Medicaid’s Blue State Bailout

In discussing future coronavirus legislation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has taken a skeptical view towards additional subsidies to states, including a potential “blue state bailout.” But current law already includes just such a mechanism, giving wealthy states an overly generous federal Medicaid match that results in bloated program spending by New York and other blue states.

Section 1905(b) of the Social Security Act establishes Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, the matching rate each state receives from the federal government under Medicaid. The statutory formula compares each state’s per capita income to the national average, calculated over a rolling three-year period. Poorer states receive a higher federal match, while richer states receive a lower match.

However, federal law sets a minimum Medicaid match of 50 percent, and a maximum match of 83 percent. No poor states come close to hitting the 83 percent maximum rate, but a total of 14 wealthy states would have a federal match below 50 percent absent the statutory minimum. (In March, Congress temporarily raised the federal match rate for all states by 6.2 percentage points for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.)

Absent the statutory floor, Connecticut would receive a match rate of 11.69 percent in the current fiscal year, according to Federal Funds Information Service, a state-centered think-tank. At that lower federal match, Connecticut would receive approximately one federal dollar for every eight the state spends on Medicaid, rather than the one-for-one ratio under current law.

Federal taxpayers pay greatly because the overly generous match rate for wealthy states leads to additional Medicaid spending. In fiscal year 2018, Connecticut spent far more on its traditional Medicaid program ($6.5 billion in combined state and federal funds) than similarly sized states like Oklahoma ($4.9 billion) and Utah ($2.5 billion). Those totals exclude the dollars Connecticut received from Obamacare, which guarantees all states a 90 percent Medicaid match for covering able-bodied adults.

The budget crisis in New York that preceded the pandemic stems in large part from Washington’s overly generous match for wealthy states. Absent the statutory floor, the state would receive a Medicaid match of 34.49 percent this fiscal year, meaning it would have to spend approximately two dollars to receive an additional federal dollar.

But the one-to-one Medicaid match guaranteed under federal law led New York to expand its program well beyond most states’. At more than $77 billion in 2018, New York Medicaid cost taxpayers more than three times the $23.4 billion spent by the larger state of Florida. And a federal audit last summer concluded that New York Medicaid spent $1.8 billion on more than 600,000 ineligible enrollees in just a six-month period. Little wonder that Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January called the state’s fiscal situation “unsustainable” after the state announced a $6 billion budget deficit, most of which came from Medicaid.

To his credit, Cuomo proposed changes to crack down on Medicaid fraud and enact other program reforms. He also criticized Congress when it passed legislation to block New York and other states from changing their Medicaid programs during the pandemic. But he has not acknowledged the underlying flaws in federal law that, by encouraging profligate blue state spending, created the problem in the first place.

Of the 14 wealthy states that benefit from the guaranteed 50 percent minimum Medicaid match, Hillary Clinton won 11. If the dramatic drop in oil and commodity prices in recent weeks persists, the three traditionally red states—Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming—that benefit from the statutory floor may no longer do so, should those states’ income decline. In the number of states affected and overall spending levels, the 50 percent minimum Medicaid match encourages overspending by blue states at the expense of federal taxpayers in red states.

In December 2018, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that removing the guaranteed 50 percent Medicaid match would save $394 billion over ten years. If McConnell and his colleagues want to tackle rising federal debt while stopping blue state bailouts, they should amend the Medicaid statute accordingly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Democrats in Congress Won’t Let Andrew Cuomo Fight Medicaid Fraud

Over the past several weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken several shots at Sen. Chuck Schumer, his fellow New York Democrat, about the coronavirus “stimulus” bills passed by Congress. Cuomo has repeatedly attacked Schumer for not looking out for their home state’s interests, calling the most recent measure, which cost more than $2 trillion, “terrible” for the Empire State.

The intraparty feuding seems all the more noteworthy for one reason Cuomo found the “stimulus” terrible: It precludes New York from taking steps to right-size its Medicaid program. That senior Democrats in Congress tied the hands of a governor from their own party as he works to enact reforms, and combat fraud, in the costly program speaks to how leftists will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain every facet of the welfare state.

New York’s Medicaid Mess

Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, New York’s state Medicaid program faced major difficulties. In fiscal year 2018, New York’s Medicaid program spent nearly as much ($74.8 billion) as California’s ($83.9 billion), even though California has more than twice the population (39.5 million vs. 19.5 million for New York).

Some of New York’s high Medicaid spending stems from rampant waste and fraud. A 2005 in-depth investigation by The New York Times quoted a former investigator as saying that 10 percent of all Medicaid spending constituted outright fraud, with another 20-30 percent representing “unnecessary spending that might not be criminal.”

New York’s Medicaid program also spends disproportionate sums on institutional care for individuals with disabilities. The state spends more than twice as much on nursing home care ($5.5 billion) as California ($2.5 billion), despite having less than half the population. New York also exceeds California’s spending on intermediate care facilities for the intellectually disabled.

Smart reforms to Medicaid would attempt to keep individuals in their own homes wherever possible. Paying for home and community-based services would save taxpayers money. More importantly, it would also treat patients in the location the vast majority of patients prefer: Their own homes. Changes to move in this direction, coupled with efforts to fight waste and fraud, would bring long-overdue reform to Medicaid in New York.

