President’s Executive Order Shows Two Contrasting Visions of Health Care

As Washington remains consumed by impeachment fever, President Trump returned to the issue of health care. In an executive order released Thursday, and a speech at The Villages in Florida where he spoke on the topic, the president attempted to provide a vision that contrasts with the left’s push for single-payer socialized medicine.

This executive order focused largely on the current Medicare program, as opposed to the existing private insurance marketplace. By promoting new options and focusing on reducing costs, however, the president’s actions stand in opposition to the one-size-fits-all model of the proposed health care takeover.

The Administration Wants To Explore These Proposals

One fact worth repeating about Thursday’s action: As with prior executive orders, it will in and of itself not change policy. The more substantive changes will come in regulatory proposals issued by government agencies (most notably the Department of Health and Human Services) in response to the executive order. While only the regulations can flesh out all of the policy details, the language of the order provides some sense of the proposals the administration wants to explore.

Modernized Benefits: The executive order promotes “innovative … benefit structures” for Medicare Advantage, the program in which an estimated 24 million beneficiaries receive Medicare subsidies via a network of private insurers. It discusses “reduc[ing] barriers to obtaining Medicare Medical Savings Accounts,” a health savings account-like mechanism that gives beneficiaries incentives to serve as smart consumers of health care. To accomplish that last objective, the order references broader access to cost and quality data, “improving [seniors’] ability to make decisions about their health care that work best for them.”

Expanded Access: The order seeks to increase access to telehealth as one way to improve seniors’ ability to obtain care, particularly in rural areas. It also looks to combat state-imposed restrictions that can limit care options, and can lead to narrow physician and provider networks for Medicare Advantage plans.

More Providers: The order discusses eliminating regulatory burdens on doctors and other medical providers, a continuation of prior initiatives by the administration. It also references allowing non-physician providers, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, to practice to the full scope of their medical licenses and receive comparable pay for their work.

Entitlement Reform: Last, but certainly not least, the order proposes allowing seniors to opt out of the Medicare program. This proposal would not allow individuals to opt out of Medicare taxes, but it would undo current regulations that require seniors to opt into the Medicare program when they apply for Social Security.

As I had previously explained, this proposal stands as a common-sense solution to our entitlement shortfalls: After all, why should we force someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett to accept Medicare benefits if they are perfectly content to use other forms of health coverage?

Democrats’ Health Care Vision Is Medicare for None

Of course, many on the socialist left have made their vision plain for quite some time: They want the government to run the entire health-care system. Ironically enough, however, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer legislation would abolish the current Medicare program in the process:

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

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

As I first noted nearly two years ago, this language makes Sanders’ proposal not “Medicare for All,” but “Medicare for None.” It speaks to the radical nature of the socialist agenda that they cannot come clean with the American people about the implications of their legislation, such that even analysts at liberal think-tanks have accused them of using dishonest means to sell single-payer.

Just as important, “Medicare for None” would take away choices for seniors and hundreds of millions of other Americans. As of next year, an estimated 24 million seniors will enroll in Medicare Advantage plans to obtain their Medicare benefits. As I outline in my book, Medicare Advantage often provides better benefits to seniors, and at a lower cost to both beneficiaries and the federal government. Yet Sanders and his socialist allies want to abolish this popular coverage, to consolidate power and control in a government-run health system.

The actions the administration announced on Thursday represent the latest in a series of steps designed to offer an alternative to the command-and-control vision promoted by the left. The American people don’t deserve socialized medicine, but they don’t deserve the broken status quo either. Only true patient-centered reforms can create a health-care environment that works for seniors and the American people as a whole.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

How AARP Made BILLIONS Denying Care to People with Pre-Existing Conditions

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted to maintain access to short-term health coverage. Senate Democrats offered a resolution disapproving of the Trump administration’s new rules regarding the more affordable plans, but the resolution did not advance on a 50-50 tie vote.

Because short-term plans need not comply with Obamacare’s restrictions on covering prior health ailments, Senate Democrats used the resolution to claim they will protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. But what if I told you that, in the years since Obamacare passed, one organization has made more than $4.5 billion in profits, largely from denying care to vulnerable individuals with pre-existing conditions?

