Doug Elmendorf


The House Bill: A $10 Trillion Unfunded Liability

Amid all the flurry of news in the hectic last days before the House recessed for the August break, something important went largely unnoticed — a development that should be the knockout blow to the kind of sweeping health-care bill the Obama administration is pushing, at least as it has been cobbled together in the House.

In a July 26 letter to the Ranking Republicans on four key committees (Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Education and Labor, and Budget), the Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Doug Elmendorf, made it clearer than he ever had before that the bill, in its original July 14 form, would dramatically widen the already large gap between long-term government revenue and spending. Here’s the key paragraph:

Looking ahead to the decade beyond 2019, CBO tries to evaluate the rate at which the budgetary impact of each of those broad categories would be likely to change over time. The net cost of the coverage provisions would be growing at a rate of more than 8 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; we would anticipate a similar trend in the subsequent decade. The reductions in direct spending would also be larger in the second decade than in the first, and they would represent an increasing share of spending on Medicare over that period; however, they would be much smaller at the end of the 10-year budget window than the cost of the coverage provisions, so they would not be likely to keep pace in dollar terms with the rising cost of the coverage expansion. Revenue from the surcharge on high-income individuals would be growing at about 5 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; that component would continue to grow at a slower rate than the cost of the coverage expansion in the following decade. In sum, relative to current law, the proposal would probably generate substantial increases in federal budget deficits during the decade beyond the current 10-year budget window.

In other words, CBO expects the spending in the bill would grow at a rate of least 8 percent annually into the indefinite future, while the revenue to pay for it will only grow at about 5 per cent per year. Hence the “substantial increases” in federal budget deficits beyond 2019.

Although CBO declined to specify any actual deficit numbers beyond 2019, they can be easily calculated, in rough terms, from the information provided in Elmendorf’s letter.

By 2030, if the spending associated with the coverage provisions rises 8 percent per year after 2019 and the revenue rises by 5 percent, the bill would add more than $200 billion per year to currently projected budget deficits. By 2048, the annual deficit increase would top $1 trillion — and only go up from there.

Of course, the federal government is already in a deep hole due to the projected rapid cost increases in Social Security and Medicare. The trustees for those programs reported earlier this year (see here and here) that Social Security’s seventy-five year unfunded liability stands at $5 trillion, while Medicare’s has reached at an astounding $36 trillion.

It is possible to do a similar “unfunded liability” calculation for the new entitlement spending in the House bill. Assuming a discount rate of 5.7 percent per year, the bill would add more than $10 trillion over seventy-five years in new unfunded government obligations.

Of course, some amendments were adopted to assuage the Blue Dogs in the Energy and Commerce Committee. The fate of those amendments is uncertain at best, however, as Speaker Pelosi has indicated the contents of the yet-to-be-written merged bill from the three committees will be decided later (to attract votes of course). But even if the Blue Dog amendments survive, they would do very little to change the basic direction of the bill’s long-term costs.

CBO recently projected that the federal budget deficit is already on track to reach nearly 15 percent of GDP in 2035, well above the historical average of about 2 to 2.5 percent. The last thing Congress should be doing is making the problem worse with new runaway costs. Indeed, the president himself has said he won’t accept a bill that makes our long-term budget problem worse. How he squares that with full support for the emerging House bill is anybody’s guess.

posted by James C. Capretta | 5:44 pm
Tags: House bill, projected costs, Doug Elmendorf, CBO, spending, deficit, Medicare, social security, Blue Dogs, Nancy Pelosi
File As: Health Care

The Prognosis for ObamaCare

The House bill would add $239 billion to the federal budget deficit over the coming decade, according to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections. That’s bad enough, coming as it would on top of the $11 trillion in deficits that are already expected to occur over the period 2009 to 2019 under the Obama budget plan.

But that’s really just the beginning of it.

Yesterday, CBO confirmed that the House bill would do even more fiscal damage in its second ten years. Here’s the crucial paragraph, from a letter sent by CBO director Doug Elmendorf to the four Ranking Republicans on the key House committees:

The net cost of the coverage provisions would be growing at a rate of more than 8 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; we would anticipate a similar trend in the subsequent decade. The reductions in direct spending would also be larger in the second decade than in the first, and they would represent an increasing share of spending on Medicare over that period; however, they would be much smaller at the end of the 10-year budget window than the cost of the coverage provisions, so they would not be likely to keep pace in dollar terms with the rising cost of the coverage expansion. Revenue from the surcharge on high-income individuals would be growing at about 5 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; that component would continue to grow at a slower rate than the cost of the coverage expansion in the following decade. In sum, relative to current law, the proposal would probably generate substantial increases in federal budget deficits during the decade beyond the current 10-year-budget window.

