Examining the Origins of “Robertscare”

In the end, applesauce won over baseball. Fourteen years ago, during Senate hearings regarding his nomination as chief justice of the United States, John Roberts used a baseball metaphor to explain his view of judges’ modest role:

Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire…I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.

On two major cases related to President Obama’s signature health care law, however, Roberts violated his 2005 pledge, wriggling himself into lexicographical contortions to uphold the measure passed by Congress. As his then-colleague Justice Antonin Scalia noted in the second ruling—which posited that the phrase “Exchange established by the state” applied to exchanges not established by states—upholding Obamacare caused Roberts to embrace “pure applesauce.”

Political Flip-Flop

She writes that he initially voted with the four other conservatives to strike down the ACA, on the grounds that it went beyond Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. Likewise, he initially voted to uphold the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid. But Roberts, who kept the opinion for himself to write, soon developed second thoughts.

Biskupic, who interviewed many of the justices for this book, including her subject, writes that Roberts said he felt ‘torn between his heart and his head.’ He harbored strong views on the limitations of congressional power, but hesitated to interject the Court into the ongoing health-insurance crisis. After trying unsuccessfully to find a middle way with Kennedy, who was ‘unusually firm’ and even ‘put off’ by the courtship, Roberts turned to the Court’s two moderate liberals, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. The threesome negotiated a compromise decision that upheld the ACA’s individual mandate under Congress’s taxing power, while striking down the Medicaid expansion.

On the day of the ruling in June 2012, Chris Cillizza, then writing for The Washington Post, claimed that Roberts’ opinion “made good on his pledge to referee the game, not play it.” But the story Biskupic tells, which confirms prior reporting by Jan Crawford published shortly after the ruling, contradicts Cillizza’s view entirely. Roberts’ entire approach to the case consisted of playing games—and highly political ones at that.

The tenor of the passage reinforces how Roberts abandoned his stated principles in NFIB. Over and above talk of “the ongoing health insurance crisis” (perhaps a rhetorical flourish inserted by a liberal Atlantic writer) Roberts had no business feeling “torn between his heart and his head,” let alone stating as much to a reporter. Judges can feel both empathy and sympathy for parties in the courtroom and at the implications of their rulings. But facts remain facts, the law remains the law. Lady Justice remains blind for a reason.

An umpire—or a good umpire, at least—should make calls without fear or favor. If that means calling a third strike against the star slugger for the last out of the World Series, so be it. By his own admission, Roberts let factors outside the law determine his vote in the case. He abandoned his key test at a time when he should have followed it most closely.

Roberts’ Judicial Arrogance

I took that position not because I agree with Obamacare, but because Congress in 2017 decided to set the mandate penalty to zero while maintaining the rest of the law. Of course, Congress had taken no such action clarifying its intent on the law at the time of the ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius.

If the current lawsuit represents judicial activism, asking judges to take an action that Congress explicitly declined to embrace, then Roberts’ 2012 decision to uphold the individual mandate represents an act of judicial cowardice, running for cover and hiding rather than taking the decision that the law requires. For that reason alone, conservatives should refer to the law as “Robertscare”—for the justice who went out of his way to save it—rather than Obamacare. It shall stand as his epitaph.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: Inside the Trump Administration’s Debate over Expanding Obamacare

Last August, I responded to a New York Times article indicating that some within the Trump administration wanted to give states additional flexibility to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Since then, those proposals have advanced, such that staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) believe that they have official sign-off from the president to put those proposals into place.

My conversations with half a dozen sources on Capitol Hill and across the administration in recent weeks suggest that the proposal continues to move through the regulatory process. However, my sources also described significant policy pitfalls that could spark a buzz-saw of opposition from both the left and the right.

The Times reported that some within the administration—including CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House Domestic Policy Council Chairman Andrew Bremberg—have embraced the proposal. But if the plan overcomes what the Times characterized as a “furious” internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.

How It Would Work

After the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states as part of its 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate, the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting that ruling. While the court made expansion optional for states, the Obama administration made it an “all-or-nothing” proposition for them.

Under the 2012 guidance—which remains in effect—if states want to receive the enhanced 90 percent federal match associated with expansion, they must cover the entire expansion population—all able-bodied adults with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $35,000 for a family of four). If states expand only to some portion of the eligible population, they would only receive their regular Medicaid match of 50-76 percent, not the enhanced 90 percent match.

The Internal Debate

The August Times article indicated that, after considering partial expansion, the administration postponed any decision until after November’s midterm elections. Since that time, multiple sources disclosed to me a further meeting that took place on the topic in the Oval Office late last year. While the meeting was originally intended to provide an update for the president, CMS staff left that meeting thinking they had received the president’s sign-off to implement partial expansion.

