Analyzing the Trump Administration’s Proposed Insurer Bailout

The more things change, the more they stay the same. On a Friday, the Trump administration issued a little-noticed three paragraph statement that used seemingly innocuous language to outline a forthcoming bailout of health insurers—this one designed to avoid political controversy prior to the president’s re-election campaign.

Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) quite rightly criticized President Obama for wanting to bail out health insurers via a crony capitalist boondoggle. They should do the same now that Trump wants to waste billions more on a similar tactic that has all the stench of the typical Washington “Swamp.”

Explaining the President’s Drug Pricing Proposal

At present, drug manufacturers pay rebates to PBMs in exchange for preferred placement on an insurer’s pharmacy formulary. PBMs then share (most of) these rebates with insurers, who pass them on to beneficiaries. But historically, PBMs have passed those rebates on via lower premiums, rather than via lower drug prices to consumers.

For instance, Drug X may have a $100 list price (the “sticker” price that Manufacturer Y publicly advertises), but Manufacturer Y will pay a PBM a $60 rebate to get Drug X on the PBM’s formulary list. It sounds like a great deal, one in which patients get the drug for less than half price—except that’s not how it works at present.

Instead, the PBM uses the $60 rebate to lower premiums for everyone covered by Insurer A. And the patient’s cost-sharing is based on the list price (i.e., $100) rather than the lower price net of rebates (i.e., $40). This current policy hurts people whose insurance requires them to pay co-insurance, or who have yet to meet their annual deductible—because in both cases, their cost-sharing will be based on the (higher) list price.

The Policy and Political Problems

The administration’s proposed rule conceded that the proposed change could raise Medicare Part D premiums. The CMS Office of the Actuary estimated the rule would raise premiums anywhere from $3.20 to $5.64 per month. (Some administration officials have argued that premiums may stay flat, if greater pricing transparency prompts more competition among drug manufacturers.)

The rule presents intertwined practical and political problems. From a practical perspective, the administration wants the rule to take effect in 2020. But the comment period on the proposed rule just closed, and the review of those comments could last well beyond the June 3 date for plans to submit bids to offer Part D coverage next year.

The political implications seem obvious. The administration doesn’t want to anger seniors with Part D premium increases heading into the president’s re-election bid. And while the administration could have asked insurers to submit two sets of plan bids for 2020—one assuming the rebate rule goes into effect next year, and one assuming that it doesn’t—doing so would have made very explicit how much the change will raise premiums, handing Democrats a political cudgel on a hot-button issue.

Here Comes the Bailout

That dynamic led to the Friday announcement from CMS:

If there is a change in the safe harbor rules effective in 2020, CMS will conduct a demonstration that would test an efficient transition for beneficiaries and plans to such a change in the Part D program. The demonstration would consist of a modification to the Part D risk corridors for plans for which a bid is submitted. For CY2020, under the demonstration, the government would bear or retain 95% of the deviation between the target amount, as defined in section 1860D-15(e)(3)(B) of the Social Security Act (the Act) and the actual incurred costs, as defined in section 1860D-15(e)(1) of the Act, beyond the first 0.5%. Participation in the two-year demonstration would be voluntary and plans choosing to participate would do so for both years. Under the demonstration, further guidance regarding the application process would be provided at a later date.

To translate the jargon: Risk corridors are a program in which the federal government subsidizes insurers who incur large losses, and in exchange insurers agree to give back any large gains. I explained how they worked in the Obamacare context here. However, unlike Obamacare—which had a risk corridor program that lasted only from 2014-2016—Congress created a permanent risk corridor program for Medicare Part D.

It all sounds well and good—until you look more closely at the announcement. CMS says it will “bear or retain 95% of the deviation…beyond the first 0.5%.” That’s not a government agency sharing risk—that’s a government agency assuming virtually all of the risk associated with the higher premium costs due to the rebate rule. In other words, a bailout.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

The use of a supposed “demonstration project” to implement this bailout echoes back to the Obama administration. In November 2010, the Obama administration announced it would create a “demonstration project” regarding Medicare Advantage, and Republicans—rightfully—screamed bloody murder.

They had justifiable outrage, because the added spending from the project, which lasted from years 2012 through 2014, seemed purposefully designed to delay the effects of Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare Advantage. Put simply, the Obama administration didn’t want stories of angry seniors losing their coverage due to Obamacare during the president’s re-election campaign, so they used a “demonstration project” to buy everyone’s silence.

In response to requests from outraged Republicans, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted multiple reviews of the Medicare Advantage “demonstration project.” Not only did GAO note that the $8 billion cost of the project “dwarfs all other Medicare demonstrations…in its estimated budgetary impact and is larger in size and scope than many of them,” it also questioned “the agency’s legal authority to undertake the demonstration.” In other words, the Obama administration did not just undertake a massive insurer bailout, it undertook an illegal one as well.

The current administration has yet to release official details about what it proposes to study in its “demonstration project,” but, in some respects, those details matter little. The real points of inquiry are as follows: Whether buying off insurance companies and seniors will aid Trump’s re-election; and whether any enterprising journalists, fiscal conservatives, or other good government types will catch on, and raise enough objections to nix the bailout.

Congress Should Stop the Insanity

On the latter count, Congress has multiple options open to it. It can obtain request audits and rulings from GAO regarding the legality of the “demonstration,” once those details become public. It can explore passing a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act, which would nullify Friday afternoon’s memo.

It can also use its appropriations power to defund the “demonstration project,” preventing the waste of taxpayer funds on slush funds and giveaways to insurers. Best of all, they can do all three.

Republicans objected to crony capitalism under Democrats—Rubio famously helped block a taxpayer bailout of Obamacare’s risk corridor program back in 2014. Here’s hoping they will do the same thing when it comes to the latest illegal insurer bailout proposed by CMS.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Binary Choice Behind a “Skinny” Health Care Bill

Are you for The Swamp—or are you against it?

