Three Obstacles to Senate Democrats’ Health Care Vision

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

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

Problem 1: Politics

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

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

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

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

Problem 2: Policy

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

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

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

Problem 3: Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1994 Redux?

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Joe Biden’s Health Care Plan: SandersCare Lite

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

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

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

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

Losing Coverage

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

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

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

More Spending

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

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

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

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

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

Price Controls and Regulations

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Do Coverage Expansions Save Lives? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A few weeks after two studies called into question whether one particular element of Obamacare—its hospital readmissions program—may have increased mortality rates nationwide, another study released by several economists expressed doubt about whether the law’s more than $1 trillion in spending on coverage expansions actually reduced mortality. Moreover, the latest study also raises fundamental questions about whether any coverage expansion will generate measurable reductions in mortality rates.

Coming in a week when Democrats prepare to release the latest version of their single-payer legislation, which estimates suggest could cost at least $30 trillion, the study raises an obvious question: What exactly will Americans receive for all the trillions of dollars in new government spending the left proposes? The study basically shrugs.

Effects of Medicaid Expansion

The analysis showed the problems inherent with attributing changes in mortality rates to expansions in insurance coverage. The study noted that “if one simply compares the…difference in mortality rates for non-expansion versus full-expansion states…it would appear that Medicaid expansion has a large, immediate effect in reducing mortality.” But in reality, mortality rates among those two groups of states had begun to move in opposite directions before the main provisions of Obamacare took effect in 2014. “There is little additional divergence during 2014-2016.”

The researchers’ work highlights the inherent flaws in this field of study. Because mortality is by definition a rare event (particularly for younger populations), and because so many different factors affect mortality, it becomes exceedingly difficult to attribute any change in mortality rates to changes in insurance coverage.

For instance, the opioid crisis, which has led to a decrease in life expectancy, hit just before Obamacare’s coverage expansions took effect, and in many cases affected the same populations. This and other similar factors introduce statistical “noise” that make it difficult to conclude with any certainty that expanded coverage (as opposed to some other factor) impacted mortality rates.

Simulations Expose Flaws

In most cases, the “power analysis” simulations concluded that, to find a statistically significant reduction in mortality rates at least 80 percent of the time, the coverage expansions would have to reduce mortality by more than 100 percent—a statistically impossible result. Because Obamacare reduced the uninsured rate by only a few percentage points, and because most available data sets lack corresponding income and insurance information—to prove, for instance, that X person had Y type of insurance and Z income over a certain number of years—the researchers could not make conclusive assertions about coverage expansions’ effects on mortality.

As it is, the uninsured already receive significant amounts of health care. One 2017 study found they consume nearly 80 percent of the care used by Americans with health insurance. Therefore, to test the effects of coverage expansions on mortality, researchers either need an incredibly large increase in the number of insured individuals—tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of Americans—or much more precise data about the income and coverage sources of those who gain insurance.

Liberals’ Alarmist Rhetoric

The authors caution that “our analysis should not be interpreted as evidence that health insurance does not affect mortality or health, either overall or for particular diseases or subgroups.” (Emphasis original.) However, the analysis does demonstrate that health insurance likely has a small and difficult to quantify effect on mortality rates. The study therefore proves how liberal claims two years ago that Republican “repeal-and-replace” legislation would kill tens of thousands of individuals annually had little bearing in reality.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Six Things about Pre-Existing Conditions Republican “Leaders” Still Don’t Get

“If at first you don’t succeed, go ahead and quit.” That might be the takeaway from excerpts of a conference call held earlier this month by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and published in the Washington Post.

McCarthy claimed that Republicans’ “repeal and replace” legislation last Congress “put [the] pre-existing condition campaign against us, and so even people who are [sic] running for the very first time got attacked on that. And that was the defining issue and the most important issue in the [midterm election] race.” He added: “If you’ll notice, we haven’t done anything when it comes to repealing Obamacare this time.”

Problem 1: Pre-Existing Condition Provisions In Context

I first noted this dilemma last summer: Liberals call the pre-existing condition provisions “popular” because their polls only ask about the policy, and not its costs. If you ask Americans whether they would like a “free” car, how many people do you think would turn it down? The same principle applies here.

