CBO, Transparency, and Obamacare’s Impact on the Deficit

Before a House rules change in January, CBO generally had not applied “dynamic scoring” to major legislation, or considered likely macro-economic effects when analyzing a bill’s potential impact on the deficit. On Friday, in response to follow-up questions from a January congressional hearing, CBO said that had it conducted such an analysis of Obamacare, it would have found that the bill reduced the federal deficit by less than its original projections.

In short: Because CBO believes the health-care law will discourage work, it would lower federal revenues—but the agency did not consider the revenue impacts of these effects in 2010, when it projected that the law would reduce the federal deficit.

Although CBO does not usually estimate macroeconomic effects of major bills, it has done this. In 2013 the agency “relaxed” its score-keeping convention with respect to immigration legislation in the Senate, concluding that the bills under consideration would increase the labor supply and economic growth and thus federal revenues. Both the 2013 Senate immigration bill and Obamacare would have altered the U.S. workforce by millions of workers. That CBO went to great lengths to estimate the macroeconomic and fiscal effects of Senate legislation never enacted but has yet to do so with Obamacare raises questions about the agency’s policies for scoring legislative measures.

CBO has conducted two analyses of the health-care law’s impact on labor markets, but these did not say that the law’s effects on the labor force would impact its potential deficit reduction. The first analysis, released in August 2010, said that Obamacare would reduce the workforce by about half a percent, or approximately 800,000 workers, by 2021. The second analysis, released in February 2014, roughly tripled that estimate, to 1.5% to 2% of the labor force—the equivalent of approximately 2.3 million workers in 2021. CBO could have publicly stated that these labor-force changes, and the related revenue effects, would negatively affect the deficit, even if it could not specify by how much.

CBO said last summer that it would no longer produce estimates for the fiscal impact of the health law as a whole. It also declined to release a score of legislation repealing the law before last month’s House vote. In a blog post last June, Mr. Elmendorf wrote that CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation “have no reason to think that their initial [March 2010] assessment that the ACA would reduce budget deficits was incorrect.” But the agency’s statement on Friday illustrates that the 2010 deficit assessment was incomplete and could be incorrect. CBO appears to have no intention of correcting this flaw or revealing Obamacare’s true fiscal impact.

CBO’s statement Friday was released to select congressional offices the same day Keith Hall was named as Mr. Elmendorf’s replacement. As CBO’s past analyses of Obamacare’s impact on the labor market received much press fanfare, the down-playing of this information seems straight out of “The West Wing.”

One hopes that under Dr. Hall’s leadership CBO will address a few issues, including a revised score of Obamacare that accounts for the legislation’s impact on labor markets and a broader discussion about the need to consider macroeconomic effects when analyzing bills as large in size and scope as the 2,700-page health-care law. CBO is accountable to Congress and taxpayers; it can act accordingly starting with more transparency.

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

How the Cadillac Tax Could Drive Obamacare Over a Political Cliff

In its economic forecast last week, the Congressional Budget Office revealed a quandary about Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax”: To make the underlying law fiscally sustainable, the tax may end up increasing at a rate that becomes politically unsustainable.

The nugget about the tax, formally known as a high-premium excise tax and set to take effect in 2018, came in CBO’s updated estimates for the law as a whole, which noted:

CBO and [the Joint Committee on Taxation] expect that premiums for health insurance will tend to increase more rapidly than the threshold for determining liability for the high-premium excise tax, so the tax will affect an increasing share of coverage offered through employers and thus generate rising revenues. In response, many employers are expected to avoid the tax by holding premiums below the threshold, but the resulting shift in compensation from nontaxable insurance benefits to taxable wages and salaries would subject an increasing share of employees’ compensation to taxes. Those trends in exchange subsidies and in revenues related to the high-premium excise tax will continue beyond 2025, CBO and JCT anticipate, causing the net costs of the ACA’s coverage provisions to decline in subsequent years.

In other words, under current projections the tax will grow so quickly that it will exceed the annual rising costs of the law’s new entitlements, causing net spending on Obamacare actually to decline.

The Cadillac tax has always caused the administration political heartburn. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama broadcast the most-aired political ad in a decade, attacking Sen. John McCain for wanting to tax health benefits. The Cadillac tax technically targets insurers, not individuals, but videos of remarks by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who advised the administration when the health-care law was being developed, show Mr. Gruber saying that Democrats engaged in semantics about the tax and even “mislabeling” to provide political cover for the president to change his position.

When Obamacare was passed, Mr. Gruber wrote articles—promoted at the time by the administration—saying that the Cadillac tax wasn’t a tax. He argued that, in response to the law’s pressures, firms would reduce their health benefits but increase taxable wages—and that paying taxes on these higher wages amounted to a net plus for individuals rather than a tax increase. But in the face of pressure from labor unions, which remain opposed to the tax, Democrats ultimately decided to delay its implementation until 2018, after President Obama leaves office.

In its analysis last week, CBO made clear that the Cadillac tax, coupled with provisions slowing the growth of insurance exchange subsidies (provisions that some liberal groups want to overturn) is central to making the law fiscally sustainable. The question is whether the effects of the Cadillac tax would be any more politically sustainable in 2018 and beyond than they were in 2009—and what supporters of the law will do if they aren’t.

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

The Freedom and Empowerment Plan for American Health Care

A PDF of the full health care plan is available on the America Next website.

The Problem of American Health Care

By many measures, the American system of health care is the best in the world. It is a source of incredible innovation at the cutting edge of medical science, providing high quality care to people who need it. We have some of the best doctors, nurses, researchers, and provider systems on earth. When world leaders need complex surgery and lifesaving treatment, they fly to us. It is here, in America, where treatments are discovered, methods are improved, and diseases are cured.

But by all sorts of other measures, the American system of health care is the worst of both worlds – and that was true before Obamacare. For starters, it is extraordinarily expensive. This is partly because we aren’t interested in just managing pain, but in curing diseases; partly because market-warping government policies and regulations drive costs higher and incentivize monopolization over competition; partly because Americans have a limited choice of health insurance options; and partly because patients and providers are insulated from the true costs of health care services.

Imagine for a moment if other forms of insurance worked the same way as American health insurance does today. Say you arrive home one day and find that the lightbulb on your front porch has burned out. This happens every couple of months, and it’s predictable as clockwork – or a chronic condition. But because your homeowners insurance policy works like health insurance does, you can’t just drive to a store and buy a lightbulb, oh no. Instead, you have to call and set up an appointment with a highly-paid and highly-educated expert lightbulb specialist.

You go in the waiting room wait for two hours so the specialist can spend five minutes examining the lightbulb and telling you what new one you need to buy. The specialist used to be in a small practice, but now he’s in a big group, because there are all sorts of government regulations he has to deal with, and only big systems can afford to deal with them. He also has to overcharge your private insurer for this brief visit, because he spends a third of his time seeing people on government entitlement programs who dramatically underpay for his services.

The specialist gives you a nearly illegible prescription for a new lightbulb, but you can’t buy it just anywhere – your homeowners insurance has a network of stores, and going out of network means you’ll face penalties. You have to drive across town to an in-network hardware store, and then wait for someone to get the right lightbulb out of the back. You have no idea how much the lightbulb actually costs, or if it would be cheaper at the store ten minutes away – you just have a small co-pay for it, and the rest is covered by your insurer – or how much the specialist is paid to tell you which one to buy. And in a few months when the light burns out again, you’ll have to go through all of this all over again.

When you start to think about the American health insurance system in this context, you start to understand why things are so upside down when it comes to the costs of care. At each stage, everyone is insulated from costs, and most people have no incentive to shop and compare prices and services as they do in every other market. And government policies and sweeping regulations have only served to make it worse.

Health care represents one of the most complex arenas of public policy. It was an animating interest for me from a young age, in part because it is an area that touches every American during the course of their lives in profound ways. I worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.  During my lifetime, many attempts have been made to try and fix the broken aspects of our system, some more successful than others. President Obama’s health care law is just the latest in a long line of wrongheaded steps – but it is by far the worst yet.

As someone who believes in empowering patients and using market forces to improve American health care, I oppose President Obama’s law and believe we must repeal all of it—no matter what the conventional wisdom in Washington says. But we must also enact positive reforms to move our health system in the right direction, because the status quo of American health care and insurance is simply not defensible.

What the President said in the course of selling his signature legislation actually sounded good to me – it’s what he did that was awful. The President sold his law as a path to lower premium costs, promising that he’d cut them by $2,500 by the end of his first term. He said he wanted people to be able to keep their health plans and their doctors if they liked them. He said he wanted to bend the cost trajectory down while improving quality. I’m for all of that – but unfortunately that’s not what his law does.  At best the President was horribly naïve about how our health care system works, and how to reform it.  At worst he was deliberately untrue, and sold his government-centric plan as a “conservative” proposal because he knew the American people would never accept the truth.

We want to make sure that people have access to affordable high quality healthcare. We want to create a solid safety net for the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. This is, according to President Obama, what he wants, too. But from my perspective, he never stepped back and really looked at what’s wrong with our system, and asked what we want it to look like if we can tear down the existing market-warping problems and start afresh.

America needs a health care system where it is easy for the consumer to be in control, and where government won’t get in between you and your doctor. Sometimes on the right we’re blind to the fact that health care bureaucracy isn’t just Medicare and Medicaid personnel – it also could be a big insurance bureaucrat, and they’re little better. At each point, this system of bureaucracy, monopolization, and the lack of price transparency serves to drive costs higher and higher for all of us. The most fundamental question in health care policy is: do you want the patient to be in control, working with their doctor and health care provider, or do you want a bureaucrat – whether from the government or your insurer – to be in control?

The left has its answer to this question: empowering government. Instead, we should be empowering patients. How should we go about doing that? Well, there are several things that have to change, steps that will push health care in this country toward being a true competitive marketplace, and which make providers understand once again that the individual patient is their customer.

Big changes never happen organically in Washington, and many of the big stakeholders were heavily invested in Obamacare just a few years ago. But as President Obama’s monopartisan program has stumbled, it presents the opportunity for conservatives to make the case for real reform. It is now obvious to everyone that his plan simply won’t deliver on the many promises he made along the way. And that’s because, from the beginning, his approach was wrongheaded. He trusted the government to fix the problems and get everything right, instead of trusting the American people to know what’s best. We shouldn’t make that mistake twice.

A Conservative Alternative

In the debate surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly referred to as Obamacare, conservatives have consistently faced one myth, perpetuated by President Obama himself and his political allies: That there is no alternative to Obamacare, and that opponents of the law have offered no solutions on health care themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  In November 2009, House Republicans offered their alternative to Obamacare during a debate on the House floor; not a single Democrat voted for the legislation.[1]  One more recent compilation lists more than 200 pieces of health care legislation offered by conservative Members of Congress in 2013 alone.[2]  Conservatives have consistently proposed alternatives to Obamacare, and publicly advocated on their behalf, yet the President finds it easier to peddle untruths than to engage the American people on why his unpopular law is “better” than alternative reforms.

One reason President Obama fails to recognize conservative alternatives to Obamacare lies in a fundamental dispute about the root problems plaguing the American health care system.  Conservatives believe that the best way to improve access to health insurance coverage is to make that coverage more affordable.  Many conservatives may agree with then-Senator Obama, who stated during his 2008 presidential campaign: “I believe the problem is not that folks are trying to avoid getting health care.  The problem is they can’t afford it.”[3]

Candidate Obama may have talked like a conservative in his rhetoric highlighting health costs and opposing mandates, but President Obama has governed as a liberal.  Instead of tackling the root of the health care problem, and lowering costs first, Obamacare focused on spending trillions of dollars to expand health coverage, creating massive new entitlements in the process.  Rather than making health care more affordable for all Americans, Obamacare gave America a law it can’t afford to keep.  The law is fiscally unsustainable, its tax increases economically damaging, and its enshrinement of greater government control of every aspect of health care is more dangerous than some in Washington appreciate.

For these reasons and more, any conservative health reform must start with repealing Obamacare.  But conservative health reform must not end there.  Even prior to Obamacare, the status quo was, and remains, unacceptable.  Many Americans struggle every day with the high cost of health care, and Americans with pre-existing conditions cannot access the care they need.  America’s health care system does need reforms—but it needs the right reforms.

The policy solutions put forward by America Next in this paper focus on preserving what’s right with American health care, while fixing what’s wrong.  Fixing what’s wrong involves restoring one basic American principle—freedom—that has been eroded due to Obamacare  While it is wise for any individual to have health insurance coverage, Washington cannot—and should not—attempt to compel such behavior.

After restoring those freedoms, we can enact the reforms the American health system needs.  We focus first and foremost on reducing health care costs—because while most Americans want to buy health care and health insurance, many of them struggle to afford it.  We also work to preserve and strengthen the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, including those with pre-existing conditions.  And we focus on enhancing patient choice, removing obstacles to portability and consumer selection, including many put into place by Obamacare itself.  These principles should form the foundation for true health reform—one that puts doctors and patients, not government bureaucrats, at the heart of all policy decisions.

 

Principle #1: Lowering Health Costs

When running for President in 2008, candidate Obama promised that his health plan would lower premiums—in fact, he promised on numerous occasions that his plan would reduce costs for the average family by $2,500 per year.[4]  Unfortunately, the law President Obama signed bears little resemblance to that campaign pledge.  Obamacare moves American health care in the opposite direction—raising health costs and premiums, not lowering them.  The non-partisan Medicare actuary has concluded that Obamacare will raise total health spending by $621 billion dollars in its first decade alone.[5]  Likewise, independent analysts at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that Obamacare would raise premiums for those buying health insurance on the individual market by an average of $2,100 per year.[6]

The higher premiums due to Obamacare are discouraging many people from enrolling in coverage under the law.  A recent survey by analysts at McKinsey found that only 27 percent of Americans selecting insurance plans were previously uninsured—the group Obamacare intended to target for expanded coverage.[7]  The same survey found that half of those individuals who shopped for insurance coverage but did not select a plan cited affordability reasons in deciding not to purchase coverage: “I could not afford to pay the premium.”[8]  For many Americans, the measure dubbed the “Affordable Care Act” has proven anything but affordable.

Obamacare is raising health costs because its mandates and regulations force customers to buy health insurance products they may not want or need, merely because a government bureaucrat tells them they must.  Conversely, true reform would provide incentives for consumers to serve as smart health care shoppers, saving money by engaging in healthy behaviors and taking control of their health care choices.

Tax Equity:  When it comes to health insurance, today’s tax code contains two notable flaws.  First, it includes a major inequity: workers can purchase employer-provided coverage using pre-tax funds, but individuals who buy coverage on their own must use after-tax dollars to do so.  Second, because cash wages provided by an employer are taxable, but health insurance benefits are not taxed, no matter how generous the benefit, the tax code currently gives a greater value to health insurance than increases in cash wages.  This disparity has resulted in employers scaling back pay raises to help fund rapidly rising health plan costs.  The Congressional Budget Office has also noted that this disparity has exacerbated the growth in health costs, and that capping the tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance would help slow cost growth.[9]  Reforms could result in employers raising cash wages if their health costs grow more slowly over time.—and slowing the growth of health care costs would yield benefits for the broader economy.

