The Alan Katz Blog

Perspectives on Health Care Reform, Politics and More

When a Penalty is not a Penalty

The Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to buy qualifying health insurance coverage. Fail to comply with this mandate and there’s a financial penalty waiting for you come tax time. But when is a penalty not a penalty? When is a mandate not a mandate? Hey kids, let’s do some math.

The penalty for going uninsured in 2016 is $695 per adult and $347.50 per child up to a maximum of $2,085 or 2.5% of household income, whichever is greater.

To determine the cost of coverage we’ll use the second-lowest silver plan available in a state. That’s the benchmark used to calculate ACA subsidies and in 2015 silver plans comprised roughly 68% of policies sold through an exchange. Even more important, I found a table showing the cost of the second-lowest cost Silver plan for 40 year olds by state, but I couldn’t find a similar table for other metallic levels.

The least our 40-year-old could spend on the second-lowest Silver plan this year is $2,196 in New Mexico; the highest premium is $8,628 in Alaska. The median average is $3,336. Divide the penalty by the premium and you get 32% of the cheapest premium and 21% of the median average premium. Put another way, paying the penalty saves our 40-year-old  consumer $1,500 in New Mexico and over $2,600 in the mythical state of median average.

I did find a table showing the national average premium a 21-year-old would pay for a bronze plan: $2,411.  In this situation the $695 penalty amounts to just 29% of the policy’s cost, a savings of over $1,700.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage people to go uninsured. I think that’s financially stupid given the cost of needing health insurance coverage and not having it. And, personally, I support the individual mandate. I also understand the political obstacles to establishing a real penalty for remaining uninsured.

However, I also believe the individual market in this country is in trouble. (More on this is a later post). Adverse selection is a contributing cause to this danger. The individual mandate is supposed to mitigate against adverse selection. The enforcement mechanism for that mandate, however, is a penalty that, for many people, is no penalty at all.

That’s not just my opinion. That’s the math.

A version of this article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

The Endangered Individual Health Insurance Market

And then there were none? The individual health insurance marketplace is endangered and policymakers need to start thinking about a fix now, before we pass the point of no return.

Health plans aren’t officially withdrawing from the individual and family market segment, but actual formal withdrawals are rare. What we are witnessing, however, may be the start of a stampede of virtual exits.

From a carrier perspective, the individual and family health insurance market has never been easy. This market is far more susceptible to adverse selection than is group coverage. The Affordable Care Act’s requirement guaranee issue coverage only makes adverse selection more likely, although, to be fair, the individual mandate mitigates this risk to some extent. Then again, the penalty enforcing the individual mandate is simply inadequate to have the desired effect.

Add to this higher costs to administer individual policies relative to group coverage and the greater volatility of the insured pool. Stability is a challenge as people move in-and-out of the individual market as they find or lose jobs with employer provided coverage. In short, competing in the individual market is not for the faint of heart, which is why many more carriers offer group coverage than individual policies. Those carriers in the individual market tend to be very good at it. They have to be to survive.

Come 2014, when most of the ACA’s provisions took effect, these carriers suddenly found their expertise less helpful. The changes were so substantial historical experience could give limited guidance. There were simply too many unanswered questions. How would guarantee issue impact the risk profile of consumers buying their own coverage? Would the individual mandate be effective? How would competitors price their products? Would physicians and providers raise prices in light of increased demand for services? The list goes on.

Actuaries are great at forecasting results when given large amounts of data concerning long-term trends. Enter a horde of unknowns, however, and their science rapidly veers towards mere educated guesses. The drafters of the ACA anticipated this situation and established three critical mechanisms to help carriers get through the transition to a new world: the risk adjustment, reinsurance and risk corridor programs.

Risk corridors are especially important in this context as they limit carriers’ losses—and gains. Carriers experiencing claims less than 97% of a specified target pay into a fund administered by Health and Human Services; health plans with claims greater than 103% of this target receive funds. You can think of risk corridors as market-wide shock absorbers helping carriers make it down an unknown, bumpy road without shaking themselves apart.

You can think of them as shock absorbers. Senator Marco Rubio apparently cannot. Instead, Senator Rubio views risk corridors as “taxpayer-funded bailouts of insurance companies.”

In 2014 Senator Rubio led a successful effort to insert a rider into the budget bill preventing HHS from transferring money from other accounts to bolster the risk corridors program if the dollars paid in by profitable carriers were insufficient to meet the needs of unprofitable carriers. This provision was retained in the budget agreement Congress reached with the Obama Administration late last year. Senator Rubio in effect removed the springs from the shock absorber. The result is that HHS could only reimburse carriers seeking reimbursement under the risk corridors program just 12.6% of what they were due based on their 2014 experience. This was a significant factor in the half the health co-operatives set up under the ACA shuttering.

Meanwhile individual health insurers have taken a financial beating. In 2015 United Healthcare lost $475 million on its individual policies. Anthem, Aetna, Humana and others have all reported substantial losses in this market segment. The carriers point to the Affordable Care Act as a direct cause of these financial set-backs. Supporters of the health care reform law push back on that assertion, however. For example, Peter Lee, executive director of California’s state-run exchange, argues carriers’ faulty pricing and weak networks are to blame. Whatever the cause, the losses are real and substantial. The health plans are taking steps to staunch the bleeding.

One step several carriers are considering is to leave the health insurance exchanges. Another is to exit the individual market altogether; not formally, but for virtually. Formal market withdrawals by health plans are rare. The regulatory burden is heavy and insurers are usually barred from reentering the market for a number of years (five years in California, for example).

