Is Donald Trump “Sabotaging” Obamacare?

Is Donald Trump “sabotaging” Obamacare? And are he and his administration violating the law to do so?

Democrats intend to make this issue a prime focus of their political messaging ahead of the November elections. And several developments over the month of August — a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, a New York Times op-ed by two legal scholars, and a lawsuit filed by several cities — all include specific points and charges related to that theme.

1. The GAO Report

The most recent data point comes from the GAO, which at the behest of several congressional Democrats analyzed the administration’s outreach efforts during the most recent open enrollment period last fall. Those efforts culminated in a report GAO released Thursday.

The report made a persuasive case that the administration’s decision to reduce and re-prioritize funding for enrollment navigators utilized flawed data and methods. While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) based navigators’ 2018 funding on their effectiveness in enrolling individuals in coverage in prior years, GAO noted that HHS lacked solid data on navigators’ enrollment on which to base 2018 funding, and that enrollment was but one of navigators’ stated goals in prior years. HHS agreed with GAO’s recommendation that it should provide clearer goals and performance metrics for navigators to meet.

GAO also recommended that the administration reinstitute an overall enrollment target, as one way to determine the adequate distribution of resources during open enrollment. However, a cynic might note that Obamacare advocates, including the Democratic lawmakers who requested the report, may want the Trump administration to publicize an enrollment target primarily so they can attack HHS if the department does not achieve its goals.

Even though reporters and liberals like Andy Slavitt cried foul last year when HHS announced planned maintenance time for healthcare.gov in advance, actual downtime for the site dropped precipitously in 2018 compared to 2017. Which could lead one to ask who is sabotaging whom.

2. The New York Times Article

In The New York Times piece, law professors Nicholas Bagley and Abbe Gluck provide an overview of the lawsuit filed against the Trump Administration (about which more below). As someone who has cited Bagley’s work in the past, I find the article unpersuasive, even disappointing.

Take for instance some of the article’s specific allegations:

Here’s one: “To make it harder for people to enroll in Obamacare plans, for example, the administration shortened the open enrollment period on the health care exchanges from three months to six weeks.”

This charge would have evaporated entirely had Bagley specified which Administration first proposed shortening the open enrollment period to six weeks. The Obama Administration did just that.

This rule also establishes dates for the individual market annual open enrollment period for future benefit years. For 2017 and 2018, we will maintain the same open enrollment period we adopted for 2016—that is, November 1 of the year preceding the benefit year through January 31 of the benefit year, and for 2019 and later benefit years, we are establishing an open enrollment period of November 1 through December 15 of the year preceding the benefit year.

The Trump administration merely took the shorter open enrollment period that the Obama team proposed for 2019 and accelerated it by one year. If shortening the enrollment period would make it so much “harder for people to enroll in Obamacare plans,” as Bagley and Gluck claim, then why did the Obama Administration propose this change?

Another allegation: “To sow chaos in the insurance markets, Mr. Trump toyed for nine months with the idea of eliminating a crucial funding stream for Obamacare known as cost-sharing payments. After he cut off those funds, he boasted that Obamacare was ‘being dismantled.’”

This charge seems particularly specious — because Bagley himself has admitted that Obamacare lacks a constitutional appropriation for the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. Bagley previously mentioned that he took no small amount of grief from the left for conceding that President Obama had exceeded his constitutional authority. For him to turn around and now claim that Trump violated his constitutional authority by ending unconstitutional payments represents a disingenuous argument.

Here and elsewhere, Bagley might argue that Trump’s rhetoric — talk of Obamacare “being dismantled,” for instance — suggests corrupt intent. I will gladly stipulate that presidential claims Obamacare is “dead” are both inaccurate and unhelpful. But regardless of what the President says, if the President does what Bagley himself thinks necessary to comport with the Constitution, how on earth can Bagley criticize him for violating his oath of office?

A third allegation:

This month, the Trump administration dealt what may be its biggest blow yet to the insurance markets. In a new rule, it announced that insurers will have more latitude to sell ‘short-term’ health plans that are exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s rules. These plans … had previously been limited to three months.

Under Mr. Trump’s new rule, however, such plans can last for 364 days and can be renewed for up to three years. … In effect, these rules are creating a cheap form of ‘junk’ coverage that does not have to meet the higher standards of Obamacare. This sort of splintering of the insurance markets is not allowed under the Affordable Care Act as Congress drafted it.

This claim also fails on multiple levels. First, if Congress wanted to prohibit “short-term” health plans as part of Obamacare, it could have done so. Congress chose first to allow these plans to continue to exist, and second to exempt these plans from all of Obamacare’s regulatory regime. If Bagley and Gluck have an objection to the splintering of insurance markets, then they should take it up with Congress.

Second, the so-called “new rule” Bagley and Gluck refer to only reverts back to a definition of short-term coverage that existed under the Obama Administration. This definition existed for nearly two decades, from when Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) through 2016. The Obama administration published a rule intended to eliminate much of the market for this type of coverage — but it did so only in the fall of that year, more than two years after Obamacare’s major coverage provisions took effect.

As with the shortening of the open enrollment period discussed above, if Bagley and Gluck want to scream “Sabotage!” regarding the Trump administration’s actions, they also must point the finger at Barack Obama for similar actions. That they did not suggests the partisan, and ultimately flawed, nature of their analysis.

