Another Study Confirms Obamacare as the Unaffordable Care Act

Despite the high level of partisanship in the United States, both sides can agree on something even as controversial as health care: Both Democrats and Republicans believe Obamacare has failed to deliver.

Based on their last primary debate, Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination can’t give away more health care subsidies fast enough. Some of them want to abolish Obamacare outright. But all of them agree the law has not lived up to Barack Obama’s claims during the 2008 campaign, when he repeatedly promised that hisplan would reduce premiums by $2,500 for the average family.

Shrinking Without Subsidies

The CMS analysis of risk adjustment data submitted by insurers focuses on the unsubsidized marketplace. These individuals, who make more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($103,000 for a family of four in 2019), do not receive any subsidies from the federal government to offset their premiums.

The analysis concludes that, while the subsidized marketplace has remained steady for the past several years, the number of unsubsidized people purchasing insurance has steadily shrunk as premiums continue to decline. In 2018, even as average monthly subsidized enrollment increased by a modest 4 percent, average monthly unsubsidized enrollment plummeted by 24 percent.

From 2016 through 2018, the unsubsidized market shrank by an even larger amount. Successive price increases — an average 21 percent premium rise in 2017, followed by another 26 percent jump in 2018 — priced many people out of the market.

During those two years, the average monthly enrollment by unsubsidized people fell by 40 percent, from 6.3 million to 3.8 million. Six states saw their unsubsidized enrollment drop by more than 70 percent, with Iowa’s unsubsidized enrollment shrinking by a whopping 91 percent.

The large percentages of unsubsidized people dropping coverage in many states — in most cases, because they could not afford their rapidly escalating premiums — show the unstable nature of the Obamacare “marketplaces.” With only people who qualify for subsidies able to afford their premiums, most states’ insurance markets have become dependent on the morphine drip of subsidies from Washington.

‘Popular’ Preexisting Conditions?

Why have premiums skyrocketed so that only people receiving federal subsidies can afford to pay their insurance rates? A Heritage Foundation analysis from last year provides a clear answer:

A cluster of [Obamacare] insurance-access requirements — specifically the guaranteed-issue requirement and the prohibitions on medical underwriting and applying coverage exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions — accounts for the largest share of premium increases.

In other words, the preexisting condition provisions have proven the largest factor in pricing literally millions of people out of their health insurance coverage. This means, ironically enough, such people now have no coverage should they develop any such condition.

The left does not want to talk about these people. While the liberal Kaiser Family Foundation will survey Americans about the supposed popularity of the preexisting condition provisions, the organization refuses to survey Americans about the cost of these regulations — for instance, whether people think those “protections” are worth spending an extra several thousand dollars a year in higher insurance premiums. As the old legal saying goes, “Don’t ask a question to which you don’t want to know the answer.”

But the American people need to know the answers and need to understand the effects of Obamacare. Liberals wouldn’t have you know it, but families care more about the affordability of health coverage than about losing their coverage due to a preexisting condition. Reforms codified by the Trump administration will help provide portable and more affordable coverage to many Americans and represent one of several better solutions to tackle the preexisting condition problem.

The left’s “solutions” to Obamacare’s skyrocketing premiums represent more of the same — more taxes, more spending, and more subsidies to make coverage “affordable” for a select few. But sooner or later, the left will eventually run out of other people’s money. The Unaffordable Care Act’s failure to deliver demonstrates that the American people need and deserve a better approach than the left can devise.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Do Louisiana Republicans Want to Replace Obamacare with Obamacare?

For the latest evidence that bipartisanship occurs in politics when conservatives agree to rubber-stamp liberal policies, look no further than Louisiana. Last week, that state’s senate passed a health-care bill by a unanimous 38-0 margin.

The bill provides that, if a court of competent jurisdiction strikes down all of Obamacare, Louisiana would replace that law with something that…looks an awful lot like Obamacare. Granted, most remain skeptical that the Supreme Court will strike down all (or even most) of Obamacare, not least because the five justices who upheld its individual mandate in 2012 all remain on the bench. Notwithstanding that fact, however, the Louisiana move would codify bad policies on the state level.

If a federal court strikes down the health-care law, the bill would re-codify virtually all of Obamacare’s major insurance regulations on the state level in Louisiana, including:

  • A prohibition on pre-existing condition exclusions;
  • Limits on rates that insurers can charge;
  • Coverage of essential health benefits “that is substantially similar to that of the essential health benefits required for a health plan subject to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as of January 1, 2019,” including the ten categories spelled out both in the text of Obamacare and of the Louisiana bill;
  • “Annual limitations on cost sharing and deductibles that are substantially similar to the limitations for health plans subject to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as of January 1, 2019”;
  • “Levels of coverage that are substantially similar to the levels of coverage required for health plans subject to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as of January 1, 2019”;
  • A prohibition on annual and lifetime limits; and
  • A requirement for coverage of “dependent” children younger than age 26.

The Louisiana bill does allow for slightly more flexibility in age rating than Obamacare does. Obamacare permits insurers to charge older individuals no more than three times younger enrollees’ premiums, whereas the Louisiana bill would expand this ratio to 5-to-1. But in every other respect, the bill represents bad or incoherent policy, on several levels.

First, the regulations above caused premiums to more than double from 2013 through 2017, as Obamacare’s main provisions took effect. Reinstating these federal regulations on the state level would continue the current scenario whereby more than 2.5 million people nationwide were priced out of the market for coverage in a single year alone.

Second, the latter half of the Louisiana bill would create a “Guaranteed Benefits Pool,” essentially a high-risk pool for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Given that the bill provides a clear option for individuals with pre-existing conditions, it makes little sense to apply pre-existing condition regulations—what the Heritage Foundation called the prime driver of premium increases under Obamacare—to Louisiana’s entire insurance market. This provision would effectively raise healthy individuals’ premiums for no good policy reason.

Third, the legislation states that the regulations “shall be effective or enforceable only” if a court upholds the Obamacare subsidy regime, “or unless adequate appropriations are timely made by the federal or state government” in a similar amount and manner. Curiously, the bill does not specify who would declare the “adequa[cy]” of such appropriations. But should a court ever strike down most or all of Obamacare, this language provides a clear invitation for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to demand that Louisiana lawmakers raise taxes—again—to fund “adequate appropriations” reinstating the law on the state level.

As on the federal level, conservatives in Louisiana should not fall into the trap of reimposing Obamacare’s failed status quo for pre-existing conditions. Liberal organizations don’t want to admit it, but the American people care most about making coverage affordable. Obamacare’s one-size-fits-all approach undermined that affordability; better solutions should restore that affordability, by implementing a more tailored approach to insurance markets.

Recognizing that they will get attacked on pre-existing conditions regardless of what they do, conservatives should put forward solutions that reduce people’s insurance costs, such as those previously identified in this space. Conservatives do have better ideas than Obamacare’s failed status quo, if only they will have the courage of their convictions to embrace them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Real Binary Choices Surrounding “Repeal and Replace”

During the run-up to the aborted vote on House Republicans’ Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation, Speaker Paul Ryan repeatedly called the vote a “binary choice”: Republicans could support the leadership-drafted legislation, or, by failing to do so, effectively choose to keep Obamacare in place.

