Liberals’ New Plan to Take Over the Health Care System

The Center for American Progress proposed a plan for government-run health care Thursday, which the liberal think tank calls “Medicare Extra.”

Unlike Bernie Sanders’ single-payer system, which would abolish virtually all other forms of insurance, the plan would not ban employer coverage outright — at least not yet. In broad strokes, CAP would combine Medicaid and the individual insurance market into Medicare Extra, and allow individuals with other coverage, such as employer plans, traditional Medicare or VA coverage, to enroll in Medicare Extra instead.

The goal of CAP’s plan is to grow government, and to grow dependence on government. The paper omits many important policies, such as how to pay for the new spending. Here are some of the major objectives and concerns.

If You Like Your Obamacare, Too Bad

After attacking Republicans for wanting to “taking away health insurance from millions,” CAP would … take away health insurance from millions. The plan would effectively eliminate Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, and all individual health insurance: “With the exception of employer-sponsored insurance, private insurance companies would be prohibited from duplicating Medicare Extra benefits, but they could offer complementary benefits during an open enrollment period.”

Other sections of the plan (discussed further below) suggest that private insurers could offer Medicare Choice coverage as one element of Medicare Extra. CAP indicates that persons purchasing coverage on the individual market would have a “choice of plans.” But didn’t Obamacare promise that already — and how’s that working out? For that matter, what happened to that whole “If you like your plan, you can keep it” concept?

Mandatory Health Insurance — And A $12,550 Tax

The plan reinstates a mandate to purchase health insurance: “Individuals who are not enrolled in other coverage would be automatically enrolled in Medicare Extra … Premiums for individuals who are not enrolled in other coverage would be automatically collected through tax withholding and on tax returns.”

While the plan says that those with incomes below the tax filing threshold “would not pay any premiums,” it excludes one important detail — the right to opt out of coverage. Therefore, the plan includes a mandate, enforced through the tax code, and with the full authority of the Internal Revenue Service. (Because you can’t spell “insurance” without I-R-S.) The plan indicates that for families with incomes between 150 and 500 percent of the poverty level, “caps on premiums would range from 0 percent to 10 percent of income. For families with income above 500 percent of [poverty], premiums would be capped at 10 percent of income.”

In 2018, the federal poverty level stands at $25,100 for a family of four, making 500 percent of poverty $125,500. If that family lacks employer coverage (remember, the plan prohibits individuals from buying any other form of private insurance), CAP would tax that family 10 percent of income — $12,550 — to pay for its Medicare Extra plan.

Wasteful Overpayments Controlled By Government Bureaucrats

As noted above, the plan would allow insurers to bid to offer Medicare Choice coverage, but with a catch: Payments provided to these plans “could be no more than 95 percent of the Medicare Extra premium.” CAP claims that “this competitive bidding structure would guarantee that plans are offering value that is comparable with Medicare Extra.”

It does no such thing. By paying private plans only 95 percent of the government-run plan’s costs, the bidding structure guarantees that private plans will provide better value than the government-run plan. Just as CAP decried “wasteful overpayments” to private insurers in Medicare Advantage, the CAP proposal will allow government bureaucrats to control billions of dollars in wasteful federal government spending on Medicare Extra.

Costs To States

As noted above, CAP envisions the federal government taking over Medicaid from the states, “given the continued refusal of many states to expand Medicaid and attempts to use federal waivers to undermine access to health care.”

But the plan also requires states to continue to make maintenance-of-effort payments even after the federal government takes Medicaid away from state jurisdiction. Moreover, the plan by its own admission “giv[es] a temporary discount [on the maintenance-of-effort provisions] to states that expanded their Medicaid programs” under Obamacare — effectively punishing states for a choice (i.e., to expand or not expand) that the Supreme Court made completely voluntary. And finally, it requires “states that currently provides benefits … not offered by Medicare Extra … to maintain those benefits,” leaving states perpetually on the hook for such spending.

Would Employer Coverage Really Remain?

The plan gives employers theoretical options regarding their health coverage. Employers could continue to offer coverage themselves, subject to certain minimum requirements. Alternatively, they could enroll their employees in Medicare Extra, with three possible sources of employer funding: Paying 70 percent of workers’ premiums, making maintenance-of-effort payments equal to their spending in the year preceding enactment, adjusted for inflation, or “simpler aggregated payments in lieu of premium contributions,” ranging from 0 to 8 percent of payroll. (The plan would exempt employers with under 100 full-time equivalent workers from making any payments.)

Two questions linger over these options: First, would employer coverage remain? CAP obviously wishes that it would not in the long-term, while recognizing the political problems associated with an abrupt transition. Second, could employers game the system among the various contribution options? While details remain unclear, any plan that sets up two systems (let alone four) represents a classic arbitrage opportunity. If employers act rationally, they could end up reducing their own costs in a way that significantly increases the federal government’s obligations.

Higher Health Spending

CAP advertises its plan as providing “zero or low deductibles, free preventive care, free treatment for chronic disease” — the source of 75 percent of American health care spending — and “free generic drugs.” It would also expand coverage of long-term care services not covered by Medicare (and only partially covered by Medicaid). But all this “free” stuff won’t come cheap.

In analyzing Bernie Sanders’ health care plan, the liberal Urban Institute estimated that it would increase overall health spending by 22.1 percent. Notably, the Urban researchers estimated that Sanders’ plan would raise spending by people who currently have health insurance by almost the same amount, or 15.1 percent, because the lack of cost-sharing will encourage individuals to increase their consumption of care. With the CAP plan apparently proposing that government fully subsidize more than three quarters of health care spending, its proposal will increase health care costs almost as much as Sanders’.

The CAP plan proposes measures to lower costs — namely price controls (i.e., Medicare dictating prices to doctors, hospitals, and drug companies), with some token references to other policies like bundled payments and limiting the tax preference for employer-sponsored insurance. But if those proposals go the way of Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” — potentially never implemented because politicians of both parties lack the discipline to control health care spending — then the plan will only raise health costs rather than lower them.

Something For Nothing

The plan proposes that families with incomes below 150 percent of poverty ($37,150 for a family of four this year) pay for their coverage the princely sum of … zero dollars. No premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

And while CAP does not include specific ideas to pay for all the associated new spending, the concepts it does propose largely involve taxing “the rich” (which includes small businesses).

While it doesn’t work as it should — most people “get back” far more than they “pay in” — at least Medicare makes an attempt to have all individuals pay for coverage through the payroll tax. CAP’s plan amounts to a transfer of wealth from one group to another.

Even The New York Times this week highlighted dissent from middle-class families upset at the thought of having to pay for low-income individuals to receive “free” Medicaid. So, CAP might want to rethink what Bill Clinton called “the craziest thing in the world” — making middle-class families pay even more for mandatory insurance ($12,550, anyone?) while certain families contribute not so much as a dime for coverage — along with just about every other element of its health care plan.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How HHS’ Proposed Rule Would (Slightly) Improve Obamacare

This morning, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a rule proposing several changes to Obamacare insurance offerings. The regulations are intended to help stabilize insurance markets and hopefully pave the way for a repeal and transition away from Obamacare.

Worth noting before discussing its specifics: The rule provides a period of notice-and-comment (albeit a shortened one) for individuals who wish to weigh in on its proposals. This decision to elicit feedback compares favorably to the Obama administration, which rushed out its 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters without prior public comment during the “lame duck” post-election period. Because the Obama administration wanted that regulation to take effect before January 20—so President Trump could not withdraw the regulation upon taking office—HHS declined to allow the public an opportunity to weigh in before the rules went into effect.

