November Debate Outs Democrats’ Health Care Double Speak

Ten Democratic candidates took the stage in Atlanta for the latest presidential debate on Wednesday evening, and as with the past several debates, health care played an important role. The attack lines echoed debates past: Progressives like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pledged support for full-fledged socialized medicine, while so-called “moderates” like former Vice President Joe Biden expressed opposition to taking away Americans’ existing health plans, and raising taxes by tens of trillions of dollars to do so.

Several contradictions emerged. First, as in debates past, the controversy seemed focused more on tactics than on strategyhow quickly to take away Americans’ health insurance, rather than whether the United States should ultimately end up with a system of socialized medicine.

Warren’s Unrealistic Promises

Early in the debate, Warren tried to square the circle into which she has put herself, by first releasing a plan for full-on single payer, and then releasing a second “transition” plan last Friday. In the latter plan, Warren pledged she would pass not one but two separate major pieces of health care legislation through Congress—the first within her 100 days, the second within three years.

Warren claimed that she would provide access to “free” health care for 135 million Americans within her first 100 days in office. That number comes from the populations that she pledged in last week’s plan would have immediate access to a Medicare-type single-payer system without premiums or cost sharing: Those with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (currently $51,500 for a family of four), and all children under age 18.

The idea that Warren can introduce, let alone pass, such massive legislation within 100 days—by April 30, 2021—seems unrealistic at best. By way of comparison, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—the first committee to mark up the legislation that became Obamacare—did not even introduce its version of the bill until June 9, 2009, well after Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. Barack Obama did not sign Obamacare into law until March 23, 2010, 427 days after his inauguration.

Drafting and passing a bill providing “free” health care to only 135 million people (as opposed to more than 300 million in full-on single payer) would in and of itself represent one of the largest and costliest pieces of legislation—if not the largest and costliest piece of legislation—ever considered by Congress. It would also require massive tax increases, which given the gimmicks in Warren’s plan would likely fall on the middle class.

The idea that Congress could pass such large legislation in only 100 days seems unrealistic at best, and an affront to democracy at worst. Underpinning this timetable lies the idea that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it,” because Democrats fear the ramifications of allowing the American people to understand the effects of their agenda before enacting it. In reality, however, trying to pass legislation that fast would quickly become a legislative morass for Warren, much like the political morass (of her own making) that she currently faces on health care.

Does Biden Believe in Choice?

Biden also spoke out of both sides of his mouth on health care. He claimed that 160 million Americans with employer-sponsored coverage like their current insurance, and that he trusts the American people to decide whether or not to join a government-run plan.

However, Biden also claimed that his plan would bring down costs and premiums for the American people. Those reductions can only materialize if people end up enrolling in the government-run health plan, because it would use raw government power to pay doctors and hospitals less.

On the one hand, Biden claims he believes in choice. But on the other hand, his rhetoric belies his desire for a given outcome, one in which people “choose” the government-run plan. As with Pete Buttigieg’s claim that a government-run plan would provide a “glide path” to single payer, both Biden’s rhetoric and the details of his plan show that he wants to sabotage private insurance to drive people into the government-run plan.

Forcing everyone into socialized medicine, and dissembling to voters while doing so: That’s the agenda the American people saw on display in Atlanta Wednesday evening.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Elizabeth Warren “Swift Boated” Herself on Health Care

Every four years, political analysts and commentators compare current presidential candidates to events from campaigns past. She may not want to admit it, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s actions on health care the past several weeks, culminating in the release of her second health plan on Friday, echo the 2004 presidential campaign of her Massachusetts colleague, former Sen. John Kerry.

During his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Kerry played up his military service at every opportunity. Howard Dean’s strident opposition to the Iraq War, coupled with his infamous on-camera implosion after the Iowa caucuses, gave Kerry an opening that he parlayed into the Democratic nomination. At the party’s convention in Boston, Kerry famously started his acceptance speech with a military salute: “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.”

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that ran after the Democratic convention attempted to turn Kerry’s biggest strength—his military service—into a weakness. The ads sparked controversy, and no small amount of political attention, by raising questions about Kerry’s service in Vietnam, and his activities protesting the Vietnam War following his return.

Likewise, the past several weeks have seen Warren turn her biggest strength—her wonky, “I’ve got a plan for that” persona—into a weakness. On November 1, she released her first health-care plan, replete with multiple documents highlighting supposed savings under a single-payer health-care system, and her plan for raising revenue to pay for such a system without raising taxes on the middle class.

