The Better Solution for Our Health Insurance System: A Plan You Can Actually Keep

Sometimes, liberals and conservatives agree on a policy problem, but disagree strongly on the best solutions to that problem. Our health insurance system presents one case of such a disconnect between problems and solutions.

In the last Democratic presidential debate, hosted by CNN in March, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said that the coronavirus pandemic made the “dysfunctionality of the current health care system … obviously apparent.” He elaborated in an April op-ed in Politico, in which he noted that “already, an estimated 9.2 million workers have lost their employer-sponsored insurance, and as many as 35 million people might lose coverage by the end of the crisis.”

Sanders makes a valid point: The pandemic does illustrate the shortcomings of our system of health coverage. But his single-payer health care plan — or even Joe Biden’s proposal for a (purportedly) voluntary government-run “option” in which individuals could enroll — would take the system in the exact opposite direction.

The dysfunctionality of the system exists largely because employers control most Americans’ health insurance. Most conservatives would therefore support letting individuals control their health coverage, rather than liberals’ plan to replace employer control with government control. Thankfully, the Trump administration has moved health policy in that exact direction, laying the groundwork for a movement toward more personalized insurance options.

The Problem: Employer-Provided Health Insurance

Sanders cited a study from Health Management Associates stating that as many as 35 million individuals could lose access to employer-sponsored insurance due to coronavirus-related layoffs. A revised paper, released in late May, did not specifically update estimates for the number of people losing employer insurance, but still showed significant coverage losses. Other estimates have indicated similarly large numbers of Americans losing their employer coverage.

The sudden job losses sparked by coronavirus lockdowns have illustrated one of the three major problems with employer-provided health insurance. Individually and collectively, these flaws have represented a problem hidden in plain sight for decades.

Lack of choice: The largest survey of employer-provided health insurance found that in 2019, exactly three-quarters of firms (75%) offered only one type of health insurance plan. In general, large firms offer more choices than small businesses, but even among the largest firms — those with more than 5,000 workers.

Because the employer and not the employee owns the insurance policy, workers often end up stuck with whatever plan their employer chooses. An individual who doesn’t want to enroll in an HMO, or whose doctors lie outside his or her employer’s provider network, might have few choices but to switch jobs or accept a plan that does not meet his or her needs.

In its first season, the U.S. version of “The Office” satirized this dynamic, when resident megalomaniac Dwight Schrute got charged with picking the office health plan — and let the power go to his head. While Americans don’t have to worry about contracting “Count Choculitis,” one of the fictitious diseases Schrute’s co-workers invented to needle him in the episode, they do face the very real worry that their employer’s choices and wishes regarding health care might not align with their own.

Flawed incentives: A conversation with one of my friends several years ago illustrated this problem. My friend said he loved the insurance plan his employer provided: “I can go to the doctor and it only costs me a $5 co-pay.”

I posed a thought experiment: What if your health insurance suddenly became taxable, and you had to pay $1,500 or so in taxes on that coverage? (At the time, a top-of-the-line plan cost about $6,000 for an individual, and I assumed a 25% state and local tax rate.) He responded immediately: “I wouldn’t want the plan — I would tell them to raise my co-pays and deductibles.”

That response illustrates the policy problem of employer-sponsored insurance: Everyone thinks they’re spending everyone else’s money. Employees don’t pay taxes on employer coverage; an IRS ruling during World War II, later codified by Congress, exempts employer-provided benefits from both income and payroll taxes.

All the incentives regarding employer-provided health care point in the wrong direction. Exempting employer coverage from taxation encourages individuals to take more compensation in untaxed health insurance benefits rather than taxable wages. Many employees don’t even realize that the employer’s share of the contribution for their coverage — which averaged nearly $15,000 for a family policy in 2019 — comes out of their own wallets in the form of lost wages.

All the flawed and misaligned incentives mean that the co-pay of “only” $5 my friend talked about years ago costs far more than that — to workers, employers and the economy as a whole. It’s one major reason why our health care system represents such a large, and rising, share of our economy.

Lack of portability: This issue arises because employers and not individuals own their health plans. As a result, when individuals lose their jobs, they also lose their health coverage. That dynamic results in the double whammy Americans have experienced during the pandemic, when workers lose their coverage at the same time they have unexpectedly lost their job — compounding families’ financial distress.