The rhetoric led to criticism of the speaker for attempting to bully or rush members of Congress into supporting legislation despite policy concerns and political unpopularity. That said, health care policy does involve several largely binary choices. They do not break down along the political fault lines the speaker proposed—support the leadership bill, or support Obamacare—but they demonstrate how health policy involves significant trade-offs that should be made very explicit as part of the policy-making process. Here are just three.

1: Obamacare’s Regulations Are (Mostly) All-or-Nothing

Here’s the problem: As long as insurers are required to accept all applicants regardless of health status or pre-existing conditions—a requirement known as guaranteed issue, and included in Obamacare—removing at least three other important Obamacare regulations would likely lead to unsustainable and perverse outcomes. These three are the following.

Community rating: Theoretically, insurers would have little problem with a requirement to accept all applicants, so long as they can charge those applicants an actuarially fair rate. However, “offering” a cancer patient an insurance policy priced at $50,000 per month would likely yield few acceptances (and would be politically unsustainable).

Obamacare allowed insurers to vary premiums only by age, family size, geography, and tobacco use. The House bill expanded the permissible rating variation, but only with respect to age. While this change would lower premiums for younger applicants, encouraging them to purchase insurance, it might not change insurers’ underlying assumption that applicants will be sicker-than-average.

Essential benefits: Requiring insurers to accept all applicants regardless of health status, but allowing them to vary benefit packages, would create incentives for insurers to structure their policies in ways that discourage sick people from applying.

For instance, no rational insurer would provide much (if any) coverage of expensive chemotherapy drugs, because doing so would prompt a flood of cancer patients to purchase coverage and run up large bills. Since Obamacare’s passage, HIV patients have already faced discrimination because of these inherent flaws in the law, even with the essential benefit requirements in place. Removing them would only accelerate a “race to the bottom.”

Actuarial value: Here again, removing the requirement that plans cover a certain percentage of expenses would lead to a rapid downsizing of generous plans from the marketplace—again, so insurers can avoid sick patients. Platinum plans have already become a rare breed on the Obamacare exchanges; removing the requirements would likely cause gold and silver plans to disappear as well.

These four major regulations—guaranteed issue, community rating, essential health benefits, and actuarial value—are inextricably linked. Repealing only one or two without repealing all of them, particularly the guaranteed issue requirements, would at best fail to lower premiums (largely what the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, concluded about the House bill) and at worst could severely disrupt the market, while making the sickest individuals worse off.

CBO views these four interlinked changes as at the heart of the Obamacare regulatory regime. While lawmakers could repeal piecemeal other mandates beyond the “Big Four,” such as the requirement to cover “dependents” under age 26, or the preventive services mandate, doing so would have a much smaller effect on reducing premiums than the four changes referenced above.

2: Keeping Obamacare Regulations Requires Significant Insurance Subsidies

The January CBO analysis of the 2015 repeal bill passed under reconciliation illustrates the second binary choice. Because that 2015 reconciliation bill repealed Obamacare’s insurance subsidies (after a delay) and mandate to purchase coverage, but not its regulatory requirements on insurers, CBO concluded that the bill would severely damage the individual health insurance market. By 2026, premiums would double, and about three-quarters of the country would have no insurers offering individual insurance coverage, in CBO’s estimate.

The analysis revealed one big reason why: Eliminating subsidies for insurance would result in a large price increase for many people. Not only would enrollment decline, but the people who would be most likely to remain enrolled would tend to be less healthy (and therefore more willing to pay higher premiums). Thus, average health-care costs among the people retaining coverage would be higher, and insurers would have to raise premiums in the non-group market to cover those higher costs.

By contrast, CBO concluded that this year’s House Republican bill, which (largely) retained Obamacare’s regulations and included a new subsidy for insurance, would lead to a stable marketplace: “Key factors bringing about market stability include subsidies to purchase insurance, which would maintain sufficient demand for insurance by people with low health care expenditures…”

The obvious conclusion: While the individual health insurance market remained relatively stable without subsidies prior to Obamacare, and repealing both the law’s subsidies and its regulations would restore that sustainable market, as long as the regulatory changes wrought by the law remain in place, the market will require heavy insurance subsidies to remain stable.

3: Banning Pre-Existing Condition Consideration Versus Repealing Obamacare

This binary choice follows from the prior two. If the “Big Four” insurance regulations are so interlinked as to make them a binary proposition, and if a market with those “Big Four” requires subsidies to remain stable, then Republicans have a choice: They can either retain the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination—and the regulations and subsidies that go with it—or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare.

It’s not that others derided the House bill as ‘Obamacare Lite,’ it’s that the bill qualifies as such under Ryan’s own definition.

Consider, for instance, Ryan’s response to a reporter on February 16 questioning the similarities between the refundable tax credits in the House plan (later the House bill) and Obamacare: “They call them refundable tax credits—they’re subsidies. And they’re subsidies that say ‘We will pay some people some money if you do what the government makes you do.’ That is not a tax credit. That is not freedom. A tax credit is you get the freedom to do what you want, and buy what you need—and your choice.”

Based on Ryan’s own definition, the House bill qualifies as an Obamacare-esque subsidy, and not a tax credit. It gives some people (those with employer coverage or other insurance do not qualify) some amount—the credits had to be means-tested to solve major CBO scoring issues—if they buy insurance that meets government requirements.

For an individual “buy[ing] what [they] need,” the option to purchase health insurance without under-26 “dependent” coverage, or without maternity coverage for males, did not exist. So it’s not that others derided the House bill as “Obamacare Lite,” it’s that the bill qualifies as such under Ryan’s own definition.

Much of the problem lies in House Republicans’ Better Way proposal released last summer, which stated a desire to retain Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provision. The import of this proposal was not clear at the time. There are other, simpler ways to provide coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions (such as high-risk pools), and as Yuval Levin has pointed out, prior conservative health proposals did not include promises on pre-existing conditions. But Republicans’ unwillingness to upset the Obamacare standards for pre-existing conditions has significantly boxed in the party’s policy options regarding repeal.

To Govern Is To Choose

As with Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans face a self-inflicted dilemma, having over-promised voters by claiming they could keep the popular portions of Obamacare (pre-existing condition protections) while repealing the law.

But Republicans face what looks increasingly like a binary choice: going back to the status quo ante on pre-existing conditions, or breaking their seven-year-long pledge to repeal Obamacare. As the saying goes, to govern is to choose—but in this case, failing to govern may be the worst choice of all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How a Meghan Trainor Song Explains the Obamacare Debate

Meghan Trainor may not be known as a policy wonk, but her lyrics could prove surprisingly useful for health care analysts. In constructing an Obamacare alternative, the debate really is all about that base—or, to be more specific, multiple baselines.

Despite the lyrics to Trainor’s famous hit, the intersection of those baselines—the coverage and fiscal baselines, along with the beliefs of the Republican Party base—has caused “treble” in replacing the health law.

Health Insurance Versus Health Care Prices

Of course, some of those Americans—such as yours truly—had lost their prior coverage and were forced to buy exchange policies, or obtained coverage through Obamacare’s mandate for coverage of young adults under age 26, a provision ancillary to the law’s main entitlements. Moreover, other studies suggest the 20 million number is both inflated and driven largely by Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid, not individuals purchasing policies on state insurance exchanges.

