Did Obamacare Increase the National Death Rate?

Researchers have raised legitimate questions about whether a policy change included in Obamacare actually increased death levels nationwide.

Some may recall that two years ago, liberals engaged in no small amount of hyperbolic rhetoric insisting that repealing Obamacare would kill Americans. They viewed that fact as a virtual certainty, and spent more time arguing over precisely how many individuals would die under the law’s repeal.

About the Readmissions Program

The Obamacare change sparking the policy debate involves the law’s hospital readmissions program. Section 3025(a) of the law required the Department of Health and Human Services to reduce Medicare payments to hospitals with higher-than-average readmission rates. The program began in October 2012, and since October 2014 has reduced payments by 3 percent to hospitals with high readmission rates for three conditions: heart failure, heart attacks, and pneumonia.

The program intended to make hospitals more efficient, and encourage them to treat patients correctly the first time, rather than profiting on poor care by receiving additional payments for “repeat” visitors. However, several data points have called into question the effectiveness of the policy.

First, a recent article in the journal Health Affairs concluded that data proving the readmissions program’s effectiveness “appear to be illusory or overstated.” The study noted that, right before the readmissions program took effect, hospitals could increase the number of diagnoses in claims submitted to Medicare. After controlling for this difference, the Harvard researchers concluded that at least half of the “reduction” in readmissions came due to this change.

By contrast, a December study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an even darker outcome. The JAMA study, which examined a total of 8.3 million hospitalizations both before and after the readmissions penalties took effect, found that the program “was significantly associated with an increase in 30-day postdischarge mortality after hospitalization for [heart failure] and pneumonia, but not for” heart attacks. This study suggests that, rather than incurring penalties for “excess” readmissions, hospitals instead chose to stop readmitting patients at all—and more patients died as a result.

Is This ‘Alarmist’ Rhetoric?

In a blog post analyzing the debate at the New England Journal of Medicine, former Obama administration budget director Peter Orszag pointed out the two studies arrive at conclusions that are likely mutually contradictory. After all, if the readmissions policy didn’t affect patient outcomes, as the Health Affairs analysis suggests, then it’s hard simultaneously to argue that it also increased patient mortality, as the JAMA paper concludes.

But Orszag also criticizes The New York Times for an “unduly alarmist” op-ed summarizing the JAMA researchers’ results. That article, titled “Did This Health Care Policy Do Harm?” included a subheading noting that “a well-intentioned program created by the Affordable Care Act may have led to patient deaths.”

  • Washington Post: “Repealing the Affordable Care Act Will Kill More than 43,000 People Annually”
  • Chicago Tribune: “Repealing Obamacare Will Kill More than 43,000 People a Year”
  • Vox: “Repealing Obamacare Could Kill More People Each Year than Gun Homicides”

These headlines don’t even take into consideration the comments from people like former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who said, “If you get rid of Obamacare, people are going to die.” Then there were the “analyses” by organizations like the Center for American Progress, helpfully parroted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), that said “getting rid of Obamacare is a death sentence.”

Alongside this rhetoric, the supposedly “alarmist” Times article seems tame by comparison. It didn’t use the word “Obamacare” at all, and it couched its conclusions as part of a “complex” and ongoing “debate.” But of course, the contrast between the mild rhetoric regarding hospital readmissions and the sky-is-falling tone surrounding Obamacare repeal has absolutely nothing to do with liberal media bias or anything. Right?

Democrats, the Science Deniers

The Times article concludes by “highlight[ing] a bigger issue: Why are policies that profoundly influence patient care not rigorously studied before widespread rollout?” It’s a good question that Democrats have few answers for.

Liberals like to caricature conservatives as “science deniers,” uninformed troglodytes who can barely stand upright, let alone form coherent policies. But the recent studies regarding Obamacare’s hospital readmissions policy shows that the Obama administration officials who created these policies didn’t have any clue what they were doing—or certainly didn’t know enough to implement a nationwide plan that they knew would work.

Given this implementation failure, and the staggering level of willful ignorance by the technocrats who would micro-manage our health care system, why on earth should we give them even more power, whether through a single-payer system or something very close to it? The very question answers itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Do House Republicans Support Socialized Medicine?

Health care, and specifically pre-existing conditions, remain in the news. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has lined up two votes — one last week and one this week — authorizing the House to intervene in Texas’ lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., claims that the intervention will “protect” Americans with pre-existing conditions.

In reality, the pre-existing condition provisions represent Obamacare’s major flaw. According to the Heritage Foundation, those provisions have served as the prime driver of premium increases associated with the law. Since the law went into effect, premiums have indeed skyrocketed. Rates for individual health insurance more than doubled from 2013 through 2017, and rose another 30-plus percent last year to boot.

As a result of those skyrocketing premiums, more than 2.5 million people dropped their Obamacare coverage from March 2017 through March 2018. These people now have no coverage if and when they develop a pre-existing condition themselves.

A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans care far more about rising premiums than about being denied coverage for a pre-existing condition. Given the public’s focus on rising health care costs, Republicans should easily rebut Pelosi’s attacks with alternative policies that address the pre-existing condition problem while allowing people relief from skyrocketing insurance rates.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the Republican leadership in the House did. Last Thursday, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, offered a procedural motion that amounted to a Republican endorsement of Obamacare. Brady’s motion instructed House committees to draft legislation that “guarantees no American citizen can be charged higher premiums or cost sharing as the result of a previous illness or health status, thus ensuring affordable health coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.”

