Summary of Health Care “Consensus” Group Plan

Tuesday, a group of analysts including those at the Heritage Foundation released their outline for a way to pass health-care-related legislation in Congress. Readers can find the actual health plan here; a summary and analysis follow below.

What Does the Health Plan Include?

The plan includes parameters for a state-based block grant that would combine funds from Obamacare’s insurance subsidies and its Medicaid expansion into one pot of money. The plan would funnel the block grant funds through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), using that program’s pro-life protections. In general, states using the block grant would:

  • Spend at least half of the funds subsidizing private health coverage;
  • Spend at least half of the funds subsidizing low-income individuals (which can overlap with the first pot of funds);
  • Spend an unspecified percentage of their funds subsidizing high-risk patients with high health costs;
  • Allow anyone who qualifies for SCHIP or Medicaid to take the value of their benefits and use those funds to subsidize private coverage; and
  • Not face federal requirements regarding 1) essential health benefits; 2) the single risk pool; 3) medical loss ratios; and 4) the 3:1 age ratio (i.e., insurers can charge older customers only three times as much as younger customers).

Is That It?

Pretty much. For instance, the plan remains silent on whether to support an Obamacare “stability” (read: bailout) bill intended to 1) keep insurance markets intact during the transition to the block grant, and 2) attract the votes of moderate Republicans like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

As recently as three weeks ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum was telling groups that the proposal would include the Collins “stability” language. However, as I previously noted, doing so would likely lead to taxpayer funding of abortion coverage, because there are few if any ways to attach pro-life protections to Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers under the special budget reconciliation procedures the Senate would use to consider “repeal-and-replace” legislation.

What Parts of Obamacare Would the Plan Retain?

In short, most of them.

Taxes and Medicare Reductions: By retaining all of Obamacare’s spending, the plan would retain all of Obamacare’s tax increases—either that, or it would increase the deficit. Likewise, the plan says nothing about undoing Obamacare’s Medicare reductions. By retaining Obamacare’s spending levels, the plan would maintain the gimmick of double-counting, whereby the law’s payment reductions are used both to “save Medicare” and fund Obamacare.

Insurance Regulations: The Congressional Research Service lists 22 separate new federal requirements imposed on health insurance plans under Obamacare. The plan would retain at least 14 of them:

  1. Guaranteed issue of coverage—Section 2702 of the Public Health Service Act;
  2. Non-discrimination based on health status—Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act;
  3. Extension of dependent coverage—Section 2714 of the Public Health Service Act;
  4. Prohibition of discrimination based on salary—Section 2716 of the Public Health Service Act (only applies to employer plans);
  5. Waiting period limitation—Section 2708 of the Public Health Service Act (only applies to employer plans);
  6. Guaranteed renewability—Section 2703 of the Public Health Service Act;
  7. Prohibition on rescissions—Section 2712 of the Public Health Service Act;
  8. Rate review—Section 2794 of the Public Health Service Act;
  9. Coverage of preventive health services without cost sharing—Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act;
  10. Coverage of pre-existing health conditions—Section 2703 of the Public Health Service Act;
  11. Summary of benefits and coverage—Section 2715 of the Public Health Service Act;
  12. Appeals process—Section 2719 of the Public Health Service Act;
  13. Patient protections—Section 2719A of the Public Health Service Act; and
  14. Non-discrimination regarding clinical trial participation—Section 2709 of the Public Health Service Act.

Are Parts of the Health Plan Unclear?

Yes. For instance, the plan says that “Obamacare requirements on essential health benefits” would not apply in states receiving block grant funds. However, Section 1302 of Obamacare—which codified the essential health benefits requirement—also included two other requirements, one capping annual cost-sharing (Section 1302(c)) and another imposing minimum actuarial value requirements (Section 1302(d)).

Additionally, the plan on two occasions says that “insurers could offer discounts to people who are continuously covered.” House Republicans offered a similar proposal in their American Health Care Act last year, one that imposed penalties on individuals failing to maintain continuous coverage.

However, the plan includes no specific proposal on how insurers could go about offering such discounts, as the plan states that the 3:1 age rating requirement—and presumably only that requirement—would not apply for states receiving block grant funds. It is unclear whether or how insurers would have the flexibility under the plan to offer discounts for continuous coverage if all of Obamacare’s restrictions on premium rating, save that for age, remain.

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.

Exclusive: Congress Should Investigate, Not Bail Out, Health Regulators Who Risked Billions

What if a group of regulators were collectively blindsided by a decision that cost their industry billions of dollars? One might think Congress would investigate the causes of this regulatory debacle, and take steps to ensure it wouldn’t repeat itself.

Think again. President Trump’s October decision to terminate cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidy payments to health insurers will inflict serious losses on the industry. For October, November, and December, insurers will reduce deductibles and co-payments for certain low-income exchange enrollees, but will not receive reimbursement from the federal government for doing so. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, claimed in a recent court filing that insurance carriers will suffer $1.75 billion in losses over the remainder of 2017 due to the decision.

As Dave Anderson of Duke University recently noted, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet Congress has asked not even a single question of regulators why they did not anticipate and plan for this scenario—a recipe for more costly mistakes in the future.

A Brewing Legal and Political Storm

The controversy surrounds federal payments that reimburse insurers for lower deductibles, co-payments, and out-of-pocket expenses for qualifying low-income households purchasing exchange coverage. While the text of Obamacare requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to reimburse insurers for providing the discounts, it nowhere includes an explicit appropriation for such spending.

As the exchanges launched in 2014, the Obama administration began making CSR payments to insurers. However, later that year, the House of Representatives, viewing a constitutional infringement on its “power of the purse,” sued to stop the executive from making the payments without an explicit appropriation. In May 2016, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional absent an express appropriation from Congress.

The next President could easily wade into this issue. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress. Such an action could take effect almost immediately….It’s a consideration as carriers submit their bids for next year that come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different.

One week after my article, Collyer issued her ruling calling the subsidy payments unconstitutional. At that point, CSR payments faced threats from both the legal and political realms. On the legal front, the ongoing court case could have resulted in an order terminating the payments. On the political side, the new administration would have the power to terminate the payments unilaterally—and it does not appear that either Hillary Clinton or Trump ever publicly committed to maintaining the payments upon taking office.

Yet Commissioners Stood Idly By

In the midst of this gathering storm, what actions did insurance commissioners take last year, as insurers filed their rates for the 2017 plan year—the plan year currently ongoing—to analyze whether cost-sharing payments would continue, and the effects on insurers if they did not? About a week before the Trump administration officially decided to halt the payments, I submitted public records requests to every state insurance commissioner’s office to find out.

Two states (Indiana and Oregon) are still processing my requests, but the results from most other states do not inspire confidence. Although a few states (Illinois, Utah, and California’s Department of Managed Health Care) withheld documents for confidentiality or logistical reasons, I have yet to find a single document during the filing process for the 2017 plan year contemplating the set of circumstances that transpired this fall—namely, a new administration cutting off the CSR payments.

In many cases, states indicated they did not, and do not, question insurers’ assumptions at all. North Dakota said it does not dictate terms to carriers (although the state did not allow carriers to re-submit rates for the 2018 plan year after the administration halted the CSR payments in October). Wyoming said it did not issue guidance to carriers on CSRs “because that’s not how we roll.” Missouri did not require its insurers to file 2017 rates with regulators, so it would have no way of knowing those insurers’ assumptions.

