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.

Aetna Gun Control Donation Epitomizes Crony Capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Bernie Sanders’ Single Payer Bill Provides Benefits for Billionaires

On Wednesday, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders plans to introduce the latest version of his single-payer health-care program. If past practice holds, Sanders will call his plan “Medicare for All.” But if he wants to follow Medicare as his model, then the Sanders plan could easily earn another moniker: Benefits for Billionaires.

An analysis released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in August demonstrates how Medicare currently provides significant financial benefits to seniors at all income levels, including the wealthy. Specifically, the CBO paper analyzed lifetime Medicare taxes paid, and lifetime benefits received, by individuals born in the 1950s who live to age 65.

The CBO analysis confirms prior work by the Urban Institute—no right-wing think tank—that Medicare pays out more in benefits than it receives in taxes at virtually all income levels. For instance, according to Urban’s most recent study, a high-earning male turning 65 in 2020 will pay in an average of $123,000 in Medicare taxes, but receive an average of $222,000 in benefits.

Melinda Gates Doesn’t Need Government Health Care

Some may quibble with the work by CBO and Urban Institute for containing an important oversight. In analyzing only Medicare benefits and Medicare taxes paid, the two papers omit the portion of Medicare’s financing that comes from general revenues—including the income taxes paid primarily by the wealthy. While it’s difficult to draw a precise link between Medicare’s general revenue funding and any one person’s income tax payments, it’s possible that—particularly for one-percenters—income taxes paid will offset the net cost of their Medicare benefits.

But regardless of those important details, the larger point still holds. Even if her taxes do outweigh the Medicare benefits received, why does Melinda Gates need the estimated $300,000 in health care benefits paid to the average high-income woman born in the 1950s? Does that government spending serve a useful purpose?

We Don’t Have Money to Subsidize the Rich

Yes, Medicare currently does include some means testing for wealthy beneficiaries, in both the Part B (physician) and Part D (prescription drug) portions of the program. But common sense should dictate first that wealthy individuals not only should be able to opt-out of Medicare if they so choose—because, strange as it sounds, the federal government currently forbids individuals from renouncing their Medicare benefits—wealthy seniors should not receive a taxpayer subsidy at all. Whether in Medicare or Sanders’ socialist utopia, the idea that Warren Buffett or Bill Gates warrant taxpayer subsidies defies credulity.

Despite this common-sense logic, liberals continue to support providing taxpayer-funded benefits for billionaires. In 2011, then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) said “if [then-Speaker John] Boehner wants to have the wealthy contribute more to deficit reduction, he should look to the tax code.” Perhaps Waxman views keeping wealthy seniors in Medicare as a form of punishment for the rich. After all, nearly nine in ten seniors have some form of supplemental insurance, and a form of “insurance” one must insure against may not be considered an unalloyed pleasure.

Regardless, Medicare faces its own financial reckoning, and sooner rather than later. In 2009—the last trustees’ report before Obamacare introduced fiscal gimmicks and double-counting into Medicare—the program’s actuaries concluded Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would become functionally insolvent this year. Given that bleak outlook, neither Medicare nor the American people can afford Sanders’ ill-conceived scheme to provide taxpayer-funded health benefits to wealthy 1-percenters.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AARP’s Own Age Tax

Over the past few weeks, AARP—an organization that purportedly advocates on behalf of seniors—has been running advertisements claiming that the House health-care bill would impose an “age tax” on seniors by allowing for greater variation in premiums. It knows of which it speaks: AARP has literally made billions of dollars by imposing its own “tax” on seniors buying health insurance policies, not to mention denying care to individuals with disabilities.

While the public may think of AARP as a membership organization that advocates for liberal causes or gives seniors discounts at restaurants and hotels, most of its money comes from selling the AARP name. In 2015, the organization received nearly three times as much revenue from “royalty fees” than it did from member dues. Most of those royalty fees come from selling insurance products issued by UnitedHealthGroup.

Only We Can Profit On the Elderly

So in the sale of Medigap plans, AARP imposes—you guessed it!—a 4.95 percent age tax on seniors. AARP not only makes more money the more people enroll in its Medigap plans, it makes more money if individuals buy more expensive insurance.

Even worse, AARP refused good governance practices that would disclose the existence of that tax to seniors at the time they apply for Medigap insurance. While working for Sen. Jim DeMint in 2012, I helped write a letter to AARP that referenced the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Producer Model Licensing Act.

Specifically, Section 18 of that act recommends that states require explicit disclosure to consumers of percentage-based compensation arrangements at the time of sale, due to the potential for abuse. DeMint’s letter asked AARP to “outline the steps [it] has taken to ensure that your Medigap percentage-based compensation model is in full compliance with the letter and spirit of” those requirements. AARP never gave a substantive reply to this congressional oversight request.

Don’t Screw With Obamacare, It’s Making Us Billions

Essentially, AARP makes money off other people’s money—perhaps receiving insurance premium payments on the 1st of the month, transferring them to UnitedHealth or its other insurance affiliates on the 15th of the month, and pocketing the interest accrued over the intervening two weeks. That’s nearly $3.2 billion in profit over six years, just from selling insurance plans. AARP received much of that $3.2 billion in part because Medigap coverage received multiple exemptions in Obamacare. The law exempted Medigap plans from the health insurer tax, and medical loss ratio requirements.

Most importantly, Medigap plans are exempt from the law’s myriad insurance regulations, including Obamacare’s pre-existing condition exclusions—which means AARP can continue its prior practice of imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants. You read that right: Not only did Obamacare not end the denial of care for pre-existing conditions, the law allowed AARP to continue to deny care for individuals with disabilities, as insurers can and do reject Medigap applications when individuals qualify for Medicare early due to a disability.

The Obama administration helped AARP in other important ways. Regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exempted Medigap policies from insurance rate review of “excessive” premium increases, an exemption that particularly benefited AARP. Because the organization imposes its 4.95 percent “age tax” on individuals applying for coverage, AARP has a clear financial incentive to raise premiums, sell seniors more insurance than they require, and sell seniors policies that they don’t need. Yet rather than addressing these inherent conflicts, HHS decided to look the other way and allow AARP to continue its shady practices.

The Cronyism Stinks to High Heaven

AARP will claim in its defense that it’s not an insurance company, which is true. Insurance companies must risk capital to pay claims, and face losses if claims exceed premiums charged. By contrast, AARP need never risk one dime. It can just sit back, license its brand, and watch the profits roll in. Its $561.9 million received from UnitedHealthGroup in 2015 exceeded the profits of many large insurers that year, including multi-billion dollar carriers like Centene, Health Net, and Molina Healthcare.

But if the AARP now suddenly cares about “taxing” the aged so much, Washington should grant them their wish. The Trump administration and Congress should investigate and crack down on AARP’s insurance shenanigans. Congress should subpoena Sebelius and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, her successor, and ask why each turned a blind eye to its sordid business practices. HHS should write to state insurance commissioners, and ask them to enforce existing best practices that require greater disclosure from entities (like AARP) operating on a percentage-based commission.

And both Congress and the administration should ask why, if AARP cares about its members as much as it claims, the organization somehow “forgot” to lobby for Medigap reforms—not just prior to Obamacare’s passage, but now. AARP’s fourth quarter lobbying report showed that the organization contacted Congress on 77 separate bills, including issues as minor as the cost of lifetime National Parks passes, yet failed to discuss Medigap reform at all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

In House “Doc Fix,” An Unconservative Approach to Insurance Reform

The “doc fix” legislation that the House passed Thursday would add $141 billion to the deficit and make some structural changes to Medicare. Some of those changes aim to make Medicare more solvent by reducing the growth of program spending, a conservative goal, but it would achieve this by liberal means: prohibiting the sale of certain types of insurance policies.

The issue involves Medigap supplemental insurance, which pays for beneficiary cost-sharing (deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance) not covered by the traditional Medicare program. The most popular Medigap policies cover the Medicare Part B deductible, along with other forms of cost-sharing. Studies have shown that these types of policies—which allow seniors to visit medical providers without any out-of-pocket costs—encourage beneficiaries to over-consume care, raising taxpayer spending on Medicare.

The House legislation responds to this by making some types of Medigap coverage illegal. It would prohibit the sale or issuance of any policies that insulate beneficiaries from the Medicare Part B deductible of $147. This provision would apply only to new beneficiaries and only after Jan. 1, 2020; it would not take away health insurance plans for seniors currently enrolled.

In contrast, the Obama administration’s budget plan took a more conservative approach to this problem. It proposed a “premium surcharge for new beneficiaries beginning in 2019” choosing first-dollar Medigap coverage. Under its approach, insurers could still offer, and seniors could still purchase, insulating Medigap insurance—but they would have to repay taxpayers for additional Medicare spending engendered by their generous supplemental coverage. The president’s budget did not go so far as to apply this to today’s seniors, but it would be easier to extend this premium surcharge concept to existing Medicare beneficiaries; they could keep their existing insurance and would have to make taxpayers whole.

Medigap supplemental insurance is hardly a free market. Over and above state regulation of plans, the federal government has prescribed benefit packages for many years thanks to Medigap’s interactions with Medicare. But it’s striking that policy makers in the House decided the best way to reform this insurance market was to ban certain types of insurance outright, as opposed to implementing changes to ensure that Medicare does not lose money from seniors’ overconsumption of care.

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

If House “Doc Fix” Bill Adds $141 Billion to the Deficit, Can Medicare Survive “Reform?”

The Congressional Budget Office has released its score of the Medicare “doc fix” legislation scheduled for consideration Thursday in the House. Among other things, the score provides some sense of the difficulty in enacting reforms to improve Medicare’s solvency.

CBO projected that the bipartisan legislation to repair Medicare’s physician payment structure would add $141 billion to the deficit. As I wrote in an earlier post, Congress paid for temporary patches in the past in part by cutting spending and in part by planning on bigger payment reductions in future years. While the legislation’s prospective increases in payment levels would be paid for, the future payment reductions already on the books would not be covered, thus raising the deficit. That unpaid-for increase in Medicare spending would also raise the basic Medicare Part B monthly premium by $10 monthly in 2025, CBO concluded.

The bill would make two structural changes to Medicare. CBO found significant savings—more than $34 billion—from reduced subsidies for higher-income earners. But the legislation’s reforms to Medigap supplemental insurance produced comparatively paltry savings: $400 million over a decade. The smaller savings is a result of legislators delaying the Medigap changes until 2020 and watering down the proposed cost-sharing required of Medigap enrollees.

CBO analyzed the bill’s costs and fiscal impact in its second decade, but the budget scorekeepers did not say the bill would reduce the deficit in the budgetary “out-years.” Compared with current law, the bill would increase the deficit, the agency said. And when compared to “freezing Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services,” CBO said, “the legislation could represent net savings or net costs in the second decade after enactment, but the center of the distribution of possible outcomes is small net savings.” In other words, even if one considers the scheduled reductions in future payments budgetary gimmicks that will never happen–and thus that they should be disregarded–the bill might not reduce the deficit, and if it did the budgetary savings would be very small.

Medicare needs more than very small savings to remain viable for the long term. The program’s Part A trust fund has run deficits of more than $120 billion over the past six years. And Medicare’s problems will only increase: Urban Institute projections indicate that a married couple earning average wages that retires this year will receive more than three times as much in benefits—$427,000—over their lifetime as they have paid in Medicare taxes. If the price of reforming Medicare is raising the deficit by $141 billion, how much more “reform” can Medicare withstand?

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

How Obama’s Budget Delays Fiscal Pain

In its 2016 budget, the Obama administration proposed approximately $400 billion in health-care savings. While this 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 budget proposes additional increases to Medicare means-testing: reducing federal Part B and Part D subsidies to higher-income households. It also would increase the Medicare Part B deductible, introduce a Part B surcharge for beneficiaries who purchase rich supplemental Medigap coverage, and introduce home health co-payments. The latter three changes would apply only to new beneficiaries—and all the changes would take effect in 2019, more than a year after President Obama leaves office.

In its updated economic outlook last month, the Congressional Budget Office made clear that the United States faces an entitlement problem. CBO’s Figure 1-3 (above) shows that Social Security, health programs, and interest represent 84% of the increase in federal spending over the coming decade. With an average of 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, President Obama’s proposals would permanently exempt approximately 14 million individuals who will join Medicare by January 2019—making the task of bringing entitlement commitments into balance that much more difficult.

President Obama has a history of prioritizing political expediency over fiscal rectitude. His first submission proposing additional Medicare cost-sharing—in September 2011—delayed the implementation until 2017. Obamacare has followed the same course: Two of the law’s biggest long-term “pay-fors”—provisions slowing the growth in insurance exchange subsidies and the law’s “Cadillac tax“—won’t take effect until a new president is in office. A third provision, the controversial Independent Payment Advisory Board, has been left unaddressed by the administration.

This strategy of pursuing dessert before spinach—of kicking tough choices down the road to future political leaders—may lead to short-term political gains but could result in long-term fiscal and political pain. Unsustainable trends will not continue forever—and whenever the fiscal reckoning comes, voters are unlikely to look kindly on those whose actions helped bring about the mess.

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

The Freedom and Empowerment Plan for American Health Care

A PDF of the full health care plan is available on the America Next website.

The Problem of American Health Care

By many measures, the American system of health care is the best in the world. It is a source of incredible innovation at the cutting edge of medical science, providing high quality care to people who need it. We have some of the best doctors, nurses, researchers, and provider systems on earth. When world leaders need complex surgery and lifesaving treatment, they fly to us. It is here, in America, where treatments are discovered, methods are improved, and diseases are cured.

But by all sorts of other measures, the American system of health care is the worst of both worlds – and that was true before Obamacare. For starters, it is extraordinarily expensive. This is partly because we aren’t interested in just managing pain, but in curing diseases; partly because market-warping government policies and regulations drive costs higher and incentivize monopolization over competition; partly because Americans have a limited choice of health insurance options; and partly because patients and providers are insulated from the true costs of health care services.

Imagine for a moment if other forms of insurance worked the same way as American health insurance does today. Say you arrive home one day and find that the lightbulb on your front porch has burned out. This happens every couple of months, and it’s predictable as clockwork – or a chronic condition. But because your homeowners insurance policy works like health insurance does, you can’t just drive to a store and buy a lightbulb, oh no. Instead, you have to call and set up an appointment with a highly-paid and highly-educated expert lightbulb specialist.

