Politics & Policy

Obamacare’s $170.8 Billion in Insurer Bailouts

(Albund/Dreamstime)
Despite staggering amounts of money funneled into three bailout programs, insurers still cannot break even selling Obamacare.

Obamacare has been in the news — and the courts — quite a lot recently. While much of the press attention has focused on the controversial contraception mandate, a potentially bigger issue remains largely unreported — namely, that the Obama administration has set in train an unholy trinity of bailouts that could pay health-insurance companies $170.8 billion in the coming decade.

Much of the litigation surrounds the legality — or more specifically, the lack of legality — of these bailouts. On May 12, the administration lost a case in United States District Court, U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell, in which Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that payments to insurers for cost-sharing subsidies without an express appropriation from Congress violated the Constitution. And recently, multiple insurers have filed suit against the government in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking payment for unpaid “risk corridor” funds, designed to cushion insurers from incurring major losses, or major gains, during the exchanges’ first three years.

Related: An Anti-Obamacare Victory for the House — and the Constitution

What exactly do all these Obamacare lawsuits entail? And how much taxpayer money is the Obama administration shoveling to insurers in an attempt to keep them participating in its moribund exchanges? Herewith, a 101 tutorial on the more than $170 billion in Obamacare bailouts.

Risk Corridors

What’s the issue? Risk corridors were one of two temporary programs (I discuss the other below) designed to provide stability to the law’s exchanges in their first years. From 2014 through 2016, the risk-corridor program is designed to minimize large insurer losses, as well as large insurer profits. Initially, the administration claimed risk corridors would be implemented in a budget-neutral manner — that is, outgoing payments to insurers with losses would equal incoming payments from insurers with gains. But the healthcare.gov catastrophe, coupled with policy changes unilaterally made in the fall of 2013, caused the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to float the idea of using taxpayer funds in risk corridors to offset insurer losses — in other words, bail them out.

How much has the government paid? Nothing, thankfully — at least not yet. Fearful that the administration could utilize risk corridors to implement a taxpayer-funded bailout of insurers, Congress passed in December 2014 (and subsequently renewed this past winter) appropriations language that prevents CMS from using additional taxpayer funds to pay insurers’ risk-corridor claims.

How much could the government pay? In 2014, insurers submitted $2.87 billion in risk-corridor claims, but because insurers with gains paid in only $362 million, insurers with losses received only that much in payments — approximately 12.6 percent of the requested funds. Last week insurers in North Carolina and Oregon sued to recover their unpaid risk-corridor funds, following a $5 billion class-action suit filed in February by an Obamacare co-op insurer in Oregon. While CMS has not yet settled those lawsuits seeking unpaid risk-corridor funds, in November it issued a policy memo stating that those unpaid funds represent an obligation of the federal government.

Insurer losses more than doubled last year when compared with the 2014 losses.

Although CMS has not yet released data on risk-corridor claims for 2015 or 2016, it seems likely that risk corridors will incur losses similar to those for 2014. A McKinsey study released last month, “Exchanges Three Years In,” found that insurer losses more than doubled last year when compared with the 2014 losses — making $2.5 billion in claims the likely low estimate for risk corridors. A conservative assumption would estimate a total of $7.5 billion in unpaid risk-corridor claims — $2.5 billion each for 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Although the appropriations language in place currently prevents CMS from using taxpayer funds for risk-corridor claims, it is possible — even likely — that the administration could attempt to settle the insurer lawsuits as one way of getting bailout funds to insurers. Any settled lawsuits would be paid from the Judgment Fund of the Treasury, not out of a CMS budget account, thus circumventing the appropriations restrictions.

Reinsurance

What’s the issue? The second Obamacare temporary stabilization program, called reinsurance, requires “assessments” — some would call them taxes — on all employer-provided health-insurance plans. These assessments are designed to 1) reimburse the Treasury for the $5 billion cost of a separate reinsurance program that operated from 2010 through 2013 and 2) reimburse insurers with high-cost patients from 2014 through 2016.

How much has the government paid? In 2014, insurers received nearly $8 billion in payments from the reinsurance “slush fund.” The administration still holds nearly $1.7 billion in funds from the 2014 benefit year — money that will no doubt get shoveled insurers’ way as well. While the law explicitly stated that the Treasury should get reimbursed for its $5 billion before insurers receive payments from the reinsurance fund, the Obama administration has implemented the law in the exact opposite manner — prioritizing insurer bailouts over repaying the Treasury. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has stated that this action represents a clear violation of the text of the Obamacare statute.

The Obama administration chose to violate the plain text of the law and prioritize claims to insurers over the statutory requirement to repay taxpayers.

How much could the government pay? Between 2014 and 2016, insurers appear likely to receive the full $20 billion in reinsurance payments provided for under the law. On the other hand, the Treasury will receive far less than the $5 billion it was promised, because the Obama administration chose to violate the plain text of the law and prioritize claims to insurers over the statutory requirement to repay taxpayers.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies

What’s the issue? The law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing (such as deductibles and co-payments) for certain low-income individuals with incomes under 250 percent of the federal poverty level. While Section 1402 of the law authorized the Departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services to remit payments to insurers for the cost of these discounts, it did not include an explicit appropriation for them. Judge Collyer’s May 12 ruling, though stayed pending appeal by the administration, prohibits future spending on cost-sharing subsidies by the federal government unless and until Congress enacts an explicit appropriation.

How much has the government paid? In fiscal year 2014, insurers received $2.1 billion in cost-sharing subsidies. In fiscal 2015, the cost-sharing subsidies totaled $5.1 billion, and this fiscal year, spending on the subsidies will total an estimated $6.1 billion — for a total paid out (through this September 30) of $13.9 billion.

How much could the government pay? If Judge Collyer’s ruling is not upheld on appeal, this bailout program — unlike the other two — will continue without end. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on cost-sharing subsidies will total $130 billion over the coming decade, unless halted by a judicial ruling — or unless a new administration decides it will not spend funds that have not been appropriated by Congress.

There you have it. Combine a total of $33.3 billion paid to date ($20 billion in reinsurance plus $13.3 billion in cost-sharing subsidies) with potential future bailouts of $137.5 billion ($7.5 billion in risk-corridor funds plus an additional $130 billion in cost-sharing subsidies) and you come up with a not-so-grand total of $170.8 billion in taxpayer-funded Obamacare bailouts to insurers.

The scope of both the bailouts and Obamacare’s failures looks truly staggering. Despite literally billions of dollars coming from three separate bailout programs, insurers still cannot make money selling Obamacare products. Most insurers continue to lose funds hand over fist, while some, such as UnitedHealthGroup, the nation’s largest health insurer, have all but exited the exchanges entirely.

The scope of the bailouts put the lie to Joe Biden’s claims just prior to Obamacare’s passage, when he claimed to ABC News, “We’re going to control the insurance companies.” Au contraire, Mr. Vice President. By requiring more than $170 billion in bailouts just to keep the sputtering exchanges afloat, the insurance companies are controlling you — and us, the taxpayers, as well.

— Chris Jacobs is the founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington.

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