The Return of the Individual Mandate

Well, that didn’t last long. Fewer than six months after Congress effectively repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate—and more than six months before that change actually takes effect, in January next year—another liberal group released a plan to reinstate it. The proposal comes as part of the Urban Institute’s recently released “Healthy America” plan.

In the interests of full disclosure: I criticized Republicans for repealing the individual mandate as part of the tax reform bill last fall. I did so not because I support requiring Americans to buy health insurance—I don’t—but because Republicans need to go further, and repeal the federal insurance regulations that represent the heart of Obamacare and necessitated enacting the mandate in the first place.

Lipstick on an Unpopular Pig?

The Urban Institute plan tries to re-brand a federal requirement to purchase insurance by never even using the term “mandate” in its proposal. Instead, the document says that “uninsured people would lose a percentage of their standard deduction (or the equivalent for the itemized deduction) when they pay income taxes….Half the lost deduction amount could be refunded the following year if the person enrolls in coverage and maintains it for the next full plan year.”

But as the saying goes, if it looks like a mandate and functions like a mandate, it’s a mandate. The paper claims that taking away a “tax benefit…would be better received politically than the additional tax penalty” under Obamacare, but functionally, that provides a distinction without a difference. Even the Urban researchers call this “loss of a tax benefit” a “penalty” later in the paper, because that’s what it is: A penalty for remaining uninsured.

The paper even includes a chart highlighting the average tax for remaining uninsured by income under the proposal, which generally mimics the tax penalties the uninsured pay under Obamacare:

Other Components of the Plan

Unfortunately, the Urban Institute plan goes well beyond merely reinstating the individual mandate, albeit in a slightly different form. It also makes other major changes to the health care system that would entrench the role of the federal government in it. It would federalize Medicaid health insurance coverage by transferring Medicaid enrollees into exchanges, supplementing benefits for low-income children and individuals with disabilities, and requiring states to keep paying their current contributions into the system. (Long-term care coverage under Medicaid would continue unchanged.)

The exchanges would have a new government-run plan—the default option for low-income enrollees automatically enrolled into coverage—and options run by private insurers. However, all plans would cap reimbursement to doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates, making premiums more “affordable” by imposing price controls that would potentially pay providers at below-market levels. The plan also proposes to “save” on prescription drugs by extending Medicaid rebates (i.e., price controls) to additional individuals.

The Urban plan also proposes much richer health coverage subsidies, consistent with its earlier 2015 proposal. Specifically:

  • Individuals with incomes below the federal poverty level would not pay either premiums or cost-sharing;
  • Individuals with incomes below 138 percent of poverty (the threshold for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) would not pay premiums;
  • Premium subsidies would be linked to a plan paying 80 percent of expected health care costs (i.e., actuarial value), as opposed to a 70 percent actuarial value plan under Obamacare;
  • Individuals would have to pay less of their income in premiums than under Obamacare—for instance, an individual with income just under four times poverty would pay 8.5 percent of income in premiums, as opposed to 9.56 percent under Obamacare; and
  • Unlike Obamacare, which limits eligibility for subsidies to those with incomes under four times poverty, the Urban plan would limit premium payments to 8.5 percent of income at all income levels (i.e., including for those making more than four times poverty).

Moreover, “short-term and other private insurance plans that do not comply with Healthy America regulations (consistent with [Obamacare’s] regulatory framework” would be prohibited, including association health plans and other concepts the Trump administration has proposed to give Americans more flexible coverage options.

The Urban researchers admit their plan would require significant new revenues to pay for the new subsidies—an estimated $98 billion in the first year alone. The plan only briefly discusses options to pay for this new spending, but it admits that, even if Congress hikes the payroll tax by an additional percent, raising an estimated $823 billion over ten years, “other adjustments to excise and income taxes would be needed.”