You go in the waiting room wait for two hours so the specialist can spend five minutes examining the lightbulb and telling you what new one you need to buy. The specialist used to be in a small practice, but now he’s in a big group, because there are all sorts of government regulations he has to deal with, and only big systems can afford to deal with them. He also has to overcharge your private insurer for this brief visit, because he spends a third of his time seeing people on government entitlement programs who dramatically underpay for his services.

The specialist gives you a nearly illegible prescription for a new lightbulb, but you can’t buy it just anywhere – your homeowners insurance has a network of stores, and going out of network means you’ll face penalties. You have to drive across town to an in-network hardware store, and then wait for someone to get the right lightbulb out of the back. You have no idea how much the lightbulb actually costs, or if it would be cheaper at the store ten minutes away – you just have a small co-pay for it, and the rest is covered by your insurer – or how much the specialist is paid to tell you which one to buy. And in a few months when the light burns out again, you’ll have to go through all of this all over again.

When you start to think about the American health insurance system in this context, you start to understand why things are so upside down when it comes to the costs of care. At each stage, everyone is insulated from costs, and most people have no incentive to shop and compare prices and services as they do in every other market. And government policies and sweeping regulations have only served to make it worse.

Health care represents one of the most complex arenas of public policy. It was an animating interest for me from a young age, in part because it is an area that touches every American during the course of their lives in profound ways. I worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.  During my lifetime, many attempts have been made to try and fix the broken aspects of our system, some more successful than others. President Obama’s health care law is just the latest in a long line of wrongheaded steps – but it is by far the worst yet.

As someone who believes in empowering patients and using market forces to improve American health care, I oppose President Obama’s law and believe we must repeal all of it—no matter what the conventional wisdom in Washington says. But we must also enact positive reforms to move our health system in the right direction, because the status quo of American health care and insurance is simply not defensible.

What the President said in the course of selling his signature legislation actually sounded good to me – it’s what he did that was awful. The President sold his law as a path to lower premium costs, promising that he’d cut them by $2,500 by the end of his first term. He said he wanted people to be able to keep their health plans and their doctors if they liked them. He said he wanted to bend the cost trajectory down while improving quality. I’m for all of that – but unfortunately that’s not what his law does.  At best the President was horribly naïve about how our health care system works, and how to reform it.  At worst he was deliberately untrue, and sold his government-centric plan as a “conservative” proposal because he knew the American people would never accept the truth.

We want to make sure that people have access to affordable high quality healthcare. We want to create a solid safety net for the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. This is, according to President Obama, what he wants, too. But from my perspective, he never stepped back and really looked at what’s wrong with our system, and asked what we want it to look like if we can tear down the existing market-warping problems and start afresh.

America needs a health care system where it is easy for the consumer to be in control, and where government won’t get in between you and your doctor. Sometimes on the right we’re blind to the fact that health care bureaucracy isn’t just Medicare and Medicaid personnel – it also could be a big insurance bureaucrat, and they’re little better. At each point, this system of bureaucracy, monopolization, and the lack of price transparency serves to drive costs higher and higher for all of us. The most fundamental question in health care policy is: do you want the patient to be in control, working with their doctor and health care provider, or do you want a bureaucrat – whether from the government or your insurer – to be in control?

The left has its answer to this question: empowering government. Instead, we should be empowering patients. How should we go about doing that? Well, there are several things that have to change, steps that will push health care in this country toward being a true competitive marketplace, and which make providers understand once again that the individual patient is their customer.

Big changes never happen organically in Washington, and many of the big stakeholders were heavily invested in Obamacare just a few years ago. But as President Obama’s monopartisan program has stumbled, it presents the opportunity for conservatives to make the case for real reform. It is now obvious to everyone that his plan simply won’t deliver on the many promises he made along the way. And that’s because, from the beginning, his approach was wrongheaded. He trusted the government to fix the problems and get everything right, instead of trusting the American people to know what’s best. We shouldn’t make that mistake twice.

A Conservative Alternative

In the debate surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly referred to as Obamacare, conservatives have consistently faced one myth, perpetuated by President Obama himself and his political allies: That there is no alternative to Obamacare, and that opponents of the law have offered no solutions on health care themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  In November 2009, House Republicans offered their alternative to Obamacare during a debate on the House floor; not a single Democrat voted for the legislation.[1]  One more recent compilation lists more than 200 pieces of health care legislation offered by conservative Members of Congress in 2013 alone.[2]  Conservatives have consistently proposed alternatives to Obamacare, and publicly advocated on their behalf, yet the President finds it easier to peddle untruths than to engage the American people on why his unpopular law is “better” than alternative reforms.

One reason President Obama fails to recognize conservative alternatives to Obamacare lies in a fundamental dispute about the root problems plaguing the American health care system.  Conservatives believe that the best way to improve access to health insurance coverage is to make that coverage more affordable.  Many conservatives may agree with then-Senator Obama, who stated during his 2008 presidential campaign: “I believe the problem is not that folks are trying to avoid getting health care.  The problem is they can’t afford it.”[3]

Candidate Obama may have talked like a conservative in his rhetoric highlighting health costs and opposing mandates, but President Obama has governed as a liberal.  Instead of tackling the root of the health care problem, and lowering costs first, Obamacare focused on spending trillions of dollars to expand health coverage, creating massive new entitlements in the process.  Rather than making health care more affordable for all Americans, Obamacare gave America a law it can’t afford to keep.  The law is fiscally unsustainable, its tax increases economically damaging, and its enshrinement of greater government control of every aspect of health care is more dangerous than some in Washington appreciate.

For these reasons and more, any conservative health reform must start with repealing Obamacare.  But conservative health reform must not end there.  Even prior to Obamacare, the status quo was, and remains, unacceptable.  Many Americans struggle every day with the high cost of health care, and Americans with pre-existing conditions cannot access the care they need.  America’s health care system does need reforms—but it needs the right reforms.

The policy solutions put forward by America Next in this paper focus on preserving what’s right with American health care, while fixing what’s wrong.  Fixing what’s wrong involves restoring one basic American principle—freedom—that has been eroded due to Obamacare  While it is wise for any individual to have health insurance coverage, Washington cannot—and should not—attempt to compel such behavior.

After restoring those freedoms, we can enact the reforms the American health system needs.  We focus first and foremost on reducing health care costs—because while most Americans want to buy health care and health insurance, many of them struggle to afford it.  We also work to preserve and strengthen the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, including those with pre-existing conditions.  And we focus on enhancing patient choice, removing obstacles to portability and consumer selection, including many put into place by Obamacare itself.  These principles should form the foundation for true health reform—one that puts doctors and patients, not government bureaucrats, at the heart of all policy decisions.

 

Principle #1: Lowering Health Costs

When running for President in 2008, candidate Obama promised that his health plan would lower premiums—in fact, he promised on numerous occasions that his plan would reduce costs for the average family by $2,500 per year.[4]  Unfortunately, the law President Obama signed bears little resemblance to that campaign pledge.  Obamacare moves American health care in the opposite direction—raising health costs and premiums, not lowering them.  The non-partisan Medicare actuary has concluded that Obamacare will raise total health spending by $621 billion dollars in its first decade alone.[5]  Likewise, independent analysts at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that Obamacare would raise premiums for those buying health insurance on the individual market by an average of $2,100 per year.[6]

The higher premiums due to Obamacare are discouraging many people from enrolling in coverage under the law.  A recent survey by analysts at McKinsey found that only 27 percent of Americans selecting insurance plans were previously uninsured—the group Obamacare intended to target for expanded coverage.[7]  The same survey found that half of those individuals who shopped for insurance coverage but did not select a plan cited affordability reasons in deciding not to purchase coverage: “I could not afford to pay the premium.”[8]  For many Americans, the measure dubbed the “Affordable Care Act” has proven anything but affordable.

Obamacare is raising health costs because its mandates and regulations force customers to buy health insurance products they may not want or need, merely because a government bureaucrat tells them they must.  Conversely, true reform would provide incentives for consumers to serve as smart health care shoppers, saving money by engaging in healthy behaviors and taking control of their health care choices.

Tax Equity:  When it comes to health insurance, today’s tax code contains two notable flaws.  First, it includes a major inequity: workers can purchase employer-provided coverage using pre-tax funds, but individuals who buy coverage on their own must use after-tax dollars to do so.  Second, because cash wages provided by an employer are taxable, but health insurance benefits are not taxed, no matter how generous the benefit, the tax code currently gives a greater value to health insurance than increases in cash wages.  This disparity has resulted in employers scaling back pay raises to help fund rapidly rising health plan costs.  The Congressional Budget Office has also noted that this disparity has exacerbated the growth in health costs, and that capping the tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance would help slow cost growth.[9]  Reforms could result in employers raising cash wages if their health costs grow more slowly over time.—and slowing the growth of health care costs would yield benefits for the broader economy.

A conservative health reform would transform the existing tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance into a standard deduction for all forms of health insurance, regardless of where they are purchased.  First proposed in 2007, this concept was also recently introduced in legislative form in the House of Representatives.[10]  This proposal would not raise taxes; following Obamacare’s repeal, total government revenues would remain at pre-Obamacare levels.  In other words, this proposal would not repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Under this model, the standard deduction would grow at higher rates initially, but as the other efficiencies take effect and the growth in health spending slows, the deduction would in time rise annually according to consumer price inflation.  Much as the current exclusion for employer-provided coverage applies to both income and payroll taxes, the standard deduction would apply towards income and payroll taxes as well.

These reforms would solve several problems with our current tax code.  The standard deduction would create equity between those who buy health coverage through their employer, and those who buy health coverage on their own.  In 2007, one analysis noted this change could reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 9.2 million.[11]  Over time, this policy might encourage more individuals to buy coverage independent of their employer plans, but such a change would likely be gradual and voluntary—as opposed to the millions of Americans who lost their existing health coverage last fall, because their plan did not meet Obamacare’s bureaucratic standards.

Just as importantly, the new standard deduction would contain in-built mechanisms to slow the growth of health costs.  Individuals who purchase insurance costing less than the amount of the standard deduction would still retain the full tax benefit from it—giving them reason to act as smart health care shoppers.  In addition, the slower growth rate of the deduction would give both insurance companies and consumers a greater incentive to maximize efficiencies in the health care system.  For decades, the tax code’s perverse incentives have accelerated spiraling health costs, but creating a standard deduction will help reduce costs rather than raising them.

State Health Insurance Program:  Although millions of Americans without access to employer-sponsored health coverage will benefit from the standard deduction for health insurance, some individuals with minimal tax liability—primarily those with incomes under about 150 percent of the federal poverty level—will receive little benefit from a tax deduction.  Instead, eligible individuals should receive an explicit government subsidy to purchase affordable health insurance.

This health reform plan proposes a pool of $100 billion in federal funding over the next ten years for states to subsidize affordable health insurance for low-income individuals and individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The funding would be provided to states with minimal restrictions:

  1. States must achieve measurable reductions in average health insurance premiums in the individual and small group markets, and must ensure that individuals have access to affordable health insurance—with premiums that do not exceed a defined percentage of that state’s median income.
  2. States must establish and maintain a form of guaranteed access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—a high-risk pool, a reinsurance fund, or some other risk transfer mechanism.  States could use some of their federal allotment to help fund the costs of covering high-risk individuals.
  3. Obamacare reduced disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments by half to finance expensive, unaffordable health coverage; this plan would instead restore that funding to help fund more affordable health insurance options. [12]  In order to access state grants, states must direct this restored funding toward covering eligible populations, reducing the amount of uncompensated care provided by instead subsidizing health insurance.  States will receive about $10 billion per year in DSH funding; re-directing some of these funds would supplement the $100 billion provided by the federal government.[13]

This reform model relies on federalism to promote innovation in health care and health insurance.  The federal government sets key goals—keeping insurance premiums affordable, and expanding access to low-income individuals and those with pre-existing conditions—and allows states to meet those goals in the manner they believe will work best for their state.  For example, if a state wants to incorporate an account-like savings mechanism to promote healthy behaviors, as Indiana has done, it can pursue that option.

Empowering states with flexibility and freedom can be a powerful tool in reducing health costs.  Analyzing a similar proposal put forward as part of the House Republican alternative to Obamacare in 2009, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that state innovation grants, coupled with liability reform and other common-sense solutions, would lower small business health insurance premiums by 7 to 10 percent, and would lower individual health insurance premiums by 5 to 8 percent.[14]  This reduction is even more stark when compared to the premium increases CBO predicted will occur (and are occurring) due to Obamacare.  Overall, estimates suggest that, when compared to Obamacare, this state-based approach could reduce premiums on the individual health insurance market by nearly $5,000 per family.[15]

Washington has tried a top-down approach to health care; it hasn’t worked.  Allowing states to serve as laboratories of innovation could slow the growth in health insurance costs and premium increases.  In addition, the $100 billion in federal funding, coupled with the matching funds from state DSH payments, would expand health care access for low-income individuals who do not benefit from the standard insurance deduction and those with pre-existing conditions.  This state-based model, not more Washington mandates and regulations, represents the best route to true health care reform.

Health Savings Accounts:  One of the innovations over the past decade that has helped slow the growth in health care costs has been Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which couple a high-deductible health plan with a tax-free savings account.  The high deductible plans provide lower premiums for consumers, who can then deposit the savings in their HSAs to use for routine health expenses.  And because funds in an HSA accumulate from year to year tax-free, they provide motivation for consumers to serve as smart purchasers of health care.

First made available in 2004, HSAs have grown in popularity; more than 15 million Americans are now covered by HSA-eligible health plans.[16]  Many are using tools provided by these plans to take better control of their health and health spending, seeking out preventive care, using generic drugs more frequently, and utilizing plan-provided decision support tools.[17]  These plans are also saving Americans money; in 2013, the average HSA plan provided by an employer cost $1,318 less per family than non-HSA plans—even after firms placed an average of $1,150 per family into the HSA to fund health expenses.[18]  A recent study found that more widespread adoption of HSA coverage could reduce health spending by as much as $73.6 billion per year.[19]

Obamacare moves in the opposite direction by placing limits on the effectiveness of HSAs.  For example, it prohibits the use of funds from an HSA to purchase over-the-counter medications without a prescription.[20]

Conservative health reforms should build upon the success of HSAs by offering new options to make HSA plans more flexible for patients and consumers.  Congress should allow HSA funds to be used to purchase health insurance in all cases, making it easier for consumers who save to fund their health coverage.  Another possible reform would create more flexible insurance policies, linking the size of the deductible for an HSA plan to customers’ account balances, incomes, or other assets; in this way consumers with sizable savings could choose coverage with an even lower premium in exchange for a higher deductible.  These changes would further accelerate a health coverage model that has already helped slow the growth of health costs for millions of Americans.

