Focus on fixing insurance exchange

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable — and not a good excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off health insurance.

It’s time for Iowa’s congressmen and senators to start working on immediate measures to strengthen the health care system, and specifically the health insurance exchange, or marketplace. The obsession of some with bills to repeal and replace Obamacare has been a distraction from that task.

In recent days, bipartisan groups have sprung up in both the House and the Senate to begin developing legislation to stabilize the insurance market. These groups recognize the immediate need for measures to ensure that federal payments continue for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) that help low-income people afford their copays and deductibles. Without the assurance that these payments will continue, premiums will rise sharply.

The president has threatened to continue his efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by ordering an end to CSRs. This threat has already prompted Medica, the only Iowa health insurance company still offering plans on the exchange, to plan for another premium increase.

The bipartisan efforts to shore up the insurance exchanges could include another important measure: a reinsurance program that would reduce the risk that a small number of high-cost customers will cause insurance company losses. The “million-dollar customer” has been cited as a factor contributing to the decisions of Wellmark and Aetna to exit the Iowa exchange. Reinsurance would establish a national pool to cover high-risk cases; this would allow companies to remain in the exchanges without drastic premium increases on everyone to pay for those few cases.

The Senate’s attempts to repeal and replace failed because they were wildly unpopular. These measures would have resulted in over 200,000 Iowans losing health insurance; would have effectively ended the expansion of Medicaid that covers thousands of low-wage workers; would have reduced Medicaid benefits for thousands of seniors, children, and people with disabilities; would have raised premiums and deductibles; would have gutted protections for persons with pre-existing conditions; and would have provided billions in tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations.

Another attack on coverage: Graham-Cassidy

Pragmatic efforts to stabilize the health insurance market stand in stark contrast to a last-ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare that surfaced this week: the Graham-Cassidy plan. Like the previous failed bills, this plan would end the Medicaid expansion that now covers 150,000 Iowans.

Unlike previous repeal and replace bills, the Graham-Cassidy plan would also end the premium assistance that makes health insurance affordable to tens of thousands of low and moderate income Iowa families. While it replaces ACA funding of premium assistance and Medicaid expansion with a block grant, it provides no guarantee that the states will use that block grant to make health insurance affordable to those who need help the most. And the bill would further destabilize the insurance market by ending the mandate to purchase insurance, while making it more expensive, leaving insurance companies with the sickest and costliest customers.

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable. Let’s see if our Senators and Representatives actually try to fix those problems instead of using them as an excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off their health insurance.

Peter Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Scaling back even a voluntary effort on clean water

Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Since 1998 the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has led a volunteer program known as IOWATER to monitor local water quality around the state. Recent state budget cuts have forced the DNR to transfer administration of the program to a patchwork of willing nonprofits and local government agencies.

As reported by Iowa Public Radio, DNR will provide initial training and resources, but local government and nonprofit entities will be responsible for continued funding and administration of any volunteer water quality monitoring efforts.

The outsourcing of IOWATER to local entities is just another example of the Iowa Legislature depending on voluntary action to deal with the statewide water-quality crisis. The state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), which was introduced in 2013, also relies heavily on voluntary conservation measures to address the environmental and health effects of nutrient pollution from both point and nonpoint sources. However, the NRS falls woefully short of reaching its funding targets and desired outcomes.

Our state has failed to appropriately and adequately address the largest source of water quality degradation — agricultural practices that continue pumping nitrogen and phosphorous into our watersheds. More than 90 percent of nitrogen and two-thirds of the phosphorus come from nonpoint sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

As we reported at the Iowa Policy Project in late 2016, “Iowa’s efforts in response to the NRS have had minimal, if any, positive impact on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico — or for the most part on Iowa’s lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water supplies. At best, the state of Iowa has managed to not increase levels of nutrients in streams. There remains a widespread lack of understanding and acceptance of the connection between producers’ business practices and the nutrient concentrations in waters of Iowa and the nation.”

Further highlighting the lack of a clear mandate to clean up our waters is the last legislative session, when the Legislature continued to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution from animal facilities, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. They passed little in new water quality funding, and what funding there was merely diverted resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety. (See our end-of-session statement).