Where the Plan Fits In

At the end of their paper, the Urban researchers include a helpful chart comparing the various liberal proposals for expanded government involvement in health care—lest anyone claim that the left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing. In general:

  • Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bill that would not go as far as the Urban plan. It incorporates the subsidy changes Urban proposed, adds a government-run plan, and imposes other regulatory changes to the exchanges, but (unlike the Urban plan) retains the status quo for Medicaid;
  • The Center for American Progress’ “Medicare Extra” proposal, which I wrote about earlier this year, goes farther than the Urban plan, by eliminating Medicaid (which the Urban plan modifies) entirely, and including more robust auto-enrollment provisions, with “Medicare Extra” the default option for all Americans; and
  • The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would go farthest of all, abolishing virtually all forms of insurance (including Medicare) and creating a single-payer health system.

So much for “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” For that matter, so much for “If you like your freedom, you can keep it.” Like it or not, the Left seems insistent on terrifying the American public with what Ronald Reagan viewed as the nine most effective words to do so: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: House Republicans’ Leaked Obamacare Replacement Draft

On Friday, Politico released a leaked version of draft budget reconciliation legislation circulating among House staff—a version of House Republicans’ Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill. The discussion draft is time-stamped on the afternoon of February 10, and according to my sources has been changed in the two weeks since then, but it represents a glimpse into where House leadership was headed going into the President’s Day recess.

A detailed summary of the bill is below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Where provisions in the discussion draft were also included in the reconciliation bill Congress passed early in 2016 (H.R. 3762, text here), differences between the two versions, if any, are noted. In general, however, whereas the prior reconciliation bill sunset Obamacare’s entitlements after a two-year transition period, the discussion draft would sunset them at the end of calendar year 2019—nearly three years from now.

In the absence of a fully drafted bill and complete Congressional Budget Office score, it is entirely possible the parliamentarian has not vetted this discussion draft, which means provisions could change substantially, or even get struck, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I—Energy and Commerce

Prevention and Public Health Fund: Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances. This language is substantially similar to Section 101 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Community Health Centers: Increases funding for community health centers by $285 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” below). A parenthetical note indicates intent to add Hyde Amendment restrictions, to ensure this mandatory funding for health centers—which occurs outside their normal stream of funding through discretionary appropriations—retains prohibitions on federal funding of abortions. Language regarding community health centers was included in Section 102 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

By contrast, the House discussion draft retains eligibility for the able-bodied adult population, making this population optional for states to cover, rather than mandatory. (The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius made Medicaid expansion optional for states.) Some conservatives may be concerned that this change markedly weakens the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill language, and will entrench a massive expansion of Medicaid beyond its original focus on the most vulnerable in society.

With respect to the Medicaid match rate, the discussion draft reduces the enhanced federal match to states, effective December 31, 2019. The bill provides that states receiving the enhanced match for individuals enrolled by December 31, 2019 will continue to receive that enhanced federal match, provided they do not have a break in Medicaid coverage of longer than one month. (In the case of states that already expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults prior to Obamacare’s enactment, the bill provides for an 80 percent federal match for 2017 and all subsequent years.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that, rather than representing a true “freeze” that was advertised, one that would take effect immediately upon enactment, the language in this bill would give states a strong incentive to sign up many more individuals for Medicaid over the next three years, so they can qualify for the higher federal match as long as those individuals remain in the program.

DSH Payments: Repeals the reduction in Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments. This language is identical to Section 208 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies: Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019 (the year is noted in brackets, however, suggesting it may change). However, the bill does not include an appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies for 2017, 2018, or 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump administration and the House. Similar language regarding cost-sharing subsidies was included in Section 202(b) of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

On a related note, the House’s draft bill does not include provisions regarding reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment, all of which were repealed by Section 104 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. While the reinsurance and risk corridor programs technically expired on December 31, 2016, insurers have outstanding claims regarding both programs. Some conservatives may be concerned that failing to repeal these provisions could represent an attempt to bail out health insurance companies.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual-eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare). The cap would rise by medical consumer price index (CPI) plus one percentage point annually.

While the cap would take effect in Fiscal Year 2019, the “base year” for determining cap levels would be Fiscal Year 2016 (which concluded on September 30, 2016), adjusted forward to 2019 levels using medical CPI plus one percentage point.

Creates five classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; 4) expansion enrollees (i.e., able-bodied adults enrolled under Obamacare); and 5) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services-eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by 1 percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than 2 percent.

