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

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

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

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

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

The Problem: Employer-Provided Health Insurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cure the Disease, Not the Symptoms

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

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

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

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

Trump Administration’s Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empower Patients, Not Government

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

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

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

The Bigger Problem with SCOTUS’ Obamacare Bailout Ruling

I’ll start with the bad news: The Supreme Court granted insurers nearly $12 billion in Obamacare bailout funds. And now the worse news: It allowed the executive to stick Congress with the bill for unconstitutional actions lawmakers never authorized.

The ruling, issued on Monday after the Court heard oral arguments in December, made the case sound simple: Obamacare created an obligation on the federal government to pay insurers’ risk corridor claims. Congress refused to appropriate the money. Therefore insurers can go to court and obtain the $12 billion in question from the Judgment Fund, which has a permanent, unlimited appropriation to pay legal claims against the government.

But the reality doesn’t match the ruling’s cut-and-dried approach. Unilateral actions by the executive paved the way for risk corridors’ massive losses, a fact neither insurers nor liberal Obamacare supporters like to admit.

The Bailout’s Origins

In many ways, the Supreme Court case has its roots in guidance released by the Obama administration in November 2013. At that point, millions of people had received plan cancellation notices, but couldn’t buy health insurance plans while healthcare.gov remained in meltdown. President Obama faced withering and justified criticism for his “Lie of the Year”—the promise that “If you like your plan, you can keep it.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tried to stanch the political bleeding. Instead of sending cancellation notices, states and insurers could allow individuals to retain plans purchased after Obamacare’s March 2010 enactment, but before the major insurance regulations went into effect on January 1, 2014.

Coming at a very late date, HHS’s unilateral action threatened to create more chaos for insurers. The carriers had priced their policies assuming millions of individuals with pre-Obamacare policies would lose their existing plans and sign up for exchange coverage. Instead, these largely healthy individuals would remain outside of Obamacare, as millions of sicker individuals flooded onto exchanges to obtain the richer Obamacare coverage.

How did HHS propose to offset insurers’ potential losses from this late change to their enrollee profile? The same November 2013 guidance allowing pre-Obamacare policies to remain in place proposed risk corridors as the solution:

Though this transitional policy was not anticipated by health insurance issuers when setting rates for 2014, the risk corridor program should help ameliorate unanticipated changes in premium revenue. We intend to explore ways to modify the risk corridor program final rules to provide additional assistance.

In theory, risk corridors required plans with outsized profits on Obamacare policies to subsidize insurers with outsized losses. But because many insurers kept their pre-Obamacare policies in place, many more insurers suffered losses than gains. The program suffered approximately $12 billion in losses during its three years (2014-16), losses which prompted insurers’ suit, to recover the billions they consider themselves owed.

Unconstitutional Actions

But as law professor Nicholas Bagley (an Obamacare supporter) and others have pointed out, HHS’s November 2013 guidance came with a big catch: It violated the president’s constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” In essence, the Obama administration had stated that it would not enforce the law—the new insurance regulations coming into effect, which had led insurers to send the cancellation notices in the first place—because it found doing so politically inconvenient. (Sadly, the Trump administration has continued the unconstitutional behavior, by similarly allowing the plans to remain in effect.)

Those unconstitutional actions imposed major financial losses on insurers, an assertion that comes not just from the HHS guidance quoted above, but from the insurers themselves. An amicus brief submitted in the Supreme Court case by Americans for Prosperity noted that the insurer plaintiffs themselves admitted the administration’s unilateral actions represented the root cause of much of their financial losses:

As one Petitioner notes, this ‘unexpected policy change had marked and predictable effects.’ It lowered enrollment and since ‘the announcement came after premiums had been set[,]’ Petitioners were stuck with the prices they set, forced to ‘[b]ear greater risk than they accounted for[.]’ Petitioners argue that HHS recognized ‘that its unexpected policy shift could subject insurers on the exchanges to unanticipated higher average claims costs … [b]ut,’ the agency allayed their fears by providing reassurance that the risk corridors program would cover any losses. The Petitioners go through a lengthy history of HHS’s actions, pinning much of the blame on HHS’s ‘rosy scenario’ of how things would work out. [Internal citations omitted.]