Just before Christmas, during a meeting on an unrelated matter, a CMS staffer sounded me out on the proposal. The individual said CMS was looking for ways to help give states additional flexibility, particularly states hamstrung by initiatives forcing them to expand Medicaid. However, based on my other reporting, I believe that the conversation also represented an attempt to determine the level of conservative opposition to the public announcement of a decision CMS believes the president has already made.

Why Liberals Will Object

During my meeting, I asked the CMS staffer about the fiscal impacts of partial expansion. The staffer admitted that, as I had noted in my August article, exchange plans generally have higher costs than Medicaid coverage. Therefore, moving individuals from Medicaid to exchange coverage—and the federal government paying 100 percent of subsidy costs for exchange coverage, as opposed to 90 percent of Medicaid costs—will raise federal costs for every beneficiary who shifts coverage under partial expansion.

The Medicare actuary believes that the higher cost-sharing associated with exchange coverage will lead 30 percent of the target population—that is, individuals with incomes from 100-138 percent of poverty—to drop their exchange plan. Either beneficiaries will not be able to afford the premiums and cost-sharing, or they will not consider the coverage worth the money. And because 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage, the partial expansion change will save money in a given state—despite the fact that exchange coverage costs more than Medicaid on a per-beneficiary basis.

Why Conservatives Will Object

I immediately asked the CMS staffer an obvious follow-up question: Did the actuary consider whether partial expansion, by shifting the costs of expansion from the states to the federal government, would encourage more states to expand Medicaid? The staffer demurred, saying the actuary’s analysis focused on only one hypothetical state.

However, the CMS staffer did not tell me the entire story. Subsequent to my “official” meeting with that staffer, other sources privately confirmed that the actuary does believe that roughly 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage.

But these sources and others added that both the Medicare actuary and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree that, notwithstanding the savings from current expansion states—savings associated with individuals dropping exchange coverage, as explained above—the partial expansion proposal will cost the federal government overall, because it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

For instance, the Council of Economic Advisers believes that spending on non-expansion states who use partial expansion as a reason to extend Medicaid to the able-bodied will have three times the deficit impact as the savings associated with states shifting from full to partial expansion.

Because the spending on new partial expansion states will overcome any potential savings from states shifting from full to partial expansion, the proposal, if adopted, would appreciably increase the deficit. While neither CBO nor the Medicare actuary have conducted an updated analysis since the election, multiple sources cited an approximate cost to the federal government on the order of $100-120 billion over the next decade.

One source indicated that the Medicare actuary’s analysis early last summer arrived at an overall deficit increase of $111 billion. The results of November’s elections—in which three non-expansion states voted to accept expansion due to ballot initiatives—might have reduced the cost of the administration’s proposal slightly, but likely did not change the estimate of a sizable deficit increase.

A net cost of upwards of $100 billion, notwithstanding potential coverage losses from individuals dropping exchange coverage in current expansion states, can only mean one thing. CBO and the Medicare actuary both believe that, by lowering the cost for states to expand, partial expansion will prompt major non-expansion states—such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Who Will Support This Proposal?

Based on the description of the scoring dynamic my sources described, partial expansion, if it goes forward, seems to have no natural political constituency. Red-state governors will support it, no doubt, for it allows them to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime. Once CMS approves one state’s partial expansion, the agency will likely have a line of Republican governors out its door looking to implement waivers of their own.

But it seems unlikely that Democratic-led states will follow suit. Indeed, the news that partial expansion would cause about 30 percent of the target population to drop their new exchange coverage could well prompt recriminations, investigations, and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere. Because at least 3.1 million expansion beneficiaries live in states with Republican governors, liberals likely would object to the sizable number of these enrollees who could decide to drop coverage under partial expansion.

Conversely, conservatives will likely object to the high net cost associated with the proposal, notwithstanding the potential coverage losses in states that have already expanded. Some within the administration view Medicaid expansion, when coupled with proposals like work requirements, as a “conservative” policy. Other administration officials view expansion in all states as something approaching a fait accompli, and view partial expansion and similar proposals as a way to make the best of a bad policy outcome.

But Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable in society, because it gives states a higher match for covering able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities. In addition to objecting to a way partial expansion would increase government spending by approximately $100 billion, some conservatives would also raise fundamental objections to any policy changes that would encourage states to embrace Obamacare—and add even more able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls in the process.

Particularly given the Democratic takeover of the House last week, the multi-pronged opposition to this plan could prove its undoing. Democrats will have multiple venues available—from oversight through letters and subpoenae, to congressional hearings, to use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn any administration decisions outright—to express their opposition to this proposal.

