The Better Solution for Our Health Insurance System: A Plan You Can Actually Keep

Sometimes, liberals and conservatives agree on a policy problem, but disagree strongly on the best solutions to that problem. Our health insurance system presents one case of such a disconnect between problems and solutions.

In the last Democratic presidential debate, hosted by CNN in March, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said that the coronavirus pandemic made the “dysfunctionality of the current health care system … obviously apparent.” He elaborated in an April op-ed in Politico, in which he noted that “already, an estimated 9.2 million workers have lost their employer-sponsored insurance, and as many as 35 million people might lose coverage by the end of the crisis.”

Sanders makes a valid point: The pandemic does illustrate the shortcomings of our system of health coverage. But his single-payer health care plan — or even Joe Biden’s proposal for a (purportedly) voluntary government-run “option” in which individuals could enroll — would take the system in the exact opposite direction.

The dysfunctionality of the system exists largely because employers control most Americans’ health insurance. Most conservatives would therefore support letting individuals control their health coverage, rather than liberals’ plan to replace employer control with government control. Thankfully, the Trump administration has moved health policy in that exact direction, laying the groundwork for a movement toward more personalized insurance options.

The Problem: Employer-Provided Health Insurance

Sanders cited a study from Health Management Associates stating that as many as 35 million individuals could lose access to employer-sponsored insurance due to coronavirus-related layoffs. A revised paper, released in late May, did not specifically update estimates for the number of people losing employer insurance, but still showed significant coverage losses. Other estimates have indicated similarly large numbers of Americans losing their employer coverage.

The sudden job losses sparked by coronavirus lockdowns have illustrated one of the three major problems with employer-provided health insurance. Individually and collectively, these flaws have represented a problem hidden in plain sight for decades.

Lack of choice: The largest survey of employer-provided health insurance found that in 2019, exactly three-quarters of firms (75%) offered only one type of health insurance plan. In general, large firms offer more choices than small businesses, but even among the largest firms — those with more than 5,000 workers.

Because the employer and not the employee owns the insurance policy, workers often end up stuck with whatever plan their employer chooses. An individual who doesn’t want to enroll in an HMO, or whose doctors lie outside his or her employer’s provider network, might have few choices but to switch jobs or accept a plan that does not meet his or her needs.

In its first season, the U.S. version of “The Office” satirized this dynamic, when resident megalomaniac Dwight Schrute got charged with picking the office health plan — and let the power go to his head. While Americans don’t have to worry about contracting “Count Choculitis,” one of the fictitious diseases Schrute’s co-workers invented to needle him in the episode, they do face the very real worry that their employer’s choices and wishes regarding health care might not align with their own.

Flawed incentives: A conversation with one of my friends several years ago illustrated this problem. My friend said he loved the insurance plan his employer provided: “I can go to the doctor and it only costs me a $5 co-pay.”

I posed a thought experiment: What if your health insurance suddenly became taxable, and you had to pay $1,500 or so in taxes on that coverage? (At the time, a top-of-the-line plan cost about $6,000 for an individual, and I assumed a 25% state and local tax rate.) He responded immediately: “I wouldn’t want the plan — I would tell them to raise my co-pays and deductibles.”

That response illustrates the policy problem of employer-sponsored insurance: Everyone thinks they’re spending everyone else’s money. Employees don’t pay taxes on employer coverage; an IRS ruling during World War II, later codified by Congress, exempts employer-provided benefits from both income and payroll taxes.

All the incentives regarding employer-provided health care point in the wrong direction. Exempting employer coverage from taxation encourages individuals to take more compensation in untaxed health insurance benefits rather than taxable wages. Many employees don’t even realize that the employer’s share of the contribution for their coverage — which averaged nearly $15,000 for a family policy in 2019 — comes out of their own wallets in the form of lost wages.

All the flawed and misaligned incentives mean that the co-pay of “only” $5 my friend talked about years ago costs far more than that — to workers, employers and the economy as a whole. It’s one major reason why our health care system represents such a large, and rising, share of our economy.

Lack of portability: This issue arises because employers and not individuals own their health plans. As a result, when individuals lose their jobs, they also lose their health coverage. That dynamic results in the double whammy Americans have experienced during the pandemic, when workers lose their coverage at the same time they have unexpectedly lost their job — compounding families’ financial distress.

Lack of portability also exacerbates the problem of pre-existing conditions. Upon entering the workforce in their teens or 20s, most individuals have yet to develop a pre-existing condition like cancer or diabetes. But every time individuals switch jobs, they lose their employer-provided health coverage — making them vulnerable if they have developed a condition in the intervening time.

The worst kinds of situations occur when individuals must leave their jobs because they have become too sick to work. These patients face not one but two potential sources of financial ruin: They have lost their source of income, and face the prospect of astronomical medical bills without a means to fund them.

Cure the Disease, Not the Symptoms

In the past several years, Democrats have spent lots of time talking about the need to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. But in focusing on pre-existing conditions, the left focuses on the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.

Remember: When Obamacare went into effect in January 2014, at least 4.7 million individuals received cancellation notices, according to The Associated Press. These individuals had plans that they liked, and wanted to keep — but the Obama administration wouldn’t let them. Politifact called the promise that Americans could keep their plan the 2013 “Lie of the Year,” and that lie affected many individuals who had developed, or feared that they would develop, a pre-existing condition. Let’s spare the notion that Democrats want to “protect” people with pre-existing conditions, when they “protected” millions of people right out of their coverage.

