Category Archives: Administrative Law

Is there an answer to the House lawsuit on the ACA other than standing?

Many have been concerned that the architecture of health insurance without medical underwriting created by the Affordable Care Act was inherently unstable and that, sooner or later, the markets it created would contract due to serious adverse selection problems. Although various creative bolsters from the Obama administration have delayed that forecast from yet materializing, except perhaps for the most generous of ACA exchange plans, as it turns out, the more immediate threat to Obamacare may come not from its inherent architectural deficiencies but from technical flaws now being unearthed by program detractors.

One of these flaws has been much in the news: the failure of the premium tax credits section of the ACA (section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code) to extend to policies sold in states that did not establish an exchange pursuant to section 1311 of the Act.  There are approximately 34 such states. In 2014, they covered about two-thirds of those enrolled in individual health plans through the Exchanges.  The Supreme Court is likely to decide this term in King v. Burwell whether the Obama administration’s determination to extend tax credits to persons in those 34 states is lawful.  A decision against the Obama administration, which appears to be the prevailing prognostication,  will throw major parts of the ACA  into turmoil because only the sicker insureds with incomes that now qualify them for policies are likely to purchase those policies at full freight.  Insurers, knowing of that proclivity, are going to be very leery of selling such policies; adverse selection would seem inevitable.  It remains to be seen whether legislative action at the federal level — revision of section 1311 of the ACA — or at the state level — grudging creation of exchanges — would return those markets to equilibrium following a decision expected by many in King v. Burwell.

Another flaw, however, has not received much attention — until late. It is the apparent failure of Congress directly to appropriate money for another critical part of Obamacare that keeps premiums low: the cost sharing subsidies created by section 1412 of the law and now codified at 42 U.S.C.  § 18071.  The idea of this provision is that poorer purchasers can purchase a policy for “Silver” prices that ordinarily would have 30% cost sharing, but receive a policy that provides anywhere from “Silver plus” (27%) to “Platinum-plus” (6%) levels of cost sharing.  This way, lower-middle-class people can get a policy that they might be able to afford without much of its purpose being undone by hefty deductibles and copays.

Cost Sharing Reductions
Cost Sharing Reductions


For the reasons I outline below, it appears clear that Congress at least strongly contemplated that provision of these extra benefits to the poor would come not from higher prices for policies paid by wealthier purchasers on the individual exchange.  Instead, the federal treasury would pay the insurers for the extra costs they incurred in offering these more generous variants of the policy.  It appears that the Obama administration has been making such payments to insurers, even if the amount of the payments — potentially in the billions —  has not been made clear. (see 3:29:36 of this CSPAN video and the comments of CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner).

In the lawsuit captioned United States House of Representatives v. Burwell, however, filed November 21, 2014, the plaintiff demonstrates with some care how Congress never actually appropriated any money for the cost sharing subsidies that sweeten Obamacare coverage. Presumably, insurers should thus have to cover themselves the resulting extra expenses created by higher utilization and lower deductibles and copay. Presumably insurers should do so out of revenues they receive from customers paying the full price. Gross premiums for everyone would thus need to be higher: probably 10-15% higher to cover the shortfall.  And if insurers neglected to take those extra expenses into account, well, tough on the insurers one supposes.  Such a lack of empathy would not be without recent precedent.  Congress just hurt the insurers badly in section 227 of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 (“Cromnibus”) by apparently cutting off a creative funding arrangement the Obama administration had undertaken to make payments to/bailout the insurance industry through the Risk Corridors subsidy program.

The complaint
The complaint

Incomplete funding of Risk Corridors is middling potatos, however, compared to non-funding of cost sharing. I would not be surprised to see an increase of 10-15% in gross premiums result if such cost sharing payments were found unlawful.  An increase of (1) 10-15% resulting from the absence of appropriations for cost sharing subsidies, (2) perhaps 3% from whatever premium increases  are likely to result from  the “Cromnibus” decision not to permit circuitous funding of Risk Corridors deficits and (3)  perhaps another  7% from  increases in premiums that will result from the ACA-required phaseout of the Transitional Reinsurance provision under which the federal treasury covers insurers for insureds with large losses all adds up to a gloomy future for the Affordable Care Act. And that’s true even if, as its proponents claim, the cost curve is being bent. One reason insurance premiums are as low as they in the Exchanges is that, behind the scenes, the government is heavily subsidizing them in a variety of ways.

This cumulative projected increase can not be dismissed by asserting that the increase in premiums resulting from court-barred federal subsidies would affect only those earning more than 400% of the Federal Poverty Level and thus ineligible for Obamacare subsidies. Yes, it might appear that the net premium for others under section 36B really relates only to their incomes and not to the gross premium for insurance.

But the appearance of a limited effect is misleading in at least two respects.  Increases in premiums resulting from court decisions and statutory reductions will matter more broadly.  First, the subsidy only covers the cost of the second lowest silver plan in the rating area.  The many people wanting a plan more expensive than that — a Silver PPO in many parts of the country or even a Gold or Platinum HMO — will be affected.  Indeed, their net premiums will go up by a higher percentage than the increase in the gross premiums because the denominator of the increase calculation will not be the old gross premium but the (smaller) old net premium.  Second , to the extent that insurers attempt to compensate for the premium revenue shortfall by raising premiums on employer-sponsored insurance, under Revenue Procedure  2014–37 (page 363), which purports to implement section 36B, such a move would trigger increases in percentages of income that individuals have to pay as the net premium for even the second lowest cost Silver Plan.

So, what’s the answer?  We haven’t seen the literal answer in court to the complaint by the House of Representatives and, of course, there’s a very serious issue as to whether this is the kind of dispute that belongs in a court anyway.  Bet the house that the Obama administration will raise issues called “standing” and “political question doctrine” in an effort to get the case dismissed.  But, if those objections fail, is there an answer to the core of the House of Representative’s complaint on this point?

Congress intended that the federal treasury fund cost sharing

One answer might be that Congress at the time of the ACA’s passage clearly intended that payments for cost sharing reduction come out of the federal treasury and not through insurers charging higher prices.  The evidence on this point seems rather compelling.  Here is at least some of it.

  1. In discussing premium tax credits and cost sharing reductions, Section 1412(a)(3) of the ACA says that the “The Secretary [of HHS], in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, shall establish a program under which— the Secretary of the Treasury makes advance payments of such credit or reductions to the issuers of the qualified health plans in order to reduce the premiums payable by individuals eligible for such credit. “
  2. Section 1412(c), captioned “(c) PAYMENT OF PREMIUM TAX CREDITS AND COST-SHARING REDUCTIONS” states in subparagraph (3) “COST-SHARING REDUCTIONS.—The Secretary shall also notify the Secretary of the Treasury and the Exchange under paragraph (1) if an advance payment of the cost-sharing reductions under section 1402 is to be made to the issuer of any qualified health plan with respect to any individual enrolled
    in the plan. The Secretary of the Treasury shall make such advance payment at such time and in such amount as the Secretary specifies in the notice. “
  3. Section 1313(a)(6)  of the ACA , captioned  “APPLICATION OF THE FALSE CLAIMS ACT” states:  “Payments made by, through, or in connection with an Exchange are subject to the False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. 3729 et seq.) if those payments include any Federal Funds. Compliance with the requirements of this Act concerning eligibility for a health insurance issuer to participate in the Exchange shall be a material condition of an issuer’s entitlement to receive payments, including payments of premium tax credits and
    cost-sharing reductions, through the Exchange. ”  This provision makes little sense if cost sharing reductions were not paid for by the federal government.
  4. Section 1332 of the ACA addresses the possibility of states getting a waiver from many of the provisions of Title I of the ACA and says that in such event “the Secretary shall provide for an alternative means by which the aggregate amount of such credits or reductions that would have been paid on behalf of participants in the Exchanges established under this title had the State not received such waiver, shall be paid to the State for purposes of implementing the State plan under the waiver. ” Why would the State receive such funds for cost sharing reduction if the ACA did not contemplate that the federal government would already be paying for them?
  5. Section 6055 of the ACA requires issuers of “minimum essential coverage” to provide information on the amount of any cost sharing reductions received.  This provision makes no sense if insurers were just supposed to absorb the reductions and pass them on to other customers.
  6. Section 10104(c) of the ACA addresses limits on use of federal funds to pay for abortions.  It says no qualified health plan may pay for abortion services with  “[a]ny cost-sharing reduction under section 1402 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (and the amount (if any) of the advance payment of the reduction under section 1412 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).”  This prohibition would hardly seem necessary if cost sharing reductions were supposed to be absorbed internally by the insurer.

