The Sordid History of the FDA’s Menthol Decision

Late last week, The New York Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will issue a regulation proposing a ban on menthol flavoring in cigarettes, potentially this week. This represents merely the latest development in a long and winding history of the mint-flavored additive lasting nearly a decade.

The Times report quoted FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb saying “it was a mistake for the agency to back away on menthol” regulation. Depending upon one’s perspective, the “menthol loophole” either represents a reasonable example of legislative compromise, or policymakers in both the legislative and executive branches valuing African-American lives less dearly than the lives of other Americans.

A Troubled Legislative History

Beginning 3 months after the date of enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a cigarette or any of its component parts (including the tobacco, filter, or paper) shall not contain, as a constituent (including a smoke constituent) or additive, an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is a characterizing flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke.

That language created two policy problems. First, as I noted in my summary of the bill at the time, because the bill banned other cigarette flavors manufactured overseas, while permitting menthol-flavored cigarettes manufactured domestically, the law would likely result in World Trade Organization (WTO) complaints for unfair trade practices. Indeed, Indonesia, which manufactures clove cigarettes, filed just such a complaint following the law’s passage—and won its case at the WTO.

The Times alluded to the other complication presented by the “menthol loophole” in its article this week: “According to the N.A.A.C.P.’s Youth Against Menthol campaign, about 85 percent of African-American smokers aged 12 and up smoke menthol cigarettes, compared with 29 percent of white smokers, which the organization calls a result of decades of culturally tailored tobacco company promotion.”

That “decades of culturally tailored tobacco company promotion” also included contributions to organizations like the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Industry documents released as part of the 1998 master settlement agreement demonstrated that “the tobacco industry established relationships with virtually every African-American leadership organization”—both to increase tobacco use, and to head off tobacco control efforts.

The FDA Looked the Other Way

Despite the condemnation from the HHS secretaries for its double standards against African-Americans, the bill passed as written in 2009. In an irony of ironies, the first African-American president signed it into law in June that year.

While it did not ban menthol outright, the legislation required a study on its effects, and gave the FDA the authority to ban the additive. Despite occasional rumors that FDA might outlaw menthol—and appeals from the African-American community for a ban—the Obama administration did not take action on the matter.

As a small government conservative, I question the value of establishing and maintaining an FDA bureaucracy to regulate an inherently unhealthful product. I by no means condone the decades of deception the tobacco industry used to sell their products.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will Disclosing Prescription Drug Prices in TV Ads Make Any Difference?

Why did the Trump administration last Monday propose requiring pharmaceutical companies to disclose their prices in television advertisements? A cynic might believe the rule comes at least in part because the drug industry opposes it.

Now, I carry no water for Big Pharma. For instance, I opposed their effort earlier this year to repeal an important restraint on Medicare spending. But this particular element of the administration’s drug pricing plan appears to work in a similar manner as some of the president’s tweets—to dominate headlines through rhetoric, rather than through substantive policy changes.

Applies Only to Television

The rule “seek[s] comment as to whether we should apply this regulation to other media formats,” but admits that the administration initially “concluded that the purpose of this regulation is best served by limiting the requirements” to television. However, five companies alone accounted for more than half of all drug advertisements in the past year. Among those five companies, the advertisements promoted 19 pharmaceuticals—meaning that new disclosure regime would apply to very few drugs.

If the “purpose of this regulation” is to affect pharmaceutical pricing, then confining disclosures only to television advertisements would by definition have a limited impact. If, however, the “purpose of this regulation” is primarily political—to force drug companies into a prolonged and public legal fight on First Amendment grounds, or to allow the administration to point to disclosures in the most prominent form of media to say, “We’re doing something on drug costs!”—then the rule will accomplish its purpose.

Rule Lacks Data to Support Its Theory

On three separate occasions, in the rule’s Regulatory Impact Analysis—the portion of the rule intended to demonstrate that the regulation’s benefits outweigh its costs—the administration admits it has very few hard facts: “We lack data to quantify these effects, and seek public comment on these impacts.”

It could encourage people to consume more expensive medicines (particularly if their insurance pays for it), because individuals may think costlier drugs are “better.” Or it could discourage companies from advertising on television at all, which could reduce drug consumption and affect people’s health (or reduce health spending while having no effect on individuals’ health).

Conservative think-tanks skewered several Obamacare rules released in 2010 for the poor quality and unreasonable assumptions in their Regulatory Impact Analyses. Although released by a different administration of a different party, this proposed regulation looks little different.

Contradictions on Forced Speech?

Finally, the rule refers on several occasions to the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in a case involving California crisis pregnancy centers. That case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, overturned a California state law requiring reproductive health clinics, including pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, to provide information on abortion to patients.