Liberals don’t talk about the underlying policy issue that creates the pre-existing condition problem — that people don’t own their own health coverage — because they don’t want people to own their own insurance. They want Washington to control health care decisions, not individual patients. It’s the classic example of former President Ronald Reagan’s nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

But if individuals could buy an insurance policy upon joining the workforce — one that they owned, not their employer — and retain that policy from job to job for decades, most individuals could buy coverage well before they develop a pre-existing condition, and keep that coverage after they do so, the pre-existing condition problem would rapidly diminish. (Yes, a small percentage of Americans, most notably those born with congenital illnesses, develop pre-existing conditions very early in life, but other policy solutions can address this population.)

Trump Administration’s Solution

You wouldn’t know it, given all the carping and hostility from the left, but the Trump administration has put forward a very positive solution that answers the policy problems associated with employer-provided health coverage. It should increase portability in ways that help solve the pre-existing condition problem, while also providing additional choice and competition.

The administration’s policy, implemented through regulations finalized in 2019, allows employers to contribute funds to workers on a pre-tax basis through Health Reimbursement Arrangements. These HRAs allow individuals to purchase coverage that they own, not their employers — making the coverage portable from job to job.

The HRA concept provides wins for employers, employees and the economy as a whole:

• Employers get predictability when it comes to their health insurance offerings. By providing employees a fixed sum (say, $300 or $500 a month) into the HRA, they will not have to worry about changing plans from year to year, a sudden spike in costs because of a sick employee, or many of the other paperwork hassles associated with offering coverage.
• Employees get both choice and portability. They can select the insurance plan that best meets their needs — the doctors, deductibles and plan features that they want. Not only can they keep the plan when they switch jobs, the fact that they and not their employer chose the coverage in the first place will make them more likely to do so.
• The economy will benefit from individuals selecting the plans they want, rather than the plans employers select for them. Insurers will have to provide better, more customized plans that fit individuals’ needs, and employees will have incentives to make better choices to stretch the HRA dollars their employers provide them.

Ideally, Congress would amend the law regarding Health Savings Accounts, to allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund health insurance premiums. Because HSA funds cannot pay insurance premiums in most cases under current law, the Trump administration had to use Health Reimbursement Arrangements (which are owned by employers) rather than Health Savings Accounts (which are always owned by individuals) to fund individual coverage.

Providing contributions via an HSA, as opposed to an HRA, would allow employees to control any unused employer contributions upon leaving a job. That way, individuals would not only have a source of coverage in the event of a layoff, they could develop a source of savings to pay for that coverage while unemployed. But until Congress acts, the Trump administration’s Health Reimbursement Arrangement regulations represent a tremendous step forward toward a more logical, patient-centered insurance system.

Empower Patients, Not Government

Coronavirus has made the problems with government control of health care apparent. As Joe Biden (of all people) noted in the March CNN debate, Italy has a single-payer system — and that nation had to ration access to ventilators, whereas the United States did not.

The pandemic has exposed the flaws in our health insurance system. But it comes just as the Trump administration has shown a better path forward. By empowering patients rather than government bureaucrats, Health Reimbursement Arrangements can help transform the coverage system into something that lowers costs and provides the care American patients prefer.

This post was originally published at the Daily Caller’s American Renewal blog.

How Government-Run Health Care Worsened the Coronavirus Crisis

Leftist politicians have spent a great amount of time over the past two months attacking President Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. But instead of reflexively criticizing the administration, those liberals might want to examine how the left’s dream of government-run health care has exacerbated the crisis within the United States.

One of the major causes of the dearth of testing over the past several months: Low payments from Medicare, which led to low payment rates from private insurance plans. It may come as a shock to people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), but guess what labs did when low payments meant they suffered a financial loss for every coronavirus patient tested? They performed fewer tests.

Low Reimbursements Equals Fewer Tests

A recent expose in USA Today highlighted how Medicare “lowballed payments” to labs for coronavirus tests, leading those labs to restrict the number of tests they performed. An executive at one lab, Aaron Domenico, told the paper that “I’m an American first, and if I could do it for cost, I’d be happy to do it for the people at cost.” But Medicare initially reimbursed laboratories only $51 for a coronavirus test, much less than Domenico’s costs of $67 per test.

Paying $51 for a diagnostic test sounds like a lot, but Medicare gives laboratories nearly twice that amount, or approximately $96, to test for the flu. And government bureaucrats setting unrealistically low prices meant that private insurers followed Medicare’s lead. Little wonder that the head of the National Independent Laboratory Association said “a number of labs are holding back” on performing additional tests “because they didn’t want to lose money.”

Thankfully, on April 14 Medicare raised its reimbursement for a coronavirus test from $51 to $100. Unsurprisingly, the number of tests performed daily has roughly doubled since that point. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma said she “recognized that there may have been some issues with reimbursement” discouraging labs from performing coronavirus tests.

Bureaucrats Can’t Micromanage Health Care

Therein lies one of the major problems with government-run health care: The notion that federal bureaucrats can determine the correct price for every prescription drug, laboratory test, physician service, or hospital procedure across the country. Donald Berwick, a former CMS administrator who helped develop Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s single-payer proposal, once said, “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.”

Berwick’s comments suggest that the federal government can determine the “right” amount of MRI units in each city, and use policy levers to achieve that “correct” outcome. But the coronavirus testing fiasco demonstrates how federal bureaucrats often do a poor job of trying to micromanage health care from Washington. Paying doctors and laboratories too much will encourage over-consumption of care, while paying too little discourages providers from even offering the service.

Low Payments Lead to Job Losses, Too

The problems with coronavirus testing also preview the left’s efforts to expand government-run health care. For instance, Joe Biden’s campaign platform calls for a government-run health plan that “will reduce costs for patients by negotiating lower prices from hospitals and other health care providers.”

