Archives For health care reform debate

I just posted a new ICLE white paper, co-authored with former ICLE Associate Director, Ben Sperry:

When Past Is Not Prologue: The Weakness of the Economic Evidence Against Health Insurance Mergers.

Yesterday the hearing in the DOJ’s challenge to stop the Aetna-Humana merger got underway, and last week phase 1 of the Cigna-Anthem merger trial came to a close.

The DOJ’s challenge in both cases is fundamentally rooted in a timeworn structural analysis: More consolidation in the market (where “the market” is a hotly-contested issue, of course) means less competition and higher premiums for consumers.

Following the traditional structural playbook, the DOJ argues that the Aetna-Humana merger (to pick one) would result in presumptively anticompetitive levels of concentration, and that neither new entry not divestiture would suffice to introduce sufficient competition. It does not (in its pretrial brief, at least) consider other market dynamics (including especially the complex and evolving regulatory environment) that would constrain the firm’s ability to charge supracompetitive prices.

Aetna & Humana, for their part, contend that things are a bit more complicated than the government suggests, that the government defines the relevant market incorrectly, and that

the evidence will show that there is no correlation between the number of [Medicare Advantage organizations] in a county (or their shares) and Medicare Advantage pricing—a fundamental fact that the Government’s theories of harm cannot overcome.

The trial will, of course, feature expert economic evidence from both sides. But until we see that evidence, or read the inevitable papers derived from it, we are stuck evaluating the basic outlines of the economic arguments based on the existing literature.

A host of antitrust commentators, politicians, and other interested parties have determined that the literature condemns the mergers, based largely on a small set of papers purporting to demonstrate that an increase of premiums, without corresponding benefit, inexorably follows health insurance “consolidation.” In fact, virtually all of these critics base their claims on a 2012 case study of a 1999 merger (between Aetna and Prudential) by economists Leemore Dafny, Mark Duggan, and Subramaniam Ramanarayanan, Paying a Premium on Your Premium? Consolidation in the U.S. Health Insurance Industry, as well as associated testimony by Prof. Dafny, along with a small number of other papers by her (and a couple others).

Our paper challenges these claims. As we summarize:

This white paper counsels extreme caution in the use of past statistical studies of the purported effects of health insurance company mergers to infer that today’s proposed mergers—between Aetna/Humana and Anthem/Cigna—will likely have similar effects. Focusing on one influential study—Paying a Premium on Your Premium…—as a jumping off point, we highlight some of the many reasons that past is not prologue.

In short: extrapolated, long-term, cumulative, average effects drawn from 17-year-old data may grab headlines, but they really don’t tell us much of anything about the likely effects of a particular merger today, or about the effects of increased concentration in any particular product or geographic market.

While our analysis doesn’t necessarily undermine the paper’s limited, historical conclusions, it does counsel extreme caution for inferring the study’s applicability to today’s proposed mergers.

By way of reference, Dafny, et al. found average premium price increases from the 1999 Aetna/Prudential merger of only 0.25 percent per year for two years following the merger in the geographic markets they studied. “Health Insurance Mergers May Lead to 0.25 Percent Price Increases!” isn’t quite as compelling a claim as what critics have been saying, but it’s arguably more accurate (and more relevant) than the 7 percent price increase purportedly based on the paper that merger critics like to throw around.

Moreover, different markets and a changed regulatory environment alone aren’t the only things suggesting that past is not prologue. When we delve into the paper more closely we find even more significant limitations on the paper’s support for the claims made in its name, and its relevance to the current proposed mergers.

The full paper is available here.

On November 9, pharmaceutical stocks soared as Donald Trump’s election victory eased concerns about government intervention in drug pricing. Shares of Pfizer rose 8.5%, Allergan PLC was up 8%, and biotech Celgene jumped 10.4%. Drug distributors also gained, with McKesson up 6.4% and Express Scripts climbing 3.4%. Throughout the campaign, Clinton had vowed to take on the pharmaceutical industry and proposed various reforms to reign in drug prices, from levying fines on drug companies that imposed unjustified price increases to capping patients’ annual expenditures on drugs. Pharmaceutical stocks had generally underperformed this year as the market, like much of America, awaited a Clinton victory.

In contrast, Trump generally had less to say on the subject of drug pricing, hence the market’s favorable response to his unexpected victory. Yet, as the end of the first post-election month draws near, we are still uncertain whether Trump is friend or foe to the pharmaceutical industry. Trump’s only proposal that directly impacts the industry would allow the government to negotiate the prices of Medicare Part D drugs with drug makers. Although this proposal would likely have little impact on prices because existing Part D plans already negotiate prices with drug makers, there is a risk that this “negotiation” could ultimately lead to price controls imposed on the industry. And as I have previously discussed, price controls—whether direct or indirect—are a bad idea for prescription drugs: they lead to higher initial launch prices for drugs, increased drug prices for consumers with private insurance coverage, drug shortages in certain markets, and reduced incentives for innovation.

Several of Trump’s other health proposals have mixed implications for the industry. For example, a repeal or overhaul of the Affordable Care Act could eliminate the current tax on drug makers and loosen requirements for Medicaid drug rebates and Medicare part D discounts. On the other hand, if repealing the ACA reduces the number of people insured, spending on pharmaceuticals would fall. Similarly, if Trump renegotiates international trade deals, pharmaceutical firms could benefit from stronger markets or longer patent exclusivity rights, or they could suffer if foreign countries abandon trade agreements altogether or retaliate with disadvantageous terms.

Yet, with drug spending up 8.5 percent last year and recent pricing scandals launched by 500+ percentage increases in individual drugs (i.e., Martin Shkreli, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Mylan), the current debate over drug pricing is unlikely to fade. Even a Republican-led Congress and White House is likely to heed the public outcry and do something about drug prices.

Drug makers would be wise to stave off any government-imposed price restrictions by voluntarily limiting price increases on important drugs. Major pharmaceutical company Allergan has recently done just this by issuing a “social contract with patients” that made several drug pricing commitments to its customers. Among other assurances, Allergan has promised to limit price increases to single-digit percentage increases and no longer engage in the common industry tactic of dramatically increasing prices for branded drugs nearing patent expiry. Last year throughout the pharmaceutical industry, the prices of the most commonly-used brand drugs increased by over 16 percent and, in the last two years before patent expiry, drug makers increased the list prices of drugs by an average of 35 percent. Thus, Allergan’s commitment will produce significant savings over the life of a product, creating hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to health plans, patients, and the health care system.

