The Insurer Bailout Inside the Senate Budget “Deal”

I noted in my prior summary of the Senate budget “deal” that, as with Obamacare itself, Senate leaders wanted to pass the bill so that we can find out what’s in it. And so it proved.

My summary noted that the bill includes a giveaway to seniors, by accelerating the process Obamacare started to close the Part D prescription drug “donut hole.” I also pointed out that this attempt to buy seniors’ votes in the November elections by promising them an extra benefit in 2019 might backfire, because encouraging seniors to choose more expensive brand-name pharmaceuticals over cheaper generics will raise overall Medicare spending and increase premiums.

How the ‘Donut Hole’ Currently Works

The Part D prescription drug benefit Republicans and the George W. Bush administration created in 2003 included a “donut hole” to reduce the bill’s overall costs. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush proposed creating a limited drug benefit that provided only catastrophic protection for seniors with very high costs.

But political pressure (to give “benefits” to more seniors) and actuarial concerns (if the federal government covered only catastrophic costs, only very sick people who would incur those costs would enroll, creating an unstable risk pool) prompted Republicans to expand the Part D program. The “donut hole” resulted from these twin goals of providing basic coverage to seniors and catastrophic coverage for those with high medical costs, with the coverage gap or “donut hole” occurring between the end of the former and the start of the latter.

As part of their “rock-solid deal” with the Obama administration, the pharmaceutical industry and Democrats agreed to close the “donut hole” as part of Obamacare. The law required branded drug manufacturers to provide 50 percent discounts for seniors in the “donut hole,” with the federal government gradually increasing its subsidy (provided through Part D insurers) and beneficiaries’ co-insurance gradually declining to 25 percent (the same percentage of costs that beneficiaries pay before reaching the “donut hole”).

The budget “deal” changes the prior law in several ways. First, it reduces the beneficiary co-insurance from 30 percent to 25 percent in 2019, thus filling in the “donut hole.” But in so doing, it also increases the manufacturer’s “discount” from 50 percent to 70 percent, beginning next year.

That second change effectively shifts 20 percent of the cost of filling in the “donut hole” from Medicare, and insurers that offer Medicare drug plans, to drug manufacturers. In other words, it bails out health insurers, who in the future will have to bear very little risk (only 5 percent) of the cost of their beneficiaries’ drug spending.

No Crocodile Tears

That said, drug companies don’t have much reason to cry about the budget “deal” overall. The industry saw the repeal of Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), an important, albeit flawed, way to control skyrocketing Medicare costs. While Republicans in prior Congresses insisted on paying for legislation repealing IPAB, the party changed its tune at the beginning of this Congress—reportedly at the behest of Big Pharma.

The enacted legislation repeals the IPAB spending controls without a replacement mechanism to contain Medicare costs. This is total derogation of conservatives’ belief in reforming entitlements, and one enacted at the behest of drug company lobbyists.

Moreover, the budget “deal” included another huge win for pharma, by excluding legislation supported on both sides of the aisle to accelerate the approval of lower-cost generic drugs. Pharmaceutical lobbyists claimed the measure would lead to more lawsuits, and those objections meant the provision got left on the proverbial cutting room floor.

More Bailouts Ahead

Given that Kentucky-based health insurer Humana holds a large market share in the Medicare arena—with 5.3 million of the roughly 25 million seniors enrolled in stand-alone drug plans, and more enrollment in Medicare Advantage besides—and that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has fought hard, and publicly, on behalf of Humana’s interests in the past, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to ask whether the Senate majority leader proposed a backroom deal to help his insurer constituents.

Moreover, as we’ve previously reported, Republican leaders want to pass an even bigger bailout, this one for Obamacare, in next month’s omnibus spending agreement. One news outlet reported earlier this week that Republicans’ desire to bail out Obamacare—to “lower” premiums by throwing more of taxpayers’ money at the problem—has risen to such a level “that Democrats don’t feel like they have to push very hard” to ensure its enactment.

Insurer bailouts, measures to raise rather than lower health costs, and an abdication of any pretense of fiscal responsibility or restraint towards our looming entitlement crisis. The Republican Party circa 2018 is truly a pathetic spectacle to behold.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Another Insurer Bites the Obamacare Dust

Late Monday evening, health insurer Aetna confirmed a major pullback from Obamacare’s exchanges for 2017. The carrier, which this spring said it was looking to increase its Obamacare involvement, instead decided to participate in only four state marketplaces next year, down from 15 in 2016. Aetna will offer plans in a total of 242 counties next year — less than one-third its current 778.