A conservative health reform would transform the existing tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance into a standard deduction for all forms of health insurance, regardless of where they are purchased.  First proposed in 2007, this concept was also recently introduced in legislative form in the House of Representatives.[10]  This proposal would not raise taxes; following Obamacare’s repeal, total government revenues would remain at pre-Obamacare levels.  In other words, this proposal would not repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Under this model, the standard deduction would grow at higher rates initially, but as the other efficiencies take effect and the growth in health spending slows, the deduction would in time rise annually according to consumer price inflation.  Much as the current exclusion for employer-provided coverage applies to both income and payroll taxes, the standard deduction would apply towards income and payroll taxes as well.

These reforms would solve several problems with our current tax code.  The standard deduction would create equity between those who buy health coverage through their employer, and those who buy health coverage on their own.  In 2007, one analysis noted this change could reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 9.2 million.[11]  Over time, this policy might encourage more individuals to buy coverage independent of their employer plans, but such a change would likely be gradual and voluntary—as opposed to the millions of Americans who lost their existing health coverage last fall, because their plan did not meet Obamacare’s bureaucratic standards.

Just as importantly, the new standard deduction would contain in-built mechanisms to slow the growth of health costs.  Individuals who purchase insurance costing less than the amount of the standard deduction would still retain the full tax benefit from it—giving them reason to act as smart health care shoppers.  In addition, the slower growth rate of the deduction would give both insurance companies and consumers a greater incentive to maximize efficiencies in the health care system.  For decades, the tax code’s perverse incentives have accelerated spiraling health costs, but creating a standard deduction will help reduce costs rather than raising them.

State Health Insurance Program:  Although millions of Americans without access to employer-sponsored health coverage will benefit from the standard deduction for health insurance, some individuals with minimal tax liability—primarily those with incomes under about 150 percent of the federal poverty level—will receive little benefit from a tax deduction.  Instead, eligible individuals should receive an explicit government subsidy to purchase affordable health insurance.

This health reform plan proposes a pool of $100 billion in federal funding over the next ten years for states to subsidize affordable health insurance for low-income individuals and individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The funding would be provided to states with minimal restrictions:

  1. States must achieve measurable reductions in average health insurance premiums in the individual and small group markets, and must ensure that individuals have access to affordable health insurance—with premiums that do not exceed a defined percentage of that state’s median income.
  2. States must establish and maintain a form of guaranteed access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—a high-risk pool, a reinsurance fund, or some other risk transfer mechanism.  States could use some of their federal allotment to help fund the costs of covering high-risk individuals.
  3. Obamacare reduced disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments by half to finance expensive, unaffordable health coverage; this plan would instead restore that funding to help fund more affordable health insurance options. [12]  In order to access state grants, states must direct this restored funding toward covering eligible populations, reducing the amount of uncompensated care provided by instead subsidizing health insurance.  States will receive about $10 billion per year in DSH funding; re-directing some of these funds would supplement the $100 billion provided by the federal government.[13]

This reform model relies on federalism to promote innovation in health care and health insurance.  The federal government sets key goals—keeping insurance premiums affordable, and expanding access to low-income individuals and those with pre-existing conditions—and allows states to meet those goals in the manner they believe will work best for their state.  For example, if a state wants to incorporate an account-like savings mechanism to promote healthy behaviors, as Indiana has done, it can pursue that option.

Empowering states with flexibility and freedom can be a powerful tool in reducing health costs.  Analyzing a similar proposal put forward as part of the House Republican alternative to Obamacare in 2009, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that state innovation grants, coupled with liability reform and other common-sense solutions, would lower small business health insurance premiums by 7 to 10 percent, and would lower individual health insurance premiums by 5 to 8 percent.[14]  This reduction is even more stark when compared to the premium increases CBO predicted will occur (and are occurring) due to Obamacare.  Overall, estimates suggest that, when compared to Obamacare, this state-based approach could reduce premiums on the individual health insurance market by nearly $5,000 per family.[15]

Washington has tried a top-down approach to health care; it hasn’t worked.  Allowing states to serve as laboratories of innovation could slow the growth in health insurance costs and premium increases.  In addition, the $100 billion in federal funding, coupled with the matching funds from state DSH payments, would expand health care access for low-income individuals who do not benefit from the standard insurance deduction and those with pre-existing conditions.  This state-based model, not more Washington mandates and regulations, represents the best route to true health care reform.

Health Savings Accounts:  One of the innovations over the past decade that has helped slow the growth in health care costs has been Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which couple a high-deductible health plan with a tax-free savings account.  The high deductible plans provide lower premiums for consumers, who can then deposit the savings in their HSAs to use for routine health expenses.  And because funds in an HSA accumulate from year to year tax-free, they provide motivation for consumers to serve as smart purchasers of health care.

First made available in 2004, HSAs have grown in popularity; more than 15 million Americans are now covered by HSA-eligible health plans.[16]  Many are using tools provided by these plans to take better control of their health and health spending, seeking out preventive care, using generic drugs more frequently, and utilizing plan-provided decision support tools.[17]  These plans are also saving Americans money; in 2013, the average HSA plan provided by an employer cost $1,318 less per family than non-HSA plans—even after firms placed an average of $1,150 per family into the HSA to fund health expenses.[18]  A recent study found that more widespread adoption of HSA coverage could reduce health spending by as much as $73.6 billion per year.[19]

Obamacare moves in the opposite direction by placing limits on the effectiveness of HSAs.  For example, it prohibits the use of funds from an HSA to purchase over-the-counter medications without a prescription.[20]

Conservative health reforms should build upon the success of HSAs by offering new options to make HSA plans more flexible for patients and consumers.  Congress should allow HSA funds to be used to purchase health insurance in all cases, making it easier for consumers who save to fund their health coverage.  Another possible reform would create more flexible insurance policies, linking the size of the deductible for an HSA plan to customers’ account balances, incomes, or other assets; in this way consumers with sizable savings could choose coverage with an even lower premium in exchange for a higher deductible.  These changes would further accelerate a health coverage model that has already helped slow the growth of health costs for millions of Americans.

Greater Incentives for Wellness:  One of the few areas of bipartisan agreement during the Obamacare debate was a consensus around the “Safeway model”—namely, providing financial incentives for individuals and employees to engage in healthy behaviors.[21]  At the time, employers could vary premiums by up to 20% to reward participation in various wellness programs.  However, then-Safeway CEO Steve Burd noted that a 20% premium variation did not allow the company to recoup all the higher costs associated with unhealthy behaviors like smoking.

Congress can and should do more to enhance these innovative efforts to reduce health costs.  First, it can provide explicit statutory authority for premium variations of up to 50%.  It can also allow employers (or insurance companies selling individual insurance plans) to offer any financial incentives for healthy behaviors on a tax-free basis, by placing the money in new Wellness Accounts.  As with HSAs, the money in these accounts could then be used tax-free for health expenses, or withdrawn for other purposes.  This reform would marry two proven successes—HSAs and wellness incentives—turbo-charging efforts to slow the growth in health costs by encouraging Americans to engage in healthy behaviors.

Crack Down on Fraud:  Health costs have grown at a rapid rate at least in part due to widespread fraud in government health programs.  Unfortunately, a recent case in which 49 Russian diplomats were charged with fraudulently obtained Medicaid benefits—lying about their immigration status and income on application forms, even as they purchased goods from Tiffany’s and Jimmy Choo—is not an aberration.[22]  Several years ago, the New York Times cited expert analysis that as much as 40 percent of that state’s Medicaid spending was either questionable or outright fraudulent.[23]  The Medicare program for the elderly also faces widespread fraud—$60 billion per year, according to a 60 Minutes investigation.[24]

While the private sector has a series of programs and protocols in place to combat fraud, government health programs have traditionally lagged; their focus has been on paying claims quickly, whether real or fraudulent.  In recent years, some government programs have improved their efforts to combat fraud; for instance, Louisiana’s new Bayou Health managed care model built in robust savings from fraud detection, requiring plans participating in Bayou Health to crack down on suspicious transactions or face financial penalties.  But Congress should do more to end the current “pay and chase” model, which attempts to track down fraud after-the-fact, and enhance penalties for those who steal or traffic in Medicare patient numbers and other personal health information.

Price and Quality Transparency:  In many cases, consumers who wish to serve as “smart shoppers” of health care do not have the information to do so.  For far too long, price and quality transparency data have been lacking in the health sector, meaning patients face a dearth of information when they have to make potentially life-altering decisions about their care.  The good news is that these trends are slowly changing, and that transparency has provided consumers with useful, and powerful, information:

There is emerging evidence that when hospitals publish prices for surgical procedures, costs decrease without a loss of quality.  The Surgery Center of Oklahoma, for example, has been publishing its prices for various procedures for the past four years.  Because the center’s prices tend to be lower than those of other hospitals, patients started coming from all over the country for treatment.  In order to compete, other hospitals in Oklahoma began listing surgical prices; patients were able to comparison shop, and hospitals lowered their prices.[25]

Further efforts at transparency could help to reduce an estimated $105 billion paid in health costs annually due to uncompetitive pricing levels by medical providers.[26]  Just as importantly, patients could have more objective sources of information about doctors and medical treatments than recommendations from friends or acquaintances.  Online posting of price and quality data can easily lead to new Consumer Reports-type rating systems, which will empower patients with trusted data and provide providers an greater incentive to improve their quality practices.

 

Principle #2: Protect the Most Vulnerable

In trying to provide all Americans with health insurance, Obamacare may actually detract from efforts to protect those who need health care most.  The law provides a more sizable federal match for states to expand their Medicaid programs to childless adults than it does for states to cover their disabled populations.[27]  At a time when more than half a million disabled Americans are on state lists waiting to qualify for long-term supports and services, it is both uncompassionate and unfair for the Administration instead to focus on covering childless adults, most of whom are able to work or prepare for work.[28]

True health reform would focus first and foremost on targeting government resources to the most vulnerable in our society—protecting the safety net rather than stretching it past its breaking point.  These reforms would help individuals with pre-existing conditions, senior citizens, the disabled, and the unborn.  Making these populations the centerpiece of coverage efforts would meet one of Obamacare’s core goals—providing access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—without necessitating the upheaval caused by the President’s 2,700-page health law.

Guaranteed Access for Pre-Existing Conditions:  Obamacare was sold as a way to address the very real problem of Americans with pre-existing conditions—but the size of the problem did not warrant such a massive overhaul.  One estimate found that approximately 2-4 million individuals under age 65 may face difficulties purchasing health insurance.[29]  The Obama Administration has attempted to claim that up to 129 million Americans “could be denied coverage” due to pre-existing conditions.[30]   But when Obamacare created a high-risk pool to provide temporary coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, under 150,000 Americans ever enrolled in it[31]—far fewer than the 600,000-700,000 originally projected to seek enrollment in the program.[32]

Ironically enough, Obamacare has failed to deliver on its promise for individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The Administration froze enrollment in the law’s high-risk pools due to funding constraints,[33] and the unintended consequences of over-regulation meant that 17 states lost access to child-only health insurance plans.[34]  Some patients have also found that their Obamacare plans don’t include the specialists or hospitals they need; for instance, many plans do not offer access to advanced cancer centers.[35]

Conversely, conservative health reform would ensure that states have the incentive of funding to provide guaranteed access for Americans with pre-existing conditions.  Many states use various vehicles to cover these individuals—whether high-risk pools, reinsurance programs, or some other risk transfer mechanism.[36]  The incentive pool of federal dollars would allow states to determine the best mechanism for providing access to those with pre-existing conditions, and a stable source of funding for those endeavors.

Much of the case for Obamacare was made on the basis of an issue which effects a small portion of consumers: the challenge of pre-existing conditions. Since 1996, federal law included a requirement of guaranteed renewability in the individual health insurance market—so long as you paid for your policy, you were guaranteed the ability to renew your plan.  Policy cancellations—also called rescissions—were rare, and nearly always due to fraud, impacting according to some measures just four-tenths of one percent of the private individual market (which is itself just 10 percent of the insured marketplace).[37]  Though relatively small in number, the issue of pre-existing conditions raised concerns for many Americans—who feared that they, or someone they knew, would be affected if they developed an illness that made them uninsurable.

Obamacare was supposed to solve the problem of pre-existing conditions, but in many respects, the law actually made things worse.  It took away the coverage renewability guarantee, by forcing insurance companies to cancel the policies of millions of Americans. Even as they made the case that if you liked your plan you could keep it, those who favored the president’s legislation knew they were about to repeal the existing guaranteed renewability for millions of Americans. By doing this, Obamacare has completely disrupted the individual market, forcing many people who were satisfied with their coverage and the access they had to doctors and specialists being dumped into more costly and less comprehensive insurance simply because of Obamacare.

This lie should not be allowed to stand. Guaranteed renewability should ensure that patients have the ability to renew their coverage, regardless of their health status, so long as they have not committed fraud. Thus, people who maintain continuous coverage should be protected from premium spikes and have confidence their insurance will be there when they need it.

The central irony of Obamacare is that it hurt the very people it was supposed to help. For Americans signing up for new insurance, guaranteed renewability should offer peace of mind that their insurer cannot drop them merely for getting sick. For those Americans for whom access to guaranteed renewability contracts has been destroyed by Obamacare, the incentive pool of state dollars for more innovative approaches, coupled with greater flexibility for individuals leaving employer plans, will be there to help them get the coverage they need in a post-Obamacare system.

Premium Support:  Medicare faces a dire financial predicament.  According to the annual report by the program’s trustees—including members of the Obama Administration—the Part A trust fund financing hospital care will be insolvent by 2026.  In the short term, the program has taken a hit from the recession and slow economic recovery; the Medicare trust fund ran $105.6 billion in deficits during the years 2008-12.[38]  In the longer term, the outlook is even worse: Medicare faces 75-year unfunded obligations of at least $27.3 trillion, and even this estimate may understate the program’s liabilities, due to various budgetary and accounting gimmicks.[39]

Among the biggest gimmicks understating Medicare’s financial shortfalls is Obamacare itself.  In October 2011, Nancy Pelosi admitted what all Americans realize Democrats did as part of Obamacare: “We took a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in…the health care bill,” to pay for that law’s new entitlements.[40]  Yet the Obama Administration utilized an “only-in-Washington” logic to argue otherwise, citing trust fund accounting to assert that the Medicare provisions in the law could be used both to “save Medicare” and to “fund health care reform.”[41]  There are two kinds of people in politics—those that want to fix Medicare and those who want to use it to score political points.  Sadly, Obamacare followed the latter course.  Current and future generations of seniors deserve better—they deserve true reform that makes Medicare more sustainable.