3. The Lawsuit

The 128-page complaint filed by the city plaintiffs earlier this month makes some of the same points as the New York Times op-ed. It also continues the same pattern of blaming the Trump administration for actions previously taken by the Obama administration.

The lawsuit criticizes numerous elements of the administration’s April rule setting out the payment parameters for the 2019 Exchange year. For instance, it criticizes the removal of language requiring Exchanges to provide a direct notification to individuals before discontinuing their eligibility for subsidies, if individuals fail to reconcile the subsidies they received in prior years with the amount they qualified for based on their income. (Estimated subsidies, which are based on projected income for a year, can vary significantly from the actual subsidy levels one qualifies for, based on changes in income due to a promotion, change in life status, etc.)

As part of this charge, the lawsuit includes an important nugget: The relevant regulation “was amended in 2016 to specify that an Exchange may not deny [subsidies] under this provision ‘unless direct notification is first sent to the tax filer.’” As with the New York Times op-ed outlined above, those claiming “sabotage” are doing so because the Trump administration decided to revert to a prior regulatory definition used by the Obama administration for the first several years of Obamacare implementation.

The lawsuit similarly complains that the Trump administration is “making it harder to compare insurance plans” by eliminating support for “standardized options” from the Exchange. Here again, the complaint notes that “prior rules supported ‘standardized options,’” while mentioning only in a footnote that the rules implementing the “standardized options” took effect for the 2017 plan year. In other words, the Obama administration did not establish “standardized options” for the 2014, 2015, or 2016 plan years. Were they “sabotaging” Obamacare by failing to do so?

The suit continues with these types of claims, which collectively amount to legalistic whining that the Trump administration has not implemented Obamacare in a manner the (liberal) plaintiffs would support. It even includes this noteworthy assertion:

Maryland has been cleared by state legislators to petition CMS to ‘establish a reinsurance program that would create a pot of money for insurers to cover the most expensive claims,’ but a health economist ‘said he would be shocked if the Trump administration approved such a request, given its efforts to weaken Obamacare’: ‘It just seems very unlikely to me that Trump would approve this. … Maryland is easily saying we want to help prop up Obamacare, which the Trump administration doesn’t want to have anything to do with.’

Fact: The Trump administration just approved Maryland’s insurance waiver this week. So much for that “sabotage.”

A review of its “prayer for relief” — the plaintiffs’ request for actions the court should take — shows the ridiculously sweeping nature of the lawsuit’s claims. Among other things, the plaintiffs want the court to order the defendants to “comply with their constitutional obligation to take care to faithfully execute the ACA,” including by doing the following:

  • “Expand, rather than suppress, the number of individuals and families obtaining health insurance through ACA exchanges;
  • “Reduce, rather than increase, premiums for health insurance in the ACA exchanges;
  • “Promote, rather than diminish, the availability of comprehensive, reasonably-priced health insurance for individuals and families with preexisting conditions;
  • “Encourage, rather than discourage, individuals and families to obtain health insurance that provides the coverage that Congress, in the ACA, determined is necessary to protect American families against the physical and economic devastation that results from lesser insurance, with limits on coverage that leaves them unable to cover the costs of an accident or unexpected illness…
  • “Order Defendants to fully fund advertising under the ACA;
  • “Enjoin Defendants from producing and disseminating advertisements that aim to undermine the ACA;
  • “Order Defendants to fully fund Navigators under the ACA;
  • “Enjoin Defendants from incentivizing Navigators to advertise non-ACA compliant plans;
  • “Order Defendants to lengthen the open enrollment period;
  • “Order Defendants to resume participation in enrollment events and other outreach activities under the ACA…
  • “Order Defendants to process states’ waiver applications under the ACA so as to faithfully implement the Act.”

In other words, the lawsuit asks a court to micro-manage every possible element of implementation of a 2,700-page law — tell HHS what it must say, what it must do, how much it must spend, and on and on. It would create de facto entitlements, by stating that HHS could never reduce funding for advertising and outreach, or lower spending on navigators, or reject states’ waiver applications — potentially even if those applications violate the law itself. And it asks for impossible actions — because HHS cannot unilaterally “expand, rather than suppress” the number of people with coverage, just as it cannot unilaterally “reduce, rather than increase, premiums.”

Despite its questionable claims, and the highly questionable remedies it seeks, the lawsuit may yet accomplish some of its goals. The complaint spends much of its time alleging violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, claiming that HHS did not “meaningfully” or “adequately” consider comments from individuals who objected to the regulatory changes in question. While I have not examined the relevant regulatory dockets in any level of detail, the (pardon the pun) trumped-up nature of elements of the complaint makes me skeptical of such assertions. That said, the administration has suffered several setbacks in court over complaints regarding the regulatory process, so the lawsuit may force HHS to ensure it has its proverbial “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed before proceeding with further changes.

Words Versus Actions

On many levels, the “sabotage” allegations try to use the president’s own words (and tweets) against him. Other lawsuits have done likewise, with varying degrees of success. As I noted above, the president’s rhetoric often does not reflect the actual reality that Obamacare remains much more entrenched than conservatives like myself would like.