  • A shortening of next year’s open enrollment period from three months to six weeks—a solution included in my report on ways the new administration can mitigate the effects of Obamacare. In theory, the rule could (and perhaps should) have proposed an even shorter open enrollment window, to prevent individuals from signing up after they develop health conditions.
  • A requirement for pre-enrollment verification of all special enrollment periods for people signing up on the federal exchange, healthcare.gov—again outlined in my report, and again to cut down on reports that individuals are signing up for coverage outside the annual open enrollment period, incurring costly expenses, then dropping coverage.
  • Permitting insurers to require individuals who have unpaid premium bills to pay their debts before enrolling in coverage—an attempt to stop the gaming of Obamacare’s 90-day “grace period” provision, which a sizable proportion of enrollees have used to avoid paying their premiums for up to three months.
  • Increasing the permitted range of actuarial value variation—also outlined in my report—to give insurers greater flexibility.
  • Additional flexibility on network adequacy requirements, both devolving enforcement to states and allowing insurers greater flexibility in those requirements. Some might find this change ironic—critics of Obamacare have complained about narrow physician networks, and this change will allow insurers to narrow them even further. Yet the problem with Obamacare and physician access is that insurers have been forced to narrow networks. The law’s new benefit mandates have made increasing deductibles, or cutting provider reimbursements, the only two realistic ways of controlling costs. Unless and until those statutory benefit requirements are repealed, those incentives will remain.

One key question is whether these changes by themselves will be enough to stabilize markets, and keep carriers offering coverage in 2018. Given that Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini this morning called Obamacare in a “death spiral,” and Humana announced yesterday it will exit all exchanges next year, that effect is not certain.

As my report last month outlined, the new administration can go further with regulatory relief for carriers, from further narrowing open enrollment, to reducing exchange user fees charged to insurers (and ultimately enrollees), to providing flexibility on medical loss ratio and essential benefits requirements, to withdrawing mandates to provide contraception coverage. All these changes would further improve the environment for insurers, and could induce more to remain in exchanges for 2018.

However, as my post this morning noted, the ultimate action lies with Congress. The Trump administration, and HHS under new Secretary Tom Price, have started to lay a foundation providing relief from Obamacare. Now it’s time for the legislature to take action, and deliver on their promise to the American people to repeal Obamacare.

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.

How to Repeal Obamacare

Two months ago, the American people gave lawmakers a clear mandate: Save our nation’s health-care system from the harmful effects of Obamacare. They’re sick of exorbitant premium increases. They’re frustrated with insurer drop-outs and narrow provider networks that stifle access. They want change, and they want it now.

Congress’s votes last week on a budget were the first steps toward repeal. Last January, Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, a reconciliation bill that would eliminate more than $1 trillion in Obamacare tax increases and wind down spending on the law’s new entitlements by the time Congress can pass more sensible health-care reforms.

Now, with Republicans set to take control of all the White House, that bill could be passed again and signed into law. Some have argued that doing so this year would disrupt the health-care industry, prompting insurers to exit more markets and leaving the American people in the lurch. But these critics should first acknowledge that Obamacare is leaving millions of Americans in the lurch right now. In one-third of counties, Americans have a “choice” of only one insurer on their Exchange.

That said, conservatives must proceed carefully when unraveling the government mandates crippling our health-care system. Thankfully, as I outline in a report released today, Congress and the incoming Administration have numerous tools at their disposal to bring the American people relief.

As it repeals Obamacare, Congress should work to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the law’s costly insurance mandates. Because reconciliation legislation must involve matters primarily of a budgetary nature, critics argue that the process cannot be used to repeal Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and that leaving the regulations in place without the subsidies will collapse insurance markets.

But Congress did not attempt to repeal the major insurance regulations during last year’s debate; it avoided the issue entirely. Consistent with past practice, Senate procedure, and the significant fiscal impact of the major regulations, it should seek to incorporate them into the measure this time around.

Congress should also include provisions in the reconciliation bill freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion upon its enactment. Currently eligible beneficiaries should be held harmless, but lawmakers should begin a path to allow those on Medicaid to transition off the rolls and into work. In a similar vein, Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets.

The Trump administration has an important part to play as well, as it can provide regulatory flexibility to insurers and states — even within Obamacare’s confines. For instance, Obamacare gives the secretary of health and human services the sole authority to determine the time and length of the law’s open-enrollment periods. In both 2016 and 2017, those periods stretched on for three months, meaning that for at least one-quarter of the year, any American could sign up for insurance — no questions asked — immediately following a severe medical incident.

To guard against adverse selection — whereby more sick individuals than healthy ones sign up for coverage, raising insurance premiums for everyone — the Trump administration can significantly shorten enrollment periods. Next year’s open enrollment should last no more than 30 days if logistics will permit. Similar actions would restrict special enrollment periods that individuals have gamed under Obamacare, purchasing coverage outside open enrollment, racking up medical bills, and then cancelling their coverage. The Trump administration can eliminate special enrollment periods not required by statute, and require verification prior to enrollment in all other cases.

Another place for regulatory flexibility lies in the 3.5 percent “user fee” assessed for all those purchasing coverage on the federal exchange. In regulations released last month, the Obama administration essentially admitted that the actual cost of running the federal Exchange has dropped below 3.5 percent of premiums, but kept the “user fee” at current levels to increase funds for enrollment and outreach. The Trump administration should lower premiums by cutting user fees to the amount necessary for critical exchange functions, rather than spending hard-earned premium dollars promoting the partisan agenda the law represents.

The Trump administration can take other actions within the scope of Obamacare to provide a stable path to repeal. It can withdraw the mandated coverage of contraceptive services that raises premiums while forcing individuals and organizations to violate their deeply held religious beliefs. It can expand and revise the scope of essential health benefits, actuarial value, and medical-loss-ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers. It can immediately withdraw guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015 that paradoxically made an Obamacare “state innovation waiver” program less flexible for states. And it can build upon legislation Congress passed last month, which allowed small businesses to reimburse their employees’ insurance premiums without facing thousands of dollars in crippling fines, by extending the same flexibility to all employers.

Congress and the Trump administration have many tools at their disposal to provide an orderly, stable transition toward a new, better system of health care — one that focuses on reducing costs rather than expanding government control. They can and should use every one of these tolls to bring about that change, fulfilling the promise of repeal.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Fulfilling the Promise of Obamacare Repeal

A PDF of this document is available here.

 

For years, the American people have suffered from the ill effects of Obamacare’s federal intrusions into the health care system. Millions of Americans received cancellation notices telling them that the plans they had, and liked, would disappear—a direct violation of President Obama’s repeated promises.[1] Insurance premiums have skyrocketed, rising nearly 50 percent in 2014, followed by another increase of over 20 percent this year.[2] Insurance options have disappeared, with Americans in approximately one-third of all U.S. counties having the “choice” of only one insurer in 2017.[3]

But as the 115th Congress begins, the new Republican majority, and President-elect Donald Trump, have pledged to bring the American people desperately needed relief, by fulfilling their long-stated promise to repeal Obamacare. Congressional leaders have stated their intention to bring forward legislation that repeals key portions of Obamacare using budget reconciliation procedures. Such legislation would likely resemble the reconciliation bill that the prior 114th Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed on January 8, 2016.