One bipartisan solution to Medicare’s fiscal shortfalls would give seniors a choice of plans, with the federal government providing a generous subsidy to purchase coverage.  This premium support concept was developed, and endorsed, by a bipartisan majority in a commission created by Congress and President Clinton, whose Executive Director was Bobby Jindal.[42]  The commission’s work was in turn endorsed by the Democratic Leadership Council.[43]  More recently, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, submitted a bipartisan health reform plan that included a premium support proposal for Medicare beneficiaries.[44]

The key feature of a premium support proposal is the ability of competition among health plans to bring down costs and provide better care to America’s seniors.  Former Clinton Administration official Alice Rivlin testified before Congress in 2012 that nearly nine in ten seniors live in areas where private health plans have costs lower than traditional, fee-for-service Medicare; under a premium support proposal, these seniors could save money by choosing to enroll in a private plan.[45]  Likewise, the Congressional Budget Office recently analyzed one premium support proposal, and found that it could reduce Medicare spending by $15 billion dollars annually, while also reducing overall out-of-pocket spending by beneficiaries by an average of 6 percent.[46]

As part of the transition to premium support, the traditional Medicare benefit itself should be modernized.  For the first time ever, Medicare should provide a catastrophic cap on out-of-pocket expenses—so that seniors would know their spending.  At the same time, Medigap insurance, which provides supplemental coverage of co-payments and deductibles for some seniors, should also be reformed, so that seniors would no longer be pre-paying their health coverage by over-paying to insurance companies.

Under Medigap reform, seniors’ premium costs would fall substantially.  A 2011 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that under one version of reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[47]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

Medigap reform not only lowers seniors’ premiums, it also lowers their overall health costs.  A 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[48]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year.[49]

What’s more, modernizing traditional Medicare and Medigap would drive greater efficiency within the health care system.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this reform would make Medicare more sustainable for future generations, by as much as $114 billion in its first decade alone.[50]  As with premium support, this package of proposals represents a true “win-win:” Current seniors would save on their health expenses, while seniors-to-be would have greater confidence that the promises made to them can be kept when they prepare to join Medicare themselves.

For all these reasons and others, this modernization of Medicare carries broad support from across the political spectrum.  Bipartisan endorsers of Medigap reform include the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[51] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits,[52] Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[53] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[54]

Seniors deserve the potential savings and better care these reforms can provide.  Seniors’ plan choices would include some of the same options available to Americans under age 65, along with the traditional, government-run fee-for-service model, updated with new and more flexible options.  Likewise, future generations deserve the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing Medicare has been placed on a more sustainable path.  It is long past time for Washington to enact true Medicare reform.

Medicaid Reforms:  Despite Obamacare’s massive new regulations, some states have already acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  For instance, Rhode Island’s global compact waiver—in which the state received additional regulatory flexibility from the federal government in exchange for a cap on its Medicaid budget—has successfully slowed the growth of health costs in that state.  A 2011 Lewin Group report found that the global compact waiver “generated significant savings”—more than $50 million from the small state’s Medicaid budget—and did so not by reducing care, but by improving it:

The mandatory enrollment of disabled members in care management program [sic] reduced expenditures for this population while at the same time generally resulting in improved access to physician services.[55]

Since the Lewin study in 2011, Rhode Island’s success in managing its Medicaid program has continued.  The state has reduced its per capita Medicaid spending by more than five percent over the past three fiscal years, resulting in three straight years of minimal expenditure growth,  even as the state’s Medicaid caseload increased.[56]

These remarkable accomplishments come despite the Obama Administration’s efforts, not because of them.  The 2011 Lewin report notes that passage of Obamacare and the “stimulus” bill, both of which imposed new restrictions on state Medicaid programs, “had a profound impact” on the Rhode Island waiver, because “the flexibility sought did not always materialize.”  For instance, the original waiver gave Rhode Island the authority to assess modest premium charges for some beneficiaries, but the Obamacare mandates took this flexibility away.[57]

Other states have also acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  Louisiana has transitioned its Medicaid program toward a managed care model, named Bayou Health.  The program has furthered the goals of the Birth Outcomes Initiative, claims data for which reveal a reduction of 23,000 in statewide neonatal intensive care unit days paid by Medicaid—meaning more babies were carried to full term.

The Hoosier State’s Healthy Indiana Plan includes a personal responsibility component, and provides incentives to engage in wellness screenings, and imposes co-payments on beneficiaries who make non-urgent visits to the emergency room.  The plan also requires participants to make modest contributions to an account to fund their health needs, ensuring patients have incentives to manage their health spending and health care.  The financial requirements are not onerous; approximately 70% of beneficiaries consider the required account contributions just the right amount, and 94% of members report being satisfied or highly satisfied with their coverage.[58]  Yet, Obamacare could put this innovative plan out of business entirely, due to its Washington-imposed mandates on state Medicaid programs.[59]

Because the federal government provides states with at least a 1:1 match on their Medicaid expenses, states have a built-in incentive to spend more on Medicaid when compared to other state priorities like education, transportation, and corrections.  This open-ended entitlement drastically reduces states’ incentives to make efficient choices in managing their health care systems.  A more conservative approach should better align incentives to focus states’ efforts on improving care and reducing costs, instead of merely “gaming the system.”

Medicaid is not merely a fiscal failure, however. The error of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion was to double down on a program whose health outcomes range from the marginal to the horrendous—the result of paying doctors pennies on the dollar and cramming Medicaid recipients into already overburdened systems. Compared to both those patients with private insurance and those without any insurance at all, Medicaid patients stay in the hospital longer, cost more while they are there, and yet are significantly more likely to die before they leave.[60] The recent Oregon Medicaid study, which offered real-world examples of Medicaid recipients compared to those who were not on the program, answered questions about just how significant the benefits of modern Medicaid are.[61] The study authors found that after two years, Medicaid “had no significant effect” on physical health outcomes compared to being uninsured.[62] Spending nearly half a trillion dollars a year on a program which is so ineffective is unacceptable and immoral.

More than two years ago, Republican governors presented a report laying out common-sense reforms to the Medicaid program—from modernizing benefit design to simplifying accountability to eliminating unnecessary requirements.[63]  While the Obama Administration has not implemented most of the report’s 31 separate suggestions, they represent a good place to start when it comes to updating this important program and prioritizing the actual health care of those who need a safety net.

The best way to reform Medicaid lies in a global grant approach, which empowers states with maximum flexibility in exchange for a fixed funding allotment from the federal government.  The allotment would be adjusted annually for inflation and eligible population growth, and could be adjusted if a state receives a sudden increase in its disabled population.  Rhode Island’s innovative waiver demonstrates how it can be done—and further illustrates that indexing the grant to inflation can be achieved without cutting benefits, or harming beneficiaries’ access to care.

States should have additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in a manner that they believe best meets the needs of their citizens—while facing clear and simple accountability metrics from the federal government.  Rather than focusing on managing processes and completing forms, state Medicaid programs should emphasize improving outcomes.  In return, the federal government should revamp its accountability process to hold states to these higher standards.  Those who want to micro-manage states do so because they do not trust the people and their locally elected leaders.

Pro-Life Protections:  Among its many other flaws, Obamacare represents an intrusion on the moral values many Americans hold dear.  Contrary to prior practice, the law has seen federal tax dollars flow to fund health insurance plans that cover abortions.[64]  The law also forces many Americans to choose between violating the law and violating their consciences, imposing mandates on non-profit and other institutions that violate their deeply-held religious beliefs.  As a result, literally dozens of institutions nationwide have taken Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate to court; the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on the issue later this summer.[65]

Repeal of Obamacare will remove the law’s anti-conscience mandates, and the funding of plans that cover abortions.  But true health reform should go further, instituting conscience protections for businesses and medical providers, as well as a permanent ban on federal funding of abortions, consistent with the Hyde Amendment protections passed by Congress every year since 1976.[66]  There is much in health care about which Americans disagree, but protecting all Americans’ religious liberty should be one principle that warrants bipartisan support. The government should not force religious people to abandon their faiths in order to keep their doors open.

 

Principle #3: Portability and Choice

In an address to Congress in September 2009, President Obama attempted to sell Obamacare as offering consumers “competition and choice.”[67]  At least 4.7 million Americans—those who have already received cancellation notices due to the law—would beg to differ with the President.[68]  While the President offered a short-term concession—unilaterally waiving portions of Obamacare, and permitting some who lost health coverage to keep their plan until the 2016 presidential election—the cancellation notices are likely to continue for some time.  A 2010 Administration document admitted that more than half of all workers, and up to four in five employees in small businesses, would lose their pre-Obamacare health coverage.[69]

Obamacare undermines choice by dictating what type of insurance health plans must offer—and then dictating to firms that they must offer, and individuals that they must buy, this type of coverage.  Conversely, true health reform would smooth the problems of portability that occurred prior to the law’s enactment, while offering more personalized choices so consumers can buy the plan they want, not the plan a government bureaucrat tells them to purchase.

State Reforms to Expand Access:  For many decades, many states have held laws on their books that block access to care.  At least 36 states have certificate of need (CON) requirements, which force organizations to obtain clearance from the state before building new health care facilities.  In addition to the offensive nature of this approach—entities must ask government bureaucrats for permission to create a facility that will help patients—CON requirements have proven ineffective at their stated goal of reducing costs.  One recent analysis noted that states without CON requirements have significantly lower health costs than those states with certificate of need mandates.[70]  Congress repealed the law that created CON requirements nearly three decades ago; states can follow suit.[71]

Similarly, state licensing requirements can impose unnecessary burdens on medical practitioners, also limiting access to health care.  Given that the supply of doctors is not expected to keep up with projected demand, policy-makers should allow other medical professionals to utilize more of their expertise to provide more affordable and convenient care for patients.[72]  In 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommended that all professionals should be empowered to practice to the full scope of their professional training.[73]  States should modify their licensing requirements to remove artificial barriers impeding the ability to provide high-quality care.  States must also act prudently to protect patient quality and maintain high standards.  Doing so would expand access to care, allowing Minute Clinics and other similar entities to treat patients quickly and at lower cost than hospital emergency rooms or other sources of care.

Both certificate of need and artificial scope of practice restrictions sometimes prioritize the interests of incumbent members of the health system over the needs of patients.  In 2008, the Justice Department testified that CON laws “create barriers to entry and expansion to the detriment of health care competition and consumers.  They undercut consumer choice, stifle innovation, and weaken markets’ ability to contain health care costs.”[74]  Likewise, a seminal 2004 report on competition in health care by the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department noted that scope of practice laws create anticompetitive risks, have raised costs, and limited mobility of medical providers, all for unclear benefits to health care quality.[75]  At a time when health costs remain high and access for vulnerable populations limited, states should act in both these key areas, initiating reforms that have the potential to reduce costs while simultaneously increasing access to needed care.

Better Access for Individuals Changing Employers:  The fact that so many Americans currently receive health insurance coverage through their employers means that individual health insurance plans have traditionally occupied a smaller segment of the marketplace.[76]  As a result, most individuals transition from one employer plan to another when they switch jobs.  However, moving from employer coverage to an individual plan can often prove more difficult and costly.

While not undermining the employer coverage that many Americans currently have and enjoy, conservative health reforms should also encourage policies that promote greater personal ownership of health insurance.  One key reform would allow individuals who maintain continuous coverage to purchase an individual health insurance plan of their choosing, eliminating the requirement that such individuals first exhaust COBRA coverage before accessing an individual plan.  These and other similar reforms will encourage Americans to purchase coverage they can take with them from job to job.

Cross-State Insurance Purchasing:  Because health insurance is regulated at the state level, many health insurance markets face two major problems.  First, in many states, one or a handful of insurers control most of the market for coverage, and these oligopolies tend to raise premiums.  Obamacare has not helped this trend, and in fact may have worsened it.  According to the New York Times, more than half of all counties in the United States have only one or two health plans participating in their states’ insurance Exchanges.[77]

Second, benefit mandates imposed by state legislatures force individuals to purchase more insurance coverage than they may need or want.  According to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, states have imposed an average of 44 benefit mandates, each of which raises health costs.[78]  Individually, the mandates may not appear to raise premiums by a significant amount, but estimates suggest that collectively, benefit mandates impose hundreds of dollars in added costs to consumers every year.[79]

One solution to both these problems rests in Congress enacting legislation allowing consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines.  Consumers purchasing insurance across state lines would receive clear disclosures that their health coverage would be regulated by another state with respect to benefit mandates, solvency standards, and other similar requirements.  By using its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, Congress could give consumers the power—a power they currently lack—to buy the health insurance plan that best meets their needs, regardless of the state in which that plan is offered.  Such a measure would give power from insurance company cartels back to consumers, make health insurance portable across state lines, and reduce the growth of premiums.

Pooling Mechanisms:  In addition to allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, Congress should also provide clear protections, similar to those provided in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), for organizations that wish to establish multi-state insurance pools.  These organizations could be churches, fraternal organizations, trade groups for small businesses, alumni groups, or any other type of group with a common interest.  These groups should be permitted to band together and purchase health insurance for their members, providing coverage that fits members’ distinct needs while potentially reducing administrative costs.  Just as importantly, coverage obtained through these pools, unlike employer coverage, would be portable: Individuals would have and own their personal health policy, and would not need to change plans when they change jobs.

Lawsuit Reform:  In many states, medical liability problems present several problems for patients.  First, defensive medicine practices—doctors performing unnecessary tests due to fear of litigation—raise health costs, according to some estimates by more than $100 billion annually.[80]  Second, the seeming randomness of the legal system—in which some frivolous claims receive large awards, but some legitimate claims are dismissed—frustrates patients.  Finally, at a time when America already faces expected physician shortages, the legal climate discourages prospective doctors from pursuing medicine as a career choice.[81]  A recent study found that physicians spend more than 10% of their careers with an outstanding malpractice claim lingering over their practice.[82]  More than three in five physicians claim they or one of their colleagues may retire in the next three years due to frustration with the health care system—a fact likely exacerbated by an overly litigious culture.[83]

Enacting lawsuit reforms—including a cap on non-economic damages, restrictions on attorney contingency fees, discouraging frivolous lawsuits, and other common-sense changes—would reduce health care costs.  Because nearly half of all health spending is controlled by government, largely through the Medicaid and Medicare programs, Congress should take the lead in enacting lawsuit reforms in instances where the federal government is a payer of health services.[84]  If enacted, these changes could have a salutary effect on America’s physicians, just as the passage of tort reform in Texas encouraged more doctors to move to that state.[85]

Freedom for Seniors to Choose:  The doctor-patient relationship is the foundation on which our health care system should be based.  Unfortunately, government requirements often impede the ability for patients to choose the best option for their own care.  For instance, one law dictates that senior citizens may not make their own financial arrangements with their doctors if those arrangements contradict Medicare’s payment rates; any physician who does so is prohibited from receiving any reimbursements from Medicare for two years.[86]

Congress should restore the doctor-patient relationship by repealing this onerous requirement.  It should also restore the ability of Medicare patients to buy procedures on their own, provided seniors receive full disclosure from their physicians and medical providers for the costs of their care.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the number of doctors dropping out of Medicare nearly tripled between 2009 and 2012. [87]  Senior citizens should not have access to the physician of their own choosing—or to procedures their doctors recommend for them—violated due to arbitrary restraints imposed by federal bureaucrats.

 

Taken together, this package of reforms would accomplish the objectives the American people are looking for in their health care system—the objectives President Obama said his legislation would bring, but which Obamacare has not delivered.  Enacting policies that get the incentives right can reduce costs, even while protecting the most vulnerable and enhancing portability and choice for consumers.

