How AARP Made BILLIONS Denying Care to People with Pre-Existing Conditions

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted to maintain access to short-term health coverage. Senate Democrats offered a resolution disapproving of the Trump administration’s new rules regarding the more affordable plans, but the resolution did not advance on a 50-50 tie vote.

Because short-term plans need not comply with Obamacare’s restrictions on covering prior health ailments, Senate Democrats used the resolution to claim they will protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. But what if I told you that, in the years since Obamacare passed, one organization has made more than $4.5 billion in profits, largely from denying care to vulnerable individuals with pre-existing conditions?

You might feel surprised. After all, didn’t Obamacare supposedly prohibit “discrimination” against individuals with pre-existing conditions? But what if I told you that the organization raking in all those profits was none other than AARP, the organization that claims to represent seniors? Then the profits might make more sense.

Obamacare and Pre-Existing Conditions

Even though an article on AARP’s own website states that, as of 2014, “insurance companies [are] required to sell policies to anyone, regardless of their pre-existing medical conditions,” that claim isn’t quite accurate. Obamacare exempted Medigap supplemental insurance plans from all of its “reforms,” including the prohibition on “discriminating” against individuals with pre-existing conditions.

As a 2011 Washington Post article noted, individuals can apply for Medigap plans when they first turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare. “However, when Congress created this protection in 1992…it exempted disabled Medicare beneficiaries under age 65, a group that now totals 8 million people.”

In other words, the most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries—those enrolled because they receive Social Security disability benefits—often cannot obtain Medigap coverage due to pre-existing conditions. And because traditional Medicare does not provide a catastrophic cap on patient cost-sharing (Medigap plans often provide that coverage instead), disabled beneficiaries who want to remain in traditional Medicare (as opposed to Medicare Advantage plans offered by private insurers) may face unlimited out-of-pocket spending.

The Post article conceded that Obamacare “does not address this issue. A provision to provide disabled Medicare beneficiaries better coverage was dropped from the legislation during congressional negotiations because it would have increased Medicare costs, according to a House Democratic congressional aide.” That’s where AARP comes in.

Why Didn’t AARP ‘Show Congress the Money’?

In July 2009, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed a House Democrat bill that, among other things, would have made Medigap coverage available to all individuals, regardless of pre-existing conditions. CBO stated that the Medigap provisions in Section 1234 of the bill would have raised federal spending by $4.1 billion over ten years—a sizable sum, but comparatively small in the context of Obamacare itself.

Contrary to the anonymous staffer’s claims to the Washington Post, if House Democrats truly wanted to end pre-existing condition “discrimination” against individuals with disabilities enrolling in Medicare, they had an easy source of revenue: AARP. As Democrats were drafting Obamacare, in November 2009, the organization wrote in a letter to Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) that AARP “would gladly forego every dime of revenue to fix the health care system.”

Since that time, AARP has made quite a few dimes—about 45,090,743,700, in fact—from keeping the health care system just the way it was.

Billions in Profits, But Few Principles

A review of AARP’s financial statements shows that since 2010, AARP has made more than $4.5 billion in income from selling health insurance plans, and generating investment income from plan premiums:

AARP makes its money several ways. As the chart demonstrates, a large and growing percentage of its “royalty” money comes from United Healthcare. United Healthcare sells AARP-branded Medigap plans, Part D prescription drug coverage, and Medicare Advantage insurance.

However, as a 2011 House Ways and Means Committee report made clear, in AARP receiving royalty revenues, not all forms of coverage are created equal. While the organization receives a flat fee for the branding of its Part D and Medicare Advantage plans, it receives a percentage (4.95 percent) of revenue with respect to its Medigap coverage. This dynamic means Medigap royalties make up the majority of AARP’s revenue from United Healthcare, giving AARP a decided bias in favor of the status quo, even if it means continuing to discriminate against individuals with disabilities.

AARP’s Deafening Silence

So if in the seven years since Obamacare’s enactment, AARP has earned more than enough in profits and investment income to offset the cost of changes to Medigap, and AARP publicly told Congress that it would gladly forego all its profits to achieve health care reform, why didn’t AARP make this change happen back in 2010?

AARP occasionally claims it supports reforming Medigap, normally in response to negative publicity about its shady business practices. But by and large, it avoids the subject entirely, preferring to cash in on its Medigap business by flying under the radar.

As I previously noted, in the fourth quarter of 2016 AARP lobbied on 77 separate bills, including such obscure topics as lifetime National Park Service passes, but took absolutely no action to support Medigap reform.

So the next time a liberal Democrat wants to get on his or her high horse and attack conservative policy on pre-existing conditions, ask why they support AARP making $4.5 billion in profits by denying care for individuals with disabilities. Then maybe—just maybe—one day someone could get AARP to put its money where its mouth is.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“Stability” Bill Likely Will Not Lower Premiums in 2019

In the debate over an Obamacare “stability” bill, advocates of such a measure contend that it will lower premiums, throwing around studies and numbers to make their case. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released a handout earlier this week claiming that Oliver Wyman forecast a 40 percent reduction in premiums from a “stability” package, and that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) gave preliminary estimates of a 10 percent premium reduction in 2019, and a 20 percent reduction in 2020 and 2021.

