What You Need to Know about Cost-Sharing Reductions

A PDF version of this document is available via the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

On October 12, the Trump Administration announced it would immediately terminate a series of cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. Meanwhile policy-makers have spent time debating and discussing cost-sharing payments in the context of a “stabilization” bill for the Obamacare Exchanges. Here’s what you need to know about the issue ahead of this year’s open enrollment period, scheduled to begin on November 1.

What are cost-sharing reductions?

Cost-sharing reductions, authorized by Section 1402 of Obamacare, provide individuals with reduced co-payments, deductibles, and out-of-pocket maximum expenses.[1] The reductions apply to households who purchase Exchange coverage and have family income of between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL, $24,600 for a family of four in 2017). The system of cost-sharing reductions remains separate from the subsidies used to discount monthly insurance premiums, authorized by Section 1401 of Obamacare.[2]

What are cost-sharing reduction payments?

The payments (also referred to as CSRs) reimburse insurers for the cost of providing the discounted policies to low-income individuals. According to the January Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline, those payments will total $7 billion in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, $10 billion in the fiscal year ending this coming September 30, and $135 billion during fiscal years 2018-2027.[3]

What is the rationale for CSR payments?

Insurers argue that CSR payments reimburse them for discounts that the Obamacare statute requires them to provide to consumers. However, some conservatives would argue that the cost-sharing reduction regime might not be necessary but for the myriad new regulations imposed by Obamacare. These regulations have more than doubled insurance premiums from 2013 through 2017, squeezing middle-class families.[4] Some conservatives would therefore question providing government-funded subsidies to insurers partially to offset the cost of government-imposed mandates on insurers and individuals alike.

Why are the CSR payments in dispute?

While Section 1402 of Obamacare authorized reimbursement payments to insurers for their cost-sharing reduction costs, the text of the law did not include an explicit appropriation for them. Some conservatives have argued that the Obama Administration’s willingness to make the payments, despite the lack of an explicit appropriation, violated Congress’ constitutional “power of the purse.” In deciding to terminate the CSR payments, the Trump Administration agreed with this rationale.

What previously transpired in the court case over CSR payments?

In November 2014, the House of Representatives filed suit in federal court over the CSR payments, claiming the Obama Administration violated both existing law and the Constitution, and seeking an injunction blocking the Administration from making the payments unless and until Congress grants an explicit appropriation.[5] In September 2015, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the House of Representatives had standing to sue, rejecting a Justice Department attempt to have the case dismissed. Judge Collyer ruled that the House as an institution had the right to redress for a potential violation of its constitutional “power of the purse.”[6]

On May 12, 2016, Judge Collyer issued her ruling on the case’s merits, concluding that no valid appropriation for the CSR payments exists, and that the Obama Administration had violated the Constitution by making payments to insurers. She ordered the payments halted unless and until Congress passed a specific appropriation—but stayed that ruling pending an appeal.[7]

How did the Obama Administration justify making the CSR payments?

In its court filings in the lawsuit, the Obama Administration argued that the structure of Obamacare implied an appropriation for CSR payments through the Treasury appropriation for premium subsidy payments—an appropriation clearly made in the law and not in dispute.[8] President Obama’s Justice Department made this argument despite the fact that CSR and premium subsidy regimes occur in separate sections of the law (Sections 1402 and 1401 of Obamacare, respectively), amend different underlying statutes (the Public Health Service Act and the Internal Revenue Code), and fall within the jurisdiction of two separate Cabinet Departments (Health and Human Services and Treasury).

The Obama Administration also argued, in court and before Congress, that it could make an appropriation because Congress had not prohibited the Administration from doing so—effectively turning the Constitution on its head, by saying the executive can spend funds however it likes unless and until Congress prohibits it from doing so.[9] In her ruling, Judge Collyer rejected those and other arguments advanced by the Obama Justice Department.

Did Congress investigate the history, legality, and constitutionality of the Obama Administration’s CSR payments to insurers?

Yes. Last year, the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees organized and released a 158-page report on the CSR payments.[10] While congressional investigators received some documents relating to the Obama Administration’s defense of the CSR payments, the report described an overall pattern of secrecy surrounding critical details—portions of documents, attendees at meetings, etc.—of the CSR issue. For instance, the Obama Administration did not fully comply with valid subpoenae issued by the committees, and attempted to prohibit Treasury appointees who volunteered to testify before committee staff from doing so. However, despite the extensive oversight work put in by two congressional committees, and the pattern of secrecy observed, neither of the committees have taken action to compel compliance, or redress the Obama Administration’s obstruction of Congress’ legitimate oversight work.

What has the Trump Administration done about the CSR payment lawsuit?