But for all their complaints about the administration’s “sabotage,” liberals have no one to blame but themselves for the current situation. Obamacare gave a tremendous amount of authority to the federal bureaucracy to implement its myriad edicts. They should not be surprised when someone who disagrees with them uses that vast power to accomplish what they view as malign ends. Perhaps next time they should think again before proceeding down a road that gives government such significant authority. They won’t, but they should.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Andy Slavitt Sabotaged Obamacare

Over the weekend, former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) acting administrator and Obamacare defender Andy Slavitt took to Twitter to denounce what he viewed as the Trump administration’s “aggressive and needless sabotage” of the health care law:

Unfortunately for Slavitt, the facts suggest otherwise. The Trump administration took actions to comply with a federal court order that vacated rules promulgated by the Obama administration—including rules CMS issued when Slavitt ran the agency. If Slavitt wants to denounce the supposed “sabotage” of Obamacare, he need look no further than the nearest mirror.

What’s the Issue?

This legal dispute involves risk adjustment payments, one of the three “Rs” Obamacare created. Unlike the risk corridor and reinsurance programs, which lasted only from 2014 through 2016, Obamacare made the risk adjustment program permanent.

In general, risk adjustment transfers funds from insurers with healthier-than-average enrollment to insurers with sicker-than-average enrollment. Without risk adjustment, plans would have perverse incentives to avoid enrolling sick people, due to the Obamacare regulations that require insurers to accept all applicants, and prohibit them from charging higher premiums due to health status.

Since the Obamacare exchanges began operations in 2014, many newer and smaller insurers say that the federal risk adjustment formula unfairly advantages incumbent carriers—in many cases, local Blue Cross Blue Shield plans. The small carriers complain that larger insurers do a better job of documenting their enrollees’ health conditions (e.g., diabetes, etc.), entitling them to larger risk adjustment payments.

A July 2016 analysis concluded that “for most co-ops, these recently announced risk adjustment payments have made a bad situation worse, and for a subset, they may prove to be the proverbial last straw.” Indeed, most Obamacare co-ops failed, and the risk adjustment methodology proved one reason. Two co-ops—Minuteman Health in Massachusetts (now in receivership) and New Mexico Health Connections—sued to challenge the risk adjustment formula.

What Happened in the Lawsuits?

On January 30, a federal district court in Massachusetts ruled in favor of the federal government with respect to Minuteman Health’s case. Judge Dennis Saylor ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner when setting the risk adjustment formula.

However, a few weeks later, on February 28, another federal district court in New Mexico granted partial summary judgement in favor of New Mexico Health Connections, ruling that one element of the risk adjustment formula—the use of statewide average premium (discussed further below)—violated the Administrative Procedure Act as arbitrary and capricious. Judge James Browning vacated that portion of the risk adjustment formula for the years 2014 through 2018, and remanded the matter back to HHS and CMS for further proceedings.

If the Trump administration wanted to use the risk adjustment ruling to “sabotage” Obamacare, as people like Slavitt claim, it would have halted the program immediately after Browning issued his order in February. Instead, the administration on March 28 filed a motion to have Browning reconsider his decision in light of the contrary ruling in the Minuteman Health case.

The administration also asked Browning to lift his order vacating the risk adjustment formula, and just remand the matter to CMS/HHS instead. In that case, the rule would remain in effect, but the administration would have to alter it to comply with Browning’s ruling. However, at a June 21 hearing, Browning seemed disinclined to accept the government’s request—which likely led to the CMS announcement this weekend.

Who Issued ‘Arbitrary and Capricious’ Rules?

The Obama administration did, in all cases. Browning’s ruling vacated a portion of the risk adjustment formula for plan years 2014 through 2018 (i.e., the current one). Even though President Trump took office on January 20, 2017, the outgoing Obama administration rushed out rules for the 2018 plan year on December 22, 2016, with the rules taking effect just prior to Obama leaving office.

However, Browning believed the statute does not require budget neutrality—it does not prohibit it, nor does it require it. Therefore, the administration needed to provide a “policy rationale” for its budget neutrality assumption. For instance, HHS could have argued that, because Obamacare did not include a separate appropriation for the risk adjustment program, implementing risk adjustment in a budget neutral manner would prevent the diversion of taxpayer resources from other programs.

But as Browning noted, “the Court must rely upon the rationale the agency articulated in its internal proceedings and not upon post hoc reasoning.” HHS did not explain the reasoning behind budget neutrality in its final rules for the 2014 plan year, nor for several years thereafter.

While both the 2011 white paper and 2014 rules (the final version of which HHS released in March 2013) preceded the July 2014 start of Slavitt’s tenure in senior management at CMS, the agency released rules for the 2016, 2017, and 2018 plan years on his watch. If Slavitt believes “sabotage” occurred as a result of Browning’s court ruling, he should accept his share of the responsibility for it, by issuing rules that a federal judge struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Ironically, as one observer noted, the federal government “argued that the court’s ruling as it applies to the 2018 benefit year should be set aside because the agency responded directly to comments regarding its rationale for budget neutrality in the final 2018 payment rule.” However, Browning held that “subsequent final rules” did “not elaborate further on [HHS’] budget neutrality rationale,” and struck down the 2018 rule along with the rules for 2014 through 2017.