Sticking Taxpayers with the Tab

Insurers could have responded in a different manner to the HHS guidance. They could have cancelled all their pre-Obamacare policies anyway, or they could have challenged the guidance in court. Some took the former action, because some states forced carriers to cancel all pre-Obamacare plans—but none took the latter course. In the main, insurers decided to take their chances, roll the dice, and not take a confrontational tack with the Obama administration, largely hoping they would receive the risk corridor bailout HHS alluded to in its guidance.

But Congress can, and should, have a say in the matter. A policy enacted unilaterally, and unconstitutionally, by HHS resulted in a financial impact (in the form of risk corridors) to the tune of billions of dollars.

Yes, Congress could have passed more stringent language blocking any appropriation for a risk corridor bailout. But following that logic to its conclusion would have effectively turned the Constitution on its head: The executive can make a unilateral, and unconstitutional, change, and both Congress and taxpayers have to pay the bill for it—unless and until Congress passes legislation by a veto-proof majority to undo the financial consequences of an action the executive never had authority to take in the first place.

A Costly ‘Bait-and-Switch’

Insurers decried the risk corridor funding shortfall as a “bait-and-switch” by Congress: Lawmakers authorized the payments as part of Obamacare, but never ponied up an appropriation for an obligation Congress created.

Risk corridors did suffer from a “bait-and-switch,” but it came from the Obama administration, not Congress. HHS changed the rules of the game, causing insurers major losses on their Obamacare plans—and sticking taxpayers with much of that tab via risk corridors.

But neither the majority opinion in the Supreme Court ruling, nor Justice Alito’s dissent, addressed the Obama administration’s “bait-and-switch.” As a result, the court created a bad precedent that empowers the executive, further diminishes the role of Congress, and places taxpayers at risk for more unilateral bailouts in the future.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Elizabeth Warren’s Health Care “Choice:” Dishonesty

In Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) may debut before a nationwide audience a surprising mantra for someone openly committed to enacting a single-payer system of socialized medicine: Choice.

NBC reports that Warren said on Saturday: “We’re going to push through…full health care coverage at no cost for everyone else who wants it—you can buy it for a modest amount. You don’t have to, but it’s your choice.”

To clarify her “you can buy it” comments, Warren’s most recent health care plan said she would immediately make “free” coverage available to anyone making less than two times the federal poverty level ($51,500 for a family of four in 2019), with sliding-scale premiums capped at no more than 5% of income for those making more than 200% of poverty. Her recent speeches have focused on selling this “transition” plan—“free” coverage if you want it, but only if you want it—rather than her earlier single-payer program.

Some conservatives have claimed that Warren’s change in rhetoric marks the “last gasp” for the left’s move towards socialized medicine. Don’t you believe it. Warren hasn’t given up on anything. Nor have Pete Buttigieg and the other candidates who have campaigned against “Medicare for All.” They, and she, have just chosen to become less candid with the American people about how they hope to achieve their ultimate objectives.

Why Warren Pivoted

Two reasons in particular explain why Warren suddenly embraced the mantra of choice. First, most Americans who have health insurance right now like their plan. A Gallup survey found that nearly seven in ten Americans find their health coverage either excellent (27%) or good (42%). In the 18 years since Gallup first started asking this question, the approval number for Americans’ health coverage has never dropped below 63%.

When millions of people received cancellation notices as Obamacare took effect, Barack Obama found out in 2013 how much people like their current coverage. He felt compelled to issue a public apology for his “Lie of the Year,” telling people they could keep their existing plans when many could not. In part due to these events six years ago, the fear of taking people’s coverage away has dominated the health care discussions at this year’s Democratic presidential debates.

By emphasizing choice, Warren seeks to minimize this potential source of controversy for key constituencies. In the Democratic primaries, union households who have negotiated generous health benefits may blanch at losing those benefits; one confronted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) about the issue in Iowa this past summer.

