Why Smaller Premium Increases May Hurt Republicans in November

Away from last week’s three-ring circus on Capitol Hill, an important point of news got lost. In a speech on Thursday in Nashville, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar announced that benchmark premiums—that is, the plan premium that determines subsidy amounts for individuals who qualify for income-based premium assistance—in the 39 states using the federal healthcare.gov insurance platform will fall by an average of 2 percent next year.

That echoes outside entities that have reviewed rate filings for 2019. A few weeks ago, consultants at Avalere Health released an updated premium analysis, which projected a modest premium increase of 3.1 percent on average—a fraction of the 15 percent increase Avalere projected back in June. Moreover, consistent with the HHS announcement on Thursday, Avalere estimates that average premiums will actually decline in 12 states.

On the other hand, however, given that Democrats have attempted to make Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions a focal point of their campaign, premium increases in the fall would remind voters that those supposed “protections” come with a very real cost.

How Much Did Premiums Rise?

The Heritage Foundation earlier this year concluded that the pre-existing condition provisions collectively accounted for the largest share of premium increases due to Obamacare. But how much have these “protections” raised insurance rates?

Overall premium trend data are readily available, but subject to some interpretation. An HHS analysis published last year found that in 2013—the year before Obamacare’s major provisions took effect—premiums in the 39 states using healthcare.gov averaged $232 per month, based on insurers’ filings. In 2018, the average policy purchased in those same 39 states cost $597.20 per month—an increase of $365 per month, or $4,380 per year.

Moreover, the trends hold for the individual market as a whole—which includes both exchange enrollees, most of whom qualify for subsidies, and off-exchange enrollees, who by definition cannot. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that, from 2013 to 2018, average premiums on the individual market rose from $223 to $490—an increase of $267 per month, or $3,204 per year.

Impact of Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

The HHS data suggest that premiums have risen by $4,380 since Obamacare took effect; the Kaiser data, slightly less, but still a significant amount ($3,204). But how much of those increases come directly from the pre-existing condition provisions, as opposed to general increases in medical inflation, or other Obamacare requirements?

The varying methods used in the actuarial studies make it difficult to compare them in ways that easily lead to a single answer. Moreover, insurance markets vary from state to state, adding to the complexity of analyses.

However, given the available data on both how much premiums rose and why they did, it seems safe to say that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums by several hundreds of dollars—and that, taking into account changes in the risk pool (i.e., disproportionately sicker individuals signing up for coverage), the impact reaches into the thousands of dollars in at least some markets.

Republicans’ Political Dilemma

Those premium increases due to the pre-existing condition provisions are baked into the proverbial premium cake, which presents the Republicans with their political problem. Democrats are focusing on the impending threat—sparked by several states’ anti-Obamacare lawsuit—of Republicans “taking away” the law’s pre-existing condition “protections.” Conservatives can counter, with total justification based on the evidence, that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums substantially, but those premium increases already happened.

If those premium increases that took place in the fall of 2016 and 2017 had instead occurred this fall, Republicans would have two additional political arguments heading into the midterm elections. First, they could have made the proactive argument that another round of premium increases demonstrates the need to elect more Republicans to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. Second, they could have more easily rebutted Democratic arguments on pre-existing conditions, pointing out that those “popular” provisions have sparked rapid rate increases, and that another approach might prove more effective.

Instead, because premiums for 2019 will remain flat, or even decline slightly in some states, Republicans face a more nuanced, and arguably less effective, political message. Azar actually claimed that President Trump “has proven better at managing [Obamacare] than the President who wrote the law.”

Conservatives would argue that the federal government cannot (micro)manage insurance markets effectively, and should not even try. Yet Azar tried to make that argument in his speech Thursday, even as he conceded that “the individual market for insurance is still broken.”

‘Popular’ Provisions Are Very Costly

The first round of premium spikes, which hit right before the 2016 election, couldn’t have come at a better time for Republicans. Coupled with Bill Clinton’s comments at that time calling Obamacare the “craziest thing in the world,” it put a renewed focus on the health-care law’s flaws, in a way that arguably helped propel Donald Trump and Republicans to victory.

This year, as paradoxical as it first sounds, flat premiums may represent bad news for Republicans. While liberals do not want to admit it publicly, polling evidence suggests that support for the pre-existing condition provisions plummets when individuals connect those provisions to premium increases.

The lack of a looming premium spike could also neutralize Republican opposition to Obamacare, while failing to provide a way that could more readily neutralize Democrats’ attacks on pre-existing conditions. Maybe the absence of bad news on the premium front may present its own bad political news for Republicans in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Lamar Alexander Wants to Bail Out Regulators Who Misjudged Billions

When a state’s insurance market stands on the verge of collapse, as Tennessee Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak claimed in 2016, why would she and her colleagues fail to consider another potential change that could precipitate a full-on implosion? Congress should analyze this question as it examines Obamacare’s health insurance markets.

Unfortunately, however, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander seems more interested in stuffing the coffers of the insurance industry than in conducting robust oversight of McPeak’s regulatory debacle.

A recent public records request confirms that when health insurers filed their 2017 rates in the summer of 2016, Tennessee’s Department of Insurance failed to contemplate that the incoming presidential administration could cancel the cost-sharing payments. As a result, Tennessee insurers will incur their share of the $1.75 billion in losses insurers face nationally this year. The department’s lack of planning and preparation left Tennessee consumers—to say nothing of health insurers themselves—exposed.

Tennessee Should Have Seen This Coming

McPeak cannot say she was not warned about the vulnerability of insurers’ cost-sharing subsidies. In May 2016, federal court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional, because Obamacare did not include an explicit appropriation for them. While Collyer stayed her ruling as the Obama administration appealed, I noted that month that the incoming president could easily concede the lawsuit and halt the payments unilaterally—exactly what President Trump did in October.

As one insurance expert noted recently, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet the recent public records request revealed that Tennessee regulators did not send so much as a single e-mail considering whether this “hand grenade” would explode—taking the state’s exchange down with it—before approving insurance rates for 2017 last fall.

Senators Seem to Prefer Bailouts to Accountability

Tennessee’s Alexander has played a leading role in ignoring insurance commissioners’ questionable behavior. In September, Alexander convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee he chairs to take testimony from insurance commissioners, including McPeak, about state insurance markets. At no point did Alexander or any other senator ask McPeak or her fellow commissioners why they failed to consider, let alone predict, the withdrawal of the cost-sharing payments last year.

Instead of examining the regulatory failures of commissioners like McPeak, Alexander has dedicated his energies toward solving the problem McPeak’s ignorance helped to create. His legislation would appropriate approximately $25 billion in taxpayer funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers.

Unfortunately, Alexander’s legislation would result in a major windfall for health insurers, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Because insurers have already raised their premiums for 2018 to compensate for the loss of the cost-sharing reduction payments, Alexander’s bill would effectively pay them twice. While the CBO believes insurers will rebate some—not all, but only some—of these “extra” payments back to the government, insurers could pocket between $4-6 billion in additional windfall profits thanks to Alexander’s legislation.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Fulfilling the Promise of Obamacare Repeal

A PDF of this document is available here.

 

For years, the American people have suffered from the ill effects of Obamacare’s federal intrusions into the health care system. Millions of Americans received cancellation notices telling them that the plans they had, and liked, would disappear—a direct violation of President Obama’s repeated promises.[1] Insurance premiums have skyrocketed, rising nearly 50 percent in 2014, followed by another increase of over 20 percent this year.[2] Insurance options have disappeared, with Americans in approximately one-third of all U.S. counties having the “choice” of only one insurer in 2017.[3]

But as the 115th Congress begins, the new Republican majority, and President-elect Donald Trump, have pledged to bring the American people desperately needed relief, by fulfilling their long-stated promise to repeal Obamacare. Congressional leaders have stated their intention to bring forward legislation that repeals key portions of Obamacare using budget reconciliation procedures. Such legislation would likely resemble the reconciliation bill that the prior 114th Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed on January 8, 2016.