That legislation, H.R. 3762 of the last Congress, repealed funding for Obamacare’s new entitlements—Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, and coverage subsidies for individuals of low and moderate incomes purchasing coverage on insurance Exchanges—effective January 1, 2018, approximately two years after enactment. It repealed all of the law’s tax increases—including the tax penalties associated with the individual and employer mandates—beginning January 1, 2016, effectively coinciding with the date of enactment. The bill also included other important provisions, restricting federal Medicaid payments to certain providers.[4]

Critics have argued that, having voted for this legislation once under President Obama, Members of Congress should not pass this bill again, sending it to President Trump’s desk for immediate signature.[5] These critics argue that Congress cannot repeal Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations under the special budget reconciliation procedures, which require all provisions in reconciliation legislation to have a significant budgetary impact. The critics fear that passing such legislation would effectively nullify Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates immediately, and its subsidies eventually, while keeping in place its costly insurance regulations that have significantly raised premiums. They believe that these steps would exacerbate adverse selection—a scenario whereby only sick individuals purchase health insurance coverage—de-stabilize insurance markets, and lead more insurers to drop out of insurance Exchanges altogether.

Those concerns, while legitimate, are misplaced on several fronts. First, Congress has not yet litigated whether or not some or all of the major Obamacare insurance regulations are budgetary in nature, and can be considered as part of reconciliation legislation. Second, Congress can and should take steps to modify last year’s reconciliation bill in ways that will stabilize insurance markets in the near-term, and create a transition to alternative legislation Congress constructs. Third, the incoming Trump Administration has significant regulatory powers within its purview, which can minimize the adverse selection effects critics fear from repeal legislation, and modify the federal mandates that have driven up premiums in recent years.

While not perfect, and less ideal than starting from scratch, last year’s reconciliation legislation represents a solid base from which to construct a legislative and regulatory framework for repealing Obamacare. It also represents the fastest approach for Congress to deliver on the promise it has made to its constituents for over six years: Unwinding an unaffordable and unworkable health care law.

 

What Congress Should Do

Last year’s reconciliation measure provides a good starting point for Congress when drafting repeal legislation to consider this year. However, Congress should attempt both to expand and revise the measure. These efforts would both mitigate against any adverse selection concerns, and stabilize insurance markets while Congress considers alternative legislation.

Expand Reconciliation to Insurance Regulations:               Critics have claimed that Obamacare’s major insurance regulations “were not altered in H.R. 3762; they could not be altered in a reconciliation bill taken up in 2017, either,” due to procedural restrictions inherent in the budget reconciliation process.[6] Such a definitive assertion is at best premature. Observers have noted that “Congress chose not to litigate” the issue of whether and what restrictions are budgetary in nature, and therefore eligible for repeal in reconciliation legislation, when considering H.R. 3762 in the fall of 2015.[7]

However, Congress can, and should, choose to litigate those issues with the Senate parliamentarian now. Rulings by the Senate parliamentarian will guide lawmakers as they determine which provisions of repeal legislation meet budget reconciliation guidelines, and can therefore be approved using a simple, 51-vote majority without being subject to the 60-vote threshold used for other legislation subject to a filibuster.

The Congressional Budget Office, think-tanks, and other actuarial organizations have produced estimates showing the significant costs of many of Obamacare’s insurance mandates—including requirements related to pre-existing conditions; essential health benefits; community rating requirements; actuarial value; medical loss ratios; preventive care coverage requirements; and other major mandates. The Obama Administration itself has produced cost estimates for several of the law’s mandates—and argued twice before the Supreme Court that its regulatory mandates are critical to the law’s structure.[8]

Congress can and should expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations. Doing so would be consistent with both the existing scoring estimates and past practice under budget reconciliation. Moreover, expanding the scope of repeal to include the largest insurance mandates would mitigate against adverse selection effects that might result if Congress repealed the individual mandate while leaving the major insurance regulations in place.

Freeze Enrollment in Entitlements:            Consistent with the transition period provided for in the 2015 reconciliation legislation, any repeal measure should also include steps to freeze enrollment in the law’s new entitlements. Such actions would be particularly pertinent to Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid—the source of most of the law’s spending, and the vast majority of its coverage expansions.[9]

Research indicates that past states that froze enrollment in Medicaid allowed the vast majority of enrollees to transition off of the program, and into work, within a short period of time.[10] Moreover, another study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Tennessee’s decision to roll back its unsustainable Medicaid expansion in 2005 led to “large increases in [the] labor supply” and increases in employment, as individuals dis-enrolled from Medicaid looked for—and obtained—employment, and employer-sponsored health insurance.[11] Freezing enrollment would hold existing beneficiaries harmless, while beginning to transition away from Obamacare’s unsustainable levels of spending—and encouraging economic activity and job growth.

Beginning this year, states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare will also face added fiscal burdens, as they must finance a portion (in 2017, 5 percent) of the cost of coverage for the first time. Even Democratic state legislators in “blue states” like Oregon and New Mexico have raised concerns about what the cost of this massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied will do to other important state programs targeting “the most vulnerable of our citizens.”[12] For all these reasons, Congress should insert language into the reconciliation freezing enrollment upon enactment—or perhaps shortly after enactment, to allow expansion states time to submit amendments to their existing state plans reflecting this legislative change.

Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in the law’s program of Exchange subsidies. In the spring of 2015, as the Supreme Court considered the case of King v. Burwell—which affected subsidies provided to individuals in states using the federal insurance Exchange, healthcare.gov—multiple Members of Congress introduced legislation that would have frozen enrollment. These bills would have allowed individuals who qualified for subsidies prior to the Court’s ruling to continue to receive them for a transitional period of time, but made other individuals ineligible for such subsidies.[13]

Though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the subsidies in King v. Burwell, ruling that the words “an Exchange established by the State” also referred to an Exchange run by the federal government, Congress could utilize a similar regime in the reconciliation bill with respect to insurance subsidies—that is, freezing eligibility and enrollment effective the date of the bill’s enactment.[14] However, Congress should only act to freeze eligibility for insurance subsidies if it believes doing so would not cause existing insurance market risk pools to deteriorate during the transition period.

Appropriate Cost-Sharing Subsidies:            Any repeal measure should include a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies currently in dispute. Those subsidies reimburse insurers for the expense of cost-sharing reductions—lower deductibles and co-payments—provided to certain low-income enrollees under Obamacare. In the case of House v. Burwell, the House of Representatives has argued that the text of Obamacare nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies, and that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by funding this spending without an express appropriation.

On May 12, 2016, United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House’s position, imposing an injunction (stayed pending appeal) prohibiting the Administration from appropriating funds for the cost-sharing subsidies.[15] The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is currently considering the Obama Administration’s appeal of Judge Collyer’s ruling, with further actions on hold until the new Administration takes office.

Some insurers argue that, should the incoming Trump Administration withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies, they have the right to terminate their plans from the Exchanges immediately. The arguments that insurers can withdraw from the markets in 2017 lack merit.[16] Furthermore, analysts have warned for months that an incoming Administration could withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies unilaterally upon taking office.[17] Insurers saw fit to ignore those warnings, and signed up to offer 2017 coverage knowing full well that the cost-sharing subsidies could disappear on short notice, through either court rulings or regulatory action by a new Administration.

However, to provide certainty, Congress should appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal bill—but only for the length of the transition period provided for in that measure. The Trump Administration should encourage Congress to appropriate funds for the transition period. Once Congress does so, the Trump Administration’s Justice Department can move to dismiss the Obama Administration’s appeal of the case against the House of Representatives, conceding the point that the executive never had authority to appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidies absent express direction by Congress.

Utilize the Congressional Review Act:            The election outcome notwithstanding, President Obama’s outgoing Administration continues to use the regulatory process to attempt to “box in” his successor. On December 22, 2016, the Administration published a Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for the 2018 plan year.[18] In doing so, the Administration specifically waived provisions of the Congressional Review Act, which generally requires a 60-day delayed effective date for major rules. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claimed that such a delay was impracticable for good cause reasons.[19] The 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters will therefore take effect 30 days following its display, on January 17, 2017—during President Obama’s last week in office. As a result, President Trump will be unable simply to revoke this regulation unilaterally upon taking office.