After the election, the Justice Department and the House of Representatives filed a motion with the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.[11] The parties stated that they were in negotiations to settle the lawsuit, and sought to postpone proceedings in the appeal (which the Obama Administration had filed last year). The Justice Department and the House have filed several extensions of that request with the court, but have yet to present a settlement agreement, or provide any substantive updates surrounding the issues in dispute. In announcing its decision to terminate the CSR payments, the Trump Administration said it would provide the court with a further update on October 30.

In August, the Court of Appeals granted a motion by several Democratic state attorneys general seeking to intervene in the suit (originally called House v. Burwell, and renamed House v. Price when Dr. Tom Price became Secretary of Health and Human Services).[12] The attorneys general claimed that the President’s frequent threats to settle the case, and cut off CSR payments, meant their states’ interests would not be represented during the litigation, and sought to intervene to prevent the House and the Trump Administration from settling the case amongst themselves—which could leave an injunction permanently in place blocking future CSR payments.

Upon what basis did President Trump stop the CSR payments to insurers?

Under existing law, court precedent, and constitutional principles, a determination by the executive about whether or not to make the CSR payments (or any other payment) depends solely upon whether or not a valid appropriation exists:

  • If a valid appropriation does not exist, the executive cannot disburse funds. The Anti-Deficiency Act prescribes criminal penalties, including imprisonment, for any executive branch employee who spends funds not appropriated by Congress, consistent with Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”[13]
  • If a valid appropriation exists, the executive cannot withhold funds. The Supreme Court held unanimously in Train v. City of New York that the executive cannot unilaterally impound (i.e., refuse to spend) funds appropriated by Congress, which would violate a President’s constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”[14]

Has a court forced President Trump to keep making the CSR payments?

No. In fact, until the Administration had announced its decision late Thursday, no one—from insurers to insurance commissioners to governors to Democratic attorneys general to liberal activists and Obamacare advocates—had filed suit seeking to force the Trump Administration to make the payments. (While the Democratic attorneys general sought, and received, permission to intervene in the House’s lawsuit, that case features the separate question of whether or not the House had standing to bring its matter to court in the first place. It is possible that appellate courts could, unlike Judge Collyer, dismiss the House’s case on standing grounds without proceeding to the merits of whether or not a valid appropriation exists.)

Given the crystal-clear nature of existing Supreme Court case law—if a valid appropriation exists, an Administration must make the payments—some would view the prolonged unwillingness by Obamacare supporters to enforce this case law in court as tacit evidence that a valid appropriation does not exist, and that the Obama Administration exceeded its constitutional authority in starting the flow of payments.

How will the decision to stop CSR payments affect individuals in Exchange plans?

In the short- to medium-term, it will not. Insurers must provide the cost-sharing reductions to individuals in qualified Exchange plans, regardless of whether or not they get reimbursed for them.

Can insurers drop out of the Exchanges immediately due to the lack of CSR payments?

No—at least not in most cases in 2017. The contract between the federal government and insurers on the federal Exchange for 2017 notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw from the Exchanges if they are not.[15] However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause may therefore have limited applicability to withdrawal of CSR payments. It appears insurers have little ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers.

If insurers faced a potential unfunded obligation—providing cost-sharing reductions without federal reimbursement—to the tune of billions of dollars, how did they react to Judge Collyer’s ruling last year?

Based on their public filings and statements, several did not appear to react at all. While Aetna and Centene referenced loss of CSR payments as impacting their firms’ outlooks and risk profiles in their first Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) quarterly filings after Judge Collyer’s ruling, most other companies ignored the potential impact until earlier this year.[16] Some carriers have given decidedly mixed messages on the issue—for instance, as Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish claimed on his company’s April 26 earnings call that lack of CSR payments would cause Anthem to seek significant price hikes and/or drop out of state Exchanges,[17] his company’s quarterly SEC filing that same day indicated no change in material risks, and no reference to the potential disappearance of CSR payments.[18]

Even before Judge Collyer’s ruling in May 2016, one could have easily envisioned a scenario whereby a new President in January 2017 stopped defending the CSR lawsuit, and immediately halted the federal CSR payments: “Come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different” than in mid-2016.[19] However, despite public warnings to said effect—and the apparent lack of public statements by either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to continue the CSR payments should they win the presidency—insurers apparently assumed maintenance of the status quo, disregarding these potential risks when bidding to offer Exchange coverage in 2017.

Did insurance regulators fail to anticipate or plan for changes to CSR payments following Judge Collyer’s ruling?

