Republicans’ SCHIP Surrender

In spring 2015, Senate Republican leaders pressured their members to accept a clean, two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) added as part of a larger health spending measure.

The SCHIP reauthorization added to a larger Medicare bill included none of the reforms Republicans had proposed that year, many of which attempted to turn the program’s focus back toward covering low-income families first, as the George W. Bush administration had done. But Republican leaders said that the two-year extension, rather than the four-year extension Democrats supported, would allow conservatives to fight harder for reforms in 2017.

The press has focused on the disputes over paying for the SCHIP program, which have held up final enactment of a long-term reauthorization. (The House passed its version of the bill in November; the Senate, failing to find agreement on pay-fors, has not considered the bill on the floor.) But the focus on pay-fors has ignored Republicans’ abject surrender on the policy behind the program, because the media defines “bipartisanship” as conservatives agreeing to do liberal things. That occurred in abundance on this particular bill.

So Much for Our Promises, Voters

On the underlying policy, all the groups who pledged to fight for conservative reforms vacated the field. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who brags about how he created the program as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997, cut a deal with Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) that, as detailed below, includes virtually no conservative reforms to the program—raising questions about whether Hatch was so desperate for a deal to preserve his legacy that he failed to fight for conservative reforms.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not repudiate the agreement Hatch and Wyden struck, even though that agreement maintained virtually the provisions of the 2009 SCHIP reauthorization that Ryan himself, then the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, called “an entitlement train wreck.”

Republicans have thus suffered the worst of both worlds: getting blamed for inaction on a program’s reauthorization, while already having conceded virtually every element of that program, save for its funding.

Details About the SCHIP Proposals

A detailed examination of the Hatch-Wyden agreement (original version here, and slightly revised version in Sections 301-304 of the House-passed bill here) demonstrates how it extends provisions of the 2009 reauthorization passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama—which Republicans in large part opposed. Moreover, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and House-passed bill includes none of the reforms the House Energy and Commerce Committee proposed, but were not enacted into law, in 2015.

The only “reform” in the pending reauthorization consists of phasing out an enhanced match for states included in Section 2101(a) of Obamacare—one already scheduled to expire. Even though the enhanced match will end on its own in October 2019, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and the House-passed bill would extend that enhanced match by one year further, albeit at a reduced level, before phasing it out entirely.

Child Enrollment Contingency Fund: Created in Section 103 of the 2009 reauthorization. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned that the fund—which does not include provisions making additional payments contingent on enrolling the low-income children­ for which the program was designed—will therefore help to subsidize wealthier children in states which have expanded their programs to higher-income populations, diverting SCHIP funds from the program’s original purpose” (emphasis original). Section 301(c) of the House-passed bill would extend this fund, without any reforms.

Express Lane Eligibility: Created in Section 203 of the 2009 reauthorization, as a way of using eligibility determinations from other agencies and programs to facilitate enrollment in SCHIP. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned first that the streamlined verification processes outlined above will facilitate individuals who would not otherwise qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP, due either to their income or citizenship, to obtain federally-paid health benefits.” Section 301(e) of the House-passed bill would extend this option, without any reforms.

Citizenship Verification: Section 211 of the 2009 reauthorization created a new process for verifying citizenship, but not identity, to circumvent strict verification requirements included in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. As I wrote in 2009:

Some Members may echo the concerns of Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, who in a September 2007 letter stated that the verification process proposed in the bill would not keep ineligible individuals from receiving federal benefits—since many applicants would instead submit another person’s name and Social Security number to qualify. Some Members may believe the bill, by laying out a policy of ‘enroll and chase,’ will permit ineligible individuals, including illegal aliens, to obtain federally-paid health coverage for at least four months during the course of the verification process. Finally, some Members may be concerned that the bill, by not taking remedial action against states for enrolling illegal aliens—which can be waived entirely at the Secretary’s discretion—until states’ error rate exceeds 3%, effectively allows states to provide benefits to illegal aliens.

Legal Aliens: Section 214 of the 2009 reauthorization allowed states to cover legal aliens in their SCHIP programs without subjecting them to the five-year waiting period required for means-tested benefits under the 1996 welfare reform law.

As I wrote in 2009, “Some Members may be concerned that permitting states to cover legal aliens without imposing waiting periods will override the language of bipartisan welfare reform legislation passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democrat President, conflict with decades-long practices in other federally-sponsored entitlement health programs (i.e., Medicare), and encourage migrants to travel to the United States for the sole or primary purpose of receiving health benefits paid for by federal taxpayers.” The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this option.

Premium Assistance: Section 301 of the 2009 reauthorization created new options regarding premium assistance—allowing states to subsidize employer-sponsored coverage, rather than enrolling individuals in government-run plans. While that reauthorization contained some language designed to make premium assistance programs more flexible for states, it also expressly prohibited states from subsidizing health savings account (HSA) coverage through premium assistance. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states subsidizing HSA coverage.

Health Opportunity Accounts: Section 613 of the 2009 reauthorization prohibited the Department of Health and Human Services from approving any new demonstration programs regarding Health Opportunity Accounts, a new consumer-oriented option for low-income beneficiaries created in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states offering more consumer-oriented options.

Covering Poor Kids First: The 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore SCHIP’s focus on covering low-income children first, by 1) eliminating the enhanced federal match rate for states choosing to cover children in families between 250-300 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500-$73,800 for a family of four in 2017) and 2) eliminating the federal match entirely for states choosing to cover children in families above 300 percent of poverty. These provisions were consistent with the policy of the George W. Bush administration, which in 2007 issued guidance seeking to ensure that states covered low-income families first before expanding their SCHIP programs further up the income ladder. The House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Maintenance of Effort: Section 2001(b) of Obamacare included a requirement that states could not alter eligibility standards for children enrolled in SCHIP through October 1, 2019, limiting their ability to manage their state programs. Whereas the 2015 proposed reauthorization would have repealed this requirement, effective October 1, 2015, Section 301(f) of the House-passed bill would extend this requirement, through October 1, 2022. (However, under the House-passed bill, states could alter eligibility for children in families with incomes over 300 percent of poverty, beginning in October 2019.)

Crowd-Out: The 2015 proposed reauthorization allowed states to impose a waiting period of up to 12 months for individuals who declined an offer of, or disenrolled from, employer-based coverage—a provision designed to keep families from dropping private insurance to enroll in a government program. The House-passed bill contains no such provision.

Program Name: The 2009 reauthorization sought to remove the “state” element of the “State Children’s Health Insurance Program,” renaming the program as the “Children’s Health Insurance Program.” While the 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore the “state” element to “SCHIP,” the House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Cave, Not a Compromise

For all the focus on paying for SCHIP, the underlying policy represents a near-total cave by Republicans, who failed to obtain any meaningful reforms to the program. Granted, Democrats likely would not agree to all the changes detailed above. But the idea that a “bipartisan” bill should include exactly none of them also seems absurd—unless Republicans threw in the towel and failed to fight for any changes.

The press spent much of 2017 focused on Republican efforts to unwind Obamacare. But the SCHIP bill represents just as consequential a story. The cave on SCHIP demonstrates how many Republicans, after spending the last eight years objecting to the Obama agenda, suddenly have little interest in rolling it back.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Constitution Finally Takes Precedence over Obamacare

Late Thursday evening, the Administration announced that it was immediately ending cost-sharing reduction payments to health insurers offering plans in Obamacare Exchanges. And regardless of what the press or liberals might claim, the decision isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about “sabotage.” It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about Obamacare “imploding.” It’s about one thing—and one thing only: The rule of law.

The text of Obamacare nowhere includes an appropriation for the cost-sharing reduction payments, which reimburse carriers for discounting deductibles and co-payments for low-income Exchange enrollees. The Obama Administration knew that—but went ahead and made the payments anyway. One slight problem: The Constitution clearly gives the “power of the purse” to Congress: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

Without an appropriation, the Trump Administration has no choice but to end the payments to insurers—just as the Trump Administration would have no choice but to make the payments to insurers if an appropriation existed. One can easily make the argument—as this observer has—that the Administration should have ended the payments months ago.

But in time the Trump Administration did conclude—correctly—that President Obama had no more authority to make Obamacare payments without an appropriation than President Trump has to make payments for a border wall without an appropriation. By complying with the law and the Constitution to end the payments, President Trump actually diminished his executive power and ability to act unilaterally—restoring a rightful balance of power between the branches. Democrats fearful of the implications of three more years of a Donald Trump in the White House have reason to thank him for so doing.

But they won’t. Instead the cries of “sabotage” will continue—disregarding the fact that President Obama, by valuing Obamacare more than the Constitution itself, sabotaged the rule of law. When Tom Price resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services last month, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) said his replacement “needs to be focused on implementing the law as written.” By cutting off the cost-sharing payments, that’s exactly what the Trump Administration has done—implemented the law as it was written, rather than as Democrats wished they had written it.

As for insurers, they can’t say they weren’t warned. Here’s what yours truly wrote about cost-sharing reduction payments nearly a year and a half ago:

The next President could easily wade into the [cost-sharing reduction payments]. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress. Such an action could take effect almost immediately…Come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different [than under the Obama Administration.]

That’s exactly what happened. Insurers gambled that they—and Obamacare—were “too big to fail,” despite a court ruling last May striking down the subsidy payments as unconstitutional. Because the court stayed that ruling, insurers assumed the next President would blithely continue the unconstitutional payments during its appeal. They assumed wrong.

Congress, having sparked the lawsuit when the House of Representatives sued to protect its constitutional prerogatives, could of course use its “power of the purse” to reinstate the cost-sharing reduction subsidies—this time through an explicit appropriation, rather than executive fiat. But before even considering such an action, it should first thoroughly investigate, and develop policies to eradicate, the “too big to fail” mentality that led insurers—and state insurance commissioners—to assume that unconstitutional acts would continue in perpetuity. Even better, Congress could instead develop ways to dismantle the structure of regulations and mandates that insurers believe requires them to receive $135 billion in subsidy payments in the first place.

For the time being, individuals likely will not see any direct effects from the payments ceasing. Carriers cannot exit Exchanges mid-year, and contracts for the 2018 plan year are already signed. (A provision in carriers’ 2017 and 2018 contracts lets them exit Exchanges if enrollees do not receive cost-sharing reductions—not if the insurers themselves do not receive reimbursement for those cost-sharing reductions. This clause, awkwardly drafted by insurers’ counsel, may provide them with little legal recourse—and further highlights their questionable assumptions and behavior surrounding the subsidies.) So maybe—just maybe—Washington can spend some time focusing on the real issue behind the Administration’s action: Upholding the Constitution.

Fact Checking Politico’s Hit Piece on Tom Price

On Tuesday evening, Politico released an “article” discussing “Tom Price’s Radically Conservative Vision for American Health Care.” The piece’s first sentence claimed that “gutting Obamacare might be the least controversial part of Tom Price’s health care agenda”—a loaded introduction if ever there were one. The article goes on to quote seven separate liberal analysts—including the President of Planned Parenthood—while not including a single substantive Republican quote until the very last paragraph of a 27-paragraph piece.

Given this opinion piece masquerading as “journalism,” it’s worth pointing out several important facts, falsehoods, and omissions in the Politico story:

CLAIM:           Republicans “may look beyond repealing and replacing Obamacare to try to scale back Medicare and Medicaid, popular entitlements that cover roughly 130 million people, many of whom are sick, poor, and vulnerable.”

FACT:          It’s ironic that the Politico reporters suddenly care about the “sick, poor, and vulnerable.” I’ve been writing about how Obamacare encourages discrimination against the vulnerable literally for years—including a few short weeks ago. If any Politico reporters have written on how Obamacare encourages states to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults rather than to cover individuals with disabilities, I have yet to read those articles.

This week came a report that no fewer than 752 individuals with disabilities have died—yes, died—while on waiting lists to receive Medicaid services since that state expanded coverage under Obamacare to able-bodied adults. If the Politico reporters—much less the liberal advocates the reporters interviewed for the article—care so much about the “sick, poor, and vulnerable,” when will they cover this Obamacare-induced tragedy?

CLAIM:           “Price…has proposed policies that are more conservative than those of many House Republican colleagues.”

FACT:                         Dr. Price’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget—which included provisions related to Obamacare repeal, premium support for Medicare, and block grants for Medicaid—passed the House with 228 votes. How can Politico claim that Dr. Price’s policies “are more conservative than those of many House Republican colleagues,” when over 93% of them publicly endorsed his vision?

CLAIM:           “The vast majority of the 20 million people now covered under Obamacare would have far less robust coverage—if they got anything at all.”

FACT:         This claim presupposes 1) that all individuals covered under Obamacare want to buy health coverage, and 2) that they want to buy the type of health coverage Obamacare forces them to purchase. It ignores the fact that premiums increased by thousands of dollars in 2014 because individuals were forced to buy richer coverage.

It also ignores the fact that nearly 8 million individuals have paid the tax penalty associated with not buying Obamacare-compliant health coverage—because they cannot afford it, do not want it, or both—and another 12.4 million have requested exemptions from the Obamacare mandate. Depending on the degree of overlap between individuals who paid the mandate tax penalty and individuals who claimed exemptions, the number of Obamacare refuseniks could actually exceed the number of individuals newly covered under the law.

