Three Obstacles to Senate Democrats’ Health Care Vision

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

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

Problem 1: Politics

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

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

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

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

Problem 2: Policy

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

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

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

Problem 3: Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1994 Redux?

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Absurdity of the Justice Department’s Obamacare Lawsuit Intervention

Last summer, I wrote about how President Trump had created the worst of all possible outcomes regarding one Obamacare program. In threatening to cancel cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, but not actually doing so, the administration forced insurers into raising premiums, while not complying with the rule of law by cutting off the payments outright.

Eventually, the administration finally did cut off the payments in October, but for several months, the uncertainty represented a self-inflicted wound. So too a brief filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) late last week regarding an Obamacare lawsuit several states brought in February, which asked the court to strike down both Obamacare’s individual mandate and the most important of its federally imposed insurance regulations.

It takes a very unique set of circumstances to arrive at this level of opposition. Herewith the policy, legal, and political implications of DOJ’s actions.

Let’s Talk Policy First

Strictly as a policy matter, I agree with the general tenor of the Justice Department’s proposals. Last April, I analyzed Obamacare’s four major federally imposed insurance regulations:

  1. Guaranteed issue—accepting all applicants, regardless of health status;
  2. Community rating—charging all applicants the same premiums, regardless of health status;
  3. Essential health benefits—requiring plans to cover certain types of services; and
  4. Actuarial value—requiring plans to cover a certain percentage of each service.

I concluded that these four regulations represented a binary choice for policymakers: Either Congress should repeal them all, and allow insurers to price individuals’ health risk accordingly, or leave them all in place. Picking and choosing would likely result in unintended consequences.

The Justice Department’s brief asks the federal court to strike down the first two federal regulations, but not the last two. This outcome could have some unintended consequences, as a New York Times analysis notes.

But repealing the guaranteed issue and community rating regulations would remove the prime driver of premium increases under Obamacare. Those two regulations led rates for individual coverage to more than double from 2013 to 2017, necessitating the requirement for individuals to purchase, and employers to offer, health coverage, the subsidies to make coverage more “affordable,” and the tax increases and Medicare reductions used to fund them.

I noted last April that Republicans have a choice: They can either keep the status quo on pre-existing conditions or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare. They cannot do both. The DOJ brief acknowledges this dilemma, and that the regulations represent the heart of the Obamacare scheme.

Legal Question 1: Constitutionality

Roberts held that, while the federal government did not have the power to compel individuals to purchase health coverage under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Congress did have the power to impose a tax penalty on the non-purchase of coverage, and upheld the individual mandate on that basis.

But late last year, Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, with the provision taking effect next January. Both the plaintiff states and DOJ argue that, because the mandate will not generate revenue for the federal government beyond 2019, it can no longer function as a tax, and should be struck down as unconstitutional.

Ironically, if Congress took an unconstitutional act in setting the mandate penalty to zero, few seem to have spent little time arguing as much prior to the tax bill’s enactment last December. I opposed Congress’ action at the time, because I thought Congress needed to repeal more of Obamacare—i.e., the regulations discussed above. But few raised any concerns that setting the mandate penalty to zero represented an unconstitutional act:

  • While one school of thought suggests presidents should not sign unconstitutional legislation, President Trump signed the tax bill into law.
  • Likewise, President Trump did not issue a signing statement about the tax bill, seemingly indicating that the Trump administration had no concerns about the bill, constitutional or otherwise.
  • While in 2009 the Senate took a separate vote on the constitutionality of Obamacare, no one raised such a point of order during the Senate’s debate on the tax bill.
  • I used to work for one of the plaintiffs in the states’ lawsuit, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. TPPF put out no statement challenging the constitutionality of Congress’ move in the tax bill.

Legal Question 2: Severability

As others have noted, a court decision striking down the individual mandate as unconstitutional would by itself have few practical ramifications, given that Congress already set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning in January. The major fight lies in severability—either striking down the entire law, as the states request, or striking down the two major federal insurance regulations, as the Justice Department suggested last week.

The DOJ brief and the states’ original complaint both cite Section 1501(a) of Obamacare in making their claims to strike down more than just the mandate. DOJ cited that section—which called the mandate “essential to creating effective health insurance markets”—13 times in a 21-page brief, while the states cited that section 18 times in a 33-page complaint.

But that claim fails, for several reasons. First, the list of findings in Section 1501(a)(2) of the law discusses the mandate’s “effects on the national economy and interstate commerce.” In other words, this section of findings attempted to defend the individual mandate as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause—an argument Roberts struck down in the NFIB v. Sebelius ruling six years ago.

Second, the plaintiffs and the Justice Department briefs focus more on what a Congress eight years ago said—i.e., their non-binding findings to defend the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause—than what the current Congress did when it set the mandate penalty to zero, but left the rest of Obamacare intact. The Justice Department tried to retain a fig leaf of consistency by taking the same position regarding severability that the Obama administration did before the Supreme Court in 2012: that if the mandate falls, the guaranteed issue and community rating provisions (and only those provisions) should as well.

However, the Justice Department’s brief all but ignores Congress’s intervention last year. In a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) regarding the lawsuit, Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that “We presume that Congress legislates with knowledge of the [Supreme] Court’s findings.” A corollary to that maxim should find that the administration takes decisions with knowledge of Congress’ actions.

But rather than observing how this Congress zeroed out the mandate penalty while leaving the rest of Obamacare intact, DOJ claimed that the 2010 findings should control, because Congress did not repeal them. (Due to procedural concerns surrounding budget reconciliation, Senate Republicans arguably could not have repealed them in last year’s tax bill even if they wanted to.)

Third, as the brief by a series of Democratic state attorneys general—who received permission to intervene in the case—makes plain, Republican members of Congress said repeatedly during the tax bill debate last year that they were not changing any other part of the law. For instance, during the Senate Finance Committee markup of the tax bill, the committee’s chairman, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), said the following:

Let us be clear, repealing the [mandate] tax does not take anyone’s health insurance away. No one would lose access to coverage or subsidies that help them pay for coverage unless they chose not to enroll in health coverage once the penalty for doing so is no longer in effect. No one would be kicked off of Medicare. No one would lose insurance they are currently getting from insurance carriers. Nothing—nothing—in the modified mark impacts Obamacare policies like coverage for preexisting conditions or restrictions against lifetime limits on coverage….

The bill does nothing to alter Title 1 of Obamacare, which includes all of the insurance mandates and requirements related to preexisting conditions and essential health benefits.

As noted above, I want Congress to repeal more of Obamacare—all of it, in fact. But what I want to happen and what Congress did are two different things. When Congress explicitly set the mandate penalty to zero but left the rest of the law intact, I should not (and will not) go running to an activist judge trying to get him or her to ignore the will of Congress and strike all of it down regardless. That’s what liberals do.

Too Cute by Half Problem 1: Legal Outcomes

The brief the Democratic attorneys general filed suggested another possible outcome—one that would not please the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. While the attorneys general attempted to defend the mandate’s constitutionality despite the impending loss of the tax penalty, they offered another solution should the court find the revised mandate unconstitutional:

Under long-standing principles of statutory construction, when a legislature purports to amend an existing statute in a way that would render the statute (or part of the statute) unconstitutional, the amendment is void, and the statute continues to operate as it did before the invalid amendment was enacted.

It remains to be seen whether the courts will find this argument credible. But if they do, a lawsuit seeking to strike down all of Obamacare could actually restore part of it, by getting the court to reinstate the tax penalties associated with the mandate.

This scenario could get worse. In 2015, the Senate parliamentarian offered guidance that Congress could set the mandate penalty to zero, but not repeal it outright, as part of a budget reconciliation bill. Republicans used this precedent to zero-out the mandate in last year’s tax bill. But a court ruling stating that Congress cannot constitutionally set the mandate penalty to zero, and must instead repeal it outright, means Senate Republicans would have to muster 60 votes to do so—an outcome meaning the mandate might never get repealed.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of King v. Burwell. In its opinion, the court ruled that individuals in states that did not establish their own exchanges (and used the federally run healthcare.gov instead) could qualify for health insurance subsidies. By codifying an ambiguity in the Obamacare statute in favor of the subsidies, the court’s ruling prevented the Trump administration from later taking executive action to block those subsidies.

In King v. Burwell, litigating over uncertainty in Obamacare ended up precluding a future administration from taking action to dismantle it. The same thing could happen with this newest lawsuit.

Too Cute by Half Problem 2: Legislative Action

Sooner or later, someone will recognize an easy solution exists that would solve both the problem of constitutionality and severability: Congress passing legislation to repeal the mandate outright, after the tax bill set the penalty to zero. But this scenario could lead to all sorts of inconsistent, yet politically convenient, outcomes:

  • Democrats attacking Republicans over last week’s DOJ brief might oppose repealing a (now-defanged) individual mandate, because it would remove what they view as a powerful political issue heading into November’s midterm elections;
  • Republicans afraid of Democrats’ political attacks might say they repealed a part of Obamacare (i.e., the individual mandate) outright to “protect” the rest of Obamacare (i.e., the federal regulations and other assorted components of the law) from being struck down by an activist judge; and
  • Some on the Right might oppose Congress taking action to repeal “just” the individual mandate, because they want the courts to strike down the entire law—even though such a job rightly lies within Congress’ purview.

As others have noted, these contortionistic, “Through the Looking Glass” scenarios speak volumes about the tortured basis for this lawsuit. The Trump administration should spend less time writing briefs that support legislating from the bench by unelected judges, and more time working with Congress to do its job and repeal the law itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Does the Heritage Health Plan Include Taxpayer Funding of Abortion?

When lawmakers write legislation, little details matter—a lot. In the case of a health plan that the Heritage Foundation and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) are reportedly preparing to release in the coming days, a few words indicate the plan has not considered critically important details—like how Senate procedure intertwines with abortion policy—necessary to any substantive policy endeavor.

A few short words in a summary of the Heritage plan leave the real possibility that the plan, if enacted as described, could lead to taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. Either Heritage and Santorum—both known opponents of abortion—have undertaken dramatic changes in their pro-life positions over the past few months, or they have failed to think through the full import of the policies they will release very shortly.

However, multiple individuals participating in the Heritage meetings told me that the concepts and policies Spiro’s document discusses align with Heritage discussions. Spiro may have created that document based on verbal descriptions given to him of the Heritage plan (just as the New York Times’ list of questions Robert Mueller wants to ask President Trump likely came via Trump’s attorneys and not Mueller). But regardless of who created it, people in the Heritage group told me it accurately outlined the policy proposals under discussion.

What Cost-Sharing Reductions Do

The summary describes many policies, but one in particular stands out: Under “Short-term stabilization/premium relief,” the plan “Adopts the [Lamar] Alexander and [Susan] Collins appropriation for CSRs [cost-sharing reductions] and state reinsurance/high risk pool programs for 2019 and 2020.”

On one level, this development should not come as a surprise. Party leaders often incorporate recalcitrant members’ pet projects (or, in the old days, earmarks) into a bill to obtain their votes: “See, we included the language that you wanted—you have to vote for our bill now!” Given that Collins as of last week had not even heard about the Heritage-led effort, one might think she would need some incentive to support the measure, which attaching her “stability” language might provide.