That legislation, H.R. 3762 of the last Congress, repealed funding for Obamacare’s new entitlements—Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, and coverage subsidies for individuals of low and moderate incomes purchasing coverage on insurance Exchanges—effective January 1, 2018, approximately two years after enactment. It repealed all of the law’s tax increases—including the tax penalties associated with the individual and employer mandates—beginning January 1, 2016, effectively coinciding with the date of enactment. The bill also included other important provisions, restricting federal Medicaid payments to certain providers.[4]

Critics have argued that, having voted for this legislation once under President Obama, Members of Congress should not pass this bill again, sending it to President Trump’s desk for immediate signature.[5] These critics argue that Congress cannot repeal Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations under the special budget reconciliation procedures, which require all provisions in reconciliation legislation to have a significant budgetary impact. The critics fear that passing such legislation would effectively nullify Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates immediately, and its subsidies eventually, while keeping in place its costly insurance regulations that have significantly raised premiums. They believe that these steps would exacerbate adverse selection—a scenario whereby only sick individuals purchase health insurance coverage—de-stabilize insurance markets, and lead more insurers to drop out of insurance Exchanges altogether.

Those concerns, while legitimate, are misplaced on several fronts. First, Congress has not yet litigated whether or not some or all of the major Obamacare insurance regulations are budgetary in nature, and can be considered as part of reconciliation legislation. Second, Congress can and should take steps to modify last year’s reconciliation bill in ways that will stabilize insurance markets in the near-term, and create a transition to alternative legislation Congress constructs. Third, the incoming Trump Administration has significant regulatory powers within its purview, which can minimize the adverse selection effects critics fear from repeal legislation, and modify the federal mandates that have driven up premiums in recent years.

While not perfect, and less ideal than starting from scratch, last year’s reconciliation legislation represents a solid base from which to construct a legislative and regulatory framework for repealing Obamacare. It also represents the fastest approach for Congress to deliver on the promise it has made to its constituents for over six years: Unwinding an unaffordable and unworkable health care law.

 

What Congress Should Do

Last year’s reconciliation measure provides a good starting point for Congress when drafting repeal legislation to consider this year. However, Congress should attempt both to expand and revise the measure. These efforts would both mitigate against any adverse selection concerns, and stabilize insurance markets while Congress considers alternative legislation.

Expand Reconciliation to Insurance Regulations:               Critics have claimed that Obamacare’s major insurance regulations “were not altered in H.R. 3762; they could not be altered in a reconciliation bill taken up in 2017, either,” due to procedural restrictions inherent in the budget reconciliation process.[6] Such a definitive assertion is at best premature. Observers have noted that “Congress chose not to litigate” the issue of whether and what restrictions are budgetary in nature, and therefore eligible for repeal in reconciliation legislation, when considering H.R. 3762 in the fall of 2015.[7]

However, Congress can, and should, choose to litigate those issues with the Senate parliamentarian now. Rulings by the Senate parliamentarian will guide lawmakers as they determine which provisions of repeal legislation meet budget reconciliation guidelines, and can therefore be approved using a simple, 51-vote majority without being subject to the 60-vote threshold used for other legislation subject to a filibuster.

The Congressional Budget Office, think-tanks, and other actuarial organizations have produced estimates showing the significant costs of many of Obamacare’s insurance mandates—including requirements related to pre-existing conditions; essential health benefits; community rating requirements; actuarial value; medical loss ratios; preventive care coverage requirements; and other major mandates. The Obama Administration itself has produced cost estimates for several of the law’s mandates—and argued twice before the Supreme Court that its regulatory mandates are critical to the law’s structure.[8]

Congress can and should expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations. Doing so would be consistent with both the existing scoring estimates and past practice under budget reconciliation. Moreover, expanding the scope of repeal to include the largest insurance mandates would mitigate against adverse selection effects that might result if Congress repealed the individual mandate while leaving the major insurance regulations in place.

Freeze Enrollment in Entitlements:            Consistent with the transition period provided for in the 2015 reconciliation legislation, any repeal measure should also include steps to freeze enrollment in the law’s new entitlements. Such actions would be particularly pertinent to Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid—the source of most of the law’s spending, and the vast majority of its coverage expansions.[9]

Research indicates that past states that froze enrollment in Medicaid allowed the vast majority of enrollees to transition off of the program, and into work, within a short period of time.[10] Moreover, another study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Tennessee’s decision to roll back its unsustainable Medicaid expansion in 2005 led to “large increases in [the] labor supply” and increases in employment, as individuals dis-enrolled from Medicaid looked for—and obtained—employment, and employer-sponsored health insurance.[11] Freezing enrollment would hold existing beneficiaries harmless, while beginning to transition away from Obamacare’s unsustainable levels of spending—and encouraging economic activity and job growth.

Beginning this year, states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare will also face added fiscal burdens, as they must finance a portion (in 2017, 5 percent) of the cost of coverage for the first time. Even Democratic state legislators in “blue states” like Oregon and New Mexico have raised concerns about what the cost of this massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied will do to other important state programs targeting “the most vulnerable of our citizens.”[12] For all these reasons, Congress should insert language into the reconciliation freezing enrollment upon enactment—or perhaps shortly after enactment, to allow expansion states time to submit amendments to their existing state plans reflecting this legislative change.

Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in the law’s program of Exchange subsidies. In the spring of 2015, as the Supreme Court considered the case of King v. Burwell—which affected subsidies provided to individuals in states using the federal insurance Exchange, healthcare.gov—multiple Members of Congress introduced legislation that would have frozen enrollment. These bills would have allowed individuals who qualified for subsidies prior to the Court’s ruling to continue to receive them for a transitional period of time, but made other individuals ineligible for such subsidies.[13]

Though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the subsidies in King v. Burwell, ruling that the words “an Exchange established by the State” also referred to an Exchange run by the federal government, Congress could utilize a similar regime in the reconciliation bill with respect to insurance subsidies—that is, freezing eligibility and enrollment effective the date of the bill’s enactment.[14] However, Congress should only act to freeze eligibility for insurance subsidies if it believes doing so would not cause existing insurance market risk pools to deteriorate during the transition period.

Appropriate Cost-Sharing Subsidies:            Any repeal measure should include a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies currently in dispute. Those subsidies reimburse insurers for the expense of cost-sharing reductions—lower deductibles and co-payments—provided to certain low-income enrollees under Obamacare. In the case of House v. Burwell, the House of Representatives has argued that the text of Obamacare nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies, and that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by funding this spending without an express appropriation.

On May 12, 2016, United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House’s position, imposing an injunction (stayed pending appeal) prohibiting the Administration from appropriating funds for the cost-sharing subsidies.[15] The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is currently considering the Obama Administration’s appeal of Judge Collyer’s ruling, with further actions on hold until the new Administration takes office.

Some insurers argue that, should the incoming Trump Administration withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies, they have the right to terminate their plans from the Exchanges immediately. The arguments that insurers can withdraw from the markets in 2017 lack merit.[16] Furthermore, analysts have warned for months that an incoming Administration could withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies unilaterally upon taking office.[17] Insurers saw fit to ignore those warnings, and signed up to offer 2017 coverage knowing full well that the cost-sharing subsidies could disappear on short notice, through either court rulings or regulatory action by a new Administration.

However, to provide certainty, Congress should appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal bill—but only for the length of the transition period provided for in that measure. The Trump Administration should encourage Congress to appropriate funds for the transition period. Once Congress does so, the Trump Administration’s Justice Department can move to dismiss the Obama Administration’s appeal of the case against the House of Representatives, conceding the point that the executive never had authority to appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidies absent express direction by Congress.