A “strange bedfellows” coalition of liberals and conservatives outraged over the policy, but for entirely different reasons, could nix it outright. While some officials may not realize it at present, the administration may not only make a decision that conservatives will object to on policy grounds, they may end up in a political quagmire in the process.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know About Friday’s Court Ruling

Late Friday evening, a judge in Texas handed down his ruling in the latest Obamacare lawsuit. Here’s what you need to know about the ruling (if interested, you can read the opinion here), and what might happen next:

What Did the Judge Decide?

The opinion contained analyzed two different issues—the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and whether the rest of Obamacare could survive without the individual mandate (i.e., severability). In the first half of his opinion, Judge Reed O’Connor ruled the mandate unconstitutional.

Wait—Haven’t Courts Ruled on the Individual Mandate Before?

Yes—and no. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate constitutional. In his majority opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts (in)famously concluded that, even though Obamacare’s authors proclaimed the mandate was not a tax—and said as much in the law—the mandate had the characteristics of a tax. Even though Roberts concluded that the mandate exceeded Congress’ constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause, he upheld it as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power to tax.

However, in the tax bill last year Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning on January 1, 2019. The plaintiffs argued that, because the mandate will no longer bring in revenue for the federal government, it no longer qualifies as a tax. Because the mandate will not function as a tax, and violates Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, the plaintiffs argued that the court should declare the mandate unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge O’Connor agreed with this logic, and struck down the mandate.

What Impact Would Striking Down the Mandate Have?

Not much, seeing as how the penalty falls to zero in two weeks’ time. Striking the mandate from the statute books officially, as opposed to merely setting the penalty at zero, would only affect those individuals who feel an obligation to follow the law, even without a penalty for violating that law. In setting their premiums for 2019, most insurers have already assumed the mandate goes away.

Then Why Is This Ruling Front Page News?

If the court case hinged solely on whether or not the (already-defanged) mandate should get stricken entirely, few would care—indeed, the plaintiffs may not have brought it in the first place. Instead, the main question in this case focuses on severability—the question of whether, and how much, of the law can be severed from the mandate, if the mandate is declared unconstitutional.

What Happened on Severability?

Judge O’Connor quoted heavily from opinions in the prior 2012 Supreme Court case, particularly the joint dissent by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. He ruled that the justices viewed the mandate as an “essential” part of Obamacare, that the main pillars of the law were inseparable from the mandate.

The judge also noted that some of the lesser elements of Obamacare (e.g., calorie counts on restaurant menus, etc.) hitched a ride on a “moving target,” that he could not—and should not—attempt to determine which would have passed on their own. Therefore, he ruled that the entire law must be stricken.

Haven’t Things Changed Since the 2012 Ruling?

Last year, Congress famously couldn’t agree on how to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare—but then voted to set the mandate penalty to zero. A bipartisan group of legal scholars argued in this case that, because Congress eliminated the mandate penalty but left the rest of the law intact, courts should defer to Congress’ more recent judgment. Judge O’Connor disagreed.

What Happens Now?

Good question. Judge O’Connor did NOT issue an injunction with his ruling, so the law remains in effect. The White House released a statement saying as much—that it would continue to enforce the law as written pending likely appeals.

On the appeal front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general who intervened in the suit will likely request a hearing from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. From there the Supreme Court could decide to rule on the case.

Will Appellate Courts Agree with This Ruling and Strike Down Obamacare?

As the saying goes, past performance is no predictor of future results. However, it is worth noting two important facts:

1.      The five justice majority that upheld most of the law—John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotamayor—all remain on the Supreme Court.
2.      As noted above, Chief Justice Roberts went through what many conservatives attacked as a bout of legal sophistry—calling the mandate a tax, even though Congress expressly said it wasn’t—to uphold the law, more than a year before its main provisions took effect.

What About Pre-Existing Conditions?

On Friday evening, President Trump asked for Congress to pass a measure that “protects pre-existing conditions.”

I have outlined other alternatives to Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions. However, as I have explained at length over the past 18 months, if Republicans want to retain—or in this case reinstate—Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions, then they are failing in their promise to repeal the law.

Let the Individual Mandate Die

In May New Jersey imposed a health-insurance mandate requiring all residents to buy insurance or pay a penalty. More states will feel pressure to follow suit in the coming year as the federal mandate’s penalty disappears Jan. 1 and state legislatures reconvene, some with new Democratic majorities intent on “protecting” Obamacare. But conflicts with federal law will make state-level health-insurance mandates ineffective or unduly onerous, and governors and legislatures would do well to steer clear.

While states can require citizens to purchase health coverage, they will have trouble ensuring compliance. Federal law prohibits the Internal Revenue Service from disclosing tax-return data, except under limited circumstances. And there is no clear precedent allowing the IRS to disclose coverage data to verify compliance with state insurance requirements.