About the Hyde Amendment and Byrd Rule

The reference to CSRs takes on more importance because of the way Congress would consider Heritage’s plan. As with the Graham-Cassidy bill and other “repeal-and-replace” bills considered last year, the Senate would enact them using expedited budget reconciliation procedures.

Those procedures theoretically allow all 51 Senate Republicans to circumvent a Democratic filibuster and pass a reconciliation bill on a party-line vote. However, as I outlined last year, the reconciliation process comes with procedural restrictions (i.e., the “Byrd rule”) to prevent senators from attaching “extraneous” and non-budgetary matter to a bill that cannot be filibustered.

“Hyde amendment” restrictions—which prevent federal funding of abortion coverage, except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—represent a textbook example of the “Byrd rule,” because they have a fiscal impact “merely incidental” to the policy changes proposed. Former Senate Parliamentarian Bob Dove said as much about abortion restrictions Congress considered in 1995:

The Congressional Budget Office determined that it was going to save money. But it was my view that the provision was not there in order to save money. It was there to implement social policy. Therefore I ruled that it was not in order and it was stricken.

After pushing for a vote for months, Collins suddenly backed off and didn’t force the issue on the Senate floor. She knew she didn’t have the votes—everyone knew she didn’t have the votes—because Democrats wouldn’t support a measure that restricted taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. Exactly nothing has changed that dynamic since Congress considered the issue in March.

Why We Can’t Fund CSRs

Republicans recognize the problems the abortion funding issue creates, and the Graham-Cassidy bill attempted to solve them by providing subsidies via a block grant to states. Graham-Cassidy funneled the block grant through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), largely because the SCHIP statute includes the following language: “Funds provided to a state under this title shall only be used to carry out the purposes of this title, and any health insurance coverage provided with such funds may include coverage of abortion only if necessary to save the life of the mother or if the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.”

Because SCHIP already contains full Hyde protections on taxpayer funding of abortion, Graham-Cassidy ran the block grant program through SCHIP. Put another way, Graham-Cassidy borrowed existing Hyde amendment protections because any new protections would get in a budget reconciliation bill. It did the same thing for a “stability” fund for reinsurance or other mechanisms intended to lower premiums by subsidizing insurers, also referred to in Spiro’s document.

Creating a pot of money elsewhere in law—for instance, through the SCHIP statute, which does contain Hyde protections—and using that money to compensate insurers for reducing cost-sharing would prove just as unrealistic. The CSR payments reimburse insurers for discrete, specific discounts provided to discrete, specific low-income individuals.

If the subsidy pool gave money to all insurers equally, regardless of the number of low-income enrollees they reduced cost-sharing for, then insurers would have a ready-built incentive to avoid attracting poor people, because enrolling low-income individuals would saddle them with an unfunded (or only partially funded) mandate. If the subsidy pool gave money to insurers based on their specific obligations under the Obamacare cost-sharing reduction requirements, then the parliamentarian would likely view this language as an attempt to circumvent the Byrd rule restrictions and strike it down.

Not Ready for Prime Time

Four participants in the Heritage meetings told me the group has discussed appropriating funds for CSR payments to insurers as part of the plan. Not a single individual said the Senate’s “Byrd rule” restrictions—which make enacting pro-life protections for such CSR payments all-but-impossible—came up when discussing an appropriation for cost-sharing payments to insurers.

That silence signals one or more potential problems: A lack of regard for pro-life policy; an ignorance of Senate procedure, and its potential ramifications on the policies being considered; or a willingness to fudge details—allowing people to believe what they want to believe. Regardless, it speaks to the unformed nature of the proposal, despite meetings that have continued since the last time “repeal-and-replace” collapsed” nearly eight months ago.

Earlier this month, Santorum claimed in an interview that while the original “Graham-Cassidy was a rush…this time we have the opportunity to get the policy better.” But any serious attempt to “get the policy better” wouldn’t have major lingering questions about tens of billions of dollars in “stability” funding, and whether such funds would subsidize abortion coverage, mere days before its public release. In this case, eight months of deliberations may not lead to a deliberative and coherent policy product.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Biden Precedent Provides Roadmap for Repealing Obamacare with 51 Votes

With Congress having effectively repealed its individual mandate in the tax relief bill, what should Republicans do about Obamacare now?

While eliminating a penalty for Americans who cannot afford government-approved health insurance removes a financial burden on low-income families, it does not give people the freedom to purchase the coverage they do want to buy. Doubtless the president’s October executive order, when implemented, will provide more affordable options through regulatory relief. But ensuring that relief remains intact through future administrations will require legislative action.

How Joe Biden Used His Senate Presidency

While Democrats did not use budget reconciliation—a Senate procedure allowing bills to pass with a simple 51-vote majority, instead of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster—to pass Obamacare, they did use a reconciliation bill to “fix” the law they passed. In March 2010, the Senate considered, and President Obama eventually signed, a reconciliation bill that removed the odious “Cornhusker Kickback” for Nebraska, and made other amendments to the health law.

That reconciliation bill also changed Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Specifically, Section 2301(a) of the reconciliation measure applied four insurance requirements—limiting waiting periods to join employer plans, banning lifetime limits, ending rescissions by insurers, and extending coverage to “dependents” under age 26—to “grandfathered” health plans established before the law’s enactment. In addition, Section 2301(b) of the bill amended Obamacare itself, removing language that limited under-26 “dependent” coverage to unmarried individuals.

During consideration of the reconciliation bill on the Senate floor, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley objected to including these provisions. He argued that Section 2301 of the bill violated the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” designed to prevent the inclusion of matters with a merely incidental fiscal component on a budget reconciliation bill. In a colloquy memorialized in the Congressional Record, Vice President Biden, acting in his capacity as president of the Senate, overruled Grassley, and said the provisions in question did in fact comply with the “Byrd rule.”

“Grandfathered” plans do not qualify for Obamacare subsidies, and many do not qualify for any tax preference. Yet Biden held that the new requirements on “grandfathered” plans held enough of a fiscal nexus to comply with the “Byrd rule” for budget reconciliation. As a result, the “Biden precedent” allows the Senate to enact—or to repeal outright—health insurance rules through the reconciliation process.

Democrats Paved the Way for Obamacare Repeal

Moreover, the particular insurance requirements included in Section 2301(a)—especially the restrictions on employer waiting periods and the ban on rescissions—carry a relatively small fiscal impact. Because Vice President Biden ruled that Democrats could enact these comparatively small requirements in a reconciliation bill, Senate Republicans should have every right to repeal more costly restrictions, such as those on essential health benefits and actuarial value, outright through budget reconciliation, rather than relying upon the cumbersome state waiver processes included in last year’s bills.

Senate sources indicate that, recognizing the “Biden precedent” would allow for a robust Obamacare repeal, Democratic staffers tried to limit its impact last year. They argued to Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, that changes covered by that precedent were targeted in scope, technical in nature, and limited only to plans that qualify for subsidies.

But a textual analysis of the 2010 reconciliation bill shows that it changed requirements for all types of health insurance, not just “grandfathered” plans, and not just those that qualified for subsidies. And because Biden overruled Republican objections that these changes to insurance rules exceeded the scope of budget reconciliation in 2010, Republicans can and should use that precedent to undo Obamacare’s regulatory regime.

Obamacare’s insurance rules represent the beating heart of the law, necessitating a massive system of subsidies and tax increases to make this newly expensive coverage “affordable.” Because Democrats used the “Biden precedent” to impose some of those rules through budget reconciliation, Republicans have every opportunity to repeal these requirements outright through a reconciliation bill. They should take that opportunity, for removing the regulatory regime would effectively repeal Obamacare—and permanently restore health care freedom to the American people.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: Summary of Revised Graham-Cassidy Legislation

A PDF version of this document is available on the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

Summary of CBO Score

On Monday evening, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a preliminary estimate of the Graham-Cassidy bill. CBO concluded that the bill would comply with reconciliation parameters—namely, that it would reduce the deficit by at least as much as the underlying reconciliation vehicle (the House-passed American Health Care Act), reduce the deficit by at least $1 billion in each of its two titles in its first ten years, and not increase the deficit overall in any of the four following decades.

Although it did not include any specific coverage or premium numbers, CBO did conclude that the bill would likely decrease coverage by millions compared to the current policy baseline. The report estimated that the bill’s block grant would spend about $230 billion less than current law—a 10 percent reduction overall (an average 30 percent reduction for Medicaid expansion states, but an average 30 percent increase for non-expansion states). Moreover, CBO believes at least $150 billion in block grant funding would not be spent by the end of the ten-year budget window.

CBO believes that “most states would eventually make changes in the regulations for their non-group market in order to stabilize it and would use some funds from the block grants to facilitate those changes.” Essentially, current insurance regulations mean that markets would become unstable without current law subsidies, such that states would use a combination of subsidies and changes in regulations to preserve market stability.

CBO believes that most Medicaid expansion states would attempt to use block grant funding to create Medicaid-like programs for their low-income residents. However, the analysis concludes that by 2026, those states’ block grants would roughly equal the projected cost of their current Medicaid expansion—forcing them to choose between “provid[ing] similar benefits to people in a [Medicaid] alternative program and extend[ing] support to others” further up the income scale. In those cases, CBO believes “most of those states would then choose to provide little support to people in the non-group market because doing so effectively would be the more difficult task.”

Overall, CBO believes that the bill would reduce insurance coverage, because of its repeal of the subsidies, Medicaid expansion, and the individual mandate. The budget office believes that states with high levels of coverage under Obamacare would not receive enough funds under the revised block grant to match their current coverage levels, while states with lower levels of coverage would spend the money slowly, in part because they lack the infrastructure (i.e., technology, etc.) to distribute subsidies easily. CBO also believes that employment-based coverage would increase under the bill, because some employers would respond to changes in the individual market by offering coverage to their workers.

With respect to the Medicaid reforms in the bill, CBO concludes that most “states would not have substantial additional flexibility” under the per capita caps. Some states with declining populations might choose the block grant option, but the grant “would not be attractive in most states experiencing population growth, as the fixed block grant would not be adjusted for such growth.” States could reduce their spending by reducing provider payment rates; optional benefit categories; limiting eligibility; improving care delivery; or some combination of the approaches.

For the individual market, CBO expresses skepticism about the timelines in the bill. Specifically, its analysis found that states’ initial options would “be limited,” because implementing new health programs by 2020 would be “difficult:”

To establish its own system of subsidies for coverage in the nongroup market related to people’s income, a state would have to enact legislation and create a new administrative infrastructure. A state would not be able to rely on any existing system for verifying eligibility or making payments. It would need to establish a new system for enrolling people in nongroup insurance, verify eligibility for tax credits or other subsidies, certify insurance as eligible for subsidies, and ultimately ensure that the payments were correct. Those steps would be challenging, particularly if the state chose to simultaneously change insurance market regulations.

While CBO believes that states that expanded Medicaid would be likely to create programs for populations currently eligible for subsidies (i.e., those households with incomes between one and four times poverty), it notes that such states “would be facing large reductions in funding compared with the amounts under current law and thus would have trouble paying for a new program or subsidies for those people.”