It’s really that simple. Text of the supposed “skinny” bill—or the “lowest-common denominator” approach, if one prefers—has not yet been released. But based on press reports, it appears the legislation will repeal the individual and employer mandate penalties, along with the medical device tax, and little else, so the House and Senate can set up a conference committee to re-write the bill—if the House does not decide to pass this “skinny” bill outright.

  • It will embolden Senate leadership to keep bullying rank-and-file members on future pieces of legislation, pulling bait-and-switch moves at the last minute and daring members to vote no;
  • It will move the health-care debate from an open Senate floor process into a conference committee, where after one token public meeting most legislative work will occur behind closed doors;
  • It will concede that the “world’s greatest deliberative body” cannot deliberate as an institution, and instead empower unelected leadership staff in a secretive process to cobble together a new bill that can pass both chambers;
  • It will continue a process that Republican staffers themselves have described as “making it rain” on moderate senators through various backroom deals and spending sprees—bringing parlance heretofore used in strip clubs to the U.S. Congress;
  • It will raise premiums an estimated 20 percent, by eliminating the individual mandate penalty, but leaving all of Obamacare’s regulations intact;
  • It will all-but-guarantee a future Obamacare bailout, destabilizing insurance markets such that carriers will come running to Congress demanding corporate welfare payments to keep offering exchange coverage; and
  • It will prioritize K Street lobbyists who have fought for years to repeal the medical device tax, virtually guaranteeing that provision will remain in the final legislation, while raising premiums on hard-working American families.

If senators support the above scenarios, then they should vote for the bill. If not, perhaps they should consider another course.

Blast from the Past

Conservatives have seen these games played before—and rejected them. In 2015, House Republican leaders initially offered a bill eerily similar to the rumored “skinny” legislation. That bill repealed the individual and employer mandates, the medical device tax, the “Cadillac tax,” the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and a few other ancillary provisions. Conservative groups could have supported it—just to keep the process moving, and continue the momentum for a broader repeal—as leadership is asking them to do right now. They did not because:

The bill would not restore Americans’ health care freedom because it leaves the main pillars of Obamacare in place, nor would it actually defund abortion giant Planned Parenthood. This bill violates an explicit promise made in the budget, which ‘affirm[ed] the use of reconciliation for the sole purpose of repealing the President’s job-killing health care law.’

That statement comes from Heritage Action, which key-voted against passage of the “skinny” repeal bill in 2015. Likewise, in the fall of 2015 conservative senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) said publicly they could not support what they viewed as an insufficient attempt at repeal:

On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of Obamacare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal Obamacare and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk. If this bill cannot be amended so that it fully repeals Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules, we cannot support this bill. With millions of Americans now getting health premium increase notices in the mail, we owe our constituents nothing less.

The bill does not even touch Obamacare’s main two entitlement expansions: The Medicaid expansion and the Exchange subsidies. The bill leaves all of Obamacare’s new insurance rules and regulations in place. It also leaves many of Obamacare’s taxes in place….

The Obamacare repeal movement has been successful in the last 5 years in keeping full repeal intact. It has recognized that it will be much easier to repeal Obamacare as a whole if all of the mandates and entitlement expansions are repealed at once, since we know that the law is vastly unpopular when taken as a whole. The threat is that ‘repeal’ is defined-down to simply mean repealing a couple high-profile provisions, while allowing the main pillars of the law to continue untouched. This package threatens that very outcome: defining down ‘full repeal’ and jeopardizing the entire repeal effort. [Emphasis mine.]

Need for Consistency

In the past several days, conservatives have attacked Senate moderates—rightly—for flip-flopping on a full repeal of Obamacare, voting for it in 2015 but opposing it now. Those who face a similar situation from the Right—that is, those who opposed a “skinny” bill two years ago—should not fall into the same trap as those from the center. On both policy and process, conservatives should reject the minimalist approach floated by leadership, and continue working to repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.

A Status Update on Repeal

With Congress heading towards its first recess at week’s end, it’s time to summarize where things stand on one of Republicans’ top objectives—repealing Obamacare—and might be headed next. While those who want further details should read the entire article, the lengthy analysis below makes three main points:

  1. Congress faces far too many logistical obstacles—the mechanics of drafting bill text, procedural challenges in the Senate, budgetary scoring concerns, and political and policy disagreements—to pass a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill by late March, or indeed any time before summer;
  2. Congressional leaders and President Trump face numerous pressures—both to enact other key items on their agenda, and from conservatives anxious to repeal Obamacare immediately, if not sooner—that will prevent them from spending the entire spring and summer focused primarily on Obamacare; therefore
  3. Congressional leaders will need to pare back their aspirations for a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill, slim down the legislation to include repeal and any pieces of “replace” that can pass easily and swiftly with broad Republican support, and work to enact other elements of their “replace” agenda in subsequent legislation.

What Has Happened In the Last Month

Before the New Year, congressional leaders had endorsed a strategy of repealing Obamacare via special budget reconciliation procedures, using legislation that passed Congress (but President Obama vetoed) in late 2015 and early 2016 as a model. Subsequent efforts would focus on crafting an alternative to the law, whose entitlements would sunset in two or three years, to allow adequate time for a transition.

Due to Trump’s intervention and angst amongst some Republicans toward moving forward with a repeal-first approach, congressional leaders pivoted. Various press reports in the last week suggest House committees are drafting a robust “replace” package that will accompany repeal legislation. This “repeal-and-replace” bill will use the special reconciliation procedures that allow budget-related provisions to pass with a 51-vote majority (instead of the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster) in the Senate, with non-budgetary provisions being considered in subsequent pieces of legislation.