However, all these numbers avoid — wittingly or otherwise — answering the critical question: Premium reduction compared to what? Barack Obama ran into this problem when trying to sell Obamacare. In 2008, he said repeatedly that his health care plan would “cut” people’s premiums — and then, after signing the bill into law, tried to argue that when he had said “cut,” he really meant “slow the rate of increase.”

But would a “stability” bill actually prevent those premium increases for 2019, particularly for unsubsidized enrollees? (Federal subsidies insulate individuals with incomes under 400 percent of the poverty level — $100,400 for a family of four — from much of the effects of premium hikes.) Would premiums remain flat, or even decline, next year compared to 2018 rates? Based on the studies released to date, most indications suggest otherwise — which should give conservatives pause before embracing a measure that would further entrench Obamacare, making repeal that much less likely.

Factors Affecting Premiums For 2019

Over and above annual increases in medical costs, multiple unique factors will impact premiums for the coming year:

Cost-Sharing Reductions: President Trump’s October decision to stop Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurers had a large theoretical impact — but in most states, little practical effect on unsubsidized enrollees. Estimates released prior to the President’s decision suggested that insurers would need to raise premiums for 2018 by roughly 20 percent to account for loss of the CSR payments.

An analysis of states’ decisions regarding CSRs shows that only six states applied the CSR charges to all health insurance plan rates—thereby forcing unsubsidized enrollees to pay higher premiums. Because comparatively few unsubsidized enrollees paid higher premiums due to the CSR decision, the inverse scenario applies: Few unsubsidized enrollees will receive any premium reduction from appropriating CSRs.

Individual Mandate Repeal: As I noted last fall, eliminating Obamacare’s individual mandate tax, while retaining its costly regulations, will put upward pressure on premiums — the only question is how much. Without getting taxed for not purchasing Obamacare-compliant insurance, some healthy individuals will drop coverage, raising average premiums for the remainder.

In its most recent estimate last November, the CBO stated that eliminating the tax would raise exchange premiums “by about 10 percent in most years of the decade.” The administration likewise believes that eliminating the mandate penalty will raise premiums by a similar amount. Its proposed rule on short-term health plans estimated an average monthly premium of $649 with the individual mandate penalty, and $714 without—an increase of $65 per month, or exactly 10 percent.

The administration’s proposed rule on short-term health insurance admitted that exchange premiums would rise as a result of healthy individuals choosing short-term coverage over exchange plans, but by very modest amounts. In the administration’s estimates, premiums would rise by only $2-4 per month for exchange coverage — far less than the $65 monthly estimated premium increase due to elimination of the mandate tax, as noted above. However, the administration’s estimates only assume that 100,000-200,000 individuals enroll in short-term coverage.

By contrast, the liberal Urban Institute estimated much higher take-up of short-term plans by healthy individuals, and therefore much greater premium increases for the sicker individuals who would remain in Obamacare-compliant coverage. According to Urban, 4.3 million individuals would enroll in short-term coverage — more than 20 times the administration’s highest estimate. Because of these healthy individuals migrating to short-term coverage, the Urban researchers assume much larger premium increases for Obamacare-compliant plans, averaging 18.3 percent in the 45 states (plus the District of Columbia) that currently allow the sale of short-term coverage.

The proposed regulatory action on short-term plans — which the administration hopes insurers will start selling by this fall — could have minimal impact on premiums, or lead to sizable premium increases. In general, however, the more that short-term plans succeed in attracting many (healthy) customers, the higher premiums will climb for the (sicker) individuals who maintain exchange coverage.

Premium Tax Suspension: In the January continuing resolution, Congress suspended Obamacare’s health insurance tax — currently in effect for 2018 — for 2019. An August 2017 study, paid for by health insurer UnitedHealthGroup and conducted by Oliver Wyman, found that the insurer tax would raise premiums by about 2.7 percent. Removing the tax next year would lower 2019 premiums by roughly the same amount.

Premium Estimates — Comparing 2018 And 2019

Given the above factors, will premiums go down in 2019 compared to their current 2018 levels? Based on the analyses conducted to date, most indicators suggest they will not.

Oliver Wyman: As I noted on Wednesday, the 40 percent headline figure in the Oliver Wyman study relies on an assumption that Oliver Wyman itself finds dubious. That premium reduction assumes that states apply for and receive a waiver to create their own reinsurance pool on top of the federal reinsurance funds. However, Oliver Wyman concedes that “states that have not already begun working on a waiver will be challenged to get [one] filed and approved under the current regulatory regime in time to impact 2019 premiums.”

The report continues: “In those states that are not able to obtain [a waiver]…we estimate that premium [sic] would decline by more than 20 percent across all metal levels. Those estimates include an average 10 percent reduction due to the funding of CSRs, with the remaining reduction coming from the reinsurance program.”