Utilize the Congressional Review Act:            The election outcome notwithstanding, President Obama’s outgoing Administration continues to use the regulatory process to attempt to “box in” his successor. On December 22, 2016, the Administration published a Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for the 2018 plan year.[18] In doing so, the Administration specifically waived provisions of the Congressional Review Act, which generally requires a 60-day delayed effective date for major rules. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claimed that such a delay was impracticable for good cause reasons.[19] The 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters will therefore take effect 30 days following its display, on January 17, 2017—during President Obama’s last week in office. As a result, President Trump will be unable simply to revoke this regulation unilaterally upon taking office.

However, the Congressional Review Act does provide a vehicle for Congress, in concert with a President Trump, to take action revoking the newest Obamacare regulation. Specifically, the Act provides that a resolution of disapproval, passed by both houses of Congress, will have the effect of nullifying the rule or administrative action proposed.[20] Of particular import, the Congressional Review Act provides for expedited consideration of resolutions of disapproval in the Senate; those limits on debate preclude filibusters, meaning that resolutions of disapproval require a simple, 51-vote majority to pass, rather than the usual 60 votes for legislation subject to a filibuster.

Congress should explore using the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. Regardless of whether or not Congress strikes down this last-minute rule, the Trump Administration should act expeditiously—including through use of the “good cause” exemption the Obama Administration cited to rush through its own regulations last month—to provide needed relief to consumers.

 

What the Administration Should Do

The Trump Administration can also play its part in bringing about the promise of repeal, by acting in concert with Congress to undo the effects of Obamacare’s major insurance mandates. Consistent with the actions Congress should take listed above, the incoming Administration should immediately use flexibility to provide relief from Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Whether through a new 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, a series of interim final regulations, or both, these regulations would provide a vehicle for incorporating many of the changes needed to undo Obamacare’s harmful effects, including those listed below.

While the Administration cannot unilaterally change the law—such actions lie solely within the purview of Congress—it can and should take steps to soften the impact of existing mandates, and provide maximum flexibility wherever possible. These steps would stabilize insurance markets during the period following repeal, and provide for an orderly transition to an alternative regime.

Limit Open Enrollment:      Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS the authority to “require an Exchange to provide for…annual open enrollment periods, as determined by the Secretary for calendar years after the initial enrollment period.”[21] The law requires insurers to accept all applicants without regard to pre-existing conditions or health status—in industry parlance, guaranteed issue—but only within certain limits. Specifically, health insurers may “restrict enrollment in coverage described in such subsection [i.e., guaranteed issue coverage] to open or special enrollment periods.”[22] In other words, the requirement that insurers accept all applicants only applies during open enrollment periods—and the HHS Secretary has the sole power to determine when, and for how long, those open enrollment periods run.

The existing Code of Federal Regulations states that for the 2018 benefit year, open enrollment for individual health insurance will run from November 1, 2017 through January 31, 2018—the exact same three-month period as the 2016 and 2017 open enrollment periods.[23] The incoming Administration can—and should—issue new regulations limiting those open enrollment periods to a much narrower window, to prevent individuals from “gaming the system” and enrolling only after they incur costly medical conditions.

At minimum, it appears eminently reasonable for the new Administration to shorten the open enrollment window down to 30 days—a significant reduction from 2016 and 2017, which saw open enrollment last for one-quarter of the year. If logistical obstacles can be overcome—i.e., could Exchanges process applicants in a shorter period?—the Administration could restrict the open enrollment period even further, to a period of perhaps a couple of weeks. Other observers have suggested tying open enrollment to a period surrounding an individual’s birth date, thus preventing a surge of applicants at one particular point in the year.

Narrowing the length of open enrollment periods, coupled with restrictions on special enrollment periods outlined below, will provide a more controlled and contained environment for insurers to issue policies. Limiting enrollment periods will mitigate against an insurance market that requires carriers to issue policies without imposing financial penalties on individuals who fail to purchase insurance—indeed, will mitigate against the adverse selection insurers suffer from currently, even with the individual mandate in full effect. Because Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS extremely broad authority to define “open enrollment periods”—other than stating these must occur annually, the statute includes few prescriptions on administrative authority—the Trump Administration should use this authority to maximum effect.

Restrict Special Enrollment Periods:            Insurers have raised numerous complaints about individuals using special periods outside open enrollment to obtain coverage, incur large medical claims, and then drop that coverage upon regaining health. Early in 2016, Blue Cross Blue Shield calculated that special enrollment period customers were 55 percent more costly than those enrolling during the usual annual enrollment period. Likewise, Aetna found that one-quarter of its entire enrollment came from these “special” enrollment periods, and that said enrollees remained on the rolls for an average of fewer than four months—an indication that many only enrolled in the first place to obtain coverage for a specific medical condition or ailment.[24]

Even as insurers demonstrate that individuals have abused special enrollment periods to incur costly medical bills and subsequently cancel coverage, the Obama Administration actually exacerbated the problem its last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. That rule expanded the number of special enrollment periods, codifying an additional five exemptions allowing eligible individuals to qualify for coverage outside of open enrollment periods.[25]

That said, the Obama Administration has taken some steps to restrict abuse of special enrollment periods. In June 2016, it implemented a process announced in February 2016, which requires documentation from applicants seeking special enrollment periods for the most common conditions—a move, loss of coverage, marriage, birth, or adoption.[26] The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) claims this documentation requirement reduced the number of special enrollment period applicants by 20 percent.[27] However, a separate effort to require verification of special enrollment period eligibility prior to enrollment will not begin until this coming June, with results only coming in spring 2018.[28]

With respect to special enrollments, the incoming Administration should 1) eliminate all special enrollment periods, other than those required under existing law; and/or 2) accelerate the process of pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods.[29]

Use Exchange User Fees to Lower Premiums:     In its Notice of Benefit Parameters, the Obama Administration has annually imposed a 3.5 percent surcharge, dubbed an “Exchange user fee,” on issuers offering coverage using healthcare.gov, the federally-run Exchange, which those insurers then pass on to consumers. The 2018 version of the document, released December 22, specifically suggested that the 3.5 percent fee paid by insurers (and ultimately by consumers) now exceeds the costs associated with running the federal Exchange:

We have received feedback suggesting that the FFEs [federally-facilitated Exchanges] would be able to increase enrollment by allocating more funds to outreach and education, a benefit to both consumers and issuers. We sought comment on how much funding to devote to outreach and education, and on whether HHS should expressly designate a portion or amount of the FFE user fee to be allocated directly to outreach and enrollment activities, recognizing the need for HHS to continue to adequately fund other critical Exchange operations, such as the call center, healthcare.gov, and eligibility and enrollment activities.[30]

Some commenters regarding the Exchange user fee proposal specifically requested that the Exchange “user fee rate should decrease over time.” HHS rejected this approach for 2018. It did note that “we do anticipate gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs, and if so, may consider reducing the FFE user fee based on increased enrollment and premiums in the future.”[31]

Upon taking office, the Trump Administration should act immediately to ensure that the Exchange user fee funds essential Exchange operations only. With the Exchanges now in their fourth year of operation, HHS will not need to spend as much on technological infrastructure as the Department did while standing up the Exchange—and should not, as the Obama Administration suggested, spend the difference on new “slush funds” designed to promote enrollment outreach.

Because the Exchange user fee is based on a percentage of premium, this year’s 20 percent spike in premiums for Obamacare plans has significantly increased funding for the federal Exchange as it is.[32] Moreover, the vast majority of Exchange participants—84 percent, per the most recent enrollee data—receive federal subsidies for their health insurance premiums.[33] Because those federal subsidies directly relate to premium costs, federal taxpayers—and not enrollees themselves—are in many cases paying for any additional, and unnecessary, spending undertaken by the federal Exchange.

