The House GOP’s Children’s Health Subsidies Bill Is A Muddled Mess

The House GOP’s Children’s Health Subsidies Bill Is A Muddled Mess

When the bill reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) comes to the House floor for an expected vote on Friday, it will feature numerous examples of oxymoronic policy messages from the Republican majority. Call them contradictory, call them hypocritical, but regardless, the lack of coherence sends decidedly mixed messages about what exactly Republicans consider good, conservative health policy.

Voting to Reduce Medicare Spending the Day After Voting to Increase It

On Wednesday, the House Rules Committee finally decided the on-again, off-again question of whether to include provisions expanding Medicare means-testing for the affluent in the bill. The rule the committee reported states that, upon the rule’s adoption by the House, the base bill will be replaced by a substitute amendment—as well as a separate amendment adding the means-testing language back into the bill.

The procedural machinations mean that on Thursday, the House will vote to reduce Medicare spending through additional means-testing one day after all Republicans voted to increase Medicare spending by repealing Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) without a budgetary offset or “pay-for.” It also comes the week after House Republicans followed their Senate brethren in approving a budget that called for reducing the growth in Medicare spending.

Rewarding States that Expanded Medicaid 

Section 305 of the new substitute amendment would postpone by two years reductions in Obamacare’s Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments—scheduled to total $4.7 billion in both fiscal years 2018 and 2019—for two years, until 2020. Theoretically the bill would “pay for” this additional spending (i.e., cancelling spending reductions now) by increasing the size of DSH reductions in future years. However, given that Congress has already postponed Obamacare’s DSH reductions three times in as many years, some may view the move as a “can-kicking” exercise and fiscal gimmick that lawmakers do not believe will ever take effect.

More to the point: In undoing the DSH reductions, the bill makes absolutely no distinction between states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare and those that did not. In 2009 and 2010, Democrats thought the DSH payment reductions would partially offset the increased revenues hospitals would generate as a result of gaining more insured patients under Obamacare. But by failing to target the DSH reductions only toward states that have not expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied, the Republican House would effectively allow expansion states to “double-dip,” gaining both additional revenue from the Medicaid expansion and from the postponement (or the eventual cancellation) of the DSH reductions.

Passing a Not-That-Conservative Bill with Only GOP Votes

As previously noted, the underlying SCHIP reauthorization—separate and distinct from the controversies about how to pay for the spending—deviates from prior legislative proposals designed to return SCHIP towards its original purpose: Covering low-income kids. In addition to the reward for Medicaid expansion states discussed above, the bill:

  • Extends Obamacare’s maintenance of effort requirements, which constrain states’ flexibility in managing their programs, for three years, through 2022;
  • Extends—albeit only for one-year, and at a lower rate as part of a phase-out approach—Obamacare’s enhanced match rate for SCHIP programs;
  • Omits prior language requiring states to focus their programs’ efforts on covering children from low-income households;
  • Omits prior language permitting states to impose waiting periods in SCHIP programs for people who turn down an offer of, or disenroll from, employer-sponsored health coverage, given that studies suggest as many as three in five children enrolled in programs like SCHIP do so after first dropping their prior health coverage (i.e., “crowd-out”).

Even though the bill does not contain any of these conservative proposals, Democrats claim they will not support the legislation, given their objections to the SCHIP “pay-fors.” The Democratic position raises an obvious question: If Republicans will end up passing a SCHIP reauthorization along party lines, why not ensure that the legislation includes solid conservative policies throughout, instead of just conservative offsets? It’s one of several relevant questions given the decidedly mixed messages coming from House Republicans on health care this week.

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