That really should do it. The Blue Dogs are in this fight, in part, because of their stated concerns over growing budget deficits and unaffordable entitlements. The president reiterated again last week that he is determined to sign a bill that slows the pace of rising costs and improves our long-term fiscal outlook.

Well, here’s a bill that would go in exactly the opposite direction from what the authors say is their objective, according to CBO. It would add a third runaway health care entitlement program to the two already on the books (Medicare and Medicaid) with no prospect in sight that spending on any of them will ever come in line with the government’s revenue base. A back-of-the-envelope estimate indicates the House bill would run up a cumulative federal budget deficit of at least $700 billion in its second ten years, and possibly much more. That’s on top of budget deficits that are already unsustainable and that will put the American economy at considerable risk of crippling interest rates or hyper-inflation.

This is not a close call. The Democrats have no choice. For the sake of the country, they have to go back to the drawing board and work with Republicans on something much more sensible.

[To read the NRO symposium on ObamaCare in which this post originally appeared, with Newt Gingrich, David Gratzer, and Amy Menefee, click here.]

posted by James C. Capretta | 12:50 pm
Tags: CBO, deficit, ObamaCare, House Bill, Doug Elmendorf, Blue Dogs, projected costs
File As: Health Care

Who Would Pay the Kerry-Baucus-Obama Tax on Insurance?

The desperate search continues.

Shortly after the July 4th congressional recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid effectively killed the idea of placing a cap on the amount of employer-paid premiums that can be paid on behalf of a worker and still remain tax free. Unions have always been vehemently opposed to any limitation on the tax-preferred status of job-based plans, and imposition of a dollar cap on tax free employer-paid premiums would also have violated President Obama’s already shaky promise (see the House-passed “cap and tax” bill) to not raise taxes on households with incomes below $250,000 per year.

Senator Reid’s firm opposition sent Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus back to the drawing board. He had been counting on the $320 billion raised over a decade from the “tax cap” idea to partially pay for his reform plan. He has now spent the better part of two weeks rummaging around for ideas that can plug the $300 billion hole in a politically safe way that also unites all Democrats on the committee and a Republican or two. Let’s just say it’s not likely to be a very long list.

Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Doug Elmendorf complicated matters further with his assessment of the bills under consideration in the House and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Elmendorf told the Senate Budget Committee last week that these bills don’t go nearly far enough to change the financial incentives which are driving up costs. He also noted that an important way to emphasize cost control would be to put into the bills a limitation on the tax-preferred status of expensive job-based plans — exactly the idea which Senator Reid had rejected only days before. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that the one reform with the most potential to instill some much-needed financial discipline into the health sector without overbearing governmental regulation is also the one change senior congressional Democrats most vigorously oppose.

Which brings us to the idea du jour. In private negotiating sessions taking place in the Finance Committee, Senator John Kerry has apparently floated an alternative taxation idea. Why not tax the insurance companies which are selling expensive policies instead of taxing the job-based benefits of workers?

Sounds great, right? A tax on for-profit health insurers. Really, what’s not to like?

As is often the case in Washington, this is not a new idea either. It was proposed by Senator Bill Bradley during the debate on the Clinton health care plan in 1994 for the very same reasons it is being considered today. It has superficial political appeal — for a day or two. No one likes insurers anyway. Perhaps unions and the broader public can go along with a tax that seemingly hits distant and despised companies and not them. And maybe the CBO Director will look as favorably on this kind of tax in terms of potential cost-control as he does the traditional “tax cap” idea.

But, of course, the reason why a tax on insurance might actually have a beneficial impact on the pace of rising health care costs is that insurers will never pay it.

For starters, such a tax couldn’t be structured to apply only to insurance companies. Many employers, especially large ones, self-insure rather than purchase insurance for their workers directly from other companies. To raise any significant revenue at all, and to treat all health insurance equally, the Kerry-Baucus-Obama insurance tax would have to apply to self-insuring employers too. That fact, by itself, is likely to reduce its political appeal in coming days.

Furthermore, no insurer or employer will pay a new tax on insurance and simply reduce their profits by a like amount. If the federal government imposes such a tax, insurers and employers who would otherwise have to pay it will make adjustments to their plans and products to bring costs down and avoid the tax. That’s the point, anyway, even according to the proponents. But that means higher deductibles for the plan’s enrollees. More cost-sharing when patients see their physicians or fill prescriptions. More restrictive networks of preferred providers. There’s no way around the fact that it’s the plan’s enrollees who will pay more, not the insurers or the employers.

