services to consider waivers from 180 days to 90;
  5. Allow a 45 day review for 1) waivers currently pending; 2) waivers for areas “the Secretary determines are at risk for excessive premium increases or having no health plans offered in the applicable health insurance market for the current or following plan year; and 3) waivers that are “the same or substantially similar” to waivers previously approved for another state. These waivers would initially apply for no more than three years, with an extension possible for a full six-year term;
  6. Allow governors to apply for waivers based on their certification of authority, rather than requiring states to pass a law authorizing state actions under the waiver—a move that some conservatives may be concerned could allow state chief executives to act unilaterally, including by exiting a successful waiver on a governor’s order.

State Waiver Substance:    On the substance of innovation waivers, the bill would regulatory guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015. Among other actions, that guidance prevented states from using savings from an Obamacare/Exchange waiver to offset higher costs to Medicaid, and vice versa. While supporting the concept of greater flexibility for states, some conservatives may note that, as this guidance was not enacted pursuant to notice-and-comment, the Trump Administration can revoke it at any time—indeed, should have revoked it months ago.

Additionally, the bill amends—but does not repeal—the “guardrails” for state innovation waivers. Under current law, Section 1332 waivers must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as” Obamacare coverage;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as Obamacare coverage;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of [a state’s] residents” as under Obamacare; and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”

Some conservatives have previously criticized these provisions as insufficiently flexible to allow for conservative health reforms like Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven options.

The bill allows states to provide coverage “of comparable affordability, including for low-income individuals, individuals with serious health needs, and other vulnerable populations” rather than the current language in the second bullet above. It also clarifies that deficit and budget neutrality will operate over the lifetime of the waiver, and that state innovation waivers under Obamacare “shall not be construed to affect any waiver processes or standards” under the Medicare or Medicaid statutes for purposes of determining the Obamacare waiver’s deficit neutrality.

The bill also makes adjustments to the “pass-through” language allowing states to receive their Exchange funding via a block grant. For instance, the bill adds language allowing states to receive any funding for the Basic Health Program—a program states can establish for households with incomes of between 138-200 percent of the federal poverty level—via the block grant.

Some conservatives may view the “comparable affordability” change as a distinction without a difference, as it still explicitly links affordability to Obamacare’s rich benefit package. Some conservatives may therefore view the purported “concessions” on the December 2015 guidance, and on “comparable affordability” as inconsequential in nature, and insignificant given the significant concessions to liberals included elsewhere in the proposed legislative package.

Catastrophic Plans:              The bill would allow all individuals to purchase “catastrophic” health plans, and keep those plans in a single risk pool with other Obamacare plans. However, this provision would not apply until 2019—i.e., not for the upcoming plan year.

Catastrophic plans—currently only available to individuals under 30, individuals without an “affordable” health plan in their area, or individuals subject to a hardship exemption from the individual mandate—provide no coverage below Obamacare’s limit on out-of-pocket spending, but for “coverage of at least three primary care visits.” Catastrophic plans are also currently subject to Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements.

Outreach Funding:               The bill requires HHS to obligate $105.8 million in Exchange user fees to states for “enrollment and outreach activities” for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Currently, the federal Exchange (healthcare.gov) assesses a user fee of 3.5 percent of premiums on insurers, who ultimately pass these fees on to consumers. In a rule released last December, the outgoing Obama Administration admitted that the Exchange is “gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs”—in part because maintaining the Exchange costs less per year than creating one did in 2013-14. However, the Obama Administration rejected any attempt to lower those fees, instead deciding to spend them on outreach efforts. The agreement would re-direct portions of the fees to states for enrollment outreach.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would create a new entitlement for states to outreach dollars. Moreover, some conservatives may object to this re-direction of funds that ultimately come from consumers towards more government spending. Some conservatives may support taking steps to reduce the user fees—thus lowering premiums, the purported intention of this “stabilization” measure—rather than re-directing them toward more government spending, as the agreement proposes.

The bill also requires a series of bi-weekly reports from HHS on metrics like call center volume, website visits, etc., during the 2018 and 2019 open enrollment periods, followed by after-action reports regarding outreach and advertising. Some conservatives may view these myriad requirements first as micro-management of the executive, and second as buying into the liberal narrative that the Trump Administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, by requiring minute oversight of the executive’s implementation of the law.

Cross-State Purchasing:     Requires HHS to issue regulations (in consultations with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners) within one year regarding health care choice compacts under Obamacare. Such compacts would allow individuals to purchase coverage across state lines. However, because states can already establish health care compacts amongst themselves, and because Obamacare’s regulatory mandates would still apply to any such coverage purchased through said compacts, some conservatives may view such language as insufficient and not adding to consumers’ affordable coverage options.