However, the Congressional Review Act does provide a vehicle for Congress, in concert with a President Trump, to take action revoking the newest Obamacare regulation. Specifically, the Act provides that a resolution of disapproval, passed by both houses of Congress, will have the effect of nullifying the rule or administrative action proposed.[20] Of particular import, the Congressional Review Act provides for expedited consideration of resolutions of disapproval in the Senate; those limits on debate preclude filibusters, meaning that resolutions of disapproval require a simple, 51-vote majority to pass, rather than the usual 60 votes for legislation subject to a filibuster.

Congress should explore using the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. Regardless of whether or not Congress strikes down this last-minute rule, the Trump Administration should act expeditiously—including through use of the “good cause” exemption the Obama Administration cited to rush through its own regulations last month—to provide needed relief to consumers.

 

What the Administration Should Do

The Trump Administration can also play its part in bringing about the promise of repeal, by acting in concert with Congress to undo the effects of Obamacare’s major insurance mandates. Consistent with the actions Congress should take listed above, the incoming Administration should immediately use flexibility to provide relief from Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Whether through a new 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, a series of interim final regulations, or both, these regulations would provide a vehicle for incorporating many of the changes needed to undo Obamacare’s harmful effects, including those listed below.

While the Administration cannot unilaterally change the law—such actions lie solely within the purview of Congress—it can and should take steps to soften the impact of existing mandates, and provide maximum flexibility wherever possible. These steps would stabilize insurance markets during the period following repeal, and provide for an orderly transition to an alternative regime.

Limit Open Enrollment:      Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS the authority to “require an Exchange to provide for…annual open enrollment periods, as determined by the Secretary for calendar years after the initial enrollment period.”[21] The law requires insurers to accept all applicants without regard to pre-existing conditions or health status—in industry parlance, guaranteed issue—but only within certain limits. Specifically, health insurers may “restrict enrollment in coverage described in such subsection [i.e., guaranteed issue coverage] to open or special enrollment periods.”[22] In other words, the requirement that insurers accept all applicants only applies during open enrollment periods—and the HHS Secretary has the sole power to determine when, and for how long, those open enrollment periods run.

The existing Code of Federal Regulations states that for the 2018 benefit year, open enrollment for individual health insurance will run from November 1, 2017 through January 31, 2018—the exact same three-month period as the 2016 and 2017 open enrollment periods.[23] The incoming Administration can—and should—issue new regulations limiting those open enrollment periods to a much narrower window, to prevent individuals from “gaming the system” and enrolling only after they incur costly medical conditions.

At minimum, it appears eminently reasonable for the new Administration to shorten the open enrollment window down to 30 days—a significant reduction from 2016 and 2017, which saw open enrollment last for one-quarter of the year. If logistical obstacles can be overcome—i.e., could Exchanges process applicants in a shorter period?—the Administration could restrict the open enrollment period even further, to a period of perhaps a couple of weeks. Other observers have suggested tying open enrollment to a period surrounding an individual’s birth date, thus preventing a surge of applicants at one particular point in the year.

Narrowing the length of open enrollment periods, coupled with restrictions on special enrollment periods outlined below, will provide a more controlled and contained environment for insurers to issue policies. Limiting enrollment periods will mitigate against an insurance market that requires carriers to issue policies without imposing financial penalties on individuals who fail to purchase insurance—indeed, will mitigate against the adverse selection insurers suffer from currently, even with the individual mandate in full effect. Because Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS extremely broad authority to define “open enrollment periods”—other than stating these must occur annually, the statute includes few prescriptions on administrative authority—the Trump Administration should use this authority to maximum effect.

Restrict Special Enrollment Periods:            Insurers have raised numerous complaints about individuals using special periods outside open enrollment to obtain coverage, incur large medical claims, and then drop that coverage upon regaining health. Early in 2016, Blue Cross Blue Shield calculated that special enrollment period customers were 55 percent more costly than those enrolling during the usual annual enrollment period. Likewise, Aetna found that one-quarter of its entire enrollment came from these “special” enrollment periods, and that said enrollees remained on the rolls for an average of fewer than four months—an indication that many only enrolled in the first place to obtain coverage for a specific medical condition or ailment.[24]

Even as insurers demonstrate that individuals have abused special enrollment periods to incur costly medical bills and subsequently cancel coverage, the Obama Administration actually exacerbated the problem its last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. That rule expanded the number of special enrollment periods, codifying an additional five exemptions allowing eligible individuals to qualify for coverage outside of open enrollment periods.[25]

That said, the Obama Administration has taken some steps to restrict abuse of special enrollment periods. In June 2016, it implemented a process announced in February 2016, which requires documentation from applicants seeking special enrollment periods for the most common conditions—a move, loss of coverage, marriage, birth, or adoption.[26] The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) claims this documentation requirement reduced the number of special enrollment period applicants by 20 percent.[27] However, a separate effort to require verification of special enrollment period eligibility prior to enrollment will not begin until this coming June, with results only coming in spring 2018.[28]

With respect to special enrollments, the incoming Administration should 1) eliminate all special enrollment periods, other than those required under existing law; and/or 2) accelerate the process of pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods.[29]

Use Exchange User Fees to Lower Premiums:     In its Notice of Benefit Parameters, the Obama Administration has annually imposed a 3.5 percent surcharge, dubbed an “Exchange user fee,” on issuers offering coverage using healthcare.gov, the federally-run Exchange, which those insurers then pass on to consumers. The 2018 version of the document, released December 22, specifically suggested that the 3.5 percent fee paid by insurers (and ultimately by consumers) now exceeds the costs associated with running the federal Exchange:

We have received feedback suggesting that the FFEs [federally-facilitated Exchanges] would be able to increase enrollment by allocating more funds to outreach and education, a benefit to both consumers and issuers. We sought comment on how much funding to devote to outreach and education, and on whether HHS should expressly designate a portion or amount of the FFE user fee to be allocated directly to outreach and enrollment activities, recognizing the need for HHS to continue to adequately fund other critical Exchange operations, such as the call center, healthcare.gov, and eligibility and enrollment activities.[30]

Some commenters regarding the Exchange user fee proposal specifically requested that the Exchange “user fee rate should decrease over time.” HHS rejected this approach for 2018. It did note that “we do anticipate gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs, and if so, may consider reducing the FFE user fee based on increased enrollment and premiums in the future.”[31]

Upon taking office, the Trump Administration should act immediately to ensure that the Exchange user fee funds essential Exchange operations only. With the Exchanges now in their fourth year of operation, HHS will not need to spend as much on technological infrastructure as the Department did while standing up the Exchange—and should not, as the Obama Administration suggested, spend the difference on new “slush funds” designed to promote enrollment outreach.

Because the Exchange user fee is based on a percentage of premium, this year’s 20 percent spike in premiums for Obamacare plans has significantly increased funding for the federal Exchange as it is.[32] Moreover, the vast majority of Exchange participants—84 percent, per the most recent enrollee data—receive federal subsidies for their health insurance premiums.[33] Because those federal subsidies directly relate to premium costs, federal taxpayers—and not enrollees themselves—are in many cases paying for any additional, and unnecessary, spending undertaken by the federal Exchange.

To save taxpayers, and to lower premiums for all consumers, the Trump Administration should take immediate steps to reduce the Exchange user fee to the minimum necessary to support Exchange operations—and instruct insurers to rebate the difference to consumers in the form of lower premiums.

