Care to take a guess how many Republican senators are willing to take a stand over federalism? Would you believe just two?
On Monday night, when the Senate considered legislation sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) about “gag clauses” in pharmaceutical contracts, only Utah’s Mike Lee and Kentucky’s Rand Paul voted no. Lee and Paul do not believe the federal government has any business providing for blanket regulation of the health-care sector.
That so many Republicans who claim to support federalism turned a blind eye toward this important principle in this instance says much about why they have thus far failed to reverse the federal government’s power grab in Obamacare.
Gag Clauses, Explained
I have experienced the distorted ways the drug pricing system currently operates. When looking to refill a prescription for one of my antihistamines, my insurance benefit quoted me a charge of $170 for a 90- to 100-day supply. But when I went online to GoodRX.com, I found online coupons that could provide me the same product, in the same quantities, for a mere $70-80, depending on the pharmacy I chose.
I found even greater discounts by purchasing in bulk. I ended up buying a nearly one year’s supply of my maintenance medication for $210—little more than the price for a 90-100 day supply originally quoted to me by my insurer. Had I used my insurance card, and refilled the prescription repeatedly, I would have paid approximately $300 more over the course of a year. Because my Obamacare insurance is junk, I have little chance of reaching my deductible this year, short of getting hit by a bus, so it made perfect sense for me to pay with cash instead.
In theory, anyone can go to GoodRX.com (with which I have no relationship except as a satisfied consumer), or other similar websites, to find the cash price of prescription drugs and compare them to the prices quoted by their insurers. But in practice, few try to shop around for prescription drugs.
“Gag clauses,” inserted by pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs), prohibit pharmacies from telling people that they might benefit from paying in cash rather than using their insurance card. While the trade association for PBMs opposes such provisions, and claims that “gag clauses” do not widely exist, a 2016 survey of community pharmacists found that many encountered them regularly.
Why Federalism Matters
In general, conservatives would support efforts to increase transparency within the health-care marketplace, and prohibiting “gag clauses” would do just that. However, some conservatives would also note that the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1947 devolves the business of regulating insurance, including health insurance, to the states, and that the states could take the lead on whether or not to eliminate “gag clauses” in insurance contracts. Indeed, a majority of states—26 in total—have already done so, including no fewer than 15 state laws passed just this year.
Lee’s office reached out to me several weeks ago for technical assistance in drafting an amendment designed to limit the scope of federal legislation on “gag clauses” to those types of insurance where the federal government already has a regulatory nexus. Lee ultimately offered such an amendment, which prohibited “gag clauses” only for self-insured employer plans—regulated by the federal government under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).
Unfortunately, only 11 senators—all Republicans—voted for this amendment, which would have prevented yet another intrusion by the federal government on states’ affairs. Of those 11, only Lee and Paul voted against final passage of the bill, due to the federalism concerns.
More Federalism Violations Ahead?
To follow up on Monday’s bad developments, Tuesday saw the release of another proposal that would further entrench the federal government in the health-care system. Specifically, a group of lawmakers released a discussion draft of legislation that would federally regulate the issue of “surprise medical bills,” which occur when a patient ends up at an out-of-network hospital in an emergency situation, or gets treated by an out-of-network physician at an in-network hospital.
One of the prime sponsors of the discussion draft? None other than Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), the author of legislation introduced last year that he claimed would “give states significant latitude over how [health care] dollars are used to best take care of the unique…needs of the patients in each state.”
The contradiction between Cassidy’s rhetoric then and his actions now raise obvious questions: How can states get “significant latitude over” their health care systems if Washington-based politicians like Cassidy are constantly butting in with new requirements, like the “surprise medical bill” regulation? Or, to put it another way, why does Cassidy think states are smart enough to manage nearly $1.2 trillion in Obamacare funding, but too stupid to figure out how to solve problems like drug price “gag clauses” and “surprise bills?”
Politics Versus Principle
The widely inconsistent behavior of people like Cassidy raises the possibility that, to some, federalism represents less of a political principle to follow than a political toy to manipulate. When Washington lawmakers want to punt a difficult decision—like how to “repeal” Obamacare while “replacing” it with an alternative that covers just as many people—they can hide behind federalism to defer action to the states.
Conversely, when an issue attracts a popular outcry—like drug prices or “surprise bills”—federal politicians can abandon talk of federalism, and swoop in to tell states how to run their health insurance markets. After all, as Ronald Reagan said, they’re from the government and they’re here to help.
Reagan had another axiom that applies in this case: That there is no limit to what a person can do if that person does not mind who gets the credit. Lawmakers in literally dozens of states have acted on “gag clauses,” but that matters little to Collins, who wants the federal government to swoop in and take the credit—and erode state autonomy in the process.
It may seem novel to most of official Washington, but if lawmakers claim to believe in federalism, they should stick to that belief, even when it proves inconvenient.