Then in next year’s general election, educated and affluent voters who have good health coverage will similarly fear a new plan taking that coverage away. As Philip Klein recently noted in the Washington Examiner, proposing the eradication of existing insurance options could well cost Warren in places like the suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee—critically important battleground areas in battleground states.

De-Emphasizing (Middle Class) Tax Increases

Second, Warren’s earlier rhetoric about taking coverage away from all Americans implies another, similarly awkward question: How will you pay for this massive expansion of government? Warren tried to answer this query by releasing a funding proposal in early November, but in truth, it raised more questions than it answered.

To give but one example: Since Warren released her plan, one study found that her proposed wealth tax would raise $1 trillion less in revenue than she claimed. That $1 trillion gap represents money that she would have to get from somewhere else.

Her revenue plan has myriad other gimmicks buried inside (analyzed in detail here). For instance, her estimates didn’t take into account the fact that the tax increases will shrink the economy, and therefore by definition won’t produce all the revenue she claims.

Warren released her revenue plan claiming that she could fund the full cost of her single-payer plan without raising taxes on the middle class. But the more she pushed that plan, the more people would pick apart all the gimmicks—and Warren’s opponents would rightly claim the gap between what she said her plan would raise and what it actually does would end up coming from the middle class. As a result, Warren “chose” to pivot to her “choice” mantra, navigating away from the Scylla and Charybdis of taking away people’s coverage, and raising taxes on the middle class to do so.

Forcing People to ‘Choose’ Socialism

The change in Warren’s tone doesn’t mean she’s changed her ultimate objective, however. Consider her comments at a town hall on Monday: “When tens of millions of people have had a chance to try [the buy-in proposal], I believe, at that point, we’re going to be ready to vote for” single payer (emphasis added).

Like Buttigieg, Warren sees a buy-in program—call it a “government-run plan,” call it a “public option,” call it “Medicare for All Who Want It”—as creating a natural “glide path” to single payer. They remain quite outspoken in their goal: They want to achieve a socialized medicine system. If given the opportunity, they will use policy to accomplish that objective—just slightly more slowly than under an immediate transition to single payer.

A throwaway line in a recent Vox article got at this same point. The article focused on open enrollment for exchange plans, and the fact that insurers must limit enrollment to a certain period of time, because Obamacare’s costly pre-existing condition provisions encourage individuals to wait until they become sick to sign up for coverage. The penultimate paragraph included this claim:

Under the various public options that have been proposed, uninsured people would be automatically enrolled in the new optional government plan. One advantage the government has over private insurers is it doesn’t need its books to balance perfectly; adverse selection [a disproportionate number of sick people signing up] isn’t as big a concern. [Emphasis mine.]

The highlighted line demonstrates how liberals would use taxpayer funds for the government-run plan: subsidizing coverage in advance, or bailing out the government plan after the fact if premiums are set too low, or too many sick people enroll, or both. Vox’s line hints at the left’s true goal through a “public option:” To sabotage private plans, and force people into socialized medicine, one person at a time.

Warren’s “choice” mantra sounds innocuous, but its underlying premise—by her own admission—seeks to create a single-payer system, just over a slightly longer period. Conservatives who think her approach represents anything other than a change in tactics should think again. The wolf attacking private insurance hasn’t disappeared so much as put on a disguise of sheep’s clothing.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan…For Avoiding Your Health Care Questions

She claims “I’ve got a plan for that” on just about every issue, but the proverbial cat got Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s tongue on health care. And you can bet that’s Warren’s plan.

Rather than answering tough questions about the single-payer health care scheme she now endorses, Warren wants to keep the focus on 1) bashing insurance companies and 2) telling people they will receive great health care under socialized medicine. Telling people they will lose their current coverage, and figuring out how to pay for this $30 trillion-plus system? Warren doesn’t want to bother answering questions about those minor details.