There’s more than one way to leave a market, however. A method carriers sometimes employ is to continue offering policies, but make it very hard to buy them. Since so many consumers rely on the expertise of professional agents to find the right health plans, a carrier can prevent sales by making it difficult or unprofitable for agents to do their job. Slash commissions to zero and agents lose money on each sale.

While I haven’t seen documentation yet, I’m hearing of an increasing number of carriers eliminating agent commissions and others removing agent support staff from the field. (Several carriers have eliminated field support in California. If you know of other insurers making a similar move or ending commissions please provide documentation in the comments section).

So what can be done? In a presidential election year not much legislatively. Republicans will want to use an imploding individual market to justify their calls repealing the ACA altogether. Senator Bernie Sanders will cite this situation as yet another reason we need “Medicare for all.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, has an incentive to raise the alarm. She wants to build on the ACA. Having it implode just before the November presidential election won’t help her campaign. She needs to get in front of this issue now to demonstrate she understands the issue and concerns, begin mapping out the solution and inoculate herself from whatever happens later this year.

Congress should get in front of the situation now, too. Hearings on the implosion of the individual market and discussions on how to deal with it would lay the groundwork for meaningful legislative action in 2017. State regulators must take notice of the endangered individual market as well. They have a responsibility to assure competitive markets. They need to examine the levers at their disposal to find creative approaches to keep existing and attract new carriers into the individual market.

If the individual market is reduced to one or two carriers in a region, no one wins. Competition and choice are consumers’ friends. Monopolies are not. And when consumers (also known as voters) lose, so do politicians. Which means smart lawmakers will start addressing this issue now.

The individual health insurance market may be an endangered species, but it’s not extinct … yet. There’s still time to act. Just not a lot of time.

Moderate Senate Democrats Seek Alternatives to Individual Mandate

In a thread to an earlier post on this blog, reader Curt Cella wrote ” I think if I heard just one Democrat admit that there might – MIGHT! – be some issues worth fixing with PPACA I’d feel a burst of optimism.” And he’s not alone. The sausage-making process that led to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was even messier than usual. The result: legislation that is in dire need of fixing and a lot of people pessimistic about the future of health insurance.

Any changes to the new health care reform law, however, will require bipartisan support. Otherwise what emerges from the House will be defeated in the Senate and vice versa.  Which makes Curt’s wish especially meaningful. Unless some Democrats start calling for substantial changes to the PPACA (and repealing the 1099 reporting requirements in the law doesn’t count as substantial — worthwhile, yes, but not substantial) nothing important is going to change.

Fortunately, those waiting for “just one Democrat” to admit that the PPACA needs fixing are in for some good news. There are at least four Democratic Senators and one liberal columnist seeking meaningful change in the PPACA. The fix they are focusing on is the laws requirement that all consumers obtain health care coverage by 2014 (the individual mandate).

ABC News recently reported that a group of Democratic Senators are looking for alternatives to the individual mandate. (This is a provision in the law that requires all Americans to obtain health care coverage by 2014 or pay a modest penalty). As one of those Democrats, newly elected Senator Joe Manchin puts it “I’ve always had a concern and a problem with the mandate, that we were forcing it, basically saying by the law of the land you have to buy the product. But on the other hand, I know that’s been the lynchpin. I’m looking for flexibility any way I can.” Other Senators mentioned as engaged in this search for an alternative to the individual mandate are Senators Ben Nelson, Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester. ABC News describes them as seeking to “improve” the PPACA, not repeal it.

Needless to say, liberals are a bit unhappy with these moderate-to-conservative lawmakers. The Senators are not backing down, however. For evidence, take a look at an exchange between MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and Senator McCaskell on the individual mandate (the meat of the interview begins at about the 1 minute, 40 second mark).

That there are at least four Democrats looking for an alternative to the PPACA’s approach to the individual mandate is important. Together with the 47 Republicans they represent a majority of the Senate. Yes, Republicans in the last Congress proved that in the wacky world of the Senate a working majority requires 60 votes, but having a simple majority is no small accomplishment. If nothing else it puts pressure on others in the Democratic Caucus, especially moderates like Senators Joe Lieberman and Kent Conrad, to join in the fun.

Not all liberals are criticizing the Senators searching for alternatives to the individual mandate. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein notes that “[r]eplacing the individual mandate wouldn’t be particularly hard” and then offers four suggestions. (For the record, I’ve offered my own individual mandate alternatives in previous posts).

Mr. Klein fixing the individual mandate as good public policy and winning politics for Democrats. “The danger …  is not that the law does get changed, but that it doesn’t. That the GOP won’t let it thrive and the Democrats won’t let it die and so it just limps along.”  Improving the PPACA makes it more difficult to repeal the law and more likely the legislation will be implemented in a constructive manner.

Of course, the individual mandate is just one part of the law that needs fixing, justifying a mere “burst of optimism.” Moderate Democrats should also look at teaming with Republicans to refine the medical loss ratio provision, make premium subsidies and tax credits available outside the exchanges, and enact meaningful medical cost containment.  Changes like these would justify long-lasting optimism.

Clarifying the Individual Mandate Alternative

In a recent post I suggested that President Barack Obama should abandon the individual mandate contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. My theory is that the uncertainty surrounding the constitutionality of imposing a fine on Americans who fail to obtain health care coverage starting in 2014 is both a political and public policy risk that is simply not worth taking – especially since the penalty for failing to be insured is unlikely to achieve its public policy purpose.

I’ve received several questions about how this would impact the PPACA. Questioners have asked whether, without an individual mandate, the PPACA collapse? Does the reform law mean anything without a mandate? Would the exchanges be necessary without the mandate? That kind of thing.

So, to clarify.

