Exclusive: D.C. Exchange Website Misled Customers about Individual Mandate

Last year, in response to Congress repealing the Obamacare individual mandate penalty beginning this January, the D.C. Council established its own requirement for District residents to maintain health coverage. If D.C. leaders wished to replicate Obamacare on the local level, they have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations—right down to the non-functioning website.

For nearly six months—including the first month of open enrollment—the District failed to inform visitors to its online insurance exchange about the new coverage requirement. When District officials finally discovered their webpage fail, what did they do to admit their fault, and tell the public? Nothing.

The Webpage Fail, Explained

At the start of the open enrollment period in early November, I went to the District’s health insurance exchange website, D.C. Health Link, to evaluate my coverage options for 2019. While there, I found an intriguing—and misleading—webpage. When discussing whether individuals should purchase coverage, the webpage noted that “federal law requires most Americans to have a minimum level of health coverage,” a requirement that was “still in effect for the 2017 and 2018 tax years.”

By stating that the requirement remained in effect for 2017 and 2018, the webpage implied that the mandate will disappear in 2019. But while the federal penalty disappeared on January 1, the District’s own insurance mandate replaced the federal requirement on that date. However, the webpage I saw did not mention the D.C. mandate at all.

By discussing the expiring federal mandate and not the new D.C. requirement, the webpage I viewed did not just provide misleading statements about the need to maintain coverage in 2019, it contained inaccurate information, too. The webpage noted that the federal mandate did not penalize individuals with short gaps of coverage of under three months—but the District’s stricter law requires individuals to maintain health coverage every single month.

The webpage also directed individuals seeking exemptions from the mandate to apply to federal authorities, even though the D.C. exchange has assumed that role for the District’s mandate, effective January 1.

In fairness, I, and presumably other prior customers, did receive a mailer from D.C. Health Link discussing the District’s new coverage requirement for 2019. However, the mailer did not mention the mandate until the top of its second page—an area where casual readers could easily miss it. Instead, the mailer spent prime real estate on the first page discussing “our award-winning reputation as one of the best health Exchange websites in the nation:”

Which do you think is more important for District residents to know: That the website won some awards, or that if they do not buy “government-approved” coverage, they could have their property seized and sold?

Why District Officials Don’t Care

District officials seem more pre-occupied with bragging about their website than updating their website. For instance, during the November meeting of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority, no one discussed the flawed webpage about the District’s individual mandate, even though D.C. Health Link staff conducted a presentation for the board explaining the website that showed a link to the flawed webpage.

The November board meeting also showed a video of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s appearance at the launch event for open enrollment. During that event, Bowser gave remarks claiming that “D.C. Health Link has made navigating its website even easier.” Bowser failed to mention that, even as she spoke, that “easier” website included incorrect, flawed, and misleading information about the individual mandate she had signed into law months previously.

Ignoring the ‘Debacle’

Nearly one month into open enrollment, on November 28, it appears D.C. Health Link finally discovered their error. Officials removed access to the page discussing the expiring federal mandate—the Internet Archive captured the old page—and created a new page discussing the District’s new coverage requirement for 2019.

But did District officials publicly admit that their website included incorrect information, try to inform the public, or make things right with those who viewed that incorrect information? No, no, and no. The Exchange Authority board held their most recent monthly meeting in mid-December, and the incident did not come up at all.

When healthcare.gov famously crashed and burned in 2013, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius publicly accepted responsibility for the website “debacle.” By contrast, Mila Kofman, executive director of the Exchange Authority, apparently wants to pretend that the problems with the website she runs never took place.

Congress Should Fix This Mess

Beyond raising obvious questions of competence, the flawed webpage could have very real consequences for District residents. Any individuals who went to the incorrect webpage during the first month of open enrollment, and used its erroneous information to decide not to purchase health coverage for 2019, will face tax penalties when filing their 2019 returns in April 2020—penalties directly resulting from the bungling of District bureaucrats.

While District officials may try to give individuals who suffered from the incorrect webpage exemptions from the mandate penalty, it does not appear they can do so. The District’s mandate uses the same criteria as the federal one to determine hardship exemptions, namely, whether circumstances “prevented [an individual] from obtaining coverage.”

But in this case, circumstances didn’t prevent individuals from obtaining coverage—they prevented individuals from understanding the consequences of not doing so. D.C. Health Link therefore may not have the authority to solve a problem its own staff caused.

To ensure that no one incurs financial penalties because of the botched exchange website, the D.C. Council—or, better yet, Congress—will have to intervene. They should take the opportunity presented by this affair to repeal the mandate entirely.