But perhaps it takes more than intent in a bill

My assumption, however, is that plaintiff House of Representatives will concede that the ACA certainly authorizes payments for cost sharing reductions and may indeed have contemplated that they would be made, but that it takes more than authorization for the executive branch. The House will argue, however, that to actually to make the payments: the Executive branch needs money. And it needs the money to be  in the right account via a formal appropriation by Congress.  The House will likely cite “The Purpose Statute,” 31. U.S.C. §1301 in support of this assertion.  This statute reads: “Appropriations shall be applied only to the objects for which the appropriations were made except as otherwise provided by law. ” It will likely also cite 31 U.S.C. §1341(a)(1), the Antideficiency Act in support. It says “An officer or employee of the United States Government or of the District of Columbia government may not make or authorize an obligation exceeding an amount available in an appropriation or fund for the expenditure of obligation.”

These statutory citations are indeed foreshadowed by several paragraphs on the House complaint during which it recites the requests of HHS for appropriations to pay for Cost Sharing Reductions ($4 billion) and asserts that no such appropriation was ever made.  The plaintiff notes that, by contrast, Congress did appropriate funds for the first cousin of Cost Sharing Reductions, advance premium tax credits through a standing appropriation under 31 U.S.C. § 1324 for tax refunds due individuals.

Or maybe not

I would expect two rejoinders to this argument.  The first is a technical and statutory one: apparently the Secretary has at one time asserted that appropriations for premium tax credits also covers cost sharing reductions.   The second is that any law restricting the executive’s power to spend money in this fashion is itself unconstitutional.

A statutory rejoinder?

Although acceptance of this first statutory argument would avoid the turmoil sure to erupt if cost sharing subsidies are judicially prohibited and the difficulties of constitutional adjudication, it strikes me, at least initially, as a loser. Although premium tax credits have a similar objective to cost sharing reductions, the two programs are not identical.  They could operate independently. There are many who are entitled to premium tax credits who are not entitled to cost sharing reductions.  If similarity of objective means that funds between programs are transferrable, an awful lot of Congress’ “Power of the Purse” has been evaded.

It’s also possible, however, since we haven’t seen the defendant’s response to the complaint that there’s some more authorization somewhere for the spending. If so, the House of Representatives is going to have egg on its face.  I assume, however, that  the House wouldn’t have been so foolish to file this lawsuit if it had not its homework carefully and failed to find even a needle-in-a-haystack explicit authorization for the spending.

A constitutional rejoinder

The harder question — and the one that would make House of Representatives v. Burwell a case about far more than the ACA — is the constitutional one.  Under what circumstances does the President have authority to spend unappropriated funds? Much ink has been spilled by scholars on this issue over the decades . Tahere are some older Supreme Court cases (Hooe and Sutton and Bradley) that indirectly suggest that the limits created by the predecessors to these statutes are real and permissible.  There’s also a thorough review of the then-existing literature by the Clinton-era Department of Justice in a memo of its Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 (2001 WL 36175929). Perhaps more relevant will be two cases which, though not binding on the Supreme Court, will likely have some precedential force.

West Point: Excellent views, historic buildings
West Point: Excellent views, historic buildings

Consider first Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery Central School District v. United States, 48 F.3d 1166 (Fed. Cir. 1995), a case decided by the Federal Circuit in 1995.  It involved a statute, the “Impact Aid Act” designed to help certain categories of schools: (1) “section 237” school districts whose property tax base was reduced by the presence of a lot of non-taxable federal property in the area, (2) school districts that had to educate children of workers on federal property, and (3) school districts that had incurred a substantial increase in the number of attending children.  Highland Falls, which sits near the West Point Military Academy, was an example of the first kind of district.  It should have received money pursuant to the Impact Aid Act since West Point apparently ate up apparently 50%  — and a beautiful 50% at that — of the property in the district .  But Congress, instead of allocating a lump sum for all payments to be made under the Impact Aid Act, split up the money with specific appropriation for each of the three categories of hardship it identified. And, apparently, the amount of money allocated to the category against which Highland Falls was claiming was short whereas the amount of money Congress had allocated to two other categories was more complete.  So, Highland Falls wanted the Department of Education (DOE) to transfer money from the more fully funded accounts to the one that would benefit it.

The court in Highland Falls refused to direct such a reallocation of appropriated funds.  Here’s what it said when DOE declined to do so:

Section 1341(a)(1)(A) makes it clear that an agency may not spend more money for a program than has been appropriated for that program, while § 1532 provides that an agency may use money appropriated for one program to fund another program only when authorized to do so by law. It is undisputed that, in each of the relevant fiscal years, Congress appropriated specific amounts to pay for § 237 entitlements. It also is undisputed that, in each of the relevant fiscal years, in order to fund § 237 entitlements at 100% levels, it would have been necessary for DOE to use money appropriated by Congress for entitlements under other sections of the Act—squarely in contravention of § 1532. The approach DOE followed was consistent with this statutory landscape.

As noted above, in order for DOE to fund § 237 entitlements at 100% in accordance with § 240(c), the agency would have had to transfer money from other sections’ appropriations to fund § 237. If DOE had followed such an approach, it would have been spending more money than Congress had appropriated for § 237 entitlements, in violation of § 1341(a)(1)(A). In addition, it would have been depriving at least one other section’s program of funds expressly appropriated for it by Congress. Put another way, it would have been “raiding” one appropriation account, for example § 238 or § 239, to credit another, § 237, in violation of § 1532.

Now, this is not a square holding on precisely the issue in the House of Representatives current lawsuit. It’s not a case where — as here — the Executive branch undertook a reallocation and someone wanted to challenge it.  Nonetheless, the language of Highland Falls is supportive of the House’s point.  Having decided, apparently, not to allocate funds for Cost Sharing, the executive branch can’t raid a related fund to help pay for it.

Also relevant will be Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians v. United States, 16 Cl. Ct. 75 (1988). There an Indian tribe sought money to equalize funding of its schools relative to local schools.  There was a federal statute that was supposed to provide such money.  But Congress had declined to appropriate funds for this special “set aside.”  The tribe asked that money be used from other accounts controlled by the Secretary of the Interior to make the statutory payments.  The court upheld the government’s decision not to do so.

The Set–Aside Fund was not funded in fiscal year 1986, the year of plaintiffs’ request. Plaintiffs argue that the Department of Interior could have applied funds from other accounts. However, the Anti–Deficiency Act, 31 U.S.C. § 1341(a) states that a United States officer may not authorize expenditures “exceeding the amount available in an appropriation or fund for expenditure or obligation.” Thus, the officers of the Department of the Interior could not grant the plaintiffs’ request for funding. Penalties for violating the Anti–Deficiency Act are codified at 31 U.S.C. §§ 1349 and 1350. The court thus finds that the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted as funds are not available to satisfy plaintiffs’ claim.

Again, not a case 100% on point, but still one that, at least in dicta, reinforced the House’s claim here that the executive can not dip into one pot of money, even if related and even if efficient, to pay bills for another program. And that is true even if Congress has earlier expressed its intent that such a program be funded.

MRE Beef Stew
MRE Beef Stew

And there is, on the other hand a case involving a disappointed bidder and military purchases of diced turkey (with gravy) and beef stew: Southern Packaging and Storage Company, Inc. v. United States (D.S.C. 1984). There, a district court found that, although the  purchase from a Canadian company violated the “Buy-American” provision of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act there was no violation of the anti-deficiency statute because the amount spent on combat rations — even Canadian-sourced ones — did not exceed the overall Congressional appropriation.

There is, in addition, lots of non-judicial authority on the subject, ranging from death-match law review articles by Professors Sidak (1989 Duke L.J. 1162 (1989)) and Stith, (97 Yale L.J. (1988)),  to summaries of the law from the United States General Accountability Office to a memorandum from the Clinton-era Justice Department.


So, there is a lot more to be said on this subject and we have not yet had the benefit of Secretary Burwell’s research and argument.  But, at least for now, provided the House can overcome the substantial justiciability questions, it looks like it may have a strong case on the merits. Of course, the House ought, like all of us, to be careful what it wishes for.  One wonders what reaction many Americans will have to a House legal victory when they find that they can no longer afford the health insurance they purchased due to what they may well regard as a “technicality.”


Share Button

Continuing Resolution jeopardizes Risk Corridors

Amidst all the passion yesterday at the roasting yesterday by the House Oversight Committee of Glib MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber and Marilyn Tavenner, Administrator for the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services, many have missed what may be the most important development of the day: Congress is closer to stopping the Obama administration from funding the Risk Corridors programs that insulates insurance carriers selling policies on the Exchanges from much of the financial risk.  Chapter G of the Continuing Resolution currently in the works  (the “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015”) appears to block the Obama administration’s apparent plan of using a “slush fund” — the “CMS Program Management Account” — to pay insurers when obligations under the program exceed receipts. Many, including the non-partisan Congressional Research Service and Senator Jeff Sessions, believe that the earlier contemplated use of this account to pay for Risk Corridors was unlawful under the Antideficiency Act and Article I, section 9, clause 7 of the United States Constitution (“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law”).