Other states admitted that they did not consider the possibility that the incoming administration would, or even could, terminate the CSR payments. North Carolina said it did not think the court case was relevant, or that cost-sharing reduction payments would be an issue. Massachusetts’ insurance Connector (its state-run exchange) responded that “there was no indication that rates for 2017 were affected by the pendency of House v. Burwell,” the case Collyer ruled on in May 2016.

Despite the ongoing court case and the deep partisan disputes over Obamacare, many commissioners’ responses indicate a failure to anticipate difficulties with cost-sharing reduction payments. Mississippi stated that, during the filing process for 2017, “CSRs weren’t a problem then, as they were being funded.” Minnesota added that “it was not until the spring of 2017 that carriers started discussing the threat [of CSR payments being terminated] was a real possibility.” Nebraska stated that “I don’t think that there’s anyone who allowed for the possibility of non-payment of CSRs for plan year 2017. We were all waiting for Congress to act.”

However, as an e-mail sent by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to state regulators demonstrates, federal authorities at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated their “serious concerns” with the Texas and New Mexico proposals. Federal law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for qualifying beneficiaries, regardless of the status of the reimbursement program, and CMS believed the contingency language—which never went into effect in either Texas or New Mexico—violated that requirement.

In at least one case, an insurer raised premiums to reflect the risk that CSR payments could disappear in 2017. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana submitted such request to that state’s insurance authorities. However, regulators rejected “contingent CSR language”—apparently an attempt to cancel the reduced cost-sharing if reimbursement from Washington was not forthcoming, a la the Texas and New Mexico proposals. The insurance commissioner’s office also objected to the carrier’s attempt to raise premiums over the issue: “We will not allow rates to be increased based on speculation about outcomes of litigation.”

Of course, had insurers requested, or had regulators either approved or demanded, premium increases last year due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reduction payments, they would not now face the prospect of over $1 billion in losses due to non-payment of CSRs for the last three months of 2017. But had regulators approved even higher premium increases last year, those increases likely would have caused political controversy during the November elections.

As it was, news of the average 25 percent premium increase for 2017 gave Trump a political cudgel to attack Clinton in the waning days of the campaign. One can certainly question why Democratic insurance commissioners who did not utter a word about premium increases and CSR “uncertainty” during Clinton’s campaign suddenly discovered the term the minute Trump was elected president.

However, at least some ardent Obamacare supporters just did not anticipate a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments. Washington state’s commissioner, Mike Kreidler, published an op-ed last October regarding the House v. Burwell court case. He did so at the behest of NAIC consumer representative Tim Jost, who wanted to cite Kreidler’s piece in an amicus curiae brief during the case’s appeal. But despite their focus on the court case regarding CSRs, it appears neither Jost nor Kreidler ever contemplated a new administration withdrawing the payments in 2017.

Congressional Oversight Needed

The evidence suggests that not a single insurance commissioner considered the impact of a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments in 2017, a series of decisions that put the entire health of the individual insurance market at risk. What policy implications follow from this conclusion?

First, it undercuts the effectiveness of Obamacare’s “rate review” process. That mechanism requires states to evaluate “excessive” premium increases. However, the program’s evaluation criteria do not explicitly include policy judgments such as those surrounding CSRs. Moreover, the political focus on lowering “excessively” high premium increases might result in cases where regulators approve premium rates set inappropriately low—as happened in 2017, where no carriers priced in a contingency margin for the termination of CSR payments, yet those payments ceased in October.

As noted above, Montana’s regulators called out that state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate for proposing a rate increase relating to CSR uncertainty. The state’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, issued a formal “letter of deficiency” in which she stated that “raising rates on the basis of this assumption [i.e., loss of cost-sharing reduction payments] is unreasonable.” But events proved Lindeen wrong—those payments did disappear in 2017. Yet the insurer in question has no recourse after their assumptions proved more accurate than Lindeen’s—nor, for that matter, will Lindeen face any consequences for the “unreasonable” assumptions she made.

Second, it suggests an inherent tension between state authorities and Washington. Several regulators specifically said they looked to CMS’ advice on the cost-sharing reduction issue. Iowa requested guidance from Washington, and Wisconsin said the status of the payments was “out of our hands.” But given the impending change of administrations, any guidance CMS provided in the spring or summer of 2016 was guaranteed to remain valid only through January 20, 2017—a problem for regulators setting rates for the 2017 plan year.

Obamacare created a new layer of federal oversight—and federal policy—surrounding regulation of insurance, which heretofore had laid primarily within the province of the states. The CSR debacle resulted from the conflict between those two layers. Unless and until our laws reconcile those tensions—in conservatives’ case, by repealing the Obamacare regime and returning regulation to the states, or in liberals’ preferred outcome, by centralizing more regulatory authority in Washington—these conflicts could well recur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it should spark Congress to examine state oversight of health insurance in greater detail. The fact that insurance commissioners escaped the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane—the withdrawal of CSR payments in January—and struggled through a mere tropical storm with payments withdrawn in October instead, had no relevance on their regulatory skill—to the contrary, in fact.

Unfortunately, Congress has demonstrated little interest in examining why the regulatory apparatus fell so short. The same Democratic Party that investigated regulators and bankers following the financial crisis has shown little interest in questioning why insurers and insurance regulators failed to anticipate the end of cost-sharing reduction payments. With their focus on getting Congress to appropriate funds restoring the CSR payments President Trump terminated, insurance commissioners’ lack of planning and preparation represents an inconvenient truth that Democrats would rather ignore.

Likewise, Republicans who wish to appropriate funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments have no interest in examining the roots of the CSR debacle. In September, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to take testimony from insurance commissioners on “stabilizing” insurance markets.

At the hearing, Alexander did not ask the commissioners why they did not predict the “uncertainty” surrounding cost-sharing reductions last year. HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Kreidler, her state’s insurance commissioner, about regulators’ “guessing games” regarding the status of CSRs with regard to the 2018 plan year. But neither she nor any of the members asked why those regulators made such blind and ultimately incorrect assumptions last year, by not even considering a scenario where CSR payments disappeared during the 2017 plan year.

Alexander and Murray claim the legislation they developed following the hearing, which would appropriate CSR funds for two years, does not represent a “bailout” for the insurance industry. But the fact remains that last fall, when preparing for the 2017 plan year, insurance regulators dropped the ball in a big way.

Ignoring their inaction, and appropriating funds for cost-sharing reductions without scrutinizing their conduct, would effectively bail out insurance commissioners’ own collective negligence. Congress should think twice before doing so, because next time, a regulatory debacle could have an even bigger impact on the health insurance industry—and on federal taxpayers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AARP’s Own Age Tax

Over the past few weeks, AARP—an organization that purportedly advocates on behalf of seniors—has been running advertisements claiming that the House health-care bill would impose an “age tax” on seniors by allowing for greater variation in premiums. It knows of which it speaks: AARP has literally made billions of dollars by imposing its own “tax” on seniors buying health insurance policies, not to mention denying care to individuals with disabilities.

While the public may think of AARP as a membership organization that advocates for liberal causes or gives seniors discounts at restaurants and hotels, most of its money comes from selling the AARP name. In 2015, the organization received nearly three times as much revenue from “royalty fees” than it did from member dues. Most of those royalty fees come from selling insurance products issued by UnitedHealthGroup.

Only We Can Profit On the Elderly

So in the sale of Medigap plans, AARP imposes—you guessed it!—a 4.95 percent age tax on seniors. AARP not only makes more money the more people enroll in its Medigap plans, it makes more money if individuals buy more expensive insurance.

