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NRO’s health-care blog.

It’s Not a $950 Billion Plan



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The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to convince the press that the plan the president released on Monday would cost “only” $950 billion over ten years. At the moment, there’s no Congressional Budget Office (CBO) cost estimate to contradict the White House’s claim. Nor did the administration provide any cost estimate from its own HHS actuaries, even though the actuaries — not the White House press office — are responsible for developing official health-care spending estimates for the administration. An independent estimate from those who do this for a living showing the plan’s cost at $950 billion would have been very convincing.

But that presumes the actuaries would agree with the White House assessment, which they almost certainly don’t. Their cost estimates over the past six months have consistently shown the health-care bills developed by Congress would cost much more than advertised, and well over $1 trillion over a decade. Worse from the Obama team’s perspective, the top HHS actuary has used every opportunity handed to him to say unpleasant things about the Democratic reform plans. Like, there’s no “bending of the cost-curve” going on in any them. And national health spending would go up, not down. And the deep and arbitrary Medicare payment-rate reductions that the Democrats are pushing would lead thousands of institutions into financial distress, thus jeopardizing access to care for many seniors. The last thing the Obama White House wants to do right now is hand the actuary a microphone.

For its part, CBO’s assessment of the president’s latest plan is likely to look similar to the cost estimate the agency produced for the Senate-passed bill. After all, the White House’s latest proposal is explicitly built on the Senate bill’s framework.

But CBO never said the Senate bill would cost “only” $871 billion over ten years. That’s Democratic spin. CBO said the cost of the so-called “coverage provisions” would cost $871 billion over a decade. But there’s plenty of other spending in the bill that is not directly related to coverage expansion. That spending totaled another $90 billion over a decade.

Moreover, the president has taken the Senate bill’s expansive entitlement promises and made them even more expensive. He would increase the new insurance subsidies, make the Senator Nelson-giveaway for Nebraska available to all states, and close the “donut hole” in the Medicare drug benefit. The White House says the new subsidy structure would add $75 billion to the overall price tag. The Medicaid expansion and the new drug spending would certainly add tens of billions more. If they cost just another $50 billion, that would put the total cost of the White House plan at about $1.2 trillion through 2019.

But 2019 is no longer the appropriate stopping point for budgetary assessment. CBO updates their baseline projections every January, and they extend them by one more year each time they do. So, right now, CBO has current-law projections going out to 2020, and the cost estimates they produce for other tax and entitlement legislation considered by Congress this year will go out to 2020 as well. When CBO finally does assess the latest Obama plan, it will have to look at the plan through 2020, not 2019. Adding one more year to the health-care cost estimate will increase the ten-year price tag by another $220 billion.

And there’s more. The administration wants to provide a permanent fix for the broken Medicare physician-fee schedule, but it doesn’t want to include that fix in the cost of the health-care plan. Never mind that the health-care proposal includes scores and scores of Medicare provisions, touching on just about every aspect of the program. The one provision the White House doesn’t want included just happens to cost $210 billion or more over ten years. It doesn’t matter to taxpayers to whether the Democratic health-care program is passed in one bill, or two, or even three. The total cost will be the same. If the “doc fix” is included in a cost tally of the Obama health plan, as it should be, it adds another $200 billion to the price tag.

So, no, it’s not a $950 billion plan. Not even close. All in all, it’s at least $1.5 trillion through 2020, and probably closer to $1.6 trillion.

But even that’s not the full story. To keep costs “down,” the White House plan starts tax increases and Medicare cuts right away, while the new spending is mostly delayed until 2014. A fair look at the plan’s ten-year costs would include ten years’ worth of spending. The Senate Budget Committee Republican staff expects the Senate-passed bill’s true ten-year cost is $2.3 trillion. The Obama add-ons almost certainly would push that up to $2.5 trillion, and maybe even as much as $3 trillion.

And it would not end there either. If enacted, the Obama health plan would lead to even more entitlement spending down the road. The Democrats want to extend a new health-care entitlement to low- and moderate-wage workers — but only some low- and moderate-wage workers. Not all of them. In particular, the Democrats would provide generous new insurance subsidies to those who get their insurance through the so-called “exchanges.” Lower- and middle-class families who continue to have job-based plans would get no additional help even as the government imposed new mandates and burdens on them. But providing federal support to some but not all workers in defined income categories is a completely unsustainable political proposition. One way or another, the entire middle class will end up becoming eligible for the new entitlement, pushing the costs of the Obama plan well above anything that has been discussed to date.

The Obama team that says all of the lavish new promises it is extending can be paid for with new taxes and Medicare cuts. But that’s already been shown to be a very dubious assumption. Under pressure from his union patrons, the president pushed the starting date for the so-called “Cadillac tax” to 2018 — well past the time when he will have left office. This was supposed to be his signature “bend-the-curve” reform. If he can’t impose this tax, why should we expect later administrations will? And there’s no way Congress will withstand the pressure that will come when some facilities head toward insolvency with inadequate Medicare payments.

At the beginning of 2009, the president told the country we needed to reform health care in large part for fiscal reasons. The federal budget cannot sustain the rapidly rising costs of the health programs already on the books. But at each stage of this year-long odyssey, the bills being pushed by Democrats have become increasingly on heavy entitlement promises and light on anything resembling true reform. The president’s latest proposal continues the trend. After a year of giveaways, this is not a reform effort at all. It’s nothing more than another massive entitlement expansion, and one the country most surely cannot afford.



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