Greater Incentives for Wellness:  One of the few areas of bipartisan agreement during the Obamacare debate was a consensus around the “Safeway model”—namely, providing financial incentives for individuals and employees to engage in healthy behaviors.[21]  At the time, employers could vary premiums by up to 20% to reward participation in various wellness programs.  However, then-Safeway CEO Steve Burd noted that a 20% premium variation did not allow the company to recoup all the higher costs associated with unhealthy behaviors like smoking.

Congress can and should do more to enhance these innovative efforts to reduce health costs.  First, it can provide explicit statutory authority for premium variations of up to 50%.  It can also allow employers (or insurance companies selling individual insurance plans) to offer any financial incentives for healthy behaviors on a tax-free basis, by placing the money in new Wellness Accounts.  As with HSAs, the money in these accounts could then be used tax-free for health expenses, or withdrawn for other purposes.  This reform would marry two proven successes—HSAs and wellness incentives—turbo-charging efforts to slow the growth in health costs by encouraging Americans to engage in healthy behaviors.

Crack Down on Fraud:  Health costs have grown at a rapid rate at least in part due to widespread fraud in government health programs.  Unfortunately, a recent case in which 49 Russian diplomats were charged with fraudulently obtained Medicaid benefits—lying about their immigration status and income on application forms, even as they purchased goods from Tiffany’s and Jimmy Choo—is not an aberration.[22]  Several years ago, the New York Times cited expert analysis that as much as 40 percent of that state’s Medicaid spending was either questionable or outright fraudulent.[23]  The Medicare program for the elderly also faces widespread fraud—$60 billion per year, according to a 60 Minutes investigation.[24]

While the private sector has a series of programs and protocols in place to combat fraud, government health programs have traditionally lagged; their focus has been on paying claims quickly, whether real or fraudulent.  In recent years, some government programs have improved their efforts to combat fraud; for instance, Louisiana’s new Bayou Health managed care model built in robust savings from fraud detection, requiring plans participating in Bayou Health to crack down on suspicious transactions or face financial penalties.  But Congress should do more to end the current “pay and chase” model, which attempts to track down fraud after-the-fact, and enhance penalties for those who steal or traffic in Medicare patient numbers and other personal health information.

Price and Quality Transparency:  In many cases, consumers who wish to serve as “smart shoppers” of health care do not have the information to do so.  For far too long, price and quality transparency data have been lacking in the health sector, meaning patients face a dearth of information when they have to make potentially life-altering decisions about their care.  The good news is that these trends are slowly changing, and that transparency has provided consumers with useful, and powerful, information:

There is emerging evidence that when hospitals publish prices for surgical procedures, costs decrease without a loss of quality.  The Surgery Center of Oklahoma, for example, has been publishing its prices for various procedures for the past four years.  Because the center’s prices tend to be lower than those of other hospitals, patients started coming from all over the country for treatment.  In order to compete, other hospitals in Oklahoma began listing surgical prices; patients were able to comparison shop, and hospitals lowered their prices.[25]

Further efforts at transparency could help to reduce an estimated $105 billion paid in health costs annually due to uncompetitive pricing levels by medical providers.[26]  Just as importantly, patients could have more objective sources of information about doctors and medical treatments than recommendations from friends or acquaintances.  Online posting of price and quality data can easily lead to new Consumer Reports-type rating systems, which will empower patients with trusted data and provide providers an greater incentive to improve their quality practices.

 

Principle #2: Protect the Most Vulnerable

In trying to provide all Americans with health insurance, Obamacare may actually detract from efforts to protect those who need health care most.  The law provides a more sizable federal match for states to expand their Medicaid programs to childless adults than it does for states to cover their disabled populations.[27]  At a time when more than half a million disabled Americans are on state lists waiting to qualify for long-term supports and services, it is both uncompassionate and unfair for the Administration instead to focus on covering childless adults, most of whom are able to work or prepare for work.[28]

True health reform would focus first and foremost on targeting government resources to the most vulnerable in our society—protecting the safety net rather than stretching it past its breaking point.  These reforms would help individuals with pre-existing conditions, senior citizens, the disabled, and the unborn.  Making these populations the centerpiece of coverage efforts would meet one of Obamacare’s core goals—providing access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—without necessitating the upheaval caused by the President’s 2,700-page health law.

Guaranteed Access for Pre-Existing Conditions:  Obamacare was sold as a way to address the very real problem of Americans with pre-existing conditions—but the size of the problem did not warrant such a massive overhaul.  One estimate found that approximately 2-4 million individuals under age 65 may face difficulties purchasing health insurance.[29]  The Obama Administration has attempted to claim that up to 129 million Americans “could be denied coverage” due to pre-existing conditions.[30]   But when Obamacare created a high-risk pool to provide temporary coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, under 150,000 Americans ever enrolled in it[31]—far fewer than the 600,000-700,000 originally projected to seek enrollment in the program.[32]

Ironically enough, Obamacare has failed to deliver on its promise for individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The Administration froze enrollment in the law’s high-risk pools due to funding constraints,[33] and the unintended consequences of over-regulation meant that 17 states lost access to child-only health insurance plans.[34]  Some patients have also found that their Obamacare plans don’t include the specialists or hospitals they need; for instance, many plans do not offer access to advanced cancer centers.[35]

Conversely, conservative health reform would ensure that states have the incentive of funding to provide guaranteed access for Americans with pre-existing conditions.  Many states use various vehicles to cover these individuals—whether high-risk pools, reinsurance programs, or some other risk transfer mechanism.[36]  The incentive pool of federal dollars would allow states to determine the best mechanism for providing access to those with pre-existing conditions, and a stable source of funding for those endeavors.

Much of the case for Obamacare was made on the basis of an issue which effects a small portion of consumers: the challenge of pre-existing conditions. Since 1996, federal law included a requirement of guaranteed renewability in the individual health insurance market—so long as you paid for your policy, you were guaranteed the ability to renew your plan.  Policy cancellations—also called rescissions—were rare, and nearly always due to fraud, impacting according to some measures just four-tenths of one percent of the private individual market (which is itself just 10 percent of the insured marketplace).[37]  Though relatively small in number, the issue of pre-existing conditions raised concerns for many Americans—who feared that they, or someone they knew, would be affected if they developed an illness that made them uninsurable.

Obamacare was supposed to solve the problem of pre-existing conditions, but in many respects, the law actually made things worse.  It took away the coverage renewability guarantee, by forcing insurance companies to cancel the policies of millions of Americans. Even as they made the case that if you liked your plan you could keep it, those who favored the president’s legislation knew they were about to repeal the existing guaranteed renewability for millions of Americans. By doing this, Obamacare has completely disrupted the individual market, forcing many people who were satisfied with their coverage and the access they had to doctors and specialists being dumped into more costly and less comprehensive insurance simply because of Obamacare.

This lie should not be allowed to stand. Guaranteed renewability should ensure that patients have the ability to renew their coverage, regardless of their health status, so long as they have not committed fraud. Thus, people who maintain continuous coverage should be protected from premium spikes and have confidence their insurance will be there when they need it.

The central irony of Obamacare is that it hurt the very people it was supposed to help. For Americans signing up for new insurance, guaranteed renewability should offer peace of mind that their insurer cannot drop them merely for getting sick. For those Americans for whom access to guaranteed renewability contracts has been destroyed by Obamacare, the incentive pool of state dollars for more innovative approaches, coupled with greater flexibility for individuals leaving employer plans, will be there to help them get the coverage they need in a post-Obamacare system.

Premium Support:  Medicare faces a dire financial predicament.  According to the annual report by the program’s trustees—including members of the Obama Administration—the Part A trust fund financing hospital care will be insolvent by 2026.  In the short term, the program has taken a hit from the recession and slow economic recovery; the Medicare trust fund ran $105.6 billion in deficits during the years 2008-12.[38]  In the longer term, the outlook is even worse: Medicare faces 75-year unfunded obligations of at least $27.3 trillion, and even this estimate may understate the program’s liabilities, due to various budgetary and accounting gimmicks.[39]

Among the biggest gimmicks understating Medicare’s financial shortfalls is Obamacare itself.  In October 2011, Nancy Pelosi admitted what all Americans realize Democrats did as part of Obamacare: “We took a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in…the health care bill,” to pay for that law’s new entitlements.[40]  Yet the Obama Administration utilized an “only-in-Washington” logic to argue otherwise, citing trust fund accounting to assert that the Medicare provisions in the law could be used both to “save Medicare” and to “fund health care reform.”[41]  There are two kinds of people in politics—those that want to fix Medicare and those who want to use it to score political points.  Sadly, Obamacare followed the latter course.  Current and future generations of seniors deserve better—they deserve true reform that makes Medicare more sustainable.

One bipartisan solution to Medicare’s fiscal shortfalls would give seniors a choice of plans, with the federal government providing a generous subsidy to purchase coverage.  This premium support concept was developed, and endorsed, by a bipartisan majority in a commission created by Congress and President Clinton, whose Executive Director was Bobby Jindal.[42]  The commission’s work was in turn endorsed by the Democratic Leadership Council.[43]  More recently, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, submitted a bipartisan health reform plan that included a premium support proposal for Medicare beneficiaries.[44]

The key feature of a premium support proposal is the ability of competition among health plans to bring down costs and provide better care to America’s seniors.  Former Clinton Administration official Alice Rivlin testified before Congress in 2012 that nearly nine in ten seniors live in areas where private health plans have costs lower than traditional, fee-for-service Medicare; under a premium support proposal, these seniors could save money by choosing to enroll in a private plan.[45]  Likewise, the Congressional Budget Office recently analyzed one premium support proposal, and found that it could reduce Medicare spending by $15 billion dollars annually, while also reducing overall out-of-pocket spending by beneficiaries by an average of 6 percent.[46]

As part of the transition to premium support, the traditional Medicare benefit itself should be modernized.  For the first time ever, Medicare should provide a catastrophic cap on out-of-pocket expenses—so that seniors would know their spending.  At the same time, Medigap insurance, which provides supplemental coverage of co-payments and deductibles for some seniors, should also be reformed, so that seniors would no longer be pre-paying their health coverage by over-paying to insurance companies.

Under Medigap reform, seniors’ premium costs would fall substantially.  A 2011 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that under one version of reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[47]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

Medigap reform not only lowers seniors’ premiums, it also lowers their overall health costs.  A 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[48]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year.[49]

What’s more, modernizing traditional Medicare and Medigap would drive greater efficiency within the health care system.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this reform would make Medicare more sustainable for future generations, by as much as $114 billion in its first decade alone.[50]  As with premium support, this package of proposals represents a true “win-win:” Current seniors would save on their health expenses, while seniors-to-be would have greater confidence that the promises made to them can be kept when they prepare to join Medicare themselves.

For all these reasons and others, this modernization of Medicare carries broad support from across the political spectrum.  Bipartisan endorsers of Medigap reform include the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[51] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits,[52] Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[53] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[54]

Seniors deserve the potential savings and better care these reforms can provide.  Seniors’ plan choices would include some of the same options available to Americans under age 65, along with the traditional, government-run fee-for-service model, updated with new and more flexible options.  Likewise, future generations deserve the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing Medicare has been placed on a more sustainable path.  It is long past time for Washington to enact true Medicare reform.

Medicaid Reforms:  Despite Obamacare’s massive new regulations, some states have already acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  For instance, Rhode Island’s global compact waiver—in which the state received additional regulatory flexibility from the federal government in exchange for a cap on its Medicaid budget—has successfully slowed the growth of health costs in that state.  A 2011 Lewin Group report found that the global compact waiver “generated significant savings”—more than $50 million from the small state’s Medicaid budget—and did so not by reducing care, but by improving it:

The mandatory enrollment of disabled members in care management program [sic] reduced expenditures for this population while at the same time generally resulting in improved access to physician services.[55]

Since the Lewin study in 2011, Rhode Island’s success in managing its Medicaid program has continued.  The state has reduced its per capita Medicaid spending by more than five percent over the past three fiscal years, resulting in three straight years of minimal expenditure growth,  even as the state’s Medicaid caseload increased.[56]

These remarkable accomplishments come despite the Obama Administration’s efforts, not because of them.  The 2011 Lewin report notes that passage of Obamacare and the “stimulus” bill, both of which imposed new restrictions on state Medicaid programs, “had a profound impact” on the Rhode Island waiver, because “the flexibility sought did not always materialize.”  For instance, the original waiver gave Rhode Island the authority to assess modest premium charges for some beneficiaries, but the Obamacare mandates took this flexibility away.[57]

Other states have also acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  Louisiana has transitioned its Medicaid program toward a managed care model, named Bayou Health.  The program has furthered the goals of the Birth Outcomes Initiative, claims data for which reveal a reduction of 23,000 in statewide neonatal intensive care unit days paid by Medicaid—meaning more babies were carried to full term.

The Hoosier State’s Healthy Indiana Plan includes a personal responsibility component, and provides incentives to engage in wellness screenings, and imposes co-payments on beneficiaries who make non-urgent visits to the emergency room.  The plan also requires participants to make modest contributions to an account to fund their health needs, ensuring patients have incentives to manage their health spending and health care.  The financial requirements are not onerous; approximately 70% of beneficiaries consider the required account contributions just the right amount, and 94% of members report being satisfied or highly satisfied with their coverage.[58]  Yet, Obamacare could put this innovative plan out of business entirely, due to its Washington-imposed mandates on state Medicaid programs.[59]

Because the federal government provides states with at least a 1:1 match on their Medicaid expenses, states have a built-in incentive to spend more on Medicaid when compared to other state priorities like education, transportation, and corrections.  This open-ended entitlement drastically reduces states’ incentives to make efficient choices in managing their health care systems.  A more conservative approach should better align incentives to focus states’ efforts on improving care and reducing costs, instead of merely “gaming the system.”

