Exclusive: Inside the Trump Administration’s Debate over Expanding Obamacare

Last August, I responded to a New York Times article indicating that some within the Trump administration wanted to give states additional flexibility to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Since then, those proposals have advanced, such that staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) believe that they have official sign-off from the president to put those proposals into place.

My conversations with half a dozen sources on Capitol Hill and across the administration in recent weeks suggest that the proposal continues to move through the regulatory process. However, my sources also described significant policy pitfalls that could spark a buzz-saw of opposition from both the left and the right.

The Times reported that some within the administration—including CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House Domestic Policy Council Chairman Andrew Bremberg—have embraced the proposal. But if the plan overcomes what the Times characterized as a “furious” internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.

How It Would Work

After the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states as part of its 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate, the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting that ruling. While the court made expansion optional for states, the Obama administration made it an “all-or-nothing” proposition for them.

Under the 2012 guidance—which remains in effect—if states want to receive the enhanced 90 percent federal match associated with expansion, they must cover the entire expansion population—all able-bodied adults with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $35,000 for a family of four). If states expand only to some portion of the eligible population, they would only receive their regular Medicaid match of 50-76 percent, not the enhanced 90 percent match.

The Internal Debate

The August Times article indicated that, after considering partial expansion, the administration postponed any decision until after November’s midterm elections. Since that time, multiple sources disclosed to me a further meeting that took place on the topic in the Oval Office late last year. While the meeting was originally intended to provide an update for the president, CMS staff left that meeting thinking they had received the president’s sign-off to implement partial expansion.

Just before Christmas, during a meeting on an unrelated matter, a CMS staffer sounded me out on the proposal. The individual said CMS was looking for ways to help give states additional flexibility, particularly states hamstrung by initiatives forcing them to expand Medicaid. However, based on my other reporting, I believe that the conversation also represented an attempt to determine the level of conservative opposition to the public announcement of a decision CMS believes the president has already made.

Why Liberals Will Object

During my meeting, I asked the CMS staffer about the fiscal impacts of partial expansion. The staffer admitted that, as I had noted in my August article, exchange plans generally have higher costs than Medicaid coverage. Therefore, moving individuals from Medicaid to exchange coverage—and the federal government paying 100 percent of subsidy costs for exchange coverage, as opposed to 90 percent of Medicaid costs—will raise federal costs for every beneficiary who shifts coverage under partial expansion.

The Medicare actuary believes that the higher cost-sharing associated with exchange coverage will lead 30 percent of the target population—that is, individuals with incomes from 100-138 percent of poverty—to drop their exchange plan. Either beneficiaries will not be able to afford the premiums and cost-sharing, or they will not consider the coverage worth the money. And because 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage, the partial expansion change will save money in a given state—despite the fact that exchange coverage costs more than Medicaid on a per-beneficiary basis.

Why Conservatives Will Object

I immediately asked the CMS staffer an obvious follow-up question: Did the actuary consider whether partial expansion, by shifting the costs of expansion from the states to the federal government, would encourage more states to expand Medicaid? The staffer demurred, saying the actuary’s analysis focused on only one hypothetical state.

However, the CMS staffer did not tell me the entire story. Subsequent to my “official” meeting with that staffer, other sources privately confirmed that the actuary does believe that roughly 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage.

But these sources and others added that both the Medicare actuary and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree that, notwithstanding the savings from current expansion states—savings associated with individuals dropping exchange coverage, as explained above—the partial expansion proposal will cost the federal government overall, because it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

For instance, the Council of Economic Advisers believes that spending on non-expansion states who use partial expansion as a reason to extend Medicaid to the able-bodied will have three times the deficit impact as the savings associated with states shifting from full to partial expansion.

Because the spending on new partial expansion states will overcome any potential savings from states shifting from full to partial expansion, the proposal, if adopted, would appreciably increase the deficit. While neither CBO nor the Medicare actuary have conducted an updated analysis since the election, multiple sources cited an approximate cost to the federal government on the order of $100-120 billion over the next decade.

One source indicated that the Medicare actuary’s analysis early last summer arrived at an overall deficit increase of $111 billion. The results of November’s elections—in which three non-expansion states voted to accept expansion due to ballot initiatives—might have reduced the cost of the administration’s proposal slightly, but likely did not change the estimate of a sizable deficit increase.

A net cost of upwards of $100 billion, notwithstanding potential coverage losses from individuals dropping exchange coverage in current expansion states, can only mean one thing. CBO and the Medicare actuary both believe that, by lowering the cost for states to expand, partial expansion will prompt major non-expansion states—such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Who Will Support This Proposal?

Based on the description of the scoring dynamic my sources described, partial expansion, if it goes forward, seems to have no natural political constituency. Red-state governors will support it, no doubt, for it allows them to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime. Once CMS approves one state’s partial expansion, the agency will likely have a line of Republican governors out its door looking to implement waivers of their own.

But it seems unlikely that Democratic-led states will follow suit. Indeed, the news that partial expansion would cause about 30 percent of the target population to drop their new exchange coverage could well prompt recriminations, investigations, and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere. Because at least 3.1 million expansion beneficiaries live in states with Republican governors, liberals likely would object to the sizable number of these enrollees who could decide to drop coverage under partial expansion.