To save taxpayers, and to lower premiums for all consumers, the Trump Administration should take immediate steps to reduce the Exchange user fee to the minimum necessary to support Exchange operations—and instruct insurers to rebate the difference to consumers in the form of lower premiums.

Revise Medical Loss Ratio:  Obamacare requires insurers to spend a minimum percentage of premiums on medical claims—a medical loss ratio (MLR).[34] Insurers in the individual market face an 80 percent MLR, while employer plans have an 85 percent requirement. Plans that do not meet the minimum MLR thresholds must return the difference to beneficiaries in the form of rebates.

During Obamacare’s first several years, the MLR requirements have not proven a concern to insurers—largely because they significantly under-estimated premiums for 2014, 2015, and 2016. In fact, the average MLR for individual market plans skyrocketed from 62.3% in 2011 to 93.3% in 2015.[35] Because enrollees proved sicker than anticipated, insurers have paid out a high percentage of premiums in medical claims—indeed, in some cases, have paid out more in claims than they received in premium payments from enrollees (i.e., an MLR over 100%).

However, should the Trump Administration desire to provide additional flexibility for insurers, it could take a more expansive view of “activities that improve health care quality,” considered equivalent to medical claims paid under the MLR formula.[36] Obamacare required the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to, by December 31, 2010, “establish uniform definitions of the activities” under the MLR, including the definition of activities to improve health care quality.[37] However, the statute makes those definitions “subject to the certification of the Secretary,” and while then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accepted the NAIC recommendations, the new Administration is not necessarily obliged to do so.

The interim final rule regarding the medical loss ratio requirement provides a roadmap for a Trump Administration to provide regulatory flexibility regarding the MLR, including the definition of “activities that improve health care quality.”[38] The new Administration could also provide relief regarding agents’ and brokers’ fees and commissions—an issue HHS acknowledged in the rule, but did little to ameliorate—and taxes and fees paid by insurers due to regulatory and other requirements.

Reform State Innovation Waivers:            Section 1332 of Obamacare provides for “state innovation waivers,” which can take effect beginning on or after January 1, 2017. The waivers allow states to obtain exemptions from most of the law’s major insurance requirements, as well as the employer and individual mandates, to provide an alternative system of health insurance for its residents. However, the statute requires that any waiver must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as the coverage” defined under the law, as certified by the Medicare actuary;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as the law;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of its residents;” and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”[39]

The Obama Administration released a final rule regarding the process for applying for a Section 1332 waiver in early 2012.[40] However, it did not release information regarding the substance of the waivers themselves until late 2015—and then did so only through informal guidance, not a formal regulation subject to notice-and-comment.[41]

The December 2015 guidance exceeded the requirements of the statute in several ways. First, it said the Administration would not consider potential combined savings from a Section 1332 state innovation waiver when submitted in conjunction with a Medicaid Section 1115 reform waiver. In other words, when meeting the deficit neutrality requirement of Section 1332, Medicaid savings could not be used to offset higher costs associated with Exchange reforms, or vice versa.[42]

The guidance also said the Obama Administration would impose additional tests with respect to coverage and affordability—not just examining the impact on state populations as a whole, but effects on discrete groups of individuals.[43] For instance, the guidance noted that “waivers that reduce the number of people with insurance coverage that provides both an actuarial value equal to or greater than 60 percent and an out-of-pocket maximum that complies with Section 1302(c)(1) of [Obamacare] would fail” the affordability requirement.[44] These new mandates effectively prohibit states from using waiver programs to expand access to more affordable catastrophic coverage for individuals.

Due to the four statutory requirements listed above, the Section 1332 waiver program suffers from inherent shortcomings.[45] But because the added restrictions proposed in December 2015 came through informal regulatory guidance, the Trump Administration can and should immediately withdraw that guidance upon taking office. It should also work immediately to establish a more flexible rubric for states wishing to utilize Section 1332 waivers—with respect to both the application process itself and more flexible insurance design that can expand access and affordability for a state’s residents.

Withdraw Contraception Mandate:            Among the “early benefits” of the law taking effect six months after its enactment was a mandate for preventive care. Specifically, the law requires first-dollar coverage (i.e., without cost-sharing) of several preventive services, including women’s preventive health screenings.[46]

On December 20, 2016, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) released the most recent women’s preventive services guidelines. These guidelines, as before, required that “the full range of female-controlled U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, effective family planning practices, and sterilization procedures be available as part of contraceptive care.”[47]

The Trump Administration should upon taking office withdraw the HRSA benefit mandates—including the requirement to provide contraception coverage. While these particular mandates may have a slight impact on premiums, removing them would reduce premiums nonetheless. More importantly, they would restore the rights of conscience to those individuals and organizations who have been forced to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs to cover contraception and other procedures they object to.[48]

Modify Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value:        Among Obamacare’s many new mandated insurance benefits, two in particular stand out. First, the law provides for a series of “essential health benefits”—ten categories of health services that all qualified plans must cover.[49] While the essential health benefits address the breadth of health insurance coverage, actuarial value—or the percentage of annual health expenses paid by an insurance policy on average—addresses the depth of that coverage. The law categorizes individual health plans in four “tiers” based on actuarial value: Bronze plans with an average actuarial value of 60 percent; silver plans, 70 percent; gold plans, 80 percent; and platinum plans, 90 percent.[50]

Both directly and indirectly, the essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements raise premiums—by forcing individuals to buy richer coverage, and then by inducing additional demand for health care through that richer coverage. The Administration’s own rule regarding essential health benefits admitted that the law’s requirements include provisions not previously covered by most forms of health insurance, including “rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices.”[51] Likewise, a study in the journal Health Affairs concluded that the actuarial value requirements would raise premiums, as most pre-Obamacare individual market policies did not meet the new mandated benefit thresholds.[52]

However, the final rules regarding essential health benefits and plan actuarial value provide opportunities to expand benefit flexibility.[53] For instance, the new Administration could provide states with more options for declaring benchmark plans that meet the essential health benefit requirements under the statute. The new Administration could also expand the de minimis variation standards for actuarial value measures required by the law.[54] Allowing for additional variation and flexibility could have a significant impact in reducing premiums, as the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2009 that the essential benefits and actuarial value standards would collectively raise premiums by 27 to 30 percent, all else equal.[55]

Enhanced Flexibility for Businesses:             On September 13, 2013, the Treasury Department issued Notice 2013-54, which stated that an arrangement whereby an employer reimburses some or all of an employee’s expenses for the purchase of individual health insurance—whether through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) or some other means—would be considered a group health plan.[56] As a result, businesses using HRAs need to meet all of Obamacare’s regulatory reforms, such as prohibiting annual limits on the dollar value of essential health benefits.[57] Group health plans failing to meet those requirements trigger a penalty of $100 per day, per individual.[58]

This provision sparked widespread uproar when it first went into effect in July 2015, as the Obama Administration threatened fines of $36,500 per employee for employers who helped fund their employees’ health coverage.[59] Members of Congress introduced standalone legislation exempting small businesses from this requirement.[60] This provision was eventually incorporated into the 21st Century Cures Act, which President Obama himself signed into law on December 13, 2016.[61] As a result, small businesses with under 50 employees can now provide contributions to their workers’ individual health insurance premiums without triggering Obamacare’s regulatory regime.

Expanding upon the precedent of a law President Obama himself signed, the Trump Administration should withdraw Notice 2013-54, build on Congress’ actions, and allow businesses of all sizes the ability to reimburse employees’ premium costs without triggering massive fines. Actions in this vein would have salutary benefits in two respects: They would remove more businesses from Obamacare’s onerous regulatory requirements, while encouraging the use of defined contribution health insurance for employees.