Revise Medical Loss Ratio:  Obamacare requires insurers to spend a minimum percentage of premiums on medical claims—a medical loss ratio (MLR).[34] Insurers in the individual market face an 80 percent MLR, while employer plans have an 85 percent requirement. Plans that do not meet the minimum MLR thresholds must return the difference to beneficiaries in the form of rebates.

During Obamacare’s first several years, the MLR requirements have not proven a concern to insurers—largely because they significantly under-estimated premiums for 2014, 2015, and 2016. In fact, the average MLR for individual market plans skyrocketed from 62.3% in 2011 to 93.3% in 2015.[35] Because enrollees proved sicker than anticipated, insurers have paid out a high percentage of premiums in medical claims—indeed, in some cases, have paid out more in claims than they received in premium payments from enrollees (i.e., an MLR over 100%).

However, should the Trump Administration desire to provide additional flexibility for insurers, it could take a more expansive view of “activities that improve health care quality,” considered equivalent to medical claims paid under the MLR formula.[36] Obamacare required the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to, by December 31, 2010, “establish uniform definitions of the activities” under the MLR, including the definition of activities to improve health care quality.[37] However, the statute makes those definitions “subject to the certification of the Secretary,” and while then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accepted the NAIC recommendations, the new Administration is not necessarily obliged to do so.

The interim final rule regarding the medical loss ratio requirement provides a roadmap for a Trump Administration to provide regulatory flexibility regarding the MLR, including the definition of “activities that improve health care quality.”[38] The new Administration could also provide relief regarding agents’ and brokers’ fees and commissions—an issue HHS acknowledged in the rule, but did little to ameliorate—and taxes and fees paid by insurers due to regulatory and other requirements.

Reform State Innovation Waivers:            Section 1332 of Obamacare provides for “state innovation waivers,” which can take effect beginning on or after January 1, 2017. The waivers allow states to obtain exemptions from most of the law’s major insurance requirements, as well as the employer and individual mandates, to provide an alternative system of health insurance for its residents. However, the statute requires that any waiver must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as the coverage” defined under the law, as certified by the Medicare actuary;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as the law;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of its residents;” and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”[39]

The Obama Administration released a final rule regarding the process for applying for a Section 1332 waiver in early 2012.[40] However, it did not release information regarding the substance of the waivers themselves until late 2015—and then did so only through informal guidance, not a formal regulation subject to notice-and-comment.[41]

The December 2015 guidance exceeded the requirements of the statute in several ways. First, it said the Administration would not consider potential combined savings from a Section 1332 state innovation waiver when submitted in conjunction with a Medicaid Section 1115 reform waiver. In other words, when meeting the deficit neutrality requirement of Section 1332, Medicaid savings could not be used to offset higher costs associated with Exchange reforms, or vice versa.[42]

The guidance also said the Obama Administration would impose additional tests with respect to coverage and affordability—not just examining the impact on state populations as a whole, but effects on discrete groups of individuals.[43] For instance, the guidance noted that “waivers that reduce the number of people with insurance coverage that provides both an actuarial value equal to or greater than 60 percent and an out-of-pocket maximum that complies with Section 1302(c)(1) of [Obamacare] would fail” the affordability requirement.[44] These new mandates effectively prohibit states from using waiver programs to expand access to more affordable catastrophic coverage for individuals.

Due to the four statutory requirements listed above, the Section 1332 waiver program suffers from inherent shortcomings.[45] But because the added restrictions proposed in December 2015 came through informal regulatory guidance, the Trump Administration can and should immediately withdraw that guidance upon taking office. It should also work immediately to establish a more flexible rubric for states wishing to utilize Section 1332 waivers—with respect to both the application process itself and more flexible insurance design that can expand access and affordability for a state’s residents.

Withdraw Contraception Mandate:            Among the “early benefits” of the law taking effect six months after its enactment was a mandate for preventive care. Specifically, the law requires first-dollar coverage (i.e., without cost-sharing) of several preventive services, including women’s preventive health screenings.[46]

On December 20, 2016, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) released the most recent women’s preventive services guidelines. These guidelines, as before, required that “the full range of female-controlled U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, effective family planning practices, and sterilization procedures be available as part of contraceptive care.”[47]

The Trump Administration should upon taking office withdraw the HRSA benefit mandates—including the requirement to provide contraception coverage. While these particular mandates may have a slight impact on premiums, removing them would reduce premiums nonetheless. More importantly, they would restore the rights of conscience to those individuals and organizations who have been forced to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs to cover contraception and other procedures they object to.[48]

Modify Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value:        Among Obamacare’s many new mandated insurance benefits, two in particular stand out. First, the law provides for a series of “essential health benefits”—ten categories of health services that all qualified plans must cover.[49] While the essential health benefits address the breadth of health insurance coverage, actuarial value—or the percentage of annual health expenses paid by an insurance policy on average—addresses the depth of that coverage. The law categorizes individual health plans in four “tiers” based on actuarial value: Bronze plans with an average actuarial value of 60 percent; silver plans, 70 percent; gold plans, 80 percent; and platinum plans, 90 percent.[50]

Both directly and indirectly, the essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements raise premiums—by forcing individuals to buy richer coverage, and then by inducing additional demand for health care through that richer coverage. The Administration’s own rule regarding essential health benefits admitted that the law’s requirements include provisions not previously covered by most forms of health insurance, including “rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices.”[51] Likewise, a study in the journal Health Affairs concluded that the actuarial value requirements would raise premiums, as most pre-Obamacare individual market policies did not meet the new mandated benefit thresholds.[52]

However, the final rules regarding essential health benefits and plan actuarial value provide opportunities to expand benefit flexibility.[53] For instance, the new Administration could provide states with more options for declaring benchmark plans that meet the essential health benefit requirements under the statute. The new Administration could also expand the de minimis variation standards for actuarial value measures required by the law.[54] Allowing for additional variation and flexibility could have a significant impact in reducing premiums, as the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2009 that the essential benefits and actuarial value standards would collectively raise premiums by 27 to 30 percent, all else equal.[55]

Enhanced Flexibility for Businesses:             On September 13, 2013, the Treasury Department issued Notice 2013-54, which stated that an arrangement whereby an employer reimburses some or all of an employee’s expenses for the purchase of individual health insurance—whether through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) or some other means—would be considered a group health plan.[56] As a result, businesses using HRAs need to meet all of Obamacare’s regulatory reforms, such as prohibiting annual limits on the dollar value of essential health benefits.[57] Group health plans failing to meet those requirements trigger a penalty of $100 per day, per individual.[58]

This provision sparked widespread uproar when it first went into effect in July 2015, as the Obama Administration threatened fines of $36,500 per employee for employers who helped fund their employees’ health coverage.[59] Members of Congress introduced standalone legislation exempting small businesses from this requirement.[60] This provision was eventually incorporated into the 21st Century Cures Act, which President Obama himself signed into law on December 13, 2016.[61] As a result, small businesses with under 50 employees can now provide contributions to their workers’ individual health insurance premiums without triggering Obamacare’s regulatory regime.

Expanding upon the precedent of a law President Obama himself signed, the Trump Administration should withdraw Notice 2013-54, build on Congress’ actions, and allow businesses of all sizes the ability to reimburse employees’ premium costs without triggering massive fines. Actions in this vein would have salutary benefits in two respects: They would remove more businesses from Obamacare’s onerous regulatory requirements, while encouraging the use of defined contribution health insurance for employees.

