Over the weekend, Politico ran a report about how a “Trump policy shop filters facts to fit his message.” The article cited several unnamed sources complaining about the office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and its allegedly politicized role within the current administration.
One of the article’s anonymous sources called ASPE’s conduct over the past 18 months “another example of how we’re moving to a post-fact era.” Richard Frank, a former Obama appointee and one of the few sources to speak on the record, said that he found the current administration’s “attack on the integrity and the culture of the office…disturbing.”
For all its focus on the Trump administration, the Politico article omitted another key story—one I told its reporter about last week, but did not make it into the article. During the early years of the Obama administration, ASPE lay at the heart of the failure of the CLASS Act, a $70 billion Obamacare program.
As a congressional staffer conducting oversight of the CLASS Act in 2011-12, I reviewed thousands of pages of e-mails and documents from the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage. Those records strongly suggest that ASPE officials, including Frank, withheld material facts from Congress and the public about CLASS’s unsustainability, because full and prompt disclosure could have jeopardized Obamacare’s chances of passage.
About the CLASS Act ‘Ponzi scheme’
The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports program, or CLASS for short, intended to provide a voluntary insurance benefit for long-term care. Included as part of Obamacare, the program never got off the ground. In October 2011, HHS concluded it could not implement the program in an actuarially sound manner; Congress repealed the program entirely as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal enacted into law in the early days of 2013.
CLASS’s prime structural problem closely resembled that of the Obamacare exchanges—too many sick people, and not enough healthy ones. Disability lobbyists strongly supported the CLASS Act, hoping that it would provide financial support to individuals with disabilities. However, its voluntary nature meant that the more people already with disabilities enrolled and qualified for benefits, the higher premiums would rise, thereby discouraging healthy people from signing up.
Given these structural problems, the Obama administration had lukewarm support for the CLASS Act from the start. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) stood as its longtime champion, and with Kennedy fighting an ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer, few wanted to thwart what Kennedy viewed as a personal legacy issue.
Moreover, although actuarially questionable in the long-term, CLASS’s structure provided short-term fiscal benefits that aided Obamacare’s passage. Because CLASS required a five-year waiting period to collect benefits, the program would generate revenue early in its lifespan—and thus in the ten-year window budget analysts would use to score Obamacare—even if it could not maintain balance over a longer, 75-year timeframe.
This dynamic led the Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), to dub CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.”
Internal Concerns Minimized in Public
A report I helped draft, which several congressional offices released in September 2011—weeks before HHS concluded that program implementation would not go forward—highlighted concerns raised within the department during the debate on Obamacare about CLASS’ unsustainable nature. For instance, in September 2009, one set of talking points prepared by ASPE indicated that, even after changes made by Congress, CLASS “is still likely to create severe adverse selection problems”—i.e., too many sick people would enroll to make the program sustainable.
In an e-mail exchange this weekend, I asked Frank about these strong internal statements about CLASS, and how they squared with his public comments. At the time, Frank served as the deputy assistant secretary of ASPE charged with long-term care policy. HHS’s own report into the program notes that he attended nearly every single meeting with outside stakeholders. In other words, he ran point on CLASS, and supervised most of the activity within the department on the issue.
Frank told me that, during one public speech in October 2009, “I spent about half my time setting out the problems with CLASS that needed to be fixed.” He did indeed highlight some of the actuarial challenges the CLASS program faced. But Frank’s remarks, at a Kaiser Family Foundation event, closed thusly:
We’ve, in the department, have modeled this extensively, perhaps more extensively than anybody would want to hear about [laughter] and we’re entirely persuaded that reasonable premiums, solid participation rates, and financial solvency over the 75-year period can be maintained. So it is, on this basis, that the Administration supports it that the bill continues to sort of meet the standards of being able to stand on its own financial feet. Thanks.
Frank told me over the weekend that his comments “came at the end of my explaining that we were in the process of addressing those issues” (emphasis mine). But Frank actually said that the Obama administration was “entirely persuaded” of CLASS’ solvency, which gives the impression not that the department had begun a process of addressing those issues, but had already resolved them.