If Allergan can make this commitment for its entire drug inventory—over 80+ drugs—why haven’t other companies done the same? Similar commitments by other drug makers might be enough to prevent lawmakers from turning to market-distorting reforms, such as price controls, that could end up doing more harm than good for consumers, the pharmaceutical industry, and long-term innovation.

As regulatory review of the merger between Aetna and Humana hits the homestretch, merger critics have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the deal. This is particularly true of a subset of healthcare providers concerned about losing bargaining power over insurers.

Fortunately for consumers, the merger appears to be well on its way to approval. California recently became the 16th of 20 state insurance commissions that will eventually review the merger to approve it. The U.S. Department of Justice is currently reviewing the merger and may issue its determination as early as July.

Only Missouri has issued a preliminary opinion that the merger might lead to competitive harm. But Missouri is almost certain to remain an outlier, and its analysis simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The Missouri opinion echoed the Missouri Hospital Association’s (MHA) concerns about the effect of the merger on Medicare Advantage (MA) plans. It’s important to remember, however, that hospital associations like the MHA are not consumer advocacy groups. They are trade organizations whose primary function is to protect the interests of their member hospitals.

In fact, the American Hospital Association (AHA) has mounted continuous opposition to the deal. This is itself a good indication that the merger will benefit consumers, in part by reducing hospital reimbursement costs under MA plans.

More generally, critics have argued that history proves that health insurance mergers lead to higher premiums, without any countervailing benefits. Merger opponents place great stock in a study by economist Leemore Dafny and co-authors that purports to show that insurance mergers have historically led to seven percent higher premiums.

But that study, which looked at a pre-Affordable Care Act (ACA) deal and assessed its effects only on premiums for traditional employer-provided plans, has little relevance today.

The Dafny study first performed a straightforward statistical analysis of overall changes in concentration (that is, the number of insurers in a given market) and price, and concluded that “there is no significant association between concentration levels and premium growth.” Critics never mention this finding.

The study’s secondary, more speculative, analysis took the observed effects of a single merger — the 1999 merger between Prudential and Aetna — and extrapolated for all changes in concentration (i.e., the number of insurers in a given market) and price over an eight-year period. It concluded that, on average, seven percent of the cumulative increase in premium prices between 1998 and 2006 was the result of a reduction in the number of insurers.

But what critics fail to mention is that when the authors looked at the actual consequences of the 1999 Prudential/Aetna merger, they found effects lasting only two years — and an average price increase of only one half of one percent. And these negligible effects were restricted to premiums paid under plans purchased by large employers, a critical limitation of the studies’ relevance to today’s proposed mergers.

Moreover, as the study notes in passing, over the same eight-year period, average premium prices increased in total by 54 percent. Yet the study offers no insights into what was driving the vast bulk of premium price increases — or whether those factors are still present today.  

Few sectors of the economy have changed more radically in the past few decades than healthcare has. While extrapolated effects drawn from 17-year-old data may grab headlines, they really don’t tell us much of anything about the likely effects of a particular merger today.

Indeed, the ACA and current trends in healthcare policy have dramatically altered the way health insurance markets work. Among other things, the advent of new technologies and the move to “value-based” care are redefining the relationship between insurers and healthcare providers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Medicare and Medicare Advantage market at the heart of the Aetna/Humana merger.

In an effort to stop the merger on antitrust grounds, critics claim that Medicare and MA are distinct products, in distinct markets. But it is simply incorrect to claim that Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare aren’t “genuine alternatives.”

In fact, as the Office of Insurance Regulation in Florida — a bellwether state for healthcare policy — concluded in approving the merger: “Medicare Advantage, the private market product, competes directly with Traditional Medicare.”

Consumers who search for plans at Medicare.gov are presented with a direct comparison between traditional Medicare and available MA plans. And the evidence suggests that they regularly switch between the two. Today, almost a third of eligible Medicare recipients choose MA plans, and the majority of current MA enrollees switched to MA from traditional Medicare.

True, Medicare and MA plans are not identical. But for antitrust purposes, substitutes need not be perfect to exert pricing discipline on each other. Take HMOs and PPOs, for example. No one disputes that they are substitutes, and that prices for one constrain prices for the other. But as anyone who has considered switching between an HMO and a PPO knows, price is not the only variable that influences consumers’ decisions.

The same is true for MA and traditional Medicare. For many consumers, Medicare’s standard benefits, more-expensive supplemental benefits, plus a wider range of provider options present a viable alternative to MA’s lower-cost expanded benefits and narrower, managed provider network.

The move away from a traditional fee-for-service model changes how insurers do business. It requires larger investments in technology, better tracking of preventive care and health outcomes, and more-holistic supervision of patient care by insurers. Arguably, all of this may be accomplished most efficiently by larger insurers with more resources and a greater ability to work with larger, more integrated providers.

This is exactly why many hospitals, which continue to profit from traditional, fee-for-service systems, are opposed to a merger that promises to expand these value-based plans. Significantly, healthcare providers like Encompass Medical Group, which have done the most to transition their services to the value-based care model, have offered letters of support for the merger.

Regardless of their rhetoric — whether about market definition or historic precedent — the most vocal merger critics are opposed to the deal for a very simple reason: They stand to lose money if the merger is approved. That may be a good reason for some hospitals to wish the merger would go away, but it is a terrible reason to actually stop it.

[This post was first published on June 27, 2016 in The Hill as “Don’t believe the critics, Aetna-Humana merger a good deal for consumers“]

Last week concluded round 3 of Congressional hearings on mergers in the healthcare provider and health insurance markets. Much like the previous rounds, the hearing saw predictable representatives, of predictable constituencies, saying predictable things.