Browning’s decision to strike down the 2018 rule demonstrates Slavitt’s “sabotage.” HHS released that rule months after Minuteman Health and New Mexico Health Connections filed their lawsuits, and thus had adequate time to adjust the rule in response to their claims. Regardless, Browning thought the agency did not elaborate upon or justify its policy reasoning regarding budget neutrality in the risk adjustment program—a direct swipe at Slavitt’s inability to manage the regulatory process inside his agency.

What Would Andy Slavitt Do Instead?

On Friday night, Slavitt claimed that an interim final rule could “clarify and resolve everything:”

However, on Sunday, Slavitt tweeted a link to a New York Times article entitled “A Fatal Flaw as Trump Tries to Remake Health Care: Shortcuts.” That article cited several court cases “that the Administration has lost [that] have a common theme: Federal judges have found that the Administration cut corners in trying to advance its political priorities.” It continues:

Two federal courts blocked Trump Administration rules that would have allowed employers who provide health insurance to employees to omit contraceptive coverage if the employers had moral or religious objections. Two federal judges, in separate cases, said the Administration had violated the law by adopting the rules without a public comment period, which the Trump Administration had declared ‘impracticable and contrary to the public interest.’

Those rules regarding the contraception mandate that the Trump administration adopted “without a public comment,” and which were struck down as unlawful, were both interim final rules—the same type of rule Slavitt now wants to use to change the risk adjustment formula. (Interim final rules do require the agency to take comments, but go into effect on the date of their release—thus notice-and-comment occurs retroactively.)

Nicholas Bagley, an Obamacare supporter, explained at the time of their release why he thought the contraception rules would get stricken (as they were) for violating the notice-and-comment requirement. It’s certainly possible that the administration could use Browning’s ruling as a reason to justify forgoing notice-and-comment, and releasing an interim final rule

But it also makes sense that, given the series of legal setbacks the administration has suffered in recent weeks—and the Times article highlighted—officials at CMS and HHS would take a more cautious approach to issuing regulations, to ensure their actions withstand legal scrutiny.

More to the point, it’s disingenuous of Slavitt to tweet an article criticizing the Trump administration for using interim final rules to enact policies he dislikes, then accuse the administration of “sabotage” for not using that same expedited process for policies he likes. It’s even more disingenuous for Slavitt given that the legal dilemma the Trump administration faces regarding risk adjustment comes entirely from a mess they inherited from the Obama administration—and Slavitt himself.

On Sunday, Slavitt cited a conservative article that in his view “called out Trump’s motivation for ending risk adjustment and raise [sic] premiums on millions: Punishing a former President.” Maybe the next time Slavitt makes allegations about supposed “sabotage” by the Trump administration, he should get his facts straight—CMS’s announcement didn’t “end” the risk adjustment program; only Congress can do that—rather than making unfounded against the current president.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Ways Kathleen Sebelius Sabotaged the Rule of Law

Of all the people crying “sabotage” when it comes to Obamacare, Kathleen Sebelius might be the most qualified on the subject. Presiding over the disastrous “launch” of healthcare.gov in the fall of 2013, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius famously testified before Congress: “Hold me accountable for the debacle—I’m responsible.”

Likewise, in her claims this week that the Trump administration “has consistently tried to undermine the law that is the law of the land,” Sebelius knows of which she speaks. She presided over numerous actions that violated the text of Obamacare, and the Constitution, to thwart the will of Congress and undermine “the law of the land”—Obamacare as it was actually written, not as Democrats wished it were written—and the rule of law in general.

1. Unconstitutional ‘Like Your Plan’ Fix

As Sebelius presided over the healthcare.gov “debacle,” the Obama administration faced a serious political crisis. While the federally run exchange melted down, millions of Americans received cancellation notices in the mail, learning that because their plans did not meet Obamacare’s myriad new regulations, they would lose their coverage effective January 1, 2014.

The notices demonstrated the emptiness of Obama’s repeated promises that individuals who liked their plans could keep them—PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year.” Moreover, the malfunctioning website created the possibility that millions of Americans could lose their existing coverage while having no way to purchase a replacement policy.

In response to the uproar, the Obama administration essentially decided to take the law into its own hands. Sebelius’ department issued a memo saying it would refuse to enforce the law for certain categories of insurance policies, allowing states and insurers the latitude to maintain individuals’ prior coverage. Even supporters of Obamacare like Nicholas Bagley said the administration’s actions violated the Constitution—the executive refusing to enforce provisions of a law it found politically inconvenient.

2. Illegal Reinsurance Subsidies

The Government Accountability Office last year ruled that the Obama administration “undermined the law that is the law of the land,” as Sebelius alleges of the Trump administration. Specifically, GAO found that the Obama administration illegally prioritized health insurance companies over American taxpayers, funneling billions of reinsurance dollars that should have remained in the U.S. Treasury (to pay for a separate Obamacare program) to corporate welfare payments to insurance companies. After this rebuke from nonpartisan auditors, the Obama administration still made no attempt to comply with the law as interpreted by GAO.

If Sebelius is as concerned about “undermin[ing] the law that is the law of the land” as she claims, she should have publicly demanded that the Obama administration comply with the law, and the GAO ruling. She did no such thing then, and is unlikely to ask the Trump administration to claw back the corporate welfare payments to insurers now.