Even worse, AARP refused good governance practices that would disclose the existence of that tax to seniors at the time they apply for Medigap insurance. While working for Sen. Jim DeMint in 2012, I helped write a letter to AARP that referenced the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Producer Model Licensing Act.

Specifically, Section 18 of that act recommends that states require explicit disclosure to consumers of percentage-based compensation arrangements at the time of sale, due to the potential for abuse. DeMint’s letter asked AARP to “outline the steps [it] has taken to ensure that your Medigap percentage-based compensation model is in full compliance with the letter and spirit of” those requirements. AARP never gave a substantive reply to this congressional oversight request.

Don’t Screw With Obamacare, It’s Making Us Billions

Essentially, AARP makes money off other people’s money—perhaps receiving insurance premium payments on the 1st of the month, transferring them to UnitedHealth or its other insurance affiliates on the 15th of the month, and pocketing the interest accrued over the intervening two weeks. That’s nearly $3.2 billion in profit over six years, just from selling insurance plans. AARP received much of that $3.2 billion in part because Medigap coverage received multiple exemptions in Obamacare. The law exempted Medigap plans from the health insurer tax, and medical loss ratio requirements.

Most importantly, Medigap plans are exempt from the law’s myriad insurance regulations, including Obamacare’s pre-existing condition exclusions—which means AARP can continue its prior practice of imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants. You read that right: Not only did Obamacare not end the denial of care for pre-existing conditions, the law allowed AARP to continue to deny care for individuals with disabilities, as insurers can and do reject Medigap applications when individuals qualify for Medicare early due to a disability.

The Obama administration helped AARP in other important ways. Regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exempted Medigap policies from insurance rate review of “excessive” premium increases, an exemption that particularly benefited AARP. Because the organization imposes its 4.95 percent “age tax” on individuals applying for coverage, AARP has a clear financial incentive to raise premiums, sell seniors more insurance than they require, and sell seniors policies that they don’t need. Yet rather than addressing these inherent conflicts, HHS decided to look the other way and allow AARP to continue its shady practices.

The Cronyism Stinks to High Heaven

AARP will claim in its defense that it’s not an insurance company, which is true. Insurance companies must risk capital to pay claims, and face losses if claims exceed premiums charged. By contrast, AARP need never risk one dime. It can just sit back, license its brand, and watch the profits roll in. Its $561.9 million received from UnitedHealthGroup in 2015 exceeded the profits of many large insurers that year, including multi-billion dollar carriers like Centene, Health Net, and Molina Healthcare.

But if the AARP now suddenly cares about “taxing” the aged so much, Washington should grant them their wish. The Trump administration and Congress should investigate and crack down on AARP’s insurance shenanigans. Congress should subpoena Sebelius and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, her successor, and ask why each turned a blind eye to its sordid business practices. HHS should write to state insurance commissioners, and ask them to enforce existing best practices that require greater disclosure from entities (like AARP) operating on a percentage-based commission.

And both Congress and the administration should ask why, if AARP cares about its members as much as it claims, the organization somehow “forgot” to lobby for Medigap reforms—not just prior to Obamacare’s passage, but now. AARP’s fourth quarter lobbying report showed that the organization contacted Congress on 77 separate bills, including issues as minor as the cost of lifetime National Parks passes, yet failed to discuss Medigap reform at all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Next Obamacare Battleground: State Insurance Premiums

The New York Times reported last week on the Obama administration, in an effort “to avoid another political uproar over the Affordable Care Act,” urging state insurance commissioners to hold down premium increases for 2016. The Times cited a letter that Kevin Counihan, who oversees the federal insurance exchanges, sent to state commissioners last month asking states “to carefully consider as you make your final rate decisions” several factors the administration said would contribute to more moderate cost increases than those already experienced.

But trends in many states appear likely to force premiums higher. Continued low enrollment after the 2015 open-enrollment season means that some insurers still face a group of enrollees who are older and sicker than their initial projections. One report out this summer by pharmaceutical benefits manager Express Scripts indicated that people who enrolled in exchange plans have higher prescription-drug costs than participants in other health insurance plans, including greater use of costly new treatments for diseases such as Hepatitis C. So some carriers may seek higher premiums to reflect their rising costs.

Premium increases are obviously unpopular, but state regulators must protect insurers–an insolvent insurer cannot provide financial protection to anyone. The Oregonian reported in June: “While some insurers proposed rates similar to or better than this year’s, officials are ordering them to be raised—saying they need to close a sizable gap between what insurers have collected and what they spend on claims.” One insurer that proposed a rate decrease for next year, Kaiser Health Plan of the Northwest, was forced to raise premiums by 8.3%. A carrier that proposed a 9% increase ended up with a 34.8% hike in rates. The commissioner’s office forced these adjustments to ensure that carriers do not pay out more in claims than they generate in premiums.

One could see Mr. Counihan’s letter as the opening stages of a blame game over premiums. Of course, rising health costs, anemic enrollment in plans administered through the insurance exchanges, and unpopular product design are not the fault of state insurance commissioners. And there are risks to trying to dictate outcomes to states, including that state officials might be distracted from their focus on preserving carriers’ solvency if pressed by federal officials more focused on achieving politically desirable outcomes.

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

Obamacare Is NOT Saving Americans Money

Yesterday the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a report that claims to highlight how Obamacare is working for Americans—but in reality, it actually shows how the law has fallen short of candidate Obama’s promises.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then one chart in the report tells the tale. Figure 3 of the HHS report (below) highlights what happened when insurers requested to increase premiums by more than 10 percent—triggering a new rate review process established under Obamacare. While some of these premium increases were modified or withdrawn, nearly three in five (57.8 percent) were approved “unmodified” by regulators:

HHS_Fig3

However, if Obama’s campaign promises had come true, NONE of those proposed premium increases would have occurred—because candidate Obama promised premiums would go down under his plan:

For those who have insurance now, nothing will change under the Obama plan — except that you will pay less. Obama’s plan will save a typical family up to $2,500 on premiums.

The HHS report claims that, because rate review lowered the average premium increase—from 8.1 percent to 7.1 percent for those who purchased insurance coverage on their own, and from 5.8 percent to 4.7 percent for small businesses buying insurance—Americans “saved” $1.2 billion due to Obamacare. But one report released last year found that the Obama Administration had fallen $800 billion short of its promise to lower premiums by $2,500 per family.

The fact that regulators are having to approve premium increases of 10 percent or more demonstrates that Obamacare has singularly failed to achieve candidate Obama’s pledge to lower insurance premiums. It’s why Congress should focus on stopping the law now, before premiums can rise any further.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

Kathleen Sebelius: The Insurance Industry’s “Big Sister”

As the Administration gears up to sell Obamacare to the American people, it’s also gearing up its regulatory apparatus to strong-arm private companies.

The Hill reports that even though the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) previously claimed that it would not try to negotiate rates with insurance companies, in reality HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is doing just that:

“The department is working with state regulators to approach insurers whose rates come in significantly higher or lower than average to make sure their filings are correct,” a senior HHS official said.

So if insurance companies don’t offer the “correct” price, officials from HHS will tell them to come back and try again. Perhaps this is what Vice President Joe Biden meant when, just before Obamacare passed, he said that “we’re going to control the insurance companies.”

Obamacare relies on a series of strong-arm tactics to “control” prices—from price controls on insurance companies to a board of 15 unelected bureaucrats empowered to keep Medicare spending below an arbitrary target. But the real problem with Obamacare is that it forces individuals to buy more insurance than they might want or need, raising premiums in the process. No amount of top-down government controls—or “encouraging” insurance companies to offer the “correct” prices—can change that fact.