The pattern is pretty clear: The American Hospital Association (AHA) makes the case that mergers in the provider market are good for consumers, while mergers in the health insurance market are bad. A scholar or two decries all consolidation in both markets. Another interested group, like maybe the American Medical Association (AMA), also criticizes the mergers. And it’s usually left to a representative of the insurance industry, typically one or more of the merging parties themselves, or perhaps a scholar from a free market think tank, to defend the merger.

Lurking behind the public and politicized airings of these mergers, and especially the pending Anthem/Cigna and Aetna/Humana health insurance mergers, is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Unfortunately, the partisan politics surrounding the ACA, particularly during this election season, may be trumping the sensible economic analysis of the competitive effects of these mergers.

In particular, the partisan assessments of the ACA’s effect on the marketplace have greatly colored the Congressional (mis-)understandings of the competitive consequences of the mergers.  

Witness testimony and questions from members of Congress at the hearings suggest that there is widespread agreement that the ACA is encouraging increased consolidation in healthcare provider markets, for example, but there is nothing approaching unanimity of opinion in Congress or among interested parties regarding what, if anything, to do about it. Congressional Democrats, for their part, have insisted that stepped up vigilance, particularly of health insurance mergers, is required to ensure that continued competition in health insurance markets isn’t undermined, and that the realization of the ACA’s objectives in the provider market aren’t undermined by insurance companies engaging in anticompetitive conduct. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans have generally been inclined to imply (or outright state) that increased concentration is bad, so that they can blame increasing concentration and any lack of competition on the increased regulatory costs or other effects of the ACA. Both sides appear to be missing the greater complexities of the story, however.

While the ACA may be creating certain impediments in the health insurance market, it’s also creating some opportunities for increased health insurance competition, and implementing provisions that should serve to hold down prices. Furthermore, even if the ACA is encouraging more concentration, those increases in concentration can’t be assumed to be anticompetitive. Mergers may very well be the best way for insurers to provide benefits to consumers in a post-ACA world — that is, the world we live in. The ACA may have plenty of negative outcomes, and there may be reasons to attack the ACA itself, but there is no reason to assume that any increased concentration it may bring about is a bad thing.

Asking the right questions about the ACA

We don’t need more self-serving and/or politicized testimony We need instead to apply an economic framework to the competition issues arising from these mergers in order to understand their actual, likely effects on the health insurance marketplace we have. This framework has to answer questions like:

  • How do we understand the effects of the ACA on the marketplace?
    • In what ways does the ACA require us to alter our understanding of the competitive environment in which health insurance and healthcare are offered?
    • Does the ACA promote concentration in health insurance markets?
    • If so, is that a bad thing?
  • Do efficiencies arise from increased integration in the healthcare provider market?
  • Do efficiencies arise from increased integration in the health insurance market?
  • How do state regulatory regimes affect the understanding of what markets are at issue, and what competitive effects are likely, for antitrust analysis?
  • What are the potential competitive effects of increased concentration in the health care markets?
  • Does increased health insurance market concentration exacerbate or counteract those effects?

Beginning with this post, at least a few of us here at TOTM will take on some of these issues, as part of a blog series aimed at better understanding the antitrust law and economics of the pending health insurance mergers.

Today, we will focus on the ambiguous competitive implications of the ACA. Although not a comprehensive analysis, in this post we will discuss some key insights into how the ACA’s regulations and subsidies should inform our assessment of the competitiveness of the healthcare industry as a whole, and the antitrust review of health insurance mergers in particular.

The ambiguous effects of the ACA

It’s an understatement to say that the ACA is an issue of great political controversy. While many Democrats argue that it has been nothing but a boon to consumers, Republicans usually have nothing good to say about the law’s effects. But both sides miss important but ambiguous effects of the law on the healthcare industry. And because they miss (or disregard) this ambiguity for political reasons, they risk seriously misunderstanding the legal and economic implications of the ACA for healthcare industry mergers.

To begin with, there are substantial negative effects, of course. Requiring insurance companies to accept patients with pre-existing conditions reduces the ability of insurance companies to manage risk. This has led to upward pricing pressure for premiums. While the mandate to buy insurance was supposed to help bring more young, healthy people into the risk pool, so far the projected signups haven’t been realized.

The ACA’s redefinition of what is an acceptable insurance policy has also caused many consumers to lose the policy of their choice. And the ACA’s many regulations, such as the Minimum Loss Ratio requiring insurance companies to spend 80% of premiums on healthcare, have squeezed the profit margins of many insurance companies, leading, in some cases, to exit from the marketplace altogether and, in others, to a reduction of new marketplace entry or competition in other submarkets.

On the other hand, there may be benefits from the ACA. While many insurers participated in private exchanges even before the ACA-mandated health insurance exchanges, the increased consumer education from the government’s efforts may have helped enrollment even in private exchanges, and may also have helped to keep premiums from increasing as much as they would have otherwise. At the same time, the increased subsidies for individuals have helped lower-income people afford those premiums. Some have even argued that increased participation in the on-demand economy can be linked to the ability of individuals to buy health insurance directly. On top of that, there has been some entry into certain health insurance submarkets due to lower barriers to entry (because there is less need for agents to sell in a new market with the online exchanges). And the changes in how Medicare pays, with a greater focus on outcomes rather than services provided, has led to the adoption of value-based pricing from both health care providers and health insurance companies.

Further, some of the ACA’s effects have  decidedly ambiguous consequences for healthcare and health insurance markets. On the one hand, for example, the ACA’s compensation rules have encouraged consolidation among healthcare providers, as noted. One reason for this is that the government gives higher payments for Medicare services delivered by a hospital versus an independent doctor. Similarly, increased regulatory burdens have led to higher compliance costs and more consolidation as providers attempt to economize on those costs. All of this has happened perhaps to the detriment of doctors (and/or patients) who wanted to remain independent from hospitals and larger health network systems, and, as a result, has generally raised costs for payors like insurers and governments.

But much of this consolidation has also arguably led to increased efficiency and greater benefits for consumers. For instance, the integration of healthcare networks leads to increased sharing of health information and better analytics, better care for patients, reduced overhead costs, and other efficiencies. Ultimately these should translate into higher quality care for patients. And to the extent that they do, they should also translate into lower costs for insurers and lower premiums — provided health insurers are not prevented from obtaining sufficient bargaining power to impose pricing discipline on healthcare providers.

