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.

Bill Cassidy’s “Monkey Business”

Last we checked in with Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, he was hard at work adding literally dozens of new federal health care requirements to a Republican “repeal-and-replace” bill. This week comes word that Cassidy continues to “monkey around” in health care — this time quite literally.

STAT reports: “Sen. Bill Cassidy is trying to help hundreds of chimpanzees enjoy an easy retirement in his home state of Louisiana. The Republican is pushing for an amendment to a major appropriations bill winding its way through Congress this week that would force the National Institutes of Health to make good on a 2015 promise to move all its chimps out of research facilities.”

Don’t get me wrong: I oppose animal cruelty as much as the next person. If NIH lacks a compelling scientific justification to conduct research on chimpanzees, or any other animal, then it should cease the research and provide alterative accommodations for the creatures affected.

But on at least three levels, Cassidy’s amendment demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with Washington D.C.

Problem 1: Skewed Priorities

The federal debt is at more than $21 trillion and rising — more than double its $10.6 trillion size not ten years ago, on the day Barack Obama took office. American troops remain stationed in Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world. Russia still looks to undermine American democracy and to meddle in this year’s midterm elections. The situation with North Korea remains tenuous, as the North Koreans continue to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technologies and their nuclear program.

So why is Cassidy trying to consume Senate floor time with a debate and vote on the chimpanzee amendment, after having already sent a letter to NIH on the subject? On a list of America’s top policy issues and concerns, the fate of 272 chimpanzees wouldn’t register in the top 100, or even in the top 1,000. So why should members of Congress (to say nothing of their staffs) spend so much time on such a comparatively inconsequential issue?

Problem 2: Cassidy Doesn’t Want to Repeal Obamacare

Rather than spending time on a chimpanzee amendment, Cassidy — like his Senate Republican colleagues — should focus on keeping the promise they made to their voters for the past four election cycles that they would repeal Obamacare. But unfortunately, many of the people who made that promise never believed it in the first place.

Based on his record, Cassidy stands as one of those individuals opposed to Obamacare repeal. As I noted in June, Cassidy does not want to repeal the federal system of regulations that lies at the heart of the health care law. In fact, a health care plan released earlier this summer seemed designed primarily to give lawmakers like Cassidy political cover not to repeal Obamacare’s most onerous regulations — even though a study by the Heritage Foundation indicates those regulations are the prime driver of premium increases since the law passed.

Problem 3: Cassidy Just Voted to Entrench Obamacare

Earlier this month, I noted some Republicans in the Senate would likely vote to allow the District of Columbia to tax individuals who do not purchase health insurance, after having voted to repeal that mandate in last year’s tax bill. After I wrote that story, Cassidy became one of five Senate Republicans to do just that, by voting to table (or kill) an amendment defunding Washington’s new individual mandate.

Because Cassidy voted to keep the mandate in place in D.C., he voted to allow District authorities to seize and sell individuals’ property if they do not purchase “government-approved” health coverage. Rather than voting to repeal Obamacare, Cassidy and his colleagues voted to entrench Obamacare in the nation’s capital — for which they have sovereign jurisdiction under the Constitution.

Even apart from Cassidy’s flip-flopping on repeal of Obamacare and its individual mandate, the contrast with the letter to NIH raises its own questions. In that letter, Cassidy emphasized that former research chimpanzees should have “the opportunity to live in mixed-sex groups and … daily access to nesting materials.”

This all sounds well and good, but why does Cassidy seemingly care so much about giving freedom to chimpanzees and so little about giving freedom to District of Columbia residents to buy (or not buy) the health coverage they wish to purchase?

Congress, Stop Monkeying Around

Five years ago, Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone famously called a congressional hearing on the healthcare.gov debacle a “monkey court.” Five years later, the Cassidy amendment on chimpanzee research demonstrates how Congress continues to “monkey around.”

