Why Republicans Get No Points for Opposing Democrats’ $3 Trillion Coronavirus Bill

On May 15, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will bring to the floor of the House a sprawling, 1,815-page bill. Released mere days ago, the bill would spend roughly $3 trillion—down from the $4 trillion or more that lawmakers on her socialist left wanted to allocate to the next “stimulus” package.

Most House Republicans will oppose this bill, which contains a massive bailout for states and numerous other provisions on every leftist wish list for years. But should anyone give them credit for opposing the legislation? In a word, no.

Conservatives shouldn’t give Republican lawmakers any credit for opposing bills that have no chance of passage to begin with—bills they never should vote for anyway. I didn’t go out and rob a bank yesterday. Should I get a medal for that? Of course not. You don’t get credit for doing the things you’re supposed to do.

Conservatives should demand more than the soft bigotry of low expectations that Republican lawmakers’ miserable track record on spending has led them to expect. For starters, instead of “just” voting no on the Pelosi bill’s additional $3 trillion in spending, why not come up with a plan to pay for the $3 trillion Congress has already spent in the past several months?

Yes, government needs to spend money responding to coronavirus, not least because government shut down large swathes of the economy as a public health measure. But that doesn’t mean Congress can or should avoid paying down this debt—not to mention our unsustainable entitlements—starting soon.

Decades of ‘Conservative’ Grifters

Two examples show how far Republican lawmakers stray from their rhetoric. In July 2017, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said of his prior rhetoric regarding Obamacare, from defunding the law to “repeal-and-replace”: “I never believed it.” Of course, he waited to make this admission until he had left office and taken a lucrative job at an investment bank.

Cantor’s comments confirmed conservatives’ justifiable fears: That Republican lawmakers constantly play them for a bunch of suckers, making promises they don’t believe to win power, so they can leverage that power to cash in for themselves.

Perhaps the classic example of the “all hat and no cattle” mentality comes via former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Notwithstanding Ryan’s reputation as a supposed fiscal hawk, consider his actions while in House leadership:

  • Instead of reforming entitlements, Ryan led the charge to repeal the first-ever cap on entitlement spending. He could have nixed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, a group of unelected officials charged with slowing the growth of Medicare spending, while keeping the spending cap. Instead, he got Congress to repeal the board and the spending cap that went with it—worsening our entitlement shortfalls.
  • For years, Ryan proposed various reforms to the tax treatment of health insurance, because economists on both the left and the right agree it encourages the growth of health-care costs. But as speaker, Ryan supported delays of a policy included in Obamacare that, while imperfect, at least moved in the right direction towards lowering health care costs. The delays allowed Congress to repeal the policy outright late last year, in a massive spending bill that shifted both spending and health-care costs the wrong way.
  • As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan gave then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) the political cover he needed to pass a Medicare physician payment bill that increased the deficit and Medicare premiums for seniors. The legislation did include some entitlement reforms, but at a high cost—and didn’t even permanently solve the physician payment problem.

Ryan’s “accomplishments” on spending as a member of leadership echo his prior votes as a backbench member of Congress. Ryan voted for the No Child Left Behind Act; for the Medicare Modernization Act, which created a new, unpaid entitlement costing $7.8 trillion over the long term; and for the infamous Troubled Asset Relief Program Wall Street bailout.

Over his 20-year history in Congress, I can’t think of a single instance where Ryan took a “tough vote” in which he defied the majority of his party. Instead, he always supported Republicans’ big-spending agenda. In that sense, tagging Ryan as a RINO—a Republican in Name Only—lacks accuracy, because it implies that most Republican lawmakers have a sense of fiscal discipline that only Ryan lacks.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw the line from Ryan’s brand of “leadership” to Donald Trump. The latter spent most of his 2016 campaign illustrating how Republican elected officials failed to deliver on any of their promises, despite talking up their plans for years.

