Politics & Policy

A Question of Priorities: Obamacare or Zika

Spraying for mosquitoes in San Diego, Calif., August 19, 2016. (Reuters photo: Earnie Grafton)
The White House is planning yet another O’care bailout, with money it should use to fight Zika.

If Nero was the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, Barack Obama must surely qualify as the president who dithered while his signature initiative rapidly crumbled. Despite a public-health emergency in sections of the southern United States, the president seems more interested in shoveling money to insurers than in stopping the threat from the Zika virus.

Last week the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was attempting yet another Obamacare relaunch, this one including a federally funded “advertising campaign featuring newly insured individuals, as well as direct appeals to young people hit by tax penalties this year for failing to enroll.” With enrollment in the law’s exchanges well below original estimates, insurers leaving in droves, and premiums ready to spike, the move seems to be a desperate attempt to increase sign-ups and keep insurers at the Obamacare table.

But the timing of the announcement could not be more incongruous. Even as the Department of Health and Human Services wastes taxpayer dollars to promote yet again a measure enacted into law six years ago — on which public opinion has remained decidedly stable (and negative) — HHS also claims that it desperately needs additional funding to fight the Zika virus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote to HHS on Friday to ask why the agency’s leaders believe that taxpayer dollars “would be better spent propping up the failed Obamacare exchanges than other important public health priorities — such as preventing the spread of Zika.”

The fact remains, however, that HHS’s top priority is propping up the failed Obamacare experiment — a bigger priority than obeying the text of Obamacare itself. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service and other outside experts have concluded that, in implementing Obamacare’s reinsurance program, the administration violated the law by prioritizing payments to insurers over payments to the Treasury. As a result, insurers will receive billions of dollars in extra funding that legally should be returned to taxpayers.

To sum up the situation: The Obama administration is funneling billions of dollars to “greedy” insurers that Democrats hate, while Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have called for Congress to return from its recess to pass billions of dollars in spending to fight Zika. There is, however, an easy win-win solution: Use the reinsurance funds to pay for the new Zika spending, rather than giving insurance companies another Obamacare bailout.

The Zika conference report that the House passed in June did pay for new spending on the virus by rescinding some unspent Obamacare funds. Two-thirds of the funds rescinded, however ($543 million in total), came from an account used to establish Obamacare exchanges in United States territories. With exchanges having been established for years, this “rescission” amounts to Congress’s agreeing not to spend money that was never going to be spent anyway — a “pay for” on paper rather than in reality.

By contrast, utilizing reinsurance funds to finance Zika spending would represent a legitimate savings to taxpayers. Such a move would reclaim billions of dollars that otherwise would have been (unlawfully) diverted to insurance companies — some of which would fund the new Zika spending, and some of which would be returned to the taxpayers to whom the funds belonged in the first place.

#related#Using reinsurance dollars to fund a Zika package would be not only good policy but good politics as well. Most Americans would put the health of infants and pregnant women over the health of insurance companies’ bottom lines — and so should Congress. If Democrats wish to defend crony capitalism and corporate-welfare payments to insurers, that is their right. But particularly after the premium spikes hit this fall, few may wish to do so.

As the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. Senator McConnell rightly pointed out last week that this administration has prioritized its failed Obamacare experiment over protecting Americans from the Zika virus. When it comes to finding any new source to pay for new Zika spending, ending Obamacare’s reinsurance bailout should stand at the top of the priority list.

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