Perhaps the title of my post, “President Obama Should Jettison the Individual Mandate.”  is causing some confusion. What I was addressing was the individual mandate as defined in the PPACA. The law includes one approach to encouraging individuals to take the responsibility for obtaining and maintaining health insurance. I was not suggesting that the President strip this individual accountability provisions from the health care reform law. Quite the contrary, I was suggesting he replace the current, government-enforced mandate with a privately enforced version.

The PPACA imposes a fee (or a tax, depending on whom you ask and when) if an individual fails to obtain health insurance. This is the constitutional weak-link in the law. Those asking the courts to overturn the law describe this approach as Congress forcing Americans to engage in an economic activity or pay the equivalent of a fine to the government.

Instead of this government-centric approach, I proposed replacing the fine with alternatives enabling carriers to protect themselves from consumers who have waited until they are on their way to a hospital before seeking coverage. As has happened in New York and New Jersey, without such protections premiums skyrocket even faster and higher than medical inflation would normally require. Creating an open enrollment period (perhaps the applicant’s birth month) would counteract this dynamic. Allowing carriers to set premiums higher for those who have gone without coverage and to exclude pre-existing condition for some period of time, would help keep the cost of insurance lower, too. (These are financial disincentives imposed on individuals who fail to maintain medical insurance. Fairness would dictate that these disincentives should be commensurate with how long the individual went without coverage, thus the limited time during which a premium surcharge or benefit exclusion would be permitted).

Carriers would not be obliged to impose these penalties. If they were commanded to do so by law some would argue they are simply agents of the government and the Administration would be back defending the constitutionality of a government-imposed individual mandate. By allowing, but not forcing, carriers to use an open enrollment period, increase premiums, or exclude coverage for existing conditions, the government is out of the equation. And so are constitutional challenges – at least to this provision.

The impact of this approach on other provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is minimal. In fact, by shifting the enforcement of personal responsibility from the IRS to private carriers this alternative might even save money overall.

Nor would removal of the individual mandate as currently defined in the law mean the rest of the PPACA would collapse – even if it were not replaced by an alternative. For example, exchanges can (and do) exist without an individual mandate. In fact, many Republicans and conservatives who are ardent supporters of exchanges oppose requiring all Americans to obtain coverage. They, like Democrats supporting the exchanges, believe a primary benefit of exchanges are to allow individuals to aggregate their purchasing power to obtain better pricing from carriers just as large employers do today. Exchanges and the individual mandate are aimed at two different policy goals and each can survive without the other. (This is not to say there’s not plenty of reasons to oppose exchanges or to seek changes to how they’re envisioned in the PPACA).

Without an individual mandate, but with a requirement that carriers accept all applicants for coverage, premiums will rise substantially. However, it is possible (if unwise) to have the one without the other (as is the case in New York and New Jersey). Nor would would the PPACA collapse if the individual mandate was removed and not replaced by something along the lines I’m suggesting? The PPACA is about a lot more than the individual mandate. The law creates exchanges, enables co-ops, imposes limits on carriers’ administrative expenses, establishes market reforms (such as requiring carriers to keep dependent children on their parent’s policies until age 26), changes rating practices (eliminating premium variations based on gender), creates new taxes, provides for premium subsidies, launches demonstration projects in an attempt to lower medical costs, expands Medicaid, reduces out-of-pocket expenses for some Medicare beneficiaries, and a whole lot more. The individual mandate is one part of a much larger whole.

All of which makes the risk that the individual mandate could lead the Supreme Court to find the entire PPACA unconstitutional an even greater incentive for President Obama to change the way individual responsibility is encouraged (or, more accurately, enforced).  That the President should seek a different approach to individual responsibility is both good public policy and smart politics. Whether Congress and the White House could agree on what those changes should be an altogether different question.

Why President Obama Should Jettison the Individual Mandate

Two key elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are the requirement that health insurance carriers accept all applicants (what’s called guarantee issue) matched by a requirement that individuals obtain health care coverage or face a penalty (referred to as an individual mandate). The PPACA was not the first bill take this approach to move toward more universal coverage. In response to then President Bill Clinton’s health care reform proposal, 19 Republican Senators joined by two Democrats, put forward the Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993. Central to the proposed legislation was an individual mandate.

That was then.

Now Republicans cite the individual mandate as a key flaw of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Recently a Federal Judge in Florida declared the individual mandate contained in the the PPACA was unconstitutional and, as a result, the law itself was unconstitutional. Eventually the Supreme Court will rule on whether the individual mandate in particular and the health care reform law in general can stand. Their decision will hinge on how they interpret the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

This is not a clear-cut, black-or-white issue and the Court could go either way on the issue. The Commerce Clause has evolved considerably since the Constitution was adopted. That legal scholars and judges reach different conclusions when applying it is not surprising. Consider: to date, two Federal District Court Judges have rejected claims the individual mandate exceeds Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause while two others determined it does. For those interested, NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show aired one of the most informative, clear and helpful discussions of the legal issues surrounding the PPACA I’ve come across. (The entire 51 minutes segment is well worth a listen, however, much of the key legal explanation takes place between the 8 minute and 28 minute marks).

Unless the Supreme Court accelerates the process, they will probably hear appeals of lower court decisions after they convene their next term in October of this year, with a decision likely to be published in the Spring of 2012. Take note of that timing – as we’ll see it matters.

The question is, should President Barack Obama even let the individual mandate reach the Supreme Court? An argument can be made that the President and his signature domestic legislative accomplishment would be better off abandoning the individual mandate as it exists and replacing it with a different approach. Here’s my version of the argument:

Requiring carriers to accept all applicants without a provision requiring consumers to obtain coverage is a recipe for disaster. The average premium for individual coverage (insurance purchased without a contribution from an employer) in New York and New Jersey are more than twice the average premium for similar coverage in California in large part because New York and New Jersey law requires guarantee issue, but lack an individual mandate. . Consumers there take the economically smart course of waiting until they are sick or have an accident before obtaining coverage. To cover the inevitable losses, carriers set high premiums.