The American people deserve true health reform—one that puts patients and doctors first, not government bureaucrats.  After repealing Obamacare, enacting America Next’s plan would point America’s health system in the right direction.

 

 

[1] Vote on Boehner Substitute Amendment to H.R. 3962, Affordable Health Care for America Act, House Roll Call Vote 885, 111th Congress, November 7, 2009, http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2009/roll885.xml.

[2] “Republican Study Committee Policy Brief: Members’ Health Care Initiatives in the 113th Congress,” November 25, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/uploadedfiles/113th_112513_rsc_healthcare_menu.pdf.

[3] Remarks in Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, January 21, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/01/21/debate.transcript2/index.html.

[4] A video compilation of candidate Obama’s remarks on this issue from the 2008 campaign is available at http://freedomeden.blogspot.com/2010/03/obama-20-promises-for-2500.html.

[5] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections: Slow Growth Until Coverage Expands and Economy Improves,” Health Affairs October 2013, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/10/1820.

[6] Congressional Budget Office, Letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding premium effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, November 30, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10781/11-30-premiums.pdf.

[7] Amit Bhardwaj, et al., “Individual Market Enrollment: Updated View,” McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform, March 2014, http://healthcare.mckinsey.com/sites/default/files/Individual-Market-Enrollment.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, December 2008, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9924/12-18-keyissues.pdf, pp. 84–87.

[10] The White House, “Affordable, Accessible, and Flexible Health Coverage,” January 2007, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/stateoftheunion/2007/initiatives/healthcare.html; Republican Study Committee, “The American Health Care Reform Act,” September 18, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/solutions/rsc-betterway.htm.

[11] John Sheils and Randy Haught, “President Bush’s Health Care Tax Deduction Proposal: Coverage, Cost, and Distributional Impacts,” The Lewin Group, January 28, 2007, http://www.lewin.com/~/media/Lewin/Site_Sections/PressReleases/BushHealthCarePlanAnalysisRev.pdf.

[12] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L 111-148), Section 2551.

[13] Congressional Budget Office, Medicaid baseline, May 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44204_Medicaid.pdf.

[14] Congressional Budget Office, analysis of House Republican substitute amendment to H.R. 3962, November 4, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10705/hr3962amendmentboehner.pdf.

[15] Press release by House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Dave Camp, November 5, 2009, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=153186.

[16] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “January 2013 Census Shows 15.5 Million People Covered by Health Savings Account/High-Deductible Health Plans (HSA/HDHPs),” June 2013, http://www.ahip.org/HSACensus2013PDF/.

[17] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “Health Savings Accounts and Account-Based Health Plans: Research Highlights,” July 2012, http://www.ahip.org/HSAHighlightsReport072012/.

[18] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2013 Annual Survey,” August 2013, http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/8465-employer-health-benefits-20132.pdf, Exhibit 8.8, p. 140.

[19] Amelia M. Haviland, M. Susan Marquis, Roland D. McDevitt, and Neeraj Sood, “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.abstract.

[20] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148), Section 9003.

[21] Steven A. Burd, “How Safeway Is Cutting Health Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[22] Christopher Matthews, “U.S. Accuses Russian Diplomats of Medicaid Fraud,” Wall Street Journal December 5, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303497804579240163174732486.

[23] Clifford Levy and Michael Luo, “New York Medicaid Fraud May Reach into Billions,” The New York Times, July 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/18/nyregion/18medicaid.html.

[24] CBS News, “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes, September 5, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-5414390.html.

[25] Lisa Rosenbaum, “The Problem with Knowing How Much Your Health Care Costs,” The New Yorker December 23, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/12/price-transparency-health-care-costs.html.

[26] Institute of Medicine, The Health Care Imperative: Lowering Costs and Improving Outcomes—Workshop Summary, February 2011, http://www.iom.edu/reports/2011/the-healthcare-imperative-lowering-costs-and-improving-outcomes.aspx.

[27] Chris Jacobs, “How Obamacare Undermines American Values: Penalizing Work, Marriage, Citizenship, and the Disabled,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2862, November 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/how-obamacare-undermines-american-values-penalizing-work-marriage-citizenship-and-the-disabled.

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Waiting Lists for Medicaid Section 1915(c) Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) Waivers,” December 2012, http://kff.org/medicaid/state-indicator/waiting-lists-for-hcbs-waivers-2010/#table.

[29] James C. Capretta and Tom Miller, “How to Cover Pre-Existing Conditions,” National Affairs Summer 2010, http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20100614_CaprettaMiller_Web.pdf, pp. 114-15.

[30] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning and Evaluation, “At Risk: Pre-Existing Conditions Could Affect 1 in 2 Americans,” November 2011, http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/2012/pre-existing/index.shtml.

[31] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, “Covering People with Pre-Existing Conditions: Report on the Implementation and Operation of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program,” January 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/pcip_annual_report_01312013.pdf.

[32] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Senator Mike Enzi (R–WY), June 21, 2010, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/115xx/doc11572/06-21-high-risk_insurance_pools.pdf.

[33] Department of Health and Human Services, Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, notice of enrollment suspension, February 15, 2013, https://www.pcip.gov/Notifications/021513-ENROLLMENT_SUSPEND.html.

[34] Report by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi, “Health Care Reform’s Impact on Child-Only Health Insurance Policies,” August 2, 2011, http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Child-Only%20Health%20Insurance%20Report%20Aug%202,%202011.pdf.

[35] Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, “Concerns about Cancer Centers under Health Law,” Associated Press March 18, 2014, http://hosted2.ap.org/apdefault/3d281c11a96b4ad082fe88aa0db04305/Article_2014-03-18-Health%20Overhaul-Top%20Cancer%20Centers/id-d5acff9619ec4bc6aa875800d96fc270.

[36] Information on various state plans for covering high-risk individuals can be found on the website of the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, www.naschip.org.

[37] John C. Goodman, “Rescissions: Much Ado About Nothing,” Kaiser Health News, May 13, 2010,    http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Columns/2010/May/051310Goodman.aspx.

[38] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Medicare trustees report, May 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/TR2013.pdf, TableII.B4, p. 58.

[39] Suzanne Codespote, memo from Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, to Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions, June 3, 2013.

[40] Maria Bartiromo, “One-on-One with Nancy Pelosi,” CNBC interview, October 28, 2011, http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000054002.

[41] Kathleen Sebelius, testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “Fiscal Year 2012 HHS Budget,” March 4, 2011, video available at http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=8281.

[42] The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare was chaired by Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA); its work can be found at http://medicare.commission.gov/medicare/index.html.

[43] Testimony of David Kendall, Progressive Policy Institute Senior Analyst for Health Policy, before Senate Finance Committee hearing on “Modernizing Medicare,” May 26, 1999, http://dlc.org/ndol_ci04fb-2.html?kaid=111&subid=141&contentid=1790.

[44] Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan, “Guaranteed Choices to Strengthen Medicare and Health Security for All: Bipartisan Options for the Future,” December 15, 2011, http://budget.house.gov/uploadedfiles/wydenryan.pdf.

[45] Alice Rivlin, testimony before the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee on “A Bipartisan Approach to Reforming Medicare,” April 27, 2012, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/rivlin_testimony_final_4-27-2012.pdf, p. 4.

[46] Congressional Budget Office, “A Premium Support System for Medicare: Analysis of Illustrative Options,” September 2013, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/09-18-PremiumSupport.pdf.

[47] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[48] Ibid., p. 8.

[49] Ibid., p. 8.

[50] Congressional Budget Office, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 to 2023,” November 13, 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44715-OptionsForReducingDeficit-2_1.pdf, Health Option 7, p. 211.

[51] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010, http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

[52] Restoring America’s Future, report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Tax Force, November 2010, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, pp. 52-53.

[53] Overview of Coburn/Lieberman Medicare reform proposal, June 2011, http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=1ea8e116-6d15-46ba-b2e0-731258583305

[54] Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2015 Budget, March 4, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2015/assets/budget.pdf, pp. 31-32.

[55] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf.

[56] Testimony of Gary Alexander before the Congressional Commission on Long-Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.lmp01.lucidus.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[57] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation,” pp. 11-12.

[58] Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Healthy Indiana Plan 1115 Waiver Extension Application, February 13, 2013, http://www.in.gov/fssa/hip/files/HIP_WaiverforPosting.pdf, pp. 19, 6.

[59] Mitch Daniels, “We Good Europeans,” The Wall Street Journal March 26, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704094104575144362968408640.html.

[60] Avik Roy, “The Medicaid Mess: How Obamacare Makes It Worse,” The Manhattan Institute, March 2012,  http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ir_8.htm

[61] Katherine Baicker, Sarah Taubman, Heidi Allen, Mira Bernstein, Jonathan Gruber, Joseph P. Newhouse, Eric Schneider, Bill Wright, Alan Zaslavsky, Amy Finkelstein, and the Oregon Health Study Group, “The Oregon Experiment – Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes” New England Journal of Medicine, May 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321

[62] The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, http://www.nber.org/oregon/

[63] Republican Governors Public Policy Committee Health Care Task Force, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, http://www.scribd.com/doc/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[64] Sarah Torre, “Obamacare’s Many Loopholes: Forcing Individuals and Taxpayers to Fund Elective Abortion Coverage,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2872, January 13, 2014, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/01/obamacares-many-loopholes-forcing-individuals-and-taxpayers-to-fund-elective-abortion-coverage.

[65] A full list of the court cases, and further information regarding them, can be found through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, http://www.becketfund.org/hhsinformationcentral/.

[66] Chuck Donovan, “Obamacare: Impact on Taxpayer Funding of Abortion,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2872, April 19, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/obamacare-impact-on-taxpayer-funding-of-abortion.

[67] President Barack Obama, remarks to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care, September 9, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-to-a-Joint-Session-of-Congress-on-Health-Care.

[68] Associated Press, “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” December 26, 2013, http://money.msn.com/business-news/article.aspx?feed=AP&date=20131226&id=17219856.

[69] Interim final rule by Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services regarding grandfathered health insurance status, released June 14, 2010, http://www.federalregister.gov/OFRUpload/OFRData/2010-14488_PI.pdf Table 3, p. 54.

[70] Jordan Bruneau, “The Great Healthcare CON,” Foundation for Economic Education, January 15, 2014, http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/the-great-healthcare-con#axzz2qbUCvcC2.

[71] There may need to be some very targeted consideration given to specific health care markets so dependent on government programs that taxpayers end up paying for unused capacity.

[72] Association of American Medical Colleges, Center for Workforce Studies, “Recent Studies and Reports on Physician Shortages in the U.S.,” October 2012, https://www.aamc.org/download/100598/data/.

[73] Institute of Medicine, “The Future of Nursing: Focus on Scope of Practice,” Report Brief, October 2010, http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing/Nursing%20Scope%20of%20Practice%202010%20Brief.pdf.

[74] Joint Statement of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission before the Illinois Task Force on Health Planning Reform, September 15, 2008, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/comments/237351.pdf, pp. 1-2.

[75] Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition, July 2004, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/health_care/204694.pdf, pp. 25-28.

[76] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 170.9 million Americans were covered by employer-based insurance, compared with 30.6 million Americans covered by direct-purchase insurance (including various forms of supplemental coverage).  Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013, http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf, Table C-1, p. 67.

[77] Reed Abelson, Katie Thomas, and Jo Craven McGinty, “Health Care Law Fails to Lower Prices for Rural Areas,” New York Times October 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/business/health-law-fails-to-keep-prices-low-in-rural-areas.html.

[78] CAHI found a total of 2,271 benefit mandates enacted in 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2012: Executive Summary,” April 9, 2013, http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/Mandatesinthestates2012Execsumm.pdf.

[79] One study found that benefit mandates raise premiums by an average of $0.75 per month, or $9 per year.  A state with the national average of 44 benefit mandates would therefore have raised premiums by an average of $396 annually.  See Michael J. New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 06-04, July 25, 2006, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/07/the-effect-of-state-regulations-on-health-insurance-premiums-a-revised-analysis, p. 5.

[80] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Addressing the New Health Care Crisis: Reforming the Medical Litigation System to Improve the Quality of Health Care,” March 2003, http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/medliab.pdf, p. 16.

[81] Association of American Medical Colleges, “Recent Studies on Physician Shortages.”

[82] Seth A. Seabury, et al., “On Average, Physicians Spend Nearly 11 Percent of their 40-Year Careers with an Open, Unresolved Malpractice Claim,” Health Affairs January 2014, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/1/111.full.pdf+html.

[83] Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, “Deloitte 2013 Survey of U.S. Physicians,” March 18, 2013, http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_chs_2013SurveyofUSPhysicians_031813.pdf, p. 3.

[84] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections.”

[85] Joseph Nixon, “Why Doctors Are Heading for Texas,” Wall Street Journal May 17, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB121097874071799863.

[86] Section 4507 of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, P.L. 105-33.

[87] Melinda Beck, “More Doctors Steer Clear of Medicare,” Wall Street Journal July 30, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323971204578626151017241898.

Gov. Jindal Op-Ed: A Taxing Insurance System

If President Obama is interested in lowering inequality, he has a funny way of showing it. In a speech last December, the President claimed that income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time,” and pledged new government action to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

Ironically enough, one of the policies the President claimed will “solve” inequality—the massive health care legislation he signed into law—will result in the health insurers who provide care to the lowest-income Americans getting taxed.

You read that right: Obamacare taxes health insurers who provide care through Medicaid, the state-federal partnership providing care to low-income families and individuals with disabilities. The law raises $8 billion in taxes on insurers this year, rising to over $14 billion annually by 2018.

Under the law, most managed care plans that provide treatment to vulnerable populations in Medicaid will be subject to the tax. Likewise, most Medicare Advantage plans chosen by seniors will be forced to pay this new Obamacare surcharge.

Because of the way the law was written and applied, the health insurer tax will have some truly perverse effects. In Louisiana, we will have to pay our Medicaid plans more to offset the cost of the health insurer tax. But in doing so, we will claim federal matching funds on those higher Medicaid payments. Imagine that: The federal government is paying states to fund the taxes Washington itself imposed!

Democrats like to claim that these taxes will be borne by “greedy” insurance companies, and that ordinary Americans won’t suffer. But non-partisan experts have said insurers’ cost of the tax will be passed on to insurers’ customers, which is consistent with economic theory—and basic common sense.

Both the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation agree that these taxes will ultimately be paid by consumers, in the form of higher premiums. The Joint Committee on Taxation said that repealing the insurer tax would reduce premiums by 2-2.5 percent. That means the insurer tax raises premiums by $350-400 per year for the average family health insurance plan.

Remember that Obamacare’s individual mandate was ruled a tax by the Supreme Court two years ago. So Obamacare taxes you if you don’t buy health insurance, and taxes most people who do buy insurance. Businesses face the same dilemma: Large firms are taxed if they don’t provide their workers with insurance, but if they offer their employees coverage, the law’s health insurance tax could raise their premiums even higher.