Coupled with earlier decisions by major insurers Humana and UnitedHealthGroup to reduce their exchange involvement, Aetna’s move has major political and policy implications:

Exchanges are in intensive care
Insurers have lost literally billions selling Obamacare policies since 2014. One estimate found that insurers suffered $4 billion in losses in 2014; other studies that suggest carriers lost the same amount last year as well. And these multi-billion-dollar losses come after taking into account two transitional programs that have used federal dollars to protect insurers — programs that will end this December 31.

Over the weekend, in a report on premium increases for 2017, the New York Times noted that for one Pennsylvania health plan, nearly 250 individuals incurred health-care costs of over $100,000 each — “and then cancelled coverage before the end of the year.” While the administration has proposed some minor tweaks to minimize gaming the system, they will not solve the underlying problem: It takes tens of thousands of healthy enrollees to even out the health costs of 250 individuals with six-figure medical expenses, and Obamacare plans have failed to attract enough healthy individuals.

An opening for Trump?
The Wall Street Journal noted that the Aetna’s pullback means that some areas in Arizona now have no health insurers offering exchange coverage. Individuals there who qualify for insurance subsidies will have nowhere to spend them.

President Obama faced a self-imposed crisis in the fall of 2013 when millions of Americans faced a double whammy: Cancellation of their pre-Obamacare policies was coupled with much higher premiums for exchange coverage to replace it. Hillary Clinton could face an eerily similar dynamic in the weeks just before November 8. It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump’s campaign can capitalize on this potential October surprise hiding in plain sight.

Hillary has a problem
Over and above the obvious political problem that the exchanges present between now and November, their dire situation poses a policy quandary that a potential President Clinton would have to address — and fast — on taking office. Her campaign has proposed increasing federal subsidies for those affected by high out-of-pocket costs. But subsidies to individuals will matter little if insurers will not participate in exchanges to begin with.

So how would Hillary Clinton solve the exchange problem? Would she endorse a bailout of the insurers that liberals love to hate? Conversely, if Republicans retain control of at least one house of Congress, how on earth could she enact a government-run health plan that Barack Obama could not pass with huge, filibuster-proof majorities in both chambers? How would a President Clinton get out of the box that her predecessor has gift-wrapped for her?

Will conservatives stand fast?
As I previously noted, Aetna’s “solution” to the exchange problem is simple: Place taxpayers on the hook for their losses — in short, a permanent taxpayer bailout. But given the billions of dollars that insurers have already lost even after receiving tens of billions in corporate welfare from the federal government, Congress will, we should hope, exercise the good judgement not to throw good money after bad.

No Republican voted for Obamacare in either the House or the Senate — and for good reason. The poor design of its health-insurance offerings has ensured that only very sick individuals, or those qualifying for the richest subsidies, have signed up in any significant numbers. No small legislative changes or regulatory tweaks will change that fundamental dynamic. The question is whether, having seen their predictions proven correct, Republicans will seize defeat from the jaws of victory and view a Hillary Clinton victory as meaning they need to “come to terms” with a law that has destabilized insurance markets across the country. Here’s hoping that sale proves as elusive for Mrs. Clinton as Obamacare itself has been to insurers.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Aetna’s New Obamacare Strategy: Bailouts or Bust

Tuesday’s announcement by health insurer Aetna that it had halted plans to expand its offerings on Obamacare exchanges and may instead reduce or eliminate its participation entirely, caused a shockwave among health-policy experts. The insurer that heretofore had acted as one of Obamacare’s biggest cheerleaders has now admitted that the law will not work without a massive new infusion of taxpayer cash.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Aetna’s CEO, Mark Bertolini, explained the company’s major concern with Obamacare implementation:

Bertolini said big changes are needed to make the exchanges viable. Risk adjustment, a mechanism that transfers funds from insurers with healthier clients to those with sick ones, “doesn’t work,” he said. Rather than transferring money among insurers, the law should be changed to subsidize insurers with government funds, Bertolini said.

“It needs to be a non-zero sum pool in order to fix it,” Bertolini said. Right now, insurers “that are less worse off pay for those that are worse worse off.” 

A brief explanation: Obamacare’s risk adjustment is designed to even out differences in health status among enrollees. Put simply, plans with healthier-than-average patients subsidize plans with sicker-than-average patients. But the statute stipulates that the risk-adjustment payments should be based on “average actuarial risk” in each state marketplace — by definition, plans will transfer funds among themselves, but the payments will net out to zero.

