About the Author

James C. Capretta

James C. Capretta

New Atlantis Contributing Editor James C. Capretta is an expert on health care and entitlement policy, with years of experience in both the executive and legislative branches of government. E-mail: jcapretta@aei.org.


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James C. Capretta’s Latest New Atlantis Articles

 Health Care with a Conscience” (Fall 2008) 

 Health Care 2008: A Political Primer” (Spring 2008) 

 The Clipboard of the Future” (Winter 2008)

 

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Text Patterns - by Alan JacobsFuturisms - Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Introducing ObamaCareWatch.org 

I am pleased to announce the launch this week of what I hope will be an important new resource in the debate over the future of American health care: ObamaCareWatch.org.

Yesterday, the Obama administration embarked on an ambitious effort to again “sell” the new health law to a skeptical public by highlighting the supposed benefits of it in speeches, mailers, and planned advertising campaigns.

ObamaCareWatch.org is aimed at setting the record straight with facts. It will provide, in one convenient and searchable website, all of the most important research, analysis, news, and commentary related to the new health law. Proponents of the new law have claimed that it will produce many positive results for the country. When the new law instead produces precisely the opposite results of what was promised, ObamaCareWatch.org will make that information available to ordinary Americans so they can hold those who sponsored and passed it accountable for what they have done.

ObamaCareWatch.org is sponsored by economics21, an excellent new research institute dedicated to promoting sound economic policies in a rapidly changing global economy. I am pleased to be serving as the project’s director, even as I continue in my role as a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and as a contributing editor to The New Atlantis.

Please go to the new website regularly, spread the word to those who might benefit from visiting it, and sign up for the weekly “ebrief” to get periodic updates with all of the latest information and developments.

posted by James C. Capretta | 6:23 pm
Tags: ObamaCareWatch.org
File As: Health Care

Friday, June 4, 2010

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

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

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

Monday, May 24, 2010

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

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Canary in Europe’s Coal Mine 

In the very short term, Europe may be able to weather the Greek debt crisis and cobble together a program that buys time, stems contagion, and avoids a precipitous downward spiral. That is not at all assured, of course. Indeed, it may in fact be unlikely, given the size of the hole that Greece now needs to fill under the IMF-EU bailout package and the nervousness of lenders and investors. The “austerity” program calls for fiscal consolidation (or deficit reduction) by the Greek government equal to 11 percent of GDP in 2010, 4.3 percent in 2011, and 2 percent in 2012 and 2013. Economists expect these cuts will push the country into recession, which will almost certainly exacerbate the social unrest on display in recent days. And even if Greece complies, debt would still hit nearly 150 percent of GDP in about three years before stabilizing thereafter. It’s hard to see this all playing out smoothly.

But even if matters do work out well over the coming weeks and months, what’s happening in Greece is almost certainly an early sign that Europe’s long-in-coming day of reckoning is now at hand.

Yes, Greece is an outlier. Its debt is higher than elsewhere in the eurozone. More taxes seem to go uncollected there than just about anyplace else. And the state apparatus looks to be almost beyond belief in terms of its size and drag on the economy.

But the most debilitating disease afflicting Greece is also present in every other western European country. They all have more and more people living off of an expansive social welfare structure, even as their workforce is aging, shrinking, and losing ground to global competitors.

A couple of years ago, the European Commission (EC) looked at the implications of population aging on public expenditures and economic growth in the EU member states. That study found that the working-age population in the EU countries will peak in 2011, and contract rather substantially thereafter.

GDP growth is a function of the changing size of a nation’s workforce, and its productive capacity. According to the EC’s projections, the EU’s working-age population grew at an average rate of 0.9 percent per year from 2004 to 2010, thus boosting overall GDP growth. But beginning in this decade, the workforce is going to contract, slowing GDP growth by an average of 0.1 percent every year through 2030. In other words, the shift from an expanding to a contracting workforce is worth about a 1.0 percentage point drop in GDP every year.

Meanwhile, the cost of the European welfare state is set to rise dramatically with population aging. The EC projected that pension and health costs will rise about 2.4 percent of EU-wide GDP from 2004 to 2030.

To survive the demographic tidal wave coming their way, European governments should have been running large primary budget surpluses in the years when their workforces were still growing and paying taxes. But most did not.Now, their choices are far less attractive. If lenders won’t finance their welfare states at preferential rates, European governments will have no choice but to impose even higher taxes on the shrinking number of workers who continue to produce goods and services, or ask those no longer working to cut their consumption dramatically. Either way, it’s a politician’s nightmare.

Which is why it’s hard to blame existing lenders to Europe’s most leveraged countries for becoming increasingly nervous that they could be the ones left holding the bag.

posted by James C. Capretta | 11:31 am
Tags: debt crisis, welfare state, aging demographics, Europe

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Independent Payment Advisory Board and Health Care Price Controls 

I have a column up today at Kaiser Health News on the new Independent Payment Advisory Board created in the recently passed health legislation. Here's an excerpt:

....the [Independent Payment Advisory Board] — a 15 member independent panel, to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate — is now charged with enforcing an upper limit on annual Medicare spending growth. That’s right: Medicare spending is now officially capped. Even most people who follow health policy closely don’t seem to know this. Perhaps it’s just too hard to believe that a Democratic Congress, prodded by a Democratic president, actually voted to cap spending for a cherished entitlement.

But make no mistake: Beginning in 2015, Medicare spending is now supposed to be limited, on a per capita basis, to a fixed growth rate, initially set at a mix of general inflation in the economy and inflation in the health sector. Starting in 2018, the upper limit is set permanently at per capita gross domestic product growth plus one percentage point.

