Topic: Health Care & Welfare

When Mean-Tested Benefits Rose, Labor Force Participation Fell

The U.S. job market has tightened by many measures – more advertised job openings, fewer claims for initial unemployment insurance, substantial reduction in long-term unemployment and the number of discouraged workers.  Yet the percentage of working-age population that is either working or looking for work (the labor force participation rate) remains extremely low.  This is a big problem, since projections of future economic growth are constructed by adding expected growth of productivity to growth of the labor force.

Why have so many people dropped out of the labor force?  Since they’re not working (at least in the formal economy), how do they pay for things like food, rent and health care?

One explanation answers both questions: More people are relying on a variety of means-tested cash and in-kind benefits that are made available only on the condition that recipients report little or no earned income.   Since qualification for one benefit often results in qualification for others, the effect can be equivalent to a high marginal tax rate on extra work (such as switching from a 20 to 40 hour workweek, or a spouse taking a job).  Added labor income can often result in loss of multiple benefits, such as disability benefits, supplemental security income, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and Medicaid. 

This graph compares annual labor force participation rates with Congressional Budget Office data on means-tested federal benefits as a percent of GDP.  The data appear consistent with work disincentives in federal transfer payments, labor tax rates and refundable tax credits.

Sec. Burwell: Right Now, My Focus is on Taking Hostages. I’ll Inform Them of Their Hostage Status When I’m Ready

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell is the lead defendant in King v. Burwell, in which the plaintiffs claim the Obama administration is taxing millions of employers and individuals and subsidizing millions of HealthCare.gov enrollees contrary to the plain language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., ObamaCare). The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on March 4, and will likely rule by late June. If the Court rules against Burwell, 57 million individuals and employers will be freed from those illegal taxes and maybe four million HealthCare.gov enrollees will lose subsidies that the administration never had the authority to issue in the first place. Those four million people could see their insurance bills quadruple, face an unexpected tax liability of up to $5,000, and lose their health insurance. You might think they have a right to know about that risk. You might think a responsible public servant like Secretary Burwell would inform them of that risk. 

You would be wrong.

Today, Burwell appeared before the Senate Finance Committee. Though HHS has already deployed its contingency plan for HealthCare.gov-participating insurers, she refused to answer whether HHS has a contingency plan for HealthCare.gov enrollees:

Right now, my focus is on completing and implementing the law, which we believe is the law. Right now, what we’re focused on is the open enrollment.

HHS Head Ducks Questions On ACA Tax Credit Backup Plan,” wrote Law360. Modern Healthcare wrote, “HHS Stonewalls on King v. Burwell,” while The Hill seemed to laud Burwell because she “did not back down” from her firm stand against transparency and consumer information. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) fumed, “to come here and repeatedly refuse to answer the questions strikes me as nothing less than contempt of our oversight responsibility.”

The Failed HealthCare.gov Launch

The launch of HealthCare.gov in 2013 was a disaster. A new report from the Health and Human Services Inspector General (IG) describes how the department mishandled the website’s construction. The department failed to follow federal contracting rules, and did not have a cohesive plan for the website. This led to cost overruns and project delays, and HealthCare.gov’s eventually rocky start.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was given primary responsibility within HHS for HealthCare.gov launch. For the report, the IG reviewed 60 CMS contracts for the project. These contracts were awarded to 33 different companies.

One problem with these contracts was not designating a single company as the project lead. According to the IG, CMS “missed the opportunity” to designate a “single point-of-contact with responsibility for integrating contractors’ efforts and communicating the common project goal to all 33 companies.” A project of this complexity needs a central command to oversee project development. CMS failed to assign one.  

Another problem was that CMS only sought bids from a small group of previously-used companies. CMS claimed this was to speed along the contracting process, but it left the agency with limited options. For instance, CMS received only four bids for one of the main contracts. Three were determined to be technically insufficient leaving CMS with only one choice, CGI Federal. In other instances, CMS only solicited or received bids from one company.