Stand for Principle, or Stand for Nothing

When Republicans enter the House chamber on Friday to cast their votes against Pelosi’s bill, they should take a moment to contemplate her history. In the 2010 elections, Pelosi lost the speakership in no small part because of Obamacare. One scientific study concluded that the Obamacare vote alone cost Democrats 13 seats in the House that year.

Pelosi did not relinquish the speakership gladly; few would ever do that. But she proved willing to lose the speakership to pass the law—and would do so again, if forced to make such a binary choice.

I know not on what policy grounds, if any, Republicans would willingly sacrifice their majorities in the way Pelosi and the Democrats did to pass Obamacare. (Reforming entitlements? Tax cuts? Immigration?) That in and of itself speaks to the Republican Party’s existential questions, and the ineffective nature of the party’s “leadership.”

It also provides all the reason in the world that House Republicans should not trumpet their votes against the Pelosi legislation on Friday.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Nancy Pelosi’s Drug Pricing Proposal

During the midterm election campaign, Democrats pledged to help lower prescription drug prices. Since regaining the House majority in January, the party has failed to achieve consensus on precise legislation to accomplish that objective.

However, on Monday a summary of proposals by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)—which became public via leaks from lobbyists, of course—provided an initial glimpse of the Democrat leadership’s policy approach. Party leaders claimed the leaked document describes an old legislative draft (they would say that, wouldn’t they?).

The Good: Realigning Incentives in Part D

Among other proposals, the Pelosi proposal would rearrange the current Part D prescription drug benefit, and “realign incentives to encourage more efficient management of drug spending.” Under current law, once beneficiaries pass through the Part D “doughnut hole” and into the Medicare catastrophic benefit, the federal government pays for 80 percent of beneficiaries’ costs, insurers pay for 15 percent, and beneficiaries pay for 5 percent.

This existing structure creates two problems. First, beneficiaries’ 5 percent exposure contains no limit, such that seniors with incredibly high drug spending could face out-of-pocket costs well into the thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars.

The Pelosi proposal follows on plans by MedPAC and others to restructure the Part D benefit. Most notably, the bill would institute an out-of-pocket spending limit for beneficiaries (the level of which the draft did not specify), while reducing the federal catastrophic subsidy to insurers from 80 percent to 20 percent. The former would provide more predictability to seniors, while the latter would reduce incentives for insurers to drive up overall drug spending by having seniors hit the catastrophic coverage threshold and thus can shift most of their costs to taxpayers.

The Bad: Price Controls

The Pelosi document talks about drug price “negotiation,” but the policy it proposes represents nothing of the sort. For the 250 largest brand-name drugs lacking two or more generic competitors, the secretary of Health and Human Services would “negotiate” prices. However, Pelosi’s bill “establishes an upper limit for the price reached in any negotiation as no more than” 120 percent of the average price in six countries—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom—making “negotiation” the de facto imposition of price controls.

Drug manufacturers who refuse to “negotiate” would “be assessed an excise tax equal to 75 percent of annual gross sales in the prior year,” what Pelosi’s office called a “steep, retroactive penalty creat[ing] a powerful financial incentive for drug manufacturers to negotiate and abide by the final price.” Additionally, the “negotiated” price would apply not just to Medicare, but would extend to other forms of coverage, including private health insurance.

But the solution to that dilemma lies in trade policy, or other solutions short of exporting other countries’ price controls to the United States, as outlined in both the Pelosi and Trump approaches. Price controls, whether through the “negotiation” provisions in the Pelosi bill, or related provisions that would require rebates for drugs that have increased at above-inflation rates since 2016, have brought unintended consequences whenever policy-makers attempted to implement them. In this case, price controls would likely lead to a significant slowdown in the development and introduction of new medical therapies.

The Ugly: New Government Spending

While the price controls in the drug pricing plan have attracted the most attention, Democrats have mooted some version of them for years. Price controls in a Democratic drug pricing bill seem unsurprising—but consider what else Democrats want to include:

With enough savings, H.R. 3 could also fund transformational improvements to Medicare that will cover more and cost less—potentially including Medicare coverage for vision, hearing, and dental, and many other vital health system needs.

