Elizabeth Warren’s Health Plan and the Limits of “Experts”

By one count, Sen. Elizabeth Warren used 9,275 words in her health care plan (that is, her original health care plan, not the one she released two weeks later, to overcome the political obstacles she created in the first version). Of that lengthy verbiage, one word stands out: “Expert” appears no fewer than 18 times in the document.

According to Warren, “the experts conclude” that her plan would cost $20.5 trillion over a decade; other “top experts…examine[d] options” to pay for that new federal spending. She cited experts in triplicate for emphasis, noting “the conclusions of expert after expert after expert” that a single-payer health care system can cover all Americans while lowering costs. Warren even pledged that “no for-profit insurance company should be able to stop anyone from seeing the expert…they need.”

Therein lies her biggest problem: In farming out every policy issue for “experts” to solve, Warren effectively insults the intelligence of American voters—telling them they’re not smart enough to solve their own problems, or even to understand the details of her proposed solutions.

‘Experts’ Couldn’t Even Build a Website

The Massachusetts senator’s reliance on experts jives with her campaign’s unofficial slogan. No matter the issue, Warren has a plan for that—blessed by the experts—to enact her agenda. But as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” For reasons both practical and philosophical, Warren and her technocratic ilk might benefit from some humility as they seek to remake the health care system—and the nation.

Six years ago this fall, the failure of healthcare.gov provided a searing example of the limits of expertise. After years of planning and countless federal dollars, what Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called a “debacle” played out in slow-motion on national television. Half a century on from Halberstam’s best and brightest, Barack Obama had to concede that government was “generally not very efficient” at procurement and technology.

Another politician who invoked “experts” regarding health policy, Max Baucus, did so in August 2010. Then the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus said he did not bother to read the Obamacare legislation he helped to draft because “It takes a real expert to know what the heck it is. We hire experts.”

Nearly four years later, one of those experts—Yvette Fontenot, who worked on Baucus’ staff during the Obamacare debate—admitted that when drafting the law’s employer mandate, “we didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing the provision would be at that time.” Here again, remaking a health system approaching $4 trillion in size brings unintended consequences lurking at every corner.

Yet Warren and her “experts” see no such reason for caution. One of the authors of her health care paper, former Obama administration official Donald Berwick, once said, “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.” Implicit in his statement: Federal officials, sitting at desks in Washington, or at Medicare’s headquarters in Baltimore, can quantify and assess the “right” number of machines, facilities, and personnel in every community across the land.

Liberals Act Like Voters Are Stupid

A belief that administrators should, let alone can, effectively micromanage an entire health system requires no small amount of hubris. Indeed, Berwick said in a 2008 speech that “I cannot believe that the individual health care consumer can enforce through choice the proper configurations of a system as massive and complex as health care. That is for leaders to do.”

In this vein, Berwick echoed his Obama administration colleague Peter Orszag, who in advocating for an unelected board to make recommendations reducing health spending—a change included in Obamacare, but repealed by Congress last yearargued that “we might be a healthier democracy if we were slightly less democratic.”

From the 2004 work “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” to the post-mortems after the last presidential election, liberals continue to question why some households vote against their supposed financial interests. The “expert” mentality—as Orszag wrote, “relying more on…depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions”—likely plays a role, as by its very nature and through its soft paternalism it disenfranchises Americans.

For instance, studies suggest most low-income individuals do not particularly value Medicaid coverage, yet neither Warren nor others on the left spend much time debating whether expanding health insurance represents the best way to help the poor. As Reagan would note, they’re from the government, and they’re here to help.

Warren thinks that to win the presidency, she must convince voters she has a plan for everything. In reality, her campaign’s hopes may rest instead on developing a plan to narrow the growing gap between the rulers—her beloved “experts”—and the ruled.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: D.C. Exchange Website Misled Customers about Individual Mandate

Last year, in response to Congress repealing the Obamacare individual mandate penalty beginning this January, the D.C. Council established its own requirement for District residents to maintain health coverage. If D.C. leaders wished to replicate Obamacare on the local level, they have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations—right down to the non-functioning website.

For nearly six months—including the first month of open enrollment—the District failed to inform visitors to its online insurance exchange about the new coverage requirement. When District officials finally discovered their webpage fail, what did they do to admit their fault, and tell the public? Nothing.

The Webpage Fail, Explained

At the start of the open enrollment period in early November, I went to the District’s health insurance exchange website, D.C. Health Link, to evaluate my coverage options for 2019. While there, I found an intriguing—and misleading—webpage. When discussing whether individuals should purchase coverage, the webpage noted that “federal law requires most Americans to have a minimum level of health coverage,” a requirement that was “still in effect for the 2017 and 2018 tax years.”

By stating that the requirement remained in effect for 2017 and 2018, the webpage implied that the mandate will disappear in 2019. But while the federal penalty disappeared on January 1, the District’s own insurance mandate replaced the federal requirement on that date. However, the webpage I saw did not mention the D.C. mandate at all.