But all these proposals—whether they would abolish private insurance outright, as Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders support, or offer a government-run “option,” as in Biden’s platform—would have the government “negotiate” prices by forcing doctors, nurses, and hospitals to accept less money. By lowering payment levels, those plans would lead to massive job losses—as many as 1.5 million jobs in hospitals alone under a transition to single-payer, according to one estimate in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

The pay cuts and furloughs affecting many front-line health workers—the health-care sector lost 1.4 million jobs during the month of April—provide a preview of the future. Instead of suffering temporary revenue declines due to the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals and medical practices would face permanent reductions in revenue from lower-paying government programs.

Worse yet, care will suffer when people cannot access the care they need at the paltry prices government programs will pay. While the left lays the coronavirus testing flaws at the feet of President Trump, they should look instead at the government-run programs they support as a major source of the problem. Voters being asked to endorse the movement towards socialism in November should take note as well.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“Medicare at 60” Shows Democrats’ Lust for Government-Run Health Care

The day after socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., suspended his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, presumptive nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden announced his support for a smaller version of Sanders’ signature single-payer proposal. In a Medium post, Biden said he had “directed [his] team to develop a plan to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60.”

As with many Democratic plans, the proposal sounds like a moderate option. After all, near-seniors will join Medicare soon enough, so how much harm would this plan cause?

But viewed from another perspective, Biden’s proposal looks like a major step toward Sanders’s goal of a government-run health care system. As a way to reduce the number of uninsured, the idea seems like a solution in search of a problem. But as a method to replace private coverage with government-run health care, the Biden plan could accomplish its goals effectively.

Most Eligible People Already Have Coverage

The consulting firm Avalere Health, founded by a Democrat and with liberal leanings, recently released an analysis indicating nearly 23 million people may qualify for coverage under the Biden proposal. But the firm’s headline cleverly attempted to bury the lede, obscuring the fact that the vast majority of eligible people already have health insurance.

As the below graph shows, Avalere found only 7 percent, or 1.7 million, of the 22.7 million people potentially eligible for the Biden proposal lack coverage. The majority of the 60-64 population (13.4 million, or 59 percent) obtain coverage not from government, but from their current or former employer.

Composition of Individuals Newly Eligible for Medicare Under Biden Proposal, Ages 60–64, 2018

The Avalere analysis more accurately depicts how 16.6 million people (13.4 million with employer coverage and 3.2 million with individual plans) could lose their existing private coverage. It also demonstrates how taxpayers could face major costs — particularly if people with private insurance drop that coverage and join the Biden Medicare plan — to reduce the uninsured population by a comparatively small amount.

Near-Retirees Are Comparatively Wealthy

Biden didn’t say how he would structure his proposal to allow people to buy into Medicare at age 60. But he did imply that enrolled individuals would receive some type of federal subsidy when he stated, “Any new federal cost associated with this option would be financed out of general revenues to protect the Medicare trust fund.”

Here again, many near-retirees, in the peak years of their earning potential, don’t need federal subsidies for health insurance. Various surveys show the median household income of near-retirees ranges between $85,000 and over $90,000.

At that income level, even those people who have to pay their entire insurance premiums — Obamacare Exchange policies can easily exceed $1,000 per month for the 60-64 population — could do so without a subsidy. Indeed, a family of three making $86,880 in 2020 would not qualify for any subsidy under the present regime, although Biden’s original health care plan calls for increasing the richness of the Obamacare subsidies.

‘Medicare at 60’ Is a Slingshot to Single-Payer

If Biden’s “Medicare at 60” proposal wouldn’t significantly reduce the number of uninsured — it wouldn’t — and wouldn’t lower costs for people who can’t afford coverage — the comparatively small number of uninsured among people ages 60-64 demonstrates the fallacy of that proposition — then why did Biden propose it in the first place?

Apart from serving as an obvious political sop to the Sanders crowd, the Biden “Medicare at 60” proposal would function as a major cost-shift. By and large, it wouldn’t help the previously uninsured obtain coverage nearly as much as it would use federal dollars to supplant funds already spent by the private sector (whether individuals or their employers).

By doing so, it would build the culture of dependence that represents the left’s ultimate aim: crowding out private insurance and private spending, and putting more people on the government rolls. That Biden would propose a plan so obviously centered around that objective shows he doesn’t fundamentally disagree with Sanders’s single-payer plan at all. He just doesn’t want to disclose his intentions before bringing socialized medicine to the American health-care system.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Congress’ Coronavirus Legislation Could See Millionaires on Medicaid

Congress’ urge to legislate quickly on the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in all manner of unintended policy consequences. Numerous reports indicate that the Internal Revenue Service has sent coronavirus relief payments to deceased individualsLarge restaurant chains have received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program intended for businesses that have less access to capital, even as small businesses struggling to survive report being shut out of the PPP.

Even more worrisome than these reports: A series of Medicaid-related provisions that provide a potential steppingstone toward a single-payer health-care system. These provisions not only encourage waste, fraud, and abuse, but will also further entrench government-run health care—the left’s ultimate objective.

Maintenance of Effort Provisions

Section 6008 of pandemic relief legislation the president signed on March 18 provides states a 6.2 percent increase in the federal Medicaid match. But the funds, designed in part to offset states’ revenue loss during the economic downturn, come with a huge catch.

To receive the additional federal funding, states may not adopt more restrictive Medicaid eligibility standards, impose new premiums, or otherwise restrict benefits. These “maintenance of effort” requirements echo provisions included in the 2009 “stimulus” legislation, which also raised states’ Medicaid match. But this year’s bill went even further, prohibiting states from terminating benefits for any enrollee during the coronavirus public health emergency “unless the individual requests a voluntary termination of eligibility or the individual ceases to be a resident of the State.”