Or Congress could use the pending appropriations legislation to include the provisions adopted last summer defunding the District’s mandate. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), who sponsored the defunding amendment last summer, once again offered his amendment earlier this month, when the House considered anew the District of Columbia appropriations measure. Unfortunately, however, the new House Democrat majority refused to make a vote on the amendment in order. This means that, absent additional action, individuals may face sizable tax penalties due to a website mess caused entirely by District officials.

No matter what form it takes, the website mess demonstrates that the District’s insurance mandate should go. Given that D.C. Health Link spends $11 million on IT, yet took six months to update a webpage, it should spend less time ordering District residents to buy insurance and more time getting its own house in order.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C. Council’s Motto: “Obamacare for Thee — But Not for Me!”

On the first of the month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser held an event at Freedom Plaza to celebrate the start of Obamacare’s annual open enrollment period. She appeared with Mila Kofman, head of the District’s health insurance exchange, D.C. Health Link. In conjunction with the event, the mayor issued a proclamation declaring the open enrollment period “Get Covered, Stay Covered” months, and noting that “residents should visit [D.C. Health Link’s website] to shop for and compare health insurance.”

But in encouraging others to “get covered,” and promoting the D.C. Health Link site, Bowser omitted one key detail: She does not buy the policies that D.C. Health Link sells. My recent Freedom of Information Act request confirmed that Bowser, like most of her D.C. Council colleagues, received taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies to purchase their coverage through the District government, rather than through D.C. Health Link. Thus, DC spent nearly half a million in taxpayer funds because the mayor and council won’t be bothered to enroll in Obamacare.

Forfeiting generous employer subsidies might seem like an unreasonable request to make of the mayor and council. But earlier this year, the council passed, and Bowser signed, legislation requiring all District residents to buy health coverage or pay a tax — including tens of thousands of residents who do not qualify for subsidies.

According to public records, Bowser receives an annual salary of $200,000; council members receive $140,600 annually. This year, I will receive less income than any of them, and as a small business owner my income is far from guaranteed, unlike public officials’ salaries. Yet the mayor and council have required me to buy health coverage without a subsidy, even as they refuse to do so themselves.

I asked Bowser about this obvious inequity. Under Obamacare, an individual with income of $50,000 — one-quarter of Bowser’s salary — does not qualify for an income-based subsidy. Bowser required this individual to buy coverage without assistance, while earning much more in salary and retaining her employer subsidy. Did she see a double standard in her conduct?

When it came to the issue of equity and fairness, she didn’t have a substantive answer, nor did her council colleagues. I asked staff for each council member about their health insurance coverage, and any subsidies received. Most staff never responded to my outreach. Staff for Councilman Robert White said they would ask him about his coverage, but never sent a reply. Staff for two councilmembers, Phil Mendelson and Brandon Todd, replied with explanations about the subsidies being provided as an employer benefit.

But neither Bowser nor the council members could justify requiring other District residents, including many with lower incomes than they, from buying coverage without a subsidy even as they will not do so themselves. And how could they? Quite often, it seems liberals who preach frequently about “fairness” regarding others’ actions fall eerily silent when doing so would cost them personally. “Obamacare for thee — but not for me” doesn’t provide a particularly compelling slogan, but the mayor and council have sent that very message by their actions.

Official Washington contains numerous examples of hypocrisy and double standards, but that doesn’t make either a “D.C. value.” If Bowser wishes to abide by the D.C. values she campaigned on, she and the council members should give up their subsidies and buy health insurance just like ordinary residents do. If they find that task too difficult or costly, then perhaps they should repeal the exact same requirement they put on everyone else.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How D.C. Leaders Ignore Their Own Constituents on Health Care

The July 24 editorial “ ‘Here we go again’ ” misapportioned blame. Instead of attacking the House, the editorial should have examined the disregard the D.C. government has shown residents by passing a controversial requirement to purchase health coverage.

The D.C. Council opaquely enacted a major policy change, burying the provision in a 300-page bill featuring clerical amendments to things such as the Eastern Market Enterprise Fund. The council’s press release said not a word about the mandate’s enactment.

Second, the head of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority, which requested the mandate, refuses to buy the plans she sells. When I asked her about this in 2016, Mila Kofman claimed that buying an exchange plan would cause her to forfeit her employer subsidy. I find it absurd that an individual making more than $217,000 per year requires insurance subsidies yet wants to tax people such as me — who make far less yet receive no subsidies — who do not purchase a “government-approved” plan.