When polls ask about the trade-offs associated with the pre-existing condition provisions—which a Heritage Foundation study called the largest driver of premium increases under Obamacare—support plummets. Cato surveys in both 2017 and 2018 confirmed this fact. Moreover, a Gallup poll released after the election shows that, by double-digit margins, Americans care more about rising health premiums and costs than about losing coverage due to a pre-existing condition.

The overall polling picture provided an opportunity for Republicans to push back and point out that the pre-existing condition provisions have led to skyrocketing premiums, which priced 2.5 million people out of the insurance marketplace from 2017 to 2018. Instead, most Republicans did nothing.

Problem 2: Republicans’ Awful Legislating

The bills’ flaws came from a failure to understand how Obamacare works. The law’s provisions requiring insurers to offer coverage to everyone (guaranteed issue) and price that coverage the same regardless of health status (community rating) make insurers want to avoid covering sick people. Those two provisions necessitate another two requirements, which force insurers to cover certain conditions (essential health benefits) and a certain percentage of expected health costs (actuarial value).

In general, the House and Senate bills either repealed, or allowed states to waive, the latter two regulations, while keeping the former two in place. If Republicans had repealed all of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, they could have generated sizable premium savings—an important metric, and one they could tout to constituents. Instead, they ended up in a political no man’s land, with people upset about losing their pre-existing condition “protections,” and no large premium reductions to offset that outrage.

Looking at this dynamic objectively, it isn’t surprising that McCarthy and his colleagues ended up with a political loser on their hands. The true surprise is why anyone ever thought the legislative strategy made for good politics—or, for that matter, good (or even coherent) policy.

Problem 3: Pre-Existing Conditions Aren’t Going Away

Within hours after Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced a bill last year maintaining Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions—the requirement that all insurers offer coverage at the same rates to all individuals, regardless of health status—liberals weighed in to call it insufficient.

As noted above, Obamacare encourages insurers to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. Repealing only some of the law’s regulations would exacerbate that dynamic, by giving insurers more tools with which to avoid enrolling sick people. Liberals recognize this fact, and will say as much any time Republicans try to modify any of Obamacare’s major insurance regulations.

Problem 4: Better Policies Exist

According to the Post, McCarthy said he wants to recruit candidates who would “find a solution at the end of the day.” A good thing that, because better solutions for the problems of pre-existing conditions do exist (I’ve written about several) if McCarthy had ever bothered to look for them.

Their political attacks demonstrate that liberals focus on supporting “insurance” for people once they develop a pre-existing condition. (Those individuals’ coverage by definition really isn’t “insurance.”) By contrast, conservatives should support making coverage more affordable, such that people can buy it before they develop a pre-existing condition—and keep it once they’re diagnosed with one.

Regulations proposed by the Trump administration late last year could help immensely on this front, by allowing employers to subsidize insurance that individuals hold and keep—that is, coverage that remains portable from job to job. Similar solutions, like health status insurance, would also encourage portability of insurance throughout one’s lifetime. Other options, such as direct primary care and high-risk pools, could provide care for people who have already developed pre-existing conditions.

Using a series of targeted alternatives to reduce and then to solve the pre-existing condition problem would prove far preferable than the blunt alternative of one-size-fits-all government regulations that have made coverage unaffordable for millions. However, such a solution would require political will from Republicans—which to date they have unequivocally lacked.

Problem 5: Republicans’ Alternative Is Socialized Medicine

Instead of promoting those better policies, House Republican leaders would like to cave in the most efficient manner possible. During the first day of Congress, they offered a procedural motion that, had it been adopted, would have instructed the relevant committees of jurisdiction to report legislation that:

(1) Guarantees no American citizen can be denied health insurance coverage as the result of a previous illness or health status; and (2) 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.

Guaranteeing that everyone gets charged the same price for health care? I believe that’s called socialism—and socialized medicine.

Their position makes it very ironic that the same Republican committee leaders are pushing for hearings on Democrats’ single-payer legislation. It’s a bit rich to endorse one form of socialism, only to denounce another form as something that will destroy the country. (Of course, Republican leaders will only take that position unless and until a single-payer bill passes, at which point they will likely try to embrace it themselves.)