In layman’s terms, this provision prohibits state Medicaid programs from terminating the enrollment of individuals with income that exceeds state eligibility limits. For instance, following a scathing report by the state’s legislative auditor, Louisiana last year disenrolled 1,672 individuals with incomes of more than $100,000 from the state’s Medicaid program—including some with income higher than Gov. John Bel Edwards’ salary.

But the provisions Congress enacted in March now prohibit Louisiana, or any other state, from disenrolling these ineligible individuals during the coronavirus outbreak. To put it another way, an individual who enrolled in Medicaid while unemployed could take a new job making $1 million per year, and the state would have absolutely no recourse to kick that individual off of the government rolls, so long as he wants to remain enrolled in “free,” taxpayer-funded health coverage.

Pave the Way for Single Payer?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how the next president could use these provisions to empower a vast expansion of government-run care. A Biden administration could leave the public health emergency declaration in place for its entire presidency—and would have strong policy incentives to do so. By preventing states from removing ineligible beneficiaries for its entire presidency, a Biden administration could massively expand Medicaid, turning the program into something approaching liberals’ dream of a single-payer system.

The Louisiana experience also shows the direct correlation between eligibility checks, enrollment, and spending on Medicaid. State officials removed at least 30,000 individuals from the program last spring, reducing enrollment in expansion by more than 10 percent, and lowering program spending by approximately $400 million. A Biden administration that prohibits states from removing ineligible beneficiaries for four or eight years would see taxpayers spending billions of dollars funding millions of ineligible enrollees—an enrollment explosion that could prove difficult to unwind.

Don’t Bail Out the States

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already begun work on the next coronavirus package, with she and her fellow Democrats adamantly insisting that a bailout of states stands next on Congress’ “to-do” list.

But it seems highly disingenuous for Pelosi and Democrats to call for bailing out state budgets, even as they prohibit those same states from removing ineligible individuals from the Medicaid program. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has called the new requirements on state Medicaid programs absurd: “Why would the federal government say, ‘I’m going to trample the state’s right to redesign its Medicaid program, that it runs—that saves money?’”

Conservatives in Congress should demand that lawmakers fix the Medicaid provisions, either by allowing states to remove ineligible beneficiaries, setting a specific end-date for the increased federal matching funds, or (more preferably) both. Otherwise, by prohibiting states from purging their rolls of Medicaid enrollees who don’t belong in the program, the United States could find itself with a single-payer system by the back door.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

We Should Move Away from Employer-Based Insurance, But NOT Towards Single Payer

The left continues to seek ways to politically capitalize on the coronavirus crisis. Multiple proposals in the past several weeks would replace a potential decline in employer-provided health insurance with government-run care.

One analysis released earlier this month found the coronavirus pandemic could cause anywhere from 12 to 35 million Americans to lose their employer-provided coverage, as individuals lose jobs due to virus-related shutdowns. Of course, these coverage losses could remain temporary in some cases, as firms reopen and rehire furloughed workers.

But these lefties do have a point: The United States should move away from employer-provided health coverage. It just shouldn’t rely upon a government-run model to do so.

Biden: Let’s Expand an Insolvent Program

Days after his last remaining rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, former vice president and presumptive nominee Joe Biden endorsed a plan to expand Medicare. Biden’s statement didn’t include details. Instead, he “directed [his] team to come up with a plan to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60.”

One big problem with Biden’s proposed expansion: Medicare already faces an insolvency date of 2026, a date the current economic turmoil will almost certainly accelerate. He claimed that “any new federal cost associated with this option would be financed out of general revenues to protect the Medicare trust fund.” But Biden didn’t explain why he would choose to expand a program rapidly approaching insolvency as it is.

Another problem for Biden seems more political. As this space has previously noted, in 2017 and 2018, the former vice president and his wife received more than $13 million in book and speech revenue as profits from a corporation rather than wage income. By doing so, they avoided paying nearly $400,000 in payroll taxes that fund—you guessed it!—Medicare.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to ask the obvious question: If Biden loves Medicare so much that he wants to expand it, why didn’t he pay his Medicare taxes?

Medicare Extra

Other liberals have proposals that would expand the government’s role in health care still further. Examining the impact of coronavirus on coverage, and analyzing a movement away from employer-provided care, Ezra Klein endorsed the Medicare Extra plan as superior to Biden’s original health-care proposal for a so-called “public option.” Towards the end of his analysis, Klein makes crystal clear why he supports this approach:

[Medicare Extra] creates a system that, while not single-payer, is far more integrated than anything we have now: A public system with private options, rather than a private system with fractured public options.

Medicare Extra, originally developed by the Center for American Progress and introduced in legislative form as the Medicare for America Act by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), goes beyond the Biden plan. Both would likely lead to a single-payer system, but Medicare Extra would do so much more quickly.

Biden’s original health care plan would create a government-run “option,” similar to Medicare, into which anyone could enroll. Individuals could use Obamacare subsidies (which Biden’s proposal would increase) to enroll in the government-run plan.

Notably, Biden’s proposal eliminates Obamacare’s subsidy “firewall,” in which anyone with an offer of “affordable” employer coverage does not qualify for subsidized exchange coverage. Removing this “firewall” will encourage a migration towards the exchanges, and the government-run plan.

By contrast, Medicare Extra would go three steps further in consolidating government-run care. First, it would combine existing government programs like Medicare and Medicaid into the new “Medicare Extra” rubric. Second, the legislation would automatically enroll people into Medicare Extra at birth, giving the government-run program an in-built bias, and a clear path towards building a coverage monopoly.

Third, Medicare Extra would not just allow individuals with an offer of employer-sponsored coverage to enroll in the Medicare Extra program, it would require the employer to “cash out” the dollar value of his contribution, and give those funds to the employee to fund that worker’s Medicare Extra plan.

