Exclusive: Inside The Trump Administration’s Debate Over Expanding Obamacare

Exclusive: Inside The Trump Administration’s Debate Over Expanding Obamacare

If the plan, which would hike federal spending $100-120 billion over the next decade, overcomes a ‘furious’ internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.
Christopher Jacobs
By

Last August, I responded to a New York Times article indicating that some within the Trump administration wanted to give states additional flexibility to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Since then, those proposals have advanced, such that staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) believe that they have official sign-off from the president to put those proposals into place.

My conversations with half a dozen sources on Capitol Hill and across the administration in recent weeks suggest that the proposal continues to move through the regulatory process. However, my sources also described significant policy pitfalls that could spark a buzz-saw of opposition from both the left and the right.

Preliminary fiscal analyses of partial expansion proposals suggest the policy has few obvious supporters. Liberals will complain that partial expansion could lead to hundreds of thousands of individuals dropping coverage in states that have already expanded Medicaid. By contrast, conservatives will object to the sizable price tag associated with the policy—because government actuaries believe it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

The Times reported that some within the administration—including CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House Domestic Policy Council Chairman Andrew Bremberg—have embraced the proposal. But if the plan overcomes what the Times characterized as a “furious” internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.

How It Would Work

After the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states as part of its 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate, the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting that ruling. While the court made expansion optional for states, the Obama administration made it an “all-or-nothing” proposition for them.

Under the 2012 guidance—which remains in effect—if states want to receive the enhanced 90 percent federal match associated with expansion, they must cover the entire expansion population—all able-bodied adults with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $35,000 for a family of four). If states expand only to some portion of the eligible population, they would only receive their regular Medicaid match of 50-76 percent, not the enhanced 90 percent match.

Because individuals with incomes above 100 percent of the poverty level—but only individuals with incomes above 100 percent of the poverty level—qualify for subsidized coverage on insurance exchanges, states like Arkansas and Massachusetts have applied for waivers to implement a partial expansion. If the Trump administration approves such proposals, Arkansas and other states that have already expanded Medicaid would still receive the 90 percent federal match, while shifting the population with income between 100-138 percent of poverty from Medicaid to exchange coverage.

The Internal Debate

The August Times article indicated that, after considering partial expansion, the administration postponed any decision until after November’s midterm elections. Since that time, multiple sources disclosed to me a further meeting that took place on the topic in the Oval Office late last year. While the meeting was originally intended to provide an update for the president, CMS staff left that meeting thinking they had received the president’s sign-off to implement partial expansion.

Just before Christmas, during a meeting on an unrelated matter, a CMS staffer sounded me out on the proposal. The individual said CMS was looking for ways to help give states additional flexibility, particularly states hamstrung by initiatives forcing them to expand Medicaid. However, based on my other reporting, I believe that the conversation also represented an attempt to determine the level of conservative opposition to the public announcement of a decision CMS believes the president has already made.

Why Liberals Will Object

During my meeting, I asked the CMS staffer about the fiscal impacts of partial expansion. The staffer admitted that, as I had noted in my August article, exchange plans generally have higher costs than Medicaid coverage. Therefore, moving individuals from Medicaid to exchange coverage—and the federal government paying 100 percent of subsidy costs for exchange coverage, as opposed to 90 percent of Medicaid costs—will raise federal costs for every beneficiary who shifts coverage under partial expansion.

The CMS staffer went on to say that the in-house actuary believes approximately 30 percent of beneficiaries making such a shift from Medicaid to exchange coverage will end up dropping their exchange plan. Medicaid provides insurance largely “free” to beneficiaries, with most states not charging premiums and imposing minimal or no co-payments for treatment. Conversely, Obamacare’s subsidy regime would require individuals shifted from Medicaid to the exchanges to pay anywhere from 2-4 percent of their income in premiums, and additional cost-sharing (i.e., deductibles, co-payments, or coinsurance) besides.