And all these taxes—enforced by your helpful friends at the IRS—are harming American families, and our economy. The Congressional Budget Office recently concluded that Obamacare raises effective marginal tax rates, discouraging millions of Americans from working. CBO also concluded that the law will reduce aggregate labor compensation, and result in lower demand for lower-wage workers.

To end where we began: A law that taxes those providing care to the most vulnerable, raises insurance premiums on struggling families, and reduces the American workforce and compensation is exactly the wrong way to address income inequality. In fact, it epitomizes Ronald Reagan’s famous quip that the nine most terrifying words are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” President Obama should go back to the drawing board on his agenda, and Congress should repeal Obamacare and focus on enacting true health reform—changes that will lower costs, not raise them.

This post was originally published at Townhall.

After Repeal of Obamacare: Moving to Patient-Centered, Market-Based Health Care

A PDF of this Backgrounder is available on the Heritage Foundation website.

For a better life, Americans need a health care system that they, not the government, control. Consumers should have the ability to choose how to meet their health insurance needs in a free market for insurance. Taxpayers should benefit from a more efficient and affordable system for helping those who need health care but cannot afford it. Above all, patients, with their doctors, should make their own health care decisions free from government interference.

The important first step is to repeal the Obamacare statute that puts the government in charge of health care. The second step is to let the country move to a patient-centered, market-based system that focuses on citizens and not on the government.

Principles for Reform

To allow Americans to reclaim control of their own health care and benefit from competition in a free market for insurance and health care, Congress should repeal the Obamacare statute and enact patient-centered, market-based reforms based on five principles:

  • Choose, control, and carry your own health insurance;
  • Let free markets provide the insurance and health care services that people want;
  • Encourage employers to provide a portable health insurance benefit to employees;
  • Assist those who need help through civil society, the free market, and the states; and
  • Protect the right of conscience and unborn children.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) moves health care in the wrong direction. It puts government, not patients, in charge of individual health care decisions. Moreover, it fails to meet the promises laid out by President Barack Obama. With each passing day, it becomes clearer that Obamacare will not reduce premiums for average American families, bend the cost curve in health care spending, or bring down the deficit. For these reasons, among others, Obamacare must be repealed.

However, a return to the status quo before Obamacare is not the final step. Policymakers should pursue reforms based on five basic principles. Adopting such reforms would move American health care in the right direction: toward a patient-centered, market-based health care system.

Principle #1: Choose, control, and carry your own health insurance.

True health reform should promote personal ownership of health insurance. While Obamacare uses government-run insurance exchanges to limit individual choice, real reforms would focus on encouraging Americans to purchase insurance policies that they can take with them from job to job and into retirement in a competitive, free market. Policymakers should enact several key changes for this culture of personal health care ownership to take root.

Portability. Most Americans obtain coverage through their place of work. This allows employers to provide tax-free health benefits to their employees, while individuals purchasing health insurance on their own must use after-tax dollars. As a result, most individuals with private health insurance obtain that coverage from their employer.[1]

Rather than following Obamacare’s example of forcing Americans into government-run health insurance exchanges, true patient-centered reform of health care would make insurance more portable. Individuals should be able to purchase an insurance policy when they are young and carry that policy with them throughout their working lives into retirement.

Equal Tax Relief. While Obamacare alters the tax treatment of health insurance, it does so in a way that increases burdens on taxpayers. Its 40 percent tax on so-called Cadillac health insurance plans is but one of 18 separate tax increases included in the law,[2] which, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, will raise $771 billion in revenue from 2013 to 2022.[3]

A better approach would equalize the tax treatment of health insurance without raising new revenues. The Heritage Foundation has previously proposed replacing the existing deduction for employer-provided health coverage with a flat tax credit that individuals could use to purchase a health insurance policy of their own.[4] Another idea, first proposed by then-President George W. Bush, would give all Americans purchasing health coverage—whether through an employer or on their own—the same standard deduction for health insurance.[5] Both proposals assume revenue neutrality over 10 years. Unlike Obamacare, they do not propose using reform to increase net tax revenues.

Both of these proposals would accomplish two important objectives.

First, they would equalize the tax treatment between health coverage provided through an employer and health coverage purchased by an individual. Providing equal tax treatment would remove a major obstacle that discourages individuals from buying and holding their own health insurance policy for years and taking that coverage from job to job. Tax equity would also encourage firms either to provide direct contributions toward their workers’ health coverage or to increase wages in place of health benefits.

Second, limiting the amount of the tax benefit provided, either with a tax credit or with a standard deduction, would encourage individuals to become smarter purchasers of health insurance coverage. Studies have demonstrated that the current uncapped tax benefit for employer-provided health insurance encourages firms to offer richer health plans and individuals to overconsume health care. According to the Congressional Budget Office, reforming the tax treatment of health insurance “would provide stronger incentives for enrollees to weigh the expected benefits and costs of policies” when buying insurance, thus helping to reduce costs.[6]

Choice of Providers. Through its new system of government control, Obamacare restricts choice and access for many patients. The nonpartisan Medicare actuary concluded that the Medicare reimbursement reductions in Obamacare could make 40 percent of all hospitals unprofitable in the long term, thus restricting beneficiary access to care.[7] Moreover, preliminary reports suggest that Obamacare’s insurance exchanges will feature limited provider networks in an attempt to mitigate premium increases for individuals purchasing exchange coverage.[8]

The most important element of any health care system is the trusted relationship between doctor and patient. Any system of truly patient-centered health care should work to preserve those important bonds and to repair the damage to those bonds caused by Obamacare.

Encouraging Personal Savings. Since their creation in 2004, health savings accounts (HSAs) have become a popular way for millions of families to build savings for needed health care expenses. HSA plans combine a health insurance option featuring a slightly higher deductible—but catastrophic protection in the event of significant medical expenses—with a tax-free savings account. As one of several new consumer-driven health options, HSAs encourage patients to take control of their own health care, providing financial incentives for consumers to serve as wise health care purchasers.

Over the past several years, millions of families have taken advantage of the innovative tools that HSA plans offer. The number of people enrolled in HSA-eligible policies has skyrocketed from 1 million in March 2005 to 15.5 million in January 2013.[9] Numerous studies have also shown that individuals with HSA plans have used tools provided by their health insurer to become more involved with their health care—for example, by using online support tools, inquiring about provider cost and quality, and seeking preventive care.[10] As a result, individuals had saved at least $12.4 billion in their HSAs by the end of 2011.[11]

However, HSA holders still face obstacles to building their personal savings. For instance, under current law, funds contributed to an HSA may not be used to pay for insurance premiums, except under very limited circumstances.[12] Changing this restriction and increasing HSA contribution limits would enhance both personal savings and personal ownership of health insurance.

Coverage for Pre-Existing Conditions. The problem of providing access to individuals with pre-existing conditions, while very real, did not necessitate the massive changes in America’s health care system included in Obamacare. In 2011, the Obama Administration suggested that as many as 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions were “at risk” and “could be denied coverage” without Obamacare’s massive changes in America’s insurance markets.[13]

That claim was wildly untrue. Under prior law, individuals with employer-sponsored coverage (90 percent of the private market) could not be subjected to pre-existing condition exclusions.[14] In fact, prior to Obamacare, the number of individuals with pre-existing conditions who truly could not obtain health coverage was vastly smaller, and the problem existed only in the individual market. It is therefore not surprising that, according to the most recent data, only an estimated 134,708 individuals have enrolled in the supplemental federal high-risk pool program since it was created under Obamacare to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions[15]—still less than the 200,000 individuals originally projected to enroll.[16]

States could use a variety of approaches to provide coverage to individuals who are unable to purchase insurance. For instance, 35 states already operate high-risk pools with a collective current enrollment of 227,000 individuals to ensure access to coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions.[17] Alternatively, states could establish reinsurance or risk transfer mechanisms under which insurance companies would reimburse each other for the cost of treating individuals with high medical expenses without added funding from state or federal taxpayers. Either approach would be far preferable to the massive amounts of regulation, taxation, and government spending under Obamacare.

Principle #2: Let free markets provide the insurance and health care services that people want.

Many individuals have already learned that, due in part to Obamacare, with its government-run health exchanges, new bureaucracies, and other forms of government control, they will not be able to retain their current health insurance.[18] There is a better way, and it involves providing more choice through market incentives rather than undermining markets through centralized bureaucracy.

Cross-State Purchasing. Currently, state insurance markets suffer from two flaws: Many markets are uncompetitive, with up to 70 percent of metropolitan areas considered “highly concentrated,”[19] and costly benefit mandates raise health insurance premiums. A prior Heritage Foundation analysis found that each benefit mandate raises costs by an average of approximately $0.75 per month.[20] Another study found that states have imposed a total of 2,271 benefit mandates—or approximately 45 per state.[21] Taken together, these two studies suggest that the cumulative effect of these mandates could raise premiums by $20–$40 per month, or hundreds of dollars per year.

Congress can help to mitigate these problems by removing federal barriers to interstate commerce in health insurance products. Individuals should have the ability to purchase insurance products across state lines, choosing the health plan that best meets their needs regardless of the location of its issuer.

Pooling Mechanisms. Another way to improve patient choice and make insurance markets more competitive would involve new purchasing arrangements and pooling mechanisms. Small businesses, individual membership associations, religious groups, and fraternal organizations should be able to sell health insurance policies through new group purchasing arrangements. The federal government’s role should be to remove the barriers to such arrangements.

By extending the benefits of group coverage beyond the place of work, these new purchasing arrangements would also encourage portability of health insurance coverage. These reforms would allow individuals to obtain their health plan from a trusted source—one with which they would be likely to have a longer association than they have with their employer—thereby creating a form of health coverage that Americans could truly own.

Medicare Private Contracting. Seniors could also benefit from patient-centered Medicare reforms, one of which should help to restore the doctor–patient relationship. Congress should eliminate the anti-competitive restrictions that prevent doctors and patients from contracting privately for medical services outside of traditional Medicare.[22] Congress can also restructure the Medicare benefit, modernizing the design of a program that has remained largely unchanged since its creation nearly 50 years ago.[23] These changes would enhance patient choice while preserving the program’s solvency for future generations of Americans.

Medicare Reform. Regrettably, Obamacare imposes many its most harmful effects on senior citizens.[24] According to the Medicare actuary, the Medicare reimbursement reductions in Obamacare will make 15 percent of all hospitals unprofitable within the decade and 40 percent unprofitable by 2050.[25] As a result, seniors may face significant obstacles to obtaining health care in the future.

There is a better way. Specifically, Congress should provide seniors with a generous subsidy to purchase a Medicare plan of their choosing. Seniors who choose a plan costing less than the subsidy would pay less, while seniors who choose a plan costing more than the subsidy would pay the difference in price.[26 ]

Consumer Choice and Competition. As part of its system of government control, Obamacare hinders patients’ ability to choose their own health plan. One survey found that the mandates and requirements in the law mean that more than half of all insurance policies purchased directly by individuals will not qualify as “government-approved” under Obamacare.[27] As a result, many Americans are finding that they will not be able to keep the health plan they have and like[28]—despite President Obama’s repeated promises.[29]

True patient-centered reform would bolster HSAs and other consumer-directed health products—such as health reimbursement arrangements and flexible spending accounts—that have the ability to transform American health care. One study published in the prestigious journal Health Affairs in 2012 found that expanding market penetration of consumer-driven health plans from 13 percent to 50 percent of all employers could reduce health costs by as much as $73.6 billion per year—a reduction in health spending of 9.1 percent.[30]

In other words, expanding consumer choice and competition could reduce health care costs and spending—the opposite of Obamacare, which restricts consumer choice and increases health costs and spending.

Principle #3: Encourage employers to provide a portable health insurance benefit.

Because most Americans traditionally have received health insurance from their employers, many individuals have few, if any, choices when selecting a health plan. According to the broadest survey of employer plans, nearly nine in 10 firms (87 percent) offer only one plan type, and only 2 percent offer three or more plan types.[31] As a result, employees have only a very limited ability to choose the plan that best meets their needs.

Defined Contribution. An ideal solution would convert the traditional system of employer-provided health insurance from a defined benefit model to a defined contribution model. Rather than providing health insurance directly, employers instead would offer cash contributions to their workers, enabling them to buy the plans of their own choosing. Combined with changes in the tax treatment of health insurance and regulatory improvements to enhance portability, moving to a defined contribution model for health insurance would allow workers to buy a health insurance policy in their youth and take that policy with them from job to job into retirement. These changes would also enable workers and families to negotiate contributions from multiple employers rather than having just one employer foot the bill.

Principle #4: Assist those who need help through civil society, the free market, and states.

While some health reforms—such as changing the tax treatment of health insurance and reforming the Medicare program—remain fully within the purview of the federal government, states also play a critical role in enacting reforms that can lower costs, improve access to care, and modernize state Medicaid programs. By serving as the “laboratories of democracy,” states can provide examples for other states—and the federal government—to follow. Because many state-based reforms do not rely on Washington’s involvement or approval, states can move ahead with innovative market-based solutions even as federal bureaucrats attempt to implement Obamacare’s government-centric approach.

State Innovation. If given proper time and space by an all-too-intrusive federal government, states can act on their own to open their insurance markets. A few states have already acted to open their insurance markets. In 2011, Georgia enacted legislation allowing interstate purchasing of health insurance, and Maine passed legislation allowing carriers from other New England states to offer insurance products to its citizens.[32] Just before Obamacare was enacted in 2010, Wyoming acted to permit out-of-state insurers to offer products.[33] While it may take some time before a critical mass of states creates a true interstate market for insurance, these nascent efforts demonstrate the nationwide interest in expanding health insurance choice and competition.

Medicaid Premium Assistance. Among various forms of health coverage, the Medicaid program is known for its poor quality and outcomes for patients. Numerous studies have found that Medicaid patients suffer worse outcomes than other patients suffer.[34] A recent study from Oregon concluded that after two years, patients in Medicaid did not achieve measurable health benefits from their insurance coverage.[35] Even participants—recognizing that many physicians, because of the program’s low reimbursement rates, will not treat Medicaid patients—complain that the program is not “real insurance.”[36]

Obamacare makes Medicaid’s problems worse, consigning millions more Americans to this poor government-run program. True reform would instead subsidize private health insurance for low-income Medicaid beneficiaries. The Heritage Foundation has previously promoted such a solution as part of its comprehensive reform of the Medicaid program.[37] Congress should take steps to encourage states to provide premium assistance. Such programs would promote health care ownership and provide beneficiaries with better access to care than the traditional Medicaid program does.

Medicaid Reforms. Despite the looming presence of Obamacare, states should continue wherever possible to seek opportunities to reform their Medicaid programs, moving toward more personalized care and including strong incentives for personal responsibility. States can also seek additional flexibility from Washington to modernize care; many governors have already made such requests.[38]

Congress also should act to reform and modernize Medicaid. Efforts in this vein would include comprehensive reforms—such as a block grant or per capita spending caps—that trade additional flexibility for states in exchange for a fixed spending allotment from Washington.[39] Other reforms could incentivize and subsidize Medicaid beneficiaries to move to private insurance policies that they can own and keep. All of these reforms would focus on modernizing Medicaid to provide better quality care, reduce costs, and promote personal responsibility and ownership.