Page 75 of Division G of the summary of the Appropriations Act of 2015
Page 75 of Division G of the summary of the Appropriations Act of 2015

The inability of the Obama administration to finance the Risk Corridors program is a direct threat to the operation of the Affordable Care Act.  Insurers who priced policies based on the assumption that, if they went too low in their premiums, they would be protected against substantial financial risk by Risk Corridor payments from the federal government, will now be facing — to their surprise — an environment in which at least some of the Risk Corridor payments will not be forthcoming. Insurers contemplating entry  or continued participation into the insurance markets created by Obamacare will now hesitate for at least 2016 — either that or they will price their policies higher to protect against the now assumed risk of loss. The effect for 2015 policies is unclear. In light of the forthcoming Supreme Court decision in King v. Burwell, insurers negotiated for a provision in their contract that gives them the ability to terminate their participate in the program if either cost sharing reduction payments or premium tax credits are not available to purchasers. They are not known, however, to have negotiated for a similar provision with respect to Risk Corridor underfunding and thus might be held by a court to have assumed that risk.

Section 261 of the Restatement of Contracts 2d


How severe the effect of this Risk Corridor limitation will be depends on how CMS uses whatever authority remains to make at least partial payments to insurers and, of course, the amount by which obligations under the program exceed receipts.  Suppose, for example, that obligations to losing insurers under the Risk Corridors program are three times receipts from winning insurers.  This means  that losing insurers would receive only 33 cents on the dollar, at least until any future surplus from the program could make them whole.  Such a result would likely infuriate insurers and induce them to seek further regulatory concessions from the Obama administration as a price of continued participation in the ACA exchanges. If as the Obama administration predicted, Risk Corridors will break even or even run a surplus, the limitation in Division G will have no effect at all.

In any event, the Continuing Resolution in which all this is contained is not yet law.  And there are apparently many points of contention — some possibly even more important than Risk Corridors — up for debate.  Who knows what weapons insurance lobbyists will bring to bear in the mean time to rid Division G of this critical limitation?  If, however, Division G’s limitation on Risk Corridor payments survives, expect further trouble in the market for individual and small business insurance created by the Affordable Care Act.


It didn’t take long for my prognostication in the last paragraph to bear out.  Insurers are already in an uproar.  As reported in The Hill just now:

“American budgets are already strained by healthcare costs, and this change will lead to higher premiums for consumers and make it more difficult to achieve affordability,” said Clare Krusing, a spokesperson for the America’s Health Insurance Plans.

We shall see what happens.

And a thanks to Professor Josh Blackman of South Texas College of Law for bringing this development to my attention.


Share Button

The news from the Gruber hearing: it’s more than you think

Wow!  There’s a lot to say about the hearing that the House Oversight Committee just concluded.  Here are some bullet points that I will try to flesh out in the days ahead. I’m going to start not with MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, which is important, but with something yet more important that was addressed at the hearing: the planned escape of the insurance industry in the event the Supreme Court rules in King v. Burwell that the Affordable Care Act does not permit the executive branch to provide tax subsidies to residents of the many states that have, to date, not established their own health care exchanges.

King v. Burwell and the Gruber hearing

Under questioning from Georgia Republican Doug Collins, Marilyn Tavenner, the Administrator of Medicare and Medicaid Services, also a witness at the hearing, essentially confirmed (look here at 2:10-5:55) earlier reports that insurers had negotiated a provision letting them stop provide health insurance in the Exchanges if the Supreme Court were to rule that the federal government could not provide subsidies.  The Obama administration evidently could not get insurers to participate simply by leaving the matter silent and telling the insurers they could rely on whatever protections the classical legal doctrine of impracticability  would provide for “unforseen” circumstances.

Administrator Tavenner’s admission and the antecedent concession is is evidence that the insurance industry is very worried about the outcome of the Supreme Court decision.  It is evidence that, despite its public disparagement of the lawsuit, the Obama administration understands that it represents perhaps the most serious challenge to the ACA in that it lets Justice Roberts and the Supreme Court purport to simply play umpire and leave to a theoretically functional Congress the task of fixing the statute. It is evidence of the chaos that is going to erupt when the Supreme Court rules that the Obama administration can not lawfully pay subsidies to individuals in the many states, including my home state of Texas, that have declined, to date, to establish their own exchange.

It’s also worth noting that some Republicans at the hearing focused on the absence of any appropriation by Congress for the cost sharing reductions that the ACA provides poorer purchases of Exchange plans.  This absence has been one of the focuses of the lawsuit filed by the House of Representatives against the Obama administration. Secretary Tavenner purported not to know how much had been spent on this program.  Expect this failure to appropriate to be a major wedge used by the Republicans in the continuing knife fight over Obamacare.

Gruber: Part 1

And now onto Professor Gruber.    I fear his adventures in Congress are just beginning.  He bizarrely declined to provide the Committee with the amount of money he received from federal and state sources for his work on Obamacare and its implementation, saying (1) that he didn’t know what the law required him to provide and (2) that, even apparently within $100,000, he couldn’t say how much it was. But Professor Gruber’s apparent disdain of money aside  — ask me within $100,000 to tell me what I made on a consulting contract and I think I could manage it — his response begs the question of why he would not provide the information even if it were not required. What principle is his silence about payments protecting?  Surely it is within the right of Congress to find out how much the federal treasury paid an individual, either directly or through grants to the states. It goes to whether legislative appropriations are being used properly and to the bias of the witness on other matters.  So, expect a subpoena of Professor Gruber and quite possibly a return appearance.  Also, I have a hard time understanding why Professor Gruber or his counsel thought it smart to prevaricate on this matter.  I sure hope the MIT professor reported his income and paid his taxes on the grants.

Someone needs to really audit Professor Gruber’s modeling.  If Professor Gruber believes that the ends justified the means with respect to the Affordable Care Act, that it was acceptable to articulate the plan in contorted ways and to distort its accounting in order to get it passed so that the American people would reap its benefits, why would that instrumentalism cease when it came to modeling?  As someone who does economic modeling, I know, is part science, but it is also part art. There are choices to be made.  Simply from a casual reading of the limited material Professor Gruber has released on his “GMSIM” model, it is apparent that he very much made choices. He selected various critical parameters in ways that were not approved of by other scholars.  Did he do so as part of a genuine belief that others were wrong or because he needed those parameters in order to make the results come out “correctly?”  Were there draft runs of the model in which the answers did not come out as he wished and were parameters tweaked in response.  Until we see Professor Gruber’s code, until we see his drafts, we don’t know.

Perhaps with respect to Obamacare, this is all water under the bridge and a bit of political theater from the Republicans.  After all, Obamacare, like it or not, is the law.  But there is a philosophical issue involved and that is the vulnerability of Congress to laws predicated on modeling that is not validated and that may come from people who have their own political axes to grind or who are dependent on politically motivated sources of funding.  Oh, and don’t be surprised if executive privilege is claimed to try and protect such potentially explosive documents.

The Democratic Response

The Democratic response to the hearing was particularly ironic.  Yes, they were critical of Professor Gruber because he had  — and this is surely true — handed the Republicans a PR coup gift wrapped with a ribbon.  But, essentially the Democratic response was to tout the virtues of the Affordable Care Act.  They did this throughout the hearing by reciting the many people that it had helped (although apparently not the husband of Congresswoman Lummis), by unrelenting claims of causation between the “bending of the cost curve” and Obamacare, and by putting on as their only witness an area man who, despite a pre-existing condition and likely high medical expenses from a “common medical condition,” could sincerely extoll the delights of  managing to get less expensive insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act.  He also appears to have gotten better claims service, though it is hardly clear that this was the result of the ACA rather than the fact that his insurance policy now actually provided him with coverage for medical expenses sought to be reimbursed.

But what is the relevance of this Ari Goldman’s testimony other than to show that the ACA has helped him, in part by having someone other than the insured himself  pay for his predictable high medical expenses and that the ACA has largely converted an insurance system based on risk into one that serves as a tool for implementing federal redistributionist policies?  What is the relevance of assertions that Obamacare has slowed the growth in medical expenses — perhaps without a correlative decline in medical utilization? The only relevance is the instrumental argument that Professor Gruber made many times on the videos and recanted — but only insofar as it was articulated glibly — before Congress.  The ACA is a good thing.

Perhaps the ACA is, on balance, a good thing.  I depart from some on both sides of the political spectrum by believing that reasonable people can disagree on that issue both in the abstract and within the context of contemporary American political realities. But does that mean that it is acceptable to lie to people in order to get it past?  Does that mean it is acceptable to get it passed by exploiting the economic ignorance of the American people by disguising taxes as non-taxes, by gaming the CBO scoring system, or by including programs  such as the CLASS Act that were absolutely destined to fail but that could, thanks to the failure of the CBO to use basic principles of insurance accounting, yield a phantom $70 billion?  We should not be so hypocritical as to believe that there are not many who have succumbed, at various times and for various reasons, to this rationalization.  Professor Gruber had the poor sense to make that choice apparent and to attribute it to those in Washington.  But to  distance oneself from Professor Gruber’s statements but then defend his grilling by exclaiming the virtues of the ACA is essentially to recapitulate the very instrumentalism for which Professor Gruber was called on the carpet.