Of course, in a competitive labor market, if employers cut their health costs, they can pay their workers more in cash wages, and that’s what CBO is very likely to assume would occur with the Kerry-Baucus-Obama tax. That means a substitution of taxable wages for tax-free fringe benefits. Federal tax collections will indeed go up, but it's workers who will be paying more, even as they get less expansive health insurance. Indeed, there is no way around the fact that any effort to get Americans into less expensive insurance will increase costs for the middle class, and that’s exactly what would happen with this proposal too.

But that won’t stop Senate Democrats from trying to have it both ways. They want CBO to give them credit for adopting incentives for large-scale enrollment in less expensive health insurance, even as they also proclaim that no middle class family will pay more taxes or more for health care either. That contention — that they have somehow found the health-care free lunch — won't stand up to even modest scrutiny. Indeed, that’s why the Bradley tax didn’t break the logjam in 1994. No one was fooled. And they won't be this time either.

posted by James C. Capretta | 5:22 pm
Tags: Harry Reid, cap and tax, Max Baucus, CBO, Doug Elmendorf, HELP, insurance tax, ClintonCare, tax cap
File As: Health Care

On-the-Fly Audacity

Yesterday, the Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) did everyone a favor and spoke some serious truth to power: The health care bills under consideration in Congress will make our long-term budget outlook worse, not better, Elmendorf said, and that would be very bad for our economic future.

Elmendorf’s assessment, welcome as it certainly was, shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, especially the Democratic authors of the bills now under consideration. They more than anyone else should know that the bills moving through their committees would add massive new entitlement spending to the federal budget while making only the most marginal of changes to the prevailing financial incentives which are pushing costs up rapidly every year. What did they think Elmendorf would say?

Still, Elmendorf’s assessment seems to have caught some Democrats by surprise, starting with the president. Just days earlier he told a gathering of skeptical Blue Dog Democrats that they should get behind the House bill because it would deliver savings beyond the ten-year window. That wasn’t a credible assertion even then (see this post from Tuesday), but, in the wake of Elmendorf’s testimony, it really has no standing.

So what’s the administration next move? Desperate times apparently call for some serious audacity.

Today, the Obama administration delivered one of the more remarkable presidential power grabs seen in recent memory (the transmittal letter is here, and a section-by-section description of the proposal is available here).

The president has decided — just days before the deadline he himself set for passage of health care bills in both chambers of Congress — that he wants to create a new and very powerful executive branch agency, the Independent Medicare Advisory Council (IMAC), which would be accountable only to him and have the authority to re-write the Medicare program from top to bottom by executive memo. Now that’s audacious.

The council would be made up of five members, all selected by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The president could fire any one of them for cause. They would have two jobs. First, each year, the council would make recommendations to the president regarding inflation updates to Medicare’s payment rates for hospitals, doctors, and other suppliers of services. Those recommendations, if approved by the president, would automatically go into effect in thirty days unless Congress passed a resolution disapproving them — which the president would also have to sign into law. Of course, if the president approved the council’s original package of recommendations, it is unlikely he would sign a congressional disapproval resolution overturning them. So, as a practical matter, the proposal would force Congress to find a two-thirds supermajority to stop presidentially-approved IMAC recommendations from going into effect.

That would be a remarkable shift of power on its own, but the president’s proposal doesn’t stop there. Not only would the council make recommendations on payment updates, it would also have the authority to propose other “Medicare reforms” which would go into effect unless Congress could muster veto override majorities in opposition. What are “Medicare reforms”? From the write-up, it seems they could be just about anything. Changes in beneficiary cost-sharing. New rules for establishing qualified hospitals and doctors. Penalties for physicians who don’t follow government guidelines. Pretty much anything except for the payroll tax and premium structure. The only parameters are that the “reforms” must improve the quality of medical care and the efficiency of Medicare operations.

The administration is touting this as a belated cost-control idea. It’s not. By itself, it doesn’t change anything, as there are no hard targets that must be hit. So it doesn’t answer the Elmendorf critique that the bills now moving in Congress, even if such a provision were added to them, don’t bend the cost-curve of governmental health spending.

Still, the fact that the administration is pushing this bill at all speaks volumes. Here’s a Democratic president telling a Democratic Congress that it can’t be trusted to run Medicare anymore. That’s stunning, especially so because Democrats, including the president, are working feverishly to exert additional governmental control over health insurance for working age Americans. If Congress can’t run Medicare well, what possible rationale is there for standing up another government-run insurance plan?

