Will Disclosing Prescription Drug Prices in TV Ads Make Any Difference?

Why did the Trump administration last Monday propose requiring pharmaceutical companies to disclose their prices in television advertisements? A cynic might believe the rule comes at least in part because the drug industry opposes it.

Now, I carry no water for Big Pharma. For instance, I opposed their effort earlier this year to repeal an important restraint on Medicare spending. But this particular element of the administration’s drug pricing plan appears to work in a similar manner as some of the president’s tweets—to dominate headlines through rhetoric, rather than through substantive policy changes.

Applies Only to Television

The rule “seek[s] comment as to whether we should apply this regulation to other media formats,” but admits that the administration initially “concluded that the purpose of this regulation is best served by limiting the requirements” to television. However, five companies alone accounted for more than half of all drug advertisements in the past year. Among those five companies, the advertisements promoted 19 pharmaceuticals—meaning that new disclosure regime would apply to very few drugs.

If the “purpose of this regulation” is to affect pharmaceutical pricing, then confining disclosures only to television advertisements would by definition have a limited impact. If, however, the “purpose of this regulation” is primarily political—to force drug companies into a prolonged and public legal fight on First Amendment grounds, or to allow the administration to point to disclosures in the most prominent form of media to say, “We’re doing something on drug costs!”—then the rule will accomplish its purpose.

Rule Lacks Data to Support Its Theory

On three separate occasions, in the rule’s Regulatory Impact Analysis—the portion of the rule intended to demonstrate that the regulation’s benefits outweigh its costs—the administration admits it has very few hard facts: “We lack data to quantify these effects, and seek public comment on these impacts.”

It could encourage people to consume more expensive medicines (particularly if their insurance pays for it), because individuals may think costlier drugs are “better.” Or it could discourage companies from advertising on television at all, which could reduce drug consumption and affect people’s health (or reduce health spending while having no effect on individuals’ health).

Conservative think-tanks skewered several Obamacare rules released in 2010 for the poor quality and unreasonable assumptions in their Regulatory Impact Analyses. Although released by a different administration of a different party, this proposed regulation looks little different.

Contradictions on Forced Speech?

Finally, the rule refers on several occasions to the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in a case involving California crisis pregnancy centers. That case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, overturned a California state law requiring reproductive health clinics, including pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, to provide information on abortion to patients.

The need for that distinction arises because the pharmaceutical industry will likely challenge the rule on First Amendment grounds as an infringement on their free speech rights. However, a pro-life administration attempting to force drug companies to disclose pricing information, while protecting crisis pregnancy centers from other forced disclosures, presents some interesting political optics.

A Political ‘Shiny Object’

Ironically enough, most of the administration’s actions regarding its prescription drug pricing platform have proven effective. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has helped speed the approval of generic drugs to market, particularly in cases where no other competitors exist, to help stabilize the marketplace.

Other proposals to change incentives within Medicare and Medicaid also could bring down prices. These proposals won’t have an immediate effect—as would Democratic blunt-force proposals to expand price controls—but collectively, they will have an impact over time.

This administration can do better than that. Indeed, they already have. They should leave the political stunts to the president’s Twitter account, and get back to work on more important, and more substantive, proposals.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Single-Payer Supporters Defy Common Sense

The move to enact single-payer health care in the United States always suffered from major math problems. This week, it revived another: Common sense.

On Monday, the Mercatus Center published an analysis of single-payer legislation like that promoted by socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). While conservatives highlighted the estimated $32.6 trillion price tag for the legislation, liberals rejoiced.

Riiiiiigggggggghhhhhhhhhttttt. As the old saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Given that even single-payer supporters have now admitted that the plan will lead to rationing of health care, the public shouldn’t just walk away from Sanders’ plan—they should run.

National Versus Federal Health Spending

Sanders’ claim arises because of two different terms the Mercatus paper uses. While Mercatus emphasized the way the bill would increase federal health spending, Sanders chose to focus on the study’s estimates about national health spending.

Although it sounds large in absolute terms, the Mercatus paper assumes only a slight drop for health spending in relative terms. It estimates a total of $2.05 trillion in lower national health expenditures over a decade from single-payer. But national health expenditures would total $59.7 trillion over the same time span—meaning that, if Mercatus’ assumptions prove correct, single-payer would reduce national health expenditures by roughly 3.4 percent.