The alternative to Obamacare released by America Next nearly three years ago, which I helped draft, decided to focus on what bothers Americans most about the health care system: rising costs. Any Republican alternative to Obamacare that excludes an individual mandate or employer mandate likely will not cover as many individuals as Obamacare, perhaps by a good number. That’s one reason the America Next plan centered on controlling health costs, not implementing a coverage expansion designed to compete with Obamacare.

Although conservatives would historically focus on how their policies will lower health costs, right now many Republicans appear fixated on chasing coverage numbers. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price both support refundable, advanceable tax credits, a policy Ryan has supported for many years. While incorporating a refundable tax credit into an Obamacare alternative will result in more Americans with health coverage—mitigating the first baseline issue—it could have other ramifications.

The Tax and Spend Baseline

The second baseline to consider when talking about Obamacare alternatives is the tax and spending baseline. If a replacement plan pre-supposes repeal of the law, should an alternative be viewed as raising or lowering taxes and spending relative to what existed with the law, or relative to what existed prior to the law?

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2015 that Obamacare will raise nearly $1.2 trillion in taxes over a decade. If an alternative to Obamacare would change that $1.2 trillion number to $800 billion, should that be viewed as a $400 billion tax cut relative to Obamacare itself, or a $800 billion tax increase, because Obamacare should be assumed as fully repealed?

Then There’s the Republican Base

On this front, the third base involved in this discussion, the Republican political base, has made its voice clear. Asked in a March 2014 poll conducted by America Next whether “any replacement of Obamacare must repeal all of the Obamacare taxes and not just replace them with other taxes,” 55 percent of the general public agreed. More concerning for Republican members of Congress, self-identified Republicans and conservatives agreed by much larger margins, approaching three to one. They would view any attempt to leave some of the law’s taxes or spending intact as inconsistent with pledges to repeal the law entirely.

Therein lies Republicans’ dilemma. Some Republicans believe that any credible Obamacare alternative must offer some insurance subsidy to those newly covered by the law. Several Republican alternatives already released would re-direct the funds raised by the law—whether through taxes, spending, or both—to finance new subsidy options.

However, based on the polling available, Republican voters disagree with this strategy. With Obamacare little discussed during the presidential campaign, and President Trump sending decidedly un-conservative signals about his policy priorities, Tea Party supporters may be more than a little surprised if an alternative to the law ends up retaining chunks of its spending and taxes.

This interplay among the base of new insureds, the spending and tax baselines, and the beliefs of the conservative base will define the House Republican alternative to Obamacare, and the legislative debate that continues to unfold. Meghan Trainor may never serve as a Washington policy analyst, but her mantra that it’s all about that base will ring true in the debate surrounding Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Status Update on Repeal

With Congress heading towards its first recess at week’s end, it’s time to summarize where things stand on one of Republicans’ top objectives—repealing Obamacare—and might be headed next. While those who want further details should read the entire article, the lengthy analysis below makes three main points:

  1. Congress faces far too many logistical obstacles—the mechanics of drafting bill text, procedural challenges in the Senate, budgetary scoring concerns, and political and policy disagreements—to pass a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill by late March, or indeed any time before summer;
  2. Congressional leaders and President Trump face numerous pressures—both to enact other key items on their agenda, and from conservatives anxious to repeal Obamacare immediately, if not sooner—that will prevent them from spending the entire spring and summer focused primarily on Obamacare; therefore
  3. Congressional leaders will need to pare back their aspirations for a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill, slim down the legislation to include repeal and any pieces of “replace” that can pass easily and swiftly with broad Republican support, and work to enact other elements of their “replace” agenda in subsequent legislation.

What Has Happened In the Last Month

Before the New Year, congressional leaders had endorsed a strategy of repealing Obamacare via special budget reconciliation procedures, using legislation that passed Congress (but President Obama vetoed) in late 2015 and early 2016 as a model. Subsequent efforts would focus on crafting an alternative to the law, whose entitlements would sunset in two or three years, to allow adequate time for a transition.

Due to Trump’s intervention and angst amongst some Republicans toward moving forward with a repeal-first approach, congressional leaders pivoted. Various press reports in the last week suggest House committees are drafting a robust “replace” package that will accompany repeal legislation. This “repeal-and-replace” bill will use the special reconciliation procedures that allow budget-related provisions to pass with a 51-vote majority (instead of the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster) in the Senate, with non-budgetary provisions being considered in subsequent pieces of legislation.

The press reports and strategic leaks from House offices attempt to show progress towards a quick markup—a March 1 markup date was floated in one article—and enactment before Congress next recesses, in late March. But these optimistic stories cannot hide two fundamental truths: 1) Enacting comprehensive “replace” legislation along with repeal will take far longer than anyone in Congress has yet admitted; and 2) Leadership does not have the time—due both to other must-pass legislation, and political pressure from the Right to pass repeal quickly—necessary to fashion a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill.

He may not realize it at present, but in going down the simultaneous “repeal-and-replace” pathway, President Trump made a yuuuuge bet: holding the rest of legislative agenda captive to the rapid enactment of such legislation. Once it becomes more obvious that “repeal-and-replace” will not happen on its current timetable—and that other key elements of the Republican agenda are in jeopardy as a result—it seems likely that Speaker Ryan, President Trump, or both will scale back the “replace” elements of the “repeal-and-replace” bill, to allow it to pass more quickly and easily.

Adding Layers of Complexity

But every element added to a piece of legislation makes it that much more complex. Republicans have an easy template to use for repealing Obamacare: the reconciliation bill that already passed Congress. That bill has been drafted, passed procedural muster in the Senate, and received both a favorable budgetary score and enough votes for enactment.

Conversely, crafting “replace” policies will require more time, conversations with legislative counsel (the office in Congress that actually drafts legislation), discussions about policy options for implementation, and so forth.

House Republicans did engage in some of these conversations when compiling their Better Way agenda last spring. But that plan ultimately did not get translated into legislative language, and the plan itself left important details out (in some cases deliberately).

It seems plausible that House Republicans could fairly easily incorporate some elements of their “replace” agenda—for instance, HSA incentives or funding for high-risk pools—into a repeal reconciliation bill. There are several “off-the-shelf” (i.e., previously drafted) versions of these policy options, and the budgetary effects of these changes are relatively straight-forward (i.e., few interactions with other policy elements).

But on tax credits and Medicaid reform, House Republicans face another major logistical obstacle: Analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Longtime observers and congressional historians may recall that CBO was where Hillarycare went to die back in 1994. While Republicans are not necessarily doomed to face a similar fate two decades later, the idea that budget analysts will give “repeal-and-replace” a clean bill of fiscal health within a fortnight—or even a month—defies both credulity and history.

Running the CBO Gauntlet

As someone who worked on Capitol Hill during the Obamacare debate eight years ago, I remember the effect when CBO released one of its first scores of Democrats’ legislation. As the New York Times reported on June 17, 2009, in a piece entitled “Senate Faces Major Setback on Health Care Bill”: “The Senate Finance Committee is delaying its first public drafting session on major health care legislation until after the July Fourth recess, a lengthy setback but one that even Democrats say is critically needed to let them work on reducing the costs of the bill…. The drafting session had been scheduled for Tuesday. But new cost estimates by the Congressional Budget Office on health care proposals came in much more expensive than expected, emboldening critics and alarming Democrats.”

Given the role CBO played in delivering Hillarycare a mortal blow in the 1990s, and the more than nine-month gap between the initial (horrible) CBO scores of Obamacare and that law’s enactment, House leadership’s implication that its “repeal-and-replace” legislation can move straight to passage by receiving a clean bill of health from CBO on the first go-round seems highly unrealistic.

