Tag Archives: Chevron deference

A roadmap for legal attacks on the employer mandate delay

After going through notice and comment rulemaking, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of the Treasury announced a “final rule” Monday that the employer mandate  tax contained in the Affordable Care Act (26 U.S.C. § 4980H) will not apply at all to large “bubble” employers with between 50 and 99 workers until after December 31, 2015, and that employers with 100 or more workers can avoid the § 4980H tax from December 31, 2014 to December 31, 2015, by offering compliant health insurance coverage to 70% of its employees. These provisions amend previous IRS rulings that the employer mandate tax would start for plan years beginning after December 31, 2014, and that a large employer would need to offer health insurance coverage to 95% of its employees before it would be exempt from the potentially steep taxes imposed by section 4980H.  Both the new final regulations and the earlier ones contradict the language of the Affordable Care Act, which states that the tax kicks in for plans beginning after December 31, 2013, and that an employer must offer health insurance coverage to “all” of its employees, not 95% and certainly not 70%, before it could escape this form of taxation.

In this blog entry, I want to accomplish three goals.  I want to educate on the legal issues created by the recent regulation.  I want to suggest both a conventional path to challenge the regulation and an unconventional path.  And, I want to advocate.  I want to implore the readers of this blog who are predisposed to think highly of President Obama to really question the precedent they let be set by permitting an Executive to refuse to collect a tax for years in circumstances where it is crystal clear that Congress has directed that it be done. There is a serious risk that future leaders may not share the same priorities as President Obama or themselves. Immunizing non-collection decisions from judicial correction will lead to collapse of government programs those sympathetic to our current President believe are worthy. It could also lead subsequent Congresses to refuse to enact government programs that make sense only if payment for them can not be subverted by a recalcitrant executive branch.   In short, the people who should be most disturbed about what the President has done are his many friends who support not just the now-gutted employer mandate but who believe that the federal government has a major role in, as with the ACA, redistributing wealth acquired through the market.  I would be very impressed if they mustered the courage to stand up to their friends.

A conventional path to challenge the employer mandate delay

Here are some plausible book moves in the legal chess game that likely lies ahead for the decision yesterday to modify the times and conditions under which the employer mandate will be enforced.

Standing

Opponents will hunt for a plaintiff.  As others have noted, due to a doctrine called “standing,” this will not be so easy. Under Supreme Court precedent, the plaintiff is going to have to show (a) that the failure to enforce the employer mandate caused the plaintiff’s employer not to provide health insurance, (b) that the employer would provide the requisite form of health insurance if the tax were being enforced, and (c) that the plaintiff has  actually been damaged by the failure of their employer to provide health insurance. If, for example, the employer says it is not sure what it would do if the tax were imposed, a case challenging the delay is likely to fail for lack of standing. Or if it could be shown that the failure of the employer to provide health insurance actually permitted the employee to purchase equally good and similarly priced health insurance on an individual Exchange, a case challenging the most recent IRS rules would likewise likely fail for lack of standing.

On the other hand, there may well be plaintiffs out there with standing to sue.  There are about 18,000 firms with more than 50 employees in the United States. While some might make decisions on whether to provide health insurance that would be unaffected by the tax, if even 5% would admit to being affected by the tax — whose whole point, after all, is precisely to cause the result plaintiff will need to show — that would represent a universe of 900 potential businesses that almost surely employ more than 50,000 employees. It takes only one employee with standing to bring suit in order to challenge the legality of the President’s latest actions.

The best plaintiff would be an employee of a large corporation that has not provided “minimum essential coverage” (a/k/a/ health insurance) but which says, without equivocation, that it would do so if the employer mandate were in place. It would be best if the insurance the employer would have provided would cost the employee less than alternatives made available on the individual Exchanges.  Perhaps, for example, the employee worked for an employer that had extraordinarily healthy employees — a large gymnasium chain filled with youthful, mostly male, low-health-cost physical trainers , for example —  and could thus provide even minimally acceptable coverage via self insurance for less than the amount the employee could obtain on an individual Exchange.

