Tax Bill Is Likely to Undo Health Insurance Mandate, Republicans Say

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House and Senate negotiators thrashing out differences over a major tax bill are likely to eliminate the insurance coverage mandate at the heart of the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers say.

But a deal struck by Senate Republican leaders and Senator Susan Collins of Maine to mitigate the effect of the repeal has been all but rejected by House Republicans, potentially jeopardizing Ms. Collins’s final yes vote.

“I don’t think the American people voted for bailing out big insurance,” said Representative Dave Brat, Republican of Virginia, who opposes a separate measure to lower insurance premiums that Ms. Collins thought she had secured.

The sweeping tax overhaul approved Saturday by the Senate would eliminate penalties for people who go without insurance, a change not in the tax bill passed last month by the House. But the House has voted many times to roll back the mandate, most recently in a bill to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and House members were enthusiastic about going along.

“Mandating people to buy a product was a bad idea to begin with,” said Representative Rob Woodall, Republican of Georgia. “We made people do something that was supposed to be good for them. But they are telling us by the millions how much they dislike the mandate.”

The individual mandate was originally considered indispensable to the Affordable Care Act, a way to induce healthy people to buy insurance and thus to hold down insurance premiums for sicker customers. The Obama administration successfully defended the mandate in the Supreme Court. But recent economic research suggests that the effect of the mandate on coverage is somewhat smaller than previously thought.

With little more than a week remaining until the annual open enrollment period ends, 3.6 million people have selected health plans for 2018 in the 39 states that use the federal marketplace, the Trump administration reported Wednesday. That is 22 percent higher than at this point last year, despite uncertainty about the mandate’s future and efforts by Republicans and the administration to undermine the law.

But because the sign-up period is only half as long, it appears likely that enrollment will end up lower than in the last period.

Without a mandate, some healthy people are likely to go without coverage, leaving sicker people in the market, and prices are likely to rise more than they otherwise would. The Congressional Budget Office said last month that repealing the individual mandate would increase average premiums on the individual market about 10 percent, and it estimated that the number of people without health insurance would rise by 13 million.

Regardless, the requirement has proved to be one of the most unpopular parts of the 2010 law, and House Republicans were happy to see it go. Representative Richard Hudson, Republican of North Carolina, called the Senate provision “a great move.”

The repeal also frees up money that Congress can use to reduce tax rates. The budget office said it would save the federal government more than $300 billion over 10 years — mainly because fewer people would have Medicaid or subsidized private insurance.

The mandate repeal’s effect on health insurance markets did concern Ms. Collins, and to win her vote for the Senate tax bill, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered her a deal, in writing: He would support two bipartisan bills to stabilize markets and hold down premiums, in the absence of the individual mandate.

One bill would provide money to continue paying subsidies to insurance companies in 2018 and 2019 to compensate them for reducing out-of-pocket costs for low-income people. President Trump cut off the “cost sharing” subsidies in October, more than a year after a federal judge ruled that the payments were unconstitutional because Congress had never explicitly provided money for them. The payments would resume under this measure, drafted by Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington State.

The second bill would provide $5 billion a year for grants to states in 2018 and 2019. States could use the money to help pay the largest health claims, through a backstop known as reinsurance, or to establish high-risk pools to help cover sick people.

Ms. Collins has released a copy of her agreement with Mr. McConnell in which he pledged to support passage of the two measures before the end of the year. His signature was displayed prominently at the top of the first page. But the deal has landed with a thud in the House, where Republicans appear loath to support legislation that they view as propping up a health law that they have pledged to repeal.

“Our members wince at voting to sustain a system that none of them supported,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma.

The Senate could attach the Alexander-Murray legislation to a government funding measure, hoping that Republicans in the House would be willing to swallow it as part of a measure to avoid a government shutdown. But Mr. Cole said House Republicans would be “very offended” at such an approach.

“I don’t think we’re in the mood to be blackmailed by anybody,” he said.

Mr. Brat, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, assailed the deal with Ms. Collins as an example of horse trading that is characteristic of the Washington swamp that he said voters had repudiated.

Likewise, Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said of the Alexander-Murray bill, “There’s no appetite for that over here.”