The Medicare actuary believes that the higher cost-sharing associated with exchange coverage will lead 30 percent of the target population—that is, individuals with incomes from 100-138 percent of poverty—to drop their exchange plan. Either beneficiaries will not be able to afford the premiums and cost-sharing, or they will not consider the coverage worth the money. And because 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage, the partial expansion change will save money in a given state—despite the fact that exchange coverage costs more than Medicaid on a per-beneficiary basis.

Why Conservatives Will Object

I immediately asked the CMS staffer an obvious follow-up question: Did the actuary consider whether partial expansion, by shifting the costs of expansion from the states to the federal government, would encourage more states to expand Medicaid? The staffer demurred, saying the actuary’s analysis focused on only one hypothetical state.

However, the CMS staffer did not tell me the entire story. Subsequent to my “official” meeting with that staffer, other sources privately confirmed that the actuary does believe that roughly 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage.

But these sources and others added that both the Medicare actuary and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree that, notwithstanding the savings from current expansion states—savings associated with individuals dropping exchange coverage, as explained above—the partial expansion proposal will cost the federal government overall, because it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

For instance, the Council of Economic Advisers believes that spending on non-expansion states who use partial expansion as a reason to extend Medicaid to the able-bodied will have three times the deficit impact as the savings associated with states shifting from full to partial expansion.

Because the spending on new partial expansion states will overcome any potential savings from states shifting from full to partial expansion, the proposal, if adopted, would appreciably increase the deficit. While neither CBO nor the Medicare actuary have conducted an updated analysis since the election, multiple sources cited an approximate cost to the federal government on the order of $100-120 billion over the next decade.

One source indicated that the Medicare actuary’s analysis early last summer arrived at an overall deficit increase of $111 billion. The results of November’s elections—in which three non-expansion states voted to accept expansion due to ballot initiatives—might have reduced the cost of the administration’s proposal slightly, but likely did not change the estimate of a sizable deficit increase.

A net cost of upwards of $100 billion, notwithstanding potential coverage losses from individuals dropping exchange coverage in current expansion states, can only mean one thing. CBO and the Medicare actuary both believe that, by lowering the cost for states to expand, partial expansion will prompt major non-expansion states—such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Who Will Support This Proposal?

Based on the description of the scoring dynamic my sources described, partial expansion, if it goes forward, seems to have no natural political constituency. Red-state governors will support it, no doubt, for it allows them to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime. Once CMS approves one state’s partial expansion, the agency will likely have a line of Republican governors out its door looking to implement waivers of their own.

This allows governors to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime.

But it seems unlikely that Democratic-led states will follow suit. Indeed, the news that partial expansion would cause about 30 percent of the target population to drop their new exchange coverage could well prompt recriminations, investigations, and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere. Because at least 3.1 million expansion beneficiaries live in states with Republican governors, liberals likely would object to the sizable number of these enrollees who could decide to drop coverage under partial expansion.

Conversely, conservatives will likely object to the high net cost associated with the proposal, notwithstanding the potential coverage losses in states that have already expanded. Some within the administration view Medicaid expansion, when coupled with proposals like work requirements, as a “conservative” policy. Other administration officials view expansion in all states as something approaching a fait accompli, and view partial expansion and similar proposals as a way to make the best of a bad policy outcome.

Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable.

But Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable in society, because it gives states a higher match for covering able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities. In addition to objecting to a way partial expansion would increase government spending by approximately $100 billion, some conservatives would also raise fundamental objections to any policy changes that would encourage states to embrace Obamacare—and add even more able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls in the process.

Particularly given the Democratic takeover of the House last week, the multi-pronged opposition to this plan could prove its undoing. Democrats will have multiple venues available—from oversight through letters and subpoenae, to congressional hearings, to use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn any administration decisions outright—to express their opposition to this proposal.

A “strange bedfellows” coalition of liberals and conservatives outraged over the policy, but for entirely different reasons, could nix it outright. While some officials may not realize it at present, the administration may not only make a decision that conservatives will object to on policy grounds, they may end up in a political quagmire in the process.

Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.

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