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It’s $1.5 Trillion, Not $900 Billion



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The health-care bill unveiled yesterday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is being advertised as costing “only” $894 billion over a decade. But that is highly misleading.

For starters, the gross cost of expanded Medicaid coverage and a new entitlement to subsidies for health insurance is much higher than Democrats are suggesting, according to the cost estimate released yesterday by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The Democrats report a lower number by netting out the taxes some individuals pay when they don’t enroll in insurance as well as the tax payments from employers who choose to “pay” rather than “play.” But that accounting confuses tax increases with spending reduction. The gross spending increase from the entitlement expansions in the revised House bill is $1.055 trillion over ten years, not $894 billion.

In addition, as I noted previously, House Democrats have conveniently decided to take the so-called “doc fix” out of the larger health-care bill and pass it as a standalone measure, at a cost of $250 billion over ten years. The House health-care bill is bursting with other Medicare-related provisions. What could possibly justify separate accounting for the physician fee fix? In fact, there is no justification, other than budgetary smoke and mirrors. House leaders are splitting the costs of their scheme into two bills and pretending that this maneuver somehow brings down the overall cost to taxpayers. It doesn’t. In reality, House Democrats are still planning to spend $250 billion on Medicare physician fees, and that should be made clear in any honest accounting of what’s afoot here.

Finally, there’s the other spending in the health-care plan. There’s loads of it. Higher Medicaid matching funds to buy off selected governors. A new program aimed at encouraging more physicians to enter primary care. Prevention spending. And apparently just about anything else House Democrats could think of to spend taxpayers’ money on. When it’s all racked up, these programs cost $230 billion over a decade. And that’s not even including the extra spending on Medicare drug coverage, which is obscured in CBO’s accounting by provisions which allow the government to set payment rates for certain products.

All totaled, then, Democratic leaders are planning to ram a $1.5 trillion spending program through the House in coming days, far exceeding the $900 billion threshold President Obama supposedly established in his speech to a joint session of Congress.

How are House leaders planning to cover these costs? Well, for starters, they aren’t. The cost of the physician fee fix will simply get added to the ballooning debt President Obama is planning to run up during his presidency. The rest will supposedly be covered by a whopping tax increase and implausible price-controls in Medicare and Medicaid.

On the tax side, Democrats are planning to saddle those with incomes exceeding $500,000 per year with a new 5.4 percent surtax. That would raise $461 billion over a decade, according to the Joint Tax Committee. But there’s also the penalty tax imposed on individuals who don’t sign up for health insurance. That raises $33 billion  There’s also the employer “pay or play” mandate, which brings in $135 billion. And finally, there are the taxes on medical device manufacturers and many others. These provisions raise an additional $100 billion over a decade. All in, therefore, House Democrats want to raise taxes on Americans by $725 billion over the period 2010 to 2019 to partially pay for their health-care scheme.

The Democrats close the remaining gap (excluding the physician fee spending) by cutting Medicare and Medicaid spending by about $550 billion over ten years and starting up a new, budget-busting long-term care program that brings in $72 billion in excess premiums in its early years. 

President Obama has claimed all year that he would work with Congress to put in place reforms that would make health-care delivery more efficient. But that’s not what House Democrats are proposing with their changes to Medicare. Their plan is for payment rate reductions, indiscriminately applied to all providers without regard to any measure of quality. All hospitals would get basically the same percentage cut in their payments, no matter how well or badly they treat their patients. As the Washington Post noted this morning, these cuts imply that House Democrats have found the magic formula for slowing Medicare per capita spending from a 7 percent average over the past two decades to just 4 percent for the coming 20 years.That is beyond implausible. Congress and the Medicare bureaucracy have been trying to slow the pace of entitlement spending with price controls for nearly half a century, and it has never worked. CBO has to score the provisions as they are written. But common sense indicates that these Medicare payment rate reductions will never finance the massive entitlement spending House leaders are planning.

In sum, then, the House plan is not a $900 billion program. It’s a $725 billion tax increase and a $1.5 trillion spending program. Tax and spend, indeed.



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