Reducing Fraud. Regrettably, many government health programs are riddled with fraud. Some estimates suggest that as much as $60 billion in Medicare spending may involve fraud.[40] Similar problems plague many state Medicaid programs. A 2005 New York Times exposé on Medicaid fraud quoted James Mehmet, a former chief investigator in New York State, as saying that 10 percent of the state’s Medicaid spending constituted outright fraud, with another 20 percent to 30 percent comprising “unnecessary spending that might not be criminal.” Overall, Mehmet estimated that “questionable” Medicaid spending totaled $18 billion in New York State alone.[41]

Congress and the states should do more to crack down on the waste, fraud, and abuse that plague America’s health entitlements. Reforms should end the current “pay and chase” model, under which investigators must attempt to track down fraudulent claims and providers after they have already received reimbursement. Other solutions would enhance penalties for those who engage in fraudulent activity—for instance, buying or selling personal patient information, which is often used to perpetrate fraud schemes. These and other reforms would save taxpayer dollars, helping to preserve Medicare and Medicaid for future generations.

Removing Barriers to Care. With studies indicating that America faces a doctor shortage in future years, policymakers should focus on removing barriers that discourage institutions from assisting those who need health care.[42] Regrettably, America’s litigious culture has resulted in the widespread practice of defensive medicine by doctors and other health practitioners. In response, some states have changed their medical liability laws to discourage frivolous lawsuits, prompting doctors to move to those states to practice medicine. Were other states to adopt such reforms, this would encourage doctors—a majority of whom believe the practice of medicine is in jeopardy[43]—to remain in practice and would encourage students to join the profession.

In addition, reforms that improve the liability system could reduce the prevalence of defensive medicine practices and thereby help to reduce health costs. One government estimate found that reasonable limits on non-economic damages could reduce total health spending by as much as $126 billion per year by reducing the amount of defensive medicine practiced by physicians.[44] More recently, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that enacting comprehensive liability reform would reduce health care spending by tens of billions of dollars per year, reducing the federal budget deficit by tens of billions over the next decade.[45]

To help to eliminate barriers to care and reduce health costs, states should reform their liability systems, capping non-economic damages and taking other steps to reduce the incidence of frivolous lawsuits and ensure proper legal protections for health care providers.[46] However, because liability reform and torts in general are properly a state issue, Congress should not impose liability reforms except where the federal government has a clear, constitutionally based federal interest. Examples might include liability reforms with respect to medical products approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration or when the federal government is a payer of health care services, as it is with Medicare and Medicaid.[47]

Reforming Scope-of-Practice and Certificate of Need. State governments control the licensure of both medical professionals and medical practices. By removing artificial obstacles that restrict the supply of medical providers, states can expand access to health services across populations while unleashing new competition that can work to reduce costs.

States can reform their health care systems by re-examining scope-of-practice laws, which frequently limit the ability of nurse practitioners and other health professionals to care for patients. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine concluded that “state regulations often restrict the ability of nurses to provide care legally” and that policymakers should remove “barriers that limit the ability of nurses to practice to the full extent of their education, training, and competence.”[48] Many states have begun to reform their scope-of-practice laws to allow physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and others to treat more patients even as entrenched interests have fought to preserve their preferential treatment.[49] States should follow the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine in reforming their scope-of-practice laws to allow all medical professionals to practice to the full extent of their training.

A total of 36 states also impose certificate-of-need requirements, which impede the introduction of new hospitals and medical facilities. These laws require organizations seeking to build new medical facilities to obtain a certificate from a state board that the facility is “needed” in a particular area.[50] As with scope-of-practice requirements, reforming or eliminating certificate-of-need restrictions would encourage the development of new medical facilities, expanding access to care and giving patients more choices.

Principle #5: Protect the right of conscience and unborn children.

Government should not compel individuals to undertake actions that violate their deeply held religious beliefs. Regrettably, Obamacare imposes just such a requirement on Americans, forcing many employers to offer, and individuals to purchase, health coverage that violates the core tenets of their faith regarding the protection of life.[51]

Congress should ensure that individuals never again are required to violate their religious beliefs to meet a government diktat.

Rights of Conscience. Congress should protect the rights of consumers, insurers, employers, and medical personnel to refrain from facilitating, participating in, funding, or providing services contrary to their consciences or the tenets of their religious faith. Enacting these protections would prevent Americans from facing the moral dilemma presented by Obamacare, which has forced individuals, employers, and religious organizations to choose between violating the law and violating their faith or consciences.

Permanent Prohibition on Taxpayer-Funded Abortion. Congress should make permanent in law the existing annually enacted prohibitions on the use of federal taxpayer funds to finance abortions or health insurance coverage that includes elective abortions. These protections, enacted as the “Hyde Amendment” every year since 1976, prevent the use of taxpayer dollars to fund elective abortions.[52] After nearly 40 years of renewing these protections on an annual basis, Congress should finally make them permanent in law.

A New Vision for Health Reform

Obamacare moves American health care in the wrong direction. Not only does the law raise health costs rather than lowering them, but it creates new bureaucracies that will erode the doctor–patient relationship.[53] The trillions of dollars in new spending for Obamacare will place a massive fiscal burden on future generations of taxpayers.[54] For these reasons and more, Congress should repeal the law in its entirety.

Once this has been done, policymakers should then advance health reforms that move toward patient-centered, market-based health care. Such reforms would promote personal choice and ownership of health insurance; enable the free market to respond to consumer demands; encourage portability of coverage for workers; help civil society, the free markets, and the states to assist those in need; and protect the rights of faith, conscience, and life.

 

 


[1] According to the most recent census data, 86.2 percent of Americans with private health insurance coverage obtained that coverage through an employer. Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2012, p. 65, Table C-1, http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p60-243.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[2] Alyene Senger, “Obamacare’s Impact on Today’s and Tomorrow’s Taxpayers: An Update,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4022, August 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/08/obamacares-impact-on-todays-and-tomorrows-taxpayers-an-update.

[3] Joint Committee on Taxation, “Estimated Revenue Effects of a Proposal to Repeal Certain Tax Provisions Contained in the ‘Affordable Care Act (“ACA”)’,” June 15, 2012, and Congressional Budget Office, “Table 2: CBO’s May 2013 Estimate of the Budgetary Effects of the Insurance Coverage Provisions Contained in the Affordable Care Act,” http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44190_EffectsAffordableCareActHealthInsuranceCoverage_2.pdf. The total amount of tax revenue collected from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and 40 percent excise tax on high-cost health plans comes from the CBO’s May 2013 estimate. For all other taxes, the amount of tax revenue totaled comes from the Joint Committee on Taxation’s June 2012 estimation.

[4] Nina Owcharenko, “Saving the American Dream: A Blueprint for Putting Patients First,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3628, June 6, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/06/saving-the-american-dream-a-blueprint-for-putting-patients-first.

[5] The White House, “Affordable, Accessible, and Flexible Health Coverage,” 2007, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/stateoftheunion/2007/initiatives/healthcare.html (accessed September 20, 2013). Recently, the House Republican Study Committee included a standard deduction in its proposal for health reform. See U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Study Committee, “The American Health Care Reform Act,” September 18, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/solutions/rsc-betterway.htm (accessed September 25, 2013).

[6] Congressional Budget Office, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, December 2008, pp. 84–87, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9924/12-18-keyissues.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[7] John D. Shatto and M. Kent Clemens, “Projected Medicare Expenditures Under Illustrative Scenarios with Alternative Payment Updates to Medicare Providers,” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary, May 31, 2013, pp. 8–10, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/2013TRAlternativeScenario.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[8] Anna Wilde Mathews, “Many Health Insurers to Limit Choices of Doctors, Hospitals,” The Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323446404579010800462478682.html (accessed September 20, 2013; subscription required).

[9] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “January 2013 Census Shows 15.5 Million People Covered by Health Savings Account/High-Deductible Health Plans (HSA/HDHPs),” June 2013, http://www.ahip.org/HSACensus2013PDF/ (accessed September 20, 2013).

[10] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “Health Savings Accounts and Account-Based Health Plans: Research Highlights,” July 2012, http://www.ahip.org/HSAHighlightsReport072012/ (accessed September 20, 2013).

[11] Devenir, “Health Savings Accounts Surpass $12.4 Billion in 2011,” January 31, 2012, http://www.devenir.com/2012/devenir2011yearendsurvey (accessed September 20, 2013).

[12] For the definition of “qualified medical expenses,” see 26 U.S. Code § 223(d)(2). HSA funds can be used to purchase health insurance only for COBRA continuation health coverage, health insurance purchased during periods of unemployment, Medigap supplemental coverage, or long-term care insurance (within certain limits).

[13] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning and Evaluation, “At Risk: Pre-Existing Conditions Could Affect 1 in 2 Americans,” November 2011, http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/2012/pre-existing/index.shtml (accessed September 20, 2013).

[14] Edmund Haislmaier, “HHS Report on Obamacare’s Preexisting Conditions Impact: Say What???” The Heritage Foundation, The Foundry, January 19, 2011, http://blog.heritage.org/2011/01/19/hhs-report-on-obamacare’s-preexisting-conditions-impact-say-what/.

[15] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, “Covering People with Pre-Existing Conditions: Report on the Implementation and Operation of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program,” January 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/pcip_annual_report_01312013.pdf (accessed September 24, 2013).

[16] Douglas W. Elmendorf, letter to Senator Mike Enzi (R–WY), June 21, 2010, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/115xx/doc11572/06-21-high-risk_insurance_pools.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[17] National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, “Pool Membership—2011,” September 2012, http://naschip.org/2012/Quick%20Checks/Pool%20Membership%202011.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[18] Chris Jacobs, “Obamacare: Taking Away Americans’ Health Coverage,” The Heritage Foundation, The Foundry, August 6, 2013, http://blog.heritage.org/2013/08/06/obamacare-taking-away-americans-health-coverage/.

[19] Press release, “New AMA Study Finds Anticompetitive Market Conditions Are Common Across Managed Care Plans,” American Medical Association, November 28, 2012, http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/news/news/2012-11-28-study-finds-anticompetitive-market-conditions-common.page (accessed September 20, 2013).

[20] Michael J. New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 06-04, July 25, 2006, p. 5, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/07/the-effect-of-state-regulations-on-health-insurance-premiums-a-revised-analysis.

[21] Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2012: Executive Summary,” April 9, 2013, http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/Mandatesinthestates2012Execsumm.pdf (accessed September 24, 2013).

[22] Chris Jacobs, “Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate: Principles for Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2827, July 18, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/07/medicares-sustainable-growth-rate-principles-for-reform.

[23] Robert E. Moffit and Rea S. Hederman, Jr., “Medicare Savings: Five Steps to a Down Payment on Medicare Reform,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3908, April 11, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/04/medicare-savings-5-steps-to-a-downpayment-on-structural-reform.

[24] Alyene Senger, “Obamacare’s Impact on Seniors: An Update,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4019, August 20, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/08/obamacares-impact-on-seniors-an-update.

[25] Shatto and Clemens, “Projected Medicare Expenditures Under Illustrative Scenarios,” pp. 8–10.

[26] Owcharenko, “Saving the American Dream: A Blueprint for Putting Patients First.”

[27] Jon R. Gabel, Ryan Lore, Roland D. McDevitt, Jeremy D. Pickreign, Heidi Whitmore, Michael Slover, and Ethan Levy-Forsythe, “More Than Half of Individual Health Plans Offer Coverage That Falls Short of What Can Be Sold Through Exchanges as of 2014,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2012/05/22/hlthaff.2011.1082 (accessed September 20, 2013; subscription required).

[28] Jacobs, “Obamacare: Taking Away Americans’ Health Coverage.”

[29] For instance, see a 2008 campaign document answering the question “Will I have to change plans?” under the Obama proposal: “No, you will not have to change plans. For those who have insurance now, nothing will change under the Obama plan—except that you will pay less.” Obama for America, “Background Questions and Answers on Health Care Plan,” 2008, http://www.scribd.com/doc/191306/barack-obama-08-healthcare-faq (accessed September 20, 2013).

[30] Amelia M. Haviland, M. Susan Marquis, Roland D. McDevitt, and Neeraj Sood, “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.abstract (accessed September 20, 2013; subscription required).

[31] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, Employer Health Benefits: 2013 Annual Survey, August 2013, p. 56, Exhibit 4.1, http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/8465-employer-health-benefits-20131.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[32] National Council of State Legislatures, “Out-of-State Health Insurance—Allowing the Purchase (State Implementation Report),” updated September 2012, http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/health/out-of-state-health-insurance-purchases.aspx (accessed September 23, 2013).

[33] Ibid.

[34] For a summary of many of these studies, see Kevin D. Dayaratna, “Studies Show: Medicaid Patients Have Worse Access and Outcomes than the Privately Insured,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2740, November 7, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/11/studies-show-medicaid-patients-have-worse-access-and-outcomes-than-the-privately-insured. See also Scott Gottlieb, “Medicaid Is Worse Than No Coverage at All,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704758904576188280858303612.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

[35] Annie Lowrey, “Study Finds Health Care Use Rises with Expanded Medicaid,” The New York Times, May 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/business/study-finds-health-care-use-rises-with-expanded-medicaid.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

[36] Vanessa Fuhrmans, “Note to Medicaid Patients: The Doctor Won’t See You,” The Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2007, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118480165648770935.html (accessed September 23, 2013; subscription required).

[37] Nina Owcharenko, “Medicaid Reform: More Than a Block Grant Is Needed,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3590, May 4, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/05/three-steps-to-medicaid-reform.

[38] Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, Health Care Task Force, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, http://www.rga.org/homepage/gop-govs-release-medicaid-reform-report/ (accessed September 23, 2013).

[39] Owcharenko, “Medicaid Reform: More Than a Block Grant Is Needed.”

[40] CBS News, “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes, September 5, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-5414390.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

[41] Clifford Levy and Michael Luo, “New York Medicaid Fraud May Reach into Billions,” The New York Times, July 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/18/nyregion/18medicaid.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

[42] Nisha Nathan, “Doctor Shortage Could Cause Health Care Crash,” ABC News, November 13, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/doctor-shortage-health-care-crash/story?id=17708473 (accessed September 23, 2013).

[43] Deloitte, “Deloitte 2013 Survey of U.S. Physicians: Physician Perspectives About Health Care Reform and the Future of the Medical Profession,” 2013, p. 3, http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_chs_2013SurveyofUSPhysicians_031813.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[44] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Addressing the New Health Care Crisis: Reforming the Medical Litigation System to Improve the Quality of Health Care,” March 2003, p. 16, http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/medliab.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[45] Douglas W. Elmendorf, letter to Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT), October 9, 2009, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/106xx/doc10641/10-09-tort_reform.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[46] Randolph W. Pate and Derek Hunter, “Code Blue: The Case for Serious State Medical Liability Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1908, January 17, 2006, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/01/code-blue-the-case-for-serious-state-medical-liability-reform.

