How the Impeachment Frenzy Could Block Bad Health Care Policies

House Democrats’ headlong rush to impeach President Trump will have many implications for American politics and the presidential election. On policy, it could have a salutary effect for conservatives, by precluding the enactment of harmful policies that would push our health care system in the wrong direction.

Congress should of course do something about our health care system, particularly the millions of individuals priced out of insurance by Obamacare, also known as the Unaffordable Care Act. But in recent weeks, it appears that Republicans have fallen into the typical definition of bipartisanship—when conservatives agree to do liberal things. As a result, if the controversy over impeachment leads to a legislative stalemate over health care, it will at least prevent Congress from making our current flawed system any worse.

Renewed Impeachment Push

The emerging controversy over Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, and whether those actions constituted an impeachable offense, resulted in analyses of whether and how the impeachment push will affect the legislative agenda on multiple issues, including health care.

Multiple Republicans suggested impeachment could bring Congress’ other work to a halt, whether by consuming the time and energy of members of Congress and staff, poisoning the proverbial well for negotiations and compromise, or a combination of the two. Consider the following quotes from Republicans in a Wednesday story:

  • House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-Texas): “Impeachment makes a toxic environment more toxic.”
  • Former House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.): “There is more oxygen on impeachment than there is on legislation….My Democratic colleagues have put everything on hold to try to make sure that this President is not the one that signs any proposed bills.”
  • President Trump: Nancy Pelosi has “been taken over by the radical left. Unfortunately, she’s no longer the Speaker of the House.”
  • The White House: Democrats have “destroyed any chances of legislative progress” with their focus on impeachment.

Ultimately, whether any major legislation passes in this environment, whether on health care or other issues, will depend on two factors. First, will President Trump want to strike legislative bargains with House Democrats at the same time the latter are working to impeach and remove him from office? On that front, color me skeptical, at best.

Second, at a time when Trump will need Republicans to support him in an impeachment fight, will he aggressively push policies that many of them oppose?

Controversial Agenda in Congress

In July, the Senate Finance Committee approved drug pricing legislation over the concerns of many Republicans. A majority of Republicans voted against the Finance Committee bill, believing (correctly) that its provisions limiting price increases for pharmaceuticals amounted to price controls, which would have a harmful impact on innovation.

Since that time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has taken ideas from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and the Trump administration, and put them on steroids. The drug pricing legislation she recently introduced as H.R. 3 would force drug companies into a “negotiation” with defined price limits, confiscating virtually all their revenues if they do not submit to these government-imposed price controls.

Likewise, Congress’ action on “surprise” billing appears ominous. While Washington should allow states to come up with their own solutions to this issue, some Republicans want Congress to intervene.

Save Us from ‘Socialism-Lite’

If Congress’ legislative agenda grinds to a halt over a combination of the impeachment food fight and the impending 2020 presidential campaign, it would mean that lawmakers at least did not make the health care system worse via a series of socialist-style price controls.

The American people do deserve better than the failed status quo. They need the enactment of a conservative health care agenda that will help lower the skyrocketing cost of health care.

But if Republicans have failed to embrace such an agenda, as by and large they have, at least they can stop doing any more damage through new policies that will push us further in the direction of government-run health care. Thankfully, Pelosi’s newfound embrace of a march towards impeachment may slow the march towards socialized medicine—at least for the time being.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Nancy Pelosi’s Drug Pricing Proposal

During the midterm election campaign, Democrats pledged to help lower prescription drug prices. Since regaining the House majority in January, the party has failed to achieve consensus on precise legislation to accomplish that objective.

However, on Monday a summary of proposals by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)—which became public via leaks from lobbyists, of course—provided an initial glimpse of the Democrat leadership’s policy approach. Party leaders claimed the leaked document describes an old legislative draft (they would say that, wouldn’t they?).

The Good: Realigning Incentives in Part D

Among other proposals, the Pelosi proposal would rearrange the current Part D prescription drug benefit, and “realign incentives to encourage more efficient management of drug spending.” Under current law, once beneficiaries pass through the Part D “doughnut hole” and into the Medicare catastrophic benefit, the federal government pays for 80 percent of beneficiaries’ costs, insurers pay for 15 percent, and beneficiaries pay for 5 percent.