Accordingly, mandates enacted in New Jersey and the District of Columbia earlier this year created their own coverage-reporting regimes. But those likely conflict with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which explicitly pre-empts “any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” The point is to protect large employers who self-insure workers from 50 sets of conflicting state laws.

No employer has used ERISA to challenge Massachusetts’ 2006 individual mandate, which includes reporting requirements, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal. Last month a Brookings Institution paper conceded that “state requirements related to employer benefits like health coverage may be subject to legal challenge based on ERISA preemption.”

A 2016 Supreme Court ruling would bolster such a challenge. In Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual, the court struck down a Vermont law that required employers to submit health-care payment claims to a state database. The court said the law was pre-empted by ERISA.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the myriad reporting requirements under federal law. Vermont’s law required additional record-keeping. Justice Kennedy concluded that “differing, or even parallel, regulations from multiple jurisdictions could create wasteful administrative costs and threaten to subject plans to wide-ranging liability.”

Justice Kennedy’s opinion provides a how-to manual for employers to challenge state-level insurance mandates. A morass of state-imposed insurance mandates and reporting requirements would unnecessarily burden employers with costs and complexity. It cries out for pre-emptive relief.

Unfortunately, policy makers have ignored these concerns. Notes from the working group that recommended the District of Columbia’s individual mandate never mention the reporting burden or ERISA pre-emption. And in August the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved New Jersey’s waiver application that relied in part upon funding from that state’s new individual mandate, even though money from the difficult-to-enforce requirement may never materialize.

States already cannot require federal agencies to report coverage. This means their mandates won’t track the 2.3 million covered by the Indian Health Service, 9.3 million receiving health care from the Veterans Administration, 8.8 million disabled under age 65 who are enrolled in Medicare, 9.4 million military Tricare enrollees and 8.2 million federal employees and retirees.

If a successful ERISA challenge also exempts some of the 181 million with employer-based insurance from coverage-reporting requirements, state insurance mandates become farcical. States would have to choose between mandates that run on the “honor system”—thus likely rife with cheating—or taking so much time and energy to verify coverage that administration becomes prohibitively expensive.

States should take the hint and refrain from even considering their own coverage mandates. But if they don’t, smart employers should challenge the mandate’s reporting requirements. They’d likely win.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

Will Disclosing Prescription Drug Prices in TV Ads Make Any Difference?

Why did the Trump administration last Monday propose requiring pharmaceutical companies to disclose their prices in television advertisements? A cynic might believe the rule comes at least in part because the drug industry opposes it.

Now, I carry no water for Big Pharma. For instance, I opposed their effort earlier this year to repeal an important restraint on Medicare spending. But this particular element of the administration’s drug pricing plan appears to work in a similar manner as some of the president’s tweets—to dominate headlines through rhetoric, rather than through substantive policy changes.

Applies Only to Television

The rule “seek[s] comment as to whether we should apply this regulation to other media formats,” but admits that the administration initially “concluded that the purpose of this regulation is best served by limiting the requirements” to television. However, five companies alone accounted for more than half of all drug advertisements in the past year. Among those five companies, the advertisements promoted 19 pharmaceuticals—meaning that new disclosure regime would apply to very few drugs.

If the “purpose of this regulation” is to affect pharmaceutical pricing, then confining disclosures only to television advertisements would by definition have a limited impact. If, however, the “purpose of this regulation” is primarily political—to force drug companies into a prolonged and public legal fight on First Amendment grounds, or to allow the administration to point to disclosures in the most prominent form of media to say, “We’re doing something on drug costs!”—then the rule will accomplish its purpose.

Rule Lacks Data to Support Its Theory

On three separate occasions, in the rule’s Regulatory Impact Analysis—the portion of the rule intended to demonstrate that the regulation’s benefits outweigh its costs—the administration admits it has very few hard facts: “We lack data to quantify these effects, and seek public comment on these impacts.”

It could encourage people to consume more expensive medicines (particularly if their insurance pays for it), because individuals may think costlier drugs are “better.” Or it could discourage companies from advertising on television at all, which could reduce drug consumption and affect people’s health (or reduce health spending while having no effect on individuals’ health).

Conservative think-tanks skewered several Obamacare rules released in 2010 for the poor quality and unreasonable assumptions in their Regulatory Impact Analyses. Although released by a different administration of a different party, this proposed regulation looks little different.

Contradictions on Forced Speech?

Finally, the rule refers on several occasions to the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in a case involving California crisis pregnancy centers. That case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, overturned a California state law requiring reproductive health clinics, including pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, to provide information on abortion to patients.