It appears that many did. For instance, the office of California’s state insurance commissioner reported having no documents—not even a single e-mail—analyzing the impact of Judge Collyer’s May 2016 ruling on insurers’ bids for the 2017 plan year.[20] Likewise, California’s health insurance Exchange disclosed only two relevant documents: A brief e-mail sent months after the state finalized plan rates for the 2017 year, and a more detailed legal analysis of the issues surrounding CSR payments—but one not undertaken until mid-November, after Donald Trump won the presidential election.[21]

Some conservatives may be concerned that insurance commissioners’ failure to examine the CSR payment issue in detail—when coupled with insurers’ similar actions—represents the same failed thinking that caused the financial crisis. That herd behavior—an insurer business model founded upon a new Administration continuing unconstitutional actions, and regulators blindly echoing insurers’ assumptions—represents the same “too big to fail” mentality that brought us a subprime mortgage scandal, a massive financial crash on Wall Street, a period of prolonged economic stagnation, and a taxpayer-funded bailout of big banks.

How can Congress restore its Article I power?

With respect to the CSR payments, conservatives looking to restore its Article I power—as Speaker Ryan recently claimed he wanted to do by maintaining the debt limit as the prerogative of Congress—could take several appropriate actions:[22]

  • Insist on a settlement of the lawsuit in the House’s favor, consistent with the last Congress’ belief that 1) Obamacare lacks a valid appropriation for CSR payments and 2) decisions regarding appropriations always rest with Congress, and not the executive;
  • Ask the Justice Department to investigate whether any Obama Administration officials violated the Anti-Deficiency Act by making CSR payments without a valid congressional appropriation; and
  • Insist on enforcement of the subpoenae issued by the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees during the last Congress, and pursue contempt of Congress charges against any individuals who fail to comply.

How can Congress exercise its oversight power regarding the CSR payments?

Before even debating whether or not to create a valid appropriation for the CSR payments, Congress should first examine in great detail whether and why insurers and insurance commissioners ignored the issue in 2016 (and prior years); any potential changes to remedy an apparent lack of oversight by insurance commissioners; and appropriate accountability for any unconstitutional and illegal actions as outlined above.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by blindly making a CSR appropriation without conducting this critically important oversight, Congress would make a clear statement that Obamacare is “too big to fail.” Such a scenario—in addition to creating a de facto single-payer health care system—would, by establishing a government backstop for insurers’ risky behaviors, bring about additional, and potentially even larger, bailouts in the future.

What are the implications of providing CSR payments to insurers?

Given the way in which many insurers and insurance regulators blindly assumed cost-sharing reduction payments would continue, despite the lack of an express appropriation in the law, some conservatives may be concerned that making CSR payments would exacerbate moral hazard. Specifically, when filing their rates for the 2017 plan year, insurers appear to have assumed they would receive over $7 billion in CSR payments—despite the uncertainty surrounding 1) the lack of a clear CSR appropriation in the statute; 2) the May 2016 court ruling calling the payments unconstitutional; 3) the unknown outcome of the 2016 presidential election; and 4) the apparent lack of a firm public commitment by either major candidate in the 2016 election to continue the CSR payments upon taking office in January 2017.

Some conservatives may therefore oppose rewarding this type of reckless behavior by granting them the explicit taxpayer subsidies they seek, for fear that it would only encourage additional irresponsible risk-taking by insurance companies—and raise the likelihood of an even larger taxpayer-funded bailout in the future.

How can Congress solve the larger issue of CSRs creating an unfunded mandate on insurance companies absent an explicit appropriation?

One possible way would involve elimination of Obamacare’s myriad insurance regulations, which have led to insurance premiums more than doubling in the individual market over the past four years.[23] Repealing these new and costly regulations would lower insurance premiums, reducing the need for cost-sharing reductions, and allowing Congress to consider whether to eliminate the CSR regime altogether.


