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

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

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

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

A Dumb Political Slogan

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

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

A Non-Sensical Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawmaker Ignorance and Apathy

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

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

Can’t Avoid Health Care

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Do Democrats Want Obamacare to Fail under Donald Trump?

In their quest to take back the House and Senate in November’s midterm elections, Democrats have received a bit of bad news. The Hill recently noted:

Health insurers are proposing relatively modest premium bumps for next year, despite doomsday predictions from Democrats that the Trump administration’s changes to Obamacare would bring massive increases in 2019. That could make it a challenge for Democrats looking to weaponize rising premiums heading into the midterm elections.

Administration officials confirmed the premium trend last Friday, when they indicated that proposed 2019 rates for the 38 states using healthcare.gov averaged a 5.4 percent increase—a number that may come down even further after review by state insurance commissioners. So much for that “sabotage.”

The messaging strategy once again illustrates the political peril of rooting for something—particularly legislation Democrats worked so hard to enact in the first place—to fail on someone else’s watch. Like officials accused of “talking down the economy” so they can benefit politically, Democrats face the unique task of trying to talk down their own creation, while blaming someone else for all its problems.

The Obamacare Exchanges’ Prolonged Malaise

While Obamacare hasn’t failed due to President Trump, it hasn’t succeeded much, either. Enrollment continues to fall, particularly for those who do not qualify for subsidies. Two years ago—long before Donald Trump had any power to “sabotage” Obamacare as president—Bill Clinton called Obamacare “the craziest thing in the world” for these unsubsidized persons, and their collective behavior demonstrates that fact.

A recent study from the liberal Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that, away from Obamacare exchanges, where individuals cannot receive insurance subsidies, enrollment fell by nearly 40 percent in just one year, from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of this year. However, the rich subsidies provided to those who qualify for them—particularly those with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, who receive reduced cost-sharing as well—strongly encourage enrollment by this population, making it unlikely that the insurance exchanges will collapse on their own.

President Trump can talk all he wants about Obamacare imploding, but so long as the federal government props tens of billions of dollars into the exchanges, it probably won’t happen.

Good Reasons for Premium Moderation

Those premium subsidies, which cushion most low-income enrollees from the effects of premium increases, coupled with a lack of competition among insurers in large areas of the country, have allowed premiums to more-or-less stabilize, albeit at levels much of the unsubsidized population finds unaffordable. Think about it: If you have a monopoly, and a sizable population of individuals either desperate for coverage (i.e., the very sick) or heavily subsidized to buy your product, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to break even, much less turn a profit.

As a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, insurers spent the past several years ratcheting up premiums, for a variety of reasons: A sicker pool of enrollees than they expected when the exchanges started in 2014; a recognition that some insurers’ initial strategy of underpricing products to attract market share backfired; and the end of Obamacare’s “transitional” reinsurance and risk corridor programs, which expired in 2016.

While some carriers have adjusted 2019 premiums upward to reflect the elimination of the individual mandate penalty beginning in January, some had already “baked in” lax enforcement of the mandate into their rates for 2018. Some have long called the mandate too weak and ineffective to have much effect on Americans’ decision to buy coverage.

It Could Have Been Worse?

Liberals have started to make the argument that, but for the Trump administration’s so-called “sabotage” of insurance markets, premiums would fall instead of rise in 2019. (Some insurers have proposed premium reductions regardless.) The Brookings Institution recently released a paper claiming that in a “stable policy environment” without repeal of the mandate, or the impending regulatory changes regarding short-term insurance and Association Health Plans, premiums would fall by an average of approximately 4.3 percent.

But as the saying goes, “‘It could have been worse’ isn’t a great political bumper sticker.” Democrats tried to make this point regarding the economic “stimulus” bill they passed in 2009, after the infamous chart claiming unemployment would remain below 8 percent if the “stimulus” passed didn’t quite turn out as promised:

In 2011, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tried to make the “It could have been worse” argument, claiming that unemployment would have risen to 15 percent without the “stimulus”:

But even she acknowledged the futility of giving such a message to the millions of people still lacking jobs at that point (to say nothing of the minor detail that studies reinforcing Pelosi’s point didn’t exist).