3. Unconstitutional Payments to Insurers

The Obama administration did not just violate the law in making payments to health insurers, it violated the Constitution as well. The text of Obamacare—“the law that is the law of the land,” in Sebelius’ words—included no appropriation making payments to insurers to reimburse them for cost-sharing reductions provided to individuals. The Obama administration made the payments anyway.

Ends and Means

Sebelius’ comments show a fundamental disconnect between means and ends. The Obama administration’s actions suggest a concern largely, if not solely, about signing up as many individuals for taxpayer-funded coverage as possible. If achieving that object meant violating the law, or the Constitution, so be it—the ends justified the means.

Sebelius’ real disagreement therefore doesn’t lie with the Trump administration on “undermining the law.” She did plenty of that herself, likely with full knowledge she was doing so. Instead, her true objection lies in the fact that the Trump may have different policy ends than ones she supports.

If Sebelius wants to espouse different policy positions than the current administration, that is her right. But given the ways in which the last administration repeatedly violated Obamacare to suit its own purposes, conservatives should take no lessons from Sebelius on how to avoid “undermining the law.” Physician, heal thyself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Restoring the Rule of Law to Obamacare

Over the last several months, this space has highlighted that President Trump has an opportunity and a challenge: Restoring the constitutional rule of law his predecessor often ignored. Such a move would require ending the Obama administration’s ad hoc rewriting of Obamacare, implementing the law as written—no more, no less.

Into that debate stepped the Conservative Action Project on Friday, with a memo noting that the president can and should lead on Obamacare. The title suggests a continuation of Obama’s “pen and a phone” mentality, emphasizing executive unilateralism in the face of Congress’ inability to pass “repeal-and-replace” legislation regarding Obamacare.

So Far Trump Is Perpetuating Obama’s Law-Breaking

For more than six months President Trump has continued his predecessor’s habit of violating the Constitution to disburse billions of unappropriated dollars to insurance companies. To both enforce the rule of law and end crony capitalist dealings between “Big Government” and “Big Insurance,” Trump should end the unconstitutional subsidies forthwith.

The CAP letter also rightly calls on Trump to “end the illegal diversion of money from the U.S. Treasury to insurance companies.” The Government Accountability Office ruled last September that the Obama administration had violated the text of Obamacare by prioritizing reinsurance payments to insurers over required payments to the Treasury. As with the cost-sharing subsidies, President Trump should put the rule of law—and taxpayers—ahead of insurance companies’ special interests.

The CAP document calls for President Trump to “continue to fight for repeal of the individual mandate,” but—thankfully—does not call for Trump to defang the mandate unilaterally. As I wrote back in January, when administration officials first suggested they may not enforce the mandate at all, “a Republican Administration should not be tempted to ‘use unilateral actions to achieve conservative ends.’ Such behavior represents a contradiction in terms.”

You Can’t Ignore the Law Because You Don’t Like It

In late 2013, President Obama faced political controversy for his “If you like your plan, you can keep it” broken promise, which became PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year. To stanch his political bleeding and solve the problem of millions of cancellation notices—along with a broken website preventing individuals with cancelled plans from buying new ones—Obama tried to pass the proverbial buck. He said his administration would allow states, if they chose, to let individuals keep their plans—temporarily. This purportedly “temporary” solution has been extended numerous times, and now is scheduled to expire at the end of 2018.

Unfortunately, as law professor (and Obamacare supporter) Nicholas Bagley has noted, Obama’s unilateral creation of these “grandmothered” health plans violated his constitutional duties as chief executive: “The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.”

To put it more bluntly, the president cannot decline to enforce the law because he finds himself in a political jam, whether due to a broken promise, a non-functioning website, or mere disagreement with the law in question. That principle applies as equally to President Trump as it does to President Obama. Trump’s extension of “grandmothered” plans violates the Constitution as much as President Obama’s did—and expanding those plans to include other forms of insurance would represent a further violation.

Unfortunately, however, President Trump has yet to enforce the law, or the Constitution, when it comes to Obamacare, having undone none of his predecessor’s illegal and extralegal acts. For this conservative, hope springs eternal, as tomorrow always brings another opportunity to do the right thing. Here’s to this administration finally realizing that the rule of law by definition means enforcing the laws one disagrees with—for that critical principle exceeds the value of any particular law, no matter how onerous or obscure.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Conservatives’ Choice: Power or Principle

In the days immediately preceding and following the November 8 election, I observed a distinct evolution in thinking among some rightist thinkers. Some went into the election pledging an outright rebellion in the Senate should a Majority Leader Chuck Schumer use the “nuclear option” to muscle through a Hillary Clinton Supreme Court nominee, but mere days later thought that a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should consider abolishing the filibuster to allow President Trump’s nominee a smoother path to confirmation.

One couldn’t help but hold on to one’s neck for the bad case of whiplash. Some who proudly defended the filibuster as a bastion of deliberative legislating when they feared Democrats would win the White House and take back the Senate suddenly, instead, when presented with a Republican Senate and president-elect, considered this principle a trifling inconvenience. Those situational ethics present a more fundamental question: Are conservatives willing to forego policy “victories” that might result from a raw use of power, when exercising that power violates critical philosophical principles rooted in a belief in limited government?

