“Ponzi Pete” Buttigieg Proposes More Unsustainable Entitlements

On the campaign trail for the Democratic presidential nomination, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg tries to portray himself as a moderate politician. By running ads against implementing a single-payer health system, Buttigieg would have voters believe he rejects the radical leftism of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Don’t you believe it. Buttigieg recently released an aging and retirement plan that proposed massive amounts of new entitlement spending, with very little in the way of specifics to pay for all his ideas. It’s but the latest example of Democrats’ government giveaway train run amok.

CLASS Act ‘Ponzi Scheme’

The first part of Buttigieg’s paper talks about an “historic” new program, Long-Term Care America. The mayor claims this plan would provide aid to seniors “who require assistance with two or more activities of daily living….Benefits would be worth $90 per day for as long as [seniors] need care, and kick in after an income-related waiting period.”

But Title VIII of Obamacare contained language establishing the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program. Moderate Democrats attacked the proposal as unsustainable. Prior to Obamacare’s enactment, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), then the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, called CLASS a “Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” Those concerns ultimately proved correct, as the Obama administration had to shelve the program as unworkable before it ever collected a dime in premiums.

As a Senate staffer conducting oversight on CLASS, and later as a member of the Commission on Long-Term Care tasked with examining possible replacements, I examined the program’s failure in minute detail. But at bottom, the program suffered from the same problem facing the Obamacare exchanges: Too many sick people signing up for benefits, driving up premiums, and therefore driving away healthy individuals.

Obamacare required individuals to pay into the CLASS program for only five years to qualify for benefits. Actuaries believed that people would sign up, pay a few thousand dollars in premiums over five years, and then collect benefits totaling tens of thousands of dollars or more. Just as Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions have priced millions of people out of coverage—because individuals can sign up for “insurance” after they develop a pre-existing condition—so too would CLASS have attracted people already suffering from disabilities, who by definition don’t need insurance so much as they need care.

The exchanges have remained somewhat sustainable only because of massive amounts of federal spending on subsidies and bailouts. However, Obamacare forced CLASS to become self-sustaining, without relying on federally subsidized premiums or a bailout. The Obama administration in October 2011 conceded that it could not meet these statutory requirements, and therefore shelved the program. (Congress later repealed CLASS outright in the “fiscal cliff” deal in January 2013.)

Buttigieg’s plan acknowledges none of this history, and makes no mention of solvency or sustainability when talking about his proposed new program. Perhaps limiting it to only those over age 65, and imposing a waiting period for people to receive benefits, as his proposal outlines, will make it more financially sustainable (or less unsustainable). But Buttigieg also proposes a $90 daily benefit, 80 percent richer than the CLASS Act’s $50 per day benefit, exacerbating solvency concerns.

Costly Promises

Buttigieg’s promise of a long-term care benefit says nothing about whether this new federal spending would increase the deficit, your taxes, or both. In that respect, it represents but one of the many costly promises in his retirement plan, including:

  • An end to the two-year waiting period currently required for individuals receiving Social Security disability benefits to qualify for Medicare coverage;
  • An increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and new staffing requirements for nursing homes, all of which will raise costs to the Medicaid program; and
  • An expansion of Social Security benefits—including a new minimum benefit and credit for caregivers—funded entirely by higher taxes on “the rich.”

At present, our federal government faces $23 trillion in debt, and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. To put it bluntly, we can’t pay for the government we have now, let alone the new programs Buttigieg and his fellow presidential candidates have proposed.

Buttigieg can try to hide himself in the cloak of the “moderate” mantra all he likes. But his laundry lists of new and unsustainable entitlements represent nothing more than big-government liberalism.

UPDATE: This post was edited after publication, to clarify the nature of Buttigieg’s proposal as compared to Obamacare’s CLASS Act.

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.

Will the “Byrd Bath” Turn into a Tax Credit Bloodbath?