Four Favorable Assumptions Skew the Results

However, to arrive at their estimate that single-payer would reduce overall health spending, the Mercatus paper relies on four highly favorable assumptions. Removing any one of these assumptions could mean that instead of lowering health care spending, single-payer legislation would instead raise it.

First, Mercatus adjusted projected health spending upward, to reflect that single-payer health care would cover all Americans. Because the Sanders plan would also abolish deductibles and co-payments for most procedures, study author Chuck Blahous added an additional factor reflecting induced demand by the currently insured, because patients will see the doctor more when they face no co-payments for doing so.

Second, the Mercatus study assumes that a single-payer plan can successfully use Medicare reimbursement rates. However, the non-partisan Medicare actuary has concluded that those rates already will cause half of hospitals to have overall negative total facility margins by 2040, jeopardizing access to care for seniors.

Expanding these lower payment rates to all patients would jeopardize even more hospitals’ financial solvency. But paying doctors and hospitals market-level reimbursement rates for patients would raise the cost of a single-payer system by $5.4 trillion over ten years—more than wiping away any supposed “savings” from the bill.

Finally, the Mercatus paper “assumes substantial administrative cost savings,” relying on “an aggressive estimate” that replacing private insurance with one single-payer system will lower health spending. Mercatus made such an assumption even though spending on administrative costs increased by nearly $26 billion, or more than 12.3 percent, in 2014, Obamacare’s first year of full implementation.

Likewise, government programs, unlike private insurance, have less incentive to fight fraud, as only the latter face financial ruin from it. The $60 billion problem of fraud in Medicare provides more than enough reason to doubt much administrative savings from a single-payer system.

Apply the Common Sense Test

But put all the technical arguments aside for a moment. As I noted above, whether a single-payer health-care system will reduce overall health expenses rests on a relatively simple question: Will doctors and hospitals agree to provide more care to more patients for the same amount of money?

Whether single-payer will lead to less paperwork for doctors remains an open question. Given the amount of time people spend filing their taxes every year, I have my doubts that a fully government-run system would generate major improvements.

But regardless of whether providers get any paperwork relief from single-payer, the additional patients will come to their doors seeking care, and existing patients will demand more services once government provides them for “free.” Yet doctors and hospitals won’t get paid any more for providing those additional services. The Mercatus study estimates that spending reductions due to the application of Medicare’s price controls to the entire population will all but wipe out the increase in spending from new patient demand.

If Sanders wants to take a “victory lap” for a study arguing that millions of health care workers will receive the same amount of money for doing more work, I have four words for him: Good luck with that.

Health Care Rationing Ahead

I’ll give the last word to, of all things, a “socialist perspective.” One blog post yesterday actually claimed the Mercatus study underestimated the potential savings under single-payer: “[The study] assumes utilization of health services will increase by 11 percent, but aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit below the level [it] projects” (emphasis mine).

In other words, spending will fall because so many will demand “free” health care that government will have to ration it. To socialists who yearningly long to exercise such power over their fellow citizens, such rationing sounds like their utopian dream. But therein lies their logic problem, for any American with common sense would disagree.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

What You Need to Know about President Trump’s Drug Pricing Plan

On Friday, President Trump gave a Rose Garden speech outlining his plan, entitled “America’s Patients First,” to combat rising drug prices. The plan incorporates policy ideas included in the president’s budget earlier this year, new proposals, and additional topics for discussion that could turn into more specific ideas in the future.

What’s the Problem?

Surveys suggest public frustration with the cost of prescription drugs. While such costs represent a small fraction of overall spending on health care, several dynamics help the prescription drug issue gain disproportionate attention. First, in any given year, more Americans incur drug costs than hospital costs. Whereas only 7.3 percent of Americans had an inpatient hospitalization in 2013, more than three in five (60.7 percent) had prescription drug expenses.

With more Americans incurring drug costs, and paying a larger percentage of drug costs directly from their pockets, the issue has taken on greater prominence. The rise of coinsurance (i.e., paying a percentage of drug costs, rather than having those costs capped at a set dollar amount) for pricey specialty drugs exacerbates this dynamic.

