Exclusive: Congress Should Investigate, Not Bail Out, Health Regulators Who Risked Billions

What if a group of regulators were collectively blindsided by a decision that cost their industry billions of dollars? One might think Congress would investigate the causes of this regulatory debacle, and take steps to ensure it wouldn’t repeat itself.

Think again. President Trump’s October decision to terminate cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidy payments to health insurers will inflict serious losses on the industry. For October, November, and December, insurers will reduce deductibles and co-payments for certain low-income exchange enrollees, but will not receive reimbursement from the federal government for doing so. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, claimed in a recent court filing that insurance carriers will suffer $1.75 billion in losses over the remainder of 2017 due to the decision.

As Dave Anderson of Duke University recently noted, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet Congress has asked not even a single question of regulators why they did not anticipate and plan for this scenario—a recipe for more costly mistakes in the future.

A Brewing Legal and Political Storm

The controversy surrounds federal payments that reimburse insurers for lower deductibles, co-payments, and out-of-pocket expenses for qualifying low-income households purchasing exchange coverage. While the text of Obamacare requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to reimburse insurers for providing the discounts, it nowhere includes an explicit appropriation for such spending.

As the exchanges launched in 2014, the Obama administration began making CSR payments to insurers. However, later that year, the House of Representatives, viewing a constitutional infringement on its “power of the purse,” sued to stop the executive from making the payments without an explicit appropriation. In May 2016, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional absent an express appropriation from Congress.

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. Such an action could take effect almost immediately….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.

One week after my article, Collyer issued her ruling calling the subsidy payments unconstitutional. At that point, CSR payments faced threats from both the legal and political realms. On the legal front, the ongoing court case could have resulted in an order terminating the payments. On the political side, the new administration would have the power to terminate the payments unilaterally—and it does not appear that either Hillary Clinton or Trump ever publicly committed to maintaining the payments upon taking office.

Yet Commissioners Stood Idly By

In the midst of this gathering storm, what actions did insurance commissioners take last year, as insurers filed their rates for the 2017 plan year—the plan year currently ongoing—to analyze whether cost-sharing payments would continue, and the effects on insurers if they did not? About a week before the Trump administration officially decided to halt the payments, I submitted public records requests to every state insurance commissioner’s office to find out.

Two states (Indiana and Oregon) are still processing my requests, but the results from most other states do not inspire confidence. Although a few states (Illinois, Utah, and California’s Department of Managed Health Care) withheld documents for confidentiality or logistical reasons, I have yet to find a single document during the filing process for the 2017 plan year contemplating the set of circumstances that transpired this fall—namely, a new administration cutting off the CSR payments.

In many cases, states indicated they did not, and do not, question insurers’ assumptions at all. North Dakota said it does not dictate terms to carriers (although the state did not allow carriers to re-submit rates for the 2018 plan year after the administration halted the CSR payments in October). Wyoming said it did not issue guidance to carriers on CSRs “because that’s not how we roll.” Missouri did not require its insurers to file 2017 rates with regulators, so it would have no way of knowing those insurers’ assumptions.

Other states admitted that they did not consider the possibility that the incoming administration would, or even could, terminate the CSR payments. North Carolina said it did not think the court case was relevant, or that cost-sharing reduction payments would be an issue. Massachusetts’ insurance Connector (its state-run exchange) responded that “there was no indication that rates for 2017 were affected by the pendency of House v. Burwell,” the case Collyer ruled on in May 2016.

Despite the ongoing court case and the deep partisan disputes over Obamacare, many commissioners’ responses indicate a failure to anticipate difficulties with cost-sharing reduction payments. Mississippi stated that, during the filing process for 2017, “CSRs weren’t a problem then, as they were being funded.” Minnesota added that “it was not until the spring of 2017 that carriers started discussing the threat [of CSR payments being terminated] was a real possibility.” Nebraska stated that “I don’t think that there’s anyone who allowed for the possibility of non-payment of CSRs for plan year 2017. We were all waiting for Congress to act.”

However, as an e-mail sent by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to state regulators demonstrates, federal authorities at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated their “serious concerns” with the Texas and New Mexico proposals. Federal law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for qualifying beneficiaries, regardless of the status of the reimbursement program, and CMS believed the contingency language—which never went into effect in either Texas or New Mexico—violated that requirement.

In at least one case, an insurer raised premiums to reflect the risk that CSR payments could disappear in 2017. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana submitted such request to that state’s insurance authorities. However, regulators rejected “contingent CSR language”—apparently an attempt to cancel the reduced cost-sharing if reimbursement from Washington was not forthcoming, a la the Texas and New Mexico proposals. The insurance commissioner’s office also objected to the carrier’s attempt to raise premiums over the issue: “We will not allow rates to be increased based on speculation about outcomes of litigation.”