You might feel surprised. After all, didn’t Obamacare supposedly prohibit “discrimination” against individuals with pre-existing conditions? But what if I told you that the organization raking in all those profits was none other than AARP, the organization that claims to represent seniors? Then the profits might make more sense.

Obamacare and Pre-Existing Conditions

Even though an article on AARP’s own website states that, as of 2014, “insurance companies [are] required to sell policies to anyone, regardless of their pre-existing medical conditions,” that claim isn’t quite accurate. Obamacare exempted Medigap supplemental insurance plans from all of its “reforms,” including the prohibition on “discriminating” against individuals with pre-existing conditions.

As a 2011 Washington Post article noted, individuals can apply for Medigap plans when they first turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare. “However, when Congress created this protection in 1992…it exempted disabled Medicare beneficiaries under age 65, a group that now totals 8 million people.”

In other words, the most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries—those enrolled because they receive Social Security disability benefits—often cannot obtain Medigap coverage due to pre-existing conditions. And because traditional Medicare does not provide a catastrophic cap on patient cost-sharing (Medigap plans often provide that coverage instead), disabled beneficiaries who want to remain in traditional Medicare (as opposed to Medicare Advantage plans offered by private insurers) may face unlimited out-of-pocket spending.

The Post article conceded that Obamacare “does not address this issue. A provision to provide disabled Medicare beneficiaries better coverage was dropped from the legislation during congressional negotiations because it would have increased Medicare costs, according to a House Democratic congressional aide.” That’s where AARP comes in.

Why Didn’t AARP ‘Show Congress the Money’?

In July 2009, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed a House Democrat bill that, among other things, would have made Medigap coverage available to all individuals, regardless of pre-existing conditions. CBO stated that the Medigap provisions in Section 1234 of the bill would have raised federal spending by $4.1 billion over ten years—a sizable sum, but comparatively small in the context of Obamacare itself.

Contrary to the anonymous staffer’s claims to the Washington Post, if House Democrats truly wanted to end pre-existing condition “discrimination” against individuals with disabilities enrolling in Medicare, they had an easy source of revenue: AARP. As Democrats were drafting Obamacare, in November 2009, the organization wrote in a letter to Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) that AARP “would gladly forego every dime of revenue to fix the health care system.”

Since that time, AARP has made quite a few dimes—about 45,090,743,700, in fact—from keeping the health care system just the way it was.

Billions in Profits, But Few Principles

A review of AARP’s financial statements shows that since 2010, AARP has made more than $4.5 billion in income from selling health insurance plans, and generating investment income from plan premiums:

AARP makes its money several ways. As the chart demonstrates, a large and growing percentage of its “royalty” money comes from United Healthcare. United Healthcare sells AARP-branded Medigap plans, Part D prescription drug coverage, and Medicare Advantage insurance.

However, as a 2011 House Ways and Means Committee report made clear, in AARP receiving royalty revenues, not all forms of coverage are created equal. While the organization receives a flat fee for the branding of its Part D and Medicare Advantage plans, it receives a percentage (4.95 percent) of revenue with respect to its Medigap coverage. This dynamic means Medigap royalties make up the majority of AARP’s revenue from United Healthcare, giving AARP a decided bias in favor of the status quo, even if it means continuing to discriminate against individuals with disabilities.

AARP’s Deafening Silence

So if in the seven years since Obamacare’s enactment, AARP has earned more than enough in profits and investment income to offset the cost of changes to Medigap, and AARP publicly told Congress that it would gladly forego all its profits to achieve health care reform, why didn’t AARP make this change happen back in 2010?

AARP occasionally claims it supports reforming Medigap, normally in response to negative publicity about its shady business practices. But by and large, it avoids the subject entirely, preferring to cash in on its Medigap business by flying under the radar.

As I previously noted, in the fourth quarter of 2016 AARP lobbied on 77 separate bills, including such obscure topics as lifetime National Park Service passes, but took absolutely no action to support Medigap reform.

So the next time a liberal Democrat wants to get on his or her high horse and attack conservative policy on pre-existing conditions, ask why they support AARP making $4.5 billion in profits by denying care for individuals with disabilities. Then maybe—just maybe—one day someone could get AARP to put its money where its mouth is.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ New Plan to Take Over the Health Care System

The Center for American Progress proposed a plan for government-run health care Thursday, which the liberal think tank calls “Medicare Extra.”