The press reports and strategic leaks from House offices attempt to show progress towards a quick markup—a March 1 markup date was floated in one article—and enactment before Congress next recesses, in late March. But these optimistic stories cannot hide two fundamental truths: 1) Enacting comprehensive “replace” legislation along with repeal will take far longer than anyone in Congress has yet admitted; and 2) Leadership does not have the time—due both to other must-pass legislation, and political pressure from the Right to pass repeal quickly—necessary to fashion a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill.

He may not realize it at present, but in going down the simultaneous “repeal-and-replace” pathway, President Trump made a yuuuuge bet: holding the rest of legislative agenda captive to the rapid enactment of such legislation. Once it becomes more obvious that “repeal-and-replace” will not happen on its current timetable—and that other key elements of the Republican agenda are in jeopardy as a result—it seems likely that Speaker Ryan, President Trump, or both will scale back the “replace” elements of the “repeal-and-replace” bill, to allow it to pass more quickly and easily.

Adding Layers of Complexity

But every element added to a piece of legislation makes it that much more complex. Republicans have an easy template to use for repealing Obamacare: the reconciliation bill that already passed Congress. That bill has been drafted, passed procedural muster in the Senate, and received both a favorable budgetary score and enough votes for enactment.

Conversely, crafting “replace” policies will require more time, conversations with legislative counsel (the office in Congress that actually drafts legislation), discussions about policy options for implementation, and so forth.

House Republicans did engage in some of these conversations when compiling their Better Way agenda last spring. But that plan ultimately did not get translated into legislative language, and the plan itself left important details out (in some cases deliberately).

It seems plausible that House Republicans could fairly easily incorporate some elements of their “replace” agenda—for instance, HSA incentives or funding for high-risk pools—into a repeal reconciliation bill. There are several “off-the-shelf” (i.e., previously drafted) versions of these policy options, and the budgetary effects of these changes are relatively straight-forward (i.e., few interactions with other policy elements).

But on tax credits and Medicaid reform, House Republicans face another major logistical obstacle: Analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Longtime observers and congressional historians may recall that CBO was where Hillarycare went to die back in 1994. While Republicans are not necessarily doomed to face a similar fate two decades later, the idea that budget analysts will give “repeal-and-replace” a clean bill of fiscal health within a fortnight—or even a month—defies both credulity and history.

Running the CBO Gauntlet

As someone who worked on Capitol Hill during the Obamacare debate eight years ago, I remember the effect when CBO released one of its first scores of Democrats’ legislation. As the New York Times reported on June 17, 2009, in a piece entitled “Senate Faces Major Setback on Health Care Bill”: “The Senate Finance Committee is delaying its first public drafting session on major health care legislation until after the July Fourth recess, a lengthy setback but one that even Democrats say is critically needed to let them work on reducing the costs of the bill…. The drafting session had been scheduled for Tuesday. But new cost estimates by the Congressional Budget Office on health care proposals came in much more expensive than expected, emboldening critics and alarming Democrats.”

Given the role CBO played in delivering Hillarycare a mortal blow in the 1990s, and the more than nine-month gap between the initial (horrible) CBO scores of Obamacare and that law’s enactment, House leadership’s implication that its “repeal-and-replace” legislation can move straight to passage by receiving a clean bill of health from CBO on the first go-round seems highly unrealistic.

Just like any player moving up from the minor leagues will need time to adjust to big-league pitching, so too will any legislation with as many moving parts as a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill require several, and possibly significant, adjustments and tweaks to receive a CBO score Republicans find acceptable.

While House Republicans’ Better Way plan included a much less complicated and convoluted formula for providing insurance subsidies than Obamacare, they may face other difficulties in achieving a favorable CBO score, particularly regarding to the number of Americans covered under their refundable tax credit regime. These include the following.

No Mandate:  While conservatives view the lack of a requirement to purchase insurance as a feature of any Obamacare alternative, CBO has a long history of viewing a mandate’s absence as a bug—and will score legislation accordingly. In analyzing health reform issues in a December 2008 volume, CBO published an elasticity curve showing take-up of health insurance based on various levels of federal subsidies. The curve claimed that, even with a 100 percent subsidy—the federal government giving away health insurance for “free”—only about 80 percent of individuals will actually obtain coverage. In CBO’s mind, unless the government forces individuals to buy insurance, a significant percentage will not do so.

President Obama didn’t want to include a mandate in Obamacare, not least because he campaigned against it. But CBO essentially forced Democrats to include one to receive a favorable score on the number of Americans covered. If Republicans care about matching the number of individuals insured by Obamacare (some view it as more of a priority than others), the lack of a mandate will cost them on coverage numbers. Alternative mandate-like policies such as auto-enrollment may mitigate that gap, but CBO may not view them as favorably—and they come with their own detractors.

Age-Rated Subsidies: Obamacare uses income as a major factor in calculating its insurance subsidy amounts, which creates two problems. First, because subsidies decline as individuals’ income rises, Obamacare effectively discourages work. CBO has previously calculated that, largely because of these work disincentives, the law will reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs.

Second, the process of reconciling projected income to actual earnings creates administrative complexity. It poses large paperwork burdens on the Internal Revenue Service and taxpayers alike, and requires some individuals to forfeit their refunds and pay back subsidies at tax time.

House Republicans have proposed a simpler system of insurance subsidies, based solely upon age. However, because the subsidies are solely linked to age, low-income individuals receive the same subsidy as millionaires. While much more transparent and fair, this system also does not target resources to those who would need them most. To borrow an analogy, it spreads the peanut butter (i.e., insurance subsidies) more evenly, but also more thinly, over the proverbial piece of bread (i.e., Americans seeking insurance). Given CBO’s beliefs about the likelihood of individuals purchasing insurance outlined above, this change could also cost Republicans significantly in the coverage department.

Medicaid Reform: Republicans have consistently argued that providing states with additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in exchange for a defined federal contribution will allow them to reduce program spending in beneficial ways. Rhode Island’s innovative global compact waiver provides an excellent example of providing better care within an overall budget on expenditures.