This is why Democrats included an individual mandate in the PPACA. Unfortunately, it isn’t much of a mandate. Individuals who fail to obtain coverage, unless excused from the requirement on religious grounds, will be required to pay a penalty. In 2014 this fine is the greater of $95 or 1% of income; by 2016 $695 or 2.5% of income, whichever is greater. Given that the CBO estimates that individual premiums for the lowest level of benefits available to most Americans under the PPACA will average between $4,500 and $5,000 (that’s for the Bronze level of benefits for those keeping track) the economic calculation is pretty straightforward. $4,500 is 2.5% of $180,000. So anyone with a taxable income of $180,000 is arguably better off going without coverage until they need it – give or take risk tolerance.

The PPACA’s individual mandate may be lightweight, but the political cost has been heavy Jettisoning the individual mandate as it currently exists would neuter one of the Republicans core attacks against President Obama and the PPACA – that this provision exemplifies an abusive expansion of the federal government at the expense of individual liberty. (That the IRS will need to hire additional staff to enforce the penalties only makes the situation politically worse for the Administration). Democrats may describe the individual mandate as a call for individual responsibility, but they’re losing the debate – as the election results of 2010 underscores.

Replacing the PPACA’s individual mandate with something different, something that more directly speaks to personal responsibility – without involving the IRS – and that is more effective in accomplishing the goal of the individual mandate, is a winning public policy and political strategy.

Fortunately for the Administration, there are viable alternatives. For example, a year ago I suggested allowing carriers to exclude coverage for pre-existing health conditions and impose a premium surcharge on individuals who go without medical coverage for a specified period of time. Others are suggesting creating a limited open enrollment period during which uninsured individuals can apply for coverage on a guaranteed issue basis.

There’s another very practical reason for the President to seek a different approach to getting individuals to obtain coverage before they are sick or injured. Whether the Supreme Court will rule the PPACA’s individual mandate as unconstitutional is a great unknown. Legal decisions are hard to predict and given the makeup of the current Court, their decision on this matter will likely be close.

And the result could be devastating to the Administration. If the Court were to strike down the individual mandate in the Spring of 2012 the Administration would be forced to find a replacement in the heat of a presidential election campaign. How likely are Republicans to cooperate with the White House just weeks before their nominating convention? Worse, the Supreme Court could find that since the individual mandate is unconstitutional the entire health care reform law is nullified.

Imagine the chaos. Would 26 year olds insured under their parents’ policies suddenly be dropped? Would seniors be required to reimburse the government for checks they’ve received to close the donut hole in their Medicare prescription coverage? This is not what the President wants dominating the news during his re-election campaign.

The political and societal risk can be minimized to nearly zero simply by eliminating the element of the PPACA most open to challenge: the individual mandate. After all, the Supreme Court can’t declare unconstitutional a provision already removed from the law.

Republicans say they want to do away with the individual mandate. The President should let them do so. Yes, the GOP will claim victory. For the Obama Administration, giving Republicans bragging rights is a small price to pay for improving the PPACA, demonstrating his openness to bipartisan solutions, and avoiding a political nightmare of apocalyptic proportions.

This is one situation in President Obama should embrace the call to “repeal and replace.” Doing so is in his own – and more importantly, the American people’s – best interest.

A Few More Unrelated Health Care Reform Items

There’s always something happening related to health care reform in general and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in particular. As I continue my year end “clean-up” here’s some short takes on some of the more noteworthy events and ideas I’ve come across lately.

The AMA and the Individual Mandate:
The American Medical Association is of two minds when it comes to requiring everyone to obtain health care coverage  This individual mandate is at the heart of many of the law suits seeking to overturn the PPACA in court. During the health reform debate they supported this requirement. As reported over at the HealthAffairs blog, during their recent interim House of Delegates meeting the AMA voted to reverse this position. Only after “desperate scrambling by AMA leaders” the House voted to refer the issue to the AMA Board of Trustees and to hold a vote concerning their their position on the individual mandate when the House reconvenes again in June.

Both votes were close and reveal a deep schism within the AMA. Like the Wright on Health blog where I came across this item, I don’t believe the result will actually split the AMA, but if the organization abandons its support for the individual mandate it would be a serious political blow to the Obama Administration.

The PPACA and Medicare:
President Barack Obama and his allies argue that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will strengthen Medicare even though the health care reform package cuts about $500 billion from the federal health program over the next 10 years. The Associated Press did an interesting fact check that sheds some light on the PPACA’s impact on Medicare. The bottom line: unless there are offsetting cost reductions in Medicare, the cuts to the program required by the PPACA will simply need to be replenished by other sources. While the Associated Press’ Q&A points out another example of the financial gimmickry so common in Washington, it also highlights the need to reform Medicare, especially in terms of reining in medical spending. The PPACA creates some pilot projects and the like to do just that. Whether they will generate the savings necessary in time is the $500 billion question.

And for a lighter look at Medicare, feel free to check out “The New Medicare Drug Card” brought to you by the Onion.

Speaking of Controlling Medical Costs:
Health insurance premiums reflect the cost of health care. This is a fact that many lawmakers seems unable to grasp. Perhaps its a gap in their education or, at the risk of being appropriately cynical, perhaps it’s because it is easier – and better politics – to beat up on insurance companies than it is to take on hospitals and doctors.