While most of official Washington waits for word—expected early this week—from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the fiscal effects of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, another, equally critical debate is taking place within the corridors of the Capitol. Arcane arguments behind closed doors about the nuances of parliamentary procedure will do much to determine the bill’s fate in the Senate—and could lead to a vastly altered final product.

In recent days, House leaders have made numerous comments highlighting the procedural limitations of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate. However, those statements do not necessarily mean the legislation released last week comports with all of those Senate strictures. Indeed, my conversations with more than half a dozen current and former senior Senate staff, all of whom have years of expertise in the minutiae of Senate rules and procedure, have revealed at least four significant procedural issues—one regarding abortion, two regarding immigration, and one regarding a structural “firewall”—surrounding the bill’s tax credit regime.

It is far too premature to claim that any of these potential flaws will necessarily be fatal. The Senate parliamentarian’s guidance to senators depends on textual analysis—of the bill’s specific wording, the underlying statutes to which it refers, and the CBO scores (not yet available)—and arguments about precedent made by both parties. Senate staff could re-draft portions of the House bill to make it pass procedural muster, or make arguments to preserve the existing language that the parliamentarian accepts as consistent with Senate precedents.

Nevertheless, if the parliamentarian validates even one of the four potential procedural problems, Republicans could end up with a tax credit regime that is politically unsustainable, or whose costs escalate appreciably.

In 2009, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad famously opined that passing health care legislation through budget reconciliation would make the bill look like “Swiss cheese.” (While Democrats did not pass Obamacare through reconciliation, they did use the reconciliation process to “fix” the bill that cleared the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009.)

In reality, it’s much easier to repeal provisions of a budgetary nature—like Obamacare’s taxes, entitlements, and even its major regulations—through reconciliation than to create a new replacement regime. The coming week may provide firsthand proof of Conrad’s 2009 axiom.

The ‘Byrd Rule’ and Abortion

The Senate’s so-called “Byrd rule” governing debate on budget reconciliation rules, named after former Senate Majority Leader and procedural guru Robert Byrd (D-WV), consists of not one rule, but six. The six points of order (codified here) seek to keep extraneous material out of the expedited reconciliation process, preserving the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, subject to the usual 60-vote margin to break a filibuster.

The Byrd rule’s most famous test states that “a provision shall be considered extraneous if it produces changes in outlays or revenues which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the legislation.” If the section in question primarily makes a policy change, and has a minimal budgetary impact, it remains in the bill only if 60 senators (the usual margin necessary to break a filibuster) agree to waive the Byrd point of order.

One example of this test may apply to the House bill’s tax credits: “Hyde amendment” language preventing the credits from funding plans that cover abortion. Such language protecting taxpayer funding of abortion coverage occurs several places throughout the bill, including at the top of page 25 of the Ways and Means title.

The question will then occur as to what becomes of both the credit and the Hyde protections. Some within the administration have argued that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can institute pro-life protections through regulations, but administration insiders doubt HHS’ authority to do so. Moreover, most pro-life groups publicly denounced President Obama’s March 2010 executive order, which he claimed would prevent taxpayer funding of abortion coverage in Obamacare, as 1) insufficient and 2) subject to change under a future administration. How would those pro-life groups view a regulatory change by the current administration any differently?

Two Procedural Problems Related to Immigration

A similarly controversial issue—immigration—brings an even larger set of procedural challenges. Apart from the separate question of whether the current verification provisions in the House bill are sufficiently robust, any eligibility verification regime for tax credits faces not one, but two major procedural obstacles in the Senate.

Of the six tests under the Byrd rule, some are more fatal than others. For instance, if the Hyde amendment restrictions outlined above are ruled incidental in nature, then those provisions merely get stricken from the bill unless 60 Senators vote to retain them—a highly improbable scenario in this case.

