Debt Commission


The Importance of Ryan-Rivlin

The political ground has been shifting rapidly ever since the American people delivered a vote of no confidence on the current direction of public policy when they went to the polls earlier this month.

Nowhere is that shift more evident than in the recent release of a bipartisan plan to dramatically reform the nation’s health entitlement programs. Sponsored by incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin, the “Ryan-Rivlin” plan represents a real breakthrough in the long standoff between the parties over how to address the most pressing problem in the federal budget, which is the relentless, long-term rise in costs of Medicare and Medicaid. Ryan and Rivlin both serve on the presidential commission looking at ways to reduce the nation’s short- and long-term budget deficits, and they offered their health-entitlement reform plan to their fellow commission members for consideration.

In Medicare, the Ryan-Rivlin proposal would be transformative. It picks up on a key feature of Rep. Ryan’s “Roadmap” budget plan, which is that new enrollees in Medicare after 2020 would receive their entitlement in the form of a fixed contribution from the federal government rather than today’s defined benefit program structure. These Medicare enrollees would then apply their entitlement against the cost of health insurance. The value of the defined-contribution payment from the government would grow at a rate of GDP per capita plus one percentage point. The plan would also restructure Medicare for current beneficiaries by rationalizing the cost-sharing with a single, higher deductible and more uniform coinsurance across care settings, as well as an out-of-pocket cost limit. Secondary insurance plans would be prohibited from covering the first $500 of the deductible or more than half of the cost-sharing for services.

For Medicaid, Ryan and Rivlin propose moving toward a fixed block grant payment from the federal government to the states. The block grant payments would be indexed to grow with the size of the Medicaid population as well as per capita GDP growth plus one percentage point. The plan does not specify in detail what new flexibility the states would receive to administer the program, but it would presumably be significant new freedom to make changes as needed to run Medicaid according to state priorities.

Beyond Medicare and Medicaid, the plan would also impose limits on noneconomic and punitive damages in medical liability cases as well as repeal the ill-advised long-term care program (called the “CLASS Act”) that was created in the recently passed health care law.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has already issued a preliminary assessment of the budgetary implications of Ryan-Rivlin, and the results are impressive. Over the next decade, Ryan-Rivlin would cut federal deficit spending by $280 billion, and by 2030, federal spending on the major health entitlement programs would be about 1.75 percent of GDP below a reasonable baseline projection.

But the importance of Ryan-Rivlin goes well beyond its details and current CBO cost estimate. The fundamental problem in American health care is that the federal government is providing open-ended financial support for health insurance coverage. Most Americans get their insurance through Medicare, Medicaid, or employer-sponsored insurance. And in each case, the federal government’s support for that coverage increases commensurately with costs. So when costs or premiums rise by an extra dollar, the federal treasury is picking up a sizeable portion of the added expense, thus substantially undermining the incentive for economizing by those enrolled in the coverage or those providing the services.

The solution is an across-the-board move toward more fixed federal financial support for coverage. That’s a central element in the Ryan Roadmap, and has been a theme in just about every market-based reform of health care proposed over the past quarter century. At various times, moving away from open-ended entitlements has gotten the support of some Democrats, most especially when former Senator John Breaux championed “premium support” for Medicare in the late 1990s. But, by and large, most Democrats have resisted these kinds of moves and attempted to control entitlement costs with arbitrary price controls instead.

Ryan-Rivlin is thus an important step because it brings a prominent official from the Clinton administration onto a proposal that would decisively move away from the health entitlement status quo. That’s no small matter.

Ryan-Rivlin is far from ideal. It is largely silent on ObamaCare, which would push the health system in precisely the wrong direction by extending open-ended entitlement promises to millions of new people. Households with incomes below four times the poverty line would see their premiums capped as a percentage of their income, regardless of the expense of their health plan coverage. Moreover, the new law leans heavily on price controls to cut costs, which only distort the marketplace and undermine the quality of American medicine. These damaging aspects of ObamaCare would substantially undermine the benefits that the Ryan-Rivlin approach would produce. The lesson is that there’s no getting around the need to repeal ObamaCare in its entirety. If it remains in place, there will be little that can be done to stop a full government takeover. What’s needed is a full replacement program, with fixes not only for Medicare and Medicaid but also for the tax treatment of health insurance so that workers too become cost-conscious consumers in a reformed marketplace.