Instead, this claim comes at the question of insurance coverage from President Obama’s liberal, paternalistic perspective. When millions of people started receiving Obamacare-related cancellation notices in the mail, the President gave a speech stating how all those plans were “substandard:” “A lot of people thought they were buying coverage, and it turned out not to be so good.” In other words, “If you liked your plan, you’re an idiot.”

CLAIM:           “Price also supports privatizing Medicare…”

FACT:            The premium support plan included in the House Republican budget includes 1) a federal contribution that increases every year to fund 2) a federally-regulated plan with 3) federally-mandated benefits and 4) the option to continue in government-run Medicare if beneficiaries so choose. Which of these four points would the Politico reporters deem “privatizing?”

CLAIM:           “…an approach that Democrats lambaste as a voucher system…”

FACT:           That claim is both ironic and hypocritical coming from Democrats, as a version of premium support endorsed by House Speaker Ryan and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden in 2011 would have utilized the exact same bidding mechanism as Obamacare itself. Do Democrats “lambaste” Obamacare’s Exchanges as a “voucher system?” Interestingly enough, the Politico reporters neither note this irony, nor apparently bothered to ask the question.

CLAIM:           “…that would gut a 50-year-old social contract and shift a growing share of health care costs onto seniors.”

FACT:          The form of premium support endorsed by Rep. Price in this year’s House Republican budget would, according to a September 2013 analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), save both the federal government and seniors money. And don’t take my word for it—here’s a quote from the CBO paper:

CBO’s analysis implies that beneficiaries’ total payments would be about 6 percent lower, on average, under the average-bid option than under current law. That reduction results from the combination of the lower average premiums paid above and a reduction in average out-of-pocket costs, which would result primarily from higher enrollment in lower-bidding private plans.

Where exactly among the highlighted phrases did the Politico reporters get the idea that premium support will “shift a growing share of health care costs onto seniors?”

CLAIM:           “Price also wants to limit federal Medicaid spending to give states a lump sum, or block grant, and more control over how they could use it—a dream of conservative Republicans for years, and a nightmare for advocates for the poor who fear that many would lose coverage.”

FACT:           A block grant would increase federal spending on Medicaid annually—just by slightly less than prior estimates. Only in Washington could granting a program a three percent increase rather than a five percent increase classify as a “cut.”

Having provided actual facts to rebut the piece’s nonsensical claims, I’ll offer some free advice: If the folks on Politico’s payroll want to publish liberal talking points unchallenged, they should quit their jobs, go out on their own, and do what I do for a living. I’m all for a free press, and freedom of speech, but passing opinion—and one-sided opinion at that—as “journalism” does a disservice to the name.

The Freedom and Empowerment Plan for American Health Care

A PDF of the full health care plan is available on the America Next website.

The Problem of American Health Care

By many measures, the American system of health care is the best in the world. It is a source of incredible innovation at the cutting edge of medical science, providing high quality care to people who need it. We have some of the best doctors, nurses, researchers, and provider systems on earth. When world leaders need complex surgery and lifesaving treatment, they fly to us. It is here, in America, where treatments are discovered, methods are improved, and diseases are cured.

But by all sorts of other measures, the American system of health care is the worst of both worlds – and that was true before Obamacare. For starters, it is extraordinarily expensive. This is partly because we aren’t interested in just managing pain, but in curing diseases; partly because market-warping government policies and regulations drive costs higher and incentivize monopolization over competition; partly because Americans have a limited choice of health insurance options; and partly because patients and providers are insulated from the true costs of health care services.

Imagine for a moment if other forms of insurance worked the same way as American health insurance does today. Say you arrive home one day and find that the lightbulb on your front porch has burned out. This happens every couple of months, and it’s predictable as clockwork – or a chronic condition. But because your homeowners insurance policy works like health insurance does, you can’t just drive to a store and buy a lightbulb, oh no. Instead, you have to call and set up an appointment with a highly-paid and highly-educated expert lightbulb specialist.

You go in the waiting room wait for two hours so the specialist can spend five minutes examining the lightbulb and telling you what new one you need to buy. The specialist used to be in a small practice, but now he’s in a big group, because there are all sorts of government regulations he has to deal with, and only big systems can afford to deal with them. He also has to overcharge your private insurer for this brief visit, because he spends a third of his time seeing people on government entitlement programs who dramatically underpay for his services.

The specialist gives you a nearly illegible prescription for a new lightbulb, but you can’t buy it just anywhere – your homeowners insurance has a network of stores, and going out of network means you’ll face penalties. You have to drive across town to an in-network hardware store, and then wait for someone to get the right lightbulb out of the back. You have no idea how much the lightbulb actually costs, or if it would be cheaper at the store ten minutes away – you just have a small co-pay for it, and the rest is covered by your insurer – or how much the specialist is paid to tell you which one to buy. And in a few months when the light burns out again, you’ll have to go through all of this all over again.

When you start to think about the American health insurance system in this context, you start to understand why things are so upside down when it comes to the costs of care. At each stage, everyone is insulated from costs, and most people have no incentive to shop and compare prices and services as they do in every other market. And government policies and sweeping regulations have only served to make it worse.

Health care represents one of the most complex arenas of public policy. It was an animating interest for me from a young age, in part because it is an area that touches every American during the course of their lives in profound ways. I worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.  During my lifetime, many attempts have been made to try and fix the broken aspects of our system, some more successful than others. President Obama’s health care law is just the latest in a long line of wrongheaded steps – but it is by far the worst yet.

As someone who believes in empowering patients and using market forces to improve American health care, I oppose President Obama’s law and believe we must repeal all of it—no matter what the conventional wisdom in Washington says. But we must also enact positive reforms to move our health system in the right direction, because the status quo of American health care and insurance is simply not defensible.

What the President said in the course of selling his signature legislation actually sounded good to me – it’s what he did that was awful. The President sold his law as a path to lower premium costs, promising that he’d cut them by $2,500 by the end of his first term. He said he wanted people to be able to keep their health plans and their doctors if they liked them. He said he wanted to bend the cost trajectory down while improving quality. I’m for all of that – but unfortunately that’s not what his law does.  At best the President was horribly naïve about how our health care system works, and how to reform it.  At worst he was deliberately untrue, and sold his government-centric plan as a “conservative” proposal because he knew the American people would never accept the truth.

We want to make sure that people have access to affordable high quality healthcare. We want to create a solid safety net for the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. This is, according to President Obama, what he wants, too. But from my perspective, he never stepped back and really looked at what’s wrong with our system, and asked what we want it to look like if we can tear down the existing market-warping problems and start afresh.

America needs a health care system where it is easy for the consumer to be in control, and where government won’t get in between you and your doctor. Sometimes on the right we’re blind to the fact that health care bureaucracy isn’t just Medicare and Medicaid personnel – it also could be a big insurance bureaucrat, and they’re little better. At each point, this system of bureaucracy, monopolization, and the lack of price transparency serves to drive costs higher and higher for all of us. The most fundamental question in health care policy is: do you want the patient to be in control, working with their doctor and health care provider, or do you want a bureaucrat – whether from the government or your insurer – to be in control?

The left has its answer to this question: empowering government. Instead, we should be empowering patients. How should we go about doing that? Well, there are several things that have to change, steps that will push health care in this country toward being a true competitive marketplace, and which make providers understand once again that the individual patient is their customer.

Big changes never happen organically in Washington, and many of the big stakeholders were heavily invested in Obamacare just a few years ago. But as President Obama’s monopartisan program has stumbled, it presents the opportunity for conservatives to make the case for real reform. It is now obvious to everyone that his plan simply won’t deliver on the many promises he made along the way. And that’s because, from the beginning, his approach was wrongheaded. He trusted the government to fix the problems and get everything right, instead of trusting the American people to know what’s best. We shouldn’t make that mistake twice.

A Conservative Alternative

In the debate surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly referred to as Obamacare, conservatives have consistently faced one myth, perpetuated by President Obama himself and his political allies: That there is no alternative to Obamacare, and that opponents of the law have offered no solutions on health care themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  In November 2009, House Republicans offered their alternative to Obamacare during a debate on the House floor; not a single Democrat voted for the legislation.[1]  One more recent compilation lists more than 200 pieces of health care legislation offered by conservative Members of Congress in 2013 alone.[2]  Conservatives have consistently proposed alternatives to Obamacare, and publicly advocated on their behalf, yet the President finds it easier to peddle untruths than to engage the American people on why his unpopular law is “better” than alternative reforms.

One reason President Obama fails to recognize conservative alternatives to Obamacare lies in a fundamental dispute about the root problems plaguing the American health care system.  Conservatives believe that the best way to improve access to health insurance coverage is to make that coverage more affordable.  Many conservatives may agree with then-Senator Obama, who stated during his 2008 presidential campaign: “I believe the problem is not that folks are trying to avoid getting health care.  The problem is they can’t afford it.”[3]

Candidate Obama may have talked like a conservative in his rhetoric highlighting health costs and opposing mandates, but President Obama has governed as a liberal.  Instead of tackling the root of the health care problem, and lowering costs first, Obamacare focused on spending trillions of dollars to expand health coverage, creating massive new entitlements in the process.  Rather than making health care more affordable for all Americans, Obamacare gave America a law it can’t afford to keep.  The law is fiscally unsustainable, its tax increases economically damaging, and its enshrinement of greater government control of every aspect of health care is more dangerous than some in Washington appreciate.

For these reasons and more, any conservative health reform must start with repealing Obamacare.  But conservative health reform must not end there.  Even prior to Obamacare, the status quo was, and remains, unacceptable.  Many Americans struggle every day with the high cost of health care, and Americans with pre-existing conditions cannot access the care they need.  America’s health care system does need reforms—but it needs the right reforms.

The policy solutions put forward by America Next in this paper focus on preserving what’s right with American health care, while fixing what’s wrong.  Fixing what’s wrong involves restoring one basic American principle—freedom—that has been eroded due to Obamacare  While it is wise for any individual to have health insurance coverage, Washington cannot—and should not—attempt to compel such behavior.

After restoring those freedoms, we can enact the reforms the American health system needs.  We focus first and foremost on reducing health care costs—because while most Americans want to buy health care and health insurance, many of them struggle to afford it.  We also work to preserve and strengthen the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, including those with pre-existing conditions.  And we focus on enhancing patient choice, removing obstacles to portability and consumer selection, including many put into place by Obamacare itself.  These principles should form the foundation for true health reform—one that puts doctors and patients, not government bureaucrats, at the heart of all policy decisions.

 

Principle #1: Lowering Health Costs

When running for President in 2008, candidate Obama promised that his health plan would lower premiums—in fact, he promised on numerous occasions that his plan would reduce costs for the average family by $2,500 per year.[4]  Unfortunately, the law President Obama signed bears little resemblance to that campaign pledge.  Obamacare moves American health care in the opposite direction—raising health costs and premiums, not lowering them.  The non-partisan Medicare actuary has concluded that Obamacare will raise total health spending by $621 billion dollars in its first decade alone.[5]  Likewise, independent analysts at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that Obamacare would raise premiums for those buying health insurance on the individual market by an average of $2,100 per year.[6]

The higher premiums due to Obamacare are discouraging many people from enrolling in coverage under the law.  A recent survey by analysts at McKinsey found that only 27 percent of Americans selecting insurance plans were previously uninsured—the group Obamacare intended to target for expanded coverage.[7]  The same survey found that half of those individuals who shopped for insurance coverage but did not select a plan cited affordability reasons in deciding not to purchase coverage: “I could not afford to pay the premium.”[8]  For many Americans, the measure dubbed the “Affordable Care Act” has proven anything but affordable.

Obamacare is raising health costs because its mandates and regulations force customers to buy health insurance products they may not want or need, merely because a government bureaucrat tells them they must.  Conversely, true reform would provide incentives for consumers to serve as smart health care shoppers, saving money by engaging in healthy behaviors and taking control of their health care choices.

Tax Equity:  When it comes to health insurance, today’s tax code contains two notable flaws.  First, it includes a major inequity: workers can purchase employer-provided coverage using pre-tax funds, but individuals who buy coverage on their own must use after-tax dollars to do so.  Second, because cash wages provided by an employer are taxable, but health insurance benefits are not taxed, no matter how generous the benefit, the tax code currently gives a greater value to health insurance than increases in cash wages.  This disparity has resulted in employers scaling back pay raises to help fund rapidly rising health plan costs.  The Congressional Budget Office has also noted that this disparity has exacerbated the growth in health costs, and that capping the tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance would help slow cost growth.[9]  Reforms could result in employers raising cash wages if their health costs grow more slowly over time.—and slowing the growth of health care costs would yield benefits for the broader economy.

A conservative health reform would transform the existing tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance into a standard deduction for all forms of health insurance, regardless of where they are purchased.  First proposed in 2007, this concept was also recently introduced in legislative form in the House of Representatives.[10]  This proposal would not raise taxes; following Obamacare’s repeal, total government revenues would remain at pre-Obamacare levels.  In other words, this proposal would not repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Under this model, the standard deduction would grow at higher rates initially, but as the other efficiencies take effect and the growth in health spending slows, the deduction would in time rise annually according to consumer price inflation.  Much as the current exclusion for employer-provided coverage applies to both income and payroll taxes, the standard deduction would apply towards income and payroll taxes as well.