However, most individuals will NOT receive a 10 percent premium reduction in 2019 if Congress funds CSRs — because, as noted above, most unsubsidized individuals are not paying higher premiums in 2018 due to the non-funding of CSRs. Moreover, while Oliver Wyman said its modeling “reflects elimination of the mandate penalty,” it does not consider the impact of regulatory action on short-term plans or AHPs.

Therefore, the study conducted by Oliver Wyman — which frequently does work for the insurance industry — suggests that, at best, the “stability” package would reduce premiums in 2019 compared to current law for the average enrollee by 10 percent. However, would it actually reduce premiums compared to 2018 levels for the average enrollee? Only if one assumes that 1) health costs do not rise significantly and 2) few individuals enroll in short-term plans or AHPs. If either scenario occurs, a slight premium decrease could turn into a premium increase — and if both scenarios occur, a sizable increase at that.

Congressional Budget Office: Neither Alexander nor the CBO have released their full analysis of a “stability” package. However, according to Alexander’s characterization of the CBO score, the budget office assumes a more modest premium impact than Oliver Wyman — a 10 percent reduction in 2019, followed by a 20 percent premium reduction in 2020 and 2021. Like Oliver Wyman, the CBO likely believes that tight deadlines would make it difficult for the funds provided by the “stability” bill to lower premiums in time for the 2019 plan year. Unlike Oliver Wyman, however, the CBO does not take into account whether and how funding CSRs would lower premiums — because, as I have written previously, federal budget law requires the CBO to assume full funding for CSRs (and all other entitlements) when conducting its analyses.

As noted above, the CBO believes that eliminating the mandate penalty would raise premiums by roughly 10 percent. Put another way, then, in CBO’s estimation, the entire “stability” package would only cancel out the effect of eliminating the mandate penalty on premiums in 2019. If health costs rise — as they do every year — then premiums will rise in 2019. And if the short-term plans succeed in attracting many customers away from the exchanges, then premiums for Obamacare-compliant plans could rise substantially — by double digits — even after the “stability” package.

Conservatives have many good reasons to oppose this “stability” measure — budgetary gimmicks, potential federal funding of abortion coverage, Congress’ total lack of oversight for the bad decisions made by insurers and insurance commissioners, to name just a few. But the fact that the measure looks unlikely to achieve its central goal of lowering premiums seems the most damning indictment of the proposal — failing to solve its intended problem, while causing so many others.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

AARP’s Own Age Tax

Over the past few weeks, AARP—an organization that purportedly advocates on behalf of seniors—has been running advertisements claiming that the House health-care bill would impose an “age tax” on seniors by allowing for greater variation in premiums. It knows of which it speaks: AARP has literally made billions of dollars by imposing its own “tax” on seniors buying health insurance policies, not to mention denying care to individuals with disabilities.

While the public may think of AARP as a membership organization that advocates for liberal causes or gives seniors discounts at restaurants and hotels, most of its money comes from selling the AARP name. In 2015, the organization received nearly three times as much revenue from “royalty fees” than it did from member dues. Most of those royalty fees come from selling insurance products issued by UnitedHealthGroup.

Only We Can Profit On the Elderly

So in the sale of Medigap plans, AARP imposes—you guessed it!—a 4.95 percent age tax on seniors. AARP not only makes more money the more people enroll in its Medigap plans, it makes more money if individuals buy more expensive insurance.

Even worse, AARP refused good governance practices that would disclose the existence of that tax to seniors at the time they apply for Medigap insurance. While working for Sen. Jim DeMint in 2012, I helped write a letter to AARP that referenced the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Producer Model Licensing Act.

Specifically, Section 18 of that act recommends that states require explicit disclosure to consumers of percentage-based compensation arrangements at the time of sale, due to the potential for abuse. DeMint’s letter asked AARP to “outline the steps [it] has taken to ensure that your Medigap percentage-based compensation model is in full compliance with the letter and spirit of” those requirements. AARP never gave a substantive reply to this congressional oversight request.

Don’t Screw With Obamacare, It’s Making Us Billions

Essentially, AARP makes money off other people’s money—perhaps receiving insurance premium payments on the 1st of the month, transferring them to UnitedHealth or its other insurance affiliates on the 15th of the month, and pocketing the interest accrued over the intervening two weeks. That’s nearly $3.2 billion in profit over six years, just from selling insurance plans. AARP received much of that $3.2 billion in part because Medigap coverage received multiple exemptions in Obamacare. The law exempted Medigap plans from the health insurer tax, and medical loss ratio requirements.

Most importantly, Medigap plans are exempt from the law’s myriad insurance regulations, including Obamacare’s pre-existing condition exclusions—which means AARP can continue its prior practice of imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants. You read that right: Not only did Obamacare not end the denial of care for pre-existing conditions, the law allowed AARP to continue to deny care for individuals with disabilities, as insurers can and do reject Medigap applications when individuals qualify for Medicare early due to a disability.

The Obama administration helped AARP in other important ways. Regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exempted Medigap policies from insurance rate review of “excessive” premium increases, an exemption that particularly benefited AARP. Because the organization imposes its 4.95 percent “age tax” on individuals applying for coverage, AARP has a clear financial incentive to raise premiums, sell seniors more insurance than they require, and sell seniors policies that they don’t need. Yet rather than addressing these inherent conflicts, HHS decided to look the other way and allow AARP to continue its shady practices.