Lack of portability also exacerbates the problem of pre-existing conditions. Upon entering the workforce in their teens or 20s, most individuals have yet to develop a pre-existing condition like cancer or diabetes. But every time individuals switch jobs, they lose their employer-provided health coverage — making them vulnerable if they have developed a condition in the intervening time.

The worst kinds of situations occur when individuals must leave their jobs because they have become too sick to work. These patients face not one but two potential sources of financial ruin: They have lost their source of income, and face the prospect of astronomical medical bills without a means to fund them.

Cure the Disease, Not the Symptoms

In the past several years, Democrats have spent lots of time talking about the need to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. But in focusing on pre-existing conditions, the left focuses on the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.

Remember: When Obamacare went into effect in January 2014, at least 4.7 million individuals received cancellation notices, according to The Associated Press. These individuals had plans that they liked, and wanted to keep — but the Obama administration wouldn’t let them. Politifact called the promise that Americans could keep their plan the 2013 “Lie of the Year,” and that lie affected many individuals who had developed, or feared that they would develop, a pre-existing condition. Let’s spare the notion that Democrats want to “protect” people with pre-existing conditions, when they “protected” millions of people right out of their coverage.

Liberals don’t talk about the underlying policy issue that creates the pre-existing condition problem — that people don’t own their own health coverage — because they don’t want people to own their own insurance. They want Washington to control health care decisions, not individual patients. It’s the classic example of former President Ronald Reagan’s nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

But if individuals could buy an insurance policy upon joining the workforce — one that they owned, not their employer — and retain that policy from job to job for decades, most individuals could buy coverage well before they develop a pre-existing condition, and keep that coverage after they do so, the pre-existing condition problem would rapidly diminish. (Yes, a small percentage of Americans, most notably those born with congenital illnesses, develop pre-existing conditions very early in life, but other policy solutions can address this population.)

Trump Administration’s Solution

You wouldn’t know it, given all the carping and hostility from the left, but the Trump administration has put forward a very positive solution that answers the policy problems associated with employer-provided health coverage. It should increase portability in ways that help solve the pre-existing condition problem, while also providing additional choice and competition.

The administration’s policy, implemented through regulations finalized in 2019, allows employers to contribute funds to workers on a pre-tax basis through Health Reimbursement Arrangements. These HRAs allow individuals to purchase coverage that they own, not their employers — making the coverage portable from job to job.

The HRA concept provides wins for employers, employees and the economy as a whole:

• Employers get predictability when it comes to their health insurance offerings. By providing employees a fixed sum (say, $300 or $500 a month) into the HRA, they will not have to worry about changing plans from year to year, a sudden spike in costs because of a sick employee, or many of the other paperwork hassles associated with offering coverage.
• Employees get both choice and portability. They can select the insurance plan that best meets their needs — the doctors, deductibles and plan features that they want. Not only can they keep the plan when they switch jobs, the fact that they and not their employer chose the coverage in the first place will make them more likely to do so.
• The economy will benefit from individuals selecting the plans they want, rather than the plans employers select for them. Insurers will have to provide better, more customized plans that fit individuals’ needs, and employees will have incentives to make better choices to stretch the HRA dollars their employers provide them.

Ideally, Congress would amend the law regarding Health Savings Accounts, to allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund health insurance premiums. Because HSA funds cannot pay insurance premiums in most cases under current law, the Trump administration had to use Health Reimbursement Arrangements (which are owned by employers) rather than Health Savings Accounts (which are always owned by individuals) to fund individual coverage.

Providing contributions via an HSA, as opposed to an HRA, would allow employees to control any unused employer contributions upon leaving a job. That way, individuals would not only have a source of coverage in the event of a layoff, they could develop a source of savings to pay for that coverage while unemployed. But until Congress acts, the Trump administration’s Health Reimbursement Arrangement regulations represent a tremendous step forward toward a more logical, patient-centered insurance system.

Empower Patients, Not Government

Coronavirus has made the problems with government control of health care apparent. As Joe Biden (of all people) noted in the March CNN debate, Italy has a single-payer system — and that nation had to ration access to ventilators, whereas the United States did not.

The pandemic has exposed the flaws in our health insurance system. But it comes just as the Trump administration has shown a better path forward. By empowering patients rather than government bureaucrats, Health Reimbursement Arrangements can help transform the coverage system into something that lowers costs and provides the care American patients prefer.

This post was originally published at the Daily Caller’s American Renewal blog.