In other words, both the AHA and AMA could be right as to different aspects of the ACA’s effects.

Understanding mergers within the regulatory environment

But what they can’t say is that increased consolidation per se is clearly problematic, nor that, even if it is correlated with sub-optimal outcomes, it is consolidation causing those outcomes, rather than something else (like the ACA) that is causing both the sub-optimal outcomes as well as consolidation.

In fact, it may well be the case that increased consolidation improves overall outcomes in healthcare provider and health insurance markets relative to what would happen under the ACA absent consolidation. For Congressional Democrats and others interested in bolstering the ACA and offering the best possible outcomes for consumers, reflexively challenging health insurance mergers because consolidation is “bad,” may be undermining both of these objectives.

Meanwhile, and for the same reasons, Congressional Republicans who decry Obamacare should be careful that they do not likewise condemn mergers under what amounts to a “big is bad” theory that is inconsistent with the rigorous law and economics approach that they otherwise generally support. To the extent that the true target is not health insurance industry consolidation, but rather underlying regulatory changes that have encouraged that consolidation, scoring political points by impugning mergers threatens both health insurance consumers in the short run, as well as consumers throughout the economy in the long run (by undermining the well-established economic critiques of a reflexive “big is bad” response).

It is simply not clear that ACA-induced health insurance mergers are likely to be anticompetitive. In fact, because the ACA builds on state regulation of insurance providers, requiring greater transparency and regulatory review of pricing and coverage terms, it seems unlikely that health insurers would be free to engage in anticompetitive price increases or reduced coverage that could harm consumers.

On the contrary, the managerial and transactional efficiencies from the proposed mergers, combined with greater bargaining power against now-larger providers are likely to lead to both better quality care and cost savings passed-on to consumers. Increased entry, at least in part due to the ACA in most of the markets in which the merging companies will compete, along with integrated health networks themselves entering and threatening entry into insurance markets, will almost certainly lead to more consumer cost savings. In the current regulatory environment created by the ACA, in other words, insurance mergers have considerable upside potential, with little downside risk.

Conclusion

In sum, regardless of what one thinks about the ACA and its likely effects on consumers, it is not clear that health insurance mergers, especially in a post-ACA world, will be harmful.

Rather, assessing the likely competitive effects of health insurance mergers entails consideration of many complicated (and, unfortunately, politicized) issues. In future blog posts we will discuss (among other things): the proper treatment of efficiencies arising from health insurance mergers, the appropriate geographic and product markets for health insurance merger reviews, the role of state regulations in assessing likely competitive effects, and the strengths and weaknesses of arguments for potential competitive harms arising from the mergers.

Government impediments to the efficient provision of health care services in the United States are legion.  While much recent attention has focused on the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which by design reduces consumer choice and competition, harmful state law restrictions have long been spotlighted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  For example, research demonstrates that state “certificate of need” (CON) laws, which require prior state regulatory approval of new hospitals and hospital expansions, “create barriers to entry and expansion to the detriment of health care competition and consumers.

Less attention, however, has been focused on relatively new yet insidious state anticompetitive restrictions that have been adopted by three states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York), and are being considered by other jurisdictions as well – “certificates of public advantage” (COPAs).  COPAs are state laws that grant federal and state antitrust law immunity to health care providers that enter into approved “cooperative arrangements” that it is claimed will benefit state health care quality.  Like CONs, however, COPAs are likely to undermine, rather than promote, efficient and high quality health care delivery, according to the FTC.

As the FTC has pointed out, federal antitrust law already permits joint activity by health care providers that benefits consumers and is reasonably necessary to create efficiencies.  A framework for assessing such activity is found in joint FTC and DOJ Statements of Antitrust Enforcement in Health Care, supplemented by subsequent agency guidance documents.  Moreover, no antitrust exemption is needed to promote efficient cooperative arrangements, because the antitrust laws already allow procompetitive collaborations among competitors.

While COPA laws are not needed to achieve socially desirable ends, they create strong incentives for unnecessary competitive restrictions among rival health care providers, which spawn serious consumer harm.  As the bipartisan Antitrust Modernization Commission observed, “[t]ypically, antitrust exemptions create economic benefits that flow to small, concentrated interest groups, while the costs of the exemption are widely dispersed, usually passed on to a large population of consumers through higher prices, reduced output, lower quality and reduced innovation.”  In short, one may expect that well-organized rent-seekers generally will be behind industry-specific antitrust exemptions.  This is no less true in health care than in other sectors of the economy.

Legislators should not assume that competitive problems created by COPAs can be cured by active supervision carried out by state officials.  Such supervision is difficult, costly, and prone to error, particularly because the supervised entities will have every incentive to mischaracterize their self-serving actions as welfare-enhancing rather than welfare-reducing.  In effect, state supervision absent antitrust sanction may devolve into a form of ad hoc economic regulation, subject to all the imperfections of regulation, including regulatory capture by special interests.

A real world example of the difficulties in regulating COPA arrangements is outlined in a 2011 state-commissioned economic analysis (2011 Study) of the 1995 COPA agreement (NC-COPA) between the State of North Carolina and Mission Health Systems (MHS).  In 1993 the State of North Carolina enacted a COPA statute, which grants federal and state antitrust immunity to parties that submit their cooperative agreements to active supervision by the State of North Carolina.  In 1995, to forestall a DOJ antitrust investigation into the merger of the only two acute-care hospitals in Asheville, North Carolina, MHS, the parent of the acquiring hospital, sought and was granted a COPA by the State.  (This COPA agreement was the first in North Carolina and the first in the nation.)  MHS subsequently expanded into additional health care ventures in western North Carolina, subject to state regulatory supervision specified in NC-COPA and thus free from antitrust scrutiny.  The 2011 Study identified a number of potentially harmful consequences flowing from this regulatory scheme:  (1) by regulating MHS’s average margin across all services and geographic areas, NC-COPA creates an incentive for MHS to expand into lower-margin markets to raise price in core markets without violating margin cap limitations; (2) NC-COPA’s cost cap offers only limited regulatory protection for consumers and creates undesirable incentives for MHS to increase outpatient prices and volumes; and (3) NC-COPA creates an incentive and opportunity for MHS to evade price or margin regulation in one market by instead imposing price increases in a related, but unregulated, market.  Moreover, the 2011 Study concluded that the NC-COPA was unnecessary to address competitive concerns attributable to the 1995 merger.  The State of North Carolina has not yet responded to recommendations in the Study for amending the NC-COPA to address these ills.  What the Study illustrates is that even assuming the best of intentions by regulators, COPAs raise serious problems of implementation and are likely to have deleterious unanticipated effects.  State governments would be well advised to heed the advice of federal (and state) antitrust enforcers and avoid the temptation to substitute regulation for competitive market forces subject to general antitrust law.