The Cronyism Stinks to High Heaven

AARP will claim in its defense that it’s not an insurance company, which is true. Insurance companies must risk capital to pay claims, and face losses if claims exceed premiums charged. By contrast, AARP need never risk one dime. It can just sit back, license its brand, and watch the profits roll in. Its $561.9 million received from UnitedHealthGroup in 2015 exceeded the profits of many large insurers that year, including multi-billion dollar carriers like Centene, Health Net, and Molina Healthcare.

But if the AARP now suddenly cares about “taxing” the aged so much, Washington should grant them their wish. The Trump administration and Congress should investigate and crack down on AARP’s insurance shenanigans. Congress should subpoena Sebelius and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, her successor, and ask why each turned a blind eye to its sordid business practices. HHS should write to state insurance commissioners, and ask them to enforce existing best practices that require greater disclosure from entities (like AARP) operating on a percentage-based commission.

And both Congress and the administration should ask why, if AARP cares about its members as much as it claims, the organization somehow “forgot” to lobby for Medigap reforms—not just prior to Obamacare’s passage, but now. AARP’s fourth quarter lobbying report showed that the organization contacted Congress on 77 separate bills, including issues as minor as the cost of lifetime National Parks passes, yet failed to discuss Medigap reform at all.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Risk Corridors: The Obama Administration at War with Itself?

Ferrets in a sack might prove an apt description of the internal infighting plaguing the Obama Administration regarding risk corridors. Last week, sources — whether within the Administration, amongst the insurer community, or both — wanted to portray a multi-billion dollar Judgment Fund settlement with insurers as a fait accompli, telling the Washington Post an agreement could be reached within two weeks.

But in two separate motions filed late last Friday regarding pending lawsuits, lawyers for the Department of Justice pulled a Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend!” The filings stated repeated claims made in a related lawsuit this summer that the case made by insurers is not yet ripe for adjudication in court. However, in a new development, Justice also alleged that insurers had no claim to make in court at all:

Third, Count I fails on the merits. Section 1342 [of Obamacare] does not require HHS to make risk corridors payments beyond those funded from collections. And even if that intent were unclear when the Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010, Congress removed any ambiguity when it enacted annual appropriations laws for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 that prohibited HHS from paying risk corridors amounts from appropriated funds other than collections.

Here are four things you need to know about the latest risk corridor developments:

  • DOJ vs. CMS? Whereas the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated in a September 9 document that it considered unpaid risk corridor claims “an obligation of the United States government for which full payment is required,” the Justice Department has now argued before two separate district court judges that no additional payment is required — not now, and not ever. In testifying before Congress last month, both Acting Administrator Slavitt and his Chief of Staff separately claimed that the Justice Department were consulted before CMS issued its September 9 memo. While last week’s Post article claimed that “Justice officials have privately told several health plans” they want to settle claims on insurers’ terms as quickly (and as quietly) as possible, the filings show that at least some Justice officials have no intention of “tanking” the government’s case for political reasons.
  • Political Appointees vs. Career Civil Servants: Two congressional reports provide some clues to the possible divides within the Administration. A 2014 House Oversight Committee investigative report showed how insurers immediately contacted Valerie Jarrett and other political appointees seeking increased risk corridor payments when insurers’ enrollees started skewing older and sicker than expected. And a report by two House committees earlier this year showed how political appointees have put the proverbial screws to uncooperative civil servants, threatening those civil servants if they exercised their statutory rights to provide information to Congress regarding a related program of Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies. The mixed messages regarding the risk corridor suits could represent a similar divide — political appointees want to pay the claims before President Obama leaves office, whereas career civil servants are focused on the heretofore novel notion of actually enforcing the law as written.
  • Andy Slavitt, Bailout King? During his own testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, CMS head Andy Slavitt made absolutely no attempt to argue the points Justice made in its filings — namely, that Congress has made its intent regarding risk corridors crystal clear, and that insurers are not owed any money. In this context, it is worth noting: 1) Administrator Slavitt’s at least $4.8 million in stock compensation from a unit of UnitedHealthGroup — the nation’s largest insurer; 2) the special ethics waiver he had to receive from the Obama Administration to make policy decisions impacting his former employer; and 3) the fact that Mr. Slavitt will likely require new employment in three months. Could Administrator Slavitt be attempting to help his once — and perhaps future — employers in the insurance industry…?
  • Constitutional “Takings,” Redefined: In one of the court cases, filed by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the Justice Department responded to claims that the risk corridor non-payment represent a Fifth Amendment violation on the part of the federal government. This Blue Cross insurer has argued — apparently with a straight face — that the federal government NOT giving it a multi-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded risk corridor payment represents a “taking” that violates its constitutional rights. To repeat: Blue Cross alleges it has a constitutional right to a multi-billion dollar bailout — even though the Justice Department notes that there is no contractual right to payment under the risk corridor program at all.