Still, Ryan and Rivlin should be applauded for taking this courageous step and putting their health entitlement reform plan on the table for consideration. It is a clear demonstration that the conversation has shifted, and in a much more positive direction. 

posted by James C. Capretta | 5:56 pm
Tags: Paul Ryan, Alice Rivlin, Ryan-Rivlin proposal, Roadmap, debt commission, Medicaid, Medicare
File As: Health Care

The Debt Commission Endorses Obamacare

When the co-chairmen of President Obama’s debt commission released a draft series of recommendations today, they presumably intended to show momentum and create pressure for others to come around to some kind of an agreement.

Press stories are sure to focus on the Social Security changes and how they will antagonize some liberals, thus proving that the proposal is serious.

But the most important entitlement decision in the entire package is the explicit endorsement of Obamacare. The Bowles-Simpson proposal would leave in place the entire trillion-dollar monstrosity. Indeed, many of its supposed cost-cutting recommendations would build on Obamacare’s flawed structure of government-driven cost-cutting through price controls. In particular, they would like to create what amounts to a global budget on health care, with the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) given the unilateral authority to hit budget targets with price cutting. This is exactly the opposite of what’s needed, which is cost discipline through consumer choice in a functioning marketplace.

Meanwhile, Bowles and Simpson refused to endorse moving Medicare toward a defined contribution program, as Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap proposes, relying instead on the usual laundry list of cuts to the existing program structure.

None of this is all that surprising, given how the commission was formulated. It’s not really a bipartisan commission at all; it’s an Obama commission. It was created by the president and stacked with Democratic appointees. Two-thirds of the 18 members were picked by the president or Democratic congressional leaders. Only six were appointed by Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell.

The president says the public doesn’t want to “re-litigate” the health care war. He’s wrong. As last Tuesday’s exit polls make clear, a strong plurality wants exactly that. The American people know that the ill-advised law was railroaded through Congress and is a colossal mistake.

The fundamental problem here is that it is not possible build a bipartisan budget framework on a foundation that includes a partisan health-care plan with sweeping implications for future spending levels. To have a bipartisan budget requires a bipartisan health plan. And that means repealing Obamacare and starting over.

posted by James C. Capretta | 6:45 pm
Tags: debt commission, Roadmap, Paul Ryan, Independent Payment Advisory Board
File As: Health Care

The Debt Commission, Health Care, and Obama’s Budgetary Game Plan

In another Web Memo for the Heritage Foundation this week, I wrote a bit more about the debt commission and the budgetary and political problems that Obamacare creates for the nation's finances. Here's an excerpt from the beginning:

Unfortunately, the timeline for the United States to take corrective action may have already been shortened in just the past few weeks. What began as a slow-motion crumble of Greece’s economic house of cards has now quite clearly become the triggering point for full-fledged examination of the risks posed by massive increases in governmental debt combined with aging populations around the developed world. No country is exempt from the scrutiny of the bond markets, including the U.S. Moreover, if Europe’s economy slides back again into a deep recession as the debt crisis spreads, no part of the global economy will be completely spared from the fallout, including the U.S. The new health care law will only worsen the nation’s fiscal situation, and despite President Obama’s claim that “everything is on the table,” it is clear that the Administration wants to lock in Obamacare and force the commission to look elsewhere.

You can read the entire memo here.

posted by James C. Capretta | 11:36 am
Tags: Debt Commission, Obamacare, debt
File As: Health Care

The Debt Commission and Obamacare

The president’s debt commission had its first meeting this week, and all of the talk was of getting serious about putting our fiscal house in order, with everything “on the table” for consideration.