Ms. Collins said on Wednesday that she believed the House would “take a serious look” at the two bills intended to hold down insurance premiums and that Mr. Trump, in several recent meetings, had assured her that he also supported those bills.

“I don’t think this effort is over by any means,” Ms. Collins said.

For Democrats, eliminating the insurance mandate penalties provides yet another reason to oppose the tax bill.

“The individual mandate is at the heart of the Affordable Care Act,” said Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina. “Repealing it, as the G.O.P. tax scam does, is a deliberate attempt to undercut the law, create chaos in the health insurance marketplaces, increase premiums and decrease choice and coverage.”

Ms. Murray indicated that even if Ms. Collins secures her deal, Democrats would remain steadfast.

“Our bill, the Alexander-Murray bill, was designed to shore up the existing health care system,” not to “solve the new problems in this awful Republican tax bill,” she said.

Meanwhile, the damage to the Affordable Care Act may already have been done. Daniel Bouton, an enrollment counselor in Dallas, said he worried that the Trump administration’s decision to cut advertising for open enrollment had prevented millions of people from learning about the shortened sign-up period. He also said that the Senate’s recent vote to undo the individual mandate as part of its tax bill would discourage people from signing up.

“You’re going to have people who say, ‘Well, perfect, I don’t have to buy insurance anymore,’” Mr. Bouton said.


With House conservatives’ resistance, ACA stabilization bills’ prospects get dimmer

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Senate GOP leaders won a key swing vote for their tax bill by pledging to pass bipartisan legislation to shore up the Affordable Care Act. But now it looks like those measures’ chances of becoming law are getting dimmer.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wants two bills to pass that she hopes will mitigate the effects of a provision in the tax bill that repeals the individual mandate: the Alexander-Murray bill, which would fund cost-sharing reduction payments for two years, and a bill she co-authored with Democrat Bill Nelson, which provides funding for states to establish invisible high-risk pool or reinsurance programs.

Collins voted for the Senate’s version of the tax bill—a critical win for GOP leaders, as they could only lose two votes and it failed to gain her support for previous ACA repeal bills. But she only did so after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assured her the two ACA stabilization measures would pass.

Yet while some lawmakers previously said those measures could be tacked on to the short-term spending bill Congress aims to pass this week, congressional aides now say it isn’t likely to be included, according to The Wall Street Journal. Further, while House conservatives have indicated strong support for repealing the individual mandate in the final version of the GOP tax bill, they are far from on board with the two ACA stabilization bills.

For example, Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson said he’s a “hard, hard, very hard no,” on the Alexander-Murray bill, per the WSJ article.

House Speaker Paul Ryan could also be a barrier to passing the two bills. His office told a meeting of congressional leadership offices on Monday that he wasn’t part of any deal between Collins and McConnell, The Hill reported. But his office didn’t say outright that it opposed the bills.

For her part, Collins said it will be “very problematic” if the ACA stabilization bills don’t pass, according to the WSJ. She also won’t commit to voting for the final version of the tax bill until she sees what comes out of a conference committee between the House and Senate.

Even if those measures do pass, there have been questions about whether they would do enough to soften the blow of repealing the individual mandate. The Congressional Budget Office has advised that the Alexander-Murray bill would do little to change its prediction that repealing the mandate would increase the uninsured rate and raise premiums.

A new analysis from Avalere found that Collins’ bill could help stabilize the individual market by increasing enrollment and reducing premiums in 2019, but the consulting firm’s experts cautioned that those effects could be overshadowed by repealing the individual mandate.


ACA mandate repeal may be less popular than GOP thinks

The tax bill that just passed the Senate eliminates the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and the House is likely to go along when Congress writes the final version. With the tax legislation moving so quickly and the mandate lost in the maze of so many other consequential provisions, we are not likely to have much public debate about this big change in health policy.

Why it matters: If we did, even though the mandate has never been popular, our polling shows that the public does not necessarily want to eliminate it as part of tax reform legislation, once they understand how it works and what the consequences of eliminating it might be.