Nonetheless, the audacity is something to behold. Certainly unilateral executive branch authority to re-write entitlement programs from scratch would have come in awful handy during the Reagan and Bush years. But that may dawn on others as well. Like Medicare beneficiaries, physicians, hospitals, labs, nursing homes, and, of course, House and Senate members too. Good luck, Mr. President.

posted by James C. Capretta | 11:55 am
Tags: CBO, Doug Elmendorf, Blue Dogs, House bill, IMAC, Medicare, cost control
File As: Health Care

The Presidentís Reckless and False Health Care Claim

It’s now a clear pattern. When the president senses his position is vulnerable to a factual criticism, he asserts emphatically that the opposite is true — without ever providing evidence to back up his claim.

Here’s the latest example. According to Politico, President Obama told skeptical Blue Dog Democrats last evening that they should support the health care bill emerging in the House because it would produce savings beyond the ten-year budget window.

Oh really. Says who?

The context here is crucial. It’s already abundantly clear that the federal government cannot afford its existing health care commitments. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently projected that Medicare and Medicaid costs will nearly double in twenty-five years, from 5.3 percent of GDP today to 10.0 percent in 2035 (this assumes continuation of current policy with regard to physician fee updates). The Medicare Trustees projected in May that the program’s 75-year unfunded liability has reached $36 trillion.

Moreover, the federal government is projected to run massive budget deficits for the foreseeable future. In 2009, the government has already run up a deficit of $1 trillion through June, and it could reach $2 trillion before it’s over at the end of September. CBO expects the Obama budget plan would increase the government’s debt by $11 trillion from the end of 2008 to the end of 2019. Running up government debt at that kind of pace would put the nation’s economy at considerable risk, to put it mildly. At some point, lenders would demand higher returns for their lending, pushing interest rates up and choking off growth, or the Fed would partially monetize the debt with even easier money and rapid inflation.

It is in this context that Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are trying to rush health care bills to their respective floors for consideration before the August congressional break.

The centerpieces of the bills are the creation of a new, massive entitlement to health insurance subsidization and a large expansion in Medicaid eligibility. The House bill, unveiled today and available here, would add $1.2 trillion in federal costs over a decade with just these two expansions, according to CBO. And the trend is even more alarming. Between 2018 and 2019, federal costs for the new entitlement and the enlargement of Medicaid would increase by a combined 8.9 percent.

That shouldn’t be surprising though, because that’s basically the rate at which Medicare and Medicaid have been growing for more than four decades. And there’s nothing in the House or Senate health care bills which would lead one to assume a new health entitlement program will grow at a more moderate pace in the future than the ones already on the books have done in the past. CBO has said repeatedly that slowing the pace of rising costs will require a fundamental restructuring of financial incentives, for consumers and suppliers of medical services. Nothing currently on the table in Congress comes close to meeting that test.

That was essentially the message CBO delivered to members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension committee last week. In response to a question from Sen. Judd Gregg, CBO Director Doug Elmendorf said a bill which simply expanded coverage without fundamental reform “puts an additional long-term burden on top of an already unsustainable path” (Elmendorf’s testimony can be seen here, with his response to Senator Gregg at the 1 hour, 38 minute mark).

Moreover, it seems that President Obama’s own budget director agrees with CBO. Last week, Peter Orszag delivered a letter to House leaders saying their bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to slow the pace of rising costs. But even that didn’t stop the president from saying otherwise in his desperate attempt to round up votes.

The federal government’s budget is already knee-deep in debt, largely because politicians have promised that better days ahead will make all budgetary problems go away. They haven’t, and the current president is making the situation much worse. The last thing any member of Congress should do is simply take the president’s word for it that the health care bills under consideration will ultimately “bend the cost-curve.” If he really believes that — because no one else really does — he should provide some hard evidence to back up his claim. And that’s not a theoretical possibility. He could ask his independent projection experts — not his political appointees — to provide directly to Congress and the public, without review by anyone else, their best estimates of what these bills would do to the long-term (25- or 50-year) budget outlook. Those estimates would be taken much more seriously than unsubstantiated assertions which run against commonsense and all evidence.

posted by James C. Capretta | 9:11 am
Tags: ObamaCare, Blue Dogs, House bill, CBO, projected costs, deficit, HELP, Doug Elmendorf, Peter Orszag, cost-curve
File As: Health Care

Let the Unraveling Begin

The Obama administration has been desperately trying to create a sense of momentum around its health-care push, which is why it is touting the latest “deal” with hospital associations so heavily.