However, CBO analysts have publicly taken a different view. In analyzing per capita spending caps for Medicaid—the policy option House Republicans are reportedly incorporating into their alternative—last December, CBO wrote that “States would take a variety of actions to reduce a portion of the additional costs that they would face [from the caps], including restricting enrollment. For people who lose Medicaid coverage, CBO and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that roughly three-quarters would become uninsured.”

CBO has therefore made rather clear that it will score reforms to Medicaid as increasing the number of uninsured.

Speaker Ryan may have pushed for the comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” strategy in part to appease Republican members of Congress who want to see their alternative to Obamacare provide as many Americans with insurance as current law. But it seems highly improbable that CBO will score any Republican tax credit proposal as covering as many Americans as Obamacare. It is also not outside the realm of possibility for CBO to score an alternative as covering fewer Americans than the pre-Obamacare status quo.

The first two CBO scoring issues nixed any attempt by House Republicans to include tax credits as part of their alternative to Obamacare in 2009, when I worked in House leadership. Sources tell me unfavorable scores also nixed House Republicans’ attempt to include a refundable tax credit when the party was crafting responses to a potential Supreme Court ruling striking down the law’s subsidies in 2015. It therefore ranges from likely to certain that an initial CBO score of a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill will go over about as well as it did for Republicans in 2009 and 2015—with generally poor coverage figures compared to Obamacare.

In theory, Republicans could work to surmount some of these obstacles and achieve more robust coverage figures. But such efforts would require time to sort through policy options—time that Republicans don’t currently have—and money to fund insurance subsidies, even though Republicans don’t have an obvious source of funding for them.

Pay-For Problems

Over and above the purely technical problems associated with scoring a “repeal-and-replace” bill, other issues present both policy and political concerns. To wit, if Republicans include refundable tax credits in their plan, how exactly will they finance this new spending? The possibilities range from unpalatable to implausible.

  • They could try to keep some of Obamacare’s tax increases to fund their own spending. But key Republican lawmakers and key constituency groups have strongly supported repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. It seems unlikely that a bill that failed to repeal all of the law’s tax increases could gather enough votes for passage.
  • They could include their own revenue-raisers after repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. For instance, House Republicans could limit the value of employer-provided health coverage. But while economists of all political stripes support such efforts as one key way to reduce health costs, members of the business community would likely oppose this measure, judging from recent news stories. Unions and the middle class likely wouldn’t be keen either. Moreover, by using limits on employer-provided health coverage as a new source of revenue rather than reforming the tax treatment of health insurance in a revenue-neutral way, Republicans would repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, but replace them with other tax increases—an unappetizing political slogan for the party to embrace.
  • They could use Medicaid reform to fund the credits, but that causes the potential problems with coverage numbers outlined above, and will likely generate additional squabbling among governors and states over the funding formula, as outlined in greater detail below.
  • They could use the remaining savings after repealing Obamacare’s tax increases and entitlements—which in the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill totaled $317.5 billion—to fund a new insurance subsidy regime. But such a move raises both policy and political problems. While Republicans could re-direct the $317.5 billion in savings during the first ten years to pay for insurance subsidies, the subsidies would likely have to expire after a decade. Creating a permanent new entitlement (the subsidies) funded by temporary savings would result in a point of order in the Senate—one that takes 60 votes, which Republicans do not have, to overcome—because budget reconciliation bills cannot increase the deficit in any year beyond the ten-year budget window. Thus any subsidies funded by the reconciliation bill’s savings would have to sunset by 2026—a far from ideal outcome. On the political side, the savings in last year’s reconciliation bill came from keeping Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending. If Republicans turn around and use that money to fund a new subsidy regime, they would be “raiding Medicare to fund a new entitlement”—the exact same charge Republicans used against Democrats to great effect during the debates over Obamacare.

To put it bluntly, while some Republicans may want to include refundable tax credits in their Obamacare alternative, they have no clear way—and certainly no pain-free way—to fund these credits. Even if they do push forward despite the clear obstacles, finding the right blend among the options listed above will require conversations among members and constituency groups, and multiple rounds of CBO scores for various policy options—all of which will take much more time than House leadership currently envisions.

Then There Are the Political Obstacles

Layered on top of the pay-for difficulties lie other political obstacles preventing quick enactment of a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” package.

Medicaid: With 16 Republican governors ruling states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, and 17 Republican governors in states that did not, the fate of Medicaid expansion remains one of the thorniest questions surrounding repeal. Many states that did expand wish to keep their expansion, while states that did not do not want to be disadvantaged by making what they view as the conservative choice to turn down the new spending from Obamacare. Lawmakers have admitted they have yet to craft a solution on this issue. Attaching Medicaid reform to a “repeal-and-replace” measure will only complicate matters further, by giving states another issue (namely, the new funding formula for the per capita spending caps) to fight over.

House-Senate Differences: While House Republicans gear up to pass a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” package, reports last week also indicated that Senate leadership still intends to consider legislation more closely resembling the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. If Speaker Ryan continues to craft a “repeal-and-replace” bill while Majority Leader McConnell pushes “repeal-and-delay,” something will have to bring the two leaders to an agreement reconciling their disparate approaches.

Insurers: Those opposed to the “repeal-and-delay” strategy initially advocated by congressional leaders cited the needs of insurers as reason to pass a full “replacement” of Obamacare concurrent with repeal. Insurers will need to start submitting bids for the 2018 plan cycle by spring, and will want some certainty about how next year’s landscape will look before doing so. Hence the call for a full “repeal-and-replace,” to give insurers fast reassurances about the policy landscape going forward.

But if “full replace” will take until summer to pass—as it almost invariably will—then that argument gets turned on its head. In such circumstances, Congress should act swiftly to include some type of high-risk pool funding for those with pre-existing conditions, to prevent the insurer community from ending up with an influx of very sick, very costly enrollees.