In other words, Pelosi wants to take any potential savings from imposing drug price controls and use those funds to expand taxpayer-funded health care subsidies. In so doing, she would increase the fiscal obligations to a Medicare program that is already functionally insolvent, and relying solely on accounting gimmicks included in Obamacare to prevent shortfalls in current seniors’ benefits.

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.

Ocasio-Cortez Wants Congress to Stop Pretending to Pay for Its Spending

Get used to reading more storylines like this over the next two years: The left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing.

On Wednesday, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) faced a potential revolt from within her own party. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and several progressive allies threatened to vote against the rules package governing congressional procedures on the first day of the new Congress Thursday, because of proposed changes they believe would threaten their ability to pass single-payer health care.

What’s Going On?

Ocasio-Cortez and her allies object to Pelosi’s attempt to reinstate Pay-as-You-Go (PAYGO) rules for the new 116th Congress. Put simply, those rules would require that any legislation the House considers not increase the deficit over five- and ten-year periods. In short, this policy would mean that any bill proposing new mandatory spending or revenue reductions must pay for those changes via offsetting tax increases and/or spending cuts—hence the name.

Under Republican control, the House had a policy requiring spending increases—but not tax cuts—to be paid for. Pelosi would overturn that policy and apply PAYGO to both the spending and the revenue side of the ledger.

Progressives object to Pelosi’s attempt to constrain government spending, whether in the form of additional fiscal “stimulus” or a single-payer health system.

However, Pelosi’s spokesman countered with a statement indicating that the progressives’ move “is a vote to let Mick Mulvaney make across-the-board cuts.” Mulvaney heads the Office of Management and Budget, which would implement any sequester under statutory PAYGO.

Regardless of what the new House decides regarding its own procedures for considering bills, Pay-as-You-Go remains on the federal statute books. Democrats re-enacted it in 2010, just prior to Obamacare’s passage. If legislation Congress passed  violates those statutory PAYGO requirements (as opposed to any internal House rules), it will trigger mandatory spending reductions via the sequester—the “across-the-board cuts” to which Pelosi’s spokesman referred.

To Pay for Spending—Or Not?

Progressives think reinstituting PAYGO would impose fiscal constraints hindering their ability to pass massive new spending legislation. However, the reality does not match the rhetoric from Ocasio-Cortez and others. Consider, for instance, just some of the ways a Democratic Congress “paid for” the more than $1.8 trillion in new spending on Obamacare:

  • A CLASS Act that even some Democrats called “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of,” and which never went into effect because the Obama administration could not implement it in a fiscally sustainable manner;
  • Double counting the Medicare savings in the legislation as “both” improving the solvency of Medicare and paying for the new spending in Obamacare;
  • Payment reductions that the non-partisan Medicare actuary considers extremely unlikely to be sustainable, and which could cause more than half of hospitals and nursing homes to become unprofitable within a generation;
  • Tax increases that Congress has repeatedly delayed, and which could end up never going into effect.

A Bipartisan Spending Addiction

An external observer weighing the Part D and Obamacare examples would find it difficult to determine the less dishonest approach to fiscal policy. It reinforces that America’s representatives have a bipartisan addiction to more government spending, and a virtually complete unwillingness to make tough choices now, instead bequeathing massive (and growing) amounts of debt to the next generation.

In that sense, Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow progressives should feel right at home in the new Congress. Republicans may criticize her for proposing new spending, but the difference between her and most GOP members represents one of degree rather than of kind. Therein lies the problem: In continuing to spend with reckless abandon, Congress is merely debating how quickly to sink our country’s fiscal ship.

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.

What You Need to Know about President Trump’s Drug Pricing Plan

On Friday, President Trump gave a Rose Garden speech outlining his plan, entitled “America’s Patients First,” to combat rising drug prices. The plan incorporates policy ideas included in the president’s budget earlier this year, new proposals, and additional topics for discussion that could turn into more specific ideas in the future.

What’s the Problem?