CBO believes that without subsidies, and with current insurance regulations in place, a “death spiral” would occur, whereby premiums would gradually increase and insurers would drop out of markets. (However, “if a state required individuals to have insurance, some healthier people would enroll, and premiums would be lower.”) To avoid this scenario, CBO believes that “most states would eventually modify various rules to help stabilize the non-group market,” thereby increasing coverage take-up when compared to not doing so. However, “coverage for people with pre-existing conditions would be much more expensive in some of those states than under current law.”

While widening age bands would “somewhat increase insurance coverage, on net,” CBO notes that “insurance covering certain services not included in the scope of benefits to become more expensive—in some cases, extremely expensive.” Moreover, some medically underwritten individuals (i.e., subject to premium changes based on health status) would become uninsured, while others would instead obtain employer coverage.

Finally, CBO estimated that the non-coverage provisions of the bill would increase the deficit by $22 billion over ten years. Specific estimates for those provisions are integrated into the summary below.

Summary of Changes Made

On Sunday evening, the bill’s sponsors released revised text of their bill. Compared to the original draft, the revised bill:

  • Strikes language repealing sections of Obamacare related to eligibility determinations (likely to comply with the Senate’s “Byrd rule” regarding budget reconciliation);
  • Changes the short-term “stability fund” to set aside 5 percent of funds for “low-density states,” which some conservatives may view as a carve-out for certain states similar to that included in July’s Better Care Reconciliation Act;
  • Re-writes waiver authority, but maintains (and arguably strengthens) language requiring states to “maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” which some conservatives may view as imposing limiting conditions on states that wish to reform their insurance markets;
  • Requires states to certify that they will “ensure compliance” with sections of the Public Health Service Act relating to: 1) the under-26 mandate; 2) hospital stays following births; 3) mental health parity; 4) re-constructive surgery following mastectomies; and 5) genetic non-discrimination;
  • Strikes authority given to the Health and Human Services Secretary in several sections, and replaces it with authority given to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator;
  • Includes a new requirement that at least half of funds provided under the Obamacare replacement block grant must be used “to provide assistance” to households with family income between 50 and 300 percent of the poverty level;
  • Requires CMS Administrator to adjust block grant spending upward for a “low-density state” with per capita health care spending 20 percent higher than the national average, increasing allocation levels to match the higher health costs—a provision some conservatives may consider an earmark for specific states;
  • Imposes new requirement on CMS Administrator to notify states of their 2020 block grant allocations by November 1, 2019—a timeline that some may argue will give states far too little time to prepare and plan for major changes to their health systems;
  • Slows the transition to the new Obamacare replacement block grant formula outlined in the law, which now would not fully take effect until after 2026—even though the bill does not appropriate block grant funds for years after 2026;
  • Gives the Administrator the power not to make an annual adjustment for risk in the block grant;
  • Strikes the block grant’s annual adjustment factor for coverage value;
  • Delays the block grant’s state population adjustment factor from 2020 until 2022—but retains language giving the CMS Administrator to re-write the entire funding allocation based on this factor, which some conservatives may view as an unprecedented power grab by federal bureaucrats;
  • Re-writes rules re-allocating unspent block grant allocation funds;
  • Prohibits states from receiving more than a 25 percent year-on-year increase in their block grant allocations;
  • Makes other technical changes to the block grant formula;
  • Changes the formula for the $11 billion contingency fund provided to low-density and non-expansion states—25 percent ($2.75 billion) for low-density states, 50 percent ($5.5 billion) for non-Medicaid expansion states, and 25 percent ($2.75 billion) for Medicaid expansion states;
  • Includes a $750 million fund for “late-expanding” Medicaid states (those that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare prior to December 31, 2016), which some conservatives may consider an earmark, and one that encourages states to embrace Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied;
  • Includes $500 million to allow pass-through funding under Section 1332 Obamacare waivers to continue for years 2019 through 2023 under the Obamacare replacement block grant;
  • Strikes language allowing for direct primary care to be purchased through Health Savings Accounts, and as a medical expense under the Internal Revenue Code;
  • Strikes language reducing American territories’ Medicaid match from 55 percent to 50 percent;
  • Restores language originally in BCRA allowing for “late-expanding Medicaid states” to select a shorter period for their per capita caps—a provision that some conservatives may view as an undue incentive for certain states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare;
  • Restores language originally in BCRA regarding reporting of data related to Medicaid per capita caps;
  • Strikes language delaying Medicaid per capita caps for certain “low-density states;”
  • Includes new language perpetually increasing Medicaid match rates on the two highest states with separate poverty guidelines issued for them in 2017—a provision that by definition includes only Alaska and Hawaii, which some conservatives may view as an inappropriate earmark;
  • Strikes language allowing all individuals to purchase Obamacare catastrophic coverage beginning in 2019;
  • Strikes language clarifying enforcement provisions, particularly regarding abortion;
  • Allows states to waive certain provisions related to insurance regulations, including 1) essential health benefits; 2) cost-sharing requirements; 3) actuarial value; 4) community rating; 5) preventive health services; and 6) single risk pool;
  • Requires states to describe its new insurance rules to the federal government, “except that in no case may an issuer vary premium rates on the basis of sex or on the basis of genetic information,” a provision that some conservatives may view as less likely to subject the rules to legal challenges than the prior language; and
  • Retains language requiring each waiver participant to receive “a direct benefit” from federal funds, language that some conservatives may view as logistically problematic.

Full Summary of Bill (as Revised)

Last week, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced a new health care bill. The legislation contains some components of the earlier Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), considered by the Senate in July, with some key differences on funding streams. A full summary of the bill follows below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Cost estimates are included below come from prior Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores of similar or identical provisions in BCRA.

Of particular note: It is unclear whether this legislative language has been fully vetted with the Senate Parliamentarian. When the Senate considers budget reconciliation legislation—as it would do should the Graham-Cassidy measure receive floor consideration—the Parliamentarian advises whether provisions are budgetary in nature and can be included in the bill (which can pass with a 51-vote simple majority), and which provisions are not budgetary in nature and must be considered separately (i.e., require 60 votes to pass).

As the bill was released prior to issuance of a CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not fully vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I

Revisions to Obamacare Subsidies:             Beginning in 2018, changes the definition of a qualified health plan, to prohibit plans from covering abortion other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may eventually be eliminated under the provisions of the Senate’s “Byrd rule.” (For more information, see these two articles.)

Eliminates provisions that limit repayment of subsidies for years after 2017. Subsidy eligibility is based upon estimated income, with recipients required to reconcile their subsidies received with actual income during the year-end tax filing process. Current law limits the amount of excess subsidies households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017) must pay. This provision would eliminate that limitation on repayments, which may result in fewer individuals taking up subsidies in the first place. Saves $11.7 billion over ten years—$8.5 billion in spending, and $3.2 billion in revenue.

Repeals the subsidy regime entirely after December 31, 2019.

Small Business Tax Credit:             Repeals Obamacare’s small business tax credit, effective in 2020. Disallows the small business tax credit beginning in 2018 for any plan that offers coverage of abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother—which, as noted above, some conservatives may believe will be stricken during the Senate’s “Byrd rule” review. Saves $6 billion over ten years.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. The individual mandate provision cuts taxes by $38 billion, and the employer mandate provision cuts taxes by $171 billion, both over ten years.

Stability Fund:          Creates two state-based funds intended to stabilize insurance markets—the first giving funds directly to insurers, and the second giving funds to states. The first would appropriate $10 billion each for 2018 and 2019, and $15 billion for 2020, ($35 billion total) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “fund arrangements with health insurance issuers to address coverage and access disruption and respond to urgent health care needs within States.” Instructs the CMS Administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure for providing and distributing funds.” Does not require a state match for receipt of stability funds. Some conservatives may be concerned this provision provides excessive authority to unelected bureaucrats to distribute $35 billion in federal funds as they see fit.

Includes new language setting aside 5 percent of stability fund dollars for “low-density states”—a provision which some conservatives may oppose as an earmark for Alaska and other similar states.

Market-Based Health Care Grant Program:       Creates a longer-term stability fund for states with a total of $1.176 trillion in federal funding from 2020 through 2026—$146 billion in 2020 and 2021, $157 billion in 2022, $168 billion in 2023, $179 billion in 2024, and $190 billion in 2025 and 2026. Eliminates BCRA provisions requiring a state match. States could keep their allotments for two years, but unspent funds after that point could be re-allocated to other states. However, all funds would have to be spent by December 31, 2026.

Expands BCRA criteria for appropriate use of funds by states, to include assistance for purchasing individual insurance, and “provid[ing] health insurance coverage for individuals who are eligible for” Medicaid, as well as the prior eligible uses under BCRA: to provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals, including by reducing premium costs, “help stabilize premiums and promote state health insurance market participation and choice,” provide payments to health care providers, or reduce cost-sharing.

However, states may spend no more than 15 percent of their resources on the Medicaid population (or up to 20 percent if the state applies for a waiver, and the Department of Health and Human Services concludes that the state is using its funds “to supplement, and not supplant,” the state Medicaid match). In addition, states must spend at least half of their funds on “provid[ing] assistance” to families with incomes between 50 and 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Some conservatives may believe these restrictions belie the bill’s purported goal of giving states freedom and flexibility to spend the funds as they see fit.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by doling out nearly $1.2 trillion in spending, the bill does not repeal Obamacare, so much as it redistributes Obamacare funds from “blue states” to “red states,” per the formulae described below. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the bill creates a funding cliff—with spending dropping from $190 billion in 2026 to $0 in 2027—that will leave an impetus for future Congresses to spend massive new amounts of money in the future.

Grant Formula:         Sets a complex formula for determining state grant allocations, tied to the overall funding a state received for Medicaid expansion, the basic health program under Obamacare, and premium and cost-sharing subsidies provided to individuals in insurance Exchanges. Permits states to select any four consecutive fiscal quarters between September 30, 2013 and January 1, 2018 to establish the base period. (The bill sponsors have additional information regarding the formula calculations here.)

Intends to equalize grant amounts, with a phase-in of the new methodology for years 2021 through 2026. Ideally, the bill would set funding to a state’s number of low-income individuals when compared to the number of low-income individuals nationwide. Defines the term “low-income individuals” to include those with incomes between 50 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level (45-133% FPL, plus a 5 percent income disregard created by Obamacare). In 2017, those numbers total $12,300-$33,948 for a family of four.

Adjusts state allocations (as determined above) according to additional factors:

  1. Risk Adjustment:      The bill would phase in risk adjustment over four years (between 2023 and 2026), and limit the risk adjustment modification to no more than 10 percent of the overall allotment. Risk adjustment would be based on clinical risk factors for low-income individuals (as defined above). The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator could cancel the risk adjustment factor in the absence of sufficient data.
  2. Population Adjustment:              Permits (but does not require) the Administrator to adjust allocations for years after 2022 according to a population adjustment factor. Requires CMS to “develop a state specific population adjustment factor that accounts for legitimate factors that impact the health care expenditures in a state”—such as demographics, wage rates, income levels, etc.—but as noted above, does not require CMS to adjust allocations based upon those factors.