Not Within the Law

The new president’s executive order on Obamacare, released Friday evening, instructed executive agencies to take actions “to the maximum extent permitted by law” to blunt the effects of Obamacare. There are indeed many ways the Trump administration can act within the scope of existing law to provide relief to consumers, many of which I outlined in a report last week. But blanket non-enforcement of the individual mandate doesn’t qualify as being within the law, any more than President Obama’s policy of blanket non-enforcement for certain classes of immigrants fit within statutory parameters.

Observers have noted the last administration’s many examples of executive overreach on Obamacare have given the new administration grounds to provide regulatory relief on multiple fronts. But two wrongs do not make a right. Take, for instance, the following analysis:

The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.

The quote comes from a paper by University of Michigan professor Nicholas Bagley, talking about President Obama’s 2013 “transitional policy” that allowed people facing cancellation notices to temporarily keep their pre-Obamacare plans. But the same description could apply to not enforcing the individual mandate as well. Conservatives believe that forcing individuals to purchase a product is unconstitutional—but so is an executive refusing to enforce the law. Is the answer to a constitutional violation really another constitutional violation?

Major Practical Concerns

In many cases, non-enforcement could result in lawsuits. The Obama administration’s unilateral actions generally led to more people getting benefits—insurance subsidies, immigration status, etc.—which made it difficult to find someone with standing to sue.

By contrast, if the Trump administration decides (as some have suggested) to give insurers permission to sell policies that do not meet all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits, purchasers of said policies would have grounds to sue insurers. Obamacare’s mandated benefits are prescribed in law, and if the law is clear, its text trumps (pardon the pun) any regulatory edict from the new administration. Most insurers probably wouldn’t even bother offering such policies because of the legal jeopardy and uncertainty they would face in doing so.

Making Repeal Less Likely?

There’s another practical implication of not enforcing the mandate that should worry conservatives: ironically, it could make Obamacare’s repeal more difficult.

Over the past few weeks Washington has debated whether Congress should repeal Obamacare without enacting a simultaneous replacement. Some pundits have been forthright in admitting that they wish to do so because they fear some members of Congress have a different vision of what an alternative regime should look like. To put it bluntly, they wish to hold repeal hostage to their vision for an Obamacare “replacement.”

The executive unilaterally ending some of Obamacare’s worst effects—albeit temporarily—will take the pressure off members of Congress to do so themselves. The justifiable fear is that action on repeal will get bogged down by internecine squabbling over a vision for “replace,” making the sole movement on Obamacare an executive action—which any future president (or even the current one) could overturn.

Reinforce Congress’ Role

If President Trump unilaterally eliminating the individual mandate isn’t the answer, then what is? For conservatives, the solution should lie with the branch the Constitution’s Framers considered the most important: Congress, the legislative branch Article I of the Constitution establishes. Through its oversight powers, Congress has the ability to investigate and act upon regulatory overreach.

The last Congress was less feckless in blunting unilateral executive actions than some might think. Its preliminary victory in the case of House v. Burwell, regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies to insurers, set a critical precedent that Congress has the right to litigate on matters of constitutional import—namely, the executive (in this case, the Obama administration) spending funds without an express appropriation from Congress. Hopefully the Trump administration will vacate the Obama administration’s appeal of the District Court ruling, allowing this precedent to stand.

Obamacare Is Ultimately About Power

Obamacare was really never about health care so much as power—the power of government to regulate health care, tax health care, and force people to purchase health care (or at least health insurance). It seems somehow fitting that Obamacare gave the nation so many examples of executive unilateralism.

But to conservatives, the rule of law—in many ways the antithesis of raw power—stands pre-eminent. A Republican administration should not be tempted to “use unilateral actions to achieve conservative ends.” Such behavior represents a contradiction in terms. That’s why it’s important to watch the new administration’s actions closely in the coming days and weeks. Obamacare may not be worth keeping, but the rule of law is.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Explaining the Two Risk Corridor Bailouts

It never rains that it doesn’t pour. Even as nonpartisan experts at the Government Accountability Office concluded that the Obama administration broke the law with Obamacare’s reinsurance program, the Washington Post reported the administration could within weeks pay out a massive settlement to insurers through another Obamacare slush fund—this one, risk corridors.

The Post article quoted Republicans criticizing risk corridor “bailouts.” But in reality, the Obama administration itself has admitted using risk corridors as a bailout mechanism—trying to pay insurers to offset the costs of unilateral policy changes made to get President Obama out of a political jam. These two interlinked bailouts—one political, the other financial—explain this administration’s rush to pay off insurers on its way out the door.

Let’s Go Back to 2013

To fix the problem, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) tried a stopgap solution. Essentially, CMS said it would ignore the law’s requirements, and allow people to keep their prior coverage—albeit temporarily. States and insurers could allow individuals who purchased coverage after the law’s enactment, but before October 2013, to keep their plan for a few more months (later extended until December 2017). The final paragraph of CMS’ November 14, 2013 announcement of this policy included an important message:

Though this transitional policy was not anticipated by health insurance issuers when setting rates for 2014, the risk corridor program should help ameliorate unanticipated changes in premium revenue. We intend to explore ways to modify the risk corridor program final rules to provide additional assistance.