Another Insurer Bites the Obamacare Dust

Late Monday evening, health insurer Aetna confirmed a major pullback from Obamacare’s exchanges for 2017. The carrier, which this spring said it was looking to increase its Obamacare involvement, instead decided to participate in only four state marketplaces next year, down from 15 in 2016. Aetna will offer plans in a total of 242 counties next year — less than one-third its current 778.

Coupled with earlier decisions by major insurers Humana and UnitedHealthGroup to reduce their exchange involvement, Aetna’s move has major political and policy implications:

Exchanges are in intensive care
Insurers have lost literally billions selling Obamacare policies since 2014. One estimate found that insurers suffered $4 billion in losses in 2014; other studies that suggest carriers lost the same amount last year as well. And these multi-billion-dollar losses come after taking into account two transitional programs that have used federal dollars to protect insurers — programs that will end this December 31.

Over the weekend, in a report on premium increases for 2017, the New York Times noted that for one Pennsylvania health plan, nearly 250 individuals incurred health-care costs of over $100,000 each — “and then cancelled coverage before the end of the year.” While the administration has proposed some minor tweaks to minimize gaming the system, they will not solve the underlying problem: It takes tens of thousands of healthy enrollees to even out the health costs of 250 individuals with six-figure medical expenses, and Obamacare plans have failed to attract enough healthy individuals.

An opening for Trump?
The Wall Street Journal noted that the Aetna’s pullback means that some areas in Arizona now have no health insurers offering exchange coverage. Individuals there who qualify for insurance subsidies will have nowhere to spend them.

President Obama faced a self-imposed crisis in the fall of 2013 when millions of Americans faced a double whammy: Cancellation of their pre-Obamacare policies was coupled with much higher premiums for exchange coverage to replace it. Hillary Clinton could face an eerily similar dynamic in the weeks just before November 8. It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump’s campaign can capitalize on this potential October surprise hiding in plain sight.

Hillary has a problem
Over and above the obvious political problem that the exchanges present between now and November, their dire situation poses a policy quandary that a potential President Clinton would have to address — and fast — on taking office. Her campaign has proposed increasing federal subsidies for those affected by high out-of-pocket costs. But subsidies to individuals will matter little if insurers will not participate in exchanges to begin with.

So how would Hillary Clinton solve the exchange problem? Would she endorse a bailout of the insurers that liberals love to hate? Conversely, if Republicans retain control of at least one house of Congress, how on earth could she enact a government-run health plan that Barack Obama could not pass with huge, filibuster-proof majorities in both chambers? How would a President Clinton get out of the box that her predecessor has gift-wrapped for her?

Will conservatives stand fast?
As I previously noted, Aetna’s “solution” to the exchange problem is simple: Place taxpayers on the hook for their losses — in short, a permanent taxpayer bailout. But given the billions of dollars that insurers have already lost even after receiving tens of billions in corporate welfare from the federal government, Congress will, we should hope, exercise the good judgement not to throw good money after bad.

No Republican voted for Obamacare in either the House or the Senate — and for good reason. The poor design of its health-insurance offerings has ensured that only very sick individuals, or those qualifying for the richest subsidies, have signed up in any significant numbers. No small legislative changes or regulatory tweaks will change that fundamental dynamic. The question is whether, having seen their predictions proven correct, Republicans will seize defeat from the jaws of victory and view a Hillary Clinton victory as meaning they need to “come to terms” with a law that has destabilized insurance markets across the country. Here’s hoping that sale proves as elusive for Mrs. Clinton as Obamacare itself has been to insurers.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Obamacare’s $170.8 Billion in Insurer Bailouts

Obamacare has been in the news — and the courts — quite a lot recently. While much of the press attention has focused on the controversial contraception mandate, a potentially bigger issue remains largely unreported — namely, that the Obama administration has set in train an unholy trinity of bailouts that could pay health-insurance companies $170.8 billion in the coming decade.

Much of the litigation surrounds the legality — or more specifically, the lack of legality — of these bailouts. On May 12, the administration lost a case in United States District Court, U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell, in which Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that payments to insurers for cost-sharing subsidies without an express appropriation from Congress violated the Constitution. And recently, multiple insurers have filed suit against the government in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking payment for unpaid “risk corridor” funds, designed to cushion insurers from incurring major losses, or major gains, during the exchanges’ first three years.

What exactly do all these Obamacare lawsuits entail? And how much taxpayer money is the Obama administration shoveling to insurers in an attempt to keep them participating in its moribund exchanges? Herewith, a 101 tutorial on the more than $170 billion in Obamacare bailouts.

RISK CORRIDORS

What’s the issue? Risk corridors were one of two temporary programs (I discuss the other below) designed to provide stability to the law’s exchanges in their first years. From 2014 through 2016, the risk-corridor program is designed to minimize large insurer losses, as well as large insurer profits. Initially, the administration claimed risk corridors would be implemented in a budget-neutral manner — that is, outgoing payments to insurers with losses would equal incoming payments from insurers with gains. But the healthcare.gov catastrophe, coupled with policy changes unilaterally made in the fall of 2013, caused the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to float the idea of using taxpayer funds in risk corridors to offset insurer losses — in other words, bail them out.