Medicaid is not merely a fiscal failure, however. The error of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion was to double down on a program whose health outcomes range from the marginal to the horrendous—the result of paying doctors pennies on the dollar and cramming Medicaid recipients into already overburdened systems. Compared to both those patients with private insurance and those without any insurance at all, Medicaid patients stay in the hospital longer, cost more while they are there, and yet are significantly more likely to die before they leave.[60] The recent Oregon Medicaid study, which offered real-world examples of Medicaid recipients compared to those who were not on the program, answered questions about just how significant the benefits of modern Medicaid are.[61] The study authors found that after two years, Medicaid “had no significant effect” on physical health outcomes compared to being uninsured.[62] Spending nearly half a trillion dollars a year on a program which is so ineffective is unacceptable and immoral.

More than two years ago, Republican governors presented a report laying out common-sense reforms to the Medicaid program—from modernizing benefit design to simplifying accountability to eliminating unnecessary requirements.[63]  While the Obama Administration has not implemented most of the report’s 31 separate suggestions, they represent a good place to start when it comes to updating this important program and prioritizing the actual health care of those who need a safety net.

The best way to reform Medicaid lies in a global grant approach, which empowers states with maximum flexibility in exchange for a fixed funding allotment from the federal government.  The allotment would be adjusted annually for inflation and eligible population growth, and could be adjusted if a state receives a sudden increase in its disabled population.  Rhode Island’s innovative waiver demonstrates how it can be done—and further illustrates that indexing the grant to inflation can be achieved without cutting benefits, or harming beneficiaries’ access to care.

States should have additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in a manner that they believe best meets the needs of their citizens—while facing clear and simple accountability metrics from the federal government.  Rather than focusing on managing processes and completing forms, state Medicaid programs should emphasize improving outcomes.  In return, the federal government should revamp its accountability process to hold states to these higher standards.  Those who want to micro-manage states do so because they do not trust the people and their locally elected leaders.

Pro-Life Protections:  Among its many other flaws, Obamacare represents an intrusion on the moral values many Americans hold dear.  Contrary to prior practice, the law has seen federal tax dollars flow to fund health insurance plans that cover abortions.[64]  The law also forces many Americans to choose between violating the law and violating their consciences, imposing mandates on non-profit and other institutions that violate their deeply-held religious beliefs.  As a result, literally dozens of institutions nationwide have taken Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate to court; the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on the issue later this summer.[65]

Repeal of Obamacare will remove the law’s anti-conscience mandates, and the funding of plans that cover abortions.  But true health reform should go further, instituting conscience protections for businesses and medical providers, as well as a permanent ban on federal funding of abortions, consistent with the Hyde Amendment protections passed by Congress every year since 1976.[66]  There is much in health care about which Americans disagree, but protecting all Americans’ religious liberty should be one principle that warrants bipartisan support. The government should not force religious people to abandon their faiths in order to keep their doors open.

 

Principle #3: Portability and Choice

In an address to Congress in September 2009, President Obama attempted to sell Obamacare as offering consumers “competition and choice.”[67]  At least 4.7 million Americans—those who have already received cancellation notices due to the law—would beg to differ with the President.[68]  While the President offered a short-term concession—unilaterally waiving portions of Obamacare, and permitting some who lost health coverage to keep their plan until the 2016 presidential election—the cancellation notices are likely to continue for some time.  A 2010 Administration document admitted that more than half of all workers, and up to four in five employees in small businesses, would lose their pre-Obamacare health coverage.[69]

Obamacare undermines choice by dictating what type of insurance health plans must offer—and then dictating to firms that they must offer, and individuals that they must buy, this type of coverage.  Conversely, true health reform would smooth the problems of portability that occurred prior to the law’s enactment, while offering more personalized choices so consumers can buy the plan they want, not the plan a government bureaucrat tells them to purchase.

State Reforms to Expand Access:  For many decades, many states have held laws on their books that block access to care.  At least 36 states have certificate of need (CON) requirements, which force organizations to obtain clearance from the state before building new health care facilities.  In addition to the offensive nature of this approach—entities must ask government bureaucrats for permission to create a facility that will help patients—CON requirements have proven ineffective at their stated goal of reducing costs.  One recent analysis noted that states without CON requirements have significantly lower health costs than those states with certificate of need mandates.[70]  Congress repealed the law that created CON requirements nearly three decades ago; states can follow suit.[71]

Similarly, state licensing requirements can impose unnecessary burdens on medical practitioners, also limiting access to health care.  Given that the supply of doctors is not expected to keep up with projected demand, policy-makers should allow other medical professionals to utilize more of their expertise to provide more affordable and convenient care for patients.[72]  In 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommended that all professionals should be empowered to practice to the full scope of their professional training.[73]  States should modify their licensing requirements to remove artificial barriers impeding the ability to provide high-quality care.  States must also act prudently to protect patient quality and maintain high standards.  Doing so would expand access to care, allowing Minute Clinics and other similar entities to treat patients quickly and at lower cost than hospital emergency rooms or other sources of care.

Both certificate of need and artificial scope of practice restrictions sometimes prioritize the interests of incumbent members of the health system over the needs of patients.  In 2008, the Justice Department testified that CON laws “create barriers to entry and expansion to the detriment of health care competition and consumers.  They undercut consumer choice, stifle innovation, and weaken markets’ ability to contain health care costs.”[74]  Likewise, a seminal 2004 report on competition in health care by the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department noted that scope of practice laws create anticompetitive risks, have raised costs, and limited mobility of medical providers, all for unclear benefits to health care quality.[75]  At a time when health costs remain high and access for vulnerable populations limited, states should act in both these key areas, initiating reforms that have the potential to reduce costs while simultaneously increasing access to needed care.

Better Access for Individuals Changing Employers:  The fact that so many Americans currently receive health insurance coverage through their employers means that individual health insurance plans have traditionally occupied a smaller segment of the marketplace.[76]  As a result, most individuals transition from one employer plan to another when they switch jobs.  However, moving from employer coverage to an individual plan can often prove more difficult and costly.

While not undermining the employer coverage that many Americans currently have and enjoy, conservative health reforms should also encourage policies that promote greater personal ownership of health insurance.  One key reform would allow individuals who maintain continuous coverage to purchase an individual health insurance plan of their choosing, eliminating the requirement that such individuals first exhaust COBRA coverage before accessing an individual plan.  These and other similar reforms will encourage Americans to purchase coverage they can take with them from job to job.

Cross-State Insurance Purchasing:  Because health insurance is regulated at the state level, many health insurance markets face two major problems.  First, in many states, one or a handful of insurers control most of the market for coverage, and these oligopolies tend to raise premiums.  Obamacare has not helped this trend, and in fact may have worsened it.  According to the New York Times, more than half of all counties in the United States have only one or two health plans participating in their states’ insurance Exchanges.[77]

Second, benefit mandates imposed by state legislatures force individuals to purchase more insurance coverage than they may need or want.  According to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, states have imposed an average of 44 benefit mandates, each of which raises health costs.[78]  Individually, the mandates may not appear to raise premiums by a significant amount, but estimates suggest that collectively, benefit mandates impose hundreds of dollars in added costs to consumers every year.[79]

One solution to both these problems rests in Congress enacting legislation allowing consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines.  Consumers purchasing insurance across state lines would receive clear disclosures that their health coverage would be regulated by another state with respect to benefit mandates, solvency standards, and other similar requirements.  By using its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, Congress could give consumers the power—a power they currently lack—to buy the health insurance plan that best meets their needs, regardless of the state in which that plan is offered.  Such a measure would give power from insurance company cartels back to consumers, make health insurance portable across state lines, and reduce the growth of premiums.

Pooling Mechanisms:  In addition to allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, Congress should also provide clear protections, similar to those provided in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), for organizations that wish to establish multi-state insurance pools.  These organizations could be churches, fraternal organizations, trade groups for small businesses, alumni groups, or any other type of group with a common interest.  These groups should be permitted to band together and purchase health insurance for their members, providing coverage that fits members’ distinct needs while potentially reducing administrative costs.  Just as importantly, coverage obtained through these pools, unlike employer coverage, would be portable: Individuals would have and own their personal health policy, and would not need to change plans when they change jobs.

Lawsuit Reform:  In many states, medical liability problems present several problems for patients.  First, defensive medicine practices—doctors performing unnecessary tests due to fear of litigation—raise health costs, according to some estimates by more than $100 billion annually.[80]  Second, the seeming randomness of the legal system—in which some frivolous claims receive large awards, but some legitimate claims are dismissed—frustrates patients.  Finally, at a time when America already faces expected physician shortages, the legal climate discourages prospective doctors from pursuing medicine as a career choice.[81]  A recent study found that physicians spend more than 10% of their careers with an outstanding malpractice claim lingering over their practice.[82]  More than three in five physicians claim they or one of their colleagues may retire in the next three years due to frustration with the health care system—a fact likely exacerbated by an overly litigious culture.[83]

Enacting lawsuit reforms—including a cap on non-economic damages, restrictions on attorney contingency fees, discouraging frivolous lawsuits, and other common-sense changes—would reduce health care costs.  Because nearly half of all health spending is controlled by government, largely through the Medicaid and Medicare programs, Congress should take the lead in enacting lawsuit reforms in instances where the federal government is a payer of health services.[84]  If enacted, these changes could have a salutary effect on America’s physicians, just as the passage of tort reform in Texas encouraged more doctors to move to that state.[85]

Freedom for Seniors to Choose:  The doctor-patient relationship is the foundation on which our health care system should be based.  Unfortunately, government requirements often impede the ability for patients to choose the best option for their own care.  For instance, one law dictates that senior citizens may not make their own financial arrangements with their doctors if those arrangements contradict Medicare’s payment rates; any physician who does so is prohibited from receiving any reimbursements from Medicare for two years.[86]

Congress should restore the doctor-patient relationship by repealing this onerous requirement.  It should also restore the ability of Medicare patients to buy procedures on their own, provided seniors receive full disclosure from their physicians and medical providers for the costs of their care.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the number of doctors dropping out of Medicare nearly tripled between 2009 and 2012. [87]  Senior citizens should not have access to the physician of their own choosing—or to procedures their doctors recommend for them—violated due to arbitrary restraints imposed by federal bureaucrats.

 

Taken together, this package of reforms would accomplish the objectives the American people are looking for in their health care system—the objectives President Obama said his legislation would bring, but which Obamacare has not delivered.  Enacting policies that get the incentives right can reduce costs, even while protecting the most vulnerable and enhancing portability and choice for consumers.

The American people deserve true health reform—one that puts patients and doctors first, not government bureaucrats.  After repealing Obamacare, enacting America Next’s plan would point America’s health system in the right direction.

 

 

[1] Vote on Boehner Substitute Amendment to H.R. 3962, Affordable Health Care for America Act, House Roll Call Vote 885, 111th Congress, November 7, 2009, http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2009/roll885.xml.

[2] “Republican Study Committee Policy Brief: Members’ Health Care Initiatives in the 113th Congress,” November 25, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/uploadedfiles/113th_112513_rsc_healthcare_menu.pdf.

[3] Remarks in Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, January 21, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/01/21/debate.transcript2/index.html.

[4] A video compilation of candidate Obama’s remarks on this issue from the 2008 campaign is available at http://freedomeden.blogspot.com/2010/03/obama-20-promises-for-2500.html.

[5] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections: Slow Growth Until Coverage Expands and Economy Improves,” Health Affairs October 2013, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/10/1820.

[6] Congressional Budget Office, Letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding premium effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, November 30, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10781/11-30-premiums.pdf.

[7] Amit Bhardwaj, et al., “Individual Market Enrollment: Updated View,” McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform, March 2014, http://healthcare.mckinsey.com/sites/default/files/Individual-Market-Enrollment.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, December 2008, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9924/12-18-keyissues.pdf, pp. 84–87.

[10] The White House, “Affordable, Accessible, and Flexible Health Coverage,” January 2007, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/stateoftheunion/2007/initiatives/healthcare.html; Republican Study Committee, “The American Health Care Reform Act,” September 18, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/solutions/rsc-betterway.htm.

[11] John Sheils and Randy Haught, “President Bush’s Health Care Tax Deduction Proposal: Coverage, Cost, and Distributional Impacts,” The Lewin Group, January 28, 2007, http://www.lewin.com/~/media/Lewin/Site_Sections/PressReleases/BushHealthCarePlanAnalysisRev.pdf.

[12] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L 111-148), Section 2551.

[13] Congressional Budget Office, Medicaid baseline, May 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44204_Medicaid.pdf.

[14] Congressional Budget Office, analysis of House Republican substitute amendment to H.R. 3962, November 4, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10705/hr3962amendmentboehner.pdf.

[15] Press release by House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Dave Camp, November 5, 2009, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=153186.

[16] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “January 2013 Census Shows 15.5 Million People Covered by Health Savings Account/High-Deductible Health Plans (HSA/HDHPs),” June 2013, http://www.ahip.org/HSACensus2013PDF/.

[17] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “Health Savings Accounts and Account-Based Health Plans: Research Highlights,” July 2012, http://www.ahip.org/HSAHighlightsReport072012/.

[18] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2013 Annual Survey,” August 2013, http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/8465-employer-health-benefits-20132.pdf, Exhibit 8.8, p. 140.

[19] Amelia M. Haviland, M. Susan Marquis, Roland D. McDevitt, and Neeraj Sood, “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.abstract.

[20] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148), Section 9003.

[21] Steven A. Burd, “How Safeway Is Cutting Health Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[22] Christopher Matthews, “U.S. Accuses Russian Diplomats of Medicaid Fraud,” Wall Street Journal December 5, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303497804579240163174732486.

[23] Clifford Levy and Michael Luo, “New York Medicaid Fraud May Reach into Billions,” The New York Times, July 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/18/nyregion/18medicaid.html.

[24] CBS News, “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes, September 5, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-5414390.html.

[25] Lisa Rosenbaum, “The Problem with Knowing How Much Your Health Care Costs,” The New Yorker December 23, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/12/price-transparency-health-care-costs.html.

[26] Institute of Medicine, The Health Care Imperative: Lowering Costs and Improving Outcomes—Workshop Summary, February 2011, http://www.iom.edu/reports/2011/the-healthcare-imperative-lowering-costs-and-improving-outcomes.aspx.

[27] Chris Jacobs, “How Obamacare Undermines American Values: Penalizing Work, Marriage, Citizenship, and the Disabled,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2862, November 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/how-obamacare-undermines-american-values-penalizing-work-marriage-citizenship-and-the-disabled.