The Four Most Dangerous Words in Washington

More than three decades ago, Ronald Reagan rightly characterized the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” In Washington, a quartet of four words rank close behind Reagan’s nine in their ability to terrify: What are you for?

Countless people in official Washington, from leadership staff to reporters to liberals to lobbyists, use these four words, or some variation thereof, to try to get conservatives to endorse bad policy. Their words carry with them an implicit argument: You have to be for something, rather than just opposing bad policy.

Reagan would find that reasoning nonsensical. Why do you have to be for something when all the available options undermine conservative principles—because you’re from the government and you’re here to help? It’s a lazy straw-man argument, which might explain why so many people in Washington use it, but it’s a premise that conservatives should reject.

Example 1: Drug Price Legislation

On Monday, House Republican leaders released their alternative to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s prescription drug legislation. Their very first bullet in the summary of the legislation said that the bill includes “350 pages” of provisions. (Technically, the bill has 352 pages of content, while by contrast, the Rules Committee print of Democrats’ prescription drug legislation weighs in at 275 pages.)

Republicans quite rightly criticized Pelosi almost a decade ago for the awful process she used to enact Obamacare. Remember the speaker’s infamous quote about the legislation in March 2010, which House Republicans still have on their YouTube page:

Yet including the bill’s size as the first bullet point in their summary suggests Republican leadership considers it a feature, not a bug: “Look at how substantive we are—our bill is 350 pages long!” Granted, the House Republican package consists of a grab-bag of provisions related to drug pricing, most of which existed well before this week. Some of them doubtless contain good ideas, and ideas I have previously endorsed.

But think about what went into creating this “new,” 350-page bill. A bunch of leadership staffers sat around a big desk in the Capitol, decided what bills and provisions to include in the package—and, by extension, which bills to exclude from it. I know, because I’ve sat in those types of meetings. They released the legislation on Monday, and Congress likely will vote on it late Wednesday night (early Thursday at the latest).

Republican Members of Congress won’t have time to read all 352 pages of the House Republican bill. Some of them may not have time to read even the four-page summary of the bill. And their staff, who are currently overwhelmed by the litany of issues on Congress’ December agenda, from impeachment to a massive defense policy bill to another massive spending bill to the prescription drug debate, have neither the time nor the bandwidth to provide thoughtful advice and counsel.

But most if not all Republican members of Congress will vote for this drug price alternative they have not read and many do not fully understand. Why? Because most think they need to “be for something.” Because they believe that (false) premise, they will have effectively handed their voting card to unelected leadership staffers—who may or may not actually know what they are doing—to define what Republicans are “for.” It’s no way to run a railroad, let alone the country.

Example 2: Entitlements

My article last week about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s proposed long-term care entitlement prompted an e-mail from a colleague. The e-mail asked a polite variation of the question noted above: If you don’t like Buttigieg’s approach to long-term care, what would you do instead?

My response in a nutshell: Nope. As I pointed out in the original post, our country faces $23 trillion—that’s $23,000,000,000,000—in debt—and rising. We can’t afford the entitlements and government programs we have now. To even talk about creating new programs (which would face their own solvency and sustainability concerns) only gives lawmakers and the American public a permission structure to avoid the hard decisions Congress should have made years ago to right-size our entitlements.

Example 3: ‘Surprise Billing’ Legislation

On Sunday, several members of key committees announced an agreement in principle on federal legislation regarding “surprise billing,” which arises when physicians and medical providers seek to recover charges when patients obtain care out-of-network during emergencies, or when patients inadvertently see an out-of-network physician (e.g., an anesthesiologist) at an in-network hospital.

(Disclosure: I have consulted with various firms about the potential outcomes and implications of this legislation. However, these firms have not asked me for my personal policy positions on the legislation, nor have they asked me to advocate for a position on it—as my positions, as always, are mine alone.)

I wrote back in July that this issue largely represented a solution in search of a problem, for multiple reasons. First, a relatively small number of hospitals and providers impose most of the “surprise” bills. Second, states have the power to fix this issue on their own by regulating providers, even if federal law makes it difficult for states to regulate all the insurers in their state.

So why do Republicans feel the need to sign off on federal legislation addressing a problem that states can decide to fix (or not to fix) themselves? Again, because lawmakers feel the need to “be for something.” That again brings to mind Reagan’s axiom about the nine most terrifying words, and the proposition that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” often leads to unintended consequences.