Republicans should stop the primate-related sideshows and focus on things that really matter. Like sticking to the promise they made to voters for eight years to repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

About That “Junk” Insurance

On Wednesday, the Trump administration released its final rule regarding short-term, limited-duration insurance coverage. For all critics’ carping about how short-term coverage epitomizes “junk insurance,” these plans will provide another option for individuals who find Obamacare-compliant policies unattractive and unaffordable.

Pros and Cons of the Rule

The Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon lists a good summary of the rule’s benefits. At a time when the market for unsubsidized coverage away from the exchanges has dropped by nearly 40 percent, short-term plans will allow individuals who find Obamacare-compliant coverage unaffordable to purchase coverage.

Whereas the Obama administration defined “consumer protections” as “protecting people from being a consumer” of anything other than exchange plans, the Trump administration’s rule allows consumers to buy coverage that actually protects them from future harmful health events.

That said, the rule brings with it two notable drawbacks. First, the administration believes it could raise federal spending by $28.2 billion over a decade. The estimate comes because some healthy people likely will leave the exchanges to buy more affordable short-term coverage, raising premiums—and thus premium subsidies—for those who remain in Obamacare-compliant plans. While the Congressional Budget Office estimated a much smaller (and slightly positive) fiscal impact, the rule could end up increasing spending at a time when the federal government has racked up $21 trillion in debt (and counting).

Second, the rule doesn’t repeal Obamacare—an obvious statement, but one with important implications. Another president can easily revoke the Trump administration’s actions, and the next Democrat will almost certainly do just that. While helpful, the rule itself should not serve as an excuse for Congress not to take action to repeal Obamacare’s harmful regulations—because if you like your short-term plan, and Congress does nothing, you probably won’t be able to keep it.

What’s the Real ‘Junk Insurance’?

But as I wrote last week, Kofman has refused to buy an Obamacare plan, because she claims she requires an employer subsidy—this despite making more than $217,000 per year. Given her sizable income, Kofman must not think exchange policies unaffordable, even without an employer subsidy.

After all, the Exchange Authority recently endorsed, and the District enacted, a mandate requiring people with far less income than her—that is, people like me—to buy unsubsidized coverage or pay a tax. Why does she not buy the insurance policies she sells—because she considers them “junk insurance?”

She’s not alone. At a briefing last month, Sara Collins, a vice president at the Commonwealth Fund, asked whether short-term plans and other non-Obamacare policies would have “warning labels on them.” Collins neglected to provide a warning of her own: She has not purchased an exchange plan. Lest one think she cannot afford to do so, Commonwealth’s tax filings reveal that for the 12 months ending in June 2017, Collins received $334,353 in total compensation (including benefits).

I consider the very definition of “junk insurance” a policy that one encourages others to buy but refuses to purchase. On that, Corlette has a sterling track record. At a 2016 briefing, her presentation included a bullet point about the need to increase exchange sign-ups. She went further in her oral remarks: “I think it’s critical to do everything we can do boost enrollment.”

But when I asked Corlette at that same 2016 briefing if she had taken her own advice and bought an exchange plan, I received a song-and-dance about her life as a “spoiled academic.” Lest anyone think her unfeeling, however, she allowed that “I do try to think about” individuals without employer-sponsored coverage when designing insurance coverage standards.

Principles Versus Power

That’s the point. If Obamacare advocates thought achieving the law’s goals was so critical, they would have put their money where their mouths are and enrolled in exchange plans long ago. For all liberals’ talk of solidarity and “We’re all in this together,” the unwillingness for individuals making hundreds of thousands per year to enroll in exchange coverage, even though they could easily afford to do so, astounds. Given their own failures to enroll, who are they to criticize President Trump for “sabotaging” the law?

In their quiet moments, people like Kofman, Collins, and Corlette may wonder what strange confluence of events led the American people to elect Donald Trump, and empower him with the authority to dismantle their liberal paradise. But their failure to practice what they preach yields a ready answer: They need only look in the mirror.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What Liberals Won’t Tell You About Pre-Existing Conditions

The Kaiser Family Foundation released its monthly tracking survey on Wednesday, with results designed to give liberals a big boost: “The majority of people in a new poll say it’s important to them that Obamacare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions aren’t endangered.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell the entire story. Voters do like the idea of “protections for people with pre-existing conditions” in the abstract. But when pressed, they express significant qualms about the very real trade-offs.