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Waiting Lists for Medicaid Section 1915(c) Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) Waivers,” December 2012, http://kff.org/medicaid/state-indicator/waiting-lists-for-hcbs-waivers-2010/#table.

[29] James C. Capretta and Tom Miller, “How to Cover Pre-Existing Conditions,” National Affairs Summer 2010, http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20100614_CaprettaMiller_Web.pdf, pp. 114-15.

[30] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning and Evaluation, “At Risk: Pre-Existing Conditions Could Affect 1 in 2 Americans,” November 2011, http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/2012/pre-existing/index.shtml.

[31] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, “Covering People with Pre-Existing Conditions: Report on the Implementation and Operation of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program,” January 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/pcip_annual_report_01312013.pdf.

[32] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Senator Mike Enzi (R–WY), June 21, 2010, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/115xx/doc11572/06-21-high-risk_insurance_pools.pdf.

[33] Department of Health and Human Services, Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, notice of enrollment suspension, February 15, 2013, https://www.pcip.gov/Notifications/021513-ENROLLMENT_SUSPEND.html.

[34] Report by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi, “Health Care Reform’s Impact on Child-Only Health Insurance Policies,” August 2, 2011, http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Child-Only%20Health%20Insurance%20Report%20Aug%202,%202011.pdf.

[35] Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, “Concerns about Cancer Centers under Health Law,” Associated Press March 18, 2014, http://hosted2.ap.org/apdefault/3d281c11a96b4ad082fe88aa0db04305/Article_2014-03-18-Health%20Overhaul-Top%20Cancer%20Centers/id-d5acff9619ec4bc6aa875800d96fc270.

[36] Information on various state plans for covering high-risk individuals can be found on the website of the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, www.naschip.org.

[37] John C. Goodman, “Rescissions: Much Ado About Nothing,” Kaiser Health News, May 13, 2010,    http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Columns/2010/May/051310Goodman.aspx.

[38] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Medicare trustees report, May 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/TR2013.pdf, TableII.B4, p. 58.

[39] Suzanne Codespote, memo from Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, to Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions, June 3, 2013.

[40] Maria Bartiromo, “One-on-One with Nancy Pelosi,” CNBC interview, October 28, 2011, http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000054002.

[41] Kathleen Sebelius, testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “Fiscal Year 2012 HHS Budget,” March 4, 2011, video available at http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=8281.

[42] The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare was chaired by Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA); its work can be found at http://medicare.commission.gov/medicare/index.html.

[43] Testimony of David Kendall, Progressive Policy Institute Senior Analyst for Health Policy, before Senate Finance Committee hearing on “Modernizing Medicare,” May 26, 1999, http://dlc.org/ndol_ci04fb-2.html?kaid=111&subid=141&contentid=1790.

[44] Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan, “Guaranteed Choices to Strengthen Medicare and Health Security for All: Bipartisan Options for the Future,” December 15, 2011, http://budget.house.gov/uploadedfiles/wydenryan.pdf.

[45] Alice Rivlin, testimony before the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee on “A Bipartisan Approach to Reforming Medicare,” April 27, 2012, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/rivlin_testimony_final_4-27-2012.pdf, p. 4.

[46] Congressional Budget Office, “A Premium Support System for Medicare: Analysis of Illustrative Options,” September 2013, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/09-18-PremiumSupport.pdf.

[47] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[48] Ibid., p. 8.

[49] Ibid., p. 8.

[50] Congressional Budget Office, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 to 2023,” November 13, 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44715-OptionsForReducingDeficit-2_1.pdf, Health Option 7, p. 211.

[51] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010, http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

[52] Restoring America’s Future, report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Tax Force, November 2010, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, pp. 52-53.

[53] Overview of Coburn/Lieberman Medicare reform proposal, June 2011, http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=1ea8e116-6d15-46ba-b2e0-731258583305

[54] Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2015 Budget, March 4, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2015/assets/budget.pdf, pp. 31-32.

[55] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf.

[56] Testimony of Gary Alexander before the Congressional Commission on Long-Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.lmp01.lucidus.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[57] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation,” pp. 11-12.

[58] Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Healthy Indiana Plan 1115 Waiver Extension Application, February 13, 2013, http://www.in.gov/fssa/hip/files/HIP_WaiverforPosting.pdf, pp. 19, 6.

[59] Mitch Daniels, “We Good Europeans,” The Wall Street Journal March 26, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704094104575144362968408640.html.

[60] Avik Roy, “The Medicaid Mess: How Obamacare Makes It Worse,” The Manhattan Institute, March 2012,  http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ir_8.htm

[61] Katherine Baicker, Sarah Taubman, Heidi Allen, Mira Bernstein, Jonathan Gruber, Joseph P. Newhouse, Eric Schneider, Bill Wright, Alan Zaslavsky, Amy Finkelstein, and the Oregon Health Study Group, “The Oregon Experiment – Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes” New England Journal of Medicine, May 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321

[62] The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, http://www.nber.org/oregon/

[63] Republican Governors Public Policy Committee Health Care Task Force, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, http://www.scribd.com/doc/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[64] Sarah Torre, “Obamacare’s Many Loopholes: Forcing Individuals and Taxpayers to Fund Elective Abortion Coverage,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2872, January 13, 2014, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/01/obamacares-many-loopholes-forcing-individuals-and-taxpayers-to-fund-elective-abortion-coverage.

[65] A full list of the court cases, and further information regarding them, can be found through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, http://www.becketfund.org/hhsinformationcentral/.

[66] Chuck Donovan, “Obamacare: Impact on Taxpayer Funding of Abortion,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2872, April 19, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/obamacare-impact-on-taxpayer-funding-of-abortion.

[67] President Barack Obama, remarks to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care, September 9, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-to-a-Joint-Session-of-Congress-on-Health-Care.

[68] Associated Press, “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” December 26, 2013, http://money.msn.com/business-news/article.aspx?feed=AP&date=20131226&id=17219856.

[69] Interim final rule by Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services regarding grandfathered health insurance status, released June 14, 2010, http://www.federalregister.gov/OFRUpload/OFRData/2010-14488_PI.pdf Table 3, p. 54.

[70] Jordan Bruneau, “The Great Healthcare CON,” Foundation for Economic Education, January 15, 2014, http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/the-great-healthcare-con#axzz2qbUCvcC2.

[71] There may need to be some very targeted consideration given to specific health care markets so dependent on government programs that taxpayers end up paying for unused capacity.

[72] Association of American Medical Colleges, Center for Workforce Studies, “Recent Studies and Reports on Physician Shortages in the U.S.,” October 2012, https://www.aamc.org/download/100598/data/.

[73] Institute of Medicine, “The Future of Nursing: Focus on Scope of Practice,” Report Brief, October 2010, http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing/Nursing%20Scope%20of%20Practice%202010%20Brief.pdf.

[74] Joint Statement of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission before the Illinois Task Force on Health Planning Reform, September 15, 2008, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/comments/237351.pdf, pp. 1-2.

[75] Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition, July 2004, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/health_care/204694.pdf, pp. 25-28.

[76] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 170.9 million Americans were covered by employer-based insurance, compared with 30.6 million Americans covered by direct-purchase insurance (including various forms of supplemental coverage).  Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013, http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf, Table C-1, p. 67.

[77] Reed Abelson, Katie Thomas, and Jo Craven McGinty, “Health Care Law Fails to Lower Prices for Rural Areas,” New York Times October 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/business/health-law-fails-to-keep-prices-low-in-rural-areas.html.

[78] CAHI found a total of 2,271 benefit mandates enacted in 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2012: Executive Summary,” April 9, 2013, http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/Mandatesinthestates2012Execsumm.pdf.

[79] One study found that benefit mandates raise premiums by an average of $0.75 per month, or $9 per year.  A state with the national average of 44 benefit mandates would therefore have raised premiums by an average of $396 annually.  See Michael J. New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 06-04, July 25, 2006, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/07/the-effect-of-state-regulations-on-health-insurance-premiums-a-revised-analysis, p. 5.

[80] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Addressing the New Health Care Crisis: Reforming the Medical Litigation System to Improve the Quality of Health Care,” March 2003, http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/medliab.pdf, p. 16.

[81] Association of American Medical Colleges, “Recent Studies on Physician Shortages.”

[82] Seth A. Seabury, et al., “On Average, Physicians Spend Nearly 11 Percent of their 40-Year Careers with an Open, Unresolved Malpractice Claim,” Health Affairs January 2014, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/1/111.full.pdf+html.

[83] Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, “Deloitte 2013 Survey of U.S. Physicians,” March 18, 2013, http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_chs_2013SurveyofUSPhysicians_031813.pdf, p. 3.

[84] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections.”

[85] Joseph Nixon, “Why Doctors Are Heading for Texas,” Wall Street Journal May 17, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB121097874071799863.

[86] Section 4507 of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, P.L. 105-33.

[87] Melinda Beck, “More Doctors Steer Clear of Medicare,” Wall Street Journal July 30, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323971204578626151017241898.

Profits Before Principles: How AARP Wins When Seniors Lose

A report originally compiled by staff for Sen. Jim DeMint.

REPORT HIGHLIGHTS

  • AARP functions as an insurance conglomerate with a liberal lobbying arm on the side.  Independent experts and former AARP executives admit that the organization’s billions of dollars raised from its business enterprises – most notably the sale of health insurance plans – have compromised the organization’s mission and independence.
  • AARP depends on profits, royalties, and commissions to make up over 50% of its annual budget.  Membership dues from seniors account for only about 20% of AARP’s revenue.
  • AARP’s $458 million in health insurance revenue in 2011 would rank it as the nation’s sixth-most profitable health insurer.
  • The health care law, which AARP lobbied heavily for, could lead to over $1 billion in new AARP health insurance profits over the next decade by forcing seniors off Medicare Advantage plans into Medigap supplemental coverage.
  • AARP earns more profit the higher premiums rise on seniors in Medigap plans, charging a “royalty fee” of 4.95% of every premium dollar paid by seniors on these plans.
  • In 2011, AARP failed to disclose to its senior membership that it lobbied Congress to oppose Medigap reform, legislation that could lower senior premiums by as much as 60%, and save seniors $415 per year on average.
  • AARP could lose as much as $1.8 billion in revenue over ten years if Medigap reforms pass and successfully lower senior premiums.
  • Documents show close coordination between Obama Administration and AARP, including efforts to deceive the public.  In November 2009, a senior AARP executive wrote to the White House saying “we will try to keep a little space between us” on health care – because AARP’s “polling shows we are more influential when we are seen as independent, so we want to reinforce that positioning….The larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”
  • AARP has benefitted by supporting the Obama Administration’s unpopular health care law.  Unlike other forms of insurance, AARP’s Medigap insurance plans were exempted from many of the health care law’s mandates, including the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination.
  • The Obama Administration has not publicly criticized AARP’s business practices, even though it has publicly attacked other insurance companies with much smaller profit margins than those generated by AARP’s Medigap insurance.
  • Democrats continue to praise AARP – HHS Secretary Sebelius called them the “gold standard” for “accurate information” – even though AARP earns more profit the higher Medigap premiums rise for seniors.

Even though President Obama has criticized Republicans for placing seniors at the mercy of insurance companies, the health care law he signed allows organizations like AARP to continue discriminating against Medigap applicants with pre-existing conditions.

 

Introduction

The AARP bills itself as the nation’s premier senior advocacy group, but has opposed important reforms to Medigap supplemental insurance that would save seniors, on average, hundreds of dollars a year.

Why? There are $1.8 billion reasons.

The reforms currently being proposed to Medigap would drastically reduce the “royalty fees” AARP generates by peddling insurance to its members by an estimated $1.8 billion over ten years. If AARP supported these reforms, which are sure to save seniors money, the lobbying group would lose billions.

This report shows how the AARP has a history of being compromised by its lucrative insurance businesses.  The pressure group’s opposition to Medigap reform is just the latest instance where its financial enterprises have trumped the well-being of its members.

AARP is mounting a “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign to solicit member viewpoints about how to reform entitlements, but our examination of the organization’s actions over the years shows AARP executives, who seek to boost their bottom lines, always have the biggest say.

The AARP Empire

Founded in 1958, AARP is now an organization with an annual budget exceeding $1 billion.  The organization spent $206 million to acquire its headquarters building in Washington, DC more than a decade ago.[1]  According to its most recently filed tax returns, AARP spent more than $246 million on postage, and over $280 million on compensation in 2010.[2]  In that same year, AARP provided compensation of over $100,000 to 543 separate employees, including one senior executive who received nearly $1.2 million in compensation.[3]

While AARP claims to be a membership-driven organization, in reality most of its revenue comes not from member dues but from “royalty fees” generated from the sale of other products, namely health insurance.  “Royalty fees” are payments AARP receives for putting its brand name on certain products and services.  So while insurance companies provide a tangible product and service in exchange for the premiums they charge, AARP receives more than half a billion dollars per year for essentially playing the middle man.

According to its 2011 financial statements, more than half of AARP’s revenue came from royalty fees – over $704 million of its $1.35 billion in total revenue last year.[4]  Revenues from health insurer United Health Group comprised nearly two-thirds of AARP’s total “royalty fee” revenue, or $457.6 million.[5]  By comparison, in 2011 AARP generated only $265.8 million from membership dues – just over half the amount received from the sale of AARP-branded insurance products.[6]

AARP’s royalty fees have risen significantly in recent years, making the organization ever more dependent on the sale of insurance policies to fund AARP’s massive payroll.  Between 2001 and 2011, AARP’s total royalty fees rose by more than 350% – from $196.7 million in 2001 to over $704 million last year.[7]  Much of this increase comes from additional health insurance-related revenue.  Over the past five years, AARP has generated over $2 billion in revenue from United Health Group alone – $284 million in 2007,[8] $414 million in 2008,[9] $427 million in 2009,[10] $441 million in 2010,[11] and $458 million in 2011.[12]

AARP’s $458 million in insurance revenue in 2011 would rank it as the nation’s sixth-most profitable insurer, based on data collected by Fortune magazine.[13]  For instance, insurer Health Net generated only $204 million in net revenue last year – on over $13.6 billion in total revenue.[14]  By contrast, AARP’s $458 million in insurance-based “royalty fees” go directly to the organization’s bottom line.