CMS offered insurers a quid pro quo: If you let Americans keep their existing plan a little longer—getting the administration out of the political controversy President Obama’s repeated falsehoods had caused—we’ll turn on the bailout taps on the back end to make you whole. You scratch my back…

I’ll Pay You Tax Dollars to Play

But this arrangement created several problems. First, CMS cannot decide that it just doesn’t feel like enforcing the law. In a paper analyzing the administration’s implementation of Obamacare, University of Michigan professor Nicholas Bagley called the non-enforcement of the law’s provisions “bald efforts to avoid unwanted consequences associated with full implementation of” the law. He argued the administration’s inaction abdicated the president’s constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed:”

The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.

That law-breaking brought with it major financial implications. While healthy individuals kept their existing plans and stayed out of the Obamacare risk pool, sicker individuals signed up in droves. Because the Obama administration unilaterally—and unlawfully—changed the rules after the exchanges had opened, insurers found they had substantially under-priced their products. A 2014 House Oversight Committee report found major impacts after the administration announced the “like your plan” fix:

Insurers immediately started lobbying for additional risk corridor payments, meeting with and e-mailing Valerie Jarrett the day after the Administration’s announcement;

Insurers actually enrolled many fewer young people, and many more older people, than their original estimates made before the Exchanges opened for business on October 1, 2013—consistent with other contemporaneous news reports and industry analyses; and

‘One insurer told the Committee that it expects greater risk corridor receipts because of a sicker risk pool than it anticipated on October 1, 2013 due, in part, to the President’s transitional policy.’

All these developments are entirely consistent with CMS’ November 2013 bulletin announcing the arrangement. CMS pledged to use risk corridors to make insurers whole because it knew insurers would suffer losses as a result of the administration’s unilateral—and illegal—“like your plan” fix.

How About You Pay for Me to Break the Law

To sum up: The administration conjured a political bailout. It pledged not to enforce the law, so people could keep their plans, and President Obama could get off the hook for misleading the American people. This necessitated a financial bailout through risk corridors. Actuaries can debate how much of the unpaid risk corridor claims stem from this specific policy change, but there can be no doubt that the “like your plan” fix increased those claims. CMS itself admitted as much when announcing the policy.

Ironically, Bagley admits the first bailout, but denies the second. His paper concedes the “like your plan” violated the law, and the president’s constitutional duties, largely for political reasons. But he believes the administration can, and should, pay outstanding risk corridor claims using the Judgment Fund. All of this raises an interesting question: Why should the executive be allowed to break the law, abdicate its constitutional obligations, and then force Congress—and ultimately taxpayers—to pay the tab for the financial consequences of that lawbreaking?

The answer is simple: It shouldn’t. While insurers stand in the middle of this tug-of-war, they could have acted differently when President Obama announced his “like your plan” fix. They could have cancelled all pre-Obamacare plans regardless of the president’s announced policy, demanded the opportunity to adjust their premium rates in response, pulled off the exchanges altogether, taken legal action against the administration—or all of the above. They chose instead to complain behind closed doors, get their lobbying machine to work, and hope to cut yet another backroom deal to save their bacon.

But there are two political parties, and two branches of government. To say that Congress should have to write bailout checks to insurers as a result of the executive’s lawbreaking quite literally adds injury—to taxpayers, to the legislative power of the purse, and to the separation of powers—to insult. Any judges to whom the administration will try to bless a risk corridor settlement with insurers should ask many questions about the linked bailouts motivating this corrupt bargain.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Responding to Nicholas Bagley on Risk Corridors

Over at the Incidental Economist, Nicholas Bagley has a post that finally acknowledges some legal precedent for the argument I and others have been making for months, most recently on Monday—that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to settle lawsuits regarding Obamacare’s risk corridors. I noted in my Monday post that three non-partisan sources have issued rulings agreeing with my argument: The Justice Department’s own Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the Comptroller General, and the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Unfortunately, Bagley mis-represented the first opinion, ignored the second entirely, and called the third one an outlier (which it isn’t) that he didn’t agree with.

While Bagley agrees that the Judgment Fund cannot be utilized where Congress has “otherwise provided for” payment, he argues that the circumstances where Congress has “otherwise provided for” payment are exceedingly rare. He claims “the Judgment Fund is unavailable only if Congress has designated an alternative source of funds to pay judgments arising from litigation.” [Emphasis original.]

Bagley alleges that the 1998 opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, cited in my Monday post, illustrates his point. He claims the OLC opinion “offers an example of how ‘specific and express’ a statute has to be before Congress will be understood to have ‘otherwise provided for’ the payment of money damages.” But, funny enough, he doesn’t quote from the memo itself. That might be because, as I noted on Monday, the memo contradicts Bagley:

The Judgment Fund does not become available simply because an agency may have insufficient funds at a particular time to pay a judgment. If the agency lacks sufficient funds to pay a judgment, but possesses statutory authority to make the payment, its recourse is to seek funds from Congress. Thus, if another appropriation or fund is legally available to pay a judgment or settlement, payment is “otherwise provided for” and the Judgment Fund is not available.

The memo says nothing about how specific and express a statute must be for the Judgment Fund not to apply, as Bagley claims. Instead, it sets up a rather broad rule of construction: If a source of funding exists to pay claims, the Judgment Fund cannot be used to pay claims—it only serves as a payer of last resort. If another source of funding exists, but lacks sufficient cash to pay the judgment in full, then Congress—and not the Judgment Fund or the courts—must fill in the deficit through a new appropriation.