The need for that distinction arises because the pharmaceutical industry will likely challenge the rule on First Amendment grounds as an infringement on their free speech rights. However, a pro-life administration attempting to force drug companies to disclose pricing information, while protecting crisis pregnancy centers from other forced disclosures, presents some interesting political optics.

A Political ‘Shiny Object’

Ironically enough, most of the administration’s actions regarding its prescription drug pricing platform have proven effective. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has helped speed the approval of generic drugs to market, particularly in cases where no other competitors exist, to help stabilize the marketplace.

Other proposals to change incentives within Medicare and Medicaid also could bring down prices. These proposals won’t have an immediate effect—as would Democratic blunt-force proposals to expand price controls—but collectively, they will have an impact over time.

This administration can do better than that. Indeed, they already have. They should leave the political stunts to the president’s Twitter account, and get back to work on more important, and more substantive, proposals.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

House Health Care Bills Show Misplaced Priorities

Why would House Republican leadership place the concerns of gym owners over those of pro-lifers? And why would that same leadership embrace a policy suggestion from the liberal group Families USA that could entrench Obamacare while raising premiums for young people?

While the House will consider legislation this week providing tax breaks to individuals who buy gym memberships, the House has yet to consider legislation cutting off tax breaks for abortion this Congress. On the latter front, an expansion of “copper” catastrophic insurance plans would effectively eliminate a regulatory provision that has lowered premiums for young Americans—another misplaced priority that could cause consternation for some conservatives.

What’s Inside Some Health Savings Account Legislation

However, Section 8 of one of the bills would allow for a $500 deduction for gym memberships or instruction, and a $250 deduction for safety equipment, as a qualified medical expense. The amounts would double for joint returns.

While just about everyone supports increasing Americans’ levels of physical activity, the provision seems questionable at best. The tax reform bill enacted not eight months ago attempted to eliminate these kinds of deductions from the tax code, creating a simpler, fairer process. This proposal would turn right around and add more complexity, by requiring the IRS to issue new regulations “to determine…what does not constitute a qualified physical activity, including golf, hunting, sailing, horseback riding, and other similar activities.”

The federal government already tries to do too many things, and has too great a role in Americans’ lives as it is. Do we really need the IRS determining what is, and is not, a “qualified physical activity?”

As for Abortion and HSAs

In fact, some pro-life leaders have opposed provisions that would allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund insurance premiums, because pro-lifers want to prohibit those funds from being used to pay for abortion coverage (or abortions period). But the House has yet to vote this Congress on limiting abortion as a qualified medical expense.

The pro-life legislation that the House voted on in January 2017, H.R. 7, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), prohibited taxpayer dollars from funding abortion in all cases, including Obamacare exchange plans. However, it did not address preferences in the tax code relating to abortion, such as the qualified medical expense deduction.

It seems that the House Ways and Means Committee, which marked up the bills in question, cares more about satisfying lobbyists than responding to their large pro-life constituency. From gym owners to device makers—who have lobbied intently for the Obamacare device tax repeal that the House will also consider this week—the series of health care bills contains myriad provisions, some good and some not-so-good, advocated by business lobbyists. Unfortunately, pro-life advocates have yet to receive similar consideration.

Unintended Consequences of Expanding ‘Copper’ Plans

However, because only certain individuals currently qualify for “copper” plans, insurers can adjust their premiums downward accordingly. Section 1312 of Obamacare contains a single risk pool requirement, meaning that insurers must rate all their products in a given state as a single book of business in determining premium rates. But a rule the Obama administration released in 2013 included a special exception to that provision for “copper” plans. These catastrophic plans may adjust their rates to reflect “the expected impact of the specific eligibility categories.”

In other words, because primarily young individuals enroll in catastrophic plans, insurers can at present lower their premiums to reflect that fact. However, by making everyone eligible for “copper” coverage, the House bill would effectively eliminate this adjustment, thus raising premiums for the 18- to 29-year-old individuals enrolled in the plans.

Effects of the ‘Copper’ Change

Catastrophic plans have not proven particularly popular on the exchange market, with only 1 percent of enrollees purchasing them as of earlier this year. However, that lack of popularity arises because individuals receiving premium subsidies (i.e., most of the people buying coverage directly from the exchange) cannot apply those subsidies to “copper” plans.

Paradoxical as it may sound, expanding these popular plans to all age groups could actually curb their appeal. While a recent eHealth analysis claims that an expansion of “copper” plans could save near-seniors (i.e., those aged 55-64) an average of $4,608 per year, it likely will not do so. eHealth’s analysis compares the current 41 percent differential between “copper” premiums and bronze premiums to arrive at its figure.