These reforms would solve several problems with our current tax code.  The standard deduction would create equity between those who buy health coverage through their employer, and those who buy health coverage on their own.  In 2007, one analysis noted this change could reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 9.2 million.[11]  Over time, this policy might encourage more individuals to buy coverage independent of their employer plans, but such a change would likely be gradual and voluntary—as opposed to the millions of Americans who lost their existing health coverage last fall, because their plan did not meet Obamacare’s bureaucratic standards.

Just as importantly, the new standard deduction would contain in-built mechanisms to slow the growth of health costs.  Individuals who purchase insurance costing less than the amount of the standard deduction would still retain the full tax benefit from it—giving them reason to act as smart health care shoppers.  In addition, the slower growth rate of the deduction would give both insurance companies and consumers a greater incentive to maximize efficiencies in the health care system.  For decades, the tax code’s perverse incentives have accelerated spiraling health costs, but creating a standard deduction will help reduce costs rather than raising them.

State Health Insurance Program:  Although millions of Americans without access to employer-sponsored health coverage will benefit from the standard deduction for health insurance, some individuals with minimal tax liability—primarily those with incomes under about 150 percent of the federal poverty level—will receive little benefit from a tax deduction.  Instead, eligible individuals should receive an explicit government subsidy to purchase affordable health insurance.

This health reform plan proposes a pool of $100 billion in federal funding over the next ten years for states to subsidize affordable health insurance for low-income individuals and individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The funding would be provided to states with minimal restrictions:

  1. States must achieve measurable reductions in average health insurance premiums in the individual and small group markets, and must ensure that individuals have access to affordable health insurance—with premiums that do not exceed a defined percentage of that state’s median income.
  2. States must establish and maintain a form of guaranteed access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—a high-risk pool, a reinsurance fund, or some other risk transfer mechanism.  States could use some of their federal allotment to help fund the costs of covering high-risk individuals.
  3. Obamacare reduced disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments by half to finance expensive, unaffordable health coverage; this plan would instead restore that funding to help fund more affordable health insurance options. [12]  In order to access state grants, states must direct this restored funding toward covering eligible populations, reducing the amount of uncompensated care provided by instead subsidizing health insurance.  States will receive about $10 billion per year in DSH funding; re-directing some of these funds would supplement the $100 billion provided by the federal government.[13]

This reform model relies on federalism to promote innovation in health care and health insurance.  The federal government sets key goals—keeping insurance premiums affordable, and expanding access to low-income individuals and those with pre-existing conditions—and allows states to meet those goals in the manner they believe will work best for their state.  For example, if a state wants to incorporate an account-like savings mechanism to promote healthy behaviors, as Indiana has done, it can pursue that option.

Empowering states with flexibility and freedom can be a powerful tool in reducing health costs.  Analyzing a similar proposal put forward as part of the House Republican alternative to Obamacare in 2009, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that state innovation grants, coupled with liability reform and other common-sense solutions, would lower small business health insurance premiums by 7 to 10 percent, and would lower individual health insurance premiums by 5 to 8 percent.[14]  This reduction is even more stark when compared to the premium increases CBO predicted will occur (and are occurring) due to Obamacare.  Overall, estimates suggest that, when compared to Obamacare, this state-based approach could reduce premiums on the individual health insurance market by nearly $5,000 per family.[15]

Washington has tried a top-down approach to health care; it hasn’t worked.  Allowing states to serve as laboratories of innovation could slow the growth in health insurance costs and premium increases.  In addition, the $100 billion in federal funding, coupled with the matching funds from state DSH payments, would expand health care access for low-income individuals who do not benefit from the standard insurance deduction and those with pre-existing conditions.  This state-based model, not more Washington mandates and regulations, represents the best route to true health care reform.

Health Savings Accounts:  One of the innovations over the past decade that has helped slow the growth in health care costs has been Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which couple a high-deductible health plan with a tax-free savings account.  The high deductible plans provide lower premiums for consumers, who can then deposit the savings in their HSAs to use for routine health expenses.  And because funds in an HSA accumulate from year to year tax-free, they provide motivation for consumers to serve as smart purchasers of health care.

First made available in 2004, HSAs have grown in popularity; more than 15 million Americans are now covered by HSA-eligible health plans.[16]  Many are using tools provided by these plans to take better control of their health and health spending, seeking out preventive care, using generic drugs more frequently, and utilizing plan-provided decision support tools.[17]  These plans are also saving Americans money; in 2013, the average HSA plan provided by an employer cost $1,318 less per family than non-HSA plans—even after firms placed an average of $1,150 per family into the HSA to fund health expenses.[18]  A recent study found that more widespread adoption of HSA coverage could reduce health spending by as much as $73.6 billion per year.[19]

Obamacare moves in the opposite direction by placing limits on the effectiveness of HSAs.  For example, it prohibits the use of funds from an HSA to purchase over-the-counter medications without a prescription.[20]

Conservative health reforms should build upon the success of HSAs by offering new options to make HSA plans more flexible for patients and consumers.  Congress should allow HSA funds to be used to purchase health insurance in all cases, making it easier for consumers who save to fund their health coverage.  Another possible reform would create more flexible insurance policies, linking the size of the deductible for an HSA plan to customers’ account balances, incomes, or other assets; in this way consumers with sizable savings could choose coverage with an even lower premium in exchange for a higher deductible.  These changes would further accelerate a health coverage model that has already helped slow the growth of health costs for millions of Americans.

Greater Incentives for Wellness:  One of the few areas of bipartisan agreement during the Obamacare debate was a consensus around the “Safeway model”—namely, providing financial incentives for individuals and employees to engage in healthy behaviors.[21]  At the time, employers could vary premiums by up to 20% to reward participation in various wellness programs.  However, then-Safeway CEO Steve Burd noted that a 20% premium variation did not allow the company to recoup all the higher costs associated with unhealthy behaviors like smoking.

Congress can and should do more to enhance these innovative efforts to reduce health costs.  First, it can provide explicit statutory authority for premium variations of up to 50%.  It can also allow employers (or insurance companies selling individual insurance plans) to offer any financial incentives for healthy behaviors on a tax-free basis, by placing the money in new Wellness Accounts.  As with HSAs, the money in these accounts could then be used tax-free for health expenses, or withdrawn for other purposes.  This reform would marry two proven successes—HSAs and wellness incentives—turbo-charging efforts to slow the growth in health costs by encouraging Americans to engage in healthy behaviors.

Crack Down on Fraud:  Health costs have grown at a rapid rate at least in part due to widespread fraud in government health programs.  Unfortunately, a recent case in which 49 Russian diplomats were charged with fraudulently obtained Medicaid benefits—lying about their immigration status and income on application forms, even as they purchased goods from Tiffany’s and Jimmy Choo—is not an aberration.[22]  Several years ago, the New York Times cited expert analysis that as much as 40 percent of that state’s Medicaid spending was either questionable or outright fraudulent.[23]  The Medicare program for the elderly also faces widespread fraud—$60 billion per year, according to a 60 Minutes investigation.[24]

While the private sector has a series of programs and protocols in place to combat fraud, government health programs have traditionally lagged; their focus has been on paying claims quickly, whether real or fraudulent.  In recent years, some government programs have improved their efforts to combat fraud; for instance, Louisiana’s new Bayou Health managed care model built in robust savings from fraud detection, requiring plans participating in Bayou Health to crack down on suspicious transactions or face financial penalties.  But Congress should do more to end the current “pay and chase” model, which attempts to track down fraud after-the-fact, and enhance penalties for those who steal or traffic in Medicare patient numbers and other personal health information.

Price and Quality Transparency:  In many cases, consumers who wish to serve as “smart shoppers” of health care do not have the information to do so.  For far too long, price and quality transparency data have been lacking in the health sector, meaning patients face a dearth of information when they have to make potentially life-altering decisions about their care.  The good news is that these trends are slowly changing, and that transparency has provided consumers with useful, and powerful, information:

There is emerging evidence that when hospitals publish prices for surgical procedures, costs decrease without a loss of quality.  The Surgery Center of Oklahoma, for example, has been publishing its prices for various procedures for the past four years.  Because the center’s prices tend to be lower than those of other hospitals, patients started coming from all over the country for treatment.  In order to compete, other hospitals in Oklahoma began listing surgical prices; patients were able to comparison shop, and hospitals lowered their prices.[25]

Further efforts at transparency could help to reduce an estimated $105 billion paid in health costs annually due to uncompetitive pricing levels by medical providers.[26]  Just as importantly, patients could have more objective sources of information about doctors and medical treatments than recommendations from friends or acquaintances.  Online posting of price and quality data can easily lead to new Consumer Reports-type rating systems, which will empower patients with trusted data and provide providers an greater incentive to improve their quality practices.

 

Principle #2: Protect the Most Vulnerable

In trying to provide all Americans with health insurance, Obamacare may actually detract from efforts to protect those who need health care most.  The law provides a more sizable federal match for states to expand their Medicaid programs to childless adults than it does for states to cover their disabled populations.[27]  At a time when more than half a million disabled Americans are on state lists waiting to qualify for long-term supports and services, it is both uncompassionate and unfair for the Administration instead to focus on covering childless adults, most of whom are able to work or prepare for work.[28]

True health reform would focus first and foremost on targeting government resources to the most vulnerable in our society—protecting the safety net rather than stretching it past its breaking point.  These reforms would help individuals with pre-existing conditions, senior citizens, the disabled, and the unborn.  Making these populations the centerpiece of coverage efforts would meet one of Obamacare’s core goals—providing access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—without necessitating the upheaval caused by the President’s 2,700-page health law.

Guaranteed Access for Pre-Existing Conditions:  Obamacare was sold as a way to address the very real problem of Americans with pre-existing conditions—but the size of the problem did not warrant such a massive overhaul.  One estimate found that approximately 2-4 million individuals under age 65 may face difficulties purchasing health insurance.[29]  The Obama Administration has attempted to claim that up to 129 million Americans “could be denied coverage” due to pre-existing conditions.[30]   But when Obamacare created a high-risk pool to provide temporary coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, under 150,000 Americans ever enrolled in it[31]—far fewer than the 600,000-700,000 originally projected to seek enrollment in the program.[32]

Ironically enough, Obamacare has failed to deliver on its promise for individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The Administration froze enrollment in the law’s high-risk pools due to funding constraints,[33] and the unintended consequences of over-regulation meant that 17 states lost access to child-only health insurance plans.[34]  Some patients have also found that their Obamacare plans don’t include the specialists or hospitals they need; for instance, many plans do not offer access to advanced cancer centers.[35]

Conversely, conservative health reform would ensure that states have the incentive of funding to provide guaranteed access for Americans with pre-existing conditions.  Many states use various vehicles to cover these individuals—whether high-risk pools, reinsurance programs, or some other risk transfer mechanism.[36]  The incentive pool of federal dollars would allow states to determine the best mechanism for providing access to those with pre-existing conditions, and a stable source of funding for those endeavors.

Much of the case for Obamacare was made on the basis of an issue which effects a small portion of consumers: the challenge of pre-existing conditions. Since 1996, federal law included a requirement of guaranteed renewability in the individual health insurance market—so long as you paid for your policy, you were guaranteed the ability to renew your plan.  Policy cancellations—also called rescissions—were rare, and nearly always due to fraud, impacting according to some measures just four-tenths of one percent of the private individual market (which is itself just 10 percent of the insured marketplace).[37]  Though relatively small in number, the issue of pre-existing conditions raised concerns for many Americans—who feared that they, or someone they knew, would be affected if they developed an illness that made them uninsurable.

Obamacare was supposed to solve the problem of pre-existing conditions, but in many respects, the law actually made things worse.  It took away the coverage renewability guarantee, by forcing insurance companies to cancel the policies of millions of Americans. Even as they made the case that if you liked your plan you could keep it, those who favored the president’s legislation knew they were about to repeal the existing guaranteed renewability for millions of Americans. By doing this, Obamacare has completely disrupted the individual market, forcing many people who were satisfied with their coverage and the access they had to doctors and specialists being dumped into more costly and less comprehensive insurance simply because of Obamacare.

This lie should not be allowed to stand. Guaranteed renewability should ensure that patients have the ability to renew their coverage, regardless of their health status, so long as they have not committed fraud. Thus, people who maintain continuous coverage should be protected from premium spikes and have confidence their insurance will be there when they need it.

The central irony of Obamacare is that it hurt the very people it was supposed to help. For Americans signing up for new insurance, guaranteed renewability should offer peace of mind that their insurer cannot drop them merely for getting sick. For those Americans for whom access to guaranteed renewability contracts has been destroyed by Obamacare, the incentive pool of state dollars for more innovative approaches, coupled with greater flexibility for individuals leaving employer plans, will be there to help them get the coverage they need in a post-Obamacare system.

