Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) thinks she has a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to attach two provisions to a short-term spending bill later this month: The Alexander-Murray legislation to appropriate funds for cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurers, and a separate bill she and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) have developed regarding reinsurance proposals.
Collins also thinks these two provisions will have a “net downward effect on premiums,” even after repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate as part of the tax bill the Senate is currently considering. However, it appears that Alexander-Murray and Collins-Nelson’s net effect on premiums could end up being a nice round number: Zero.
As it stands now, both sets of payments to insurers Collins wants—the cost-sharing reductions and reinsurance—could end up subject to a statutory sequester due to the tax bill. In other words, the payments to insurers may never get made, even if Congress passes these provisions on a spending bill this year. In that case, the only health legislation with an impact on premiums would involve repealing the mandate as part of the tax bill—which would raise premiums, not lower them.
Cost-Sharing Reductions and the Sequester
The statute that created the budget sequester applies a list of programs and accounts not subject to sequestration spending reductions. For instance, the law exempts refundable tax credits, like those provided to low-income individuals who buy coverage on Obamacare’s exchanges, from sequestration reductions.
However, neither cost-sharing reduction payments nor reinsurance would qualify as refundable tax credits. They are paid directly to insurers, not individuals, and are not part of the Internal Revenue Code. Also, neither cost-sharing reductions nor reinsurance are on a list of other accounts and programs exempted from the sequester.
The Obama administration previously admitted that cost-sharing reduction payments were subject to the sequester, in a sequestration report to Congress in April 2013, and in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in August of that year. In a separate 2014 report, the Obama administration also admitted that Obamacare’s transitional reinsurance program (which expired in 2016, and which senators Collins and Nelson effectively want to re-create) was subject to the sequester.
In fact, the Obama administration violated the Constitution in part because of the implications of the sequester on the cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments, as a House committee oversight report released last year helps to explain. Because Obamacare’s premium tax credits were not subject to the sequester, but the cost-sharing reduction payments were, the Obama administration combined the two flows of funds—essentially “laundering” the CSR payments through the U.S. Treasury to not subject them to the statutory sequester requirements.
However, last year Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled these actions unconstitutional, because the treasury lacks a valid appropriation to pay out CSR funds. The Trump administration last month stopped the CSR payments to insurers, citing the lack of an appropriation. While the Alexander-Murray bill would appropriate funds for the CSR payments, it would do so through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, not the treasury—meaning that the sequester would apply.
Statutory PAYGO and the Sequester
Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a letter to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) indicating that legislation increasing the budget deficit (on a static basis, i.e., not accounting for economic growth) by $1.5 trillion would result in a sequester order of approximately $136 billion for 2018. The existing statutory formula would deliver a 4 percent, or approximately $25 billion, reduction in Medicare spending, followed by about $111 billion in reductions elsewhere.
However, because the sequestration statute exempts many major spending programs like Social Security and Medicaid, CBO believes that only about $85-90 billion in existing federal resources would be subject to the sequester. This means an additional $20-25 billion in mandatory spending, if appropriated, would immediately get sequestered to make up the difference.
Therefore, if the tax bill passes, any legislation appropriating $8-10 billion annually in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, along with $2.25 billion in annual reinsurance payments to insurers, would see insurers get exactly…nothing. All the money would get immediately sequestered under the statutory pay-as-you-go law.
On the one hand, conservatives who oppose paying CSRs to insurers may support an outcome where insurers do not actually receive these payments. On the other hand, however, some may view this outcome as the worst of all possible worlds: Having surrendered the principle that the federal government must prop up insurers—and Obamacare—without receiving any actual premium reductions, because the payments to insurers never get made.
This scenario, when coupled with repeal of the individual mandate, could result in a legislative outcome that raises premiums next year—a contradiction of the promises Republicans made to voters.