Conversely, conservatives will likely object to the high net cost associated with the proposal, notwithstanding the potential coverage losses in states that have already expanded. Some within the administration view Medicaid expansion, when coupled with proposals like work requirements, as a “conservative” policy. Other administration officials view expansion in all states as something approaching a fait accompli, and view partial expansion and similar proposals as a way to make the best of a bad policy outcome.

But Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable in society, because it gives states a higher match for covering able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities. In addition to objecting to a way partial expansion would increase government spending by approximately $100 billion, some conservatives would also raise fundamental objections to any policy changes that would encourage states to embrace Obamacare—and add even more able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls in the process.

Particularly given the Democratic takeover of the House last week, the multi-pronged opposition to this plan could prove its undoing. Democrats will have multiple venues available—from oversight through letters and subpoenae, to congressional hearings, to use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn any administration decisions outright—to express their opposition to this proposal.

A “strange bedfellows” coalition of liberals and conservatives outraged over the policy, but for entirely different reasons, could nix it outright. While some officials may not realize it at present, the administration may not only make a decision that conservatives will object to on policy grounds, they may end up in a political quagmire in the process.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Let the Individual Mandate Die

In May New Jersey imposed a health-insurance mandate requiring all residents to buy insurance or pay a penalty. More states will feel pressure to follow suit in the coming year as the federal mandate’s penalty disappears Jan. 1 and state legislatures reconvene, some with new Democratic majorities intent on “protecting” Obamacare. But conflicts with federal law will make state-level health-insurance mandates ineffective or unduly onerous, and governors and legislatures would do well to steer clear.

While states can require citizens to purchase health coverage, they will have trouble ensuring compliance. Federal law prohibits the Internal Revenue Service from disclosing tax-return data, except under limited circumstances. And there is no clear precedent allowing the IRS to disclose coverage data to verify compliance with state insurance requirements.

Accordingly, mandates enacted in New Jersey and the District of Columbia earlier this year created their own coverage-reporting regimes. But those likely conflict with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which explicitly pre-empts “any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” The point is to protect large employers who self-insure workers from 50 sets of conflicting state laws.

No employer has used ERISA to challenge Massachusetts’ 2006 individual mandate, which includes reporting requirements, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal. Last month a Brookings Institution paper conceded that “state requirements related to employer benefits like health coverage may be subject to legal challenge based on ERISA preemption.”

A 2016 Supreme Court ruling would bolster such a challenge. In Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual, the court struck down a Vermont law that required employers to submit health-care payment claims to a state database. The court said the law was pre-empted by ERISA.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the myriad reporting requirements under federal law. Vermont’s law required additional record-keeping. Justice Kennedy concluded that “differing, or even parallel, regulations from multiple jurisdictions could create wasteful administrative costs and threaten to subject plans to wide-ranging liability.”

Justice Kennedy’s opinion provides a how-to manual for employers to challenge state-level insurance mandates. A morass of state-imposed insurance mandates and reporting requirements would unnecessarily burden employers with costs and complexity. It cries out for pre-emptive relief.

Unfortunately, policy makers have ignored these concerns. Notes from the working group that recommended the District of Columbia’s individual mandate never mention the reporting burden or ERISA pre-emption. And in August the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved New Jersey’s waiver application that relied in part upon funding from that state’s new individual mandate, even though money from the difficult-to-enforce requirement may never materialize.

States already cannot require federal agencies to report coverage. This means their mandates won’t track the 2.3 million covered by the Indian Health Service, 9.3 million receiving health care from the Veterans Administration, 8.8 million disabled under age 65 who are enrolled in Medicare, 9.4 million military Tricare enrollees and 8.2 million federal employees and retirees.

If a successful ERISA challenge also exempts some of the 181 million with employer-based insurance from coverage-reporting requirements, state insurance mandates become farcical. States would have to choose between mandates that run on the “honor system”—thus likely rife with cheating—or taking so much time and energy to verify coverage that administration becomes prohibitively expensive.

States should take the hint and refrain from even considering their own coverage mandates. But if they don’t, smart employers should challenge the mandate’s reporting requirements. They’d likely win.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

Will the Trump Administration Help Republicans Expand Obamacare?

For all the allegations by the Left about how the Trump administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, a recent New York Times article revealed nothing of the sort. Instead it indicated how many senior officials within the administration want to entrench Obamacare, helping states to expand the reach of one of its costly entitlements.

Thankfully, a furious internal battle took the idea off the table—for now. But instead of trying to find ways to increase the reach of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which prioritizes able-bodied adults over individuals with disabilities, the Trump administration should instead pursue policies that slow the push towards expansion, by making the tough fiscal choices surrounding expansion plain for states to see.

What ‘Partial Expansion’ Means

Following the court’s decision, the Obama administration determined expansion an “all-or-nothing” proposition. If states wanted to receive the enhanced match rate for the expansion—which started at 100 percent in 2014, and is slowly falling to 90 percent for 2020 and future years—they must expand to all individuals below the 138 percent of poverty threshold.