Problem 6: Health Care Isn’t Going Away As An Issue

The federal debt this month passed $22 trillion, and continues to rise. Most of our long-term government deficits arise from health care—the ongoing retirement of the baby boomers, and our corresponding obligations to Medicare, Medicaid, and now Obamacare.

Any Republican who cares about a strong national defense, or keeping tax rates low—concerns most Republicans embrace—should care about, and take an active interest in, health care and health policy. Given his comments about not repealing, or even talking about, Obamacare, McCarthy apparently does not.

But unsustainable trends are, in the long run, unsustainable. At some point in the not-too-distant future, skyrocketing spending on health care will mean that McCarthy will have to care—as will President Trump, and the Democrats who have gone out of their way to avoid talking about Medicare’s sizable financial woes. Here’s hoping that by that point, McCarthy and Republican leaders will have a more coherent—and conservative—policy than total surrender to the left.

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.

How Republicans Shot Themselves in the Foot on Pre-Existing Conditions

Republicans who want to blame their election shortcomings on last year’s attempt to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare will have all the fodder they need from the media. A full two weeks before Election Day, the bedwetters caucus was already out in full force:

House Republicans are increasingly worried that Democrats’ attacks on their votes to repeal and replace Obamacare could cost them the House. While the legislation stalled in the Senate, it’s become a toxic issue on the campaign trail for the House Republicans who backed it.

In reality, however, the seeds of this problem go well beyond this Congress, or even the last election cycle. A health care strategy based on a simple but contradictory slogan created a policy orphan that few Republicans could readily defend.

A Dumb Political Slogan

Around the same time last year, I wrote an article explaining why the “repeal-and-replace” mantra would prove so problematic for the Republican Congress trying to translate the slogan into law. Conservatives seized on the “repeal” element to focus on eradicating the law, and taking steps to help lower health costs.

By contrast, moderates assumed that “replace” meant Republican lawmakers had embraced the mantra of universal health coverage, and would maintain most of the benefits—both the number of Americans with insurance and the regulatory “protections”—of Obamacare itself. Two disparate philosophies linked by a conjunction does not a governing platform make. The past two years proved as much.

A Non-Sensical Bill

In life, one mistake can often lead to another, and so it proved in health care. After having created an internal divide through the “repeal-and-replace” mantra over four election cycles, Republicans had to put policy meat on the details they had papered over for seven years. In so doing, they ended up with a “solution” that appealed to no one.

  1. Removed Obamacare’s requirements for what treatments insurers must cover (e.g., essential health benefits);
  2. Removed Obamacare’s requirements about how much of these treatments insurers must cover (e.g., actuarial value, which measures a percentage of expected health expenses covered by insurance); but
  3. Retained Obamacare’s requirements about whom insurance must cover—the requirement to cover all applicants (guaranteed issue), and the related requirement not to vary premiums based on health status (community rating).

As I first outlined early last year, this regulatory combination resulted in a witch’s brew of bad outcomes on both the policy and political fronts:

  • Because lawmakers retained the requirements for insurers to cover all individuals, regardless of health status, the bills didn’t reduce premiums much. If insurers must charge all individuals the same rates regardless of their health, they will assume that a disproportionately sicker population will sign up. That dynamic meant the bills did little to reverse the more-than-doubling of individual market insurance premiums from 2013-17. What little premium reduction did materialize came largely due to the corporate welfare payments the bills funneled to insurers in the form of a “Stability Fund.”
  • However, because lawmakers removed the requirements about what and how much insurers must cover, liberal groups raised questions about access to care, particularly for sicker populations. This dynamic led to the myriad charges and political attacks about Republicans “gutting” care for people with pre-existing conditions.

You couldn’t have picked a worse combination for lawmakers to try to defend. The bills as written created a plethora of “losers” and very few clear “winners.” Legislators absorbed most of the political pain regarding pre-existing conditions that they would have received had they repealed those regulations (i.e., guaranteed issue and community rating) outright, but virtually none of the political gain (i.e., lower premiums) from doing so.

Some people—including yours truly—predicted this outcome. Before the House voted on its bill, I noted that this combination would prove untenable from a policy perspective, and politically problematic to boot. Republicans plowed ahead anyway, likely because they saw this option as the only way to breach the policy chasm caused by bad sloganeering, and paid the price.