Premium Support:  Medicare faces a dire financial predicament.  According to the annual report by the program’s trustees—including members of the Obama Administration—the Part A trust fund financing hospital care will be insolvent by 2026.  In the short term, the program has taken a hit from the recession and slow economic recovery; the Medicare trust fund ran $105.6 billion in deficits during the years 2008-12.[38]  In the longer term, the outlook is even worse: Medicare faces 75-year unfunded obligations of at least $27.3 trillion, and even this estimate may understate the program’s liabilities, due to various budgetary and accounting gimmicks.[39]

Among the biggest gimmicks understating Medicare’s financial shortfalls is Obamacare itself.  In October 2011, Nancy Pelosi admitted what all Americans realize Democrats did as part of Obamacare: “We took a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in…the health care bill,” to pay for that law’s new entitlements.[40]  Yet the Obama Administration utilized an “only-in-Washington” logic to argue otherwise, citing trust fund accounting to assert that the Medicare provisions in the law could be used both to “save Medicare” and to “fund health care reform.”[41]  There are two kinds of people in politics—those that want to fix Medicare and those who want to use it to score political points.  Sadly, Obamacare followed the latter course.  Current and future generations of seniors deserve better—they deserve true reform that makes Medicare more sustainable.

One bipartisan solution to Medicare’s fiscal shortfalls would give seniors a choice of plans, with the federal government providing a generous subsidy to purchase coverage.  This premium support concept was developed, and endorsed, by a bipartisan majority in a commission created by Congress and President Clinton, whose Executive Director was Bobby Jindal.[42]  The commission’s work was in turn endorsed by the Democratic Leadership Council.[43]  More recently, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, submitted a bipartisan health reform plan that included a premium support proposal for Medicare beneficiaries.[44]

The key feature of a premium support proposal is the ability of competition among health plans to bring down costs and provide better care to America’s seniors.  Former Clinton Administration official Alice Rivlin testified before Congress in 2012 that nearly nine in ten seniors live in areas where private health plans have costs lower than traditional, fee-for-service Medicare; under a premium support proposal, these seniors could save money by choosing to enroll in a private plan.[45]  Likewise, the Congressional Budget Office recently analyzed one premium support proposal, and found that it could reduce Medicare spending by $15 billion dollars annually, while also reducing overall out-of-pocket spending by beneficiaries by an average of 6 percent.[46]

As part of the transition to premium support, the traditional Medicare benefit itself should be modernized.  For the first time ever, Medicare should provide a catastrophic cap on out-of-pocket expenses—so that seniors would know their spending.  At the same time, Medigap insurance, which provides supplemental coverage of co-payments and deductibles for some seniors, should also be reformed, so that seniors would no longer be pre-paying their health coverage by over-paying to insurance companies.

Under Medigap reform, seniors’ premium costs would fall substantially.  A 2011 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that under one version of reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[47]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

Medigap reform not only lowers seniors’ premiums, it also lowers their overall health costs.  A 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[48]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year.[49]

What’s more, modernizing traditional Medicare and Medigap would drive greater efficiency within the health care system.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this reform would make Medicare more sustainable for future generations, by as much as $114 billion in its first decade alone.[50]  As with premium support, this package of proposals represents a true “win-win:” Current seniors would save on their health expenses, while seniors-to-be would have greater confidence that the promises made to them can be kept when they prepare to join Medicare themselves.

For all these reasons and others, this modernization of Medicare carries broad support from across the political spectrum.  Bipartisan endorsers of Medigap reform include the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[51] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits,[52] Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[53] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[54]

Seniors deserve the potential savings and better care these reforms can provide.  Seniors’ plan choices would include some of the same options available to Americans under age 65, along with the traditional, government-run fee-for-service model, updated with new and more flexible options.  Likewise, future generations deserve the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing Medicare has been placed on a more sustainable path.  It is long past time for Washington to enact true Medicare reform.

Medicaid Reforms:  Despite Obamacare’s massive new regulations, some states have already acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  For instance, Rhode Island’s global compact waiver—in which the state received additional regulatory flexibility from the federal government in exchange for a cap on its Medicaid budget—has successfully slowed the growth of health costs in that state.  A 2011 Lewin Group report found that the global compact waiver “generated significant savings”—more than $50 million from the small state’s Medicaid budget—and did so not by reducing care, but by improving it:

The mandatory enrollment of disabled members in care management program [sic] reduced expenditures for this population while at the same time generally resulting in improved access to physician services.[55]

Since the Lewin study in 2011, Rhode Island’s success in managing its Medicaid program has continued.  The state has reduced its per capita Medicaid spending by more than five percent over the past three fiscal years, resulting in three straight years of minimal expenditure growth,  even as the state’s Medicaid caseload increased.[56]

These remarkable accomplishments come despite the Obama Administration’s efforts, not because of them.  The 2011 Lewin report notes that passage of Obamacare and the “stimulus” bill, both of which imposed new restrictions on state Medicaid programs, “had a profound impact” on the Rhode Island waiver, because “the flexibility sought did not always materialize.”  For instance, the original waiver gave Rhode Island the authority to assess modest premium charges for some beneficiaries, but the Obamacare mandates took this flexibility away.[57]

Other states have also acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  Louisiana has transitioned its Medicaid program toward a managed care model, named Bayou Health.  The program has furthered the goals of the Birth Outcomes Initiative, claims data for which reveal a reduction of 23,000 in statewide neonatal intensive care unit days paid by Medicaid—meaning more babies were carried to full term.

The Hoosier State’s Healthy Indiana Plan includes a personal responsibility component, and provides incentives to engage in wellness screenings, and imposes co-payments on beneficiaries who make non-urgent visits to the emergency room.  The plan also requires participants to make modest contributions to an account to fund their health needs, ensuring patients have incentives to manage their health spending and health care.  The financial requirements are not onerous; approximately 70% of beneficiaries consider the required account contributions just the right amount, and 94% of members report being satisfied or highly satisfied with their coverage.[58]  Yet, Obamacare could put this innovative plan out of business entirely, due to its Washington-imposed mandates on state Medicaid programs.[59]

Because the federal government provides states with at least a 1:1 match on their Medicaid expenses, states have a built-in incentive to spend more on Medicaid when compared to other state priorities like education, transportation, and corrections.  This open-ended entitlement drastically reduces states’ incentives to make efficient choices in managing their health care systems.  A more conservative approach should better align incentives to focus states’ efforts on improving care and reducing costs, instead of merely “gaming the system.”

Medicaid is not merely a fiscal failure, however. The error of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion was to double down on a program whose health outcomes range from the marginal to the horrendous—the result of paying doctors pennies on the dollar and cramming Medicaid recipients into already overburdened systems. Compared to both those patients with private insurance and those without any insurance at all, Medicaid patients stay in the hospital longer, cost more while they are there, and yet are significantly more likely to die before they leave.[60] The recent Oregon Medicaid study, which offered real-world examples of Medicaid recipients compared to those who were not on the program, answered questions about just how significant the benefits of modern Medicaid are.[61] The study authors found that after two years, Medicaid “had no significant effect” on physical health outcomes compared to being uninsured.[62] Spending nearly half a trillion dollars a year on a program which is so ineffective is unacceptable and immoral.

More than two years ago, Republican governors presented a report laying out common-sense reforms to the Medicaid program—from modernizing benefit design to simplifying accountability to eliminating unnecessary requirements.[63]  While the Obama Administration has not implemented most of the report’s 31 separate suggestions, they represent a good place to start when it comes to updating this important program and prioritizing the actual health care of those who need a safety net.

The best way to reform Medicaid lies in a global grant approach, which empowers states with maximum flexibility in exchange for a fixed funding allotment from the federal government.  The allotment would be adjusted annually for inflation and eligible population growth, and could be adjusted if a state receives a sudden increase in its disabled population.  Rhode Island’s innovative waiver demonstrates how it can be done—and further illustrates that indexing the grant to inflation can be achieved without cutting benefits, or harming beneficiaries’ access to care.

States should have additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in a manner that they believe best meets the needs of their citizens—while facing clear and simple accountability metrics from the federal government.  Rather than focusing on managing processes and completing forms, state Medicaid programs should emphasize improving outcomes.  In return, the federal government should revamp its accountability process to hold states to these higher standards.  Those who want to micro-manage states do so because they do not trust the people and their locally elected leaders.

Pro-Life Protections:  Among its many other flaws, Obamacare represents an intrusion on the moral values many Americans hold dear.  Contrary to prior practice, the law has seen federal tax dollars flow to fund health insurance plans that cover abortions.[64]  The law also forces many Americans to choose between violating the law and violating their consciences, imposing mandates on non-profit and other institutions that violate their deeply-held religious beliefs.  As a result, literally dozens of institutions nationwide have taken Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate to court; the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on the issue later this summer.[65]

Repeal of Obamacare will remove the law’s anti-conscience mandates, and the funding of plans that cover abortions.  But true health reform should go further, instituting conscience protections for businesses and medical providers, as well as a permanent ban on federal funding of abortions, consistent with the Hyde Amendment protections passed by Congress every year since 1976.[66]  There is much in health care about which Americans disagree, but protecting all Americans’ religious liberty should be one principle that warrants bipartisan support. The government should not force religious people to abandon their faiths in order to keep their doors open.

 

Principle #3: Portability and Choice

In an address to Congress in September 2009, President Obama attempted to sell Obamacare as offering consumers “competition and choice.”[67]  At least 4.7 million Americans—those who have already received cancellation notices due to the law—would beg to differ with the President.[68]  While the President offered a short-term concession—unilaterally waiving portions of Obamacare, and permitting some who lost health coverage to keep their plan until the 2016 presidential election—the cancellation notices are likely to continue for some time.  A 2010 Administration document admitted that more than half of all workers, and up to four in five employees in small businesses, would lose their pre-Obamacare health coverage.[69]

Obamacare undermines choice by dictating what type of insurance health plans must offer—and then dictating to firms that they must offer, and individuals that they must buy, this type of coverage.  Conversely, true health reform would smooth the problems of portability that occurred prior to the law’s enactment, while offering more personalized choices so consumers can buy the plan they want, not the plan a government bureaucrat tells them to purchase.

State Reforms to Expand Access:  For many decades, many states have held laws on their books that block access to care.  At least 36 states have certificate of need (CON) requirements, which force organizations to obtain clearance from the state before building new health care facilities.  In addition to the offensive nature of this approach—entities must ask government bureaucrats for permission to create a facility that will help patients—CON requirements have proven ineffective at their stated goal of reducing costs.  One recent analysis noted that states without CON requirements have significantly lower health costs than those states with certificate of need mandates.[70]  Congress repealed the law that created CON requirements nearly three decades ago; states can follow suit.[71]

Similarly, state licensing requirements can impose unnecessary burdens on medical practitioners, also limiting access to health care.  Given that the supply of doctors is not expected to keep up with projected demand, policy-makers should allow other medical professionals to utilize more of their expertise to provide more affordable and convenient care for patients.[72]  In 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommended that all professionals should be empowered to practice to the full scope of their professional training.[73]  States should modify their licensing requirements to remove artificial barriers impeding the ability to provide high-quality care.  States must also act prudently to protect patient quality and maintain high standards.  Doing so would expand access to care, allowing Minute Clinics and other similar entities to treat patients quickly and at lower cost than hospital emergency rooms or other sources of care.

Both certificate of need and artificial scope of practice restrictions sometimes prioritize the interests of incumbent members of the health system over the needs of patients.  In 2008, the Justice Department testified that CON laws “create barriers to entry and expansion to the detriment of health care competition and consumers.  They undercut consumer choice, stifle innovation, and weaken markets’ ability to contain health care costs.”[74]  Likewise, a seminal 2004 report on competition in health care by the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department noted that scope of practice laws create anticompetitive risks, have raised costs, and limited mobility of medical providers, all for unclear benefits to health care quality.[75]  At a time when health costs remain high and access for vulnerable populations limited, states should act in both these key areas, initiating reforms that have the potential to reduce costs while simultaneously increasing access to needed care.

Better Access for Individuals Changing Employers:  The fact that so many Americans currently receive health insurance coverage through their employers means that individual health insurance plans have traditionally occupied a smaller segment of the marketplace.[76]  As a result, most individuals transition from one employer plan to another when they switch jobs.  However, moving from employer coverage to an individual plan can often prove more difficult and costly.

While not undermining the employer coverage that many Americans currently have and enjoy, conservative health reforms should also encourage policies that promote greater personal ownership of health insurance.  One key reform would allow individuals who maintain continuous coverage to purchase an individual health insurance plan of their choosing, eliminating the requirement that such individuals first exhaust COBRA coverage before accessing an individual plan.  These and other similar reforms will encourage Americans to purchase coverage they can take with them from job to job.

Cross-State Insurance Purchasing:  Because health insurance is regulated at the state level, many health insurance markets face two major problems.  First, in many states, one or a handful of insurers control most of the market for coverage, and these oligopolies tend to raise premiums.  Obamacare has not helped this trend, and in fact may have worsened it.  According to the New York Times, more than half of all counties in the United States have only one or two health plans participating in their states’ insurance Exchanges.[77]

Second, benefit mandates imposed by state legislatures force individuals to purchase more insurance coverage than they may need or want.  According to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, states have imposed an average of 44 benefit mandates, each of which raises health costs.[78]  Individually, the mandates may not appear to raise premiums by a significant amount, but estimates suggest that collectively, benefit mandates impose hundreds of dollars in added costs to consumers every year.[79]

One solution to both these problems rests in Congress enacting legislation allowing consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines.  Consumers purchasing insurance across state lines would receive clear disclosures that their health coverage would be regulated by another state with respect to benefit mandates, solvency standards, and other similar requirements.  By using its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, Congress could give consumers the power—a power they currently lack—to buy the health insurance plan that best meets their needs, regardless of the state in which that plan is offered.  Such a measure would give power from insurance company cartels back to consumers, make health insurance portable across state lines, and reduce the growth of premiums.