The combination of this “cash out” requirement (not included in Biden’s proposal) and the other regulations on employer coverage included in Medicare Extra would result in a totally government-run system within a few short years. After all, if businesses have to pay the same amount to fund their employees’ coverage whether they maintain an employer plan or not, what incentive do they have to stay in the health insurance game?

Let Individuals Maintain Their Own Coverage

Both Biden’s proposals and Medicare Extra would consolidate additional power and authority within the government system—liberals’ ultimate objective. By contrast, the Trump administration has worked to give Americans access to options other than employer-provided insurance that individuals control, not the government.

Regulations finalized by the administration last year could in time revolutionize health insurance coverage. The rules allow for employers to provide tax-free contributions to employees through Health Reimbursement Arrangements, which workers can use to buy the health insurance plans they prefer. Best of all, employees will own these health plans, not the business, so they can take their coverage with them when they change jobs or retire.

It will of course take time for this transition to take root, as businesses learn more about Health Reimbursement Arrangements and workers obtain private insurance plans that they can buy, hold, and keep. But if allowed to flourish, this reform could remove Americans’ reliance on employers to provide health coverage, while preventing a further expansion of government meddling in our health-care system—both worthy objectives indeed.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Colorado Plan Shows the Coercion Behind the Public “Option”

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s political comeback prompted health care stocks to surge last month following the Super Tuesday primaries. The rally, which occurred before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States, stemmed in large part from Wall Street’s belief that Biden represents less of a threat to the sector as a potential president than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health-care system.

But anyone who considers Biden’s alternative to single payer, the so-called “public option,” innocuous should look to Colorado. Lawmakers in the Centennial State recently revealed their version of the concept, and it represents an “option” in name only. Indeed, the state’s plan contemplates a level of coercion that in some respects exceeds that of Sanders’ system of socialized medicine.

Big Government Forces Hospitals’ Participation

For starters, the legislative proposal dictates prices for hospitals, based on a percentage of Medicare rates. As one might expect, the bill’s supporters believe the rates proposed in the legislation represent fair reimbursement levels, while some hospital executives disagree.

But the bill would also take away hospitals’ negotiating leverage, by requiring all Colorado facilities to participate in the new insurance offering. Hospitals refusing to participate would face fines of up to $40,000 per day. And if the prospect of nearly $1.5 million in government-imposed sanctions does not force a recalcitrant facility into submission, the bill also permits Colorado’s insurance commissioner to “suspend, revoke, or impose conditions on the hospital’s license.”

Think about that for a moment: The government forces hospitals to offer patients a service—even if the government’s price for that service could lead them to incur financial losses—and threatens to take away their license to do business if they refuse. That level of heavy-handed government involvement far exceeds the individual mandate in Obamacare.

Insurers Required to Participate, Too

The bill similarly requires all Colorado insurers to offer the new government-dictated “option” in each county in which they offer Obamacare exchange products. In counties where only one insurer currently offers coverage, the bill directs the insurance commissioner to “require carriers to offer the Colorado option in specific counties,” such that at least two carriers offer the plan in every county.

According to one report, the bill’s sponsors called their new offering the “Colorado option” rather than the “public option” because lawmakers did “not want to put the state budget at risk by creating a government-run insurance company.” Instead, lawmakers want to dragoon insurers into assuming that risk, even as the bill prohibits efforts by insurers to absorb potential losses from the “Colorado option” by raising rates elsewhere.

Worse Than Berniecare?

Sanders’ legislation would effectively put private insurers out of business, by making coverage for services covered by the single-payer system “unlawful.” The issue of whether to ban private insurance, and take away individuals’ ability to keep their current coverage, became a defining characteristic of Democrats’ nominating contest.

But the Colorado legislation could put private insurers and hospitals out of business, if they refuse the state’s commands. At least Sanders’ proposal allows hospitals to opt out of the government system if they decide—few would, but they do have that choice.

The Colorado legislation shows how Obamacare set a dangerous precedent, which Democrats want to extend throughout the health-care system. Just as Obamacare forced all Americans to buy a product for the first time ever, now lawmakers want to force hospitals and insurers to treat patients, even at their financial peril. Each could face a Hobson’s choice: Putting themselves out of business by incurring losses on “Colorado option” patients, or taking the “option” to decline to participate, at which point the state will regulate them out of business.

Colorado’s proposal of dubious merit and equally dubious constitutionality demonstrates the way in which even purported moderates like Biden have embraced a health-care agenda defined by ever-increasing levels of government intrusion and coercion. At present, Sanders’ single-payer legislation represents the far end of that continuum, but liberals will use proposals like Colorado’s “public option” to get there.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Don’t Just Bail Out a Flawed Medicaid Program

In recent days, some observers have discussed the possibility of targeted assistance to state Medicaid programs affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, the legislation proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) falls far short of that marker, providing a gusher of new spending with no long-term reforms to the program. Conservatives should insist on better.

The House’s bill, introduced late in the night Wednesday, contains several noteworthy flaws. By increasing the federal Medicaid match for all states by 8 percentage points for the entire public health emergency, it prevents the targeting of assistance to those states most affected by coronavirus cases.

Increasing the federal match for able-bodied adults to 98 percent encourages states to prioritize these individuals over disabled populations, while discouraging states from rooting out fraud. The legislation also precludes states from making any changes to their Medicaid programs for the duration of the bailout, reinstituting the fiscal straight-jacket contained in President Obama’s “stimulus” bill.