Page 37 of the Ways and Means title of the bill requires creation of a verification regime for tax credits similar to that created under Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare. As Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Tom Barthold testified last week during the Ways and Means Committee markup, verifying citizenship requires use of a database held by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

That admission creates a big problem: The tax credit lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee, but CIS lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And because the Finance Committee’s portion of the reconciliation bill can affect only programs within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, imposing programmatic requirements on CIS to verify citizenship status could exceed the Finance Committee’s scope—potentially jeopardizing the entire bill.

The verification provisions in Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare also require using  Social Security numbers, triggering another potentially fatal blow to the entire bill. Senate sources report that, during drafting the original reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare in the fall of 2015, Republicans attempted to repeal the language in Obamacare (Section 1414(a)(2), to be precise) giving the HHS secretary authority to collect and use Social Security numbers to establish eligibility. However, because Section 1414(a)(2) of Obamacare amended Title II of the Social Security Act, Republicans ultimately did not repeal this section of Obamacare in the reconciliation bill because it could have triggered a point of order fatal to the legislation.

If both the points of order against the verification regime are sustained, Congress will have to re-write the bill to create an eligibility verification system that 1) does not rely on the Department of Homeland Security and 2) does not use Social Security numbers. Doing so would create both political and policy problems. On the political side, the revised verification regime would exacerbate existing concerns that undocumented immigrants may have access to federal tax credits.

But the policy implications of a weaker verification regime might actually be more profound. Weaker verification would likely result in a higher score from CBO and JCT—budget scorekeepers would assume a higher incidence of fraud, raising the credits’ costs. House leaders might then have to reduce the amount of their tax credit to reflect the higher take-up of the credit by fraudsters taking advantage of lax verification. Any reduction in the credit amounts would bring with it additional political and policy implications, including lower coverage rates.

Concerns over the Tax Credit Firewall

Finally, the tax credit “firewall”—designed to ensure that only individuals without access to other health insurance options receive federal subsidies—could also present procedural concerns. Specifically, pages 27 and 28 of the bill make ineligible for the credit individuals participating in other forms of health insurance, several of which—Tricare, Veterans Administration coverage, coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, etc.—lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

If the Senate parliamentarian advises for the removal of references to these programs because they lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, then participants in those programs will essentially be able to “double-dip”—to receive both the federal tax credit and maintain their current coverage. As with the immigration provision outlined above, such a scenario could significantly increase the tax credits’ cost, requiring offsetting cuts elsewhere, which would have their own budgetary implications.

Senate sources indicate this “firewall” concern could prove less problematic than the immigration concern outlined above. While the immigration provision extends new programmatic authority to the administration to develop a revised eligibility verification system, the “firewall” provisions have the opposite effect—essentially excluding Tricare and other program recipients from the credit. However, if the parliamentarian gives guidance suggesting that some or all of the “firewall” provisions must go, that will have a significant impact on the bill’s fiscal impact.

Broader Implications Of These Procedural Problems

Both individually and collectively, these four potential procedural concerns hint at an intellectual inconsistency in the House bill’s approach, one Yuval Levin highlighted in National Review last week. House leaders claim their bill was drafted to comply with the Senate reconciliation procedures. But the bill itself contains numerous actual or potential violations of those procedures and amends some of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, rather than repealing them outright, making their argument incoherent.

Particularly on Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations, there seems little reason not to make the “ol’ college try,” and attempt to repeal the major mandates that have raised premium levels. According to prior CBO scores, other outside estimates, and the Obama administration’s own estimates, the major regulations have significant budgetary effects.

Republicans can and should argue to the parliamentarian that the regulations’ repeal would be neither incidental nor extraneous—their repeal would remove the terms and conditions under which Obamacare created its insurance subsidies in the first place, thus meeting the Byrd test. If successful, such efforts would provide relief on the issue Americans care most about: Reducing health costs and staggering premium increases.