There’s No Need for a Bailout

While the apparent moderation of premium increases complicates Democrats’ political message, it also undermines the Republicans who spent the early part of this year pressing for an Obamacare bailout. Apart from the awful policy message it would have sent by making Obamacare’s exchanges “too big to fail,” such a measure would have depressed turnout among demoralized grassroots conservatives who want Congress to repeal Obamacare.

As it happens, most state markets didn’t need a bailout. That’s a good thing on multiple levels, because a “stability” bill passed this year would have had little effect on 2019 premiums anyway.

That said, if Democrats want to make political arguments about premiums in this year’s elections, maybe they can tell the American people where they can find the $2,500 in annual premium reductions that Barack Obama repeatedly promised would come from his health care law. Given the decade that has passed since Obama first made those claims without any hint of them coming true, trying to answer for that broken promise should keep Democrats preoccupied well past November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ Spending Dilemma, In One Tweet

Most of official Washington woke up apoplectic on Sunday, when a tweet from President Trump invoked “the Swamp’s” most dreaded word: “Shutdown.”

Put aside for a moment specific questions about the wall itself—whether it will deter illegal immigration, how much to spend on it, or even whether to build it. The Trump tweet illustrates a much larger problem facing congressional Republicans: They don’t want to fight—about the wall, or about much of anything, particularly spending.

Voting for the Mandate after They Voted Against It?

Take for instance an issue I helped raise awareness of, and have helped spend the past several weeks tracking: The District of Columbia’s move to re-establish a requirement on district residents to purchase health insurance.

As I wrote last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered an amendment in the Senate that would defund this mandate. The amendment resembles one that Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) offered in the House, and which representatives voted to add to the bill. If a successful vote on the Cruz amendment inserted the provision in the Senate version of the bill, the defunding amendment would presumably have a smooth passage to enactment.

So what’s holding it up? In a word, Republicans. According to Senate sources, Republican leaders—and Republican members of the Appropriations Committee—don’t want to vote on Cruz’s amendment. Several outside groups have stated they will key-vote in favor of the amendment, and the leadership types don’t want to vote against something that many conservative groups support.

Are Democrats Running Congress?

In short, because Democrats might object. Appropriations measures need 60 votes to break a Senate filibuster, and Democrats have said they will not vote for any bill that includes so-called “poison pill” appropriations riders. The definition of a “poison pill” of course lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Politico wrote about the spending process six weeks ago, noting that new Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Ranking Member Pat Leahy (D-VT) “have resolved to work out matters privately. Both parties have agreed to hold their noses to vote for a bill that they consider imperfect, but good enough.”

That “kumbaya” dynamic has led Senate Republican leaders and appropriators to try and avoid the Cruz amendment entirely. They don’t want to vote against the amendment, because conservatives like me support it and will (rightly) point out their hypocrisy if they do. But they don’t want the amendment to pass either, because they fear that Democrats won’t vote to pass the underlying bill if it does. So they hope the amendment will die a quiet death.

Conservatives Get the Shaft—Again

At this point some leadership types might point out that it’s easy for people like me to sit on the sidelines and criticize, but that Republicans in Congress must actually govern. That point has more than a grain of truth to it.

On the other hand, “governing” for Republicans usually means “governing like Democrats.” Case in point: The sorry spectacle I described in March, wherein Republican committee chairmen—who, last I checked, won election two years ago on a platform of repealing Obamacare—begged Democrats to include a bailout of Obamacare’s exchanges in that month’s 2,200-page omnibus appropriations bill.

The chairmen in question, and many Republican leaders, feared the party will get blamed in the fall for premium increases. So they decided to “govern” by abandoning all pretense of repealing Obamacare and trying to bolster the law instead, even though their failure to repeal Obamacare is a key driver of the premium increases driving Americans crazy.

With an election on the horizon, bicameral negotiations surrounding the spending bill could get hairy in September, because two of the parties come to the table with fundamentally different perspectives. Republican congressional leaders worry about what might happen in November if they fail to govern because they stood up for conservative policies. Trump worries about what might happen if they don’t.

UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate voted to table the Cruz amendment blocking DC’s individual mandate. Five Republicans who voted to repeal the individual mandate in tax reform legislation last fall — Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch — voted to table, or kill, the amendment.