However, some states wish to expand Medicaid only for adults with incomes below the poverty level. Whereas individuals with incomes above 100 percent of poverty qualify for premium and cost-sharing subsidies for plans on Obamacare’s exchanges, individuals with incomes below the poverty level do not. (In states that have not expanded Medicaid, individuals with incomes below poverty may fall into the so-called “coverage gap,” because they do not have enough income to qualify for subsidized exchange coverage.)

States that wish to cover only individuals with incomes below the poverty line may do so—however, under the Obama administration guidance, those states would receive only their regular federal match rate of between 50 and 74 percent, depending on a state’s income. (Wisconsin chose this option for its Medicaid program.)

How ‘Partial Expansion’ Actually Costs More Money

The Times article says several administration supporters of “partial expansion”—including Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Administrator (CMS) Seema Verma, and Domestic Policy Council Director Andrew Bremberg—believe that embracing the change would help to head off full-blown expansion efforts in states like Utah. An internal HHS memo obtained by the Times claims that “HHS believes allowing partial expansion would result in significant savings over the 10-year budget window compared to full Medicaid expansion by all.”

In reality, however, “partial expansion” would explode the budget, for at least three reasons. First, it will encourage states that have not embraced expansion to do so, by lowering the fiscal barrier to expansion. While states “only” have to fund up to 10 percent of the costs of Medicaid expansion, they pay not a dime for any individuals enrolled in exchange coverage. By shifting individuals with incomes of between 100-138 percent of poverty from Medicaid to the exchanges, “partial expansion” significantly reduces the population of individuals for whom states would have to share costs. This change could encourage even ruby red states like Texas to consider Medicaid expansion.

Second, for the same reason, such a move will encourage states that have already expanded Medicaid to switch to “partial expansion”—so they can fob some of their state costs onto federal taxpayers. The Times notes that Arkansas and Massachusetts already have such waiver applications pending with CMS. Once the administration approves a single one of these waivers, virtually every state (or at minimum, every red state with a Medicaid expansion) will run to CMS’s doorstep asking for the federal government to take these costs off their hands.

Medicaid expansion has already proved unsustainable, with exploding enrollment and costs. “Partial expansion” would make that fiscal burden even worse, through a triple whammy of more states expanding, existing states offloading costs to the federal government through “partial expansion,” and the conversion of millions of enrollees from less expensive Medicaid coverage to more costly exchange plans.

What Washington Should Do Instead

Rather than embracing the fiscally irresponsible “partial expansion,” the Trump administration and Congress should instead halt another budget gimmick that states have used to fund Medicaid expansion: The provider tax scam. As of last fall, eight states had used this gimmick to fund some or all of the state portion of expansion costs. Other states have taken heed: Virginia used a provider tax to fund its Medicaid expansion earlier this year, and Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME)—who heretofore has steadfastly opposed expansion—recently floated the idea of a provider tax to fund expansion in Maine.

The provider tax functions as a scam by laundering money to generate more federal revenue. Providers—whether hospitals, nursing homes, Medicaid managed-care plans, or others—agree to an “assessment” that goes into the state’s general fund. The state uses those dollars to draw down new Medicaid matching funds from the federal government, which the state promptly sends right back to the providers.

For this reason, politicians of all parties have called on Congress to halt the provider tax gimmick. Even former vice president Joe Biden called provider taxes a “scam,” and pressed for their abolition. The final report of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission called for “restricting and eventually eliminating” the “Medicaid tax gimmick.”

If Republicans in Congress really want to oppose Obamacare—the law they ran on repealing for four straight election cycles—they should start by imposing a moratorium on any new Medicaid provider taxes, whether to fund expansion or anything else. Such a move would force states to consider whether they can afford to fund their share of expansion costs—by diverting dollars from schools or transportation, for instance—rather than using a budget gimmick to avoid those tough choices. It would also save money, by stopping states from bilking the federal government out of billions in extra Medicaid funds through what amounts to a money-laundering scam.

Rhetoric vs. Reality, Take 5,000

But of course, whether Republicans actually want to dismantle Obamacare remains a very open question. Rather than opposing “partial expansion” on fiscal grounds, the Times quotes unnamed elected officials’ response:

Republican governors were generally supportive [of “partial expansion”], but they said the change must not be seen as an expansion of the Affordable Care Act and should not be announced before the midterm elections. Congressional Republican leaders, while supportive of the option, also cautioned against any high-profile public announcement before the midterm elections.

In other words, these officials want to expand and entrench Obamacare, but don’t want to be seen as expanding and entrenching Obamacare. What courage!

Just as with congressional Republicans’ desperate moves to bail out Obamacare’s exchanges earlier this year, the Times article demonstrates how a party that repeatedly ran on repealing Obamacare, once granted with the full levers of power in Washington, instead looks to reinforce it. Small wonder that the unnamed politicians in the Times article worry about conservative voters exacting a justifiable vengeance in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are the Heritage Foundation’s Politics Betraying Its Policy?

When Ronald Reagan used the axiom “Trust but verify,” he meant conservatives should closely monitor organizations and individuals to ensure that their deeds comport with their words. This axiom should apply to a health-care plan that a group the Heritage Foundation leads will unveil this week. While the group’s website claims its plan would “restore a properly functioning market in the health care sector to lower costs,” Heritage’s own policy analysis suggests otherwise.