Subdued Launch for Elizabeth Warren’s ‘Plan’

First off, the health-care page of Warren’s website logs in at 1,115 words for a health care system on which our nation spends more than $3.5 trillion per year. By comparison, Joe Biden’s health care platform clocks in at nearly 3,302 words, or three times as long. Warren’s “plan” is 25 words longer than Donald Trump’s campaign health care platform, released in March 2016 and derided by some as having “the look and feel of something that a 22-year-old congressional staffer would write for a backbencher based on a cursory review of Wikipedia.” Yet, ironically enough, Trump’s campaign platform contained more concrete proposals than Warren’s does.

Warren’s “plan” does include specifics on prescription drug prices, mental health, the opioid epidemic, and access to care in rural communities. But on the biggest issue of the campaign—the millions of people who cannot afford health coverage because Obamacare priced them out of the marketplace, and the left’s big government “solutions” to a problem government created—Warren talks much, but says precious little.

The heart of Warren’s health care “plan” starts with two paragraphs about Warren’s life story. It continues by bashing Republicans’ attempts to “sabotage” Obamacare and insurance companies. It then states as fact that single payer “solves these problems. Everyone can see the doctor they need. Nobody goes broke.”

Apparently, the Warren campaign is looking to reduce its carbon footprint by converting to veganism. If you’re looking for any meat in this health care “plan,” good luck finding it.

Trying to Avoid History’s Mistakes

Why might Warren, who prides herself on her supposed love of wonkish details in every other issue area, suddenly become so taciturn on health care? Perhaps a video can illustrate:

Want to take a guess how many of those promises Obama’s health-care legislation actually kept? Here’s a hint: It’s a nice round number.

Therein lies the root cause of Warren’s strategy: Rather than making specific promises related to single-payer health care—which she knows she cannot possibly keep—she wants to conduct her campaign on the issue solely in platitudes. She will tell middle-class people they will pay less, but won’t say precisely how they will pay less, or who will pay more, or who qualifies as “middle class,” or how much doctors and hospitals would get hurt if (more like when) they have to take a massive pay cut under single payer.

Ironically, the lack of specifics has made some on the left leery that if and when Warren wins the Democratic nomination, she will make the proverbial “hard pivot” away from support for single payer, and water down the plan introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). (Some think she hasn’t really endorsed Sanders’ plan as it is.) They do have cause for concern, given that until earlier this year, Warren had endorsed other “pathways” to get to universal coverage than a full socialized medicine scheme.

But viewed from another perspective, Warren’s silence on all the difficult (and unpopular) decisions needed to achieve a single-payer health-care system represents an implicit admission that the left cannot be upfront with the American people about all the consequences—both intended and unintended—of their agenda.

Just Tell People It’s Free

Last month, in an article about Sen. Kamala Harris’ repeated flip-flops on health care, a researcher at one liberal think-tank unironically articulated what’s going on here. Calling arguments in the Democratic debates counterproductive, the analyst said the American public “just want[s] to know the candidates’ big ideas and values. Can they shop? Is it free?”

Apart from the obvious fact that few things in life, let alone our massive health care system, come free—someone pays, in some way, shape, or form—that comment lies at the heart of Warren’s strategy: “We’re going to give you all the free stuff you want. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about the details.”

Having not been born yesterday, I will care about the details, thank you. I—and the American people—have far too much to lose.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Fundamental Dishonesty Behind Kamala Harris’ Health Plan

When analyzing Democrats’ promises on health care ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign, a researcher with the liberal Urban Institute earlier this year proffered some sage advice: “We should always be suspect of any public policy—especially when it comes to something as complicated as health care—when anybody tells us everybody is going to get more and pay less for it. It’s really not possible.”

Someone should have given that advice to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Her health plan, a modified version of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health care program that she released on Monday in a Medium post and on her website, pledges that it will lead to the following outcomes:

Every American will be a part of this new Medicare system….Seniors will see stronger Medicare benefits than they have now. We will cover millions more people who don’t have health insurance today. And we will reduce costs, save our country money, and ensure that no American has to sacrifice getting the care they need just because the cost is a barrier.

As with Barack Obama’s salesmanship of Obamacare more than a decade ago, Harris’ health plan relies upon the exact strategy the Urban Institute researchers decried of promising everything to everybody. In her socialist utopia, everyone will have coverage—coverage that provides better benefits than the status quo—even as health costs decline dramatically.

