doc fix


The “Doc Fix” and Paul Krugman’s “War on Logic”

During the yearlong debate over Obamacare, the law’s apologists returned over and over again to the supposed fiscal benefits flowing from its provisions as a top selling point. Pass Obamacare, they said, and we’ll have health insurance for everyone, painless cost-cutting to slow rising premiums, and deficit reduction to boot. Its win, win, win!

No one believed them, of course. The claim of deficit reduction may have provided a fig leaf to allow some wavering congressional Democrats to vote yes, but it didn’t convince a skeptical electorate. Most Americans have too much common sense to buy the argument that what the nation needs to get its fiscal house in order is a new trillion-dollar-plus entitlement program, piled on top of the unaffordable ones already on the books.

Sure, on paper the Democrats might be able assemble “offsets” to make it look like the program was “paid for.” But even a casual review of the legislation and associated analyses reveals what most people intuitively know to be the case: that Obamacare combines dead-certain entitlement expansion (for at least 30 million people, and probably many millions more) with budgetary sleight of hand and “pay fors” that are either phony or altogether implausible.

Nonetheless, as the House readies a repeal vote for this week, Obamacare enthusiasts are back at it again, claiming once again that Obamacare supporters are practitioners of fiscal discipline, while those who want to undo the largest expansion of government in nearly half a century are the budget busters.

To be sure, it’s a tough sell, but Paul Krugman of the New York Times is eager to give it a try nonetheless. He claimed in his Sunday column that the Republican contention that Obamacare is a budgetary disaster amounts to a “war on logic.”

But Krugman’s attack is itself illogical, and inaccurate too. He focuses most of his attention on the so-called “doc fix,” which is the periodic legislation passed by Congress to prevent deep and unrealistic cuts in what Medicare pays for physician services. Republicans have argued, accurately, that the accounting for Obamacare omits the “doc fix” spending, and that if it were included, the supposed deficit reduction from Obamacare would vanish altogether, even before the other gimmicks and implausible assumptions were exposed and removed.

Krugman contends that this Republican argument is illogical because, in effect, the real “baseline” of federal spending already includes higher physician fees. With or without Obamacare, Congress is going to spend more on physicians, Krugman suggests, therefore Obamacare shouldn’t get charged for it.

But that’s not what’s really going on here. If Krugman’s analysis were accurate, why does Congress go through the annual agony of a “doc fix” at all? Why haven’t they just passed a permanent solution already and gotten it over with?

The answer is that, while Congress doesn’t want to cut physician fees, it hasn’t wanted to pile the costs onto the national debt either. What has held back a permanent solution is the inability to find $200–$300 billion in acceptable “offsets” to make sure a permanent fix doesn’t add to the deficit.

When President Obama assumed office, he wanted his health bill and a permanent “doc fix” too, but he didn’t have enough flimsy offsets to grease the way for them both. So he came up with a new “solution”: use the offsets to pave the way for Obamacare’s spending, and exempt the “doc fix” from the need for offsets at all. This would create the perception of “deficit reduction” from Obamacare even as an unfinanced “doc fix” ran up the deficit by an even larger amount.

At the end of the day, even some Senate Democrats balked at this shameless sleight of hand and blocked the effort to pass an unfinanced and permanent “doc fix.” But the issue remains very much unresolved, and the administration has yet to disavow their push from last year to pay higher physician fees with borrowed money.

Krugman also seems completely unaware that the Medicare cuts that are supposed to pay for Obamacare’s entitlement spending are of the same type as the physician-fee cuts he now wants to assume away. They are arbitrary and unrealistic too, so much so that the chief actuary for Medicare considers them entirely implausible. He projects that if Obamacare’s Medicare cuts were allowed to remain in effect for long, Medicare’s payment rates would fall below those of Medicaid, which are so low that Medicaid patients often have trouble accessing care. And yet Obamacare’s apologists want us to believe we can safely erect a massive new entitlement based on the assumption of future savings from these cuts.