By discussing the expiring federal mandate and not the new D.C. requirement, the webpage I viewed did not just provide misleading statements about the need to maintain coverage in 2019, it contained inaccurate information, too. The webpage noted that the federal mandate did not penalize individuals with short gaps of coverage of under three months—but the District’s stricter law requires individuals to maintain health coverage every single month.

The webpage also directed individuals seeking exemptions from the mandate to apply to federal authorities, even though the D.C. exchange has assumed that role for the District’s mandate, effective January 1.

In fairness, I, and presumably other prior customers, did receive a mailer from D.C. Health Link discussing the District’s new coverage requirement for 2019. However, the mailer did not mention the mandate until the top of its second page—an area where casual readers could easily miss it. Instead, the mailer spent prime real estate on the first page discussing “our award-winning reputation as one of the best health Exchange websites in the nation:”

Which do you think is more important for District residents to know: That the website won some awards, or that if they do not buy “government-approved” coverage, they could have their property seized and sold?

Why District Officials Don’t Care

District officials seem more pre-occupied with bragging about their website than updating their website. For instance, during the November meeting of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority, no one discussed the flawed webpage about the District’s individual mandate, even though D.C. Health Link staff conducted a presentation for the board explaining the website that showed a link to the flawed webpage.

The November board meeting also showed a video of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s appearance at the launch event for open enrollment. During that event, Bowser gave remarks claiming that “D.C. Health Link has made navigating its website even easier.” Bowser failed to mention that, even as she spoke, that “easier” website included incorrect, flawed, and misleading information about the individual mandate she had signed into law months previously.

Ignoring the ‘Debacle’

Nearly one month into open enrollment, on November 28, it appears D.C. Health Link finally discovered their error. Officials removed access to the page discussing the expiring federal mandate—the Internet Archive captured the old page—and created a new page discussing the District’s new coverage requirement for 2019.

But did District officials publicly admit that their website included incorrect information, try to inform the public, or make things right with those who viewed that incorrect information? No, no, and no. The Exchange Authority board held their most recent monthly meeting in mid-December, and the incident did not come up at all.

When healthcare.gov famously crashed and burned in 2013, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius publicly accepted responsibility for the website “debacle.” By contrast, Mila Kofman, executive director of the Exchange Authority, apparently wants to pretend that the problems with the website she runs never took place.

Congress Should Fix This Mess

Beyond raising obvious questions of competence, the flawed webpage could have very real consequences for District residents. Any individuals who went to the incorrect webpage during the first month of open enrollment, and used its erroneous information to decide not to purchase health coverage for 2019, will face tax penalties when filing their 2019 returns in April 2020—penalties directly resulting from the bungling of District bureaucrats.

While District officials may try to give individuals who suffered from the incorrect webpage exemptions from the mandate penalty, it does not appear they can do so. The District’s mandate uses the same criteria as the federal one to determine hardship exemptions, namely, whether circumstances “prevented [an individual] from obtaining coverage.”

But in this case, circumstances didn’t prevent individuals from obtaining coverage—they prevented individuals from understanding the consequences of not doing so. D.C. Health Link therefore may not have the authority to solve a problem its own staff caused.

To ensure that no one incurs financial penalties because of the botched exchange website, the D.C. Council—or, better yet, Congress—will have to intervene. They should take the opportunity presented by this affair to repeal the mandate entirely.

Or Congress could use the pending appropriations legislation to include the provisions adopted last summer defunding the District’s mandate. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), who sponsored the defunding amendment last summer, once again offered his amendment earlier this month, when the House considered anew the District of Columbia appropriations measure. Unfortunately, however, the new House Democrat majority refused to make a vote on the amendment in order. This means that, absent additional action, individuals may face sizable tax penalties due to a website mess caused entirely by District officials.

No matter what form it takes, the website mess demonstrates that the District’s insurance mandate should go. Given that D.C. Health Link spends $11 million on IT, yet took six months to update a webpage, it should spend less time ordering District residents to buy insurance and more time getting its own house in order.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How the Obama Administration Hid Facts to Pass Obamacare

Over the weekend, Politico ran a report about how a “Trump policy shop filters facts to fit his message.” The article cited several unnamed sources complaining about the office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and its allegedly politicized role within the current administration.

One of the article’s anonymous sources called ASPE’s conduct over the past 18 months “another example of how we’re moving to a post-fact era.” Richard Frank, a former Obama appointee and one of the few sources to speak on the record, said that he found the current administration’s “attack on the integrity and the culture of the office…disturbing.”

As a congressional staffer conducting oversight of the CLASS Act in 2011-12, I reviewed thousands of pages of e-mails and documents from the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage. Those records strongly suggest that ASPE officials, including Frank, withheld material facts from Congress and the public about CLASS’s unsustainability, because full and prompt disclosure could have jeopardized Obamacare’s chances of passage.