Because the vote came on a motion to table, senators may attempt to argue that the vote was procedural in nature, and did not represent a change in position on the mandate. Shelby, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, said he supported the underlying policy behind the Cruz amendment, but voted not to advance the amendment because Democrats objected to its inclusion.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

House Health Care Bills Show Misplaced Priorities

Why would House Republican leadership place the concerns of gym owners over those of pro-lifers? And why would that same leadership embrace a policy suggestion from the liberal group Families USA that could entrench Obamacare while raising premiums for young people?

While the House will consider legislation this week providing tax breaks to individuals who buy gym memberships, the House has yet to consider legislation cutting off tax breaks for abortion this Congress. On the latter front, an expansion of “copper” catastrophic insurance plans would effectively eliminate a regulatory provision that has lowered premiums for young Americans—another misplaced priority that could cause consternation for some conservatives.

What’s Inside Some Health Savings Account Legislation

However, Section 8 of one of the bills would allow for a $500 deduction for gym memberships or instruction, and a $250 deduction for safety equipment, as a qualified medical expense. The amounts would double for joint returns.

While just about everyone supports increasing Americans’ levels of physical activity, the provision seems questionable at best. The tax reform bill enacted not eight months ago attempted to eliminate these kinds of deductions from the tax code, creating a simpler, fairer process. This proposal would turn right around and add more complexity, by requiring the IRS to issue new regulations “to determine…what does not constitute a qualified physical activity, including golf, hunting, sailing, horseback riding, and other similar activities.”

The federal government already tries to do too many things, and has too great a role in Americans’ lives as it is. Do we really need the IRS determining what is, and is not, a “qualified physical activity?”

As for Abortion and HSAs

In fact, some pro-life leaders have opposed provisions that would allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund insurance premiums, because pro-lifers want to prohibit those funds from being used to pay for abortion coverage (or abortions period). But the House has yet to vote this Congress on limiting abortion as a qualified medical expense.

The pro-life legislation that the House voted on in January 2017, H.R. 7, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), prohibited taxpayer dollars from funding abortion in all cases, including Obamacare exchange plans. However, it did not address preferences in the tax code relating to abortion, such as the qualified medical expense deduction.

It seems that the House Ways and Means Committee, which marked up the bills in question, cares more about satisfying lobbyists than responding to their large pro-life constituency. From gym owners to device makers—who have lobbied intently for the Obamacare device tax repeal that the House will also consider this week—the series of health care bills contains myriad provisions, some good and some not-so-good, advocated by business lobbyists. Unfortunately, pro-life advocates have yet to receive similar consideration.

Unintended Consequences of Expanding ‘Copper’ Plans

However, because only certain individuals currently qualify for “copper” plans, insurers can adjust their premiums downward accordingly. Section 1312 of Obamacare contains a single risk pool requirement, meaning that insurers must rate all their products in a given state as a single book of business in determining premium rates. But a rule the Obama administration released in 2013 included a special exception to that provision for “copper” plans. These catastrophic plans may adjust their rates to reflect “the expected impact of the specific eligibility categories.”

In other words, because primarily young individuals enroll in catastrophic plans, insurers can at present lower their premiums to reflect that fact. However, by making everyone eligible for “copper” coverage, the House bill would effectively eliminate this adjustment, thus raising premiums for the 18- to 29-year-old individuals enrolled in the plans.

Effects of the ‘Copper’ Change

Catastrophic plans have not proven particularly popular on the exchange market, with only 1 percent of enrollees purchasing them as of earlier this year. However, that lack of popularity arises because individuals receiving premium subsidies (i.e., most of the people buying coverage directly from the exchange) cannot apply those subsidies to “copper” plans.

Paradoxical as it may sound, expanding these popular plans to all age groups could actually curb their appeal. While a recent eHealth analysis claims that an expansion of “copper” plans could save near-seniors (i.e., those aged 55-64) an average of $4,608 per year, it likely will not do so. eHealth’s analysis compares the current 41 percent differential between “copper” premiums and bronze premiums to arrive at its figure.

However, as noted above, the current “copper” rates assume enrollment primarily by individuals under 30. eHealth’s analysis thus compares rates for a market of individuals aged 18-29 to a market of individuals aged 18-64—which explains the 41-percentage point difference in premiums. But if “copper” plans expand to all ages, that premium differential will narrow—and premiums for the 18-29 population will likely increase.

Single Risk Pool Bolsters Obamacare

More to the point: The “copper” plan provision includes language reinforcing Obamacare’s single risk pool. It also undermines the intent of last year’s Consumer Freedom Amendment, offered in the Senate by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), which would have allowed for the sale of non-compliant plans alongside Obamacare-compliant plans.