Moreover, large majorities of voters said it was “very important” to retain provisions “prohibiting health insurance companies from denying coverage because of a person’s medical history” (76 percent) and “charging sick people more” (72 percent). Smaller but still sizable majorities of Republicans (58 percent in both cases) supported each issue.

What the Poll Did Not Ask

The poll looked at views about pre-existing conditions in a vacuum and did not attempt to examine trade-offs of the policy, or whether individuals valued one policy over another. For instance, among Republicans, repealing Obamacare proved more popular than preserving the pre-existing condition provisions.

Nine percent of Republicans considered Obamacare repeal the “single most important factor” in their vote, with another 49 percent calling it a “very important factor.” Compared to that combined 58 percent support, pre-existing condition provisions won 51 percent support, with 8 percent calling them the most important factor, and 43 percent calling them very important.

Kaiser also did not ask any questions about the trade-offs associated with the pre-existing condition provisions, and whether those trade-offs would soften voters’ support for them, even though it has done so on other issues in the past. Last July, a Kaiser poll demonstrated how telling people who initially support a single-payer system that such a change could lead to higher taxes or greater government control caused support for single-payer to drop by roughly 20 percentage points:

Thankfully, last year the Cato Institute conducted a survey that did examine the trade-offs of the pre-existing condition provisions, with revealing results:

  • Initially, voters approved of “requir[ing] insurance companies [to] cover anyone who applies for health insurance, including those who have a pre-existing medical condition” by a whopping 77-20 percent margin.
  • But when asked if they would approve of such a requirement “if it caused the cost of your health insurance to go up,” voters disapproved of this provision by a 35-60 percent margin. If the pre-existing condition provisions raised premiums, support declined by 42 percentage points, and opposition rose by 40 percentage points.
  • Voters likewise initially approved of the Obamacare provision “that prohibits health insurance companies from charging some customers higher premiums based on pre-existing conditions” by a 63-33 percent margin.
  • Here again, however, if charging all individuals the same rates meant “the cost of your health insurance would go up,” support dropped by 24 points (from 63 percent to 39 percent), while opposition rose by 22 points (from 33 percent to 55 percent). Opposition also rose dramatically if voters thought the pre-existing condition provisions would cause taxes to rise, or the quality of care provided to decrease.

Is This Merely Biased Polling?

I asked Kaiser why they included these types of “malleability” questions regarding single-payer but not pre-existing conditions. Ashley Kirzinger, a Kaiser researcher who worked on the poll, said they were gauging general public responses on the issue. She said Kaiser might study the trade-offs associated with the pre-existing condition policy in the future, but didn’t definitively commit to doing so.

That said, a conservative might highlight Kaiser’s liberal ideology as another possible explanation why they might not ask voters whether they would support Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions despite costly trade-offs. For instance, the organization has consistently used the phrase “Affordable Care Act” rather than “Obamacare” to describe the 2010 health care law—and as even a supporter of the law like Jimmy Kimmel found out, the two terms prompt sharply different reactions.

Here’s the Bottom Line

Conservatives have a compelling case to make on the harm that Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions have wrought—if they have the courage to make it. Thankfully, politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are doing so, and in the unlikeliest of places: a pickup charity basketball game with Jimmy Kimmel.

Conservatives do have other alternatives to Obamacare’s premium-raising requirements that address individuals with pre-existing conditions. For instance, they could revive and reform high-risk pools in place prior to the law. The Heritage Foundation last year proposed regulatory changes to provide continuity of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. While the Heritage proposal has its flaws, it would likely work better than Obamacare currently does, thereby lowering premiums in the process.