Surveys suggest public frustration with the cost of prescription drugs. While such costs represent a small fraction of overall spending on health care, several dynamics help the prescription drug issue gain disproportionate attention. First, in any given year, more Americans incur drug costs than hospital costs. Whereas only 7.3 percent of Americans had an inpatient hospitalization in 2013, more than three in five (60.7 percent) had prescription drug expenses.

With more Americans incurring drug costs, and paying a larger percentage of drug costs directly from their pockets, the issue has taken on greater prominence. The rise of coinsurance (i.e., paying a percentage of drug costs, rather than having those costs capped at a set dollar amount) for pricey specialty drugs exacerbates this dynamic.

What Are the Proposed Solutions?

In general, ways to address drug prices fall into three large buckets.

Controlling costs through competition: These solutions would involve bringing down price levels by encouraging generic competition, or substituting one type of drug for another.

Shifting costs: These solutions would alter who pays for drugs among insurers, pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs), or consumers. While they may make drugs more “affordable” for consumers, they will not change overall spending levels. In fact, if done poorly, these types of proposals could actually increase overall spending, by encouraging individuals to increase their consumption of costly brand-name drugs.

Drug company and PBM stocks went up Friday following the blueprint’s release, largely because the plan eschews actions in the second bucket. The president’s plan includes a few tweaks to the system of “rebates” (de facto price controls) the Medicaid program uses, but includes none of the major Democratic proposals to use blunt government action to drive down prices.

In fact, the plan criticizes foreign price controls, attacking the “global freeloading” by which other countries gain the research and development benefits of the pharmaceutical industry without paying their “fair share” of those R&D costs. While the plan frequently mentions the disproportionate share of costs American consumers pay, it includes few specific proposals to rebalance these costs to other countries. It also remains unclear whether, if successfully implemented, any such rebalancing would successfully lower prices in the United States.

Other competitive proposals include giving Medicare Part D plans more flexibility to adjust their formularies mid-year to respond to changes in the generic drug marketplace, and prohibiting Part D plans from including “gag clauses.” These clauses prohibit pharmacies from telling consumers that they would actually save money by paying cash for certain drugs, rather than using their insurance.

In the cost-shifting bucket lie several of the proposals incorporated into the president’s budget. For instance, a cap on out-of-pocket expenses for the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit would provide important relief to seniors with very high annual drug costs. However, to the extent that such a proposal would encourage seniors to over-consume drugs, or purchase more costly brand-name drugs, once they reach such a cap, this proposal could also increase overall Part D spending.

In a similar vein lie proposals about PBMs passing drug rebates directly to consumers at the point of sale. In most cases, PBMs had previously passed on those savings indirectly to insurers in the form of lower premiums. Giving rebates directly to consumers—a practice some insurers have begun to adopt—would provide relief to those with high out-of-pocket costs, but could raise premiums overall, particularly for those with relatively low prescription spending.

What’s Next?

The plan raises more questions than it answers—quite literally. The last and longest section of the blueprint includes 136 separate questions about how the administration should structure and implement some of the proposals discussed in the document.

Some proposals, while eye-catching, seem ill-advised. For instance, the proposal to “evaluate the inclusion of list prices in direct-to-consumer advertising” raises potential First Amendment concerns—government dictating the content of drugmakers’ communications with patients. Moreover, with many Americans viewing health care as a superior good, some consumers may view a more expensive product as “better” than its alternative. In that case this proposal, if ever implemented, could have the opposite of its intended effect, encouraging people to consume more expensive drugs.

The plan did not include the heavy-handed approaches to the prescription drug issue—Medicare price “negotiation” and drug reimportation—that Democrats favor, and that President Trump endorsed in his 2016 campaign. The document also makes clear the iterative nature of the process, with additional proposals likely coming after feedback from industry and others.

