Republican leadership has succeeded in making their health care reform plans in 2017 even more confusing than the ill-fated reforms enacted by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2010. A three-phase process has been outlined by Republican leaders in both houses after the initial rollout of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), now billed as “Phase 1”. The AHCA was greeted with little enthusiasm by the GOP faithful, however.
As a strictly political matter, there is a certain logic to the intent of “three-phase plan”: limiting the provisions of the AHCA to issues having an impact on the federal budget. That would allow the bill to be addressed under “budget reconciliation” rules requiring only 51 votes for passage in the Senate. Phase 2 would involve regulatory rule-making, or rule-rescinding, as the case may be. The putative Phase 3 would require additional legislation to address such unfinished business as allowing health insurance competition across state lines, eliminating anti-trust protection for insurers, and medical tort reform. How the sponsors will get 60 Senate votes for Phase 3 reforms is an unanswered question.
Yuval Levin wrote a great analysis of the AHCA last week In which he described the structure of the House bill as a paranoid reaction to the demands of an “imaginary parliamentarian”. By that he means that the reforms in the bill conform to a rigid and potentially flawed interpretation of Senate budget reconciliation rules. Levin’s view is that the House should not twist itself up over what might be negotiated prior to a Senate vote. In other words, the House should concern itself at this stage with passing a bill that at least makes sense as reform, without bowing to any of the awful legacy provisions in Obamacare.
Medicaid reform is one piece of the proposed legislation and is reasonably straightforward. It imposes caps on federal funding to states after 2020, but it grants more flexibility to the states in managing the program. It also involves a tradeoff by allowing Medicaid funding to increase over the first few years, in line with the expansion under Obamacare, in exchange for capped growth later. The expectation is that long-term costs of the program will be reduced through a combination of the caps and better management at the state level.
The more complex aspects of the AHCA attempt to effect changes in the individual market. Levin offers a good perspective on these measures. First, he describes the general character of earlier Republican reform proposals from which the AHCA descends:
“Those various proposals all involved bringing premium costs down by enabling insurers to sell catastrophic coverage plans (along with more comprehensive plans) and enabling everyone in the individual market to afford at least those catastrophic coverage plans. This would enable far greater competition and let anyone not otherwise covered by insurance enter the individual market as a consumer. …
The House proposal bears a clear resemblance to this approach. It involves some deregulation from Obamacare, it includes a refundable tax credit for coverage, it gestures toward incentives for continuous coverage. But it is also fundamentally different from this approach, because it functions within the core insurance rules established by Obamacare, which means it can’t really achieve most of the key aims of the conservative reforms it is modeled on.”
The rules established by Obamacare to which Levin refers include the form of community rating, which is merely loosened somewhat by the AHCA. However, the AHCA would impose a 30% penalty for those who fail to enroll while still healthy. This is a poorly designed incentive meant to substitute for Obamacare’s individual mandate, and it is likely to backfire. Levin is clear that this feature could have been avoided by scrapping the old rules and introducing a new form of community rating available only to the continuously insured.
The AHCA also fails to cap the tax benefits of employer-provided coverage, which retains a potential imbalance between the incentives for employer versus individual coverage. Levin believes, however, that some of these shortcomings can be fixed through a negotiation process in either the House or the Senate, if and when the bill goes there.
The CBO’s Report
As it is, the bill was “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) with results that are widely viewed as unsatisfactory. The CBO’s report states that the AHCA would reduce the federal budget deficit, but the ugly headline is that relative to Obamacare, it woud cause 24 million people to lose their coverage by 2024. That number is drastically inflated, as Avik Roy demonstrated in his Forbes column this week. Here are the issues laid out by Roy:
- The CBO has repeatedly erred by a large margin in its forecasts of Obamacare exchange enrollment, overestimating 2016 enrollment by over 100% as recently as 2014.
- The AHCA changes relative to Obamacare are taken from CBO’s 2016 forecast, which still appears to over-predict Obamacare enrollment substantially. Roy estimates that this difference alone would shave at least 7 million off the 24 million loss of coverage quoted by the CBO.
- The CBO also assumes that all states will opt to participate in expanded Medicaid going forward. That is highly unlikely, and it inflates CBO’s estimate of the AHCA’s negative impact on coverage by another 3 million individuals, according to Roy.