The need for that distinction arises because the pharmaceutical industry will likely challenge the rule on First Amendment grounds as an infringement on their free speech rights. However, a pro-life administration attempting to force drug companies to disclose pricing information, while protecting crisis pregnancy centers from other forced disclosures, presents some interesting political optics.

A Political ‘Shiny Object’

Ironically enough, most of the administration’s actions regarding its prescription drug pricing platform have proven effective. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has helped speed the approval of generic drugs to market, particularly in cases where no other competitors exist, to help stabilize the marketplace.

Other proposals to change incentives within Medicare and Medicaid also could bring down prices. These proposals won’t have an immediate effect—as would Democratic blunt-force proposals to expand price controls—but collectively, they will have an impact over time.

This administration can do better than that. Indeed, they already have. They should leave the political stunts to the president’s Twitter account, and get back to work on more important, and more substantive, proposals.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will the Trump Administration Help Republicans Expand Obamacare?

For all the allegations by the Left about how the Trump administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, a recent New York Times article revealed nothing of the sort. Instead it indicated how many senior officials within the administration want to entrench Obamacare, helping states to expand the reach of one of its costly entitlements.

Thankfully, a furious internal battle took the idea off the table—for now. But instead of trying to find ways to increase the reach of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which prioritizes able-bodied adults over individuals with disabilities, the Trump administration should instead pursue policies that slow the push towards expansion, by making the tough fiscal choices surrounding expansion plain for states to see.

What ‘Partial Expansion’ Means

Following the court’s decision, the Obama administration determined expansion an “all-or-nothing” proposition. If states wanted to receive the enhanced match rate for the expansion—which started at 100 percent in 2014, and is slowly falling to 90 percent for 2020 and future years—they must expand to all individuals below the 138 percent of poverty threshold.

However, some states wish to expand Medicaid only for adults with incomes below the poverty level. Whereas individuals with incomes above 100 percent of poverty qualify for premium and cost-sharing subsidies for plans on Obamacare’s exchanges, individuals with incomes below the poverty level do not. (In states that have not expanded Medicaid, individuals with incomes below poverty may fall into the so-called “coverage gap,” because they do not have enough income to qualify for subsidized exchange coverage.)

States that wish to cover only individuals with incomes below the poverty line may do so—however, under the Obama administration guidance, those states would receive only their regular federal match rate of between 50 and 74 percent, depending on a state’s income. (Wisconsin chose this option for its Medicaid program.)

How ‘Partial Expansion’ Actually Costs More Money

The Times article says several administration supporters of “partial expansion”—including Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Administrator (CMS) Seema Verma, and Domestic Policy Council Director Andrew Bremberg—believe that embracing the change would help to head off full-blown expansion efforts in states like Utah. An internal HHS memo obtained by the Times claims that “HHS believes allowing partial expansion would result in significant savings over the 10-year budget window compared to full Medicaid expansion by all.”

In reality, however, “partial expansion” would explode the budget, for at least three reasons. First, it will encourage states that have not embraced expansion to do so, by lowering the fiscal barrier to expansion. While states “only” have to fund up to 10 percent of the costs of Medicaid expansion, they pay not a dime for any individuals enrolled in exchange coverage. By shifting individuals with incomes of between 100-138 percent of poverty from Medicaid to the exchanges, “partial expansion” significantly reduces the population of individuals for whom states would have to share costs. This change could encourage even ruby red states like Texas to consider Medicaid expansion.

Second, for the same reason, such a move will encourage states that have already expanded Medicaid to switch to “partial expansion”—so they can fob some of their state costs onto federal taxpayers. The Times notes that Arkansas and Massachusetts already have such waiver applications pending with CMS. Once the administration approves a single one of these waivers, virtually every state (or at minimum, every red state with a Medicaid expansion) will run to CMS’s doorstep asking for the federal government to take these costs off their hands.

Medicaid expansion has already proved unsustainable, with exploding enrollment and costs. “Partial expansion” would make that fiscal burden even worse, through a triple whammy of more states expanding, existing states offloading costs to the federal government through “partial expansion,” and the conversion of millions of enrollees from less expensive Medicaid coverage to more costly exchange plans.

What Washington Should Do Instead

Rather than embracing the fiscally irresponsible “partial expansion,” the Trump administration and Congress should instead halt another budget gimmick that states have used to fund Medicaid expansion: The provider tax scam. As of last fall, eight states had used this gimmick to fund some or all of the state portion of expansion costs. Other states have taken heed: Virginia used a provider tax to fund its Medicaid expansion earlier this year, and Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME)—who heretofore has steadfastly opposed expansion—recently floated the idea of a provider tax to fund expansion in Maine.