What Are the Proposed Solutions?

In general, ways to address drug prices fall into three large buckets.

Controlling costs through competition: These solutions would involve bringing down price levels by encouraging generic competition, or substituting one type of drug for another.

Shifting costs: These solutions would alter who pays for drugs among insurers, pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs), or consumers. While they may make drugs more “affordable” for consumers, they will not change overall spending levels. In fact, if done poorly, these types of proposals could actually increase overall spending, by encouraging individuals to increase their consumption of costly brand-name drugs.

Drug company and PBM stocks went up Friday following the blueprint’s release, largely because the plan eschews actions in the second bucket. The president’s plan includes a few tweaks to the system of “rebates” (de facto price controls) the Medicaid program uses, but includes none of the major Democratic proposals to use blunt government action to drive down prices.

In fact, the plan criticizes foreign price controls, attacking the “global freeloading” by which other countries gain the research and development benefits of the pharmaceutical industry without paying their “fair share” of those R&D costs. While the plan frequently mentions the disproportionate share of costs American consumers pay, it includes few specific proposals to rebalance these costs to other countries. It also remains unclear whether, if successfully implemented, any such rebalancing would successfully lower prices in the United States.

Other competitive proposals include giving Medicare Part D plans more flexibility to adjust their formularies mid-year to respond to changes in the generic drug marketplace, and prohibiting Part D plans from including “gag clauses.” These clauses prohibit pharmacies from telling consumers that they would actually save money by paying cash for certain drugs, rather than using their insurance.

In the cost-shifting bucket lie several of the proposals incorporated into the president’s budget. For instance, a cap on out-of-pocket expenses for the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit would provide important relief to seniors with very high annual drug costs. However, to the extent that such a proposal would encourage seniors to over-consume drugs, or purchase more costly brand-name drugs, once they reach such a cap, this proposal could also increase overall Part D spending.

In a similar vein lie proposals about PBMs passing drug rebates directly to consumers at the point of sale. In most cases, PBMs had previously passed on those savings indirectly to insurers in the form of lower premiums. Giving rebates directly to consumers—a practice some insurers have begun to adopt—would provide relief to those with high out-of-pocket costs, but could raise premiums overall, particularly for those with relatively low prescription spending.

What’s Next?

The plan raises more questions than it answers—quite literally. The last and longest section of the blueprint includes 136 separate questions about how the administration should structure and implement some of the proposals discussed in the document.

Some proposals, while eye-catching, seem ill-advised. For instance, the proposal to “evaluate the inclusion of list prices in direct-to-consumer advertising” raises potential First Amendment concerns—government dictating the content of drugmakers’ communications with patients. Moreover, with many Americans viewing health care as a superior good, some consumers may view a more expensive product as “better” than its alternative. In that case this proposal, if ever implemented, could have the opposite of its intended effect, encouraging people to consume more expensive drugs.

The plan did not include the heavy-handed approaches to the prescription drug issue—Medicare price “negotiation” and drug reimportation—that Democrats favor, and that President Trump endorsed in his 2016 campaign. The document also makes clear the iterative nature of the process, with additional proposals likely coming after feedback from industry and others.

But to the extent that Washington has become consumed by the midterm elections fewer than six months away, the high-profile event Friday allowed Republicans and the president to say they have a plan to bring down drug prices—an important political objective in and of itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Did Orrin Hatch Call the Wrong Party “Stupid” Over Obamacare?

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called Obamacare “the stupidest, dumbass bill” he’s ever seen at a recent American Enterprise Institute forum. “Some of you may have loved it,” he said. “And if you do, you are one of the stupidest, dumbass people I’ve ever met.”

Hatch ended up apologizing for his comment, but the question remains: If the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee considers Obamacare the “stupidest, dumbass” law on earth, then why on earth are his fellow Republicans so desperate to bail it out?

But of course, that approach would involve actually repealing Obamacare. And instead of solving the underlying problem, by repealing the regulations that led premiums to increase, Republicans want to throw money at the problem, giving insurance companies corporate welfare payments hand-over-fist in the hope that these efforts will mitigate ever-rising premiums.