 

Next Steps and the Pathway Forward

Following more than six years of frustration for the American people, the promise of repealing Obamacare is finally within reach. While passing legislation that unwinds Obamacare in an orderly, stable manner will require policy-makers to act with care, Congress and the new Trump Administration can use last year’s reconciliation legislation as the basis for action. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Seek to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation legislation to encompass Obamacare’s major insurance regulations, consistent with budgetary scores and past practice and precedents within the Senate;
  • Add a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Medicaid expansion, effective either upon enactment or shortly thereafter;
  • Explore adding a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Exchange subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets;
  • Appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies in reconciliation legislation, but only for the defined length of the Obamacare transition period; and
  • Explore use of the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2018.

Likewise, the Trump Administration can take several regulatory steps to enhance flexibility and provide certainty during the transition period:

  • Limit annual open enrollment to the shortest period feasible, and in no case longer than one month;
  • Restrict the use of special enrollment periods, by withdrawing all those added by the Obama Administration and not included in statute, and/or requiring pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods;
  • Provide that, for states using the federal Exchange, any portion of the 3.5 percent Exchange user fee not used to cover annual operating costs be refunded to enrollees, thus lowering their premiums;
  • Revise the medical loss ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers;
  • Immediately withdraw the December 2015 guidance regarding Section 1332 state innovation waivers, and provide maximum flexibility within the existing statutory requirements for states seeking to mitigate the harmful effects of Obamacare’s insurance mandates;
  • Withdraw the contraception mandate that raises premiums and hinders freedom of conscience;
  • Modify essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements to provide maximum flexibility within the statutory framework;
  • Expand upon Congress’ efforts allowing small businesses to reimburse their employees’ health insurance premiums without facing massive fines, by withdrawing the September 2013 IRS notice and extending flexibility to as many employers as possible; and
  • Drop the Obama Administration’s appeal of House v. Burwell once Congress provides a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal reconciliation bill.

Collectively, this menu of actions would help to unwind most of Obamacare’s harmful effects, provide for an orderly transition, and pave the way for Congress to consider and pass alternative legislation designed to lower health care costs. The promise of Obamacare repeal is within reach; it’s time for Congress and the new Administration to seize it.

 

 

[1] “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” Associated Press December 26, 2013, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/policy-notifications-current-status-state-204701399.html; Angie Drobnic Holan, “Lie of the Year: ‘If You Like Your Health Care Plan, You Can Keep It,’” Politifact December 12, 2013, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2013/dec/12/lie-year-if-you-like-your-health-care-plan-keep-it/.

[2] Drew Gonshorowski, “How Will You Fare in the Obamacare Exchanges?” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4068, October 16, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/10/enrollment-in-obamacare-exchanges-how-will-your-health-insurance-fare; Department of Health and Human Services, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in the 2017 Health Insurance Marketplace,” ASPE Research Brief, October 24, 2016, https://aspe.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/212721/2017MarketplaceLandscapeBrief.pdf.

[3] Cynthia Cox and Ashley Semanskee, “Preliminary Data on Insurer Exits and Entrants in 2017 Affordable Care Act Marketplaces,” Kaiser Family Foundation, August 28, 2016, http://kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/preliminary-data-on-insurer-exits-and-entrants-in-2017-affordable-care-act-marketplaces/.

[4] Section 206 of H.R. 3762 had the effect of preventing Medicaid plans from providing reimbursements to certain providers, including Planned Parenthood.

[5] Joe Antos and Jim Capretta, “The Problems with ‘Repeal and Delay,’” Health Affairs January 3, 2017, http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2017/01/03/the-problems-with-repeal-and-delay/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Winfree and Brian Blase, “How to Repeal Obamacare: A Roadmap for the GOP,” Politico November 11, 2016, http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2016/11/repeal-obamacare-roadmap-republicans-000230.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, baseline estimates for federal subsidies for health insurance, March 2016, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2016-03-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 3, p. 5; Edmund Haislmaier and Drew Gonshorowski, “2015 Health Insurance Enrollment: Net Increase of 4.8 Million, Trends Slowing,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4620, October 31, 2016, http://thf-reports.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/IB4620.pdf.

[10] Jonathan Ingram, Nic Horton, and Josh Archambault, “Welfare to Work: How States Can Unwind Obamacare Expansion and Restore the Working Class,” Forbes December 3, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2014/12/03/welfare-to-work-how-states-can-unwind-obamacare-expansion-and-restore-the-working-class/#455cad6923ec.

[11] Craig Garthwaite, Tal Gross, and Matthew Notowidigdo, “Public Health Insurance, Labor Supply, and Employment Lock,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 19220, July 2013, http://www.nber.org/papers/w19220.

[12] Christina Cassidy, “Medicaid Enrollment Surges, Stirs Worry about State Budgets,” Associated Press July 19, 2015, http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/c158e3b3ad50458b8d6f8f9228d02948/medicaid-enrollment-surges-stirs-worry-about-state-budgets.

[13] See for instance Section 4 of Winding Down Obamacare Act, S. 673 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Section 4(b) of Preserving Freedom and Choice in Health Care Act, S. 2016 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).

[14] King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. __ (2015).

[15] United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 14-1967, House v. Burwell, ruling by Judge Rosemary Collyer, May 12, 2016, https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2014cv1967-73.

[16] The contract between CMS and insurers on the federal Exchange notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw if they are not. However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause was poorly drafted by insurers’ counsel, and therefore has no applicability to House v. Burwell; insurers have no ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers. See https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.

[17] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies for Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.

[18] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters,” Federal Register December 22, 2016, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-12-22/pdf/2016-30433.pdf.

[19] Ibid., pp. 94159-60.

[20] 5 U.S.C. 802. For more information, see Maeve Carey, Alissa Dolan, and Christopher Davis, “The Congressional Review Act: Frequently Asked Questions,” Congressional Research Service Report R43992, November 17, 2016, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43992.pdf.

[21] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(B), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(B) of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.

[22] Section 2702(b)(1) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-1(b)(1), as modified by Section 1201(2)(A) of PPACA.

[23] 45 C.F.R. 155.410(e)(2).

[24] Paul Demko, “Gaming Obamacare,” Politico January 12, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/01/gaming-obamacare-insurance-health-care-217598.

[25] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, pp. 94127-31.

[26] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Fact Sheet: Special Enrollment Confirmation Process,” February 24, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-02-24.html.

[27] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Pre-Enrollment Verification for Special Enrollment Periods,” https://www.cms.gov/cciio/resources/fact-sheets-and-faqs/downloads/pre-enrollment-sep-fact-sheet-final.pdf.

[28] Ibid.

[29] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(C), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(C) of PPACA, requires the Secretary to establish special enrollment periods for individual coverage as specified by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) for group coverage, codified at 26 U.S.C. 9801.

[30] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, p. 94138.

[31] Ibid., p. 94138.

[32] HHS published an average 2017 premium increase for healthcare.gov states of 25 percent, and a median increase of 16 percent. See HHS, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in 2017,” Table 2, p. 6.

[33] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “First Half of 2016 Enrollment Snapshot,” October 19, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-10-19.html.

[34] Section 2718 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18, as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[35] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “The 80/20 Rule Increases Value for Consumers for Fifth Year in a Row,” November 18, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Forms-Reports-and-Other-Resources/Downloads/Medical-Loss-Ratio-Annual-Report-2016-11-18-FINAL.pdf.

[36] Section 2718(a)(3) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg18(a)(3), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[37] Section 2718(c) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18(c), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[38] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “Implementing Medical Loss Ratio Requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Federal Register December 1, 2010, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-01/pdf/2010-29596.pdf.

[39] 42 U.S.C. 18052(b)(1)(A), as codified by Section 1332(b)(1)(A) of PPACA.

[40] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, final rule regarding “Application, Review, and Reporting Process for Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register February 27, 2012, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-02-27/pdf/2012-4395.pdf.