Violation of the Administrative Procedures Act

Plaintiff’s argument

Once the standing hurdle is overcome, expect a challenge based on violation of section 702 of the Administrative Procedures Act (5 U.S.C. § 702).  This law states: “A person suffering legal wrong because of agency action, or adversely affected or aggrieved by agency action within the meaning of a relevant statute, is entitled to judicial review thereof.”  The plaintiff will argue that Congress has spoken with crystal clarity on the issue of when section 4980H was supposed to take effect: it was supposed to take effect for plan years beginning after December 31, 2013.  There is nothing ambiguous about that date. There is nothing for the Supreme Court — let alone the Internal Revenue Service — to interpret.

Saying the year 2013 means the year 2015 is completely and totally absurd. The 2013 date chosen by Congress did not encompass the idea of “sometime in the kind of nearish future.” Congress balanced many factors, including the difficulty of complying with the statute and the desirability of having the employer mandate coordinate with many other provisions of the ACA that take effect starting in 2014.  Moreover, given the enormous costs of the ACA, even in the reduced form taken by original projections, the $10 billion per year in tax revenues the employer mandate was expected to generate, was another reason to call for adoption in 2013. Under these circumstances, Congress did not choose to give large employers 5 years and 9 months to figure out how to finance and acquire health insurance for their employees; Congress thought 3 years and 9 months of “transitional relief” was perfectly adequate. Congress did not want the goal of reducing the number of uninsureds subverted by letting employers off the hook or, perhaps, the burdens on the subsidized Exchanges exacerbated by large employers not pulling their weight.

The situation is no better, plaintiffs will argue, for the Obama administration’s decision in the regulations to distinguish amongst different sorts of large employers, letting employers with between 50 and 99 employers off the hook in the year 2015 while compelling at least some employers with more than 100 employees to provide health insurance in the same year. The statute carefully defined large employers in this context to mean more than 50 employees and deliberately chose 50 as the point at which to balance the importance of employer-provided insurance against the administrative and financial burdens of forced provision. Congress did not choose, for example, to stage imposition of the employer mandate first on the biggest of the large employers and a year or so later on the smaller within that group.

Finally, even if there was some basis for staging imposition of the mandate, plaintiffs will argue, the Obama regulations have butchered the provision of 4980H that calls for imposition of a large tax unless the employer offers insurance to all eligible employees. Conceivably the agency could stretch the “all” concept to 95% as it did before.  Perhaps 95% could be justified as a bright line proxy for the sort of honest mistakes that Congress would not have wanted to serve as a predicate for a hefty tax. But when the Executive branch goes from “all” to 70% it can not be said with a straight face that anyone is speaking about  providing a safety zone against honest mistakes.  Now we are talking an entirely different regulatory regime.  The Administrative Procedures Act does not give the Executive branch the power to legislate; and if it did so, the APA would itself be unconstitutional.

The Chevron Deference rebuttal

Expect the defendants to fight back with something known in the law as “Chevron deference.” This widely cited doctrine emerges from the observation that executive agencies actually have a lot of expertise in interpreting statutes in their area.  Therefore, it should be assumed that Congress would have wanted the agency to have considerable leeway in interpreting statutes. So long as the agency follows the right procedures in developing its rules, such as the “notice and comment” rulemaking that preceded the recent pronouncement on the employer mandate,  the rules developed by the agency are lawful and binding even if the court would itself not have interpreted the statute the way the agency does. The main caveat — and it is the big “Step 1” in the Chevron process — is that the agency’s interpretation has to be a reasonable interpretation of the statute, a “permissible construction.”

But, the plaintiff will argue — and I believe with great success —  “Chevron deference” does not exist where the statute is really not subject to interpretation at all. As the Supreme Court said in Chevron, USA v. Natural Resources Defense Counsel, Inc., “If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.” And it is hard to imagine anything clearer than “December 31, 2013.”  It is hard to imagine a construction of “all” — particularly in a context in which alternative taxes (4980H(b)) are placed on employers that offer compliant health insurance to at least some of their employees– that could mean 70%.  It is just not a reasonable construction.