Warren’s first plan drew mockery from her fellow Democratic candidates and conservative commentators alike for its unrealistic gimmicks and assumptions. Most notably, Warren’s plan failed to concede what one of her own advisors implicitly admitted: That an $8.8 trillion “employer contribution” would ultimately come out of the pockets of the middle class. Meanwhile, her opponents continued to hammer Warren for wanting to strip away the existing insurance of millions of Americans, including union workers who negotiated their health coverage at the bargaining table.

Her initial plan failed so badly that exactly two weeks later, Warren felt the need to reboot. She released another health plan, this one highlighting a supposed “transition period,” to get ahead of criticism from her fellow Democrats in the upcoming presidential debate.

This plan pledged that, within her first 100 days in office, Warren would work to enact “a true Medicare for All option”—one that people could select if they chose, but would not require individuals to give up their existing coverage. Only later, “no later than my third year in office,” would Warren “fight to pass legislation that would complete the transition” to a full single-payer system.

The second plan seems like a deliberate dodge, an attempt for Warren to have her cake and eat it too. The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—which Warren has co-sponsored—contains a four-year transition plan in Title X of the underlying legislation. The single-payer bill introduced in the House by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) also includes a transition, which would take place over a two-year period. Warren’s claim that Congress should pass not one but two major bills to enact her health-care agenda sounds like an excuse for her to walk away from her commitment to single payer.

On that count, who can blame her? Evidence from the midterm elections shows that support for full-on socialized medicine cost the average Democrat in a competitive district nearly 5 percentage points of support. No wonder that even Barack Obama conceded on Friday that “the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system” and cautioned Democrats against proposing “crazy stuff,” in a not-so-subtle warning about proposals by Warren and Sanders.

But Warren now remains firmly mired in a mess of her own making. Her “I’ve got a plan for that” mantra meant she had to release a detailed health care proposal at a time political expediency might have suggested vagueness. Her Democratic rivals, to say nothing of President Trump’s re-election, can now pick apart those details over many months.

And to think those details won’t matter to the American people, or lead to additional controversy, belies past experience. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi admitted in 2010 that “We have to pass [Obamacare] so that you can find out what’s in it,” she conceded that the legislative details matter to millions of Americans—and that such public scrutiny put Democrats in political peril.

Hours before she released her first health-care platform, an article on the issue correctly claimed that “Warren did not have a plan for this.” Her initial lack of a plan, followed by her willingness to spell out in minute relief the details of her socialized medicine plan, could prove her undoing.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Warren Advisor Admits Her Health Plan Raises Middle Class Taxes

That didn’t last long. Five days after Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a health plan (chock full of gimmicks) that she claimed would not raise taxes on the middle class, one of the authors of that plan contradicted her claims.

In an interview with Axios published on Wednesday, but which took place before the plan’s release, Warren advisor and former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Donald Berwick said the following:

Q: Many people may not know their employers cover 70% or more of their entire premium — money that otherwise would go to their pay. Is this the main problem when talking about reforms?

DB: The basics are not that complicated. Every single dollar — every nickel spent on health care in this country — is coming from workers. There’s no other source. [Emphasis mine.]

Compare that phraseology to what Joe Biden’s campaign spokesperson said on Friday about Warren’s plan and its effects:

For months, Elizabeth Warren has refused to say if her health care plan would raise taxes on the middle class, and now we know why: Because it does….Senator Warren would place a new tax of nearly $9 trillion that will fall on American workers. [Emphasis mine.]

In response to the Biden campaign’s criticism, Warren said last Friday that her health plan’s projections “were authenticated by President Obama’s head of Medicare”—meaning Berwick. Unfortunately for Warren, Berwick, by virtue of his comments in his interview with Axios, also “authenticated” Biden’s attack that her required employer contribution will hit workers, and thus middle-class families.

Warren also tried to defend her plan on Friday by claiming that “the employer contribution is already part of” Obamacare. Obamacare does include an employer contribution requirement, but that requirement:

  • Is capped at no more than $3,000 per worker, far less than the average employer contribution for workers’ health coverage—$14,561 for family coverage as of 2019— which will form the initial basis of Warren’s required employer contribution;
  • Does not apply to employers at all if the firm offers “affordable” coverage—an option not available under Warren’s plan, which would make private insurance coverage “unlawful;” and
  • Will raise an estimated $74 billion in the coming decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office—less than 1 percent of the $8.8 trillion Warren claims her required employer contribution would raise.