How much has the government paid? Nothing, thankfully — at least not yet. Fearful that the administration could utilize risk corridors to implement a taxpayer-funded bailout of insurers, Congress passed in December 2014 (and subsequently renewed this past winter) appropriations language that prevents CMS from using additional taxpayer funds to pay insurers’ risk-corridor claims.

How much could the government pay? In 2014, insurers submitted $2.87 billion in risk-corridor claims, but because insurers with gains paid in only $362 million, insurers with losses received only that much in payments — approximately 12.6 percent of the requested funds. Last week insurers in North Carolina and Oregon sued to recover their unpaid risk-corridor funds, following a $5 billion class-action suit filed in February by an Obamacare co-op insurer in Oregon. While CMS has not yet settled those lawsuits seeking unpaid risk-corridor funds, in November it issued a policy memo stating that those unpaid funds represent an obligation of the federal government. Insurer losses more than doubled last year when compared with the 2014 losses.

Although CMS has not yet released data on risk-corridor claims for 2015 or 2016, it seems likely that risk corridors will incur losses similar to those for 2014. A McKinsey study released last month, “Exchanges Three Years In,” found that insurer losses more than doubled last year when compared with the 2014 losses — making $2.5 billion in claims the likely low estimate for risk corridors. A conservative assumption would estimate a total of $7.5 billion in unpaid risk-corridor claims — $2.5 billion each for 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Although the appropriations language in place currently prevents CMS from using taxpayer funds for risk-corridor claims, it is possible — even likely — that the administration could attempt to settle the insurer lawsuits as one way of getting bailout funds to insurers. Any settled lawsuits would be paid from the Judgment Fund of the Treasury, not out of a CMS budget account, thus circumventing the appropriations restrictions.

REINSURANCE

What’s the issue? The second Obamacare temporary stabilization program, called reinsurance, requires “assessments” — some would call them taxes — on all employer-provided health-insurance plans. These assessments are designed to 1) reimburse the Treasury for the $5 billion cost of a separate reinsurance program that operated from 2010 through 2013 and 2) reimburse insurers with high-cost patients from 2014 through 2016.

How much has the government paid? In 2014, insurers received nearly $8 billion in payments from the reinsurance “slush fund.” The administration still holds nearly $1.7 billion in funds from the 2014 benefit year — money that will no doubt get shoveled insurers’ way as well. While the law explicitly stated that the Treasury should get reimbursed for its $5 billion before insurers receive payments from the reinsurance fund, the Obama administration has implemented the law in the exact opposite manner — prioritizing insurer bailouts over repaying the Treasury. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has stated that this action represents a clear violation of the text of the Obamacare statute. The Obama administration chose to violate the plain text of the law and prioritize claims to insurers over the statutory requirement to repay taxpayers.

How much could the government pay? Between 2014 and 2016, insurers appear likely to receive the full $20 billion in reinsurance payments provided for under the law. On the other hand, the Treasury will receive far less than the $5 billion it was promised, because the Obama administration chose to violate the plain text of the law and prioritize claims to insurers over the statutory requirement to repay taxpayers.

COST-SHARING SUBSIDIES

What’s the issue? The law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing (such as deductibles and co-payments) for certain low-income individuals with incomes under 250 percent of the federal poverty level. While Section 1402 of the law authorized the Departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services to remit payments to insurers for the cost of these discounts, it did not include an explicit appropriation for them. Judge Collyer’s May 12 ruling, though stayed pending appeal by the administration, prohibits future spending on cost-sharing subsidies by the federal government unless and until Congress enacts an explicit appropriation.

How much has the government paid? In fiscal year 2014, insurers received $2.1 billion in cost-sharing subsidies. In fiscal 2015, the cost-sharing subsidies totaled $5.1 billion, and this fiscal year, spending on the subsidies will total an estimated $6.1 billion — for a total paid out (through this September 30) of $13.9 billion. How much could the government pay? If Judge Collyer’s ruling is not upheld on appeal, this bailout program — unlike the other two — will continue without end. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on cost-sharing subsidies will total $130 billion over the coming decade, unless halted by a judicial ruling — or unless a new administration decides it will not spend funds that have not been appropriated by Congress.

There you have it. Combine a total of $33.3 billion paid to date ($20 billion in reinsurance plus $13.3 billion in cost-sharing subsidies) with potential future bailouts of $137.5 billion ($7.5 billion in risk-corridor funds plus an additional $130 billion in cost-sharing subsidies) and you come up with a not-so-grand total of $170.8 billion in taxpayer-funded Obamacare bailouts to insurers.

The scope of both the bailouts and Obamacare’s failures looks truly staggering. Despite literally billions of dollars coming from three separate bailout programs, insurers still cannot make money selling Obamacare products. Most insurers continue to lose funds hand over fist, while some, such as UnitedHealthGroup, the nation’s largest health insurer, have all but exited the exchanges entirely.