On the tax credit itself, Republicans may face some difficult choices. Abortion and immigration present thorny—and controversial—issues, either of which could sink the legislation. On the bill’s tax credits, the “Byrd bath,” in which the parliamentarian gives guidance on what provisions can remain in the reconciliation bill, could become a bloodbath. If pro-life protections and eligibility verification come out of the bill, a difficult choice for conservatives on whether to support tax credits will become that much harder.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Points CBO Omitted from Its Report on Obamacare Repeal

This morning, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report analyzing the effects of Obamacare repeal. Specifically, CBO claimed that enacting a reconciliation bill that the last Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, would increase the number of uninsured (even relative to pre-Obamacare numbers) while raising insurance premiums appreciably. CBO believes that leaving Obamacare’s major insurance regulations in place—which last year’s reconciliation bill did—while repealing the law’s subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, will destabilize insurance markets, cause insurers to exit the marketplace, and raise premiums.

However, there are three important facts the CBO report didn’t address:

CBO Has Gotten Previous Estimates Wrong

While no forecaster has a perfect batting average, CBO’s track record with respect to Obamacare is perhaps less ideal than most. CBO thought that the CLASS Act—which Democratic Senator Kent Conrad infamously called “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing for which Bernie Madoff would be proud of—could be implemented in an actuarially sound manner. The Obama Administration eventually had to admit that the CLASS Act was not a fiscally sound program. And CBO failed to conduct enough analysis that could have predicted the CLASS Act’s failure prior to Obamacare’s passage—a point former Director Doug Elmendorf has publicly refused to admit.

With respect to enrollment, CBO significantly over-estimated the number of individuals that would sign up for Obamacare. In March 2010, as Democrats were ready to pass the law, CBO claimed that in 2016, 21 million individuals would sign up for coverage on insurance Exchanges. The reality has proven far different: Less than half as many individuals (10.4 million) had Exchange coverage as of June 30, 2016. And this much lower enrollment comes despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling making Medicaid expansion optional for states—which actually increased Exchange enrollment in states that have declined to expand Medicaid.

CBO claimed in 2010 that the individual mandate would cause tens of millions of individuals to sign up for coverage. It hasn’t happened. Now CBO claims that effectively repealing the mandate while leaving insurance regulations in place will cause healthy individuals to cancel coverage en masse. Could that happen? Absolutely. But given their recent track record on this specific issue, should one really take CBO’s word as gospel…?

The Solution Is More Repeal, Not Less

In a paradoxical way, the CBO report actually makes a strong case for expanding the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill. The paper notes on several occasions that repealing Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, while leaving its insurance regulations in place, would harm insurance markets. For instance, CBO notes that:

The number of people without health insurance would be smaller if, in addition to the changes in [last year’s reconciliation bill], the insurance market reforms mentioned above were also repealed.

Congress chose not to litigate the question of whether Obamacare’s major insurance mandates were budgetary in nature, and thus could be included in a budget reconciliation bill, last year. It should do so now. The findings of this CBO paper, along with other scoring estimates, give ample ammunition to those who consider it entirely consistent with past Senate precedents to include repeal of the major insurance regulations in budget reconciliation.

The Trump Administration Can Mitigate Repeal’s Effects

Even if Congress cannot or will not expand the scope of the reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations under Obamacare, the Trump Administration can act to mitigate against the kinds of concerns outlined in the CBO paper. A report I released just this morning outlines some of them. The Administration can significantly shorten—to just a few weeks, or even shorter—the annual open enrollment period, which can protect against individuals signing up for coverage after they get sick. It can reduce special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment, and require verification for all special enrollment. And it can take other administrative actions to mitigate the effects of a spike in premiums.

More CBO Transparency Could Have Prevented Obamacare’s CLASS Debacle

Mere days into a Republican Congress, Democrats are making charges of ideological bias when it comes to the majority’s handling of the Congressional Budget Office. A group of leading Senate Democrats wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner specifically noting that “a CBO director should not be required to revise the score of the Affordable Care Act in order to please partisan interests.” It’s an ironic charge, given that it’s far from partisan to question why the CBO failed to perform analyses that could have predicted the collapse of an $86 billion Obamacare program — exactly what happened under its current director, Doug Elmendorf.