However, as noted above, the current “copper” rates assume enrollment primarily by individuals under 30. eHealth’s analysis thus compares rates for a market of individuals aged 18-29 to a market of individuals aged 18-64—which explains the 41-percentage point difference in premiums. But if “copper” plans expand to all ages, that premium differential will narrow—and premiums for the 18-29 population will likely increase.

Single Risk Pool Bolsters Obamacare

More to the point: The “copper” plan provision includes language reinforcing Obamacare’s single risk pool. It also undermines the intent of last year’s Consumer Freedom Amendment, offered in the Senate by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), which would have allowed for the sale of non-compliant plans alongside Obamacare-compliant plans.

The difference on this one provision speaks to a broader philosophical debate. Moderates want to support Obamacare’s exchanges by passing “stability” legislation and expanding subsidies. So does Families USA, which in December 2012 submitted a comment to the Department of Health and Human Services opposing the rate adjustment provision for catastrophic plans, because it could tend to segment the market.

By contrast, conservatives want to offer people lifeboats away from the exchanges—options such as short-term insurance plans, association health plans, and the like. On that front, this week’s legislation does not advance the ball, and expanding “copper” plans could on balance represent a step back.

Thankfully, House leadership did not end up attaching attach an insurer bailout to this week’s HSA bills, after early rumblings in that direction. But the fact that conservatives even need to have these discussions speak to the ways in which many House Republicans want to strengthen Obamacare rather than repealing it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Michael Cohen and “The Swamp”

Recent revelations surrounding the business clients of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, demonstrate the seedy underbelly of the lobbying business in Washington. At least one company that hired Cohen admitted that it got suckered by someone who couldn’t deliver what he promised. Many companies consider these types of expenditures the cost of doing business.

Last Tuesday, attorney Michael Avenatti released a report claiming that Cohen’s firm, Essential Consultants, received millions of dollars in payments from various companies, including one linked to a Russian oligarch. Avenatti, a Trump critic, represents onscreen prostitute Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit seeking to nullify a non-disclosure agreement Daniels and Cohen reached regarding the former’s alleged affair with Trump.

While Avenatti’s original report claimed Novartis paid Cohen just under $400,000, the company later confirmed payments totaling three times that amount, or $1.2 million. In an interview, an unnamed Novartis employee gave commentary into what amounts to a corporate comedy of errors:

He [Cohen] reached out to us…With a new Administration coming in, basically, all the traditional contacts disappeared and they were all new players. We were trying to find an inroad into the Administration. Cohen promised access to not just Trump, but also the circle around him. It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist.

To paraphrase the British phrase used when a new sovereign assumes the throne: “The (Old) Swamp is dead! Long live The (New) Swamp!”

Unfortunately for Novartis, however, the firm locked itself in to a one-year agreement at a $100,000 monthly retainer—ridiculously high by most Washington lobbying standards—only to discover that Cohen could not deliver. According to the Novartis employee, it took but one meeting for the bloom to come off of the rose: “At first it all sounded impressive, but toward the end of the meeting, everyone realized this was probably a slippery slope to engage him. So they decided not to really engage Cohen for any activities after that.”

AT&T and Novartis admitted on Wednesday that the office of special counsel Robert Mueller contacted both about their relationships with Cohen. In analyzing their behavior, assume that both companies acted legally—that their payments to Cohen were solely for consulting services, and not as part of some quid pro quo scheme directly tied to an official act, whether by Cohen, Trump, or anyone else.

On one hand, the companies exercised exceedingly poor judgment. Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan (who was not running the company when Novartis signed its 2017 agreement with Cohen) admitted on Thursday that the company “made a mistake in entering into this engagement,” signing away more than a million dollars in shareholder money to someone without undertaking any due diligence as to whether he could deliver what he had promised.

Novartis also vastly overpaid Cohen, even if it had engaged him for more activities than a single meeting. As I noted on Twitter, I could have cautioned them about the dim chances for Obamacare repeal for half the $1.2 million they paid Cohen. (If they had asked nicely, I might have done so for even one-quarter that sum.) Very few if any Washington lobbying firms can command a six-figure monthly retainer from one client, yet Novartis paid that much to a single individual.

As Politico noted, Trump’s “2016 victory rattled corporations enough that clients were eager to pay top dollar to anyone who could help them understand the Administration in its first months.” Because no one thought Trump could win—and therefore spent little time reaching out to him or his campaign in the summer and fall of 2016— after the election corporations felt the need to overcompensate, throwing money at anyone with a connection to Trump, in the hopes of ingratiating themselves with the new administration. I saw some of this myself in late 2016 and early 2017, when companies and financial firms came out of the woodwork asking me to predict what the new Congress and administration would do on health care. (Trust me: My offers didn’t come anywhere close to $1.2 million.)