The bill benefits states who expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults under Obamacare.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Some conservatives may note the bill’s creation of a separate category of Obamacare expansion enrollees, and its use of 2016 as the “base year” for the per capita caps, benefit states who expanded Medicaid to able-bodied adults under Obamacare. The most recent actuarial report on Medicaid noted that, while the actuary originally predicted that adults in the expansion population would cost less than existing populations, in reality each newly eligible enrollee cost 13.6 percent more than existing populations in 2016. Many states have used the 100 percent federal match for their expansion populations—i.e., “free money from Washington”—to raise provider reimbursement levels.

Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that the draft bill would retain the increased spending on adults in expansion states, extending in perpetuity the inequities caused by states that have used Obamacare’s “free money” to raise Medicaid spending while sending Washington the tab.

Federal Payments to States: Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). This language is virtually identical to Section 206 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

State Innovation Grants: Creates a new program of State Innovation Grants, to be administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for the years 2018 through 2026. Grants may be used to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions (whether through high-risk pools or another arrangement), stabilizing or reducing premiums, encouraging insurer participation, promoting access, directly paying providers, or subsidizing cost-sharing (i.e., co-payments, deductibles, etc.). A similar program was first proposed by House Republicans in their alternative to Obamacare in 2009.

This provision maintains the federal intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare, rather than devolving insurance regulation back to the states.

Provides for $15 billion in funding for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, followed by $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 through 2026 ($100 billion total). Requires a short, one-time application from states describing their goals and objectives for the funding, which will be deemed approved within 60 days absent good cause.

For 2018 and 2019, funding would be provided to states on the basis of relative costs, determined by the number of federal exchange enrollees and the extent to which individual insurance premiums in the state exceed the national average. Every state would receive at least 0.5 percent of the national total (at least $75 million in 2018 and 2019).

For 2020 through 2026, CMS would be charged with determining a formula that takes into account the percentage of low-income residents in the state (the bill text includes in brackets three possible definitions of “low-income”—138 percent, 250 percent, or 300 percent of the federal poverty level) and the number of residents without health insurance.

Requires that states match their grants in 2020 through 2026—by 7 percent of their grant in 2020, 14 percent in 2021, 21 percent in 2022, 28 percent in 2023, 35 percent in 2024, 42 percent in 2025, and 50 percent in 2026.

Continuous Coverage: Requires insurers, beginning after the 2018 open enrollment period (i.e., open enrollment for 2019, or special enrollment periods during the 2018 plan year), to increase premiums for individuals without continuous health insurance coverage. The premium could increase by 30 percent for individuals who have a coverage gap of more than 63 days during the previous 12 months. Insurers could maintain the 30 percent premium increase for a 12-month period. Requires individuals to show proof of continuous coverage, and requires insurers to provide said proof in the form of certificates. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision maintains the federal intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare, rather than devolving insurance regulation back to the states.

Essential Health Benefits: Permits states to develop essential health benefits for insurance for all years after December 31, 2019.

Age Rating: Changes the maximum variation in insurance markets from 3-to-1 (i.e., insurers can charge older applicants no more than three times younger applicants) to 5-to-1 effective January 1, 2018, with the option for states to provide for other age rating requirements. Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the ability for states to opt out, this provision, by setting a default federal standard, maintains the intrusion over insurance markets exacerbated by Obamacare.

Special Enrollment Verification: Requires verification of all special enrollment periods beginning for plan years after January 1, 2018. This provision would effectively codify proposed regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month. Some conservatives may be concerned about the continued federal intrusion over a matter that has been until now left to state regulation, and question the need to verify enrollment in exchanges, given that the underlying legislation was intended to repeal Obamacare—and thus the exchanges—entirely.

Transitional Policies: Permits insurers who continued to offer pre-Obamacare health coverage under President Obama’s temporary “If you like your plan, you can keep it” fix to continue to offer those policies in perpetuity in the individual and small group markets outside the exchanges.