Specifically, the Heritage plan would in no way alter what Heritage research describes as the biggest drivers of Obamacare’s “seismic effects on insurance markets.” Nor does the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, the legislative basis for the new effort. In fact, a recent version of the bill further undermines the purported “flexibility” that Graham-Cassidy promises to states, making it even less consistent with the federal principles Heritage invokes in lauding the measure.

Pre-Existing Condition Rules Drive Premium Increases

The largest effect on premiums consists of a cluster of [Obamacare] insurance access requirements—specifically the guaranteed issue requirement and the prohibitions on medical underwriting and applying coverage exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions under any circumstances. This cluster of regulations collectively accounts for the largest share of premium increases.

The paper discusses at length how these provisions “appear to have had the greatest effect on premiums,” raising rates for the young and healthy to subsidize the sick. While Obamacare supporters hoped the individual mandate would compel enough healthy individuals to offset those costs, high numbers of people chose to pay the mandate tax or received exemptions from the tax.

“The net result was a constellation of rules that repelled relatively healthy people and attracted those who could reasonably expect their medical bills to exceed their premiums—which Obamacare’s individual mandate simply failed to counteract,” Heritage’s report says.

Rhetoric versus Reality on Graham-Cassidy

After analyzing how the pre-existing conditions provisions proved the prime driver of premium increases, the March Heritage paper claims Graham-Cassidy provides the solution, calling it “a conceptual framework for empowering states to repair or ameliorate much of the market dislocation resulting from Obamacare.”

Leaving all those regulatory requirements in place might sound good, but—just as the March Heritage paper noted—it causes major policy problems:

Insurance companies are required to sell ‘just-in-time’ policies even if people wait until they are sick to buy coverage. That’s just like the Obama plan. There is growing evidence that many are gaming the system by purchasing health insurance when they need surgery or other expensive medical care, then dropping it a few months later.

Those words were written in 2010 to describe the effects of Massachusetts’ health care law, but they apply just as equally to the Heritage plan, and the Graham-Cassidy bill, in 2018. Surprisingly, then, they came from another member of the group that is releasing the plan this week.

Despite these organizations’ own prior statements opposing these costly insurance requirements, the plan released by Heritage and others would leave them in place at the federal level, hamstringing states’ ability to manage their own insurance markets—and belying the supposed goal of devolving power away from Washington.

The Bill Is Getting Worse

Unfortunately, however, the revised draft takes major steps that would undermine states’ ability to create multiple risk pools. Language on page 31 would reduce the block grant allotment for states maintaining multiple risk pools, by a percentage not yet specified. Other new provisions on pages 44 and 45 of the revised draft would allow states to create multiple risk pools only if they follow a series of bureaucratic parameters—parameters that a future Democratic administration would likely use to quash any state’s attempt to establish or maintain multiple risk pools.

Not Flexible, Not Federalism

Even as the Graham-Cassidy bill moves further to the left, Heritage seems insistent on chasing it ever leftward. The bill never addressed what Heritage itself called the prime drivers of premium increases. Now a more recent version further erodes the little flexibility that earlier drafts gave to states.

As I wrote more than one year ago, Republicans can choose to leave the status quo intact on Obamacare’s major regulations, or they can choose to keep their promise to voters to repeal the law. But they cannot do both. It comes down to a binary choice that simple. And Heritage has chosen a path that would effectively break the promise of repeal.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: Congress Should Investigate, Not Bail Out, Health Regulators Who Risked Billions

What if a group of regulators were collectively blindsided by a decision that cost their industry billions of dollars? One might think Congress would investigate the causes of this regulatory debacle, and take steps to ensure it wouldn’t repeat itself.

Think again. President Trump’s October decision to terminate cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidy payments to health insurers will inflict serious losses on the industry. For October, November, and December, insurers will reduce deductibles and co-payments for certain low-income exchange enrollees, but will not receive reimbursement from the federal government for doing so. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, claimed in a recent court filing that insurance carriers will suffer $1.75 billion in losses over the remainder of 2017 due to the decision.

As Dave Anderson of Duke University recently noted, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet Congress has asked not even a single question of regulators why they did not anticipate and plan for this scenario—a recipe for more costly mistakes in the future.

A Brewing Legal and Political Storm

The controversy surrounds federal payments that reimburse insurers for lower deductibles, co-payments, and out-of-pocket expenses for qualifying low-income households purchasing exchange coverage. While the text of Obamacare requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to reimburse insurers for providing the discounts, it nowhere includes an explicit appropriation for such spending.

As the exchanges launched in 2014, the Obama administration began making CSR payments to insurers. However, later that year, the House of Representatives, viewing a constitutional infringement on its “power of the purse,” sued to stop the executive from making the payments without an explicit appropriation. In May 2016, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional absent an express appropriation from Congress.

The next President could easily wade into this issue. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress. Such an action could take effect almost immediately….It’s a consideration as carriers submit their bids for next year that come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different.

One week after my article, Collyer issued her ruling calling the subsidy payments unconstitutional. At that point, CSR payments faced threats from both the legal and political realms. On the legal front, the ongoing court case could have resulted in an order terminating the payments. On the political side, the new administration would have the power to terminate the payments unilaterally—and it does not appear that either Hillary Clinton or Trump ever publicly committed to maintaining the payments upon taking office.

