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Critical Condition

NRO’s health-care blog.

For Nelson, It Shouldn’t Be a Close Call



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Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Nelson announced yesterday in an interview with a home-state radio station that new language regarding abortion coverage in subsidized insurance plans was not acceptable to him, dealing yet another blow to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s mad-dash rush to pass a bill before Christmas.

Of course, it’s crucial that Senator Nelson stick to his guns on abortion. He has always been a self-described pro-life Democrat, and attracted votes accordingly in his election campaigns. So far, he shows every indication of sticking to his guns and insisting on language that is at least as stringent as that offered by Rep. Bart Stupak and passed in the House last month. This is no time to go wobbly, or to listen to those who are transparently trying to divide the Senator from his pro-life supporters. If abortion language offered by Senator Reid doesn’t meet the test of the Catholic bishops — and it doesn’t — Senator Nelson owes it to those pro-life voters who have stood with him over many years to stand with them at this critical time.

But, just as importantly, Senator Nelson made it clear in the same radio interview that his concerns with the Reid bill go well beyond protecting taxpayers from financing elective abortions — as they should. Senator Nelson considers himself to be a fiscal conservative too. The Reid bill provides a ready opportunity to prove that he actually is.

Even before a new health-care entitlement program is stood up, the nation’s budgetary outlook is very grim, and has been made more so by the policies of the Obama administration. CBO projects that the Obama 2010 budget plan will drive federal debt up from $5.8 trillion at the end of 2008 to more than $17 trillion by 2019. And it will only get worse from there. Federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is expected to increase from 11.1 percent of GDP this year to 17.1 percent in 2030, a jump in spending of 6 percent of GDP in just two decades. To put that in perspective, that’s like adding another Social Security program to the federal budget without any new revenue to pay for it.

The Obama administration and its allies in the Senate keep arguing that the Reid bill will begin to fix the entitlement problem. It won’t. It will make the nation’s entitlement problem much worse.

If passed, here’s what’s certain. Medicaid will be expanded to at least another 15 million people. This is the same Medicaid program that is entirely unreformed in the Reid bill and has been growing, on a per capita basis, nearly 2 percentage points faster than per capita GDP growth for three decades. In addition, Senator Reid’s proposal would create a new health entitlement by subsidizing the premiums for households with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line. In all, CBO says these “coverage expansion” provisions (including tax credits for small businesses) will cost nearly $200 billion by 2019, and that cost will grow 8 percent annually every year thereafter.

And that’s a lowball estimate. The new insurance premium subsidy program is available only to households getting their insurance through the new “exchanges,” not employees who have no choice but to take the plan offered at work. But, as Gene Steuerle of the Urban Institute and I have pointed out elsewhere (see here and here), this kind of two-tiered system of subsidies creates large disparities in the treatment of households with identical financial resources. As matters stand, CBO says only 18 million people would get the premium subsidies in 2015, even though, in 2008, there were already 127 million people under the age of 65 living in households that would be eligible for subsidization. If enacted, it would only be a matter of time before tens of millions of additional people ended up in the subsidy program.

And what does the Reid bill do to slow the pace of rising costs? The President’s Council of Economic Advisers touts the slowdown in Medicare and Medicaid costs, as scored by CBO. But these spending reductions don’t come from more efficient health-care delivery. The savings are from arbitrary, across-the-board payment-rate cuts for hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, and others. These cuts do nothing to improve the efficiency of medical practice. Indeed, in the past, they have led to cost-shifting, and Congress has shown no stomach to sustain such cuts in the face of warnings of reduced access to care, such as was provided by the Medicare program’s chief actuary last week.

The administration also believes the new Medicare commission will work wonders. But, as the Concord Coalition has noted, the commission’s mandate is incredibly limited. It can’t propose any changes to hospital or physician reimbursement arrangements. It can’t restructure the Medicare entitlement. And its targets after 2019 wouldn’t save anything. That means, for a few years, the commission might get to cut home health and other ancillary service payment rates. That’s it. Medicare won’t look any different as a result. Never has so much been made about so little. Moreover, the commission itself represents an incredible admission of failure. At the beginning of the year, the Obama administration was promising to come forward with new whiz-bang ideas to painlessly root out inefficient health care without harming quality. They never did. Now they are saying a new independent commission will do it for them. Don’t hold your breath.

Senator Nelson is clearly uncomfortable with the bill as written. Any fiscal conservative would be. It’s not a close call. As the senator said yesterday, the country would be far better off with a more scaled-back bill. He’s right about that. And it’s in his power to deliver just such a bill. Pushing the discussions into 2010 would not end the health-care debate. It would only make it more likely the Senate voted in the end for something the public — and Nebraskans — would find acceptable.



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