The program in question, Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, or CLASS, was designed to provide cash benefits for those needing long-term services and support. CLASS made it into Obamacare at the behest of then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, and over the objections of both Republicans and moderate Democrats, who considered it fiscally unsustainable; then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., famously dubbed CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” And so it proved — in October 2011, less than two years after the law’s passage, the Department of Health and Human Services determined CLASS could not be implemented in a fiscally solvent manner, and in January 2013, Congress repealed it entirely.

But Congress and the American people could have been spared this trouble had CBO performed a more thorough analysis of CLASS. In 2009, the budget agency assumed that CLASS’s administrative expenses would remain confined to three percent of premiums, even though HHS’ own actuary later called this requirement “unrealistic and undesirable.” The actuary hired by HHS went on to estimate total expenses at 20 percent of premiums — nearly seven times the level specified in the law.

The unrealistically low administrative expenses go to the heart of CLASS’s structural flaws. The program proved fiscally unsustainable because it faced a classic actuarial death spiral—a lack of healthy people paying into the pool to fund benefits for those needing care.

Had CBO formally analyzed CLASS’s administrative expenses, it likely would have concluded that the unrealistic assumptions written into the law meant premiums would eventually have to rise, benefits fall, or both, to meet the shortfall — making the program even more unattractive to healthy individuals, and further imperiling its solvency. The CBO does have models to estimate the cost of insurance; with Obamacare, it stated in November 2009 that insurance exchanges would reduce the administrative costs of individually-purchased coverage. But when it came to CLASS, CBO did not perform a similar analysis.

Likewise, CBO at no point attempted to quantify the potentially massive costs to states that CLASS would have imposed. The program would have required state Medicaid programs to create a benefit eligibility system similar to that used by the Social Security disability insurance program. That program costs nearly $3 billion to administer every year — meaning CLASS could easily have imposed costs to states of $20 billion-30 billion over a decade.

Within HHS, officials expressed concern that CLASS would “create significant new burdens on the states.” Coming at a time when governors of both parties were criticizing the “mother of all unfunded mandates” in the form of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, a CBO finding that CLASS imposed mandates on states in the billions, or tens of billions, would have prompted bipartisan outrage — and could have scuttled the program entirely. But from its introduction to its repeal, CBO at no point even acknowledged the significant cost to states associated with CLASS.

In fairness to CBO, the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage were by far the busiest in my time as a Capitol Hill staffer. Lack of enough hours and lack of sleep could, and did, cause details to slip through the cracks; to quote Nancy Pelosi, we really did have to pass the bill to find out what was in it. But that neither excuses nor explains why CBO has not publicly acknowledged the shortcomings outlined above, and what if anything it needs to change — whether in resources, oversight, or both — to improve its analysis going forward.

Judging from his silence on CLASS, Elmendorf may view protecting his office’s budget analysts as a prime objective of a CBO director. As much as I value loyalty, CBO’s prime loyalty should lay to Congress — and ultimately to the public, which funds both CBO and the programs it analyzes. While Elmendorf has taken measures to release more information publicly — developments I welcome — such steps generally fall into the realm of making CBO less opaque, rather than truly transparent.