1. Best question of the day from Representative Cynthia Lummis comes in the context of Professor Gruber’s repeated claim that he was merely an economics expert, not a politican and his excuse of his prior statements by claiming that they were “glib.”

 Lummis:   “How many non-politicians know what CBO is?  How many non-politicians know what scoring is?  How many non-politicians would know that you have to get by CBO scoring in order to get the Affordable Care Act to say that it’s going to lower costs? You are a politician. Everything that has led up to your testimony today is inconsistent with your testimony today, which is to say all of your prior statements were a lie.  Is that true?  Were all of your prior statements a lie?  Or were they just glib?”


Share Button

CBO implies Obama regulation shoveled $8 billion to insurers

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report this week revising its February projections of the cost of the Affordable Care Act.  Although there is much to discuss regarding the report, I want to focus here on its troubling discussion of “Risk Corridors.”  That’s the part of the law under which the federal government reimburses insurers selling policies on the new Exchanges for sizable fractions of their losses. It also taxes insurers if they happen to make money selling policies on the new Exchanges. Between February and April, the CBO estimated cost of Risk Corridors jumped $8 billion.  In February, Risk Corridors were predicted to make the government a net of $8 billion over the three years of the program. Now, Risk Corridors are expected to net the government nothing. The CBO claims that this jump was caused by regulations issued by the Obama administration in March that drove up the cost of the program.

There’s a second explanation, however, for the $8 billion change between February and April that’s possibly more troubling. This past February I wrote a blog entry with a lot of math explaining that the CBO prior analysis of the Risk Corridors provision was baffling and rested on extremely dubious and factually unsupported assumptions about the profitability of insurers selling on the Exchanges.  That error, if it was one, was particularly salient because it ended up forestalling growing efforts within Congress to repeal Risk Corridors as an unwarranted “bailout” of the insurance industry.  Could it be that with the repeal threat gone, CBO is now using the “noise” created by an Obamacare regulation as cover for rectifying the unduly optimistic assumptions it made back in February regarding Risk Corridors? That would be very troubling, because while math errors merely challenge the CBO’s competence, the alternative behavior about which I am speculating here goes to something more important: the CBO’s integrity.

The CBO explanation means the Obama administration shoveled $8 billion to insurers through a regulatory “tweak”

The official explanation from the CBO on its change of $8 billion in the cost of Risk Corridors is as follows:

“In March 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a final regulation stating that its implementation of the risk corridor program will result in equal payments to and from the government, and thus will have no net budgetary effect.  CBO believes that the Administration has sufficient flexibility to ensure that payments to insurers will approximately equal payments from insurers to the federal government and thus that the program will have no net budgetary effect over the three years of its operation. (Previously, CBO had estimated that the risk corridor program would yield net budgetary savings of $8 billion).”

So, if the CBO is to be believed, the change isn’t due to any earlier error, but due to an administration regulation promulgated by the Obama administration that has resulted in a net of $8 billion more going to insurers.  That’s a big change for several reasons. First, it means that the regulatory changes instituted by the Obama administration cost the federal government $8 billion.  All of that money went to the insurance industry.  And so, in March of 2014, without much fanfare, the Obama administration would in effect have written a check to the insurance industry for $8 billion.  That payment would only have been motivated by one thing: a desire to keep insurers pacified and in the Exchanges after having deprived them of perhaps their most healthy potential insureds by a prior administrative ruling  — in violation of the ACA — that insurers could keep selling non-compliant policies.  The $8 billion would thus have been “damages” paid by the taxpayer in order to permit the President to honor his campaign promise that if you liked your insurance plan you could keep it.

In short, if you believe the CBO, a regulation for which statutory support will be extremely hard to find, resulted in the government shoveling $8 billion to insurers, basically to pacify them for the losses they suffered as a result of further regulatory changes of dubious legality.  The Obama administration can not afford to have its signature program enter a death spiral as a result of regulatory actions that, while mollifying those who otherwise would have lost their health insurance coverage, caused insurers to lose more money in the Exchanges. And, again, the Obama administration did so in a clever way that made it difficult for anyone to have legal standing to challenge them.  So far as I can discern, no insurer will be worse off as a result of the March 2014 regulatory changes. The real victims are taxpayers with diffuse interests and, of course, the Rule of Law.  

The CBO math is still baffling

A second reason the change by the CBO is big comes from a look at the math.  As I said in my February 2014 post calling the CBO February report “baffling,” consider the implications of asserting that the insurers would make so much money on the Exchanges that they would, on net owe the federal government $8 billion. If you do the math, it means that the CBO assumed that, over the course of three years, insurers would be earning about 8 cents on every dollar they earned via policies sold on the Exchanges.   I just ran the numbers again and came up with a very similar conclusion: the earlier estimate could only be true if insurers were supposed to make a hefty 8% or greater return on premiums. That estimate of 8 cents on the dollar was really peculiar at the time because enrollment — let alone actually paying customers — was running seriously behind projections and the number of “young invincibles” was particularly low.  Low overall insurance purchases and particularly low rates of purchases by the people who were most needed in the Exchanges caused many people to believe back in February that insurers would hardly make hefty profits and pay money to the government under Risk Corridors.  Instead, they thought insurers would fare poorly and probably have to be subsidized (or “bailed out”) by the government.

The effect of the February CBO pronouncement was to dampen enthusiasm for a bill proposed by Senator Marco Rubio that would have repealed the Risk Corridors provision as a bailout to the insurance industry.  If, after all, the federal government was, on balance, making money on Risk Corridors, it was hard to see it as a “bailout” to the insurance industry. Whether intended or not, the political effect of the February CBO announcement was to pull the rug out from one justification for repeal of Risk Corridors.

But is it even plausible to believe that the regulatory change made by the Obama administration in March without the approval of Congress could cause such a large change in the Risk Corridors program? I have done the math again and the answer is no.  I do not see how it is possible to get $8 billion out of the regulatory tweak that was made. Again, the calculations are baffling.

Here’s how we know.  The $8 billion the CBO thought back in February the government would make off of Risk Corridors represents about 4% of the premiums insurers on the Exchanges would take in during that time period. One can use that and other information from the CBO to reverse out a distribution for  “allowable costs” (basically claims expenses) We can thus make a respectable estimate of how many insurers would make money on the Exchanges, how many would lose, and how much these insurers would gain and lose. I describe the gory process in my post from February.  Call this distribution the CBO Insurer Profitability Distribution.  Then assume the government tweaks, as it did, two regulatory parameters used in the computation of Risk Corridor payments, changing something called a profit margin floor from 0.03 to 0.05 and changing an “administrative cost cap” from 0.2 to 0.22. If one then takes the CBO Insurer Profitability Distribution and computes how much the government would now make on Risk Corridors does one emerge with the CBO’s new prediction that Risk Corridors will produce no net revenue? No! One gets that the Risk Corridors program now generates about 2.8% of premiums for the government. In other words, the reduction in Risk Corridor revenue resulting from the administrative tweak is only 1/3 of what the government claims.

The easier way to reach the CBO’s April’s conclusion is to assume that the gain of $8 billion resulted from two phenomena: (1) the regulatory tweak mentioned by the CBO and discussed above, but (2) a recognition that the CBO Insurer Probability Distribution the CBO had used in February was, as I have said, wrong.  If, for example, one assumes that insurer claims were about 6% higher than the CBO estimated in February, the regulatory tweaks combined with higher insurer claims expenses indeed generate an $8 billion shift in the amount of revenue the government would make on Risk Corridors.

For those interested in the details, I link here to a Mathematica notebook showing the computations; I try to avoid black boxes.


So, what are we to make of this apparent discrepancy between the CBO’s explanation of its change in estimates and the actual effects of the regulatory changes it asserts to be the cause ?  It could, I suppose, be my mistake.  I have been careful and consider myself pretty knowledgable in this area, but I will hardly claim to be mathematically infallible. The problem is that the for ordinary Americans (like me), the CBO is a black box. It is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and it does not publish enough of its methodology for even experts in the field to figure out what it is doing.  That, I would submit, is a real problem for the democratic process, where the fate of legislation depends essentially on trust rather than the Reagan doctrine of “trust but verify” (doveryai no proveryai, in the original Russian).

It could also, however, be a coverup for a mistake (or worse) back in February. There is, after all, an alternative explanation of the change in estimate. It was unrealistic all along for the CBO to think that insurers in the Exchange were going to make money on balance. That’s what I suggested in my February 2014 post.  So, rather than admit that the it had been guilty of unwarranted optimism, the CBO simply used a new distribution of likely claims expenses, came up with a different answer, and used the March 2014 regulatory changes as a smokescreen.