If adopted — which thankfully it was not — this motion would only have entrenched Obamacare further. The pre-existing condition provisions represent the heart of the law, precisely because they have raised premiums so greatly. Those premium increases necessitated the mandates on individuals to buy, and employers to offer, health insurance. They also required the subsidies to make that more-expensive coverage “affordable” — and the tax increases and Medicare reductions needed to fund those subsidies.

More to the point, what would one call a health care proposal that treats everyone equally, and ensures that no one pays more or less than the next person? If this concept sounds like “socialized medicine” to you, you’d have company in thinking so. None other than Kevin Brady denounced Obamacare as “socialized medicine” at an August 2009 town hall at Memorial Hermann Hospital.

All of this raises obvious questions: Why did someone who for years opposed Obamacare as “socialized medicine” offer a proposal that would ratify and entrench that system further?

Republicans like Brady can claim they want to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare from now until the cows come home, but if they want to retain the status quo on pre-existing conditions then as a practical matter they really want to uphold the law. Conservatives might wonder whether it’s time to “repeal-and-replace” Republicans with actual conservatives.

This post was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.

Exclusive: Inside the Trump Administration’s Debate over Expanding Obamacare

Last August, I responded to a New York Times article indicating that some within the Trump administration wanted to give states additional flexibility to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Since then, those proposals have advanced, such that staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) believe that they have official sign-off from the president to put those proposals into place.

My conversations with half a dozen sources on Capitol Hill and across the administration in recent weeks suggest that the proposal continues to move through the regulatory process. However, my sources also described significant policy pitfalls that could spark a buzz-saw of opposition from both the left and the right.

The Times reported that some within the administration—including CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House Domestic Policy Council Chairman Andrew Bremberg—have embraced the proposal. But if the plan overcomes what the Times characterized as a “furious” internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.

How It Would Work

After the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states as part of its 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate, the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting that ruling. While the court made expansion optional for states, the Obama administration made it an “all-or-nothing” proposition for them.

Under the 2012 guidance—which remains in effect—if states want to receive the enhanced 90 percent federal match associated with expansion, they must cover the entire expansion population—all able-bodied adults with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $35,000 for a family of four). If states expand only to some portion of the eligible population, they would only receive their regular Medicaid match of 50-76 percent, not the enhanced 90 percent match.

The Internal Debate

The August Times article indicated that, after considering partial expansion, the administration postponed any decision until after November’s midterm elections. Since that time, multiple sources disclosed to me a further meeting that took place on the topic in the Oval Office late last year. While the meeting was originally intended to provide an update for the president, CMS staff left that meeting thinking they had received the president’s sign-off to implement partial expansion.

Just before Christmas, during a meeting on an unrelated matter, a CMS staffer sounded me out on the proposal. The individual said CMS was looking for ways to help give states additional flexibility, particularly states hamstrung by initiatives forcing them to expand Medicaid. However, based on my other reporting, I believe that the conversation also represented an attempt to determine the level of conservative opposition to the public announcement of a decision CMS believes the president has already made.

Why Liberals Will Object

During my meeting, I asked the CMS staffer about the fiscal impacts of partial expansion. The staffer admitted that, as I had noted in my August article, exchange plans generally have higher costs than Medicaid coverage. Therefore, moving individuals from Medicaid to exchange coverage—and the federal government paying 100 percent of subsidy costs for exchange coverage, as opposed to 90 percent of Medicaid costs—will raise federal costs for every beneficiary who shifts coverage under partial expansion.

The Medicare actuary believes that the higher cost-sharing associated with exchange coverage will lead 30 percent of the target population—that is, individuals with incomes from 100-138 percent of poverty—to drop their exchange plan. Either beneficiaries will not be able to afford the premiums and cost-sharing, or they will not consider the coverage worth the money. And because 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage, the partial expansion change will save money in a given state—despite the fact that exchange coverage costs more than Medicaid on a per-beneficiary basis.

Why Conservatives Will Object

I immediately asked the CMS staffer an obvious follow-up question: Did the actuary consider whether partial expansion, by shifting the costs of expansion from the states to the federal government, would encourage more states to expand Medicaid? The staffer demurred, saying the actuary’s analysis focused on only one hypothetical state.

However, the CMS staffer did not tell me the entire story. Subsequent to my “official” meeting with that staffer, other sources privately confirmed that the actuary does believe that roughly 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage.

But these sources and others added that both the Medicare actuary and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree that, notwithstanding the savings from current expansion states—savings associated with individuals dropping exchange coverage, as explained above—the partial expansion proposal will cost the federal government overall, because it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

For instance, the Council of Economic Advisers believes that spending on non-expansion states who use partial expansion as a reason to extend Medicaid to the able-bodied will have three times the deficit impact as the savings associated with states shifting from full to partial expansion.

Because the spending on new partial expansion states will overcome any potential savings from states shifting from full to partial expansion, the proposal, if adopted, would appreciably increase the deficit. While neither CBO nor the Medicare actuary have conducted an updated analysis since the election, multiple sources cited an approximate cost to the federal government on the order of $100-120 billion over the next decade.

One source indicated that the Medicare actuary’s analysis early last summer arrived at an overall deficit increase of $111 billion. The results of November’s elections—in which three non-expansion states voted to accept expansion due to ballot initiatives—might have reduced the cost of the administration’s proposal slightly, but likely did not change the estimate of a sizable deficit increase.

A net cost of upwards of $100 billion, notwithstanding potential coverage losses from individuals dropping exchange coverage in current expansion states, can only mean one thing. CBO and the Medicare actuary both believe that, by lowering the cost for states to expand, partial expansion will prompt major non-expansion states—such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Who Will Support This Proposal?