[47] Hans von Spakovsky, “Medical Malpractice Reform: States vs. the Federal Government,” The Heritage Foundation, The Foundry, March 19, 2012, http://blog.heritage.org/2012/03/19/medical-malpractice-reform-states-vs-the-federal-government/.

[48] Institute of Medicine, “The Future of Nursing: Focus on Scope of Practice,” Report Brief, October 2010, http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing/Nursing%20Scope%20of%20Practice%202010%20Brief.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[49] Melinda Beck, “Battles Erupt over Filling Doctors’ Shoes,” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323644904578271872578661246.html (accessed September 23, 2013), and Melinda Beck, “Nurse Practitioners Seek Right to Treat Patients on Their Own,” The Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323455104579013193992224008.html (accessed September 23, 2013; subscription required).

[50] National Conference of State Legislatures, “Certificate of Need: State Laws and Programs,” updated March 2012, http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/health/con-certificate-of-need-state-laws.aspx (accessed September 23, 2013).

[51] The Heritage Foundation “Obamacare Anti-Conscience Mandate: An Assault on the Constitution,” Fact Sheet No. 103, February 17, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/factsheets/2012/02/obamacare-anti-conscience-mandate-an-assault-on-the-constitution.

[52] Chuck Donovan, “Obamacare: Impact on Taxpayer Funding of Abortion,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2872, April 19, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/obamacare-impact-on-taxpayer-funding-of-abortion.

[53] Alyene Senger, “Obamacare’s Impact on Doctors—An Update,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4024, August 23, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/08/obamacares-impact-on-doctors-an-update.

[54] Alyene Senger, “Obamacare’s Impact on Today’s and Tomorrow’s Taxpayers: An Update,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4022, August 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/08/obamacares-impact-on-todays-and-tomorrows-taxpayers-an-update.

Budget Sequestration’s Impact on Obamacare Subsidies

A PDF of this Issue Brief is available on the Heritage Foundation website.

Many Americans could face a rude awakening when they discover that the subsidies they thought they were getting to offset their health care costs are less than what they were promised. Some claim that the Obamacare subsidies are exempt from the spending reductions established by the Budget Control Act (BCA), but that is only half right.[1]

The BCA exempts only the premium subsidies, not the cost-sharing subsidies, from upcoming cuts. Regrettably, the Obama Administration has not taken steps to inform the American people of this fact as they navigate coverage options in the government exchanges.

The Sequester’s Impact on Obamacare Subsidies

Obamacare provides two forms of subsidies:

  1. Premium subsidy. Section 1401 provides that individuals with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($94,200 for a family of four) who do not have access to “affordable” employer-based coverage and meet other relevant criteria are eligible to receive refundable tax credits for coverage purchased in the exchanges.
  2. Cost-sharing subsidy. Section 1402 provides cost-sharing subsidies to reduce maximum out-of-pocket expenses for households with incomes below four times the federal poverty level. Other language in Section 1402 directs cost-sharing subsidies to increase the actuarial value—the average amount of expected health expenses paid by insurance—for households with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty level.

The BCA exempted the premium subsidies from sequestration—not explicitly but by definition. The sequester mechanism in the BCA was largely based on formulae developed by the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Act of 1985, which exempts refundable tax credits under the Internal Revenue Code from any federal sequestration.[2] Because Obamacare structured the premium subsidies as refundable tax credits, they remain exempt from the BCA sequestration.

However, with regard to sequestration’s spending reductions, the cost-sharing subsidies under Section 1402 of Obamacare are distinct from the premium subsidies under Section 1401 of the law in at least two significant ways:

  1. The language authorizing Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies is included as part of the Public Health Service Act (Title 42 of the U.S. Code). The sequester exemption for refundable tax credits requires that they be “made pursuant to provisions of Title 26” of the Internal Revenue Code.[3]
  2. Obamacare specifically requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “make periodic and timely payments to the issuer” of the insurance policy reflecting the increased cost-sharing. The sequester exemption in Gramm–Rudman–Hollings for refundable tax credits provides that only “payments to individuals,” not to insurance companies, are exempt from sequester reductions.[4]

For these reasons, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has concluded that the cost-sharing subsidies under Section 1402 of Obamacare “appear to be fully sequestrable” under the BCA.[5]

Administration Confirms Cuts but Has No Plan

The Administration has likewise agreed that the cost-sharing subsidies are subject to sequestration spending reductions. An Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report issued in May 2013 categorized the cost-sharing subsidies as mandatory spending subject to sequestration.[6]

The report further estimated that a 7.2 percent cut in these subsidies, as required by sequestration, would reduce spending by $286 million in fiscal year 2014—a period that covers the first nine months of Obamacare’s coverage expansions, from January through September 2014.[7]

However, the Administration has not been similarly forthcoming about how the 7.2 percent spending reductions will be applied. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Marilyn Tavenner acknowledged that CMS had not communicated to officials who are operating exchanges, both federal and state, how this sequestration will be applied to the cost-sharing subsidies. However, she pledged to do so “before open enrollment, which starts on October 1, 2013.”[8] To date, no guidance has been released by either CMS or OMB.

Limited Options

It is impossible to predict how CMS intends to implement the required sequestration reductions. In the absence of clear guidance from the Administration about the impact of sequestration, one can envision two possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Consumers Pay. Under this scenario, the individuals eligible for cost-sharing subsidies would face higher cost-sharing. Eligible individuals would face some combination of higher co-payments, higher deductibles, higher co-insurance, or the loss of some benefits to make up for the reduced cost-sharing subsidies.

The structure and requirements of sequestration place a high emphasis on regulatory guidance from CMS. The sequestration law requires that spending reductions “shall apply to all programs, projects, and activities within a budget account.”[9] But it remains unclear how the Administration will implement this requirement. For instance, CMS could decide to reduce all eligible individuals’ cost-sharing subsidies by an equal 7.2 percent. Alternatively, the Administration could try to implement the reductions on a sliding-scale basis so that households with lower incomes face a smaller-scale reduction.

However, because the Administration has not issued any form of guidance, the cost-sharing information currently published on the exchanges does not accurately reflect the impact of sequestration on the cost-sharing subsidies.[10] Thus, for those few individuals who have actually enrolled in subsidized health insurance on exchanges, their co-payments and cost-sharing may increase next year. Accurate information cannot exist until CMS publicly states how it intends to implement the required sequestration reductions.

Scenario 2: Insurers Pay. A second possible scenario would see insurers being forced to absorb the costs of the sequester reductions in cost-sharing subsidies themselves. CRS, examining Obamacare’s statutory requirements on insurers to provide cost-sharing reductions, considered this scenario a likely outcome:

The impact of sequestration is unclear. [Obamacare] entitles certain low-income exchange enrollees to coverage with reduced cost-sharing and requires the participating insurers to provide that coverage. Sequestration does not change that requirement. Insurers presumably will still have to provide required coverage to qualifying enrollees but they will not receive the full subsidy to cover their increased costs.[11]

This scenario would see insurers absorbing $286 million in losses in the law’s first nine months alone—losses that would grow over time. Citing estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, CRS noted that the federal government is scheduled to spend $149 billion on cost-sharing subsidies between 2014 and 2023.[12] Given that sequestration is scheduled to remain in place through 2021, the reductions in cost-sharing subsidies under current law would likely total several billion dollars at a minimum.

The scale of the numbers at issue raises questions about whether and under what circumstances insurance companies would actually continue to offer exchange coverage, knowing they would be guaranteed to incur losses if they do so.

More Than a “Glitch”

While Obamacare’s defenders are fond of claiming that “glitches” are the only thing holding back the law’s implementation, the Administration’s failure to confront the impact of BCA cuts signed into law two years ago is no mere “glitch.” Either individuals who endure an arduous process to sign up for insurance on balky exchanges will face a “bait-and-switch,” with cost-sharing levels higher than advertised, or insurers will face the prospect of billions of dollars in losses. Neither option is acceptable.

The Administration that promised to be the “most transparent and accountable” in history has neglected to inform the American people about the impact of sequestration on its prized accomplishment.

 



[1]See, for instance, Ezra Klein, “Democrats Should Surrender on Taxes,” Bloomberg, October 16, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-16/democrats-should-surrender-on-taxes.html (accessed October 24, 2013).

[2]2 U.S. Code 905(d).

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]C. Stephen Redhead, “Budget Control Act: Potential Impact of Sequestration on Health Reform Spending,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, May 31, 2013, Table 4, p. 22, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42051.pdf (accessed October 24, 2013).

[6]Office of Management and Budget, Revised Sequestration Preview Report for Fiscal Year 2014, May 20, 2013, p. 23, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/assets/legislative_reports/fy14_preview_and_joint_committee_reductions_reports_05202013.pdf, (accessed October 24, 2013).

[7]Ibid.

[8]Marilyn Tavenner, “PPACA Pulse Check,” testimony before the Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, August 1, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearing/ppaca-pulse-check (accessed October 24, 2013).

[9]2 U.S. Code 906(k)(2).

[10]Tavenner, “PPACA Pulse Check.”

[11]Redhead, “Budget Control Act,” p. 15.

[12]Ibid., Table 4, p. 23.

Tax Treatment of Health Insurance

History:  The origins of the current income tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance date back to World War II, when large employers successfully pressed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to exempt group health insurance from income and payroll taxes, thus allowing firms to offer health benefit policies as a means to circumvent wartime wage and price controls.  The IRS ruling was codified as part of the re-write of the Internal Revenue Code that took place in 1954 (P.L. 83-591), and remains part of the Code at 26 U.S.C. 106(a).  Largely as a result of this policy, employer-provided health insurance grew significantly during the postwar period, and in 2006 provided coverage to 177.1 million individuals, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.[1]

Budgetary Costs:  The growth in the number of individuals enrolled in group health insurance over the past six decades led to a commensurate rise in the tax expenditures associated with the employee exclusion.  The Office of Management and Budget estimates that, in Fiscal Year 2009, the federal government will forego more than $168 billion in income tax revenue due to the employee exclusion; tax expenditures over the next five years will total more than $1.05 trillion.[2]  The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) estimates a lower income tax impact for the employee exclusion, at $126 billion per year in FY09, largely because JCT assumes that individuals with high health costs will itemize their health costs over 7.5% of adjusted gross income (AGI).[3]

Employer-sponsored health insurance is also exempt from payroll taxes; however, the budgetary impact of this policy has been less accurately quantified.[4]  A Health Affairs article published in 2006 estimated that in that year, the exclusion resulted in $73.3 billion in foregone payroll tax revenue, along with an additional $23.4 billion in state income tax revenues.[5]  However, because a change in policy subjecting group health insurance coverage to payroll taxes would increase the Social Security wage base for many individuals—leading to a direct increase in promised benefits—the net impact on the federal government is likely significantly less than the estimates cited.

Economic Impact:  Many conservative and liberal economists agree that the employee exclusion, while increasing access to insurance coverage for some populations, has had several adverse and unintended consequences.  Because a marginal dollar of health insurance benefits is untaxed, whereas a marginal dollar of salary can be subject to total tax rates (income, payroll, and state/local taxes) in excess of 40%, additional health benefits are actually more lucrative to workers than an additional dollar’s wages.  Thus the employee exclusion, which is not capped, may encourage workers to consume all the health care they want, rather than the health care they need.

The disparity created by the employee exclusion may explain why the average premium for employer-sponsored insurance is $4,479 for an individual—roughly three times the average $1,500 paid for insurance coverage outside the group market, where premiums paid are generally subject to income and payroll taxes.[6]  It also may help to explain the 157.6% rise in total tax subsidies for health insurance (adjusted for inflation) between 1987 and 2006—while total employment rose somewhat during the period, most of the increase can be attributed to rising premium costs, which an uncapped federal tax subsidy can exacerbate.[7]

The growth in group health insurance coverage, sparked in part by federal tax policy that encouraged employers to offer health benefits, has increased the amount of overall health expenditures made by third-party insurers.  A report released by the Congressional Budget Office in November 2007, which examined both historical trends in health care spending and long-term projections for its growth over the next 75 years, documented a significant shift in health care expenditures: out-of-pocket spending declined from 31% to 13% of all health expenditures (both private and public) between 1975 and 2005, while third-party payment by private insurance carriers increased from 25% to 37% of health spending nationwide.[8]  Although new technologies and services have also helped drive the growth in health spending, the continued rise of third-party payment—which can insulate patients from the marginal costs associated with additional treatments—may well have had inflationary effects.  This shift away from out-of-pocket spending occurred despite the findings of a landmark RAND Institute study, which concluded that higher cost-sharing helped constrain health care spending at little to no adverse effect on patients’ health.

Additionally, the fact that tax policy generally favors employer-provided insurance when compared to health insurance purchased on the individual market tends to have distortionary effects on labor markets.  Although policy-makers have established some other tax benefits for health insurance, these generally have more limitations than the expansive employee exclusion: the self-employed may deduct health insurance premiums from income tax, but are not exempt from 15.3% payroll tax on the cost of policies purchased; Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) allow for pre-tax savings for health expenses, but cannot be used for the purchase of health insurance, except in limited instances; and deductions for medical expenses in excess of 7.5% of AGI only apply to individuals who do not itemize.

The sum total of the effects of the employee exclusion is therefore material from both a fiscal and an economic perspective.  Employees’ inbuilt incentive to over-consume health care encourages rich insurance benefits that insulate consumers from the true costs of care—raising health care costs over time—while depressing cash wages paid.  Moreover, the disparity in the tax treatment of insurance tends to perpetuate “job lock,” whereby individuals gravitate towards positions and industries that offer health coverage to the detriment of those that do not—providing a disincentive for individuals to establish their own businesses and take the entrepreneurial risks that lead to robust economic growth.

Policy Solutions:  In general, some conservatives may support reforms to the current tax treatment of health insurance that accomplish the twin goals of eliminating the disparity between health insurance offered by an employer and non-group coverage and imposing some threshold on the level of tax subsidies provided for health benefits in an attempt to slow the growth of health care costs.  Proposals in this line have varied widely; in his first term, President Bush proposed a tax credit for low-income individuals and families without access to employer-sponsored insurance, as a means to incentivize these populations to purchase health coverage.  Last year, the President proposed a new standard deduction for health insurance, similar to that first proposed by the Tax Reform Panel in 2005, that would provide tax subsidies for coverage purchased up to a set level premium ($7,500 in the case of the budget proposal submitted to Congress).[9]

Other proposals have looked to replace the current exclusion for health insurance with a tax credit available to all individuals, paid for by capping or repealing entirely the current tax subsidy for group health insurance.  Policies in this vein include provisions in the first title of comprehensive health and entitlement reform legislation (H.R. 6110) introduced by Budget Committee Ranking Member Paul Ryan (R-WI), along with the health reform plan promoted by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  In most cases, the credits would be refundable (i.e. paid to individuals with tax liability less than the amount of the credit) and advanceable (i.e. paid out on the same monthly basis as health insurance premiums, rather than in conjunction with the filing of an annual return).