Cuomo Tried to Fix the Problem

Prior to the pandemic, New York faced a $6 billion budget shortfall that Cuomo blamed (correctly) on the Medicaid mess. He asked a commission to recommend reforms, and the commission came back with a series of proposals that would save more than $1.6 billion in state dollars during the coming fiscal year, and additional sums thereafter. (Because the federal government provides at least a 50 percent Medicaid match to New York, the changes would save federal taxpayers at least as much as they would save state taxpayers.)

While the recommendations do include across-the-board reductions in provider payment levels, changes to long-term care represent the largest amount of savings ($715 million of the $1.65 billion total). The package includes a focus on home- and community-based services, tightens restrictions on households who attempt to hide assets to have Medicaid cover their long-term care costs, and includes reforms to program integrity as well.

Did Schumer Stop Reform?

As New York’s Democrat governor proposed a Medicaid reform package, what did New York’s senior senator do? By one account he worked to ensure that his fellow Democrat could not enact the needed changes.

As I previously noted, the second “stimulus” bill included a Medicaid bailout for states, coupled with maintenance of effort provisions. These provisions prohibit states from making any changes to eligibility or benefits in exchange for the 6.2 percent increase in the federal Medicaid match (which will last for the duration of the coronavirus public health emergency). States that increase cost-sharing, change benefits, impose premiums—pretty much any change to the Medicaid benefit package, other than arbitrary reductions in provider payments—lose eligibility for the increased federal match.

Cuomo railed against these restrictions: “Why would the federal government say, ‘I’m going to trample the state’s right to redesign its Medicaid program, that it runs—that saves money?’…I don’t even know what the political interest is they’re trying to protect.”

The governor appeared to win the argument—at first. Section 3720 of a draft version of the third “stimulus” bill (beginning at page 394 here) would have amended the second “stimulus” bill to allow New York to go ahead with its reforms, while still receiving the 6.2 percent increase in the federal Medicaid match.

But Section 3720 of the version that made it into law (page 147 here) stripped out the original language that allowed New York to proceed with its Medicaid changes. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) claims Schumer got the language removed, presumably because he opposes Cuomo’s reform package:

Lee Zeldin

@RepLeeZeldin

Re-upping here for additional background on what Gov Cuomo is talking about right now re FMAP and the stimulus bill.

McConnell offered Schumer exactly what Cuomo asked for on this fix and Schumer rejected it. https://twitter.com/RepLeeZeldin/status/1243210360334815232 

Lee Zeldin

@RepLeeZeldin

Gov. Cuomo just said the stimulus package could’ve & should’ve provided additional support for the NYS budget.

He is right.

Here’s the context not mentioned:

McConnell offered the FMAP language Cuomo asked for & Schumer blocked it, resulting in the loss of SIX BILLION for NY.

Stop Defending Fraudsters

Who exactly nixed the language helping New York, and why, may remain a mystery. But it seems highly unlikely that Senate Republicans would have insisted on its removal. Most conservatives support states’ Medicaid reform proposals, and fought maintenance of effort requirements included in the 2009 “stimulus” and Obamacare that thwarted state flexibility. The objection that led to the New York provision’s removal almost certainly came from the Democrat side of the aisle.

As to why, consider this quote from Politico: “Critics argue…that even if there is some sense in targeting waste and fraud, it also makes sense to raise taxes on the wealthy to support a program that poor New Yorkers rely on.”

Yes, by all means let’s raise taxes during the midst of an economic cataclysm. If we crack down on fraud too much, the fraudsters might go out of business—and they need to eat just like the rest of us!

It’s exactly this kind of mentality that left the United States with $23 trillion in debt (and rising). Cuomo rightly called out the members of his own party for their socialistic games, because the American people deserve better than the left’s welfare-industrial complex.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Tough Cost-Benefit Choices Facing Policymakers Regarding Coronavirus

Right now, the United States, like most of the rest of the world, faces two critical, yet diametrically opposed, priorities: Stopping a global pandemic without causing a global economic depression.

Balancing these two priorities presents tough choices—all else equal, revitalizing the economy will exacerbate the pandemic, and fighting the pandemic will worsen economic misery. Yet, as they navigate this Scylla and Charybdis, some policymakers have taken positions contrary to their prior instincts.

In his daily press briefing Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) discussed the false choice between the economy and public health. He made the following assertions:

My mother is not expendable, your mother is not expendable, and our brothers and sisters are not expendable, and we’re not going to accept the premise that human life is disposable, and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. The first order of business is to save lives, period. Whatever it costs….

If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy then it’s no contest. No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.

On this count, Cuomo is flat wrong. Entities in both the United States and elsewhere—including within his own state government—put a dollar figure on human life on a regular basis.