Just like any player moving up from the minor leagues will need time to adjust to big-league pitching, so too will any legislation with as many moving parts as a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill require several, and possibly significant, adjustments and tweaks to receive a CBO score Republicans find acceptable.

While House Republicans’ Better Way plan included a much less complicated and convoluted formula for providing insurance subsidies than Obamacare, they may face other difficulties in achieving a favorable CBO score, particularly regarding to the number of Americans covered under their refundable tax credit regime. These include the following.

No Mandate:  While conservatives view the lack of a requirement to purchase insurance as a feature of any Obamacare alternative, CBO has a long history of viewing a mandate’s absence as a bug—and will score legislation accordingly. In analyzing health reform issues in a December 2008 volume, CBO published an elasticity curve showing take-up of health insurance based on various levels of federal subsidies. The curve claimed that, even with a 100 percent subsidy—the federal government giving away health insurance for “free”—only about 80 percent of individuals will actually obtain coverage. In CBO’s mind, unless the government forces individuals to buy insurance, a significant percentage will not do so.

President Obama didn’t want to include a mandate in Obamacare, not least because he campaigned against it. But CBO essentially forced Democrats to include one to receive a favorable score on the number of Americans covered. If Republicans care about matching the number of individuals insured by Obamacare (some view it as more of a priority than others), the lack of a mandate will cost them on coverage numbers. Alternative mandate-like policies such as auto-enrollment may mitigate that gap, but CBO may not view them as favorably—and they come with their own detractors.

Age-Rated Subsidies: Obamacare uses income as a major factor in calculating its insurance subsidy amounts, which creates two problems. First, because subsidies decline as individuals’ income rises, Obamacare effectively discourages work. CBO has previously calculated that, largely because of these work disincentives, the law will reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs.

Second, the process of reconciling projected income to actual earnings creates administrative complexity. It poses large paperwork burdens on the Internal Revenue Service and taxpayers alike, and requires some individuals to forfeit their refunds and pay back subsidies at tax time.

House Republicans have proposed a simpler system of insurance subsidies, based solely upon age. However, because the subsidies are solely linked to age, low-income individuals receive the same subsidy as millionaires. While much more transparent and fair, this system also does not target resources to those who would need them most. To borrow an analogy, it spreads the peanut butter (i.e., insurance subsidies) more evenly, but also more thinly, over the proverbial piece of bread (i.e., Americans seeking insurance). Given CBO’s beliefs about the likelihood of individuals purchasing insurance outlined above, this change could also cost Republicans significantly in the coverage department.

Medicaid Reform: Republicans have consistently argued that providing states with additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in exchange for a defined federal contribution will allow them to reduce program spending in beneficial ways. Rhode Island’s innovative global compact waiver provides an excellent example of providing better care within an overall budget on expenditures.

However, CBO analysts have publicly taken a different view. In analyzing per capita spending caps for Medicaid—the policy option House Republicans are reportedly incorporating into their alternative—last December, CBO wrote that “States would take a variety of actions to reduce a portion of the additional costs that they would face [from the caps], including restricting enrollment. For people who lose Medicaid coverage, CBO and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that roughly three-quarters would become uninsured.”

CBO has therefore made rather clear that it will score reforms to Medicaid as increasing the number of uninsured.

Speaker Ryan may have pushed for the comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” strategy in part to appease Republican members of Congress who want to see their alternative to Obamacare provide as many Americans with insurance as current law. But it seems highly improbable that CBO will score any Republican tax credit proposal as covering as many Americans as Obamacare. It is also not outside the realm of possibility for CBO to score an alternative as covering fewer Americans than the pre-Obamacare status quo.

The first two CBO scoring issues nixed any attempt by House Republicans to include tax credits as part of their alternative to Obamacare in 2009, when I worked in House leadership. Sources tell me unfavorable scores also nixed House Republicans’ attempt to include a refundable tax credit when the party was crafting responses to a potential Supreme Court ruling striking down the law’s subsidies in 2015. It therefore ranges from likely to certain that an initial CBO score of a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill will go over about as well as it did for Republicans in 2009 and 2015—with generally poor coverage figures compared to Obamacare.

In theory, Republicans could work to surmount some of these obstacles and achieve more robust coverage figures. But such efforts would require time to sort through policy options—time that Republicans don’t currently have—and money to fund insurance subsidies, even though Republicans don’t have an obvious source of funding for them.

Pay-For Problems

Over and above the purely technical problems associated with scoring a “repeal-and-replace” bill, other issues present both policy and political concerns. To wit, if Republicans include refundable tax credits in their plan, how exactly will they finance this new spending? The possibilities range from unpalatable to implausible.

  • They could try to keep some of Obamacare’s tax increases to fund their own spending. But key Republican lawmakers and key constituency groups have strongly supported repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. It seems unlikely that a bill that failed to repeal all of the law’s tax increases could gather enough votes for passage.
  • They could include their own revenue-raisers after repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. For instance, House Republicans could limit the value of employer-provided health coverage. But while economists of all political stripes support such efforts as one key way to reduce health costs, members of the business community would likely oppose this measure, judging from recent news stories. Unions and the middle class likely wouldn’t be keen either. Moreover, by using limits on employer-provided health coverage as a new source of revenue rather than reforming the tax treatment of health insurance in a revenue-neutral way, Republicans would repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, but replace them with other tax increases—an unappetizing political slogan for the party to embrace.
  • They could use Medicaid reform to fund the credits, but that causes the potential problems with coverage numbers outlined above, and will likely generate additional squabbling among governors and states over the funding formula, as outlined in greater detail below.
  • They could use the remaining savings after repealing Obamacare’s tax increases and entitlements—which in the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill totaled $317.5 billion—to fund a new insurance subsidy regime. But such a move raises both policy and political problems. While Republicans could re-direct the $317.5 billion in savings during the first ten years to pay for insurance subsidies, the subsidies would likely have to expire after a decade. Creating a permanent new entitlement (the subsidies) funded by temporary savings would result in a point of order in the Senate—one that takes 60 votes, which Republicans do not have, to overcome—because budget reconciliation bills cannot increase the deficit in any year beyond the ten-year budget window. Thus any subsidies funded by the reconciliation bill’s savings would have to sunset by 2026—a far from ideal outcome. On the political side, the savings in last year’s reconciliation bill came from keeping Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending. If Republicans turn around and use that money to fund a new subsidy regime, they would be “raiding Medicare to fund a new entitlement”—the exact same charge Republicans used against Democrats to great effect during the debates over Obamacare.

To put it bluntly, while some Republicans may want to include refundable tax credits in their Obamacare alternative, they have no clear way—and certainly no pain-free way—to fund these credits. Even if they do push forward despite the clear obstacles, finding the right blend among the options listed above will require conversations among members and constituency groups, and multiple rounds of CBO scores for various policy options—all of which will take much more time than House leadership currently envisions.

Then There Are the Political Obstacles

Layered on top of the pay-for difficulties lie other political obstacles preventing quick enactment of a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” package.