The back story: Republicans have targeted the ACA mandate because they want the $318 billion in savings the Congressional Budget Office says they would get to help them pay for their tax cuts. (The change would save money because fewer people would get federal subsidies on the ACA marketplaces or apply for Medicaid coverage.)

They have also targeted the mandate because they think it’s so unpopular. Our polls have consistently shown that the mandate is the least popular element of the ACA and in the abstract, more Americans (55%) would eliminate the mandate than keep it (42%).

Yes, but: When people know how the mandate actually works, and are told what experts believe is likely to happen if it’s eliminated, most Americans oppose repealing it in the tax plan.

  • When people learn that they will not be affected by the mandate if they already get insurance from their employer or from Medicare or Medicaid, 62% oppose eliminating it.
  • When people are told that eliminating the mandate would increase premiums for people who buy their own coverage, as the CBO says it will, they also flip, with 60% opposing eliminating the mandate.
  • And when they’re told that 13 million fewer people will have health coverage – another CBO projection – 59% oppose eliminating the mandate.

The bottom line: Many people change their minds when they learn more about facts and consequences, which happens as the lights shine brighter on them in legislative debates. This happened to the “skinny repeal” proposal, and it would happen to single payer.

But as the tax legislation rushes through Congress and heads to the final negotiations, there is almost no chance for the public to grasp the tradeoffs that would come from eliminating the mandate and who is affected and who is not. If they did, the polling suggests, eliminating the mandate might prove far less popular than Republicans seem to think it is.

​Let’s see what the ACA’s subsidies can do

It sure looks like Congress is about to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which will put a lot of pressure on the law’s premium subsidies. What was once a “three-legged stool” — consumer protections, the mandate and premium subsidies — is down to two legs, and subsidies are the only remaining tool to try to attract the people who weren’t already inclined to seek health insurance.

What’s happening: When President Trump cut off federal payments for the ACA’s cost-sharing subsidies, insurers responded by increasing their premiums in a way that also bumped up the law’s premium subsidies — a bit of gamesmanship that few experts had fully anticipated, and which leveraged the structure of the premium subsidies to make up for the effects of political chaos.

The big question: Would something like that work again? Can subsidies make up the difference if the mandate goes away?

The answer: Probably not, policy analysts told my colleague Caitlin Owens and me.

  • “Mandate repeal could quite likely be the last straw for some insurers, and we are likely to see more bare counties for 2019, possibly bare states, as well as higher premiums as remaining insurers take advantage of their market power to raise premiums,” says Washington & Lee University professor Tim Jost, a vocal ACA supporter.

The bottom line: As premiums go up, subsidies go up. So subsidies would help shield the lowest-income consumers from the cost increases caused by the loss of the individual mandate.

Yes, but: The people who don’t receive subsidies will just have to bear the brunt of those costs. And it won’t be easy to concentrate premium hikes onto a specific set of plans, with the goal of increasing subsidies as much as possible, the way insurers did when Trump cut off cost-sharing payments.

  • “I don’t think there’s the same opportunity to play arithmetic games. Insurers will have to raise premiums across the board,” Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt says.

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GOP may have no choice but to try health care again after taxes

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Republicans have been asking themselves what they’ll turn to next, after their tax overhaul wraps up. If they repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, there’s a good chance the answer will be health care — whether they like it or not.

What they’re saying: President Trump has said several times that he wants to take another crack at repeal-and-replace after the tax bill. GOP leaders in the House and Senate have not echoed that plan. But if Republicans do end up repealing the individual mandate, Insurance markets will begin to feel the effects quickly, leading to almost immediate nationwide upheaval that will be impossible to ignore — especially in an election year.

  • This year saw a lot of chaos — insurers pulling out of markets, coming back in, changing their premiums at the last minute — due in large part to changes that would pale in comparison to something on the scale of repealing the individual mandate.
  • “I think next year will be even crazier” if the coverage requirement goes away, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt says.

The timing: The disruption caused by repealing the individual mandate would start early next year and intensify again just before next year’s midterm elections.

