Legislative Bulletin: Summary of Alexander-Murray “Stability” Bill
On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced he had reached an agreement in principle with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) regarding an Obamacare “stabilization” package. Unfortunately, legislative text has not yet been released (UPDATE: bill text was released late Tuesday evening), but based on press reports, Twitter threads, and a summary circulating on Capitol Hill, here’s what is in the final package:
Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments: The bill appropriates roughly $25-30 billion in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, which offset their costs for providing discounts on deductibles and co-payments to certain low-income individuals enrolled on insurance Exchanges. Late last Thursday, President Trump announced he would halt the payments to insurers, concluding the Administration did not have authority to do so under the Constitution. As a result, the bill includes an explicit appropriation, totaling roughly $3-4 billion for the rest of this calendar year, and $10-11 billion for each of years 2018 and 2019, based on Congressional Budget Office spending estimates.
For 2018 only, the bill includes language allowing states to decline the cost-sharing reduction payments—if they previously approved premium increases that assumed said payments would not be made. If states do not decline the payments, they must certify that said payments will “provide a direct financial benefit to consumers”—that is, they will result in lower premium rates, and/or rebates to consumers. The bill also includes clarifying language regarding the interactions between any such rebates and premium tax credit levels under Obamacare.
Some conservatives may be concerned that, because insurers understood for well over a year that a new Administration could terminate these payments in 2017, the agreement would effectively subsidize their flawed assumptions. Some conservatives may be concerned that action to continue the flow of payments would solidify the principle that Obamacare, and therefore insurers, are “too big to fail,” which could only encourage further risky behavior by insurers in the future. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that, absent Hyde Amendment protections, these payments would subsidize federal insurance plans covering abortion.
State Waiver Processes: The bill would streamline the process for approving state innovation waivers, authorized by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Those waivers allow states to receive their state’s Exchange funding as a block grant, and exempt themselves from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and some (but not all) of Obamacare’s insurance regulations.
Specifically, the agreement would:
- Extend the waivers’ duration, from five years to six, with unlimited renewals possible;
- Prohibit HHS from terminating waivers during their duration (including any renewal periods), unless “the state materially failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the waiver;”
- Require HHS to release guidance to states within 30 days of enactment regarding waivers, including model language for waivers;
- Shorten the time the Department of Health and Human Services to consider waivers from 180 days to 90;
- Allow a 45 day review for 1) waivers currently pending; 2) waivers for areas “the Secretary determines are at risk for excessive premium increases or having no health plans offered in the applicable health insurance market for the current or following plan year; and 3) waivers that are “the same or substantially similar” to waivers previously approved for another state. These waivers would initially apply for no more than three years, with an extension possible for a full six-year term;
- Allow governors to apply for waivers based on their certification of authority, rather than requiring states to pass a law authorizing state actions under the waiver—a move that some conservatives may be concerned could allow state chief executives to act unilaterally, including by exiting a successful waiver on a governor’s order.
State Waiver Substance: On the substance of innovation waivers, the bill would regulatory guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015. Among other actions, that guidance prevented states from using savings from an Obamacare/Exchange waiver to offset higher costs to Medicaid, and vice versa. While supporting the concept of greater flexibility for states, some conservatives may note that, as this guidance was not enacted pursuant to notice-and-comment, the Trump Administration can revoke it at any time—indeed, should have revoked it months ago.
Additionally, the bill amends—but does not repeal—the “guardrails” for state innovation waivers. Under current law, Section 1332 waivers must:
- “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as” Obamacare coverage;
- “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as Obamacare coverage;
- “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of [a state’s] residents” as under Obamacare; and
- “Not increase the federal deficit.”
Some conservatives have previously criticized these provisions as insufficiently flexible to allow for conservative health reforms like Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven options.
The bill allows states to provide coverage “of comparable affordability, including for low-income individuals, individuals with serious health needs, and other vulnerable populations” rather than the current language in the second bullet above. It also clarifies that deficit and budget neutrality will operate over the lifetime of the waiver, and that state innovation waivers under Obamacare “shall not be construed to affect any waiver processes or standards” under the Medicare or Medicaid statutes for purposes of determining the Obamacare waiver’s deficit neutrality.
The bill also makes adjustments to the “pass-through” language allowing states to receive their Exchange funding via a block grant. For instance, the bill adds language allowing states to receive any funding for the Basic Health Program—a program states can establish for households with incomes of between 138-200 percent of the federal poverty level—via the block grant.
Some conservatives may view the “comparable affordability” change as a distinction without a difference, as it still explicitly links affordability to Obamacare’s rich benefit package. Some conservatives may therefore view the purported “concessions” on the December 2015 guidance, and on “comparable affordability” as inconsequential in nature, and insignificant given the significant concessions to liberals included elsewhere in the proposed legislative package.
Catastrophic Plans: The bill would allow all individuals to purchase “catastrophic” health plans, and keep those plans in a single risk pool with other Obamacare plans. However, this provision would not apply until 2019—i.e., not for the upcoming plan year.
Catastrophic plans—currently only available to individuals under 30, individuals without an “affordable” health plan in their area, or individuals subject to a hardship exemption from the individual mandate—provide no coverage below Obamacare’s limit on out-of-pocket spending, but for “coverage of at least three primary care visits.” Catastrophic plans are also currently subject to Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements.
Outreach Funding: The bill requires HHS to obligate $105.8 million in Exchange user fees to states for “enrollment and outreach activities” for the 2018 and 2019 plan years. Currently, the federal Exchange (healthcare.gov) assesses a user fee of 3.5 percent of premiums on insurers, who ultimately pass these fees on to consumers. In a rule released last December, the outgoing Obama Administration admitted that the Exchange is “gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs”—in part because maintaining the Exchange costs less per year than creating one did in 2013-14. However, the Obama Administration rejected any attempt to lower those fees, instead deciding to spend them on outreach efforts. The agreement would re-direct portions of the fees to states for enrollment outreach.
Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would create a new entitlement for states to outreach dollars. Moreover, some conservatives may object to this re-direction of funds that ultimately come from consumers towards more government spending. Some conservatives may support taking steps to reduce the user fees—thus lowering premiums, the purported intention of this “stabilization” measure—rather than re-directing them toward more government spending, as the agreement proposes.
The bill also requires a series of bi-weekly reports from HHS on metrics like call center volume, website visits, etc., during the 2018 and 2019 open enrollment periods, followed by after-action reports regarding outreach and advertising. Some conservatives may view these myriad requirements first as micro-management of the executive, and second as buying into the liberal narrative that the Trump Administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, by requiring minute oversight of the executive’s implementation of the law.
Cross-State Purchasing: Requires HHS to issue regulations (in consultations with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners) within one year regarding health care choice compacts under Obamacare. Such compacts would allow individuals to purchase coverage across state lines. However, because states can already establish health care compacts amongst themselves, and because Obamacare’s regulatory mandates would still apply to any such coverage purchased through said compacts, some conservatives may view such language as insufficient and not adding to consumers’ affordable coverage options.