Notwithstanding the above, states could not receive a year-on-year increase in funding of more than 25 percent.

Requires the Administrator to adjust block grant spending upward for a “low-density state” with per capita health care spending 20 percent higher than the national average, increasing allocation levels to match the higher health costs—a provision some conservatives may consider an inappropriate earmark for Alaska. Imposes new requirement on the Administrator to notify states of their 2020 block grant allocations by November 1, 2019—a timeline that some may argue will give states far too little time to prepare and plan for major changes to their health systems.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the admirable intent to equalize funding between high-spending and low-spending states, the bill gives excessive discretion to unelected bureaucrats in Washington to determine the funding formulae. Some conservatives may instead support repealing all of Obamacare, and allowing states to decide for themselves what they wish to put in its place, rather than doling out federal funds from Washington. Finally, some may question why the bill’s formula criteria focus so heavily on individuals with incomes between 50-138 percent FPL, to the potential exclusion of individuals and households with slightly higher or lower incomes.

Provides $750 million for “late-expanding” Medicaid states—those that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare prior to December 31, 2015—which some conservatives may consider an earmark, one that encourages states that have embraced Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied. Also includes $500 million to allow pass-through funding under Section 1332 Obamacare waivers to continue for years 2019 through 2023.

Grant Application:  Requires states applying for grant funds to outline the intended uses of same. Specifically, the state must describe how it “shall maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” along with “such other information as necessary for the Administrator to carry out this subsection”—language that could be used by a future Democratic Administration, or federal courts, to undermine the waiver program’s intent.

Explicitly requires states to “ensure compliance” with several federal insurance mandates:

  1. Coverage of “dependents” under age 26;
  2. Hospital stays following deliveries;
  3. Mental health parity;
  4. Reconstructive surgery following mastectomies; and
  5. Genetic non-discrimination.

Some conservatives may note that these retained federal mandates belie the notion of state flexibility promised by the legislation.

Contingency Fund:               Appropriates a total of $11 billion—$6 billion for calendar year 2020, and $5 billion for calendar 2021—for a contingency fund for certain states. Half of the funding ($5.5 billion total) would go towards states that had not expanded Medicaid as of September 1, 2017, with the remaining one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards “low-density states”—those with a population density of fewer than 15 individuals per square mile—and another one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards states that did expand Medicaid.

Implementation Fund:        Provides $2 billion to implement programs under the bill. Costs $2 billion over ten years.

Repeal of Some Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals some Obamacare taxes:

  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $5.6 billion;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $100 million;
  • Medical device tax, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $19.6 billion; and
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $1.8 billion.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill barely attempts to reduce revenues, repealing only the smallest taxes in Obamacare—and the ones that corporate lobbyists care most about (e.g., medical device tax and retiree prescription drug coverage provision).

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses. Lowers revenues by a total of $19.2 billion over ten years.

Allows for Health Savings Account funds to be used for the purchase of high-deductible health plans, but only to the extent that such insurance was not purchased on a tax-preferred basis (i.e., through the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, or through Obamacare insurance subsidies).

Allows HSA dollars to be used to reimburse expenses for “dependents” under age 27, effectively extending the “under-26” provisions of Obamacare to Health Savings Accounts. Prohibits HSA-qualified high deductible health plans from covering abortions, other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—an effective prohibition on the use of HSA funds to purchase plans that cover abortion, but one that the Senate Parliamentarian may advise does not comport with procedural restrictions on budget reconciliation bills. No separate cost estimate provided for the revenue reduction associated with allowing HSA dollars to be used to pay for insurance premiums.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). CBO believes this provision would save a total of $225 million in Medicaid spending, while increasing spending by $79 million over a decade, because 15 percent of Planned Parenthood clients would lose access to services, increasing the number of births in the Medicaid program by several thousand. Saves $146 million over ten years.

Medicaid Expansion:           Phases out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, effective January 1, 2020. After such date, only members of Indian tribes who reside in states that had expanded Medicaid—and who were eligible on December 31, 2019—would qualify for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Indians could remain on the Medicaid expansion, but only if they do not have a break in eligibility (i.e., the program would be frozen to new enrollees on January 1, 2020).

Repeals the enhanced federal match (currently 95 percent, declining slightly to 90 percent) associated with Medicaid expansion, effective in 2020. Also repeals provisions regarding the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services. Saves $19.3 billion over ten years.

Retroactive Eligibility:       Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid from three months to two months. These changes would NOT apply to aged, blind, or disabled populations, who would still qualify for three months of retroactive eligibility. Saves $800 million over ten years.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Permits—but unlike the House bill, does not require—states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income every six months, or at shorter intervals. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match rate for states that elect this option. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Work Requirements:           Permits (but does not require) states to, beginning October 1, 2017, impose work requirements on “non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant” beneficiaries. States can determine the length of time for such work requirements. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match for state expenses attributable to activities implementing the work requirements.

States may not impose requirements on pregnant women (through 60 days after birth); children under age 19; the sole parent of a child under age 6, or sole parent or caretaker of a child with disabilities; or a married individual or head of household under age 20 who “maintains satisfactory attendance at secondary school or equivalent,” or participates in vocational education. Adds to existing exemptions (drafted in BCRA) provisions exempting those in inpatient or intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment and full-time students from Medicaid work requirements. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Provider Taxes:        Reduces permissible Medicaid provider taxes from 6 percent under current law to 5.6 percent in fiscal year 2021, 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2022, 4.8 percent in fiscal year 2023, 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2024, and 4 percent in fiscal year 2025 and future fiscal years—a change from BCRA, which reduced provider taxes to 5 percent in 2025 (0.2 percent reduction per year, as opposed to 0.4 percent under the Graham-Cassidy bill). Some conservatives may view provider taxes as essentially “money laundering”—a game in which states engage in shell transactions solely designed to increase the federal share of Medicaid funding and reduce states’ share. More information can be found here. CBO believes states would probably reduce their spending in response to the loss of provider tax revenue, resulting in lower spending by the federal government. Saves $13 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in fiscal year 2020. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare).

While the cap would take effect in fiscal year 2020, states could choose their “base period” based on any eight consecutive quarters of expenditures between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017. The CMS Administrator would have authority to make adjustments to relevant data if she believes a state attempted to “game” the look-back period. Late-expanding Medicaid states could choose a shorter period (but not fewer than four) quarters as their “base period” for determining per capita caps—a provision that some conservatives may view as improperly incentivizing states that decided to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied.

Creates four classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; and 4) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps. Exempts declared public health emergencies from the Medicaid per capita caps—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency—but such exemption may not exceed $5 billion.

For years before fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to medical inflation for children and all other non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation plus one percentage point for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries. Beginning in fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to overall inflation for children and non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries—a change from BCRA, which set the caps at overall inflation for all enrollees beginning in 2025.

Eliminates provisions in the House bill regarding “required expenditures by certain political subdivisions,” which some had derided as a parochial New York-related provision.

Provides a provision—not included in the House bill—for effectively re-basing the per capita caps. Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase the caps by between 0.5% and 3% (a change from BCRA, which set a 2% maximum increase) for low-spending states (defined as having per capita expenditures 25% below the national median), and lower the caps by between 0.5% and 2% (unchanged from BCRA) for high-spending states (with per capita expenditures 25% above the national median). The Secretary may only implement this provision in a budget-neutral manner, i.e., one that does not increase the deficit. However, this re-basing provision shall NOT apply to any state with a population density of under 15 individuals per square mile.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent. Requires new state reporting on inpatient psychiatric hospital services and children with complex medical conditions. Requires the HHS Inspector General to audit each state’s spending at least every three years.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Home and Community-Based Services:             Creates a four-year, $8 billion demonstration project from 2020 through 2023 to expand home- and community-based service payment adjustments in Medicaid, with such payment adjustments eligible for a 100 percent federal match. The 15 states with the lowest population density would be given priority for funds.

Medicaid Block Grants:      Creates a Medicaid block grant, called the “Medicaid Flexibility Program,” beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Requires interested states to submit an application providing a proposed packet of services, a commitment to submit relevant data (including health quality measures and clinical data), and a statement of program goals. Requires public notice-and-comment periods at both the state and federal levels.

The amount of the block grant would total the regular federal match rate, multiplied by the target per capita spending amounts (as calculated above), multiplied by the number of expected enrollees (adjusted forward based on the estimated increase in population for the state, per Census Bureau estimates). In future years, the block grant would be increased by general inflation.

Prohibits states from increasing their base year block grant population beyond 2016 levels, adjusted for population growth, plus an additional three percentage points. This provision is likely designed to prevent states from “packing” their Medicaid programs full of beneficiaries immediately prior to a block grant’s implementation, solely to achieve higher federal payments.

In a change from BCRA, the bill removes language permitting states to roll over block grant payments from year to year—a move that some conservatives may view as antithetical to the flexibility intended by a block grant, and biasing states away from this model. Reduces federal payments for the following year in the case of states that fail to meet their maintenance of effort spending requirements, and permits the HHS Secretary to make reductions in the case of a state’s non-compliance. Requires the Secretary to publish block grant amounts for every state every year, regardless of whether or not the state elects the block grant option.

Permits block grants for a program period of five fiscal years, subject to renewal; plans with “no significant changes” would not have to re-submit an application for their block grants. Permits a state to terminate the block grant, but only if the state “has in place an appropriate transition plan approved by the Secretary.”

Imposes a series of conditions on Medicaid block grants, requiring coverage for all mandatory populations identified in the Medicaid statute, and use of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) standard for determining eligibility. Includes 14 separate categories of services that states must cover for mandatory populations under the block grant. Requires benefits to have an actuarial value (coverage of average health expenses) of at least 95 percent of the benchmark coverage options in place prior to Obamacare. Permits states to determine the amount, duration, and scope of benefits within the parameters listed above.

Applies mental health parity provisions to the Medicaid block grant, and extends the Medicaid rebate program to any outpatient drugs covered under same. Permits states to impose premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing, provided such efforts do not exceed 5 percent of a family’s income in any given year.

Requires participating states to have simplified enrollment processes, coordinate with insurance Exchanges, and “establish a fair process” for individuals to appeal adverse eligibility determinations. Allows for modification of the Medicaid block grant during declared public health emergencies—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency.

Exempts states from per capita caps, waivers, state plan amendments, and other provisions of Title XIX of the Social Security Act while participating in Medicaid block grants.

Performance Bonus Payments:             Provides an $8 billion pool for bonus payments to state Medicaid and SCHIP programs for Fiscal Years 2023 through 2026. Allows the Secretary to increase federal matching rates for states that 1) have lower than expected expenses under the per capita caps and 2) report applicable quality measures, and have a plan to use the additional funds on quality improvement. While noting the goal of reducing health costs through quality improvement, and incentives for same, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—as with others in the bill—gives near-blanket authority to the HHS Secretary to control the program’s parameters, power that conservatives believe properly resides outside Washington—and power that a future Democratic Administration could use to contravene conservative objectives. CBO believes that only some states will meet the performance criteria, leading some of the money not to be spent between now and 2026. Costs $3 billion over ten years.