While Obamacare and Warrencare both have employer contributions, the similarities pretty much end there. Calling the two equal would equate a log cabin to Buckingham Palace. Sure, they’re both houses, but differ greatly in size. Warren’s “contribution”—which Berwick, her advisor, admits will fall on middle-class workers—stands orders of magnitude greater than anything in Obamacare.

Public Accountability?

In the same Axios interview, Berwick highlighted what he termed a tradeoff “between public accountability and private accountability.” He continued: “By not having a publicly accountable system, we are paying an enormous price in lack of transparency.”

His comments echo prior justification of his infamous “rationing with our eyes open” quote in a 2009 interview. As he explained to The New York Times as he departed CMS in late 2011, “Someone, like your health insurance company, is going to limit what you can get….The government, unlike many private health insurance plans, is working in the daylight. That’s a strength.”

Except that Berwick, as CMS administrator, went to absurd lengths to hide from public scrutiny after his series of remarks. He would gladly meet with health-care lobbyists behind closed doors, but refused to answer questions from reporters, going so far as to duck behind curtains and request security escorts to avoid doing so.

Warren apparently has taken a lesson in opacity from Berwick’s time as CMS administrator. At first, she avoided releasing a specific health care proposal at all, only to follow up by issuing a “plan” containing so many absurd assumptions as to render it irrelevant as a serious blueprint for legislating.

Unfortunately for her, however, Berwick committed the unforgivable sin of speaking an inconvenient truth about the effects of her proposal. Eight years after leaving office as CMS administrator, Berwick, however belated and however unwittingly, delivered some much-needed public accountability for Warren’s health plan.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Meet the Radical Technocrat Helping Democrats Sell Single-Payer

If anyone had doubts about the radical nature of Democrats’ health care agenda, they needn’t look further than the second name on the witness list for this Wednesday’s House Ways and Means Committee hearing on single-payer health care: Donald Berwick of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. In summer 2010, right after Obamacare’s passage, President Obama gave Berwick a controversial recess appointment to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Democrats refused to consider Berwick’s nomination despite controlling 59 votes in the Senate at the time, and he had to resign as CMS administrator at the end of his recess appointment in late 2011.

Berwick’s History of Radical Writings

Even a cursory review of Berwick’s writings explains why Obama’s only option was to push him through with a recess appointment, and why Democrats refused to give Berwick so much as a nomination hearing. As someone who read just about everything he wrote until his nomination—thousands of pages of journal articles, books, and speeches—I know the radical nature of Berwick’s thinking all too well. He believes passionately in a society ruled by a technocratic elite, thinking that a core group of government planners can run the country’s health care system better than individual doctors and patients.

Here is what this doctor believes in, in his own words:

  • Socialized Medicine: “Cynics beware: I am romantic about the National Health Service; I love it. All I need to do to rediscover the romance is to look at health care in my own country.”
  • Control by Elites: “I cannot believe that the individual health care consumer can enforce through choice the proper configurations of a system as massive and complex as health care. That is for leaders to do.”
  • Wealth Redistribution: “Any health care funding plan that is just, equitable, civilized, and humane must—must—redistribute wealth from the richer among us to the poorer and less fortunate.”
  • Shutting Medical Facilities: “Reduce the total supply of high-technology medical and surgical care and consolidate high-technology services into regional and community-wide centers … Most metropolitan areas in the United States should reduce the number of centers engaging in cardiac surgery, high-risk obstetrics, neonatal intensive care, organ transplantation, tertiary cancer care, high-level trauma care, and high-technology imaging.”
  • End of Life Care: “Most people who have serious pain do not need advanced methods; they just need the morphine and counseling that have been available for centuries.”
  • Cost-Effectiveness Rationing of Care: “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care—the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”
  • Doctors Putting “The System” over their Patients: “Doctors and other clinicians should be advocates for patients or the populations they service but should refrain from manipulating the system to obtain benefits for them to the substantial disadvantage of others.”
  • Standardized “Cookbook Medicine”: “I would place a commitment to excellence—standardization to the best-known method—above clinician autonomy as a rule for care.”

For those who want a fuller picture of Berwick’s views, in 2010-11 I compiled a nearly 30-page dossier featuring excerpts of his beliefs, based on my comprehensive review of his prior writings and speeches. That document is now available online here, and below.