Democrats’ political posturing aside, it’s not partisan to ask for a public explanation why an independent budget office did not produce analyses that could have revealed the instability of an $86 billion “Ponzi scheme” before Congress enacted it into law. In fact, the principles of good governance should compel the CBO in exactly this direction. Hopefully CBO’s next director, whoever he or she is, will move more rapidly down the road of this much-needed transparency.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

Kathleen Sebelius: Just Another Insurance Salesman

Amidst all the attention given to the CLASS Act since HHS’ decision to shelve the program, one interesting element not drawing much attention is what all the possibilities HHS explored to make the program solvent have in common – they all represent insurance industry tactics condemned by Democrats.  Given that Secretary Sebelius frequently alleges that Obamacare ended “the insurance industry’s worst abuses,”* it’s worth pointing out that the Department’s report on the program revealed just how HHS and Secretary Sebelius proposed reinstating each and every one of those “insurance industry abuses” with respect to the CLASS Act:

Pre-Existing Condition Exclusions:  Page 39 of the report talks about proposals that would “impose a fifteen-year waiting period for the receipt of benefits on enrollees” with pre-existing conditions at the time of enrollment.  By point of comparison, health insurers can only impose a pre-existing condition waiting period of only 18 months – not the fifteen years proposed by HHS.

Limited Benefits:  Page 40 of the report talks about a proposal to “provide a very low benefit amount to individuals who become eligible for benefits in the first twenty years after enrollment.”  Only after two decades would enrollees qualify for the $50 daily benefit provided for in the statute.

“Unreasonable” Premium Increases:  Much of the report discusses imposing annual premium increases on enrollees, even though that is not explicitly provided for in the statute.  The memo to Secretary Sebelius accompanying the CLASS report notes that modeled premiums ranged “between $235 and $391 dollars [sic] a month, and may cost as much as $3,000 per month.”  Additionally, page 44 of the report notes that “the Secretary and the Board might conclude that…the reasonable premium increases…are inadequate to avoid insolvency.”  In other words, premiums would start out at a high level, increase every year – and an “unreasonable” premium spike would be possible, even probable.

“Cherry Picking:”  The former CLASS actuary told the Associated Press that the program could be made solvent.  However, the actuary’s ideas “would involve marketing the plan first to groups of primarily healthy people, and also possibly requiring those in poor health to wait longer before they could receive benefits.”

In other words, in an ultimately futile attempt to make CLASS solvent, the Obama Administration attempted to employ the exact same types of “sleazy” insurance industry practices Democrats have so frequently, and vociferously, derided – throwing up obstacles so that the sickest patients would not be able to benefit from CLASS.  These developments raise some interesting questions for HHS:

  • Does Secretary Sebelius plan to give her own Department an Obamacare waiver, for trying to sell limited benefit policies under CLASS?
  • Will HHS put CLASS on the “naughty list” of insurance plans with “unreasonable” or “unjustified” premium increases, given the way in which premiums were virtually guaranteed to skyrocket under the program?
  • Given that CLASS was subject to spiraling premium increases, will HHS stop accusing carriers who need to raise premiums due to Obamacare’s costly insurance mandates for spreading “misinformation?”

It’s not a surprise that HHS had to go to such lengths to salvage the CLASS program; the non-partisan Medicare actuary knew from Day One the plan wouldn’t work, and even Budget Committee Chairman Conrad called the program a “Ponzi scheme of the first order.”  But the larger point is this:  Whether due to self-righteous indignation, political posturing, or both, liberal Democrats have always found it easy to criticize health insurers – which is why Secretary Sebelius’ biography claims that Obamacare will end “the insurance industry’s worst abuses.”*  However, having now proposed engaging in every single one of those “abuses” herself, perhaps the Secretary and the Obama Administration will act with a bit more humility when it comes to having politicians criticize, and bureaucrats micro-manage, private sector actors in health care.

 

* Other commentators have noted that Obamacare did not actually end these “abuses,” at least not with respect to offerings made by some of the President’s key liberal allies.  The above analysis ignores the validity of those claims for purposes of this e-mail only.

CLASS Act Scandal: Bigger Than Enron?