Passing a repeal bill with high-risk pool funding may provide insurers with less certainty than a full “repeal-and-replace” measure, but it would yield infinitely more certainty than Congress arguing until September over the details of “full replace,” with the entire legal and regulatory realm in limbo as insurers must prepare for their 2018 plan offerings.

Conservatives: Some conservatives have philosophical objections to refundable tax credits, or indeed to any “replacement” legislation. Sen. Mike Lee this week called including “replacement” provisions on a repeal bill a “horrible idea.” Lee was one of three Republicans (the others being Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) who in fall 2015 pushed for more robust repeal legislation, issuing a statement demanding that year’s reconciliation measure include the greatest amount of repeal provisions possible consistent with Senate rules. After the conservatives laid down their marker, the Senate ultimately passed, and the House ratified, the reconciliation measure repealing the law’s entitlements and all of Obamacare’s tax increases.

Some within the party have acknowledged the fractious nature of the “replace” discussions. Ramesh Ponnuru has publicly worried that some conservatives agnostic or skeptical on the merits of a “replace” plan would do nothing following repeal, and therefore wants to link repeal with replace, to force conservatives to vote for a vision of “replace.”

Such maneuvering pre-supposes that conservatives will swallow a “replace” plan they dislike to repeal Obamacare, a dicey proposition given conservatives’ success at obtaining a more robust repeal measure in 2015. It also pre-supposes that conservatives will stand idly by while leadership takes the months necessary to create full-scale “replace” legislation.

If the process continues to drag on in the House, it would not surprise me one bit were conservatives to introduce a discharge petition to force a House floor vote on the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, likely in conjunction with outside conservative groups, would turn the discharge petition into a litmus test for Republican members of Congress: Are you for repeal—and repeal in the form of legislation that virtually all returning Republicans voted for one short year ago—or not?

While a discharge petition needs 218 member signatures before its sponsor can force a floor vote, the mere introduction of a discharge petition would increase the pressure on House leadership to move quickly on repeal. Moreover, it would highlight the fact that neither Speaker Ryan nor President Trump can afford to spend the entire spring and summer slogging through a long legislative process regarding Obamacare.

Now We Come to the Opportunity Costs

Most of this year’s major action items require the Obamacare reconciliation bill to pass. Once and only once that legislation passes can Congress pass a second budget, allowing for a second budget reconciliation measure to move through the Senate. Specific items held in limbo due to the Obamacare debate include the following.

Tax Reform: Republicans want to use the second reconciliation bill to overhaul the tax code. (President Trump may also want to use the tax reform bill to finance his planned infrastructure package.) But because the current budget does not include reconciliation instructions regarding revenues, Congress must pass another budget with specific reconciliation instructions before tax reform can move through the Senate with a simple (51-vote) majority. But before Congress passes another budget, it must first pass the reconciliation bill (i.e., the Obamacare bill) related to this budget.

Debt Limit: The current suspension of the debt limit expires on March 15. While the Treasury can use extraordinary measures to stave off a debt default for several months, Congress will likely have to address the debt limit prior to its August recess. As with tax reform, the debt limit (and spending and entitlement reforms to accompany same) can be enacted with a simple majority in the Senate via budget reconciliation. But, as with tax reform, doing so first requires passing another budget, which requires enacting the Obamacare reconciliation bill.

Appropriations: The current stopgap spending agreement expires on April 28. Congress will need to pass another spending measure by then—quite possibly including a request by the president for additional border security funds—and begin considering spending bills for the new fiscal year that starts September 30. Here again, passage of these legislative provisions would be greatly aided by passage of another budget to set fiscal parameters, but that cannot happen until the Obamacare reconciliation bill is on the statute books.

As other observers have begun noting, many of the major “must-pass” and “want-to-pass” pieces of legislation—tax reform; Trump’s infrastructure package; a debt limit increase; appropriations legislation; funding for border security—remain essentially captive to the Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” process. The scene resembles the airspace over New York during rush hour, with planes circling overhead while one plane (the Obamacare bill) attempts to land. Unfortunately, the longer the planes circle, one or more of them will run out of fuel, effectively crashing major pieces of the Trump/Ryan agenda due to legislative inaction and neglect.

The Available Political Options

With a legislative process for “repeal-and-replace” likely to take months longer than currently advertised, and a series of other competing priorities contingent on it, Speaker Ryan and President Trump face three options.

Punt: Focus on passing the other agenda items first, and come back to Obamacare later;

Plow Ahead: Remain on the current course, knowing that Obamacare will jeopardize much of Trump’s and Ryan’s other agenda items; or

Pivot/Pare Back: Return to something approaching last year’s reconciliation bill, and postpone major “replace” legislation until a future reconciliation measure.

Given the current environment, the third option seems the clear “least bad” outcome. The first would represent a major political setback, effectively admitting defeat on the president’s top agenda item and betraying Republicans’ seven-year-long commitment to repeal that conservatives sharply opposed to Obamacare will never forget, and may never forgive. The second jeopardizes, if not completely sacrifices, most of the party’s legislative agenda, including items the president will want to tout in his re-election bid.

Therefore, it seems likely that Ryan, Trump, or both will eventually move to pare back the current comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” legislation towards something more closely resembling the 2015/2016 repeal reconciliation bill.

The legislation may include elements of “replace,” but only those with a clear fiscal nexus (due to the Senate’s rules regarding reconciliation) and broad support among Republicans. HSA incentives and funding for high-risk pools might qualify. But more robust provisions, such as Medicaid reforms or refundable tax credits, will likely get jettisoned for the time being, to help pass slimmed down legislation yet this spring.