About the CLASS Act ‘Ponzi scheme’

The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports program, or CLASS for short, intended to provide a voluntary insurance benefit for long-term care. Included as part of Obamacare, the program never got off the ground. In October 2011, HHS concluded it could not implement the program in an actuarially sound manner; Congress repealed the program entirely as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal enacted into law in the early days of 2013.

CLASS’s prime structural problem closely resembled that of the Obamacare exchanges—too many sick people, and not enough healthy ones. Disability lobbyists strongly supported the CLASS Act, hoping that it would provide financial support to individuals with disabilities. However, its voluntary nature meant that the more people already with disabilities enrolled and qualified for benefits, the higher premiums would rise, thereby discouraging healthy people from signing up.

Moreover, although actuarially questionable in the long-term, CLASS’s structure provided short-term fiscal benefits that aided Obamacare’s passage. Because CLASS required a five-year waiting period to collect benefits, the program would generate revenue early in its lifespan—and thus in the ten-year window budget analysts would use to score Obamacare—even if it could not maintain balance over a longer, 75-year timeframe.

This dynamic led the Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), to dub CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.”

Internal Concerns Minimized in Public

A report I helped draft, which several congressional offices released in September 2011—weeks before HHS concluded that program implementation would not go forward—highlighted concerns raised within the department during the debate on Obamacare about CLASS’ unsustainable nature. For instance, in September 2009, one set of talking points prepared by ASPE indicated that, even after changes made by Congress, CLASS “is still likely to create severe adverse selection problems”—i.e., too many sick people would enroll to make the program sustainable.

Frank told me that, during one public speech in October 2009, “I spent about half my time setting out the problems with CLASS that needed to be fixed.” He did indeed highlight some of the actuarial challenges the CLASS program faced. But Frank’s remarks, at a Kaiser Family Foundation event, closed thusly:

We’ve, in the department, have modeled this extensively, perhaps more extensively than anybody would want to hear about [laughter] and we’re entirely persuaded that reasonable premiums, solid participation rates, and financial solvency over the 75-year period can be maintained. So it is, on this basis, that the Administration supports it that the bill continues to sort of meet the standards of being able to stand on its own financial feet. Thanks.

Frank told me over the weekend that his comments “came at the end of my explaining that we were in the process of addressing those issues” (emphasis mine). But Frank actually said that the Obama administration was “entirely persuaded” of CLASS’ solvency, which gives the impression not that the department had begun a process of addressing those issues, but had already resolved them.

Frank’s public comments notwithstanding, ASPE had far from resolved the actuarial problems plaguing CLASS. Two days after his speech, one of Frank’s employees sent around an internal e-mail suggesting that the CLASS Act “seems like a recipe for disaster.”

But the ‘Fixes’ Fall Short

In response to these new analyses, HHS and ASPE came up with a package of technical fixes designed to make the CLASS program actuarially sound. One section of those fixes noted that “it is possible the authority in the bill to modify premiums will not be sufficient to ensure the program is sustainable.”

However, the proposed changes came too late:

  • No changes to the CLASS Act made it into the final version of Obamacare, which then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed in the Senate on December 19, 2009.
  • The election of Scott Brown (R-MA) to replace the late Kennedy in January 2010 prevented Democrats from fixing the CLASS Act through a House-Senate conference committee, as Brown had pledged to be the “41st Republican” in the Senate who would prevent a conference report from receiving a final vote.
  • While the House and Senate could (and did) pass some changes to Obamacare on a party-line vote through the budget reconciliation process, the Senate’s “Byrd rule” on inclusion of incidental matters in a budget reconciliation bill prevented them from addressing CLASS.

The White House’s own health care proposal, released in February 2010, discussed “a series of changes to the Senate bill to improve the CLASS program’s financial stability and ensure its long-run solvency.” But as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius later testified before the Senate Finance Committee, the “Byrd rule” procedures for budget reconciliation meant that those changes never saw the light of day—and could not make it into law.

Kinda Looks Like a Conspiracy of Silence

By the early months of 2010, officials at ASPE knew they had a program that they could not fix legislatively, and could fail as a result. Yet at no point between January 2010, when ASPE proposed its package of technical changes, through Obamacare’s enactment, did anyone within the administration admit that the program could prove impossible to implement.

Over the weekend, I asked Frank about this silence. He responded that “when the reconciliation package was shelved”—which I take to mean that the CLASS changes did not make it into the reconciliation bill, which did pass—“we began working on regulatory remedies that might address the flaws in CLASS.” However, from the outset some of Frank’s own employees believed those changes might prove insufficient to make the program actuarially sound, as it later proved.

To put it another way: In February 2011, Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee that “the snapshot [of CLASS] in the bill, I would absolutely agree, is totally unsustainable.” She, Frank, and others within the administration had known this fact one year previously: They just hoped they could arrive at a package of regulatory changes that would overcome the law’s structural flaws.

