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”).
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.
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.