In sum, state legislatures should resist the premise that health care competitors will somehow advance the “public interest” if they are freed from antitrust scrutiny and subjected to COPA regulation.  Efficient joint activity can proceed without such special favor, whose natural effect is to incentivize welfare-reducing anticompetitive conduct – conduct which undermines, rather than promotes, health care quality and the general welfare.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) subjects government-imposed burdens on religious exercise to strict scrutiny.  In particular, the Act provides that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the government can establish that doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a “compelling government interest.”

So suppose a for-profit corporation’s stock is owned entirely by evangelical Christians with deeply held religious objections to abortion.  May our federal government force the company to provide abortifacients to its employees?  That’s the central issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which the Supreme Court will soon decide.  As is so often the case, resolution of the issue turns on a seemingly mundane matter:  Is a for-profit corporation a “person” for purposes of RFRA?

In an amicus brief filed in the case, a group of forty-four corporate and criminal law professors argued that treating corporations as RFRA persons would contradict basic principles of corporate law.  Specifically, they asserted that corporations are distinct legal entities from their shareholders, who enjoy limited liability behind a corporate veil and cannot infect the corporation with their own personal religious views.  The very nature of a corporation, the scholars argued, precludes shareholders from exercising their religion in corporate form.  Thus, for-profit corporations can’t be “persons” for purposes of RFRA.

In what amounts to an epic takedown of the law professor amici, William & Mary law professors Alan Meese and Nathan Oman have published an article explaining why for-profit corporations are, in fact, RFRA persons.  Their piece in the Harvard Law Review Forum responds methodically to the key points made by the law professor amici and to a few other arguments against granting corporations free exercise rights.

Among the arguments that Meese and Oman ably rebut are:

  • Religious freedom applies only to natural persons.

Corporations are simply instrumentalities by which people act in the world, Meese and Oman observe.  Indeed, they are nothing more than nexuses of contracts, provided in standard form but highly tailorable by those utilizing them.  “When individuals act religiously using corporations they are engaged in religious exercise.  When we regulate corporations, we in fact burden the individuals who use the corporate form to pursue their goals.”

  • Given the essence of a corporation, which separates ownership and control, for-profit corporations can’t exercise religion in accordance with the views of their stockholders.

This claim is simply false.  First, it is possible — pretty easy, in fact — to unite ownership and control in a corporation.  Business planners regularly do so using shareholder agreements, and many states, including Delaware, explicitly allow for shareholder management of close corporations.  Second, scads of for-profit corporations engage in religiously motivated behavior — i.e., religious exercise.  Meese and Oman provide a nice litany of examples (with citations omitted here):

A kosher supermarket owned by Orthodox Jews challenged Massachusetts’ Sunday closing laws in 1960.  For seventy years, the Ukrops Supermarket chain in Virginia closed on Sundays, declined to sell alcohol, and encouraged employees to worship weekly.  A small grocery store in Minneapolis with a Muslim owner prepares halal meat and avoids taking loans that require payment of interest prohibited by Islamic law.  Chick-fil-A, whose mission statement promises to “glorify God,” is closed on Sundays.  A deli that complied with the kosher standards of its Conservative Jewish owners challenged the Orthodox definition of kosher found in New York’s kosher food law, echoing a previous challenge by a different corporation of a similar New Jersey law.  Tyson Foods employs more than 120 chaplains as part of its effort to maintain a “faith-friendly” culture.  New York City is home to many Kosher supermarkets that close two hours before sundown on Friday and do not reopen until Sunday.  A fast-food chain prints citations of biblical verses on its packaging and cups.  A Jewish entrepreneur in Brooklyn runs a gas station and coffee shop that serves only Kosher food.  Hobby Lobby closes on Sundays and plays Christian music in its stores.  The company provides employees with free access to chaplains, spiritual counseling, and religiously themed financial advice.  Moreover, the company does not sell shot glasses, refuses to allow its trucks to “backhaul” beer, and lost $3.3 million after declining to lease an empty building to a liquor store.

As these examples illustrate, the assertion by lower courts that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” is just empirically false.

  • Allowing for-profit corporations to have religious beliefs would create intracorporate conflicts that would reduce the social value of the corporate form of business.

The corporate and criminal law professor amici described a parade of horribles that would occur if corporations were deemed RFRA persons.  They insisted, for example, that RFRA protection would inject religion into a corporation in a way that “could make the raising of capital more challenging, recruitment of employees more difficult, and entrepreneurial energy less likely to flourish.”  In addition, they said, RFRA protection “would invite contentious shareholder meetings, disruptive proxy contests, and expensive litigation regarding whether the corporations should adopt a religion and, if so, which one.”

But actual experience suggests there’s no reason to worry about such speculative harms.  As Meese and Oman observe, we’ve had lots of experience with this sort of thing:  Federal and state laws already allow for-profit corporations to decline to perform or pay for certain medical procedures if they have religious or moral objections.  From the Supreme Court’s 1963 Sherbert decision to its 1990 Smith decision, strict scrutiny applied to governmental infringements on corporations’ religious exercise.  A number of states have enacted their own versions of RFRA, most of which apply to corporations.   Thus, “[f]or over half a century, … there has been no per se bar to free exercise claims by for-profit corporations, and the parade of horribles envisioned by the [law professor amici] has simply not materialized.”  Indeed, “the scholars do not cite a single example of a corporate governance dispute connected to [corporate] decisions [related to religious exercise].”