 

Next Steps and the Pathway Forward

Following more than six years of frustration for the American people, the promise of repealing Obamacare is finally within reach. While passing legislation that unwinds Obamacare in an orderly, stable manner will require policy-makers to act with care, Congress and the new Trump Administration can use last year’s reconciliation legislation as the basis for action. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Seek to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation legislation to encompass Obamacare’s major insurance regulations, consistent with budgetary scores and past practice and precedents within the Senate;
  • Add a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Medicaid expansion, effective either upon enactment or shortly thereafter;
  • Explore adding a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Exchange subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets;
  • Appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies in reconciliation legislation, but only for the defined length of the Obamacare transition period; and
  • Explore use of the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2018.

Likewise, the Trump Administration can take several regulatory steps to enhance flexibility and provide certainty during the transition period:

  • Limit annual open enrollment to the shortest period feasible, and in no case longer than one month;
  • Restrict the use of special enrollment periods, by withdrawing all those added by the Obama Administration and not included in statute, and/or requiring pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods;
  • Provide that, for states using the federal Exchange, any portion of the 3.5 percent Exchange user fee not used to cover annual operating costs be refunded to enrollees, thus lowering their premiums;
  • Revise the medical loss ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers;
  • Immediately withdraw the December 2015 guidance regarding Section 1332 state innovation waivers, and provide maximum flexibility within the existing statutory requirements for states seeking to mitigate the harmful effects of Obamacare’s insurance mandates;
  • Withdraw the contraception mandate that raises premiums and hinders freedom of conscience;
  • Modify essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements to provide maximum flexibility within the statutory framework;
  • Expand upon Congress’ efforts allowing small businesses to reimburse their employees’ health insurance premiums without facing massive fines, by withdrawing the September 2013 IRS notice and extending flexibility to as many employers as possible; and
  • Drop the Obama Administration’s appeal of House v. Burwell once Congress provides a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal reconciliation bill.

Collectively, this menu of actions would help to unwind most of Obamacare’s harmful effects, provide for an orderly transition, and pave the way for Congress to consider and pass alternative legislation designed to lower health care costs. The promise of Obamacare repeal is within reach; it’s time for Congress and the new Administration to seize it.

 

 

[1] “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” Associated Press December 26, 2013, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/policy-notifications-current-status-state-204701399.html; Angie Drobnic Holan, “Lie of the Year: ‘If You Like Your Health Care Plan, You Can Keep It,’” Politifact December 12, 2013, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2013/dec/12/lie-year-if-you-like-your-health-care-plan-keep-it/.

[2] Drew Gonshorowski, “How Will You Fare in the Obamacare Exchanges?” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4068, October 16, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/10/enrollment-in-obamacare-exchanges-how-will-your-health-insurance-fare; Department of Health and Human Services, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in the 2017 Health Insurance Marketplace,” ASPE Research Brief, October 24, 2016, https://aspe.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/212721/2017MarketplaceLandscapeBrief.pdf.

[3] Cynthia Cox and Ashley Semanskee, “Preliminary Data on Insurer Exits and Entrants in 2017 Affordable Care Act Marketplaces,” Kaiser Family Foundation, August 28, 2016, http://kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/preliminary-data-on-insurer-exits-and-entrants-in-2017-affordable-care-act-marketplaces/.

[4] Section 206 of H.R. 3762 had the effect of preventing Medicaid plans from providing reimbursements to certain providers, including Planned Parenthood.

[5] Joe Antos and Jim Capretta, “The Problems with ‘Repeal and Delay,’” Health Affairs January 3, 2017, http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2017/01/03/the-problems-with-repeal-and-delay/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Winfree and Brian Blase, “How to Repeal Obamacare: A Roadmap for the GOP,” Politico November 11, 2016, http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2016/11/repeal-obamacare-roadmap-republicans-000230.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, baseline estimates for federal subsidies for health insurance, March 2016, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2016-03-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 3, p. 5; Edmund Haislmaier and Drew Gonshorowski, “2015 Health Insurance Enrollment: Net Increase of 4.8 Million, Trends Slowing,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4620, October 31, 2016, http://thf-reports.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/IB4620.pdf.

[10] Jonathan Ingram, Nic Horton, and Josh Archambault, “Welfare to Work: How States Can Unwind Obamacare Expansion and Restore the Working Class,” Forbes December 3, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2014/12/03/welfare-to-work-how-states-can-unwind-obamacare-expansion-and-restore-the-working-class/#455cad6923ec.

[11] Craig Garthwaite, Tal Gross, and Matthew Notowidigdo, “Public Health Insurance, Labor Supply, and Employment Lock,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 19220, July 2013, http://www.nber.org/papers/w19220.

[12] Christina Cassidy, “Medicaid Enrollment Surges, Stirs Worry about State Budgets,” Associated Press July 19, 2015, http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/c158e3b3ad50458b8d6f8f9228d02948/medicaid-enrollment-surges-stirs-worry-about-state-budgets.

[13] See for instance Section 4 of Winding Down Obamacare Act, S. 673 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Section 4(b) of Preserving Freedom and Choice in Health Care Act, S. 2016 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).

[14] King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. __ (2015).

[15] United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 14-1967, House v. Burwell, ruling by Judge Rosemary Collyer, May 12, 2016, https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2014cv1967-73.

[16] The contract between CMS and insurers on the federal Exchange notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw if they are not. However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause was poorly drafted by insurers’ counsel, and therefore has no applicability to House v. Burwell; insurers have no ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers. See https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.

[17] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies for Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.

[18] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters,” Federal Register December 22, 2016, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-12-22/pdf/2016-30433.pdf.

[19] Ibid., pp. 94159-60.

[20] 5 U.S.C. 802. For more information, see Maeve Carey, Alissa Dolan, and Christopher Davis, “The Congressional Review Act: Frequently Asked Questions,” Congressional Research Service Report R43992, November 17, 2016, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43992.pdf.

[21] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(B), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(B) of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.

[22] Section 2702(b)(1) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-1(b)(1), as modified by Section 1201(2)(A) of PPACA.

[23] 45 C.F.R. 155.410(e)(2).

[24] Paul Demko, “Gaming Obamacare,” Politico January 12, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/01/gaming-obamacare-insurance-health-care-217598.

[25] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, pp. 94127-31.

[26] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Fact Sheet: Special Enrollment Confirmation Process,” February 24, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-02-24.html.

[27] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Pre-Enrollment Verification for Special Enrollment Periods,” https://www.cms.gov/cciio/resources/fact-sheets-and-faqs/downloads/pre-enrollment-sep-fact-sheet-final.pdf.

[28] Ibid.

[29] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(C), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(C) of PPACA, requires the Secretary to establish special enrollment periods for individual coverage as specified by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) for group coverage, codified at 26 U.S.C. 9801.

[30] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, p. 94138.

[31] Ibid., p. 94138.

[32] HHS published an average 2017 premium increase for healthcare.gov states of 25 percent, and a median increase of 16 percent. See HHS, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in 2017,” Table 2, p. 6.

[33] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “First Half of 2016 Enrollment Snapshot,” October 19, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-10-19.html.

[34] Section 2718 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18, as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[35] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “The 80/20 Rule Increases Value for Consumers for Fifth Year in a Row,” November 18, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Forms-Reports-and-Other-Resources/Downloads/Medical-Loss-Ratio-Annual-Report-2016-11-18-FINAL.pdf.

[36] Section 2718(a)(3) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg18(a)(3), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[37] Section 2718(c) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18(c), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[38] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “Implementing Medical Loss Ratio Requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Federal Register December 1, 2010, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-01/pdf/2010-29596.pdf.

[39] 42 U.S.C. 18052(b)(1)(A), as codified by Section 1332(b)(1)(A) of PPACA.