Rationing on Cost Grounds Already Happens

Consider the below statement describing the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), a British institution that determines coverage guidelines for the country’s National Health Service (NHS). NICE uses the quality-adjusted life year (QALY) formula, which puts a value on human life and then judges whether a new treatment exceeds its “worth” to society:

As a treatment approaches a cost of £20,000 [about $24,000 at current exchange rates] per QALY gained over existing best practice, NICE will scrutinize it closely. It will consider how robust the analysis relating to its cost- and clinical-effectiveness is, how innovative the treatment is, and other factors. As the cost rises above £30,000 [about $36,000] per QALY, NICE states that ‘an increasingly stronger case for supporting the technology as an effective use of NHS resources’ is necessary.

Entities in the United States undertake similar research. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) also performs cost-effectiveness research using the QALY metric. The organization’s website notes that “the state of New York has used [ICER] reports as an input into its Medicaid program of negotiating drug prices.” In other words, Cuomo’s own administration places a value on human life when determining what the state’s Medicaid program will and won’t pay for pharmaceuticals.

Cost-Effectiveness Thresholds

Cuomo represents but one example of the contradictions in the current coronavirus debate. Donald Berwick, an official in the Obama administration and recent advisor to the presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), infamously discussed the need to “ration with our eyes open” While many liberals like him have traditionally endorsed rationing health care on cost grounds, few seem willing to prioritize economic growth over fighting the pandemic.

Conversely, conservatives often oppose rationing as an example of government harming the most vulnerable by placing an arbitrary value on human life. Nonetheless, the recent voices wanting to prioritize a return to economic activity over fighting the pandemic have come largely from the right.

The calls to reopen the economy came in part from an Imperial College London study examining outcomes from the pandemic. The paper concluded that an unmitigated epidemic (i.e., one where officials made no attempt to stop the virus’ spread) would cost approximately 2.2 million lives in the United States. Mitigation strategies like social distancing would reduce the virus’ impact and save lives, but would prolong the outbreak—and harm the economy—for more than a year.

The paper’s most interesting nugget lies at its end: “Even if all patients were able to be treated”—meaning hospitals would not get overwhelmed with a surge of patients when the pandemic peaks—“we predict there would still be in the order of…1.1-1.2 million [deaths] in the US.” Based on the Imperial College model, shutting down the economy so as not to let the virus run rampant would save approximately 1 million lives compared to the worst-case scenario.

A Cost of $1 Million Per Estimated Life Saved

Some crude economic math suggests the value a pandemic-inspired economic “pause” might place on human life. Based on a U.S. gross domestic product of approximately $21 trillion, a 5 percent reduction in GDP—which seems realistic, or perhaps even conservative, based on current worldwide projections—would erase roughly $1.05 trillion in economic growth. The Imperial College estimate that mitigation and social distancing measures would save roughly 1 million lives would therefore place the value of each life saved at approximately $1 million.

Of course, these calculations depend in large part on inputs and assumptions—how quickly the virus spreads, whether large numbers of Americans have already become infected asymptomatically, whether already infected individuals gain immunity from future infection, how much the slowdown harms economic growth in both the short and long-term, and many, many more. Other assumptions could yield quite different results.

But if these types of calculations, particularly when performed with varying assumptions and inputs, replicate the results of the crude math above, policymakers likely will sit up and take notice. Given that Britain’s National Health Service makes coverage decisions by valuing life as worth tens of thousands of pounds, far less than millions of dollars, it seems contradictory to keep pursuing a pandemic strategy resulting in economic damage many multiples of that amount for every life saved.

Tough Cost-Benefit Analysis

Unfortunately, lawmakers the world over face awful choices, and can merely attempt to select the least-bad option based on the best evidence available to them at the time. Slogans like “Why put your job over your grandmother?” or “If you worry about the virus, just stay home” belie the very real consequences the country could face.

Consider possible scenarios if officials loosen economic restrictions while the pandemic persists. Some individuals with health conditions could face the prospect of returning to work in an environment they find potentially hazardous, or losing their jobs. Individuals who stay home to avoid the virus, yet develop medical conditions unrelated to the virus—a heart attack, for instance—could die due to their inability to access care, as hospitals become swarmed with coronavirus patients. And on and on.

The president said on Tuesday he would like to start reopening the economy by Easter, a timeline that seems highly optimistic, at best. If by that time the situation in New York City deteriorates to something resembling Italy’s coronavirus crisis—and well it could—both the president and the American people may take quite a different view towards reopening the economy immediately. (And governors, who have more direct power over their states, could decide to ignore Trump and keep state-based restrictions on economic activity in place regardless of what he says.)

Nonetheless, everyone understands that the economy cannot remain in suspended animation forever. Hopefully, better data, more rapid viral testing, and the emergence of potential treatments will allow the United States and the world to begin re-establishing some sense of normalcy, at the minimum possible cost to both human life and economic growth.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Don’t Just Bail Out a Flawed Medicaid Program

In recent days, some observers have discussed the possibility of targeted assistance to state Medicaid programs affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, the legislation proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) falls far short of that marker, providing a gusher of new spending with no long-term reforms to the program. Conservatives should insist on better.

The House’s bill, introduced late in the night Wednesday, contains several noteworthy flaws. By increasing the federal Medicaid match for all states by 8 percentage points for the entire public health emergency, it prevents the targeting of assistance to those states most affected by coronavirus cases.