The difference on this one provision speaks to a broader philosophical debate. Moderates want to support Obamacare’s exchanges by passing “stability” legislation and expanding subsidies. So does Families USA, which in December 2012 submitted a comment to the Department of Health and Human Services opposing the rate adjustment provision for catastrophic plans, because it could tend to segment the market.

By contrast, conservatives want to offer people lifeboats away from the exchanges—options such as short-term insurance plans, association health plans, and the like. On that front, this week’s legislation does not advance the ball, and expanding “copper” plans could on balance represent a step back.

Thankfully, House leadership did not end up attaching attach an insurer bailout to this week’s HSA bills, after early rumblings in that direction. But the fact that conservatives even need to have these discussions speak to the ways in which many House Republicans want to strengthen Obamacare rather than repealing it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans Hide Obamacare Bailout Inside Health Savings Account Bill

Cue the scene from “Poltergeist”: “They’re baa-ack.” The Obamacare bailout seekers, that is.

Multiple Capitol Hill sources confirmed to me on Wednesday morning that the House Ways and Means Committee’s markup of health savings account (HSA)-related legislation later in the day comes with a potential ulterior motive: Committee and leadership staff want to resurrect this spring’s failed Obamacare “stability” legislation—and see the HSA provisions as a way to do so.

This Is a Bad Deal for Conservatives

The leadership gambit seems simple: with the HSA provisions, placate conservatives who (rightly) don’t want to bail out Obamacare, and allow the package to pass the House solely with Republican votes—because Democrats likely won’t vote to support any “stability” legislation imposing robust pro-life protections. With Democrats intending to make Obamacare premium increases an issue in the November elections, House leaders think the vote would inoculate vulnerable Republicans from political attacks by the Left.

But a “stability” vote would demoralize the Right, by showing how completely Republicans have caved on their repeal promises. It would also set a horrible precedent, officially declaring Obamacare “too big to fail,” which would put taxpayers on the hook for an ever-increasing flow of bailout funds.

That flow would soon vastly overwhelm any small amount of HSA incentives that conservatives received in exchange for their vote. Eventually, lawmakers would run out of other people’s money to spend propping up Obamacare.

Questionable Policies

The best bills on the Ways and Means agenda contain broad policies that will expand HSAs’ reach. In this group: A bill increasing HSA contribution limits; another bill allowing seniors eligible for (but not enrolled in) Medicare Part A to continue making HSA contributions; and legislation ensuring that all Obamacare bronze and catastrophic plans qualify for HSA contributions.

Other, more targeted measures that would expand the types of services HSA plans can cover could have a mixed effect. By allowing coverage for more services below a plan’s high deductible, they could draw more people to choose HSA coverage, but could also raise premiums for HSA plans.

Non-HSA Legislation Bears Attention, Too

Most troubling: The two pieces of legislation on the committee’s agenda not directly related to HSAs. The description of one bill hints at its inherent flaw:

The bill provides an off-ramp from Obamacare’s rising premiums and limited choices by allowing the premium tax credit to be used for qualified plans offered outside of the law’s exchanges and Healthcare.gov. In addition, it expands access to the lowest-premium plans available (‘catastrophic’ plans) for all individuals purchasing coverage in the individual market and allows the premium tax credit to be used to offset the cost of such plans.

Another bill suspending two Obamacare taxes sounds appealing on its face, but would have negative consequences. Suspending Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” for two more years (until 2022) would further weaken an effort in that law (albeit a poorly designed one) to change current incentives that encourage people to over-consume employer-provided health insurance and thus health care. In short, it would encourage the growth of health care costs, rather than working to lower them.

The bill’s effort to repeal the employer mandate for years 2014 through 2018 likewise could have unintended consequences. The bill only repeals the employer mandate retrospectively likely because doing so prospectively (i.e., for 2019 and future years) could encourage employer “dumping”—businesses dropping coverage and sending their workers to the exchanges, which could raise spending on Obamacare insurance subsidies. While the retrospective nature of that legislation could mitigate any “dumping” in the short term, if employers think Congress will continue to weaken the mandate in future years, they could view that as an incentive to drop coverage.