AARP’s Questionable Insurance Practices

Even as it claims to be a non-profit advocacy organization, AARP has received criticism from many quarters for its heavy reliance on revenue from insurance sales.  Marilyn Moon, a former AARP executive, said “there’s an inherent conflict of interest” because AARP is “very dependent on sources of income.”[15]

AARP’s dependence on “royalty fee” income has resulted in numerous controversies over the years.  For instance, in 2008 a congressional inquiry[16] found that AARP was using potentially misleading language in its marketing materials; seniors thought they were buying comprehensive health insurance, but in reality purchased policies covering only a limited amount of health costs.  Following a public outcry, AARP ordered an investigation,[17] and eventually stopped selling these types of limited benefit plans.[18]

More recently, the tax implications of AARP’s significant “royalty fees” have come under scrutiny.  An investigation by several members of the House Ways and Means Committee last year raised questions about whether or not AARP’s licensing revenue should be considered “royalty fees” or “commissions.”[19]  If the revenue in question should in fact be classified as “commissions,” then AARP could owe significant amounts of back taxes on billions of dollars in revenue.  The Ways and Means members referred the matter to the Internal Revenue Service, and requested an IRS investigation.[20]

The Medigap Cash Cow

The Ways and Means member investigation also made clear that one of AARP’s prime sources of revenue is the sale of Medigap-branded supplemental insurance plans.  AARP does license Medicare Advantage plans, along with a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.  However, AARP receives a flat financial payment from United Health Group for its Medicare Advantage and Part D plans, regardless of the number of people enrolled in each plan.  Conversely, AARP receives a percentage of total Medigap premiums paid – meaning that while AARP receives no financial benefits if its Medicare Advantage or Part D plan enrollment rises, it will receive a windfall if its Medigap plan generates additional customers, or those customers pay higher premiums.

The health care law includes more than $300 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage.[21]  As a result of these payment reductions, enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans will be cut in half, with 7.4 million fewer seniors enrolled.[22]  Many of these 7.4 million seniors will need supplemental coverage through Medigap, to fund catastrophic expenses not covered by Medicare.

Because the health care law will have the effect of migrating millions of seniors from Medicare Advantage plans – which are less lucrative financially to AARP – to more-lucrative Medigap supplemental coverage, the Ways and Means member report concluded that the organization could receive a windfall exceeding $1 billion over the next ten years thanks to the law.[23]

Medigap Reform with Bipartisan Appeal

The potential Medigap-related windfall for AARP resulting from the health care law is not the only instance in which the organization’s financial interests have coincided with its policy positions.  In recent months, a renewed focus on reforming entitlements, and making Medicare more sustainable, has prompted new attention to various proposals to reform Medigap plans.  While these plans would benefit most seniors financially, they would harm AARP’s financial interests – so perhaps not surprisingly, AARP has decided to oppose them.

Under the proposals being discussed, the traditional Medicare program would be reformed to provide catastrophic coverage, while Medigap would provide limited supplemental coverage.  For the first time in the program’s history, seniors would know their Medicare costs would not exceed a set amount.  In exchange, Medigap supplemental coverage, which covers co-payments and deductibles, would also be reformed, so that seniors would face an out-of-pocket deductible not covered by insurance.

Reform to Medigap insurance plans has generated bipartisan appeal.  Versions of this reform have been proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[24] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits, [25] Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[26] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[27]  Policy-makers in both parties believe that, by limiting first-dollar coverage of medical expenses through Medigap, seniors would serve as smarter purchasers of health insurance, such that overall spending in Medicare might decline modestly.

Although some seniors might pay slightly more out-of-pocket under these changes, a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation said that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[28]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year – because creating a new deductible for all Medigap plans will cause premiums to fall.[29]

Under Medigap reform, seniors would spend much less money on premiums.  Just as with automobile insurance, or with Health Savings Account policies for individuals under age 65, adopting a higher deductible would yield significant premium savings for Medigap policies.  The Kaiser study found that under one proposed reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[30]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

AARP Wins When Seniors Lose

The overall premise of Medigap reform is simple: Less money going to insurance companies means greater financial savings for most seniors.

Unfortunately for AARP, things are not that simple.  As one independent financial adviser has said, AARP’s sales tactics are a “dirty little secret” that are “all about fattening the coffers of the organization.”  And the biggest “dirty little secret” of all is that AARP has a major financial incentive to keep premiums high for seniors.[31]

The House Ways and Means Committee members’ investigation last year found that AARP receives a percentage of each senior’s Medigap premium dollar.[32]  The organization’s “royalty fee” totals 4.95% of every premium dollar paid.  So, similar to a salesman pushing the most expensive product in order to receive a higher commission, regardless of the customer’s needs,  AARP has an incentive to sell more Medigap policies – and to sell the most expensive Medigap policies – even if seniors do not need the insurance.  The higher the cost of seniors’ Medigap policies, the more money AARP makes.

Based on AARP’s existing contractual arrangements and the Kaiser Family Foundation study projections, it is relatively simple to calculate the projected financial loss to AARP under Medigap reform.[33]   If premiums decline by more than $1,200 per year, as the Kaiser study predicted, AARP stands to lose an average of $62 in “royalty fees” for every senior enrolled in its Medigap insurance.  With nearly 3 million seniors enrolled in AARP’s Medigap plan, those numbers add up – over $181 million in one year, and $1.8 billion over the course of a decade.[34]  With the organization generating total revenue of $1.35 billion in 2011, Medigap reform would result in an immediate loss of over 13% of AARP’s annual revenue.[35]

AARP’s Covert Campaign to Kill Medigap Reform

Given its financial interest in keeping Medigap premiums high, it is perhaps unsurprising that AARP engaged in a covert lobbying campaign designed to kill Medigap reform, and keep its existing “royalty fee” regime in place.  Last year AARP wrote to members of the congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction, asking them not to include Medigap reforms – which, as noted above, would benefit four out of five Medigap policy-holders, but significantly harm AARP’s financial interests.

AARP published excerpts of their letter to the “supercommittee” on its website.[36]  But AARP has yet to put anything on its website indicating that the organization has been privately contacting Members of Congress, asking them not to reform Medigap – and preserve AARP’s lucrative Medigap commissions.

Two years ago, an AARP spokesman told CNN that the organization doesn’t lobby Congress on Medigap issues “at all.”[37]  While the organization is apparently trying to keep its actions secret, the fact remains that AARP is lobbying Congress against Medigap reform, opposing changes that will just so happen to save AARP members tens of billions, but that would also cost AARP billions.

AARP Works Against Its Members

Whereas last year AARP actively lobbied against Medigap reforms that would help its members but hurt AARP financially, three years ago the organization did NOT lobby for Medigap reforms that would help its members but could hurt AARP financially.  Specifically, even after enactment of the health care law, Medigap plans are still permitted to impose waiting periods on senior citizen applicants with pre-existing conditions.  AARP, despite its stated support for ending pre-existing condition restrictions,[38] imposes waiting periods on its own members applying for Medigap coverage[39] – and stood idly by as an attempt to end this practice within Medigap was stricken from the health care bill before it became law.

Section 1234 of House Democrats’ June 2009 health care discussion draft would have prohibited pre-existing condition discrimination for certain Medigap applicants – achieving one of AARP’s chief goals.[40]  However, last year the Washington Post claimed that the Medigap provision “was dropped from the legislation during congressional negotiations because it would have increased Medicare costs, according to a House Democratic congressional aide.”[41]

The Congressional Budget Office scored provisions eliminating pre-existing condition discrimination in Medigap as costing about $400 million per year.[42]  However, AARP had previously stated that the organization “would gladly forego every dime of revenue to fix the health care system.”[43]  As noted above, its $700 million in “royalty fees” last year far exceeds the $400 million annual cost of ending Medigap pre-existing condition discrimination.  It remains unclear why this provision was dropped from the bill, if AARP was so interested in foregoing profits in order to help its members.

In addition to allowing AARP to continue imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants, the law enacted in March 2010 also exempted AARP’s lucrative Medigap policies from several other new insurance regulations.[44]  At a December 2009 hearing,[45] AARP’s Board Chair claimed to have no idea that legislation that she and the AARP had previously endorsed included numerous exemptions for Medigap plans, including an exemption from the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination.[46]

After the numerous Medigap-related exemptions included in the health care law were publicly exposed, AARP eventually endorsed legislative changes to end some of the exemptions.[47]  However, despite this public turn-around, AARP has yet to explain to the public why it allowed these exemptions to be enacted in the first place – if the organization is not motivated by its own financial interests, as it claims.  Moreover, the organization has not apologized to its members for failing to act and end pre-existing condition discrimination in Medigap plans two years ago, and the impact such failure has had on AARP’s own members.

Members REVOLT

Documents released by a House Energy and Commerce Committee oversight investigation reveal just how strongly AARP members opposed their organization’s behavior during the health care debate three years ago.  The files show overwhelming opposition from AARP members to the legislation, based on summaries of AARP call center activity:

July 23, 2009 – 77 members support; 1,031 oppose

July 28, 2009 – 36 members support; 4,174 oppose

July 29, 2009 – 23 members support; 2,656 oppose[48]

On a single day (July 28, 2009) during the height of the debate, 1,897 individuals cancelled their membership in AARP to protest its position on the health care bill.[49]

The documents also reveal that AARP members were well aware of the organization’s financial conflicts, and believed that these conflicts were influencing AARP policy.  One member from Oklahoma called in and complained that:

AARP has a conflict of interest between selling insurance and helping senior citizens.  Until it decides which one is more important, the $$$ or the people, it is deceiving old folks into thinking it works for their benefit.  Actually it works for the insurance companies [sic] benefit and interests, which is why it is so gung-ho on the health care reform bill….Not OK with me.[50]

Members also complained about “perceived partisanship on AARP’s part” – and the documents reveal this to be an accurate concern.  In November 2009, a senior AARP executive wrote to the White House saying “we will try to keep a little space between us” on health care – because AARP’s “polling shows we are more influential when we are seen as independent, so we want to reinforce that positioning….The larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”[51]  In other words, the organization was attempting to protect its image by publicly deceiving its members – acting detached in public, even as AARP was frantically lobbying behind the scenes to ram the legislation through for the good of the liberal cause.

AARP’s Misguided Political Focus

It is perhaps unsurprising that AARP would focus on “serv[ing] the cause” of liberalism, because many of its senior executives have strong liberal connections.  When the organization hired its current CEO, Barry Rand, one Capitol Hill publication noted that “New AARP Chief Gave Big to Obama.”[52]  Indeed, Mr. Rand has given tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to liberal Democrats over the years.[53]  Many other members of AARP’s executive team also have strong connections to liberal causes; the head of AARP’s government relations and advocacy program was a senior adviser in the Clinton Administration,[54] while other AARP key executives have worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy,[55] Rep. Geraldine Ferraro,[56] and the National Wildlife Federation, a liberal environmental group.[57]

The political philosophy of the organization’s leadership results in AARP mounting advocacy campaigns trumpeting liberal talking points that frequently have little basis in fact.  For instance, in September 2011 AARP released an advertisement with seniors claiming that “I paid into my Medicare,” and decrying any efforts to “cut our benefits.”[58]  However, the ad did not acknowledge what an Urban Institute study makes clear: Most seniors receive more in Social Security and Medicare benefits than they paid in taxes during their lifetime.[59]  An Associated Press story based on the Urban Institute study – “What You Pay for Medicare Won’t Cover Your Costs” – was initially placed on aarp.org, but was later removed from the website, perhaps because its conclusions represent inconvenient truths to AARP.[60]

Other ads run by the AARP during last year’s debt limit debate were also debunked as false and misleading.  In June 2011, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column awarded an AARP ad four “Pinocchios” for “perpetuat[ing] the worse stereotypes about how easy it would be to balance the budget.  At a time when the nation’s fiscal crisis – amid the looming retirement of the baby-boom generation – demands informed and reasoned debate, the AARP misinforms its members about the choices the nation faces.”[61]

Of course, AARP has a financial interest in misinforming its members – because the organization derives much of its revenue from preserving the status quo.  In launching a “multi-million dollar” ad campaign featuring misleading claims, AARP made clear it wanted no changes to the existing Medicare benefit structure.[62]  As outlined above, changes to the Medicare benefit – such as Medigap reform – would cost AARP billions, while saving many seniors hundreds of dollars per year.  By blocking reforms that would dent its profits, AARP hurts seniors two ways – first, by preventing seniors from saving hundreds of dollars in Medigap premiums, and second, by leaving the Medicare program less solvent for future generations.

Democrats Encourage AARP’s Abuses

Even as AARP racks up billions of dollars in insurance profits by overcharging seniors for Medigap plans, Democrats encourage these abuses by giving AARP special favors, and ignoring its questionable sales tactics.  As noted above, the health care law exempted AARP’s lucrative Medigap insurance plans from the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination, thus allowing AARP to continue to impose waiting periods on individuals applying for coverage.  However, that’s not the only exemption that Medigap coverage received in the law; Medigap insurance was also exempted from:

  • The law’s $500,000 cap on executive compensation for insurance industry executives. [63]  Thanks to this exemption, AARP can continue to pay its senior executives more than $1 million in annual compensation.[64]
  • The tax on insurance companies that will total more than $14 billion per year.[65]   Medigap insurance received this exemption even though AARP generates more money from insurance industry “royalty fees” than it received from membership dues, grant revenues, and private contributions combined.[66]
  • The requirement imposed on other health insurance plans to spend at least 85 percent of their premium dollars on medical claims.[67]  Medigap policies are currently held to a far less restrictive 65 percent standard, and the difference can be used to fund higher profits to AARP paid out of the pockets of its senior citizen members.[68]

In addition to these numerous exemptions for Medigap insurance provided in law, the Administration provided a further exemption for Medigap coverage during the rulemaking process.  The Department of Health and Human Services’ rule on insurance rate review exempted Medigap plans from further scrutiny of their premium increases.[69]  In arriving at this determination, HHS concluded that insurance plans like Medigap coverage “do not appear to be a principal focus of the Affordable Care Act” – meaning that because Medigap plans were exempted from the law’s other regulatory requirements, they should be exempted from rate review as well.[70]

Obama Administration Hypocrisy

The frequent exemptions given to Medigap insurance – a product line where AARP holds the largest market share – directly contradict the claims made by Democrats about the 2,700 page health care law.  For instance, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ official biography claims that she “is implementing reforms that end many of the insurance industry’s worst abuses.”[71]  However, with respect to Medigap insurance, that claim is entirely false.  Because Medigap plans were exempted from the law’s new requirements, organizations like AARP can continue to discriminate against applicants with pre-existing conditions, and overcharge seniors in order to generate greater profits.