  • Permitting for-profit corporations to claim protection under RFRA will lead to all sorts of false claims of religious belief in an attempt to evade government regulation.

The law professor amici suggest that affording RFRA protection to for-profit corporations may allow such companies to evade regulatory requirements by manufacturing a religious identity.  They argue that “[c]ompanies suffering a competitive disadvantage [because of a government regulation] will simply claim a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion.  A company will adopt a board resolution asserting a religious belief inconsistent with whatever regulation they find obnoxious . . . .”

As Meese and Oman explain, however, this problem is not unique to for-profit corporations.  Natural persons may also assert insincere religious claims, and courts may need to assess sincerity to determine if free exercise rights are being violated.  The law professor amici contend that it would be unprecedented for courts to assess whether religious beliefs are asserted in “good faith.”  But the Supreme Court decision the amici cite in support of that proposition, Meese and Oman note, held only that courts lack competence to evaluate the truth of theological assertions or the accuracy of a particular litigant’s interpretation of his faith.  “This task is entirely separate … from the question of whether a litigant’s asserted religious beliefs are sincerely held.  Courts applying RFRA have not infrequently evaluated such sincerity.”

***

In addition to rebutting the foregoing arguments (and several others) against treating for-profit corporations as RFRA persons, Meese and Oman set forth a convincing affirmative argument based on the plain text of the statute and the Dictionary Act.  I’ll let you read that one on your own.

I’ll also point interested readers to Steve Bainbridge’s fantastic work on this issue.  Here is his critique of the corporate and criminal law professors’  amicus brief.  Here is his proposal for using the corporate law doctrine of reverse veil piercing to assess a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs.

Read it all before SCOTUS rules!

Once again, my constitutional law professor has embarrassed me with his gross misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution.  First, he insisted that it would be “unprecedented” for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a statute enacted by a “democratically elected Congress.”  Seventh-grade Civics students know that’s not right, but Mr. Obama’s misstatement did have its intended effect:  It sent a clear signal that the President and his lackeys would call into question the legitimacy of the Supreme Court should it invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Duly warned, Chief Justice Roberts changed his vote in NFIB v. Sebelius to save the Court from whatever institutional damage Mr. Obama would have inflicted.

Now President Obama – who chastised his predecessor for offending the constitutional order and insisted that he, a former constitutional law professor, would never stoop so low – has both violated his oath of office and flouted a key constitutional feature, the separation of powers.  I’m speaking of the President’s “administrative fix” to the ACA.  That “fix” consists of a presidential order not to enforce the Act’s minimum coverage provisions, a move that President Obama says will allow insurance companies to continue offering ACA non-compliant policies to those previously enrolled in them if the companies wish to do so and are able to obtain permission at the state level.

This is, of course, nothing more than a transparent attempt to shift blame for the millions of recently canceled policies.  Having priced their more generous ACA-compliant policies on the assumption that there would be an influx of healthy customers now covered by high-deductible, non-compliant policies, insurance companies would shoot themselves in the foot by accepting Mr. Obama’s generous “offer.”  Moreover, state insurance commissioners, aware of the adverse selection likely to result from this last-minute rule change, are unlikely to give their blessing.  (Indeed, several have balked – including the D.C. insurance commissioner, who was promptly fired.)

But putting aside the fact that the administrative fix won’t work, the main problem with it is that it is blatantly unconstitutional.  The Constitution divides power between the three branches of government.  Article I grants to the Congress “all legislative Powers,” including “Power to lay and collect Taxes.”  Article II then directs the President to “take Care that the laws be faithfully executed.” With his administrative fix, President Obama has essentially said, “I promise not to execute the law Congress passed.”

Moreover, the President went further to say, “I promise not to collect a tax the Congress imposed.”  Remember that the penalty for failure to carry ACA-compliant insurance is, for constitutional purposes, a tax.  That was the central holding of last summer’s Obamacare decision, NFIB v. Sebelius.  When the President assured victims of insurance cancellations that he would turn a blind eye to the law and allow their insurers to continue to offer canceled policies, he also implied that he would order his administration not to collect the taxes owed by those in ACA-noncompliant policies.  Indeed, this matter was clarified in the letter the Department of Health and Human Services sent to state insurance commissioners notifying them of the Obama Administration’s decision not to enforce the law as written.  That letter stated that the Department of the Treasury, which is charged (through the IRS) with collecting the ACA’s penalties/taxes, “concur[red] with the transitional relief afforded in this document.”  That means the IRS, pursuant to the President’s order, is promising not to collect a tax the Congress has imposed.

This, my friends, is a major disruption of the constitutional order.  If the President of the United States may simply decide not to collect taxes imposed by the branch of government that has been given exclusive “Power to lay and collect Taxes,” the whole Constitution is thrown off-kilter.  Any time a president wanted to favor some individuals, firms, or industries, he wouldn’t need to go to Congress for approval.  No, he could just order his IRS not to collect taxes from those folks.  Can’t get Congress to approve subsidies for green technologies?  No worries.  Just order your IRS not to collect taxes from firms in that sector.  Or maybe even order a refundable tax credit.  You think Congress has enacted job-killing regulations on an industry?  Just invoke your enforcement discretion and ignore those rules.  Whew!  This sure makes things easier.

President Obama twice promised, under oath, to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  Unfortunately, he also rammed through a terrible law.  Our Constitution now gives him the option to enforce the enacted law and pay the political price, or seek Congress’s assistance to change the law.  On the particular matter at issue here, Congress is willing to help the President out.  On Friday, the House of Representatives voted to amend the law to allow insurance companies to continue to offer ACA non-compliant policies.  Mr. Obama doesn’t like some details of the legislative fix he’s been offered.  Unfortunately for him, though, he’s not a king.  He has to work within the constitutional order.

At least, that’s what I thought I learned in constitutional law.

In yesterday’s hearings on the disastrous launch of the federal health insurance exchanges, contractors insisted that part of the problem was a last-minute specification from the government:  the feds didn’t want people to be able to “window shop” for health insurance until they had created a profile and entered all sorts of personal information.