There’s no arguing with the need to get serious. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), if the Obama budget were adopted in full, just the interest on the national debt would exceed $900 billion in 2020 and consume one out of every five dollars in federal revenue. To put that in perspective, in 2007, before the financial crisis hit with full force, interest payments on debt stood at $237 billion, or just 9 percent of total tax collections. A sudden and steep rise in the percentage of governmental revenue dedicated to servicing past excess consumption is a clear warning sign to lenders and credit-rating agencies that a country’s finances are approaching the point of no return.

Unfortunately, the timeline for taking corrective action may have shortened even in the past few weeks and days. What began as a slow-motion crumble of Greece’s economic house of cards is now threatening to become a serious global crisis. The flight from sovereign debt risk is now spreading to other vulnerable, highly leveraged countries, including Portugal, Ireland, and Spain. The implications for European economic recovery are ominous. And, if Europe’s economy slides backward again into a deep recession, no part of the global economy will be completely spared from the fallout, including the United States.

So we are long past the point when national leaders should have been sitting down together to hammer out a budget framework to avert the crisis everyone could long see coming. Indeed, one might have thought it would be the first order of business for a newly elected president of the United States.

But it wasn’t. Instead, President Barack Obama decided to spend 2009 using unusually large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to jam a partisan and highly polarizing health care bill through the Congress. No Republican supported the measure, in large part because it vastly expanded federal entitlement commitments at the very moment when it was abundantly clear that the existing entitlements are the problem.

With the health legislation signed into law over the objections of a united Republican party, the president now wants Republicans to help him finance the newly enlarged welfare state.

Of course, the commission itself is a transparent maneuver to pass the buck in an election year. Voters are beyond fed up with the massive spending spree taking place in Washington. To every hostile question Democratic candidates will get in coming months about the exploding national debt, they are therefore planning the following answer: we’re waiting for the commission to make its recommendations in December. Never mind that Democrats control the White House and Congress. If they wanted to cut the budget, they could certainly do so, starting right now. Instead, they will try to use the appointment of a non-binding commission to create the appearance of a proactive agenda.

For the commission itself, the elephant in the room is Obamacare. Former Senator Alan Simpson, the co-chair of the commission, says the president has agreed that even the health law is “on the table” for discussion.

That’s good, if he means it. Because it is not possible to write a durable, bipartisan budget framework with health spending written entirely according to one party’s formulation.

Health care remains the largest problem in the nation’s long-term budget outlook, even after enactment of the health bill. On paper, the bill makes massive cuts in Medicare. But all of the supposed savings would go toward standing up a new entitlement that costs even more than the savings. So, health entitlement spending expands under the legislation, not contracts.

Moreover, the Medicare savings are from arbitrary payment-rate reductions. OMB Director Peter Orszag continues to argue the health law lays the predicate for cost-control through painless efficiency improvement in the delivery of medical services. But that’s either a smokescreen or the most alarming kind of wishful thinking. The “delivery system reforms” in the legislation are at best small pilot projects that will amount to very little. Certainly CBO assumed no savings from them. Neither did the chief actuary of the Medicare program.

The real cuts in Medicare come from reductions in payment rates. The cuts apply to all providers, across-the-board. There’s no attempt to calibrate based on the quality of the patient care or performance. If the debt commission takes Obamacare as a given when looking for additional savings in health care, it will inevitably fall into the same trap. To find quick and “scoreable” savings (that is, savings that CBO will recognize), the easiest thing to do is to further ratchet down payment rates and pretend the cuts will solve the budget problem. Going down that road would be a disaster for the quality of American medicine and would not provide a lasting solution.

What’s needed in American health care is a dynamic marketplace that drives up the productivity of those delivering medical services. That’s the only way to cut costs without harming quality. That’s genuine delivery system reform. Building such a marketplace requires, first and foremost, cost-conscious consumers, which in turn requires fundamental reform of the health entitlement programs and the tax treatment of health insurance. Fortunately, Congressman Paul Ryan’s roadmap has already shown us the way.

