As a candidate, Barack Obama promised an audacious presidency. If nothing else, he’s delivering on that.
For a year now, the president has argued that the health-care bill he is pushing will “bend the cost-curve.” Of course, his own Chief Actuary of the Medicare program — the man charged with actually running the numbers for the administration — has said repeatedly that there’s no curve-bending going on in the bills being written in Congress. His estimates show both the House and Senate-passed versions of Obamacare would increase overall health-care costs, not decrease them (see here and here). And that’s assuming all of the implausible assumptions written into the bills actually pan out, which they won’t.
But no matter. The president and his team have continued to press the argument nonetheless, citing in particular provisions in the Senate-passed bill that they believe will do the trick.
Among the most cited “game changers” is the so-called “high-cost insurance tax” — which was the subject of yesterday’s day-long, backroom deal-making in the White House. As passed by the Senate, the new 40 percent excise tax would apply to any insurance plan, including those sponsored by employers, with premiums exceeding $23,000 for family coverage and $8,500 for policies sold to individuals. The idea is to force insurers and employers to develop and sell policies that stay under the premium threshold, almost certainly by pushing more cost-sharing requirements (deductibles and co-payments) onto the plans’ enrollees. In the Senate bill, the high-cost plan excise tax would become effective in 2013 — conveniently after another presidential election.
It was always a stretch to say this provision — which would have applied to a very few plans for most of this decade — was robust enough to offset the massive cost pressures unleashed by expanding health entitlement promises to tens of millions of people. But if there were any optimistic holdouts still hoping cost discipline would eventually emerge from this unbecoming legislative process, they almost certainly have given up all hope today. Because yesterday, the president showed he is not only shameless but utterly weak as well. In the face of withering pressure from liberals in the House and labor unions, the president essentially caved by gutting one of his signature “bend the curve” ideas in the name of political expediency. In the deal struck between the White House and labor unions, employer-sponsored health insurance plans that are collectively bargained will be exempted from the tax until 2018 — well past the time when the president will have exited the White House. The deal also raised the thresholds to $24,000 for family coverage and $8,900 for individuals and exempted dental and vision plans beginning in 2015.
It’s takes a special kind of audacity to go behind closed doors and strike a deal using the taxpayers’ money to pay off political supporters at the expense of everyone else (no wonder they don’t want C-SPAN to record it for history!). But caving into to the unions is likely to unravel the entire high-cost tax idea before all is said and done. The administration will argue that the deal still leaves in place 60 percent of the Senate-passed bill. But that assumes no further backpedaling — which seems highly unlikely given the track record. What could possibly justify applying to this tax only to non-union workers? What will companies with a non-union workforce think about the federal government providing special favors to their unionized competitors? News of this deal is already producing a backlash, just like the Cornhusker Kickback did. And that backlash is only going to become more intense as the negotiators look to raise taxes on others to make up for the payoff they have promised only to their union patrons. In the end, pressure will build to exempt even more people from the tax. And, when that occurs, on what basis will the president be able to resist?
For a year now, the president has said he is willing to make the tough decisions to slow the pace of rising health-care costs. But he showed yesterday that he has absolutely no capacity to do so. This health-care bill is a runaway entitlement program, piled on top of an unreformed health-care system. It’s never been anything more than that. And it’s getting worse by the hour.