Lawmaker Ignorance and Apathy

That apathy continued after Obamacare’s enactment. While Suderman articulated an alternative vision to the law, he admitted that “Republicans can’t make the case for that plan because they’ve never figured out what it would look like. The GOP plan is always in development but never ready for final release.”

Emphasizing the “repeal-and-replace” mantra allowed Republicans to avoid face the very real trade-offs that come with making health policy. When a Republican Congress finally had to look those trade-offs in the face, it couldn’t. Many didn’t know what they wanted, or wanted a pain-free solution (“Who knew health care could be so complicated?”). Difficulty regarding trade-offs led to the further difficulty of unifying behind a singular policy.

Can’t Avoid Health Care

Many conservative lawmakers face something that could be described as “health policy PTSD”—they don’t understand it, so they don’t study it; they only define their views by what they oppose (e.g., “Hillarycare” and Obamacare); and when they put out proposals (e.g., premium support for Medicare and “repeal-and-replace” on Obamacare), they get attacked. So they conclude that they should never talk about the issue or put out proposals. Doubtless Tuesday’s election results will confirm that tendency for some.

Rather than using the election results to avoid health care, Republican lawmakers instead should lean in to the issue, to understand it and ascertain what concepts and policies they support. The left knows exactly what it wants from health care: More regulation, more spending, and more government control—leading ultimately to total government control.

Conservatives must act now to articulate an alternative vision, because the 800-pound gorilla of Washington policy will not disappear any time soon.

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.

Of Course Russian Trolls Used Obamacare Repeal to Divide Americans

Full disclosure: I am not a Russian troll.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published an analysis of nearly 10,000 tweets published by accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian-backed organization that Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted for its attempts to interfere with the American electoral process.

It should go without saying, but no one should support efforts to interfere with, or otherwise corrupt, the American democratic process. Particularly given the way in which Russia’s authoritarian regime has stifled dissent and dismantled the country’s free and independent media, the IRA and Russian President Vladimir Putin have little business trying to lecture the United States on how to run a government.

That said, it seems unsurprising that the Russian government would attempt to use health care as a “wedge” issue to divide groups of Americans. The Journal article notes that “health policy [was a] natural target for the [Russian] provocateurs.”

In 2010, Democrats passed their health-care law through Congress on strict party lines, with not a single Republican vote. Health care in general, and Obamacare in particular, have remained polarizing issues ever since. The Journal also noted that the trolls’ Obamacare-related activity spiked last spring and summer, during the heat of the debate over “repeal-and-replace” legislation in Congress.

Health care, unlike most other issues, remains intensely personal to each American. Whereas many Americans might not care much about energy policy, or see how the North Atlantic Treaty Organization affects their daily lives, people have frequent and personal interactions with the health care system, whether for themselves or someone close to them. Everyone has a story and an opinion about health care.

Health care also has become a flashpoint for long-simmering political debates over the size and scope of government. Conservatives and libertarians oppose Obamacare because they view it as “big government” overreach. They would repeal the law, and scale back the involvement of government in general, and the federal government in particular, over the health care system.

By contrast, liberals want to go even further to expand government’s scope and reach—hence the renewed push for a single-payer health system. The Left views health care as a right, the number of uninsured and underinsured people as a scandal, and health concerns as a moral imperative that only government can address. Likewise, the vaccine debate plays to similar questions about the extent to which government can and should involve itself in health choices.

Almost one year ago, I wrote that “wisdom does not always lie with the loudest and the strongest. It requires us to listen to discern its voice.” A medium that attempts to digest “news” into a 280-character format seems tailor-made for the type of instant, emotional reactions that the IRA desires as a means to foment discord and dissent.

Combating Russian trolls requires actions by law enforcement and social media companies, yes, but it also requires some level of introspection by each one of us. Instead of simply “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a phenomenon Neil Postman first described more than three decades ago, we should spend less time passively consuming media and more time thinking about what we consume. As I wrote last October:

At times, the cacophony of voices on Twitter, cable news, and in myriad other cultural venues might prompt us to wonder if anyone can make sense of it all, and maintain that inner peace. The story of Elijah on Horeb reminds us that wisdom and understanding remain always present in our lives—if only we search hard enough to find them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Rebuttal to George Will — And a Template for Congressional Republicans

Last week venerable conservative columnist George Will called for voting against Republicans this November to rebuke President Trump, provoking no small amount of commentary. Some focused on dissecting the flaws in his theory—it would create bad policy outcomes, particularly on judges (a point Will conceded), and could make the Republican Party even more dependent upon Trump and his acolytes.