“But wait,” I hear some judge asking.   “Are you saying that the IRS could not give a company a few extra weeks to get health insurance? Are you saying that the IRS could not give companies any leeway in obtaining health insurance and saying that if a single employee goes uninsured the company is subject to a $2,000 per employee (minus 30) tax?” No, not quite. As to the few weeks grace period, I do not believe the IRS can interpret the statute to permit such to occur automatically.  I understand giving a select company a few extra weeks if there were extraordinarily circumstances — a natural disaster, an unintentional failure of communications — but Congress (a) already gave the companies more than a three year grace period to get health insurance for their employees and (b) assesses the tax on a monthly basis, $166.67 per employee per month, so that the company would not in fact be hit with a $2,000 whammy.  And as to whether the IRS could give companies some leeway, again, if there were a factual showing that it would be easy for a company to mess up on a small percentage of employees and that some accommodation was necessary in a particular case, I do not believe some leniency would subvert the intent of Congress. But I see no evidence from the IRS that a 30% mistake zone is necessary; instead, this appears to be a way of simply mellowing out a tax regime that the Executive branch now believes (perhaps rightly) is too harsh without, however, asking Congress, who might actually agree were the case respectfully put to them, to assist with a modification of the statute.

The Prosecutorial Discretion rebuttal

The better argument the Obama administration will muster goes under the name “prosecutorial discretion.” The idea, buttressed by many case, including the 1985 Supreme Court decision in Heckler v. Chaney, is that the Executive branch needs lots of leeway in determining enforcement priorities and there is therefore a very strong presumption against judicial review of decisions not to prosecute and not to pursue agency enforcement actions. And while, to be sure, most of these cases arise where the government is less transparent about its enforcement priorities, surely the government should not be restricted in its otherwise existing discretion just because it sought notice and comment before deciding what to do and was transparent enough to publish the basis on which it would make decisions.

Here are some quotes from Chaney which the Obama administration’s attorneys  are likely to throw in the face of any potential challenger to its regulations.

  • “[A]n agency decision not to enforce often involves a complicated balancing of a number of factors which are peculiarly within its expertise. Thus, the agency must not only assess whether a violation has occurred, but whether agency resources are best spent on this violation or another, whether the agency is likely to succeed if it acts, whether the particular enforcement action requested best fits the agency’s overall policies, and, indeed, whether the agency has enough resources to undertake the action at all. An agency generally cannot act against each technical violation of the statute it is charged with enforcing. The agency is far better equipped than the courts to deal with the many variables involved.”
  • “In addition to these administrative concerns, we note that, when an agency refuses to act, it generally does not exercise its coercive power over an individual’s liberty or property rights, and thus does not infringe upon areas that courts often are called upon to protect.
  • “[A]n agency’s refusal to institute proceedings shares to some extent the characteristics of the decision of a prosecutor in the Executive Branch not to indict — a decision which has long been regarded as the special province of the Executive Branch, inasmuch as it is the Executive who is charged by the Constitution to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” U.S.Const., Art. II, § 3.”
  • “The danger that agencies may not carry out their delegated powers with sufficient vigor does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that courts are the most appropriate body to police this aspect of their performance.”

Sounds bad for our plaintiff!

There is, however, the noteworthy footnote 4 in Chaney that should give plaintiffs some hope. After all, Chaney articulates the doctrine of agency discretion as a strong presumption, not an irrebutable one. Here is what Justice Rehnquist said:

We do not have in this case a refusal by the agency to institute proceedings based solely on the belief that it lacks jurisdiction. Nor do we have a situation where it could justifiably be found that the agency has “consciously and expressly adopted a general policy” that is so extreme as to amount to an abdication of its statutory responsibilities.” See, e.g., Adams v. Richardson, 156 U.S.App.D.C. 267, 480 F.2d 1159 (197) (en banc). Although we express no opinion on whether such decisions would be unreviewable under § 701(a)(2), we note that, in those situations, the statute conferring authority on the agency might indicate that such decisions were not “committed to agency discretion.”

In other words, plaintiffs may be able to argue that this is not a case where the agency is in fact making enforcement decisions based on budgetary priorities or the probability of success. Few if any of the reasons behind the discretion doctrine exist here; the doctrine of discretion should not exist for its own sake precisely because it derogates from popular sovereignty exercised via Congress. There should be enough of a paper trail for the plaintiff to show persuasively that, the agency is making an enforcement decision based on a sense that the statute is unfair or unwise or, if someone has left a smoking-gun email around, pure political considerations.