D.C. officials who complain about disregard from Congress should not deprecate or disregard their own residents. Unfortunately, passing laws surreptitiously, imposing requirements on others while not following them oneself, and ignoring constituent complaints all qualify.

This post was originally published at The Washington Post.

Preserving Health Care Freedom in the Nation’s Capital

Two weeks ago, I described how provisions in a budget bill that the District of Columbia Council quietly passed would extend the reach of government-controlled health care in the nation’s capital. The provisions buried in that budget bill would not only reimpose the health insurance mandate penalty within the District of Columbia that Congress set to zero beginning in January, but would go further, by allowing DC authorities to place liens on, seize, and sell the property of individuals who cannot afford to pay the mandate tax.

Thankfully, my post had its intended effect in raising awareness of the issue among federal policy-makers. The office of Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) responded, introducing an amendment to appropriations legislation that the House of Representatives will consider this week.

Prevents Affordable Options from Qualifying 

The Palmer amendment would also allow individuals to purchase the type of health coverage they desire without getting hit with a “stealth” tax bill after-the-fact. If the District’s law goes into effect in January, individuals buying the new, more affordable coverage options proposed by the Trump administration could face exactly that.

The mandate the DC Council approved (see pages 168-82 here) effectively re-imposes on the District Obamacare’s individual mandate as it existed last December 15—the date the congressional conferees on the tax bill filed their conference report (i.e., before legislation setting the federal mandate penalty to zero was signed into law). By linking the District’s mandate to the policies and regulations in place as of last December 15, the DC mandate also prevents the new options the Trump administration is introducing from qualifying as “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of complying with the mandate.

For instance, the DC law defines “minimum essential coverage” as “minimum essential coverage as defined by section 5000A of the [federal] Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and its implementing regulations, as that section and its implementing regulations were in effect on December 15, 2017.” It further specifies that “minimum essential coverage” shall include:

Health coverage provided under a multiple employer welfare arrangement; provided that the multiple employer welfare arrangement provided coverage in the District on December 15, 2017, or complies with federal law and regulations applicable to multiple employer welfare arrangements that were in place as of December 15, 2017.

Locks Out Short-Term Coverage, Too

The District’s statute also would exclude short-term health plans from qualifying as “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of its health insurance mandate. Obamacare itself defined “minimum essential coverage” to include “coverage under a health plan offered in the individual market within a state.” But because another portion of federal law says “‘individual health insurance coverage’ means health insurance coverage offered to individuals in the individual market, but does not include short-term limited duration insurance,” short-term plans would not qualify.

Obamacare did give the secretary of Health and Human Services, along with the secretary of the Treasury, discretion in determining other forms of “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of the federal mandate. However, because the District linked its mandate to those federal definitions in effect as of December 15, 2017—well before the Trump administration first proposed its changes to the regulation of short-term plans on February 20, 2018—short-term plans would not qualify as acceptable coverage under the District’s mandate.

District residents who purchase short-term plans, like those who access the expanded association health plans, would not comply with the new coverage requirements. Particularly given the very quiet way the DC Council enacted the legislation, many individuals may not know that the District re-imposed a health insurance mandate or that certain types of coverage do not comply with it, and face an unpleasant tax “surprise” in the spring of 2020 (as they file their DC tax returns for 2019). Unless, of course, Congress enacts the Palmer amendment into law.

Congress’s Constitutional Duty

Moreover, it also belies the fact that DC officials made little attempt—one could argue purposefully made little attempt—to publicize the council’s deliberations over this change. I e-mailed three people in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s press office about the council’s actions two weeks ago, and still have yet to receive so much as an acknowledgement.

Bowser can argue all she wants about “Taxation without Representation,” but given that her office made zero attempt to represent me, she has little right to complain. The House should pass the Palmer amendment this week, and prevent the strong-arm tactics associated with government-controlled health care from taking root in the nation’s capital.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C.’s Latest Health “Reform:” Seizing People’s Property

Just when you think the move for government control of health care couldn’t get any worse, somehow it manages to. Last Wednesday, the District of Columbia City Council approved a requirement for all DC residents to purchase health insurance. The mandate would take effect in January, right when the federal mandate penalty drops to $0, as per last year’s tax law.

The D.C. mandate contains three elements that make it just as bad as, if not worse than, the federal mandate it is intended to replace.

A (Deliberately?) Opaque Process

A cynic might believe that the D.C. Council acted in such a low-key manner by design. The council did not approve the mandate as a stand-alone bill, but wrapped it into a 297-page Budget Support Act. That bill contains such unrelated provisions as an amendment regarding the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, technical corrections to a supermarket tax incentive program, and amendments regarding civic associations using public schools.