Unlike Bernie Sanders’ single-payer system, which would abolish virtually all other forms of insurance, the plan would not ban employer coverage outright — at least not yet. In broad strokes, CAP would combine Medicaid and the individual insurance market into Medicare Extra, and allow individuals with other coverage, such as employer plans, traditional Medicare or VA coverage, to enroll in Medicare Extra instead.

The goal of CAP’s plan is to grow government, and to grow dependence on government. The paper omits many important policies, such as how to pay for the new spending. Here are some of the major objectives and concerns.

If You Like Your Obamacare, Too Bad

After attacking Republicans for wanting to “taking away health insurance from millions,” CAP would … take away health insurance from millions. The plan would effectively eliminate Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, and all individual health insurance: “With the exception of employer-sponsored insurance, private insurance companies would be prohibited from duplicating Medicare Extra benefits, but they could offer complementary benefits during an open enrollment period.”

Other sections of the plan (discussed further below) suggest that private insurers could offer Medicare Choice coverage as one element of Medicare Extra. CAP indicates that persons purchasing coverage on the individual market would have a “choice of plans.” But didn’t Obamacare promise that already — and how’s that working out? For that matter, what happened to that whole “If you like your plan, you can keep it” concept?

Mandatory Health Insurance — And A $12,550 Tax

The plan reinstates a mandate to purchase health insurance: “Individuals who are not enrolled in other coverage would be automatically enrolled in Medicare Extra … Premiums for individuals who are not enrolled in other coverage would be automatically collected through tax withholding and on tax returns.”

While the plan says that those with incomes below the tax filing threshold “would not pay any premiums,” it excludes one important detail — the right to opt out of coverage. Therefore, the plan includes a mandate, enforced through the tax code, and with the full authority of the Internal Revenue Service. (Because you can’t spell “insurance” without I-R-S.) The plan indicates that for families with incomes between 150 and 500 percent of the poverty level, “caps on premiums would range from 0 percent to 10 percent of income. For families with income above 500 percent of [poverty], premiums would be capped at 10 percent of income.”

In 2018, the federal poverty level stands at $25,100 for a family of four, making 500 percent of poverty $125,500. If that family lacks employer coverage (remember, the plan prohibits individuals from buying any other form of private insurance), CAP would tax that family 10 percent of income — $12,550 — to pay for its Medicare Extra plan.

Wasteful Overpayments Controlled By Government Bureaucrats

As noted above, the plan would allow insurers to bid to offer Medicare Choice coverage, but with a catch: Payments provided to these plans “could be no more than 95 percent of the Medicare Extra premium.” CAP claims that “this competitive bidding structure would guarantee that plans are offering value that is comparable with Medicare Extra.”

It does no such thing. By paying private plans only 95 percent of the government-run plan’s costs, the bidding structure guarantees that private plans will provide better value than the government-run plan. Just as CAP decried “wasteful overpayments” to private insurers in Medicare Advantage, the CAP proposal will allow government bureaucrats to control billions of dollars in wasteful federal government spending on Medicare Extra.

Costs To States

As noted above, CAP envisions the federal government taking over Medicaid from the states, “given the continued refusal of many states to expand Medicaid and attempts to use federal waivers to undermine access to health care.”

But the plan also requires states to continue to make maintenance-of-effort payments even after the federal government takes Medicaid away from state jurisdiction. Moreover, the plan by its own admission “giv[es] a temporary discount [on the maintenance-of-effort provisions] to states that expanded their Medicaid programs” under Obamacare — effectively punishing states for a choice (i.e., to expand or not expand) that the Supreme Court made completely voluntary. And finally, it requires “states that currently provides benefits … not offered by Medicare Extra … to maintain those benefits,” leaving states perpetually on the hook for such spending.

Would Employer Coverage Really Remain?

The plan gives employers theoretical options regarding their health coverage. Employers could continue to offer coverage themselves, subject to certain minimum requirements. Alternatively, they could enroll their employees in Medicare Extra, with three possible sources of employer funding: Paying 70 percent of workers’ premiums, making maintenance-of-effort payments equal to their spending in the year preceding enactment, adjusted for inflation, or “simpler aggregated payments in lieu of premium contributions,” ranging from 0 to 8 percent of payroll. (The plan would exempt employers with under 100 full-time equivalent workers from making any payments.)