In truth, the Krugman critique doesn’t lay a glove on the Republican argument. He doesn’t even try to defend the CLASS Act, another new entitlement for long-term care. As a start-up program, CLASS collects $70 billion in front-loaded premiums during its first decade. Krugman and others want to count this money toward Obamacare, even though every analysis available shows CLASS will itself need a bailout when its costs balloon beyond ten years. And then there’s the so-called “Cadillac” tax that starts in 2018. The tax is so unpopular with Democratic constituencies that President Obama was never willing to collect it himself (if reelected, he will leave office no later than January 2017). But Obamacare’s defenders argue this tax can be counted on to produce trillions in new revenue beyond 2020.

If liberals and Democrats want to make the fight over Obamacare about taxes, spending, and the budget deficit, Republicans should allow them to do so. The public has already taken sides in this fight. Taxpaying Americans are never going to be convinced that the government has found a way to give away new benefits to millions of people, with no cost to them or anyone else.

[Cross-posted at Critical Condition]

posted by James C. Capretta | 1:56 pm
Tags: Medicare, doc fix, Paul Krugman, CLASS Act
File As: Health Care

The Repeal Windfall

As November approaches, Obamacare’s defenders are quite plainly desperate. They see public opinion solidly against them, and a devastating election fast approaching. Their latest gambit to protect what was jammed through Congress in March is to claim that repeal would be so costly to the federal budget that it would be impossible to pass, even with overwhelming popular support. That’s the spin some on the left put on a recent letter from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to Senator Mike Crapo.

But unfortunately for these advocates, that’s not what the CBO letter says. CBO’s message to Senator Crapo actually just states what is already obvious: If an effort were made to repeal just the Medicare cuts in the new law, it would, on paper, increase Medicare spending, and thus the federal budget deficit, by about $450 billion over ten years. Moreover, enacting a real “doc fix” to avoid deep and unrealistic cuts in Medicare physician fees will cost another $300 billion or so over the coming decade.

What this communication from CBO actually confirms, however, is that, contrary to White House assertions, Obamacare is a budget buster of the highest order. The claim that it would reduce the budget deficit over the coming decade has always rested on a series of gimmicks, implausible assumptions, and sleights-of-hand that have been exposed repeatedly over the past year, most especially by Congressman Paul Ryan in the presence of President Obama. Among the most egregious deceptions is the double- counting of cuts in Medicare’s reimbursement rates for hospitals and other providers of care — cuts so deep that they would push Medicare’s rates below those paid by Medicaid by the end of the decade. Even if these cuts were realistic — which they aren’t — they can’t both be used to pay for a new entitlement and to improve Medicare’s solvency, as the White House claims. The same money simply can’t be spent twice. Moreover, this money is almost certainly never going to materialize anyway because, as Medicare’s chief actuary has warned repeatedly, they would seriously reduce access to care for seniors by driving hospitals and physicians out of the program. It is all but inevitable, therefore, that Congress will step in at some point to reverse the “cuts,” and probably sooner rather than later. When that happens, it will only confirm what’s already abundantly clear — that these unsustainable payment reductions should never have been allowed to grease the way for a permanent and massively expensive entitlement program.

Indeed, contrary to latest spin from the left, not only would repeal not bust the budget, it would in fact produce a budgetary windfall of such enormous size that it could pay for a sensible reform of American health care and for deficit reduction too.

The centerpiece of Obamacare is the largest expansion of entitlement spending in a generation. CBO estimates that the new law will add 35 million people to the federal government’s health entitlement rolls by decade’s end — and that’s almost certainly a lowball estimate. Gross federal spending for this added entitlement burden, plus various other spending provisions in the bill, is expected to reach $233 billion in 2019 alone, and then grow at a rate of about 7 percent annually every year thereafter. That means Obamacare’s spending will total at least $3.4 trillion over its second decade, on top of the $1.1 trillion it will cost between now and 2019. And it’s likely to be much more than that when more realistic assumptions about employer dumping of coverage are factored into the estimates.