Increasing the federal match for able-bodied adults to 98 percent encourages states to prioritize these individuals over disabled populations, while discouraging states from rooting out fraud. The legislation also precludes states from making any changes to their Medicaid programs for the duration of the bailout, reinstituting the fiscal straight-jacket contained in President Obama’s “stimulus” bill.

Like that 2009 package, Pelosi’s legislation proposes tens of billions in new spending for an already-sprawling Medicaid program without any structural changes. But if Pelosi or conservatives wish to pay for the short-term largesse via long-term changes to Medicaid, they need not look far: President Obama’s budgets included several proposals that, if enacted into law, would change incentives in Medicaid for the better.

One area ripe for reform: Medicaid provider taxes. Hospitals and other medical providers often support these taxes—the only entities that ever endorse new taxes on themselves—because they immediately come right back to the health care industry, after states use the tax revenue to draw down additional Medicaid matching funds. In 2011, none other than Joe Biden reportedly called this form of legalized money laundering a “scam.”

At minimum, Congress should immediately enact a moratorium on any new provider taxes, or any increases in existing provider taxes, cutting off the spigot of federal dollars via this budget gimmick. Lawmakers can echo President Obama’s February 2012 budget submission, which would have saved $21.8 billion by reducing states’ maximum provider tax rate.

That proposal delayed its effective date by three years, “giv[ing] states more time to plan”—which would in this case delay the changes until the coronavirus outbreak subsides. Another positive solution: Codifying the Trump administration’s Medicaid fiscal accountability rule, which includes welcome reforms reining in states’ most egregious accounting gimmicks, effective a future date.

More broadly, Congress should also consider the ways the existing matching rate formula encourages additional Medicaid spending by states. For instance, current law provides all states with a minimum 50 percent match rate, encouraging richer states to spend more on Medicaid. Absent that floor, 14 states—11 of them blue—would face a lower match; Connecticut’s rate would plummet from 50 percent to 11.69 percent.

Gradually lowering or eliminating the federal floor on the match rate, beginning 2-3 years hence, would discourage wealthier states from growing their Medicaid programs beyond their, and the federal government’s, control. Had lawmakers enacted this proposal as part of the 2009 “stimulus,” New York—which would have a federal match rate of 34.49 percent in the current fiscal year absent the 50 percent minimum—might have right-sized its Medicaid program well before the program’s current budget crunch.

Alternatively, Congress could embrace Obama’s budget proposal for a blended Medicaid matching rate. Replacing the current morass of varying federal match rates for different populations could save money, and eliminate the perverse incentives included in Obamacare, which gives states a higher match rate to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities.

Judging from her initial bid in the “stimulus” wars, Pelosi has taken Rahm Emanuel’s advice never to let a serious crisis go to waste. If she wishes to emulate Obama’s first chief of staff, conservatives should insist that she also enact some of the Medicaid changes proposed in Obama’s own budgets, to begin the process of reforming the program.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Indian Health Service Scandal Shows Problems of Government-Run Care

As if voters didn’t have enough reasons to question government-run health care, the Wall Street Journal provided yet another last week. The paper ran a lengthy expose highlighting numerous cases of doctors previously accused of negligence receiving “second chances” in the government-run Indian Health Service (IHS), resulting in incidents wherein at least 66 patients died in IHS care.

Earlier this year, the Journal ran a separate investigative article explaining how the Indian Health Service repeatedly ignored warnings about a physician accused of sexually abusing patients, moving him from hospital to hospital. Together, these articles describe a broken culture within the Indian Health Service, demonstrating how government-run health systems provide poor-quality care, often harming rather than helping vulnerable patients.

Examples of Negligent Physicians Harming Patients

The Journal examined records from the Treasury’s Judgment Fund, which pays awards in malpractice cases wherein the federal government — in this case, the Indian Health Service — functions as the defendant. The reporters then cross-referenced the physicians involved in those cases with prior malpractice cases and disciplinary actions taken prior to the doctors joining the IHS. The results should shock patients:

  • A doctor “thrust into medical exile” after five medical malpractice settlements in five years, including a rejection by a Nevada licensing board, ended up finding work in the Indian Health Service, where the federal government had to pay an additional five malpractice claims on his behalf. The physician, who had previously left a sponge inside a patient’s breast (among other incidents) before going to work with the Indian Health Service, gashed an IHS patient’s bile duct, causing four liters of digestive fluid to leak into her abdomen and sending her into septic shock.
  • An obstetrician with a history of five malpractice settlements totaling $2.7 million, and sanctions from the California medical board stemming from a patient who bled to death following a caesarean section, found employment in the Indian Health Service. A year after his hire, a baby died in the womb because this doctor failed to treat his mother’s high blood pressure. IHS officials later concluded that the doctor’s history “forshadow[ed] the tragic events that transpired in October 2017.” The physician admitted to the Journal, “I just did not address patients’ primary medical needs in a satisfactory way.” But he still applied for and received a position with the IHS.
  • A surgeon sued for malpractice 11 times over an eight-year period while living in Pennsylvania later got a job with the Indian Health Service in New Mexico. There he “allegedly cut a tube connecting a patient’s liver to his stomach and punctured the man’s intestines during a 2008 gallbladder surgery.” The patient later died.
  • A physician disciplined in both Florida and New York for prescribing pain pills for her boyfriend — up to 1,350 oxycodone pills in a single day — was hired by the Indian Health Service because she had a “clean” medical license in Pennsylvania. While working for the IHS, she sent a patient complaining of dizziness home with a diagnosis of pink-eye. Days later, the patient suffered a stroke that has left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. The federal government settled the subsequent malpractice case for $1 million because “hospital officials said in interviews that the doctor’s background made the case hard to defend.”
  • Another surgeon with nearly a dozen malpractice suits and a suspension for sexually abusing a patient during an exam received a job with the Indian Health Service. During his time as an IHS employee, the federal government paid a judgment exceeding $600,000 “over a colostomy the doctor performed that spilled fecal matter under a patient’s skin” and a $500,000 settlement for a botched hernia repair.
  • An obstetrician with at least seven reports in the National Practitioner Data Bank, including North Carolina sanctions over a potential sexual relationship with a patient, got a job with the Indian Health Service. In 2013, the doctor “struggled to deliver a baby” at an IHS facility. The baby developed an irregular heartbeat and died. The federal government paid a $900,000 malpractice claim because “a medical board reprimand later said [the doctor] should have resorted to a [caesarean] section ‘hours earlier.’”
  • A surgeon who lost his medical license in Illinois for “gross negligence” got another chance at a New Mexico IHS facility. “Two months after he arrived as the [IHS] hospital’s chief of surgery, he allegedly punctured a patient’s intestines during a surgery.” The patient ended up needing a dozen surgeries — which she wisely obtained outside the Indian Health Service — and a four-month hospital stay to recover.

Bureaucratic Nightmares

The Journal article also explained the circumstances by which all these physicians with histories of multiple malpractice claims or disciplinary actions came to work in the Indian Health Service. First, while the agency’s policies require hiring managers to consult the National Practitioner Data Bank for a physician’s history of malpractice claims or sanctions, the IHS does not monitor compliance with that requirement.

In one case, the CEO of a hospital who fired a surgeon for negligence said she “encourag[ed] him to consider another field of medicine than surgery.” However, the CEO didn’t know the surgeon had ended up practicing at an IHS facility until the Journal contacted her — because IHS apparently failed to investigate the surgeon’s history before hiring him.

Second, the federal government covers physicians’ malpractice claims through the Treasury’s Judgment Fund (the way the Journal reporters researched the hysicians’ history). Because IHS doctors don’t need to pay for malpractice insurance themselves — what one survey of IHS physicians considered the top benefit of working at the agency — it has become an effective “dumping ground” for physicians whose history of prior malpractice claims means they cannot obtain insurance on their own. IHS patients and federal taxpayers often end up paying the price, both literally and figuratively.

Poor Reimbursements Equal Poor Care

One former IHS official admitted that hiring managers have to make compromises when hiring physicians: “You get three candidates who come through and they all seem not great. But what you do is choose the lesser of three evils.” Hiring those “lesser evils” led to disastrous and often fatal consequences for dozens upon dozens of Indian Health Service patients.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., says she wants to extend government-run health care to the rest of the United States. But rather than apologizing to Native Americans for DNA tests, she should instead apologize for the horrid conditions within the Indian Health Service, promise to replace that broken system with something that works, and vow not to wreak on the rest of the American health-care system the kind of havoc Native populations have faced for years.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Questions about the Alexander-Murray Bill

Upon its unveiling last week, the health insurance “stabilization” measure drafted by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) received praise from some lawmakers. For instance, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stated that “health care reform ought to be the product of regular order in the Senate, and the bill [the sponsors] introduced today is an important step towards that end.”

Unfortunately, the process to date has not resembled the “regular order” its sponsors have claimed. Drafted behind closed doors, by staff for a committee with only partial jurisdiction over health care, the bill’s provisions remained in flux as of last week. Moreover, the bill apparently will not undergo a mark-up or other committee action before the bill is either considered on the Senate floor—or, as some have speculated, “air-dropped” into a massive catch-all spending bill, where it will receive little to no legislative scrutiny.

Why didn’t Alexander know his bill provided taxpayer funding of abortion coverage?

Following my article last week highlighting how the cost-sharing reduction payments appropriated in the legislation would represent taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion, a reporter for the Catholic-run Eternal Word Television Network interviewed senators Alexander and Murray (along with myself) about the issue.

Alexander told reporter Jason Calvi that he “hadn’t discussed” the life issue with staff, indicating he had little inkling of the effects of the legislation he sponsored:

Alexander then claimed that “I’m sure the president will address” the abortion funding issue. But executive action—which a future president can always rescind—is no substitute for legislative language. The pro-life community derided President Obama’s executive order designed to segregate abortion payments and federal funding as an accounting sham.

As I wrote in June, Republican leaders—including Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Mike Pence, the current vice president—clearly noted during debates on Obamacare that the law would provide for taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. The Alexander-Murray bill would do likewise unless and until the legislation includes an explicit ban on abortion funding.