Two questions linger over these options: First, would employer coverage remain? CAP obviously wishes that it would not in the long-term, while recognizing the political problems associated with an abrupt transition. Second, could employers game the system among the various contribution options? While details remain unclear, any plan that sets up two systems (let alone four) represents a classic arbitrage opportunity. If employers act rationally, they could end up reducing their own costs in a way that significantly increases the federal government’s obligations.

Higher Health Spending

CAP advertises its plan as providing “zero or low deductibles, free preventive care, free treatment for chronic disease” — the source of 75 percent of American health care spending — and “free generic drugs.” It would also expand coverage of long-term care services not covered by Medicare (and only partially covered by Medicaid). But all this “free” stuff won’t come cheap.

In analyzing Bernie Sanders’ health care plan, the liberal Urban Institute estimated that it would increase overall health spending by 22.1 percent. Notably, the Urban researchers estimated that Sanders’ plan would raise spending by people who currently have health insurance by almost the same amount, or 15.1 percent, because the lack of cost-sharing will encourage individuals to increase their consumption of care. With the CAP plan apparently proposing that government fully subsidize more than three quarters of health care spending, its proposal will increase health care costs almost as much as Sanders’.

The CAP plan proposes measures to lower costs — namely price controls (i.e., Medicare dictating prices to doctors, hospitals, and drug companies), with some token references to other policies like bundled payments and limiting the tax preference for employer-sponsored insurance. But if those proposals go the way of Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” — potentially never implemented because politicians of both parties lack the discipline to control health care spending — then the plan will only raise health costs rather than lower them.

Something For Nothing

The plan proposes that families with incomes below 150 percent of poverty ($37,150 for a family of four this year) pay for their coverage the princely sum of … zero dollars. No premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

And while CAP does not include specific ideas to pay for all the associated new spending, the concepts it does propose largely involve taxing “the rich” (which includes small businesses).

While it doesn’t work as it should — most people “get back” far more than they “pay in” — at least Medicare makes an attempt to have all individuals pay for coverage through the payroll tax. CAP’s plan amounts to a transfer of wealth from one group to another.

Even The New York Times this week highlighted dissent from middle-class families upset at the thought of having to pay for low-income individuals to receive “free” Medicaid. So, CAP might want to rethink what Bill Clinton called “the craziest thing in the world” — making middle-class families pay even more for mandatory insurance ($12,550, anyone?) while certain families contribute not so much as a dime for coverage — along with just about every other element of its health care plan.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Insurer Bailout Inside the Senate Budget “Deal”

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

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

How the ‘Donut Hole’ Currently Works

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

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

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

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

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

No Crocodile Tears

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

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

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

More Bailouts Ahead

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Medicare Reform Can’t Wait

In an interview with “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) cast doubt on the prospect for comprehensive Medicare reform on the congressional agenda in 2018: “There are some provider issues that we may be addressing as you know. Some providers in the Medicare field in some cases are getting overpaid. We want to make sure that’s being dealt with. But as far as you’re talking about beneficiaries, we’re not focused on that.”

Unfortunately, however, if Congress fails to address comprehensive Medicare reform, beneficiaries will miss out on significant savings in their pocketbooks, and taxpayers will miss out on the opportunity to slow the growth of the program’s expenses. This “win-win” proposition—seniors save money, as do taxpayers—could help the federal government solve its growing entitlement shortfalls, but only if Congress has the courage to act.

How Medicare Reform Would Work

To the uninitiated, premium support would transform Medicare into a program roughly akin to the federal employee health benefit plan, or the Obamacare exchanges established in 2014. Insurers, including traditional government-run Medicare, would bid against each other to offer the usual complement of Medicare services.

In each bidding area, whether a county, state, or region, officials would determine a “benchmark” bid—based on, for instance, the average of all plan bids, or the second-lowest plan bid. (Obamacare exchanges use the second-lowest plan bid.) Beneficiaries would receive a sum from the federal government to cover the cost of a benchmark plan in their area. If a senior selected a plan costing less than the benchmark amount, he or she would receive the difference in savings; conversely, if a senior selected a plan costing more than the benchmark, he or she would pay the difference in higher premiums.