So while Secretary Sebelius and HHS continue their intrusive, government-centered tactics to try to offset the premium increases many Americans will see next year, there’s another concept the Administration should try. It’s called free markets and competition.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

Profits Before Principles: How AARP Wins When Seniors Lose

A report originally compiled by staff for Sen. Jim DeMint.

REPORT HIGHLIGHTS

  • AARP functions as an insurance conglomerate with a liberal lobbying arm on the side.  Independent experts and former AARP executives admit that the organization’s billions of dollars raised from its business enterprises – most notably the sale of health insurance plans – have compromised the organization’s mission and independence.
  • AARP depends on profits, royalties, and commissions to make up over 50% of its annual budget.  Membership dues from seniors account for only about 20% of AARP’s revenue.
  • AARP’s $458 million in health insurance revenue in 2011 would rank it as the nation’s sixth-most profitable health insurer.
  • The health care law, which AARP lobbied heavily for, could lead to over $1 billion in new AARP health insurance profits over the next decade by forcing seniors off Medicare Advantage plans into Medigap supplemental coverage.
  • AARP earns more profit the higher premiums rise on seniors in Medigap plans, charging a “royalty fee” of 4.95% of every premium dollar paid by seniors on these plans.
  • In 2011, AARP failed to disclose to its senior membership that it lobbied Congress to oppose Medigap reform, legislation that could lower senior premiums by as much as 60%, and save seniors $415 per year on average.
  • AARP could lose as much as $1.8 billion in revenue over ten years if Medigap reforms pass and successfully lower senior premiums.
  • Documents show close coordination between Obama Administration and AARP, including efforts to deceive the public.  In November 2009, a senior AARP executive wrote to the White House saying “we will try to keep a little space between us” on health care – because AARP’s “polling shows we are more influential when we are seen as independent, so we want to reinforce that positioning….The larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”
  • AARP has benefitted by supporting the Obama Administration’s unpopular health care law.  Unlike other forms of insurance, AARP’s Medigap insurance plans were exempted from many of the health care law’s mandates, including the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination.
  • The Obama Administration has not publicly criticized AARP’s business practices, even though it has publicly attacked other insurance companies with much smaller profit margins than those generated by AARP’s Medigap insurance.
  • Democrats continue to praise AARP – HHS Secretary Sebelius called them the “gold standard” for “accurate information” – even though AARP earns more profit the higher Medigap premiums rise for seniors.

Even though President Obama has criticized Republicans for placing seniors at the mercy of insurance companies, the health care law he signed allows organizations like AARP to continue discriminating against Medigap applicants with pre-existing conditions.

 

Introduction

The AARP bills itself as the nation’s premier senior advocacy group, but has opposed important reforms to Medigap supplemental insurance that would save seniors, on average, hundreds of dollars a year.

Why? There are $1.8 billion reasons.

The reforms currently being proposed to Medigap would drastically reduce the “royalty fees” AARP generates by peddling insurance to its members by an estimated $1.8 billion over ten years. If AARP supported these reforms, which are sure to save seniors money, the lobbying group would lose billions.

This report shows how the AARP has a history of being compromised by its lucrative insurance businesses.  The pressure group’s opposition to Medigap reform is just the latest instance where its financial enterprises have trumped the well-being of its members.

AARP is mounting a “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign to solicit member viewpoints about how to reform entitlements, but our examination of the organization’s actions over the years shows AARP executives, who seek to boost their bottom lines, always have the biggest say.

The AARP Empire

Founded in 1958, AARP is now an organization with an annual budget exceeding $1 billion.  The organization spent $206 million to acquire its headquarters building in Washington, DC more than a decade ago.[1]  According to its most recently filed tax returns, AARP spent more than $246 million on postage, and over $280 million on compensation in 2010.[2]  In that same year, AARP provided compensation of over $100,000 to 543 separate employees, including one senior executive who received nearly $1.2 million in compensation.[3]

While AARP claims to be a membership-driven organization, in reality most of its revenue comes not from member dues but from “royalty fees” generated from the sale of other products, namely health insurance.  “Royalty fees” are payments AARP receives for putting its brand name on certain products and services.  So while insurance companies provide a tangible product and service in exchange for the premiums they charge, AARP receives more than half a billion dollars per year for essentially playing the middle man.

According to its 2011 financial statements, more than half of AARP’s revenue came from royalty fees – over $704 million of its $1.35 billion in total revenue last year.[4]  Revenues from health insurer United Health Group comprised nearly two-thirds of AARP’s total “royalty fee” revenue, or $457.6 million.[5]  By comparison, in 2011 AARP generated only $265.8 million from membership dues – just over half the amount received from the sale of AARP-branded insurance products.[6]

AARP’s royalty fees have risen significantly in recent years, making the organization ever more dependent on the sale of insurance policies to fund AARP’s massive payroll.  Between 2001 and 2011, AARP’s total royalty fees rose by more than 350% – from $196.7 million in 2001 to over $704 million last year.[7]  Much of this increase comes from additional health insurance-related revenue.  Over the past five years, AARP has generated over $2 billion in revenue from United Health Group alone – $284 million in 2007,[8] $414 million in 2008,[9] $427 million in 2009,[10] $441 million in 2010,[11] and $458 million in 2011.[12]

AARP’s $458 million in insurance revenue in 2011 would rank it as the nation’s sixth-most profitable insurer, based on data collected by Fortune magazine.[13]  For instance, insurer Health Net generated only $204 million in net revenue last year – on over $13.6 billion in total revenue.[14]  By contrast, AARP’s $458 million in insurance-based “royalty fees” go directly to the organization’s bottom line.

AARP’s Questionable Insurance Practices

Even as it claims to be a non-profit advocacy organization, AARP has received criticism from many quarters for its heavy reliance on revenue from insurance sales.  Marilyn Moon, a former AARP executive, said “there’s an inherent conflict of interest” because AARP is “very dependent on sources of income.”[15]

AARP’s dependence on “royalty fee” income has resulted in numerous controversies over the years.  For instance, in 2008 a congressional inquiry[16] found that AARP was using potentially misleading language in its marketing materials; seniors thought they were buying comprehensive health insurance, but in reality purchased policies covering only a limited amount of health costs.  Following a public outcry, AARP ordered an investigation,[17] and eventually stopped selling these types of limited benefit plans.[18]

More recently, the tax implications of AARP’s significant “royalty fees” have come under scrutiny.  An investigation by several members of the House Ways and Means Committee last year raised questions about whether or not AARP’s licensing revenue should be considered “royalty fees” or “commissions.”[19]  If the revenue in question should in fact be classified as “commissions,” then AARP could owe significant amounts of back taxes on billions of dollars in revenue.  The Ways and Means members referred the matter to the Internal Revenue Service, and requested an IRS investigation.[20]

The Medigap Cash Cow

The Ways and Means member investigation also made clear that one of AARP’s prime sources of revenue is the sale of Medigap-branded supplemental insurance plans.  AARP does license Medicare Advantage plans, along with a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.  However, AARP receives a flat financial payment from United Health Group for its Medicare Advantage and Part D plans, regardless of the number of people enrolled in each plan.  Conversely, AARP receives a percentage of total Medigap premiums paid – meaning that while AARP receives no financial benefits if its Medicare Advantage or Part D plan enrollment rises, it will receive a windfall if its Medigap plan generates additional customers, or those customers pay higher premiums.