Medicaid: With 16 Republican governors ruling states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, and 17 Republican governors in states that did not, the fate of Medicaid expansion remains one of the thorniest questions surrounding repeal. Many states that did expand wish to keep their expansion, while states that did not do not want to be disadvantaged by making what they view as the conservative choice to turn down the new spending from Obamacare. Lawmakers have admitted they have yet to craft a solution on this issue. Attaching Medicaid reform to a “repeal-and-replace” measure will only complicate matters further, by giving states another issue (namely, the new funding formula for the per capita spending caps) to fight over.

House-Senate Differences: While House Republicans gear up to pass a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” package, reports last week also indicated that Senate leadership still intends to consider legislation more closely resembling the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. If Speaker Ryan continues to craft a “repeal-and-replace” bill while Majority Leader McConnell pushes “repeal-and-delay,” something will have to bring the two leaders to an agreement reconciling their disparate approaches.

Insurers: Those opposed to the “repeal-and-delay” strategy initially advocated by congressional leaders cited the needs of insurers as reason to pass a full “replacement” of Obamacare concurrent with repeal. Insurers will need to start submitting bids for the 2018 plan cycle by spring, and will want some certainty about how next year’s landscape will look before doing so. Hence the call for a full “repeal-and-replace,” to give insurers fast reassurances about the policy landscape going forward.

But if “full replace” will take until summer to pass—as it almost invariably will—then that argument gets turned on its head. In such circumstances, Congress should act swiftly to include some type of high-risk pool funding for those with pre-existing conditions, to prevent the insurer community from ending up with an influx of very sick, very costly enrollees.

Passing a repeal bill with high-risk pool funding may provide insurers with less certainty than a full “repeal-and-replace” measure, but it would yield infinitely more certainty than Congress arguing until September over the details of “full replace,” with the entire legal and regulatory realm in limbo as insurers must prepare for their 2018 plan offerings.

Conservatives: Some conservatives have philosophical objections to refundable tax credits, or indeed to any “replacement” legislation. Sen. Mike Lee this week called including “replacement” provisions on a repeal bill a “horrible idea.” Lee was one of three Republicans (the others being Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) who in fall 2015 pushed for more robust repeal legislation, issuing a statement demanding that year’s reconciliation measure include the greatest amount of repeal provisions possible consistent with Senate rules. After the conservatives laid down their marker, the Senate ultimately passed, and the House ratified, the reconciliation measure repealing the law’s entitlements and all of Obamacare’s tax increases.

Some within the party have acknowledged the fractious nature of the “replace” discussions. Ramesh Ponnuru has publicly worried that some conservatives agnostic or skeptical on the merits of a “replace” plan would do nothing following repeal, and therefore wants to link repeal with replace, to force conservatives to vote for a vision of “replace.”

Such maneuvering pre-supposes that conservatives will swallow a “replace” plan they dislike to repeal Obamacare, a dicey proposition given conservatives’ success at obtaining a more robust repeal measure in 2015. It also pre-supposes that conservatives will stand idly by while leadership takes the months necessary to create full-scale “replace” legislation.

If the process continues to drag on in the House, it would not surprise me one bit were conservatives to introduce a discharge petition to force a House floor vote on the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, likely in conjunction with outside conservative groups, would turn the discharge petition into a litmus test for Republican members of Congress: Are you for repeal—and repeal in the form of legislation that virtually all returning Republicans voted for one short year ago—or not?

While a discharge petition needs 218 member signatures before its sponsor can force a floor vote, the mere introduction of a discharge petition would increase the pressure on House leadership to move quickly on repeal. Moreover, it would highlight the fact that neither Speaker Ryan nor President Trump can afford to spend the entire spring and summer slogging through a long legislative process regarding Obamacare.

Now We Come to the Opportunity Costs

Most of this year’s major action items require the Obamacare reconciliation bill to pass. Once and only once that legislation passes can Congress pass a second budget, allowing for a second budget reconciliation measure to move through the Senate. Specific items held in limbo due to the Obamacare debate include the following.

Tax Reform: Republicans want to use the second reconciliation bill to overhaul the tax code. (President Trump may also want to use the tax reform bill to finance his planned infrastructure package.) But because the current budget does not include reconciliation instructions regarding revenues, Congress must pass another budget with specific reconciliation instructions before tax reform can move through the Senate with a simple (51-vote) majority. But before Congress passes another budget, it must first pass the reconciliation bill (i.e., the Obamacare bill) related to this budget.

Debt Limit: The current suspension of the debt limit expires on March 15. While the Treasury can use extraordinary measures to stave off a debt default for several months, Congress will likely have to address the debt limit prior to its August recess. As with tax reform, the debt limit (and spending and entitlement reforms to accompany same) can be enacted with a simple majority in the Senate via budget reconciliation. But, as with tax reform, doing so first requires passing another budget, which requires enacting the Obamacare reconciliation bill.

Appropriations: The current stopgap spending agreement expires on April 28. Congress will need to pass another spending measure by then—quite possibly including a request by the president for additional border security funds—and begin considering spending bills for the new fiscal year that starts September 30. Here again, passage of these legislative provisions would be greatly aided by passage of another budget to set fiscal parameters, but that cannot happen until the Obamacare reconciliation bill is on the statute books.

As other observers have begun noting, many of the major “must-pass” and “want-to-pass” pieces of legislation—tax reform; Trump’s infrastructure package; a debt limit increase; appropriations legislation; funding for border security—remain essentially captive to the Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” process. The scene resembles the airspace over New York during rush hour, with planes circling overhead while one plane (the Obamacare bill) attempts to land. Unfortunately, the longer the planes circle, one or more of them will run out of fuel, effectively crashing major pieces of the Trump/Ryan agenda due to legislative inaction and neglect.

The Available Political Options

With a legislative process for “repeal-and-replace” likely to take months longer than currently advertised, and a series of other competing priorities contingent on it, Speaker Ryan and President Trump face three options.

Punt: Focus on passing the other agenda items first, and come back to Obamacare later;

Plow Ahead: Remain on the current course, knowing that Obamacare will jeopardize much of Trump’s and Ryan’s other agenda items; or

Pivot/Pare Back: Return to something approaching last year’s reconciliation bill, and postpone major “replace” legislation until a future reconciliation measure.

Given the current environment, the third option seems the clear “least bad” outcome. The first would represent a major political setback, effectively admitting defeat on the president’s top agenda item and betraying Republicans’ seven-year-long commitment to repeal that conservatives sharply opposed to Obamacare will never forget, and may never forgive. The second jeopardizes, if not completely sacrifices, most of the party’s legislative agenda, including items the president will want to tout in his re-election bid.

Therefore, it seems likely that Ryan, Trump, or both will eventually move to pare back the current comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” legislation towards something more closely resembling the 2015/2016 repeal reconciliation bill.

The legislation may include elements of “replace,” but only those with a clear fiscal nexus (due to the Senate’s rules regarding reconciliation) and broad support among Republicans. HSA incentives and funding for high-risk pools might qualify. But more robust provisions, such as Medicaid reforms or refundable tax credits, will likely get jettisoned for the time being, to help pass slimmed down legislation yet this spring.

Time’s a Wastin’

To sum up: The likelihood that House Republicans can get a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill—defined as one with either tax credits, Medicaid reform, or both—1) drafted; 2) cleared by the Senate parliamentarian; 3) scored favorably by CBO; and 4) with enough member support to ensure it passes in time for a mark-up on March 1—two weeks from now—is a nice round number: Zero-point-zero percent.