Inpatient Psychiatric Services:             Provides for optional state Medicaid coverage of inpatient psychiatric services for individuals over 21 and under 65 years of age. (Current law permits coverage of such services for individuals under age 21.) Such coverage would not exceed 30 days in any month or 90 days in any calendar year. In order to receive such assistance, the state must maintain its number of licensed psychiatric beds as of the date of enactment, and maintain current levels of funding for inpatient services and outpatient psychiatric services. Provides a lower (i.e., 50 percent) match for such services, furnished on or after October 1, 2018; however, in a change from BCRA, allows for higher federal match rates for certain services and individuals to continue if they were in effect prior to September 30, 2018. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Medicaid and Indian Health Service:             Makes a state’s expenses on behalf of Indians eligible for a 100 percent match, irrespective of the source of those services. Current law provides for a 100 percent match only for services provided at an Indian Health Service center. Costs $3.5 billion over ten years.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments:     Adjusts reductions in DSH payments to reflect shortfalls in funding for the state grant program described above. For fiscal years 2021 through 2025, states receiving grant allocations that do not keep up with medical inflation will have their DSH reductions reduced or eliminated; in fiscal year 2026, states with grant shortfalls will have their DSH payments increased. Costs $17.9 billion over ten years.

High-Poverty States:            Provides for a permanent increase in the federal Medicaid match for two states, based on poverty guidelines established for 2017. Specifically, provides for a 25 percent increase to the state with the “highest separate poverty guideline for 2017,” and a 15 percent increase to the state with the “second highest separate poverty guideline for 2017”—provisions that by definition would apply only to Alaska and Hawaii, respectively. Some conservatives may be concerned first that these provisions represent inappropriate earmarks, and further that they would change federal spending in perpetuity based on poverty determinations made for a single year. Costs $7.2 billion over ten years.

Title II

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. Saves $7.9 billion over ten years.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” above). Spends $422 million over ten years.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019, and does not appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidy claims for plan years through 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House.

Grant Conditions:    Sets additional conditions for the grant program established in Title I of the bill. States may submit applications waiving certain provisions currently in federal statute:

  1. Essential health benefits;
  2. Cost-sharing requirements;
  3. Actuarial value requirements, including plan metal tiers (e.g., bronze, silver, gold, and platinum);
  4. Community rating—although states may not be able to vary premiums based on health status, due to contradictory language in this section;
  5. Preventive health services; and
  6. Single risk pool.

Requires states to submit their revised rules to the federal government, “except that in no case may an issuer vary premium rates on the basis of sex or on the basis of genetic information.” Some conservatives may view this language as less likely to spark new legal challenges than the prior wording, which prohibited insurance changes based on “membership in a protected class.” However, some conservatives may also find that the mutually contradictory provisions over whether and how states can vary insurance rates may spark other legal challenges.

The waivers only apply to an insurer receiving funding under the state program, and “to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit” from the grant—which does not include reinsurance. In other words, each individual must receive some direct subsidy, rather than just general benefits derived from the broader insurance pool. Some conservatives may be concerned that, by tying waiver of regulations so closely to receipt of federal grant funds, this provision would essentially provide limited regulatory relief. Furthermore, such limited relief would require states to accept federal funding largely adjudicated and doled out by unelected bureaucrats.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, while well-intentioned, these provisions do not represent a true attempt at federalism—one which would repeal all of Obamacare’s regulations and devolve health insurance oversight back to the states. It remains unclear whether any states would actually waive Obamacare regulations under the bill; if a state chooses not to do so, all of the law’s costly mandates will remain in place there, leaving Obamacare as the default option.

Some conservatives may view provisions requiring anyone to whom a waiver applies to receive federal grant funding as the epitome of moral hazard—ensuring that individuals who go through health underwriting will receive federal subsidies, no matter their level of wealth or personal circumstances. By requiring states to subsidize bad actors—for instance, an individual making $250,000 who knowingly went without health coverage for years—with federal taxpayer dollars, the bill could actually raise health insurance premiums, not lower them. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that—because the grant program funding ends in 2027, and because all individuals subject to waivers must receive grant funding—the waiver program will effectively end in 2027, absent a new infusion of taxpayer dollars.

September 30 Deadline for Obamacare Repeal Is Fake News

Over the past several days, congressional leaders in both the House and Senate have claimed that a bill by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is “our best, last chance to get repeal and replace done.” They have made such claims because the press keeps “reporting” that Republicans’ “power to pass health care legislation through a party-line vote in the Senate expires on September 30.”

Don’t you believe it. The Senate’s 52 Republicans have multiple options open to keep the Obamacare repeal process alive after September 30. The only question is whether they have the political will to do so.

Option 1: Set a Senate Precedent

That assertion carries one big flaw: The Senate parliamentarian does not “rule.” The Senate as a body does—and that distinction makes a big difference. The procedural question centers around when, and whether, budget reconciliation instructions expire.

Budget reconciliation provides an expedited process for the Senate to consider matters of a fiscal nature. Reconciliation’s limits on debate and amendments preclude filibusters, allowing the bill to pass with a simple (i.e., 51-vote) majority rather than the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and halt debate. (For additional background, see my May primer on budget reconciliation here.)

In one of its first acts upon convening in January, Congress passed a budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2017, which included instructions for health-related committees in the House and Senate to produce reconciliation legislation—legislation intended to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. But Fiscal Year 2017 ends on September 30, and Congress (thus far at least) hasn’t completed work on the reconciliation bill yet. So what happens on September 30? Does a reconciliation measure fail? Or can Congress continue work on the legislation, because the budget resolution set fiscal parameters for ten fiscal years (through 2026), not just the one ending on September 30?

There is literally no precedent on this particular Senate procedural question of whether and when reconciliation instructions expire. If the chair—either Vice President Mike Pence, Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-UT), or another Senate Republican presiding—wishes to disregard the parliamentarian’s opinion, he or she is free to do so.

Alternatively, if the chair decides to agree with the parliamentarian’s opinion, a 51-vote majority of Republicans could decide to overturn that ruling by appealing the chair’s decision. In either event, the action by the Senate—either the chair or the body itself—would set the precedent, not the opinion of a Senate official who currently has no precedent to guide her.

Option 2: Pass a New Budget

Because there is no precedent to the question of when reconciliation instructions expire, Republican senators can set a precedent on this question themselves—keeping in mind it will apply equally when Republicans are in the minority. But if senators believe that disregarding the parliamentarian’s opinion—even on a question where she has no precedent to guide her—might jeopardize the legislative filibuster, they can simply pass a new budget for Fiscal Year 2018, one that includes reconciliation instructions to allow for Obamacare “repeal-and-replace.”

While that requirement has since been changed, Congress could still pass multiple budget resolutions in a given year, along with a reconciliation measure for each. Congress could pass a Fiscal Year 2018 budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for Obamacare repeal this month, complete work on the Obamacare bill, then pass another budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for tax reform.

Political Will

Congressional leaders apparently want to portray the Graham-Cassidy bill as a binary choice—either support it, or support keeping Obamacare in place. The facts turn that binary choice into a false one. Republicans have every opportunity to work to enact the repeal of Obamacare they promised the American people, regardless of the opinion of an unelected Senate official. No legislator should use an arbitrary—and false—deadline of next week to rationalize voting for a bad bill, or abandoning his or her promises altogether.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: Summary of Graham-Cassidy Health Care Bill

Last week, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced a new health care bill. The legislation contains some components of the earlier Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), considered by the Senate in July, with some key differences on funding streams. A full summary of the bill follows below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Cost estimates are included below come from prior Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores of similar or identical provisions in BCRA.

Of particular note: It is unclear whether this legislative language has been fully vetted with the Senate Parliamentarian. When the Senate considers budget reconciliation legislation—as it would do should the Graham-Cassidy measure receive floor consideration—the Parliamentarian advises whether provisions are budgetary in nature and can be included in the bill (which can pass with a 51-vote simple majority), and which provisions are not budgetary in nature and must be considered separately (i.e., require 60 votes to pass).

As the bill was released prior to issuance of a CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not fully vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I

Revisions to Obamacare Subsidies:             Beginning in 2018, changes the definition of a qualified health plan, to prohibit plans from covering abortion other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may eventually be eliminated under the provisions of the Senate’s “Byrd rule.” (For more information, see these two articles.)

Eliminates provisions that limit repayment of subsidies for years after 2017. Subsidy eligibility is based upon estimated income, with recipients required to reconcile their subsidies received with actual income during the year-end tax filing process. Current law limits the amount of excess subsidies households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017) must pay. This provision would eliminate that limitation on repayments, which may result in fewer individuals taking up subsidies in the first place.

Repeals the subsidy regime entirely after December 31, 2019.

Small Business Tax Credit:             Repeals Obamacare’s small business tax credit, effective in 2020. Disallows the small business tax credit beginning in 2018 for any plan that offers coverage of abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother—which, as noted above, some conservatives may believe will be stricken during the Senate’s “Byrd rule” review. Saves $6 billion over ten years.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. The individual mandate provision cuts taxes by $38 billion, and the employer mandate provision cuts taxes by $171 billion, both over ten years.

Stability Fund:          Creates two state-based funds intended to stabilize insurance markets—the first giving funds directly to insurers, and the second giving funds to states. The first would appropriate $10 billion each for 2018 and 2019, and $15 billion for 2020, ($35 billion total) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “fund arrangements with health insurance issuers to address coverage and access disruption and respond to urgent health care needs within States.” Instructs the CMS Administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure for providing and distributing funds.” Does not require a state match for receipt of stability funds. Some conservatives may be concerned this provision provides excessive authority to unelected bureaucrats to distribute $35 billion in federal funds as they see fit.

Eliminates language in BCRA requiring CMS to reserve one percent of fund monies “for providing and distributing funds to health insurance issuers in states where the cost of insurance premiums are at least 75 percent higher than the national average”—a provision which some conservatives opposed as an earmark for Alaska.

Market-Based Health Care Grant Program:       Creates a longer-term stability fund for states with a total of $1.176 trillion in federal funding from 2020 through 2026—$146 billion in 2020 and 2021, $157 billion in 2022, $168 billion in 2023, $179 billion in 2024, and $190 billion in 2025 and 2026. Eliminates BCRA provisions requiring a state match. States could keep their allotments for two years, but unspent funds after that point could be re-allocated to other states. However, all funds would have to be spent by December 31, 2026.

Expands BCRA criteria for appropriate use of funds by states, to include assistance for purchasing individual insurance, and “provid[ing] health insurance coverage for individuals who are eligible for” Medicaid, as well as the prior eligible uses under BCRA: to provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals, including by reducing premium costs, “help stabilize premiums and promote state health insurance market participation and choice,” provide payments to health care providers, or reduce cost-sharing. However, states may spend no more than 15 percent of their resources on the Medicaid population (or up to 20 percent if the state applies for a waiver, and the Department of Health and Human Services concludes that the state is using its funds “to supplement, and not supplant,” the state Medicaid match)—a restriction that some may believe belies the bill’s purported goal of giving states freedom and flexibility to spend the funds as they see fit.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by doling out nearly $1.2 trillion in spending, the bill does not repeal Obamacare, so much as it redistributes Obamacare funds from “blue states” to “red states,” per the formulae described below. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the bill creates a funding cliff—with spending dropping from $190 billion in 2026 to $0 in 2027—that will leave an impetus for future Congresses to spend massive new amounts of money in the future.