The health care law includes more than $300 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage.[21]  As a result of these payment reductions, enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans will be cut in half, with 7.4 million fewer seniors enrolled.[22]  Many of these 7.4 million seniors will need supplemental coverage through Medigap, to fund catastrophic expenses not covered by Medicare.

Because the health care law will have the effect of migrating millions of seniors from Medicare Advantage plans – which are less lucrative financially to AARP – to more-lucrative Medigap supplemental coverage, the Ways and Means member report concluded that the organization could receive a windfall exceeding $1 billion over the next ten years thanks to the law.[23]

Medigap Reform with Bipartisan Appeal

The potential Medigap-related windfall for AARP resulting from the health care law is not the only instance in which the organization’s financial interests have coincided with its policy positions.  In recent months, a renewed focus on reforming entitlements, and making Medicare more sustainable, has prompted new attention to various proposals to reform Medigap plans.  While these plans would benefit most seniors financially, they would harm AARP’s financial interests – so perhaps not surprisingly, AARP has decided to oppose them.

Under the proposals being discussed, the traditional Medicare program would be reformed to provide catastrophic coverage, while Medigap would provide limited supplemental coverage.  For the first time in the program’s history, seniors would know their Medicare costs would not exceed a set amount.  In exchange, Medigap supplemental coverage, which covers co-payments and deductibles, would also be reformed, so that seniors would face an out-of-pocket deductible not covered by insurance.

Reform to Medigap insurance plans has generated bipartisan appeal.  Versions of this reform have been proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[24] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits, [25] Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[26] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[27]  Policy-makers in both parties believe that, by limiting first-dollar coverage of medical expenses through Medigap, seniors would serve as smarter purchasers of health insurance, such that overall spending in Medicare might decline modestly.

Although some seniors might pay slightly more out-of-pocket under these changes, a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation said that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[28]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year – because creating a new deductible for all Medigap plans will cause premiums to fall.[29]

Under Medigap reform, seniors would spend much less money on premiums.  Just as with automobile insurance, or with Health Savings Account policies for individuals under age 65, adopting a higher deductible would yield significant premium savings for Medigap policies.  The Kaiser study found that under one proposed reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[30]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

AARP Wins When Seniors Lose

The overall premise of Medigap reform is simple: Less money going to insurance companies means greater financial savings for most seniors.

Unfortunately for AARP, things are not that simple.  As one independent financial adviser has said, AARP’s sales tactics are a “dirty little secret” that are “all about fattening the coffers of the organization.”  And the biggest “dirty little secret” of all is that AARP has a major financial incentive to keep premiums high for seniors.[31]

The House Ways and Means Committee members’ investigation last year found that AARP receives a percentage of each senior’s Medigap premium dollar.[32]  The organization’s “royalty fee” totals 4.95% of every premium dollar paid.  So, similar to a salesman pushing the most expensive product in order to receive a higher commission, regardless of the customer’s needs,  AARP has an incentive to sell more Medigap policies – and to sell the most expensive Medigap policies – even if seniors do not need the insurance.  The higher the cost of seniors’ Medigap policies, the more money AARP makes.

Based on AARP’s existing contractual arrangements and the Kaiser Family Foundation study projections, it is relatively simple to calculate the projected financial loss to AARP under Medigap reform.[33]   If premiums decline by more than $1,200 per year, as the Kaiser study predicted, AARP stands to lose an average of $62 in “royalty fees” for every senior enrolled in its Medigap insurance.  With nearly 3 million seniors enrolled in AARP’s Medigap plan, those numbers add up – over $181 million in one year, and $1.8 billion over the course of a decade.[34]  With the organization generating total revenue of $1.35 billion in 2011, Medigap reform would result in an immediate loss of over 13% of AARP’s annual revenue.[35]

AARP’s Covert Campaign to Kill Medigap Reform

Given its financial interest in keeping Medigap premiums high, it is perhaps unsurprising that AARP engaged in a covert lobbying campaign designed to kill Medigap reform, and keep its existing “royalty fee” regime in place.  Last year AARP wrote to members of the congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction, asking them not to include Medigap reforms – which, as noted above, would benefit four out of five Medigap policy-holders, but significantly harm AARP’s financial interests.

AARP published excerpts of their letter to the “supercommittee” on its website.[36]  But AARP has yet to put anything on its website indicating that the organization has been privately contacting Members of Congress, asking them not to reform Medigap – and preserve AARP’s lucrative Medigap commissions.

Two years ago, an AARP spokesman told CNN that the organization doesn’t lobby Congress on Medigap issues “at all.”[37]  While the organization is apparently trying to keep its actions secret, the fact remains that AARP is lobbying Congress against Medigap reform, opposing changes that will just so happen to save AARP members tens of billions, but that would also cost AARP billions.

AARP Works Against Its Members

Whereas last year AARP actively lobbied against Medigap reforms that would help its members but hurt AARP financially, three years ago the organization did NOT lobby for Medigap reforms that would help its members but could hurt AARP financially.  Specifically, even after enactment of the health care law, Medigap plans are still permitted to impose waiting periods on senior citizen applicants with pre-existing conditions.  AARP, despite its stated support for ending pre-existing condition restrictions,[38] imposes waiting periods on its own members applying for Medigap coverage[39] – and stood idly by as an attempt to end this practice within Medigap was stricken from the health care bill before it became law.

Section 1234 of House Democrats’ June 2009 health care discussion draft would have prohibited pre-existing condition discrimination for certain Medigap applicants – achieving one of AARP’s chief goals.[40]  However, last year the Washington Post claimed that the Medigap provision “was dropped from the legislation during congressional negotiations because it would have increased Medicare costs, according to a House Democratic congressional aide.”[41]

The Congressional Budget Office scored provisions eliminating pre-existing condition discrimination in Medigap as costing about $400 million per year.[42]  However, AARP had previously stated that the organization “would gladly forego every dime of revenue to fix the health care system.”[43]  As noted above, its $700 million in “royalty fees” last year far exceeds the $400 million annual cost of ending Medigap pre-existing condition discrimination.  It remains unclear why this provision was dropped from the bill, if AARP was so interested in foregoing profits in order to help its members.

In addition to allowing AARP to continue imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants, the law enacted in March 2010 also exempted AARP’s lucrative Medigap policies from several other new insurance regulations.[44]  At a December 2009 hearing,[45] AARP’s Board Chair claimed to have no idea that legislation that she and the AARP had previously endorsed included numerous exemptions for Medigap plans, including an exemption from the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination.[46]

After the numerous Medigap-related exemptions included in the health care law were publicly exposed, AARP eventually endorsed legislative changes to end some of the exemptions.[47]  However, despite this public turn-around, AARP has yet to explain to the public why it allowed these exemptions to be enacted in the first place – if the organization is not motivated by its own financial interests, as it claims.  Moreover, the organization has not apologized to its members for failing to act and end pre-existing condition discrimination in Medigap plans two years ago, and the impact such failure has had on AARP’s own members.