Pooling Mechanisms:  In addition to allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, Congress should also provide clear protections, similar to those provided in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), for organizations that wish to establish multi-state insurance pools.  These organizations could be churches, fraternal organizations, trade groups for small businesses, alumni groups, or any other type of group with a common interest.  These groups should be permitted to band together and purchase health insurance for their members, providing coverage that fits members’ distinct needs while potentially reducing administrative costs.  Just as importantly, coverage obtained through these pools, unlike employer coverage, would be portable: Individuals would have and own their personal health policy, and would not need to change plans when they change jobs.

Lawsuit Reform:  In many states, medical liability problems present several problems for patients.  First, defensive medicine practices—doctors performing unnecessary tests due to fear of litigation—raise health costs, according to some estimates by more than $100 billion annually.[80]  Second, the seeming randomness of the legal system—in which some frivolous claims receive large awards, but some legitimate claims are dismissed—frustrates patients.  Finally, at a time when America already faces expected physician shortages, the legal climate discourages prospective doctors from pursuing medicine as a career choice.[81]  A recent study found that physicians spend more than 10% of their careers with an outstanding malpractice claim lingering over their practice.[82]  More than three in five physicians claim they or one of their colleagues may retire in the next three years due to frustration with the health care system—a fact likely exacerbated by an overly litigious culture.[83]

Enacting lawsuit reforms—including a cap on non-economic damages, restrictions on attorney contingency fees, discouraging frivolous lawsuits, and other common-sense changes—would reduce health care costs.  Because nearly half of all health spending is controlled by government, largely through the Medicaid and Medicare programs, Congress should take the lead in enacting lawsuit reforms in instances where the federal government is a payer of health services.[84]  If enacted, these changes could have a salutary effect on America’s physicians, just as the passage of tort reform in Texas encouraged more doctors to move to that state.[85]

Freedom for Seniors to Choose:  The doctor-patient relationship is the foundation on which our health care system should be based.  Unfortunately, government requirements often impede the ability for patients to choose the best option for their own care.  For instance, one law dictates that senior citizens may not make their own financial arrangements with their doctors if those arrangements contradict Medicare’s payment rates; any physician who does so is prohibited from receiving any reimbursements from Medicare for two years.[86]

Congress should restore the doctor-patient relationship by repealing this onerous requirement.  It should also restore the ability of Medicare patients to buy procedures on their own, provided seniors receive full disclosure from their physicians and medical providers for the costs of their care.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the number of doctors dropping out of Medicare nearly tripled between 2009 and 2012. [87]  Senior citizens should not have access to the physician of their own choosing—or to procedures their doctors recommend for them—violated due to arbitrary restraints imposed by federal bureaucrats.

 

Taken together, this package of reforms would accomplish the objectives the American people are looking for in their health care system—the objectives President Obama said his legislation would bring, but which Obamacare has not delivered.  Enacting policies that get the incentives right can reduce costs, even while protecting the most vulnerable and enhancing portability and choice for consumers.

The American people deserve true health reform—one that puts patients and doctors first, not government bureaucrats.  After repealing Obamacare, enacting America Next’s plan would point America’s health system in the right direction.

 

 

[1] Vote on Boehner Substitute Amendment to H.R. 3962, Affordable Health Care for America Act, House Roll Call Vote 885, 111th Congress, November 7, 2009, http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2009/roll885.xml.

[2] “Republican Study Committee Policy Brief: Members’ Health Care Initiatives in the 113th Congress,” November 25, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/uploadedfiles/113th_112513_rsc_healthcare_menu.pdf.

[3] Remarks in Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, January 21, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/01/21/debate.transcript2/index.html.

[4] A video compilation of candidate Obama’s remarks on this issue from the 2008 campaign is available at http://freedomeden.blogspot.com/2010/03/obama-20-promises-for-2500.html.

[5] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections: Slow Growth Until Coverage Expands and Economy Improves,” Health Affairs October 2013, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/10/1820.

[6] Congressional Budget Office, Letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding premium effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, November 30, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10781/11-30-premiums.pdf.

[7] Amit Bhardwaj, et al., “Individual Market Enrollment: Updated View,” McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform, March 2014, http://healthcare.mckinsey.com/sites/default/files/Individual-Market-Enrollment.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, December 2008, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9924/12-18-keyissues.pdf, pp. 84–87.

[10] The White House, “Affordable, Accessible, and Flexible Health Coverage,” January 2007, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/stateoftheunion/2007/initiatives/healthcare.html; Republican Study Committee, “The American Health Care Reform Act,” September 18, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/solutions/rsc-betterway.htm.

[11] John Sheils and Randy Haught, “President Bush’s Health Care Tax Deduction Proposal: Coverage, Cost, and Distributional Impacts,” The Lewin Group, January 28, 2007, http://www.lewin.com/~/media/Lewin/Site_Sections/PressReleases/BushHealthCarePlanAnalysisRev.pdf.

[12] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L 111-148), Section 2551.

[13] Congressional Budget Office, Medicaid baseline, May 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44204_Medicaid.pdf.

[14] Congressional Budget Office, analysis of House Republican substitute amendment to H.R. 3962, November 4, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10705/hr3962amendmentboehner.pdf.

[15] Press release by House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Dave Camp, November 5, 2009, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=153186.

[16] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “January 2013 Census Shows 15.5 Million People Covered by Health Savings Account/High-Deductible Health Plans (HSA/HDHPs),” June 2013, http://www.ahip.org/HSACensus2013PDF/.

[17] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “Health Savings Accounts and Account-Based Health Plans: Research Highlights,” July 2012, http://www.ahip.org/HSAHighlightsReport072012/.

[18] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2013 Annual Survey,” August 2013, http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/8465-employer-health-benefits-20132.pdf, Exhibit 8.8, p. 140.

[19] Amelia M. Haviland, M. Susan Marquis, Roland D. McDevitt, and Neeraj Sood, “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.abstract.

[20] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148), Section 9003.

[21] Steven A. Burd, “How Safeway Is Cutting Health Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[22] Christopher Matthews, “U.S. Accuses Russian Diplomats of Medicaid Fraud,” Wall Street Journal December 5, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303497804579240163174732486.

[23] Clifford Levy and Michael Luo, “New York Medicaid Fraud May Reach into Billions,” The New York Times, July 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/18/nyregion/18medicaid.html.

[24] CBS News, “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes, September 5, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-5414390.html.

[25] Lisa Rosenbaum, “The Problem with Knowing How Much Your Health Care Costs,” The New Yorker December 23, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/12/price-transparency-health-care-costs.html.

[26] Institute of Medicine, The Health Care Imperative: Lowering Costs and Improving Outcomes—Workshop Summary, February 2011, http://www.iom.edu/reports/2011/the-healthcare-imperative-lowering-costs-and-improving-outcomes.aspx.

[27] Chris Jacobs, “How Obamacare Undermines American Values: Penalizing Work, Marriage, Citizenship, and the Disabled,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2862, November 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/how-obamacare-undermines-american-values-penalizing-work-marriage-citizenship-and-the-disabled.

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Waiting Lists for Medicaid Section 1915(c) Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) Waivers,” December 2012, http://kff.org/medicaid/state-indicator/waiting-lists-for-hcbs-waivers-2010/#table.

[29] James C. Capretta and Tom Miller, “How to Cover Pre-Existing Conditions,” National Affairs Summer 2010, http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20100614_CaprettaMiller_Web.pdf, pp. 114-15.

[30] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning and Evaluation, “At Risk: Pre-Existing Conditions Could Affect 1 in 2 Americans,” November 2011, http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/2012/pre-existing/index.shtml.

[31] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, “Covering People with Pre-Existing Conditions: Report on the Implementation and Operation of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program,” January 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/pcip_annual_report_01312013.pdf.

[32] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Senator Mike Enzi (R–WY), June 21, 2010, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/115xx/doc11572/06-21-high-risk_insurance_pools.pdf.

[33] Department of Health and Human Services, Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, notice of enrollment suspension, February 15, 2013, https://www.pcip.gov/Notifications/021513-ENROLLMENT_SUSPEND.html.

[34] Report by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi, “Health Care Reform’s Impact on Child-Only Health Insurance Policies,” August 2, 2011, http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Child-Only%20Health%20Insurance%20Report%20Aug%202,%202011.pdf.

[35] Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, “Concerns about Cancer Centers under Health Law,” Associated Press March 18, 2014, http://hosted2.ap.org/apdefault/3d281c11a96b4ad082fe88aa0db04305/Article_2014-03-18-Health%20Overhaul-Top%20Cancer%20Centers/id-d5acff9619ec4bc6aa875800d96fc270.

[36] Information on various state plans for covering high-risk individuals can be found on the website of the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, www.naschip.org.

[37] John C. Goodman, “Rescissions: Much Ado About Nothing,” Kaiser Health News, May 13, 2010,    http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Columns/2010/May/051310Goodman.aspx.

[38] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Medicare trustees report, May 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/TR2013.pdf, TableII.B4, p. 58.

[39] Suzanne Codespote, memo from Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, to Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions, June 3, 2013.

[40] Maria Bartiromo, “One-on-One with Nancy Pelosi,” CNBC interview, October 28, 2011, http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000054002.

[41] Kathleen Sebelius, testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “Fiscal Year 2012 HHS Budget,” March 4, 2011, video available at http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=8281.

[42] The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare was chaired by Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA); its work can be found at http://medicare.commission.gov/medicare/index.html.

[43] Testimony of David Kendall, Progressive Policy Institute Senior Analyst for Health Policy, before Senate Finance Committee hearing on “Modernizing Medicare,” May 26, 1999, http://dlc.org/ndol_ci04fb-2.html?kaid=111&subid=141&contentid=1790.

[44] Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan, “Guaranteed Choices to Strengthen Medicare and Health Security for All: Bipartisan Options for the Future,” December 15, 2011, http://budget.house.gov/uploadedfiles/wydenryan.pdf.

[45] Alice Rivlin, testimony before the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee on “A Bipartisan Approach to Reforming Medicare,” April 27, 2012, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/rivlin_testimony_final_4-27-2012.pdf, p. 4.

[46] Congressional Budget Office, “A Premium Support System for Medicare: Analysis of Illustrative Options,” September 2013, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/09-18-PremiumSupport.pdf.

[47] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[48] Ibid., p. 8.

[49] Ibid., p. 8.

[50] Congressional Budget Office, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 to 2023,” November 13, 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44715-OptionsForReducingDeficit-2_1.pdf, Health Option 7, p. 211.

[51] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010, http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

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

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

[54] Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2015 Budget, March 4, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2015/assets/budget.pdf, pp. 31-32.

[55] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf.

[56] Testimony of Gary Alexander before the Congressional Commission on Long-Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.lmp01.lucidus.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[57] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation,” pp. 11-12.

[58] Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Healthy Indiana Plan 1115 Waiver Extension Application, February 13, 2013, http://www.in.gov/fssa/hip/files/HIP_WaiverforPosting.pdf, pp. 19, 6.

[59] Mitch Daniels, “We Good Europeans,” The Wall Street Journal March 26, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704094104575144362968408640.html.

[60] Avik Roy, “The Medicaid Mess: How Obamacare Makes It Worse,” The Manhattan Institute, March 2012,  http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ir_8.htm

[61] Katherine Baicker, Sarah Taubman, Heidi Allen, Mira Bernstein, Jonathan Gruber, Joseph P. Newhouse, Eric Schneider, Bill Wright, Alan Zaslavsky, Amy Finkelstein, and the Oregon Health Study Group, “The Oregon Experiment – Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes” New England Journal of Medicine, May 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321

[62] The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, http://www.nber.org/oregon/

[63] Republican Governors Public Policy Committee Health Care Task Force, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, http://www.scribd.com/doc/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[64] Sarah Torre, “Obamacare’s Many Loopholes: Forcing Individuals and Taxpayers to Fund Elective Abortion Coverage,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2872, January 13, 2014, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/01/obamacares-many-loopholes-forcing-individuals-and-taxpayers-to-fund-elective-abortion-coverage.

[65] A full list of the court cases, and further information regarding them, can be found through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, http://www.becketfund.org/hhsinformationcentral/.

[66] Chuck Donovan, “Obamacare: Impact on Taxpayer Funding of Abortion,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2872, April 19, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/obamacare-impact-on-taxpayer-funding-of-abortion.

[67] President Barack Obama, remarks to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care, September 9, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-to-a-Joint-Session-of-Congress-on-Health-Care.

[68] Associated Press, “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” December 26, 2013, http://money.msn.com/business-news/article.aspx?feed=AP&date=20131226&id=17219856.