Based on the description of the scoring dynamic my sources described, partial expansion, if it goes forward, seems to have no natural political constituency. Red-state governors will support it, no doubt, for it allows them to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime. Once CMS approves one state’s partial expansion, the agency will likely have a line of Republican governors out its door looking to implement waivers of their own.

But it seems unlikely that Democratic-led states will follow suit. Indeed, the news that partial expansion would cause about 30 percent of the target population to drop their new exchange coverage could well prompt recriminations, investigations, and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere. Because at least 3.1 million expansion beneficiaries live in states with Republican governors, liberals likely would object to the sizable number of these enrollees who could decide to drop coverage under partial expansion.

Conversely, conservatives will likely object to the high net cost associated with the proposal, notwithstanding the potential coverage losses in states that have already expanded. Some within the administration view Medicaid expansion, when coupled with proposals like work requirements, as a “conservative” policy. Other administration officials view expansion in all states as something approaching a fait accompli, and view partial expansion and similar proposals as a way to make the best of a bad policy outcome.

But Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable in society, because it gives states a higher match for covering able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities. In addition to objecting to a way partial expansion would increase government spending by approximately $100 billion, some conservatives would also raise fundamental objections to any policy changes that would encourage states to embrace Obamacare—and add even more able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls in the process.

Particularly given the Democratic takeover of the House last week, the multi-pronged opposition to this plan could prove its undoing. Democrats will have multiple venues available—from oversight through letters and subpoenae, to congressional hearings, to use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn any administration decisions outright—to express their opposition to this proposal.

A “strange bedfellows” coalition of liberals and conservatives outraged over the policy, but for entirely different reasons, could nix it outright. While some officials may not realize it at present, the administration may not only make a decision that conservatives will object to on policy grounds, they may end up in a political quagmire in the process.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Ocasio-Cortez Suddenly Realizes She Doesn’t Like Paying Obamacare’s Pre-Existing Condition Tax

On Saturday evening, incoming U.S. representative and self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to compare her prior health coverage to the new health insurance options available to her as a member of Congress.

It shouldn’t shock most observers to realize that Congress gave itself a better deal than it gave most ordinary citizens. But Ocasio-Cortez’ complaints about the lack of affordability of health insurance demonstrate the way liberals who claim to support Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections”—and have forcibly raised others’ premiums to pay for those “protections”—don’t want to pay those higher premiums themselves.

She’s Paying the Pre-Existing Condition Tax

I wrote in August about my own (junk) Obamacare insurance. This year, I have paid nearly $300 monthly—a total of $3,479—for an Obamacare-compliant policy with a $6,200 deductible. Between my premiums and deductible, I will face paying nearly the first $10,000 in medical costs out-of-pocket myself.

Of course, as a fairly healthy 30-something, I don’t have $10,000 in medical costs in most years. In fact, this year I won’t come anywhere near to hitting my $6,200 deductible (presuming I don’t get hit by a bus in the next four weeks).

As I noted in August, my nearly $3,500 premium doesn’t just fund my health care—or, more accurately, the off-chance that I will incur catastrophic expenses such that I will meet my deductible, and my insurance policy will actually subsidize some of my coverage. Rather, much of that $3,500 “is designed to fund someone else’s medical condition. That difference between an actuarially fair premium and the $3,500 premium my insurer charged me amounts to a ‘pre-existing conditions tax.’”

Millions of People Can’t Afford Coverage

Because I work for myself, I don’t get an employer subsidy to pay the pre-existing condition tax. (I can, however, write off my premiums from my federal income taxes.) Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet referred to her coverage “as a waitress,” but didn’t specify where she purchased that coverage, nor whether she received an employer subsidy for that coverage.

However, a majority of retail firms, and the majority of the smallest firms (3-9 workers), do not offer coverage to their workers. Firms are also much less likely (only 22 percent) to offer insurance to their part-time workers. It therefore seems likely, although not certain, that Ocasio-Cortez did not receive an employer subsidy, and purchased Obamacare coverage on her own. In that case she would have had to pay the pre-existing condition tax out of her own pocket.

That pre-existing condition tax represented the largest driver of premium increases due to Obamacare, according to a March paper published by the Heritage Foundation. Just from 2013 (the last year before Obamacare) through 2017, premiums more than doubled. Within the last year (from the first quarter of 2017 through the first quarter of 2018) roughly 2.6 million people who purchased Obamacare-compliant plans without a subsidy dropped their coverage, likely because they cannot afford the higher costs.

Lawmakers Get an (Illegal) Subsidy to Avoid That Tax

Unsurprisingly, however, members of Congress don’t have to pay the pre-existing condition tax on their own. They made sure of that. Following Obamacare’s passage, congressional leaders lobbied feverishly to preserve their subsidized health coverage, even demanding a meeting with the president of the United States to discuss the matter.

Senators and representatives do have to purchase their health insurance from the Obamacare exchanges. But the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a rule allowing members of Congress and their staffs to receive an employer subsidy for that coverage. That makes Congress and their staff the only people who can receive an employer subsidy through the exchange.

Numerous analyses have found that the OPM rule violates the text of Obamacare itself. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) even sued to overturn the rule, but a court dismissed the suit on the grounds that he lacked standing to bring the case.

Liberals’ Motto: ‘Obamacare for Thee—But Not for Me’

Take, for instance, the head of California’s exchange, Peter Lee. He makes a salary of $436,800 per year, yet he won’t buy the health insurance plans he sells. Why? Because he doesn’t want to pay Obamacare’s pre-existing condition tax unless someone (i.e., the state of California) pays him to do so via an employer subsidy.