But did anyone within the administration disclose that CLASS was “totally unsustainable” as written back in February 2010? No, because doing so could have jeopardized Obamacare’s chances of passage. The law passed the House on a narrow 219-212 margin.

If HHS had publicly conceded that CLASS could become a “zombie” program—one that they could not fix, but could not remove—it would have caused a political firestorm, and raised broader questions about the bill’s fiscal integrity that could have prevented its enactment.

Was Obamacare Sold on a Lie?

Conservatives have pilloried Obamacare for the many false statements used to sell the law, from the infamous “Lie of the Year” that “If you like your plan, you can keep it” to the repeated promises about premium reductions, Barack Obama’s “firm pledge” to avoid middle-class tax increases, and on and on.

But there are sins of both commission and omission, and the CLASS Act falls into the latter category. Regardless of whether one uses the loaded term “lie” to characterize the sequence of events described above, the public statements by HHS officials surrounding the program prior to Obamacare’s enactment fell short of the full and unvarnished truth, both as they knew it at the time, and as events later proved.

Politico can write all it wants about ASPE under Trump “filter[ing] facts to fit his message.” But ASPE’s prior failure to disclose the full scope of problems the CLASS Act faced represents a textbook example of a bureaucracy hiding inconvenient truths to enact its agenda. If anonymous HHS bureaucrats now wish to attack a “post-fact era” under Trump, they should start by taking a hard look in the mirror at what they did under President Obama to enact Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Another Report Details Fraud on Obamacare Exchanges

What do Obamacare and Haley Joel Osment have in common? They both see dead people.

On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released another report into eligibility verification checks on the federally run Obamacare insurance exchange used by more than three dozen states. As with prior studies, GAO concluded that regulators still need to improve integrity efforts to ensure the federal government spends taxpayer funds wisely.

GAO previously recommended that the federal exchange verify eligibility periodically, checking changes in circumstances that would affect the status of federal subsidies, such as death. However, to the best of auditors’ knowledge, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has not implemented this recommendation, one of 18 relating to exchange integrity that remain open (i.e., not completed) from two prior GAO reports.

In part, the lack of strong program integrity provisions represents a continued legacy of the healthcare.gov “debacle” in 2013. While CMS managed to get the public segments of the website up and running by December of that year, just prior to Obamacare’s January 2014 launch, the “back-end” portions of the tech infrastructure remained a work in progress for far longer.

For instance, this week’s GAO report notes that only in March 2017 did CMS finally upgrade the system such that the exchange could modify or change Social Security numbers (SSNs)—whether due to a name change, or a typo when filling out the initial application for coverage. Before then, exchange officials “did not actively take steps to resolve SSN inconsistencies in plan year 2015 primarily because [they] could not update SSNs in the data system at the time.” Because the poorly designed system could not distinguish between actual fraud and changed circumstances, CMS didn’t investigate either one.

The GAO report claims that the approximately 1 percent of applicants with potential inconsistencies related to citizenship, Social Security numbers or identity, or death represent a small portion of 8 million subsidized applicants overall. However, the study likely understates the incidence of potentially improper applicants, as it omits other potential sources of fraud relating to Obamacare subsidies: understating income, discrepancies in residency, or incarceration status (incarcerated individuals do not qualify for subsidies).

Moreover, given the amount of spending on health insurance subsidies, even the “small” sums at issue matter. For instance, GAO identified a total of $23 million in premium subsidies associated with the 17,000 applicants covered after their reported date of death. GAO could not determine whether or to what extent federal authorities recovered those subsidies during the reconciliation process (which occurs on an individual’s tax return the following year).

However, if even a fraction of that $23 million remained in insurers’ hands—insurers receive direct subsidies on behalf of beneficiaries in most cases—it represents a waste to taxpayers. Particularly given that the $23 million figure only reflects subsidy spending in 2015—not 2014, or the three years since 2015—it seems an incredible waste to put tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of taxpayer dollars at risk, for want of a technological infrastructure likely costing far less.

In other words, while former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius has long since left government, the Obamacare exchange “debacle” lives on—as do, it would appear, federal insurance subsidies provided to long-since-deceased individuals.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ “Alternative Facts” on Capping Entitlement Spending

Here’s a policy riddle for you: When is a spending cap not a spending cap? The answer: When a liberal finds it politically inconvenient.

During the confirmation hearing for Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Alex Azar, a staffer for the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities tweeted that Azar supported capping Medicaid. I noted that meant he supported capping Medicaid spending like the caps Democrats enacted as part of Obamacare—and that’s when the fun began.

Then I pointed out that Section 3403 of Obamacare charges the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) with enforcing a cap on per-beneficiary spending in Medicare. She responded by saying that IPAB contains restrictions on “rationing health care, raising Medicare’s premiums or cost sharing, cutting benefits, or restricting eligibility.”