This existing structure creates two problems. First, beneficiaries’ 5 percent exposure contains no limit, such that seniors with incredibly high drug spending could face out-of-pocket costs well into the thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars.

The Pelosi proposal follows on plans by MedPAC and others to restructure the Part D benefit. Most notably, the bill would institute an out-of-pocket spending limit for beneficiaries (the level of which the draft did not specify), while reducing the federal catastrophic subsidy to insurers from 80 percent to 20 percent. The former would provide more predictability to seniors, while the latter would reduce incentives for insurers to drive up overall drug spending by having seniors hit the catastrophic coverage threshold and thus can shift most of their costs to taxpayers.

The Bad: Price Controls

The Pelosi document talks about drug price “negotiation,” but the policy it proposes represents nothing of the sort. For the 250 largest brand-name drugs lacking two or more generic competitors, the secretary of Health and Human Services would “negotiate” prices. However, Pelosi’s bill “establishes an upper limit for the price reached in any negotiation as no more than” 120 percent of the average price in six countries—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom—making “negotiation” the de facto imposition of price controls.

Drug manufacturers who refuse to “negotiate” would “be assessed an excise tax equal to 75 percent of annual gross sales in the prior year,” what Pelosi’s office called a “steep, retroactive penalty creat[ing] a powerful financial incentive for drug manufacturers to negotiate and abide by the final price.” Additionally, the “negotiated” price would apply not just to Medicare, but would extend to other forms of coverage, including private health insurance.

But the solution to that dilemma lies in trade policy, or other solutions short of exporting other countries’ price controls to the United States, as outlined in both the Pelosi and Trump approaches. Price controls, whether through the “negotiation” provisions in the Pelosi bill, or related provisions that would require rebates for drugs that have increased at above-inflation rates since 2016, have brought unintended consequences whenever policy-makers attempted to implement them. In this case, price controls would likely lead to a significant slowdown in the development and introduction of new medical therapies.

The Ugly: New Government Spending

While the price controls in the drug pricing plan have attracted the most attention, Democrats have mooted some version of them for years. Price controls in a Democratic drug pricing bill seem unsurprising—but consider what else Democrats want to include:

With enough savings, H.R. 3 could also fund transformational improvements to Medicare that will cover more and cost less—potentially including Medicare coverage for vision, hearing, and dental, and many other vital health system needs.

In other words, Pelosi wants to take any potential savings from imposing drug price controls and use those funds to expand taxpayer-funded health care subsidies. In so doing, she would increase the fiscal obligations to a Medicare program that is already functionally insolvent, and relying solely on accounting gimmicks included in Obamacare to prevent shortfalls in current seniors’ benefits.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Obstacles to Senate Democrats’ Health Care Vision

If Democrats win a “clean sweep” in the 2020 elections—win back the White House and the Senate, while retaining control of the House—what will their health care vision look like? Surprisingly for those watching Democratic presidential debates, single payer does not feature prominently for some members of Congress—at least not explicitly, or immediately. But that doesn’t make the proposals any more plausible.

Ezra Klein at Vox spent some time talking with prominent Senate Democrats, to take their temperature on what they would do should the political trifecta provide them an opportunity to legislate in 2021. Apart from the typical “Voxplanations” in the article—really, did Klein have to make not one but two factual errors in his article’s first sentence?—the philosophy and policies the Senate Democrats laid out don’t stand up to serious scrutiny, on multiple levels.

Problem 1: Politics

The first problem comes in the form of a dilemma articulated by none other than Ezra Klein, just a few weeks ago. Just before the last Democratic debate in July, Klein wrote that liberals should not dismiss with a patronizing shrug Americans’ reluctance to give up their current health coverage:

If the private insurance market is such a nightmare, why is the public so loath to abandon it? Why have past reformers so often been punished for trying to take away what people have and replace it with something better?…

Risk aversion [in health policy] is real, and it’s dangerous. Health reformers don’t tiptoe around it because they wouldn’t prefer to imagine bigger, more ambitious plans. They tiptoe around it because they have seen its power to destroy even modest plans. There may be a better strategy than that. I hope there is. But it starts with taking the public’s fear of dramatic change seriously, not trying to deny its power.

Democrats’ “go big or go home” theory lies in direct contrast to the inherent unease Klein identified in the zeitgeist not four weeks ago.