[69] Interim final rule by Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services regarding grandfathered health insurance status, released June 14, 2010, http://www.federalregister.gov/OFRUpload/OFRData/2010-14488_PI.pdf Table 3, p. 54.

[70] Jordan Bruneau, “The Great Healthcare CON,” Foundation for Economic Education, January 15, 2014, http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/the-great-healthcare-con#axzz2qbUCvcC2.

[71] There may need to be some very targeted consideration given to specific health care markets so dependent on government programs that taxpayers end up paying for unused capacity.

[72] Association of American Medical Colleges, Center for Workforce Studies, “Recent Studies and Reports on Physician Shortages in the U.S.,” October 2012, https://www.aamc.org/download/100598/data/.

[73] Institute of Medicine, “The Future of Nursing: Focus on Scope of Practice,” Report Brief, October 2010, http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing/Nursing%20Scope%20of%20Practice%202010%20Brief.pdf.

[74] Joint Statement of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission before the Illinois Task Force on Health Planning Reform, September 15, 2008, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/comments/237351.pdf, pp. 1-2.

[75] Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition, July 2004, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/health_care/204694.pdf, pp. 25-28.

[76] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 170.9 million Americans were covered by employer-based insurance, compared with 30.6 million Americans covered by direct-purchase insurance (including various forms of supplemental coverage).  Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013, http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf, Table C-1, p. 67.

[77] Reed Abelson, Katie Thomas, and Jo Craven McGinty, “Health Care Law Fails to Lower Prices for Rural Areas,” New York Times October 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/business/health-law-fails-to-keep-prices-low-in-rural-areas.html.

[78] CAHI found a total of 2,271 benefit mandates enacted in 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2012: Executive Summary,” April 9, 2013, http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/Mandatesinthestates2012Execsumm.pdf.

[79] One study found that benefit mandates raise premiums by an average of $0.75 per month, or $9 per year.  A state with the national average of 44 benefit mandates would therefore have raised premiums by an average of $396 annually.  See Michael J. New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 06-04, July 25, 2006, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/07/the-effect-of-state-regulations-on-health-insurance-premiums-a-revised-analysis, p. 5.

[80] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Addressing the New Health Care Crisis: Reforming the Medical Litigation System to Improve the Quality of Health Care,” March 2003, http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/medliab.pdf, p. 16.

[81] Association of American Medical Colleges, “Recent Studies on Physician Shortages.”

[82] Seth A. Seabury, et al., “On Average, Physicians Spend Nearly 11 Percent of their 40-Year Careers with an Open, Unresolved Malpractice Claim,” Health Affairs January 2014, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/1/111.full.pdf+html.

[83] Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, “Deloitte 2013 Survey of U.S. Physicians,” March 18, 2013, http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_chs_2013SurveyofUSPhysicians_031813.pdf, p. 3.

[84] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections.”

[85] Joseph Nixon, “Why Doctors Are Heading for Texas,” Wall Street Journal May 17, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB121097874071799863.

[86] Section 4507 of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, P.L. 105-33.

[87] Melinda Beck, “More Doctors Steer Clear of Medicare,” Wall Street Journal July 30, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323971204578626151017241898.

Weekly Newsletter: February 23, 2009

Orszag, Liberal Groups Support Health Care Rationing

Today President Obama will host a “fiscal responsibility summit” at the White House, followed later this week by a submission to Congress of his outline for the federal budget in Fiscal Year 2010 and beyond.  Press reports indicate that health issues will predominate both events, as entitlement spending in Medicare and Medicaid will serve as a focus of the fiscal summit, and health initiatives will be given a prominent place in the President’s budget proposals.

However, some Members may take a skeptical view of comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and others that health care can be reformed—and the entitlement crisis resolved—primarily through government rationing of health care goods and services.  While head of the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag prepared a report on comparative effectiveness research that advocated rationing’s beneficial effects—while alluding to its potential downsides for patients.  The December 2007 report asserted that such research “could …yield lower health care spending without having adverse effects on health.”  However, the report also admits that “patients who might benefit from more-expensive treatments might be made worse off” as a result of changes in reimbursement patterns.

Orszag’s view of health reform is shared by the left-leaning Commonwealth Fund, which last week released its own report outlining ways to generate savings within the health sector.  The largest chunk of proposed savings—$634 billion over ten years—would come from comparative effectiveness research and subsequent rationing of care.  The report asserts that “merely making information available” about the relative merits of treatments “is unlikely to produce” outcomes yielding sufficient savings—and therefore recommends that the new comparative effectiveness center help “to create financial incentives for patients and physicians to avoid high-cost treatments.”  The Fund proposes that the comparative effectiveness center—similar to the Council established in economic “stimulus” legislation signed into law last week—“make benefit and pricing recommendations to public insurance plans, including Medicare.”

While supporting the need to slow the growth of health spending, and entitlement spending in particular, some Members may be concerned by the implications of these recommendations, which would place government bureaucrats between doctors and patients, leading to denials of critical care.  Some Members may instead support alternatives that would slow the growth of health care costs through additional competition (both inside and outside Medicare), while preserving and enhancing a culture where patients and doctors—not insurance companies or government bureaucrats—determine the appropriate course of medical care.  Some Members may also support means testing for the Medicare Part D benefit—requiring Warren Buffett and George Soros to pay more for their prescription drugs—as an additional way to bring our entitlement obligations in line with projected future revenues.

The Outlook Ahead

The President’s address to Congress Tuesday night, coupled with his submission of a budget outline on Thursday, will commence a six-week period leading up to Congress’ Easter recess where health issues will remain prominent.  As indicated above, the budget may include additional provisions regarding comparative effectiveness research and rationing of health care, as well as proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage plans that have proved popular with seniors—particularly those with low incomes—in recent years.  At this time it remains unclear whether the President will use the budget submission to fulfill his statutory obligation to present Congress with Medicare funding reform legislation, as required by the “trigger” provisions inserted into the Medicare Modernization Act at the behest of House Republicans.

Hearings and other legislative activity are also likely to continue regarding comprehensive health reform; Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced his comprehensive bill on February 5, and Senate Finance Chairman Baucus—who pledged to introduce legislation early in the 111th Congress—may follow suit in short order.  The House may also consider legislation related to food and drug safety, as well as a bill (H.R. 1108 in the 110th Congress) giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products, funded by “user fees” on tobacco companies.  Particularly as many Democrats have harshly criticized the FDA for lax enforcement related to food safety matters, some Members may believe now is precisely the wrong time to distract the FDA from its current mission in order to have the agency regulate the tobacco industry—and the wrong time to burden working families with the second tobacco tax increase this year, on the heels of the 62 cent tax increase used to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expansion.

Health Care for Undocumented Immigrants

Background:  Data from this year’s Census Bureau report on the uninsured indicate that more than one-fifth—over 9.7 million—of the uninsured are foreign-born residents of the United States lacking American citizenship.  This category—which includes both legal residents not yet citizens as well as undocumented aliens—contains the highest percentage of uninsured Americans (43.8%) of any age, race, income, or other cohort included in the Census survey.[1]

While the Census Bureau reports do not contain specific data on the uninsurance rate among illegal immigrants, a 2005 study using data from the Los Angeles area provides some insight regarding this population.[2]  Extrapolating the 68% uninsured rate for aliens found in the Los Angeles study to a nationwide undocumented population of 12 million would yield approximately eight million uninsured—about one-sixth of the total number of uninsured Americans—who are illegally present.

Impact on Federal Programs:  In general, provisions in Title IV of the 1996 welfare reform law (P.L. 104-193) prohibit the provision of health care or other services to aliens illegally present in the United States.[3]  However, federal health care programs address the issue of verifying identity and nationality as a condition of providing care in various ways, while other programs attempt indirectly to offset the impact of uncompensated care for illegal aliens on health care providers.  The most important of these include:

Medicare:  Under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act, Medicare benefits are available to eligible citizens, as well as to legal aliens continually resident in the United States for at least five years prior to application for benefits.[4]  The five-year residency requirement was challenged on due process grounds, and eventually upheld by the Supreme Court in June 1976; Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for a unanimous Court, stated “it is obvious that Congress has no constitutional duty to provide all aliens with the welfare benefits provided to citizens.”[5]

The Social Security Administration (SSA) determines eligibility for Medicare benefits, including the process of verifying an applicant’s identity and citizenship (or legal resident status).  The standards used by SSA are found in federal regulations, and include evidence of age (e.g. birth certificate or hospital record), identity (e.g. driver’s license, school record, or other documents identifying an individual), and citizenship (e.g. birth certificate, passport, or certificate of naturalization).[6]

Medicaid:  Under the provisions of the welfare reform law, states may only receive federal Medicaid matching funds for legal U.S. citizens or qualified aliens (subject to a five-year waiting period in most cases.[7]  However, while the Medicaid statute has required since 1986 that applicants declare their nationality under penalty of perjury, until recently most states relied on self-attestation to verify citizenship status.[8]  A 2005 report by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General found that 40 states (including the District of Columbia) allowed self-declaration, with an additional seven states sometimes permitting self-declaration of citizenship status; of these 47 states, 27 did not verify the accuracy of the citizenship attestation.[9]

As a result of this report, Congress in the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA, P.L. 109-171) eliminated the ability of state Medicaid programs to rely on self-declarations by beneficiaries as the sole means of citizenship verification.  Specifically, Section 6036 of the Act requires states receiving federal Medicaid funds to verify participants’ identity and citizenship on the basis of appropriate documentation (e.g. passport, birth certificate, etc.).  The verification provisions do not apply to dual eligible (i.e. enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid) beneficiaries, or to Medicaid beneficiaries receiving SSI benefits, as the Social Security Administration verifies the identities of these beneficiaries, as outlined above.

Shortly after the DRA provisions took effect, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued an interim final rule on July 12, 2006, using discretionary authority included in the DRA to expand the list of eligible documents that could be used to verify citizenship and/or identity, in order to ease the transition to the new verification regime.[10]  In addition, the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 (P.L. 109-432) exempted children in foster care from the DRA documentation provisions.  While the verification requirements were sharply criticized by some organizations at the time of their enactment, many conservatives may note the relative lack of controversy surrounding Medicaid verification two years after the provisions took effect as proof that citizenship verification can be implemented in an effective manner that ensures aliens do not have access to federal benefits while preserving existing programs for eligible individuals.

SCHIP:  Because of the hybrid nature of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), only some children undergo citizenship verification as part of the application process.  The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-33), which created SCHIP, gave states the option to use SCHIP funds to expand their Medicaid programs, create a new program for SCHIP beneficiaries, or some combination of the two approaches.  The eight states (and the District of Columbia) which chose Medicaid expansion programs—as well as Medicaid participants in the 24 states with combination programs—are subject to the citizenship verification requirements enacted as part of DRA.[11]  However, the 18 states with separate SCHIP programs currently have no requirement to verify the identity and nationality of individuals before enrolling beneficiaries.

EMTALA:  Enacted in 1986 as part of the Combined Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (P.L. 99-272), the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) imposes requirements on hospitals accepting Medicare payments to treat patients in emergency conditions.  The Act’s requirements apply to all patients, regardless of their Medicare eligibility status, ability to pay, or immigration status.[12]  The Act also includes significant penalties: violations of EMTALA can result in fines of up to $50,000 and exclusion from the Medicare program in repeated or egregious cases, as well as lawsuits by patients adversely harmed by an EMTALA violation.

In recognition of the rising costs to providers associated with the EMTALA unfunded mandate, particularly as it relates to care for illegal aliens, Section 1011 of the Medicare Modernization Act (P.L. 108-173) provided a total of $1 billion in grants directly to providers (though on the basis of state-based formulae) for uncompensated emergency care given to illegal aliens—$250 million for each of Fiscal Years 2005 through 2008.

Community Health Centers:  Under the Public Health Service Act, the federal government provides competitive grants to federally qualified health centers, including migrant health centers.  In 2007, health centers treated 16.3 million patients, while the health centers grant program received $2.065 billion in the Fiscal Year 2008 omnibus appropriations bill (P.L. 110-161).[13]  Subsequent legislation passed in the House (H.R. 1343) and Senate (S. 901) would increase health center authorization levels to $15 billion over the FY09-FY13 period.

The statute authorizing the health centers grant program requires that care not be denied to patients based on an inability to pay for services.[14]  In addition, the Congressional Research Service reports that grant recipients are not required to verify the citizenship status of their patients.  Given that the authorizing statute is silent with respect to enforcing the prohibition against federal benefits being provided to illegal immigrants, some conservatives therefore may be concerned that federal tax dollars are being used to provide aliens with health care services.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments:  While not providing care to illegal aliens, the section of the Medicaid statute related to DSH payments implicitly recognizes the impact this population can have on providers.  In particular, the statute deems hospitals with a low-income utilization rate of 25% as qualifying for DSH payments, without limiting the low-income population to citizens normally eligible for federally-funded care.[15]  As a result, states may allocate portions of their Medicaid DSH payments—estimated to total $8.8 billion in Fiscal Year 2008—to offset care provided by hospitals to illegal aliens.[16]

Legislative Proposals:  Much of the debate surrounding health care for aliens during the 110th Congress has focused on SCHIP reauthorization.  While many Democrats have attempted to use reauthorization as a vehicle to limit or repeal the Medicaid citizenship verification provisions enacted in DRA, many conservatives believe that a reauthorized SCHIP program should incorporate the Medicaid documentation requirements to improve the integrity of the program.