Members REVOLT

Documents released by a House Energy and Commerce Committee oversight investigation reveal just how strongly AARP members opposed their organization’s behavior during the health care debate three years ago.  The files show overwhelming opposition from AARP members to the legislation, based on summaries of AARP call center activity:

July 23, 2009 – 77 members support; 1,031 oppose

July 28, 2009 – 36 members support; 4,174 oppose

July 29, 2009 – 23 members support; 2,656 oppose[48]

On a single day (July 28, 2009) during the height of the debate, 1,897 individuals cancelled their membership in AARP to protest its position on the health care bill.[49]

The documents also reveal that AARP members were well aware of the organization’s financial conflicts, and believed that these conflicts were influencing AARP policy.  One member from Oklahoma called in and complained that:

AARP has a conflict of interest between selling insurance and helping senior citizens.  Until it decides which one is more important, the $$$ or the people, it is deceiving old folks into thinking it works for their benefit.  Actually it works for the insurance companies [sic] benefit and interests, which is why it is so gung-ho on the health care reform bill….Not OK with me.[50]

Members also complained about “perceived partisanship on AARP’s part” – and the documents reveal this to be an accurate concern.  In November 2009, a senior AARP executive wrote to the White House saying “we will try to keep a little space between us” on health care – because AARP’s “polling shows we are more influential when we are seen as independent, so we want to reinforce that positioning….The larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”[51]  In other words, the organization was attempting to protect its image by publicly deceiving its members – acting detached in public, even as AARP was frantically lobbying behind the scenes to ram the legislation through for the good of the liberal cause.

AARP’s Misguided Political Focus

It is perhaps unsurprising that AARP would focus on “serv[ing] the cause” of liberalism, because many of its senior executives have strong liberal connections.  When the organization hired its current CEO, Barry Rand, one Capitol Hill publication noted that “New AARP Chief Gave Big to Obama.”[52]  Indeed, Mr. Rand has given tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to liberal Democrats over the years.[53]  Many other members of AARP’s executive team also have strong connections to liberal causes; the head of AARP’s government relations and advocacy program was a senior adviser in the Clinton Administration,[54] while other AARP key executives have worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy,[55] Rep. Geraldine Ferraro,[56] and the National Wildlife Federation, a liberal environmental group.[57]

The political philosophy of the organization’s leadership results in AARP mounting advocacy campaigns trumpeting liberal talking points that frequently have little basis in fact.  For instance, in September 2011 AARP released an advertisement with seniors claiming that “I paid into my Medicare,” and decrying any efforts to “cut our benefits.”[58]  However, the ad did not acknowledge what an Urban Institute study makes clear: Most seniors receive more in Social Security and Medicare benefits than they paid in taxes during their lifetime.[59]  An Associated Press story based on the Urban Institute study – “What You Pay for Medicare Won’t Cover Your Costs” – was initially placed on aarp.org, but was later removed from the website, perhaps because its conclusions represent inconvenient truths to AARP.[60]

Other ads run by the AARP during last year’s debt limit debate were also debunked as false and misleading.  In June 2011, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column awarded an AARP ad four “Pinocchios” for “perpetuat[ing] the worse stereotypes about how easy it would be to balance the budget.  At a time when the nation’s fiscal crisis – amid the looming retirement of the baby-boom generation – demands informed and reasoned debate, the AARP misinforms its members about the choices the nation faces.”[61]

Of course, AARP has a financial interest in misinforming its members – because the organization derives much of its revenue from preserving the status quo.  In launching a “multi-million dollar” ad campaign featuring misleading claims, AARP made clear it wanted no changes to the existing Medicare benefit structure.[62]  As outlined above, changes to the Medicare benefit – such as Medigap reform – would cost AARP billions, while saving many seniors hundreds of dollars per year.  By blocking reforms that would dent its profits, AARP hurts seniors two ways – first, by preventing seniors from saving hundreds of dollars in Medigap premiums, and second, by leaving the Medicare program less solvent for future generations.

Democrats Encourage AARP’s Abuses

Even as AARP racks up billions of dollars in insurance profits by overcharging seniors for Medigap plans, Democrats encourage these abuses by giving AARP special favors, and ignoring its questionable sales tactics.  As noted above, the health care law exempted AARP’s lucrative Medigap insurance plans from the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination, thus allowing AARP to continue to impose waiting periods on individuals applying for coverage.  However, that’s not the only exemption that Medigap coverage received in the law; Medigap insurance was also exempted from:

  • The law’s $500,000 cap on executive compensation for insurance industry executives. [63]  Thanks to this exemption, AARP can continue to pay its senior executives more than $1 million in annual compensation.[64]
  • The tax on insurance companies that will total more than $14 billion per year.[65]   Medigap insurance received this exemption even though AARP generates more money from insurance industry “royalty fees” than it received from membership dues, grant revenues, and private contributions combined.[66]
  • The requirement imposed on other health insurance plans to spend at least 85 percent of their premium dollars on medical claims.[67]  Medigap policies are currently held to a far less restrictive 65 percent standard, and the difference can be used to fund higher profits to AARP paid out of the pockets of its senior citizen members.[68]

In addition to these numerous exemptions for Medigap insurance provided in law, the Administration provided a further exemption for Medigap coverage during the rulemaking process.  The Department of Health and Human Services’ rule on insurance rate review exempted Medigap plans from further scrutiny of their premium increases.[69]  In arriving at this determination, HHS concluded that insurance plans like Medigap coverage “do not appear to be a principal focus of the Affordable Care Act” – meaning that because Medigap plans were exempted from the law’s other regulatory requirements, they should be exempted from rate review as well.[70]

Obama Administration Hypocrisy

The frequent exemptions given to Medigap insurance – a product line where AARP holds the largest market share – directly contradict the claims made by Democrats about the 2,700 page health care law.  For instance, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ official biography claims that she “is implementing reforms that end many of the insurance industry’s worst abuses.”[71]  However, with respect to Medigap insurance, that claim is entirely false.  Because Medigap plans were exempted from the law’s new requirements, organizations like AARP can continue to discriminate against applicants with pre-existing conditions, and overcharge seniors in order to generate greater profits.

Even as the Obama Administration fails to acknowledge that the health care law exempts Medigap insurance from all of its new requirements, it has attacked conservatives’ Medicare reform proposals for granting too much power to insurers.  In her speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Secretary Sebelius criticized Republicans for “let[ting] insurance companies continue to cherry-pick who gets coverage and who gets left out, priced out, or locked out of the market.”[72]  And in his speech to the same convention, President Obama said that “no American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies.”[73]  Given that the legislation President Obama signed into law exempted Medigap coverage for seniors from virtually all of its new regulatory requirements, it is more than a little hypocritical for his Administration to criticize others for leaving seniors to the mercy of insurers.

The Administration has yet to answer a basic question at the heart of the numerous exemptions granted to Medigap insurers in their 2,700 page health care law: If the law’s protections are so good, then why are seniors left out of its supposed benefits when it comes to their supplemental insurance?  Unfortunately, the answer could be that AARP has been unwilling to forfeit its profits, and so the Obama Administration has looked the other way as the organization continues to take advantage of seniors.

Kathleen Sebelius: Watchdog or Lapdog?

Even as it has been willing to politically strong-arm insurance companies with whom it disagrees, the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has failed to confront AARP about its questionable business practices.  In March 2010, as the Administration was gearing up to ram through its health care law, Secretary Sebelius asked other insurers to “give up some short-term profits” for the nation’s good.[74]  At the time, estimates by Fortune magazine indicated that health insurer profits averaged about 2.2 percent.[75]  Yet Secretary Sebelius made no such request of AARP to give up some of its revenues – even though its Medigap profit margin was 4.95 percent, more than double that of the insurance industry as a whole.

Shortly after the health law passed, Secretary Sebelius undertook a publicity campaign to “encourage” insurance companies to ban rescissions and extend coverage to young adults under age 26 earlier than was required under the law.  While the Secretary made very public efforts to have insurance companies “abandon…efforts to rescind health insurance coverage from patients who need it most,” she made no attempt to encourage AARP and other Medigap insurers to stop discriminating against applicants with pre-existing conditions.[76]  At an implementation briefing to Congress shortly after the law passed, Senate Republican staff asked HHS officials why the Department was asking other insurers voluntarily to change their business practices, but was not asking AARP to stop discriminating against Medigap applicants.  While Jeanne Lambrew, head of the Department’s Office of Health Reform, promised to look into the matter, the Department never took action.