Problem 2: Policy

Klein and the Senate Democrats attempt to square the circle by talking about choice and keeping a role for private insurance. The problem comes because at bottom, many if not most Democrats don’t truly believe in that principle. Their own statements belie their claims, and the policy Democrats end up crafting would doubtless follow suit.

Does this sound like someone who 1) would maintain private insurance, if she could get away with abolishing it, and 2) will write legislation that puts the private system on a truly level playing field with the government-run plan? If you believe either of those premises, I’ve got some land to sell you.

In my forthcoming book and elsewhere, I have outlined some of the inherent biases that Democratic proposals would give to government-run coverage over private insurance: Billions in taxpayer funding; a network of physicians and hospitals coerced into participating in government insurance, and paid far less than private insurance can pay medical providers; automatic enrollment into the government-run plan; and many more. Why else would the founder of the “public option” say that “it’s not a Trojan horse” for single payer—“it’s just right there!”

Problem 3: Process

Because Democrats will not have a 60-vote margin to overcome a Republican filibuster even if they retake the majority in 2020, Klein argues they can enact the bulk of their agenda through the budget reconciliation process. He claims that “if Democrats confine themselves to lowering the Medicare age, adding a [government-run plan], and negotiating drug prices, there’s reason to believe it might pass parliamentary muster.”

Of course Klein would say that—because he never worked in the Senate. It also appears he never read my primer on the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” which governs reconciliation procedures in the Senate. Had he done either, he probably wouldn’t have made that overly simplistic, and likely incorrect, statement.

Take negotiating drug prices. The Congressional Budget Office first stated in 2007—and reaffirmed this May—its opinion that on its own, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices would not lead to any additional savings.

That said, Democrats this year have introduced legislation with a “stick” designed to force drug companies to the “negotiating” table. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) introduced a bill (H.R. 1046) requiring federal officials to license the patents of companies that refuse to “negotiate” with Medicare.

While threatening to confiscate their patents might allow federal bureaucrats to coerce additional price concessions from drug companies, and thus scorable budgetary savings, the provisions of the Doggett bill bring their own procedural problems. Patents lie within the scope of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, not the committees with jurisdiction over health care issues (Senate Finance, House Ways and Means, and House Energy and Commerce).

While Doggett tried to draft his bill to avoid touching those committees’ jurisdiction, he did not, and likely could not, avoid it entirely. For instance, language on lines 4-7 of page six of the Doggett bill allows drug companies whose patents get licensed to “seek recovery against the United States in the…Court of Federal Claims”—a clear reference to matter within the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committees. If Democrats include this provision in a reconciliation bill, the parliamentarian almost certainly advise that this provision exceeds the scope of the health care committees, which could kill the reconciliation bill entirely.

But if Democrats don’t include a provision allowing drug manufacturers whose patents get licensed the opportunity to receive fair compensation, the drug companies would likely challenge the bill’s constitutionality. They would claim the drug “negotiation” language violates the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on “takings,” and omitting the language to let them apply for just compensation in court would give them a much more compelling case. Therein lies the “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” dilemma reconciliation often presents: including provisions could kill the entire legislation, but excluding them could make portions of the legislation unworkable.

Remember: Republicans had to take stricter verification provisions out of their “repeal-and-replace” legislation in March 2017—as I had predicted—due to the “Byrd rule.” (The provisions went outside the scope of the committees of jurisdiction, and touched on Title II of the Social Security Act—both verboten under budget reconciliation.)

If Republicans had to give up on provisions designed to ensure illegal immigrants couldn’t receive taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies due to Senate procedure, Democrats similarly will have to give up provisions they care about should they use budget reconciliation for health care. While it’s premature to speculate, I wouldn’t count myself surprised if they have to give up on drug “negotiation” entirely.

1994 Redux?

Klein’s claims of a “consensus” aside, Democrats could face a reprise of their debacle in 1993-94—or, frankly, of Republicans’ efforts in 2017. During both health care debates, a lack of agreement among the majority party in Congress—single payer versus “managed competition” in 1993-94, and “repeal versus replace” in 2017—meant that each majority party ended up spinning its wheels.