Grant Formula:         Sets a complex formula for determining state grant allocations, tied to the overall funding a state received for Medicaid expansion, the basic health program under Obamacare, and premium and cost-sharing subsidies provided to individuals in insurance Exchanges. Permits states to select any four consecutive fiscal quarters between September 30, 2013 and January 1, 2018 to establish the base period. (The bill sponsors have additional information regarding the formula calculations here.)

Intends to equalize grant amounts by 2026, with a phase-in of the new methodology for years 2021 and 2025. Specifically, the bill would by 2026 set funding to a state’s number of low-income individuals when compared to the number of low-income individuals nationwide. Defines the term “low-income individuals” to include those with incomes between 50 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level (45-133% FPL, plus a 5 percent income disregard created by Obamacare). In 2017, those numbers total $12,300-$33,948 for a family of four.

Adjusts state allocations (as determined above) according to three additional factors:

  1. Risk Adjustment:      The bill would phase in risk adjustment over four years (between 2021 and 2024), and limit the risk adjustment modification to no more than 10 percent of the overall allotment. Risk adjustment would be based on clinical risk factors for low-income individuals (as defined above).
  2. Coverage Value:        The coverage value adjustment would phase in over four years (between 2024 and 2027), based on whether the average actuarial value (percentage of expected health expenses paid) of coverage for low-income individuals (as defined above) in a given state exceeded the “lowest possible actuarial value of health benefits” satisfying State Children’s Health Insurance Program benefit requirements.
  3. Population Adjustment:              Permits (but does not require) the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adjust allocations according to a population adjustment factor. Requires HHS to “develop a state specific population adjustment factor that accounts for legitimate factors that impact the health care expenditures in a state”—such as demographics, wage rates, income levels, etc.—but as noted above, does not require HHS to adjust allocations based upon those factors.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the admirable intent to equalize funding between high-spending and low-spending states, the bill gives excessive discretion to unelected bureaucrats in Washington to determine the funding formulae. Some conservatives may instead support repealing all of Obamacare, and allowing states to decide for themselves what they wish to put in its place, rather than doling out federal funds from Washington. Finally, some may question why the bill’s formula criteria focus so heavily on individuals with incomes between 50-138 percent FPL, to the potential exclusion of individuals and households with slightly higher or lower incomes.

Waivers:         In conjunction with the health care grant program above, allows (but does not require) states to waive certain regulatory requirements. Specifically, states could waive any provision that:

  1. Restricts criteria for insurers to vary premiums on the individual and small group markets, “except that a health insurance issuer may not vary premium rates based on an individual’s sex or membership in a protected class under the Constitution of the United States;”
  2. Prevents premium contributions from varying “on the basis of any health status-related factor” in the individual and small group markets;
  3. Requires coverage of certain benefits in the individual and small group markets; and
  4. Requires insurers in the individual and small group markets to offer rebates to enrollees if their spending fails to meet certain limits (i.e., a medical loss ratio requirement).

To receive the waiver, the state must describe how it “intends to maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” along with “such other information as necessary for the Administrator to carry out this subsection”—language that could be used by a future Democratic Administration to undermine the waiver program’s intent. States can only waive federal statutory requirements enacted after January 1, 2009—i.e., under the Obama Administration.

Moreover, any provision waived “shall only be waived with respect to health insurance coverage” provided by an insurer receiving funding under the state program—and “to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit (including reduced premium costs or reduced out-of-pocket costs) under a state program that is funded by a grant under this subsection.” Some conservatives may be concerned that, by tying waiver of regulations so closely to receipt of federal grant funds, this provision would essentially provide limited regulatory relief. Furthermore, such limited relief would require states to accept federal funding largely adjudicated and doled out by unelected bureaucrats.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, while well-intentioned, these provisions do not represent a true attempt at federalism—one which would repeal all of Obamacare’s regulations and devolve health insurance oversight back to the states. It remains unclear whether any states would actually waive Obamacare regulations under the bill; if a state chooses not to do so, all of the law’s costly mandates will remain in place there, leaving Obamacare as the default option. Moreover, the language requiring states “to maintain adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions” could lead to a private right of action against states utilizing the waivers—and judicial rulings that either undermine, or eliminate, the regulatory relief the waivers intend to provide.

Some conservatives may view provisions requiring anyone to whom a waiver applies to receive federal grant funding as the epitome of moral hazard—ensuring that individuals who go through health underwriting will receive federal subsidies, no matter their level of wealth or personal circumstances. By requiring states to subsidize bad actors—for instance, an individual making $250,000 who knowingly went without health coverage for years—with federal taxpayer dollars, the bill could actually raise health insurance premiums, not lower them.

Some may note that the bill could allow a future Democratic Administration—or, through its reference to “membership in a protected class under the Constitution,” activist judges—to inhibit future waiver applications, and/or impose undue and counter-productive restrictions on the supposed state “flexibility” in the bill. Finally, some conservatives may be concerned that—because the grant program funding ends in 2027, and because all individuals subject to waivers must receive grant funding—the waiver program will effectively end in 2027, absent a new infusion of taxpayer dollars.

Contingency Fund:               Appropriates a total of $11 billion—$6 billion for calendar year 2020, and $5 billion for calendar 2021—for a contingency fund for certain states. Three-quarters of the funding ($8.25 billion total) would go towards states that had not expanded Medicaid as of September 1, 2017, with the remaining one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards “low-density states”—those with a population density of fewer than 15 individuals per square mile.

Implementation Fund:        Provides $500 million to implement programs under the bill. Costs $500 million over ten years.

Repeal of Some Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals some Obamacare taxes:

  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $5.6 billion;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $100 million;
  • Medical device tax, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $19.6 billion; and
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $1.8 billion.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill barely attempts to reduce revenues, repealing only the smallest taxes in Obamacare—and the ones that corporate lobbyists care most about (e.g., medical device tax and retiree prescription drug coverage provision).

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses. Lowers revenues by a total of $19.2 billion over ten years.

Allows for Health Savings Account funds to be used for the purchase of high-deductible health plans, but only to the extent that such insurance was not purchased on a tax-preferred basis (i.e., through the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, or through Obamacare insurance subsidies).

Allows HSA dollars to be used to reimburse expenses for “dependents” under age 27, effectively extending the “under-26” provisions of Obamacare to Health Savings Accounts. Prohibits HSA-qualified high deductible health plans from covering abortions, other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—an effective prohibition on the use of HSA funds to purchase plans that cover abortion, but one that the Senate Parliamentarian may advise does not comport with procedural restrictions on budget reconciliation bills. No separate cost estimate provided for the revenue reduction associated with allowing HSA dollars to be used to pay for insurance premiums.

In an addition from BCRA, permits periodic fees for direct primary care to physicians to be 1) reimbursed from a Health Savings Account without being considered “insurance” and 2) considered a form of “medical care” under the Internal Revenue Code.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). CBO believes this provision would save a total of $225 million in Medicaid spending, while increasing spending by $79 million over a decade, because 15 percent of Planned Parenthood clients would lose access to services, increasing the number of births in the Medicaid program by several thousand. Saves $146 million over ten years.

Medicaid Expansion:           Phases out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, effective January 1, 2020. After such date, only members of Indian tribes who reside in states that had expanded Medicaid—and who were eligible on December 31, 2019—would qualify for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Indians could remain on the Medicaid expansion, but only if they do not have a break in eligibility (i.e., the program would be frozen to new enrollees on January 1, 2020).

Repeals the enhanced federal match (currently 95 percent, declining slightly to 90 percent) associated with Medicaid expansion, effective in 2020. Also reduces the federal Medicaid match for Puerto Rico and U.S. territories from 55 percent to 50 percent. (The federal Medicaid match for the District of Columbia would remain at 70 percent.)

The bill repeals provisions regarding the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services.

Retroactive Eligibility:       Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid from three months to two months. These changes would NOT apply to aged, blind, or disabled populations, who would still qualify for three months of retroactive eligibility.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Permits—but unlike the House bill, does not require—states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income every six months, or at shorter intervals. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match rate for states that elect this option. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Work Requirements:           Permits (but does not require) states to, beginning October 1, 2017, impose work requirements on “non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant” beneficiaries. States can determine the length of time for such work requirements. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match for state expenses attributable to activities implementing the work requirements.

States may not impose requirements on pregnant women (through 60 days after birth); children under age 19; the sole parent of a child under age 6, or sole parent or caretaker of a child with disabilities; or a married individual or head of household under age 20 who “maintains satisfactory attendance at secondary school or equivalent,” or participates in vocational education. Adds to existing exemptions (drafted in BCRA) provisions exempting those in inpatient or intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment and full-time students from Medicaid work requirements. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Provider Taxes:        Reduces permissible Medicaid provider taxes from 6 percent under current law to 5.6 percent in fiscal year 2021, 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2022, 4.8 percent in fiscal year 2023, 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2024, and 4 percent in fiscal year 2025 and future fiscal years—a change from BCRA, which reduced provider taxes to 5 percent in 2025 (0.2 percent reduction per year, as opposed to 0.4 percent under the Graham-Cassidy bill). Some conservatives may view provider taxes as essentially “money laundering”—a game in which states engage in shell transactions solely designed to increase the federal share of Medicaid funding and reduce states’ share. More information can be found here. CBO believes states would probably reduce their spending in response to the loss of provider tax revenue, resulting in lower spending by the federal government.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in fiscal year 2020. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare).

While the cap would take effect in fiscal year 2020, states could choose their “base period” based on any eight consecutive quarters of expenditures between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017. The CMS Administrator would have authority to make adjustments to relevant data if she believes a state attempted to “game” the look-back period. Removes provisions in BCRA allowing late-expanding Medicaid states to choose a shorter period as their “base period” for determining per capita caps, which may have improperly incentivized states that decided to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied.

Creates four classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; and 4) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps. Exempts declared public health emergencies from the Medicaid per capita caps—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency—but such exemption may not exceed $5 billion.

For years before fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to medical inflation for children and all other non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation plus one percentage point for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries. Beginning in fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to overall inflation for children and non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries—a change from BCRA, which set the caps at overall inflation for all enrollees beginning in 2025.

Eliminates provisions in the House bill regarding “required expenditures by certain political subdivisions,” which some had derided as a parochial New York-related provision.