That response, while accurate, misses the point. First of all, while the law prohibits Medicare from “rationing” benefits, neither Obamacare nor any other law “defines” rationing. Former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified to Congress in 2011 that HHS would need to undertake rulemaking to define “rationing.” However, as I noted this summer, “the Obama Administration never even proposed rules ‘protecting’ Medicare beneficiaries from rationing under the IPAB per capita caps—so how meaningful can those protections actually be?”

Capping Spending Does Indeed Reduce It

Second, a cap on spending, by definition, will reduce spending. The implication that one form of cap on spending in Medicare will have no ramifications whatsoever for beneficiaries, while another form of cap on spending in Medicaid will lead to proverbial death and destruction, strains credulity.

But putting those distinctions aside for a second, I asked whether Obamacare capped Medicare spending. I sent links to the portions of Section 3403 that 1) establish a target growth rate for Medicare and 2) instruct IPAB to develop recommendations to reduce spending to meet that target—the definition of a cap in my book, and probably anyone else’s as well.

I asked a simple yes-no question: While they might be implemented in different ways than the caps in Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” bills, doesn’t IPAB limit the growth rate of Medicare spending to meet a cap?

Answer came there none.

Politically Inconvenient Truths

The political hack—erm, I mean, “analyst”—in question, from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, has more than enough health policy experience to recognize a spending cap. According to the center’s website, she served in senior roles in California’s Medicaid program, worked as the primary health staffer for former U.S. senator Al Franken (D-MN), and holds a master’s degree in health policy. She knows better—she just chose not to.

As I have written previously, Democrats don’t want to admit that they imposed per capita spending caps in Medicare as part of Obamacare. They may still fear the political consequences of capping Medicare spending—and more importantly, do not want to give Republicans political “cover” to impose similar caps in Medicaid.

So rather than admit the obvious—yes, Democrats did impose spending caps in Medicare (albeit in a slightly different form than Republicans’ Medicaid proposals last year) as part of Obamacare—this person chose to obfuscate, deflect, deny, and ultimately join Twitter’s version of the Witness Protection Program rather than admit the politically inconvenient truth. And beclowned herself in the process.

After the “repeal-and-replace” process of 2017, I know full well what it means to tell politically inconvenient truths. Going out on a limb to point out flaws in alternatives to Obamacare won me no small amount of flack from others on the Right, and may have cost me business to boot.

But at bottom, I consider myself a conservative health policy analyst, not a Republican one. As such, I feel an obligation to call “balls-and-strikes” based solely on policy, regardless of party. Doing otherwise would harm my reputation and integrity. And in policy circles in this town, one’s good name is the only thing you’ve got.

People can propose “alternative facts” all they like, but not without cost. After our Twitter tete-a-tete, I think less of the analyst in question, and of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities for employing her. While liberals can talk all they like about a “wonk gap,” or about Republican “science deniers,” they appear to have some in their own midst as well. Just ask liberal health analysts about IPAB’s per capita caps.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What’s Wrong with Republicans on Medicare

To demonstrate that most Republicans have no desire to reduce federal spending, one need look no further than a Politico story last Thursday. The article recounted how the pending tax bill could trigger automatic reductions in mandatory spending, including to Medicare, under the pay-as-you-go law. When presented with that scenario, Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) responded thusly:

Medicare is underfunded as it is. If we have to change the PAYGO [pay-as-you-go] rules [that trigger the spending reductions], we’ll just change ‘em. At the end of the day, we—Republicans and Democrats—have to go home and face our constituents. I wouldn’t want to go home and face my constituents if I’d cut Medicare.

Over and above the obvious fact that Roe expressed less-than-zero interest in actually reducing federal spending, he also showed some tortured and erroneous logic in arriving at his position.

To put Medicare’s spending in another context: According to International Monetary Fund statistics, in 2016, the program spent more than the total economic output of all but 20 nations. That same list demonstrates that Medicare spent more than the entire economic output of New Zealand, Greece, and Portugal combined. Yet Roe considers the program “under-funded.”

But Medicare Is Going Insolvent, and Fast

As I noted last year, the Medicare trustees report issued in 2009, the year before Obamacare’s enactment, predicted the program’s Part A (Hospital Insurance) Trust Fund would become insolvent in 2017—this year. The following year, after Obamacare became law, the trustees postponed the insolvency date from this year to 2029.

But, as the Congressional Budget Office noted, Obamacare did not “enhance the ability of the government to pay for future Medicare benefits.” Put simply, because Obamacare’s re-directed Medicare savings to pay for new entitlements, the provisions improved Medicare’s solvency only on paper. Then-Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius admitted as much when, asked in congressional testimony whether the Medicare provisions were being used “to save Medicare or…to fund [Obamacare],” she answered, “Both.”

