Until recently, the insurance giants saw Obamacare as a cash cow. They are now finding the law's insurance marketplaces to be sickly quagmires causing billions in losses.
In response, the Obamacare insiders — the wealthy and powerful operatives who alternate between top government jobs and top industry jobs — are hustling to find more bailout money for insurers. Republicans, if they are able to hold their ground in the face of lobbyist pressure, can block the bailout of Obamacare and its corporate clientele.
United Healthcare, the nation's largest insurer, last week announced it was suffering huge losses in the exchanges. "We cannot sustain these losses" UHC's CEO said in a conference call, saying conditions for the insurer were "worsening." The company forecast $700 million in losses on the exchanges. Fellow insurance giant Aetna also said it expected to lose money on the exchanges, and other insurers said enrollment was lower than they expected.
Hours after UHC's dire announcement, the Obama administration issued an interesting statement of its own — that it would find a way to get insurers the bailout money congressional Republicans had voted to deny them.
Here's the background: Obamacare included a few provisions intended to smooth over bumps in implementation. One was called "risk corridors" — a three-year safety net for insurers who do much worse than expected, paid for by an extra tax on insurers who do much better.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) had announced in October that insurers losses for 2014 entitled them to $2.87 billion in bailout payments through "risk corridors." The problem is that super-profitable insurers did not pay nearly that much into the bailout fund.
In late 2014, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., inserted into the so-called Cromnibus spending bill a provision that prohibited CMS from paying out more in risk corridor payments than it takes in. Profitable insurers — not taxpayers — must subsidize their less profitable peers.
Since insurers' excess losses in 2014 outweighed their excess profits by an 8-to-1 margin, each money-losing insurer will get only one eighth of the bailout money it would otherwise recoup.
CMS announced last week that the government was going to find a way to pay the insurers their full bailout, anyway. "The remaining 2014 risk corridors payments will be made from 2015 risk corridors collections, and if necessary, 2016 collections."
What if excess losses in those years again surpass excess profits? CMS said it "will explore other sources of funding for risk corridors payments…." CMS also declared the unfunded portion of Obamacare's initial promised insurer bailout was nevertheless an "obligation of the United States Government for which full payment is required," even though at least under the current appropriation law it is illegal.
This is where the intimate network of the Obamacare insiders comes in. CMS — which issued the pledge to fully bail out United Healthcare and its cohorts — is run by acting administrator Andy Slavitt. Slavitt is a former executive at United Healthcare (while he held that position he contributed to Obama's 2008 election).
Slavitt's appointment and management of bailout money for UHC clearly clashes with Obama's much ballyhooed ethics rules, which require appointees to swear: "I will not for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer…" In acknowledgement of this conflict of interest, Obama issued an ethics waiver for Slavitt.
Meanwhile, the insurance lobbyist leading the industry's push for more Obamacare bailout money is Marilyn Tavenner, Obama's previous chief of CMS, now head of America's Health Insurance Plans. AHIP says risk corridors aren't the group's top focus, but Tavenner is speaking out on it.
In summary: Tavenner helped build the risk corridor program, and then went to the industry that would get the money. Slavitt left the insurer with the biggest losses, and now is the government official promising to bail out his former employer.
Rubio's provision, which requires the risk corridor program to be deficit neutral, expires along with the current government funding law on December 11. The Obamacare insiders, led by Slavitt and Tavenner, will fight to free up their bailouts and put the taxpayers on the hook for their losses caused by the law they supported.
They told me that if I didn't vote for Obama, the insurance lobbyists would take over government. It turns out they were right!
Obamacare is the embodiment of liberal corporatism. The risk corridor fight is a microcosm of the corporatism and cronyism that are Obamanomics.
CORRECTION: Originally this column called Slavitt a former CEO of UHC. He is instead a former Executive Vice President.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.