We need to start treating clean water as the valuable public commodity that it is. Water feeds our crops, our pets, our livestock, our sports fish, our children, and our employers and employees. “Water is Life” became a popular mantra for a reason: There is no life without clean water. Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Posted by Sarah Garvin, Research Associate for the Iowa Policy Project

sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

Why Governor Reynolds is wrong

If the Governor cannot speak for the people of Iowa, who will do so?

As it has become clear that Iowa state leaders need to be more engaged publicly on the national health care debate, it was surprising to see Governor Kim Reynolds’ take on it.

“I’m focused on the things I can control.”

Well, if that is the standard for where the Governor should speak up, lock the office door and throw away the key. That’s not the way government works — or is supposed to work — in our American and Iowa tradition.

The Governor in our system has an important and powerful role, but rarely a controlling one.

What the Governor is not acknowledging, though she surely knows to be the case, is that her position is perhaps the best pulpit in the state of Iowa for speaking up on behalf of Iowans, to our elected representatives in the House and Senate in Washington, and to the President of the United States.

If she cannot speak for the people of Iowa, who will do so?

What is clear from the debate thus far in Washington is that more than 200,000 Iowans will lose health insurance if the current Affordable Care Act is repealed without a meaningful replacement.

In fact, the latest estimate from the Urban Institute finds 229,000 fewer Iowans would be insured in 2022 than if the ACA were kept in place — but the state would spend $29 million more as federal spending dropped by 28 percent.

The Governor’s comments to reporters repeated inaccurate talking points about ACA, avoiding both the state’s own role in undermining the individual insurance marketplace, and the principal way Iowans would lose insurance: the loss of the Medicaid expansion. That one piece of the ACA covers 150,000 Iowans now and is projected to grow to 177,000 in two years, but goes away under the Senate and House plans.

So, whether Governor Reynolds likes it or not, what is now a federal issue will become a state issue.

Right now, the things she has more direct influence upon are state budget choices, many of which already are difficult.

Imagine how much more difficult those choices become with 200,000 more people uninsured. What will the state do to make up for it? What budget control — or families’ control over their health care options — would be lost? Some members of the Legislature already are calling for a state-run program to step into the void.

If Governor Reynolds is uncomfortable with any of these possibilities she could call her friends Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst, or gather the microphones and cameras and raise awareness about the stakes for all Iowans.

Again, there are members of the Legislature weighing in on that score as well. Perhaps they recognize that persuasion, and pushing for a critical mass of support behind an idea, is where “control” emerges.

 

owen-2013-57Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Health exchanges: Why not fix?

Iowa’s insurance exchange has only one insurance company offering policies. But instead of fixing that, our representatives are using it as an excuse to repeal Obamacare, including the Medicaid expansion.

What would be your response if someone said to you: “The transmission in my car needs an overhaul. This just proves vehicular transportation doesn’t work, so I am going to get rid of my car and my pickup, even though the truck is still running fine.” You would probably think they were crazy. Why not just fix the car’s transmission?

Yet this is the logic being put forward by Senator Grassley and many others as they seek to repeal Obamacare. Yes, we have a problem with the insurance exchange in Iowa, where we now have just one insurance company offering policies. But instead of pursuing solutions to that problem, our representatives are using it as an excuse to repeal Obamacare, including the Medicaid expansion, which has nothing at all to do with the insurance exchange and in fact is still in good running order.

The lack of insurers in the Iowa exchange is largely a self-inflicted problem. Insurers have left the market in part because the state of Iowa did so little to encourage people to sign up, and to provide assistance in navigating the exchanges. Iowa was also extremely generous in allowing people to continue with existing poor-quality insurance.

The problem was worsened by President Trump’s efforts to sabotage the exchanges during the final weeks of the annual sign-up in January by banning all advertising and encouraging people to think Obamacare was going to end. As a result, the number enrolling in the exchanges, which had been on a pace to exceed that of the previous year, ending up falling short.[1] Too few younger and healthier people enrolled, leaving the insurance companies with older and sicker people.