Yet Commissioners Stood Idly By

In the midst of this gathering storm, what actions did insurance commissioners take last year, as insurers filed their rates for the 2017 plan year—the plan year currently ongoing—to analyze whether cost-sharing payments would continue, and the effects on insurers if they did not? About a week before the Trump administration officially decided to halt the payments, I submitted public records requests to every state insurance commissioner’s office to find out.

Two states (Indiana and Oregon) are still processing my requests, but the results from most other states do not inspire confidence. Although a few states (Illinois, Utah, and California’s Department of Managed Health Care) withheld documents for confidentiality or logistical reasons, I have yet to find a single document during the filing process for the 2017 plan year contemplating the set of circumstances that transpired this fall—namely, a new administration cutting off the CSR payments.

In many cases, states indicated they did not, and do not, question insurers’ assumptions at all. North Dakota said it does not dictate terms to carriers (although the state did not allow carriers to re-submit rates for the 2018 plan year after the administration halted the CSR payments in October). Wyoming said it did not issue guidance to carriers on CSRs “because that’s not how we roll.” Missouri did not require its insurers to file 2017 rates with regulators, so it would have no way of knowing those insurers’ assumptions.

Other states admitted that they did not consider the possibility that the incoming administration would, or even could, terminate the CSR payments. North Carolina said it did not think the court case was relevant, or that cost-sharing reduction payments would be an issue. Massachusetts’ insurance Connector (its state-run exchange) responded that “there was no indication that rates for 2017 were affected by the pendency of House v. Burwell,” the case Collyer ruled on in May 2016.

Despite the ongoing court case and the deep partisan disputes over Obamacare, many commissioners’ responses indicate a failure to anticipate difficulties with cost-sharing reduction payments. Mississippi stated that, during the filing process for 2017, “CSRs weren’t a problem then, as they were being funded.” Minnesota added that “it was not until the spring of 2017 that carriers started discussing the threat [of CSR payments being terminated] was a real possibility.” Nebraska stated that “I don’t think that there’s anyone who allowed for the possibility of non-payment of CSRs for plan year 2017. We were all waiting for Congress to act.”

However, as an e-mail sent by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to state regulators demonstrates, federal authorities at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated their “serious concerns” with the Texas and New Mexico proposals. Federal law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for qualifying beneficiaries, regardless of the status of the reimbursement program, and CMS believed the contingency language—which never went into effect in either Texas or New Mexico—violated that requirement.

In at least one case, an insurer raised premiums to reflect the risk that CSR payments could disappear in 2017. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana submitted such request to that state’s insurance authorities. However, regulators rejected “contingent CSR language”—apparently an attempt to cancel the reduced cost-sharing if reimbursement from Washington was not forthcoming, a la the Texas and New Mexico proposals. The insurance commissioner’s office also objected to the carrier’s attempt to raise premiums over the issue: “We will not allow rates to be increased based on speculation about outcomes of litigation.”

Of course, had insurers requested, or had regulators either approved or demanded, premium increases last year due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reduction payments, they would not now face the prospect of over $1 billion in losses due to non-payment of CSRs for the last three months of 2017. But had regulators approved even higher premium increases last year, those increases likely would have caused political controversy during the November elections.

As it was, news of the average 25 percent premium increase for 2017 gave Trump a political cudgel to attack Clinton in the waning days of the campaign. One can certainly question why Democratic insurance commissioners who did not utter a word about premium increases and CSR “uncertainty” during Clinton’s campaign suddenly discovered the term the minute Trump was elected president.

However, at least some ardent Obamacare supporters just did not anticipate a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments. Washington state’s commissioner, Mike Kreidler, published an op-ed last October regarding the House v. Burwell court case. He did so at the behest of NAIC consumer representative Tim Jost, who wanted to cite Kreidler’s piece in an amicus curiae brief during the case’s appeal. But despite their focus on the court case regarding CSRs, it appears neither Jost nor Kreidler ever contemplated a new administration withdrawing the payments in 2017.

Congressional Oversight Needed

The evidence suggests that not a single insurance commissioner considered the impact of a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments in 2017, a series of decisions that put the entire health of the individual insurance market at risk. What policy implications follow from this conclusion?

First, it undercuts the effectiveness of Obamacare’s “rate review” process. That mechanism requires states to evaluate “excessive” premium increases. However, the program’s evaluation criteria do not explicitly include policy judgments such as those surrounding CSRs. Moreover, the political focus on lowering “excessively” high premium increases might result in cases where regulators approve premium rates set inappropriately low—as happened in 2017, where no carriers priced in a contingency margin for the termination of CSR payments, yet those payments ceased in October.

As noted above, Montana’s regulators called out that state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate for proposing a rate increase relating to CSR uncertainty. The state’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, issued a formal “letter of deficiency” in which she stated that “raising rates on the basis of this assumption [i.e., loss of cost-sharing reduction payments] is unreasonable.” But events proved Lindeen wrong—those payments did disappear in 2017. Yet the insurer in question has no recourse after their assumptions proved more accurate than Lindeen’s—nor, for that matter, will Lindeen face any consequences for the “unreasonable” assumptions she made.