No, Don’t Just ‘Do Something’

Perhaps by this point, some observers might have come up with an obvious question: How can you win elections if you don’t try to “do something?” The question has two simple answers.

First, citizens quite obviously do not vote solely based on a candidate’s ability to “do something,” such as expand the regulatory state, the welfare state, and government in general. If conservatives want to run campaigns based on giving voters “free stuff,” but just slightly less “free stuff” than Democrats, guess how many elections the conservative would win?

Second, as noted above, the “What are you for?” question has an obvious four-word response: “We can’t afford it.” That retort sadly has the feature of truth about it, as our country cannot sustain its current levels of government spending.

Any responsible parent knows that, no matter how often his child asks, letting that child eat ice cream three times a day does not represent good parenting. Congress long since should have imposed some of that sense of discipline on itself, and the American people.

Given our current fiscal situation, many policy proposals, no matter how popular, are not fiscally sustainable. The “What are you for?” question cleverly tries to elide that debate, in ways that will only undermine conservative principles, and our country’s solvency.

I’ll end by noting my strong support for the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law.” (What, you thought it contains some other words too?) If Congress spent the majority of its time stopping bad laws and policies—particularly policies considered only slightly less bad than the original proposals—maybe our country wouldn’t face the prospect of paying off a growing mountain of debt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

In Defense of the Senate Filibuster

On Monday, former Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling for the full abolition of the Senate filibuster. Reid claimed that the Senate’s current rules—which require 60-vote majorities to pass legislation—have prevented the enactment of climate change and gun control legislation, turning the Senate into an “unworkable legislative graveyard.”

The facts, however, suggest otherwise. For both philosophical and practical reasons, conservatives should support retaining the Senate filibuster.

It’s Good to Make Legislating Difficult

In all seriousness, the filibuster requires the type of deliberation the Constitution’s Framers originally intended. Remember, the Constitution guarantees citizens a republican form of government—not a direct democracy, where public opinion directly determines laws. The filibuster helps to ensure that lawmakers will not fall into the temptation to “do something” every time a policy problem arises, enacting knee-jerk legislation that could lead to unintended consequences.

Ronald Reagan famously opined about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” By making it more difficult to pass major new expansions of the welfare state when we cannot afford our current entitlement commitments, the filibuster prevents more ill-considered legislation from intruding the federal government even further into our lives.

Harry Reid Helped Create the Problem

On one level, Reid’s criticism of the Senate as an “unworkable legislative graveyard” has merit. After all, the Senate has held votes on a grand total of 18 amendments all year, falling far short of senators’ self-important claims that they serve in the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

But why has the Senate voted on only 18 amendments all year? Because Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Reid’s replacement as majority leader, has chosen to focus nearly all the Senate’s floor time on confirming nominees—Cabinet appointments, sub-Cabinet officials, and federal judges.

And why has McConnell focused almost exclusively on confirming nominations? Because in 2013, Reid and Senate Democrats abolished the filibuster for all nominations except Supreme Court appointments. (Senate Republicans abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments in 2017, to confirm Neil Gorsuch as an associate justice.)

Nominations thus require a simple, 51-vote majority for passage, as opposed to the 60 votes required for legislation. Since President Trump took office, McConnell has focused on the former to the near exclusion of the latter.

If Reid hadn’t pulled the trigger on the so-called “nuclear option” back in 2013, the Senate might have spent more time this year legislating, instead of simply approving nominees. Since he exacerbated the Senate’s status as a legislative graveyard, few should trust Reid’s prescription for fixing a self-inflicted problem.

Leaders Want to Rig the Process

Most members rarely take the first approach. Republican senators have said the lack of votes on amendments “sucks.” But unless and until a group of senators offer an effective threat to grind the Senate to a halt—for instance, Republican senators voting down President Trump’s nominees—to demand an open process for legislation, the status quo will never change. As the old saying goes, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Worth noting: The Senate did vote on a Rand Paul amendment to the budget deal earlier this month—because conservatives demanded that vote in exchange for allowing the process to move forward.