Time’s a Wastin’

To sum up: The likelihood that House Republicans can get a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill—defined as one with either tax credits, Medicaid reform, or both—1) drafted; 2) cleared by the Senate parliamentarian; 3) scored favorably by CBO; and 4) with enough member support to ensure it passes in time for a mark-up on March 1—two weeks from now—is a nice round number: Zero-point-zero percent.

Likewise the chances of enacting a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill by Congress’ Easter recess. It just won’t happen. For a bill signing ceremony for a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill, August recess seems a likelier, albeit still ambitious, target.

Republicans have already blown through two deadlines on “repeal-and-replace”: the January 27 deadline for committees to report reconciliation measures to the House and Senate Budget Committees, and the President’s Day recess, the original tentative deadline for getting repeal legislation to President Trump’s desk. Any further delays will accelerate both conservative angst and the same types of process stories from the media—“Republicans arguing amongst themselves on repealing Obamacare”—that plagued Democrats from the summer of 2009 through the law’s enactment.

Some may find this analysis harsh, or even impertinent. Some may want to take issue with my assumptions—Newt Gingrich would no doubt dispute CBO’s scoring methods, long and loudly. But policy-making involves crafting solutions given the way things are, not the way we wish them to be. And every day that goes by while Congress remains on the current “repeal-and-replace” pathway—which seems increasingly like a strategic box canyon—will only jeopardize the success of other critical policy priorities.

For all his wealth, Trump gets the same amount of one thing as everyone else: Time. For that reason, his administration and Speaker Ryan should re-assess their current strategy on Obamacare—the sooner the better. Time’s a wastin’, and the entire Republican agenda is at stake.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Lessons from Last Year’s Obamacare Repeal Effort

In a move virtually ignored outside Washington and largely unnoticed even within it, last December the House and Senate passed legislation repealing much of Obamacare. President Obama promptly vetoed the measure — an obstacle that will disappear come January 20. As reporters and policymakers attempt to catch up and learn the details of a process they had not closely followed, three important lessons stand out from last year’s “dry run” at repealing Obamacare.

The Senate Should Take the Lead

The legislation in question, H.R. 3762, made it to President Obama’s desk only because Republicans used a special procedure called budget reconciliation to circumvent the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to overcome a Democratic filibuster. While reconciliation allowed the bill to make it to the president’s desk, it came with several procedural strings in the Senate. Reconciliation legislation may only consider provisions that are primarily budgetary in nature; policy changes, or policy changes with an incidental fiscal impact, will get stripped from the bill. In addition, reconciliation legislation may not increase the budget deficit.

Unfortunately, the original version of the bill the House introduced did not comply with the Senate requirements. The legislation repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) — but because that change was primarily policy-related and not fiscal in nature, it did not pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. Likewise, according to a cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the House-passed bill would have increased the deficit in the “out years” beyond the ten-year budget window, making it subject to another point-of-order challenge that would require 60 votes to overcome. Ultimately, the legislation contained enough of these procedural flaws that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce a completely new substitute for the bill as it came to the Senate floor, to ensure that it would receive the procedural protections accorded to a reconciliation measure.

The arcane and technical nature of the budget-reconciliation process means that the Senate will play the key role in determining what passes — simply because Senate procedure will dictate what can pass. While the House has the constitutional prerogative to originate all tax legislation, and by custom it initiates most major spending legislation, the Senate may do well to initiate action in this particular case. House Republicans proposed an Obamacare-replacement plan earlier this year, Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way,” but what good is passing that through the House if much of it ends up on the Senate’s proverbial cutting-room floor?

Personnel Matters, Because Institutional Memory Is Scarce

The original reconciliation bill was introduced in the House on October 16, during what amounted to an interval between leaders. John Boehner had announced his intention to resign the speakership, but Paul Ryan had not yet assumed that title. And while House members played another round of “musical chairs,” staff underwent their own turnover, as Speaker Boehner’s longtime health-policy adviser departed Capitol Hill a few weeks before Boehner announced his surprise resignation.

To say that relevant leaders and committee chairs have swapped places in the House recently is putting it mildly. Not one has served in his current post for more than two years. Two years ago, Paul Ryan chaired the House Budget Committee; his reign at Ways and Means lasted a brief nine months before he assumed the speakership. Elsewhere in leadership, both Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise assumed their jobs after the defeat of Eric Cantor in August 2014. At the committees, Budget Committee chairman Tom Price and Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady succeeded Paul Ryan in leading their respective committees last year. And the Energy and Commerce and Education and Workforce Committees will soon choose new chairmen to assume their gavels in January.

While Senate leadership has remained more stable at the member level, most of the staff in both chambers has turned over since the Obamacare debate of 2009–10. I served in House leadership during 2009, and Senate leadership from 2010 to 2012; most of my former colleagues have long since moved on, whether to lobbying jobs, grad school, or even outside Washington altogether. Both at the member level and the staff level, the critically important institutional knowledge of what happened to Democrats — and when, why, and how — during the Obamacare debacle eight short years ago is dangerously thin.

The Washington gossip circles seem most interested in playing the parlor game of who will fill what post in the new administration. But particularly if the administration defers to Capitol Hill on policy, the true action in determining what happens to Obamacare — and what replaces it — may well lie at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Both reporters and would-be job applicants should react and plan accordingly.

An Influential Troika of Senate Conservatives

In addition to its procedural shortfalls, the original House reconciliation bill represented something much less than full repeal of Obamacare. While the law as enacted contains 419 sections, four of which had already been repealed prior to last October, the House’s reconciliation bill repealed just seven of them. Admittedly, much of Obamacare contains extraneous provisions unrelated to the law’s coverage expansions: nursing-home regulations, loan-forgiveness programs, and the like. But the original House reconciliation bill left intact many of Obamacare’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions, leaving it far short of anything that could be called full repeal.