Like that 2009 package, Pelosi’s legislation proposes tens of billions in new spending for an already-sprawling Medicaid program without any structural changes. But if Pelosi or conservatives wish to pay for the short-term largesse via long-term changes to Medicaid, they need not look far: President Obama’s budgets included several proposals that, if enacted into law, would change incentives in Medicaid for the better.

One area ripe for reform: Medicaid provider taxes. Hospitals and other medical providers often support these taxes—the only entities that ever endorse new taxes on themselves—because they immediately come right back to the health care industry, after states use the tax revenue to draw down additional Medicaid matching funds. In 2011, none other than Joe Biden reportedly called this form of legalized money laundering a “scam.”

At minimum, Congress should immediately enact a moratorium on any new provider taxes, or any increases in existing provider taxes, cutting off the spigot of federal dollars via this budget gimmick. Lawmakers can echo President Obama’s February 2012 budget submission, which would have saved $21.8 billion by reducing states’ maximum provider tax rate.

That proposal delayed its effective date by three years, “giv[ing] states more time to plan”—which would in this case delay the changes until the coronavirus outbreak subsides. Another positive solution: Codifying the Trump administration’s Medicaid fiscal accountability rule, which includes welcome reforms reining in states’ most egregious accounting gimmicks, effective a future date.

More broadly, Congress should also consider the ways the existing matching rate formula encourages additional Medicaid spending by states. For instance, current law provides all states with a minimum 50 percent match rate, encouraging richer states to spend more on Medicaid. Absent that floor, 14 states—11 of them blue—would face a lower match; Connecticut’s rate would plummet from 50 percent to 11.69 percent.

Gradually lowering or eliminating the federal floor on the match rate, beginning 2-3 years hence, would discourage wealthier states from growing their Medicaid programs beyond their, and the federal government’s, control. Had lawmakers enacted this proposal as part of the 2009 “stimulus,” New York—which would have a federal match rate of 34.49 percent in the current fiscal year absent the 50 percent minimum—might have right-sized its Medicaid program well before the program’s current budget crunch.

Alternatively, Congress could embrace Obama’s budget proposal for a blended Medicaid matching rate. Replacing the current morass of varying federal match rates for different populations could save money, and eliminate the perverse incentives included in Obamacare, which gives states a higher match rate to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities.

Judging from her initial bid in the “stimulus” wars, Pelosi has taken Rahm Emanuel’s advice never to let a serious crisis go to waste. If she wishes to emulate Obama’s first chief of staff, conservatives should insist that she also enact some of the Medicaid changes proposed in Obama’s own budgets, to begin the process of reforming the program.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hospitals Seek to Defend Their Questionable Accounting Scams

With the federal government more than $23 trillion in debt, why should taxpayers continue to fund states’ accounting scams designed to bilk Washington out of additional Medicaid matching funds? It’s a good question, but one hospital lobbyists don’t want you to ask.

Late last year, the Trump administration released a proposed regulation designed to bring more transparency and accountability into the Medicaid program. The hospital sector in particular has begun an all-out blitz to try and overturn the rulemaking process. The need for the regulations demonstrates the problems with the current American health-care system, and how hospitals stand as one of the biggest obstacles to reform.

How the ‘Scam’ Works

The proposed regulations call for more transparency about supplemental payments within the Medicaid program. These payments, which take a variety of different forms, are considered supplemental in nature because they are not directly connected to the treatment of any one particular patient.

Many of these supplemental payments represent a way for states—and hospitals—to obtain a greater share of Medicaid matching dollars from the federal government. Hospitals, local governments, or other entities “contribute” funds to the state for the express purpose of obtaining additional Medicaid funds from Washington. Those matching funds then get funneled right back to many of the same entities that “contributed” the funds in the first place. As the old saying goes, it’s nice work if you can get it.

Over the years, even liberal groups have expressed concern about these shady funding mechanisms. In 2011, then-Vice President Joe Biden reportedly called provider taxes—in which hospitals and nursing homes pay an assessment, which gets laundered through state coffers to receive—a “scam.” Think about it: How often do you ask to pay higher taxes? Hospitals and nursing homes often propose new or higher provider taxes because they believe they will get their money back, and then some, via greater Medicaid payments.

Likewise, in 2000 the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities decried the use of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “use complex accounting gimmicks to secure additional federal funds for states without actual state matching contributions.” Yet two decades later, the scams continue to proliferate, because, as a 2005 government audit noted, most states have hired contingency-fee consultants for the sole purpose of bilking additional Medicaid matching funds from the federal government.

Hospitals’ Scare Tactics Rationalize Theft

The Trump administration’s proposal would make these accounting arrangements more transparent, with the goal of phasing out several of the most egregious arrangements altogether. This has prompted hospital executives to consider the proposed rule something just short of Armageddon.

During a 2008 debate on a similar set of Medicaid regulations put forward by the Bush administration, very few members of Congress even debated the regulations, as opposed to their effects on hospitals. Likewise, most hospital lobbyists and executives don’t try to defend the merits of these accounting scams. Instead, they just focus on the effects, with the typical “parade of horribles” examples: “If you end these payments, Tiny Tim will die.”

Hospitals’ reluctance to defend these opaque funding arrangements on their merits represents an implicit admission: They never should have received this money in the first place. Translation: “We stole that money fair and square—and you better let us keep stealing that money, or else” the hospital will close, people will lose their jobs, etc.

Hospitals’ Disingenuous Tactics

Some lobbyists on Capitol Hill claim they “only” want to delay the regulations, to allow for additional feedback and give hospitals time to adjust. It’s a ridiculous argument on multiple levels. First, as the policy paper from 2000 reveals, hospitals have engaged in these types of tactics for more than two decades, and they continue to grow and proliferate. The idea that hospitals need additional time to adjust to a problem they created seems laughable on its face.