Provides a provision—not included in the House bill—for effectively re-basing the per capita caps. Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase the caps by between 0.5% and 3% (a change from BCRA, which set a 2% maximum increase) for low-spending states (defined as having per capita expenditures 25% below the national median), and lower the caps by between 0.5% and 2% (unchanged from BCRA) for high-spending states (with per capita expenditures 25% above the national median). The Secretary may only implement this provision in a budget-neutral manner, i.e., one that does not increase the deficit. However, this re-basing provision shall NOT apply to any state with a population density of under 15 individuals per square mile.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent. Requires new state reporting on inpatient psychiatric hospital services and children with complex medical conditions. Requires the HHS Inspector General to audit each state’s spending at least every three years.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Exempts low-density states (those with a population density of fewer than 15 individuals per square mile) from the caps, if that state’s grant program allocation (as described above) fails to increase with medical inflation, or if the Secretary determines the allotment “is insufficient…to provide comprehensive and adequate assistance to individuals in the state” under the grant program described above. Some conservatives may question the need for this carve-out for low density states—which the Secretary of HHS can apparently use at will—and why a small allocation for a program designed to “replace” Obamacare should have an impact on whether or not states reform their Medicaid programs.

Home and Community-Based Services:             Creates a four year, $8 billion demonstration project from 2020 through 2023 to expand home- and community-based service payment adjustments in Medicaid, with such payment adjustments eligible for a 100 percent federal match. The 15 states with the lowest population density would be given priority for funds.

Medicaid Block Grants:      Creates a Medicaid block grant, called the “Medicaid Flexibility Program,” beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Requires interested states to submit an application providing a proposed packet of services, a commitment to submit relevant data (including health quality measures and clinical data), and a statement of program goals. Requires public notice-and-comment periods at both the state and federal levels.

The amount of the block grant would total the regular federal match rate, multiplied by the target per capita spending amounts (as calculated above), multiplied by the number of expected enrollees (adjusted forward based on the estimated increase in population for the state, per Census Bureau estimates). In future years, the block grant would be increased by general inflation.

Prohibits states from increasing their base year block grant population beyond 2016 levels, adjusted for population growth, plus an additional three percentage points. This provision is likely designed to prevent states from “packing” their Medicaid programs full of beneficiaries immediately prior to a block grant’s implementation, solely to achieve higher federal payments.

In a change from BCRA, the bill removes language permitting states to roll over block grant payments from year to year—a move that some conservatives may view as antithetical to the flexibility intended by a block grant, and biasing states away from this model. Reduces federal payments for the following year in the case of states that fail to meet their maintenance of effort spending requirements, and permits the HHS Secretary to make reductions in the case of a state’s non-compliance. Requires the Secretary to publish block grant amounts for every state every year, regardless of whether or not the state elects the block grant option.

Permits block grants for a program period of five fiscal years, subject to renewal; plans with “no significant changes” would not have to re-submit an application for their block grants. Permits a state to terminate the block grant, but only if the state “has in place an appropriate transition plan approved by the Secretary.”

Imposes a series of conditions on Medicaid block grants, requiring coverage for all mandatory populations identified in the Medicaid statute, and use of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) standard for determining eligibility. Includes 14 separate categories of services that states must cover for mandatory populations under the block grant. Requires benefits to have an actuarial value (coverage of average health expenses) of at least 95 percent of the benchmark coverage options in place prior to Obamacare. Permits states to determine the amount, duration, and scope of benefits within the parameters listed above.

Applies mental health parity provisions to the Medicaid block grant, and extends the Medicaid rebate program to any outpatient drugs covered under same. Permits states to impose premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing, provided such efforts do not exceed 5 percent of a family’s income in any given year.

Requires participating states to have simplified enrollment processes, coordinate with insurance Exchanges, and “establish a fair process” for individuals to appeal adverse eligibility determinations. Allows for modification of the Medicaid block grant during declared public health emergencies—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency.

Exempts states from per capita caps, waivers, state plan amendments, and other provisions of Title XIX of the Social Security Act while participating in Medicaid block grants.

Performance Bonus Payments:             Provides an $8 billion pool for bonus payments to state Medicaid and SCHIP programs for Fiscal Years 2023 through 2026. Allows the Secretary to increase federal matching rates for states that 1) have lower than expected expenses under the per capita caps and 2) report applicable quality measures, and have a plan to use the additional funds on quality improvement. While noting the goal of reducing health costs through quality improvement, and incentives for same, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—as with others in the bill—gives near-blanket authority to the HHS Secretary to control the program’s parameters, power that conservatives believe properly resides outside Washington—and power that a future Democratic Administration could use to contravene conservative objectives. CBO believes that only some states will meet the performance criteria, leading some of the money not to be spent between now and 2026. Costs $3 billion over ten years.

Inpatient Psychiatric Services:             Provides for optional state Medicaid coverage of inpatient psychiatric services for individuals over 21 and under 65 years of age. (Current law permits coverage of such services for individuals under age 21.) Such coverage would not exceed 30 days in any month or 90 days in any calendar year. In order to receive such assistance, the state must maintain its number of licensed psychiatric beds as of the date of enactment, and maintain current levels of funding for inpatient services and outpatient psychiatric services. Provides a lower (i.e., 50 percent) match for such services, furnished on or after October 1, 2018; however, in a change from BCRA, allows for higher federal match rates for certain services and individuals to continue if they were in effect prior to September 30, 2018. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Medicaid and Indian Health Service:             Makes a state’s expenses on behalf of Indians eligible for a 100 percent match, irrespective of the source of those services. Current law provides for a 100 percent match only for services provided at an Indian Health Service center. Costs $3.5 billion over ten years.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments:     Adjusts reductions in DSH payments to reflect shortfalls in funding for the state grant program described above. For fiscal years 2021 through 2025, states receiving grant allocations that do not keep up with medical inflation will have their DSH reductions reduced or eliminated; in fiscal year 2026, states with grant shortfalls will have their DSH payments increased.

Title II

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. Saves $7.9 billion over ten years.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” above). Spends $422 million over ten years.

Catastrophic Coverage:      Allows all individuals to buy Obamacare catastrophic plans, currently only available to those under 30, beginning on January 1, 2019.

Enforcement:            Clarifies existing law to specify that states may require that plans comply with relevant laws, including Section 1303 of Obamacare, which permits states to prohibit coverage of abortion in qualified health plans. While supporting this provision’s intent, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may ultimately not comply with the Senate’s Byrd rule regarding the inclusion of non-fiscal matters on a budget reconciliation bill.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019, and does not appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidy claims for plan years through 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House.

A “Grand Bargain” on Obamacare Repeal?

To know where you’re going, it helps to recognize where you’ve been. Examining the causes of Republicans’ legislative setbacks on health care—including last month’s dramatic failure of a “skinny” repeal bill on the Senate floor—provides the glimmer of a path forward for a legislative “repeal-and-replace” package, if they are bold enough to take it.

In both the House and the Senate, debate focused on a push-pull between two competing issues: The status of Medicaid expansion in the 31 states that accepted it, and what to do about Obamacare’s regulatory regime. During the spring and summer, congressional leaders attempted messy compromises on each issue, phasing out the higher federal match for Medicaid expansion populations over time, while crafting complex processes allowing states, insurers, or both to waive some—but not all—of Obamacare’s regulatory requirements.

A “grand bargain” in this vein would give Senate moderates a clear win on Medicaid expansion, while providing conservatives their desired outcome on Obamacare’s regulations. For this conservative at least, the regulations represent the heart of the law, prompting both its spending on exchange subsidies—to offset the higher premium costs from the regulatory mandates—and the taxes needed to fund that spending. Expelling the regulations from the federal statute books would represent a clear step towards the promise of repealing Obamacare “root and branch,” and return control of health insurance to the states, where it lay from 1947’s McCarran-Ferguson Act until Obamacare.

Federal Regulations Are Driving Up Health Costs

When coupled with structural reforms to Medicaid—a block grant or per capita caps—included in the House and Senate bills, repealing the federal regulations would enable the “laboratories of democracy” to reassert control over their health insurance markets and Medicaid programs. It would also contrast favorably with a recent proposal introduced by senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). While Graham claims his plan would “empower each individual state to choose the path that works best for them,” in reality it would retain federal dictates regarding pre-existing conditions—the most costly of all the Obamacare mandates.

In a sad irony, some of the same senators who want Congress to respect their states’ decisions to expand Medicaid also want to dictate to other states—as the Graham-Cassidy plan does—how their insurance markets should function. But the true test of federalism applies not in the principle’s convenience, but in its inconvenience.

Yes, This Idea Is Imperfect

To be sure, even this attempted “grand bargain” includes noteworthy flaws. Retaining the enhanced Medicaid match encourages states to prioritize expansion populations over individuals with disabilities in traditional Medicaid, and may lure even more states to accept the expansion. Keeping the higher Medicaid spending levels would preclude repealing all of Obamacare’s tax increases. And the Senate parliamentarian may advise that repealing Obamacare’s regulations does not comport with the budget reconciliation process. But despite the obvious obstacles, lawmakers should seriously explore this option. After Republicans promised repeal for four straight election cycles, the American people deserve no less.

Throughout the repeal process, conservatives have bent over backwards to accommodate moderates’ shifting legislative goalposts. When moderates objected to passing the repeal legislation all but one of them voted for two years ago, conservatives helped construct a “repeal-and-replace” bill. When moderates wanted to retain the Medicaid expansion in their states—even though the 2015 repeal bill moderates voted for eliminated it entirely—conservatives agreed, albeit at the traditional match rates. And when Senate moderates complained, conservatives agreed to a longer phase-out of the higher match rate, despite justifiable fears that the phase-out would never occur.

Winston Churchill purportedly claimed that Americans will always do the right thing—once they have exhausted every other possibility. This “grand bargain” may not represent the “right” outcome, or the best outcome. But conservatives have exhausted many other possibilities in attempting to come to an agreement. Perhaps moderates will finally come to accept federalism—giving states a true choice over their insurance markets, rather than trying to dictate terms—as the solution to keeping their promise to the American people and repealing Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about “Vote-A-Rama”

It’s not a carnival ride—although it might prove even more adventurous. The Senate’s consideration of health-care legislation will soon result in a grueling series of votes dubbed “vote-a-rama.”

After 20 hours of debate on the budget reconciliation measure, equally divided between the majority and minority parties, the Senate will complete consideration of all pending amendments, with the process’ conclusion typically determined when senators exhaust all the amendments they wish to offer—not to mention themselves.

1. It’s Physically Demanding

The “vote-a-rama” process during consideration of the 2010 reconciliation bill that “fixed” Obamacare provides an example. On Wednesday, March 24, senators began voting on amendments at 5:32 PM. Nearly nine hours later, at 2:17 on the morning of Thursday, March 25, senators had completed votes on 29 amendments. The Senate then took a brief break, re-convened at 9:45 the same morning, and disposed of a further 12 amendments over an additional four-plus hours, with a vote on final passage at 2 PM on March 25.

For 20-something or 30-something staffers—let alone senators several times their age—this lengthy process can prove grueling, with long hours, late nights, lack of sleep, and little food (or bad food) the norm.

2. It’s Mentally Confusing

Between votes on amendments, senators usually allow for brief one-minute speeches by the amendment’s proponent and an opponent (generally the majority or minority floor manager of the bill). However, as Senate procedural expert James Wallner notes, that habit has derived from custom and unanimous consent, not any formal rule. If any senator objects to the brief “well speeches” as part of “vote-a-rama,” then the Senate will vote on amendments without any debate or a summary of what the amendment does.