Conclusion:  Despite—or perhaps because of—the multitude of proposals designed to reform the current tax treatment of health insurance, most conservatives share the over-arching goal of improving an arguably archaic system of tax subsidies, rooted in a wartime bureaucratic decision, that has distorted America’s more than $2 trillion health sector while inhibiting economic growth.  Although the health plan released by Sen. Barack Obama omits any discussion of the damaging and perverse effects of current tax policies on both the health sector and the broader economy, some conservatives may believe that revisiting current tax policy should be at the top of any health reform agenda.

 

[1] U.S. Census Bureau , “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006,” (Washington, DC, Report P60-233, August 2007), available online at http://www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/p60-233.pdf  (accessed July 2, 2008), Table C-1, p. 66.

[2] Table 19-1, Estimates of Total Income Tax Expenditures, Analytical Perspectives, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009, available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2009/pdf/spec.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008), p. 302.

[3] Joint Committee on Taxation, “Estimates of Federal Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2007-2011,” (Washington, DC, Committee Print JCS-3-07, September 2007), available online at http://www.jct.gov/s-3-07.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), Table 1, p. 36.  For comparison with Treasury estimations, see narrative section at pp. 24-25.

[4] The payroll tax exclusion can be found at 26 U.S.C. 3121(a)(2).

[5] Thomas Selden and Bradley Gray, “Tax Subsidies for Employment-Related Health Insurance: Estimates for 2006,” Health Affairs 25(6), November/December 2006, pp. 1570-71.

[6] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Employer Health Benefits: 2007 Annual Survey,” available online at http://kff.org/insurance/7672/upload/76723.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), p. 2; eHealthInsurance, “The Cost and Benefits of Individual Health Insurance Plans: 2007,” available online at http://www.ehealthinsurance.com/content/expertcenterNew/CostBenefitsReportSeptember2007.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), p. 23.  It should also be noted that in recent years, the average premium in the eHealthInsurance survey has remained nearly constant, while the average deductible has risen slightly; this would lend further confirmation to the concept that individuals purchasing health care on their own, particularly on an after-tax basis, make rational choices between potential out-of-pocket costs and overall premium levels when shopping for policies.

[7] Selden and Grey, p. 1577.

[8] Congressional Budget Office, “The Long-Term Outlook for Health Care Spending,” (Washington, DC, Publication #3085, November 2007), available online at http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/87xx/doc8758/11-13-LT-Health.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), pp. 12-13.

[9] Information on the Standard Deduction for Health Insurance proposed as part of the Fiscal Year 2009 budget can be found in the Treasury Blue Book at http://www.ustreas.gov/offices/tax-policy/library/bluebk08.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), pp. 22-25.  Details on the Tax Reform Panel proposal can be found at http://www.taxreformpanel.gov/final-report/TaxReform_Ch5.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), pp. 20-24.

Question and Answer: Health Savings Account Restrictions

On April 9, 2008, the House Ways and Means Committee passed legislation (H.R. 5719) with provisions placing additional restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  In anticipation of floor consideration of the measure, the RSC has prepared the following document providing context and background information on the proposal.

What change to Health Savings Accounts are Democrats proposing?

Section 17 of H.R. 5719 requires “substantiation” of all HSA transactions from an independent third party, to ensure that money withdrawn from an HSA pays for qualified medical expenses.  Specifically, the section would make the income tax deduction associated with HSA contributions contingent on substantiation of all withdrawals, beginning in 2011.  This oversight of every single account transaction would make HSAs similar to Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSAs), an earlier consumer-driven health care model.

How are FSAs and HSAs different?

One of the prime differences between the two account-based models lies in the control source for the funds in the account.  The Internal Revenue Code makes clear that FSA accounts are held by employers, while HSA funds remain exclusively the property of the employee.  This distinction explains why unused FSA funds in an employee’s account at the time of departure revert back to the employer, while HSA funds always remain with the employee, and remain portable from job to job and into retirement.  Some conservatives may be concerned about the potential implications of transferring a “substantiation” system designed for employer-owned FSAs to individually-owned HSAs—both in terms of the legal liabilities placed on employers and administrators to verify transactions, and the restrictions placed on individuals to control their HSA account dollars.

How are HSA and FSA withdrawals administered?

Right now, most HSA transactions take place using point-of-sale debit cards that make electronic fund transfers directly from the account.  Conversely, most FSA transactions remain paper-based, requiring out-of-pocket spending by the individual and subsequent reimbursement from the FSA after approval by an administrator.  While Treasury has released new regulations to make FSA reimbursement simpler, some conservatives may remain concerned that the Democrats’ proposed change may make the HSA model less attractive to consumers.

What penalties are currently in place to ensure HSA funds are spent on qualified medical expenses?

Under the Internal Revenue Code, non-qualified withdrawals from an HSA are subject to individual income taxes, as well as a 10% penalty.  HSA account activity is subject to audits from the Internal Revenue Service, and account holders are advised to retain their receipts documenting qualified medical expenses in the event of an audit.

What measures do HSA administrators currently have in place to ensure that withdrawals from the account are made for qualified medical expenses?

Right now, some banks that administer HSAs have electronic debit cards that can “read” the merchant code where the transaction is taking place (e.g. a doctor’s office).  If a request for transaction is occurring at a location not normally associated with qualified medical expenses, the debit card can decline the transaction.  Some administrators have developed more advanced technology to differentiate product codes within a merchant’s offerings—for instance, accepting grocery store transactions for cough syrup (a permissible over-the-counter drug) while rejecting attempts to purchase items within the same store for items without a clear medical use, such as beer or wine.  This advanced technology is in the process of being rolled out; however, many banks and account administrators have expressed their view that enactment of this legislative provision could prompt their withdrawal from the HSA marketplace.

Does the fact that some HSA withdrawals are made at places like grocery stores mean that these withdrawals are not for qualified medical expenses?

Not necessarily.  The list of qualified medical expenses is quite broad, and generally includes most items reimbursable from a Flexible Spending Arrangement or deductible on an individual tax return if total medical expenses exceed 7.5% of an individual’s adjusted gross income.  Under certain circumstances, legal expenses (to authorize mental health care), lodging and travel expenses (related to medical treatment) and even the cost of a telephone (for the hearing impaired) can be considered medical expenses.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the proposal under consideration would essentially shift the burden of proof from the government (to prove that an expenditure was improper in the context of a tax audit) to the consumer to prove compliance at the time of withdrawal, causing additional inconvenience to the HSA holder.

Are withdrawals made for causes other than qualified medical expenses unlawful?

Only if the account holder does not pay income taxes and a 10% penalty.  Under current law, it is the account holder’s obligation to declare such non-qualified withdrawals—a policy comparable to withdrawals from an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).  Account holders who do not pay appropriate taxes and penalties on withdrawals not for qualified medical expenses are subject to an Internal Revenue Service audit.

How many HSA withdrawals are unlawful?

The percentage is unclear for two reasons.  First, estimates of the amount of withdrawals made that do not involve qualified medical expenses vary.  While one HSA administrator claimed that 12% of withdrawals were made at vendors not normally associated with qualified medical expenses, HSA administrators affiliated with the American Bankers Association claim that only 2.7% of their withdrawals took place at such vendors—and, for the reasons explained above, the fact that a vendor is not a qualified health provider does not mean that a transaction itself is not a qualified medical expense.  A 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on HSA usage found that 10% of all withdrawals were made for purposes other than qualified medical expenses; however, GAO had only a single year (2004) of HSA withdrawal data available at the time it compiled its report.

What remains largely unknown is the percentage of transactions not associated with qualified medical expenses for which the account holder does not pay appropriate taxes and penalties.  At the Ways and Means markup, Treasury Department officials presented preliminary data indicating a relatively high rate of compliance with respect to self-attestation of non-qualified withdrawals, which if proven accurate would obviate the need for the legislative change.  Even as the Ways and Means Committee passed the substantiation language, both Democrats and Republicans decried the lack of available evidence to judge the need for this particular provision.

How does this provision save money for the federal government?

The Joint Committee on Taxation notes that Section 17 of H.R. 5719 would save $151 million over five years and $308 million over ten years.  However, the cause for this savings is unclear.  During the Ways and Means markup, Joint Tax staff admitted their inability to determine how much of the savings would result from newly captured penalties and taxes and how much of the savings would come from lower HSA take-up rates and/or lower contribution levels to HSAs.  Some conservatives may be concerned that it remains unclear whether this provision would achieve its stated purpose by increasing oversight of questionable HSA withdrawals—or will instead achieve budgetary savings by making HSAs less attractive to consumers.

Employers contribute money to their employees’ HSAs.  Shouldn’t they have a right to know that their contributions are being spent for medical purposes?

Unlike FSAs, which are considered as being held by the employer, an HSA is considered the employee’s property, and any cash contributions immediately accrue to the worker.  Thus an employer has no more or less right to know the employer’s contributions are spent on qualified medical expenses than a business has a right to determine that the employer’s share of 401(k) contributions is ultimately spent on retirement expenses.  In both cases, the penalties for a non-qualified distribution are the same—income taxes owed, plus a 10% penalty.

In an advisory opinion on the status of HSAs, the Department of Labor (DOL) held that an employer’s transfer of cash contributions into an employee’s HSA does not constitute group coverage under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) because of the employer’s inability to control the funds in the employee’s account.  Many small businesses—who have heretofore not been able to finance health insurance coverage for their workers—have used the flexibility provided by the DOL opinion to place cash contributions into their employees’ HSAs without triggering the regulatory burdens imposed on ERISA group health insurance plans, benefiting both the business and the worker.

What may be the practical implications of this proposed change to HSAs?

In addition to increased inconvenience for end users, introducing a new step of independent “substantiation” may well increase costs for banks and account administrators, who are likely to pass these costs on to employers and/or consumers.  While Democrats have complained in recent months about the charges which banks and other commercial lending institutions pass on to their customers, this provision carries a strong likelihood of increasing those costs further.  In addition, some conservatives may also be concerned that should this proposal pass, an HSA mechanism created to reduce the growth of health care costs—and which has achieved some noteworthy successes in the time since its introduction—would lead to increased costs for businesses and individuals.

What organizations oppose this proposed change to HSAs?

Although some members of the business community support other provisions included in H.R. 5719, many organizations have expressed concern about the substantiation requirements—including the company (Evolution Benefits) that first brought the issue to the Committee’s attention.  A partial list of organizations opposing the HSA substantiation provision includes:

  • America’s Health Insurance Plans
  • Business Roundtable
  • Credit Union National Association
  • Financial Services Roundtable
  • HSA Council (part of American Bankers Association)
  • International Franchise Association
  • National Association of Health Underwriters
  • National Association of Manufacturers
  • National Federation of Independent Business
  • National Restaurant Association
  • National Retail Federation
  • National Taxpayers Union
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Weekly Newsletter: April 14, 2008

Floor Vote Impending for Restrictions on Health Savings Accounts

The House Ways and Means Committee last week reported legislation that would enact new restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as part of tax legislation (HR 5719) anticipated on the floor this week. The legislative proposal would require all HSA account holders to independently verifiy the qualified nature of medical expenses for all withdrawals, subjecting those transactions not substantiated to income taxes. This language is a significant departure from an earlier draft proposal, which imposed an annual reporting requirement on beneficiaries to list their total substantiated and unsubstantiated HSA withdrawal amounts—but left enforcement in the hands of the Internal Revenue Service.

At the Ways and Means markup, Republicans and Democrats alike noted the scarcity of available data documenting whether and to what extent HSA holders are making non-qualified withdrawals without paying appropriate income taxes and penalties. In addition to the hurried process that saw the provision added to legislation without thorough vetting and/or committee hearings, some conservatives may be concerned by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s inability to determine what portion of the $308 million in purported “savings” from this provision stems from newly captured taxes and penalties and what portion of reduced tax expenditures comes from lower HSA take-up rates and contribution levels. In other words, it is unclear whether this provision will be effective in increasing oversight of questionable HSA expenditures—Democrats’ stated intent in passing this provision—or instead generate budgetary savings by making HSAs less attractive to consumers.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this proposal represents the first of perhaps many attempts by the Democrat majority to enact burdensome and bureaucratic regulations undermining HSAs, which in a few short years have proven successful at slowing the growth of health costs and insurance premiums for millions of individuals and small businesses. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the many banks and financial organizations who have expressed concerns about their ability to implement the substantiation requirements could end up increasing administrative costs for end users—or exiting the HSA marketplace entirely.

During floor debate, the RSC will weigh in to protect the important consumer-driven health programs which Republicans have succeeded in establishing in recent years.

An RSC Policy Brief discussing this issue is available here.

House Committee Marks Up Bill Overriding Medicaid Fiscal Integrity Regulations

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a subcommittee markup on legislation (H.R. 5613) that would impose moratoria on several proposed regulations issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restore fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program. The bill was passed by voice vote, after Members adopted substitute language that would narrow the scope of the moratoria to permit CMS to continue to negotiate agreements with states on issues related to the proposed rules.

Despite the narrowing of the proposed moratoria, some conservatives may remain concerned by congressional actions to block regulations that respond to more than a dozen Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports released since 1994 highlighting the various ways states have attempted to “game” the Medicaid program and increase the amount of federal matching funds received. Some conservatives also may be concerned that the moratoria on further regulatory action until April 2009 would transfer this issue to a new Administration, which could withdraw these proposed regulations to curb wasteful and abusive spending—and which will lower federal Medicaid spending by only 1% over the next five years.

Congressional Democrats have indicated their desire to include the moratoria provisions as part of the wartime supplemental appropriations measure. In addition, news reports have surfaced suggesting that a temporary increase in the federal Medicaid matching rate could be included in a second “stimulus” package, which could also be attached to the defense supplemental. Some conservatives may consider this proposed increase in federal matching funds a “bailout” to states who failed to incorporate into their long-term budgets the possibility of an economic downturn and its impact on state revenues.

Rather than attempting to enact measures that attempt to replace state funding with additional federal spending, some conservatives may believe that Congress should instead embrace the opportunity presented by this discussion to advance concepts for more comprehensive reform of Medicaid program financing, to control health care costs and set clear fiscal priorities for the use of scarce federal dollars.

RSC Policy Briefs on the federal-state Medicaid relationship can be found here and here.

Article of Note: “Is There a Doctor in the House?”

Last Sunday, a column in The Washington Post highlighted one of the key problems with government-funded health insurance—lack of access to care. The column cited a survey by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), noting that 29% of Medicare beneficiaries reported difficulty in searching for a new primary-care physician. Due to government-imposed price controls on physician reimbursement levels, many doctors have chosen not to accept additional Medicare-paying patients.

As Congress considers legislative actions connected with a 10.1% cut in physician reimbursements scheduled to take effect on July 1, some conservatives may believe that the access difficulties encountered by millions of American seniors—and the Medicare trustees’ recent funding warning noting that the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be exhausted in just over a decade—warrant a more comprehensive and lasting reform to entitlements. Converting Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP), where beneficiaries receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing, would ensure that all beneficiaries would have access to broad choices of insurance plans and physicians—rather than a government-controlled plan where rationed payments limit access to care. Just as important, by harnessing the benefits of competition, such a reform can slow the growth of health care spending, preserving Medicare for future generations.

Read the article here: “On Medicare and Scorned by the Docs” – The Washington Post