There are solutions to this problem. Both the Iowa Insurance Commissioner and Iowa Democrats have proposed measures to solve the exchange problem at the state level. But the House and the Senate bills repealing and replacing Obamacare, instead of shoring up the exchanges, repeal the individual mandate. Analyses of their replacement provisions predict that they would worsen the problem instead of solving it, leaving the exchanges with even fewer healthy individuals.[2]

Now about the pickup truck. The Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) would likely result in 232,000 Iowans losing health insurance coverage over the next five years.[3] Three-fourths of them would become uninsured because of the loss of Medicaid, the rest because of cuts in premium assistance for policies purchased on the exchange.

Iowa expanded Medicaid eligibility (with 90 percent federal funding under Obamacare) to include low-income non-elderly adults, most of whom are working in low-wage jobs with little or nothing in benefits. The BCRA would effectively end the Medicaid expansion for about 177,000 Iowans.[4] This will hit rural Iowa the hardest, and it will undermine the finances of rural hospitals.

The Medicaid expansion has nothing to do with the health insurance exchanges. Our representatives should stop using a fixable problem with the exchanges as an excuse for passing a broad bill that ends health insurance for tens of thousands of Iowans.

[1] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sabotage Watch: Tracking Efforts to Undermine the ACA. http://www.cbpp.org/sabotage-watch-tracking-efforts-to-undermine-the-aca

[2] Jacob Leibenluft and Aviva Aron-Dine. Senate Health Bill Can’t Be Fixed; Reported Changes Would Not Affect Bill’s Core Features. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 10, 2017. http://www.cbpp.org/research/health/senate-health-bill-cant-be-fixed

[3] Linda Blumberg et al. State-by-State Coverage and Government Spending Implications of the Better Care Reconciliation Act. http://www.rwjf.org/content/dam/farm/reports/issue_briefs/2017/rwjf438332

[4] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute. The Impact of Per Capita Caps on Federal and State Medicaid Spending. March 2017.

Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project & Iowa Fiscal Partnership

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Why not a special session?

Now is the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and that might make a special session useful, sooner rather than later.

Long-term impacts could be decided in short order;
Might not our state lawmakers want to weigh in?

If anything has been clear about the current health-care debate in Washington, it is that little is clear — except the likelihood that (1) people will lose insurance coverage and thus access to health care, and (2) this will pose new challenges for state government.

That being the case, it seems a good time for the Legislature to return to Des Moines and sort it out, sooner rather than later. It will be easier for legislators to talk to their federal counterparts about all this before legislation passes than afterward.

Because of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the Medicaid expansion serves about 150,000 Iowans, and would serve an estimated 177,000 Iowans in 2019 if preserved. But those Iowans — and some 55,000 more — would be in jeopardy of losing insurance under legislation pending in the Senate. If the enhanced federal share of funding for Medicaid expansion is reduced or eliminated under any legislation to come — and both the House and Senate bills currently would do this — states would have a choice: Fill in the gap or let people go uninsured.

Oh, and if you’re going to choose to fill in the gap, go ahead and plan now on what will have to be cut to compensate for it. K-12 education, perhaps? Even more cuts to the regents institutions? Child care? Water protection? Law enforcement and corrections?

Already, legislators and Governor Kim Reynolds are facing those kinds of questions amid a looming fiscal shortfall and speculation about a possible special session.

In The Des Moines Register this week, columnist Kathie Obradovich suggested Governor Reynolds “is prudent to wait until fall to make a decision on a special session but that doesn’t mean she should avoid talking about it. Now is the time to be speaking frankly with Iowans and individual legislators, identifying the causes and consulting on potential solutions.”

Now is also the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and for that reason, waiting until fall might be too late. Legislative leaders and the Governor right now could be bringing in experts for a special session to discuss the potential impacts, and reach out to the congressional delegation, before decisions are made that restrict state budget choices for many years to come.
Unless, of course, they want to see budget crunches and special sessions more frequently.
Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A look at future health care in Senate plan

Under the Senate health proposal, uninsurance in Iowa would be more than double what it would be under the current Affordable Care Act.

What Iowans need to know about coverage and costs

Health care policy is a complex issue. There’s no getting around that. But one way to consider the options vs. what we have is to look at basic, reliable estimates of the real-life impacts of the policy choices. How many Iowans would have insurance, and how many would not?