Even as the Obama Administration fails to acknowledge that the health care law exempts Medigap insurance from all of its new requirements, it has attacked conservatives’ Medicare reform proposals for granting too much power to insurers.  In her speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Secretary Sebelius criticized Republicans for “let[ting] insurance companies continue to cherry-pick who gets coverage and who gets left out, priced out, or locked out of the market.”[72]  And in his speech to the same convention, President Obama said that “no American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies.”[73]  Given that the legislation President Obama signed into law exempted Medigap coverage for seniors from virtually all of its new regulatory requirements, it is more than a little hypocritical for his Administration to criticize others for leaving seniors to the mercy of insurers.

The Administration has yet to answer a basic question at the heart of the numerous exemptions granted to Medigap insurers in their 2,700 page health care law: If the law’s protections are so good, then why are seniors left out of its supposed benefits when it comes to their supplemental insurance?  Unfortunately, the answer could be that AARP has been unwilling to forfeit its profits, and so the Obama Administration has looked the other way as the organization continues to take advantage of seniors.

Kathleen Sebelius: Watchdog or Lapdog?

Even as it has been willing to politically strong-arm insurance companies with whom it disagrees, the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has failed to confront AARP about its questionable business practices.  In March 2010, as the Administration was gearing up to ram through its health care law, Secretary Sebelius asked other insurers to “give up some short-term profits” for the nation’s good.[74]  At the time, estimates by Fortune magazine indicated that health insurer profits averaged about 2.2 percent.[75]  Yet Secretary Sebelius made no such request of AARP to give up some of its revenues – even though its Medigap profit margin was 4.95 percent, more than double that of the insurance industry as a whole.

Shortly after the health law passed, Secretary Sebelius undertook a publicity campaign to “encourage” insurance companies to ban rescissions and extend coverage to young adults under age 26 earlier than was required under the law.  While the Secretary made very public efforts to have insurance companies “abandon…efforts to rescind health insurance coverage from patients who need it most,” she made no attempt to encourage AARP and other Medigap insurers to stop discriminating against applicants with pre-existing conditions.[76]  At an implementation briefing to Congress shortly after the law passed, Senate Republican staff asked HHS officials why the Department was asking other insurers voluntarily to change their business practices, but was not asking AARP to stop discriminating against Medigap applicants.  While Jeanne Lambrew, head of the Department’s Office of Health Reform, promised to look into the matter, the Department never took action.

Rather than ask AARP to reform its business practices, Secretary Sebelius instead has blindly offered the organization praise.  In an October 2010 speech to the AARP convention, she hailed the organization as “the gold standard in cutting through spin and complexity to give people the accurate information they need to make the best choices.”[77]  Even though AARP has a strong financial conflict-of-interest in its Medigap insurance – because the organization earns more profit when seniors pay more in premiums – Secretary Sebelius still claimed that AARP constituted “the gold standard” in giving “accurate information.”

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has previously expressed strong concerns about the percentage-based compensation model under which AARP receives much of its revenue.  In fact, Section 18 of NAIC’s Producer Model Licensing Act recommends that states require explicit disclosure by insurers, and clear written acknowledgement by consumers, of any percentage-based compensation arrangement, due to the potential for abuse.  As a former insurance commissioner, Secretary Sebelius should be well aware of the financial conflicts inherent when an organization like AARP receives a percentage of every Medigap dollar paid by seniors.  Yet the Secretary apparently ignored these concerns, and went on to praise AARP as a source of impartial advice, even though even former AARP executives have criticized the organization as hopelessly compromised by financial conflicts-of-interest.

In her time heading HHS, Secretary Sebelius has undertaken clearly political actions, including those that violated the law.  Just last week, the Office of the Special Counsel publicly released a report concluding that the Secretary engaged in political activity that violated the Hatch Act prohibitions on federal officials campaigning for partisan political causes.[78]  It is therefore quite reasonable to ask whether Secretary Sebelius has also engaged in a pattern of politically-motivated selective enforcement – attacking other insurers when convenient, but failing to examine AARP’s questionable business practices, because AARP supports the President’s liberal causes.

As noted above, AARP executives e-mailed the White House in November 2009 stating that “the larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”  It would thus appear that both AARP and the Administration recognize their political interests are aligned.  Certainly the Administration’s actions – exemptions for Medigap coverage included both in statute and in rulemaking; attacks on insurers with smaller profit margins than AARP; failure to criticize AARP’s percentage-based compensation model – are consistent with a governing philosophy that permits AARP to engage in questionable and abusive behavior towards seniors, so long as AARP funnels the profits from said behavior back into supporting the Administration’s liberal causes.

In April 2010, Secretary Sebelius wrote to insurers to stop rescinding insurance policies earlier than required under the law, encouraging them “not to wait until the fall to do the right thing.”[79]  America’s seniors have been waiting for years for Secretary Sebelius, and the entire Obama Administration, to do the right thing – to apply the law fairly, without regard to political persuasion.  Unfortunately, the facts suggest that the Administration has knowingly looked the other way, and failed to take on AARP over its business practices – because political advantage outweighs the need for impartial enforcement, or extending the supposed benefits of the health care law to senior citizens.

Conclusion

Though it purports to be a seniors advocacy organization, AARP functions in many respects as an insurance conglomerate with a liberal lobbying arm on the side.  Independent experts and even former AARP executives have admitted that the organization’s billions of dollars raised from its business enterprises – most notably the sale of health insurance plans – have compromised the organization’s mission and independence.  As one consultant put it: “Either you’re a voice for the elderly or you’re an insurance company – choose one.”[80]

As this report has demonstrated, AARP has acted against its members’ interest, but in its own financial interests, on several occasions during the major health care debates of the past several years.  First AARP endorsed a health care law that gave its most lucrative product offering – Medigap insurance – a major opportunity to solicit new members, exempted those Medigap plans from the law’s regulatory regime, and allowed AARP to continue imposing waiting periods on the sickest seniors looking to buy Medigap coverage.  More recently, AARP has engaged in a covert lobbying campaign designed to kill Medigap reforms that would benefit nearly four in five policy-holders and improve Medicare’s solvency – but could cost AARP billions.

This year, AARP has embarked upon a “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign, purportedly designed to solicit members’ opinions on ways to reduce the deficit.  However, the organization has yet to solicit members’ viewpoints about its own actions.  For instance:

  1. How many members know that senior AARP executives have received over $1 million in compensation from the organization – and that 543 individuals received over $100,000 in compensation last year?
  2. How many members know that AARP has generated over $2 billion in revenue from selling health insurance plans in the past five years?
  3. How many members know that AARP imposes waiting periods on Medigap applicants with pre-existing conditions – and stood idly by as provisions to eliminate Medigap pre-existing condition discrimination were stricken from the health care law?
  4. How many members know that nearly four in five Medigap plan holders would financially benefit from reforms, to the tune of several hundred dollars per year?
  5. How many members know that Medigap reforms that would help seniors could cost AARP billions of dollars in lost revenue?

At the very least, AARP should be up-front and honest with its members about the massive financial stake it has in this debate.  Better yet, the organization should start thinking less about its bottom line and more about its members, and endorse reforms that will help the vast majority of Medigap policy-holders.

 

[1]Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, report by Reps. Wally Herger and Dave Reichert, March 29, 2011,  http://herger.house.gov/images/stories/pdf/20110329aarpreport.pdf, p. 6.

[2]AARP Inc., 2010 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2010_990_aarp.pdf, p. 1.

[3] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[4] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements,  http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2012-05/Consolidated-Financial-Statements-2011-2010-AARP.pdf, p. 3.

[5] Page 9 of the AARP 2011 financial statements notes that “the service provider United Healthcare Corporation accounted for 65% of total royalties earned in 2011 and 2010.”  65% of the total $704 million in royalties equates to $457.6 million received from United Healthcare.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Letter from AARP Chief Operating Officer Thomas Nelson to Rep. Dave Reichert, November 2, 2009, pp. 3-4.

[8]AARP Inc., 2008 Consolidated Financial Statements,  http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/TopicAreas/annual_reports/assets/AARPConsolidatedFinancialStatements.pdf, pp. 4-9.

[9]Ibid., pp. 3-9.

[10]AARP Inc., 2009 Consolidated Financial Statements, http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/cs/misc/2009_aarp_consolidated_financial_statements_12_31_09.pdf, pp. 3-9.

[11] AARP Inc., 2010 Consolidated Financial Statements, http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2010_aarp_consolidated_financial_statements_12_31_10.pdf, pp. 3-9.

[12] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements.

[13] Fortune 500, Health Care: Insurance and Managed Care, May 23, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2011/industries/223/index.html.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston, “AARP’s Stealth Fees Often Sting Seniors With Costlier Insurance,” Bloomberg December 4, 2008,  http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&refer=&sid=a4OkPQIPF6Kg.

[16] Letter from Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley to AARP CEO William Novelli, November 3, 2008, http://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/upload/110320081.pdf.

[17] Robert Pear, “AARP Orders Investigation Concerning Its Marketing,” New York Times November 18, 2008,   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/us/19insure.html?_r=1.

[18] Emily Berry, “United Stops Selling AARP Limited-Benefit Insurance,” Amednews.com May 28, 2009,  http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2009/05/25/bisd0528.htm.

[19] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.

[20] Letter from House Ways and Means Committee Members Wally Herger, Charles Boustany, and Dave Reichert to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman, December 21, 2011,  http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/letter_to_irs-shulman_12-15-11.pdf.

[21] Congressional Budget Office, score of H.R. 6079, Repeal of Obamacare Act, July 24, 2012, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43471-hr6079.pdf.

[22] Robert Book and Michael Ramlet, What Changes will Health Care Reform Bring to Medicare Advantage Plan Benefits and Enrollment?, Medical Industry Leadership Institute- Carlson School of Management, October 2011, http://americanactionforum.org/sites/default/files/Embargoed_Book+Ramlet_MILI-Working-Paper_2011-10-13_Final.pdf.

[23] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, Table 4, p. 16.

[24] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010,

http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

[25] Restoring America’s Future, report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Tax Force, November 2010, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, pp. 52-53.

[26] Overview of Coburn/Lieberman Medicare reform proposal, June 2011, http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=1ea8e116-6d15-46ba-b2e0-731258583305.

[27] White House Fiscal Year 2013 budget submission to Congress, February 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/budget.pdf, p. 35.

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, p. 8.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[31] “AARP’s Stealth Fees Often Sting Seniors With Costlier Insurance.”

[32] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.

[33] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[34] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, Table 2, p. 9.

[35] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements, p. 3.

[36] AARP Press Release, “AARP to Super Committee: Don’t Cut Medicare, Social Security Benefits,” October 19, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-10-2011/aarp-to-super-committee-dont-cut-medicare-social-security-benefits.html.

[37] Carol Costello, “150,000 Seniors In Revolt,” CNN American Morning January 6, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/politics/2010/01/06/costello.aarp.health.care.cnn.

[38] AARP Press Release, “AARP Thanks Senate for Passing Health Care Reform,” December 24, 2009,  http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-03-2010/aarp_thanks_senateforpassinghealthcarereform.html.

[39] New York State Department of Financial Services, list of insurers offering Medicare supplemental coverage, http://www.dfs.ny.gov/insurance/caremain.htm#insurer.

[40] House Tri-Committee Health Reform Discussion Draft, June 19, 2009, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090619/healthcarereform_discussiondraft.pdf, p. 358.

[41] Susan Jaffe, “Medigap Supplemental Coverage Can Be Too Pricey for Younger Medicare Beneficiaries,” Kaiser Health News March 7, 2011,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/07/AR2011030703978.html.

[42] Congressional Budget Office, preliminary estimate of House Tri-Committee Health Reform Discussion Draft, July 7, 2009, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090708/cbomedicare.pdf, p. 4.

[43] Letter from AARP Chief Operating Officer Thomas Nelson to Rep. Dave Reichert, November 2, 2009, p. 4.

[44] Karl Rove, “ObamaCare Rewards Friends, Punishes Enemies,” Wall Street Journal January 6, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704405704576063892468779556.html.

[45] House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing, “Prescription Drug Price Inflation: Are Prices Rising Too Fast?” December 8, 2009, http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=7588.

[46] AARP Press Release, “AARP Endorses Affordable Health Care for America Act,” November 5, 2009, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-11-2009/affordable_health_care_act_endorsement.html.

[47] Letter to the Editor, Wall Street Journal, by AARP President Lee Hammond, January 11, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-01-2011/aarp_letter_to_theeditor.html.

[48] House Energy and Commerce Committee, investigation into closed-door Obamacare negotiations, supplemental materials for June 8, 2012 memorandum, http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/Media/file/PDFs/060812relevantdocsmemoIII.pdf, pp. 63-68.

[49] Ibid., p. 73.

[50] Ibid., p. 79.

[51] Ibid., p. 88.

[52] Jeffrey Young, “New AARP Chief Gave Big to Obama,” The Hill March 12, 2009, http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/3963-new-aarp-chief-gave-big-to-obama.

[53] Ibid.

[54] “AARP Leadership Profile: Nancy LeaMond,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2009/Nancy_Leamond.html.

[55] “AARP Leadership Profile: Debra Whitman,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/debra_whitman/.

[56] “AARP Leadership Profile: Kevin Donnellan,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2009/Kevin_Donnellan.html.

[57] “AARP Leadership Profile: Cindy Lewin,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2010/cindy_lewin.html.

[58] Michael Muskal, “AARP Ads: Hands Off Social Security and Medicare,” Los Angeles Times September 21, 2011, http://www.standard.net/stories/2011/09/21/aarp-ads-hands-social-security-and-medicare.

[59] Gene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane, “Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime,” Tax Policy Center, June 2011, http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/social-security-medicare-benefits-over-lifetime.pdf.

[60] While the Associated Press story from December 30, 2010 has been removed from the AARP website, it can still be found at http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-204_162-7197847.html.

[61] Glenn Kessler, “AARP’s Misleading Ad about Balancing the Budget,” Washington Post June 20, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/aarps-misleading-ad-about-balancing-the-budget/2011/06/17/AGQKRsYH_blog.html.