Substantively, Obamacare’s fiscal schemes did not help Medicare’s solvency one whit. The program was scheduled to become functionally insolvent this year, and because Congress has enacted few meaningful reforms to the program in the time since, can be considered as such. However, because they improved the program’s solvency on paper, Obamacare’s budgetary gimmicks have allowed people like Roe to deny the problem exists, which will only worsen the scale of fiscal adjustment needed when Medicare finally faces its fiscal reckoning.

Reducing Spending Increases Is Not a ‘Cut’

As the New York Times has noted, Republicans argued vociferously—and correctly—earlier this year that slowing the growth of Medicaid spending in their “repeal-and-replace” bills did not represent a “cut” in that program. Yet Roe quickly resurrected the familiar (and incorrect) talking point about budget “cuts” when discussing Medicare.

Over the years, Republicans have spent far too much time demagoguing Obamacare for “cutting” Medicare. (As noted above, the problem with the law wasn’t that it reduced Medicare spending, it’s that it spent those Medicare savings to fund Obamacare, rather than shore up Medicare’s finances.) They now face many of the same opportunistic attacks from the Left regarding the entitlement reform proposals included in the “repeal-and-replace” bills. So why is Roe retreating into that same mindset that a decrease in a spending increase represents a “cut?”

Roe may not want to go back home and explain to his constituents why he reduced Medicare spending. But sooner or later, he and his fellow members of Congress will have to do just that. And the more he and his colleagues continue their pattern of obfuscation and denial through these kinds of ill-informed comments, the worse those spending reductions will end up being.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AARP’s Amnesia on “Raiding” Medicare

Based on its statements the past few weeks, if Obamacare extended to non-profit organizations, AARP might need to seek coverage for memory loss. While the seniors’ group opposes House Republicans’ extension of children’s health insurance because it includes provisions means-testing Medicare benefits for wealthy seniors, the Obamacare legislation it endorsed in December 2009 did the very same thing.

Obamacare Included Means-Testing

A letter the AARP sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week objected to the House’s proposals to increase Medicare means-testing, noting that wealthy seniors already pay a greater share of their Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) premiums. That statement is true—in part because of Obamacare, which AARP endorsed.

In addition, Section 3308 of Obamacare applied means-testing for affluent seniors to the Part D prescription drug program for the first time.

Obamacare Used Medicare Savings

Last week’s AARP letter also claimed that “not only is it wrong to continue to ask Medicare beneficiaries to shoulder the burden for non-Medicare expenditures, but it will make it harder to finance actual improvements and address long-term challenges in the Medicare program.” That statement contains no small amount of irony, considering that Obamacare, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi herself admitted, “took half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in [Obamacare], the health care bill”—to spend on new entitlements.

Moreover, by using savings from the Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) trust fund, Obamacare gamed the accounting to make the program’s shortfalls look less severe. When then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was asked whether the Medicare savings were being used “to save Medicare, or to fund health reform [Obamacare],” Sebelius replied, “Both.”

Some would argue that Obamacare’s financial chicanery has actually undermined Medicare’s solvency by giving lawmakers an excuse to postpone needed reforms. While this year’s Medicare trustees report claimed the Part A trust fund would become insolvent in 2029, the last trustees report released prior to Obamacare measured the program’s insolvency date at 2017—this year.

If it weren’t for the double-counting in Obamacare—a bill that AARP proudly endorsed—lawmakers would likely be confronting Medicare’s structural deficits this year. Instead, comforted by the false hope of Obamacare’s accounting gimmicks, Congress seems unlikely to embark on comprehensive Medicare reform to solve those deficits in the near future, which will only exacerbate the impact of legislative changes when they do take place.

The history of Obamacare lends support to AARP’s current argument that Medicare savings not finance other government spending. But given its own history in supporting Obamacare, AARP seems singularly unqualified to make it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Ways Kathleen Sebelius Sabotaged the Rule of Law

Of all the people crying “sabotage” when it comes to Obamacare, Kathleen Sebelius might be the most qualified on the subject. Presiding over the disastrous “launch” of healthcare.gov in the fall of 2013, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius famously testified before Congress: “Hold me accountable for the debacle—I’m responsible.”

Likewise, in her claims this week that the Trump administration “has consistently tried to undermine the law that is the law of the land,” Sebelius knows of which she speaks. She presided over numerous actions that violated the text of Obamacare, and the Constitution, to thwart the will of Congress and undermine “the law of the land”—Obamacare as it was actually written, not as Democrats wished it were written—and the rule of law in general.

1. Unconstitutional ‘Like Your Plan’ Fix

As Sebelius presided over the healthcare.gov “debacle,” the Obama administration faced a serious political crisis. While the federally run exchange melted down, millions of Americans received cancellation notices in the mail, learning that because their plans did not meet Obamacare’s myriad new regulations, they would lose their coverage effective January 1, 2014.

The notices demonstrated the emptiness of Obama’s repeated promises that individuals who liked their plans could keep them—PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year.” Moreover, the malfunctioning website created the possibility that millions of Americans could lose their existing coverage while having no way to purchase a replacement policy.