Rather than ask AARP to reform its business practices, Secretary Sebelius instead has blindly offered the organization praise.  In an October 2010 speech to the AARP convention, she hailed the organization as “the gold standard in cutting through spin and complexity to give people the accurate information they need to make the best choices.”[77]  Even though AARP has a strong financial conflict-of-interest in its Medigap insurance – because the organization earns more profit when seniors pay more in premiums – Secretary Sebelius still claimed that AARP constituted “the gold standard” in giving “accurate information.”

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has previously expressed strong concerns about the percentage-based compensation model under which AARP receives much of its revenue.  In fact, Section 18 of NAIC’s Producer Model Licensing Act recommends that states require explicit disclosure by insurers, and clear written acknowledgement by consumers, of any percentage-based compensation arrangement, due to the potential for abuse.  As a former insurance commissioner, Secretary Sebelius should be well aware of the financial conflicts inherent when an organization like AARP receives a percentage of every Medigap dollar paid by seniors.  Yet the Secretary apparently ignored these concerns, and went on to praise AARP as a source of impartial advice, even though even former AARP executives have criticized the organization as hopelessly compromised by financial conflicts-of-interest.

In her time heading HHS, Secretary Sebelius has undertaken clearly political actions, including those that violated the law.  Just last week, the Office of the Special Counsel publicly released a report concluding that the Secretary engaged in political activity that violated the Hatch Act prohibitions on federal officials campaigning for partisan political causes.[78]  It is therefore quite reasonable to ask whether Secretary Sebelius has also engaged in a pattern of politically-motivated selective enforcement – attacking other insurers when convenient, but failing to examine AARP’s questionable business practices, because AARP supports the President’s liberal causes.

As noted above, AARP executives e-mailed the White House in November 2009 stating that “the larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”  It would thus appear that both AARP and the Administration recognize their political interests are aligned.  Certainly the Administration’s actions – exemptions for Medigap coverage included both in statute and in rulemaking; attacks on insurers with smaller profit margins than AARP; failure to criticize AARP’s percentage-based compensation model – are consistent with a governing philosophy that permits AARP to engage in questionable and abusive behavior towards seniors, so long as AARP funnels the profits from said behavior back into supporting the Administration’s liberal causes.

In April 2010, Secretary Sebelius wrote to insurers to stop rescinding insurance policies earlier than required under the law, encouraging them “not to wait until the fall to do the right thing.”[79]  America’s seniors have been waiting for years for Secretary Sebelius, and the entire Obama Administration, to do the right thing – to apply the law fairly, without regard to political persuasion.  Unfortunately, the facts suggest that the Administration has knowingly looked the other way, and failed to take on AARP over its business practices – because political advantage outweighs the need for impartial enforcement, or extending the supposed benefits of the health care law to senior citizens.

Conclusion

Though it purports to be a seniors advocacy organization, AARP functions in many respects as an insurance conglomerate with a liberal lobbying arm on the side.  Independent experts and even former AARP executives have admitted that the organization’s billions of dollars raised from its business enterprises – most notably the sale of health insurance plans – have compromised the organization’s mission and independence.  As one consultant put it: “Either you’re a voice for the elderly or you’re an insurance company – choose one.”[80]

As this report has demonstrated, AARP has acted against its members’ interest, but in its own financial interests, on several occasions during the major health care debates of the past several years.  First AARP endorsed a health care law that gave its most lucrative product offering – Medigap insurance – a major opportunity to solicit new members, exempted those Medigap plans from the law’s regulatory regime, and allowed AARP to continue imposing waiting periods on the sickest seniors looking to buy Medigap coverage.  More recently, AARP has engaged in a covert lobbying campaign designed to kill Medigap reforms that would benefit nearly four in five policy-holders and improve Medicare’s solvency – but could cost AARP billions.

This year, AARP has embarked upon a “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign, purportedly designed to solicit members’ opinions on ways to reduce the deficit.  However, the organization has yet to solicit members’ viewpoints about its own actions.  For instance:

  1. How many members know that senior AARP executives have received over $1 million in compensation from the organization – and that 543 individuals received over $100,000 in compensation last year?
  2. How many members know that AARP has generated over $2 billion in revenue from selling health insurance plans in the past five years?
  3. How many members know that AARP imposes waiting periods on Medigap applicants with pre-existing conditions – and stood idly by as provisions to eliminate Medigap pre-existing condition discrimination were stricken from the health care law?
  4. How many members know that nearly four in five Medigap plan holders would financially benefit from reforms, to the tune of several hundred dollars per year?
  5. How many members know that Medigap reforms that would help seniors could cost AARP billions of dollars in lost revenue?

At the very least, AARP should be up-front and honest with its members about the massive financial stake it has in this debate.  Better yet, the organization should start thinking less about its bottom line and more about its members, and endorse reforms that will help the vast majority of Medigap policy-holders.

 

[1]Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, report by Reps. Wally Herger and Dave Reichert, March 29, 2011,  http://herger.house.gov/images/stories/pdf/20110329aarpreport.pdf, p. 6.

[2]AARP Inc., 2010 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2010_990_aarp.pdf, p. 1.

[3] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[4] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements,  http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2012-05/Consolidated-Financial-Statements-2011-2010-AARP.pdf, p. 3.

[5] Page 9 of the AARP 2011 financial statements notes that “the service provider United Healthcare Corporation accounted for 65% of total royalties earned in 2011 and 2010.”  65% of the total $704 million in royalties equates to $457.6 million received from United Healthcare.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Letter from AARP Chief Operating Officer Thomas Nelson to Rep. Dave Reichert, November 2, 2009, pp. 3-4.

[8]AARP Inc., 2008 Consolidated Financial Statements,  http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/TopicAreas/annual_reports/assets/AARPConsolidatedFinancialStatements.pdf, pp. 4-9.

[9]Ibid., pp. 3-9.

[10]AARP Inc., 2009 Consolidated Financial Statements, http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/cs/misc/2009_aarp_consolidated_financial_statements_12_31_09.pdf, pp. 3-9.

[11] AARP Inc., 2010 Consolidated Financial Statements, http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2010_aarp_consolidated_financial_statements_12_31_10.pdf, pp. 3-9.

[12] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements.

[13] Fortune 500, Health Care: Insurance and Managed Care, May 23, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2011/industries/223/index.html.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston, “AARP’s Stealth Fees Often Sting Seniors With Costlier Insurance,” Bloomberg December 4, 2008,  http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&refer=&sid=a4OkPQIPF6Kg.

[16] Letter from Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley to AARP CEO William Novelli, November 3, 2008, http://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/upload/110320081.pdf.

[17] Robert Pear, “AARP Orders Investigation Concerning Its Marketing,” New York Times November 18, 2008,   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/us/19insure.html?_r=1.

[18] Emily Berry, “United Stops Selling AARP Limited-Benefit Insurance,” Amednews.com May 28, 2009,  http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2009/05/25/bisd0528.htm.

[19] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.

[20] Letter from House Ways and Means Committee Members Wally Herger, Charles Boustany, and Dave Reichert to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman, December 21, 2011,  http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/letter_to_irs-shulman_12-15-11.pdf.