Consider also what happened in 2008, when the Bush administration proposed a similar set of regulations designed to crack down on Medicaid financing abuses. Democrats passed a one-year moratorium preventing the administration from finalizing the rules, blocking them from taking effect.

Why only a one-year delay and not an outright ban? At the time, staff for the House Energy and Commerce Committee publicly stated that the moratorium “intended to delay the implementation of the Medicaid rules just long enough so that a future Administration can withdraw them.”

That’s exactly what ended up happening: The Obama administration withdrew the regulations upon taking office in 2009, so Congress didn’t have to pay for the cost associated with blocking them permanently. Hospital lobbyists asking for a delay of the regulations are hoping a Democrat wins the White House this fall, and can withdraw the regulations next year. They just won’t tell Republican staffers that their strategy is premised upon President Trump losing his re-election bid.

Let the Regulations Proceed, And Let States Decide

If the regulations went into effect today, they wouldn’t automatically lead to any hospitals closing down, or even hospitals losing any money. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said it would work with states to transition away from the offending transactions over time.

That said, some governors oppose the regulations for the same reason hospitals do: It would force state governors and lawmakers to make difficult choices. If the loopholes that allow states to bilk more funds out of Washington end, then states would have to pony up “real” money from their coffers to maintain payments to providers, rather than funds obtained via accounting gimmicks. Hospitals would have to compete with other important state priorities—transportation, education, corrections, etc.—to maintain their existing payments.

But as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. Better for a state to raise taxes—and be up-front and honest about doing so—to fund its Medicaid program than for that same state to use opaque gimmicks to squeeze out more federal dollars. The latter situation amounts to a (deferred) tax increase anyway, by adding more dollars to Washington’s ever-growing debt.

After decades of delays, and with our country’s debt growing ever-larger by the day, Medicaid deserves the fiscal integrity these new regulations would bring. They should go into full effect, and sooner rather than later.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Michael Bloomberg: Against Obamacare Before He Was For It

Last week, old footage emerged of former New York City mayor, and current Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg talking about health care rationing. In his comments from 2011, he advocated denying costly care to older patients:

If you’re bleeding, they’ll stop the bleeding—if you need an X-ray, you’re going to have to wait. That’s just…All of these costs keep going up, nobody wants to pay any more money, and at the rate we’re going, health care is going to bankrupt us….You know, if you show up with prostate cancer, you’re 95 years old, we should say, ‘Go and enjoy. Have a nice life. Live a long life. There’s no cure, and we can’t do anything.’ If you’re a young person, we should do something about it.

Perhaps more important is why Bloomberg made those particular comments. At the time, in February 2011, he was paying condolences to a Jewish family that had lost a loved one. One of the deceased man’s family noted that the man “was in the emergency room for 73 hours before he died and…that overcrowding in emergency rooms in New York had become out of control.”

This entire episode undermines the message of Bloomberg’s current ad blitz claiming that as mayor, he expanded access to health care in New York City. Plus, what did the mayor say about ER overcrowding back in 2011? “It’s going to get worse with the health care bill [i.e., Obamacare].” He also predicted that hospitals would close as a result.

Obamacare a ‘Disgrace’

During last week’s Democrat primary debate in Las Vegas, former Vice President Joe Biden brought up some of Bloomberg’s other comments about Obamacare. Biden correctly noted that Bloomberg had called Obamacare a “disgrace.” In a June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University just after the law’s enactment, Bloomberg said “We passed a health care bill that does absolutely nothing to fix the big health care problems in this country. It is just a disgrace.”

Reporters in the past several days have highlighted some of Bloomberg’s prior comments about the law:

  • In his Dartmouth speech, Bloomberg also pointed out that Democrats “say they’ve insured or provided coverage for another 45 million people…except there’s no more doctors for 45 million people.”
  • In a 2011 radio appearance, Bloomberg said that Obamacare “did not solve the basic problems, two basic problems with health care, which…got lost in all of the negotiations as every special interest in Congress got a piece or lost a piece or negotiated about a piece.”
  • In a December 2009 appearance on “Meet the Press,” Bloomberg criticized Democrats for not reading or understanding the legislation: “I have asked congressperson after congressperson, not one can explain to me what’s in the bill, even in the House version, certainly not in the other version. And so for them to vote on a bill that they don’t understand whatsoever, really, you’ve got to question the kind of government we have.”

It’s notable that Biden didn’t mention Bloomberg’s last quote—about members of Congress not reading or understanding the legislation—in Wednesday’s debate. Of course, that might have something to do with Biden’s own recent admission that “no one did understand Obamacare”—presumably including himself, at the time the vice president of the United States.

Changing His Tune

Now that Bloomberg is running for the Democratic nomination, he’s come around to supporting Obamacare. When asked about his prior comments, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman told CNN Obamacare’s only flaw lay in the fact that it didn’t go far enough. As a result, Bloomberg’s health plan proposes more government spending, funded by higher taxes, and—in a first—price controls on the entire health-care sector, including what you can and cannot pay your doctors.

On the merits of his policy platform, I’ll give the last word to Bloomberg himself, in his June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University. While Bloomberg said President Obama started out with good intentions, he said Congress “didn’t pay attention to any of those big problems and just created another program that’s going to cost a lot of money.”

It’s an apt description of Bloomberg’s own health care plan—to say nothing of his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is Elizabeth Warren Trying to Use a “Goldilocks” Strategy to Win the Democratic Nomination?

In blessing the presidential candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and recent presidential dropout Julian Castro used an interesting rationale to explain his endorsement: “More than any other candidate in this race…Elizabeth Warren is the candidate who can unite the entire Democratic Party.”

That premise may well explain the strategy behind her campaign, to win the Democratic nomination as the “Goldilocks” candidate—not too hot, and not too cold.