New Report Shows Increased Savings

Compared to an earlier CBO report released in September 2013, the updated analysis shows greater savings from implementing premium support. In ten-year budget terms, the second-lowest bid option would save $419 billion, while the average bid option would save $184 billion—up from $275 billion and $69 billion, respectively, four years ago.

The October report cited several factors that put both upward and downward pressure on the amount of federal savings. In general, however, two factors stood out. First, Congress passed a law repealing the Medicare sustainable growth rate mechanism in 2015. That law increased projected spending in traditional fee-for-service Medicare, making it less financially competitive when compared to private Medicare Advantage plans.

Second, the Medicare Advantage plans have become more efficient, reducing their bids when compared to traditional Medicare. With plans already operating in a more competitive environment, the federal government could achieve greater savings by altering the bidding structure to harness that competitive environment.

Let’s Compare the Two Options

In general, while the second-lowest bid option would achieve greater savings for the federal government, the average bid option seems the likeliest to achieve the political consensus necessary to ensure its enactment. Setting a lower benchmark, as the second-lowest bid option would do in most if not all markets, would require more seniors to pay additional premiums, as more plans would exceed the benchmark.

To this conservative, the average bid option seems much more politically palatable. While any plan will result in confusion and controversy, one that will save both taxpayers and seniors money provides a strong incentive to transition to a new system. Congress can adjust the formula over time as needed, to reflect any difficulties in implementation and changes in our fiscal outlook. But the transition should happen—sooner rather than later.

Republicans Need to Combat ‘Mediscare’ Tactics

Of course, enacting Medicare reform involves overcoming partisan attacks and demagoguery—as the ads depicting Republicans throwing granny off a cliff so vividly illustrate. Democrats ran those ads against Ryan in the past, and no doubt will do so again the minute conservatives contemplate a serious effort to reform Medicare.

But conservatives—and Congress as a whole—have no choice but to reform entitlements. As previously noted, Medicare would already be financially insolvent but for Obamacare’s fiscal gimmickry—the accounting scheme that allows Medicare savings simultaneously to make Medicare solvent and fund Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Self-Righteous Sanctimony from an Obamacare Hypocrite

Why would someone who never truly believed in repealing Obamacare attack others for wanting to keep it? Maybe because Mitch McConnell asked him to.

Avik Roy’s piece blasting Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) for “preserving every word of Obamacare” contains flawed logic on several fronts. Let’s examine that first, before considering the source.

Roy essentially argues that the 2015 reconciliation bill that Sen. Lee and others supported did not repeal or reform any of the regulations raising premiums, but this year’s Senate Republican bill did. The first point is accurate but misleading, and the second point inaccurate, at least from a conservative perspective.

When it comes to the 2015 reconciliation bill, Republican leaders made a strategic choice—as current White House adviser Paul Winfree noted just after the election—not to litigate with the Senate Parliamentarian whether and what insurance regulations could be repealed under the special budget reconciliation procedures. Conservatives such as myself have argued that, while that 2015 bill represented a good first step—demonstrating that reconciliation could be used to dismantle Obamacare—lawmakers needed to go further and repeal the regulations outright.

It’s unclear from his piece whether Roy knew of this strategical gambit back in 2015, or knows, but doesn’t want to admit it—and to be candid, both could be true. The article contains the following statement of “fact:”

Senate rules require that the reconciliation process can only be used for fiscal policy—taxing and spending—not regulatory policy. To boot, reconciliation can’t be used to change Medicare or Social Security. [Emphasis mine.]

The first part of this argument does not follow: He’s claiming that reconciliation cannot be used for regulatory policy, while also arguing that the bill currently before the Senate—which is a budget reconciliation bill—would make massive changes to Obamacare’s regulatory apparatus, such that it warranted Lee’s support.

The second part of this argument is flat-out false. While the Senate’s “Byrd rule” prohibits changes to Title II of the Social Security Act (as per 2 U.S.C. 644(b)(1)(F) and 2 U.S.C. 641(g)), Congress can—and does—make major changes to Medicare under budget reconciliation. For instance, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997—a bill considered under budget reconciliation—included over 200 pages of legislative changes to Medicare, including major changes to Medicare managed care (then called Medicare+Choice) and the creation of the infamous Sustainable Growth Rate Mechanism for physician payments. Roy has previously argued that lawmakers could not make changes to Medicare under budget reconciliation—he was wrong then, and he’s wrong now.