Firms often spend sizable sums on lobbying. Novartis has “nearly a dozen lobbying firms on retainer,” for which it paid $8.6 million last year. In some cases, companies or industries have so many lobbying firms on retainer that the ineffective ones often attempt to take credit for the “wins” achieved by the effective ones. However, given how federal policy initiatives can affect both a company’s revenue and its stock price—witness the market volatility surrounding President Trump’s proposals on drug pricing—companies have little choice but to play the K Street game.

It seems ridiculous to pay $1.2 million to an individual for a single meeting, and it is. But only a smaller role for the federal government—in taxing, spending, and regulations—would bring an end to the types of influence-peddling stories like those surrounding Cohen this week. Unfortunately, it’s the price of doing business for many companies—and a symptom of a government run amok.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How a CBO Error Could Cost the Pharmaceutical Industry Billions

Government officials often attempt to bury bad news. Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” even coined a term for it: “Take Out the Trash Day.” So it proved last week. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) document released quietly on Thursday hinted at a major gaffe by the budget agency and its efforts to conceal that gaffe.

In a series of questions for the record submitted following Director Keith Hall’s April 11 hearing before the Senate Budget Committee, CBO admitted the following regarding a change to the Medicare Part D prescription drug program included in this past February’s budget agreement:

When the legislation was being considered, CBO estimated that provision would reduce net Medicare spending for Part D by $7.7 billion over the 2018-2027 period. CBO subsequently learned of a relevant analysis by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and incorporated that analysis in its projections for the April 2018 Medicare baseline. The current baseline incorporates an estimate that, compared with prior law, [the relevant provision] will reduce net Medicare spending for Part D by $11.8 billion over the 2018-2027 period.

As I wrote at the time, the provision attracted no small amount of controversy at its passage—or, for that matter, since. The provision accelerated the closing of the Part D “donut hole” faced by seniors with high prescription drug costs, but it did so by shifting costs away from the Part D program run by health insurers and on to drug companies.

The pharmaceutical industry was, and remains, livid at the change, which it did not expect, and tried to undo in the March omnibus spending bill. CBO didn’t just get its score wrong on a minor, non-controversial provision—it messed up on a major provision that will over the next decade affect both drug companies and health insurers.

Because the provision substitutes mandatory “discounts” by drug companies for government spending through the Part D program, it saves the government money through smaller Part D subsidies—at least on paper. (That said, the score doesn’t take into account whether drug manufacturers will raise prices in response to the change, which they could well do.) Because seniors actually spend more in the “donut hole” than CBO’s initial projections said, the provision will have a greater impact—i.e., cost the pharmaceutical industry billions more—than the February budget estimate says.

In its response last week, CBO tried to cover its tracks by claiming that “the $4 billion change…accounts for about 2 percent” of the total of $186 billion reduction in estimated Medicare spending over the coming decade due to technical changes incorporated into the revised baseline. But a $4.1 billion scoring error on a provision first projected to save $7.7 billion means CBO messed up its score by more than 53 percent of its original budgetary impact. That’s not exactly a small error.

Moreover, CBO didn’t come clean and publicly admit this error of its own volition. It did so only because Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) forced the budget office to do so.

Enzi submitted a question noting that “CBO realized its estimate of a provision [in the budget agreement] was incorrect. Where is the correction featured in the new report?” CBO didn’t “feature” the correction in its April Budget and Economic Outlook report at all—it incorporated the change into the revised baseline without disclosing it, hoping to sneak it by without anyone calling the budget office out on its error.

Since that time, the purportedly “nonpartisan” organization realized it published an incorrect score—off by more than 50 percent—on a high-profile and controversial issue, changed its baseline to account for the scoring error, and said exactly nothing in a 166-page report on the federal budget about the change. If CBO won’t disclose this kind of major mistake on its own, then its “transparency efforts” seem like so much noise—a distraction designed to keep people preoccupied from focusing on errors like the Part D debacle.

To view it from another perspective: Any head of a private company whose analysis of a multi-billion-dollar transaction proved off by more than 50 percent, because his staff did not access relevant information available to them at the time of the analysis, would face major questions about his leadership, and could well lose his job. But judging from his desire to conceal this scoring mistake, the CBO director apparently feels no such sense of accountability.

Thankfully, however, members of Congress have tools available to fix the rot at CBO, up to and including replacing the director. Given the way CBO attempted to conceal the Part D scoring fiasco, they should start using them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Paul Ryan Flip-Flops on Fiscal Responsibility to Prop Up Obamacare

What a difference eight years makes. In February 2010, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), then Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, spoke at the White House health care summit decrying Obamacare as “a bill that is full of gimmicks and smoke-and-mirrors.” His comments became a viral sensation, so much so that the Wall Street Journal published a condensed version of his remarks as an op-ed. (Here’s the video.)