One way to reduce costs is to reduce needless care. As David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, the potential savings from eliminating unnecessary medical treatment is huge, both in terms of dollars and in lives. Mr. Leonhardt, who writes the Economic Scene column for the paper, identifies three steps necessary to earn these savings: 1) “learning more about when treatments work and when the don’t;” 2) “give patients the available facts about treatments;” and 3) “changing the economics of medicine to reward better care rather than simply more care.”

What’s especially interesting, and especially for those who believe the PPACA does nothing to restrain health care costs, is Mr. Leonhardt’s point that the new health care reform law makes a good start down this path. As he makes clear, the PPACA doesn’t go as far as is needed, but it lays the groundwork for much of the hard work yet to come.

Physician Owned Surgery Centers:
Here’s a not surprising headline: “Doctors with ownership in surgery center operate more often: U-M study.” Shocking, no? The University of Michigan study shows the financial incentives gained by doctors when they have a financial stake in a a surgery center. One possible explanation the researchers mention for this is “that these physicians may be lowering their thresholds for treating patients with … common outpatient procedures.” Those financial incentives can be hefty, amounting to what the authors call a “triple dip.” Doctors with a stake in a surgery center “collect a professional fee for the services provided … share in their facility’s profits and [in] the increased value of their investment.”

Writing in Health Affairs, the data showed that “owners operated on an average of twice as many patients as non-owners” and their caseloads increased more rapidly and dramatically. Significantly, the study reports that doctors have a stake in 83 percent of surgery centers in the United States. To be fair, these out-patient centers often charge less for comparable treatments than hospitals do. But if they double the number of surgeries, how much do they really contribute to constraining health care costs?

The “Best of” CBO’s Health Care Reform Reports:
The Congressional Budget Office occupies a unique position in the legislative process. In a hyper-partisan Congress, they are an island of non-partisanship. (Of course, partisans in both parties only admit this when what the CBO reports supports their position, but that’s politics). This is not to say that the CBO is always right or that they’re not constrained by the questions asked or the data they are provided. But at the end of the day, when it comes to reliable information and analysis, there are few places better to turn to than the Congressional Budget Office.

When it comes to health care reform the CBO was instrumental in providing meaningful input to the debate. And now those reports – and other health care related studies – are compiled in a greatest hits collection entitled “Selected CBO Publications Related to Health Care Legislation, 2009-2010.” The information contained in this 364-page compendium is invaluable. But what will be even more fun five or 10 years from now will to look back on the CBO’s projections and see how rarely the world world abides by the predictions of even well-informed and well-intentioned economists.

Federal District Court Declares PPACA’s Individual Mandate Unconstitutional

A federal district judge in Virginia found the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act unconstitutional today.

The ruling by Judge Henry Hudson makes the count at the district court level 2-to-1 in favor of the new health care reform law’s constitutionality. Another Judge in Virginia and one in Michigan ruled in favor of the legislation’s requirement that individuals obtain health coverage beginning in 2014. There are nearly two dozen legal challenges to the PPACA and no doubt others will go against the law as well, while others side with the Obama Administration.

In making his decision, Judge Hudson concurred with the arguments put forward by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli. The core of his this argument is that while the federal government has the power and authority to regulate interstate commerce, whether or not to buy health insurance coverage is a local decision and beyond the reach of the federal government. The Washington Post offers a quote from the 42-page ruling that makes this position clear: “Neither the Supreme Court nor any federal circuit court of appeals has extended Commerce Clause powers to compel an individual to enter the stream of commerce by purchasing a commodity in the private market.”

In claiming the individual mandate was unconstitutional, Judge Hudson specifically stated that “portions of the law that do not rest on the requirement that individuals obtain insurance are legal and can proceed,” according to the Washington Post. Officials in the Obama Administration concede that, if the Supreme Court were to find the individual mandate requirement the goal of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law would be crippled. Politico.com, reports that these officials concede “the lack of a mandate would cut the number of uninsured people who would get coverage in half and threaten the ban on denying coverage [to] people with pre-existing conditions.” Medicaid expansion, the creation of state-run insurance exchanges and the medical loss ratio requirements would not be impacted, however.

The ruling by Judge Hudson was not unexpected as he was very skeptical of the law during a hearing in October. Nor did Judge Hudson stay implementation of the law, which means implementation of even those PPACA provisions tied to the individual mandate may continue until a decision on the laws constitutionality is made by the Supreme Court. 

With various judges deciding differently the constitutionality of the law will need to be determined by the Supreme Court. The new Virginia decision, the others in which a federal district court judge has ruled, and a decision yet to come on a suit filed by 20 states against the PPACA in a Florida court, will need to work their way through the judicial system before the issue reaches the Supreme Court. Attorney General Cuccinelli has requested that his suit bypass the Fourth Court of Appeals (which would normally hear an appeal from a Virginia federal court) and go directly to the Supreme Court. To accept this request, the Washington Post notes that the Supreme Court would have to decide that the case “held extreme public importance” and immediate intervention was required.

Whether Attorney General Cuccinelli’s request is accepted or not, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act prior to 2014.

Coming Soon: The Inevitable Revision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Health care reform legislation may have been signed into law on March 23, 2010, but the issue is not going away. Anyone watching the election campaigns playing out across the country can attest to that. Republicans have made the  “repeal and replace” of health care reform a key promise in their "A Pledge to America" campaign document. While some Democratic candidates are touting their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, others are bragging about their opposition to it. And others, like West Virginia Governor and Senate candidate Joe Manchin have talked about “repealing the things that are bad in the bill.”