Second, it suggests an inherent tension between state authorities and Washington. Several regulators specifically said they looked to CMS’ advice on the cost-sharing reduction issue. Iowa requested guidance from Washington, and Wisconsin said the status of the payments was “out of our hands.” But given the impending change of administrations, any guidance CMS provided in the spring or summer of 2016 was guaranteed to remain valid only through January 20, 2017—a problem for regulators setting rates for the 2017 plan year.

Obamacare created a new layer of federal oversight—and federal policy—surrounding regulation of insurance, which heretofore had laid primarily within the province of the states. The CSR debacle resulted from the conflict between those two layers. Unless and until our laws reconcile those tensions—in conservatives’ case, by repealing the Obamacare regime and returning regulation to the states, or in liberals’ preferred outcome, by centralizing more regulatory authority in Washington—these conflicts could well recur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it should spark Congress to examine state oversight of health insurance in greater detail. The fact that insurance commissioners escaped the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane—the withdrawal of CSR payments in January—and struggled through a mere tropical storm with payments withdrawn in October instead, had no relevance on their regulatory skill—to the contrary, in fact.

Unfortunately, Congress has demonstrated little interest in examining why the regulatory apparatus fell so short. The same Democratic Party that investigated regulators and bankers following the financial crisis has shown little interest in questioning why insurers and insurance regulators failed to anticipate the end of cost-sharing reduction payments. With their focus on getting Congress to appropriate funds restoring the CSR payments President Trump terminated, insurance commissioners’ lack of planning and preparation represents an inconvenient truth that Democrats would rather ignore.

Likewise, Republicans who wish to appropriate funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments have no interest in examining the roots of the CSR debacle. In September, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to take testimony from insurance commissioners on “stabilizing” insurance markets.

At the hearing, Alexander did not ask the commissioners why they did not predict the “uncertainty” surrounding cost-sharing reductions last year. HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Kreidler, her state’s insurance commissioner, about regulators’ “guessing games” regarding the status of CSRs with regard to the 2018 plan year. But neither she nor any of the members asked why those regulators made such blind and ultimately incorrect assumptions last year, by not even considering a scenario where CSR payments disappeared during the 2017 plan year.

Alexander and Murray claim the legislation they developed following the hearing, which would appropriate CSR funds for two years, does not represent a “bailout” for the insurance industry. But the fact remains that last fall, when preparing for the 2017 plan year, insurance regulators dropped the ball in a big way.

Ignoring their inaction, and appropriating funds for cost-sharing reductions without scrutinizing their conduct, would effectively bail out insurance commissioners’ own collective negligence. Congress should think twice before doing so, because next time, a regulatory debacle could have an even bigger impact on the health insurance industry—and on federal taxpayers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Ways Donald Trump Can Start Dismantling Obamacare on Day One

Having led a populist uprising that propelled him to the presidency, Donald Trump will now face pressure to make good on his campaign promise to repeal Obamacare. However, because President Obama used executive overreach to implement so much of the law, Trump can begin dismantling it immediately upon taking office.

The short version comes down to this: End cronyist bailouts, and confront the health insurers behind them. Want more details? Read on.

1. End Unconstitutional Cost-Sharing Subsidies

In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in a lawsuit brought by the House of Representatives that the Obama administration had illegally disbursed cost-sharing subsidies to insurers without an appropriation. These subsidies—separate and distinct from the law’s premium subsidies—reimburse insurers for discounted deductibles and co-payments they provide to some low-income beneficiaries.

Trump should immediately 1) revoke the Obama administration’s appeal of Collyer’s ruling in the House’s lawsuit, House v. Burwell, and 2) stop providing cost-sharing subsidies to insurers unless and until Congress grants an explicit appropriation for same.

2. Follow the Law on Reinsurance

House v. Burwell represents but one case in which legal experts have ruled the Obama administration violated the law by bailing out insurers. In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) handed down a ruling in the separate case of Obamacare’s reinsurance program.

The law states that, once reinsurance funds come in, Treasury should get repaid for the $5 billion cost of a transitional Obamacare program before insurers receive reimbursement for their high-cost patients. GAO, like the non-partisan Congressional Research Service before it, concluded that the Obama administration violated the text of Obamacare by prioritizing payments to insurers over and above payments to the Treasury.

Trump should immediately ensure that Treasury is repaid all the $5 billion it is owed before insurance companies get repaid, as the law currently requires. He can also look to sue insurance companies to make the Treasury whole.

3. Prevent a Risk Corridor Bailout

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has sought to settle lawsuits raised by insurance companies looking to resolve unpaid claims on Obamacare’s risk corridor program. While Congress prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to bail out insurance companies—twice—the administration apparently wishes to enact a backdoor bailout prior to leaving office.

Under this mechanism, Justice Department attorneys would sign off on using the obscure Judgment Fund to settle the risk corridor lawsuits, in an attempt to circumvent the congressional appropriations restriction.

Trump should immediately 1) direct the Justice Department and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) not to settle any risk corridor lawsuits, 2) direct the Treasury not to make payments from the Judgment Fund for any settlements related to such lawsuits, and 3) ask Congress for clarifying language to prohibit the Judgment Fund from being used to pay out any settlements related to such lawsuits.