Reporters confirmed as much on Monday, when an article claimed that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) believes appropriating funds for cost-sharing reduction payments (CSRs) for three years would save the federal government $32 billion, when compared to a scenario in which Congress does not appropriate CSR payments. Not coincidentally, the article noted that a separate bill by Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) — “which House leaders have embraced” — would create a $30 billion “Stability Fund” for insurers, purportedly paid for by the $32 billion in “savings” caused from appropriating CSRs.

The article doesn’t say so outright, but it’s not hard to figure out what happened behind the scenes:

  1. House Republican leadership directed CBO to score the fiscal effects of making CSR payments to insurers compared to not making the payments.
  2. House Republican leaders leaked results of the score to insurer lobbyists.
  3. Those insurer lobbyists then leaked the results to reporters — to claim their bill would generate “savings” for the federal government.

The end result sounds like a Broadway musical: “How to Spend $60 Billion in Taxpayer Funds without Really Trying.” If insurers have their way, Congress would spend roughly $30 billion in CSR payments for the next three years, and that $30 billion in spending would “save” another $32 billion — which Congress would turn right around and send to insurers, via the $30 billion “Stability Fund.”

Compare this maneuver to Obamacare — or, more specifically, Paul Ryan’s 2010 critique of Obamacare. At the White House health care summit, Ryan told President Obama in regard to Obamacare’s proposed reductions to Medicare: “You can’t say that you’re using this money to either extend Medicare solvency and also offset the cost of this new program. That’s double counting.” If claiming that Medicare savings both enhance Medicare’s solvency and pay for Obamacare constitutes double counting — and it does — then what exactly is jiggering the budgetary baseline solely to generate “savings” that Republicans can turn around and spend…?

There’s another problem too: The fraudulent “savings” are also illegal. As I previously noted, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statute requires CBO to assume full payment of CSRs — meaning the scenario that House Republicans asked CBO to score violates the statutory requirements.

Some might claim that, since President Trump stopped making CSR payments last October, a scenario in which CBO does not assume the federal government makes those payments represents a more realistic fiscal approach than that currently required by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. To which I have one simple retort: If you don’t like the law, then Change. The. Law.

Ryan and House Republican leaders don’t want to change the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law — just like they don’t want to pay for the insurer bailout. Such efforts would take time and effort, necessitate legislative transparency — as opposed to closed-door meetings and selective leaks to K Street lobbyists — and require difficult decisions about how to pay for new spending. Why make those tough choices now, when Republicans can just charge the tab for the insurer bailout on to the national credit card, and let the next generation pay the bill instead?

Congressional Republicans spent eight years decrying Obamacare’s fiscal gimmickry, and President Obama’s executive lawlessness. If they follow the example of the House Republican leadership, and engage in their own illegal budgetary gimmicks, they will have no grounds to complain about Democrats’ spending sprees or overreach. And they shouldn’t be surprised if no one believes their claims of fiscal responsibility come November 6.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Aetna Gun Control Donation Epitomizes Crony Capitalism

Just when conservatives couldn’t find enough reasons to oppose an Obamacare “stability” package — or the law itself — the health insurance industry generated another. Aetna’s CEO Mark Bertolini announced Tuesday the company would donate $200,000 to support the March for Our Lives gun control rally scheduled for later this month.

Which raises an obvious question: If a company like Aetna can afford to make a six-figure contribution to a liberal gun control effort, why exactly did health insurers spend some of Tuesday asking for taxpayers to provide a multi-billion dollar “stability” package for the Exchanges?

And when it comes to taxpayer largesse, Aetna has already received plenty. According to page 56 of its most recent quarterly financial filing, last year Aetna’s revenue from government business outstripped its private-sector commercial enterprises: Even as private sector revenues dropped the past two years, government business rose by over $4.5 billion, due at least in part to the additional revenues generated by Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

As with other health insurers, Aetna has rapidly become an extension of the state itself — a regulated utility that focuses largely on extracting more business from government. Rather than focusing on new innovations and selling product to the private sector, it instead hires more lobbyists to seek rents (e.g., a “stability” package) from government. And in exchange for such governmental payments, it promotes liberal causes that will win the company plaudits from the statists who regulate it.

Other health insurance organizations have taken much the same tack. Several years ago, the House Ways and Means Committee exposed how AARP received numerous exemptions for its lucrative Medigap plans in Obamacare. Not coincidentally, the organization had previously used its “Divided We Fail” campaign to funnel money to such liberal organizations as the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and the National Council of La Raza.