Like Obama’s “like your plan” pledge, which PolitiFact dubbed the “Lie of the Year” for 2013, Harris’ plan rests on optimistic scenarios that have little possibility of coming to fruition. But one false premise underpins the entire plan:

We will set up an expanded Medicare system, with a 10-year phase-in period. During this transition, we will automatically enroll newborns and the uninsured into this new and improved Medicare system, give all doctors time to get into the system, and provide a commonsense path for employers, employees, the underinsured, and others on federally-designated programs, such as Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act exchanges, to transition. This will expand the number of insured Americans and create a new viable public system that guarantees universal coverage at a lower cost. Expanding the transition window will also lower the overall cost of the program. [Emphasis mine.]

As any math major can explain, extending the transition window for a move to a single-payer health-care system will not, as Harris tries to claim, lower the overall cost of the program once the entire program takes effect. But it will significantly lower the cost of the program during the transition.

Extending the single-payer transition period to ten years—which conveniently coincides with the ten-year budget window that the Congressional Budget Office uses to analyze major legislation—will keep most of the program’s costs “off the books” and hidden from the public until after her proposal makes it on to the statute books. It also means that her plan wouldn’t take full effect until well after Harris leaves office, meaning she can blame her successor for any problems that occur during the implementation phase.

This fiscal gimmick—delaying most of the spending associated with single payer to outside the ten-year budget window—allows Harris to draw a contrast with Sanders, in which she claims that many middle-class families would not have to pay a single cent in added taxes for all the “free” health care they would receive under a single-payer system:

One of Senator Sanders’ options is to tax households making above $29,000 an additional 4% income-based premium. I believe this hits the middle class too hard. That’s why I propose that we exempt households making below $100,000 [from new taxes to pay for single payer], along with a higher income threshold for middle-class families living in high-cost areas.

Analysts from across the political spectrum agree that the $30 trillion (or more) in new taxes needed to fund a single-payer health care system cannot come from the wealthy alone. Yet Harris proceeds to make that exact argument—that the middle class can have all the “free” health care they want, with someone else footing the bill.

Apart from the fiscal legerdemain, the proposal contains other controversial provisions. While she now claims she would allow private insurance to continue—a reversal of her earlier comments this past January—Harris’ plan states that these insurers would get “reimbursed less than what the [government-run] Medicare plan will cost to operate.” She may tolerate private insurers for the sake of political expediency, but her bias in favor of the government-run plan demonstrates that they would have little more than a token presence in any system of her design.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Joe Biden’s Health Care Plan: SandersCare Lite

On Monday morning, former vice president Joe Biden released the health care plan for his 2020 presidential campaign. The plan comes ahead of a single-payer health plan speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) scheduled for Wednesday.

Biden’s plan includes several noteworthy omissions. For instance, it does not include any reference to health coverage for foreign citizens illegally present in the United States. That exclusion seems rather surprising, given both Democrats’ embrace of health benefits for those unlawfully present in last month’s debate, and Biden’s repeated references to the issue.

Biden said later on Monday that illegally present foreign citizens should have access to “public health clinics if they’re sick,” but not health insurance. He also claimed that last month’s debate format did not give him enough time to explain his position.

Overall, however, Biden’s plan includes many similarities to Sanders’. While both Sanders and Biden want to draw contrasts on health care—Sanders to attack Biden as beholden to corporate interests, and Biden to attack Sanders for wanting to demolish Obamacare—their plans contain far more similarities than differences.

Losing Coverage

Sanders’ bill would, as the American people have gradually learned this year, make private insurance “unlawful,” taking coverage away from approximately 300 million Americans. Biden’s plan specifically attacks single payer on this count, for “starting from scratch and getting rid of private insurance.”

As with Obamacare, Biden’s promise will echo hollow. By creating a government-run “public option” like Sanders’, the Biden plan would also take away health coverage for millions of Americans. As I have previously explained, a government-run plan would sabotage private insurance, using access to Treasury dollars and other in-built structural advantages.