[62] AARP Press Release, “AARP Launches New TV Ad Calling on Congress to Protect Medicare and Social Security from Harmful Cuts,” June 16, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-06-2011/aarp-launches-new-tv-ad-calling-on-congress-to-protect-medicare-and-social-security-from-harmful-cuts.html.

[63] Section 9014 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) as amended, http://housedocs.house.gov/energycommerce/ppacacon.pdf, pp. 816-18.

[64] AARP Inc., 2010 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, pp. 8-9.

[65] PPACA, Section 9010(h)(3)(C) as amended, p. 815.

[66] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements,  p. 3.

[67] PPACA, Section 1001, p. 22.

[68] Section 1882(r)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395ss(r)(1).

[69] Department of Health and Human Services, Rate Increase Disclosure and Review, Final Rule, Federal Register May 23, 2011, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-05-23/pdf/2011-12631.pdf, pp. 29966-67, 29985.

[70] Department of Health and Human Services, Rate Increase Disclosure and Review, Proposed Rule, Federal Register 23 December 2010, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-23/pdf/2010-32143.pdf, pp. 81007, 81009, 81026.

[71] Official HHS Biography of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/biography/index.html.

[72] Remarks by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the Democratic National Convention, September 4, 2012, http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=CB187143-9624-3760-BC9CC2DBE9C60BD7.

[73] Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention, September 6, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/07/remarks-president-democratic-national-convention.

[74] Jane Norman, “Sebelius Urges Health Care Insurers to Trim Their Profits,” CQ HealthBeat March 10, 2010, http://www.commonwealthfund.org/Newsletters/Washington-Health-Policy-in-Review/2010/Mar/March-15-2010/Sebelius-Urges-Health-Insurers-to-Trim-Their-Profits.aspx.

[75] “Top Industries: Most Profitable,” 2009 Fortune 500, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2009/performers/industries/profits/.

[76] HHS Press Release, “HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Urges Wellpoint to Immediately Stop Dropping Coverage for Women with Breast Cancer,” April 23, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2010pres/04/20100423a.html.

[77] Remarks of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at AARP Orlando@50+ Conference, October 1, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/speeches/sp20101001.html.

[78] Office of Special Counsel, File No. HA-12-1989 (Kathleen G. Sebelius), September 12, 2012, http://www.osc.gov/documents/hatchact/Hatch%20Act%20Report%20on%20HHS%20Secretary%20Kathleen%20Sebelius.pdf.

[79] HHS News Release, “Momentum Building on Sebelius’ Challenge to Insurers to Ban Rescission Before Law Takes Effect in September,” April 28, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2010pres/04/20100428a.html.

[80] Cited in Dan Eggen, “AARP: Reform Advocate and Insurance Salesman,” Washington Post October 27, 2009,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR2009102603392_pf.html.

 

Medicare Trustees’ Report

Summary:  The report issued by the Medicare trustees notes several funding challenges for the program in both the short and long term.  The Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, which is funded primarily by payroll taxes and finances Medicare Part A, is “not adequately financed over the next ten years” according to the trustees’ assumptions.  The report projects that the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be exhausted by 2019—the same year of exhaustion as in last year’s report, but at an earlier point within the year, due to lower payroll tax receipts and higher-than-expected expenditures.

While Medicare Parts B and D, financed by the Supplemental Medical Insurance Trust Fund, are considered adequately financed by the trustees, this determination stems largely from the fact that these portions of Medicare can—and do—claim a large and growing share of federal general revenues.  The report notes that Part B costs have risen by an average 9.6% annually over the past five years, and is likely to grow by about 8% annually over the next decade, presuming Congress continues to override scheduled reductions in Medicare physician payment reimbursements.

In the longer term, the trustees project Medicare spending to rise sharply over the next 75 years.  The report projects that by 2082, overall spending on Medicare will more than triple, from 3.2% of national gross domestic product (GDP) to 10.8%—nearly twice the projected size of Social Security, and more than one in every ten dollars spent in the private and public sectors.

Medicare “Trigger”:  For the third consecutive year, the trustees report includes a finding that general revenue Medicare spending—that is, Medicare spending not financed by payroll taxes, or by beneficiary premiums and co-payments—will exceed 45% of total Medicare outlays within the next seven fiscal years.  This “trigger” language was included in Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 at the behest of the Republican Study Committee, to provide a mechanism for policy-makers to measure the fiscal soundness of the Medicare program, and for Congress to consider ways to reform its operations should entitlement spending continue to rise.

The trustees’ warning means that, absent a change in current law, the next President will be required to submit legislation to Congress providing a remedy to bring general revenue Medicare spending within 45% of total Medicare outlays.  In addition, the 111th Congress would be required to consider legislation addressing the funding warning by the summer of 2009, with special discharge opportunities available in both the House and Senate should leadership not bring legislation to the floor of each chamber.  However, the “trigger” provision will not apply should Congress enact legislation remedying the trustees’ latest funding warning this year.

Additional Background:  Because of the uncertainties associated with budgetary projections spanning many decades, there are some suggestions that the significant unfunded liabilities included in the trustees’ report may actually underestimate the losses Medicare faces.  A November 2007 report by the Congressional Budget Office released 75-year projections materially divergent from the analysis released by the Medicare trustees.  The trustees’ report projects Medicare spending to consume nearly 11% of total GDP by the end of the 75-year period, while CBO estimates that Medicare will consume more than one in six dollars spent in the United States (17% of GDP).  The disparity in the two projections stems from the trustees’ assumption that excess cost growth—that is, the annual growth in health spending above the growth in GDP—would decline much more rapidly than both current and past levels of health care spending.[1]

Using data from the CBO report, as well as the trustees’ 2007 update, former Medicare public trustee Tom Saving analyzed the size of Medicare’s unfunded obligations.  If the CBO projections are accurate, Medicare faces 75-year obligations of $38.4 trillion and infinite horizon obligations of $84.2 trillion, as opposed to $34 trillion and $74 trillion respectively under the assumptions in last year’s official trustees’ report.[2]

While the specific amounts of Medicare’s future unfunded obligations by definition have yet to be determined, the trustees’ long-range model may make it more likely that the trustees would underestimate rather than overestimate the size of the shortfall which Medicare faces.  Fiscal prudence may therefore dictate that given that uncertainty, Congress should make every effort to restore Medicare’s fiscal solvency now, so that future policy-makers will have a margin for error should further reforms be needed some decades from now.  As the CBO report concludes, “the main message [from both reports] is that health care spending is projected to rise significantly and that changes in federal law will be necessary to avoid or mitigate a substantial increase in federal spending on Medicare.”[3]

Comparison with Prior Year Data:  In addition to the updated projections regarding the date of the Medicare trust funds’ exhaustion, the trustees’ report also includes totals for Medicare’s unfunded obligations for a 75-year budget window and an “infinite horizon” projection.  Comparison charts for those projections follow:

 

Unfunded Obligation Projections for 75-Year Budget Window (2008-2082)

  2007 Trustees’ Report

(in trillions of dollars)

2008 Trustees’ Report

(in trillions of dollars)

Part A (Hospital Insurance) $11.6 (1.6% of GDP) $12.4 (1.6% of GDP)
Part B (Obligations less beneficiary premiums) $13.9 (1.9% of GDP) $15.7 (2.0% of GDP)
Part D (Obligations less beneficiary premiums and state “clawback” payments) $8.4 (1.2% of GDP) $7.9 (1.0% of GDP)
TOTAL $33.9 (4.7% of GDP) $36.0 (4.6% of GDP)

 

Unfunded Obligation Projections for Infinite Horizon

  2007 Trustees’ Report

(in trillions of dollars)

2008 Trustees’ Report

(in trillions of dollars)

Part A (Hospital Insurance) $29.5 (2.6% of GDP) $34.4 (2.6% of GDP)
Part B (Obligations less beneficiary premiums) $27.7 (2.4% of GDP) $34.0 (2.6% of GDP)
Part D (Obligations less beneficiary premiums and state “clawback” payments) $17.1 (1.5% of GDP) $17.2 (1.3% of GDP)
TOTAL $74.3 (6.5% of GDP) $85.6 (6.5% of GDP)

In general, the overall size of the unfunded obligations has remained nearly constant as a percentage of GDP, while growing in absolute dollar terms.  Of particular note is the fact that while Part A obligations remained constant in GDP terms, and Part B obligations rose as a percentage of GDP, the obligations associated with the privately-administered Part D prescription drug benefit remained constant in dollar terms and decreased as a percentage of GDP.  Although introduction of a prescription drug benefit has significantly increased Medicare’s unfunded obligations in absolute terms, the fact that competition among Part D participants has slowed the growth of its costs suggests that similar efforts to inject competition into Medicare Parts A and B could comprise one element of comprehensive Medicare reform.

Revenue-Based “Reform” and Its Impact:  Several studies have examined ways in which the Medicare program could be made fiscally solvent by increasing revenues, and these options appear neither economically viable nor politically palatable.  In 2005, the Heritage Foundation published a report using that year’s trustee data to determine the level of payroll taxes needed to close Medicare’s funding gap.  The report noted that, in order to achieve a 75-year balance, Medicare payroll taxes would need nearly to quintuple—from the current 2.9% up to 13.4%, where they would remain until 2079.  The study also found that this tax increase would sharply affect economic growth, lowering real GDP levels by nearly $200 billion annually (resulting in lower corporate and income tax receipts), and reducing private sector employment levels by more than 2.2 million jobs over the course of a decade.[4]  In other words, by decreasing personal income levels, a significant tax increase to ensure Medicare’s solvency would reduce personal consumption at rates that could have a long-term stagnating effect on the American economy.

Former Medicare public trustee Tom Saving has also published some unofficial projections about the level of beneficiary contributions required for Medicare to achieve fiscal balance, presuming that the share of general revenues used to finance the Medicare program remains constant.  In the case of such a scenario whereby only seniors pay for the increase in Medicare spending, premiums would rise exponentially, such that by 2081, retirees would be paying premiums in a range of $3,000 to $4,900 per month in year 2006 dollars.[5]  Although some additional cost-sharing for beneficiaries may be necessary in the context of overall Medicare reform, the idea that seniors could pay the future equivalent of $30,000-$50,000 annually in premiums alone is unrealistic.

Reform Options:  In light of the difficulties discussed above with revenue-based options to solve Medicare’s fiscal woes, a more feasible alternative might couple targeted opportunities for increased beneficiary cost-sharing with reforms designed to empower beneficiaries with the information and incentives needed to direct and control their health spending.  Comprehensive proposals to reform Medicare in this vein could include:

Premium Support:  This model would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  Previously incorporated into alternative RSC budget proposals, a premium support plan would provide a level playing field between traditional Medicare and private insurance plans, providing comprehensive reform, while confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, thus ensuring long-term fiscal stability.

Consumer-Driven Health Options:  These reforms would build on the success of the Health Savings Account (HSA) model in reducing health care cost growth for the under-65 population.  Reforms in this area would alter the existing prohibition forbidding holders of HSAs from contributing additional funds to their accounts once they become Medicare-eligible.  A new payment mechanism could allow these beneficiaries to keep their HSA-compatible insurance policy into retirement, with Medicare financing a portion of the premium.  In addition, reforms to Medicare Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs) could make them more attractive to beneficiaries who do not have an existing HSA, providing additional incentives for seniors to become more cost-conscious when considering health care treatment options.

Restructure Cost-Sharing Requirements:  This concept would restructure the existing system of deductibles, co-payments, and shared costs, which can vary based on the service provided.  Additionally, Medicare currently lacks a catastrophic cap on beneficiary cost-sharing, leading some seniors to purchase Medigap policies that insulate beneficiaries from out-of-pocket costs and provide little incentive to contain health spending.  Reforms in this area would rationalize the current system, generating budgetary savings and reducing the growth of health spending.

Means Testing:  This idea would establish an income-related Part D premium consistent with the Part B “means testing” included in Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act.  The proposal—which was included in the President’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget proposal—would achieve savings of $3.2 billion over five years.  The RSC has previously included similar proposals in its budget documents as one way to constrain costs and ensure consistency between a Part B benefit that is currently means-tested and a Part D benefit that is not.

Increase Medicare Part B Premium:  The RSC has previously proposed increasing the Part B premium from 25% to 50% of total Medicare Part B costs, consistent with the original goal of the program.  This concept would not impact low-income seniors, as Medicaid pays Medicare premiums for individuals with incomes under 120% of the federal poverty level.

Conclusion: The Medicare funding warning issued by the trustees last year, and again this year, provides an opportunity to re-assess the program’s structure and finance.  These two consecutive warnings—coupled with the trustees’ estimate that the Medicare trust fund will be exhausted in just over a decade’s time—should prompt Congress to consider ways to reduce the growth of overall Medicare costs, particularly those which utilize competition and consumer empowerment to create a more efficient and cost-effective Medicare program.

The Administration has put forward two separate proposals—the first in its Fiscal Year 2009 budget submission to Congress, the second as part of its formal submission of legislation (H.R. 5480) required under the MMA “trigger”—to address Medicare’s long-term solvency issues and begin a process of comprehensive reform.  Many conservatives are likely to view the trustees’ warning as providing another impetus for action on proposals that curb soaring entitlement spending, using the measures described above to advance the discussion beyond annual funding warnings and toward actions that ensure Medicare’s long-term fiscal stability.

 

[1] Congressional Budget Office, “The Long-Term Outlook for Health Care Spending,” (Washington, DC, November 2007), available online at http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/87xx/doc8758/11-13-LT-Health.pdf (accessed March 24, 2008), p. 16.

[2] Andrew Rettenmaier and Tom Saving, “Medicare’s Future Burden: Trustees versus CBO Estimates,” (College Station, TX, Private Enterprise Research Center, Texas A&M University, March 2008), available online at http://www.heritage.org/research/HealthCare/upload/Medicares_Future_Burden.pdf (accessed March 25, 2008), pp. 16-19.

[3] CBO, “Long-Term Outlook,” p. 16.

[4] Tracy Foertsch and Joe Antos, “The Economic and Fiscal Effects of Financing Medicare’s Unfunded Liabilities,” (Washington, DC, Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Paper CDA05-06, October 11, 2005), available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HealthCare/upload/83702_1.pdf (accessed March 24, 2008), pp. 7-9.

[5] Rettenmaier and Saving, “Medicare’s Future Burden,” p. 8.