The scope of the bailouts put the lie to Joe Biden’s claims just prior to Obamacare’s passage, when he claimed to ABC News, “We’re going to control the insurance companies.” Au contraire, Mr. Vice President. By requiring more than $170 billion in bailouts just to keep the sputtering exchanges afloat, the insurance companies are controlling you — and us, the taxpayers, as well.

This post was originally published at National Review.

What If the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies for Insurers?

Humana’s announcement Wednesday that it is considering raising premiums and changing or eliminating plans makes it only the latest insurer to say it might scale back involvement on the Affordable Care Act exchanges next year. Here’s the $9 billion question those insurers that remain on the ACA marketplaces ought to consider: What happens if Donald Trump is elected–and cuts off their access to Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies?

Subsidies related to the 2010 health-care law aim to help reduce co-payments and deductibles for low-income individuals who meet certain criteria. House Republicans challenged the subsidies in court in late 2014, arguing that because the text of the Affordable Care Act does not include a specific appropriation for the subsidies, the executive branch cannot spend money Congress never disbursed. The Obama administration has counterargued that a separate program subsidizing health insurance premiums gives it the necessary authority to spend funds on the cost-sharing subsidies. A ruling from U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer could come at any time.

But let’s consider an outcome not tied to a federal court ruling. The next president could easily wade into this issue. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress (the remedy the House has requested in court). Such an action could take effect almost immediately, without the notice-and-comment period required for most regulatory rulemaking. The Congressional Research Service noted in a May 2013 memo on the budget sequester that should the cost-sharing subsidies be affected–so, reduced or halted–“Insurers presumably will still have to provide required coverage to qualifying enrollees, but they will not receive the full subsidy to cover their increased costs.”

In other words, whether or not the federal government is helping to make up the difference, insurers still must lower costs for certain enrollees. It’s a consideration as carriers submit their bids for next year that come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different.

There are sizeable sums at stake. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that spending on cost-sharing subsidies will total $9 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017, and $45 billion over the four fiscal years of the next administration. These sums dwarf the amounts insurers lost on Obamacare plans in 2014$4 billion by one estimate–and the $1.1 billion in losses incurred just by UnitedHealthGroup, the nation’s largest insurer, in 2015 and 2016.

Insurers seeking to sell coverage through the federally run exchanges must submit their bids by next Wednesday. Many are weighing the cost of participating in the exchanges and the potential for change. Some may assume that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about his knowledge of business concerns and about not being beholden to special interests would make him an ally of business as president. But the House Republican leadership has said these health-coverage subsidies are unconstitutional. It’s not clear whether Mr. Trump would allow Obamacare subsidies to be paid, which could greatly impact insurers’ bottom lines. Any outcome could have major repercussions.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Stop Bailing Out Obamacare

Last Tuesday’s announcement by UnitedHealthGroup, the nation’s largest health insurer, that it will dramatically scale back participation on Obamacare’s exchanges next year illustrates the law’s inherent flaws. Obamacare isn’t too big to fail, but it is too big, and it is failing; more bailouts will not solve the problem.

Even as the remaining Republican presidential candidates put forward their specific ideas for a conservative alternative to Obamacare, they should immediately declare—as health insurers prepare their bids for the 2017 plan year—that they will halt the tide of taxpayer funds the Obama administration continues to shovel insurers’ way.

With enrollment in exchanges dramatically below initial projections, and enrollees sicker than average, those insurers face mounting Obamacare losses. In 2014, insurers lost a collective $4 billion selling individual health insurance, and likely lost a similar amount last year. UnitedHealthCare said it would scale back its Obamacare involvement after losing more than $1.1 billion in the individual insurance market the past two years.

Cut the Cost-Sharing Subsidies

Congressional oversight has exposed health insurers lobbying for what amounts to a cash-for-clunkers swap, in which only additional taxpayer funds will keep them in the exchange game. Thus far, attention has focused largely on the temporary transition programs created for the exchanges’ first three years—reinsurance and risk corridors—and the way in which the administration has flouted the plain text of the law to sweeten those pots for insurers.

The administration has flouted the plain text of the law to sweeten those pots for insurers.

But if Jesse James went where the money was, he would focus on Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies—a permanent program, unlike risk corridors and reinsurance. This program, intended to reimburse insurers for reductions they make in certain low-income individuals’ deductibles and co-payments, comes with a significant catch: The text of the law nowhere appropriates funds for the subsidies—and Congress has not done so since.

In 2013, the administration initially accepted that Obamacare contains no explicit appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies; it requested new funding from Congress, and conceded these subsidies, if funded, would be subject to a budget sequester. Months later, however, the administration started paying cost-sharing subsidies to insurers. It now claims that Congress provided an appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies by funding the law’s premium subsidies.

That premise defies the plain text of the law, which pays the subsidies to different entities. (Individuals qualify for premium subsidies, whereas insurers receive cost-sharing subsidies.) The House of Representatives, protecting its “power of the purse,” has sued the administration for violating the Constitution by spending funds never appropriated; oral arguments in district court in Washington are pending.

We Spend What We Want

Irrespective of the status of litigation against the Obama administration in January 2017, a future Republican administration can—and should—turn off the taps of unappropriated funds for the cost-sharing subsidies. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Washington will spend $130 billion on cost-sharing subsidies in the coming decade—all without an express appropriation from Congress.

