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.
The details came via a summary Topher Spiro leaked on Twitter late last week. Spiro works at the liberal Center for American Progress—not exactly a group aligned with the cause of Obamacare repeal—which on its own would make his document of dubious provenance.
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.
But on another level, the development seems shocking. As I spent the past eight months noting, providing CSR funds to insurers amounts to taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. By March, Republican leaders desperately wanted to pass a “stability” bill bailing out Obamacare, but controversies surrounding abortion funding prevented them from doing so. Why does anyone involved with the Heritage effort think that dynamic has changed in the past 6-8 weeks?
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.
In theory, the Senate could decide to waive the “Byrd rule” regarding the abortion coverage restrictions, but passing such a waiver requires 60 votes. Of course, Republicans don’t occupy 60 seats in the Senate. And if there were 60 votes in the Senate to pass abortion restrictions, Alexander (R-TN) and Collins (R-ME) would have succeeded in passing their “stability” package, which included funding for CSRs, back in March.
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.
But adding Hyde amendment restrictions to CSRs would likely prove an exercise in futility. As I noted above, the provisions would almost certainly not pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. If they did not, Democrats would not vote to waive the “Byrd rule” to keep the restrictions in the bill—because most Democrats support taxpayer funding of abortion coverage, and wouldn’t want to help Republicans pass a “repeal-and-replace” bill on a party-line vote anyway.
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.