Ocasio-Cortez’ proposed “solution”—fully taxpayer-paid health care—is in search of a problem. As socialists are wont to do, Ocasio-Cortez sees a problem caused by government—in this case, skyrocketing premiums due to the pre-existing condition tax—and thinks the answer lies in…more government.

As the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. If Ocasio-Cortez really wants to get serious, instead of complaining about the pre-existing condition tax, she should work to repeal it, and replace it with better alternatives.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Sordid History of the FDA’s Menthol Decision

Late last week, The New York Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will issue a regulation proposing a ban on menthol flavoring in cigarettes, potentially this week. This represents merely the latest development in a long and winding history of the mint-flavored additive lasting nearly a decade.

The Times report quoted FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb saying “it was a mistake for the agency to back away on menthol” regulation. Depending upon one’s perspective, the “menthol loophole” either represents a reasonable example of legislative compromise, or policymakers in both the legislative and executive branches valuing African-American lives less dearly than the lives of other Americans.

A Troubled Legislative History

Beginning 3 months after the date of enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a cigarette or any of its component parts (including the tobacco, filter, or paper) shall not contain, as a constituent (including a smoke constituent) or additive, an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is a characterizing flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke.

That language created two policy problems. First, as I noted in my summary of the bill at the time, because the bill banned other cigarette flavors manufactured overseas, while permitting menthol-flavored cigarettes manufactured domestically, the law would likely result in World Trade Organization (WTO) complaints for unfair trade practices. Indeed, Indonesia, which manufactures clove cigarettes, filed just such a complaint following the law’s passage—and won its case at the WTO.

The Times alluded to the other complication presented by the “menthol loophole” in its article this week: “According to the N.A.A.C.P.’s Youth Against Menthol campaign, about 85 percent of African-American smokers aged 12 and up smoke menthol cigarettes, compared with 29 percent of white smokers, which the organization calls a result of decades of culturally tailored tobacco company promotion.”

That “decades of culturally tailored tobacco company promotion” also included contributions to organizations like the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Industry documents released as part of the 1998 master settlement agreement demonstrated that “the tobacco industry established relationships with virtually every African-American leadership organization”—both to increase tobacco use, and to head off tobacco control efforts.

The FDA Looked the Other Way

Despite the condemnation from the HHS secretaries for its double standards against African-Americans, the bill passed as written in 2009. In an irony of ironies, the first African-American president signed it into law in June that year.

While it did not ban menthol outright, the legislation required a study on its effects, and gave the FDA the authority to ban the additive. Despite occasional rumors that FDA might outlaw menthol—and appeals from the African-American community for a ban—the Obama administration did not take action on the matter.

As a small government conservative, I question the value of establishing and maintaining an FDA bureaucracy to regulate an inherently unhealthful product. I by no means condone the decades of deception the tobacco industry used to sell their products.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How an Obscure Regulatory Change Could Transform American Health Insurance

Between the election campaign and incidents of terrorism ranging from attempted bombings to a synagogue shooting, an obscure regulatory proposal by the Trump administration has yet to captivate the public’s attention. However, it has the potential to change the way millions of Americans obtain health insurance.

In the United States, unique among industrialized countries, most Americans under age 65 receive health coverage from their employers. This occurs largely due to an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruling issued during World War II, which excluded health insurance coverage from income and payroll taxes. (Businesses viewed providing health insurance as one way around wartime wage and price controls.)

The Trump administration’s proposed rule would, if finalized, allow businesses to make a pretax contribution towards individual health insurance—that is, coverage that individuals own and select, rather than employers. This change may take time to have an impact, but it could lead to a much more portable system of health insurance—which would help to solve the pre-existing condition problem.

How Would It Work?

Under the proposed rule, employers could provide funds through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) to subsidize the purchase of individual health insurance. Employers could provide the funds on a pretax basis, and—provided that the workers purchase their coverage outside of the Obamacare exchanges—employees could pay their share of the premiums on a tax-free basis as well.

In practical terms, some employers may choose to provide a subsidy for health coverage—say, $300 per month, or $5,000 per year—in lieu of offering a firm-sponsored health plan. Individuals could go out and buy the plan they want, which covers the doctors whom they use, rather than remaining stuck with the plan their employer offers. And employers would get better predictability for their health expenses by knowing their exposure would remain fixed to the sums they contribute every year.

Could Employers Game the System?

The proposed rule acknowledged the possibility that employers might try to “offload” their costliest patients into individual health coverage, lowering expenses (and therefore premiums) for the people who remain. The rule contains several provisions designed to protect against this possibility.

Employers must choose to offer either an HRA contribution towards individual coverage or a group health plan. They cannot offer both options, and whatever option they select, they must make the same decision for an entire class of workers.

A “class” of workers would mean all full-time employees, or all part-time employees, or all employees under one collective bargaining agreement. Hourly and salaried workers would not count as separate “classes,” because firms could easily convert workers from one form of compensation to another. These provisions seek to ensure that firms will offer some employees health insurance, while “dumping” other employees on to individual coverage.

Can Workers Buy Short-Term Coverage with Employer Funds?

Yes—and no. The proposed rule would allow HRA funds to purchase only individual (i.e., Obamacare-compliant) health insurance coverage, not short-term insurance.