The Urban Institute has state-by-state estimates of these impacts. By 2022 — five years from now — under the Senate’s proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act, uninsurance in Iowa would more than double. Across the board of various population groups, significantly more Iowans (including children) would be uninsured than under the current Affordable Care Act, (ACA, or ObamaCare).

According to the Urban Institute:

• 148,000 non-elderly adults would be uninsured, or 8 percent, under the ACA, compared with 351,000 under BCRA, or 19 percent. This is an increase of 137 percent.

• 25,000 children would be uninsured, or 3.2 percent, under the ACA, compared with 54,000 under BCRA, or 6.9 percent. This is an increase of 117 percent.

• 115,000 non-elderly, non-Hispanic white Iowans would be uninsured under the ACA, or 5.4 percent, compared with 306,000 under BCRA, or 14.3 percent. This is an increase of 167 percent.

• 38,000 non-elderly Hispanic Iowans would be uninsured under the ACA, or 16.6 percent, compared with 53,000 under BCRA, or 23 percent. This is an increase of almost 39 percent.

For more about the impacts of the Senate proposal, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder by Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project.

KanOwaSin: Low-road neighbors, together?

Think carefully about snake-oil pitches to follow the lead of Kansas and Wisconsin, putting Iowa on a fast track to the bottom.

Here we sit in Iowa, nestled between two political petri dishes where experiments have gone wrong, and wondering if our elected leaders may let the mad scientists loose on us as well.

Some politicians would like to turn Iowa into another Kansas, another Wisconsin, where tax-cut zealotry already has driven down economic opportunity.

Welcome to KanOwaSin. In the anti-tax ideologues’ world, we’d all look the same. Why not ​share a name?


​Before someone squeezes another drop of anti-tax, anti-worker snake oil on us, let’s get out the microscope.Our friends in Wisconsin tell us: Don’t become Wisconsin. Our friends in Kansas tell us: Don’t become Kansas — and Kansans already are turning off the low road.A couple of researchers in Oklahoma are telling us: Listen to those folks. From the abstract of their working report:

“The recent fiscal austerity experiments undertaken in the states of Kansas and Wisconsin have generated considerable policy interest. … The overall conclusion from the paper is that the fiscal experiments did not spur growth, and if anything, harmed state economic performance.”

 

Their findings are among the latest exposing the folly of tax-cut magic, particularly with regard to Kansas, which IPP’s Peter Fisher has highlighted in his GradingStates.org analysis that ferrets out the faulty notions in ideological and politically oriented policies that tear down our public services and economic opportunity.

Iowa has long been ripe for tax reform, due to a long list of exemptions, credits and special-interest carve-outs in the income tax, sales tax and property tax. These stand in the way of having sufficient resources for our schools, public safety and environmental protection.

Each new break is used to sell Iowans on the idea that we can attract families and businesses by cutting  — something we’ve tried for years without success, as Iowa’s tortoise-like population growth has lagged the nation.

On balance, this arrangement favors the wealthy over the poor. The bottom 80 percent pay about 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes that are governed by state law. The top 1 percent pay only about 6 percent. Almost every tax proposal in the last two decades has compounded the inequities.

For the coming 2018 legislative session, and for the election campaigns later that year, we are being promised a focus on income tax. Keep in mind, anything that flattens the income tax — the only tax we have that expects a greater share of income from the rich than the poor — steepens the overall inequity of our regressive system.

Thus, as always, the devil is in the details of the notion of “reform.” If “reform” in 2017 and beyond means more breaks for the wealthy, and inadequate revenue for traditional, clearly recognized public responsibilities such as education and public health and safety, then it is not worthy of the name.

So, when you hear about the very real failures of the Kansas and Wisconsin experiments, stop and think about what you see on your own streets, and your own schools. Think about the snake oil pitches to follow their lead, and whether you want Iowa on a fast track to the bottom.

That is the promise of Kansas and Wisconsin for Iowa.

Or, if you prefer, KanOwaSin.

—-

Dan S. Rickman and Hongbo Wang, Oklahoma State University, “Tales of Two U.S. States: Regional Fiscal Austerity and Economic Performance.” March 19, 2017. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/79615/1/MPRA_paper_79615.pdf
Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org