Likewise the chances of enacting a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill by Congress’ Easter recess. It just won’t happen. For a bill signing ceremony for a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill, August recess seems a likelier, albeit still ambitious, target.

Republicans have already blown through two deadlines on “repeal-and-replace”: the January 27 deadline for committees to report reconciliation measures to the House and Senate Budget Committees, and the President’s Day recess, the original tentative deadline for getting repeal legislation to President Trump’s desk. Any further delays will accelerate both conservative angst and the same types of process stories from the media—“Republicans arguing amongst themselves on repealing Obamacare”—that plagued Democrats from the summer of 2009 through the law’s enactment.

Some may find this analysis harsh, or even impertinent. Some may want to take issue with my assumptions—Newt Gingrich would no doubt dispute CBO’s scoring methods, long and loudly. But policy-making involves crafting solutions given the way things are, not the way we wish them to be. And every day that goes by while Congress remains on the current “repeal-and-replace” pathway—which seems increasingly like a strategic box canyon—will only jeopardize the success of other critical policy priorities.

For all his wealth, Trump gets the same amount of one thing as everyone else: Time. For that reason, his administration and Speaker Ryan should re-assess their current strategy on Obamacare—the sooner the better. Time’s a wastin’, and the entire Republican agenda is at stake.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How to Repeal Obamacare — And What Comes Next

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s confirmation early Friday morning marks both an end and a beginning. While his installation after a bitter nomination battle formally begins the Trump administration’s work on healthcare, Price will also seek to bring about the end of former President Barack Obama’s unpopular and unaffordable healthcare law.

Dismantling Obamacare should be a three-fold process, involving coordination among HHS, the rest of the administration, and the Republican-led Congress. The steps can occur concurrently, but all must take place to prevent people from suffering any further from Obamacare’s ill effects.

Having assumed his post, Price should use the regulatory apparatus at his disposal to bring immediate relief from Obamacare. Press reports indicate the administration has already taken steps in that regard, sending a package of insurance stabilization rules to the Office of Management and Budget for clearance prior to their release, potentially as soon as Friday afternoon.

The reports suggest the administration is considering many of the proposals to provide regulatory flexibility that I included in a report analyzing repeal last month. Specifically, the administration may reduce the length of the annual open enrollment period and require verification of individuals seeking special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment. These are two critical steps to prevent individuals from signing up for insurance after they become sick.

In many cases, the administration and Price have significant latitude to provide flexibility, but that latitude is not unlimited. Until Congress acts, Obamacare remains on the statute books. While regulators can reinterpret the law, they cannot ignore it. Already, the liberal-leaning AARP has threatened legal action over one of the new administration’s rumored regulatory changes.

These legal constraints illustrate why Congress should act, preferably sooner rather than later, in passing legislation repealing Obamacare. Congress should use as the basis for action the repeal bill it passed in the fall of 2015, which Obama vetoed early last year. That bill repealed all of the law’s tax increases, and sunset the law’s coverage expansions after a two-year period to allow for an appropriate transition.

While the 2015 legislation should represent the initial template for Obamacare’s repeal, Congress can and should go further. Legislators should also seek to repeal the law’s insurance regulations, which have raised premiums and caused millions to receive cancellation notices.

Although some assume Congress cannot repeal the regulations using budget reconciliation — the special process that allows legislation to pass with a 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60 votes, in the Senate — that may not be accurate. The Congressional Budget Office and others have made estimates showing the significant budgetary impact of these costly regulations. Republicans should use those cost estimates, and past Senate precedent, to enact repeal of the major insurance provisions using the special budget reconciliation procedures.

While adding repeal of the insurance regulations to the 2015 measure, Congress should also ease the transition away from Obamacare by freezing enrollment in the law’s new entitlements upon enactment of the repeal bill. It makes no sense to allow millions of individuals to continue enrolling in a program Congress has just voted to end. Especially with respect to the law’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied, freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Obamacare to retain their coverage, while starting a process to transition away from the law’s spending and allow individuals to transition off the rolls and into employer-based coverage.

When thinking about a post-Obamacare world, Congress and the new administration should have three priorities: lowering costs, lowering costs and lowering costs.

Americans of all political stripes view lowering health costs as their number-one priority, and it isn’t even close. While candidate Obama promised in 2008 that his health plan would lower costs by an average $2,500 per family per year, the bill he signed into law instead raised costs and premiums for millions.

The answer to the top health concern lies not in new spending and taxes to subsidize health insurance (the failed Obamacare formula) but in reducing the underlying costs of care.

Reducing costs involves equalizing the tax treatment of health insurance, limiting current tax preferences that encourage over-consumption of health insurance and health care. But this must be done in a way that does not raise tax burdens overall. Lowering costs should include incentives for wellness and promote health savings accounts, the expansion of which could reduce health expenditures by billions of dollars.

States have a big role to play in the health debate, both in lowering costs and protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions.

Congress can and should provide states with incentives to reduce insurance benefit mandates that drive up the cost of care. Congress should guarantee that individuals with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, but give states funding, and let them decide the best route — whether through high-risk pools, or some other risk transfer mechanism — to ensure access to care. While not the panacea President Trump and others have claimed, Congress should allow individuals to shop across state lines for the coverage that best suits their needs.

These changes will not require a 2,700-page piece of legislation like Obamacare. They should not even be considered a “replacement” for Obamacare. But they would have an impact in reducing health costs, the issue Americans care most about. They would represent a new beginning after the canceled policies and premium spikes associated with Obamacare.

This post was originally published in the Washington Examiner.

Three Concerns with the Obamacare Replacement Act

On Wednesday, Politico reported that the House Freedom Caucus, an influential group of House conservatives, was considering whether to give its official endorsement to Sen. Rand Paul’s Obamacare Replacement Act (S. 222). The report indicated that word from the Freedom Caucus about an endorsement could come as soon as next week.

To this conservative health policy analyst, this development raises some serious concerns. Although not as objectionable as the Collins-Cassidy Patient Freedom Act, Paul’s legislation contains several features that, if widely embraced by conservatives, could lead to strategic and policy missteps going forward.

1. Doesn’t Repeal Obamacare

However, the bill does not repeal either of Obamacare’s new entitlements—the subsidies for exchange health insurance, and the massive Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied—leaving in place nearly $2 trillion in spending over the coming decade. Likewise, the bill does not repeal any of the Obamacare taxes used to fund that spending, except those associated with the individual and employer mandates.

Paul’s office may view the bill as a successor and complement to the reconciliation bill that Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, in 2016. That bill would have repealed the law’s entitlements (after two years), and its tax increases (effective immediately), but not its regulations. Paul’s office might argue that his bill repeals the critical portions of Obamacare not included in last year’s reconciliation bill—the major insurance regulations—while providing a replacement vision to go beyond repeal.

But that position assumes last year’s reconciliation bill will be the starting point for this year’s discussion—and it may not be. Politico reported Tuesday evening that Republicans were having difficulty figuring out how to square Medicaid reform with Obamacare’s massive Medicaid expansion. Likewise, some Republicans have discussed not repealing the law’s tax hikes. On these controversies, the Paul bill, by omitting any provisions relating to the entitlement expansions and tax increases, contains a deafening silence.