In response to the uproar, the Obama administration essentially decided to take the law into its own hands. Sebelius’ department issued a memo saying it would refuse to enforce the law for certain categories of insurance policies, allowing states and insurers the latitude to maintain individuals’ prior coverage. Even supporters of Obamacare like Nicholas Bagley said the administration’s actions violated the Constitution—the executive refusing to enforce provisions of a law it found politically inconvenient.

2. Illegal Reinsurance Subsidies

The Government Accountability Office last year ruled that the Obama administration “undermined the law that is the law of the land,” as Sebelius alleges of the Trump administration. Specifically, GAO found that the Obama administration illegally prioritized health insurance companies over American taxpayers, funneling billions of reinsurance dollars that should have remained in the U.S. Treasury (to pay for a separate Obamacare program) to corporate welfare payments to insurance companies. After this rebuke from nonpartisan auditors, the Obama administration still made no attempt to comply with the law as interpreted by GAO.

If Sebelius is as concerned about “undermin[ing] the law that is the law of the land” as she claims, she should have publicly demanded that the Obama administration comply with the law, and the GAO ruling. She did no such thing then, and is unlikely to ask the Trump administration to claw back the corporate welfare payments to insurers now.

3. Unconstitutional Payments to Insurers

The Obama administration did not just violate the law in making payments to health insurers, it violated the Constitution as well. The text of Obamacare—“the law that is the law of the land,” in Sebelius’ words—included no appropriation making payments to insurers to reimburse them for cost-sharing reductions provided to individuals. The Obama administration made the payments anyway.

Ends and Means

Sebelius’ comments show a fundamental disconnect between means and ends. The Obama administration’s actions suggest a concern largely, if not solely, about signing up as many individuals for taxpayer-funded coverage as possible. If achieving that object meant violating the law, or the Constitution, so be it—the ends justified the means.

Sebelius’ real disagreement therefore doesn’t lie with the Trump administration on “undermining the law.” She did plenty of that herself, likely with full knowledge she was doing so. Instead, her true objection lies in the fact that the Trump may have different policy ends than ones she supports.

If Sebelius wants to espouse different policy positions than the current administration, that is her right. But given the ways in which the last administration repeatedly violated Obamacare to suit its own purposes, conservatives should take no lessons from Sebelius on how to avoid “undermining the law.” Physician, heal thyself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ Hypocrisy on Per Capita Caps

It was, to borrow from Arthur Conan Doyle, the dog that didn’t bark. In releasing the annual report on its finances, Medicare’s actuary last month found that the program would not trigger requirements related to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) this year—or for several years to come. Although the Senate and House health-care bills avoided altering Medicare, the IPAB development—or non-development, as it were—should inject some important perspective into the legislative debate.

Many liberal critics of the Republican bills have attacked proposals to impose per capita caps on state Medicaid programs, while conveniently forgetting that Obamacare imposed similar spending caps on Medicare. In fact, Section 3403 of the law empowers IPAB—a board of unelected bureaucrats—to make binding recommendations to Congress reducing program spending if Medicare will exceed statutory limits for spending per beneficiary.

We Care More About Politics than Policy

Some Obamacare supporters claim that statutory restrictions on IPAB—in enforcing Medicare spending caps, the board may not change Medicare benefits or “ration health care”—will protect Medicare beneficiaries in a way that the current bills do not protect Medicaid recipients. But IPAB’s supposed “protections” have their own flaws. The statute does not define “rationing,” and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius testified in 2011 that HHS would need to draft regulations to do so. But the Obama administration never even proposed rules “protecting” Medicare beneficiaries from rationing under the IPAB per capita caps—so how meaningful can those protections actually be?

When push comes to shove, few liberals can justify their support for per capita caps on Medicare, but opposition to similar caps in Medicaid. One day on Twitter, I posed a simple question to Topher Spiro, of the Center for American Progress (CAP): If the Republican proposals for per capita caps in Medicaid included the same beneficiary “protections” as IPAB creates for Medicare recipients, would he support them? I never received a substantive answer.

Therein lies the problem: Many critics of the Republican Medicaid proposals seem to prioritize political partisanship over policy consistency. Five years ago, CAP made very clear it supports IPAB’s per capita caps on Medicare spending, denouncing a 2012 legislative effort to repeal the board. But earlier this year, the organization denounced as “devastating” Republican proposals for per capita caps on Medicaid. So why exactly does this purportedly non-partisan organization support per capita caps when a Democratic Congress enacts them, but oppose similar caps proposed by a Republican Congress?

It’s Okay, It’s Just Hypocrisy

Democratic senators appearing with disability advocates at events to denounce spending caps for Medicaid fail to recognize that they voted for similar caps in Medicare, which provides health coverage to 9 million Americans with disabilities. Moreover, despite being in place for several years, the Medicare caps have yet to be breached. So how damaging is a policy that hasn’t affected Medicare beneficiaries in the slightest, and which Democratic lawmakers themselves have voted for?