The strategy wouldn’t make Warren a political moderate, by any stretch. No nominee who has endorsed a conversion to a single-payer system of socialized medicine would fall into that category. But making Warren the candidate most acceptable (or least unacceptable) to moderates and leftists alike does mean that, the longer the nomination fight plays out, the stronger her chances might get.

Contested Convention Ahead?

In the past several weeks, multiple stories have analyzed the possibility of a prolonged contest for the Democratic nomination. In the fourth quarter of 2019, four candidates—Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Warren—raised more than $20 million, suggesting they will have ample resources to compete in primaries throughout the spring. The nomination fight also features two billionaires who have the ability to self-fund their campaigns, Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Couple the field of well-financed candidates with the Democratic Party’s proportional allocation method, in which any candidate exceeding 15 percent of the vote in a state receives a share of that state’s delegates, and you have the recipe for a prolonged campaign of attrition. In this year’s “bizarro world” scenario, each of the half dozen candidates has the means to continue competing in primaries, and because many (if not most) will amass delegates along the way, they will have every incentive to do so.

It seems premature to make definitive judgments on the complexion of the campaign weeks before the first ballots get cast. But Democrats may convene in Milwaukee this July without a single candidate controlling the majority of delegates necessary to win the presidential nomination.

Least Common Denominator Candidate

If Democrats do end up with a contested convention, it seems unlikely to result in an outcome in which a previously undeclared candidate emerges from the shadows to win the nomination. Given the acrimony throughout the 2016 campaign, when Sanders’ supporters (rightly) protested at a process rigged against their candidate, the idea that a “white horse” candidate such as Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or someone similar could win the nomination without having entered a single primary seems far-fetched, not least because of the outrage that would ensue.

So a contested convention would feature the candidates currently declared, and only the candidates currently declared, battling for the nomination. At that point, it likely would become less a contest of persuasion—which candidate can I most enthusiastically support?—than an attempt to cobble together a coalition of delegates that focuses on a different test: Which candidate offends the least?

Of the four candidates leading the polls, Warren appears to win this test, by a fairly wide margin. Consider the negatives against the other candidates:

  • Biden’s age (77) has raised questions throughout the campaign about his physical stamina and mental acuity. Even after he reversed himself (under pressure) on taxpayer funding of abortion, Biden’s history of positions on issues—from his support for the 2005 bankruptcy bill, to his vote for the Iraq War, to his support for the 1994 crime bill, to his treatment of Anita Hill—remain to the right of the party, drawing scorn from leftists as a moderate supported by corporate interests.
  • Like Biden, Sanders’ age (78) remains an issue, particularly given his heart attack in October. While many on the left believe he has strong appeal to working-class voters, particularly in the Rust Belt, who have deserted the party, establishment types worry that a self-proclaimed socialist will prove unelectable in November.
  • Buttigieg has age concerns as well because of his relative youth (he turns 38 this month). He has little political experience outside South Bend, won his last mayoral election with a total of 8,515 votes, and lost his only statewide campaign by a nearly 25-percentage point margin. And his experience working at McKinsey has become fodder for attacks by the far-left, who love to hate the candidate they call “Wall Street Pete.”

By contrast, Warren has comparatively few obvious drawbacks. While a septuagenarian, her age (70) makes her several years younger than Biden and Sanders, and younger than President Trump. She has endorsed a host of far-left policies, but insists she remains a capitalist to her bones. And in a field that has shrunk to become dominated by white men, a Warren nomination would provide Democrats an identity politics card.

For all these reasons, Warren remains the top second choice of voters in most polls, even as her standing as voters’ first choice has shrunk. It makes her well-placed to serve as the compromise candidate should Democrats face a contested convention, which by definition would involve at least some delegates choosing their second-favorite candidate as the nominee.

The two biggest strikes against her appear largely self-inflicted: The controversy over her ancestry (exacerbated by her DNA test), and her evasions on health care. While Trump would bring the latter up often—indeed, has already done so—it seems unlikely any opponent would make it an issue during a fight for the Democratic nomination. (At least he or she would not do so publicly.)

As for health care, she evaded questions about how to pay for single payer for months, and finally released a funding plan in early November, only to say two weeks later she wouldn’t push for single payer until the third year of her term. This bobbing and weaving coincided with a pullback in her polling numbers. But to take the longer view, it syncs up well with a larger “Goldilocks” political strategy.

Her eventual position, in which she pledged to enact a robust “public option” immediately, followed by a push for single payer later, drew little love from either moderates (who don’t like talk of single payer at all) or leftists (who want to enact single payer immediately, as Sanders has promised). But it represents the kind of clunky political compromise could easily envision a party’s platform committee drafting. That makes it entirely consistent with an attempt to position Warren in ways that offend the fewest number of Democrats—a helpful strategy in the event of a contested convention.

Obama Wild Card?

One other figure could loom large over a prolonged nomination fight: Barack Obama. Two reports in recent weeks suggest first that Obama doubts Biden’s connection with voters, and second that Obama has talked up Warren’s candidacy behind closed doors. While one must caveat the articles with two of the biggest weasel words in politics—“If accurate”—these reports suggest that, should the nomination fight become prolonged, the last Democratic president may weigh in on behalf of the Massachusetts senator. While such a development might not decide the nomination, it could go a long way in doing so.

After Warren’s fumbling on health care this fall, some had begun to write off her candidacy. Indeed, this author said she had “Swift-boated” herself, by turning her supposed strength as a policy wonk into her biggest weakness. Paradoxically, however, while Warren’s machinations cost her in the polls over the short term (and would harm her in a general election campaign), they could help her to win the Democratic nomination.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.