4. Rage Against the (Insurance) Machine

Trump ran as a populist against the corrupting influence of special interests. To that end, he would do well to point out that health insurance companies have made record profits, nearly doubling during the Obama years to a whopping $15 billion in 2015. It’s also worth noting that special interests enthusiastically embraced Obamacare as a way to fatten their bottom lines—witness the pharmaceutical industry’s “rock solid deal” supporting the law, and the ads they ran seeking its passage.

As folks have noted elsewhere, if Trump ends the flow of cost-sharing subsidies upon taking office, insurers may attempt to argue that legal clauses permit them to exit the Obamacare exchanges immediately. Over and above the legal question of whether CMS had the authority to make such an agreement—binding the federal government to a continuous flow of unconstitutional spending—lies a broader political question: Would insurers, while making record profits, deliberately throw the country’s insurance markets into chaos because a newly elected administration would not continue paying them tribute in the form of unconstitutional bailouts?

For years, Democrats sought political profit by portraying Republicans as “the handmaidens of the insurance companies.” Anger against premium increases by Anthem in 2010 helped compel Democrats to enact Obamacare, even after Scott Brown’s stunning Senate upset in Massachusetts. It would be a delicious irony indeed for a Trump administration to continue the political realignment begun last evening by demonstrating to the American public just how much Democrats have relied upon crony capitalism and corrupting special interests to enact their agenda. Nancy Pelosi and K Street lobbyists were made for each other—perhaps it only took Donald Trump to bring them together.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Weakening Obamacare’s Individual Mandate–And the Law

A New York Times article last weekend explained how the administration has moved to lessen the impact of Obamacare’s individual mandate “to avoid a political firestorm.” But there is a cost to taking political cover: President Barack Obama’s executive actions to blunt the mandate’s impact on the public will give future administrations an opportunity further to undermine the mandate and, with it, much of the health-care law.

This tax filing season brings the first enforcement of two main Obamacare provisions: the repayment of excess insurance subsidies received by individuals and the individual mandate. As I wrote in a Think Tank post last month, the complex provisions, and the Internal Revenue Service’s limited resources for customer assistance, are likely to result in headaches for millions of Americans.

To cushion the blow, the Treasury Department has administratively created exemptions to the individual mandate beyond the numerous exemptions written into the Affordable Care Act itself. The Times reported “more than 30 types of exemptions from the penalty for not having insurance.” The administration released data suggesting that, while as many as 6 million people will face the mandate penalty, up to five times as many—15 million to 30 million Americans—will receive exemptions from it.

Creating numerous exemptions for political reasons could cause policy headaches down the road. One could occur if insurers believe the mandate has become ineffective at drawing in healthy individuals and, fearing an influx of costly, sicker patients, decide to exit the exchanges en masse. It’s also possible that a future administration—relying on the Obama administration’s unilateral actions on health care and immigration—could create additional exemptions or other forms of leniency for mandate violators, thereby hastening the insurer exodus.

In the 2008 Democratic primaries, then-Sen. Obama famously opposed the individual mandate, citing its application in Massachusetts: “There are people who are paying fines and still can’t afford [health insurance], so now they’re worse off than they were. They don’t have health insurance and they’re paying a fine.” But after having embraced the mandate in 2009 to ease Obamacare’s passage, the administration is now trying to avoid the political dilemma Mr. Obama described seven years ago. Whether and how it does so will have far-reaching policy implications for voters, future administrations, and the future of the law.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Jonathan Gruber, Transparency, and Obamacare’s IPAB

The administration faced a political firestorm last week, when videos emerged featuring MIT professor—and paid Obamacare consultant—Jonathan Gruber making comments on “the stupidity of the American voter,” and claiming that only a deliberately opaque and deceptive process was essential to the law’s enactment. But the administration may soon face a policy controversy as well—for the law features a board that can operate in nontransparent ways, and which will empower technocrats like Mr. Gruber himself.

While the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, may bring to mind the latest Apple product offering, the reality is far different. Designed to control health spending, the board of 15 experts—nominated by the president, based in part on suggestions from congressional leaders, and confirmed by the Senate—will have the power to make binding rulings to slow the growth in Medicare outlays. Furthermore, the administration’s budget proposed giving IPAB even more authority, by reducing the caps on Medicare spending the board will be charged to enforce.

IPAB has yet to be constituted. The budget sequester and other savings proposals have thus far kept Medicare spending below the targets that would trigger IPAB recommendations, and Republican leaders have indicated to President Barack Obama their disinclination to provide the White House suggestions for nominees. As a result, the president has yet to make formal nominations—not least because, if the Medicare spending target is reached, requiring IPAB to make formal recommendations to Congress, but IPAB does not do so, that power would then lie within the Department of Health and Human Services itself.

IPAB faces several characteristics that could imbue it with the lack of transparency Mr. Gruber infamously discussed in his speeches:

  • Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag wrote a piece for the New Republic in which he cited IPAB as one way to “counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a little less democratic.” In 2012, Politico stated that, while in the White House, Mr. Orszag had “pushed” to include the board in the law.
  • Section 3403 of Obamacare, which creates IPAB, does not require the board to conduct any open meetings. The law merely says that “the board may hold such hearings…as the board considers advisable;” it does not require IPAB to do so.
  • Likewise, while the law prohibits IPAB from “ration[ing] health care,” the term “rationing” is nowhere defined in statute. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded this point, and acknowledged that HHS would likely have to define “rationing” before the board could begin its work—but it has yet to do so.