Likewise, a press release by the D.C. Council summarizing Wednesday’s meeting contained not a word about imposing the individual mandate, nor did the council website show any stand-alone votes on the mandate itself. This lack of disclosure pushed me to contact my council member, Charles Allen, to find out what had happened at the council meeting Wednesday.

Upon hearing that the mandate as passed of a much larger package, I asked one of Allen’s staffers whether this provision had been “snuck in at the last minute.” The staffer said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had proposed the mandate as part of her budget submission to the council back in March. He then rather sheepishly added that, while people had testified on behalf of other portions of the Budget Support Act, no one had spoken about the mandate specifically.

For a district that decries “Taxation Without Representation,” this Nancy Pelosi-esque behavior—where we literally had to pass the bill to find out what was in it—seems to embody the very congressional tactics that DC leaders love to hate.

Harsher Penalties for Violators

During the 2009-10 debate on Obamacare, the threat of penalties for violating the individual mandate became a source of intense controversy. During the Senate Finance Committee’s markup, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) received a handwritten note from Thomas Barthold, head of the Joint Committee on Taxation, stating that, under federal law, non-payment of the mandate tax could result in imprisonment. Democrats buckled under this political pressure, removing from the Internal Revenue Service the power to imprison violators, or impose liens on personal property, for non-payment of the mandate tax.

By contrast, the district’s mandate—which comprises pages 168-182 of the Budget Support Act—includes this language at the bottom of page 180: “A taxpayer who fails to pay the District of Columbia shared responsibility payment imposed…shall be subject to all collection, enforcement, and administrative provisions applicable to unpaid taxes or fees, as provided in Chapter 18, Chapter 41, Chapter 42, Chapter 43, and Chapter 44 of this title [emphasis mine].”

Unlike the federal Internal Revenue Code, it does not appear at first glance that the district’s tax law allows for imprisoning individuals for non-payment of taxes (as opposed to deliberate tax evasion or fraud). However, Chapter 44 includes the following language:

If a person determined to be liable to the District of Columbia for a tax neglects or refuses to pay the tax within 10 days after notice and demand, the Mayor may collect the tax, with interest and penalties thereon (and an amount sufficient to cover the expenses of the levy), by levy upon all property (including rights to property) of the person or on which there is a lien provided in this chapter for the payment of the tax.

No wonder the D.C. Council didn’t want to hold an up-or-down vote on just this provision.

Hypocrisy Much?

Another relevant fact to the district’s mandate: The head of the District’s health insurance exchange—which recommended creating a DC mandate following the removal of the federal tax penalty—doesn’t buy exchange coverage herself. As I previously noted, many exchange heads (and Obamacare supporters) refuse to buy the coverage they promote, including the head of the district’s exchange, Mila Kofman.

When I discovered in late 2016 that I could not retain that plan in 2017, due in part to regulations imposed by the district’s exchange, I attended a meeting of the exchange authority. I asked Kofman whether she, and other exchange employees, purchased exchange coverage. She claimed that she and her colleagues could not purchase exchange policies, because they would lose their employer subsidy in the process.

I don’t know whether Bowser and the DC Council behave similarly to Kofman, but I can guess. On Thursday afternoon, I e-mailed Bowser’s office asking about the DC insurance mandate, and whether Bowser received a taxpayer subsidy for her insurance coverage. (The district’s mayor receives a salary of $200,000 annually.) I also asked what Bowser would “say to District residents like me—who make far less in salary than she does, yet do not receive [taxpayer-]subsidized benefits—being forced to buy coverage under penalty not just of taxation, but of property seizures through DC’s tax enforcement mechanisms?”

Wouldn’t you know it: I have yet to receive a response.

Here Are Some Policy Solutions

Thankfully, several of the policy and process problems outlined above contain within them readily achievable solutions:

  • The D.C. Council should pass legislation requiring the mayor, council, exchange CEO, and exchange board members to buy coverage through the exchange—without using separate taxpayer-funded benefits available to other district employees.
  • If the council will not act, the Trump administration could promulgate regulations requiring the CEOs and board members of all state-run exchanges (including the district’s) to buy the coverage they promote and oversee.
  • Congress could also exercise its constitutional prerogatives and strike down the district’s individual mandate, ensuring that no individuals will have their property seized by an overzealous government if they cannot afford to buy “bureaucrat-approved” health insurance.

Better yet: The District of Columbia Council could decide to stop micromanaging its residents’ health care by surreptitiously passing onerous mandates in legislation that few district residents know about.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.