The provider tax functions as a scam by laundering money to generate more federal revenue. Providers—whether hospitals, nursing homes, Medicaid managed-care plans, or others—agree to an “assessment” that goes into the state’s general fund. The state uses those dollars to draw down new Medicaid matching funds from the federal government, which the state promptly sends right back to the providers.

For this reason, politicians of all parties have called on Congress to halt the provider tax gimmick. Even former vice president Joe Biden called provider taxes a “scam,” and pressed for their abolition. The final report of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission called for “restricting and eventually eliminating” the “Medicaid tax gimmick.”

If Republicans in Congress really want to oppose Obamacare—the law they ran on repealing for four straight election cycles—they should start by imposing a moratorium on any new Medicaid provider taxes, whether to fund expansion or anything else. Such a move would force states to consider whether they can afford to fund their share of expansion costs—by diverting dollars from schools or transportation, for instance—rather than using a budget gimmick to avoid those tough choices. It would also save money, by stopping states from bilking the federal government out of billions in extra Medicaid funds through what amounts to a money-laundering scam.

Rhetoric vs. Reality, Take 5,000

But of course, whether Republicans actually want to dismantle Obamacare remains a very open question. Rather than opposing “partial expansion” on fiscal grounds, the Times quotes unnamed elected officials’ response:

Republican governors were generally supportive [of “partial expansion”], but they said the change must not be seen as an expansion of the Affordable Care Act and should not be announced before the midterm elections. Congressional Republican leaders, while supportive of the option, also cautioned against any high-profile public announcement before the midterm elections.

In other words, these officials want to expand and entrench Obamacare, but don’t want to be seen as expanding and entrenching Obamacare. What courage!

Just as with congressional Republicans’ desperate moves to bail out Obamacare’s exchanges earlier this year, the Times article demonstrates how a party that repeatedly ran on repealing Obamacare, once granted with the full levers of power in Washington, instead looks to reinforce it. Small wonder that the unnamed politicians in the Times article worry about conservative voters exacting a justifiable vengeance in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Liberals’ Ridiculous Health Care Charges Against Brett Kavanaugh

So much for subtle. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) placed health care at the top of the list of reasons to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, throwing in some over-the-top rhetoric in the process:

We Democrats believe the No. 1 issue in America is health care and the ability for people to get good health care at prices they can afford. The nomination of Mr. Kavanaugh would put a dagger through the heart of that cherished belief that most Americans have.

Put aside for a moment that Obamacare itself has “put a dagger through the heart” of people’s ability “to get good health care at prices they can afford” by more than doubling individual insurance premiums during President Obama’s second term. The idea that a pending lawsuit would allow the Supreme Court to strike down Obamacare, and that a Justice Kavanaugh would cast the deciding vote to do so, ranges from implausible to ridiculous, for at least three reasons.

Second, as I previously noted, Kavanaugh wrote an opinion in 2011 that, while deferring a definitive judgment on the merits, suggested an inclination to uphold Obamacare’s mandate as constitutional. In one footnote of his opinion, Kavanaugh noted that “the fact that an exaction is not labeled a tax does not vitiate Congress’s [sic] power under the Taxing Clause.” To Kavanaugh, it mattered not that Congress said the mandate was not a tax to justify it as such under the Constitution—the same logic that troubled conservatives about Roberts’ ruling in the mandate case.

Kavanaugh did seem troubled by the fact that Obamacare contains both a statutory requirement to buy coverage and a penalty (“tax”) for those who fail to do so. But another footnote suggested a way out:

At oral argument, counsel for the Government argued that a citizen who refused to obtain health insurance would still be acting lawfully. If that were true, the mandate would presumably pass muster under the Taxing Clause. But it is not evident that the statutory language is fairly susceptible to such an interpretation. That said, perhaps the canon of constitutional avoidance would allow such an interpretation of this provision and thereby squeeze it within the Taxing Clause.

Roberts did exactly what Kavanaugh suggested, eliminating the “perhaps” from Kavanaugh’s last sentence, and defending the mandate as permissible under Congress’ Taxing Clause power.

Wall Street firms often note that past performance does not equate to future results, a motto worth noting here. But it seems highly unlikely that a judge willing to justify what Congress itself termed a “penalty” as a tax, and who cited the “canon of constitutional avoidance” as a way to uphold Obamacare, would suddenly vote to strike down the entire law—after Congress just last year declined to do so. (In fact, the Supreme Court may not even vote to hear the case at all.) All this makes Schumer’s talk of “dagger[s] through the heart” so much noise.

Schumer’s Strategy Could Be Improved

One could make a compelling argument that, if Schumer really wanted to defeat the Kavanaugh nomination, he would take the opposite tack, and “hug him close” on Obamacare. An exercise in trolling conservatives could cause them some serious discomfort: “We know Judge Kavanaugh would uphold Obamacare at the Supreme Court, because he laid the roadmap for saving Obamacare there six years ago.”