Then there’s the impact on polling. Now, some readers of this blog get vehemently angry that Congress and President Barack Obama would dare pass legislation opposed by the public. I disagree. Political leaders have a job to lead, to make tough choices, to examine the facts, their constituents’ interests and then to cast their votes in accordance with their beliefs and conscience. I do not think politicians who flip-flop in whatever direction the polls show is popular at the moment are worth a lot. If politicians are simply to reflect the majority of opinion we could replace Congress with online survey software and be done with it. Also, consider this: if politicians only voted as the polls dictate there would have been no Civil Rights Act in 1964. American troops would have been out of Iraq during the Bush Administration. Whether liberal or conservative, there are numerous examples of legislation passing in spite of polls showing a majority of Americans opposing the new law that you are likely to applaud – and decry.

Nonetheless, polls do and should be a factor in the deliberations of politicians. They indicate when problems have reached a critical point where a solution is demanded. And they can serve to help shape and influence the likely outcome. Some polls of late have shown that a plurality of Americans – and perhaps more important given that election day is near at hand, likely voters – have an unfavorable opinion of the PPACA. But if polling is to influence decision making, then it’s important to dive a bit deeper into the numbers.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll shows why. This survey shows that only 15 percent of likely voters support leaving the new health care reform law as is while 85 percent want the PPACA changed in some manner. However, that 85 percent is far from monolithic. 37 percent of likely voters surveyed said they wanted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act completely. Another 10 percent wanted changes to the law that would narrow its scope, but did not call for repeal. And 36 percent, a nearly identical number to those supporting repeal, want the law expanded. I couldn’t find a copy of the poll itself, but I assume this latter group includes those who support a single payer system or at least a public option, who want greater regulation on insurance carriers and/or who want greater cost controls included in the legislation. However, one could easily assume a single payer advocate, for example, might simply state they want the new law repealed.

My point here is that advocates on the right and the left will be seeking changes to the PPACA. The basic law may have passed in 2010, but it will evolve over the next few years. Some of the likely battles:

  • Repealing the requirement that businesses issue 1099s to any corporation or individual to which they pay $600 in a year. Democrats and Republicans alike support changing this provision. Whether it’s repealed or greatly revised is the only open question. Similarly, requirements for including health insurance premiums paid on behalf of employees on W-2s (which is optional in 2011) create a burden on businesses, especially small ones, that will necessitate changes.
  • There will be an effort to revive the idea of creating public run health plans (the so-called “public option”). Given the firestorm of opposition to the federal government expanding its role in America’s health care system, however, I don’t see the votes being there for this approach – especially in a Congress with small majorities in each House.
  • I expect, although it may be more of a hope, that there will be a push to allow premium subsidies to Americans earning less than 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level to use those subsidies outside the exchanges being set up under the PPACA. This would allow those receiving the premium support greater choice and force the exchanges to compete with the outside market on a more level playing field. The exchanges are unlikely to go away: both Democrats and Republicans support them. But taking away arbitrary advantages will result in greater and more fair competition in the marketplace. Let the best offerings win.
  • There will be proposals to do away with the mandate that all Americans obtain health care coverage. While there are law suits seeking this result, I personally don’t think they’ll prevail. But Republicans (and some Democrats) will see a benefit to championing the repeal of an individual mandate. Neither party, however, is likely to seek a repeal of the requirement that carriers accept all applicants, regardless of their health conditions. As I’ve written before, a mandate on carriers to sell health insurance absent a mandate on individuals to buy imposes a horrific surcharge on health insurance premiums. I would hope this effort fails, but fortunately, if it succeeds, there are other ways to reduce the inevitable adverse selection that would follow (impose limited open enrollment periods, increase premiums or impose pre-existing conditions when consumers buy coverage after going uninsured for a specified period of time, etc.)
  • And maybe Congress and the Administration will focus attention on the biggest driver of increasing medical insurance premiums – the skyrocketing cost of medical care. The PPACA has some meaningful cost containment ideas hidden away in its 300,000+ words, more than the new health care reform is given credit for  (the topic of a future post). But even so, there’s a lot more to do. Lawmakers know they need to confront this issue eventually. Eventually they will.

We all have a tendency to draw straight lines from current data. That’s how bubbles happen. Stocks are going up and they’ll continue to do so. Gold is at a record high it’ll continue going higher. Tulip prices are skyrocketing and they’ll do so forever.

The same phenomenon occurs in connection to laws and regulations. A law passes and humans have a tendency to accept that that’s that. Now that the law is in cement nothing will change. But laws evolve. They are molded by regulators. They are shaped by the people who live under them. And sooner or later they are revised by the legislative body that passed the new law in the first place.

When thinking about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, intense revision was, and is, inevitable. No law seeking to reshape America’s health care system would get it right on the first try. Politicians may proclaim “Mission Accomplished” when speaking of legislation (and wars), but the reality is the goal is never achieved perfectly and refinement is always needed Usually there’s a passage of some time before the first attempt to address a problem and subsequent efforts. Changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are likely to start much sooner. I’m thinking early January 2011.

New York Shows Perils of Imbalanced Health Care Reform

One area of agreement likely to be quickly identified at President Barack Obama’s bi-partisan health care reform summit on Thursday is the principal that carriers should be required to accept all applicants for coverage regardless of their health status. This concept, known as “guarantee issue,”  is high on the wish list of Republicans and Democrats alike. What will be far more divisive is whether a requirement that carriers sell health insurance coverage to all consumers should be balanced against a requirement that all consumers buy health insurance coverage.

The issue has both a political and a substantive component. Politically Republicans, and some Democrats, consider forcing individuals to purchase coverage to be overly paternalistic, unfair, a tax-by-another-name, and/or yet another step toward socialism.

From a public policy point of view, it’s hard to see how a system can work without a balance between the requirement to sell and to buy coverage. Otherwise people will wait until they need the insurance before they obtain it. It’s the equivalent of allowing motorists to buy auto insurance from the tow truck driver who shows up at a car wreck. Why buy it before you need it?