So why should anyone believe the procedural and tactical arguments of someone who 1) never worked in the Senate and 2) has repeatedly made false claims about the nature of the budget reconciliation process? Answer: You shouldn’t.

Back to the arguments about the Senate bill’s regulatory structure. Roy claims that the bill currently being considered would make significant modifications to those regulations. But from a conservative perspective, the bill doesn’t attack some of the costliest drivers of higher premiums—specifically Obamacare’s guaranteed issue regulations. Moreover, it doesn’t actually repeal any of the regulations themselves, choosing instead to modify or waive only some of them.

If a bill can modify regulations under the budget reconciliation procedures, it can repeal them too—moderate Senators just lack the political will to do so. If you’re like me—a supporter of federalism who doesn’t believe Washington should impose a regulatory apparatus on all 50 states’ health insurance markets—then you might find the Senate bill did not sufficiently dismantle the Obamacare framework to make it worth your support. It appears Sen. Lee also came to that conclusion.

Now it’s worth examining why the article specifically attacks Mike Lee. The piece fails to note until the 16th paragraph of a 19-paragraph story that other Senators came out and opposed the bill as well. Continued concern from moderates—who didn’t want to repeal Obamacare—made it obvious that the bill was going to die—but no one wanted to deliver the coup de grace. Sen. Lee finally came out and did so, along with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). It’s disingenuous for Roy to claim, as he does for most of the piece, that Senator Lee was solely, or primarily, responsible for killing the bill.

Why might he make such a claim? Jonathan Chait may have sniffed out an answer several weeks ago, when Roy made a winking non-admission admission that he had worked with Senator McConnell’s office on drafting the Senate bill. Given that fact, and the way in which Senate staff promised to “make it rain” on moderates by giving out “candy” in the form of backroom deals, it’s reasonable to ask whether Roy coordinated his attack on Senator Lee with Senator McConnell’s office—and was promised anything for doing so.

Nearly three years ago, Avik Roy published a piece claiming that “conservatives don’t have to repeal Obamacare” and that “there are political benefits to implementing the plan without repeal.” Last night, Roy didn’t even attempt to explain on Twitter how he could reconcile those prior statements with his purported support for Obamacare repeal. Yet now he wants to attack Mike Lee for not sufficiently supporting repeal? It’s a disingenuous argument.

When it comes to Roy’s flip-flopping on repeal, his factual inaccuracies, or his not-so-secret ties to Senate leadership on the legislation, when evaluating his attack on Mike Lee, conservatives would be wise to consider the source.

The Case for Testing Medicare Premium Support

The House-Senate budget conference report released last Wednesday included several interesting nuggets. Among the most surprising was the lack of explicit language endorsing the concept of premium support reforms to Medicare. Conservatives have voiced support for premium support for years—most notably in the entitlement reform proposals from then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan—but legislative progress has been limited.

More than a decade ago, Section 241 of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 established a comparative cost-adjustment program for Medicare to allow privately run Medicare Advantage plans to compete directly against traditional government-run Medicare. The demonstration allowed Part B premiums for seniors enrolled in traditional Medicare to vary: If private Medicare Advantage plans bid below the cost of traditional Medicare in an area, Part B premiums would rise; but if traditional Medicare could provide care more efficiently than private Medicare Advantage plans, Part B premiums would fall. The statute limited the variation to 5% of the Part B premium, and the demonstration to no more than six metropolitan regions. It was designed to encourage seniors to choose the most efficient coverage, regardless of whether that option was private or government-run—generating premium savings for seniors and budgetary savings to the federal government.

Congress intended to start the demonstration in January 2010, with the experiment running through December of 2015. But the Obama administration never attempted to implement the program, and Section 1102(f) of the reconciliation bill used to pass Obamacare in March 2010 repealed the program.

While the recent “doc fix” legislation included an expansion of Medicare means-testing and other modest reforms, there were no provisions regarding premium support. A demonstration such as that passed in 2003—but never implemented—might point the way toward greater long-term structural impact on Medicare, even if it generated paltry short-term savings. There is policy and political value to testing its potential for success—and dampening hyperbolic rhetoric.