Additionally, CMS did not consider the previous contractor performance for many bids even though federal contracting rules require it. CMS did not access the main performance management database in the case of CGI Federal, which had had previous missteps with the department.

Compounding the mistakes, CMS selected contract types that put the government, not the contractor, at risk in the case of cost overruns for five of the six main contracts. Taxpayers are paying dearly for CMS’ choice. One contract grew from $58 million to $207 million. The six major contracts for HealthCare.gov grew in costs from $464 million to $824 million.

The IG summarized the findings:

When awarding the Federal Marketplace [HealthCare.gov] contracts, CMS did not meet all requirements and did not leverage all available acquisition planning tools, oversight activities, or contracting approaches to identify and mitigate risks…Because CMS did not leverage all of these tools, it operated without a comprehensive roadmap when awarding the Federal Marketplace contracts.

Construction of HealthCare.gov was a complex technical project. CMS’ mismanagement made the task even more difficult and even more expensive.  

Mr. President, Tell HealthCare.gov Enrollees about King v. Burwell and the Risks to Their Coverage

Tonight, President Obama will deliver his annual State of the Union address to Congress. He will no doubt boast that his administration has enrolled 6.8 million individuals in ObamaCare plans in the 37 states with federal Exchanges – i.e., through HealthCare.gov – and a couple million more in the few states that established their own Exchanges. The State of the Union would also be a good time for the president to be honest with those HealthCare.gov enrollees, especially the roughly 6 million of them who are purchasing coverage with the help of federal subsidies, about the risks to which he has exposed them.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which the president himself signed, expressly provides that those subsidies are authorized only “through an Exchange established by the State.” Since majority of American people have never supported ObamaCare, about three quarters of the states now have refused or otherwise failed to establish Exchanges.

If the president were following the law, he would not be issuing subsidies to any HealthCare.gov enrollees. Indeed, if the president had followed the law – if he had all along admitted he has no authority to subsidize HealthCare.gov enrollees – then enough of the country would have seen the full cost of ObamaCare coverage that Congress would have reopened and likely repealed the statute by now. It would have happened even before anyone lost their coverage in the “if you like your health plan you can keep it” debacle of late 2013.

Instead, President Obama insisted on violating the express language of his own health care law. The result is that he put millions of Americans in jeopardy of losing their health insurance – again.

On March 4, the Supreme Court will hear a case called King v. Burwell, one of four challenges to those illegal subsidies, and the illegal taxes that those subsidies trigger. The Court will likely issue a ruling by June. The fact that the Supreme Court agreed to consider King at all means that at least four justices believe the Fourth Circuit’s ruling for the government in King merits review.

If the justices agree with two other lowercourts, they will hold that the president is breaking the law and will put an immediate end to those illegal subsidies. Such a ruling would free the plaintiffs and more than 57 million individuals and employers from being illegally subjected to the aforementioned taxes – ObamaCare’s individual and employer mandates.

The people with whom the president most needs to be honest are the millions of Americans who enrolled in HealthCare.gov. If the Court finds those subsidies are illegal, then enrollees receiving subsidies would see their health insurance bills quadruple (on average). They would be hit with a new tax bill of up to $5,000. Their plans could disappear, and they may not be able to find a replacement. An estimated one million of these folks left jobs with secure coverage because the president promised them secure, affordable coverage through HealthCare.gov. Only he never had that power, and by pretending he did, Obama has now made coverage less secure for millions.

Instead of warning Americans of these risks of HealthCare.gov coverage, the president and his administration have been lying to HealthCare.gov enrollees. As they lost before lower courts and even as the Supreme Court agreed to hear King just days before open enrollment in HealthCare.gov began, the White House and administration officials have repeated the mantra that “nothing has changed.” Watch HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell say “nothing has changed” four times in 90 seconds (go to 3:40).

It is not true that nothing has changed, and the administration knows it isn’t true. The administration knows the risks inherent in HealthCare.gov coverage have increased, because the administration changed the agreements between HealthCare.gov and participating insurers to insert a clause allowing insurers to back out if the subsidies disappear:

CMS acknowledges that QHPI has developed its products for the FFE based on the assumption that APTCs and CSRs will be available to qualifying Enrollees. In the event that this assumption ceases to be valid during the term of this Agreement, CMS acknowledges that Issuer could have cause to terminate this Agreement subject to applicable state and federal law.