Title II—Ways and Means

Subsidy Recapture: Eliminates the repayment limit on Obamacare premium subsidies for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Obamacare’s premium subsidies (which vary based upon income levels) are based on estimated income, which must be reconciled at year’s end during the tax filing season. Households with a major change in income or family status during the year (e.g., raise, promotion, divorce, birth, death) could qualify for significantly greater or smaller subsidies than the estimated subsidies they receive. While current law caps repayment amounts for households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017), the bill would eliminate the repayment limits for 2018 and 2019. This provision is similar to Section 201 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Modifications to Obamacare Premium Subsidy: Allows non-compliant and non-exchange plans to qualify for Obamacare premium subsidies, with the exception of grandfathered health plans (i.e., those purchased prior to Obamacare’s enactment) and plans that cover abortions (although individuals receiving subsidies can purchase separate coverage for abortion). While individuals off the exchanges can receive premium subsidies, they cannot receive these subsidies in advance—they would have to claim the subsidy back on their tax returns instead. Only citizens and legal aliens could receive subsidies.

These changes would make an already complex subsidy formula even more complicated; increase costs to taxpayers; and distract from the purported goal of the legislation.

Modifies the existing Obamacare subsidy regime beginning in 2018 by including age as an additional factor for determining subsidy amounts. Younger individuals would have to spend a smaller percentage of income on health insurance than under current law, while older individuals would spend a higher percentage of income.

For instance, an individual under age 29 who makes just under 400 percent FPL would pay 4.3 percent of income on health insurance, whereas an individual between ages 60-64 at the same income level would pay 11.5 percent of income on health insurance. (Current law limits individuals to paying 9.69 percent of income on insurance, at all age brackets, for those with income just below 400 percent FPL.)

Some conservatives may be concerned that 1) these changes would make an already complex subsidy formula even more complicated; 2) could increase costs to taxpayers; and 3) distract from the purported goal of the legislation, which is repealing, not modifying or “fixing,” Obamacare.

Repeal of Tax Credits: Repeals Obamacare’s premium and small business tax credits, effective January 1, 2020. This language is similar to Sections 202 and 203 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, with one major difference—the House discussion draft provides for a three-year transition period, whereas the reconciliation bill provided a two-year transition period.

Individual and Employer Mandates: Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. This language is similar to Sections 204 and 205 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill, except with respect to timing—the House discussion draft zeroes out the penalties beginning with the previous tax year, whereas the reconciliation bill zeroed out penalties beginning with the current tax year.

Repeal of Other Obamacare Taxes: Repeals all other Obamacare taxes, effective January 1, 2017, including:

  • Tax on high-cost health plans (also known as the “Cadillac tax”);
  • Restrictions on use of health savings accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of health savings account dollars;
  • Limits on Flexible Spending Arrangement contributions;
  • Tax on pharmaceuticals;
  • Medical device tax;
  • Health insurer tax;
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage;
  • Limitation on medical expenses as an itemized deduction;
  • Medicare tax on “high-income” individuals;
  • Tax on tanning services;
  • Net investment tax;
  • Limitation on deductibility of salaries to insurance industry executives; and
  • Economic substance doctrine.

These provisions are all substantially similar to Sections 209 through 222 of the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill.

Refundable Tax Credit: Creates a new, age-rated refundable tax credit for purchasing health insurance. Credits total $2,000 for individuals under age 30, $2,500 for individuals aged 30-39, $3,000 for individuals aged 40-49, $3,500 for individuals aged 50-59, and $4,000 for individuals over age 60, up to a maximum credit of $14,000 per household. The credit would apply for 2020 and subsequent years, and increase every year by general inflation (i.e., CPI) plus 1 percent. Excess credit amounts can be deposited in individuals’ health savings accounts.

By creating a new refundable tax credit, the bill would establish another source of entitlement spending at a time when our nation already faces significant fiscal difficulties.

The credit may be used for any individual policy sold within a state (although apparently not a policy purchased across state lines) or unsubsidized COBRA continuation coverage.

Individuals may not use the credit to purchase plans that cover abortions (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion).

The credit would be advanceable (i.e., paid before individuals file their taxes), and the Treasury would establish a program to provide credit payments directly to health insurers.