I will confess, however, that I am very uncomfortable with conspiracy theories or with theories that are premised on people acting in bad faith.  Nonetheless, I would not find it impossible to believe that a culture could emerge in a politically sensitive agency that was reluctant to expose forcefully the consequences of government programs that proved far more expensive and far less successful than forecast originally.  It would be a culture in which good news, or optimistic speculation, was uncritically embraced. What I challenge the CBO to do, therefore, not only with the Risk Corridors analysis, which is but the tip of a very big iceberg, but with the entirety of its ACA analysis, is to open it up for scrutiny.  When government policy is essentially set on the basis of models that are not subject to peer review or public scrutiny, there is a great chance for error and, frankly, for manipulation. Government by black box breeds suspicion.

Postscript: Is the tweak legal?

I have said before and I say again that the regulatory tweak that the CBO now says will cost the federal government $8 billion is extremely dubious.  It’s an extremely sneaky way of sending money to the insurance industry, resting, as it does, on arcane manipulations of mathematical formulae. And I have serious doubts that the changes are authorized by Congress.The submission of the original regulations in March, 2013 says that essentially all commenters agreed that a 3% margin for profit was appropriate.  No commenters indicated at that time that insurers were entitled to a higher imputed rate of return on capital.  No one said anything about 5%. Back in March of 2013, HHS thought 3% was the right number. There has been no fundamental change in the capital markets since that time.  The only thing that has changed is that the Obama administration has made the pool of insureds making purchases in the Exchanges less healthy on average. The regulatory “tweak” moving the profit margin from 3% to 5% is thus not consistent with the original goal of Congress for the Risk Corridors program, but is simply a way of compensating insurers for another regulatory change.

The change in the administrative cost cap from 20% to 22% that will likewise result in higher payments to insurers is likewise dubious.  The reason 20% was suggested in the original July 2011 proposal and chosen in the March 2013 regulations was to maintain parity with regulations governing the “Medical Loss Ratio” codified at 42 U.S.C. § 300gg-18 as part of the ACA. The idea, which was apparently supported by commenters on the original rules, was that if insurers — even small group and individual insurers — could not claim more than 20% administrative costs without owing rebates pursuant to section 10101(f) of the ACA then they should not be able to claim more than 20% administrative costs under the Risk Corridors provision.  Makes sense!  But, again, nothing has changed.  There is no indication that anything President Obama did that raised the administrative costs of running a health insurance plan on the Exchanges.  There is no indication that any factor in the real world (such as the cost of computers or paper) increased the administrative costs of running a health insurance plan on the Exchanges.  The limits for the Medical Loss Ratio computation have not changed.  There is no better reason now then there was a year ago to let the cap on administrative costs be higher for Risk Corridors than it is for Medical Loss Ratio.  And, yet, it is now 22% instead of 20%.  The only reason it has changed is to provide a vehicle for shoveling money to insurers.

Again, unless one thinks that the goal of keeping insurers in the Exchange is so overwhelming as to permit the Executive Branch to do anything, it is difficult to see a conventional, lawful justification for the regulatory change that results, according to the CBO, in $8 billion of compensation to the insurance industry. And I say that believing fully well that many of the Obama administration’s other regulatory changes — also of dubious legality — such as expanding the hardship exemption and permitting insurers to sell policies off the Exchanges that contain prohibited provisions have significantly hurt insurers selling policies on the Exchanges. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Technical Appendix

The following graphic shows the relationship between the Risk Corridor Ratio and the net receipts of the government for each premium dollar. As one can see, the higher the Risk Corridors Ratio, the less money the government receives or, in some instances, the more money the government pays out.


The following graphic compares the relationship between claims costs (“allowable costs”) incurred by an insurer as a percentage of premiums and the Risk Corridors Ratio. It does so for two sets of regulatory parameters.  It first uses the regulatory parameters that were in place prior to March of 2014 (3% profit margin and 20% administrative cost cap).  It next using the new regulatory parameters (5% profit margin and 22% administrative cost cap). As one can see, the regulatory changes increased the Risk Corridors Ratio for all levels of allowed costs and thus decreased the amount the government would receive from insurers (or increased the amount the government would pay to insurers).


Share Button

The ACA’s transitional reinsurance tax: the numbers are funny again

Most sellers of health insurance in the United States outside of health insurance Exchanges will be forced to add $63 per member on to premiums for 2014 to cover a new tax imposed by the Affordable Care Act on the sale of such policies. That tax revenue coupled with $2 billion out of the federal treasury will go to subsidize individual policies sold on the federal Exchanges, probably lowering their gross premiums by about $525 per person.  If, however, enrollment in the federal Exchanges remains considerably lower than projected and enrollment in non-grandfathered, non-Exchange plans does not compensate for the reduction, the revenue collected from the tax is likely to be in excess of that which needs to be paid to support the statutory subsidies.  The $63 per member tax, which has precipitated considerable protest, thus might end up being overly high. And if the Executive branch can exercise its discretion to delay or waive taxes for one part of the ACA based on alleged new developments, why not for another?

The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)  has many options for addressing the surplus.  It might choose to to use the surplus tax revenue either to cut similar taxes in the subsequent years of the program or to rebate the excessive tax back to health plans and others who paid it. CMS might, I suppose, inflame people from both ends of the ideological spectrum by gifting insurers with more generous reinsurance this year.  Or CMS might simply squirrel the surplus away to provide reinsurance after the normal sunset of the program in 2016. I suspect, however, that  CMS is likely to use the surplus to increase the generosity of reinsurance provided in subsequent years of the program such as next year. Doing so could mask problems of adverse selection that could otherwise result in large premium increases. Such a choice would not  necessarily be a bad thing: it just highlights yet again the expense of the ACA, the fragility of attempts prior to its passage to model its effects, and the problems with thinking about its interlocking web of provisions in a linear, reductionist manner.

Here’s a more detailed explanation.

The Affordable Care Act subsidizes both insurance purchases made on the individual Exchanges and  individual policies still sold off the Exchange that conform with various ACA rules.  Doing so lowers the price of insurance and decreases the systematic risk associated with selling policies in a new regulatory environment in which the population of insureds may have different (and worse) health profiles than those previously composing the insurance pool.  A key way that the ACA does this is through a program of “transitional reinsurance” provided free of charge to insurers willing to write policies in the individual market — so long as those policies haven’t been exempted from the requirements of the ACA by being “grandfathered.” The program is “transitional” because it is supposed to end after three years. One way of thinking about all this is that free reinsurance lowers both the mean and the standard deviation of the net claims distribution faced by eligible insurers.

Under section 1341 of the ACA and the regulations CMS has developed to implement it, the transitional reinsurance program is ultimately supposed to break even. If tax revenues that fund it are less than the expenditures it requires, CMS has provided in 45 C.F.R. § 153.230(d) that reinsurance payments are cut in that year in order to prevent a deficit. If tax revenues that fund the transitional reinsurance program are greater than the expenditures it requires, CMS has stated in 45 C.F.R. § 153.235(b) that the surplus will be spent in subsequent years of the program on reinsurance benefits.  The program also works with a one year lag: money is collected and paid in each year is for claims made the preceding year.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has funded the transitional reinsurance program this year by levying (with the help of its IRS friends)  a $63 per insured life tax on most (but not all) health insurance policies sold in the United States this year. (The payments are deductible for for-profit enterprises). CMS says it is planning an exception to the tax for self-funded plans that are also self-administered, a rule that, as shown in the graphic below, CMS previously said (correctly) it lacked statutory authority to issue and that will significantly benefit labor unions. This tax revenue, coupled with a required $2 billion from the United States Treasury, is estimated to yield $12 billion to be paid in 2015 for claims arising in 2014.  CMS will use the the money to provide a form of stop-loss reinsurance that attaches at $45,000 of claims per member and that provides 80% reimbursement for claims up to $250,000. In earlier versions of the regulation, the attachment point was a less generous $60,000.

Comparison of regulations: March 11, 2013 v. October 30, 2013
Comparison of regulations: March 11, 2013 v. October 30, 2013

How would you spend $12 billion?  Well, using the “continuance tables” (statistical claims distributions) contained in CMS’s “Actuarial Value Calculator,” one can show that the expected payments under the reinsurance system created by CMS for 2014 will range from about $433 per member for a bronze plan up to about $597 for a platinum plan. The weighted average expected payment will be about  about $525. The enhanced size of this subsidy, rather than other miracles of Obamacare, may explain in part, by the way, why premiums on the Exchanges came in somewhat lower than some had projected. If CMS is planning on spending about $12 billion on transitional reinsurance and it spends $525 per insured person, simple division shows that it takes about 23 million people who might trigger the reinsurance obligation in order to exhaust the fund.

The problem, however, is that, given recent developments, there are unlikely to be 23 million persons in 2014  (a) who might trigger the reinsurance obligation (“reinsurance triggering”) and (b) who are insured by reinsurance-eligible insurers (“reinsurance eligible”). You could just take my word on this point and skip to the end of this entry or, better yet, follow the accounting done here.