With premium support something of a political lightning rod, the lack of legislative proposals to test it—or otherwise—suggests an unwillingness to engage. Those who voted for past budget plans that included it are likely to take flak regardless; there are benefits to taking steps to make the policy case.

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

Is Medicare Spending Increasing?

The Department of Health and Human Services released a report this month highlighting the slowdown in Medicare spending growth in recent years. The administration says that Obamacare has led to slower growth in overall health spending, which in turn has made Medicare more sustainable. Another government document suggests that Medicare spending may be accelerating—but even if it isn’t, demographic trends will create pressure on the program in the coming years.

The HHS report compared Medicare growth rates from 2000 to 2008 with rates from 2009 to 2013, and found that $316 billion was saved over the latter period. The calculation includes Medicare savings for the year before Obamacare was enacted, which indicates that the law cannot be fully responsible for the slowdown. Some reports have suggested that much of the slower growth in health spending has stemmed from lingering economic weakness, though studies and experts differ on this point.

But in the week before this report was published, HHS undercut its message by acknowledging that Medicare spending has accelerated in recent months. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services initially proposed a payment decrease for Medicare Advantage plans in 2016, but its final call letter proposed a payment increase, which it attributed to recent spikes in Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) spending:

The 2.5 percentage point increase from the Advance Notice to the Final Notice comprises 1.9 percentage points of additional FFS spending through 2015, an underlying additional FFS trend rate of 0.6 percent for 2016, and 0.1 percent for the assumption that Congress will enact the pending [“doc fix”] legislation….Initial information from Medicare actuaries suggests that contributing factors behind the change from the preliminary growth rate include higher than expected spending on impatient hospitalizations and some intermediary services such as therapy, rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers.

In other words, Medicare Advantage plans did not cut payments for the upcoming year because Medicare’s actuaries have observed an uptick in spending for traditional Medicare. It’s possible, then, that the trend of slower spending growth highlighted in the HHS report may have ended.

Even if the growth in Medicare spending stops, demographic trends in the coming decades will still force a re-examination of the program. The onslaught of retiring baby boomers—an average of 10,000 per day for two decades—will define our fiscal future for the next generation. Whether or not growth in Medicare spending remains slow for years to come—and some trends suggest that it won’t—federal policy makers still have good reason to prioritize right-sizing of entitlement programs.

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

Is the “Doc Fix” Bill Fiscally Sustainable?

Last month, in writing about how the president’s budget would forestall changes to entitlements for several years, I said that while the budget “would include some modest changes to Medicare benefits, the overall document postpones most of the fiscal pain until after President Barack Obama leaves office.” The same might be true of bipartisan Medicare legislation that addresses physician payments.

House leaders filed “doc fix” legislation Thursday afternoon, but they have not yet released the legislative language surrounding the parts of the bill that would be paid for. A summary circulating among lobbyists in Washington suggests as one of the “pay-fors” a Medicare Advantage timing shift—a budget gimmick that would shift plan payments into a future fiscal year, masking overall Medicare spending levels.

The document also discusses more substantive changes to the Medicare program: Federal Part B and Part D subsidies would be reduced for individuals with incomes greater than $133,000. And first-dollar coverage for new beneficiaries purchasing supplemental coverage—which studies have shown encourages seniors to over-consume care–would be limited.

These changes may start to address Medicare’s structural shortfalls, but they seem relatively paltry next to some of the Obama administration’s budget proposals. The president’s plan proposed increasing the Medicare Part B deductible and introducing home health co-payments—actions that could reduce incentives for over-consumption of care and crack down on fraud, a particular problem in the home health program. But while the president’s proposed changes would not take effect until 2019, the House proposal would delay them one additional year, until 2020.

Demographics will define our fiscal future for the generation to come. The Congressional Budget Office noted this year that Social Security, health programs, and interest payments represent 84% of the increase in federal spending over the coming decade, largely because an average of 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day. Yet the House legislation could end up exempting from any structural reforms the more than 16 million individuals forecast to join Medicare by 2020.

Unsustainable trends will, at some point, give out. As I wrote last month, putting dessert before spinach by kicking tough choices to future political leaders might lead to short-term political gains but could also produce long-term fiscal and political pain. And when the fiscal reckoning occurs, voters are not likely to look kindly on those who created the problems.

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