That’s understandable.  For this massive social experiment to succeed — or, at least, to fail less badly — young, healthy people need to buy health insurance.  Policy prices for those folks, though, are going to be really high because (1) the ACA requires all sorts of costly coverages people used to be able to decline, and (2) the Act’s “community rating” and “guaranteed issue” provisions prevent insurers from charging older and sicker people an actuarily appropriate rate and therefore require their subsidization by the young and healthy.  To prevent the sort of sticker shock that might cause young invincibles to forego purchasing insurance, Obamacare advocates didn’t want them seeing unsubsidized insurance rates.  Determining a person’s subsidy, though, requires submisison of all sorts of personal information.  Thus, the original requirement that website visitors create a profile and provide gobs of information before seeing insurance rates.

Given the website’s glitches and the difficulty of actually creating a working profile, the feds have now reversed course and are permitting window shopping.  An applicant can enter his or her state and county, family size, and age range (<50 or >50) and receive a selection of premium estimates.  To avoid dissuading people from applying for coverage in light of high premiums, the website takes great pains to emphasize that the estimated premiums do not account for the available subsidies to which most people will be entitled.  For example, to get my own quote, I had to answer a handful of questions and click “Next” a few times, and in the process of doing so, the website announced seven times that the estimated prices I was about to see would not include the generous subsdies to which I would probably be entitled.  The Obamacare folks, you see, want us consumers to know what we’re really going to have to pay.

Or do they?

According to the website, I could buy a Coventry Bronze $15 co-pay plan for $218.03 per month (unsubsidized).  An Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield Direct Access Plan would cost me $213.39 per month (unsubsidized).  When I went to a private exchange and conducted the same inquiry, however, I learned that the price for the former policy would be $278.66 and, for the latter, between $270.17.  So the private exchange tells me the price for my insurance would be 27% percent higher than the amount Healthcare.gov estimates in its window shopping feature.  What gives?

As it turns out, the federal exchange assumes (without admitting it) that anyone under age 49 is 27 years old.  The private website, by contrast, based quotes on my real age (42).  Obviously, the older a person is, the higher the premium will be.  Since the ACA mandates that individuals up to age 26 be allowed to stay on their parents’ insurance policies, the age the federal website assumes is the very youngest age at which most people would be required to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.  In other words, the federal website picks the rosiest assumption in estimating insurance premiums and never once tells users it’s doing so.  It does, however, awkwardly remind them seven times in fewer than seven consecutive screens that their actual premiums will probably be lower than the figure quoted.

Can you imagine if a private firm pulled this sort of stunt?  Elizabeth Warren’s friends at the CFPB would be on it like white on rice!

Look, the website problems are a red herring.  Sure, they’re shockingly severe, and they do illustrate the limits of government to run things effectively, limits the ACA architects resolutely disregarded.  But they’ll get fixed eventually.  The main reason they’re a long-term problem is that they exacerbate the Act’s most fundamental flaw: its tendency to create a death spiral of adverse selection in which older and sicker people, beneficiaries under the ACA, purchase health insurance, while young, healthy folks, losers under the Act, forego it.  Once this happens, insurance premiums will skyrocket, encouraging even more young and healthy people to drop out of the pool of insureds and thereby making things even worse.  The most significant problem stemming from the website “glitches” (my, how that term has been stretched!) is that they have made it so hard to apply for insurance that only those most desperate for it — the old and sick, the ones we least need in the pool of insureds — will go through the rigmarole of signing up.  On this point, see Holman Jenkins and George Will.

But who knows.  Maybe Zeke Emanuel can fix the problem by getting the Red Sox to sell Obamacare to young invincibles.  (I’m not kidding.  That was his plan for avoiding adverse selection.)

Go Cards!

The Wegman’s grocery store chain has long offered health insurance benefits to part-time employees working at least 20 hours per week.  The Affordable Care Act, however, has now driven the company to cut health insurance benefits for part-time workers.  Wegman’s management, it seems, has discovered that employees are better off if they can’t get insurance from their employer and are therefore allowed access to the generous subsidies available under the ACA.

As the Buffalo News explains:

[P]art-time employees may actually benefit from Wegmans’ decision, according to Brian Murphy, a partner at Lawley Benefits Group, an insurance brokerage firm in Buffalo.

“If you have an employee that qualifies for subsidized coverage, they might be better off going with that than a limited part-time benefit,” Murphy said.

That’s because subsidized coverage can have a lower out-of-pocket cost for the insured employee while also providing better benefits than an employer-paid plan.

Under the Affordable Care Act, part-time employees are not eligible for health insurance subsidies if their employer offers insurance.

“It’s a win-win. The employee gets subsidized coverage, and the employer gets to lower costs,” Murphy said.

Once employees get a taste for the ACA’s generous subsidies–which far exceed the implicit tax subsidy in employer-provided health insurance–they’ll be hooked on the statute.  Proponents of the ACA should therefore view this as a win-win-win!  The only losers, I suppose, are we taxpayers who must pay for all these subsidies.  At least we can take comfort in the fact that the statute reduces the deficit.

Has a piece of legislation ever been subject to as much cynicism-inspiring manipulation as the Affordable Care Act?  It was rammed through Congress, on a totally partisan basis, via an unprecedented use of the reconciliation process.  Its passage required blatant vote-buying with such unjust goodies as the Cornhusker Kickback and the Louisiana Purchase.  Its proponents sold it with bald-face lies that nobody with any sense believes (e.g., “It will reduce the deficit.”), and they credit it with successes for which it is obviously not responsible.

Now the Obama Administration has decided to delay a key, but unpopular, provision of the Act—the so-called “Employer Mandate” that fines firms with 50 or more employers if they fail to provide qualifying insurance to employees working at least 30 hours per week—until after the mid-term elections.  Never mind that the Act itself doesn’t permit the Administration to waive these requirements.  This is “Obamacare,” after all, and that means The Big Guy gets to decide how it’s implemented.  He sure as heck doesn’t want it generating a bunch of lay-offs and hours-reductions right before mid-term elections!