3. It’s Hard to Pass Amendments with a Simple Majority…

As Wallner noted in an article earlier this week, the Senate’s rules essentially give preferential treatment to the underlying reconciliation bill, making it difficult to craft amendments that can pass with a simple (i.e., 50-vote) majority. The amendment must be germane (i.e., relevant) to the underlying bill, and cannot increase the deficit.

Moreover, to pass with a simple majority, an amendment must also comply with the six-part “Byrd rule” test. For instance, an amendment may not have only an incidental fiscal impact, make programmatic changes to Title II of the Social Security Act, or exceed the jurisdiction of the committees who received the reconciliation instructions (in this case, the Senate Finance and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees). Other than simple motions striking particular provisions, amendments will face a difficult time running the procedural gauntlet necessary to pass on a 50-vote threshold.

4. …But It’s Easy to Get Amendment Votes

Even if an amendment does not comply with the budget reconciliation rules, senators can still offer a motion to waive those rules. The motion to waive requires the approval of three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes), which often does not materialize, but the motion to waive provides a way to get senators on the record on a specific issue. Many votes in a “vote-a-rama” series consist of a “motion to waive all applicable budgetary discipline”—i.e., the “Byrd rule” and other restrictions that make passing an amendment with a simple majority difficult.

5. It Will Result in Messaging Amendments

(b) Prohibiting Coverage of Certain Prescription Drugs—

(1) In general.–Health programs administered by the Federal Government and American Health Benefit Exchanges (as described in section 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) shall not provide coverage or reimbursement for—

(A) prescription drugs to treat erectile dysfunction for individuals convicted of child molestation, rape, or other forms of sexual assault;

The “No Viagra for Sex Offenders” amendment drew no small amount of attention at the time, and led to political ads being run against the Democrats who voted against it (as some predicted prior to the amendment vote).

Democrats will almost certainly offer similar messaging amendments this year, including amendments unrelated to the bill, or even health care. They may offer amendments regarding the Russia investigation—those would likely be subject to a 60-vote threshold, as foreign policy is not germane to a budget reconciliation bill, but if Democrats wish to get Republicans on record, any vote will do.

Doubtless Democrats will offer amendments related to Donald Trump’s taxes—the reconciliation bill is in the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, so these amendments could theoretically prove germane, but amendments specifically targeting the president (i.e., making policy, with only an incidental fiscal impact) could violate the “Byrd rule,” making them subject to a 60-vote threshold. For Democratic political consultants, the possibilities are virtually endless.

6. It May Lead to Chicanery—and ‘Strategery’

While opposing reimportation on the merits, some Republicans supported these particular amendments because they wanted to break up the “rock-solid deal” between Democrats and Big Pharma—whereby pharma agreed to support Obamacare in exchange for a promise from Democrats not to support reimportation of prescription drugs.

As it happened, Democrats spent an entire week—from December 8 through December 15, 2009—without floor votes on amendments to Obamacare. The delay—effectively, Democrats filibustering their own bill—came in part because party leaders could not persuade fellow Democrats to vote against the reimportation amendment—and could not afford to allow the amendment to pass.

One can expect similar gamesmanship by the Democratic minority this time around, as evidenced by their tactical decision to abstain from voting on Tuesday’s motion to proceed to the bill until Republican senators mustered a majority solely from within their own ranks. If only three Republicans defect on an amendment, Democrats could have the power to play a decisive role in that amendment’s outcome. It’s an open question how they will do so.

For instance, will some or all of the 12 Democrats who voted against reimportation earlier this year—during January’s “vote-a-rama,” when the Senate passed the budget enabling the current reconciliation process—switch their votes so the amendment will pass, causing Republicans heartburn with the pharmaceutical lobby? When and how will Democrats use other tactical voting to gum up the process for Republicans? The answers range from possible to likely, but it remains to be seen exactly how the process will play out.

7. It Will Inflict Political Pain

Consider for instance a flashpoint in the reconciliation bill: Whether to defund Planned Parenthood. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, have already stated they oppose defunding the organization. If one more Republican defects, Democrats would likely have the votes to strip the defunding provision. (While Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin previously supported defunding Planned Parenthood two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of sting videos featuring organization leaders, he has since reversed his position, and will presumably vote with all Democrats to strip the provision.)

To put it another way: Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) may not just have to be the 50th vote supporting the underlying bill, he may also have to provide the 50th vote to keep the Planned Parenthood defunding provision in the legislation. Will Heller vote to defund the nation’s largest abortion provider—and what will happen to the bill if he, and the Senate as a whole, votes to strip the provision out? Senate leaders will face several of these white-knuckle amendment dramas during “vote-a-rama,” any one of which could jeopardize the entire legislation.

8. It Could Unravel the Entire Bill

Ultimately, with no agreement among Republicans to preserve the underlying bill text, and no clear roadmap on how to proceed, “vote-a-rama” could resemble pulling on the proverbial thread—one good tug and the whole thing unravels. What if Heller ends up helping to strip out Planned Parenthood defunding—and conservatives respond by blocking more funding for Medicaid expansion states? What if moderates vote to strip the “consumer freedom” amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (T-TX), and conservatives retaliate by taking out the “side deals” included to assuage moderates’ concerns?

At the end of “vote-a-rama,” senators could be left with an incoherent policy mess, legislation that no one would readily support. It’s the big potential downside of the freewheeling amendment strategy—but a chance that McConnell apparently feels he has no other choice but to take.

9. It’s Why Senate Leadership Is Talking about a Conference with the House

In recent days, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and others have floated the idea that, rather than having the House pass the Senate’s bill whole, sending it straight to the White House, members may instead want to have a House-Senate conference to resolve differences between the two chambers. Some have gone so far as to propose the Senate passing a “skinny” bill—repeal of the individual and employer mandates, along with the medical device tax—as a placeholder to get the reconciliation measure to a conference committee.

This strategy would have one beneficial outcome for the Senate’s Republican leadership: By allowing congressional leaders to re-write the bill in conference, it would save them from having to abide by the results of “vote-a-rama.” If, for instance, senators vote to strip out Planned Parenthood defunding, or to add in reimportation language, congressional leaders could re-write the bill in conference to negate the effects of those votes—presenting a new measure to both chambers with a binary choice to approve the bill or not. (In other words, rather than a “wrap-around bait-and-switch” on the Senate floor, senators could instead face a bait-and-switch in conference.)

That leadership has mooted a conference committee speaks to the nature of the “vote-a-rama” ahead. Despite the complaints on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about the lengthy nature of the health-care process, Senate leaders are now looking to extend the process further via a House-Senate conference—because they may need to regain control of the legislation after a wild and unpredictable debate on the Senate floor.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why the Motion to Proceed on an Obamacare Bill Is a Sucker’s Bet

In trying to win support for their Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill, Republican Senate leaders are making a process argument to their fellow senators: We know you don’t like the bill, but work to mend it, rather than ending the process. As Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, argued, “We gotta get on the bill.…If we don’t at least get on the bill, we’re never going to know.”

It’s a typical leadership argument: The promised land is only one bad vote away, not two bad votes, not ten bad votes, only one bad vote away. (Until the next bad vote crops up.) But to skeptics of the bill—whether moderate or conservative—that argument should sound like a sucker’s bet.

Without a clear vision of the final legislation and an agreement from 50 Republican senators to preserve that vision on the Senate floor regardless of the amendments offered—both things that Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) last week admitted Republicans do not have—proceeding to the bill will result in a policy morass that could make the confusing events of the past week look tame by comparison.

As things stand now, a successful motion to proceed will result in an amendment process under which various provisions of the bill get struck—due to guidance from the parliamentarian, dissension within the Republican conference, or both. Then, a last-minute substitute amendment from Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) will attempt to win over or buy off votes (or both), with the hope that he can dare enough Republicans not to kill the legislation just before the finish line. Here are the likely ways the bill could change—and not for the better.

The ‘Byrd Bath Bloodbath’

As I have previously written, the prior versions of the Senate bill had not gone through the “Byrd bath” testing which provisions comply with the Senate’s “Byrd rule” for budget reconciliation. Late last Friday, the Budget Committee minority staff released a list of provisions that could get stricken from the bill for not complying with the “Byrd rule,” including pro-life protections ensuring no taxpayer funding of abortion, or plans that cover abortion; funding for cost-sharing subsidies; a prohibition on Medicaid funding to certain entities, including Planned Parenthood; and a provision imposing waiting periods on individuals lacking continuous health coverage.

Multiple sources indicate that the list produced by Budget Committee Democrats comprised preliminary guidance on a prior version of the legislation. Therefore, that list should not be considered definitive—that all the enumerated provisions will get stricken.

Regardless of the specifics, the “Byrd bath” will doubtless make it more difficult for Republicans to present a coherent policy vision through budget reconciliation legislation, meaning the bill could change significantly from its introduced version on procedural grounds alone.

Death by Amendments

In calling for Republicans to vote to begin debate on the bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a close McConnell ally, has argued that senators will “have a virtually unlimited opportunity…on the floor to make amendments to the bill and try to improve it.”

Alexander’s key phrase is “try to,” because the numbers are strongly stacked against Republicans wishing to offer amendments. If three of 52 Senate Republicans—only 5.8 percent of the Republican conference—defect on an amendment vote, the amendment sponsor will have to rely on Democrats to approve the amendment. And why would Democrats vote for any amendment that might help Republicans pass an Obamacare “repeal” bill?

The ‘Wraparound Bait-and-Switch’

As Politico notes, the myriad amendment votes don’t represent the end of the process—they’re merely the beginning: “At some point, [Senator] McConnell will introduce a substitute that will represent the Senate’s draft bill. It may be different than what is introduced…and could be subject to amendment on the Senate floor next week. The bill, in other words, will be a work in progress until the final vote.”

That’s exactly what happened the first time the Senate considered Obamacare legislation under reconciliation, in 2015. At the end of the process, McConnell laid down a “wrap-around” amendment—essentially, a whole new version of the bill replacing the prior substitute. Reports suggest McConnell could well do the same thing this time round: introduce a new bill just prior to the vote on final passage, then dare recalcitrant Republicans to vote against it.

Conservatives in particular should fear the “wrap-around,” for the new “goodies” potentially lurking in it. With McConnell having roughly $200 billion in taxpayer funds to distribute in the form of “candy” to members, and staff brazenly telling reporters they plan on “making it rain” on moderates by including additional cash for home-state projects, the “wrap-around” could well include all sorts of new last-minute spending intended to buy votes, and not enough time to scrutinize its contents. (Will we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it?)

Willing Disbelief

If the Senate votes to proceed to the bill and McConnell’s office turns into a trading floor, with staff “making it rain” taxpayer funds just like they promised, senators will claim themselves “Shocked—shocked!” that the process took an ugly turn.

They shouldn’t be. The signs are as plain as day. If senators have objections to the bill now, they should vote down the motion to proceed, for the bill—likely on substance, and certainly on process—isn’t going to get much better, and almost assuredly will get worse.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.