However, the rule creates a separate type of account to which employers could contribute that would fund workers’ “excepted benefits.” This term could include things like long-term care insurance, vision and dental insurance, and the new short-term plans the Trump administration has permitted. But employers could only fund these accounts up to a maximum of $1,800 per year, and they could create these special “excepted benefits” accounts only if they do not offer an HRA that reimburses workers for individual insurance, as outlined above.

Will Firms Drop Health Coverage?

Some firms may explore the HRA option over time. However, the extent to which businesses embrace defined-contribution coverage may depend upon the viability of the individual health insurance market, and the status of the labor market.

However, if and when more insurers return to the marketplace, firms may view the defined-contribution method of health coverage as a win-win: employees get more choices and employers get predictability over health costs. Particularly if unemployment ticks upward, or one firm in an industry makes the move towards the HRA model, other businesses may follow suit in short order.

Will the Proposal Cost Money?

It could. The proposed rule should cost the federal government $29.7 billion over the first ten years. That estimate assumes that 800,000 firms, offering coverage to 10.7 million people, will use the HRA option by 2028. (It also assumes an 800,000 reduction in the number of uninsured Americans by that same year.)

The cost, or savings, to the federal government could vary widely, depending on factors like:

  • Whether firms using the HRA option previously offered coverage. If firms that did not offer coverage take the HRA option, pretax health insurance payments would increase, reducing tax revenues. (The rule assumes a reduction in income and payroll tax revenue of $13 billion in 2028.)
  • Whether individuals enrolling in individual market coverage via the HRA option are more or less healthy than current enrollees. If the new enrollees are less healthy than current enrollees, individual market premiums will rise, as will spending on Obamacare subsidies for those individuals. (The rule assumes a 1 percent increase in individual market premiums, and thus exchange subsidies.)
  • The extent to which HRAs affect eligibility for Obamacare subsidies. If some low-income individuals whose employers previously did not offer coverage now qualify for HRA subsidies, they may lose eligibility for Obamacare subsidies on the exchanges. (The rule assumes a reduction in Obamacare subsidies of $6.9 billion in 2028.)

Given the many variables in play, the rule has a highly uncertain fiscal impact. It could cost the federal government billions (or more) per year, save the federal government similar sums, or have largely offsetting effects.

An Overdue (and Welcome) Change

The proposed rule would codify the last element of last October’s executive order on health care. It follows the release of rules regarding both short-term health insurance and association health plans earlier this year.

Ironically, the Trump administration represents but the most recent Republican presidency to examine the possibility of defined-contribution health insurance. While working on Capitol Hill in 2008, I tried to encourage the Bush administration to adopt guidance similar to that in the proposed rule. However, policy disagreements—including objections raised by, of all places, scholars at the Heritage Foundation—precluded the Bush administration from finalizing the changes.

Since I’ve fought for this concept for more than a decade, and included it in a series of regulatory changes the administration needed to make in a paper released shortly before Trump took office, I can attest that this change is as welcome—and needed—since it is overdue. Although overshadowed at the time of its release, this rule could have a substantial effect on Americans’ health insurance choices over time.

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.

Why Smaller Premium Increases May Hurt Republicans in November

Away from last week’s three-ring circus on Capitol Hill, an important point of news got lost. In a speech on Thursday in Nashville, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar announced that benchmark premiums—that is, the plan premium that determines subsidy amounts for individuals who qualify for income-based premium assistance—in the 39 states using the federal healthcare.gov insurance platform will fall by an average of 2 percent next year.

That echoes outside entities that have reviewed rate filings for 2019. A few weeks ago, consultants at Avalere Health released an updated premium analysis, which projected a modest premium increase of 3.1 percent on average—a fraction of the 15 percent increase Avalere projected back in June. Moreover, consistent with the HHS announcement on Thursday, Avalere estimates that average premiums will actually decline in 12 states.

On the other hand, however, given that Democrats have attempted to make Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions a focal point of their campaign, premium increases in the fall would remind voters that those supposed “protections” come with a very real cost.

How Much Did Premiums Rise?

The Heritage Foundation earlier this year concluded that the pre-existing condition provisions collectively accounted for the largest share of premium increases due to Obamacare. But how much have these “protections” raised insurance rates?

Overall premium trend data are readily available, but subject to some interpretation. An HHS analysis published last year found that in 2013—the year before Obamacare’s major provisions took effect—premiums in the 39 states using healthcare.gov averaged $232 per month, based on insurers’ filings. In 2018, the average policy purchased in those same 39 states cost $597.20 per month—an increase of $365 per month, or $4,380 per year.

Moreover, the trends hold for the individual market as a whole—which includes both exchange enrollees, most of whom qualify for subsidies, and off-exchange enrollees, who by definition cannot. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that, from 2013 to 2018, average premiums on the individual market rose from $223 to $490—an increase of $267 per month, or $3,204 per year.

Impact of Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

The HHS data suggest that premiums have risen by $4,380 since Obamacare took effect; the Kaiser data, slightly less, but still a significant amount ($3,204). But how much of those increases come directly from the pre-existing condition provisions, as opposed to general increases in medical inflation, or other Obamacare requirements?

The varying methods used in the actuarial studies make it difficult to compare them in ways that easily lead to a single answer. Moreover, insurance markets vary from state to state, adding to the complexity of analyses.

However, given the available data on both how much premiums rose and why they did, it seems safe to say that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums by several hundreds of dollars—and that, taking into account changes in the risk pool (i.e., disproportionately sicker individuals signing up for coverage), the impact reaches into the thousands of dollars in at least some markets.