With the second, members of Congress say they want an open process, but the instant such an open process would result in legislative outcomes they disagree with, they immediately seek to ditch transparency, and to manipulate outcomes through backroom deals. Either they do not realize that such efforts neuter their own power as backbenchers—by empowering a select group of leaders to negotiate bills behind closed doors—or, more likely, they secretly support this move, because it absolves them of responsibility for legislating.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How a Massive Medicare Regulation Illustrates the Problems of Single Payer

What do provisions in a federal regulation, released on a sleepy Friday in August, have to do with the raging debate regarding single-payer health care? As it turns out, plenty.

By definition, single-payer health care assumes that one payer will finance all the care provided by the nation’s doctors, hospitals, and other medical providers. But this premise comes with an important corollary: Funding all medical providers’ care through a single source means that source—the federal government—must pay those providers the right amount. Paying providers too much wastes taxpayer resources; paying them too little could cause them to close.

The Rural Wage Index and MRI Counting

Consider, for instance, the regulation governing Medicare inpatient hospital payments for 2020, which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released on Friday, August 2. That 2,273-page regulation—no, that’s not a typo—included major changes to Medicare payment policies.

Most notably, the final rule changed the Medicare hospital wage index. For years, hospitals in rural areas have complained that the current wage index exacerbates wage disparities, under-paying hospitals in low-wage and rural areas, while over-paying hospitals elsewhere. According to CMS, the final rule increased the wage index for many rural hospitals, while slightly reducing payment rates to other hospitals, because CMS must implement the change in a budget-neutral manner.

Consider also a comment made several years ago by Donald Berwick, former CMS administrator and a strong advocate of single-payer health care. In a 1993 interview, Berwick said that “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.”

‘Little Intellectual Elite’

I don’t know whether the wage index change represents a more accurate way of calculating hospital payments, although I suspect it will make some hospitals’ payments more accurate, and some less accurate. But I don’t presume to know the financial situations of each of the United States’ thousands of hospitals, let alone believe I can calculate the change’s effects for each of them.

Conversely, liberals have the arrogance, even hubris, to believe that a massive—not to mention costly—federal bureaucracy can track and micro-manage the health care system to near-perfection. Remember, this is the same federal government that but a few years ago couldn’t build a website for Obamacare. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his “A Time for Choosing” speech 45 years ago:

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can govern ourselves.

Berwick, and his fellow single-payer supporters want to place our health care system in the care of that intellectual elite—although, given the size of our health care system, the bureaucracy needed to control it may prove far from “little.” (But hey, they’re from the government and they’re here to help.)

Invitation to Corruption

Four years ago, federal prosecutors obtained an indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on bribery charges, for accepting campaign contributions and other gifts from Miami physician Salomon Melgen. Among other things, Menendez repeatedly contacted Medicare officials and asked them to stop seeking $9 million in repayments from Melgen, who was eventually convicted on 67 counts of Medicare fraud.

A U.S. senator receiving nearly $1 million in gifts from a Medicare fraudster seems shocking enough. But increasing the federal government’s influence over health policy will make scenarios like this even more likely—and will make things like hospitals’ yearslong lobbying over the wage index seem like small potatoes.

In “Federalist 51,” James Madison famously wrote that “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Single-payer supporters’ obsession over the former, to the exclusion of the latter, bodes ill for any supposed “efficiency gains” resulting from single payer—to say nothing of the integrity of our government.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

This Presidential Candidate Loves Obamacare–But Won’t Sign Up for It

If the 2020 presidential campaign illustrates anything so far, it’s the yawning chasm between Democrats’ rhetoric and their reality. Not only do the party’s presidential candidates not practice what they preach, they seemingly have little shame in failing to do so.

Last Thursday evening, one of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), appeared on CNN for a town hall discussion. During the discussion, Bennet criticized his fellow senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for his single-payer health-care plan.

Qualifies for Obamacare Subsidy, Yet Won’t Buy a Plan

In his town hall comments, Bennet claimed that “what we would be better off doing in order to get to universal health care quickly is to finish the job we started with” Obamacare. Yet consider this paragraph from Bennet’s op-ed the week previously, in which he outlined health care, and his recent prostate cancer diagnosis, as the reason for announcing his candidacy: “My cancer was treatable because it was detected through preventive care. The $94,000 bill didn’t bankrupt my family because I had insurance through my wife’s employer” (emphasis mine).