Of course, had insurers requested, or had regulators either approved or demanded, premium increases last year due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reduction payments, they would not now face the prospect of over $1 billion in losses due to non-payment of CSRs for the last three months of 2017. But had regulators approved even higher premium increases last year, those increases likely would have caused political controversy during the November elections.

As it was, news of the average 25 percent premium increase for 2017 gave Trump a political cudgel to attack Clinton in the waning days of the campaign. One can certainly question why Democratic insurance commissioners who did not utter a word about premium increases and CSR “uncertainty” during Clinton’s campaign suddenly discovered the term the minute Trump was elected president.

However, at least some ardent Obamacare supporters just did not anticipate a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments. Washington state’s commissioner, Mike Kreidler, published an op-ed last October regarding the House v. Burwell court case. He did so at the behest of NAIC consumer representative Tim Jost, who wanted to cite Kreidler’s piece in an amicus curiae brief during the case’s appeal. But despite their focus on the court case regarding CSRs, it appears neither Jost nor Kreidler ever contemplated a new administration withdrawing the payments in 2017.

Congressional Oversight Needed

The evidence suggests that not a single insurance commissioner considered the impact of a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments in 2017, a series of decisions that put the entire health of the individual insurance market at risk. What policy implications follow from this conclusion?

First, it undercuts the effectiveness of Obamacare’s “rate review” process. That mechanism requires states to evaluate “excessive” premium increases. However, the program’s evaluation criteria do not explicitly include policy judgments such as those surrounding CSRs. Moreover, the political focus on lowering “excessively” high premium increases might result in cases where regulators approve premium rates set inappropriately low—as happened in 2017, where no carriers priced in a contingency margin for the termination of CSR payments, yet those payments ceased in October.

As noted above, Montana’s regulators called out that state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate for proposing a rate increase relating to CSR uncertainty. The state’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, issued a formal “letter of deficiency” in which she stated that “raising rates on the basis of this assumption [i.e., loss of cost-sharing reduction payments] is unreasonable.” But events proved Lindeen wrong—those payments did disappear in 2017. Yet the insurer in question has no recourse after their assumptions proved more accurate than Lindeen’s—nor, for that matter, will Lindeen face any consequences for the “unreasonable” assumptions she made.

Second, it suggests an inherent tension between state authorities and Washington. Several regulators specifically said they looked to CMS’ advice on the cost-sharing reduction issue. Iowa requested guidance from Washington, and Wisconsin said the status of the payments was “out of our hands.” But given the impending change of administrations, any guidance CMS provided in the spring or summer of 2016 was guaranteed to remain valid only through January 20, 2017—a problem for regulators setting rates for the 2017 plan year.

Obamacare created a new layer of federal oversight—and federal policy—surrounding regulation of insurance, which heretofore had laid primarily within the province of the states. The CSR debacle resulted from the conflict between those two layers. Unless and until our laws reconcile those tensions—in conservatives’ case, by repealing the Obamacare regime and returning regulation to the states, or in liberals’ preferred outcome, by centralizing more regulatory authority in Washington—these conflicts could well recur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it should spark Congress to examine state oversight of health insurance in greater detail. The fact that insurance commissioners escaped the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane—the withdrawal of CSR payments in January—and struggled through a mere tropical storm with payments withdrawn in October instead, had no relevance on their regulatory skill—to the contrary, in fact.

Unfortunately, Congress has demonstrated little interest in examining why the regulatory apparatus fell so short. The same Democratic Party that investigated regulators and bankers following the financial crisis has shown little interest in questioning why insurers and insurance regulators failed to anticipate the end of cost-sharing reduction payments. With their focus on getting Congress to appropriate funds restoring the CSR payments President Trump terminated, insurance commissioners’ lack of planning and preparation represents an inconvenient truth that Democrats would rather ignore.

Likewise, Republicans who wish to appropriate funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments have no interest in examining the roots of the CSR debacle. In September, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to take testimony from insurance commissioners on “stabilizing” insurance markets.

At the hearing, Alexander did not ask the commissioners why they did not predict the “uncertainty” surrounding cost-sharing reductions last year. HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Kreidler, her state’s insurance commissioner, about regulators’ “guessing games” regarding the status of CSRs with regard to the 2018 plan year. But neither she nor any of the members asked why those regulators made such blind and ultimately incorrect assumptions last year, by not even considering a scenario where CSR payments disappeared during the 2017 plan year.

Alexander and Murray claim the legislation they developed following the hearing, which would appropriate CSR funds for two years, does not represent a “bailout” for the insurance industry. But the fact remains that last fall, when preparing for the 2017 plan year, insurance regulators dropped the ball in a big way.