Many in the business community are cheering the one-year delay.  It does, after all, hold off a provision that has been causing firms to reduce workers’ hours, thereby raising the  administrative costs of keeping businesses properly staffed.  But this delay is going to cause huge problems for implementation of the ACA and does nothing to address the biggest problem inherent in the Employer Mandate scheme.

IMPLEMENTATION PROBLEMS

The reporting system connected to (and delayed along with) the Employer Mandate is integral to the ACA’s subsidized health exchanges.  As Michael Cannon has explained, it’s hard to see how the exchanges could possibly work without the reporting system:

. . . Obamacare offers tax credits and subsidies to certain workers who don’t receive an offer of acceptable coverage from an employer. The law requires employers to report information to the IRS on their coverage offerings, both to determine whether the employer will be subject to penalties and whether its employees will be eligible for credits and subsidies.

The IRS both delayed the imposition of penalties and “suspend[ed] reporting for 2014.” As the American Enterprise Institute’s Tom Miller observes, without that information on employers’ health benefits offerings, the federal government simply cannot determine who will be eligible for credits and subsidies. Without the credits and subsidies, the “rate shock” that workers experience will be much greater and/or many more workers will qualify for the unaffordability exemption from the individual mandate. Either way, fewer workers will purchase health insurance and premiums will rise further, which could ultimately end in an adverse selection death spiral. The administration can’t exactly solve this problem by offering credits and subsidies to everyone who applies either. Not only would this increase the cost of the law, but it would also lead to a backlash in 2015 when some people have their subsidies revoked.

Now, the IRS hasn’t yet released its “formal guidance” detailing how the Employer Mandate/reporting system delay will operate.  It’s possible that regulators have come up with some way to offer selective subsidies absent the reporting system.  But given ACA proponents’ heretofore lack of concern about the practicability of the health care law, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

IGNORING THE BIG PROBLEM WITH THE MANDATE/SUBSIDY SCHEME

Putting aside the apparent political motivation for and practical difficulties created by the Employer Mandate delay, the main problem with the delay is that it simply ignores the huge problem created by the ACA’s mandate/subsidy scheme.

The Employer Mandate ostensibly aims to increase employer-provided health insurance coverage by encouraging employers to provide such coverage as an element of their employees’ compensation.  If a covered employer fails to do so, it faces a $2,000 annual penalty for each of its employees who purchases insurance on a subsidized exchange.  When implemented along with the rest of the ACA, however, the Employer Mandate is unlikely to enhance health insurance coverage for lower-income employees.  Here’s why:

  • The ACA subsidizes purchases on the insurance exchanges by individuals whose employers do not offer qualifying insurance at an affordable rate.  The subsidies are inversely related to income.  They are quite generous at lower income levels and reduce to zero once income exceeds four times the federal poverty level.
  • The only subsidy for employer-provided insurance, by contrast, is an implicit tax subsidy resulting from the fact that compensation paid in the form of insurance benefits, rather than wages, is tax-free.  The dollar value of that implicit tax subsidy for any individual is the sum of her marginal tax rate and the payroll tax rate, times the price of the policy.  (For most lower-income workers, the effective subsidy will be 22.65% * the policy price. That assumes a 7.65% payroll tax (1.45% Medicare + 6.2% Social Security) and a marginal income tax rate of 15%.)
  • Absent the penalty provision of the Employer Mandate, the best outcome from the worker’s standpoint would be for the employer to provide health insurance only if the effective subsidy from getting the insurance benefit tax-free exceeds the subsidy the worker would receive if she purchased her own insurance on a subsidized exchange.  Because lower income workers (1) are subject to lower tax rates and therefore receive a smaller tax subsidy from employer provided insurance, and (2) are eligible for large subsidies on the insurance exchanges, they would typically be better off if their employers dropped coverage and thereby enabled them to access the subsidized exchanges.
  • The penalty provision of the Employer Mandate alters this calculus.  Because an employer that fails to provide health insurance must pay $2,000 per year for each employee that purchases insurance on an exchange, a covered employer that cut its health insurance would be willing to raise its employee’s salary by only the amount the employer would have paid for the policy (the price it doesn’t have to pay) minus $2,000 (the amount of penalty it now has to pay).  Thus, in the face of the Employer Mandate, an employee would prefer that its employer provide health insurance coverage only if the effective tax subsidy from getting insurance tax-free exceeds the subsidy available to the employee on an exchange less $2,000.
  • Because the subsidies available to lower-income workers on the insurance exchanges far exceed — by way more than $2,000 — the effective tax subsidy from employer provided health insurance, most lower-income workers will prefer that their employers drop insurance coverage, pay them more in cash, and allow them to take advantage of taxpayer-financed subsidies on the insurance exchanges.

An example may help here.  Suppose an employer wishes to provide $40,000 in total compensation to a 40 year-old employee who is the head of a four-person household.  If the employer were to purchase a family policy for the employee (approximate cost $12,000/year), she would pay the employee $28,0000/year in cash.  The employee would pay no payroll or income tax on the component of his compensation provided as health insurance, so he would receive an effective federal subsidy of $2,718 (22.65% * $12,000).  If the employer were to drop health care coverage and thus drive the employee to an exchange, the employer would have to pay $2,000 and would therefore reduce to $38,000 the total amount she would pay the employee.  The employee would then receive all his compensation — all $38,000 — as take-home pay.  On the $12,000 that otherwise would have been paid as benefits, he’d have to pay $2,718 in tax, but he would now be eligible to purchase insurance on his own at a heavily subsidized rate. The ACA would limit his out-of-pocket insurance expense to 4.52% of annual income ($1,718), which means he would receive a whopping $10,282 subsidy on the $12,000 family policy.  This employee is $5,564 better off if his employer drops coverage (costing him $4,718:  $2,718 in foregone tax subsidy plus a penalty-induced compensation reduction of $2,000) and allows him to access the more generous subsidies available on state exchanges (benefiting him by $10,282).

This is the huge problem with the ACA’s Employer Mandate/subsidy scheme:  The scheme as a whole creates incentives to dump lower-income employees on the subsidized exchanges.  The Obama Administration’s politically expedient delay in implementation of the Employer Mandate does nothing to alleviate this difficulty.  But it might help Nancy Pelosi get her old job back.