Prior to the recent controversies, Mr. Gruber seemed like exactly the type of expert—an “individual with national recognition for [his] expertise in health finance and economics”—that might have received an appointment to IPAB. Interviewed for a 2011 article about who might serve on the board, Mr. Gruber didn’t rule it out entirely, while admitting that statutory restrictions on IPAB members’ outside activities might dissuade individuals from applying.

As it happens, Mr. Gruber currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Connector, an entity charged with implementing the Commonwealth’s health care overhaul. However, to judge from comments made to reporters last week, an aide to Gov. Deval Patrick seemed keen to downplay his influence: “When his term expires at some point, that will be a decision for someone else at that time.”

But beneath the political controversy lies a philosophical question. Fifty years ago last month, Ronald Reagan summarized the concern in his “A Time for Choosing” speech:

This is the issue of this election—whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Therein lies the Obama administration’s bigger problem—how to reconcile a law that increases the influence of independent experts with a high-profile example of such an expert who repeatedly treated American voters with open hostility and contempt. At a time when both the health care law and the federal government itself remain historically unpopular with voters, the Gruber controversy only heightens the perceived distance between the governing and the governed.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Federal Funding and State Insurance Exchanges

Conservatives have long argued that “first dollar” insurance coverage helps raise the cost of health care, as people tend to overconsume services they perceive as free. Implementation of state insurance exchanges appears to confirm that hypothesis: Several states that used “free” federal dollars to build complicated exchanges may end up scrapping them.

Officials in Maryland and Massachusetts are trying to determine whether their tech-troubled exchanges can be salvaged in time for the next open season of the Affordable Care Act. Oregon officials voted last month to scrap the state’s problematic exchange and switch to the federal system. In general, states building less complicated exchanges suffered fewer technical glitches. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said last year that “one could argue in retrospect we bit off more than other states.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation has tracked the nearly $4.7 billion in federal spending on health-care exchanges in 14 states and the District of Columbia. Perhaps more significant than the sums at issue is the fact that all of the states’ exchange funding came from federal coffers.

Would Massachusetts officials still have wanted to create “the absolute Rolls-Royce of any health exchange” had they been required to pay its costs—which could approach nearly $300 million? Would the Bay State have chosen to redesign the state portal while also exploring a backup move to the federal exchange had federal dollars not been funding its Plan B and Plan C?

In Oregon, would officials have tried to re-create the “entire” computer infrastructure of the state Department of Human Services had such efforts come out of the state social services department’s budget?

It is, of course, impossible to answer these questions definitively. But state officials almost certainly would not have been stingier with federal dollars than with their own funds. And constraining their ambitions might have produced more functional exchanges.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Donald Berwick’s Rationed Transparency

Dr. Donald Berwick is back in the public eye. The former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced he will run for governor in Massachusetts.

Berwick first entered the public spotlight in April 2010, when President Obama nominated him for the CMS post. But Berwick never went through the regular confirmation process. Instead, the president granted him a surprise recess appointment that July.

The president renominated him in January 2011, but it became apparent that he could not garner enough votes for Senate confirmation. That December, Berwick resigned. Now, he is pursuing office as an elected, rather than an appointed, official.

Berwick’s short tenure at CMS was defined by a series of controversial statements he made before his appointment. He defended both Britain’s National Health Service and government rationing of health care. Most famously, in a June 2009 interview, he stated that “the decision is not whether or not we will ration care — the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”

After leaving CMS, Berwick said his comments were merely an attempt to argue for greater transparency in decision-making. “Someone, like your health-insurance company, is going to limit what you can get. That’s the way it’s set up,” he told the New York Times. “The government, unlike many private health-insurance plans, is working in the daylight,” he insisted. “That’s a strength.”

Unfortunately, Berwick himself, while head of CMS, went to great lengths to avoid transparency. He ducked reporters, in one instance even “exit[ing] behind a stage” to avoid press queries. Another time he went so far as to request a “security escort” to avoid questions.

Today, Berwick concedes his lack of transparency. According to a Politico report, he now “regrets listening to White House orders to avoid reaching out to congressional Republicans.”

The lack of transparency is endemic in the Obama administration. Case in point: the enactment of Obamacare. During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised health-care negotiations televised on C-SPAN. Instead, we got a series of notorious backroom deals: the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, the Gator Aid.

“It’s an ugly process, and it looks like there are a bunch of backroom deals,” Obama feebly admitted in January 2010 — only to retreat again to the smoke-filled rooms two months later, where he cut the final deals to ram the legislation through Congress.

Obamacare is premised on the belief that government knows best. And those who share that belief all too often regard transparency and public accountability as inconveniences.

Consider the administration’s approach to regulating the proposed health-insurance “exchanges.” Obamacare requires state-based exchanges to “hold public meetings and input sessions,” but it fails to apply these same transparency standards to the federally run exchanges Washington will create in 33 states. The result: Many key questions remain unanswered.

Thus a law written in secret is being implemented in secret, with a maximum of opacity and a minimum of accountability from the administration.

This post was originally published at National Review.