But there are clear signs that Congressional Democrats and the Obama White House have steered the health-care effort into seriously choppy political waters.

Consider:

  1. Yesterday, Senate Democratic leaders all but rejected Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’s months-long effort to impose a limit on the tax preference for employer-paid premiums as a way to pay for his reform plan. Media reports indicate he was hoping to generate $340 billion from such a tax to pay for his plan, but that looks highly unlikely now. House leaders were never much interested in the idea, given the adamant opposition of organized labor, and won’t include it in their bill. Revising the tax treatment of job-based insurance was the one potential “reform” with some potential for bipartisan appeal, as it could, under the right circumstances, encourage more cost-conscious consumption of health care. Senator Baucus had been planning to take up consideration of his bill — with the tax on benefits in it — in his committee next week. Where is he going to find a politically palatable $300 billion in a matter of days, let alone one that can also appeal to committee Republicans?
     
  2. Party activists pushed Congressional Democrats over the July 4th recess to write a bill reflecting long-standing party goals — which means government-run insurance and near-total government control. This push has made the chances for bipartisan compromise — already remote — even less likely. In response to the pressure, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Senator Baucus that he is not authorized to cut any deals with Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, which would bind the rest of the Democratic caucus. Senate Democrats have now committed themselves to including a muscular, government-run insurance option in the bill — which is, rightfully, a deal-breaker for the vast majority of Republicans. Indeed, at this point, it is hard to see why Senator Grassley or any other Republican senator would continue to negotiate with Senator Baucus or Senator Reid at all, as it is beyond obvious that Congressional Democrats are only interested in Grassley’s views until they can get a bill off the Senate floor — and even then, they are not interested in true bipartisanship but only enough to get two or three Republican votes.
     
  3. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Doug Elmendorf explained in a letter to Sen. Judd Gregg that adding Medicaid coverage for persons with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line to the Kennedy-Dodd legislation under consideration in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) would increase the cost of that bill by around $500 billion. That would put the total cost of the bill at about $1.1 trillion, but it is likely to go even higher because states will balk at picking up their part of the tab for the new Medicaid coverage. Thus, when all of the details are finally in the bill, the Kennedy-Dodd plan is likely to cost close to $1.5 trillion over a decade. But even with this massive expenditure, Elmendorf predicted there would still be 15 to 20 million uninsured Americans.
     
  4. In testimony before the HELP Committee today, Elmendorf said this about the Kennedy-Dodd proposal: “This bill will add substantially to the long-term spending burden for health care on the federal government.” Recall that President Obama pledged to oppose any bill that does not — eventually — “bend the cost-curve” and reduces the government’s long-term cost burden.
     
  5. Rumors are circulating that House leaders are apparently considering a trifecta of popular “pay fors”: $500 to $600 billion in Medicare cuts, a new surtax for households making more than $250,000 per year, and $350 billion in funding from the so-called “pay or pay” employer mandate — while unemployment heads toward 10 percent. All of these proposals are going to generate substantial controversy and opposition, to put it mildly. The surtax would come on top of the Obama administration’s plan to let the Bush tax cuts expire for upper-income households, which would increase the top rate from 35 to 39.6 percent. A new, three-percentage point surtax, for instance, would push the top income tax rate to 42.6 percent — a rate not seen in more than two decades.
     
  6. Oh, and those momentum-generating “deals” with PhRMA and the hospital associations — turns out they aren’t deals after all. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said today that neither he nor the White House is bound by them, and a White House official agreed. Moreover, it remains unclear how much federal savings they will generate anyway, as they have not yet been assessed by CBO. So what do the deals signify exactly?

The Obama White House and its congressional allies have built expectations among their core supporters that this is the year to pass a government takeover of American health care. With expectations set so high, most elected Democrats have concluded they have no choice but to set out on a forced march to try to do exactly that — despite unified Republican opposition. But a partisan bill means that Democrats own all of the messy and unattractive details too. The debate is no longer about vague concepts of “coverage” and “cost-control” but who pays and who is forced out of their job-based plans. The more people learn about these details, the less they will like them —which is why the Democratic committee chairmen are working desperately to shorten the time between a full public airing and a vote. They’re hoping there won’t be enough time for public opposition to put a halt to the proceedings.

posted by James C. Capretta | 5:40 pm
Tags: ObamaCare, House bill, Max Baucus, Harry Reid, Charles Grassley, CBO, Doug Elmendorf, HELP, cost-curve, mandate, pay or play, Henry Waxman
File As: Health Care