The administration made the change, reports Inside Health Policy, because insurers demanded it and because administration officials themselves “believe the clause is critical.” 

What does this mean? It means the president knows that millions of HealthCare.gov enrollees are facing serious financial risks, or worse. Yet his administration is actively concealing those risks from enrollees by telling enrollees “nothing has changed.” At the same time the president is protecting insurers from the risks they face by participating in HealthCare.gov, he is not even informing consumers about the risks HealthCare.gov coverage poses for them.

The president needs to put an end to the deception, tonight. He needs to warn HealthCare.gov enrollees about the risks inherent in their coverage, so they have time to prepare. If he tells them tonight, some of those who need insurance the most might be able to find jobs with secure coverage (or other access to coverage) by the time the Court rules. He needs to tell HealthCare.gov enrollees what his contingency plans are if the Supreme Court rules that he was breaking the law and playing games with their coverage.

He can blame it all on his political opponents. He can claim to be the only honest man in Washington, for all I care. But he needs to level with HealthCare.gov enrollees tonight about the risks they are facing. To keep pretending “nothing has changed” would be a reckless lie.

Judges Shouldn’t Tell Businesses Which Products to Make and Market

New York State is standing athwart medical progress yelling “STOP!” In a move straight from the pages of Atlas Shrugged, the state sued Forest Laboratories, the subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Actavis that makes the Alzheimer’s drug Namenda IR, to force the company to continue making the drug, which was being phased out in favor of the new Namenda XR (which, among other improvements, need only be taken once a day rather than twice—a not insignificant plus when dealing with Alzheimer’s patients!).

Why would New York’s attorney general want to interfere with medical progress and the development of a better drug that would improve the lives of potentially millions of Americans? Perhaps to reduce state drug costs—maybe the state feels that the marginal benefit from switching to XR isn’t worth the marginal cost—or to provide a competitive advantage to the generic pharmaceutical industry (under New York law, when a patent expires—as IR’s will in a few months—the remaining prescriptions automatically switch to generics).

The state’s claim relies on some very dubious antitrust law and seeks to force Forest Labs to keep producing and offering IR under the same “terms and conditions” as before XR came out. Not only would this keep patients using an older, inferior drug, it would effectively compel Forest to support its competitors’ business strategy. The generics were already set to benefit from the hundreds of millions of R&D dollars Forest Labs spent developing IR, but now they get free advertising too.

Maybe the state doesn’t like the incentives created by the interplay of patent and antitrust law and FDA regulations—drug companies constantly develop and promote new drugs that monetize new patents—but no possible legal reason justifies the injunction that the state sought, which a federal district court recently granted! Even worse, the injunction is breathtakingly vague; in responding to Forest Labs’ motion for clarification, the judge acknowledged the vagueness but didn’t change his order, wishing the company “good luck”!

Setting aside the policy and ethical considerations underlying New York’s maneuver, the injunction order is a legal travesty. Cato has thus filed a brief supporting Forest Labs before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. We argue that the order is impermissibly vague, that the doctrine of constitutional avoidance requires interpreting the order as not actually compelling Forest Labs to engage in speech that is protected by the First Amendment, and that to construe the order as actually imposing speech obligations would render the order unconstitutional.

The First Amendment does more than just limit the government’s power to prevent people from speaking, after all: it also prohibits the government from telling people—including companies—what they must say. That is especially the case when, as here, the speech being compelled goes against the speaker’s self-interest and sincerely held beliefs on how best to treat Alzheimer’s. If the district court below actually believes the injunction passes jurisprudential muster, well, “good luck.”

The Second Circuit will hear argument in New York v. Actavis later this month.

Cato legal associate Julio Colomba contributed to this blogpost.