In 2009, the Lewin Group concluded that a government-run health plan, available to all individuals and paying doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates (i.e., less than private insurance), would lead to 119.1 million individuals losing employer coverage:

More Spending

Biden would also expand the Obamacare subsidy regime, in three ways. He would:

  1. Reduce the maximum amount individuals would pay in premiums from 9.86% of income to no more than 8.5% of income, with federal subsidies making up the difference.
  2. Repeal Obamacare’s income cap on subsidies, so that families with incomes of more than four times the poverty level ($103,000 for a family of four in 2019) can qualify for subsidies.
  3. To lower deductibles and co-payments, link insurance subsidies to a richer “gold” plan, one that covers 80% of an average enrollee’s health costs in a given year, rather than the “silver” plan under current law.

All three of these recommendations come from the liberal Urban Institute’s Healthy America plan, issued last year. However, they all come with a big price tag. Consider the following excerpt from Biden’s plan:

Take a family of four with an income of $110,000 per year. If they currently get insurance on the individual marketplace [i.e., Exchange], because their premium will now be capped at 8.5% of their income, under the Biden Plan they will save an estimated $750 per month on insurance alone. That’s cutting their premiums almost in half. [Emphasis original.]

That’s also making coverage “affordable” for families through unaffordable levels of federal spending. By its own estimates, Biden’s plan will give a family with an income of $110,000 annually—which is approximately double the national median household income—$9,000 per year in federal insurance subsidies. Some families with that level of income may not even pay $9,000 annually in federal income taxes, depending upon their financial situation, yet they will receive sizable amounts of taxpayer-funded largesse.

Price Controls and Regulations

The drug price section of the Biden plan includes the usual leftist tropes about “prescription drug corporations…profiteering off of the pocketbooks of sick individuals.” It proposes typical liberal “solutions” in the form of price controls, whether importing price-controlled pharmaceuticals from overseas, or allowing “an evaluation by…independent board members” (i.e., bureaucrats) to determine prices.

Ironically, Biden’s plan implicitly acknowledges Obamacare’s flaws. In talking about prescription drug pricing, Biden omits any discussion of the “rock-solid deal” that the Obama administration cut with Big Pharma, so that pharmaceutical companies would run ads supporting Obamacare.

Likewise, Biden’s plan notes that “the concentration of market power in the hands of a few corporations is occurring throughout our health care system, and this lack of competition is driving up prices for consumers.” Yet it fails to note the cause of much of this consolidation: Obamacare encouraged hospitals to gobble up physician practices, and each other, to obtain clout in negotiations with insurers. Typically, after acknowledging government’s failures, Biden, like Sanders, prescribes yet more government as the solution.

In the leadup to debate on “repeal-and-replace” legislation several years ago, conservative Republicans said they did not want any replacement to become “Obamacare Lite.” Just as history often repeats itself, Democrats seem ready to embark on a similar intra-party debate. That’s because, no matter how much Biden wants to draw distinctions between his proposals and single payer, his plan looks suspiciously like “SandersCare Lite.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Kamala Harris Discovers Liberals’ New Health Care Motto

More than a decade ago, Barack Obama ran for president repeatedly pledging that under his health care platform, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” Of course, that promise turned out not to be true—millions of Americans received cancellation notices as Obamacare took effect, and PolitiFact named Obama’s campaign pledge its “Lie of the Year.”

Given that tortured history, liberals appear to have come up with a simple and succinct slogan to explain their next round of health “reform:”: “If you like your current plan, go f— yourself.”

Medicare for None

Moderator Jake Tapper claimed during the discussion that Harris supports “Medicare for All,” but in reality, the legislation she co-sponsored during the last Congress would eliminate Medicare, along with every other existing form of health insurance save two: the Indian Health Service and Veterans Administration coverage. In short, Harris supports nearly 300 million Americans losing their current form of health coverage.

Patronizing Paternalism

Just as telling: Harris’ blithe dismissal of Americans who might prefer to keep their existing insurance. She claimed that, under single payer, “You don’t have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork.” Never mind that single payer systems have long waiting lists, which bring paperwork of their own. Harris then brushed away Americans’ concerns about losing their health coverage with a flick of the wrist: “Let’s move on.”