Like it or not, the budget debate remains in large part a health-care debate. Obamacare settled nothing because it did not solve the health care cost problem. It papered it over with price controls.

posted by James C. Capretta | 5:20 pm
Tags: debt commission, debt, Alan Simpson, Greece, Peter Orszag, CBO, payment-rate reductions
File As: Health Care

The Obama Budget Plan: Taxes and Rationing

Suddenly, the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders seem to want health care news stories to fall off of the front page.

This week, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman abruptly cancelled a high-profile hearing he had called just days earlier to berate corporate CEOs who dared to tell their investors that the health-care bill would raise their costs. It seems to have dawned on Congressman Waxman and his staff that his transparent effort to intimidate anyone who tells the truth about the legislation could actually backfire on him and turn into a PR disaster.

The Democratic contention that the bill actually lowers costs for American business is not supported by any rigorous analysis that would justify use in auditable corporate accounting methods. The Business Roundtable study that many Obamacare advocates like to cite as proof of the bill’s savings provides no such proof at all. The prediction of cost savings in the study from the mostly minor provisions in the legislation aimed at “delivery system reform” are highly speculative at best. Indeed, the study itself notes the potential for much higher costs and cites many cost-cutting provisions that are not in the new health law.

What is certain is that the new health law reduced the value to America’s corporations of federal support for retiree drug-benefit coverage. That means it will cost these companies more to provide such coverage in the future. There’s no disputing that. Indeed, there’s no disputing that the companies had an obligation to acknowledge this cost in their financial statements. One way or another, some Americans will be forced to pay higher costs because of this provision, in the form of reduced prescription-drug benefits for retirees or reduced value for the shareholders of the firms in question.

Perhaps Congressman Waxman realized the tables might actually get turned on him this time. A hearing in which Democratic congressmen lectured private-sector CEOs — CEOs who employ tens of thousands of people — for following the law and telling the truth would only make an out-of-touch Democratic Congress look even more disconnected from reality.

Democrats are also contemplating (though no decisions have been made) shelving consideration of the congressional budget resolution to avoid having to debate levels of taxation, federal spending, deficits, and debt before the midterm election. The budget resolution is the annual blueprint that sets parameters for considering budget-related legislation during the rest of a congressional session.

Their reticence is understandable. President Obama is presiding over the largest expansion of the federal government in a generation, even though the federal government is already rushing headlong toward a debt crisis. The government is expected to run a budget deficit in excess of $1 trillion in 2010, after running a deficit of $1.4 trillion in 2009. And that’s just the beginning of an endless sea of red ink. The Congressional Budget Office expects the Obama administration’s latest budget plan would push the nation’s debt to more than $20 trillion in 2020, up from $5.8 trillion in 2008. No wonder congressional Democrats want to change the subject.

But no one should be fooled into thinking the administration and its allies in Congress will never again revisit the budget and health care. They will — largely because the president will have no choice. He is presiding over a spending and borrowing binge unlike anything ever experienced in the nation’s post-war history. And it can’t go on much longer before it will precipitate an economic crisis of one sort or another.

So the president and his team will come back to the budget, just not before the midterm election. That’s the whole point of standing up the debt commission. To every question about runaway deficits and debt, they have a ready answer to divert the press.

But, as Charles Krauthammer noted recently, there are signs aplenty of what the administration will push for when they do come back to the budget gap, probably just after the midterm election. It’s no accident that the debt commission will make its recommendations known only after the November elections. That way Democratic candidates can run for office by suggesting the commission will solve our budget problems without ever having to specify any tax or spending cut.

When, however, the administration does make a push for closing the budget deficit, its plan will start with the mother of all tax increases, probably a value-added tax (VAT). When the problem is as big as it is today, Democrats will see no use in nickel-and-diming it. With a VAT, they would get a large new revenue stream, not collected directly from voters, and one that they could expand endlessly as they further enlarged the government.