[41] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, guidance regarding “Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register December 16, 2015, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-12-16/pdf/2015-31563.pdf.

[42] Ibid., p. 78134.

[43] Ibid., p. 78132.

[44] Ibid., p. 78132.

[45] Chris Jacobs, “What’s Blocking Consensus on Health Care?” Wall Street Journal July 17, 2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/07/17/whats-blocking-consensus-on-health-care/.

[46] Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-13, as revised by PPACA Section 1001(1).

[47] Health Resources and Services Administration, “Women’s Preventive Services Guidelines,” December 20, 2016, https://www.hrsa.gov/womensguidelines2016/index.html.

[48] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The HHS Mandate for Contraception/Sterilization Coverage: An Attack on Rights of Conscience,” January 20, 2012, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/upload/preventiveqanda2012-2.pdf.

[49] 42 U.S.C. 18022, as codified by Section 1302 of PPACA.

[50] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d), as codified by Section 1302(d) of PPACA.

[51] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Standards Related to Essential Health Benefits, Actuarial Value, and Accreditation,” Federal Register February 25, 2013, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-02-25/pdf/2013-04084.pdf, pp. 12860-61.

[52] Jon Gabel, et al., “More Than Half of Individual Health Plans Offer Coverage That Falls Short of What Can Be Sold through Exchanges as of 2014,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2012/05/22/hlthaff.2011.1082.abstract.

[53] HHS, final rule on “Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value.”

[54] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d)(3), as codified by Section 1302(d)(3) of PPACA.

[55] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding health insurance premiums, November 30, 2009, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/111th-congress-2009-2010/reports/11-30-premiums.pdf, pp. 9-10.

[56] Internal Revenue Service, Notice 2013-54, September 13, 2013, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-13-54.pdf.

[57] Section 1563(f) of PPACA added Section 9815 to the Internal Revenue Code, which incorporated most of the regulatory requirements of the law to group health plans.

[58] 26 U.S.C. 4980D(b)(1).

[59] Grace-Marie Turner, “Small Businesses Threatened with $36,500 IRS Fines for Helping Employees with Health Costs,” Forbes June 30, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/gracemarieturner/2015/06/30/small-businesses-threatened-with-36500-irs-fines-for-helping-employees-with-health-costs/#53750b3d4a0e.

[60] The Small Business Healthcare Relief Act, introduced by Reps. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), H.R. 2911 of the 114th Congress; a companion measure was introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) as S. 1697 of the 114th Congress.

[61] Section 18001 of 21st Century Cures Act, P.L. 114-255.

A Victory for Taxpayers — And the Rule of Law

Once again, President Obama’s vaunted pen and phone have run into trouble with the law. This time, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), acting in its function as comptroller general, concluded that the administration has implemented Obamacare’s reinsurance program in an illegal and impermissible manner. Rather than focusing first on repaying the Treasury, as the text of the statute requires, the administration has placed its first and highest priority on bailing out insurers.

In an opinion requested by numerous members of Congress and released this afternoon, the GAO explained:

We conclude that HHS [Health and Human Services] lacks authority to ignore the statute’s directive to deposit amounts from collections under the transitional reinsurance program in the Treasury and instead make deposits to the Treasury only if its collections reach the amounts for reinsurance payments specified in section 1341. This prioritization of collections for payment to issuers over payments to the Treasury is not authorized. 

As I have previously explained at NRO, the reinsurance funds collected from employers had two – distinct purposes: first, to repay Treasury for the $5 billion cost of a separate program in place from 2010 through 2013; and, second to subsidize insurers selling Obamacare plans to high-cost patients during the law’s first three years.

When collections from employers turned out to be less than expected, HHS prioritized the second objective to the exclusion of the first – an action that, according to the GAO, violates the plain text of the statute. As the opinion noted, “the fact that HHS’s collections ultimately fell short of the projected amounts does not alter the meaning of the statute.” The memo continued that, because agencies must “‘effectuate the statutory scheme as much as possible’ . . . HHS continues to have an obligation to carry out the statutory scheme using a method reflective of the specified amounts even though actual collections were lower than projected.” As a result, the GAO concluded that the Department has no authority to divert to insurers approximately $3 billion in reinsurance contributions that should be allocated to the Treasury.

The GAO legal team found HHS’s justification for its actions to date unpersuasive:

HHS’s position regarding prioritization of collections for reinsurance payments appears to be driven solely by the factual circumstances presented here, namely, lower than expected collections. However, a funding shortfall does not give an agency “a hinge for enlarging its discretion to decide which [priorities] to fund.” 

The law isn’t a Chinese menu, where federal bureaucrats can pick and choose which portions they wish to follow. They must follow all of the law, as closely as possible — even the portions they disagree with.

In reaching its conclusion, the GAO agreed with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and with other outside experts, each of whom said that HHS had violated the law in a way that was not subject to regulatory deference. And while the GAO’s reinsurance opinion is the most recent legal smackdown of the Obama administration’s craven efforts to bail out insurers, it is by no means the first: In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the administration violated the constitution by spending funds on cost-sharing subsidies that Congress never appropriated.

More and more insurers are announcing their departure from Obamacare’s exchanges — Blue Cross Blue Shield announced this month that it is pulling out of the Obamacare marketplace in Nebraska and in most of Tennessee. Given these implosions, the return of $3 billion in taxpayer funds to the Treasury represents a blow to HHS’s bailout strategy. It demonstrates the law’s fundamentally flawed design, whereby the administration can keep insurers offering coverage on exchanges only by flouting the law to give them billions of dollars in taxpayer funds they do not deserve.

Conservatives should applaud the members of Congress who requested this ruling, which helps to staunch the flow of crony-capitalist dollars to insurers. Much more work remains, however. Congress should also act to protect its power of the purse with respect to Obamacare’s risk corridors — ensuring that the administration does not fund through a backroom legal settlement the payments to insurers that Congress explicitly prohibited two years ago. When they return in November, members should step up their oversight of both the risk-corridor and reinsurance programs: They should find out why HHS acted in such an illegal manner in the first place and whether insurance-company lobbyists encouraged the administration to violate the statute’s plain text.

For now, however, conservatives should rightly celebrate the legal victory that GAO’s opinion represents. Obamacare represented a massive increase in government spending and a similarly large increase in government authority. Today’s opinion has clipped both — a victory for taxpayers and the rule of law.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Question and Answer: SCHIP Legislation

The House will soon be faced with a vote to override the President’s veto on H.R. 3963, the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2007, legislation which would reauthorize and expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), with several tax increases designed to partially offset the bill’s costs.

Does H.R. 3963 increase the scope of the SCHIP program?

Yes.  Under current law, states can cover families earning up to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) or $41,300 for a family of four in 2007 or those at 50% above Medicaid eligibility.  As of 2010, H.R. 3963 increases the eligibility limit to 300% of FPL or $61,950 for a family of four while continuing the current authority for states to define and disregard (i.e. ignore) income.  As a result, H.R. 3963 places no practical limit on SCHIP eligibility since states can always manipulate the definition of income to expand coverage.  In addition, Section 116(g) of the bill overturns CMS’s current policy of requiring states to ensure that 95% of the eligible children in their state below 250% of FPL are enrolled before expanding coverage to higher incomes.

Does H.R. 3963’s increased spending violate the spirit of PAYGO?

Yes.  H.R. 3963 provides $35.4 billion over five years and $71.5 billion over ten years in new mandatory spending.  This new spending is only partially offset by tax increases on cigarettes of 61 cents to $1 per pack, and a cigar tax up to $3 per cigar, supposedly (see below) generating $35.5 billion over five years and $71.7 billion over ten years.  However, this CBO score overlooks a major gimmick which the bill employs to lower its costs.  The bill dramatically lowers the SCHIP funding in the fifth year by 80%, from $13.75 billion in the first six months to $1.75 billion.  In all likelihood, such a reduction will never take effect, which would make this an effort to generate unrealistic savings in order to artificially comply with PAYGO rules.