2. Tax Credit Slippery Slope

The Paul bill does provide tax credits for health coverage, but largely of the non-refundable kind, an arcane but important difference. Paul’s bill provides a $5,000 tax credit to individuals who contribute to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), but only to the extent such individuals have income tax liability. The Paul bill does include a refundable tax credit for health insurance premiums, but the refundable portion of the credit only applies up to the limit of an individual’s payroll taxes paid.

Many Republican health reform plans would offer refundable tax credits to individuals in excess of tax liabilities, which represents pure welfare/outlay spending—the government issuing “refunds” to people with no net income or payroll tax obligations. By contrast, the Paul bill would ensure that credits only apply to individuals with actual payroll and income tax obligations.

However, this critically important distinction will likely be lost on many members of the press—and perhaps members of the Freedom Caucus themselves. “House Freedom Caucus Endorses Tax Credits” will blare the headlines. Having endorsed tax credits once, the pressure on Freedom Caucus members to then go further and endorse the House leadership plan for refundable tax credits will be immense. Put simply, the slippery slope to endorsing a major spending package in the form of refundable tax credits starts with the Paul bill.

3. Budget-Busting Health Care Giveaways

Apart from the fiscal implications of the tax incentives, are these tax cuts smart tax cuts? Evidence suggests they may not be. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum believe that the current uncapped exclusion for employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance, and thus health care. Rather than reining in this tax incentive as one element of pro-growth tax reform, Paul’s bill goes in the other direction, creating two new uncapped tax incentives for health insurance.

As a medical doctor, Paul has shown little inclination to rein in health care spending. He voted for budget-busting Medicare physician payment legislation in 2015 that raised the deficit by more than $140 billion in its first decade alone, while failing to solve the long-term problems it purported to address. He has also previously proposed budgets that included minimal savings to Medicare, despite long-running deficits within Medicare.

But with health care already consuming nearly one-fifth of our economy, and our national debt approaching $20 trillion, does the solution to these problems really lie in creating new, uncapped incentives for tax-free spending on health care and health insurance?

Therein lies but one of the Paul bill’s problems. While ostensibly promoting market-oriented solutions, the legislation contains several strategic trip-wires that could contaminate any attempt to repeal Obamacare, or enact a conservative alternative. Members of Congress should tread cautiously.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Ways the Patient Freedom Act Is Worse than Obamacare

Last week, I wrote about how the Patient Freedom Act—introduced by senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Susan Collins (R-ME)—would dramatically expand taxpayer funding of abortions, even when compared to Obamacare.

But that’s not the only way in which their bill (S. 191) exceeds Obamacare’s standards for government intervention. Other details of their legislation reveal why its short title serves as a misnomer.

1. It Has More Spending Than Obamacare

Section 104 of the bill contains a complicated formula to determine state allotments for option two—the default option for states under the PFA. Section 104(b)(2) provides that states that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare will receive 95 percent of the amount they would have received had they accepted the Medicaid expansion.

In other words, rather than reducing Obamacare’s spending, the Patient Freedom Act could well increase it—by giving new Medicaid funds to states that declined to expand.

Medicaid reform should not disadvantage states that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare. But the proper solution to that problem does not lie in adding to Obamacare’s nearly $2 trillion in spending over the coming decade. Instead, it lies in freezing enrollment in the Medicaid expansion, unwinding that new spending, and transitioning beneficiaries over time off the rolls and into work.

2. It Repeals Health Savings Accounts (Not Obamacare)

Current law makes HSAs tax-privileged in two ways. First, contributions to an HSA can be made on a pre-tax basis—either via a payroll deduction through an employer, or an above-the-line deduction on one’s annual tax return. Second, HSA distributions are not taxable when used for qualified health expenses under Obamacare.

The Patient Freedom Act would abolish the first tax preference while retaining the second. Individuals must contribute to an HSA using after-tax dollars, but their contributions could grow tax-free, and distributions would be tax-free when used for qualified health expenses, as under current law. Section 201(b) prohibits additional contributions to “traditional” HSAs following enactment of the bill, instead diverting new contributions to the Roth (i.e., after-tax) HSAs created by the measure. While the bill does not require individuals to convert their existing HSAs to the new Roth HSAs, account administrators (e.g., banks, mutual funds, etc.) could require their customers to do so at some point—and individuals could face a hefty tax bill when they do.

Health Savings Accounts are a proven vehicle to help control the growth of health costs. While Obamacare included new restrictions on HSAs, Democrats did not upend the accounts nearly as much as contemplated by the Patient Freedom Act. Significantly reducing the tax preferences for Health Savings Accounts would not lower health care costs. If anything, it would raise them.

3. It Supports Government-Imposed Price Controls

Section 121(a)(2) of the Patient Freedom Act goes further than Obamacare, imposing maximum charges for emergency services: 85 percent of insurers’ usual, customary, and reasonable charges for physician care; 110 percent of Medicare payment rates for inpatient and outpatient hospital care; and acquisition costs plus $250 for drugs and biological pharmaceuticals.

While the issue of “surprise” medical bills does present a policy problem—individuals caught in the middle of stand-offs between providers and insurers regarding payment rates—there are other ways to resolve it short of government price controls. To borrow a medical metaphor, the PFA uses a blunt knife when a sharp scalpel would be more appropriate.

4. It Would Create an Automatic Enrollment Program

Sections 105(c) and 107(c) of the PFA create parameters through which states can automatically enroll their residents in health insurance—complete with restrictions on the type of coverage states can auto-enroll individuals into. While individuals can opt out of insurance should they wish to do so, this mandate-without-a-mandate could prove even more problematic than Obamacare’s requirement that all individuals purchase health coverage.

Nearly four years ago, then-Rep. Bill Cassidy said this about the IRS’ power in enforcing Obamacare:

Obamacare requires thousands of IRS agents to implement the law…They’re going to go through the small businesswoman’s books, to make sure that she actually has the number of employees that she claims, and that she has adequate insurance. That’s a little scary when you see what the IRS has been doing with their political targeting.

Granted, the PFA doesn’t have an employer mandate to enforce, but why is Sen. Cassidy’s “solution” to big government overreach at the federal level allowing states to impose their own intrusive requirements on individuals and businesses…?

Conservatives looking to repeal Obamacare should be disappointed by the ways in which the Patient Freedom Act exceeds Obamacare in several key respects, while liberals will undoubtedly oppose its (insufficient) attempts to devolve or deregulate health care to the states. Its Senate sponsors notwithstanding, the bill appears to lack a natural constituency. Or, to put it another way, if the Patient Freedom Act is the answer, then what exactly is the question?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Senate Republicans Propose Taxpayer Funding of Abortion

In the same week as the March for Life and the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, congressional Republicans are presenting strikingly different messages on the issue. While the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved legislation (H.R. 7) that would prohibit federal funding of abortions, with all House Republicans present voting for the bill, on Monday four Republican senators introduced a bill that would allow direct taxpayer funding of abortions.

That legislation, the Patient Freedom Act (the PFA, Senate Bill 191), introduced by senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), would go further than Obamacare in funding abortion coverage. Whereas Obamacare provides federal funding for insurance plans that cover abortion, the Patient Freedom Act would allow for direct federal funding of abortion procedures themselves.

  • Keep the regime created by Obamacare in place (i.e., the individual and employer mandates, subsidies, etc.), albeit funded at 95 percent of current levels;
  • Create a new insurance regime, funded by a rather complicated allotment formula—the allotment would equal 95 percent of the funding a state would have received under Obamacare, distributed directly to individuals through new Roth Health Savings Accounts (HSAs); or
  • Reject Obamacare entirely—and give up all federal funds associated with it.