Remember: The federal Office of Personnel Management promulgated an arguably illegal rule in October 2013 that makes members of Congress eligible for subsidies for Obamacare coverage. Yet even with access to these illegal subsidies, Bennet has no interest in buying an Obamacare plan. That might be because he knows—as I do by being forced onto an exchange plan—that these Obamacare plans are junk insurance, with high premiums, high deductibles, and in many cases poor access to physician networks.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Some may argue that because Bennet does not support Sanders’s single-payer proposal, at least he will not force others to give up their health coverage (even as he refuses to go on to Obamacare). But in 2009, one analysis of a government-run “public option,” which Bennet supports as an alternative to single-payer, concluded that it would lead to a reduction in private insurance coverage of 119.1 million people. This would shrink the employer-provided insurance market by more than half.

Even Bennet’s “moderate” proposal could lead to many millions of Americans immediately losing the coverage they have if employers drop coverage en masse. Yet will Bennet give up his employer coverage and go on to Obamacare? Not a chance.

Some may question why I write about this topic so often. After all, if every member of Congress, or every Democratic presidential candidate, suddenly decided to sign up for Obamacare, it wouldn’t significantly affect the exchange’s overall premiums and coverage numbers. But lawmakers’ coverage decisions have outsized importance because they reveal their true motivations.

Obama’s action, however, represents the exception that proves the rule. Instead, liberals want to order other people to buy Obamacare health insurance while not doing so themselves. They epitomize Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” in which he referred to a “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital,” who believe they “can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

By promising to expand Obamacare even as he fails to enroll in it himself, Bennet demonstrated himself part and parcel of that “little intellectual elite.” So have his fellow Democratic presidential candidates. Americans should take note—and vote accordingly next November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ Mixed Messages on Federalism

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

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

Gag Clauses, Explained

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

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

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

Why Federalism Matters

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

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

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

More Federalism Violations Ahead?

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

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

Politics Versus Principle

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are the Heritage Foundation’s Politics Betraying Its Policy?

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

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

Pre-Existing Condition Rules Drive Premium Increases

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

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

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

Rhetoric versus Reality on Graham-Cassidy

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

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

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

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

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

The Bill Is Getting Worse

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

Not Flexible, Not Federalism

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Return of the Individual Mandate

Well, that didn’t last long. Fewer than six months after Congress effectively repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate—and more than six months before that change actually takes effect, in January next year—another liberal group released a plan to reinstate it. The proposal comes as part of the Urban Institute’s recently released “Healthy America” plan.

In the interests of full disclosure: I criticized Republicans for repealing the individual mandate as part of the tax reform bill last fall. I did so not because I support requiring Americans to buy health insurance—I don’t—but because Republicans need to go further, and repeal the federal insurance regulations that represent the heart of Obamacare and necessitated enacting the mandate in the first place.

Lipstick on an Unpopular Pig?

The Urban Institute plan tries to re-brand a federal requirement to purchase insurance by never even using the term “mandate” in its proposal. Instead, the document says that “uninsured people would lose a percentage of their standard deduction (or the equivalent for the itemized deduction) when they pay income taxes….Half the lost deduction amount could be refunded the following year if the person enrolls in coverage and maintains it for the next full plan year.”

But as the saying goes, if it looks like a mandate and functions like a mandate, it’s a mandate. The paper claims that taking away a “tax benefit…would be better received politically than the additional tax penalty” under Obamacare, but functionally, that provides a distinction without a difference. Even the Urban researchers call this “loss of a tax benefit” a “penalty” later in the paper, because that’s what it is: A penalty for remaining uninsured.

The paper even includes a chart highlighting the average tax for remaining uninsured by income under the proposal, which generally mimics the tax penalties the uninsured pay under Obamacare:

Other Components of the Plan

Unfortunately, the Urban Institute plan goes well beyond merely reinstating the individual mandate, albeit in a slightly different form. It also makes other major changes to the health care system that would entrench the role of the federal government in it. It would federalize Medicaid health insurance coverage by transferring Medicaid enrollees into exchanges, supplementing benefits for low-income children and individuals with disabilities, and requiring states to keep paying their current contributions into the system. (Long-term care coverage under Medicaid would continue unchanged.)

The exchanges would have a new government-run plan—the default option for low-income enrollees automatically enrolled into coverage—and options run by private insurers. However, all plans would cap reimbursement to doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates, making premiums more “affordable” by imposing price controls that would potentially pay providers at below-market levels. The plan also proposes to “save” on prescription drugs by extending Medicaid rebates (i.e., price controls) to additional individuals.