  • The Senate’s tax bill would eliminate the ACA’s penalty for being uninsured, starting on Jan. 1, 2019. That might seem like a long way away, but it’s not.
  • Insurers will start deciding this coming spring whether they want to participate in the exchanges in 2019 — and if so, where. Without the mandate, insurers would likely begin to pull back from state marketplaces early next year, likely leaving many parts of the country with no insurance plans to choose from.
  • Insurers will then have to finalize their 2019 premiums next fall. Those rates would likely be substantially higher (10% higher, on average, according to the Congressional Budget Office) without the mandate in place — and that news would hit just before next year’s midterms.

The bottom line: All this fallout would be impossible to ignore, putting more pressure on Congress to return to health policy whether it wants to or not — and reopening all the same internal divisions that have stymied every other health care bill.

Flashback: “You can make an argument that Obamacare is falling of its own weight — until we repeal the individual mandate,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said two weeks ago. “Then there is absolutely no excuse for us not to replace Obamacare because we changed a fundamental principle of Obamacare. So I hope every Republican knows that when you pass repeal of the individual mandate, it’s no longer their problem, it becomes your problem.”

Stabilization Bill Couldn’t Fix the Damage of Repealing Obamacare’s Mandate

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  • CBO has estimated 4 million would lose coverage in 2019
  • Stabilization bill would have no impact on predictions: CBO

Passing a bipartisan Obamacare stabilization bill wouldn’t do much to cushion the blow from repealing the health law’s requirement that all individuals buy health insurance, the Congressional Budget Office said.

 The CBO has estimated that scrapping the mandate would result in 4 million people losing health coverage in 2019 and premiums in the individual market to increase by 10 percent. On Wednesday, the nonpartisan Congressional agency said a stabilization proposal backed by some Republican Senators would have no impact on its calculations.
The CBO’s conclusion could have an impact on the fate of the Senate tax overhaul bill that is expected to get a vote this week. Senate Republicans included the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate in their tax proposal. And several Senators concerned about their states’ health insurance markets, including Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, had pushed forward the stabilization bill as a way to mitigate the blow.
President Donald Trump endorsed the proposal, known as the Bipartisan Health Care Stabilization Act, on Tuesday.

“The effects on premiums and the number of people with health insurance coverage would be similar to those referenced above,” the CBO said Wednesday.

The CBO projection comes with caveats. It compares the effect of the stabilization bill to a baseline in which Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction subsidies are paid. The Trump administration has halted the payments, which lower deductibles and out-of-pocket costs for low-income people, and the funds are the subject of a legal dispute.

“I find it baffling,” Collins said Wednesday. She and Murkowski voted against earlier Republican efforts to repeal the ACA, blocking them.

The CBO report also doesn’t evaluate the effect of giving insurers additional funding, an approach that’s also under discussion. Collins introduced a bill with Senator Bill Nelson of Florida to give states seed money for high-risk pools “which would ensure that people with pre-existing conditions are protected and also to lower premiums,” she said on Tuesday. Alexander specified that Collins’s bill would provide $3 billion to $5 billion to states to set up the high-risk pools. Collins said on Tuesday that Trump also supporters her proposal.

​Many families can’t afford even moderate deductibles

Reproduced from Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finance; Note: Liquid assets include the sum of checking and saving accounts, money market accounts, certificates of deposit, savings bonds, non-retirement mutual funds, stocks and bonds; Chart: Axios Visuals

A lot of low-income families can’t afford even a moderate deductible, yet deductibles continue to rise in almost all forms of insurance, Kaiser Family Foundation president Drew Altman writes in his latest Axios column.

  • Roughly 40% of all non-elderly households don’t have enough liquid assets to cover a high deductible ($3,000 for an individual or $6,000 for a family).
  • Among families whose income makes them eligible for the ACA’s premium subsidies, 60% don’t have enough liquid assets to cover a high deductible and 44% couldn’t cover the deductible for a mid-range plan ($1,500 for an individual or $3,000 for a family).

Why it matters: High deductibles are everywhere, and they’re only getting higher. Many ACA plans have relatively big deductibles and Republicans’ alternatives would push them higher. They’ve been getting bigger and bigger in employer plans, too.

  • “For many families, even if they have insurance, any significant illness could wipe out all their savings, making impossible to fix a broken car to get to work, or pay for school, or make a rent or mortgage payment,” Altman says.