To achieve “consensus” on health care, the left hand of the Democratic Party must banish the far-left hand. But even Democrats have admitted that the rhetoric in the presidential debates is having the opposite effect—which makes Klein’s talk of success in 2021 wishful thinking more than a realistic prediction.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Things to Know about “Surprise” Medical Bills

In recent months, lawmakers in Washington have focused on “surprise” medical bills. In large part, this term refers to two types of incidents: 1) individuals who received pre-arranged treatment at an in-network hospital, but saw an out-of-network physician (e.g., anesthesiologist) during their stay, or 2) individuals who had to seek care at an out-of-network hospital during a medical emergency.

In both cases, the out-of-network providers can “balance bill” patients—that is, send them an invoice for the difference between an insurer’s in-network payment and what the physician actually charged. Because these bills can become quite substantial, and because patients do not have a meaningful opportunity to consent to the higher charges—many patients never meet their anesthesiologist until the day of surgery, and few people can investigate hospital networks during an ambulance ride to the ER—policy-makers see reason to intervene.

1. Few Hospitals Comprise Most of the ‘Surprise’ Incidents

As a chart from The New York Times demonstrates, most hospitals had zero, or close to zero, out-of-network emergency room bills in 2015, according to a study by three Yale University professors:

“Surprise” bills applied in 22 percent of ER visits, but as a Times reporter noted, they are “not happening to some random set of patients in every hospital. [They’re] happening to a large percentage of patients in certain hospitals.”

As noted above, most hospitals don’t have this problem, because they keep their ER physicians and other doctors in-network. Unfortunately, however, the one-quarter or so of hospitals that have not forced their physicians in-network have made life difficult for the rest of the hospital sector.

The hospital industry should have done a much better job of policing itself and weeded out these “bad actors” years ago. Had they done so, the number of “surprise” bills likely would not have risen to a level where federal lawmakers demand action. However, the fact that these incidents still only occur in a minority of hospitals suggests reason for continued caution—because why should Congress impose a far-reaching solution to a “problem” that doesn’t affect most hospitals?

2. The Federal Government Has Little Reason to Intervene

Over and above the question of whether “surprise” bills warrant a legislative response, lawmakers should also ponder why that response must come from the federal government. Even knowledgeable reporters have (incorrectly) assumed that a solution to the issue must emanate from Washington because only the federal government can address “surprise” bills for self-funded employer plans. Not so.

ERISA, in this case, refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which regulates employer-provided health insurance. ERISA states that its provisions “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.”

But as that language indicates, ERISA applies only to the regulation of employee benefit plans—i.e., the employer as an insurer. It does not apply to the regulation of providers—i.e., hospitals, doctors, etc. As a Brookings Institution analyst admitted, states can, for instance, require hospitals to issue an in-network guarantee, ensuring that all doctors at an in-network hospital are considered in-network.

For most of the past year, interest groups have lobbied Congress on “surprise” billing. As one might expect, everyone wants a solution that takes patients out of the line of fire in negotiations between doctors, hospitals, and insurers, but no one wants to take a financial haircut in any solution that emerges.

The lack of agreement on a path forward indicates that Congress should take a back seat to the states, and let them innovate solutions to the issue. Indeed, several states have already enacted legislation on out-of-network bills, suggesting that Congress might do more harm than good by weighing in with its own “solution.”

3. Some Republicans Support Socialistic Price Controls

Both the comparatively isolated nature of the problem and the lack of a clear need for federal involvement suggest that some on the left continue to raise the “surprise” billing issue as part of a larger campaign. By establishing that the federal government should regulate the prices of health-care services—even those in private insurance plans—liberals can lay down a predicate for a single-payer health-care system that would do the exact same thing, just on a larger scale.

Sure enough, congressional Republicans, like Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, have endorsed legislation establishing a statutory cap on prices for out-of-network emergency services. (Remember: In policy-making, bipartisanship only occurs when conservatives agree to liberal policies.)

Both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee have introduced proposals that would engage in such federal price-fixing, although lawmakers recently modified the House bill to allow for binding arbitration between doctors and hospitals where the disputed sums exceed certain thresholds. Alexander wants to move his legislation on the Senate floor within weeks.

Last month, Alexander said he “instinctively” liked the in-network guarantee approach—which requires hospitals to have their physicians in-network, while letting insurers, hospitals, and doctors negotiate those in-network prices without setting them through government fiat. However, he told reporters that he ultimately endorsed the price-fixing approach because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) called it “the most effective at lowering health care costs.”