An accounting

Let me concede, temporarily and for the sake of discussion, that there will be 6 million people on average in 2014 who are paying premiums based on policies purchased in the individual Exchanges.  That’s hard to believe given (a) that the number with a month to go is probably about 3.2 million (President Obama’s alleged 4 million enrollment reduced by 20% shrinkage for nonpayment); (b) that the number of insured in the Exchanges would have to be 7 million post March for there to have been 6 million on average during all of 2014; and (c) Vice President Joe Biden’s augury that 5 million would be a “heck of a start.”  I will grumpily concede it nonetheless.

How many off-Exchange purchasers should we then add?  Here the numbers are slippery too.  I am indebted, however, to some careful work by the Kaiser Family Foundation on this point.  You can read it here. The highest estimate I have seen for the number of nonelderely persons covered by  a plan purchased directly from an insurer at any one time in a calendar year is 19 million.  But many of these 19 million will (a) not have insurance the entire year; (b) will have insurance that is secondary to other insurance and thus unlikely to accumulate the $45,000 attachment point in claims; and (c) will be in grandfathered policies not eligible for reinsurance and persisting through 2014 only by dint of President Obama’s magic waiver of the terms of the ACA.  When one looks at the situation at any given point in time — which is the proper basis for figuring out an average — it looks as if there might be 13-14 million who have some form of individual health insurance and 10-11 million who have primary health insurance coverage of the sort that might trigger a reinsurance obligation.

So, should I add 11 million to the 6 million and say that there are 17 million insureds that might trigger a reinsurance obligation?  No! That would ignore two substitution effects.  We know from various studies that a lot (perhaps 65% – 89%) of the people purchasing policies on the Exchanges simply swapped non-Exchange policies that would not be eligible for the other big federal subsidy — premium tax credits — for Exchange policies.  So, even if we assume, contrary to the evidence, that only half of the Exchange purchasers came from the ranks of the uninsured, that means there are really only 3 million new purchasers of policies eligible for reinsurance. Moreover, the 10-11 million figure isn’t right anymore either.  For 2014, individual insurers have to choose. They can stop selling their policy altogether, they can expand benefits to conform with the tougher requirements of the ACA and obtain a right to reinsurance or, at least in some instances, they may be able to grandfather their policy and avoid many ACA mandates but forfeit a right to reinsurance. I have not seen any good statistics on how many of the 11 million will persist into 2014, but I would be surprised if more than 80% did.  So, rather than 11 million, it seems to be the better upper bound on the number of extant non-Exchange, reinsurance eligible policies is 9 million.

It thus seems to me as if the better upper bound on  the number of policies that might trigger a reinsurance obligation is 12 million: 3 million genuinely new policies plus 9 million sold outside the Exchange but eligible for reinsurance. This means, however, that if CMS’s estimates of claims under the ACA are correct, a reasonable upper bound on reinsurance payments under section 1341 of the ACA are likely to be at most $6.3 billion ($525 x 12 million) rather than $12 billion.

Given all this, there are two aspects of CMS’ s behavior that are a bit puzzling.  Why is CMS not adjusting the reinsurance benefit for this year say to provide 100% coverage rather than 80% coverage and/or removing the $250,000 cap on claims triggering reinsurance? Or, given the belief of the President that he has discretion to waive taxes in light of changed circumstances, why is CMS not waiving, say, half of the taxes that would otherwise be owed.  (Not that I think this is constitutional).

The answer to the puzzler, I suspect, is either a cognitive failure or a very clever strategy. It is possible that it has not dawned on CMS that changing enrollment patterns means that it will not be able to exhaust the $12 billion it expects to receive pursuant to section 1341. More likely, however, someone at CMS has done the math and has been delighted to discover a slush fund that it can use the money to provide extra generous reinsurance next year and thus keep the price of premiums down.  How will we know? If we see an announcement from CMS in the next few months changing the parameters for the 2015 reinsurance plan to be considerably more generous, believe that it is the result of collecting “too much” in taxes in 2014. In the meantime, however, we have another example of ACA “details” that don’t seem to stand up under close scrutiny.

Share Button

Obama administration shocking decision to drop individual mandate — but only for some

I’m going to have to wait until tomorrow to say much more, but the Obama administration issued a shocking decision late today to exempt those who had individual policies cancelled this year from the individual mandate contained in the Affordable Care Act.  The Wall Street Journal apparently broke the story.  Here is the New York Times article.  Here is a Washington Post article from a strong Affordable Care Act supporter. Here is the Huffington Post article. Here’s Fox News. (CNN has yet to publish anything I can find on the subject) Not surprisingly, the insurance industry has already protested the apparent move. “This latest rule change could cause significant instability in the marketplace and lead to further confusion and disruption for consumers,” said Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s main trade group.

A copy of the decision, made thus far only in a letter from Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to six senators (all of whom are apparently facing tough re-election battles) is here.

Excerpt from Sebelius letter to senators
Excerpt from Sebelius letter to senators


The purported legal basis for the exemption comes in 26 U.S.C. 5000A(e)(5), which reads:

(e) Exemptions

No penalty shall be imposed under subsection (a) with respect to— …

(5) Any applicable individual who for any month is determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services under section 1311 (d)(4)(H) to have suffered a hardship with respect to the capability to obtain coverage under a qualified health plan.

The Obama administration is now apparently interpreting having to comply with the mandate itself — but only after one’s individual insurance policy was cancelled — as the requisite hardship. A prior regulation issued on July 1, 2013, by HHS had taken a narrower view of what the requisite hardship was:

(g) Hardship—(1) General. The Exchange must grant a hardship exemption to an applicant eligible for an exemption for at least the month before, a month or months during which, and the month after, if the Exchange determines that—
(i) He or she experienced financial or domestic circumstances, including an unexpected natural or human-caused event, such that he or she had a significant, unexpected increase an essential expenses that prevented him or her from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan;
(ii) The expense of purchasing a qualified health plan would have caused him or her to experience serious deprivation of food, shelter, clothing or other necessities; or
(iii) He or she has experienced other circumstances that prevented him or her from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan.

I look forward to hearing from others, and in particular from people with a commitment to the rule of law who previously have supported the ideas behind the ACA, but it is not clear to me that any of the pre-existing bases contained in this regulation for claiming a hardship exemption would apply to having a predicted cancellation in one’s individual insurance policy. Maybe at this late hour there are arguments and other documents I am not considering. Surely, however, the existence of the ACA itself can not be the human-caused event creating the hardship. Moreover, I have trouble seeing how the cancellation of a plan makes it more difficult for these individuals — as opposed to others in similar circumstances — from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan.  I can well imagine cynics saying that the only real hardship involved here is having believed President Obama when he said that if you liked your health plan you could keep it and thus not having saved up for the higher prices that often exist in policies with “Essential Health Benefits.” Of course, if , as the Obama administration has claimed, many of these cancelled policies were junk that the policyholder should be glad to be rid of, it becomes yet more challenging to see much of a hardship at all in being offered real insurance coverage with all of its greater benefits.

In any event, it does not take a fertile imagination to foresee legal challenges to this limited exemption from those not fortunate enough to have had health insurance in the past but who are not being given a similar exemption from the individual mandate. I can easily see challenges based on failures of administrative procedure and equal protection.

The Death Spiral

I and others will need to think hard about the issue of magnitude. Obama administration officials are reported as having stated at a briefing that all but 500,000 of those with canceled policies will be enrolling in policies under the Exchange. This claim, however, is impossible to reconcile with existing enrollment statistics and assertions that millions of individuals have had their individual policies cancelled.  It is difficult to see how this decision would not exacerbate at least somewhat the risk of an adverse selection death spiral overtaking the Exchanges in many states.  The tax created by the mandate has always been justified as necessary to induce people of low or moderate risk to join those of higher risk in purchasing policies on the Exchange. By now exempting perhaps millions of people from this requirement — and, in particular, people who are most likely to have satisfied medical underwriting in the recent past — the Obama administration decision will likely diminish enrollment, at least somewhat, in the insurance Exchanges and, correlatively increase price pressures and insurer losses during 2014. To the extent that insurers systematically lose money as a result of this apparent decision, the federal government will be spending millions more — perhaps hundreds of millions more — in payments under the Risk Corridors program.


There’s one more implication we need to think about.  Although experts vary greatly on the magnitude, clearly a number of small businesses are going to lose their health insurance policies this coming year for failure to conform to the new ACA requirements.  This is the “second wave” that is sometimes spoken about. Are the significant number of employees and dependents who are thus subject to a risk of loss of coverage likewise going to receive an exemption from the individual mandate?

Share Button

Phantom costs: The lawless proposal to buy off the insurance industry via a “fix” to Risk Corridors

In my last blog post, I began to explain the proposed “fix” to the Risk Corridors program that the Obama administration seeks to achieve through modifications of its regulations. This is the provision of the Affordable Care Act under which the federal government reimburses large proportions of money lost by insurers over the next three years selling insurance to individuals in the Exchanges or to small employers.  Originally thought by many to be budget neutral, if, as appears increasingly possible, insurers on average lose significant money in the Exchanges, Risk Corridors could cost the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars or more.