Into this debate unwittingly stepped Politico earlier this week, with a profile of Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Republican Pat Toomey. Having just won re-election to a six-year term, Toomey faces three big political advantages: First, he will not have to face an anti-Trump wave this year. Second, he will not share the ballot with Trump in two years. Third, he won his 2016 re-election by nearly twice as many votes as Trump did. The way he opposed Trump’s trade policies provides a useful template for others within his party to dissent from the chief executive.

1. Pick Something Important

First, speak out on an issue you care about—one of significant national import. Toomey believes that a trade war President Trump’s tariffs prompted could spark a major economic downturn, and undo the effects of the tax legislation passed late last year. He notes that the tariffs, along with the threats of more to come, are “already doing real damage,” such as this week’s news about Harley-Davidson moving some manufacturing overseas.

Politico notes that Toomey’s newfound role as “Trump’s sharpest antagonist on trade policy” stems from “his passion on economic issues,” a passion I know well. I still remember absorbing the arguments he made in drafts of his book: If foreign countries want to invest in the United States—and bring down the cost of goods Americans consume in the process—why should politicians enact arbitrary obstacles to that growth?

That argument holds little weight with Trump, who generally sees conflict in zero-sum terms—a trade deficit with another country must mean America has lost to someone, somehow. But it’s already resonating with some Harley owners.

2. Mind the Separation of Powers

Second, remember the important role that separation of powers plays. Will’s column harrumphed at Congress’ supine status, stating that a Republican congressional minority “will be stripped of the Constitution’s Article I powers that they have been too invertebrate to use against the current wielder of Article II powers.” He cites Madison in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

Into that breach stepped Toomey on trade. He has given floor speeches rightly pointing out that he and his colleagues “are not potted plants.” In an interview with Politico, he asserted the institutional prerogatives that Will thought Republicans had heretofore forgotten: “The Constitution is completely unambiguous….It is the authority of Congress to establish tariffs….We’ve given him [i.e., the President] a lot of authority, and I think that is authority that should reside with Congress.”

3. Disagree Politely

Third, agree to disagree agreeably. Toomey does not understate the impact of Trump’s policies on trade: “We’ve crossed the Rubicon,” he notes. But in Politico’s words, he disagrees “politely but pointedly.” No calls for public heckling of cabinet officials, in the vein of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). No intemperate tweets, either.

On both the policy of free trade and the necessity of the legislative branch standing firm in its beliefs, Will agrees with Toomey. His column last week highlighted the thwarted efforts of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Toomey’s partner, in their joint effort to prevent presidents from using national security reasons to impose tariffs unilaterally. Rather than focusing on the unsuccessful efforts of a senator departing Congress this fall, Will might do well to bolster the efforts of an earnest senator who will remain for four years more—and cultivate more like him.

I sympathize with Will’s plight about elections presenting bad, or at minimum sub-optimal, choices. During most of last year, when Republicans debated health care, many lawmakers focused more on the political goal of finding a bill that could garner enough votes to pass rather than achieving positive policy outcomes—lowering premiums, promoting health care freedom, and so on. Viewed through this prism, the midterm elections might appear a choice between a Republican Party with few coherent or decipherable principles and a Democratic Party fully embracing the wrong ones.

But an exemplar like Toomey, and the wisdom of scripture, suggest another possible outcome. In Genesis, God told Lot he would spare Sodom’s destruction to save ten righteous people in the city. Rather than waiting for electoral fire and brimstone to rain down on the licentious or sycophantic elements of the GOP in November, perhaps Will would do well to focus on highlighting the lawmakers like Toomey—Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee presents another obvious example—worth saving.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Health Care “Consensus” Group Plan

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

What Does the Health Plan Include?

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

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

Is That It?

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

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

What Parts of Obamacare Would the Plan Retain?

In short, most of them.

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

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

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

Are Parts of the Health Plan Unclear?

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.