The retort to Alexander’s comment seems obvious: Of course, price-fixing will lower health care costs. Indeed, CBO said the price-fixing provision would save by far the greatest amount of money of any section of the nearly 250-page bill, because it “lower[s] payment rates” to physicians.

If Alexander suddenly wants to use price controls to lower health care costs, then why not regulate the prices of all health care services ($129.95 for surgery, anyone?)—or move to full-on single-payer? Because the quality of care will suffer too—as will American patients.

A Spoonful of Socialism, Anyone?

I noted above that the hospital industry caused the “surprise” billing problem in the first place. I have little love for hospital executives, many of whom behave like greedy monopolists, and who represent the single biggest argument for single-payer health care I can think of.

Yet however much hospital executives may have earned opprobrium by their conduct, the American people don’t deserve a single-payer system, with its massive economic disruption and its inferior care, foisted on them. They deserve better than federally imposed price controls as a “solution”—whether as the mere “spoonful of socialism” in the “surprise” billing legislation, or an all-out move to single-payer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Joe Biden’s Health Care Plan: SandersCare Lite

On Monday morning, former vice president Joe Biden released the health care plan for his 2020 presidential campaign. The plan comes ahead of a single-payer health plan speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) scheduled for Wednesday.

Biden’s plan includes several noteworthy omissions. For instance, it does not include any reference to health coverage for foreign citizens illegally present in the United States. That exclusion seems rather surprising, given both Democrats’ embrace of health benefits for those unlawfully present in last month’s debate, and Biden’s repeated references to the issue.

Biden said later on Monday that illegally present foreign citizens should have access to “public health clinics if they’re sick,” but not health insurance. He also claimed that last month’s debate format did not give him enough time to explain his position.

Overall, however, Biden’s plan includes many similarities to Sanders’. While both Sanders and Biden want to draw contrasts on health care—Sanders to attack Biden as beholden to corporate interests, and Biden to attack Sanders for wanting to demolish Obamacare—their plans contain far more similarities than differences.

Losing Coverage

Sanders’ bill would, as the American people have gradually learned this year, make private insurance “unlawful,” taking coverage away from approximately 300 million Americans. Biden’s plan specifically attacks single payer on this count, for “starting from scratch and getting rid of private insurance.”

As with Obamacare, Biden’s promise will echo hollow. By creating a government-run “public option” like Sanders’, the Biden plan would also take away health coverage for millions of Americans. As I have previously explained, a government-run plan would sabotage private insurance, using access to Treasury dollars and other in-built structural advantages.

In 2009, the Lewin Group concluded that a government-run health plan, available to all individuals and paying doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates (i.e., less than private insurance), would lead to 119.1 million individuals losing employer coverage:

More Spending

Biden would also expand the Obamacare subsidy regime, in three ways. He would:

  1. Reduce the maximum amount individuals would pay in premiums from 9.86% of income to no more than 8.5% of income, with federal subsidies making up the difference.
  2. Repeal Obamacare’s income cap on subsidies, so that families with incomes of more than four times the poverty level ($103,000 for a family of four in 2019) can qualify for subsidies.
  3. To lower deductibles and co-payments, link insurance subsidies to a richer “gold” plan, one that covers 80% of an average enrollee’s health costs in a given year, rather than the “silver” plan under current law.

All three of these recommendations come from the liberal Urban Institute’s Healthy America plan, issued last year. However, they all come with a big price tag. Consider the following excerpt from Biden’s plan:

Take a family of four with an income of $110,000 per year. If they currently get insurance on the individual marketplace [i.e., Exchange], because their premium will now be capped at 8.5% of their income, under the Biden Plan they will save an estimated $750 per month on insurance alone. That’s cutting their premiums almost in half. [Emphasis original.]

That’s also making coverage “affordable” for families through unaffordable levels of federal spending. By its own estimates, Biden’s plan will give a family with an income of $110,000 annually—which is approximately double the national median household income—$9,000 per year in federal insurance subsidies. Some families with that level of income may not even pay $9,000 annually in federal income taxes, depending upon their financial situation, yet they will receive sizable amounts of taxpayer-funded largesse.

