James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

If you believe ObamaCare will be deficit neutral …

November 30, 2009

….  then you must believe all of the following (via The Health Care Blog):

Health reform adds a heap of new cost saving political obligations on Congress. A partial list:

1)that Congress not extend the five-year shelter for states from their share of the cost of a 15 million person Medicaid expansion (e.g. more than a 30% increase). Presently, states are sheltered from Medicaid cost sharing for this expansion until 2014, but then have to find $34 billion in new money to pay their share. States, who are drowning in Medicaid costs already, will press hard to have their existing matching requirements reduced, as they have been for S/CHIP in the two bills.

2)that any “public option” health plan be self-supporting after an initial start up investment, which must be repaid. Recent CBO analysis suggested that because it will attract a ton of sick people, public plan premiums may end up costing more than private insurance unless they are either heavily subsidized or else impose Medicare rates unilaterally. Who will sign up if it’s so expensive?

3)that premium subsidies to help support a 21 million-person expansion in private insurance coverage not rise if health insurance premium growth exceeds present estimates. The premium subsidies are a huge new entitlement- $574 billion over a decade in the more generous House bill. Neither Congress nor the CBO have the faintest idea how health insurers’ costs will be affected by all the proposed restrictions on their underwriting practices. The subsidy cost estimates are, therefore, a Jules Verne moon shot. What happens if, as seems likely, they are way too low?

4)that Congress let stand recommendations of the proposed (by the Senate anyway)

“independent” Medicare Commission that would reduce spending below a target

(and not fiddle with the deficit neutrality rule which requires them to find offsetting revenues if the cuts are not implemented). This Commission was forbidden by Senate charter from affecting hospital payments (45.5% of the program’s cost in 2007!), not an auspicious beginning. The House has thus far predictably refused to let go of Medicare’s reins.

5)that Congress not tamper with the health benefit package employers are mandated to provide or individuals are mandated to carry. In both bills, the relatively restrained “opening” benefit package is left under the (political) control of the Secretary of Health and Human Services. If there is benefit creep (chiropractic, podiatry, in vitro fertilization, massage therapy, reiki, you name it), the required premium subsidies will have to increase apace.

How confident are you that Congress will bite all these bullets and exercise fiscal restraint when confronted with organized advocacy? The CBO kabuki dance on health reform’s deficit neutrality has pivoted around the risible assumption that Congress will actually enforce laws, like the Part B cap, that require, at some future point, fiscal discipline

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