Does H.R. 3963 raise taxes?

Yes.  H.R. 3963 increases the cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 per pack, and the cigar tax up to $3 per cigar.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill increases taxes on low-income individuals in order to pay for the expansion of SCHIP, which is designed to assist low-income families.  In addition, this revenue source is constantly declining as fewer and fewer individuals begin to smoke, since placing a tax on cigarettes will likely deter sales, leading some to question the efficacy of the offset.  According a study by the Heritage Foundation, “To produce the revenues that Congress needs to fund SCHIP expansion through such a tax would require 22.4 million new smokers by 2017.”

Will H.R. 3963 decrease private insurance participation in the market?

Yes.  Expanding SCHIP will generate a substantial shift away from the private health insurance market, by encouraging more and more children to obtain health care coverage from the federal government.  According to CBO, under H.R. 3963, two million children will shift from receiving private health insurance to government health insurance.  This means that they may get worse health care service and become increasingly dependent on the federal government.  In addition, as H.R. 3963 begins to reduce SCHIP funding in 2012, some note that states may shift these children who would be newly eligible for a government program into Medicaid.

Would H.R. 3963 bar illegal immigrants from receiving benefits?

No.  While H.R. 3963 states that “nothing in this Act allows Federal payment for individuals who are not legal residents,” the bill actually weakens existing law by removing the documentation requests under the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), specifically the burden that citizens and nationals provide documentation proving their citizenship in order to be covered under Medicaid and SCHIP.  Instead, the bill would require that a name and Social Security number be provided as documentation of legal status to acquire coverage and that those names and Social Security numbers be submitted to the Secretary to be checked for validity.    It is unclear what substantive changes were made to the original bill the President vetoed (HR 976) beyond the cosmetic with regard to citizenship certification.  Some conservatives may remain concerned that a Social Security number and name are not sufficient for proof of citizenship.  For instance, according to a recent letter from Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue, a Social Security number would not keep someone from fraudulently receiving coverage under Medicaid or SCHIP (if they claimed they were someone they were not).

Does H.R. 3963 contain earmarks?

Yes.  H.R. 3963 contains at least three authorizing earmarks.  First, the bill disregards “extraordinary employer pensions” as income.  According to CMS, only one state would fall into this category—Michigan, due to the presence of many auto manufacturers.  In addition, the bill sets the disproportionate share hospital (DSH) allotments for Tennessee at $30 million a year beginning in FY 2008, and sets the DSH allotment increases for Hawaii beginning in FY 2009 and thereafter as the allotments for low DSH states.

Would H.R. 3963 encourage additional SCHIP spending?

Yes.  H.R. 3963 shortens from three to two years the amount of time a state has to spend its annual SCHIP allotment.  Under current law, states are given three years to spend each year’s original allotment, and at the end of the three-year period, any unused funds are redistributed to states that have exhausted their allotment or created a “shortfall,” i.e. commitments beyond the funding available.  In addition, the bill establishes a process through which any unspent funds would be redistributed to any states with a shortfall.  Some conservatives may be concerned that this process provides incentives both for states to spend their allotment quickly and to extend their programs beyond their regular allotments into shortfall, so as to be relieved by the unspent funds of other states.

Do conservatives support the SCHIP program?

Most conservatives support enrollment and funding of the SCHIP program for the populations for whom the SCHIP program was created.  That is why in December the House passed, by a 411—3 vote, legislation reauthorizing and extending the SCHIP program through March 2009.  That legislation included an additional $800 million in funding for states to ensure that all currently eligible children will continue to have access to state-based SCHIP coverage.

Legislative Bulletin: H.R. 3963, Children’s Health Insurnace Program Reauthorization Act

Order of Business:  Today the House will consider the President’s second veto of SCHIP legislation, H.R. 3963.  This bill passed the House by a vote of 265-142 on October 25, 2007, and was vetoed by President Bush on December 12, 2007.  On December 12, 2007, the House by a 211-180 vote postponed consideration of the President’s veto until today.

An earlier version of SCHIP legislation, H.R. 976, was vetoed by President Bush on October 3, 2007.  This bill was originally passed in the House by a vote of 265-159 on September 25, 2007.  On October 18, 2007, the House sustained the President’s veto of H.R. 976 by a vote of 273–156 (needing 2/3 to override a veto).

On December 19, 2007, the House passed by a 411—3 margin S. 2499, which was signed into law by President Bush on December 29, 2007.  This legislation reauthorized the SCHIP program through March 2009, and included $800 million in additional funding to ensure that all states would have sufficient funds to cover existing populations through the 18 months of the authorization.

Summary:  H.R. 3963 reauthorizes and significantly expands the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), while increasing cigarette taxes to supposedly offset the bill’s costs.  The legislation follows closely the recently-vetoed version of SCHIP reauthorization.  Highlights of the revised legislation are as follows:

Cost:  H.R. 3963 provides $35.4 billion over five years and $71.5 billion over ten years in new mandatory spending—this spending is on top of the $25 billion over five years that would result from a straight extension of the program.

The new spending is partially offset by increasing taxes on tobacco products (see below).  However, this CBO score overlooks a major gimmick which the bill employs to lower its costs.  The bill dramatically lowers the SCHIP funding in the fifth year by 84%, from $13.75 billion in the first six months to $1.15 billion.  In all likelihood, such a reduction would not actually take effect, which would make this a gimmick to generate unrealistic savings in order to comply with PAYGO rules.  To that end, H.R. 976 is technically compliant with PAYGO.

Block Grant:  Under current law, a federal block grant is awarded to states, and from the total annual appropriation, every state is allotted a portion for the year according to a statutory formula.  The bill extends the SCHIP block grants from FY 2008-12.  In addition, the bill also creates a new Child Enrollment Contingency Fund capped at 20% of the total annual appropriation, for states that exhaust their allotment by expanding coverage, and Performance Bonus Payments comprised of a $3 million lump sum in FY 2008 plus unspent SCHIP funds in future years.

Expansion to Higher Incomes:  Under current law, states can cover families earning up to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) or $41,300 for a family of four in 2007 or those at 50% above Medicaid eligibility.  However, states have been able to “disregard” income with regard to eligibility for the program, meaning they can purposefully ignore various types of income in an effort to expand eligibility.  For instance, New Jersey covers up to 350% of FPL by disregarding any income from 200-350%, allowing them to cover beyond 200% with the enhanced federal matching funds that SCHIP provides.

H.R. 3963 increases the eligibility limit to 300% of FPL or $61,950 for a family of four but also continues the current authority for states to define and disregard income.  States which extend coverage beyond 300% of FPL would receive the lower Medicaid match rate.  The bill limits states from expanding their programs above 300% of FPL through an income disregard whereby they block “income that is not determined by type or expense or type of income.”  However, a state could get around this restriction in a host of ways by disregarding specific types of income, such as income paid for rent or transportation or food.  Practically speaking, H.R. 3963 still places no limit on SCHIP eligibility since states can still manipulate the definition of income to expand coverage, and CMS is limited in its ability to reject such determinations. [New Jersey would be grandfathered from this limitation until 2010, but they would then have to ensure that they are in the top ten of states with the highest coverage rate for low-income children.]

Furthermore, Section 116 overturns CMS’ current policy of requiring states to ensure that 95% of the eligible children in their state below 250% of FPL are enrolled before expanding coverage to higher incomes.  As a result, some conservatives may be concerned that this does not adequately ensure that SCHIP funding targets truly low-income children.

Unlike past legislation, the bill would not grandfather New York’s proposed plan (seeking to cover 400% of FPL or $82,600 for a family of four).  However, New York could merely use specific income disregards to effectively cover up to 400% of FPL.  Some conservatives may be concerned that a family with an income of $82,600 will still potentially be eligible for SCHIP funding after this bill is enacted.