This Is Not a Good Deal

The Ways and Means Committee package includes some very good HSA-related bills, some potentially harmful bills that could further entrench Obamacare, and some bills that may not have much effect. Regardless of the individual bills’ specific merits, they certainly do not warrant conservatives’ approval for a massive “stability” package in the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Health Care “Consensus” Group Plan

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

What Does the Health Plan Include?

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

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

Is That It?

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

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

What Parts of Obamacare Would the Plan Retain?

In short, most of them.

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

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

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

Are Parts of the Health Plan Unclear?

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What’s Going on with Premium Increases under Obamacare?

Multiple articles in recent weeks have outlined the ways Democrats intend to use Obamacare as a wedge issue in November’s midterm elections. While only a few states have released insurer filings—and regulators could make alterations to insurers’ proposals—the preliminary filings to date suggest above-average premium increases have been higher than the underlying trend in medical costs.

Democrats claim that such premium increases come from the Trump administration and Republican Congress’s “sabotage.” But do those charges have merit? On the three primary counts discussed in detail below, the effects of the policy changes varies significantly.

End of Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments

The administration’s decision meant most insurers increased premiums for 2018, to recoup their costs for discounting cost-sharing indirectly (i.e., via premiums) rather than through direct CSR payments. However, as I previously noted, most states devised strategies whereby few if any individuals would suffer harm from those premium increases. Low-income individuals who qualify for premium subsidies would receive larger subsidies to offset their higher costs, and more affluent individuals who do not qualify for subsidies could purchase coverage away from state exchanges, where insurers offer policies unaffected by the loss of CSR payments.

These state-based strategies mean that the “sabotage” charges have little to no merit, for several reasons. First, the premium increases relating to the lack of direct CSR payments already took effect in most states for 2018; this increase represents a one-time change that will not recur in 2019.

Second, more states have announced that, for 2019, they will switch to the “hold harmless” strategy described above, ensuring that few if any individuals will incur higher premiums from these changes. Admittedly, taxpayers will pay more in subsidies, but most consumers should see no direct effects. This “sabotage” argument was disingenuous when Democrats first raised it last year, and it’s even more disingenuous now.

Eliminating the Individual Mandate Penalty

Repealing the mandate will raise premiums for 2019, although questions remain over the magnitude. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last month officially reduced its estimate of the mandate’s “strength” in compelling people to purchase coverage by about one-third. However, another recent study suggests that, CBO’s changes notwithstanding, the mandate had a significant impact on getting people to buy insurance—suggesting that many healthy people could drop coverage once the mandate penalty disappears.

To insurers, the mandate repeal represents an unknown factor shaping the market in 2019. In the short term at least, whether or not people will drop coverage in 2019 due to the mandate’s repeal matters less than what insurers—and, just as important, insurance regulators—think people will do in response. If insurers think many people will drop, then premiums could rise significantly; however, if insurers already thought the mandate weak or ineffective, then its repeal by definition would have a more limited impact.

New Coverage Options

The Trump administration’s moves to expand access to association health plans and short-term insurance coverage, while still pending, also represent a factor for insurers to consider. In this case, insurers fear that more affordable coverage that does not meet all of Obamacare’s requirements will prove attractive to young and healthy individuals, raising the average costs of the older and sicker individuals who remain in Obamacare-compliant plans.

If association plans and short-term coverage do not entice many enrollees—or if most of those enrollees had not purchased coverage to begin with—then the market changes will not affect exchange premiums that much. By contrast, if the changes entice millions of individuals to give up exchange coverage for a non-compliant but more affordable plan, then premiums for those remaining on the exchanges could rise significantly.

Estimates of the effects of these regulatory changes vary. For instance, the administration’s proposed rule on short-term plans said it would divert enrollment from exchanges into short-term plans by only about 100,000-200,000 individuals. However, CBO and some other estimates suggest higher impacts from the administration’s changes, and a potentially greater impact on premiums (because short-term and association plans would siphon more healthy individuals away from the exchanges).

But the final effect may depend on the specifics of the changes themselves. If the final rule on short-term plans does not allow for automatic renewability of the plans, they may have limited appeal to individuals, thus minimizing the effects on the exchange market.

However, those same proponents seem less interested in advertising the same study’s premium impact. The Urban researchers believe short-term plans will draw roughly 2.6 million individuals away from exchange coverage, raising premiums for those who remain by as much as 18.3 percent.

Why Prop Up Obamacare?