Who inserted the earmark for Minnesota into the legislation?

Call it the “Klobuchar Kickback,” call it the “Golden Gopher Giveaway,” but Section 2(b) of the bill contains provisions relevant only to Minnesota. Specifically, that provision would allow a state’s basic health program—which states can establish for individuals with incomes between 133 and 200 percent of the federally defined poverty level—to receive “pass-through” block grant funding under a waiver.

Currently, only New York and Minnesota have implemented basic health programs, and of those two states, only Minnesota has also sought a state innovation waiver under Obamacare. Last month, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), in approving Minnesota’s application for an innovation waiver, said it could not allow the state to receive “pass through” funds equal to spending on the basic health program, because the statute did not permit such an arrangement. The Alexander-Murray bill would explicitly permit basic health program spending to qualify for the “pass through” arrangement, allowing Minnesota—the only state with such an arrangement—to benefit.

Will a committee mark up the Alexander-Murray bill?

Alexander notably demurred on this topic when asked last week. One reason: As Politico has noted, it remains unclear whether or the extent to which Alexander’s committee has jurisdiction over the legislation he wrote. Revisions to the Obamacare state innovation waiver process comprise roughly half of the 26-page bill, yet the Senate HELP Committee shares jurisdiction over those matters with the Senate Finance Committee, whose chairman has derided legislation giving cost-sharing payments to insurers as a “bailout.”

Even as he praised the Alexander-Murray bill as a return to “regular order,” McCain—himself a committee chairman—doubtless would take issue with another committee “poaching” the Senate Armed Services panel’s jurisdiction, or failing to hold a mark-up entirely. Yet the process regarding the Alexander-Murray bill could include two noteworthy legislative “shortcuts”—which some may view as a deviation from “regular order.”

Are HELP Committee staff still re-writing the legislation?

A close review of the documents indicates that HELP Committee staff made changes to the bill even after Alexander and Murray announced their agreement last Tuesday. The version of the bill obtained by Axios and released last Tuesday evening—version TAM17J75, per the notation made in the top left corner of the bill text by the Office of Legislative Counsel—differs from the version (TAM17K02) publicly released by the HELP Committee on Thursday.

The revisions to the legislation, coupled with Alexander’s apparent lack of understanding regarding its implications, raise questions about what other “surprises” may lurk within its contents. For all the justifiable complaints regarding the lack of transparency over Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation earlier this year, the process surrounding Alexander-Murray seems little changed—and far from “regular order.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Graham-Cassidy’s Funding Formula Gives Washington Unprecedented Power

The past several days have seen competing analyses over the block-grant funding formula proposed in health-care legislation by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). The bill’s sponsors have one set of spreadsheets showing the potential allocation of funds to states under their plan, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has another, and consultants at Avalere (funded in this case by the liberal Center for American Progress) have a third analysis quantifying which states would gain or lose under the bill’s funding formula.

So who’s right? Which states will end up the proverbial winners and losers under the Graham-Cassidy bill? The answer is simple: Nope.

While the bill’s proponents claim the legislation will increase state authority, in reality the bill gives unelected bureaucrats the power to distribute nearly $1.2 trillion in taxpayer dollars unilaterally. In so doing, the bill concentrates rather than diminishes Washington’s power—and could set the course for the “mother of all backroom deals” to pass the legislation.

A Complicated Spending Formula

To start with, the bill repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and exchange subsidies, effective in January 2020. It then replaces those two programs with a block grant totaling $1.176 trillion from 2020 through 2026. All else equal, this set of actions would disadvantage states that expanded Medicaid, because the Medicaid expansion money currently being received by 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) would be re-distributed among all 50 states.

From there the formula gets more complicated. (You can read the sponsors’ description of it here.) The bill attempts to equalize per-person funding among all states by 2026, with funds tied to a state’s number of individuals with incomes between 50 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level.

Thus far, the formula carries a logic to it. For years conservatives have complained that Medicaid’s match rate formula gives wealthy states more incentives to draw down federal funds than poor states, and that rich states like New York and New Jersey have received a disproportionate share of Medicaid funds as a result. The bill’s sponsors claim that the bill “treats all Americans the same no matter where they live.”

Would that that claim were true. Page 30 of the bill demonstrates otherwise.

The Trillion-Dollar Loophole

Page 30 of the Graham-Cassidy bill, which creates a “state specific population adjustment factor,” completely undermines the rest of the bill’s funding formula:

IN GENERAL.—For calendar years after 2020, the Secretary may adjust the amount determined for a State for a year under subparagraph (B) or (C) and adjusted under subparagraphs (D) and (E) according to a population adjustment factor developed by the Secretary.

The bill does say that HHS must develop “legitimate factors” that affect state health expenditures—so it can’t allocate funding based on, say, the number of people who own red socks in Alabama. But beyond those two words, pretty much anything goes.

The bill says the “legitimate factors” for population adjustment “may include state demographics, wage rates, [and] income levels,” but it doesn’t limit the factors to those three characteristics—and it doesn’t limit the amount that HHS can adjust the funding formula to reflect those characteristics either. If a hurricane like Harvey struck Texas three years from now, Secretary Tom Price would be within his rights under the bill to cite a public health emergency and dedicate 100 percent of the federal grant funds—which total $146 billion in 2020—solely to Texas.