More specifically, H.R. 3162, passed by the House in July 2007, would make Medicaid citizenship verification a state option for children under 21, retroactive to the July 2006 effective date of the DRA provisions.  In addition, Section 112 of the bill would also establish “Express Lane” agencies to enroll beneficiaries in Medicaid and SCHIP, without including citizenship verification or documentation requirements; Section 136 would require states to conduct audits on a sample caseload to ensure that federal Medicaid and SCHIP funds “are not unlawfully spent” on illegal aliens.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the removal of the mandatory Medicaid verification language for children, along with the “Express Lane” provisions, would effectively undermine the important reforms enacted as part of DRA, and that sample audits would not be sufficient to ensure compliance with provisions of the 1996 welfare law cited above stating that no illegal alien may receive federal health or welfare benefits.

H.R. 3963, vetoed by the President in October 2007, would extend citizenship verification requirements to both the SCHIP program has a whole and the “Express Lane” mechanism outlined in H.R. 3162 above.  However, the bill would provide an alternative verification process to the DRA provisions that would instead rely upon name and Social Security number validation—a process which, according to a September 2007 letter from Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue, would not keep an applicant from fraudulently receiving coverage under Medicaid or SCHIP (if they claimed they were someone they were not).  Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that this provision—coupled with the incentive to states provided by a greatly enhanced federal match to establish this more lenient verification system—would weaken the process put in place by the Deficit Reduction Act.

Conversely, several proposed Republican SCHIP alternatives (H.R. 3176, H.R. 3888, and S. 2193) would apply the Medicaid citizenship verification requirements, as created by the DRA, to the SCHIP program, with an enhanced federal match for administrative costs.  Some conservatives would support the extension of the reasonable Medicaid DRA provisions to the SCHIP program, along with an enhanced administrative match to reimburse states for any increase in overhead costs associated with citizenship verification.

More recently, press reports indicate that the Democratic “Tri-Caucus” of Hispanic, Black, and Asian Members have written to Speaker Pelosi asking her to include provisions repealing the five-year waiting period for qualified aliens to become eligible for Medicaid or SCHIP coverage as part of any SCHIP bill considered by the House this fall.[17]  This change would alter provisions in the 1996 welfare reform law—which also prohibited illegal aliens from receiving federal benefits—that limited access to benefits for most “qualified aliens” for five years.[18]  Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would increase costs while encouraging would-be immigrants to file claims for asylum in order to obtain federal health care coverage.

Implications for Comprehensive Health Reform:  In light of reports suggesting that illegal immigrants represent a significant—and fast-growing—component of the uninsured in America, some conservatives may focus on two elements necessary to address this issue in any comprehensive health care bill that may be considered.  First, consistent with the debate surrounding SCHIP legislation during this Congress, many conservatives may believe that any reform package must include provisions similar to those in the DRA that impose verification requirements for all applicants to preserve the integrity of federal programs and avoid providing incentives for illegal immigration.  For instance, while the Healthy Americans Act (S. 334) by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) excludes access to new state-based health plans for illegal immigrants, it contains no enforcement or verification provisions to implement this restriction.

Secondly, some conservatives may be concerned about the impact which uncompensated care given to illegal immigrants may impose on providers, particularly hospitals.  The unfunded mandate created by EMTALA has a significant impact on providers treating illegal immigrants, who are less likely to have the health insurance necessary to pay catastrophic expenses.  The combination of DSH payments and the $1 billion uncompensated care fund created by MMA, scheduled to sunset at the end of the fiscal year, only partially defer the uncompensated care cost paid by providers who treat illegal aliens.

Consistent with the conservative concerns about uncompensated care is the relatively new phenomenon of lawsuits against hospitals initiated by illegal immigrants.  The New York Times recently reported on a case from Florida where a hospital, having provided $1.5 million in uncompensated care to a Guatemalan alien, asked for and obtained a court order to return the immigrant to Guatemala; no nursing home in the United States would accept an alien patient without insurance and ineligible for Medicaid, while the hospital could not release a patient with brain injuries into the general population without arranging post-discharge care.[19]  In a case with potentially far-reaching implications, relatives for the alien had the Florida court order reversed after deportation—and subsequently filed suit against the hospital for false imprisonment.

Though tragic on multiple levels, the Florida case highlights a reality a growing number of providers may face—offer virtually unlimited care to illegal aliens, even when an inability to pay is glaringly apparent, or face legal action initiated by the aliens or their caretakers.  Therefore, some conservatives may support actions designed to ensure that providers offering reasonable emergency care to illegal aliens need not be subjected to additional and costly lawsuits.

Conclusion:  The Census data breaking down the uninsured by citizenship and national origin, while not widely publicized, illustrate one reason why the concept of universal health insurance coverage may prove ineffective.  Democrat proposals for an individual mandate to purchase coverage would prove ineffective for this population, who by their very presence have already violated United States law.  Although the uninsured population is not limited to undocumented aliens, many conservatives may believe that a truly comprehensive solution to this health care issue must address the significant demands on the health care system placed by illegal immigrants in a way that preserves the fiscal integrity of existing entitlement programs while protecting providers from liability imposed upon them by aliens illegally present.

 

[1] “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007” (Washington, Census Bureau, August 2008), available online at http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p60-235.pdf (accessed August 26, 2008), Table 6, p. 30.

[2] Dana Goldman, James Smith, and Neeraj Sood, “Legal Status and Health Insurance among Immigrants,” Health Affairs 24:6 (November/December 2005), 1640-1653.

[3] Illegal aliens are eligible for emergency care (as defined by the EMTALA statute discussed below) provided under Medicaid, and for public health assistance with respect to immunization for, and treatment of, communicable diseases.  Some groups of qualified aliens—excluding those illegally present—are eligible for other federal benefits, as discussed below.

[4] Available at 42 U.S.C. 1395o.

[5] Mathews v. Diaz, 426 U.S. 82 (1976).

[6] Some examples of documentation can be found at 20 CFR 422.107.  In addition, SSA’s Program Operations Manual System (POMS) includes guidelines for workers in SSA field offices; the section of the manual relating to citizenship, alien status, and residency can be found online at https://s044a90.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.nsf/lnx/0200303000 (accessed August 25, 2008).

[7] According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 17 states provide benefits funded solely by state dollars to illegal aliens and/or aliens subject to the waiting period.  See “Health Insurance Coverage and Access to Care for Low-Income Non-Citizen Adults,” (Washington, Kaiser Policy Brief #7651, June 2007), available online at http://www.kff.org/uninsured/upload/7651.pdf (accessed August 26, 2008), p. 3.

[8] The requirement is in Section 1137 of the Social Security Act, available at 42 U.S.C. 1320b-7(d)(1)(A).

[9] Daniel Levinson, “Self-Declaration of U.S. Citizenship for Medicaid,” (Washington, DC, HHS Office of the Inspector General, Report OEI-02-03-00190, July 2005), available online at http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-02-03-00190.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008), pp. 16-18.

[10] A final rule incorporating comments to the July 12, 2006 interim final rule was published in the Federal Register on July 13, 2007 and can be found online at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/pdf/07-3291.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008).

[11] A state-by-state breakdown of SCHIP program status can be found in Congressional Research Service, The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP): An Overview, Report RL 30473, available online at http://www.congress.gov/erp/rl/pdf/RL30473.pdf (accessed August 21, 2008), Table 1, Column 1, pp. 18-21.

[12] The full EMTALA statute can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1395dd.

[13] Fiscal Year 2009 HHS Budget in Brief, available online at http://www.hhs.gov/budget/09budget/2009BudgetInBrief.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008), pp. 21-25.

[14] The statutory language is available at 42 U.S.C. 254b(k)(3)(G)(iii)(I).

[15] The definitions of Medicaid DSH institutions can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1396r-4(b).

[16] March 2008 CBO Medicaid baseline, available online at http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicaidBaseline.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008).

[17] Mike Soraghan, “Minority Caucuses to Press for Two SCHIP Provisions,” The Hill August 13, 2008, available online at http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/minority-caucuses-to-press-for-two-schip-provisions-2008-08-12.html (accessed August 21, 2008).

[18] Title IV of P.L. 104-193 did contain some exceptions to the “qualified alien” waiting period—most notably for legal permanent residents with a substantial work history (i.e. 40 qualifying quarters of Social Security coverage) and for those with a military connection (i.e. veterans, active-duty servicemen, and their spouses and dependents).

[19] Deborah Sontag, “Immigrants Facing Deportation by U.S. Hospitals,” New York Times August 3, 2008, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/us/03deport.html?_r=1&sq=jimenez&st=cse&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&scp=10&adxnnlx=1219331895-evIAEOYXEq2SKfB7dLGcEg&pagewanted=print (accessed August 21, 2008).

Weekly Newsletter: June 9, 2008

Committees Continue to Spar over Tobacco Tax Legislation

Congress’ return last week brought no end to a simmering jurisdictional dispute that has delayed consideration of legislation (H.R. 1108) designed to regulate tobacco products under the auspices of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In April, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rangel wrote to Speaker Pelosi requesting a sequential referral of the bill, on the grounds that the “user fee” assessed on tobacco companies in the legislation exceeds the funds directed from that fee to tobacco enforcement activities at FDA, making the legislation a general revenue raising (i.e. tax) bill under Ways and Means’ jurisdiction.

Many conservatives will view Chairman Rangel’s letter as confirmation that, notwithstanding the statements of Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats and a finding within the bill text of H.R. 1108, the proposed “user fee” is in fact an excise tax on tobacco companies to offset the expected loss of revenue resulting from FDA regulation. Some conservatives may view this tax increase as one of several concerns associated with H.R. 1108, which would impose onerous regulatory restrictions—including those on tobacco companies’ free speech rights to market and advertise their products—in the interest of protecting the public health. Some conservatives may question the wisdom of legislation requiring the FDA to regulate tobacco, particularly given the concerns raised by Congressional Democrats themselves about the FDA’s inability properly to regulate products currently within the agency’s remit.

The RSC will weigh in with conservative concerns on the tax and other issues as the legislation moves forward.

Revised Wyden Bill a Perpetual Tax-Raising Machine

Last month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a letter that could have a significant impact on any potential discussion of health care reform in the 111th Congress. In it, CBO gave a preliminary opinion that comprehensive health legislation introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the Healthy Americans Act (S. 334), could be scored as budget-neutral, subject to certain conditions. In general, the bill would replace the current system of employer-provided health insurance with a “managed competition” model, whereby insurance coverage meeting a series of regulatory standards is provided through state-based pools, with a mandate on all individuals to purchase coverage and subsidies for low-income individuals and families.

Many of the bill’s potential funding sources—including a tax on all employers to pay for their employees’ insurance costs—have been well-publicized. Less advertised however were the revised bill specifications which CBO took into account when scoring the Wyden proposals. Specifically, the bill proposed to mandate coverage at least as good as that currently provided in the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard option in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP)—a generous benefit package 15% higher than the average cost of all employer-sponsored plans—with the amount of the mandate rising in future years to reflect economic growth in the gross domestic product (GDP). However, the revised specifications also note that the tax subsidy for purchasing health insurance will be indexed in future years to growth in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Thus, under the Wyden plan, if future economic growth exceeds inflation—as it has in every year since 1992—Americans would be forced to buy more insurance but would not receive an equivalent tax subsidy to purchase that richer benefit package, leading to tax increases that would spiral over time.

On top of the many existing problems with the Wyden bill—a mandatory tax on employers, an individual mandate to purchase coverage that could prove problematic to enforce, increased regulation on insurers, and the requirement that all carriers provide coverage for abortion procedures—some conservatives may find this new perpetual tax increase most objectionable of all. While many conservatives support measures designed to control the currently uncapped tax expenditure for employer-sponsored health care as a way to slow the growth of health care costs, many of these same conservatives may have concerns about the implications of an individual mandate to purchase insurance—particularly one that could lead to automatic tax increases in future years for millions of Americans.

An RSC Policy Brief on the implications of an individual mandate can be found here.

Articles of Note: Health Insurance in Massachusetts a Fine Thing

A study on the influential Massachusetts health plan released last week indicated that beneath the political harmony that yielded a statewide “universal coverage” law two years ago, fissures loom. While health insurance coverage has increased significantly, the biggest growth in new coverage has come from low-income individuals accepting free or heavily subsidized plans provided by the Commonwealth. On the other hand, nearly 100,000 individuals paid a fine on their 2007 taxes for lacking health insurance in spite of the new mandate to purchase coverage.

Many conservatives may not be surprised by the study’s findings, particularly given the unnecessarily high cost of health insurance premiums in Massachusetts due to over-regulation. Faced with a penalty for non-compliance of $219 in 2007 and an average monthly premiums in excess of that amount, some individuals may make a rational choice to pay a fine of several hundred dollars per year rather than purchase coverage costing several thousand dollars—particularly because Massachusetts state regulations allow individuals applying for insurance after contracting an illness to receive the same premiums as those who applied when healthy. Conservatives would view the Massachusetts data as symptomatic of the problems associated with both enforcing an individual mandate and the high cost of health insurance derived from over-regulating insurance markets.