I also suggested in that prior blog post that the “fix” raised serious concerns about the rule of law and separation of powers.  In this post, I want to follow up and explain further the accounting trickery and word play in which the administration is engaged and why it is not authorized by any law passed by Congress. Basically, the proposed changes in the regulations amount to an illegal pay off to the insurance industry so that they do not exit the Exchanges after having had the rug pulled out from under them by another decision not to enforce the law as written.

In sum, the Obama administration is proposing without any statutory authorization to let insurers increase the amount they get from the federal government under the Risk Corridors provision of the Affordable Care Act by treating as a “cost” money that the insurers have not spent and that can not be fairly said to be a cost of doing business.  The Obama administration makes this use of phantom costs appear more palatable by terming it “profit” and likening it to an opportunity cost of capital. But the increased “profits” the Obama administration now seek to permit insurers to subtract as a cost has completely detached itself from anything to do with real opportunity costs of running a business. The Obama administration would have been equally dishonest had they permitted insurers to place triple their rent on their Risk Corridor accounts and term the extra 200% a cost of business that entitled them to yet more money from the government. The proposed regulations should be seen as unlawful as an attempt by the Executive branch to change hard percentages used in the statute such as  80% into 95% simply because the Executive thought it better balanced the interests at stake.


The fundamental problem stems from the divergence between what the President repeatedly told Americans during his presidency — if you like your health care plan, you can keep it — and what the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare) really said, particularly as it ended up being implemented by the President’s own executive agencies (here and here). The insurance industry acted as if the rule of law mattered, not the campaign rhetoric or people’s perceptions of it, and set its prices in the healthcare Exchanges in accord with the law and the administration’s own forecasts of its effects on competing policies otherwise available to healthy people.  So, when the President announced on November 14, 2013, that his administration would conform the law to his rhetoric and public expectations (by declining under certain circumstances to execute sections 2701-2709 of the Public Health Service Act as modified by the Affordable Care Act), the insurance industry had a fit. It appropriately warned the President that, by reviving competitive sources of health insurance for some of their healthiest potential insureds, he was destabilizing the insurance markets. And, since the keystone of the President’s signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, depends on happy private, profitable insurers, this was a warning the President and his executive agencies had to heed.  Instead of backing down on the November 14, 2013 announcement, the President doubled down on regulatory change. This past week the Department of Health and Human Services proposed in the Federal Register how current Risk Corridor regulations might be amended to give insurers relief.

A Quick Look at the Statute

For ready reference, here’s an excerpt of the key part of the Risk Corridors statute in question.  You can try to read it now or refer to it periodically as you progress through the remainder of this blog entry.

(1) PAYMENTS OUT.—The Secretary shall provide under the
program established under subsection (a) that if—
(A) a participating plan’s allowable costs for any plan
year are more than 103 percent but not more than 108
percent of the target amount, the Secretary shall pay to
the plan an amount equal to 50 percent of the target
amount in excess of 103 percent of the target amount;
(B) a participating plan’s allowable costs for any plan
year are more than 108 percent of the target amount,
the Secretary shall pay to the plan an amount equal to
the sum of 2.5 percent of the target amount plus 80 percent
of allowable costs in excess of 108 percent of the target

The Federal Register Proposal

The fundamental idea in the new Risk Corridors proposal is to put the insurers back in the same position they would have been in had the non-enforcement announcement (“the transitional policy”) not been made.One can see this point made repeatedly in the Federal Register proposal:

Therefore, for the 2014 benefit year, we are considering whether we should make an adjustment to the risk corridors formula that would help to further mitigate any unexpected losses for issuers of plans subject to risk corridors that are attributable to the effects of the transition policy. (78 FR 72349)

We are considering calculating the State-specific percentage adjustment to the risk corridors profit margin floor and allowable administrative costs ceiling in a manner that would help to offset the effects of the transitional policy upon the model plan’s claims costs. (78 FR 72350)

Although the adjustment that we are considering would affect each issuer differently, depending on its particular claims experience and administrative cost rate, we believe that, on average, the adjustment would suitably offset the losses that a standard issuer might experience as a result of the transitional policy. (78 FR 72350)

Two clearly illegal ways to “fix” the problem

The problem the administering agency (Health and Human Services) faces, however, is how. How does HHS “suitably offset the losses that a standard issuer might experience as a result of the transitional policy?” One simple way might have been to adjust the reimbursement percentages contained in the statute, changing them from 50% and 80% for different levels of losses to higher levels. The problem is that the statute (42 U.S.C. § 18062) specifically sets forth the 50% and 80% reimbursement percentages and it would challenge even the most fertile imaginations to contend that it was within the province of an administrative agency to interpret those, as, say, 70% and 95%. And in the current gridlock — and with proposals to repeal Risk Corridors circulating —  getting such a proposal through Congress would seem impossible.

Alternatively, the administration might have made the insurers whole by adding state-by-state constant terms to the formula for reimbursement that roughly approximated the amount a typical insurer might lose in that state. Again, though, that would just constitute a statutorily unauthorized give away of federal taxpayer to the insurance industry.  Congress did not authorize payments so that insurers could maintain the same profits they would have earned in an alternative regulatory environment; instead Congress attempted to compress the profits and losses of insurers based on the regulatory environment that they in fact were in.

The “fix” suggested by the Federal Register proposal: what’s the difference?

What I now want to persuade you of, however, is that, after one strips away the confusing accounting, the Federal Register proposal, in its essence, amount to the same thing as these clearly unauthorized alternatives.  They are, in effect, a coverup for a giveaway of government money. The are very much the assumption of legislative powers by the executive branch of government.

The conceptual problem

One can almost see the problem without doing the math. The very objective set forth repeatedly in the Federal Register proposal — of putting the insurer back into some alternative financial condition, almost as if the government had taken their property or committed a tort by changing the rules — is nowhere to be found in the Risk Corridors statute. Section 1342 speaks of real premiums earned and real costs incurred and looks at their ratio in order to determine federal aid to insurers writing in the Exchanges. That perspective is echoed in the initial regulations published in the Federal Register months before the “transitional policy” brouhaha broke out. The definitions of critical terms adopted in those regulations speak of costs “incurred” or the “sum of incurred claims” or “premiums earned.” (See note below on definitions). Moreover, the definitions are nationwide. There is no sense that the values in the regulations (such as limits on the amount of administrative costs that can be claimed by an insurer) need to be adjusted on a state-by-state basis. And that refusal to adjust the regulations based on different economics in different states exists under the current regulations even if insurers in different jurisdictions have different financial experiences under the Affordable Care Act or face different state regulatory environments.

So, with those darned percentages statutorily nailed down, how does one achieve the objective in the Federal Register proposal of giving insurers their anticipated profits back? The answer is that the Federal Register proposal attempts to add a phantom cost that will vary state-by-state in precisely the amount needed to do the job.  Of course, writing “state-specific phantom cost” into the regulations would alert everyone that the plan was just to shovel money to insurers to keep them happy regardless of what was in the law. So, instead, the idea was to seize upon a word already in the regulations — “profit” — and alter its definition beyond recognition. Expanded “profit” could then do the same job as “state specific phantom cost.”

The math

Here are the specifics. The statute makes the amount the insurer receives in Risk Corridor payments (or pays) depend on a ratio.  A higher ratio often results in more payments and never results in smaller payments from HHS. The numerator of the ratio is something called “allowed costs,” so the higher the allowed costs, the better HHS treats the insurer under Risk Corridors.  The denominator of the ratio is something called “the target amount.” Because higher ratios are good for the insurer, the smaller the “target amount” the better HHS treats the insures under Risk Corridors. (Remember, dividing by a smaller number yields a higher result.) And “target amount” is defined as total premiums less administrative costs.  So, the more an insurer can stuff into administrative costs, the smaller the denominator, the higher the ratio, and the better the insurer fares under Risk Corridors. Indeed, much of the regulatory effort has been appropriately devoted to deterring insurers from exploiting the formula by stuffing overhead they incur servicing non-ACA policies into “administrative costs” that increase their Risk Corridor payments. (Good idea!)

Back in March of 2013, in trying to figure out how to operationalize the ideas contained in the Risk Corridors statute, HHS decided to recognize that the insurer risks its capital in order to operate an insurance company. HHS recognized that it is therefore appropriate to treat some of that opportunity cost as a true cost. (I have no particular problem with the concept). Perhaps unfortunately, but as a convenient shorthand, HHS called this opportunity cost “profit.” Be clear, however, the term “profit” as used in the regulations had little to do with how much money the insurer actually made; it was just an easy term to reflect the fact that when insurers use money to establish offices and buy computers they forgo interest and dividends  that they might otherwise have earned.

But how much of this opportunity cost called “profit” should an insurer be entitled to use to reduce its Risk Corridor denominator?  After receiving comments that were apparently almost uniform on the subject — the one dissent advocated a lower number — HHS decided to use 3% of after-tax premiums. It called this number, “the profit margin floor.”