But an Obama-style budget fix almost certainly wouldn’t end there. To get a tax increase, he and his advisors surely realize they will need to look like they are cutting some spending too. And, contrary to some perceptions, liberals are definitely willing to cut some entitlement spending; it’s just that they insist it be done in only one way: with price controls on payments to medical providers.

Look at the recently enacted health bill. It includes large cuts in Medicare’s payments to hospitals, nursing homes, and others. These cuts aren’t calibrated based on quality or efficiency. They are across-the-board cuts hitting every service provider. And the bill also stands up a new independent board that is charged with essentially enforcing a cap on overall Medicare spending beginning in 2015. But the only changes in Medicare the board can recommend to stay within the cap are more reductions in provider-payment rates. The board can’t touch the Medicare benefit, much less propose a Ryan-style move toward more choice and market competition. No, the only option is more and deeper price controls.

So, it is entirely predictable where Democrats will turn when they need show their willingness to cut entitlement spending. They will push to broaden the reach of Medicare’s price controls to parts of the health system currently beyond their reach, including prescription drugs and the federally-subsidized insurance arrangements enacted as part of the new health law. It will be one more step toward their ultimate goal, which is a fully government-run health system, with all that entails — including waiting lists and restricted access to care.

posted by James C. Capretta | 4:14 pm
Tags: Debt Commission, debt, deficit, Henry Waxman
File As: Health Care

Tax Collecting for Obama’s Welfare State

Now that the health-care bill has been signed into law, President Obama wants to “pivot” to other pressing issues. But, truth be told, the biggest issue the country now faces is still, in large part, about health care.

The federal government is running massive budget deficits and is expected to continue to do so indefinitely. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the Obama budget plan would produce $10 trillion in deficits over the period 2011 to 2020. At the end of the decade, the government’s debt would top $20 trillion, or 90 percent of the nation’s GDP. By comparison, from 1789 to 2008, the country accumulated only $5.8 trillion of public debt.

The economic risks associated with such massive amounts of governmental borrowing are very real and very high. At some point, current lenders to the U.S. government will have their fill of Treasury securities, which will mean the cost of financing expansive government is sure to increase over time. CBO expects the annual cost of servicing the interest on the nation’s debt will reach $0.9 trillion in 2020 under the Obama budget plan, up from about $0.2 trillion this year. But it could very well go much higher than that, as a recent white paper from analysts at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demonstrates. According to that projection, U.S. debt could top 100 percent of the GDP by 2020 if, as the IMF analysts expect, the large run-up in governmental debt pushes interest rates up faster than either CBO or the administration now forecasts.

Further, this rise in federal borrowing will be occurring just as the baby boomers are entering their retirement years. Between 2010 and 2030, the population age 65 and older is expected to increase from 41 million to 71 million people. As these boomers sign up for Social Security and Medicare, costs for the programs will soar. Now is the time to get our fiscal house in order, before the entitlement tidal wave hits full force.

So what’s the president’s plan for heading off the wrenching debt crisis he has made more probable with his the expensive new spending programs he has forced through Congress? Instead of addressing it himself, the president has handed the problem off to a “bipartisan” commission.

Conveniently, the debt commission — headed by former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson — will make its recommendations after the November congressional elections.

The chutzpah here is something to behold. Having passed the largest entitlement expansion in half a century, in the most partisan manner imaginable, the president now wants Republicans to provide political cover to Democrats as they search for ways to finance the welfare state of their dreams.

Moreover, it is clear that Democrats have no intention of actually tackling the core problem in the federal budget, which is rapidly rising entitlement costs, especially for health care. They say their health-care bill has already addressed the problem. In the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “health reform is entitlement reform.”

In theory, it’s possible that Democrats could have passed a health bill that actually made durable reforms in the health entitlement programs that would have improved the medium and long-term budget outlook. But that’s not what they passed. No, new law makes the health entitlement much worse by adding tens of millions of people to Medicaid and a new insurance-subsidy program offered to persons getting insurance in the so-called “exchanges.” CBO expects the cost of these entitlement expansions to reach $216 billion in 2019. Further, the cost would escalate every year thereafter at a very rapid rate, just as Medicare and Medicaid have for more than four decades.

