Saturday, December 19, 2009
Reid 2.0: Itís Still a Budget Buster
The Obama White House and its congressional allies have tried all year to push their various bills through to passage by truncating the time between introduction and a decisive vote to the bare minimum. They figure the only way to get something passed is to minimize public review and scrutiny of whatever their latest idea is to engineer American health care from Washington, D.C.
To date, that tactic hasn’t worked out so well. In July, House Democrats tried to unveil a bill on the 14th for a planned vote on the 31st. A firestorm erupted, however, pushing back the vote into November. In the Senate, meanwhile, a series of self-imposed deadlines have been missed as Democratic pronouncements of inevitability have bumped up against the reality of steadfast and growing public opposition.
Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is running the same play again today, and very possibly with different results. He unveiled the latest version of his reform legislation this morning, filled to the brim with outrageous payoffs to buy the votes of holdout Senators. Virtually no one else has seen the bill before today, much less had a chance to give it the scrutiny it deserves. And certainly the public has not had a chance to weigh in. No matter. Senator Reid has simultaneously set in motion the procedures necessary to force a vote on his new health-care plan in a matter of hours, not weeks.
And yet, despite the unprecedented effort to short-circuit public review and input, it is likely that this latest version of the Reid plan will be just as unpopular as the previous one, and for many of the same basic reasons.
According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the amended Reid plan would reduce the federal budget deficit by $132 billion over the period 2010 to 2019, but that is a mirage.
For starters, as CBO notes, the bill presumes that Medicare fees for physician services will get cut by more than 20 percent in 2011, and then stay at the reduced level indefinitely. There is strong bipartisan opposition to such cuts. Fixing that problem alone will cost more than $200 billion over a decade, pushing the Reid plan from the black and into a deep red.
Then there are the numerous budget gimmicks and implausible spending reductions. The plan’s taxes and spending cuts kick in right away, while the entitlement expansion doesn’t start in earnest until 2014, and even then the real spending doesn’t begin until 2015. According to CBO, from 2010 to 2014, the bill would cut the federal budget deficit by $124 billion. From that point on, it’s essentially deficit neutral — but that’s only because of unrealistic assumptions about tax and Medicare savings provisions. By 2019, the entitlement expansions to cover more people with insurance will cost nearly $200 billion per year, and grow every year thereafter at a rate of 8 percent. CBO says that, on paper, the tax increases and Medicare cuts will more than keep up, but, in reality, they won’t. The so-called tax on high cost insurance plans applies to policies with premiums exceeding certain thresholds (for instance, $23,000 for family coverage). But those thresholds would be indexed at rates that are less than health-care inflation — forever. And so, over time, more and more plans, and their enrollees, would bump up against it until virtually the entire U.S. population is enrolled in insurance that is considered “high cost.”
Similarly, the Medicare cuts assume that hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies and others can survive with a permanent annual cut in their payment rates for presumed productivity gains. Medicare’s chief actuary has already signaled that this reduction could push one in five hospitals into insolvency, thus forcing them out of the Medicare program.
What’s more, the benefit promises are sure to expand well beyond what CBO has assumed. There are 127 million people living in households with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line, but CBO assumes that only 18 million of them will get the new subsidized insurance under the Reid plan by 2015 because of rules that make most workers ineligible for assistance. But, if enacted, employers would find ways to push more workers into subsidized arrangements, and Congress would loosen the rules to make more people eligible. Costs would grow much faster than CBO currently projects. In addition, the Reid plan continues to include a new entitlement program for long-term care that every actuary who has looked at it says is a financial disaster waiting to happen. If passed, it would only be a matter of time before another federal bailout would be necessary.
It is now plain as day that the Reid plan has evolved into nothing more than a massive entitlement expansion, which subsidizes more people into an unreformed system with soaring costs. Several Senate Democrats claim to be strong fiscal conservatives. Their votes on the Reid legislation will provide conclusive evidence whether that’s true or not.