There are a number of Americans—fewer than 5 percent of Americans—who’ve got cut-rate plans that don’t offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident. Remember, before the Affordable Care Act, these bad-apple insurers had free rein every single year to limit the care that you received, or use minor preexisting conditions to jack up your premiums or bill you into bankruptcy. So a lot of people thought they were buying coverage, and it turned out not to be so good.

Obama minimized both the number of people with cancelled plans—“only” a few million—and the quality of the coverage they held. The message was clear: You may think you had good health coverage, but I know better.

It’s Not About Health Care

Some people wonder why I continue to write about the well-heeled Obamacare supporters—including heads of exchanges—who refuse to buy Obamacare coverage for themselves. For a very simple reason: Those individuals, and Harris, and Obama’s remarks all get at the very same point. Obamacare, and single-payer coverage, aren’t really about health care—they’re about power.

Liberal elites consider themselves intellectually superior to the great unwashed masses, whom they must protect from themselves. That reasoning motivates Obamacare’s “consumer protections,” which act to prevent people from becoming consumers, because liberals don’t want individuals to buy health plans lacking all the features they consider “essential.”

An Ironic Campaign Start

The day before her CNN town hall, Harris launched her campaign in Oakland. At the event, which included her campaign slogan, “For the People,” Harris claimed she will “treat all people with dignity and respect.” In making those comments, Harris likely wanted to contrast herself with President Trump’s tone—his temperament, tweets, and so forth.

But one can make an equally compelling argument that Harris’ platform, and her comments one day later, belied her own rhetoric. Pledging to terminate the health coverage of nearly 300 million people might strike some as treating the American people with a distinct lack of respect.

While Democrats may want to make the 2020 campaign a referendum on Trump, elections also present voters with choices. If their party nominates a candidate who reprises liberals’ past mistakes of talking down to voters—“deplorables,” anyone?—they might face a second straight election night shocker.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Florida Democrats’ Campaign to Abolish Seniors’ Medicare

Full disclosure: I have done paid consulting work for Florida’s current governor, Rick Scott, in his campaign against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. And I have provided informal advice to Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor. However, neither the Scott nor DeSantis campaigns had any involvement with this article, and my views are—as always—my own.

On Tuesday, Democrats in Florida nominated an unusual candidate for governor, and it has nothing to do with his skin color or background. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who would serve as Florida’s first African-American governor if elected, says on his campaign’s website that the health plan U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has offered at the national level “will help lower costs and expand coverage to more Floridians.”

SEC. 901. RELATIONSHIP TO EXISTING FEDERAL HEALTH PROGRAMS.

(a) MEDICARE, MEDICAID, AND STATE CHILDREN’S HEALTH INSURANCE PROGRAM (SCHIP).—

(1) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, subject to paragraphs (2) and (3)—

(A) no benefits shall be available under title XVIII of the Social Security Act for any item or service furnished beginning on or after the effective date of benefits under section 106(a)… [emphasis added].

In case you didn’t know, Title XVIII of the Social Security Act refers to Medicare. Section 901(a)(1)(A) of Sanders’ bill, which he brands as “Medicare-for-all,” would prohibit the Medicare program from paying out any benefits once the single-payer system takes effect. Section 701(d) of his bill would liquidate the Medicare trust funds, transferring “any funds remaining in” them to the single-payer plan.

In other words, Democrats just nominated as a statewide candidate in Florida—a state with the highest population of seniors, and where seniors and near-seniors (i.e., all those over age 50) comprise nearly half of the voting electorate—someone who, notwithstanding Sanders’ claims about his single-payer bill, supports legislation that would abolish Medicare for seniors entirely. Good luck with that.

That’s What ‘Radical Experiment’ Means, Folks

The recent hullabaloo over an estimated budget score of the Sanders plan, which would require tens of trillions—yes, I said trillions—of dollars in tax increases, highlighted only one element of its radical nature. However, as I pointed out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year, the Sanders experiment would go far beyond raising taxes, by abolishing traditional Medicare, along with just about every other form of insurance.