But to the extent that Washington has become consumed by the midterm elections fewer than six months away, the high-profile event Friday allowed Republicans and the president to say they have a plan to bring down drug prices—an important political objective in and of itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How a CBO Error Could Cost the Pharmaceutical Industry Billions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Insurer Bailout Inside the Senate Budget “Deal”

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

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

How the ‘Donut Hole’ Currently Works

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

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

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

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

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

No Crocodile Tears

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

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

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

More Bailouts Ahead

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Lowlights of Senate “Budget” Deal

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

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

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

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

Lowlights of the Health Legislation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Wait—There’s More!

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

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

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

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

Most Expensive Parade Ever?

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Just the Facts on Drug Negotiation

Congressional hearings often serve as elaborate theatrical productions. Members ask pre-written questions, receive formulaic answers, and in many cases use witnesses as props to engage in rhetorical grandstanding. The grandstanding element was on full display Tuesday during the confirmation hearing for Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) wanted to beat up on “evil” drug companies, and she wasn’t going to let facts get in her way.

McCaskill spent two minutes attacking pharmaceutical advertisements, including a reference to “the one for erectile dysfunction where they have them in two bathtubs,” before she tackled the issue of Medicare “negotiating” prices with drug companies. At this point she demonstrated ignorance on several issues.

Second, McCaskill failed to grasp that Medicare drug plans already negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, and that the discounts they obtain have helped keep overall premiums for the prescription drug Part D plan low. It may sound radical to McCaskill, who has spent practically her entire adult life working in government, but the private sector can negotiate just like the government, and probably do so more effectively than a government entity.

Third, McCaskill refused to believe that getting the government involved in “negotiating” drug prices would not save money. When Azar explained that removing a provision prohibiting federal bureaucrats from “negotiating” prices wouldn’t save money, McCaskill called his explanation “just crazy” and “nuts.”

It isn’t nuts, it’s economics. Even though McCaskill tried to lecture Azar on economics and markets at the beginning of her questioning, her queries themselves showed very little understanding of either concept. In a negotiation, the ability to drive a hard bargain ultimately derives from the ability to seek out other options. If Medicare must cover all or most prescription drugs, such that it can’t walk away from the proverbial bargaining table, it will by definition be limited in its ability to put downward pressure on prices.

But don’t take my word for it. As Azar pointed out to McCaskill, none other than Peter Orszag, who directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President Obama — said as much in an April 2007 Congressional Budget Office letter:

By itself, giving the Secretary broad authority to negotiate drug prices would not provide the leverage necessary to generate lower prices than those obtained by PDPs and thus would have a negligible effect on Medicare drug spending. Negotiation is likely to be effective only if it is accompanied by some source of pressure on drug manufacturers to secure price concessions. The authority to establish a formulary, set prices administratively, or take other regulatory actions against firms failing to offer price reductions could give the Secretary the ability to obtain significant discounts in negotiations with drug manufacturers.

Only the ability to limit access to drugs by setting a formulary or imposing  administrative prices, i.e. “negotiating” by dictating prices to drug companies, would have any meaningful impact on pricing levels. But this truth proved inconvenient to McCaskill, who admitted she “refuse[d] to acknowledge it.”

Instead, McCaskill continued haranguing him about the evils of drug companies. She pointed out that one congressman who helped negotiate the prescription drug benefit, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), “went to run PhRMA after he finished getting it through.”

Indeed he did. And as the head of PhRMA, he bragged about the “rock-solid deal” he cut with the Obama administration to help his industry. Big Pharma’s “deal” as part of Obamacare encouraged seniors to purchase costlier brand-name drugs instead of cheaper generics, which the CBO concluded would raise Part D premiums by nearly 10 percent. And who voted for that “rock-solid deal?” None other than Claire McCaskill.

As the old saying goes: If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. But if you don’t, pound the table.

The facts indicate that McCaskill voted for a “rock-solid deal” with Big Pharma that raised premiums on millions of seniors, which actually makes her part of the problem, not part of the solution. Of course, that also makes her willingness to grandstand at Tuesday’s hearing, and her unwillingness to face facts she now finds politically inconvenient, less “crazy” than it first seemed.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.