(Yes, I recognize that, technically speaking, AARP is not a health insurer. Whereas health insurers might have to place money at risk, AARP faces no such barrier, and can instead reap pure profit by licensing its name and brand.)

On Twitter Thursday evening, I asked Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini if he considers abortion a public health issue — the company’s stated reason for contributing to the March for Our Lives. If Aetna purportedly cares so much about gun violence, it should similarly care about violence against the unborn. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for Aetna to contribute to the March for Life, or any other pro-life cause.

Mind you, a private company can make contributions to whichever organizations it likes or does not like. Unfortunately, however, Aetna and many other insurers aren’t acting like private companies. In constantly begging for taxpayer dollars, they’re acting like wards of the state.

That dynamic provides conservatives with the perfect reason to oppose an Obamacare “stability” package — and support the law’s full repeal. Weaning health insurers off the gusher of taxpayer dollars Obamacare created would represent a move away from the current statist status quo. And who knows? It might — just might — get some health care companies to look beyond government as the solution to all their problems.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Insurer Bailout Inside the Senate Budget “Deal”

I noted in my prior summary of the Senate budget “deal” that, as with Obamacare itself, Senate leaders wanted to pass the bill so that we can find out what’s in it. And so it proved.

My summary noted that the bill includes a giveaway to seniors, by accelerating the process Obamacare started to close the Part D prescription drug “donut hole.” I also pointed out that this attempt to buy seniors’ votes in the November elections by promising them an extra benefit in 2019 might backfire, because encouraging seniors to choose more expensive brand-name pharmaceuticals over cheaper generics will raise overall Medicare spending and increase premiums.

How the ‘Donut Hole’ Currently Works

The Part D prescription drug benefit Republicans and the George W. Bush administration created in 2003 included a “donut hole” to reduce the bill’s overall costs. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush proposed creating a limited drug benefit that provided only catastrophic protection for seniors with very high costs.

But political pressure (to give “benefits” to more seniors) and actuarial concerns (if the federal government covered only catastrophic costs, only very sick people who would incur those costs would enroll, creating an unstable risk pool) prompted Republicans to expand the Part D program. The “donut hole” resulted from these twin goals of providing basic coverage to seniors and catastrophic coverage for those with high medical costs, with the coverage gap or “donut hole” occurring between the end of the former and the start of the latter.

As part of their “rock-solid deal” with the Obama administration, the pharmaceutical industry and Democrats agreed to close the “donut hole” as part of Obamacare. The law required branded drug manufacturers to provide 50 percent discounts for seniors in the “donut hole,” with the federal government gradually increasing its subsidy (provided through Part D insurers) and beneficiaries’ co-insurance gradually declining to 25 percent (the same percentage of costs that beneficiaries pay before reaching the “donut hole”).

The budget “deal” changes the prior law in several ways. First, it reduces the beneficiary co-insurance from 30 percent to 25 percent in 2019, thus filling in the “donut hole.” But in so doing, it also increases the manufacturer’s “discount” from 50 percent to 70 percent, beginning next year.

That second change effectively shifts 20 percent of the cost of filling in the “donut hole” from Medicare, and insurers that offer Medicare drug plans, to drug manufacturers. In other words, it bails out health insurers, who in the future will have to bear very little risk (only 5 percent) of the cost of their beneficiaries’ drug spending.

No Crocodile Tears

That said, drug companies don’t have much reason to cry about the budget “deal” overall. The industry saw the repeal of Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), an important, albeit flawed, way to control skyrocketing Medicare costs. While Republicans in prior Congresses insisted on paying for legislation repealing IPAB, the party changed its tune at the beginning of this Congress—reportedly at the behest of Big Pharma.

The enacted legislation repeals the IPAB spending controls without a replacement mechanism to contain Medicare costs. This is total derogation of conservatives’ belief in reforming entitlements, and one enacted at the behest of drug company lobbyists.

Moreover, the budget “deal” included another huge win for pharma, by excluding legislation supported on both sides of the aisle to accelerate the approval of lower-cost generic drugs. Pharmaceutical lobbyists claimed the measure would lead to more lawsuits, and those objections meant the provision got left on the proverbial cutting room floor.

More Bailouts Ahead

Given that Kentucky-based health insurer Humana holds a large market share in the Medicare arena—with 5.3 million of the roughly 25 million seniors enrolled in stand-alone drug plans, and more enrollment in Medicare Advantage besides—and that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has fought hard, and publicly, on behalf of Humana’s interests in the past, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to ask whether the Senate majority leader proposed a backroom deal to help his insurer constituents.