That scenario seems unlikely, but it shows the massive and virtually unprecedented power HHS would have under the bill to control more than $1 trillion in federal spending by executive fiat. To top it off, pages 6 through 8 of the bill create a separate pot of $25 billion — $10 billion for 2019 and $15 billion for 2020 — and tell the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure” for allocating the funds. That’s another blank check of $25,000,000,000 in taxpayer funds, given to federal bureaucrats to spend as they see fit.

Backroom Deals Ahead

With an unprecedented level of authority granted to federal bureaucrats to determine how much funding states receive, you can easily guess what’s coming next. Unnamed Senate staffers already invoked strip-club terminology in July, claiming they would “make it rain” on moderates with hundreds of billions of dollars in “candy.” Under the current version of the bill, HHS staff now have virtual carte blanche to promise all sorts of “state specific population adjustment factors” to influence the votes of wavering senators.

The potential for even more backroom deals than the prior versions of “repeal-and-replace” demonstrates the pernicious power that trillions of dollars in spending delivers to Washington. Draining the swamp shouldn’t involve distributing money from Washington out to states, whether under a simple formula or executive discretion. It should involve eliminating Washington’s role in doling out money entirely.

That’s what Republicans promised when they said they would repeal Obamacare—to end the law’s spending, not work on “spreading the wealth around.” That’s what they should deliver.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Lindsey Graham’s “State Flexibility” Plan Falls Short

Shortly after more Republican senators announced their opposition to the current “repeal-and-replace” measure Monday evening, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) took to Twitter to promote his own health-care plan. He claimed that “getting money and power out of Washington and returning it to the states is the best hope for innovative health care,” adding that such moves were an “antidote to 1-SIZE FITS ALL approach embraced in Obamacare.”

There’s just one problem: Graham’s proposal doesn’t get power out of Washington, and it doesn’t fundamentally change the one-size-fits-all Obamacare approach. It also illustrates moderates’ selective use of federalism in the health-care debate, whereby they want other senators to respect their states’ decisions on Medicaid expansion, but want to dictate to other senators how those senators’ states should regulate health insurance.

Pre-Existing Conditions Are the Problem

When it comes to one of Obamacare’s costliest insurance regulations, Washington would still be calling the shots. That significant caveat echoes an existing waiver program under Obamacare, which in essence allows states to act any way they like on health care—so long as they’re implementing the goals of Obamacare. The Graham plan continues that tradition of fraudulent federalism of Washington using states as mere vassals accomplishing objectives it dictates, but perhaps with slightly more flexibility than under Obamacare itself.

This Is Not Repeal

As I have written before, the repeal debate comes down to an inconvenient truth for many Republicans: They can repeal Obamacare, or they can keep the status quo on pre-existing conditions—but they cannot do both. Keeping the requirements on pre-existing conditions necessitates many of the other Obamacare regulations and mandates, which necessitates subsidies (because otherwise coverage would become unaffordable for most Americans), which necessitates tax increases to pay for the subsidies—and you’re left with something approaching Obamacare, regardless of what you call it.

There’s no small amount of irony in moderates’ position on pre-existing conditions. Not only is it fundamentally incongruous with repeal—which most of them voted for only two years ago—but it’s fundamentally inconsistent with their position on Medicaid expansion as well. Why do senators like Lisa Murkowski want to protect their states’ decisions to expand Medicaid, yet dictate to other states how their insurance markets should function, by keeping regulation of health insurance at the federal level?

True Federalism the Solution

If senators—whether Graham, Murkowski, or others—want to promote federalism, then they should actually promote federalism. That means repealing all of the Obamacare mandates driving up premiums, and letting states decide whether they want to have Obamacare, a free-market system, or something else within their borders.

After all, New York did an excellent job running its insurance market into the ground through over-regulation well before Obamacare. It didn’t even need a guide from Washington. If states decide they like the Obamacare regulatory regime, they can easily re-enact it on the state level. But Washington politicians shouldn’t presuppose to arrogate that power to themselves.

In 1947, the McCarran-Ferguson Act codified a key principle of the Tenth Amendment, devolving regulation of health insurance to the states. Barring a few minor intrusions, Washington stayed out of the health insurance business for more than six decades—until Obamacare. It’s time to bring that principle of state regulation back, by repealing the Obamacare insurance regulations and restoring state sovereignty. Graham has the right rhetoric. Now he just needs the policy deeds to match his words.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Reading Guide to the Senate Bill’s Backroom Deals

Buried within the pages of the revised Senate health-care bill are numerous formula tweaks meant to advantage certain states. Call them backroom deals, call them earmarks, call them whatever you like: several provisions were inserted into the bill over the past two weeks with the intent of appealing to certain constituents.

It appears that at least three of these provisions apply to Alaska—home of wavering Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—and another applies to Louisiana, home of undecided Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). Below please find a summary (not necessarily exhaustive) of these targeted provisions.