Washington will spend $130 billion on cost-sharing subsidies in the coming decade—all without an express appropriation from Congress.

Lest any argue that cutting off these funds qualifies as an Obama-esque use of imperial power, such a move would actually represent constitutional modesty—the executive deferring to Congress on whether to spend taxpayer dollars. In 1975, a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Train v. City of New York meant that “[t]he President cannot frustrate the will of Congress by killing a program through impoundment”—that is, the executive failing to spend funds appropriated by Congress. Surely the inverse premise—that the president cannot frustrate congressional will by spending funds never appropriated—should likewise apply.

Both Donald Trump, who prides himself on not being beholden to special interests, and Ted Cruz, famous for his 2013 fight to defund Obamacare, have every reason to stop the flow of billions of dollars in unappropriated taxpayer funds. Moreover, by pledging to administer the law as actually written—as opposed to how the Obama administration has unilaterally rewritten it to help insurers—they would show its unworkable nature. Insurers must submit their 2017 plan bids by May 11, but few would do so if they knew they would not receive an estimated $9 billion in cost-sharing subsidies next year—funds Congress never appropriated in the first place.

Like a patient in intensive care, President Obama continues to administer billions of dollars to insurers as a form of fiscal morphine, hoping upon hope the cash infusions can tide them over until the exchanges reach a condition approaching health. But only markets, and not more taxpayer money, will turn this ailing patient around. Republican candidates should, sooner rather than later, pledge to end the morphine drip on Day One, and outline the prescription for freedom they would put in its place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

An Obamacare Lesson for Small Health Insurers?

In 2011, analysts were speculating that Assurant Health might exit the insurance business, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week. So the recent news that Assurant’s parent company was looking to “sell or shut down” the insurance carrier by year’s end was not a total surprise. The issue now is whether its demise holds larger lessons about Obamacare’s impact on insurance markets.

One analyst called Assurant, which reported operating losses of nearly $64 million in fiscal 2014 and $84 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, a “casualty” of the law. The Affordable Care Act “required health plans to cover a package of basic benefits and required health insurers to spend at least 80 cents of every premium dollar on medical care or quality initiatives,” the Journal-Sentinel reported. Simply put, the law made health insurance more like a regulated utility—with plan designs, benefits, and overhead costs strictly regulated.

Obamacare supporters generally argue that these regulatory changes eliminate the potential for customer confusion or the sale of “substandard” insurance products. But further Journal-Sentinel reporting underscores a complication of that approach:

Finding a buyer for Assurant Health could be difficult. Unlike companies such as UnitedHealthcare or Anthem, which focus on larger employers, Assurant Health does not have the size in any one market to negotiate contracts directly with hospitals and doctors. It instead typically pays a monthly fee to other insurers to access their networks, potentially increasing its costs.

By standardizing insurance offerings—reducing or eliminating carriers’ ability to create niche markets through innovative product designs—Obamacare heightened the focus on insurers’ provider networks. Those companies that have the market clout to demand lower reimbursements from doctors and hospitals can moderate premium increases—winning more market share in the process. But smaller insurers that don’t have that clout may find themselves squeezed—and other carriers could face a similar fate to Assurant Health.

Obamacare standardizes offerings in the name of increasing competition, but doing so could end up reducing competition by creating an environment in which large insurers compete with large hospital and doctor networks in a battle of health-care oligopolies. Supporters of the law have worried about this for years—and Assurant’s impending closure appears to give more reason to do so.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Another Insurer Leaves California Market

The Los Angeles Times reports this morning on another disturbing Obamacare-related development in California:

The nation’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group Inc., is leaving California’s individual health insurance market, the second major company to exit in advance of major changes under [Obamacare].

Due to UnitedHealth’s decision, thousands of individuals will be forced to find a new health insurance option. However, those options keep dwindling; as the article notes, today’s development comes just a few weeks after Aetna announced it was also pulling out of the California market, leaving nearly 50,000 California residents searching for new health coverage.

Even advocates of Obamacare could not hide their dismay about today’s development. As the Times article notes:

The departure of another big-name insurer raised concerns about the effect of reduced competition on California consumers. “I don’t think this is a good result for consumers,” said California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. “It means less choice, less competition and even more consolidation of the individual market with three big carriers.”

However, as The Wall Street Journal reported last month, these two California announcements could represent merely the leading edge of bad news for policyholders: “Insurance-industry experts say similar moves by other carriers in other states may emerge in coming months, as companies with limited market share decide to avoid the uncertainty tied to [Obamacare’s] changes.”

Recall that in 2008, then-Senator Obama promised that “for those who have insurance now, nothing will change under the Obama plan—except that you will pay less.” Recall too that the Obama Administration intends to use California as “proof that [Obamacare] is working.” Obamacare is working, all right—but not exactly as promised. A month’s worth of stories about skyrocketing premiums and thousands losing their health insurance demonstrates how Obamacare’s supposed “success story” is shaping up to be a significant failure.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.