In his Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” Doyle wrote of the guard dog that didn’t bark because it was friendly with an intruder. Likewise, many liberal advocates and Democratic lawmakers are quite friendly with per capita entitlement caps, already having imposed such caps for Medicare. Particularly given the non-factor of such caps in the Medicare program in recent years, they should perhaps “bark” less in opposing similar caps in Medicaid. Both beneficiaries and taxpayers deserve better than opportunistic—and politically inconsistent—scaremongering.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AARP’s Own Age Tax

Over the past few weeks, AARP—an organization that purportedly advocates on behalf of seniors—has been running advertisements claiming that the House health-care bill would impose an “age tax” on seniors by allowing for greater variation in premiums. It knows of which it speaks: AARP has literally made billions of dollars by imposing its own “tax” on seniors buying health insurance policies, not to mention denying care to individuals with disabilities.

While the public may think of AARP as a membership organization that advocates for liberal causes or gives seniors discounts at restaurants and hotels, most of its money comes from selling the AARP name. In 2015, the organization received nearly three times as much revenue from “royalty fees” than it did from member dues. Most of those royalty fees come from selling insurance products issued by UnitedHealthGroup.

Only We Can Profit On the Elderly

So in the sale of Medigap plans, AARP imposes—you guessed it!—a 4.95 percent age tax on seniors. AARP not only makes more money the more people enroll in its Medigap plans, it makes more money if individuals buy more expensive insurance.

Even worse, AARP refused good governance practices that would disclose the existence of that tax to seniors at the time they apply for Medigap insurance. While working for Sen. Jim DeMint in 2012, I helped write a letter to AARP that referenced the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Producer Model Licensing Act.

Specifically, Section 18 of that act recommends that states require explicit disclosure to consumers of percentage-based compensation arrangements at the time of sale, due to the potential for abuse. DeMint’s letter asked AARP to “outline the steps [it] has taken to ensure that your Medigap percentage-based compensation model is in full compliance with the letter and spirit of” those requirements. AARP never gave a substantive reply to this congressional oversight request.

Don’t Screw With Obamacare, It’s Making Us Billions

Essentially, AARP makes money off other people’s money—perhaps receiving insurance premium payments on the 1st of the month, transferring them to UnitedHealth or its other insurance affiliates on the 15th of the month, and pocketing the interest accrued over the intervening two weeks. That’s nearly $3.2 billion in profit over six years, just from selling insurance plans. AARP received much of that $3.2 billion in part because Medigap coverage received multiple exemptions in Obamacare. The law exempted Medigap plans from the health insurer tax, and medical loss ratio requirements.

Most importantly, Medigap plans are exempt from the law’s myriad insurance regulations, including Obamacare’s pre-existing condition exclusions—which means AARP can continue its prior practice of imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants. You read that right: Not only did Obamacare not end the denial of care for pre-existing conditions, the law allowed AARP to continue to deny care for individuals with disabilities, as insurers can and do reject Medigap applications when individuals qualify for Medicare early due to a disability.

The Obama administration helped AARP in other important ways. Regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exempted Medigap policies from insurance rate review of “excessive” premium increases, an exemption that particularly benefited AARP. Because the organization imposes its 4.95 percent “age tax” on individuals applying for coverage, AARP has a clear financial incentive to raise premiums, sell seniors more insurance than they require, and sell seniors policies that they don’t need. Yet rather than addressing these inherent conflicts, HHS decided to look the other way and allow AARP to continue its shady practices.

The Cronyism Stinks to High Heaven

AARP will claim in its defense that it’s not an insurance company, which is true. Insurance companies must risk capital to pay claims, and face losses if claims exceed premiums charged. By contrast, AARP need never risk one dime. It can just sit back, license its brand, and watch the profits roll in. Its $561.9 million received from UnitedHealthGroup in 2015 exceeded the profits of many large insurers that year, including multi-billion dollar carriers like Centene, Health Net, and Molina Healthcare.

But if the AARP now suddenly cares about “taxing” the aged so much, Washington should grant them their wish. The Trump administration and Congress should investigate and crack down on AARP’s insurance shenanigans. Congress should subpoena Sebelius and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, her successor, and ask why each turned a blind eye to its sordid business practices. HHS should write to state insurance commissioners, and ask them to enforce existing best practices that require greater disclosure from entities (like AARP) operating on a percentage-based commission.

And both Congress and the administration should ask why, if AARP cares about its members as much as it claims, the organization somehow “forgot” to lobby for Medigap reforms—not just prior to Obamacare’s passage, but now. AARP’s fourth quarter lobbying report showed that the organization contacted Congress on 77 separate bills, including issues as minor as the cost of lifetime National Parks passes, yet failed to discuss Medigap reform at all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.