The facts of Adams bear some resemblance to the facts here. Just as here there is a statute calling on the IRS to levy a tax starting in 2014, in Adams, there was a statute that directed certain federal agencies to terminate or refuse to grant assistance to public schools that were still segregated. Just as here the agency in charge (the IRS) is apparently going to refuse to pursue that tax in 2014 (and 2015) as a matter of policy, in Adams the federal agency in charge (Health, Education and Welfare) effectively adopted a policy of refusing to stop funding segregated public schools. The fact that there was general non-enforcement as a matter of policy distinguished the case, in the view of the Adams court, from conventional prosecutorial discretion.

The other hope for plaintiffs would be to use the extreme example of this case as a way of infusing contemporary doctrine on review of agency inaction with some thoughts from Justice Thurgood Marshall in his concurring opinion in Heckler v. Chaney. Marshall’s thoughts might have particular appeal to Justice Elena Kagan, for example, who, in addition to being fair minded, was one of Marshall’s clerks close to the time Chaney was decided.  Marshall, who perhaps unfortunately took an expansive view of the majority opinion in order to criticize it, and who appears to have drafted without noting its cautionary footnote 4, wrote several quotations that might prove helpful if introduced gently.

“[T]his ‘presumption of unreviewability’ is fundamentally at odds with rule-of-law principles firmly embedded in our jurisprudence, because it seeks to truncate an emerging line of judicial authority subjecting enforcement discretion to rational and principled constraint, and because, in the end, the presumption may well be indecipherable, one can only hope that it will come to be understood as a relic of a particular factual setting in which the full implications of such a presumption were neither confronted nor understood.”

“But surely it is a far cry from asserting that agencies must be given substantial leeway in allocating enforcement resources among valid alternatives to suggesting that agency enforcement decisions are presumptively unreviewable no matter what factor caused the agency to stay its hand.” (emphasis in original)

Moreover, conceivably traction might be gained in an attack on the employer mandate regulations by limiting the theory of the case to agency failure to enforce a regulation as opposed to decisions of prosecutors not to pursue criminal charges. As Justice Marshall wrote:

“A request that a nuclear plant be operated safely or that protection be provided against unsafe drugs is quite different from a request that an individual be put in jail or his property confiscated as punishment for past violations of the criminal law. Unlike traditional exercises of prosecutorial discretion, “the decision to enforce — or not to enforce — may itself result in significant burdens on a . . . statutory beneficiary.” (citing Marshall v. Jerrico, Inc., 446 U. S. 238446 U. S. 249 (1980)).

Nonetheless, plaintiffs will have to contend with the fact that (a) Thurgood Marshall’s ideas on prosecutorial and agency discretion were not shared by the remainder of the court and (b) the extreme conditions found in Adams have not been found in other cases in which such “footnote 4” claims have been brought.  The presumption established by Heckler v. Chaney has clearly remained a very strong one.

A Tax Whistleblower action: An unconventional path for challenging the employer mandate delay

The greatest difficulty for those disturbed by the Obama administration’s regulatory subversion of its own law is the prosecutorial discretion argument discussed above. Almost everyone thinks there should be some degree of prosecutorial discretion and the case law strongly and pretty persuasively supports the idea that the judicial branch should at least seldom be able to force prosecutors or agencies to more forcefully enforce laws, particularly where Congress has the ability to coerce the Executive branch to do so through aggressive techniques such as appropriations or, I suppose, in the most egregious cases, impeachment.  The tension will be whether and under what circumstances the Executive branch under the rubric of “prosecutorial discretion” can completely subvert the language and intent of a statute through a refusal to collect a tax.

So, might there be another path for attacking the regulation, one either already in existence or one created by Congress?

IRS Form 211 (filled in)
IRS Form 211 (filled in)

Perhaps. There is a remedy on the books already that might at least make the Obama administration squirm. It would do so because it might make clear that what was going on was not an exercise in prosecutorial discretion at all, but rather an effort to rewrite the statute.  The idea is to for anyone at all to be a whistleblower  under 26 U.S.C. § 7623 and to advise the IRS via a Form 211 that a particular large employer, preferably one that had over 1030 employees and therefore could owe more than $2,000,000 in 4980H taxes, had failed to provide health insurance to its employees and had failed to pay any of the taxes created in section 4980H. The whistleblower does not need to show fraud to file a Form 211. The whistleblower merely needs to show that there has been an underpayment of tax. Of course, to protect against claims of bad faith, the Form 211 should disclose that the claimant knows that the employer is relying on IRS regulations as a defense but that the claimant asserts that those regulations are unlawful.