Childless Adults:  The earlier bill phased adults off of the program within two years.  H.R. 3963 would remove childless adults from the program (all would be off by 2009), while allowing parents of eligible SCHIP kids to continue receiving healthcare under SCHIP.  According to CBO estimates, there will still be approximately 700,000 (roughly 10% of total SCHIP enrollees) adults (parents of eligible kids and pregnant women) enrolled in SCHIP by 2012.

H.R. 3963 states that no new waivers for non-pregnant childless adults will be granted to states, and any currently existing waivers will be extended through FY 2008 (terminating such waivers at the end of FY 2008).  H.R. 3963 states that any current state waiver for non-pregnant childless adults which expires before January 1, 2009 may be extended until December 31, 2008 to retain all currently covered non-pregnant childless adults on the program until the end of FY 2008.  The bill extends enhanced FMAP to apply to such waivers through December 31, 2008.

H.R. 3963 grants states the opportunity to apply for a Medicaid waiver for non-pregnant childless adults by September 30, 2008, for those whose SCHIP coverage will end December 31, 2008, and requires that the Secretary approve such waivers within 90 days or the application is automatically deemed approved.

Parents:  The bill provides a two year transition period and automatic extension at the state’s discretion through FY 2009 for the currently covered parents of SCHIP eligible/covered kids, and states that no new waivers be granted or renewed to states to cover the parents of SCHIP kids if such waivers do not currently exist.  Similar to what would be done with non-pregnant childless adults, H.R. 3963 states that any current state waiver for parents of SCHIP kids which expires before October 1, 2009 may be extended until September 30, 2009 to retain all currently covered parents on the program until the end of FY 2009.  The bill states that the enhanced FMAP shall apply to these expenditures under an existing waiver for parents of eligible SCHIP kids during FY 2008 and 2009.

H.R. 3963 requires that any state which provides coverage under a currently existing waiver for a parent of an SCHIP child may continue to provide such coverage through FY 2010, 2011, or 2012, but such coverage must be paid for by a block grant funded from the state allotment.  If the state makes the decision to continue the coverage of parents through 2012, the Secretary may set aside for the state for each fiscal year an amount equivalent to the federal share of 110% of the state’s projected expenditures under currently existing waivers.  The Secretary will then pay out such funds quarterly to the state.  States that enhanced FMAP only applies in fiscal year 2010 for states with “significant child outreach or that achieve child coverage benchmarks.”

In addition, H.R. 3963 retains the statement from H.R. 976 that states there shall be no increase in income eligibility level for covered parents (i.e. no expenditures for providing child health assistance or health benefits coverage to a parent of a “targeted low-income child” whose family income exceeds the income eligibility level applied under the applicable existing waiver).

Private Insurance Crowd-Out:  According to CBO, under H.R. 3963, 2 million children will still shift from receiving private health insurance to government health insurance.  This means that they may get worse health care service and become increasingly dependent on the federal government.  In addition, as H.R. 3963 begins to reduce SCHIP funding in 2012 (if such a reduction is actually intended, see above), some have noted that states may shift these children made newly eligible for a government program into Medicaid.  This phenomenon takes place despite a provision in H.R. 3963 to offer a premium assistance subsidy under SCHIP for employer-sponsored coverage.  A qualifying employer-sponsored plan would have to contribute at least 40 percent of the cost of any premium toward coverage.  The bill includes new language requiring the Secretary, in consultation with the states, to measure crowd-out and to develop best practices designed to limit it.  States would then be required to limit SCHIP crowd-out and incorporate those best practices.  However, many conservatives are likely to be concerned that this language is not enough of protection when CBO maintains that two million will lose their health insurance under this bill.

Legal Immigrants and Citizenship Certification:  H.R. 3963 states that “nothing in this Act allows Federal payment for individuals who are not legal residents.”  However, the bill weakens existing law by removing the documentation requests under the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), specifically the burden that citizens and nationals provide documentation proving their citizenship in order to be covered under Medicaid and SCHIP.  Instead, the bill would require that a name and Social Security number be provided as documentation of legal status to acquire coverage and that those names and Social Security numbers be submitted to the Secretary to be checked for validity.  If a state is notified that a name and Social Security number do not match, the state must contact the individual and request that within 90 days the individual present satisfactory documentation to prove legal status.  During this time, coverage for the individual continues.  If the individual does not provide documentation within 90 days, he is “disenrolled” from the program but maintains coverage for another 30 days (after the 90 days given to come up with proper documentation), giving the individual up to four months of coverage on a false identity.

It is unclear what substantive changes were made to the vetoed bill beyond the cosmetic, with regard to citizenship certification.  Some conservatives may be concerned that a Social Security number and name are not enough for a proof of citizenship and that more documents should be required to determine eligibility.  For instance, according to a recent letter from Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue, a Social Security number would not keep someone from fraudulently receiving coverage under Medicaid or SCHIP (if they claimed they were someone they were not).  Thus, this bill may allow illegal aliens the opportunity to enroll falsely in Medicaid or SCHIP and retain coverage for an undetermined amount of time before they are disenrolled for lack of proper identification.

Tax Increase:  H.R. 3963 increases the cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 per pack, and the cigar tax up to $3 per cigar, supposedly generating $35.5 billion over five years and $71.1 billion over ten years.  It is important to note that this is a substantial tax increase on low-income individuals in order to pay for an expansion of SCHIP to higher income levels, which it was not initially designed for.  In addition, this revenue source is constantly declining as fewer and fewer individuals smoke, and since placing a tax on cigarettes will likely deter sales, some have questioned the efficacy of the offset.  According to a study by the Heritage Foundation, “To produce the revenues that Congress needs to fund SCHIP expansion through such a tax would require 22.4 million new smokers by 2017.”  The bill also changes the timing for some corporate estimate tax payments.

Encourages Spending:  H.R. 3963 shortens from three to two years the amount of time a state has to spend its annual SCHIP allotment.  Under current law, states are given three years to spend each year’s original allotment, and at the end of the three-year period, any unused funds are redistributed to states that have exhausted their allotment or created a “shortfall,” i.e. making commitments beyond the funding it has available.  In addition, the bill establishes a process through which any unspent funds would be redistributed to any states with a shortfall.  Some conservatives may be concerned that this process provides incentives both for states to spend their allotment quickly and to extend their programs beyond their regular allotments into shortfall, so as to be relieved by the unspent funds of other states or the new Contingency Fund.

Other Provisions:

  • Disregarding of Pension Contributions as Income.  The bill disregards “extraordinary employer pensions” as income.  According to CMS, only one state would fall into this category—Michigan, due to the auto manufacturers.  Some conservatives may view this as an authorizing earmark.
  •  Name Change.  H.R. 3963 renames the program the “Children’s Health Insurance Program.”
     
  • Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Allotment for TN and HI.  The bill sets the DSH allotments for Tennessee at $30 million a year beginning in FY 2008, and sets the DSH allotment increases for Hawaii, beginning in FY 2009 and thereafter, as the allotments for low DSH states.  Some conservatives may view these provisions as authorizing earmarks.
  • Premium Assistance and Health Savings Accounts.  The bill streamlines procedures for states to provide premium assistance subsidies for children eligible to enroll in employer-sponsored coverage, rather than placing such children in a state-sponsored SCHIP program.  However, all high-deductible health insurance plans and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) would be ineligible for premium assistance, even if employers and/or states chose to make cash contributions to the HSA up to the full amount of the plan’s high deductible.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these restrictions would undermine the recent growth of HSAs and consumer-driven health care plans.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill would expand the SCHIP program by $35 billion over five years and loosen the program’s eligibility requirements.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?:  A detailed CBO cost estimate with such information is not available.