The 1998 memo from the Justice Department mirrors another 1998 ruling by the Comptroller General—the keeper of the handbook of appropriations law. In that case, Congress had imposed appropriations restrictions prohibiting the federal government from paying the cost of re-running a Teamsters union election. This fact pattern mirrors the statutory restrictions Congress imposed to prevent additional taxpayer funds being used to bail out risk corridors. And the Comptroller General’s ruling made clear that the Judgment Fund could not be utilized to circumvent the appropriations restriction:

The costs of supervising the 1996 election rerun, like the 1996 election, are programmatic costs that, but for the restrictions in sections 619 and 518 of the 1998 Justice and Labor Appropriations Acts, would be payable from available Justice and Labor operating accounts. The fact that Congress has chosen to bar the use of funds made available in the 1998 Justice and Labor Appropriations Acts to pay the cost of the Election Officer’s supervision of the 1996 election rerun should not be viewed as an open invitation to convert the Judgment Fund from an appropriation to pay damage awards against the United States to a program account to circumvent congressional restrictions on the appropriations that would otherwise be available to cover these expenses. Accordingly, we believe that the Judgment Fund would not be available to pay such an order, even if the court were to award a specific sum equivalent to the actual or anticipated costs of supervising the rerun.

While Bagley chose to ignore this ruling entirely, the precedent again indicates that the Judgment Fund cannot be utilized as a “piggy bank”—in this case, that it cannot fund that which Congress has expressly forbidden.

Particularly viewed in combination with these other two rulings, the Congressional Research Service report then stands not as the anomaly Bagley portrays it, but as illustrating the consistent principle that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to circumvent appropriations decisions rightly within the purview of Congress. The CRS memo references the prior opinions by the Comptroller General and OLC discussed above, as well as a separate legal precedent involving payments under the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program. In that case, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also held that a lack of funds in program coffers did not make the Judgment Fund available—instead, the plaintiffs had to appeal to Congress for additional appropriations to pay claims.

Though Bagley does not admit it in his piece, all the non-partisan experts in appropriations law—the Comptroller General, the Congressional Research Service, and even the Justice Department’s own legal team—agree that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to pay claims where Congress has provided another avenue of payment. Despite this overwhelming evidence, Bagley attempts to argue that “every entitlement program has some source of appropriated funds, suggesting that the Judgment Fund would be unavailable in every lawsuit involving an entitlement.” [Emphasis original.]

Here again, Bagley errs—there are entitlements without a permanent appropriations source, including risk corridors. The Comptroller General’s opinion classifying risk corridors as “user fees” notes very clearly that “Section 1342 [of Obamacare, which established risk corridors], by its terms, did not enact an appropriation to make the payments specified [by the law]”—in other words, it created an entitlement without an appropriation. Moreover, Judge Rosemary Collyer’s May ruling in House v. Burwell, litigation regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies—which also lacked an explicit statutory appropriation—noted multiple examples of entitlements without a permanent appropriation, including a 1979 Comptroller General opinion relating to payments to Guam. As her ruling noted:

The [Comptroller General’s] risk corridors decision illustrates that a statute can authorize a program, mandate that payments be made, and yet fail to appropriate the necessary funds. Thus, not only is it possible for a statute to authorize and mandate payments without making an appropriation, but [the Comptroller General] has found a prime example in [Obamacare].

Bagley’s argument therefore fails due to his faulty premise—that every entitlement must have an appropriated source of funds.

One other matter worth noting: The Clinton administration’s 1998 Office of Legal Counsel opinion should also prevent settlements—as opposed to judicial verdicts—from being paid from the Judgment Fund. The opinion cites a prior 1989 OLC memo to note that “The appropriate source of funds for a settled case is identical to the appropriate source of funds should a judgment in that case be entered against the government.” Again, the Comptroller General agrees in its Principles of Federal Appropriations Law:

A compromise settlement is payable from the same source that would apply to a judgment in the same suit….The resolution of a case does not alter the source of funds. A contrary view, as Justice points out, might encourage settlements driven by source-of-funds considerations rather than the best interests of the United States.

If the Obama administration cannot pay out a judgment regarding risk corridors—and for all the reasons above, it cannot—then it also cannot settle the lawsuit using Judgment Fund dollars. But that’s exactly what this administration intends to do—circumvent the express will of Congress, and opinions by his own Justice Department, to muscle through a massive insurer bailout “on the nod.”

Mr. Bagley has been encouraging such a backdoor bailout for months, claiming that insurers can claim risk corridor cash via the Judgment Fund. But only this week did he finally “discover” the Congressional Research Service memo directly contradicting his claims, which Sen. Marco Rubio’s office publicly released in May. And in attempting to rebut that memo, he did not acknowledge the Comptroller General’s similar opinion, mis-represented the Office of Legal Counsel’s position, and falsely claimed every entitlement must have an appropriation. Regardless of whether motivated by a lack of information or a desire to avoid inconvenient truths, his flawed and incomplete analysis vastly understates the strength of the argument that the actions the Obama administration contemplates in settling the risk corridor lawsuits violate appropriations law and practice.