So that’s at least $4.5 trillion in federal spending that would be avoided over the next twenty years if Congress moved ahead with repeal. Even in Washington that’s a lot of money. So much in fact that it should be more than enough to gut Obamacare’s most egregious tax hikes and spending “offsets” while still paying for a sensible reform of American health care that actually cuts costs and covers more people. And even after enacting this kind of “replacement” program, there should still be something left over to put a real dent in the massive deficits projected to occur under the Obama budget plan.

A couple of weeks ago, the left’s message gurus put out the word to Democratic candidates to abandon talk of the supposed cost-cutting that would occur under Obamacare.

They now understand that the public has not, and will not, buy the argument that a government takeover of American health care will somehow lower costs. Americans have long understood that Obamacare is a massive new spending commitment, piled on top of the unaffordable ones already on the federal books. That’s a recipe for financial disaster, not deficit cutting. The solution is repeal coupled with a reform that puts consumers, not the government, in charge of controlling costs. That’s the way to fix health care—and the budget too. And, yes, it can be done.

posted by James C. Capretta | 6:47 pm
Tags: actuary, budget, doc fix, repeal, deficit
File As: Health Care

Obamacare: Impact on Future Generations

I have a column up at Heritage.org today on the health care reform law's supposed budget pressure reduction:

The President and congressional leaders have argued that a primary benefit from the health law will be reduced long-term budget pressure and thus a brighter future for coming generations of taxpayers. But when the cost estimate is adjusted for omissions, gimmicks, double-counting, and unrealistic assumptions, it is clear that the new health law will increase the burden, not lessen it.

One recent estimate projects the bill will add more than $500 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years and $1.5 trillion in the decade following. And any cost-cutting that does occur under the new law will come in the form of arbitrary governmental controls that will put up barriers to care in future years.

Read the whole thing here.

posted by James C. Capretta | 3:02 pm
Tags: Medicare, doc fix, CLASS Act
File As: Health Care

Obamacare’s Cooked Books and the “Doc Fix”

The Obama administration continues to insist (see this post from White House Budget Director Peter Orszag) that the recently enacted health care law will reduce the federal budget deficit by $100 billion over ten years and by ten times that amount in the second decade of implementation. They cite the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate for the final legislation to back their claims.

And it is undeniably true that CBO says the legislation, as written, would reduce the federal budget deficit by $124 billion over ten years from the health-related provisions of the new law.

But that’s not whole story about Obamacare’s budgetary implications — not by a long shot.

For starters, CBO is not the only game in town. In the executive branch, the chief actuary of the Medicare program is supposed to provide the official health care cost projections for the administration — at least he always has in the past. His cost estimate for the new health law differs in important ways from the one provided by CBO and calls into question every major contention the administration has advanced about the bill. The president says the legislation will slow the pace of rising costs; the actuary says it won’t. The president says people will get to keep their job-based plans if they want to; the actuary says 14 million people will lose their employer coverage, many of whom would certainly rather keep it than switch into an untested program. The president says the new law will improve the budget outlook; in so many words, the chief actuary says, don’t bet on it.

All of this helps explain why the president of the United States would be so sensitive about the release of the actuary’s official report that he would dispatch political subordinates to undermine it with the media.

It’s not the chief actuary’s assignment to provide estimates of non-Medicare-related tax provisions, so his cost projections for Obamacare do not capture all of the needed budget data to estimate the full impact on the budget deficit. But it’s possible to back into such a figure by using the Joint Tax Committee’s estimates for the tax provisions missing from the chief actuary’s report. When that is done, $50 billion of deficit reduction found in the CBO report is wiped out.

And that’s before the other gimmicks, double counting, and hidden costs are exposed and removed from the accounting, too.

For instance, this week House and Senate Democratic leaders are rushing to approve a massive budget-busting tax-and-spending bill. Among its many provisions is a three-year Medicare “doc fix,” which will effectively undo the scheduled 21 percent cut in Medicare physician fees set to go into effect in June. CBO says this version of the “doc fix” would add $65 billion to the budget deficit over ten years. The entire bill would pile another $134 billion onto the national debt over the next decade.