Ignoring their inaction, and appropriating funds for cost-sharing reductions without scrutinizing their conduct, would effectively bail out insurance commissioners’ own collective negligence. Congress should think twice before doing so, because next time, a regulatory debacle could have an even bigger impact on the health insurance industry—and on federal taxpayers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Questions about the Alexander-Murray Bill

Upon its unveiling last week, the health insurance “stabilization” measure drafted by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) received praise from some lawmakers. For instance, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stated that “health care reform ought to be the product of regular order in the Senate, and the bill [the sponsors] introduced today is an important step towards that end.”

Unfortunately, the process to date has not resembled the “regular order” its sponsors have claimed. Drafted behind closed doors, by staff for a committee with only partial jurisdiction over health care, the bill’s provisions remained in flux as of last week. Moreover, the bill apparently will not undergo a mark-up or other committee action before the bill is either considered on the Senate floor—or, as some have speculated, “air-dropped” into a massive catch-all spending bill, where it will receive little to no legislative scrutiny.

Why didn’t Alexander know his bill provided taxpayer funding of abortion coverage?

Following my article last week highlighting how the cost-sharing reduction payments appropriated in the legislation would represent taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion, a reporter for the Catholic-run Eternal Word Television Network interviewed senators Alexander and Murray (along with myself) about the issue.

Alexander told reporter Jason Calvi that he “hadn’t discussed” the life issue with staff, indicating he had little inkling of the effects of the legislation he sponsored:

Alexander then claimed that “I’m sure the president will address” the abortion funding issue. But executive action—which a future president can always rescind—is no substitute for legislative language. The pro-life community derided President Obama’s executive order designed to segregate abortion payments and federal funding as an accounting sham.

As I wrote in June, Republican leaders—including Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Mike Pence, the current vice president—clearly noted during debates on Obamacare that the law would provide for taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. The Alexander-Murray bill would do likewise unless and until the legislation includes an explicit ban on abortion funding.

Who inserted the earmark for Minnesota into the legislation?

Call it the “Klobuchar Kickback,” call it the “Golden Gopher Giveaway,” but Section 2(b) of the bill contains provisions relevant only to Minnesota. Specifically, that provision would allow a state’s basic health program—which states can establish for individuals with incomes between 133 and 200 percent of the federally defined poverty level—to receive “pass-through” block grant funding under a waiver.

Currently, only New York and Minnesota have implemented basic health programs, and of those two states, only Minnesota has also sought a state innovation waiver under Obamacare. Last month, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), in approving Minnesota’s application for an innovation waiver, said it could not allow the state to receive “pass through” funds equal to spending on the basic health program, because the statute did not permit such an arrangement. The Alexander-Murray bill would explicitly permit basic health program spending to qualify for the “pass through” arrangement, allowing Minnesota—the only state with such an arrangement—to benefit.

Will a committee mark up the Alexander-Murray bill?

Alexander notably demurred on this topic when asked last week. One reason: As Politico has noted, it remains unclear whether or the extent to which Alexander’s committee has jurisdiction over the legislation he wrote. Revisions to the Obamacare state innovation waiver process comprise roughly half of the 26-page bill, yet the Senate HELP Committee shares jurisdiction over those matters with the Senate Finance Committee, whose chairman has derided legislation giving cost-sharing payments to insurers as a “bailout.”

Even as he praised the Alexander-Murray bill as a return to “regular order,” McCain—himself a committee chairman—doubtless would take issue with another committee “poaching” the Senate Armed Services panel’s jurisdiction, or failing to hold a mark-up entirely. Yet the process regarding the Alexander-Murray bill could include two noteworthy legislative “shortcuts”—which some may view as a deviation from “regular order.”

Are HELP Committee staff still re-writing the legislation?

A close review of the documents indicates that HELP Committee staff made changes to the bill even after Alexander and Murray announced their agreement last Tuesday. The version of the bill obtained by Axios and released last Tuesday evening—version TAM17J75, per the notation made in the top left corner of the bill text by the Office of Legislative Counsel—differs from the version (TAM17K02) publicly released by the HELP Committee on Thursday.

The revisions to the legislation, coupled with Alexander’s apparent lack of understanding regarding its implications, raise questions about what other “surprises” may lurk within its contents. For all the justifiable complaints regarding the lack of transparency over Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation earlier this year, the process surrounding Alexander-Murray seems little changed—and far from “regular order.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will Premium Increases Related to Obamacare Sway Voters?

As candidates in both parties focus on the general election campaign, some Republicans wonder if large premium increases related to the Affordable Care Act could be an “October surprise” that helps propel them to victory in November. The causes of the approaching premium increases vary, but some are rooted in a 2013 Obama administration proposal.

