- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Republicans’ health care bill bans illegal immigrants from getting tax credits, but it doesn’t do much to improve the checks already in place under Obamacare — a system that led to more than $700 million in benefits to unauthorized people.

The bill’s authors said they were counting on the Trump administration to plug the gaps and insisted that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin were far more inclined to try to come up with a system.

“This bill will not and does not allow illegal immigrants to receive the tax credits,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, told The Washington Times. “It expressly prohibits it and really muscles up the Treasury Department to ensure these credits only go to citizens and qualified legal immigrants.”

That’s not good enough for immigration crackdown groups. They say Republicans should demand more details in the bill rather than leaving enforcement to departments that in four years could be in the administration of someone other than President Trump.

“Even though that law nominally makes illegal aliens ineligible for health insurance subsidies, the verification system fails to identify and exclude illegal applicants,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which wants stricter limits on immigration and has come out in opposition to the American Health Care Act.

The Republican bill relies heavily on the same verification methods included in Obamacare, which according to its text sought to deny illegal immigrants access to the subsidies meant to help poor and middle-class Americans buy insurance on Obamacare’s exchanges.

In practice, however, there were loopholes easy to exploit, according to immigration analysts: Only those who acknowledged that they weren’t citizens were subjected to legal status checks. If applicants said they were citizens, even if it wasn’t true, they were able to sign up.

The Government Accountability Office tested the system by submitting a dozen bogus applications using fictitious identities in 2013 and 2014 and found 11 of them were approved for the Obamacare subsidies. In seven of those cases, the investigators didn’t even complete the full applications.

This is the issue that spurred Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, to shout out “You lie” at President Obama during a speech to Congress in 2009 — a moment that drew fierce rebukes and an apology from Mr. Wilson.

Years later, conservatives argue that Mr. Wilson was right and illegal immigrants were getting benefits.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, calculated that as of 2015, about $750 million had been paid to people who failed to verify their citizenship or legal status.

Part of the problem was that the IRS, a Treasury Department agency, was feuding with the Health and Human Services Department over who was supposed to be trying to weed out unauthorized applications, Mr. Johnson said.

The IRS was supposed to be figuring out a way to claw back the money, but it hadn’t come up with one as of early 2016, when the Senate report was released.

On Tuesday, the IRS told The Washington Times that it had no update on progress.

Mr. Brady said the Republican bill, which his committee cleared on a party-line vote last week, settles bureaucratic disputes that nagged the Obama administration’s enforcement by making the Treasury Department the sole point of contact in ensuring applicants are legal.

“The key thing is to have one agency that the buck stops there,” he said.

Lawmakers are relying on Mr. Trump, he said, to clean up the mess — part of the second phase of the Republicans’ repeal-and-replace strategy, which relies in part on the administration to release regulations carrying out the policies.

“Perhaps the biggest difference is the administration,” Mr. Brady said. “Under Obama, they were looking for loopholes. Under the Trump administration, they are strict enforcement and rule of law. That is pretty reassuring.”

But neither of the departments charged with carrying out the policies — HHS and Treasury — responded to multiple requests for comment this week, so it’s unclear what they can do.

Mr. Brady said the Republican bill contains stronger language than Obamacare, using the same prohibitions that were included in the 1996 welfare reform legislation to prevent illegal immigrants from claiming benefits.

Obamacare’s verification relies on use of a Homeland Security database designed to check whether immigrants are authorized to work, according to immigration analysts. Crackdown backers prefer a system based on Social Security numbers, which they said is a more firm way of weeding out illegal immigrants.

But that inclusion could backfire.

The more the bill stiffens verification procedures, the more it risks running afoul of the arcane procedural process — known as budget reconciliation — that Republicans are using to pass their repeal without facing a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

Christopher Jacobs, a health care policy analyst and founder of consulting firm Juniper Research Group, said that touching anything having to do with Social Security could end up violating reconciliation rules because it crosses committees’ jurisdictional boundaries. Even pointing to the Homeland Security checks could be a violation, he said.

If the Senate’s parliamentarian decides the bill violates the rules, then the entire legislation could collapse.

“Lots of people are focused on the [Congressional Budget Office] score, understandably so. But this is the next thing coming down the pike,” Mr. Jacobs said in an interview with The Times.

Writing on the Federalist website Monday, Mr. Jacobs said Republicans tried a similar Social Security number check in their 2015 repeal bill but dropped the idea “because it could have triggered a point of order fatal to the legislation.”

The alternative could mean that Republicans would have to write a bill without pushing for any new verification tactics, which could open the door to benefits for even more illegal immigrants.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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