This strategy does seem like a “dumbass” approach for several reasons. First, it does not repeal Obamacare. Numerous studies have demonstrated that Obamacare’s regulations have raised premiums. Occam’s Razor concludes that, if Congress wants to solve the problem of higher premiums, it should start by fixing the underlying reason for those higher premiums.

Second, this approach not only does not repeal Obamacare, it also entrenches it by making it the federal government’s business to “lower” health insurance premiums. The federal government has no more business dictating the price of health insurance than it does the price of homes, or food, or shoes. But by throwing more money at the Exchanges, Republicans will make it the business of the federal government — and federal taxpayers — to “lower” health insurance premiums.

President Trump hinted at the fundamental problems this approach brings last month, when he tweeted about protests in Britain over the National Health Service (NHS). One need only watch Prime Minister’s Questions to observe the ways in which Members of Parliament in Britain turn the NHS into a political tool. Most opposition parties pledge to “fix” the NHS by throwing more money at it. And last month, Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, attacked the Conservative Government for “refusing to give our NHS the money it needs and needs now.”

If the federal government takes political responsibility for health insurance premiums, the “stability” fund would soon turn into a perpetual — and perpetually expanding — money pit. Even with a theoretical expiration date, Congress would face pressure to renew the fund, lest premiums increase if it lapses. And if premiums continue to rise, politicians would propose even greater corporate welfare payments, to “stabilize” the markets with yet more taxpayer dollars.

That scenario leads to the third problem, which Margaret Thatcher famously described four decades ago: Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money.

That quote, coupled with our existing $20 trillion in federal debt, explains why, in their attempts to micro-manage the health insurance system from Washington, the Republican-Socialists who wish to bail out Obamacare have proposed much the same kind of “dumbass” policies as Hatch himself criticized.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Just the Facts on Drug Negotiation

Congressional hearings often serve as elaborate theatrical productions. Members ask pre-written questions, receive formulaic answers, and in many cases use witnesses as props to engage in rhetorical grandstanding. The grandstanding element was on full display Tuesday during the confirmation hearing for Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) wanted to beat up on “evil” drug companies, and she wasn’t going to let facts get in her way.

McCaskill spent two minutes attacking pharmaceutical advertisements, including a reference to “the one for erectile dysfunction where they have them in two bathtubs,” before she tackled the issue of Medicare “negotiating” prices with drug companies. At this point she demonstrated ignorance on several issues.

Second, McCaskill failed to grasp that Medicare drug plans already negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, and that the discounts they obtain have helped keep overall premiums for the prescription drug Part D plan low. It may sound radical to McCaskill, who has spent practically her entire adult life working in government, but the private sector can negotiate just like the government, and probably do so more effectively than a government entity.

Third, McCaskill refused to believe that getting the government involved in “negotiating” drug prices would not save money. When Azar explained that removing a provision prohibiting federal bureaucrats from “negotiating” prices wouldn’t save money, McCaskill called his explanation “just crazy” and “nuts.”

It isn’t nuts, it’s economics. Even though McCaskill tried to lecture Azar on economics and markets at the beginning of her questioning, her queries themselves showed very little understanding of either concept. In a negotiation, the ability to drive a hard bargain ultimately derives from the ability to seek out other options. If Medicare must cover all or most prescription drugs, such that it can’t walk away from the proverbial bargaining table, it will by definition be limited in its ability to put downward pressure on prices.

But don’t take my word for it. As Azar pointed out to McCaskill, none other than Peter Orszag, who directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President Obama — said as much in an April 2007 Congressional Budget Office letter:

By itself, giving the Secretary broad authority to negotiate drug prices would not provide the leverage necessary to generate lower prices than those obtained by PDPs and thus would have a negligible effect on Medicare drug spending. Negotiation is likely to be effective only if it is accompanied by some source of pressure on drug manufacturers to secure price concessions. The authority to establish a formulary, set prices administratively, or take other regulatory actions against firms failing to offer price reductions could give the Secretary the ability to obtain significant discounts in negotiations with drug manufacturers.

Only the ability to limit access to drugs by setting a formulary or imposing  administrative prices, i.e. “negotiating” by dictating prices to drug companies, would have any meaningful impact on pricing levels. But this truth proved inconvenient to McCaskill, who admitted she “refuse[d] to acknowledge it.”

