Today, a Senate committee hearing will feature testimony from insurance commissioners about the status of Obamacare in their home states. It will undoubtedly feature pleas from those commissioners for billions of new dollars in federal funds to subsidize insurance markets. But before Congress spends a single dime, it should take a hard look at insurance commissioners’ compliance with their regulatory duties regarding Obamacare. On several counts, preliminary results do not look promising.
Of particular issue at today’s hearing, and in health insurance markets generally: Federal payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions, discounts on co-payments, and deductibles provided to certain low-income individuals. Obamacare authorized those payments to insurers, but did not include an appropriation for them. Despite lacking an explicit appropriation, the Obama administration started making the payments anyway when the exchanges began operation in 2014.
Rightfully objecting to an intrusion on its constitutional “power of the purse,” the House of Representatives filed suit to block the payments in November 2014. In May 2016, a federal district court judge ruled the insurer payments unconstitutional, halting them unless and until Congress granted an explicit appropriation.
By the middle of 2016, it seemed clear that the cost-sharing reduction payments lay in significant jeopardy. While the federal district court allowed the payments to continue during the Obama administration’s appeal, a final court ruling could strike them down permanently. Moreover, a new administration would commence in January 2017, and could stop the payments immediately. And neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump had publicly committed to maintaining the insurer payments upon taking office.
Let’s Let the Problem Fester to Put Trump in a Bind
How did insurance commissioners respond to this growing threat to the cost-sharing reduction payments? In at least some cases, they did nothing. For instance, in response to my public records request, the office of Dave Jones, California’s insurance commissioner, admitted that it had no documents examining the impact of last May’s court ruling on the 2017 plan bid year.
To call this lack of analysis regarding cost-sharing reductions malfeasance would put it mildly. A new president could easily have cut off those payments—payments totaling $7 billion this fiscal year—unilaterally on January 20. Yet the regulator of the state’s largest insurance market had not so much as a single e-mail considering this scenario, nor examining what his state would do in such an occurrence.
For Democrats such as Jones, last year’s silence on cost-sharing reductions represents a happy coincidence. Had insurance commissioners required insurers to price in a contingency margin for 2017—to reflect uncertainty over whether the federal payments would continue—those higher premiums would undoubtedly have hurt Clinton during last fall’s campaign. Instead, liberals like Jones who remained quiet last year have suddenly started shouting from the rooftops about “uncertainty” leading to higher premiums—because they believe Trump, not Clinton, will bear the political blame.
Break the Law to Fund Our Political War Against You
Indeed, insurance commissioners who remained silent last year about cost-sharing reduction payments have responded this year in alarming fashion. The commissioners’ trade association wrote to the Trump administration in May asking them “to continue full funding for the cost-sharing reduction payments for 2017 and make a commitment that such payments will continue.”
The insurance commissioners essentially demanded the Trump administration violate the Constitution. Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution grants Congress the sole power to appropriate funds, and the Supreme Court in a prior case (Train v. City of New York) ruled that the executive cannot thwart that will by declining to spend funds already appropriated. Under the Constitution, a president cannot spend money, or refuse to spend money, unilaterally—but that’s exactly what the insurance commissioners requested.
By implicitly conceding the unconstitutional actions by the Obama administration, and asking the Trump administration to continue those acts, the commissioners’ own letter exposes their dilemma. Why did commissioners ever assume the stability of a marketplace premised upon unconstitutional actions? And why did commissioners purportedly committed to the rule of law ask for those unconstitutional actions to continue?
Regardless of whether members of Congress wish to make the payments to insurers, they should first demand answers from insurance commissioners for their regulatory failure. Insurance commissioners’ collective ignorance that the unconstitutional cost-sharing reduction payments could disappear closely mimics banks’ flawed assumptions in the years leading up to the subprime mortgage collapse. Unless Congress relishes the thought of passing another TARP program, they would be wise to exercise their oversight authority before they even think about getting out the taxpayers’ checkbook.