The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of House Republicans’ Obamacare ‘Replacement’

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of House Republicans’ Obamacare ‘Replacement’

Going down the same failed Obamacare approach of more taxes and more spending will not lower health costs. And lower costs is what Republicans should prioritize.
Christopher Jacobs
By

On Thursday, prior to lawmakers returning home for the President’s Day recess, House leadership gave them a brief outline of policies likely to be included in “repeal-and-replace” legislation introduced next month. While this “full replace” strategy likely will encounter additional obstacles and delays, as I outlined last week, it’s worth analyzing the specific policies being proposed at this point, to see how they shape up.

The Good

State Innovation Grants: While sounding new to some, this concept was first introduced in 2009 in the House Republican alternative to Obamacare, and later reprised in an Obamacare alternative introduced by America Next and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) that I helped draft. The program provides federal incentives for states to reform their insurance markets in ways that will lower premiums, expand access, and ensure coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions (i.e., high-risk pools).

While on the one hand it’s regrettable that the federal government essentially has to bribe states to eliminate the benefit mandates that drive up insurance premiums, the Congressional Budget Office in 2009 concluded that the Innovation Grant incentives would work, helping drive down premiums by as much as 10 percent. Staff for Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), then ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, did yeoman’s work compiling this proposal back then, and House Republicans are smart to revive the concept.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs): In recent years, health savings accounts have become a popular and effective way to reduce health care costs. In addition to making other minor reforms, the Republican plan would roughly double HSA contribution limits. This change would allow individuals—particularly those just establishing HSAs—to save more for medical expenses, while not sparking the over-consumption that an unlimited HSA might incentivize.

Medicaid: With respect to Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied, the House document says expansion states “could continue to receive enhanced federal payments for currently enrolled beneficiaries for a limited period of time” (emphasis mine). This language would effectively adopt my earlier proposal of freezing enrollment in the Medicaid expansion—perhaps the most effective way to unwind the Obamacare entitlement. Unfortunately, other changes (described below) might have the opposite effect.

The Bad (or Questionable)

More Obamacare? In discussing the transition period between Obamacare and the new regime they seek to establish, the House document states “the Obamacare subsidies are adjusted slightly [sic] to provide additional assistance for younger Americans and reduce the over-subsidization older Americans are receiving.”

This language could mean one of two things: Either 1) a change in Obamacare’s age-rating bands—which currently prohibit insurers from charging older Americans more than three times what younger Americans pay—to allow greater variability and flexibility for insurers; or 2) some change in the subsidy regime that would have the same effects as 1).

Regardless, it seems questionable whether the answer to Obamacare’s problems lies in either more spending or another federal regulation that would only slightly ease the current micromanagement of health insurers. The focus should remain on repealing Obamacare, not fixing Obamacare.

Medicaid: At minimum, the House paper leaves more questions than it answers here, providing few specifics on the formula for a reformed Medicaid program (either block grants or per capita caps) in the future. In last year’s Better Way plan, House leadership proposed creating a “base year” for a reformed program of 2016, but that specific policy point did not appear in last week’s document.

Since release of the Better Way plan last year, new data from actuarial reports on Medicaid have shown how states that expanded Medicaid have “gamed the system” to increase their federal funding. Specifically, participants in the Medicaid expansion have averaged 14 percent higher costs than non-expansion enrollees—exactly the opposite of the actuary’s projections prior to the law’s implementation. That’s because states have used the prospect of the up to 100 percent federal match for expansion populations—so-called “free money” from Washington—to pay higher physician reimbursements.

Any reformed Medicaid formula must not disadvantage states that declined Obamacare dollars to expand the program to the able-bodied. However, because spending was higher for expansion enrollees than for non-expansion enrollees last year, using 2016 as the “base year” for Medicaid reform would do just that. Congressional staff are aware of the updated data showing how Medicaid expansion states have abused the Obamacare reimbursement formulae. But it will require both careful planning and a public vetting of the details to determine whether the funding formulae for Medicaid reform will perpetuate the current inequities.

Health Savings Accounts: While increasing contribution limits will increase HSA take-up, one other change should take precedence: Allowing HSA funds to be used to pay for insurance premiums, which is currently prohibited in most cases (except for COBRA continuation coverage, during periods of unemployment, and other limited circumstances). Allowing account funds to pay for premiums would represent a quantum leap forward in consumer-driven health care, by creating a defined-contribution model: Small businesses that cannot afford to purchase coverage for their workers can make predictable HSA contributions, which employees can then use to pay for health expenses, or to fund their own health insurance.

It is possible that the budgetary cost of ending the restrictions on premium payments prompted leadership staff to work instead on increasing the contribution limits. But the former should come before the latter, for multiple reasons: Allowing people to use account funds to pay premiums will create greater political movement to increase the contribution limits, while increasing the contribution limits now will make ending the premium restrictions more costly later. Both are positive reforms, but for multiple strategic reasons, ending the premium payment restrictions should take precedence over increasing the contribution limits.

The Ugly

New Entitlement (Funded by New Taxes?): The linchpin of the House plan lies in its system of advanceable, refundable tax credits—a new program of spending that would see the federal government writing “refund” checks to individuals with no income tax liability. However, the proposal likely will not receive a favorable score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the number of individuals covered by health insurance, at least compared to Obamacare.

That said, the new government spending will impose a fiscal cost. While Republicans did not mention a “pay-for” in their policy brief, press reports suggest the party may raise taxes to fund the new spending. Specifically, House Republicans are looking at capping the current exclusion for employer-provided health coverage, a policy included in their Better Way plan last year.

Most economists agree that the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance and health care. However, there are better ways to reform the tax treatment of health coverage—and provide parity between employer-sponsored and individually purchased insurance—without raising taxes overall. The American people do not support repealing Obamacare’s revenue increases only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Therein lies the great disappointment of the House proposal. While in 2008 Barack Obama campaigned for his plan by saying it would reduce health-care costs, he governed with a singular focus on increasing the number of individuals with health insurance, and in so doing raised costs and premiums for millions of Americans. Going down the same failed Obamacare approach of more taxes and more spending will not lower health costs. That, and not repealing and replacing Obamacare’s taxes and spending, should be House Republicans’ ultimate objective.

Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.
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