One might be tempted to think this is an area of the legislation which should have gotten some bipartisan support. After all, in the past, it’s the Republicans who have pushed for these kinds of caps on entitlement costs, with Democrats fighting them every step of the way. Conservatives know that if they are to have any hope of fighting off a major tax increase to close the nation’s budget gap, Medicare spending growth has to be slowed, and soon.

But the IPAB provision is actually an indicator of why there is a great divide in American health policy. To hit its budgetary targets, the IPAB is strictly limited in what it can recommend and implement. It can’t change cost-sharing for covered Medicare services. Indeed, it can’t change the nature of the Medicare entitlement at all, or any aspect of the beneficiary’s relationship to the program. The only thing it can do is cut Medicare payment rates for those providing services to the beneficiaries.

This wasn’t an accident. It reflects the cost-control vision of those who wrote the bill. They believe the way to cut health care costs is with stronger federal payment controls. They envision the IPAB coming up with new payment models which will push hospitals and physicians to emulate today’s most efficient delivery models. Call it “government-driven managed care.”

Read the full column here.

posted by James C. Capretta | 4:35 pm
Tags: IPAB, Medicare, entitlements, Obamacare
File As: Health Care

Thursday, April 29, 2010

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

Friday, April 23, 2010

Where’s the Administration’s Cost Estimate? 

The latest numbers from the Medicare actuary puncture the health care spin

Yesterday, the chief actuary for Medicare released a memorandum providing cost estimates for the final health legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president.

Amazingly, the HHS Secretary tried to suggest that the memo confirms that the legislation will produce the favorable results that the legislation’s backers have touted for months.

That’s nothing but spin. In truth, the memo is another devastating indictment of the bill. It contradicts several key assertions by made by the bill’s proponents, including the president.

For starters, the actuary says that the legislation will increase health care costs, not reduce them — by about $300 billion over a decade. Yes, that’s over a very large base of spending (more than $35 trillion). But the president and his team have talked incessantly of painlessly cutting $700 billion or more of wasteful spending. Nothing in the bill comes close to making that happen. Overall health spending will continue to rise very rapidly after the bill is implemented.

The actuary also says that the financial incentives in the bill will lead many employers to stop offering coverage altogether. That means about 14 million people with job-based insurance today will lose it. Moreover, he estimates that the cuts in Medicare Advantage will reduce enrollment by 7 million people. So much for keeping the Democrats’ other mantra of “keeping the coverage you have today.”

The memo says the Medicare cuts will total nearly $600 billion through 2019, and that they will almost certainly jeopardize access to care for seniors by driving scores of institutions into financial distress.

Employers will pay taxes totaling $87 billion over a decade for not offering qualified coverage, and individuals who don’t sign up with approved insurance will pay another $33 billion in fines over the same period.

The various taxes and fees on insurers and producers of drugs and devices will largely get passed on to consumers, says the memo. In other words, these taxes will hit the middle class hard and drive their premiums up, not down.

The actuary says the new long-term care insurance program created in the bill faces “a significant risk of failure” due to adverse selection — meaning that the program will attract the kind of enrollment that will require higher costs than can be covered by the premiums collected. That, however, did not stop the Democrats from double-counting the program’s $70 billion in premiums as an offset for the massive health entitlement program. So not only did the bill use a budget gimmick to hide the costs of the health expansion, it also set taxpayers up for another bailout when the long-term care program runs aground.

By longstanding practice, the administration uses the health care cost estimates produced by the chief actuary when putting together the president’s annual budget submission in February and an update in mid-summer.

But the estimates that the actuary has produced for the health bill so clearly contradict what the president has said the bill will do that the administration is in an awkward position, to say the least. So awkward in fact that the administration has stamped every memo put out by the actuary during the entire health debate with this disclaimer: “The statements, estimates, and other information provided in this memorandum are those of the Office of the Actuary and do not represent an official position of the Department of Health and Human Services or the Administration.”

Which raises the question: If the actuary isn’t producing the administration’s health care cost projections, who is?

posted by James C. Capretta | 8:00 pm
Tags: chief actuary, costs, adverse selection, spin
File As: Health Care

Friday, April 16, 2010

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

Friday, April 9, 2010

Lessons of the Massachusetts Experiment 

In a new column for Kaiser Health News, I ask what the Massachusetts health reforms of 2007 might warn us about what to expect from the new national reform:

The president himself has said that the national plan contains many of the features of the Massachusetts program, now operating in its third year. He is right. There are striking similarities between the reform plans, which is why what’s happening in Massachusetts today is very instructive....

After three years, no real progress has been made on rising costs. The program remains well over budget, with no end in sight. Further, state residents who now must buy state-sanctioned coverage are bristling at their rising premiums and the inability to find coverage which covers less and thus costs less.

State politicians are responding to the cost crisis the only way they know how: by promising to impose arbitrary caps on premiums and price controls for medical services. The governor and state regulators have disallowed 90 percent of the premium increases insurers — all of whom are not-for-profit — submitted for their enrollees for the upcoming plan year. The state says premium increases above eight percent are too high and unacceptable, though they themselves don’t have a plan to make health care more efficient in Massachusetts. They just want lower premiums. The insurers have responded by refusing to sell any coverage at the rates the state wants to impose.

The way out of this stand-off is predictable: more price controls. To hold premiums down, Massachusetts officials are already laying the groundwork to impose government-set payment rate schedules for services beyond the realm of public insurance.

The risk of cost overruns is even higher at the federal level than in Massachusetts....

You can read the whole thing here.

posted by James C. Capretta | 10:54 am
Tags: Massachusetts, costs, price controls
File As: Health Care

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