[1] 42 U.S.C. 18071, as created by Section 1402 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.
[2] 26 U.S.C. 36B, as created by Section 1401 of PPACA.
[3] Congressional Budget Office, January 2017 baseline for coverage provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2017-01-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 2.
[4] Department of Health and Human Services Office of Planning and Evaluation, “Individual Market Premium Changes: 2013-2017,” ASPE Data Point May 23, 2017, https://aspe.hhs.gov/system/files/pdf/256751/IndividualMarketPremiumChanges.pdf.
[5] The House’s original complaint, filed November 21, 2014, can be found at https://jonathanturley.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/house-v-burwell-d-d-c-complaint-filed.pdf.
[6] Judge Collyer’s ruling on motions to dismiss, dated September 9, 2015, can be found at https://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2014cv01967/169149/41.
[8] Links to the filings at the District Court level can be found at https://dockets.justia.com/docket/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2014cv01967/169149.
[9] Testimony of Mark Mazur, Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee hearing on “Cost Sharing Reduction Investigation and the Executive Branch’s Constitutional Violations,” July 7, 2016, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/event/hearing-cost-sharing-reduction-investigation-executive-branchs-constitutional-violations/.
[10] House Energy and Commerce and House Ways and Means Committees, “Joint Congressional Investigative Report into the Source of Funding for the ACA’s Cost Sharing Reduction Program,” July 7, 2016, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/20160707Joint_Congressional_Investigative_Report-2.pdf
[13] The statutory prohibition on executive branch employees occurs at 31 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1); 31 U.S.C. 1350 provides that any employee knowingly and willfully violating such provision “shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.”
[14] Train v. City of New York, 420 U.S. 35 (1975).
[15] Qualified Health Plan Agreement between issuers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for 2017 plan year, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.
[16] Aetna Inc., Form 10-Q Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the second quarter of calendar year 2016, http://services.corporate-ir.net/SEC/Document.Service?id=P3VybD1hSFIwY0RvdkwyRndhUzUwWlc1cmQybDZZWEprTG1OdmJTOWtiM2R1Ykc5aFpDNXdhSEEvWVdOMGFXOXVQVkJFUmlacGNHRm5aVDB4TVRBMk5qa3hOQ1p6ZFdKemFXUTlOVGM9JnR5cGU9MiZmbj1BZXRuYUluYy5wZGY=
p. 44; Centene, Inc., Form 10-Q Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the second quarter of calendar year 2016, https://centene.gcs-web.com/static-files/23fd1935-32de-47a8-bc03-cbc2c4d59ea6, p. 42.
[17] Transcript of Anthem, Inc. quarterly earnings call for the first quarter of calendar year 2017, April 26, 2017, http://phx.corporate-ir.net/External.File?item=UGFyZW50SUQ9NjY3NTM5fENoaWxkSUQ9Mzc1Mzg1fFR5cGU9MQ==&t=1, p. 5.
[19] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies to Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, https://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.
[20] Chris Jacobs, “Don’t Blame Trump When Obamacare Rates Jump,” Wall Street Journal June 16, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-blame-trump-when-obamacare-rates-jump-1497571813.
[21] Covered California response to Public Records Act request, August 25, 2017.
[22] Burgess Everett and Josh Dawsey, “Trump Suggested Scrapping Future Debt Ceiling Votes to Congressional Leaders,” Politico September 7, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/07/trump-end-debt-ceiling-votes-242429.
[23] HHS, “Individual Market Premium Changes: 2013-2017.”

Insurers’ Obamacare Extortion Racket

The coming weeks will see U.S. health insurance companies attempt to preserve what amounts to an extortion racket. Already, some carriers have claimed they will either exit the Obamacare exchanges entirely in 2018, or submit dramatically higher premium increases for next year, if Congress does not fund payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions. While insurers claim “uncertainty” compels them to make these business changes, in reality their roots are the companies’ gross incompetence and crass politics.

While Obamacare requires insurers to lower certain low-income individuals’ deductibles and co-payments, and directs the executive agencies to reimburse insurers for those cost-sharing reductions, it nowhere gives the administration an explicit appropriation to do so. The Obama administration made payments to insurers without an explicit appropriation from Congress, and was slapped with a federal lawsuit by the House of Representatives for it.

Either the Companies Are Mismanaged Or Playing Politics

For insurers to assume that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue through 2017, let alone 2018, required them to ignore 1) public warnings in articles like mine; 2) Collyer’s ruling; 3) the fact that President Obama would leave office on January 20, 2017; and 4) the apparent silence from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during last year’s campaign on whether they would continue the cost-sharing reduction payments once in office.

Given those four factors, competent insurance executives would have built in an appropriate contingency margin into their 2017 exchange bids, recognizing the uncertainty that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue during the new administration. Instead, some insurers largely ignored the issue. In its most recent 10-K annual report with the Securities and Exchange Commission, filed February 22, Anthem made not a single reference in the 520-page document to the cost-sharing reduction payments or the House lawsuit.

Therein lies the reason for insurers’ threats. All last year, several insurers assumed Clinton would win and continue the (unconstitutional) payments. Worse yet, some may have willfully ignored their fiduciary responsibility to create a contingency margin for their 2017 plan bids because they wanted to help Clinton by keeping premiums artificially low.

How the People’s Representatives Should Respond

Responding to this extortion racket requires several layers of accountability. First, insurers must accept responsibility for their persistent refusal to address the cost-sharing reduction issue sooner. The Securities and Exchange Commission should investigate whether publicly traded insurers failed to disclose material risks in their company filings by neglecting to mention the clearly foreseeable uncertainty surrounding the payments.

Likewise, the Justice Department’s antitrust division should examine whether insurers’ 2017 premium submissions represent an instance of illegal collusion. If the insurance industry collectively neglected to include a contingency margin surrounding the cost-sharing payments—either to keep premium increases low before the election, or to strong-arm the incoming administration to continue to fund them—such a decision might warrant federal sanctions.

Finally, conservatives and the Trump administration should shine a bright light on state insurance commissioners’ review of premium submissions. Commissioners who approve large contingency margins for 2018 due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reductions, yet did not require a similar contingency margin for 2017 premiums, can be reasonably accused of gross incompetence, playing politics with health insurance premiums, or both.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.