Into the breach stepped three conservative senators: Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. The day before the House voted to pass its reconciliation bill, they issued a joint statement calling it thin gruel indeed:

On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of Obamacare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal Obamacare, and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk. If this bill cannot be amended so that it fully repeals Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules, we cannot support this bill. With millions of Americans now getting health premium increase notices in the mail, we owe our constituents nothing less. 

Knowing that the bill lacked the votes to pass the chamber without support from the three conservatives, Senate leadership significantly broadened the bill’s scope. The revised version that went to the president’s desk repealed all of the law’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions. It was not a one-sentence repeal bill that eradicated all of Obamacare from the statute books, but it came much closer to “fully repeal[ing] Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules,” as the three senators laid out in their statement.

The conservatives’ mettle will be tested once again. Already, Republican congressional sources are telling reporters that they intend to keep the law’s Medicaid expansion, albeit in a different fashion. “One of the aides said this version of the bill [that passed last year] was mostly about ‘messaging,’ and that this time, ‘We’re not going to use that package. We’re not dumb.’”

Apart from the wisdom of calling a bill that their bosses voted for less than one year ago “dumb,” the comment clarifies the obvious fissure points that will emerge in the coming weeks. Will conservatives such as Lee, Rubio, and Cruz hold out for legislation mirroring last year’s bill — and vote no if they do not receive it? Conversely, what Republican who voted for the reconciliation bill last year will object if it returns to the Senate floor? Will senators be willing to vote against something in 2017 that they voted for in 2015?

As I noted last week, Republicans’ path on Obamacare could prove more complicated than the new conventional wisdom in Washington suggests. If past is prologue, last year’s reconciliation bill provides one possible roadmap for how the congressional debate may play out.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Responding to Nicholas Bagley on Risk Corridors

Over at the Incidental Economist, Nicholas Bagley has a post that finally acknowledges some legal precedent for the argument I and others have been making for months, most recently on Monday—that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to settle lawsuits regarding Obamacare’s risk corridors. I noted in my Monday post that three non-partisan sources have issued rulings agreeing with my argument: The Justice Department’s own Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the Comptroller General, and the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Unfortunately, Bagley mis-represented the first opinion, ignored the second entirely, and called the third one an outlier (which it isn’t) that he didn’t agree with.

While Bagley agrees that the Judgment Fund cannot be utilized where Congress has “otherwise provided for” payment, he argues that the circumstances where Congress has “otherwise provided for” payment are exceedingly rare. He claims “the Judgment Fund is unavailable only if Congress has designated an alternative source of funds to pay judgments arising from litigation.” [Emphasis original.]

Bagley alleges that the 1998 opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, cited in my Monday post, illustrates his point. He claims the OLC opinion “offers an example of how ‘specific and express’ a statute has to be before Congress will be understood to have ‘otherwise provided for’ the payment of money damages.” But, funny enough, he doesn’t quote from the memo itself. That might be because, as I noted on Monday, the memo contradicts Bagley:

The Judgment Fund does not become available simply because an agency may have insufficient funds at a particular time to pay a judgment. If the agency lacks sufficient funds to pay a judgment, but possesses statutory authority to make the payment, its recourse is to seek funds from Congress. Thus, if another appropriation or fund is legally available to pay a judgment or settlement, payment is “otherwise provided for” and the Judgment Fund is not available.

The memo says nothing about how specific and express a statute must be for the Judgment Fund not to apply, as Bagley claims. Instead, it sets up a rather broad rule of construction: If a source of funding exists to pay claims, the Judgment Fund cannot be used to pay claims—it only serves as a payer of last resort. If another source of funding exists, but lacks sufficient cash to pay the judgment in full, then Congress—and not the Judgment Fund or the courts—must fill in the deficit through a new appropriation.

The 1998 memo from the Justice Department mirrors another 1998 ruling by the Comptroller General—the keeper of the handbook of appropriations law. In that case, Congress had imposed appropriations restrictions prohibiting the federal government from paying the cost of re-running a Teamsters union election. This fact pattern mirrors the statutory restrictions Congress imposed to prevent additional taxpayer funds being used to bail out risk corridors. And the Comptroller General’s ruling made clear that the Judgment Fund could not be utilized to circumvent the appropriations restriction:

The costs of supervising the 1996 election rerun, like the 1996 election, are programmatic costs that, but for the restrictions in sections 619 and 518 of the 1998 Justice and Labor Appropriations Acts, would be payable from available Justice and Labor operating accounts. The fact that Congress has chosen to bar the use of funds made available in the 1998 Justice and Labor Appropriations Acts to pay the cost of the Election Officer’s supervision of the 1996 election rerun should not be viewed as an open invitation to convert the Judgment Fund from an appropriation to pay damage awards against the United States to a program account to circumvent congressional restrictions on the appropriations that would otherwise be available to cover these expenses. Accordingly, we believe that the Judgment Fund would not be available to pay such an order, even if the court were to award a specific sum equivalent to the actual or anticipated costs of supervising the rerun.

While Bagley chose to ignore this ruling entirely, the precedent again indicates that the Judgment Fund cannot be utilized as a “piggy bank”—in this case, that it cannot fund that which Congress has expressly forbidden.

Particularly viewed in combination with these other two rulings, the Congressional Research Service report then stands not as the anomaly Bagley portrays it, but as illustrating the consistent principle that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to circumvent appropriations decisions rightly within the purview of Congress. The CRS memo references the prior opinions by the Comptroller General and OLC discussed above, as well as a separate legal precedent involving payments under the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program. In that case, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also held that a lack of funds in program coffers did not make the Judgment Fund available—instead, the plaintiffs had to appeal to Congress for additional appropriations to pay claims.

Though Bagley does not admit it in his piece, all the non-partisan experts in appropriations law—the Comptroller General, the Congressional Research Service, and even the Justice Department’s own legal team—agree that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to pay claims where Congress has provided another avenue of payment. Despite this overwhelming evidence, Bagley attempts to argue that “every entitlement program has some source of appropriated funds, suggesting that the Judgment Fund would be unavailable in every lawsuit involving an entitlement.” [Emphasis original.]