But Schumer has instead tried to play the health care card against Kavanaugh, for any number of potential reasons.

  • He worries about over-emphasizing abortion rights during the confirmation process, which could cause political heartburn for several Senate Democrats running for re-election this year in states Donald Trump won in 2016;
  • He wants to preview themes Democrats will push in the election campaign this fall;
  • He doesn’t want to anger Democrats’ base by conceding the health care issue, as they want him to fight Kavanaugh’s nomination and support Obamacare, even if doing so could improve the chances of defeating the nomination; and/or
  • He thinks it unlikely he can defeat Kavanaugh, and wants to keep his caucus united rather than make a long-shot tactical gamble that could divide Democrats.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“SCOTUSCare” Redux? How Brett Kavanaugh Helped Uphold Obamacare

In a 2015 dissent to an Obamacare case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously opined that the court had concluded “that this limitation would prevent the rest of [Obamacare] from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law.… We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”

Last week’s retirement announcement from Justice Anthony Kennedy, coupled with news placing Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, high on President Trump’s list to replace Kennedy, has drawn attention back to the legal wrangling over the law. Some observers have claimed that Kavanaugh, in a 2011 opinion written when the D.C. Circuit considered Obamacare’s constitutionality, supported the law’s individual mandate.

Extended Discussion of the Anti-Injunction Act

Most of Kavanaugh’s opinion discusses interpretations of statute that hardly qualify as an enlightening discourse of constitutional principles. Whereas his two circuit court colleagues upheld the mandate as a valid exercise of Congress’ power under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Kavanaugh “dissent[ed] as to jurisdiction and [did] not decide the merits.”

Kavanaugh’s dissent arose from his belief that the 1867 Anti-Injunction Act precluded the court from deciding the merits of the individual mandate. The Anti-Injunction Act prevents individuals from challenging the validity of taxes in court until after they have paid them, which if applied to Obamacare’s mandate (which took effect in 2014) meant that a court challenge would not ripen until individuals had paid the mandate penalty on their taxes—i.e., in spring 2015, or nearly four years after the D.C. Circuit ruling.

Kavanaugh spends the better part of 50 pages—longer than the majority opinion justifying the mandate as constitutional—analyzing the Internal Revenue Code, and the Anti-Injunction Act, to support his belief that the mandate qualified as a tax under the act, forestalling any legal or constitutional challenge until after individuals had paid it. He cautions “the reader that some of the following is not for the faint of heart”—a true enough warning, as much of the opinion devolves into tedium that only a tax lawyer could love.

While Roberts disagreed with Kavanaugh’s reasoning about applying the Anti-Injunction Act to the Obamacare mandate, such differences over the interpretation of a 150-year-old statute hardly rise to the level of disqualifying for a potential Supreme Court nominee.

A Bit of Judicial Restraint…

Indeed, three-quarters of Kavanaugh’s ruling provides a worthy defense of judicial restraint—judges avoiding decisions on weighty questions wherever possible. He argues that courts should defer to Congress, which enacted the Anti-Injunction Act in the first place:

The jurisdictional status of the Anti-Injunction Act reflects the Constitution’s separation of powers in operation.  Under the Constitution, Congress possesses the power to tax and spend, as well as the power of the purse over appropriations of money. Congress zealously guards those prerogatives. Here, Congress has not afforded discretion to the Executive Branch to waive or forfeit the Anti-Injunction Act’s bar with respect to the assessment and collection of taxes. Rather, by making the Anti-Injunction Act jurisdictional, Congress has commanded courts to abide by the Act even when the Executive Branch might not assert it.

He also disregards efforts by the Obama administration, in attempts to provide policy certainty regarding Obamacare, encouraging the courts to decide the merits of the individual mandate before it took effect, rather than invoking the Anti-Injunction Act to bar the suits until 2015:

We must adhere to the statutory constraints on our jurisdiction no matter how much the parties might want us to jump the jurisdictional rails and decide this case now….By waiting, we would respect the bedrock principle of judicial restraint that courts avoid prematurely or unnecessarily deciding constitutional questions.

Followed by Judicial Activism

The last section of Kavanaugh’s opinion explains why he believes the courts should not decide the constitutionality of the individual mandate: “this case could disappear by 2015 because, by then, Congress may fix the alleged constitutional shortcoming and ensure that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate provision fits comfortably within Congress’ Taxing Clause power.”