The Urban plan also proposes much richer health coverage subsidies, consistent with its earlier 2015 proposal. Specifically:

  • Individuals with incomes below the federal poverty level would not pay either premiums or cost-sharing;
  • Individuals with incomes below 138 percent of poverty (the threshold for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) would not pay premiums;
  • Premium subsidies would be linked to a plan paying 80 percent of expected health care costs (i.e., actuarial value), as opposed to a 70 percent actuarial value plan under Obamacare;
  • Individuals would have to pay less of their income in premiums than under Obamacare—for instance, an individual with income just under four times poverty would pay 8.5 percent of income in premiums, as opposed to 9.56 percent under Obamacare; and
  • Unlike Obamacare, which limits eligibility for subsidies to those with incomes under four times poverty, the Urban plan would limit premium payments to 8.5 percent of income at all income levels (i.e., including for those making more than four times poverty).

Moreover, “short-term and other private insurance plans that do not comply with Healthy America regulations (consistent with [Obamacare’s] regulatory framework” would be prohibited, including association health plans and other concepts the Trump administration has proposed to give Americans more flexible coverage options.

The Urban researchers admit their plan would require significant new revenues to pay for the new subsidies—an estimated $98 billion in the first year alone. The plan only briefly discusses options to pay for this new spending, but it admits that, even if Congress hikes the payroll tax by an additional percent, raising an estimated $823 billion over ten years, “other adjustments to excise and income taxes would be needed.”

Where the Plan Fits In

At the end of their paper, the Urban researchers include a helpful chart comparing the various liberal proposals for expanded government involvement in health care—lest anyone claim that the left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing. In general:

  • Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bill that would not go as far as the Urban plan. It incorporates the subsidy changes Urban proposed, adds a government-run plan, and imposes other regulatory changes to the exchanges, but (unlike the Urban plan) retains the status quo for Medicaid;
  • The Center for American Progress’ “Medicare Extra” proposal, which I wrote about earlier this year, goes farther than the Urban plan, by eliminating Medicaid (which the Urban plan modifies) entirely, and including more robust auto-enrollment provisions, with “Medicare Extra” the default option for all Americans; and
  • The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would go farthest of all, abolishing virtually all forms of insurance (including Medicare) and creating a single-payer health system.

So much for “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” For that matter, so much for “If you like your freedom, you can keep it.” Like it or not, the Left seems insistent on terrifying the American public with what Ronald Reagan viewed as the nine most effective words to do so: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is Buying Health Insurance a Political Statement?

A recent Commonwealth Fund analysis of survey data concluded that the number of uninsured Americans rose over the past two years, by the equivalent of approximately 4 million individuals. The Commonwealth researchers claim Trump administration policy decisions explain the decline in the number of Americans with health insurance.

But the data themselves suggest another theory: Some Americans may have made a political decision to drop health coverage.

But consider that Obamacare subsidizes insurance rates for low-income households, capping their premium costs as a percentage of income, and insulating them from most of the effects of premium increases. Consider too that over the past several years, only low-income individuals have purchased coverage on insurance exchanges in significant numbers, precisely because of the rich premium subsidies and lower co-payments and deductibles taxpayers provide to households with income below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The high subsidies for low-income individuals would not appear to explain the increase in the uninsured among this group. And a marginal decrease in the uninsured rate this year among those with incomes over 250 percent of poverty—including those who do not qualify for insurance subsidies at all—suggests premium increases may not have led affluent Americans to drop coverage (at least not yet).

What might more logically explain the increase in the number of uninsured? In a word, politics. The Commonwealth researchers note that between 2016 and 2018, the uninsured rate among Republicans aged 19-64 nearly doubled, from 7.9 percent to 13.9 percent. By contrast, the uninsured rate among self-identified Democrats actually declined, albeit not in a statistically significant fashion.

The increase in the uninsured also occurred almost exclusively in states that did not expand Medicaid. From 2016 through 2018, the uninsured rate in those states rose by more than one-third, from 16.1 percent to 21.9 percent, while the rate in states that did expand Medicaid remained relatively constant. Given that the 18 states that have not expanded Medicaid under Obamacare are overwhelmingly southern and red ideologically, this data point confirms a political tinge regarding health coverage decisions.