The Administration’s Friday decision not to go forward with CLASS implementation means that the program has now been definitively exposed as an accounting gimmick, with $86 billion in “deficit savings” wiped away in an instant.  Yet Democrats’ reaction to these vaporized savings has been decidedly ho-hum:  HHS dumped their decision out on a Friday afternoon, leading Democrats in both chambers have not a thing on their websites about the CLASS developments, and liberal bloggers are even arguing that the government “worked exactly the way it ought to.”

Compare that (non-)reaction to the Enron scandal, which reached its peak almost exactly one decade ago.  Enron’s accounting shenanigans wiped out $70 billion in shareholder value – $16 billion LESS than went “Poof!” when the CLASS Act collapsed on Friday.  And in 2001, Democrats reacted with righteous fury to the Enron scandal.  For instance, Henry Waxman established an “Enron tipline” on his website, called the company’s collapse “breathtaking,” and said the executives’ behavior was an “outrage.”

So where’s the outrage from Democrats here?

  • Will Henry Waxman be establishing a “CLASS tipline,” to see whether any HHS employee whistleblowers might have insights into why the many independent warnings about CLASS were ignored?
  • Why do liberals say the vaporization of tens of billions of shareholder equity is a massive outrage, but government $86 billion in “deficit savings” evaporating in an instant doesn’t merit a word of mention?
  • If a private company – and not the government – announced that a Madoff-esque scheme wiped out more shareholder value than occurred with Enron, would liberals claim such a scenario meant the private sector “worked exactly the way it ought to…?”

There is however one big difference between Enron and CLASS: Democrats knew about the CLASS Act’s problems all along.  The non-partisan Medicare actuary knew from Day One the plan wouldn’t work, and even Budget Committee Chairman Conrad called the program a “Ponzi scheme of the first order.”  That fact makes Democrats’ deafening silence on the program’s entirely predictable failure that much more telling.

CLASS Act Fiasco Highlights Obamacare’s Flaws

Republicans warned: “The CLASS Act is another classic gimmick of budgetary shenanigans.”

                                                                                 Senator Gregg, 12/2/2009

The Obama Administration promised: “This is not a budget gimmick.”

                                                                                   OMB Director Orszag, 3/4/2010    

What happened: “We have not identified a way to make CLASS work.”

                                                                                    HHS Secretary Sebelius, 10/14/2011

 

  • During the Obamacare debate, the controversial long-term care program CLASS was widely derided as a budget gimmick. Even Democrat Budget Committee Chairman Conrad called it a “Ponzi scheme of the first order.”
  • Democrats said CLASS would provide $86 billion in savings to Obamacare — 41% of the total budget savings they claimed for the law — even though many independent experts questioned the program’s viability from Day One.
  • Under Republican questioning last February, HHS Secretary Sebelius admitted that CLASS was “totally unsustainable” as written, though she claimed she could fix the program unilaterally.
  • Last Friday, the Obama Administration finally announced there was not a “viable path forward for CLASS implementation” and that it would drop the program.
  • Yesterday, CBO announced that repealing CLASS would not cost taxpayers any money, contrary to earlier claims by the law’s supporters.
  • The Administration says that CLASS collapsed because of substantial uncertainty surrounding long-term care insurance. But the forecast for the rest of Obamacare is just as uncertain.
    • The law assumes that employers will not drop health coverage, but countless studies, reports, and surveys point to large numbers of businesses cancelling health insurance.
    • If this trend continues, the cost of Obamacare could swamp the federal balance sheet and render the entire law fiscally unsustainable.
  • The next step is to repeal the CLASS Act – over President Obama’s objections if necessary – along with the rest of Obamacare, and replace them with common-sense reforms that truly lower costs.