The Buy Off Lisa Murkowski Again Fund

The Alaskan Pipeline

The revised Section 126 of the bill includes modified language—page 44, lines 9 through 17—changing certain Medicaid payments to hospitals based on a state’s overall uninsured population, not its Medicaid enrollment. As Bloomberg noted, this provision would also benefit Alaska, because Alaska recently expanded its Medicaid program, and therefore would qualify for fewer dollars under the formula in the original base bill.

The Moral Hazard Expansion

The underlying bill determined Medicaid per capita caps based on eight consecutive fiscal quarters—i.e., two years—of Medicaid spending. However, the revised bill includes language beginning on line 6 of page 59 that would allow “late expanding Medicaid states”—defined as those who expanded between and July 1, 2015 and September 30, 2016—to base their spending on only four consecutive quarters. Relevant states who qualify under this definition include Alaska (expanded effective September 1, 2015), Montana (expanded effective January 1, 2016), and Louisiana (expanded effective July 1, 2016).

The most recent actuarial report on Medicaid noted that, while the actuary originally predicted that adults in the expansion population would cost less than existing populations, in reality each newly eligible enrollee cost 13.6 percent more than existing populations in 2016. Some states have used the 100 percent federal match for their expansion populations—i.e., “free money from Washington”—to raise provider reimbursement levels. Therefore, allowing these three states to use only the quarters under which they had expanded Medicaid as their “base period” will likely allow them to draw down higher payments from Washington in perpetuity.

The South Dakota Purchase

The Buffalo Bribe

This provision, originally included in the House-passed bill, remains in the Senate version, beginning at line 12 of page 69. Originally dubbed the “Buffalo Bribe,” and inserted at the behest of congressmen from upstate New York, the provision would essentially penalize that state if it continues to require counties to contribute to the Medicaid program’s costs.

More to Come?

While the current bill contains at least half a dozen targeted provisions, many more could be on the way. By removing repeal of the net investment tax and Medicare “high-income” tax, the bill retains over $230 billion in revenue. Yet the revised bill spends far less than that—$70 billion more for the Stability Fund, $43 billion more in opioid funding, and a new $8 billion demonstration project for home and community-based services in Medicaid.

Even after the added revenue loss from additional health savings account incentives, Senate leadership could have roughly $100 billion more to spend in their revised bill draft—which of course they will. Recall too that the original Senate bill allowed for nearly $200 billion in “candy” to distribute to persuade wayward lawmakers. In both number and dollar amount, the number of “deals” to date may dwarf what’s to come.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.

On Health Care, Federalism to the Rescue

Temporary setbacks can often yield important knowledge that leads to more meaningful accomplishments—a lesson senators should remember while pondering the recent fate of their health-care legislation. This past week, frictions caused by federalism helped create the legislative stalemate, but the forces of federalism can also pave the way for a solution.

Moderates opposed to the bill raised two contradictory objections. Senators whose states expanded Medicaid lobbied hard to keep that expansion in their home states. Those same senators objected to repealing all of Obamacare’s insurance mandates and regulations, insisting that all other states keep adhering to a Washington-imposed standard.

The High Prices Are The Fault of Too Many Rules

As the Congressional Budget Office score of the legislation indicates, the lack of regulatory relief under the bill would create real problems in insurance markets. Specifically, CBO found that low-income individuals likely would not purchase coverage, because such individuals would face a choice between low-premium plans with unaffordable deductibles or low-deductible plans with unaffordable premiums.

The budget analysts noted that this affordability dilemma has its roots in Obamacare’s mandated benefits package. Because of the Obamacare requirements not repealed under the bill, insurers would be “constrained” in their ability to offer plans that, for instance, provide prescription drug coverage or coverage for a few doctor visits before meeting the (high) deductible.

CBO concluded that the waiver option available under the Senate bill would, if a state chose it, ease the regulatory constraints on insurers “at least somewhat.” But those waivers only apply to some—not all—of the Obamacare regulations, and could be subject to changes in the political climate. With governors able to apply for—and presumably withdraw from—the waiver program unilaterally, states’ policy decisions could swing rapidly, and in ways that exacerbate uncertainty and instability.

If You Want Obamacare, You Can Enact It at the State Level

On Medicaid, conservatives have already granted moderates significant concessions, allowing states to keep their expansions in perpetuity. The controversy now stems around whether the federal government should continue to keep paying states a higher federal match to cover childless adults than individuals with disabilities—a proposition that tests standards of fairness and equity.

However, critics of the bill’s changes to Medicaid raise an important point. As CBO noted, states “would not have additional flexibility” under the per capita caps created by the bill to manage their Medicaid programs. Without that flexibility, states might face greater pressure to find savings with a cleaver rather than a scalpel—cutting benefits, lowering reimbursement rates, or restricting eligibility, rather than improving care.

Several years ago, a Medicaid waiver granted to Rhode Island showed what flexibility can do for a state, reducing per-beneficiary spending for several years in a row by better managing care, not cutting it. When revising the bill, senators should give all Medicaid programs the flexibility Rhode Island received from the Bush administration when it applied for its waiver in 2009. They should also work to ensure that the bill will not fiscally disadvantage states that choose the additional flexibility of a block grant compared to the per capita caps.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.