[40] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, final rule regarding “Application, Review, and Reporting Process for Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register February 27, 2012, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-02-27/pdf/2012-4395.pdf.

[41] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, guidance regarding “Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register December 16, 2015, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-12-16/pdf/2015-31563.pdf.

[42] Ibid., p. 78134.

[43] Ibid., p. 78132.

[44] Ibid., p. 78132.

[45] Chris Jacobs, “What’s Blocking Consensus on Health Care?” Wall Street Journal July 17, 2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/07/17/whats-blocking-consensus-on-health-care/.

[46] Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-13, as revised by PPACA Section 1001(1).

[47] Health Resources and Services Administration, “Women’s Preventive Services Guidelines,” December 20, 2016, https://www.hrsa.gov/womensguidelines2016/index.html.

[48] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The HHS Mandate for Contraception/Sterilization Coverage: An Attack on Rights of Conscience,” January 20, 2012, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/upload/preventiveqanda2012-2.pdf.

[49] 42 U.S.C. 18022, as codified by Section 1302 of PPACA.

[50] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d), as codified by Section 1302(d) of PPACA.

[51] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Standards Related to Essential Health Benefits, Actuarial Value, and Accreditation,” Federal Register February 25, 2013, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-02-25/pdf/2013-04084.pdf, pp. 12860-61.

[52] Jon Gabel, et al., “More Than Half of Individual Health Plans Offer Coverage That Falls Short of What Can Be Sold through Exchanges as of 2014,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2012/05/22/hlthaff.2011.1082.abstract.

[53] HHS, final rule on “Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value.”

[54] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d)(3), as codified by Section 1302(d)(3) of PPACA.

[55] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding health insurance premiums, November 30, 2009, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/111th-congress-2009-2010/reports/11-30-premiums.pdf, pp. 9-10.

[56] Internal Revenue Service, Notice 2013-54, September 13, 2013, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-13-54.pdf.

[57] Section 1563(f) of PPACA added Section 9815 to the Internal Revenue Code, which incorporated most of the regulatory requirements of the law to group health plans.

[58] 26 U.S.C. 4980D(b)(1).

[59] Grace-Marie Turner, “Small Businesses Threatened with $36,500 IRS Fines for Helping Employees with Health Costs,” Forbes June 30, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/gracemarieturner/2015/06/30/small-businesses-threatened-with-36500-irs-fines-for-helping-employees-with-health-costs/#53750b3d4a0e.

[60] The Small Business Healthcare Relief Act, introduced by Reps. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), H.R. 2911 of the 114th Congress; a companion measure was introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) as S. 1697 of the 114th Congress.

[61] Section 18001 of 21st Century Cures Act, P.L. 114-255.

Three Points CBO Omitted from Its Report on Obamacare Repeal

This morning, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report analyzing the effects of Obamacare repeal. Specifically, CBO claimed that enacting a reconciliation bill that the last Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, would increase the number of uninsured (even relative to pre-Obamacare numbers) while raising insurance premiums appreciably. CBO believes that leaving Obamacare’s major insurance regulations in place—which last year’s reconciliation bill did—while repealing the law’s subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, will destabilize insurance markets, cause insurers to exit the marketplace, and raise premiums.

However, there are three important facts the CBO report didn’t address:

CBO Has Gotten Previous Estimates Wrong

While no forecaster has a perfect batting average, CBO’s track record with respect to Obamacare is perhaps less ideal than most. CBO thought that the CLASS Act—which Democratic Senator Kent Conrad infamously called “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing for which Bernie Madoff would be proud of—could be implemented in an actuarially sound manner. The Obama Administration eventually had to admit that the CLASS Act was not a fiscally sound program. And CBO failed to conduct enough analysis that could have predicted the CLASS Act’s failure prior to Obamacare’s passage—a point former Director Doug Elmendorf has publicly refused to admit.

With respect to enrollment, CBO significantly over-estimated the number of individuals that would sign up for Obamacare. In March 2010, as Democrats were ready to pass the law, CBO claimed that in 2016, 21 million individuals would sign up for coverage on insurance Exchanges. The reality has proven far different: Less than half as many individuals (10.4 million) had Exchange coverage as of June 30, 2016. And this much lower enrollment comes despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling making Medicaid expansion optional for states—which actually increased Exchange enrollment in states that have declined to expand Medicaid.

CBO claimed in 2010 that the individual mandate would cause tens of millions of individuals to sign up for coverage. It hasn’t happened. Now CBO claims that effectively repealing the mandate while leaving insurance regulations in place will cause healthy individuals to cancel coverage en masse. Could that happen? Absolutely. But given their recent track record on this specific issue, should one really take CBO’s word as gospel…?

The Solution Is More Repeal, Not Less

In a paradoxical way, the CBO report actually makes a strong case for expanding the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill. The paper notes on several occasions that repealing Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, and effectively repealing the individual mandate, while leaving its insurance regulations in place, would harm insurance markets. For instance, CBO notes that:

The number of people without health insurance would be smaller if, in addition to the changes in [last year’s reconciliation bill], the insurance market reforms mentioned above were also repealed.

Congress chose not to litigate the question of whether Obamacare’s major insurance mandates were budgetary in nature, and thus could be included in a budget reconciliation bill, last year. It should do so now. The findings of this CBO paper, along with other scoring estimates, give ample ammunition to those who consider it entirely consistent with past Senate precedents to include repeal of the major insurance regulations in budget reconciliation.

The Trump Administration Can Mitigate Repeal’s Effects

Even if Congress cannot or will not expand the scope of the reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations under Obamacare, the Trump Administration can act to mitigate against the kinds of concerns outlined in the CBO paper. A report I released just this morning outlines some of them. The Administration can significantly shorten—to just a few weeks, or even shorter—the annual open enrollment period, which can protect against individuals signing up for coverage after they get sick. It can reduce special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment, and require verification for all special enrollment. And it can take other administrative actions to mitigate the effects of a spike in premiums.

Are Exchanges’ Dual Dilemmas Mutually Exclusive?

Amidst the spike in health insurance premiums set to hit just before the November elections, health insurance Exchanges face two distinct dilemmas: Too few people enrolled overall—coupled with a disproportionate number of sick individuals. Unfortunately, solving these dual problems may prove mutually exclusive, as scrutinizing efforts of sick individuals seeking to obtain coverage could lead healthier people to abandon their efforts to enroll.

In recent months, insurers have raised concerns about special enrollment periods (SEPs), designed to allow individuals to sign up for coverage outside the usual fall open enrollment due to “life changes” like a move, a loss of employer coverage, or a change in marital status. Insurers believe those enrolling through special enrollment periods 1) incur more costs than those customers who sign up using the fall open enrollment and 2) are disproportionately likely to drop their coverage after several months. They believe a significant proportion of special enrollment period sign-ups come from individuals who obtain coverage due to a health crisis, obtain care with that coverage, and promptly drop it once they return to health.

In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which sets federal policy for Exchanges, has proposed eliminating some special enrollment periods, and requiring documentation for others. However, an Urban Institute paper released earlier this summer noted that

This higher cost [to insurers] results from three factors: (1) enrollment by costly consumers who are ineligible for SEPs, (2) enrollment by costly consumers who are eligible for SEPs, and (3) limited enrollment by healthy and eligible consumers. CMS’s policy to verify eligibility by requesting consumer documentation addresses the first factor. However, it does not address the second, and it worsens the third by adding procedural requirements that are likely to lessen eligible consumers’ participation, especially among the healthy.