But to advance these other proposals, conservatives must first make the argument that the status quo on pre-existing conditions amounts to a tax increase on millions of Americans who buy individual health insurance. They have the facts on their side—and Kaiser’s incomplete survey notwithstanding, those facts may bring the American people to their side as well.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are the Heritage Foundation’s Politics Betraying Its Policy?

When Ronald Reagan used the axiom “Trust but verify,” he meant conservatives should closely monitor organizations and individuals to ensure that their deeds comport with their words. This axiom should apply to a health-care plan that a group the Heritage Foundation leads will unveil this week. While the group’s website claims its plan would “restore a properly functioning market in the health care sector to lower costs,” Heritage’s own policy analysis suggests otherwise.

Specifically, the Heritage plan would in no way alter what Heritage research describes as the biggest drivers of Obamacare’s “seismic effects on insurance markets.” Nor does the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, the legislative basis for the new effort. In fact, a recent version of the bill further undermines the purported “flexibility” that Graham-Cassidy promises to states, making it even less consistent with the federal principles Heritage invokes in lauding the measure.

Pre-Existing Condition Rules Drive Premium Increases

The largest effect on premiums consists of a cluster of [Obamacare] insurance access requirements—specifically the guaranteed issue requirement and the prohibitions on medical underwriting and applying coverage exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions under any circumstances. This cluster of regulations collectively accounts for the largest share of premium increases.

The paper discusses at length how these provisions “appear to have had the greatest effect on premiums,” raising rates for the young and healthy to subsidize the sick. While Obamacare supporters hoped the individual mandate would compel enough healthy individuals to offset those costs, high numbers of people chose to pay the mandate tax or received exemptions from the tax.

“The net result was a constellation of rules that repelled relatively healthy people and attracted those who could reasonably expect their medical bills to exceed their premiums—which Obamacare’s individual mandate simply failed to counteract,” Heritage’s report says.

Rhetoric versus Reality on Graham-Cassidy

After analyzing how the pre-existing conditions provisions proved the prime driver of premium increases, the March Heritage paper claims Graham-Cassidy provides the solution, calling it “a conceptual framework for empowering states to repair or ameliorate much of the market dislocation resulting from Obamacare.”

Leaving all those regulatory requirements in place might sound good, but—just as the March Heritage paper noted—it causes major policy problems:

Insurance companies are required to sell ‘just-in-time’ policies even if people wait until they are sick to buy coverage. That’s just like the Obama plan. There is growing evidence that many are gaming the system by purchasing health insurance when they need surgery or other expensive medical care, then dropping it a few months later.

Those words were written in 2010 to describe the effects of Massachusetts’ health care law, but they apply just as equally to the Heritage plan, and the Graham-Cassidy bill, in 2018. Surprisingly, then, they came from another member of the group that is releasing the plan this week.

Despite these organizations’ own prior statements opposing these costly insurance requirements, the plan released by Heritage and others would leave them in place at the federal level, hamstringing states’ ability to manage their own insurance markets—and belying the supposed goal of devolving power away from Washington.

The Bill Is Getting Worse

Unfortunately, however, the revised draft takes major steps that would undermine states’ ability to create multiple risk pools. Language on page 31 would reduce the block grant allotment for states maintaining multiple risk pools, by a percentage not yet specified. Other new provisions on pages 44 and 45 of the revised draft would allow states to create multiple risk pools only if they follow a series of bureaucratic parameters—parameters that a future Democratic administration would likely use to quash any state’s attempt to establish or maintain multiple risk pools.

Not Flexible, Not Federalism

Even as the Graham-Cassidy bill moves further to the left, Heritage seems insistent on chasing it ever leftward. The bill never addressed what Heritage itself called the prime drivers of premium increases. Now a more recent version further erodes the little flexibility that earlier drafts gave to states.

As I wrote more than one year ago, Republicans can choose to leave the status quo intact on Obamacare’s major regulations, or they can choose to keep their promise to voters to repeal the law. But they cannot do both. It comes down to a binary choice that simple. And Heritage has chosen a path that would effectively break the promise of repeal.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.