Where’s the Political Accountability?

Some of Berwick’s greatest admiration is saved for Britain’s National Health Service on the grounds that it was ultimately politically accountable to patients. For instance, Berwick said his “rationing with our eyes open” quote was “distorted,” claiming that

Someone, like your health insurance company, is going to limit what you can get. That’s the way it’s set up. The government, unlike many private health insurance plans, is working in the daylight. That’s a strength.

When running for governor of Massachusetts in 2013, Berwick claimed he “regrets listening to White House orders to avoid reaching out to congressional Republicans.” But that doesn’t absolve the fact that Berwick went to great lengths to avoid the political accountability he previously claimed to embrace.

It also doesn’t answer the significant questions about why Obama waited until after Obamacare’s enactment to nominate Berwick—deliberately keeping the public in the dark about the radical nature of the person he wanted to administer vast swathes of the law.

Thankfully, however, Wednesday’s hearing provides a case of “better late than never.” Republicans will finally get a chance to ask Berwick about the extreme views expressed in his writings. They will also be able to raise questions about why Democrats decided to give him an official platform to talk about single payer (and who knows what else).

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Hospital Monopolies Are What’s Wrong with American Health Care

Call it a sign of the times. If Rich Uncle Pennybags (a.k.a. “Mr. Monopoly”) appeared today, he would have little interest in holding properties like the Short Line Railroad. In the 21st century, acquiring railroads, or even utilities, is so Baltic Avenue. The real money—and the real monopolies—lie in health care, specifically in hospitals.

Despite the constant focus on prescription drug prices, pharmaceuticals represent a comparatively small slice of the American health care pie. In 2016, national spending on prescription drugs totaled $328.6 billion. That’s a large sum on its own, but only 9.8 percent of total health care spending. By contrast, spending on hospital care totaled nearly $1.1 trillion, or more than three times spending on prescriptions.

Hospitals’ Monopolistic Tactics

The Journal profiled several under-the-radar tactics that some large hospitals use to deter competition and pad their bottom lines. For instance, some contracts “prevent patients from seeing a hospital’s prices by allowing a hospital operator to block the information from online shopping tools that insurers offer.”

Hospitals use these tactics to oppose transparency, because they fear, correctly, that if patients know what they will pay for a service before they receive it, they may take their business elsewhere. It’s an arrogant and high-handed attitude straight out of Marxism.

Also in hospitals’ toolkits: So-called “must-carry” clauses, which require insurers to keep their hospitals in-network, regardless of the high prices they charge, or poor quality outcomes they achieve. The Journal reported that one of the nation’s largest retailers wanted to kick out the lowest-quality providers, but had no ability to do so.

Officials at Walmart a few years ago asked the insurers that administered its coverage…if the nation’s largest private employer could remove from its health-care networks the 5% of providers with the worst quality performance. The insurers told the giant retailer their contracts with certain health-care providers didn’t allow them to filter out specific doctors or hospitals, even based solely on quality measures.

Surprise! Obamacare Made It Worse

Many of these trends preceded President Obama’s health care law, of course. But it doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to see how hospital mergers accelerated after 2010, the year of Obamacare’s passage:

Hospitals responded to the law by buying up other hospitals, increasing market share in an attempt to gain more negotiating “clout” against health insurers. That leverage allows them to demand clauses such as those preventing price transparency, or preventing insurers from developing smaller networks that only include efficient or better-quality providers.

Here again, industry consolidation begets higher prices. In many cases, hospitals can charge more for services provided by an “outpatient facility” as opposed to one provided by a “doctor’s office.” In some circumstances, the patient will receive the same service, provided by the same doctor, in the same office, but will end up getting charged a higher price—merely because, by buying the physician practice, the hospital can reclassify the office and procedure as taking place in an “outpatient facility.”

Remember: Hospitals Endorsed Obamacare

In 2010, the American Hospital Association, along with other hospital associations, endorsed Obamacare. At the time the hospital lobbies claimed that the measure would increase the number of Americans with health insurance coverage. For some reason, they neglected to mention how the law would also encourage the consolidation that presents ever-upward pressure on insurance premiums.