Harvard Study of CBO Reports Says Nothing New or Interesting about King v. Burwell

Vox’s Sarah Kliff reports that Harvard University’s Theda Skocpol has produced a study purporting to show Congress intended for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) to authorize health-insurance subsidies through exchanges established by the federal government—even though the statute expressly and repeatedly says those subsidies are available only “through an Exchange established by the State.” Whether the PPACA authorizes those subsidies in the 36 states with federal exchanges is the question presented in King v. Burwell. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in King on March 4, with a ruling expected by June. Unfortunately for the administration and its supporters, Skocpol offers nothing either new or that supports the notion that Congress intended something other than what it expressly said in the statute.

What evidence does Skocpol claim to have found in support of her counter-textual interpretation of congressional intent? She combs through 68 analyses issued by the Congressional Budget Office during 2009 and 2010. She finds that in none of those reports did the CBO entertain the idea that the PPACA’s exchange subsidies might be available in some states but not others. She interprets this as both “excellent evidence” and “the best objective evidence we have that no one in Congress considered premium subsidies restricted to certain states to be either possible or desirable.”

Yeah, about that.

An alert Vox reader already informed Kliff that the claim that CBO never considered the possibility of exchange subsidies in some states but not others isn’t exactly true. The comprehensive health care bill approved by Democrats on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in 2009 (S. 1679) would have given states four years to establish exchanges themselves, after which point the federal government would establish an exchange. As my partner-in-crime-fighting Jonathan Adler and I write in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in King:

S. 1679 asked each state to adopt certain health insurance regulations, and either establish an Exchange itself or ask the federal government to establish one “in” the state… S. 1679 withheld Exchange subsidies, as well as many of its insurance regulations, for up to four years until the state complied.

The CBO scored S. 1679 assuming that some states would establish exchanges early and some would not. Thus the agency’s cost projections assumed that exchange subsidies would be available in some states but not in others. So we’ve already got a problem with Skocpol’s analysis.

Obamacare’s Exchange Subsidies Are So Essential, People Are Turning Them Down

According to U.S. News & World Report

[B]rokers say they do hear from clients who are eligible for subsidies – which are based on household income and not assets – but want no part of them. Health officials have been boasting that 6.6 million people have enrolled in health coverage through state or federal marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act, but in sharp contrast stands a small group of Americans who say they want nothing to do with the plans, even if they would save money. Their reasons vary: Some are protesting Obamacare, while others simply feel it’s unethical to accept taxpayer dollars to pay for health insurance…

For [Kansas City resident Grace] Brewer, buying a plan on her own would mean she would not have enough to pay for housing, she says, so she chose not to be insured this year and will have to pay a penalty in her 2016 tax filing that is likely to be 2 percent of her income. She has no dependents, is healthy, does not use prescriptions and says she has been careful about her health choices, not overusing medical care.

“I am frustrated. I am angry. And I say ‘no’ to the exchanges,” she says.

Some people are turning down the subsidies because they don’t need them:

Complicating the ethical question is that some people who qualify for subsidies based on their income could afford to pay their own way. “There is no question that we are enrolling people through these programs who would otherwise be considered middle-class or even affluent,” says Ed Haislmaier, a senior research fellow for health policy studies at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation think tank. “We are seeing people with enrollment in these programs that have significant assets, but for whatever reason – usually a temporary reason – fall below the income line.” 

Those reasons could range from early retirement to a midcareer job change. But whatever the case, some of those who are turning down subsidies are aware others are gaming the system, and they think it’s wrong.

“I won’t be a part of it,” Brewer says. “I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s ethical, but the system has gotten so complicated that people can take advantage of those things.”…

The fact that the subsidies are causing controversy among the very people they’re intended to help is “evidence that the government doesn’t do charity very well,” says Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute think tank. 

“Prior to Obamacare, the federal government was subsidizing all sorts of people who did not need health insurance subsidies,” he adds, referring to services like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid and Medicare, the government’s health program for seniors. “With Obamacare, we are subsidizing even more people who don’t need assistance.”

Something to keep in mind when contemplating the impact of King v. Burwell.