The text of the legislation indicates a clear bias towards option two. If a state does not choose any of the three options, that state will automatically be placed in the second.

This Bill Would Repeal Abortion Restrictions

If a state chooses the second option, most of the provisions of Title I of Obamacare would not apply. That repeal would include the individual and employer mandates, and some (but not all) of the federal benefit mandates included in Obamacare.

Crucially, for states that select the second option (or the third, for that matter), the PFA would repeal Section 1303 of Obamacare, which imposes some restrictions on federal funding of abortion plans. Section 1303 permits states to prohibit abortion coverage on their insurance exchanges, and requires insurers to set up a segregation mechanism intended to keep federal insurance subsidies separate from funds that pay for abortion procedures.

However, Obamacare made an attempt, albeit a largely meaningless one, to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion. By contrast, the PFA makes no such attempt to do so.

Follow the Money

Because the PFA itself includes no restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion, it’s critical to examine the source of funding for the new state-based allotments. While the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funding of abortion, it does so only for appropriations provided through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ spending bill. Other agencies covered through other spending bills must explicitly prohibit funding of abortion coverage, otherwise federal funding of abortion would be permitted—and potentially required by courts as a necessary medical service.

The Patient Freedom Act includes only one new appropriation, for a population health initiative created by Section 103(c) of the bill. Therefore, the bill relies on Obamacare’s existing funding stream—the insurance subsidies provided in the form of refundable tax credits—to finance the allotments to individuals’ Roth HSAs. Because that funding stream goes through the Department of the Treasury via the Internal Revenue Code, the Hyde Amendment restrictions do not apply—meaning that federal funds can, and will, finance abortion coverage.

Direct Funding of Abortion Procedures

Not only would the Patient Freedom Act provide federal funds to insurance plans that cover abortion, it would allow individuals to fund their abortions directly with federal funds. The federal allotments would be directly provided (using a state-based formula developed by the Department of Health and Human Services) to eligible individuals using the new Roth Health Savings Account option. Recipients can use Roth HSA funds to fund health insurance premiums, provided those premiums are for plans that meet several federal mandates, or they can use their account to fund “qualified medical expenses.”

The definition of “qualified medical expenses”—available at Section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code here—includes no prohibition on abortion as a medical expense. Because the Internal Revenue Code is not subject to the Hyde Amendment, that law’s restrictions would not apply. Therefore, individuals could use federal dollars deposited into their Roth HSA to fund abortion procedures.

Current law does permit some tax breaks for abortion coverage. The tax code exempts employer-provided health insurance premiums from income and payroll taxes. Because some employer plans cover abortion, individuals receive a tax benefit for abortion coverage. Likewise, individuals can currently use their HSA funds to pay for abortions, given the definition of “qualified medical expenses.”

That is a significant expansion of federal abortion funding that exceeds anything in Obamacare. And it’s a strikingly odd message for the senators to send on a week when many conservatives are focusing on protecting innocent life, not using taxpayer funds to destroy it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Tom Price’s Nomination and the Road Ahead for Obamacare Repeal

In announcing the nomination of Georgia orthopedic surgeon and congressman Tom Price as Health and Human Services secretary, Donald Trump sent an important signal about his incoming administration’s desire to undertake major efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, along with other entitlement reforms. However, Price’s nomination also illustrates why those efforts face a difficult road to passage and enactment.

As news of the Price appointment leaked out late on Monday evening, reporters spent much of their time breathlessly analyzing Dr. Price’s health-care legislation—H.R. 2300, the Empowering Patients First Act—for clues as to what it might mean for the replace effort. However, Price’s bill may be more noteworthy for what it does not include than what it does:

  • Any premium support plan for Medicare reform;
  • Any reform of Medicaid—whether block grants or per capita caps; and
  • Any spending reductions to fund the refundable portion of tax credits Price proposes as an alternative to Obamacare’s insurance subsidies.

In other words, despite releasing a 243-page health-care bill, Price, along with his Republican colleagues in Congress, hasn’t translated into legislative specifics his policy positions on many, if not most, of the important health-care issues the Republican Congress will face next year. For instance:

  • How should a premium support system under Medicare be structured? Should payments to seniors be based upon the average plan bid, the lowest plan bid, or another formula? How quickly should those payments rise in future years?
  • How quickly should Medicaid block grants, or per capita caps, rise in future years?
  • Should an Obamacare repeal-and-replace plan rely on pre-Obamacare levels of taxes and spending, or should it redirect existing Obamacare spending in a different direction?

Price’s legislation does not shed much light on these and other critically important questions that Congress will need to undertake next year.

Budget Gimmicks and Magic Asterisks

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Price earlier this year released a budget blueprint that did include some ideas for entitlement reform. However, that document included only about four pages of proposals on Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare—some of which focused more on making the case against Obamacare than outlining the specifics of a Republican alternative. The Budget Committee did draft more specific (and non-binding) report language, but ultimately left the details of determining policy—as all budgets do—to the committees of jurisdiction, namely House Ways and Means and House Energy and Commerce.

More importantly, even though the Republican budget document said it “gets rid of all of Obamacare,” that’s not what it did. The budget, like those issued by House Speaker Paul Ryan when he was Budget Committee chairman, assumes Obamacare’s higher levels of taxes and lower levels of Medicare spending to achieve balance within the decade. Either the budget doesn’t repeal all of Obamacare, or it assumes that Congress, after repealing Obamacare, would go back and re-enact equivalent levels of tax increases and Medicare spending reductions.

It’s particularly noteworthy that Price’s Empowering Patients First Act, which proposes a new refundable tax credit, includes only one idea to pay for said credit—a cap on the tax deductibility of employer-sponsored health coverage. Although administered through the tax code, refundable credits are considered for budgetary purposes government spending—Washington writing “refund” checks to individuals and families with no income tax liability.

While it’s difficult to determine without a Congressional Budget Office score to his bill, one could argue the chairman of the House Budget Committee proposed raising taxes (the cap on deducting employer-sponsored health coverage) to pay for new spending (the refundable portion of the tax credit/insurance subsidy).

None of these omissions by Price suggest he lacks an intricate knowledge of health policy—far from it. In fact, to the extent Price has purposefully avoided many of the political minefields omnipresent in health policy, that public silence makes his Senate confirmation more likely.

But it also illustrates the extent of the obstacles Republicans face. If one of the few conservatives in Congress with an interest in, and knowledge of, health care achieved that reputation in part by avoiding tough choices, what will Republicans do when they have to make those difficult decisions—and trust me, they will have to—without him next year?

Legislating vs. Implementing

Given his influential perch in Congress, Price did not accept the HHS nomination because he intends to oversee the legislative process at a close distance. He will play a key role in liaising with Congress, no doubt, but perhaps more from a “big picture” perspective—working to persuade his former legislative colleagues—than by drafting minute details with Hill staff, Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Price’s nomination to HHS makes much more sense from an implementation standpoint—the opportunity to shape and mold the regulatory process. Price can lay the regulatory groundwork for repealing Obamacare and reforming entitlements. But the heavy lifting of policy will remain Congress’s purview, and Price’s record—both what it includes, and more importantly, what it excludes—illustrates that lift will be heavy indeed.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.