Why would House Republican leadership place the concerns of gym owners over those of pro-lifers? And why would that same leadership embrace a policy suggestion from the liberal group Families USA that could entrench Obamacare while raising premiums for young people?
While the House will consider legislation this week providing tax breaks to individuals who buy gym memberships, the House has yet to consider legislation cutting off tax breaks for abortion this Congress. On the latter front, an expansion of “copper” catastrophic insurance plans would effectively eliminate a regulatory provision that has lowered premiums for young Americans—another misplaced priority that could cause consternation for some conservatives.
What’s Inside Some Health Savings Account Legislation
The two main bills the House will consider this week include a variety of incentives related to health savings accounts (HSAs). The bills contain several positive policies, including an increase in HSA contribution limits, a provision allowing individuals who qualify for but are not enrolled in Medicare Part A to continue contributing to their HSAs, and a correction to a flaw in Obamacare that otherwise might prevent some individuals with high-deductible policies from making HSA contributions.
However, Section 8 of one of the bills would allow for a $500 deduction for gym memberships or instruction, and a $250 deduction for safety equipment, as a qualified medical expense. The amounts would double for joint returns.
While just about everyone supports increasing Americans’ levels of physical activity, the provision seems questionable at best. The tax reform bill enacted not eight months ago attempted to eliminate these kinds of deductions from the tax code, creating a simpler, fairer process. This proposal would turn right around and add more complexity, by requiring the IRS to issue new regulations “to determine…what does not constitute a qualified physical activity, including golf, hunting, sailing, horseback riding, and other similar activities.”
The federal government already tries to do too many things, and has too great a role in Americans’ lives as it is. Do we really need the IRS determining what is, and is not, a “qualified physical activity?”
As for Abortion and HSAs
But even as the House will consider legislation creating a new qualified medical deduction for gym memberships, it has yet to pass legislation limiting abortion as a medical expense. Under current law, individuals can write off an abortion through the itemized deduction for qualified medical expenses, pay for abortion through a tax-advantaged Flexible Spending Arrangement (FSA), or use tax-preferred HSA dollars to fund an abortion.
In fact, some pro-life leaders have opposed provisions that would allow individuals to use HSA dollars to fund insurance premiums, because pro-lifers want to prohibit those funds from being used to pay for abortion coverage (or abortions period). But the House has yet to vote this Congress on limiting abortion as a qualified medical expense.
The pro-life legislation that the House voted on in January 2017, H.R. 7, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), prohibited taxpayer dollars from funding abortion in all cases, including Obamacare exchange plans. However, it did not address preferences in the tax code relating to abortion, such as the qualified medical expense deduction.
It seems that the House Ways and Means Committee, which marked up the bills in question, cares more about satisfying lobbyists than responding to their large pro-life constituency. From gym owners to device makers—who have lobbied intently for the Obamacare device tax repeal that the House will also consider this week—the series of health care bills contains myriad provisions, some good and some not-so-good, advocated by business lobbyists. Unfortunately, pro-life advocates have yet to receive similar consideration.
Unintended Consequences of Expanding ‘Copper’ Plans
The other bill the House will consider likewise includes a provision with unintended consequences. Section 8 of H.R. 6311 would allow all individuals to purchase Obamacare’s “copper” plans, which offer catastrophic-only coverage. Under current law, only individuals under age 30, individuals who do not have an “affordable” plan in their area (one that costs less than 8 percent of their income after any applicable subsidies), and individuals eligible for a hardship exemption can purchase a “copper” plan.
However, because only certain individuals currently qualify for “copper” plans, insurers can adjust their premiums downward accordingly. Section 1312 of Obamacare contains a single risk pool requirement, meaning that insurers must rate all their products in a given state as a single book of business in determining premium rates. But a rule the Obama administration released in 2013 included a special exception to that provision for “copper” plans. These catastrophic plans may adjust their rates to reflect “the expected impact of the specific eligibility categories.”
In other words, because primarily young individuals enroll in catastrophic plans, insurers can at present lower their premiums to reflect that fact. However, by making everyone eligible for “copper” coverage, the House bill would effectively eliminate this adjustment, thus raising premiums for the 18- to 29-year-old individuals enrolled in the plans.
Effects of the ‘Copper’ Change
Catastrophic plans have not proven particularly popular on the exchange market, with only 1 percent of enrollees purchasing them as of earlier this year. However, that lack of popularity arises because individuals receiving premium subsidies (i.e., most of the people buying coverage directly from the exchange) cannot apply those subsidies to “copper” plans.
In the unsubsidized marketplace away from the exchanges, catastrophic “copper” plans have proved popular. According to online insurance broker eHealth, catastrophic plans comprised 11 percent of their plans sold during the 2017 open enrollment period. Given that only a small segment of the market currently qualifies to purchase “copper” plans, that level of market share indicates their appeal. (Full disclosure: More than a decade ago, I used to represent eHealth.)
Paradoxical as it may sound, expanding these popular plans to all age groups could actually curb their appeal. While a recent eHealth analysis claims that an expansion of “copper” plans could save near-seniors (i.e., those aged 55-64) an average of $4,608 per year, it likely will not do so. eHealth’s analysis compares the current 41 percent differential between “copper” premiums and bronze premiums to arrive at its figure.
However, as noted above, the current “copper” rates assume enrollment primarily by individuals under 30. eHealth’s analysis thus compares rates for a market of individuals aged 18-29 to a market of individuals aged 18-64—which explains the 41-percentage point difference in premiums. But if “copper” plans expand to all ages, that premium differential will narrow—and premiums for the 18-29 population will likely increase.
Single Risk Pool Bolsters Obamacare
More to the point: The “copper” plan provision includes language reinforcing Obamacare’s single risk pool. It also undermines the intent of last year’s Consumer Freedom Amendment, offered in the Senate by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), which would have allowed for the sale of non-compliant plans alongside Obamacare-compliant plans.
The difference on this one provision speaks to a broader philosophical debate. Moderates want to support Obamacare’s exchanges by passing “stability” legislation and expanding subsidies. So does Families USA, which in December 2012 submitted a comment to the Department of Health and Human Services opposing the rate adjustment provision for catastrophic plans, because it could tend to segment the market.
By contrast, conservatives want to offer people lifeboats away from the exchanges—options such as short-term insurance plans, association health plans, and the like. On that front, this week’s legislation does not advance the ball, and expanding “copper” plans could on balance represent a step back.
Thankfully, House leadership did not end up attaching attach an insurer bailout to this week’s HSA bills, after early rumblings in that direction. But the fact that conservatives even need to have these discussions speak to the ways in which many House Republicans want to strengthen Obamacare rather than repealing it.