Critical Condition

President Prescribes a Poison Pill

In his prime-time speech disguised as a news conference, President Obama raised the bar for passage of health reform, continuing to insist that virtually all Americans be covered and that only the rich should pay more.

Meanwhile, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman has cancelled Thursday’s scheduled mark-up of the House health-reform bill because he is facing a rebellion among Democrats who say it is virtually impossible to thread this needle. That makes it highly unlikely the House can meet the president’s goal of getting a floor vote on the legislation before the August recess.

The president’s remarks during his news conference were detached from the reality of the bills making their way through Congress, which are themselves based upon policies the president outlined during the campaign. He appears to believe he can continue to talk the American people into taking this poison pill.

For example, he told the White House press corps, his plan “will keep government out of health-care decisions, giving you the option to keep your insurance if you’re happy with it.”

But the Heritage Foundation has released a new study showing that more than 80 million Americans would lose their private health insurance if the new government-run health insurance plan he proposes were to be created. No reporter asked him about that.

And his promises simply don’t square with legislation before the House that sets strict federal standards mandating what benefits must be covered by health insurance that would steamroll over patient preferences and extend sweeping federal regulation into virtually every corner of the health sector.

The president already has shown his game plan in controlling the health sector: His stimulus bill created a new government commission charged with deciding which medical treatments and procedures will be blessed or rejected.

The president continues to insist that his plan will actually reduce the federal deficit. But there is virtually no evidence that is true. The head of the Congressional Budget Office told Congress last week that the bills under consideration would worsen the federal government’s “already bleak budget outlook,” increase the deficit, and drive the nation more deeply into debt.

But worse still, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf said the bills won’t meet the president’s promise of reducing health costs over the long term.

“I’m going to really put you on the spot,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad asked Elmendorf. “From what you have seen from the products of the committees that have reported, do you see a successful effort being mounted to bend the long-term cost curve?”

“No, Mr. Chairman,” Elmendorf responded, adding, “the legislation significantly expands” costs.

That was a bombshell if there ever was one because Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that his health reform bills must bend the cost curve.

In the fantasyland of Washington, a $1 trillion price tag for a sweeping overhaul of the health sector is somehow considered reasonable. But even that will require huge cuts to Medicare and Medicaid which Congress is virtually incapable of carrying out. Further, tax increases on “the rich” in the House bill would hit the most successful small-business owners who the country is relying on to generate jobs and pull the nation out of the recession.

But the softball questions from reporters at the news conference failed to draw him out on that or any number of other crucial issues. Here’s one they should have asked: How does Mr. Obama justify switching positions to support a mandate that all Americans must have health coverage when it will hit hardest the young people who helped him get elected and who would be forced to pay disproportionately high premiums or face federal fines?

When asked what health services Americans will have to give up to pay for the reform plan, the president offered a lukewarm answer that “Americans will have to give up paying for things that don’t make them healthier,” using the example of duplicative tests.

Eighty percent of health costs go to provide care for about 20 percent of Americans with chronic conditions. Eliminating a few unnecessary tests is just a drop in the bucket. No reporter challenged him.

The president showed his weak leadership in the health-reform battles, saying that “Not all of the cost-savings measures I just mentioned were contained in Congress’s draft legislation.” He has an obligation to tell Congress and the American people how he intends to pay for this sweeping reform package and to tell them the truth about how it will impact Americans’ health care, health coverage, and health choices for generations to come.

– Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a non-profit research organization focusing on market-based solutions to health reform.

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