In Kavanaugh’s view, the mandate could fit “comfortably” within Congress’ constitutional powers. Even as he “do[es] not take a position her on whether the statute as currently written is justifiable,” Kavanaugh concludes that “the only potential Taxing Clause shortcoming in the current individual mandate provision appears to be relatively slight” (emphasis in the original).

Several pages thereafter, Kavanaugh continues to answer a question nobody asked him, giving the legislature instructions on how to remedy the in-his-view minor constitutional infirmity:

This discussion about the potential problem with the Government’s Taxing Clause argument also shows how easily Congress could eliminate any such potential problem.  For example, Congress might keep the current statutory language and payment amounts and simply add a provision as basic as: “The taxpayer has a lawful choice either to maintain health insurance or make the payment to the IRS required by Section 5000A(a)-(c).” Or Congress might retain the exactions and payment amounts as they are but eliminate the legal mandate language in Section 5000A, instead providing something to the effect of: “An applicable individual without minimum essential coverage must make a payment to the IRS on his or her tax return in the amounts listed in Section 5000A(c).” Or Congress could adopt the approach from the House-passed bill, which expressly created a tax incentive and plainly satisfied the Taxing Clause.

Any of those options—and others as well—would ensure that this provision operates as a traditional regulatory tax and readily satisfies the Taxing Clause.

Kavanaugh’s Roadmap to Save Obamacare

Some will note the irony of Kavanaugh’s opinion stating that “no court to reach the merits has accepted the Government’s Taxing Clause argument.” Josh Blackman notes in his book “Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare” that Solicitor General Donald Verilli “advanced this very argument”—that severing the mandate to buy health insurance from the tax for not buying health insurance would make the latter constitutional—“at the Supreme Court.”

The gambit worked. Roberts ultimately relied upon that argument from Verilli by way of Kavanaugh to uphold the mandate as a constitutional exercise of the taxing power. That Kavanaugh, like Roberts, used the last few pages of his opinion to decry the “unprecedented” nature of a mandate upheld via the Commerce Clause power does not mitigate his favorable analysis of a mandate upheld via the Taxing Clause power.

Other analysts with more experience in constitutional and legal jurisprudence (and perhaps less experience in health policy) can opine on other parts of Kavanaugh’s record. But his opinion on Obamacare, while starting out with an admirable nod toward judicial restraint, unfortunately veered in an activist direction that gives this conservative serious pause.

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.

The Troubling Premise Behind the Latest Obamacare Lawsuit

On Thursday, a group of Democratic attorneys general received permission to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republican officials. That lawsuit, originally filed in February, seeks to strike down all of Obamacare.

The lawsuit forces me to distinguish between policy preferences and the rule of law. Strictly on the policy, I want to repeal Obamacare as much as the next conservative does. However, in this case, striking down the law through legal fiat would represent judicial activism at its worst—asking unelected judges to do what elected members of Congress took great pains to avoid.

John Roberts’ Logic

Last December, Congress set the individual mandate penalty to zero beginning in January 2019. As others previously argued, the action eliminated the basis on which the Supreme Court found the mandate constitutional. Thus, the lawsuit alleges, the court should strike down the individual mandate—and, consistent with the reasoning of four dissenting justices (Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) in the 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius case—all of Obamacare with it.

Congress Has Spoken

There’s one major flaw with the lawsuit’s logic: While Obamacare did not contain a severability clause, Congress in its infinite wisdom last year chose to eliminate the mandate penalty—and only the mandate penalty. Severability tests the court established work to determine first and foremost “whether the provisions will work as Congress intended,” as the dissenters noted back in 2012.

Because Congress, in the time since Obamacare passed, quite clearly eliminated only the mandate penalty, it demonstrated its intent. Regardless of whether federal courts strike down the mandate—now an edict in law unenforceable by any penalty—as unconstitutional, they cannot, and should not, strike down any other portion of the law.

Anti-Democratic Principle

In essence, the lawsuit asks the federal courts to do what Congress decided last year not to do: repeal all of Obamacare. Rather than working to persuade Congress to go back, consider health care anew, and pass the full repeal lawmakers ran on for four straight election cycles, the litigants instead hope to nullify Obamacare through a deus ex machina intervention of five of nine justices on the Supreme Court.

As a matter of law, the court should do no such thing. Substituting the judgment of unelected judges for popularly elected members of Congress would further erode the institutions supporting the rule of law. The protests on both the left and right regarding last year’s health-care legislation would pale in comparison to any demonstration should five unelected judges now decide to strike down all of Obamacare, and with good reason.

Moreover, this apparent application of situational ethics—“conservatives” supporting judicial activism when it furthers their policy objectives—will only undermine future attempts to constrain legislating from the bench. When it comes to asking courts to strike down massive pieces of legislation, conservatives should be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it—not on Obamacare, but on other major bills they do support.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.