Therein lies the dilemma—both for the Administration, and for insurers. Verifying special enrollment periods will discourage those trying to “game the system” by inventing a “life change” where none exists, but it will do nothing to discourage sick individuals with a bona fide reason for claiming special enrollment—and it may also dissuade healthy individuals from signing up when they change jobs. If the second and third effects outweigh the first, the changes could actually worsen the overall health of Exchange enrollees.

Enrollment in Exchange plans remains moribund compared to original expectations. Administration data show total enrollment of 11.1 million on March 31—a decrease of 1.6 million compared to the beginning of the year, and just over half the 2016 enrollment originally projected by the Congressional Budget Office at the time of the law’s passage. While verifying special enrollment periods will help crack down on abuses of the system, they may do so by further diminishing enrollment. And the changes could actually worsen the problem of adverse selection—enrollment by too few healthy individuals, and too many sick ones—they were meant to fix.

Has Obamacare Enrollment Peaked?

Has the effort peaked to sign up uninsured Americans for coverage? The announcement that the nonprofit organization Enroll America is laying off staff and redirecting its focus in the face of funding cuts comes amid inconsistent sign-ups during the second Affordable Care Act open-enrollment period and concerns about affordability.

A recent New York Times analysis compared Kaiser Family Foundation estimates of potential enrollees with sign-up data from the Department of Health and Human Services. While some states that signed up few people in 2014 recovered during the 2015 open enrollment, other states lagged: “California, the state with the most enrollments in 2014, increased them by only one percentage point this year, despite a big investment in outreach. New York improved by only two percentage points. Washington’s rates are unchanged.”

Most states could not post consistent gains in both open-enrollment periods. An official from Avalere Health, a consulting firm, told the Times that she was “starting to wonder if we’ve overestimated the whole thing.”

A recent analysis from Avalere Health demonstrates why the enrollment push may have peaked. The percentage of eligible Americans signing up drops off significantly as income rises and federal subsidies phase out, suggesting that absent subsidies Americans find the exchange insurance products unaffordable or of little value. And if the carrot of federal subsidies has not resulted in expected enrollment, the stick—the mandate to purchase insurance—seems even less effective: The special open-enrollment period to accompany this year’s tax-filing season has resulted in 36,000 sign-ups in the 37 states using HealthCare.gov. But 4 million to 6 million people are expected to pay the mandate tax.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that ACA enrollment will average 11 million individuals, with 8 million receiving subsidies. So far, enrollees reporting incomes above the threshold for subsidies are only 2% of uninsured individuals who have signed up, making it hard to see how the administration can reach CBO’s estimate of 6 million unsubsidized exchange enrollees in 2016. The fact that California, New York, and Washington state achieved only marginal enrollment improvements from 2014 to 2015 does not bode well for achieving CBO’s target of 15 million subsidized enrollees next year—a more than 50% increase from the 9.9 million individuals who qualified for subsidies in 2015.

With outreach efforts scaling back, and many Americans uninterested in ACA coverage absent hefty federal inducements, CBO’s estimate of 21 million enrollees next year seems unlikely to be met. If this year’s results from California and New York are any indication, a good question may be whether 2016 enrollment will grow at all.

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

How Obamacare’s Tax Complications Are Playing Out

In a January Think Tank post, I noted potential complications the health-care law’s interactions with the tax code could present for millions of filers this season. In just the past week, we’ve seen:

* Many recipients of federal subsidies have been required to repay some of that money when they filed their taxes. Although some people overestimated their 2014 income when they applied for subsidies, and received a larger-than-expected refund as a result, the majority of subsidy recipients (52%) did the opposite, according to an H&R Block analysis released Tuesday. Those who underestimated their income and collected oversize subsidy payments in 2014 have seen their refunds reduced, H&R Block said, by an average of $530—or, approximately 17%—as the federal government collects the overage.

* Some filers are paying an average $172 in taxes for non-compliance with the individual mandate, the H&R Block analysis said.

* On Friday, the Obama administration announced that about 800,000 recipients of subsidies had been mailed incorrect tax forms. If these households have not yet filed their 2014 taxes, their tax returns—and thus their refunds—will be delayed until they receive the corrected form from the federal government.

*The administration also said Tuesday that the estimated 50,000 households that had received incorrect tax forms and had already filed their 2014 taxes would not be required to repay monies to the federal government if, because of the incorrect forms, they had underpaid their tax and subsidy obligations. The announcement did not explain why an error discovered in January was not made public until last week, or how much this leniency will cost the federal government, or whether the office or contractor responsible for the mistake will face financial penalties for its error.

Last week, the administration announced a special extension of the Obamacare enrollment period, from March 15 to April 30, for households that discovered during the tax-filing season that they were subject to the individual mandate tax. The administration said that the enrollment extension would be limited to individuals who attest they were unaware of the mandate tax penalty before filing their taxes, and that it would not return in future years. There is, however, no independent verification of people’s claims about the tax penalty, and the administration could easily find reasons to implement an open-enrollment extension in the future.

The administration’s enrollment strategy seems inclined toward leniency—for the policy reason of trying to enroll as many individuals as possible and for the political reason of avoiding actions that could make the law more unpopular. Some advocates of a longer enrollment period have cited the ability to “diminish hostility” toward the law as one reason to allow Americans a second bite at the enrollment apple.

This raises two questions. First, whether and how much executive actions such as the forgiveness associated with the tax form errors will cost taxpayers. Second, whether future administrations, which may not be as favorably inclined toward the health-care law, will take as many steps to cushion citizens from adverse effects of the law.

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

Obamacare and Tax Complications

We’ve seen few administrative controversies with Obamacare’s second open-enrollment season, but as a Wall Street Journal article noted last week, the start of the 2014 tax-filing season could bring a new wave of public discontent.

This tax-filing season brings the first enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate–the complexity of which could become a boon for tax-preparation firms. The instructions for completing the mandate exemption form run 12 pages, list 19 types of exemptions (with multiple codes), and include worksheets that may require individuals to go to their state exchange’s Web site to find the monthly premiums that will determine whether they had access to “affordable” coverage.

This added documentation could confuse those used to filing short, simple tax returns. Potential bad outcomes include: filers could give up, and pay the mandate tax even though they qualify for an exemption; filers could feel compelled to hire a tax preparer to sort through the issues for them; or filers could complete the form incorrectly and find their refund held in limbo while the IRS works to resolve the errors.

Meanwhile, Americans who purchased insurance last year and obtained federal premium subsidies will have to reconcile their income and taxes owed with the subsidies they received—which were based on estimated income. The Journal article cited an H&R Block analysis that as many as half of the 6.8 million individuals who received subsidies will have to repay a portion of them.

One tax model estimates the average repayment at $208, but some families may owe more. Congress has twice raised the repayment amounts to as much as $2,500 for families at the higher end of the income-eligibility range, the Journal noted. In addition, families whose income exceeds the eligibility range—more than four times the federal poverty level, or $95,400 for a family of four last year—by even one dollar have to repay their entire subsidy, which could run many thousands of dollars.

Because many families of modest means rely on their tax refund as the major financial windfall for the year, provisions in the health law that reduce, or eliminate, those refunds could prove quite unpopular. Significantly, many filers hit by the individual mandate or the subsidy repayment provisions will not discover the impact on their tax returns until after Obamacare’s open-enrollment period ends on Feb. 15; as things stand, those individuals will not be able to adjust their insurance options, and they could face penalties for both 2014 and 2015 as a result.

More complexity for filers, more work for tax preparers, and smaller refunds for millions of Americans are a recipe for more controversy around the health-care law—as well as bureaucratic and political headaches in the weeks leading up to April 15.

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