Moreover, as we’ve previously reported, Republican leaders want to pass an even bigger bailout, this one for Obamacare, in next month’s omnibus spending agreement. One news outlet reported earlier this week that Republicans’ desire to bail out Obamacare—to “lower” premiums by throwing more of taxpayers’ money at the problem—has risen to such a level “that Democrats don’t feel like they have to push very hard” to ensure its enactment.

Insurer bailouts, measures to raise rather than lower health costs, and an abdication of any pretense of fiscal responsibility or restraint towards our looming entitlement crisis. The Republican Party circa 2018 is truly a pathetic spectacle to behold.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Lowlights of Senate “Budget” Deal

In the budget agreement announced Wednesday between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democrat Chuck Schumer, McConnell’s negotiating position can be summed up thusly: “Give us the money we want for defense spending, and you can run the rest of the country.”

The result was a spending bonanza, with giveaways to just about every conceivable lobbying group, trade association, and special interest possible. The unseemly spectacle resembles “Oprah’s Favorite Things:” “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! EVERYONE GETS A CAR!!!”

Even reporters expressed frank astonishment at the bipartisan profligacy. Axios admitted that “there’s a ton of health care money in the Senate budget deal,” while Kaiser Health News noted that the agreement “appear[s] to include just about every other health priority Democrats have been pushing the past several months.”

Of course, McConnell and Schumer want to ram it through Congress and into law by Thursday evening—because we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

Lowlights of the Health Legislation

Repeal of Medicare Spending Restraints: The bill would repeal Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), a board of unelected bureaucrats empowered to make rulings on Medicare spending. I noted last year that conservatives could support repealing the power given to unelected bureaucrats while keeping the restraints on Medicare spending—restraints which, once repealed, will be difficult to reinstitute.

Congressional leaders did nothing of the sort. Instead the “deal” would repeal the IPAB without a replacement, raising the deficit by $17.5 billion. Moreover, because seniors pay for a portion of Medicare physician payment spending through their Part B premium, repealing this provision without an offset would raise seniors’ out-of-pocket costs. While a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score of the bill as a whole was not available as of press time Wednesday evening, this provision, on its own, would raise Medicare premiums by billions of dollars.

Big Pharma Giveaway: In a further giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry, the bill would close the Medicare Part D prescription drug “donut hole” a year earlier—that is, beginning in 2019 rather than 2020. Having failed to repeal Obamacare, Republicans apparently want to expand this portion of the law, in the hopes of attracting seniors’ votes in November’s mid-term elections.

Extension of an Unreformed SCHIP Program: The bill would extend for another four years the State Children’s Health Insurance Program—a mandatory spending program that Republicans extended for six years just last month. I previously explained in detail that last month’s reauthorization failed to include at least ten different conservative reforms that Republicans previously supported. By extending the program for another four years, the “deal” would prevent conservatives from enacting any reforms for a decade.

Back in 2015, Republican aides pledged that “Republicans would like to reform and improve this program, and the next opportunity will be in two years when we have a new President.” Not only have Republicans done nothing of the sort, the additional extension will prevent this president—and potentially the next one as well—from reforming the program.

Mandatory Funding for Community Health Centers: The bill provides for $7.8 billion in mandatory spending for community health centers over the next two years, once again extending a mandatory program created by Obamacare.

While many conservatives may support funding for community health centers, they may also support funding them through the discretionary appropriations process, rather than by replenishing a pot of mandatory spending created by Obamacare to subvert the normal spending cycle. The normal appropriations process consists of setting priorities among various programs; this special carve-out for community health centers subverts that process.

Mandatory Opioid Funding: The bill also provides $6 billion in mandatory spending over the next two years to address the opioid crisis. As with the community health center funding, some conservatives may support increasing grants related to the opioid crisis—through the normal spending process.

The Schumer-McConnell “deal” would bust through the Budget Control Act spending caps, increasing the amount of funds available for the normal appropriations bills. (Most of this spending increase would not be paid for.) Additional mandatory health care spending on top of the increase in discretionary funding represents a spendthrift Congress attempting to have its cake and eat it too, while sticking future generations with the bill in the form of more debt and deficits.

But Wait—There’s More!

Surprisingly, the bill does not include an Obamacare “stabilization” (i.e., bailout) package. But other reports on Wednesday suggest that will arrive in short order too. One report noted that Democrats want to increase Obamacare premium subsidies. They not only want to restore unconstitutional payments that President Trump cancelled last fall, “but to expand it—and to bolster the separate subsidy that helps people pay their premiums.”

Republican leaders want to pass a massive Obamacare bailout in the next appropriations measure, an omnibus spending bill likely to come to the House and Senate floors before the Easter break. In a sign of Republicans’ desperation to pass a bailout, Wednesday’s report quoted a Democratic aide as saying that corporate welfare to insurers in the form of a reinsurance package “has become so popular among Republicans that Democrats don’t feel like they have to push very hard.”