Frank’s public comments notwithstanding, ASPE had far from resolved the actuarial problems plaguing CLASS. Two days after his speech, one of Frank’s employees sent around an internal e-mail suggesting that the CLASS Act “seems like a recipe for disaster.”
But the ‘Fixes’ Fall Short
Frank and the employees at ASPE continued to try and make good on their promises to fix the CLASS Act, but they ran up against too many obstacles—and a legislative crunch. By late November and December 2009, the Social Security actuary’s office had run several analyses of the program, all of which showed significant problems maintaining actuarial balance.
In response to these new analyses, HHS and ASPE came up with a package of technical fixes designed to make the CLASS program actuarially sound. One section of those fixes noted that “it is possible the authority in the bill to modify premiums will not be sufficient to ensure the program is sustainable.”
However, the proposed changes came too late:
- No changes to the CLASS Act made it into the final version of Obamacare, which then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed in the Senate on December 19, 2009.
- The election of Scott Brown (R-MA) to replace the late Kennedy in January 2010 prevented Democrats from fixing the CLASS Act through a House-Senate conference committee, as Brown had pledged to be the “41st Republican” in the Senate who would prevent a conference report from receiving a final vote.
- While the House and Senate could (and did) pass some changes to Obamacare on a party-line vote through the budget reconciliation process, the Senate’s “Byrd rule” on inclusion of incidental matters in a budget reconciliation bill prevented them from addressing CLASS.
The White House’s own health care proposal, released in February 2010, discussed “a series of changes to the Senate bill to improve the CLASS program’s financial stability and ensure its long-run solvency.” But as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius later testified before the Senate Finance Committee, the “Byrd rule” procedures for budget reconciliation meant that those changes never saw the light of day—and could not make it into law.
Kinda Looks Like a Conspiracy of Silence
By the early months of 2010, officials at ASPE knew they had a program that they could not fix legislatively, and could fail as a result. Yet at no point between January 2010, when ASPE proposed its package of technical changes, through Obamacare’s enactment, did anyone within the administration admit that the program could prove impossible to implement.
Over the weekend, I asked Frank about this silence. He responded that “when the reconciliation package was shelved”—which I take to mean that the CLASS changes did not make it into the reconciliation bill, which did pass—“we began working on regulatory remedies that might address the flaws in CLASS.” However, from the outset some of Frank’s own employees believed those changes might prove insufficient to make the program actuarially sound, as it later proved.
To put it another way: In February 2011, Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee that “the snapshot [of CLASS] in the bill, I would absolutely agree, is totally unsustainable.” She, Frank, and others within the administration had known this fact one year previously: They just hoped they could arrive at a package of regulatory changes that would overcome the law’s structural flaws.
But did anyone within the administration disclose that CLASS was “totally unsustainable” as written back in February 2010? No, because doing so could have jeopardized Obamacare’s chances of passage. The law passed the House on a narrow 219-212 margin.
If HHS had publicly conceded that CLASS could become a “zombie” program—one that they could not fix, but could not remove—it would have caused a political firestorm, and raised broader questions about the bill’s fiscal integrity that could have prevented its enactment.
Was Obamacare Sold on a Lie?
Conservatives have pilloried Obamacare for the many false statements used to sell the law, from the infamous “Lie of the Year” that “If you like your plan, you can keep it” to the repeated promises about premium reductions, Barack Obama’s “firm pledge” to avoid middle-class tax increases, and on and on.
But there are sins of both commission and omission, and the CLASS Act falls into the latter category. Regardless of whether one uses the loaded term “lie” to characterize the sequence of events described above, the public statements by HHS officials surrounding the program prior to Obamacare’s enactment fell short of the full and unvarnished truth, both as they knew it at the time, and as events later proved.
Politico can write all it wants about ASPE under Trump “filter[ing] facts to fit his message.” But ASPE’s prior failure to disclose the full scope of problems the CLASS Act faced represents a textbook example of a bureaucracy hiding inconvenient truths to enact its agenda. If anonymous HHS bureaucrats now wish to attack a “post-fact era” under Trump, they should start by taking a hard look in the mirror at what they did under President Obama to enact Obamacare.