In addition, some conservatives may be concerned by a quote in The Washington Post from the head of a group that advocated for passage of the Massachusetts law: “Nobody knew what this was going to cost in the beginning.” At a time when the federal government faces unfunded obligations of nearly $86 trillion associated with the Medicare program alone, many conservatives may consider it unwise for the federal government to follow Massachusetts’ lead in enacting another expansive government entitlement without solving the underlying problems associated with the growth of health care spending.

Read the articles here.

An Individual Mandate to Purchase Health Insurance

Background:  Proposals requiring all individuals to obtain health insurance coverage date to the debate surrounding President Clinton’s health reform package in the early 1990s.  Supporters of an individual mandate often utilize two linked arguments in favor of this approach to health care reform.  First, an individual mandate promotes personal responsibility, ending the “free rider” problem whereby individuals who choose to go without health insurance pass on their costs to various publicly-funded safety net programs in the event of a medical emergency.  Second, some advocates of insurance “reforms” such as guaranteed issue and community rating—which require health insurance carriers to disregard applicants’ health status when extending offers of insurance—accept that placing such restrictions on carriers in the absence of a mandate to purchase insurance would only encourage individuals to “game” the system by waiting until they become sick to submit an insurance application.

Recent Proposals:  An individual mandate regained national prominence when then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) signed into law a comprehensive health reform plan in April 2006.  The mandate formed one of the bill’s central planks, which, when coupled with expansions of Medicaid and various low-income subsidies, was designed to achieve universal coverage within the state.  Although Romney had initially proposed that individuals be permitted to post a bond in lieu of proof of insurance coverage, the Legislature excluded this alternative from the final package.

In the time since enactment of the Massachusetts plan, some states (most notably California) have also studied the creation of a health insurance mandate, as have several federal policy-makers.  In January 2007, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) reintroduced the Healthy Americans Act (S. 334), co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT), and introduced in the House as H.R. 3163 by Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA).  Section 102(a) of the legislation requires all individuals to enroll in a Healthy Americans Private Insurance plan, unless the individual is covered under Medicare, other federal coverage for servicemen or veterans, or has a religious objection to purchasing health insurance.  The bill also defines a minimum benefit standard for insurance coverage, requiring all policies sold in compliance with the individual mandate to include health benefits actuarially equivalent to the benefit package offered in the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard option in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) as of January 1, 2007.

The Democratic presidential candidates have both supported mandates to purchase health insurance, although the scope of their respective mandates has become a subject of widespread debate during the primary season.  Sen. Hillary Clinton’s platform will require all individuals “to get and keep insurance in a system where insurance is affordable and accessible,” consistent with “promoting shared responsibility.”[1]  By contrast, Sen. Barack Obama’s plan “will require that all children have health care coverage,” but does not advocate a mandate for all individuals—although he has indicated an openness to consider one in the future should large numbers of adults choose not to purchase insurance.[2]  Although Clinton and Obama have promised all individuals access to insurance plans that would be “at least as good as” and “similar to” FEHBP coverage, respectively, neither candidate has elaborated on whether individuals (or children) with employer-sponsored or other coverage would need to maintain a benefit package equivalent to FEHBP standards in order to comply with the federal mandate.

Scope of the Mandate:  Key to determining the effectiveness of any health reform plan incorporating an individual mandate is the minimum level of coverage required to comply with the mandate.  In Massachusetts, a Connector Board comprised of various stakeholders decided that minimum creditable coverage for purposes of the mandate would include a maximum deductible of $2,000 per individual; prescription drug coverage will be required for plans beginning in 2009.  However, this mandated benefit package was not without consequences: As many as 15-20% of the uninsured were exempted from the mandate due to affordability issues—a number projected to increase in coming years—while more than 160,000 insured individuals could lose their creditable coverage when the prescription drug component of the mandate takes effect next year.[3]

During the Democratic presidential primaries, neither Sens. Clinton nor Obama have offered a comparable level of detail about the intended scope of their mandates.  However, their frequent repetition of the mantra that all Americans deserve coverage equivalent to Members of Congress could result in a threshold similar to the Wyden-Bennett bill’s Blue Cross Blue Shield FEHBP Standard plan.  But unstated in their rhetoric is the fact that the $431 monthly premium charged for this plan during 2007 exceeds by more than 15% the average cost of group health insurance in the same year, according to the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation.[4]  Thus, despite the promises made in her health plan that families who like the coverage they have now can keep it, adopting the FEHBP standard as part of Sen. Clinton’s individual mandate could force many Americans to drop their existing coverage.

Apart from the costs associated with subsidizing an FEHBP-like benefit package for low-income families, some conservatives may have concerns about the implications of such coverage with regard to controlling health care costs.  Utilizing the low-deductible, high-cost plans common in FEHBP could prove antithetical to slowing the growth in health spending, as the third-party payment and first-dollar coverage in such plans tends to encourage beneficiaries to over-consume coverage, particularly for routine expenses.  Furthermore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jonathan Gruber, a key member of the Connector Board that defined Massachusetts’ mandate, notes that a mandate linked to the FEHBP standard would “rule out high-deductible plans…it would make it very difficult to design one that would qualify.”[5]  Conservatives may be concerned that the millions of individuals and businesses who have utilized Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to build savings and reduce their premium costs could be forced to find new coverage, potentially increasing costs for business and creating additional disruption in insurance markets.

In addition to requiring an overall level of coverage, a federal mandate could include prescriptions on the types of benefits plans must offer and individuals must purchase.  Although economists such as Mark Pauly of the Wharton School of Business have advocated for an actuarial equivalence model—whereby individuals subject to the mandate would have to purchase benefits equal to a certain dollar level, but carriers could remain innovative in creating benefit packages as they see fit—previous experience from the federal and state levels suggests that such a “hands-off” scenario is unlikely to emerge.[6]  For instance, section 113(b)(3) of the Wyden-Bennett bill requires carriers to make coverage for abortion services available, troubling many conservatives.  Similarly, influence from disease and medical specialty groups in recent years has led to the enactment of nearly 2,000 various state benefit mandates—in 2007, the number of mandates grew at the rate of more than one per state.[7]  On the federal level, the nearly 700 clients registered to lobby on Medicare coverage and reimbursement issues for various constituencies provides some inkling of the way in which health care groups could attempt to influence the construction of a federal health insurance mandate.[8]

Enforcement:  Equally important in determining the effectiveness of an individual mandate are the penalties for non-compliance, and the enforcement mechanisms designed to ensure all individuals purchase and retain coverage.  Sen. Clinton recently suggested that enforcing her mandate might involve “going after people’s wages,” consistent with the Massachusetts health reform proposal that uses the tax code to implement and enforce the mandate.[9]  However, recent experience suggests that enforcing an individual mandate may be neither easy nor clear-cut.

Although the Massachusetts individual insurance mandate is too new to yield much data about its effectiveness, a recent Health Affairs article analyzed previous examples of state and federal mandates to examine their impact.  While the article cites Census data demonstrating that Hawaii—which has had a “pay-or-play” mandate requiring many employers to provide health insurance since the 1970s—has a comparatively low rate of uninsurance, nearly one in ten Hawaiians still lack coverage—and “employment appears to have shifted toward sectors that are not subject to the mandate.”[10]  In addition, state-by-state enforcement of automobile insurance mandates is spotty at best; despite a mandate to purchase automobile insurance, California has more uninsured motorists than uninsured individuals, while the two states lacking mandates have shown rates of uninsured motorists well below the national average.[11]

The practical details of creating a bureaucracy to implement and enforce an individual mandate for health insurance could yield similarly questionable results.  Data matching and coordination among dozens of insurance carriers large and small, tens of thousands of employers, state agencies providing public insurance coverage or pooling options for their citizens, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and a new federal agency charged with enforcing the mandate would likely require a level of efficiency heretofore unseen from the federal government.  The years of logistical difficulties for employers associated with the rollout of the “basic pilot” system of employee verification could provide some indication of what individuals subject to a health insurance mandate could face upon its introduction.

Conclusion:  Although some health policy-makers have come to view an individual mandate to purchase insurance as the key step in achieving universal coverage for all Americans, this “single bullet” solution could in practice prove largely unworkable.  No initiative featuring an individual mandate has proposed an enforcement mechanism covering the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants, as many as two-thirds of whom lack health insurance, for whom a federal mandate would likely be ineffective.[12]  Moreover, at a time when recent IRS estimates indicate that individuals underreport their taxes by nearly $200 billion annually, or more than 18% of all individual income taxes, the concept of enforcing a health insurance mandate through the tax code, as Sen. Clinton has suggested, appears a dubious proposition at best.[13]

Some conservatives may also be concerned about two policy “solutions” that have frequently been attached to an individual mandate—“pay-or-play” requirements on business and guaranteed issue and community rating provisions on insurance carriers.  Although Sen. Clinton’s plan claims to exempt small businesses from a requirement to provide health insurance or finance their employees’ coverage, her plan, like the Obama plan and the Wyden-Bennett bill, would impose new taxes on employers that could have a significant negative effect on economic growth.  In addition, all three proposals would require insurance carriers to accept all applicants, and charge all applicants the same premium for insurance coverage.  While the concept of ending “insurance company discrimination” against less healthy people sounds politically appealing, some conservatives might question whether and how charging smokers with lung cancer or other individuals with behaviorally-acquired diseases the same insurance premiums as their healthier counterparts comports with the concept of “personal responsibility” advanced by advocates of an individual mandate.

The broader concerns surrounding an individual mandate focus on its significant new intrusion by the state into the lives of all Americans.  In critiquing the proposals by Sens. Clinton and Obama, former Clinton Administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich conceded as much, noting that a mandate is “to many Americans, the least attractive [aspect] because it conjures up a big government bullying people into doing what they’d rather not do.”[14]  Secretary Reich’s description of an individual mandate closely mirrors that of F. A. Hayek, who in his landmark work The Road to Serfdom discussed the inherently arbitrary nature of central government planning and the ways in which its growth tends to undermine personal liberty and freedom.  Some conservatives, reflecting anew upon Hayek’s warnings more than half a century ago, may believe that “bullying” the American people into purchasing health insurance, to the extent to which such a mandate would actually be effective, is inconsistent with a belief in individual liberty.

 

[1] “American Health Choices Plan,” available online at http://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/healthcare/americanhealthchoicesplan.pdf (accessed March 14, 2008), p. 6.

[2] “Barack Obama’s Plan for a Healthy America,” available online at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/HealthCareFullPlan.pdf (accessed March 14, 2008), p. 5.

[3] Jonathan Gruber, “Massachusetts Health Care Reform: The View from One Year Out,” (Washington, DC: Paper Presented at the Cornell University Symposium on Health Care Reform, September 2007), available online at http://www.epionline.org/downloads/hc_symposium_Gruber.pdf (accessed March 16, 2008), pp. 14-17.  See also Laura Meckler, “How Ten People Reshaped Massachusetts Health Care,” The Wall Street Journal 30 May 2007, available online at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/WSJ-MAConnector-941.pdf (accessed March 16, 2008).

[4] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Employer Health Benefits: 2007 Annual Survey,” available online at http://kff.org/insurance/7672/upload/76723.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 2.

[5] Quoted in Shawn Tully, “Why McCain Has the Best Health Care Plan,” Fortune 11 March 2008, available online at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/Fortune-Tully-1122.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008).

[6] Mark Pauly, “Is Massachusetts a Model at Last?” AEI Health Policy Outlook No. 1 (January 2007), available online at http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.25372,filter.all/pub_detail.asp (accessed March 16, 2008).

[7] Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2008” and “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2007,” available online at http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/HealthInsuranceMandates2008.pdf and http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/MandatesInTheStates2007.pdf, respectively (accessed March 15, 2008).

[8] Heritage Foundation analysis of Lobbying Disclosure Act reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records.

[9] Quoted in “The Wages of HillaryCare,” The Wall Street Journal 8 February 2008, available online at http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB120243891249052861.html (accessed March 15, 2008).

[10] US Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006,” available online at http://www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/p60-233.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 24; Sherry Giled, Jacob Hartz, and Genessa Giorgi, “Consider It Done? The Likely Efficacy of Mandates for Health Insurance,” Health Affairs 26:6 (November/December 2007), available online at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/HealthAff-Glied-1118.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 1614.

[11] Cited in Glen Whitman, “Hazards of the Individual Health Mandate,” Cato Policy Report 29:5 (September/October 2007), available online at http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/v29n5/cpr29n5-1.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 10; Giled et al., “Consider it Done?” p. 1615.

[12] Dana Goldman, James Smith, and Neeraj Sood, “Legal Status and Health Insurance among Immigrants,” Health Affairs 24:6 (November/December 2005), pp. 1640-1653.

[13] Internal Revenue Service, “Tax Gap Update: February 2007,” available online at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-utl/tax_gap_update_070212.pdf (accessed March 16, 2008).

[14] Robert Reich, “The Road to Universal Coverage,” The Wall Street Journal 9 January 2008, available online at http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB119984199293776549.html (accessed March 16, 2008).