Here again, Bagley errs—there are entitlements without a permanent appropriations source, including risk corridors. The Comptroller General’s opinion classifying risk corridors as “user fees” notes very clearly that “Section 1342 [of Obamacare, which established risk corridors], by its terms, did not enact an appropriation to make the payments specified [by the law]”—in other words, it created an entitlement without an appropriation. Moreover, Judge Rosemary Collyer’s May ruling in House v. Burwell, litigation regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies—which also lacked an explicit statutory appropriation—noted multiple examples of entitlements without a permanent appropriation, including a 1979 Comptroller General opinion relating to payments to Guam. As her ruling noted:

The [Comptroller General’s] risk corridors decision illustrates that a statute can authorize a program, mandate that payments be made, and yet fail to appropriate the necessary funds. Thus, not only is it possible for a statute to authorize and mandate payments without making an appropriation, but [the Comptroller General] has found a prime example in [Obamacare].

Bagley’s argument therefore fails due to his faulty premise—that every entitlement must have an appropriated source of funds.

One other matter worth noting: The Clinton administration’s 1998 Office of Legal Counsel opinion should also prevent settlements—as opposed to judicial verdicts—from being paid from the Judgment Fund. The opinion cites a prior 1989 OLC memo to note that “The appropriate source of funds for a settled case is identical to the appropriate source of funds should a judgment in that case be entered against the government.” Again, the Comptroller General agrees in its Principles of Federal Appropriations Law:

A compromise settlement is payable from the same source that would apply to a judgment in the same suit….The resolution of a case does not alter the source of funds. A contrary view, as Justice points out, might encourage settlements driven by source-of-funds considerations rather than the best interests of the United States.

If the Obama administration cannot pay out a judgment regarding risk corridors—and for all the reasons above, it cannot—then it also cannot settle the lawsuit using Judgment Fund dollars. But that’s exactly what this administration intends to do—circumvent the express will of Congress, and opinions by his own Justice Department, to muscle through a massive insurer bailout “on the nod.”

Mr. Bagley has been encouraging such a backdoor bailout for months, claiming that insurers can claim risk corridor cash via the Judgment Fund. But only this week did he finally “discover” the Congressional Research Service memo directly contradicting his claims, which Sen. Marco Rubio’s office publicly released in May. And in attempting to rebut that memo, he did not acknowledge the Comptroller General’s similar opinion, mis-represented the Office of Legal Counsel’s position, and falsely claimed every entitlement must have an appropriation. Regardless of whether motivated by a lack of information or a desire to avoid inconvenient truths, his flawed and incomplete analysis vastly understates the strength of the argument that the actions the Obama administration contemplates in settling the risk corridor lawsuits violate appropriations law and practice.

Gov. Jindal Op-Ed: An Obamacare Debate Worth Having

Repeal is not enough.

Five years later, that much should be clear. The law’s ill effects — higher premiums, cancelled health plans, bureaucratic ensnarements for doctor and patient alike — have all been well documented. This spring, the American people also got to know for the first time how Obamacare has complicated the tax code — raising taxes for many, and causing confusion and headaches for everyone.

But it’s long past time for the American people to get to know what conservatives would do in Obamacare’s stead. Our healthcare system did face a major threat before President Obama took office — rising costs that threaten to overwhelm middle-class families, and the federal budget as well. But while candidate Obama promised in 2008 to tackle costs, and lower premiums by $2,500 for the typical family, President Obama instead focused on expanding government-run health coverage, and missing the mark on his premium promise by over $1 trillion.

So yes, by all means, let’s ask the question: “Obamacare — when have you stood up and fought against it?” But anyone who wants to ask that question should have a detailed answer to this one: “Obamacare — what would you do instead?” Because it’s not particularly courageous for conservatives simply to oppose a law that remains deeply unpopular with voters. We must tell people what we are for, and let the American people know exactly what we will do, and how we will do it.

That’s why I put forward my own plan to replace Obamacare last year. It’s a plan that focuses like a laser beam on slowing the growth of healthcare costs. It offers 16 specific, proven methods that can work to curb health spending — from Health Savings Accounts, to wellness incentives, to lawsuit reforms that can reduce defensive medicine practices, to more insurance options that can spur competition and bring down prices. Just as important, the plan repeals all of Obamacare’s trillion dollars in tax increases and doesn’t replace them with a single penny of revenue hikes.

Thankfully, more Republicans are finally starting to put out specific proposals about how to replace Obamacare. I’m glad — that’s long since overdue. I think this issue is so important to conservatives, to our party, and to the future of our country that I want to lay down a very clear marker. I’m willing to debate anyone with a serious healthcare plan who wants to compare their Obamacare replacement plans with mine.

Obamacare is so harmful to our country — our health system, our economy and jobs, and our freedom — that we simply must repeal it, and put in place good reforms that will undo the damage Obamacare has caused.

It’s become fashionable in Republican circles in Washington to say that the hour is past, and that it is now too late to repeal all of Obamacare, and to say that we will just have to try to change it best we can. That’s nonsense.

After Hillary Clinton’s health plan went down to defeat in 1994, the Left never stopped their fight. I’ll bet Mrs. Clinton even sent a few emails out about it.

We as conservatives must do the same — we must fight until we win, and put forward a good conservative replacement for Obamacare now and challenge the President to do the right thing.

As Sen. Mike Lee recently said in Iowa: “If a presidential candidate tells us that he wants to repeal Obamacare but doesn’t have a healthcare reform proposal of his own, then maybe we should keep looking for another candidate.”

Sen. Lee is exactly right. We have to fight for what we promised the American people. And putting out clear, specific plans to replace Obamacare should comprise a major element of that effort — because repeal is not enough.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.