But remember too that Obama repeatedly promised his health-care law would lower premiums by $2,500 for the average family. Unfortunately for Americans, however, Obamacare’s crony capitalism—allowing hospitals to grow their operations, and thus their bottom line, in exchange for political endorsements—continues to contribute to higher premiums, putting Obama’s promise further and further away from reality.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C.’s Latest Health “Reform:” Seizing People’s Property

Just when you think the move for government control of health care couldn’t get any worse, somehow it manages to. Last Wednesday, the District of Columbia City Council approved a requirement for all DC residents to purchase health insurance. The mandate would take effect in January, right when the federal mandate penalty drops to $0, as per last year’s tax law.

The D.C. mandate contains three elements that make it just as bad as, if not worse than, the federal mandate it is intended to replace.

A (Deliberately?) Opaque Process

A cynic might believe that the D.C. Council acted in such a low-key manner by design. The council did not approve the mandate as a stand-alone bill, but wrapped it into a 297-page Budget Support Act. That bill contains such unrelated provisions as an amendment regarding the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, technical corrections to a supermarket tax incentive program, and amendments regarding civic associations using public schools.

Likewise, a press release by the D.C. Council summarizing Wednesday’s meeting contained not a word about imposing the individual mandate, nor did the council website show any stand-alone votes on the mandate itself. This lack of disclosure pushed me to contact my council member, Charles Allen, to find out what had happened at the council meeting Wednesday.

Upon hearing that the mandate as passed of a much larger package, I asked one of Allen’s staffers whether this provision had been “snuck in at the last minute.” The staffer said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had proposed the mandate as part of her budget submission to the council back in March. He then rather sheepishly added that, while people had testified on behalf of other portions of the Budget Support Act, no one had spoken about the mandate specifically.

For a district that decries “Taxation Without Representation,” this Nancy Pelosi-esque behavior—where we literally had to pass the bill to find out what was in it—seems to embody the very congressional tactics that DC leaders love to hate.

Harsher Penalties for Violators

During the 2009-10 debate on Obamacare, the threat of penalties for violating the individual mandate became a source of intense controversy. During the Senate Finance Committee’s markup, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) received a handwritten note from Thomas Barthold, head of the Joint Committee on Taxation, stating that, under federal law, non-payment of the mandate tax could result in imprisonment. Democrats buckled under this political pressure, removing from the Internal Revenue Service the power to imprison violators, or impose liens on personal property, for non-payment of the mandate tax.

By contrast, the district’s mandate—which comprises pages 168-182 of the Budget Support Act—includes this language at the bottom of page 180: “A taxpayer who fails to pay the District of Columbia shared responsibility payment imposed…shall be subject to all collection, enforcement, and administrative provisions applicable to unpaid taxes or fees, as provided in Chapter 18, Chapter 41, Chapter 42, Chapter 43, and Chapter 44 of this title [emphasis mine].”

Unlike the federal Internal Revenue Code, it does not appear at first glance that the district’s tax law allows for imprisoning individuals for non-payment of taxes (as opposed to deliberate tax evasion or fraud). However, Chapter 44 includes the following language:

If a person determined to be liable to the District of Columbia for a tax neglects or refuses to pay the tax within 10 days after notice and demand, the Mayor may collect the tax, with interest and penalties thereon (and an amount sufficient to cover the expenses of the levy), by levy upon all property (including rights to property) of the person or on which there is a lien provided in this chapter for the payment of the tax.

No wonder the D.C. Council didn’t want to hold an up-or-down vote on just this provision.

Hypocrisy Much?

Another relevant fact to the district’s mandate: The head of the District’s health insurance exchange—which recommended creating a DC mandate following the removal of the federal tax penalty—doesn’t buy exchange coverage herself. As I previously noted, many exchange heads (and Obamacare supporters) refuse to buy the coverage they promote, including the head of the district’s exchange, Mila Kofman.

When I discovered in late 2016 that I could not retain that plan in 2017, due in part to regulations imposed by the district’s exchange, I attended a meeting of the exchange authority. I asked Kofman whether she, and other exchange employees, purchased exchange coverage. She claimed that she and her colleagues could not purchase exchange policies, because they would lose their employer subsidy in the process.

I don’t know whether Bowser and the DC Council behave similarly to Kofman, but I can guess. On Thursday afternoon, I e-mailed Bowser’s office asking about the DC insurance mandate, and whether Bowser received a taxpayer subsidy for her insurance coverage. (The district’s mayor receives a salary of $200,000 annually.) I also asked what Bowser would “say to District residents like me—who make far less in salary than she does, yet do not receive [taxpayer-]subsidized benefits—being forced to buy coverage under penalty not just of taxation, but of property seizures through DC’s tax enforcement mechanisms?”