Republicans’ Political Dilemma

Those premium increases due to the pre-existing condition provisions are baked into the proverbial premium cake, which presents the Republicans with their political problem. Democrats are focusing on the impending threat—sparked by several states’ anti-Obamacare lawsuit—of Republicans “taking away” the law’s pre-existing condition “protections.” Conservatives can counter, with total justification based on the evidence, that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums substantially, but those premium increases already happened.

If those premium increases that took place in the fall of 2016 and 2017 had instead occurred this fall, Republicans would have two additional political arguments heading into the midterm elections. First, they could have made the proactive argument that another round of premium increases demonstrates the need to elect more Republicans to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. Second, they could have more easily rebutted Democratic arguments on pre-existing conditions, pointing out that those “popular” provisions have sparked rapid rate increases, and that another approach might prove more effective.

Instead, because premiums for 2019 will remain flat, or even decline slightly in some states, Republicans face a more nuanced, and arguably less effective, political message. Azar actually claimed that President Trump “has proven better at managing [Obamacare] than the President who wrote the law.”

Conservatives would argue that the federal government cannot (micro)manage insurance markets effectively, and should not even try. Yet Azar tried to make that argument in his speech Thursday, even as he conceded that “the individual market for insurance is still broken.”

‘Popular’ Provisions Are Very Costly

The first round of premium spikes, which hit right before the 2016 election, couldn’t have come at a better time for Republicans. Coupled with Bill Clinton’s comments at that time calling Obamacare the “craziest thing in the world,” it put a renewed focus on the health-care law’s flaws, in a way that arguably helped propel Donald Trump and Republicans to victory.

This year, as paradoxical as it first sounds, flat premiums may represent bad news for Republicans. While liberals do not want to admit it publicly, polling evidence suggests that support for the pre-existing condition provisions plummets when individuals connect those provisions to premium increases.

The lack of a looming premium spike could also neutralize Republican opposition to Obamacare, while failing to provide a way that could more readily neutralize Democrats’ attacks on pre-existing conditions. Maybe the absence of bad news on the premium front may present its own bad political news for Republicans in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ Mixed Messages on Federalism

Care to take a guess how many Republican senators are willing to take a stand over federalism? Would you believe just two?

On Monday night, when the Senate considered legislation sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) about “gag clauses” in pharmaceutical contracts, only Utah’s Mike Lee and Kentucky’s Rand Paul voted no. Lee and Paul do not believe the federal government has any business providing for blanket regulation of the health-care sector.

Gag Clauses, Explained

I have experienced the distorted ways the drug pricing system currently operates. When looking to refill a prescription for one of my antihistamines, my insurance benefit quoted me a charge of $170 for a 90- to 100-day supply. But when I went online to GoodRX.com, I found online coupons that could provide me the same product, in the same quantities, for a mere $70-80, depending on the pharmacy I chose.

I found even greater discounts by purchasing in bulk. I ended up buying a nearly one year’s supply of my maintenance medication for $210—little more than the price for a 90-100 day supply originally quoted to me by my insurer. Had I used my insurance card, and refilled the prescription repeatedly, I would have paid approximately $300 more over the course of a year. Because my Obamacare insurance is junk, I have little chance of reaching my deductible this year, short of getting hit by a bus, so it made perfect sense for me to pay with cash instead.

In theory, anyone can go to GoodRX.com (with which I have no relationship except as a satisfied consumer), or other similar websites, to find the cash price of prescription drugs and compare them to the prices quoted by their insurers. But in practice, few try to shop around for prescription drugs.

Why Federalism Matters

In general, conservatives would support efforts to increase transparency within the health-care marketplace, and prohibiting “gag clauses” would do just that. However, some conservatives would also note that the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1947 devolves the business of regulating insurance, including health insurance, to the states, and that the states could take the lead on whether or not to eliminate “gag clauses” in insurance contracts. Indeed, a majority of states—26 in total—have already done so, including no fewer than 15 state laws passed just this year.

Lee’s office reached out to me several weeks ago for technical assistance in drafting an amendment designed to limit the scope of federal legislation on “gag clauses” to those types of insurance where the federal government already has a regulatory nexus. Lee ultimately offered such an amendment, which prohibited “gag clauses” only for self-insured employer plans—regulated by the federal government under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

Unfortunately, only 11 senators—all Republicans—voted for this amendment, which would have prevented yet another intrusion by the federal government on states’ affairs. Of those 11, only Lee and Paul voted against final passage of the bill, due to the federalism concerns.

More Federalism Violations Ahead?

One of the prime sponsors of the discussion draft? None other than Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), the author of legislation introduced last year that he claimed would “give states significant latitude over how [health care] dollars are used to best take care of the unique…needs of the patients in each state.”

The contradiction between Cassidy’s rhetoric then and his actions now raise obvious questions: How can states get “significant latitude over” their health care systems if Washington-based politicians like Cassidy are constantly butting in with new requirements, like the “surprise medical bill” regulation? Or, to put it another way, why does Cassidy think states are smart enough to manage nearly $1.2 trillion in Obamacare funding, but too stupid to figure out how to solve problems like drug price “gag clauses” and “surprise bills?”

Politics Versus Principle

The widely inconsistent behavior of people like Cassidy raises the possibility that, to some, federalism represents less of a political principle to follow than a political toy to manipulate. When Washington lawmakers want to punt a difficult decision—like how to “repeal” Obamacare while “replacing” it with an alternative that covers just as many people—they can hide behind federalism to defer action to the states.

Reagan had another axiom that applies in this case: That there is no limit to what a person can do if that person does not mind who gets the credit. Lawmakers in literally dozens of states have acted on “gag clauses,” but that matters little to Collins, who wants the federal government to swoop in and take the credit—and erode state autonomy in the process.