If the Obama administration gets its way, this three-year physician-fee fix will eventually get extended again, and also without offsets. Over a full ten-year period, an unfinanced “doc fix” would add $250 to $400 billion to the budget deficit, depending on design and who is doing the cost projection (CBO or the actuary).

Administration officials and their outside enthusiasts (see here) say the Democratic Congress shouldn’t have to find offsets for the “doc fix” because everybody knows a fix needs to be enacted and therefore should go into the baseline. (By the way, the history of the sustainable growth rate [SGR] that Ezra Klein provides at the link above is a misleading one. The SGR was a replacement for a predecessor program that too had run off the rails — the so-called “Volume Performance Standard” enacted by a Democratic Congress in 1989.)

But supporting a “doc fix” is not the same as supporting an unfinanced one on a long-term or permanent basis. Not everybody in Congress is for running up more debt to pay for a permanent repeal of the scheduled fee cuts, which is why such a repeal has never been passed before. In the main, the previous administration and Congresses worked to find ways to prevent Medicare fee cuts while finding offsets to pay for it.

But that’s not the policy of the Obama administration. The truth is the president and his allies in Congress worked overtime to pull together every Medicare cut they could find — nearly $500 billion in all over ten years — and put them into the health law to pay for the massive entitlement expansion they so coveted. They could have used those cuts to pay for the “doc fix” if they had wanted to, as well as for a slightly less expansive health program. But that’s not what they did. That wasn’t their priority. They chose instead to break their agenda into multiple bills, and “pay for” the massive health entitlement (on paper) while claiming they shouldn’t have to find offsets for the “doc fix.” But it doesn’t matter to taxpayers if they enact their agenda in one, two, or ten pieces of legislation. The total cost is still the same. All of the supposed deficit reduction now claimed from the health law is more than wiped out by the Democrats’ insistent march to borrow and spend for Medicare physician fees.

And the games don’t end there. CBO’s cost estimate assumes $70 billion in deficit reduction from the so-called “CLASS Act.” This is the new voluntary long-term care insurance program which hitched a ride on Obamacare because it too created the illusion of deficit reduction. People who sign up for the insurance must pay premiums for at least five years before they are eligible to draw benefits. By definition, then, at start-up and for several years thereafter, there will be a surplus in the program as new entrants pay premiums and very few people draw benefits. That’s the source of the $70 billion “savings.” But the premiums collected in the program’s early years will be needed very soon to pay actual claims. Not only that, but the new insurance program is so poorly designed it too will need a federal bailout. So this is far worse than a benign sleight of hand. The Democrats have created a budgetary monster even as they used misleading estimates to tout their budgetary virtue.

There is much more, of course. CBO’s cost projections don’t reflect the administrative costs required to micromanage the health system from the Department of Health and Human Services. The number of employers looking to dump their workers into subsidized insurance is almost certainly going to be much higher than either CBO or the chief actuary now projects. And the price inflation from the added demand of the newly entitled isn’t factored into any of the official cost projections.

We’ve seen this movie before. When the government creates a new entitlement, politicians lowball the costs to get the law passed, and then blame someone else when program costs soar. Witness Massachusetts. Most Americans are sensible enough to know already that’s what can be expected next with Obamacare.

posted by James C. Capretta | 6:45 pm
Tags: doc fix, CLASS Act, CBO, chief actuary
File As: Health Care

Deficit-Cutting Mythology

For months, one of the primary talking points pushed by the president and his allies in Congress is that their health-care plan would reduce the federal budget deficit substantially, especially during the second decade of the program’s implementation.

This claim has always rested on completely implausible assumptions, gimmicks, and sleight of hand, all of which has already been well exposed by Congressman Paul Ryan and others.

Still, some myths persist and require repeated debunking.