Wouldn’t you know it: I have yet to receive a response.

Here Are Some Policy Solutions

Thankfully, several of the policy and process problems outlined above contain within them readily achievable solutions:

  • The D.C. Council should pass legislation requiring the mayor, council, exchange CEO, and exchange board members to buy coverage through the exchange—without using separate taxpayer-funded benefits available to other district employees.
  • If the council will not act, the Trump administration could promulgate regulations requiring the CEOs and board members of all state-run exchanges (including the district’s) to buy the coverage they promote and oversee.
  • Congress could also exercise its constitutional prerogatives and strike down the district’s individual mandate, ensuring that no individuals will have their property seized by an overzealous government if they cannot afford to buy “bureaucrat-approved” health insurance.

Better yet: The District of Columbia Council could decide to stop micromanaging its residents’ health care by surreptitiously passing onerous mandates in legislation that few district residents know about.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Does the Heritage Health Plan Include Taxpayer Funding of Abortion?

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

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

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

What Cost-Sharing Reductions Do

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

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

About the Hyde Amendment and Byrd Rule

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Can’t Fund CSRs

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

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

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

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

Not Ready for Prime Time

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Michael Cohen and “The Swamp”

Recent revelations surrounding the business clients of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, demonstrate the seedy underbelly of the lobbying business in Washington. At least one company that hired Cohen admitted that it got suckered by someone who couldn’t deliver what he promised. Many companies consider these types of expenditures the cost of doing business.

Last Tuesday, attorney Michael Avenatti released a report claiming that Cohen’s firm, Essential Consultants, received millions of dollars in payments from various companies, including one linked to a Russian oligarch. Avenatti, a Trump critic, represents onscreen prostitute Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit seeking to nullify a non-disclosure agreement Daniels and Cohen reached regarding the former’s alleged affair with Trump.

While Avenatti’s original report claimed Novartis paid Cohen just under $400,000, the company later confirmed payments totaling three times that amount, or $1.2 million. In an interview, an unnamed Novartis employee gave commentary into what amounts to a corporate comedy of errors:

He [Cohen] reached out to us…With a new Administration coming in, basically, all the traditional contacts disappeared and they were all new players. We were trying to find an inroad into the Administration. Cohen promised access to not just Trump, but also the circle around him. It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist.

To paraphrase the British phrase used when a new sovereign assumes the throne: “The (Old) Swamp is dead! Long live The (New) Swamp!”

Unfortunately for Novartis, however, the firm locked itself in to a one-year agreement at a $100,000 monthly retainer—ridiculously high by most Washington lobbying standards—only to discover that Cohen could not deliver. According to the Novartis employee, it took but one meeting for the bloom to come off of the rose: “At first it all sounded impressive, but toward the end of the meeting, everyone realized this was probably a slippery slope to engage him. So they decided not to really engage Cohen for any activities after that.”

AT&T and Novartis admitted on Wednesday that the office of special counsel Robert Mueller contacted both about their relationships with Cohen. In analyzing their behavior, assume that both companies acted legally—that their payments to Cohen were solely for consulting services, and not as part of some quid pro quo scheme directly tied to an official act, whether by Cohen, Trump, or anyone else.

On one hand, the companies exercised exceedingly poor judgment. Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan (who was not running the company when Novartis signed its 2017 agreement with Cohen) admitted on Thursday that the company “made a mistake in entering into this engagement,” signing away more than a million dollars in shareholder money to someone without undertaking any due diligence as to whether he could deliver what he had promised.

Novartis also vastly overpaid Cohen, even if it had engaged him for more activities than a single meeting. As I noted on Twitter, I could have cautioned them about the dim chances for Obamacare repeal for half the $1.2 million they paid Cohen. (If they had asked nicely, I might have done so for even one-quarter that sum.) Very few if any Washington lobbying firms can command a six-figure monthly retainer from one client, yet Novartis paid that much to a single individual.