Price Controls and Regulations

The drug price section of the Biden plan includes the usual leftist tropes about “prescription drug corporations…profiteering off of the pocketbooks of sick individuals.” It proposes typical liberal “solutions” in the form of price controls, whether importing price-controlled pharmaceuticals from overseas, or allowing “an evaluation by…independent board members” (i.e., bureaucrats) to determine prices.

Ironically, Biden’s plan implicitly acknowledges Obamacare’s flaws. In talking about prescription drug pricing, Biden omits any discussion of the “rock-solid deal” that the Obama administration cut with Big Pharma, so that pharmaceutical companies would run ads supporting Obamacare.

Likewise, Biden’s plan notes that “the concentration of market power in the hands of a few corporations is occurring throughout our health care system, and this lack of competition is driving up prices for consumers.” Yet it fails to note the cause of much of this consolidation: Obamacare encouraged hospitals to gobble up physician practices, and each other, to obtain clout in negotiations with insurers. Typically, after acknowledging government’s failures, Biden, like Sanders, prescribes yet more government as the solution.

In the leadup to debate on “repeal-and-replace” legislation several years ago, conservative Republicans said they did not want any replacement to become “Obamacare Lite.” Just as history often repeats itself, Democrats seem ready to embark on a similar intra-party debate. That’s because, no matter how much Biden wants to draw distinctions between his proposals and single payer, his plan looks suspiciously like “SandersCare Lite.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Republicans Should Preserve Obamacare’s Cadillac Tax

Those seeking to understand why the United States faces out-of-control health-care costs need look no further than this week’s congressional agenda. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will likely vote on legislation to repeal Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans, a provision Congress has already delayed repeatedly.

Most economists agree that reforming the tax treatment of health insurance represents one key way to slow the growth of health-care costs. Yet neither party wants to take the courageous decisions required to do just that — even when, in this case, the “action” involved merely requires allowing a legislative provision already enacted to take effect.

The Conservative Approach to Controlling Costs

But from a conservative perspective, controlling health care costs in a broader sense involves getting incentives right. Reforming incentives can involve injecting more competition into the health care system — for instance, by improving generic drugs faster to help bring down prices. But it also requires reforms that encourage people to serve as smarter consumers of health care.

Health costs continue to skyrocket, in large part because individuals love to spend other people’s money. Few people can afford to pay for all their health care, such as major surgeries, out-of-pocket. Funding more care through third-party payments — a majority of Americans consume most of their health care through an insurer, and many insurers are chosen by an employer — increases spending.

The tax code exacerbates the third-party payment problem by allowing employers to provide health insurance to their workers on a tax-free basis. Economists agree that this tax preference encourages people to use more expensive health insurance than they need, and thus more health care than they need.

Why Do Conservatives Oppose a Conservative Reform?

However, the law used a clumsy approach to imposing this tax, on two levels. First, it applied the same 40 percent rate to all employer-provided policies, regardless of whether the particular affected workers came from a high-tax bracket, such as corporate CEOs, or a low-tax bracket, such as office janitors. Second, it imposed the tax as part of an overall package of revenue increases used to fund Obamacare.

Nonetheless, the “Cadillac tax” represents an important measure to control health care costs. Because Congress included this provision as part of Obamacare, Republicans could easily allow the measure to take effect while disclaiming responsibility for having enacted it. After all, everyone knows Obamacare passed with only Democratic votes.

Yet Republicans have spent the better part of the past decade trying to repeal this measure, without enacting a similar or better replacement that could control health care costs. Moreover, the House will apparently vote on the repeal this week without a full Congressional Budget Office score showing the sizable fiscal impact of that action.

Liberals’ Approach To Controlling Health Costs

Conservatives might not think a battle over the “Cadillac tax” is worth fighting. President Barack Obama’s attack ads from 2008 showed that “taxing health benefits” can prove incredibly politically powerful. (All the more ironic since the Obama White House insisted on including the “Cadillac tax” as part of Obamacare.)

But after watching the Democratic debates last month, conservatives should know that liberals have an “easy solution” to controlling health care costs: price controls, greater regulations, and more government control. After all, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer legislation exists in no small part to extend Medicare’s price controls over health care goods and services to all Americans, rather than just seniors.

If conservatives cannot support and implement changes that reform the incentives in the health care system, including reasonable limits on the tax treatment of employer-provided health coverage, they may end up bringing about the liberal alternative. And sooner than they think.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.