For instance, Ezra Klein and others say the health-care bill shouldn’t be assessed the $371 billion in ten-year costs associated with the so-called “doc fix” because everyone knows the money is going to be spent anyway. Under current law, Medicare physician fees are being cut 21 percent from last year’s level, which neither party supports. Of course, there are more and less expensive ways to reform the Medicare physician fee schedule; there is some discretion there. But the real point is that the Democrats want to spend the money on physician fees without an offset, on a permanent basis. That is new. That’s not how the Bush administration and Congress approached the problem in the past. In previous years, Congress struggled to find the offsets to pay for year-by-year fixes, and not always successfully. But because they could never agree on acceptable offsets for a longer-term plan, they never attempted to pass one. They weren’t going to simply add all of the costs of higher physician fees to the annual federal budget deficit in perpetuity.

But that’s exactly what the Obama administration and its congressional allies want to do. They are increasing the cost of Medicare (through the doc fix) at the same time that they are cutting Medicare (reducing the payment-rate increases and cutting Medicare Advantage), but since they are just adding the cost of the doc fix to the budget deficit, they can claim all the Medicare cuts as savings scraped together to pay for the massive entitlement expansion included in the health bill. If they succeed with this approach, the effect will be to dramatically increase the nation’s budget deficits and debt. Indeed, the increase in deficit spending from higher Medicare physician fees is more than three times the claimed deficit reduction from the entire health bill over the next decade.

Beyond ten years, Democratic claims of substantial deficit reduction from the health bill have rested entirely on two provisions.

First, there’s the “Cadillac tax.” In the Senate-passed bill, the tax takes effect in 2014, and the threshold used to determine what constitutes “high-cost” would rise annually at a rate well below expected medical inflation. Consequently, as the years passed, more and more Americans would find themselves in plans considered “high-cost.” In time, virtually the entire middle class would get hit by the tax.

But, as we now know, the president and his Democratic allies never really had the stomach to impose this tax themselves. Under union pressure, they have promised to delay it until at least 2018, well beyond the point when the president will have left office. But the White House and congressional leaders still want to claim credit for all of the revenue that would occur beyond 2019 if by some chance a future president and a future Congress are more willing than they are to impose this tax.

The other key provision for claims of long-term deficit cutting is the permanent annual reduction in the payment-rate increase for hospitals and other facilities from the Medicare program. Under current law, hospitals get an increase each year in what they are paid for certain services based on rising input costs. The Democrats are planning to cut the inflation increase every year by half a percentage point. Over time, the compounding effect of an annual cut of this size would be very large. But the chief actuary of the program has warned repeatedly that it is unrealistic. Despite all of the claims of “delivery system reform” and painless weeding out of inefficient care, this arbitrary cut is business-as-usual. There’s no effort to calibrate payments based on performance or how well patients are treated. Its across-the-board cuts for everybody. And the chief actuary says, if implemented, one in five facilities would be pushed into serious financial distress.

The hypocrisy is stunning. Even as the Democrats want to wave a magic wand and pass a $371 billion “doc fix” to undo a previously-enacted arbitrary cut in payment rates, they now want to impose another one and use the supposed savings to grease the way for the largest entitlement expansion in a generation.

All of this scheming and maneuvering is catching up with them. The Washington Post reports today that CBO now says the latest version of the Democratic plan will no longer cut the deficit as the Democrats have claimed. That’s not surprising. To buy votes, they are upping the subsidies in the exchanges, expanding the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, delaying the Cadillac tax, and buying off countless members with other assorted and unseen deals (where are the C-SPAN cameras when you really need them?). Little wonder that even their phony deficit-reduction claims have now evaporated.

But the game is not over. Even now, they are going back to CBO with another bag full of tricks. They will never actually impose any sort of real budget discipline, of course. That would cost them votes. But no gimmick is too shameless for them; they will do anything if allows them to claim that enactment of another runaway entitlement program will actually improve our long-term budget outlook.

Fortunately, the public is not buying it. The American people see through the smokescreen. They know full well that Congress wants to put in place another unfinanced and expensive entitlement program, even as the federal government is piling up debt at a record pace. Which is why they are telling their elected representatives in every way they can to stop the madness already — and start over.

posted by James C. Capretta | 2:52 pm
Tags: Ezra Klein, Paul Ryan, doc fix, Medicare, Medicare Advantage, payment-rate increases, Cadillac tax, CBO
File As: Health Care