A Ponzi Scheme (Finally) Collapses

An op-ed by Secretary Sebelius admits that HHS will NOT be moving forward with CLASS Act implementation – a devastating indictment by the Administration itself of the unrealistic assumptions and budgetary gimmicks used to enact Obamacare.  This development comes nearly two years AFTER Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad called the program a “Ponzi scheme of the first order.”  That quote, along with the report of the CLASS Act Working Group, means that today’s development raises more questions than it answers:

  • How many millions of dollars of taxpayer funds have been spent on CLASS implementation in the two years since career officials within the Department dubbed the program a recipe for disaster?
  • At a time when the federal government faces trillion-dollar deficits, why did the Administration spend so long trying to salvage a program that was totally unsustainable from the get-go?
  • Who will accept responsibility for this wasteful and unnecessary spending on CLASS implementation – all of which could have been avoided had the Administration listened to the advice of the non-partisan Medicare actuary?
  • Why didn’t Secretary Sebelius publicly raise concerns her own staff were airing privately in early 2010 – BEFORE the bill was enacted – that CLASS would be unsustainable?  Did she not know about the serious fiscal concerns being raised within her Department, or did she suppress this information to avoid damaging Obamacare’s chances of passage?
  • Why did Secretary Sebelius and other HHS officials claim through much of 2011 that the Department had sufficient authority to modify the CLASS program to make it solvent, even though internal documents from January 2010 show cast doubts on the Secretary’s assertions – doubts that have now been proven correct?

In March 2010, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously claimed we had to pass the bill so the American people could find out what was in it.  Today’s damning admission from HHS about the failures of the program Democrats trumpeted as “fiscally solvent” and a “deficit reducer” finally allows the American people to find out about the fiscal games and gimmicks used during Democrats’ headlong rush to enact Obamacare.

Repeal and Reconciliation

The Hill yesterday quoted Budget Committee Chairman Conrad as saying a Republican plan to utilize the reconciliation process to repeal Obamacare in 2013 would be an inappropriate use of reconciliation, because in his words the Congressional Budget Office claimed that “repealing the entire health care law would dramatically increase the deficit.”  It’s worth unpacking that statement a bit more, to examine all the ways in which CBO’s conclusions have been undermined just in the past two weeks:

  • The future of the CLASS program – and its supposed $86 billion in budgetary “savings” – were thrown into grave doubt, when the program’s actuary left his job and all the other employees were reassigned.  Even Chairman Conrad has disparaged this program, famously calling it a “Ponzi scheme of the first order” – yet much of Obamacare’s supposed “deficit reduction” comes from premiums paid into the program in its first few years (even though the program will have major solvency problems thereafter).
  • The liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities released a report citing as conventional wisdom the belief that Obamacare’s insurance subsidies will have to be increased – thus reducing the law’s supposed “savings.”
  • A little-noticed passage of the Institute of Medicine’s report about the essential health benefits package cited two separate studies suggesting that Exchanges might attract sicker-than-average individuals.  But when analyzing the bill in 2009, CBO assumed that Exchanges would enroll healthier-than-average Americans due to the individual mandate.  If the two studies cited in the IOM report are right and CBO is not, then premiums in the Exchange – and thus federal spending on subsidies – could be much higher than expected.

Of course, these developments don’t even begin to address the biggest issue in the room:  The many studies, papers, briefs, reports, employer questionnaires, consultant presentations, surveys, op-eds, interviews, and quotes suggesting that employers will drop coverage in much higher numbers than CBO first anticipated, leading spending on subsidies to explode – shattering the deficit reduction “savings” in the process.

But Chairman Conrad’s comments implicitly raise another question, and that’s this:  In March 2010 President Obama barnstormed around the country asking for an “up-or-down vote” on the 2,700 page bill.  Leader Reid and Democrats complied, sending a letter to then-Speaker Pelosi stating that “We support an up-or-down majority vote” to enact Obamacare.  After all their exhortations about an up-or-down vote to pass Obamacare in 2010, do Democrats believe that a Republican President in 2013 should have the same opportunity for an up-or-down vote to repeal Obamacare?  Or does the Obama talk of “I won” and Harry Reid’s policy to “Stand up and vote” only apply to passing Democrat laws and not Republican ones?