Instead, McCaskill continued haranguing him about the evils of drug companies. She pointed out that one congressman who helped negotiate the prescription drug benefit, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), “went to run PhRMA after he finished getting it through.”

Indeed he did. And as the head of PhRMA, he bragged about the “rock-solid deal” he cut with the Obama administration to help his industry. Big Pharma’s “deal” as part of Obamacare encouraged seniors to purchase costlier brand-name drugs instead of cheaper generics, which the CBO concluded would raise Part D premiums by nearly 10 percent. And who voted for that “rock-solid deal?” None other than Claire McCaskill.

As the old saying goes: If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. But if you don’t, pound the table.

The facts indicate that McCaskill voted for a “rock-solid deal” with Big Pharma that raised premiums on millions of seniors, which actually makes her part of the problem, not part of the solution. Of course, that also makes her willingness to grandstand at Tuesday’s hearing, and her unwillingness to face facts she now finds politically inconvenient, less “crazy” than it first seemed.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Who Will Regulate the Regulators?

My recent investigation into insurance commissioners failure’ to consider, let alone prepare for, a new presidential administration withdrawing unconstitutional cost-sharing reduction payments when examining rates for the 2017 plan year included one particular story worth highlighting.

In Montana, the insurance commissioner branded Blue Cross Blue Shield’s premium increase as “unreasonable,” in part because it wished to prepare for an eventuality—namely, withdrawal of the cost-sharing reduction payments—that the commissioner herself ignored.

Insurer’s Request for Contingencies

As noted last month, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana first requested that state regulators permit it to stop reducing cost-sharing to low-income beneficiaries if the federal government withdrew the payments reimbursing insurers for those discounts. However, federal regulators rightly noted that Obamacare requires insurers to lower cost-sharing for qualified individuals, regardless of whether the federal government provides reimbursement for this, making this proposal impossible to implement.

Because it could not stop lowering cost-sharing if the federal reimbursements ceased, Blue Cross Blue Shield requested a higher premium increase for 2017, to cushion against the risk of an unfunded mandate—the federal government requiring the company to lower cost-sharing without reimbursing it for that. However, Montana’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, dubbed the carrier’s proposed premium increase “unreasonable.”

In a letter of deficiency posted on the commission’s website, Lindeen found several portions of the premium increase proposed by Health Care Services Corporation (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana’s parent company) unreasonable, including the portion linked to uncertainty over the cost-sharing reduction payments:

HCSC has added 4.2% to its rates because it believes that the government will lose a lawsuit that concerns the validity of the appropriation for cost-sharing reductions and that CMS [the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] will not reimburse QHP [qualified health plan] issuers for cost sharing reductions in 2017. The lawsuit is currently pending appeal in the federal circuit court. Experts, including industry experts, agree that this case will not be resolved until at least 2018 and no one knows what the final outcome will be. HCSC appears to be the only health insurer in the country taking the position that its rates will be negatively impacted by this lawsuit in 2017….

In the years since CSI [the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance] has been reviewing health insurance rates, the CSI has always maintained the position that insurers may not base rating assumptions on speculation concerning the outcome of pending litigation. HCSC has stated that it will remove this rating assumption if the CSI allows HCSC to include illegal language in its policy. As the insurance regulator for this state, I cannot agree to that proposal. Raising 2017 rates on the basis of this assumption is unreasonable.

‘Unreasonable’ Regulators

The federal government withdrew the payments in October. Had the carrier not raised premiums pre-emptively to account for the possibility that the payments might disappear, it would have joined other insurers in incurring as much as $1.75 billion in losses over the final quarter of this calendar year.

Lindeen’s actions proved “unreasonable” in several respects. First, contra her claims that “experts agree” that the dispute over the payments “will not be resolved until at least 2018,” I specifically wrote in May 2016 that the incoming presidential administration could halt the payments “almost immediately.” The letter of deficiency does not even attempt to address this set of circumstances—the events that actually transpired—raising the obvious question of which “experts” Lindeen consulted, or whether indeed she consulted any “experts” at all.

Why It Matters

Liberals have worked to publicly embarrass insurance companies for years. The Obama administration stoked outrage over Anthem’s proposed 39 percent premium increase in California in early 2010 to marshal support for Obamacare’s passage, after Scott Brown’s special election Senate win made its prospects seem bleak.