- Going forward, the CBO expects the Obamacare individual mandate to encourage millions more to opt for insurance than would under the AHCA. Roy estimates that this assumptions adds as much as 9 million to the CBO’s estimate of lost coverage across the individual and employer markets, as well as Medicaid.
Thus, Roy believes the CBO’s estimate of lost coverage for 24 million individuals is too high by about 19 million! And remember, these hypothetical losses are voluntary to the extent that individuals refuse to avail themselves of AHCA tax credits to purchase catastrophic coverage, or to enroll in Medicaid. The latter will be no less generous under the AHCA than it is today. The tax credits are refundable, which means that you qualify regardless of your pre-credit tax liability.
Despite Roy’s initial skepticism about the AHCA, he thinks it can be fixed, in part by means-testing the tax credits, rather than the flat credit in the bill. He also believes the transition away from the individual mandate should be more gradual, allowing more time for markets to being premiums down, but I find this position rather puzzling given Roy’s skepticism that the mandate has a strong impact on enrollment. Perhaps gradualism would convince the CBO to score the bill more favorably, but that’s a bad reason to make such a change.
It’s impossible to say how the bill will evolve, but certainly improvements can be made. It is also impossible to know whether Phases 2 and 3 will ultimately bring a more complete set of cost-reducing regulatory and competitive reforms. Phase 3, of course, is a political wild card.
Michael Tanner notes a few other advantages to the AHCA. Even the CBO says the cost of health insurance would fall, and the AHCA will bring greater choice to the individual market. It also promises over $1 trillion in tax cuts and lower federal deficits.
The GOP faced alternatives that should have received more consideration, but those alternatives might not be politically viable at this point. Some of them contain features that might be negotiated into the final legislation. Rand Paul’s plan has not attracted many advocates. Paul took the courageous position that there should be no entitlements in a reform plan (i.e., subsidies); instead, he insisted, with liberalized market forces, premium costs would decline sufficiently to allow affordable coverage to be purchased by a broad cross-section of Americans. Paul is obviously unhappy about the widespread support in the GOP for refundable tax credits as a replacement for existing Obamacare subsidies.
John C. Goodman has advocated a much simpler solution: take every federal penny now dedicated to health care and insurance subsidies, including every penny of taxes now avoided via tax deductions on employer-provided coverage, and pay it out to households as a tax credit contingent on the purchase of health insurance or health care expenses. This is essentially the plan put forward by Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. Bill Cassidy in the Patient Freedom Act, described here. While I admire the simplicity of one program to replace the existing complexities in the federal funding of health care coverage, my objection is that a health care “dividend” of this nature resembles the flat tax credit in the AHCA. Neither is means-tested, amounting to a “Universal Basic Health Insurance Benefit”. Regular readers will recall my recent criticism of the Universal Basic Income, which is the sort of program that smacks of “universal state dependency”. But let’s face it: we’re already in a state of federal health care dependency. In this case, there is no incremental cost to taxpayers because the credit would replace existing outlays and tax expenditures. In that sense, it would eliminate many of the distortions currently embedded in federal health care policy.
A more drastic approach, at this point, is to simply repeal Obamacare, perhaps with a lengthy phase-out, and attempt to replace it later in the hope that support will coalesce around a reasonable set of measures leveraging market forces, and with accommodations for high-risk individuals and the economically disadvantaged. Michael Cannon writes that CBO estimated a simple repeal would increase the number of uninsured by 23 million over ten years, slightly less than the 24 million estimate for the AHCA! Of course, neither of these estimates is likely to be remotely accurate, as both are distorted by the CBO’s rosy assumptions about the future of Obamacare.
Where To Go?
Tanner reminds us that the real alternative to Republican legislation, whatever form it might take, is not a health care utopia. It is Obamacare, and it is collapsing. That plan cannot be effectively reformed with additional subsidies for insurers and consumers, or we’d find ourselves in a continuing premium spiral. The needed reforms to Obamacare would resemble changes contemplated in some of the GOP proposals. While I cannot endorse that AHCA legislation in its current form, or as a standalone reform, I believe it can be improved, and the later phases of reform we are told to anticipate might ultimately vindicate the approach taken by GOP leadership. I am most skeptical about the promise of subsequent legislation in Phase 3. I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed that by then, the path to additional reforms will be more attractive to democrats.