Several things are significant about the decision to use 3% of premiums.  First, the profit margin floor is 3%, not 6% or 9% or some higher number yet. No one apparently thought the number should be higher. Second, the number is uniform across states. This is entirely sensible because, to the extent that an allowance for capital costs is appropriate at all, capital costs of an insurer are incurred in a national market. Insurers in California do not have opportunity costs of capital that differ very much from insurers in Texas. And, third, the number is a coefficient of net premiums rather than assets probably because use of premiums provides a sensible surrogate for the amount of capital risked by running an Exchange insurance operation instead of running one’s entire insurance business.

What the new Federal Register proposal does is to increase the profit margin floor and to do it in a state-specific way. By increasing the profit margin floor, one can decrease the target ratio denominator and increase the Risk Corridors ratio, which in turn can increase the payment made by HHS to the insurer.  Mathematically, increasing the profit margin floor is little different than permitting the insurer to count triple-rent on its offices rather than real rent or to just pad its electric bills by, say, a million dollars. All are additions of non-existent “phantom costs” that act to decrease a denominator and, derivatively, increase a ratio upon which reimbursement depends.

Moreover, the amount by which the profit margin floor will need to be increased is not a trivial amount.  As shown in the Risk Corridors Calculator, “profit margins” may need to be tripled or more to bring an insurer back to the same position they were in originally.  I would not be surprised to see the profit margin floor in some states in which adverse selection proves particularly problematic to be upwards of 12%.  I am not aware of many insurers making 12% of their premiums in profits, which is precisely why, before they saw the need to repair the damage done by the President’s change of mind, HHS was using 3% as the appropriate figure with only lower numbers being suggested.

Why the proposed fix is unlawful

Any thought that the proposed increase in profit margin floor might have something to do with economic reality, with changes in the cost of capital, is belied by the way HHS explains the change and by the state-by-state approach it now proposes to take.  The HHS explanation is that, because different states are implementing “the transitional plan” differently, the need to adjust Risk Corridors to bring insurers back to their former position differs as well.

We believe that the State-wide effect on this risk pool will increase with the increase in the percentage enrollment in transitional plans in the State, and so we are considering having the State-specific percentage adjustment to the risk corridors formula also vary with the percentage enrollment in these transitional plans in the State. (78 FR 72350)

Of course, in some sense, this is true. But this simply highlights the point that the adjustments to profit margin floor have nothing to do with real costs, the concept the statute cares about.

Not enough? Take a look at the explanation for why HHS did not adjust profit margin floors it on an insurer-by-insurer basis.  It has nothing to do with different costs of capital that different insurers might face, but again, the state-by-state approach is used because it is a simpler way of approximating and offsetting the loss insurers would face in each state as a result of differential effects of the transition policy.

Although the adjustment that we are considering would affect each issuer differently, depending on its particular claims experience and administrative cost rate, we believe that, on average, the adjustment would suitably offset the losses that a standard issuer might experience as a result of the transitional policy. (78 FR 72350)

The administrative law and separation of powers issue is whether the agency empowered with administering Risk Corridors can count as a cost not an expense the insurers actually incur as a result of being in an Exchange but the “regulatory taking” that will occur differentially in each state as a result of President Obama changing his mind. I suppose that, if there is someone with standing to challenge this give away of government money, it will ultimately be for the courts to decide this question.  (By the way, if anyone can suggest someone who might have standing, email me). And I suppose someone can argue that it actually fulfills some general intent of the ACA to keep insurers involved in the Exchanges and not have them flee when other regulations change.

Executive administrative agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services have the authority under some circumstances to interpret statutes; courts will often then defer to their interpretations. But this fix is not a stretch; if it actually does what its drafters intend, it will be a redraft of the Affordable Care Act itself. I see no difference except opacity between what the Obama administration has done by seizing on a code word “profit” and expanding its definition beyond recognition and saying that when the statute says 80% of losses, surely that could be construed as 95%. Both are unlawful.

Two final notes

The allowable administrative cost cap percentage and the medical loss ratio

Careful readers of the Federal Register will note that there are two other matters it discusses.

The Federal Register proposal also discusses the need to adjust the “allowable administrative costs ceiling (from 20 percent of after-tax profits) in an amount sufficient to offset the effects of the transitional policy upon the claims costs of a model plan.” This provision is needed because otherwise, even if the profit margin floor were increased, insurers would bump up against the existing administrative cost ceiling of 20%.  So, to make sure that the phantom cost “profit margin floor” increase really works, the proposed regulations propose removing that constraint. And to make sure that evil insurers do not take advantage of the relaxed constraint to allocate more of their costs to Exchange plans, the regulations make clear that the insurer would had to have met the 20% standard before consideration of increased “profit” was made.

The Federal Register proposal also discusses a need to adjust the Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) percentages. This is the provision of the ACA that says that if insurers spend too much of their money on non-claims matters, they have to pay a rebate to their insureds.  The problem becomes that if insurers are permitted to treat more than 20% of their premiums as administrative costs for purposes of Risk Corridors they might want to treat more than 20% of their premiums as legitimate administrative costs for purposes of MLR rebates. It’s a little fuzzy, but it sounds as if HHS wants to tweak the MLR regulations so that the MLR provisions do not take away from insurers what they will be winning if the remainder of the Federal Register proposal goes into effect.

The typo in the statute

There’s a complication we have to work through. This whole area is complicated by the fact that there is a typographic error in section 1342.  Here again is the relevant part.

(1) PAYMENTS OUT.—The Secretary shall provide under the
program established under subsection (a) that if—
(A) a participating plan’s allowable costs for any plan
year are more than 103 percent but not more than 108
percent of the target amount, the Secretary shall pay to
the plan an amount equal to 50 percent of the target
amount in excess of 103 percent of the target amount;
(B) a participating plan’s allowable costs for any plan
year are more than 108 percent of the target amount,
the Secretary shall pay to the plan an amount equal to
the sum of 2.5 percent of the target amount plus 80 percent
of allowable costs in excess of 108 percent of the target

See in subparagraph (1)(A) where it says “the Secretary shall pay to the plan an amount equal to 50 percent of the target amount in excess of 103 percent of the target amount.” But if you think about it, this could never happen.  Taken literally, there could never be a payment under this provision. So long as the target amount is a positive number, which it always will be since premiums are positive, the target amount can NEVER be in excess of 103% of the target amount.  5 can never be in excess of 103% of 5 (5.15).  10 can never be in excess of 103% of 10 (10.30). Can’t happen.

Looking at the next subparagraph, (1)(B), resolves the mystery of subparagraph (1)(A). It speaks about paying “ 80 percent of allowable costs in excess of 108 percent of the target amount.” (emphasis mine). And this makes complete sense.  The more the insurer loses, the more the government reimburses the insurer.  That’s the whole point of the provision.  I therefore believe that  subparagraph (1)(A) should be interpreted to mean “the Secretary shall pay to the plan an amount equal to 50 percent of  allowable costs in excess of 103 percent of the target amount.”

So, I assume that courts will interpret the statute to read as Congress must have intended it and not as some sort of cute joke resting on a mathematical impossibility.  See United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, 489 U.S. 235 (1989) (“The plain meaning of legislation should be conclusive, except in the ‘rare cases [in which] the literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters.’ Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U. S. 564, 571 (1982). In such cases, the intention of the drafters, rather than the strict language, controls. Ibid.” )

Note on Definitions

As set forth in the regulations, “Allowable costs mean, with respect to a QHP [Qualified Health Plan], an amount equal to the sum of incurred claims of the QHP issuer for the QHP.” The regulation sensibly uses the word “incurred.” This is so because costs are things the insurer has to pay out or has to accrue liabilities for, not things that, under some other set of circumstances they might otherwise have had to pay out.  If that were not the case, the administration could redefine costs to include anything at all, such as the costs the insurer would have faced if every one of their insureds had cancer.

The regulations tweak the definition of “administrative costs” by adding an extra adjective. They introduce the concept of “allowable administrative costs.”  The insurer is not permitted to reduce its “target amount” by claiming some enormous sum (such as private jets for the CEO) as non-claims costs, subtracting them from premiums and reporting low net premiums (target amount) in order to get paid more by the government under the Risk Corridors program. Instead, the regulations define “allowable administrative costs” as non-claims costs that are not more than 20% of premiums. That makes some sense because section 10101 of the ACA (42 U.S.C. § 300gg-18) often requires insurers whose administrative costs are more than 20% of premiums to pay a rebate to their insureds.

Premiums are also reasonably defined under the existing regulations. They sensibly say, “Premiums earned mean, with respect to a QHP, all monies paid by or for enrollees with respect to that plan as a condition of receiving coverage.” Thus, under the statute and existing regulations, premiums must refer to real premiums, not hypothetical premiums. Premiums are moneys the insurer receives, not money the insurer might have received under some other set of circumstances. Again, this just has to be the case; if it were not true, the administration could funnel virtually an infinite amount of money to the insurance industry by saying that premiums are funds the insurer would have received if no one signed up for their plan. 

Share Button