Noam Levey, in a thorough article running in the Los Angeles Times describes the costly mistake New York made when it required carriers to sell coverage to all applicants without mandating that individuals purchase coverage. After nearly two decades of this situation health insurance premiums in New York “are now the highest in the nation by some measures, with individual health coverage costing about $9,000 a year on average. And nearly one in seven New Yorkers still lacks health coverage, a greater proportion than before the law was passed.” In some New York counties, Mr. Levey reports “it is impossible to buy an individual plan for less than $12,000 a year.” For some older residents in other states, premiums of $1,000 per month may be close to what they’re paying now. But because New York has pure community rating (meaning all insureds pay the same premium regardless of their age) $12,000 is the premium facing 24 year olds, not just 64 year olds.

I’ve written about this health care reform surcharge frequently and for a long time. The Los Angeles Times article does a great job of showing why New York should serve as a case study on the issue for negotiators at the health care reform summit in Washington. The message is simple.  Mark Hall, a Wake Forest University economist who has studied New York’s experience, summarizes it well in the Los Angeles Times article: “You basically can’t have a functioning insurance market if people can buy insurance on the way to the hospital.”

If those at the summit are serious about solving problems they’ll recognize this reality. However, even folks who should know better, by which I mean anyone with an insurance license, condemn requiring individuals to obtain coverage as un-American in some way. (Never mind the various other duties we impose on citizens in this country.)  The Administration and Republicans are likely to reach an impasse on this issue.

There is at least one other way to balance guarantee issue with the need to prevent gaming with the system. As I’ve suggested before, the solution is to allow carriers to exclude coverage for existing health conditions and to impose a premium surcharge on those applying for coverage who have gone without health insurance for a significant period of time.  The premium surcharge and pre-existing exclusion period could vary depending on how long the individual went without coverage. This approach is a part of the California Association of Health Underwriter’s Healthy Solutions health care reform plan.

Yes, premium subsidies would be required to help lower income Americans purchase the coverage. Republicans have supported refundable tax credits for this purpose in the past while Democrats have put forward direct subsidies. At the end of the day, however, both parties recognize the need to provide premium support. The debate is only over methodology.

The problem with this compromise is that “pre-existing conditions” have become a blasphemous word in Washington, at least among Democrats. Whether they would allow carriers to impose restrictions on existing health problems as an alternative means of encouraging (if not requiring) all consumers to obtain health insurance is unlikely. This is where presidential leadership could make the difference. If President Obama wants bi-partisan health care reform legislation — and, a big if here, the Republicans are willing to negotiate in good faith — the Healthy Solutions method of balancing the need to balance a requirement to sell health insurance with a requirement that consumers obtain it makes sense.

 The health care and health insurance status quo in this country can not long stand. Health care reform is needed. Democrats and Republicans can insist on the purity of their positions. But if they are sincere about solving problems, there are ways to get the job done. The question is, whether there’s the will.

Massachusetts Offers Both Parties a Window of Opportunity for Health Care Reform

Not that anyone asked, but here’s some free advice to both Democrats and Republicans in Washington: don’t over think what’s happened in Massachusetts. There are as many interpretations of the “meaning,” “message” and “impact” of state Senator Scott Brown’s victory Tuesday night as there are television pundits. And just like paranoids noodling with a conspiracy theory, the facts can be manipulated to prove anything (I’ve heard all of these in the past 24 hours or so): President Barack Obama was too liberal; he tried too hard to be bi-partisan; he didn’t move fast enough on health care reform; he moved too fast on health care reform.

Or that the special election results prove that the Republican strategy of non-cooperation with Democrats is working; that the Republican establishment is out of step with Republican grass roots; that the country is irretrievably locked into blue/red gridlock; that the Republicans are branding themselves up as barriers to progress.

Or that Attorney General Martha Coakley defeat reflects voters feelings about the two candidates; what they think about President Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and/or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; that Republicans are assured of victory in November; that Democrats have had a wakeup call and will rebound; or that the results reflect the skill (or lack thereof) of the candidates and their campaigns.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. One could argue that it means all those things and more. Usually, however, the simplest interpretation is usually closest to the truth: voters rejected Republicans last year because they were fed up with political games, hypocrisy and ineptitude. They are rejecting Democrats this year because they are fed up with political games, hypocrisy and ineptitude. The reality is that both parties have shown a remarkable inability to govern this complicated country let alone unify its diverse political viewpoints.

So instead of wasting time trying to squeeze every nuance out of the Boston-brewed tea leaves, my advice to both parties is to take advantage of the window of opportunity that election created between now and President Obama’s State of the Union Address to reinvent yourselves. Because let’s face it, voters don’t like either Democrats or Republicans. And why should they? Democrats lost sight of the reality that this is a centrist country. And Republicans have lost sight of the need to stand for something besides “we’re not those guys.”

Not surprisingly, given the topic of this blog, I think health care reform provides both parties with the chance to prove they deserve votes for something other than being the best of two evils.

Democrats have to stop acting like every member of their party thinks alike. Liberals seemed to think that with 60 votes in the Senate they’d quickly adopt the Progressive Caucus’ wish list. If they’d looked past their own hubris they’d have noticed that some of the folks in their caucus room were pretty darn moderate – heck, some are downright conservative. And they were elected as Democrats, too. Which means their views and votes are just as “Democratic” as those of liberals.