As Politico noted, Trump’s “2016 victory rattled corporations enough that clients were eager to pay top dollar to anyone who could help them understand the Administration in its first months.” Because no one thought Trump could win—and therefore spent little time reaching out to him or his campaign in the summer and fall of 2016— after the election corporations felt the need to overcompensate, throwing money at anyone with a connection to Trump, in the hopes of ingratiating themselves with the new administration. I saw some of this myself in late 2016 and early 2017, when companies and financial firms came out of the woodwork asking me to predict what the new Congress and administration would do on health care. (Trust me: My offers didn’t come anywhere close to $1.2 million.)

Firms often spend sizable sums on lobbying. Novartis has “nearly a dozen lobbying firms on retainer,” for which it paid $8.6 million last year. In some cases, companies or industries have so many lobbying firms on retainer that the ineffective ones often attempt to take credit for the “wins” achieved by the effective ones. However, given how federal policy initiatives can affect both a company’s revenue and its stock price—witness the market volatility surrounding President Trump’s proposals on drug pricing—companies have little choice but to play the K Street game.

It seems ridiculous to pay $1.2 million to an individual for a single meeting, and it is. But only a smaller role for the federal government—in taxing, spending, and regulations—would bring an end to the types of influence-peddling stories like those surrounding Cohen this week. Unfortunately, it’s the price of doing business for many companies—and a symptom of a government run amok.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

CBO Tries But Fails to Defend Its Illegal Budget Gimmick

In a blog post released last Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) attempted to defend its actions regarding what I have characterized as an illegal budget gimmick designed to facilitate passage of an Obamacare bailout. When fully parsed, the response does not answer any of the key questions, likely because CBO has no justifiable answers to them.

The issue surrounds the budgetary treatment of cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), which President Trump cancelled last fall. While initially CBO said it would not change its budgetary treatment of CSRs, last month the agency changed course, saying it would instead assume that CSRs are “being funded through higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies rather than through a direct appropriation.”

That claim fails on multiple fronts. First, it fails to address the states that did not assume that CSR payments get met through “higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies.” As I noted in a March post, while most states allowed insurers to raise premiums for 2018 to take into account the loss of CSR payments, a few states—including Vermont, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, and a few other carriers in other states—did not. In those cases, the CSR payments cannot be accounted for through indirect premium subsidies, because premiums do not reflect CSR payments.

In its newest post, CBO admits that “most”—not all, but only “most”—insurers have covered the higher costs associated with lowering cost-sharing “by increasing premiums for silver plans.” But by using that phraseology, CBO cannot assume CSRs are being “fully funded” through higher premium subsidies, because not all insurers have covered their CSR costs through higher premiums. Therefore, even by CBO’s own logic, this new budgetary treatment violates the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statutory requirements.

Second, even assuming that (eventually) all states migrate to the same strategy, and do allow for insurers to recover CSR payments through premium subsidies, CBO’s rationale does not comply with the actual text of the law. The law itself—2 U.S.C. 907—requires CBO to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required by those laws” (emphasis mine).

I reached out to CBO to ask about their reasoning in the blog post—how the organization can reconcile its admission that not all, but only “most,” insurers raised premiums to account for the lack of CSR funding with CBO’s claim that the CSRs are “fully funded” in the new baseline. A spokesman declined to comment, stating that more information about this issue would be included in a forthcoming publication. However, CBO did not explain why it published a blog post on the issue “provid[ing] additional information” when it now admits that post did not include all relevant information.

In addition, CBO also has not addressed the question of why Director Keith Hall reneged on his January 30 testimony before the House Budget Committee. At that January hearing, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Dave Brat (R-VA) asked Hall about the budgetary treatment of CSRs. In both cases, the director said he would not make any changes “until we get other direction from the Budget Committees.”

That’s not what happened. CBO now claims that the change “was made by CBO after consultation with the House and Senate Budget Committees” (emphasis mine). No one directed CBO to make this change—or so the agency claims. But curiously enough, as I previously noted, Hall declined to answer a direct question from Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) at an April 12 hearing: “Why did you do that [i.e., change the baseline]?…You would have had to have gotten instruction to” make the change.

Moreover, Brat specifically asked how the agency would treat CSRs—as if they were being paid directly, or indirectly. Hall repeated the same response he gave Schakowsky, that CBO would not change its treatment “unless we get direction to do something different”—an answer which, given the agency’s later actions, could constitute a materially misleading statement to Congress.

Reasonable as it may seem from outward appearances, CBO’s excuses do not stand up to any serious scrutiny. The agency should finally come clean and admit that its recent actions do not comport with the law—as well as who put CBO up to making this change in the first place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.