Individuals eligible for or participating in employer coverage, Part A of Medicare, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Tricare, or health-care-sharing ministries cannot receive the credit; however, veterans eligible for but not enrolled in Veterans Administration health programs can. Only citizens and legal aliens qualify for the credit; individuals with seriously delinquent tax debt can have their credits withheld.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by creating a new refundable tax credit, the bill would establish another source of entitlement spending at a time when our nation already faces significant fiscal difficulties.

Cap on Employer-Provided Health Coverage: Establishes a cap on the current exclusion for employer-provided health coverage, making any amounts received above the cap taxable to the employee. Sets the cap, which includes both employer and employee contributions, at the 90th percentile of group (i.e., employer) plans for 2019. In 2020 and subsequent years, indexes the cap to general inflation (i.e., CPI) plus two percentage points. Also applies the cap on coverage to include self-employed individuals taking an above-the-line deduction on their tax returns. While the level of the cap would be set in the year 2019, the cap itself would take effect in 2020 and subsequent tax years.

An unlimited exclusion for employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance, and therefore health care.

Excludes contributions to health savings accounts and Archer Medical Savings Accounts, as well as long-term care, dental, and vision insurance policies, from the cap. Exempts health insurance benefits for law enforcement, fire department, and out-of-hospital emergency medical personnel from the cap.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision raises taxes. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum generally agree that an unlimited exclusion for employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance, and therefore health care. However, there are other ways to reform the tax treatment of health insurance without raising taxes on net. Given the ready availability of other options, some conservatives may be concerned that the bill repeals all the Obamacare tax increases, only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Health Savings Accounts: Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same health savings account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses.

Abortion Coverage: Clarifies that firms receiving the small business tax credit may not use that credit to purchase plans that cover abortion (although they can purchase separate plans that cover abortion).

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, Medicare Recipients Haven’t Earned All Their Benefits

In his interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday night, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan made a compelling case for reforming Medicare. But in trying to make a political point about the need to maintain the status quo for beneficiaries in retirement, Speaker Ryan actually understated the problems the program faces:

We have to make sure that we shore this program up. And the reforms that we’ve been talking about don’t change the benefit for anybody who is in or near retirement. My mom’s now enjoying Medicare. She’s already retired. She earned it. But for those of us, you know, the X-Generation on down, it won’t be there for us on its current path. So we have to bring reform to this program for the younger generation, so that it’s there for us when we retire, and so that we can keep cash flowing to current generations’ commitments. And the more we kick the can down the road, the more we delay, the worse it gets.

There’s just one problem with this explanation: the benefits Ryan claimed his mother’s generation “earned” don’t begin to match the money paid into the system.

Money In Doesn’t Equal Money Out

In its 2015 document highlighting the long-term budget outlook, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) conducted an analysis of average payroll taxes paid and benefits received. It found the latter exceeded the former by a wide margin—a margin that will grow over time:

Under the assumption that all scheduled benefits are paid, real average lifetime benefits (net of premiums paid) for each birth cohort as a percentage of lifetime savings will generally be greater than those for the preceding cohort. For example, benefits received over a lifetime are projected to equal about 7 percent of lifetime earnings for people born in the 1940s, on average, but 11 percent for people born in the 1960s. By contrast, real average lifetime payroll taxes relative to lifetime earnings will rise from 2 percent in the 1940s cohort to almost 3 percent for the 1960s cohort.

Both the text and accompanying chart (below) come with a significant caveat: Medicare payroll taxes fund only a share of overall Medicare spending, and that share has declined significantly in recent years—from 67 percent in 2000 to about 40 percent last year. General revenue covers a growing (currently about 47 percent) percentage of Medicare’s finances; individuals do pay a portion of the federal government’s general revenue through income taxes, but it’s harder to differentiate what portion of an individual’s income taxes fund Medicare in any given year.

jacobs1

image2

 

image3

We Have To Fix Our Medicare System

No matter the details, the fact that most seniors receive more in benefits than they paid in payroll taxes speaks to the urgent need to right-size our entitlements. Regardless of how we do it, our nation will be much better off if we confront these problems sooner rather than later. Because continuing our Lake Wobegon system—in which everyone receives more than they paid in—will guarantee a fiscal crisis of epic proportions.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.