[21] Congressional Budget Office, score of H.R. 6079, Repeal of Obamacare Act, July 24, 2012, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43471-hr6079.pdf.

[22] Robert Book and Michael Ramlet, What Changes will Health Care Reform Bring to Medicare Advantage Plan Benefits and Enrollment?, Medical Industry Leadership Institute- Carlson School of Management, October 2011, http://americanactionforum.org/sites/default/files/Embargoed_Book+Ramlet_MILI-Working-Paper_2011-10-13_Final.pdf.

[23] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, Table 4, p. 16.

[24] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010,

http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

[25] Restoring America’s Future, report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Tax Force, November 2010, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, pp. 52-53.

[26] Overview of Coburn/Lieberman Medicare reform proposal, June 2011, http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=1ea8e116-6d15-46ba-b2e0-731258583305.

[27] White House Fiscal Year 2013 budget submission to Congress, February 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/budget.pdf, p. 35.

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, p. 8.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[31] “AARP’s Stealth Fees Often Sting Seniors With Costlier Insurance.”

[32] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.

[33] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[34] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, Table 2, p. 9.

[35] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements, p. 3.

[36] AARP Press Release, “AARP to Super Committee: Don’t Cut Medicare, Social Security Benefits,” October 19, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-10-2011/aarp-to-super-committee-dont-cut-medicare-social-security-benefits.html.

[37] Carol Costello, “150,000 Seniors In Revolt,” CNN American Morning January 6, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/politics/2010/01/06/costello.aarp.health.care.cnn.

[38] AARP Press Release, “AARP Thanks Senate for Passing Health Care Reform,” December 24, 2009,  http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-03-2010/aarp_thanks_senateforpassinghealthcarereform.html.

[39] New York State Department of Financial Services, list of insurers offering Medicare supplemental coverage, http://www.dfs.ny.gov/insurance/caremain.htm#insurer.

[40] House Tri-Committee Health Reform Discussion Draft, June 19, 2009, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090619/healthcarereform_discussiondraft.pdf, p. 358.

[41] Susan Jaffe, “Medigap Supplemental Coverage Can Be Too Pricey for Younger Medicare Beneficiaries,” Kaiser Health News March 7, 2011,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/07/AR2011030703978.html.

[42] Congressional Budget Office, preliminary estimate of House Tri-Committee Health Reform Discussion Draft, July 7, 2009, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090708/cbomedicare.pdf, p. 4.

[43] Letter from AARP Chief Operating Officer Thomas Nelson to Rep. Dave Reichert, November 2, 2009, p. 4.

[44] Karl Rove, “ObamaCare Rewards Friends, Punishes Enemies,” Wall Street Journal January 6, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704405704576063892468779556.html.

[45] House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing, “Prescription Drug Price Inflation: Are Prices Rising Too Fast?” December 8, 2009, http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=7588.

[46] AARP Press Release, “AARP Endorses Affordable Health Care for America Act,” November 5, 2009, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-11-2009/affordable_health_care_act_endorsement.html.

[47] Letter to the Editor, Wall Street Journal, by AARP President Lee Hammond, January 11, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-01-2011/aarp_letter_to_theeditor.html.

[48] House Energy and Commerce Committee, investigation into closed-door Obamacare negotiations, supplemental materials for June 8, 2012 memorandum, http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/Media/file/PDFs/060812relevantdocsmemoIII.pdf, pp. 63-68.

[49] Ibid., p. 73.

[50] Ibid., p. 79.

[51] Ibid., p. 88.

[52] Jeffrey Young, “New AARP Chief Gave Big to Obama,” The Hill March 12, 2009, http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/3963-new-aarp-chief-gave-big-to-obama.

[53] Ibid.

[54] “AARP Leadership Profile: Nancy LeaMond,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2009/Nancy_Leamond.html.

[55] “AARP Leadership Profile: Debra Whitman,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/debra_whitman/.

[56] “AARP Leadership Profile: Kevin Donnellan,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2009/Kevin_Donnellan.html.

[57] “AARP Leadership Profile: Cindy Lewin,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2010/cindy_lewin.html.

[58] Michael Muskal, “AARP Ads: Hands Off Social Security and Medicare,” Los Angeles Times September 21, 2011, http://www.standard.net/stories/2011/09/21/aarp-ads-hands-social-security-and-medicare.

[59] Gene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane, “Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime,” Tax Policy Center, June 2011, http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/social-security-medicare-benefits-over-lifetime.pdf.

[60] While the Associated Press story from December 30, 2010 has been removed from the AARP website, it can still be found at http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-204_162-7197847.html.

[61] Glenn Kessler, “AARP’s Misleading Ad about Balancing the Budget,” Washington Post June 20, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/aarps-misleading-ad-about-balancing-the-budget/2011/06/17/AGQKRsYH_blog.html.

[62] AARP Press Release, “AARP Launches New TV Ad Calling on Congress to Protect Medicare and Social Security from Harmful Cuts,” June 16, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-06-2011/aarp-launches-new-tv-ad-calling-on-congress-to-protect-medicare-and-social-security-from-harmful-cuts.html.

[63] Section 9014 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) as amended, http://housedocs.house.gov/energycommerce/ppacacon.pdf, pp. 816-18.

[64] AARP Inc., 2010 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, pp. 8-9.

[65] PPACA, Section 9010(h)(3)(C) as amended, p. 815.

[66] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements,  p. 3.

[67] PPACA, Section 1001, p. 22.

[68] Section 1882(r)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395ss(r)(1).

[69] Department of Health and Human Services, Rate Increase Disclosure and Review, Final Rule, Federal Register May 23, 2011, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-05-23/pdf/2011-12631.pdf, pp. 29966-67, 29985.

[70] Department of Health and Human Services, Rate Increase Disclosure and Review, Proposed Rule, Federal Register 23 December 2010, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-23/pdf/2010-32143.pdf, pp. 81007, 81009, 81026.

[71] Official HHS Biography of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/biography/index.html.

[72] Remarks by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the Democratic National Convention, September 4, 2012, http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=CB187143-9624-3760-BC9CC2DBE9C60BD7.

[73] Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention, September 6, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/07/remarks-president-democratic-national-convention.

[74] Jane Norman, “Sebelius Urges Health Care Insurers to Trim Their Profits,” CQ HealthBeat March 10, 2010, http://www.commonwealthfund.org/Newsletters/Washington-Health-Policy-in-Review/2010/Mar/March-15-2010/Sebelius-Urges-Health-Insurers-to-Trim-Their-Profits.aspx.

[75] “Top Industries: Most Profitable,” 2009 Fortune 500, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2009/performers/industries/profits/.

[76] HHS Press Release, “HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Urges Wellpoint to Immediately Stop Dropping Coverage for Women with Breast Cancer,” April 23, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2010pres/04/20100423a.html.

[77] Remarks of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at AARP Orlando@50+ Conference, October 1, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/speeches/sp20101001.html.

[78] Office of Special Counsel, File No. HA-12-1989 (Kathleen G. Sebelius), September 12, 2012, http://www.osc.gov/documents/hatchact/Hatch%20Act%20Report%20on%20HHS%20Secretary%20Kathleen%20Sebelius.pdf.

[79] HHS News Release, “Momentum Building on Sebelius’ Challenge to Insurers to Ban Rescission Before Law Takes Effect in September,” April 28, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2010pres/04/20100428a.html.

[80] Cited in Dan Eggen, “AARP: Reform Advocate and Insurance Salesman,” Washington Post October 27, 2009,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR2009102603392_pf.html.