Risk adjustment, a permanent feature of Obamacare, should not be confused with the law’s temporary-risk-corridor program, scheduled to end in December. Whereas risk corridor subsidizes loss-making plans, risk adjustment subsidizes sicker patients. And while plans can lose money for reasons unrelated to patient care — excessive overhead or bad investments, for instance — insurers incurring perpetual losses on patient care have little chance of ever breaking even.

That’s the situation Aetna says it finds itself in now. In calling for the government to subsidize risk adjustment, Bertolini believes that for the foreseeable future insurers will continue to face a risk pool sicker than in the average employer plan. In other words, the exchanges won’t work as currently constituted, because healthy people are staying away from Obamacare plans in droves. Aetna’s proposed “solution,” as expected, is for the taxpayer to pick up the tab.

It’s not that insurers haven’t received enough in bailout funds already. As I have noted in prior work, insurance companies stand to receive over $170 billion in bailout funds over the coming decade. For instance, the Obama administration has flouted the plain text of the law to prioritize payments to insurers over repayments to the United States Treasury. But still insurance companies want more.

Some viewed Aetna’s threat to vacate the exchanges as an implicit threat resulting from the Justice Department’s challenging its planned merger with Humana. But the reality is far worse: Aetna was conditioning its participation not on its merger’s being approved but on receiving more bailout funds from Washington.

Like a patient in intensive care, the Left wants to administer billions of dollars to insurers as a form of fiscal morphine, hoping upon hope that the cash infusions can tide them over until the exchanges reach a condition approaching health. Just last month, the liberal Commonwealth Fund proposed extending Obamacare’s reinsurance program, scheduled to end this December, “until the reformed market has matured.” But as Bertolini admitted in his interview, the exchanges do not work, and will not work — meaning Commonwealth’s suggestion would create yet another perpetual-bailout machine.

Only markets, and not more taxpayer money, will turn this ailing patient around. Congress should act to end the morphine drip and stop the bailouts once and for all. At that point, policymakers of both parties should come together to outline the prescription for freedom they would put in its place.

This post was originally published at National Review.

What If the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies for Insurers?

Humana’s announcement Wednesday that it is considering raising premiums and changing or eliminating plans makes it only the latest insurer to say it might scale back involvement on the Affordable Care Act exchanges next year. Here’s the $9 billion question those insurers that remain on the ACA marketplaces ought to consider: What happens if Donald Trump is elected–and cuts off their access to Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies?

Subsidies related to the 2010 health-care law aim to help reduce co-payments and deductibles for low-income individuals who meet certain criteria. House Republicans challenged the subsidies in court in late 2014, arguing that because the text of the Affordable Care Act does not include a specific appropriation for the subsidies, the executive branch cannot spend money Congress never disbursed. The Obama administration has counterargued that a separate program subsidizing health insurance premiums gives it the necessary authority to spend funds on the cost-sharing subsidies. A ruling from U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer could come at any time.

But let’s consider an outcome not tied to a federal court ruling. The next president could easily wade into this issue. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress (the remedy the House has requested in court). Such an action could take effect almost immediately, without the notice-and-comment period required for most regulatory rulemaking. The Congressional Research Service noted in a May 2013 memo on the budget sequester that should the cost-sharing subsidies be affected–so, reduced or halted–“Insurers presumably will still have to provide required coverage to qualifying enrollees, but they will not receive the full subsidy to cover their increased costs.”

In other words, whether or not the federal government is helping to make up the difference, insurers still must lower costs for certain enrollees. It’s a consideration as carriers submit their bids for next year that come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different.

There are sizeable sums at stake. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that spending on cost-sharing subsidies will total $9 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017, and $45 billion over the four fiscal years of the next administration. These sums dwarf the amounts insurers lost on Obamacare plans in 2014$4 billion by one estimate–and the $1.1 billion in losses incurred just by UnitedHealthGroup, the nation’s largest insurer, in 2015 and 2016.

Insurers seeking to sell coverage through the federally run exchanges must submit their bids by next Wednesday. Many are weighing the cost of participating in the exchanges and the potential for change. Some may assume that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about his knowledge of business concerns and about not being beholden to special interests would make him an ally of business as president. But the House Republican leadership has said these health-coverage subsidies are unconstitutional. It’s not clear whether Mr. Trump would allow Obamacare subsidies to be paid, which could greatly impact insurers’ bottom lines. Any outcome could have major repercussions.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.