The Left wants to make such “naming and shaming” de rigueur. California recently enacted a drug transparency law requiring pharmaceutical companies to justify price increases, a measure other states wish to emulate. But perhaps not surprisingly, liberals have yet to explain exactly what should happen when regulators get it wrong, as so clearly happened in Montana, where Lindeen arrived at a conclusion ultimately disproven by events.

At minimum, the Trump administration has a role to play in regulating the regulators, as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must certify each state has an “effective” rate review program. Federal authorities should ask Montana’s insurance commissioner why she considered Blue Cross’ assumptions regarding cost-sharing reduction payments “unreasonable” when Blue Cross and not she ended up being correct. Moreover, given the larger regulatory debacle over cost-sharing payments, HHS has reason to write to every state and ask why they all made the mistaken assumption that unconstitutional payments to insurers would continue.

While this conservative would much prefer states regulating insurance markets rather than the federal government, the incompetence on display over cost-sharing reductions demonstrates the need for increased accountability among state authorities. If liberals wish to persist in their efforts to “hold industry accountable” for raising prices, perhaps they should explain how they will hold regulators accountable when those regulators drop the proverbial ball. Better yet, they should stop trying to scapegoat insurance companies for higher health costs, and work instead towards reducing them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about Invisible High-Risk Pools

Last Thursday afternoon, the House Rules Committee approved an amendment providing an additional $15 billion for “invisible high risk pools.” That surprising development, after several days of frenetic closed-door negotiations and a study on the pools released Friday, may have some in Washington trying to make sense of it all.

If you want the short and dirty, here it is: Thursday’s amendment doesn’t resemble the model cited by pool proponents, undermines principles of federalism, relies on government price controls to achieve much of its premium savings, and requires far more taxpayer funding than the amendment actually provided. But other than that, it’s great!

The Amendment Text Does Not Match Its Maine Model

The legislative text the Rules Committee adopted last week bears little resemblance to the invisible risk pool model the amendment’s proponents have described.

In response to my article last week asking whether the invisible risk pool funding differs from Obamacare’s reinsurance program, supporters cited a blog post highlighting the way such a pool works in Maine. Under Maine’s program, insurers cede their highest risks to the pool prospectively—i.e., when individuals apply for insurance. Insurers also cede to the pool most of those high-risk patients’ premium payments, to help pay for the patients’ health claims.

Conversely, insurers participating in Obamacare’s reinsurance program receive retrospective payments (i.e., after the patients incur high health costs), and keep all of the premium payments those patients make. In theory, then, those two differences do distinguish the Obamacare reinsurance program from the Maine pool.

The [Milliman] study…assumes that insurers would agree up front to surrender most of the premiums paid by high-risk enrollees, in exchange for protection against potentially costly claims down the line… Palmer included those specifics the first time he proposed adding a risk-sharing program to the [American Health Care Act], roughly two weeks ago. But they were stripped out of the final version presented Tuesday, and likely for good reason…Insurers likely wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about having that much skin in the game. Instead, the amendment essentially tells state and federal officials to sort out the details later—and most importantly, after the program is passed into law.

The federal pools may end up looking nothing like the Maine program advocates are citing as the model—because the administration will determine all those critically important details after the fact. Or, to coin a phrase, we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.

The Amendment Undermines State Sovereignty

As currently constructed, the pool concept undermines state sovereignty over insurance markets. Paradoxical as it may sound, the amendment adopted last Thursday is both too broad and too narrow. With respect to the invisible high risk pool concept, the legislation doesn’t include enough details to allow policy-makers and insurers to determine how they will function. As noted above, all of those details were essentially punted to the administration to determine.

But the amendment is also too narrow, in that it conditions the $15 billion on participation in the invisible risk pool model. If a state wants to create an actual high risk pool, or use some other concept to stabilize their insurance markets, they’re out of luck—they can’t touch the $15 billion pot of money.

In a post last week, I cited House Speaker Paul Ryan’s February criticism of Obamacare: “They’re subsidies that say, ‘We will pay some people some money if you do what the government makes you do.’” That’s exactly what this amendment does: It conditions some level of funding on states taking some specific action—not the only action, perhaps not even the best action, to stabilize their insurance markets, just the one Washington politically favors, therefore the one Washington will attempt to make all states take.