Now, I would not expect the IRS to then take a customary next step of pursuing the non-paying large employer for the 4980H taxes. I would not expect the IRS to provide any award to the whistleblower that would be available if the IRS had actually collected any money as a result of the Form 211 filing.  But it is this failure of the IRS to do anything or to pay anything that might trigger the right of the Form 211 claimant to bring a legal action in which the legality of the Obama administration’s delay of the employer mandate could be challenged. Section 7623(b)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code permits “any determination regarding an award” to be appealed to the Tax Court, which has jurisdiction over such appeals.

Again I would not expect the IRS to take such an appeal lying down.  The IRS will claim that it has complete discretion over whether to pursue a taxpayer brought to its attention under Form 211. A decision to the contrary could create the potential for massive, expensive litigation.  Moreover, the IRS will say, the appeal permitted by section 7623(b)(4) is one over the size of any award not over whether the IRS decides to proceed with any administrative or judicial action based on information contained in a Form 211.

These will be strong arguments. They may well persuade the Tax Court.  They may well persuade a Circuit Court of the United States to which an adverse decision of the Tax Court can be appealed. But what they will expose is that the IRS does not regard the regulatory changes it has made as merely ones of prosecutorial discretion — deciding where and how to expend its resources detecting underpayments. Here, that work has already been done for them. Instead, they constitute a substantive rule on the circumstances — none for 2014 and few for 2015 — under which a large employer that fails to provide health insurance should be liable for taxes that Congress demanded be paid under section 4980H.  Perhaps, therefore, the Tax Court, or, on appeal, an Article III appellate court or the Supreme Court might summon up the courage to  say, kind of like the suggestion in footnote 4 in Chaney, that, although the IRS may have broad discretion, it does not  have “discretion” to abdicate its statutory responsibilities. It can not fail to pursue obvious tax deficiencies brought to its attention by a third party when the only reason for so declining is an unlawful regulation promulgated by the IRS in a usurpation of legislative powers. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the employer mandate, such a decision, in my view, would be a healthy restoration in the balance of power among the federal branches of government.

One other note

It was suggested by a friend that Congress could overcome such exercises of prosecutorial discretion by an expanded use of  “qui tam” lawsuits. This remedy, which dates back to the 13th Century and has seen a resurgence over the past 20 years in the United States, allow a private citizen to bring a civil action in the name of the government and collect some of the money otherwise owed to the government.  Qui tam litigation is a broad and complex subject on which I do not pretend great expertise. But, as I understand it, qui tam lawsuits generally permit a private party to go forward only if the Executive branch either supports the private party’s efforts at supplemental enforcement of a regulatory norm or at least acquiesces to it.  Under 31 U.S.C. 3730(c)(2)(A) and case law interpreting one of the major branches of qui tam actions, the government can basically kill a qui tam lawsuit to which it objects even if the underlying claim is meritorious. It would therefore take a special qui tam statute that expressly squelched this veto power in order for such action by Congress to permit an attack on the delay of the employer mandate.  More fundamentally, however,  the probability of a gridlocked Congress enlarging qui tam rights to facilitate judicial overturning of the Obama administration’s delay of the employer mandate and doing so over a presidential veto is about zero.

Caution

I’m forging some new ground here and laying out arguments without weeks of legal research in order to get them on the table.  I am likely missing things or even, perchance, getting things wrong.  My hope, however, is that what I’ve written is intelligent and helpful enough to get others to discuss further and potentially take action on the serious legal issues involved when a President decides not to collect taxes that Congress has clearly demanded be paid.

Acknowledgement

This blog post benefited greatly from a conversation with Professor Sapna Kumar, an expert on administrative law.  I, of course, am responsible solely for any mistakes made herein and I have no idea what Professor Kumar — whose main focus is the intersection of administrative law and intellectual property — thinks about the Affordable Care Act or its implementation. So, if you don’t like the post or there is something wrong, don’t blame her.

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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.

Background

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.