There are two ways to solve the problem of rising premiums in Obamacare. One way would fix the underlying problems, by repealing regulations that have led to skyrocketing premiums. The other would merely throw money at the problem by giving more corporate welfare to insurers, providing a short-term “fix” at taxpayers’ ultimate cost. Naturally, most Republicans wish to choose the latter course.

Moreover, in bailing out Obamacare, Republicans will be forced to provide additional taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. There is no way—zero—that Democrats will provide any votes for a bill that provides meaningful pro-life protections for the Obamacare exchanges. Republicans’ desperation to bail out Obamacare will compel them to abandon any pretense of pro-life funding as well.

Most Expensive Parade Ever?

Press reports this week highlighted Pentagon plans to, at President Trump’s request, put on a military spectacle in the form of a massive parade. Trump tweeted his support for the Schumer-McConnell deal on Wednesday, calling it “so important for our great Military.”

It’s an ironic statement, on several levels. First, the hundreds of billions in new deficit spending coming from the military buildup included in the agreement would make the parade the most expensive ever, by far. Second, Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called our rising debt levels our biggest national security threat, because it makes us dependent on other countries to buy our bonds. Given that statement, one can credibly argue that this deficit-driven spending binge will harm our national security much more than the defense funds will help it.

Time will tell whether or not the legislation passes. But if it does, at some point future generations will look back and wonder why the self-proclaimed “king of debt” imposed a financial burden on them that they will not be able to bear easily—if at all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Conservative’s (Sort of) Defense of IPAB

The House of Representatives will vote Thursday on whether to eliminate Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). I come not to praise IPAB, but not to bury it, either—at least, not yet.

Yes, Obamacare empowers this federal board to make binding recommendations to Congress about enforcing per capita spending caps within Medicare. Yes, that board undermines congressional sovereignty by empowering unelected bureaucrats, in what its own advocates transparently described as an attempt to minimize democracy. And yes, federal bureaucrats have no business interfering still further with physicians’ practice of medicine. But for multiple reasons, Congress should not repeal IPAB without first enacting a suitable replacement.

We Can’t Afford Medicare As It Is

The Medicare Trust Fund suffered $132.2 billion in deficits during the Great Recession, and faces insolvency in just more than a decade. Medicare needs fundamental reform now, but repealing IPAB without simultaneously enacting other reforms will only encourage partisan attacks when Congress finally must act. Witness the liberal ads throwing granny over a cliff in response to congressional Medicare reform proposals that would save both seniors and taxpayers billions of dollars annually.

Second, repealing IPAB would also undermine the case for reforming Medicaid. Liberals’ hue-and-cry over proposals to reform Medicaid earlier this year demonstrated an opportunistic hypocrisy, as the same groups that attacked Republican efforts to impose per capita caps on Medicaid supported per capita spending caps on Medicare when created by a Democratic president. Conservative support for IPAB repeal would reinforce this ideological incoherence, demonstrating Republicans as favoring per capita caps in Medicaid, but not Medicare, and weakening the case for reforms to either entitlement.

Third, opportunities to control spending do not come often, or easily, which should make conservatives inherently reluctant to repeal any of them. In 1985, Congress enacted the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act, designed to force lawmakers to live within statutory spending targets. But Congress weakened Gramm-Rudman’s statutory fiscal discipline within five years, and abandoned it altogether by 2002. It took the debt limit fight of 2011 to restore fiscal discipline through the Budget Control Act’s sequestration caps—conservatives’ major policy victory of the Obama era, and one that congressional spendthrifts have consistently worked to undermine since.

It’s Clumsy, But Better than Nothing

As someone who has criticized Obamacare’s overly regulatory structure since its enactment seven years ago, I recognize—and entirely agree with—objections to the way IPAB undermines congressional authority, and intrudes still further into the practice of medicine. But conservatives would do well to avoid conflating IPAB’s highly flawed means with its entirely proper ends.

The board imposes real caps on Medicare spending, however clumsy, and like the budget sequester mechanism represents a genuine, albeit flawed, attempt to reduce federal spending. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office estimates the board’s repeal would increase Medicare spending, and thus the budget deficit, by $17.5 billion over the coming decade and more after that.

Most health-care interest groups want an outright IPAB repeal immediately, which is one major reason the House will vote on its repeal this week. But conservatives should not take that bait, and should instead work to replace IPAB with constructive reforms that modernize Medicare and make the program more fiscally sustainable for future generations.

As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.” Conservatives may not wish to see spending rise on an already unsustainable entitlement. But if they follow the efforts of K Street lobbyists and repeal IPAB without an effective substitute, that’s exactly what they would end up getting.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.