Given that the liberal agenda was never within reach and now is even more remote, think carefully about what you do next. Pass health care reform through some political legerdemain and you’ll only confirm to independent voters that you’re more interested in political games than acceptable public policy. (And remember, it’s independents that will determine the make-up of Congress. Consider: there are perhaps only 50-75 House seats winnable by either party – most Congressional seats are so solidly in one camp the seats are safe for the party who holds them now, assuming the incumbent avoids scandal or indictment).

Instead of passing health care reform in the next 24 hours, promise to take a step back and reconsider some of its elements. Then streamline the bill down to the essentials. What really matters when it comes to health care reform?

  • Restraining costs. There’s some interesting cost containment ideas buried in the current health care reform proposals. Paring the legislation down to its essentials will allow Democrats to make these ideas more prominent. Add some stronger malpractice reform language for good measure. Sure defensive medicine’s impact on costs is perceived as being far greater than it is, but let’s face it, Democrats have a perception problem. Pushing malpractice reform takes a talking point away from Republicans, shows independents that Democrats can stand up to trial lawyers, and can become a symbol for how serious Dems are to tackle runaway medical costs.
  • Unshackle Consumers with Pre-Existing Conditions. In America today, if you don’t get coverage through your employer and you have an existing medical condition, you’re out of luck. You may want to buy health insurance. You might be able to afford health insurance. But if you don’t already have coverage, you’re not going to get it. And if you do have coverage you’re stuck with it. Carriers can raise the rates, lower the benefits or both and you’ve got nowhere else to go. Most voters know someone in this predicament. Many voters are in it themselves. Require carriers to accept all applicants (what’s called “guarantee issue.”) But do so responsibly. Either require everyone to buy health insurance (called an “individual mandate”) or impose a meaningful penalty for failing to do so. Otherwise, costs will skyrocket as everyone waits until they need coverage before they purchase it – the equivalent of buying auto coverage from the tow truck driver hoisting your car after an accident (what’s called “adverse selection”). The problem is that Republicans have painted individual mandates as the devil’s work, forcing consumers to buy policies they may not want. So let the carriers provide the discipline: if a consumer fails to purchase coverage within a specified period of time after becoming eligible for it (for example by becoming too old to be covered as a dependent on their parent’s policy or losing employer-sponsored coverage) allow carriers to exclude pre-existing conditions for 12 months and to charge a 10 percent higher premium for two years. This makes those who choose to self-insure accountable for their decision while still allowing themselves a path back to responsibility.
  • Reduce the Number of Uninsured and Underinsured. Most Americans acknowledge there’s something wrong with America’s high number of uninsured. Whether the actual number is 47 million uninsured (greater than the population of California) or some lower number, the fact is it’s too many. Those with coverage pay a tax to support the uninsured, estimated at roughly $1,000 per year in higher insurance premiums. So expand Medicaid. Close the doughnut hole in Medicare prescription benefits. Offer subsidies to Americans who cannot afford premiums, but fail to qualify for government programs. Just don’t create new bureaucracies to do it. Voters know new agencies generally do more harm than good. Why feed the suspicion?
  • Reduce the Cost of Health Care Reform. If a reform package sets in motion medical cost containment, makes coverage portable, and reduces the number of uninsured – and that’s about it, the cost will be far less than what’s currently contemplated. Put on the table a tax on the wealthiest Americans (removing the tax cut President George Bush gave those earning more than $1 million per year. Then offer to replace the tax with revenue provisions Republicans offer. If they object to any revenue increases of any kind, then they will have fully embraced their branding as the do nothing party.  That’s a recipe for turning their current momentum into failure.

Which brings me to advice for Republicans. Waving a sheaf of paper at a presidential address on the floor of Congress is not proof of a Republican plan. Introduce a plan that the Republican caucus in both the Senate and the House can support. Submit it to the CBO for scoring. Treat it like a real bill. Demand hearings. Declare it a starting point for negotiations and then set up a time and place for a meeting to negotiate. If Democrats don’t show up Republicans will have enough political fodder to last two, maybe three, election cycles.

Sure, Rush Limbaugh won’t like it. He wants President Obama to fail and wants Republicans to fight every step he tries to take. But independent voters want America to succeed. They don’t care about who gets the credit, but they do care about appropriate progress. And they know achieving this means legislation that both President Obama and Republicans consider acceptable. So put together something that can gain votes beyond a Chamber of Commerce luncheon (see the above for some ideas). Remember, obstinacy is not a rallying cry. And if the GOP is not not careful, someone will remind voters that Republicans controlled Congress and the White House for six years, but never even considered meaningful health care reform. Voters don’t want the wrong health care reform, but that does not mean they don’t want any health care reform. The status quo is imposing hardship on more and more Americans. They need and deserve help. If Republicans want voters to return them to power in 10 months, they need to demonstrate leadership today.

As far as changes go, please get real. Allowing plans to sell across state lines undermines state’s rights. Republicans are for state’s rights, remember? Telling voters in California that policy makers in South Dakota will determine what’s adequate consumers protections when it comes to health insurance is lousy public policy. Republicans should go through their various proposals and cobble together a coherent package. And they should make it clear they want to pass some kind of health care reform. Proclaiming the status quo as adequate is unlikely to fly as a platform for very long.

The Massachusetts Senate race is the story of the week – and then some. Yes, it will have long term political ramifications, but eventually it will be yesterday’s news. Some other issue, scandal, disaster or discovery will take its place. For now, however, Senator-elect Brown’s upset gives both Democrats and Republicans a chance to prove they’re the party of the future, not the party of the left or of no or of, worst of all, the recent past. Whether either will choose to seize the opportunity is anyone’s guess. What’s yours?

Of course, what’s significant about the Massachusetts special election is not what I think it should mean, but what the actual impact it has on health care reform. Which I’ll be writing about as soon as the crystal ball clears a bit.