The Democrats respond by saying they also slowed the cost growth in Medicare. But, for starters, their cuts in Medicare do not cover the full cost of their entitlement expansions. That’s why they also raised taxes — by more than a half trillion dollars over ten years. Under the legislation President Obama just signed, federal health entitlement spending goes up, not down. Moreover, the cuts they do impose in Medicare do not in any way constitute “reform” of the program. For the most part, the big savings comes from paying less to hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and others for the services they provide. In other words, it’s a price-control system.

These kinds of cuts have been passed by Congress many times before. They have never worked to permanently slow the pace of rising costs because they don’t do anything to make the delivery of health services any more efficient than it is today. Over time, arbitrary price controls imposed by the government always drive out willing suppliers of services and lead to access problems. That’s not entitlement reform. It’s government-enforced rationing of care.

To slow the pace of rising costs without harming the quality of American medicine will require restructuring the tax code and entitlement programs to promote a vibrant marketplace in the health sector, with strong price competition and consumer choice. That’s the vision Congressman Paul Ryan has laid out. And it’s both genuine health reform and entitlement reform too.

If the president and his allies were truly open to revisiting their “historic” health bill and replacing what has passed with a market-based reform program, that would be one thing. But does anyone really believe that’s a serious possibility at this point? The Democrats think they have scored a strategic victory by writing health-care legislation entirely according to their partisan vision. It is inconceivable they would backtrack willingly now.

But partisanship on health care has consequences too. It means bipartisanship on the budget will be all but impossible. The president has succeeded in enlarging the welfare state. Unless he is willing to roll it back now, it will be entirely his responsibility to collect the taxes to pay for it.

posted by James C. Capretta | 9:13 pm
Tags: CBO, entitlements, debt, deficit, debt commission
File As: Health Care

Health Care and the Debt Commission

Over on National Review Online, I have a new Corner post about the politics of President Obama's new Debt Commission. Here's a snippet relevant to the concerns of this blog:

Then there’s the issue of health care. The president and his advisers have said they have no intention of abandoning the health-care bills that have passed the House and Senate, despite overwhelming evidence of intense public opposition. The primary reason for long-term budgetary imbalance is out-of-control spending on health-care entitlements. And so what would the Democratic health-care bills do? Stand up another runaway health-care entitlement, of course. The Congressional Budget Office has said that the new spending commitments in both the House- and Senate-passed bills would reach about $200 billion in 2019 and increase 8 percent every year thereafter. Moreover, if enacted, a health-care bill would dramatically reduce the options available to the new Debt Commission. It would not be possible to seriously consider fundamental Medicare reforms just months after Congress voted to cut payments to Medicare providers by nearly $500 billion over a decade. Nor would Democrats go along with scaling back a new health-care subsidy program they just spent two years getting into law. Team Obama’s plan here is quite obvious:lock in a partisan health-care program over the unanimous objections of congressional Republicans, and then to try to get Republican help to clean up the government’s budgetary mess. That Republicans are resisting this one-sided game should surprise no one.

If any further evidence is needed that the Obama Debt Commission is a farce and should not be taken seriously by Republicans, it can be found in the laughable timeline the Obama White House is pushing for the commission’s recommendations and follow-on congressional action. The plan is to have the commission spend most of this year behind closed doors coming up with the most far-reaching tax hikes and spending cuts seen in a generation. Then, after voters have already cast their ballots in the mid-term congressional elections in November, the commission would make its recommendations known and the lame-duck Congress would take them up and pass them in a matter of weeks, with almost no time for public debate. And politicians wonder why the electorate is cynical.

The entire post can be found here.

posted by James C. Capretta | 2:55 pm
Tags: Debt Commission, health care, deficits
File As: Health Care