It may seem novel to most of official Washington, but if lawmakers claim to believe in federalism, they should stick to that belief, even when it proves inconvenient.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is Donald Trump “Sabotaging” Obamacare?

Is Donald Trump “sabotaging” Obamacare? And are he and his administration violating the law to do so?

Democrats intend to make this issue a prime focus of their political messaging ahead of the November elections. And several developments over the month of August — a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, a New York Times op-ed by two legal scholars, and a lawsuit filed by several cities — all include specific points and charges related to that theme.

1. The GAO Report

The most recent data point comes from the GAO, which at the behest of several congressional Democrats analyzed the administration’s outreach efforts during the most recent open enrollment period last fall. Those efforts culminated in a report GAO released Thursday.

The report made a persuasive case that the administration’s decision to reduce and re-prioritize funding for enrollment navigators utilized flawed data and methods. While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) based navigators’ 2018 funding on their effectiveness in enrolling individuals in coverage in prior years, GAO noted that HHS lacked solid data on navigators’ enrollment on which to base 2018 funding, and that enrollment was but one of navigators’ stated goals in prior years. HHS agreed with GAO’s recommendation that it should provide clearer goals and performance metrics for navigators to meet.

GAO also recommended that the administration reinstitute an overall enrollment target, as one way to determine the adequate distribution of resources during open enrollment. However, a cynic might note that Obamacare advocates, including the Democratic lawmakers who requested the report, may want the Trump administration to publicize an enrollment target primarily so they can attack HHS if the department does not achieve its goals.

Even though reporters and liberals like Andy Slavitt cried foul last year when HHS announced planned maintenance time for healthcare.gov in advance, actual downtime for the site dropped precipitously in 2018 compared to 2017. Which could lead one to ask who is sabotaging whom.

2. The New York Times Article

In The New York Times piece, law professors Nicholas Bagley and Abbe Gluck provide an overview of the lawsuit filed against the Trump Administration (about which more below). As someone who has cited Bagley’s work in the past, I find the article unpersuasive, even disappointing.

Take for instance some of the article’s specific allegations:

Here’s one: “To make it harder for people to enroll in Obamacare plans, for example, the administration shortened the open enrollment period on the health care exchanges from three months to six weeks.”

This charge would have evaporated entirely had Bagley specified which Administration first proposed shortening the open enrollment period to six weeks. The Obama Administration did just that.

This rule also establishes dates for the individual market annual open enrollment period for future benefit years. For 2017 and 2018, we will maintain the same open enrollment period we adopted for 2016—that is, November 1 of the year preceding the benefit year through January 31 of the benefit year, and for 2019 and later benefit years, we are establishing an open enrollment period of November 1 through December 15 of the year preceding the benefit year.

The Trump administration merely took the shorter open enrollment period that the Obama team proposed for 2019 and accelerated it by one year. If shortening the enrollment period would make it so much “harder for people to enroll in Obamacare plans,” as Bagley and Gluck claim, then why did the Obama Administration propose this change?

Another allegation: “To sow chaos in the insurance markets, Mr. Trump toyed for nine months with the idea of eliminating a crucial funding stream for Obamacare known as cost-sharing payments. After he cut off those funds, he boasted that Obamacare was ‘being dismantled.’”

This charge seems particularly specious — because Bagley himself has admitted that Obamacare lacks a constitutional appropriation for the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. Bagley previously mentioned that he took no small amount of grief from the left for conceding that President Obama had exceeded his constitutional authority. For him to turn around and now claim that Trump violated his constitutional authority by ending unconstitutional payments represents a disingenuous argument.

Here and elsewhere, Bagley might argue that Trump’s rhetoric — talk of Obamacare “being dismantled,” for instance — suggests corrupt intent. I will gladly stipulate that presidential claims Obamacare is “dead” are both inaccurate and unhelpful. But regardless of what the President says, if the President does what Bagley himself thinks necessary to comport with the Constitution, how on earth can Bagley criticize him for violating his oath of office?

A third allegation:

This month, the Trump administration dealt what may be its biggest blow yet to the insurance markets. In a new rule, it announced that insurers will have more latitude to sell ‘short-term’ health plans that are exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s rules. These plans … had previously been limited to three months.

Under Mr. Trump’s new rule, however, such plans can last for 364 days and can be renewed for up to three years. … In effect, these rules are creating a cheap form of ‘junk’ coverage that does not have to meet the higher standards of Obamacare. This sort of splintering of the insurance markets is not allowed under the Affordable Care Act as Congress drafted it.

This claim also fails on multiple levels. First, if Congress wanted to prohibit “short-term” health plans as part of Obamacare, it could have done so. Congress chose first to allow these plans to continue to exist, and second to exempt these plans from all of Obamacare’s regulatory regime. If Bagley and Gluck have an objection to the splintering of insurance markets, then they should take it up with Congress.

Second, the so-called “new rule” Bagley and Gluck refer to only reverts back to a definition of short-term coverage that existed under the Obama Administration. This definition existed for nearly two decades, from when Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) through 2016. The Obama administration published a rule intended to eliminate much of the market for this type of coverage — but it did so only in the fall of that year, more than two years after Obamacare’s major coverage provisions took effect.

As with the shortening of the open enrollment period discussed above, if Bagley and Gluck want to scream “Sabotage!” regarding the Trump administration’s actions, they also must point the finger at Barack Obama for similar actions. That they did not suggests the partisan, and ultimately flawed, nature of their analysis.

