The Emerging Graham-Cassidy 2.0 Proposal

Conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation are circulating a proposal that builds on legislation by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) to overhaul ObamaCare. Even though I don’t know whether Graham and Cassidy have endorsed these updates, I will go ahead and call this proposal Graham-Cassidy 2.0. The proposal seems ill-advised, particularly since there is an alternative that is not only far superior in terms of policy, but also an easier political lift that would deliver more political benefit.

The key to evaluating any proposal to overhaul ObamaCare is to understand the law’s centerpiece is its pre-existing conditions provisions. Those provisions are actually a bundle of regulations, including a requirement that insurers offer coverage to all comers, restrictions on underwriting on the basis of age, an outright prohibition on underwriting on the basis of health, and a requirement that insurers treat different market segments as being part of a single risk pool. ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions have the unintended and harmful effect of penalizing high-quality coverage and rewarding low-quality coverage. ObamaCare contains other harmful regulations, but its preexisting-conditions provisions are by far the worst. Unless a proposal would repeal or completely free consumers from ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions, it is simply nibbling around the edges.

From what I have seen, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 nibbles around the edges.

To its credit, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would zero-out funding for and repeal the entitlements to both ObamaCare’s premium-assistance tax credits (read: Exchange subsidies) and benefits under the Medicaid expansion. Unfortunately, it would not repeal that spending. Instead, it would take that money and send it to states in the form of block grants. The aggregate spending level for those block grants would grow more slowly over time than Exchange subsidies and federal Medicaid-expansion grants would under current law.

Limiting the growth of those spending streams seems like a better idea than letting them grow without limit, as current law allows. However, there is more downside than upside here.

First, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would transform a purely federal spending stream into a intergovernmental transfer. At present, Exchange subsidies are payments the federal government makes to private insurance companies. Under Graham-Cassidy 2.0 (and 1.0), the feds would send those funds to states, which would use them to subsidize health insurance in various ways. Roping in a second layer of government diffuses responsibility and reduces accountability, regardless of whether the feds send those funds to states in the form of a block grant. Voters who don’t like how those funds are being spent would have difficulty knowing which level of government to blame, and whichever level of government is actually responsible could avoid accountability by blaming the other. Intergovernmental transfers are so inherently corrupting, there should be a constitutional amendment prohibiting them. And yet Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would substitute an intergovernmental transfer for spending with clearer lines of accountability.

Second, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 also diffuses accountability for ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions. Those provisions would continue to operate (with slight modifications). As a result, they would continue to destabilize the individual market, punish high-quality coverage, and reward low-quality coverage. The purpose of the Exchange subsidies is to mitigate that instability. Today, it is clear that Congress is responsible for any harm those provisions inflict, and the success or failure of the Exchange subsidies to mitigate those harms. Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would give that money to states and task them with mitigating those harms. When states fail to do so, as at least some states inevitably will, whom should voters blame? Congress, which started the fire? Or states, to whom Congress handed the fire extinguisher?

Third, while Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would eliminate two federal entitlements, eliminating entitlements is desirable only to the extent it limits government control over economic resources—in this case, spending. And while Graham-Cassidy 2.0 proposes to hold the growth of this repurposed ObamaCare spending below what it would be under current law, there is reason to doubt such a spending limitation would hold.

When examining the merits of any policy proposal, one must also consider the political dynamics the proposal would unleash. Generally speaking, states are a more politically powerful and sympathetic constituency than the current recipients of Exchange subsidies (private insurance companies). States have been able to use that political clout to get Congress to disregard the spending limits it imposed on SCHIP, for example, when so-called emergencies led states to blow through their initial allotments. Moreover, since Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would preserve ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions, it would come with its own built-in emergencies. As sure as the sun rises in the East, states will come to Congress and claim their block-grant allocations were insufficient to mitigate the resulting harms. Congress would be unlikely to say no—members rely on state officials for political support, after all—which means the spending restraints in Graham-Cassidy 2.0 are less than guaranteed.

Fourth, also pushing the direction of bigger government, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would expand the constituency for ObamaCare spending. At present, the money the federal government spends on ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion does not enjoy the support of the 19 states that have not implemented the expansion. The block grants in Graham-Cassidy 2.0, by contrast, would go to all states. As a result, non-expansion states like Texas would go from not caring about whether that federal spending continues to insisting that it does. At the same time, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would expand the constituency of voters who want to preserve that spending. At present, able-bodied, childless adults in non-expansion states receive no benefit from ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion or its Exchange subsidies. Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would allow (and in some cases require) states to provide subsidies to such adults below the poverty level, thereby creating another constituency that will reliably vote to expand those subsidies.

Fifth, a provision of Graham-Cassidy 2.0 that supporters consider a selling point would expand the constituency for more spending yet again. The proposal would require all states to allow all able-bodied, non-elderly Medicaid enrollees to use their Medicaid subsidy to purchase private insurance. Since greater choice would make Medicaid enrollment more valuable, and since roughly one third of people who are eligible for Medicaid are not enrolled, this would perversely lead to a large “woodwork effect,” where people who were previously eligible for Medicaid but not enrolled begin to enroll in the program. When Medicaid enrollment increases, so will Medicaid spending, and so will the population of voters who are willing to vote for higher Medicaid spending and the higher taxes required to finance it.

Since Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would preserve ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions, it is hard to see what would justify taking these one or two uncertain steps forward and multiple steps backward.

This is particularly true since there is a much better alternative on the table: strongly encouraging the Trump administration to allow insurers to offer short-term health insurance plans with renewal guarantees that protect enrollees from having their premiums increase because they got sick. Doing so would allow consumers to avoid all of ObamaCare’s unwanted regulatory costs, particularly those imposed by its preexisting-conditions provisions. The Trump administration can create this “freedom option” by administrative rulemaking—comments on the administrations proposed rule are due April 23—which is a much easier political lift than garnering 217 votes in the House and 51 votes in the Senate. Expanding short-term plans would also create salutary political dynamics that would force Democrats begin negotiating a permanent overhaul of ObamaCare.

As of today, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 just can’t compete with that cost-benefit ratio. Every ounce of energy spent on it, rather than on expanding short-term plans, is a waste.