In all, the uninsured data suggest that a small but measurable percentage of red-state Americans have decided to drop health coverage over the past two years. Because many of those individuals come from working-class backgrounds and could qualify for sizable subsidies, affordability may not have driven their decision to forego insurance. Moreover, three times as many Republicans (6 percent) as Democrats (2 percent) plan to drop health coverage when Obamacare’s individual mandate tax disappears next year, further indicating that politics plays into Americans’ coverage decisions.

The Commonwealth researchers ignore the policy implications of a political divide over purchasing health coverage. They propose reducing the uninsured rate through the usual toolkit Obamacare supporters rely upon to bolster the law: More funding for outreach; more affordability subsidies; more “stability” funding for insurers; more government-run insurance options, including the “public option.”

But if some Americans have purposefully dropped health coverage as a political statement—in opposition to Obamacare in general, the individual mandate in particular, or in solidarity with President Trump—no increase in subsidies, or cajoling via outreach programs, will persuade them to change their decisions. In fact, further policy debates about reinforcing Obamacare may only inflame partisan passions, recalling Ronald Reagan’s famous axiom about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

In the run-up to this November’s elections, Democrats plan to attack Republicans’ so-called “sabotage” of Obamacare. Senate Democrats’ campaign arm did just that within hours of the Commonwealth study’s release. But the evidence suggests that the partisanship of the past two years has contributed to the increase in the uninsured rate—meaning Democrats may be the ones sabotaging themselves.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Graham-Cassidy and Conservative Health Reform

In its February budget submission to Congress, the Trump administration endorsed legislation “modeled after” the bill Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced last year, which would devolve much of Obamacare’s entitlement spending to the states.

The budget claims this legislation “would allow states to use the block grant for a variety of approaches in order to help their citizens.” But based on the most recent public version, the Graham-Cassidy bill needs significant changes to deliver true flexibility to states.

The administration endorsed Graham-Cassidy because it believes the legislation would give states flexibility to embrace a “variety of approaches” to health care and health insurance. But would the most recent version of the bill allow Idaho to implement its reforms without federal intrusion? In a word, no.

In at least two respects, Idaho’s plan violates the many federal requirements that would remain intact under Graham-Cassidy. Idaho’s proposal to allow annual limits of over $1,000,000, and its proposal to allow surcharges of up to 50 percent for individuals who do not maintain continuous coverage, both contravene the Washington-imposed regulatory apparatus Graham-Cassidy retains.

This raises an obvious question: If the only state-based insurance reform plan proposed to date violates Graham-Cassidy, then how much “flexibility” does the legislation really provide? To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, conservatives have not spent the past eight years fighting to roll back a Washington-based, regulatory leviathan imposed by a Democratic Congress, only to see that leviathan reimposed by a Republican one.

To its credit, the Trump administration has worked to roll back Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Consistent with its promise in the budget to generate “relie[f] from many of [Obamacare’s] insurance rules and pricing restrictions,” the administration has proposed rules allowing greater access to short-term insurance coverage and association health plans, both of which are exempt from some or all of the Obamacare statutory restrictions.

But make no mistake: While these actions will give some individuals freedom from Obamacare’s restrictions, they will not give states the control they deserve over their own insurance markets. To give the states the freedom that the Trump administration promised, Congress must repeal the federally imposed regulatory superstructure Obamacare created. Only by doing so will Washington give states the true flexibility to explore alternative visions of health care for their citizens—Graham-Cassidy’s stated goal.

If Congress does not act to give states freedom, a future Democratic administration will reimpose each and every health care regulation the Trump administration loosened—and many more besides. The Center for American Progress made as much crystal-clear recently, when in releasing the Left’s next plan for (more) government-run health care, it proposed legislation that would “leave little to no discretion to the Administration [of the day] on policy matters.”

To the Left, Obamacare isn’t about power so much as control. As President Reagan famously stated, the “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital” think they can “plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” To liberals’ unquenchable desire to arrogate more power in Washington, conservatives must respond with freedom—freedom for states, and ultimately to businesses and individuals, to buy the coverage they want, and innovate in ways that can lower health spending.

The Graham-Cassidy bill has other flaws. It retains most of Obamacare’s spending (albeit disbursed to the states through the block grant) and all of its major tax increases. But at its core, the debate over health care remains one of control: Whether Washington will try to micromanage 50 states and more than 300 million people, or whether states and citizens can lead the way. We stand with the people—and hope that, after eight years of promises, the Republican Congress finally does likewise.

This post, co-written with former Sen. Jim DeMint, was originally published at The Federalist.