At a Thursday morning press conference, Speaker Paul Ryan and House leaders unveiled amendment language providing an additional $15 billion in funding for “invisible high risk pools,” which the House Rules Committee was scheduled to consider Thursday afternoon.
That amendment was released following several days of conversations, but no bill text, surrounding state waivers for some (or all—reports have varied on this front) of Obamacare’s “Big Four” regulations: guaranteed issue, community rating, essential health benefits, and actuarial value. Theoretically, states could use the risk pool funds to subsidize the costs of individuals with pre-existing conditions, should they decide to waive existing Obamacare regulations regarding the same.
Given these developments regarding risk pools and waivers and regulations (oh my!), it’s worth posing several key questions about the still-fluid discussions.
1. Do Republicans Believe in Limited Executive Authority?
The text of the amendment regarding risk pool funding states that the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) “shall establish…parameters for the operation of the program consistent with this section.”
That’s essentially all the guidance given to CMS to administer a $15 billion program. Following consultations with stakeholders—the text requires such discussions, but doesn’t necessarily require CMS to listen to stakeholder input—the administration can define eligible individuals, the standards for qualification for the pools (both voluntary or automatic), the percentage of insurance premiums paid into the program, and the attachment points for insurers to receive payments from the program.
This extremely broad language raises several potential concerns. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has previously cited the number of references to “the Secretary shall” or “the Secretary may” in Obamacare as showing his ability to modify, change, or otherwise undermine the law. Republicans who give such a broad grant of authority to the executive would allow a future Democrat administration to return the favor.
Nothing in the amendment text directs funding towards the states that actually use the waiver process being discussed. In other words, states that opt-out of the Obamacare regulations, and wish to use the funds to help individuals with pre-existing conditions affected by them, could lose out on funding to those states that retain all of the Obamacare regulations.
The wide executive authority does little to preclude arbitrary decisions by the executive. If the administration wants to “come after” a state or an insurer, this broad grant of power may give the administration the ability to do so, by limiting the ability to claim program funds.
As I have previously written, some conservatives may believe that the answer to Barack Obama’s executive unilateralism is not executive unilateralism from a Republican administration. Such a broad grant of authority to the executive in the risk pool program undermines that principle, and ultimately Congress’ Article I constitutional power.
2. Do Republicans Believe in Federalism?
Section (c)(3) of the amendment text allows states to operate risk pools in their respective states, beginning in 2020. However, the text also states that the parameters under which those state pools operate will be set at the federal level by CMS. Some may find it slightly incongruous that, even as Congress debates allowing states to opt out of some of Obamacare’s regulations, it wants to retain control of this new pot of money at the federal level, albeit while letting states implement the federally defined standards.
3. How Is the New Funding for ‘Invisible High Risk Pools’ Much Different from Obamacare’s Reinsurance Program?
Section (d)(5) of the amendment text requires CMS to establish “the dollar amount of claims for eligible individuals after which the program will provide payments to health insurance issuers and the proportion of such claims above such dollar amount that the program will pay.”
The amendment language echoes Section 1341(b)(2) of Obamacare, which required the administration to establish payments to insurers for Obamacare’s reinsurance program. That existing reinsurance mechanism, like the proposed amendment text, has attachment points (an amount at which reinsurance kicks in) and co-insurance (health insurers will pay a certain percentage of claims above the attachment point, while the program funding will pay a certain percentage).
Congressional leadership previously called the $20 billion in Obamacare reinsurance funding a “bailout” and “corporate welfare.” But the $15 billion in funding under the proposed amendment echoes the Obamacare mechanism—only with more details missing and less oversight. Why do Republicans now support a program suspiciously similar to one they previously opposed?
4. Why Do Conservatives Believe Any States Will Apply For Regulatory Waivers?
The number of states that have repealed Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion thus far is a nice round figure: Zero. Given this experience, it’s worth asking whether any state would actually take Washington up on its offer to provide regulatory relief—particularly because Congress could decide to repeal all the regulations outright, but thus far has chosen not to.
Moreover, if Congress places additional conditions on these waivers, as some lawmakers have discussed, even states that want to apply for them may not qualify. Obamacare already has a waiver process under which states can waive some of the law’s regulations, including the essential health benefits and actuarial value (but not guaranteed issue and community rating).
However, those waiver requirements are so strict that no states have applied for these—health savings accounts and other consumer-directed health-care options likely do not meet the law’s criteria. If the House plan includes similarly strict criteria, the waivers will have little meaning.
5. Will the Administration Encourage States to Apply for Regulatory Waivers?
President Trump has previously stated that he wants to keep Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions provisions. Those statements raise questions about how exactly the administration would implement a program seeking to waive those very protections. Would the administration actively encourage states to apply? If so, why won’t it support repealing those provisions outright, rather than requiring states to come to the federal government to ask permission?
Conversely, if the administration wishes to discourage states from using this waiver program, it has levers to do so. As noted above, the current amendment language gives the administration very broad leeway regarding the $15 billion risk pool program, such that the administration could potentially deny funds to states that move to waive portions of the Obamacare regulations.
The combination of the broad grant of authority to the executive, coupled with the president’s prior comments wanting to keep Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions provision, could lead some conservatives to question whether they are being led into a potential “bait-and-switch” scenario, whereby the regulatory flexibility promised prior to the bill’s passage suddenly disappears upon enactment.