Everyone else, which is roughly 300 million people, would lose their current coverage. Traditional Medicare, Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program would all evaporate. Even the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program would disappear.

With those changes in coverage, people could well lose access to their current doctors. As a study earlier this summer noted, medical providers like doctors and hospitals would get paid at much lower reimbursement rates, of 40 percent lower than private insurance. (A liberal blogger claimed earlier this week that, because other payers reimburse at lower levels than private insurers, the average pay cut to a doctor or hospital may total “only” 11-13 percent.)

Doctors and hospitals would also have to provide more health care services to more people, since “free” health care without co-payments will induce more demand for care. If you think doctors will voluntarily work longer hours for even less pay, I’ve got some land I want to sell you.

Déjà vu All Over Again?

In 1983, the British Labour Party wrote an election manifesto that one of its own members of Parliament famously dubbed “the longest suicide note in history.” That plan pledged unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher taxes on the rich, to abolish the House of Lords, and renationalization of multiple industries.

Although Sanders’ bill weighs in at 96 pages in total, opponents of the legislation can sum up its contents much more quickly: “It abolishes Medicare for seniors.” That epithet could prove quite a short suicide note for Gillum—and the Left’s socialist dreams around the country.

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.

How Barack Obama “Sabotaged” Obamacare

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the demise of bipartisanship in health care are greatly exaggerated. While Republicans and Democrats claim different principles on health policy, their actions indicate a surprising level of agreement.

To wit: Both President Trump and President Obama took action to prevent Americans from suffering dramatic premium spikes due to Obamacare’s insurance mandates. Yet somehow the Left’s indignation over Trump’s alleged “sabotage,” in the form of his recent executive order on health care, has not extended to Obama’s actions four years ago.

It’s Cool Only If Obama Does It?

Following its initial decision to permit non-compliant plans, the Obama administration repeatedly extended these “transitional” arrangements. In March 2014, after the insurance exchanges began to function more smoothly, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services extended the non-compliant plans through October 2016, followed by a further extension through October 2017. Upon taking office earlier this year, the Trump administration extended the non-compliant plans a fourth time, through December 2018.

On no fewer than three separate occasions, then, the Obama administration expressly permitted Americans to hold policies that did not comply with Obamacare’s new regulatory regime—its prohibition on pre-existing condition restrictions, its essential health benefits requirements, and its myriad other new mandated subsidies. In perpetuating these non-compliant plans, the Obama administration’s actions parallel President Trump’s recent executive order, which among other proposals would expand access to short-term insurance policies.

As with the plans that Obama thrice permitted, short-term insurance policies need not adhere to the regulations Obamacare permitted, from the pre-existing conditions requirements to age rating bands to mandatory benefits like maternity care. Short-term plans, like the non-compliant plans the Obama administration permitted, can provide a much more affordable alternative to Obamacare-compliant coverage, for which premiums have more than doubled since 2013.

Actually, Trump’s Actions Are Better than Obama’s

Conversely, Obamacare expressly exempts coverage of less than one year in duration from its regulatory requirements, allowing for lawful action by the Trump administration in this sphere. Expanding access to short-term insurance plans of up to 364 days in length, while ending the existing non-compliant plans arrangement the Obama administration started, would create more affordable coverage options, while ceasing President Obama’s sabotage of the rule of law.

Critics claim that expanding access to short-term insurance coverage would bifurcate insurance markets, thereby “sabotaging” exchange regimes. But in some states, President Obama’s actions regarding non-compliant plans undermined the exchanges well before Trump ever took office.

For instance, in 2016 90,000 Iowa residents retained non-compliant plans—compared to only 55,000 enrolled in the Obamacare-compliant exchange coverage—and the latter endured higher premium increases than the former. Liberals attacking Trump over reports he personally intervened in Iowa’s application for a federal waiver to change its insurance markets fail to recognize that executive actions by Obama, not Trump, created the conditions where Hawkeye State officials felt the need to apply for a waiver in the first place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.