3. The Lawsuit

The 128-page complaint filed by the city plaintiffs earlier this month makes some of the same points as the New York Times op-ed. It also continues the same pattern of blaming the Trump administration for actions previously taken by the Obama administration.

The lawsuit criticizes numerous elements of the administration’s April rule setting out the payment parameters for the 2019 Exchange year. For instance, it criticizes the removal of language requiring Exchanges to provide a direct notification to individuals before discontinuing their eligibility for subsidies, if individuals fail to reconcile the subsidies they received in prior years with the amount they qualified for based on their income. (Estimated subsidies, which are based on projected income for a year, can vary significantly from the actual subsidy levels one qualifies for, based on changes in income due to a promotion, change in life status, etc.)

As part of this charge, the lawsuit includes an important nugget: The relevant regulation “was amended in 2016 to specify that an Exchange may not deny [subsidies] under this provision ‘unless direct notification is first sent to the tax filer.’” As with the New York Times op-ed outlined above, those claiming “sabotage” are doing so because the Trump administration decided to revert to a prior regulatory definition used by the Obama administration for the first several years of Obamacare implementation.

The lawsuit similarly complains that the Trump administration is “making it harder to compare insurance plans” by eliminating support for “standardized options” from the Exchange. Here again, the complaint notes that “prior rules supported ‘standardized options,’” while mentioning only in a footnote that the rules implementing the “standardized options” took effect for the 2017 plan year. In other words, the Obama administration did not establish “standardized options” for the 2014, 2015, or 2016 plan years. Were they “sabotaging” Obamacare by failing to do so?

The suit continues with these types of claims, which collectively amount to legalistic whining that the Trump administration has not implemented Obamacare in a manner the (liberal) plaintiffs would support. It even includes this noteworthy assertion:

Maryland has been cleared by state legislators to petition CMS to ‘establish a reinsurance program that would create a pot of money for insurers to cover the most expensive claims,’ but a health economist ‘said he would be shocked if the Trump administration approved such a request, given its efforts to weaken Obamacare’: ‘It just seems very unlikely to me that Trump would approve this. … Maryland is easily saying we want to help prop up Obamacare, which the Trump administration doesn’t want to have anything to do with.’

Fact: The Trump administration just approved Maryland’s insurance waiver this week. So much for that “sabotage.”

A review of its “prayer for relief” — the plaintiffs’ request for actions the court should take — shows the ridiculously sweeping nature of the lawsuit’s claims. Among other things, the plaintiffs want the court to order the defendants to “comply with their constitutional obligation to take care to faithfully execute the ACA,” including by doing the following:

  • “Expand, rather than suppress, the number of individuals and families obtaining health insurance through ACA exchanges;
  • “Reduce, rather than increase, premiums for health insurance in the ACA exchanges;
  • “Promote, rather than diminish, the availability of comprehensive, reasonably-priced health insurance for individuals and families with preexisting conditions;
  • “Encourage, rather than discourage, individuals and families to obtain health insurance that provides the coverage that Congress, in the ACA, determined is necessary to protect American families against the physical and economic devastation that results from lesser insurance, with limits on coverage that leaves them unable to cover the costs of an accident or unexpected illness…
  • “Order Defendants to fully fund advertising under the ACA;
  • “Enjoin Defendants from producing and disseminating advertisements that aim to undermine the ACA;
  • “Order Defendants to fully fund Navigators under the ACA;
  • “Enjoin Defendants from incentivizing Navigators to advertise non-ACA compliant plans;
  • “Order Defendants to lengthen the open enrollment period;
  • “Order Defendants to resume participation in enrollment events and other outreach activities under the ACA…
  • “Order Defendants to process states’ waiver applications under the ACA so as to faithfully implement the Act.”

In other words, the lawsuit asks a court to micro-manage every possible element of implementation of a 2,700-page law — tell HHS what it must say, what it must do, how much it must spend, and on and on. It would create de facto entitlements, by stating that HHS could never reduce funding for advertising and outreach, or lower spending on navigators, or reject states’ waiver applications — potentially even if those applications violate the law itself. And it asks for impossible actions — because HHS cannot unilaterally “expand, rather than suppress” the number of people with coverage, just as it cannot unilaterally “reduce, rather than increase, premiums.”

Despite its questionable claims, and the highly questionable remedies it seeks, the lawsuit may yet accomplish some of its goals. The complaint spends much of its time alleging violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, claiming that HHS did not “meaningfully” or “adequately” consider comments from individuals who objected to the regulatory changes in question. While I have not examined the relevant regulatory dockets in any level of detail, the (pardon the pun) trumped-up nature of elements of the complaint makes me skeptical of such assertions. That said, the administration has suffered several setbacks in court over complaints regarding the regulatory process, so the lawsuit may force HHS to ensure it has its proverbial “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed before proceeding with further changes.

Words Versus Actions

On many levels, the “sabotage” allegations try to use the president’s own words (and tweets) against him. Other lawsuits have done likewise, with varying degrees of success. As I noted above, the president’s rhetoric often does not reflect the actual reality that Obamacare remains much more entrenched than conservatives like myself would like.

But for all their complaints about the administration’s “sabotage,” liberals have no one to blame but themselves for the current situation. Obamacare gave a tremendous amount of authority to the federal bureaucracy to implement its myriad edicts. They should not be surprised when someone who disagrees with them uses that vast power to accomplish what they view as malign ends. Perhaps next time they should think again before proceeding down a road that gives government such significant authority. They won’t, but they should.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.