(b) PAYMENT METHODOLOGY.—
(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;
and
(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
amount.

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.

(b) PAYMENT METHODOLOGY.—
(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;
and
(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
amount.

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. 

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The Risk Corridor Calculator: How the government plans to use fictitious profits to shovel more money to insurers

Snapshot of the Risk Corridor Calculator
Snapshot of the Risk Corridor Calculator

This is a different kind of blog entry.  There isn’t going to be too much text here. Instead, I want to direct you to a spreadsheet I created (The Risk Corridors Calculator) available on Google Docs and the first (click here to watch it on YouTube) of two videos I’ll be making that explain

(1) how Risk Corridors work under the regulations originally proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

(2) how the insurance industry could lose money notwithstanding Risk Corridors as a result of President Obama changing his mind and conditionally permitting certain insurers for one year to “uncancel” certain  policies that the Affordable Care Act would otherwise have have prohibited starting in 2014; and

(3) how the proposed revisions to the Risk Corridor regulations will shovel money to many insurers and could put them back in the same position they would have been had President Obama not changed his mind.

[Note from 8:32 a.m. 12/6/2014: I discovered a small error in the Risk Corridors Calculator. It has been fixed.  It does not affect anything essential in this blog. Unfortunately, I will need to conform the video to the Calculator, which is likely not to happen until later today. So, if you watch the video today, it is conceptually fine, but just be aware that one of the formulas was off.]

In essence, however, the proposed HHS regulations impute fictitious “profits” to insurers that they then get to subtract from their net premiums.  As a result, it will look to the Risk Corridors program as if the insurer is losing more money in an Exchange plan and therefore entitled to greater government assistance.  (The government has now acknowledged that, although the Congressional Budget Office scored it as costing nothing, Risk Corridors need not be budget neutral.) Another way of thinking about the proposal is that it creates phantom costs that affect the apparent (though not the real) profitability of the insurer and then shovels money to insurers based in part on those phantom costs. It is little different than the government insisting that the insurer lost money due to claims that it actually did not pay and is therefore entitled — even under a formula that is formally unchanged — to greater payments from the government.  Viewed yet another way, it is almost as if the proposed regulations treat what President Obama did as a “tort,” and remedy the wrong by licensing the aggrieved insurers to use contorted accounting to place themselves back in the same position they would have been in had the President not, in effect, interfered with the prospective economic advantage they thought they had in the Exchanges.

Neither this blog entry nor the video will address whether the proposed regulations are permissible as a matter of administrative law or separation of powers. Nor will I explore today whether the regulatory changes can be seen as a necessarily evil. Exposing what is actually going on here, however, must create some serious concerns for all concerned about the rule of law. When section 1342 of the Affordable Care Act (42 U.S.C. § 18062) speaks of “allowable costs,” one would initially think it referred to costs actually incurred by the insurer as a result of running its program. Those costs might be paying claims, paying the electric bill, marketing costs and, perhaps, some reasonable allowance for profit — such as the 3% of after tax premiums actually placed in the original regulations.

But it is going to take some work to show that, by “allowable costs,” the statute meant costs that the insurer did not actually incur in running its program. The burden will be even higher due to the fact that the proposed regulations apparently contemplate varying this heightened profit allowance from state to state. This will be done not in response to different rates of return on capital in the different states, but only to take account of differential losses to insurers caused by different state responses to President Obama’s about-face on whether certain plans that violate ACA requirements could continue to be sold outside of the Exchanges.

In short, the increase in “profit” sure looks like a book-keeping entry whose sole purpose has nothing to do with anything in the statute but is instead designed to restore the insurer to the position it would have been in had federal policy not changed. It is as if the insurers are being given some sort of entitlement to the profits they would otherwise have made and the administration is looking for any term in the statute not glued down (such as an 80% reimbursement rate on certain losses) in order to accomplish this goal.

Fleshing out  more fully these matters of statutory interpretation, separation of powers, and administrative law will be left for later, however, along with a fuller explanation of what is going on inside the Risk Corridor Calculator that I created. For now, play with the spreadsheet and enjoy the video.

Resources

Society of Actuaries, Health Watch: Risk Corridors under the Affordable Care Act — A Bridge over Troubled Waters, but the Devil’s in the Details

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