Ryan was right to criticize the Obamacare insurance subsidy system as “not freedom.” The same criticism applies to the invisible pool funding—it isn’t freedom. It also isn’t federalism—it’s big-government, nanny-state “conservatism.”

The Pools’ Claimed Benefits Derive From Price Controls

Much of the supposed benefits of the pools come as a result of government-imposed price controls. The Milliman study released Friday—and again, conditioned upon parameters not present in the amendment the Rules Committee adopted Thursday—models two possible scenarios.

The first scenario would create a new insurance pool in “repeal-and-replace” legislation, with the invisible pools applying only to the new market (some individuals currently on Obamacare may switch to the new market, but would not have to). The second scenario envisions a single risk pool for insurers, combining existing enrollees and new enrollees under the “replace” plan.

In both cases, Milliman modeled assumptions from the original Palmer amendment (i.e., not the one the Rules Committee adopted last Thursday) that linked payments from the invisible risk pools to 100 percent of Medicare reimbursement rates. The study specifically noted the “favorable spread” created as a result of this requirement: the pool reduces premiums because it pays doctors and hospitals less than insurers would.

Under the first scenario, in which Obamacare enrollees remain in a separate market than the new participants in “replace” legislation, a risk pool reimbursing at Medicare rates would yield total average rate reductions of between 16 and 31 percent. But “if [risk pool] benefits are paid based on regular commercially negotiated fees, the rate reduction becomes 12% to 23%”—about one-third less than with the federally dictated reimbursement levels.

Under the second scenario, in which Obamacare and “replace” enrollees are combined into one marketplace, premiums barely drop when linked to commercial payment rates. Premiums would fall by a modest 4 to 14 percent using Medicare reimbursement levels, and a miniscule 1 to 4 percent using commercial reimbursement levels.

Admittedly, the structure of the risk pool creates an inherent risk of gaming—insurers could try to raise their reimbursement rates to gain more federal funds from the pool. But if federal price controls are the way to lower premiums (and for the record, they aren’t), why not just create a government-run “public option” linked to Medicare reimbursement levels and be done with it?

The Study Says This Doesn’t Provide Enough Money

According to the study, the amendment adopted doesn’t include enough federal funding for invisible risk pools. The Milliman study found that invisible risk pools will require more funding than last Thursday’s amendment provided—and potentially even more funding than the entire Stability Fund. Under both scenarios, the invisible risk pools would require anywhere from $3.3 billion to $17 billion per year in funding, or from $35 billion to nearly $200 billion over a decade.

By contrast, Thursday’s amendment included only $15 billion in funding to last from 2018 through 2026. And the Stability Fund itself includes a total of $130 billion in funding—$100 billion in general funds, $15 billion for maternity and mental health coverage, and the $15 billion specifically for invisible risk pools. If all 50 states participate, the entire Stability Fund may not hold enough money needed to fund invisible risk pools.

Remember too that the Milliman study assumes that 1) insurers will cede most premium payments from risk pool participants to help finance the pool’s operations and 2) the pool will pay claims using Medicare reimbursement rates. If either or both of those two assumptions do not materialize—and insurers and providers will vigorously oppose both—spending for the pools will increase still further, making the Milliman study a generous under-estimate of the program’s ultimate cost.

Let States Take the Reins

All of the above notwithstanding, the invisible high risk pool model could work for some states—emphasis on “could” and “some.” If states want to explore this option, they certainly have the right to do so.

But, as Obamacare itself has demonstrated, Washington does not represent the source and summit of all the accumulated wisdom in health care policy. States are desperate for the opportunity to innovate, and create new policies in the marketplace of ideas—not have more programs foisted upon them by Washington, as the Rules Committee amendment attempts to do. Moving in the direction of the former, and not the latter, would represent a true change of pace. Here’s hoping that Congress finally has the courage to do so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Ways the Patient Freedom Act Is Worse than Obamacare

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

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

1. It Has More Spending Than Obamacare

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

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

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

2. It Repeals Health Savings Accounts (Not Obamacare)

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

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

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

3. It Supports Government-Imposed Price Controls

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

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

4. It Would Create an Automatic Enrollment Program

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.