In reporting on premium increases by one Iowa insurer, the Des Moines Register noted that individuals who bought new plans that complied with Affordable Care Act regulations could face premium increases of 38% to 43% next year. “Another 90,000 Wellmark customers who hold older individual insurance plans are expected to face smaller increases, which will be announced in June,” the paper said.

The disparity stems from a policy proposal in late 2013, when Healthcare.gov was not functioning, millions had received insurance cancellation notices, and President Barack Obama was being heavily criticized for pledging, “If you like your health-care plan you can keep it.” The administration allowed states to extend existing plans for one year.

Some states chose not to take this option. Those that implemented it did so for varying lengths of time. After extending the policy twice, the administration said this year that these temporary extensions would expire by the end of 2017.

States that implemented extensions created an actuarial problem for their health-care exchanges, the market where individuals not insured through their employer can buy their own plans. Enrollees seeking the enhanced benefits provided by Obamacare-compliant plans were the most likely to use them, while many people with little need for additional benefits preferred the status quo. In Iowa the problem is particularly acute: 90,000 residents have pre-Obamacare coverage, significantly more than the 55,000 who had signed up on the exchange as of February. By keeping these people, who tend to be healthier than those with ACA plans, out of the exchanges, the “fix” created another problem, laying the groundwork for the larger premium increases for next year.

The issue is more pronounced in Iowa, but other states are affected. This isn’t the only component of Obamacare that could exacerbate premium spikes. One popular feature is that parents can cover their children up to age 26. At the same time, however, this policy point discourages those young people from buying a plan of their own. Enrollment among these “young invincibles” remains well below expectations three years into the exchanges. Data from 2014 had suggested that those young people enrolling in plans were incurring high medical costs—which could also contribute to a trend of premium spikes.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Political solutions from years past may materialize in the form of rate hikes this fall–and could generate a distinct reaction among voters on Election Day.

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

Gov. Jindal Op-Ed: An Obamacare Debate Worth Having

Repeal is not enough.

Five years later, that much should be clear. The law’s ill effects — higher premiums, cancelled health plans, bureaucratic ensnarements for doctor and patient alike — have all been well documented. This spring, the American people also got to know for the first time how Obamacare has complicated the tax code — raising taxes for many, and causing confusion and headaches for everyone.

But it’s long past time for the American people to get to know what conservatives would do in Obamacare’s stead. Our healthcare system did face a major threat before President Obama took office — rising costs that threaten to overwhelm middle-class families, and the federal budget as well. But while candidate Obama promised in 2008 to tackle costs, and lower premiums by $2,500 for the typical family, President Obama instead focused on expanding government-run health coverage, and missing the mark on his premium promise by over $1 trillion.

So yes, by all means, let’s ask the question: “Obamacare — when have you stood up and fought against it?” But anyone who wants to ask that question should have a detailed answer to this one: “Obamacare — what would you do instead?” Because it’s not particularly courageous for conservatives simply to oppose a law that remains deeply unpopular with voters. We must tell people what we are for, and let the American people know exactly what we will do, and how we will do it.

That’s why I put forward my own plan to replace Obamacare last year. It’s a plan that focuses like a laser beam on slowing the growth of healthcare costs. It offers 16 specific, proven methods that can work to curb health spending — from Health Savings Accounts, to wellness incentives, to lawsuit reforms that can reduce defensive medicine practices, to more insurance options that can spur competition and bring down prices. Just as important, the plan repeals all of Obamacare’s trillion dollars in tax increases and doesn’t replace them with a single penny of revenue hikes.

Thankfully, more Republicans are finally starting to put out specific proposals about how to replace Obamacare. I’m glad — that’s long since overdue. I think this issue is so important to conservatives, to our party, and to the future of our country that I want to lay down a very clear marker. I’m willing to debate anyone with a serious healthcare plan who wants to compare their Obamacare replacement plans with mine.

Obamacare is so harmful to our country — our health system, our economy and jobs, and our freedom — that we simply must repeal it, and put in place good reforms that will undo the damage Obamacare has caused.

It’s become fashionable in Republican circles in Washington to say that the hour is past, and that it is now too late to repeal all of Obamacare, and to say that we will just have to try to change it best we can. That’s nonsense.

After Hillary Clinton’s health plan went down to defeat in 1994, the Left never stopped their fight. I’ll bet Mrs. Clinton even sent a few emails out about it.

We as conservatives must do the same — we must fight until we win, and put forward a good conservative replacement for Obamacare now and challenge the President to do the right thing.

As Sen. Mike Lee recently said in Iowa: “If a presidential candidate tells us that he wants to repeal Obamacare but doesn’t have a healthcare reform proposal of his own, then maybe we should keep looking for another candidate.”

Sen. Lee is exactly right. We have to fight for what we promised the American people. And putting out clear, specific plans to replace Obamacare should comprise a major element of that effort — because repeal is not enough.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.