The selective use of data regarding short-term plans illustrates Republicans’ problem: On one hand, they want to create other, non-Obamacare-compliant, options for individuals to purchase more affordable coverage. On the other hand, if those options succeed, they will raise premiums for individuals who remain on the exchanges.

But some might argue that fixating on exchange premiums for 2019 misses the point, because Republicans should focus on developing alternatives to Obamacare. The exchanges will remain, and still offer comprehensive coverage—along with income-based premium subsidies for that—to individuals with costly medical conditions. But rather than trying to bolster the exchanges by using bailouts and “stability” packages to throw more taxpayer money at them, Republicans could emphasize the new alternatives to Obamacare-compliant plans.

Of course, if that stance presents too much difficulty for Republicans, they have another option: They could repeal the root cause of the premium increases—Obamacare’s myriad new federal insurance requirements. Of course, in Washington, following through on pledges made for the last four election cycles seems like a radical concept, but to most Americans, delivering on such a long-standing promise represents simple common sense.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Bill Cassidy’s New Health Plan Is Obamacare on Steroids

On Tuesday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) released a policy white paper with ideas he claimed would “make health care affordable again.” By and large, however, the plan would do no such thing.

Some of the plan’s ideas—promoting consumer transparency in health care, for instance, promoting primary care, and cracking down on monopolistic practices that impede competition—have merit, although people can quibble with the extent to which Washington can, or should, solve those problems.

Fake Flexibility

Cassidy bases his plan on a state-based block-grant funding model, similar to the legislation he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) developed last fall. Cassidy cites various state experimental programs to argue that a block-grant approach would allow more room for innovation.

However, the last sentence of the proposal undermines the rest of the discussion: “Flexibility to states would not jeopardize protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions.” That phrase implies that Cassidy believes, as the Graham-Cassidy bill indicated, that Obamacare’s federal insurance requirements regarding pre-existing conditions should remain in place.

That sentence belies the idea that states would get true flexibility to construct their insurance markets however they like. Instead, the Cassidy plan would represent a variation on Obamacare, whose state waiver program essentially lets them add more requirements and more government to their insurance markets, but not take requirements away. Put another way, the Cassidy plan would give states the “flexibility” to do what Bill Cassidy wants them to do, and only what Bill Cassidy wants them to do. That isn’t flexibility at all.

Costly Requirements Remain in Place

For instance, loosening Obamacare’s essential health benefits while keeping the pre-existing condition requirements will encourage insurers to stop covering treatments like chemotherapy. Because they must continue to accept all sick patients, and charge them the same rates as healthy ones, insurers will try to limit their losses by not covering cancer drugs, thereby discouraging cancer patients from applying for coverage.

The combination of these two policy dilemmas could result in the worst of all possible worlds, from both a political and policy standpoint: A plan that does not reduce premiums appreciably—because it keeps the most costly federal insurance requirements intact—yet still encourages insurers to discriminate against the sick.

Throwing Money at the Problem

Rather than trying to solve the problems Obamacare’s federal insurance requirements have caused, as I previously suggested, Cassidy’s plan goes to great lengths to avoid them. He endorses the health insurance “stability” (read: bailout) measure proposed by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) earlier this year. Rather than lowering premiums by removing the federal insurance requirements, that plan would lower premiums—albeit only temporarily—by throwing more taxpayer funds at insurers.

Moreover, the need for more federal funding belies Cassidy’s claim that his plan would “make health care affordable again.” States should not need any more funding to encourage insurance enrollment, particularly if they receive sufficient flexibility from federal requirements to bring down premiums. Cassidy knows that any flexibility will prove illusory. As with a “stability” package, he proposes making coverage more “affordable” by throwing other people’s money at the problem.

Neither Repeal Nor Reform

I wrote last April, well before lawmakers ever contemplated the Graham-Cassidy measure, that “Republicans have a choice: They can either retain the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination—and the regulations and subsidies that go with it—or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare.” Judging from the ideas in his policy paper, Cassidy has made his choice: He supports Obamacare.

But more of the same—more spending to finance the same costly insurance because of the same costly federal insurance requirements—doesn’t constitute a repeal of Obamacare. It doesn’t even come close. Would that Cassidy, and his colleagues in Congress, actually thought about keeping their word and enacting the repeal they promised.

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.

Is Buying Health Insurance a Political Statement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.