Christmas Eve Vote on Obamacare Showed Washington Still Has Shame

A decade ago this morning, 60 Senate Democrats cast their final votes approving the legislation that became Obamacare. The bill took a circuitous route to enactment after Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the Massachusetts Senate contest, which occurred a few weeks after the Senate vote, in January 2010.

Brown’s election meant Republicans gained a 41st Senate seat, giving them the necessary votes to filibuster a House-Senate conference report on Obamacare. Because Democrats lacked the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, they eventually agreed to a process amending certain budgetary and fiscal elements of the Senate bill through the reconciliation process on a 51-vote threshold.

The grubby process leading up to Obamacare’s enactment, full of parochial politics and special interest pork, cost Democrats politically. But many Americans do not realize that such machinations occur all the time in Washington—indeed, occurred just last week. When one party participates in a corrupt process, it becomes a scandal; when both parties partake, few outside the Beltway bother to notice.

Backroom Deals

The process among Democrats leading up to the final health vote resembled an open market, with each Senator making “asks” of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid needed all 60 Democrats to vote for Obamacare to break a Republican filibuster, and the parochial provisions included in the legislation showed the lengths he would go to enact it:

Cornhusker Kickback:” The most notorious of the backroom deals came after Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) requested a 100 percent Medicaid match rate for his home state of Nebraska. The final manager’s amendment introduced by Reid included this earmark—Nebraska would have its entire costs of Medicaid expansion paid for by the federal government forever. But the blowback from constituents and the press became so great that Nelson asked to have the provision removed; the reconciliation measure enacted in March 2010 gave Nebraska the same treatment as all other states.

Gator Aid:” This provision, inserted at the behest of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and later removed in the reconciliation bill, sought to exempt Florida seniors from much of the effects of the law’s Medicare Advantage cuts.

Louisiana Purchase:” This provision, included due to a request from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), adjusted the state’s Medicaid matching formula. Landrieu publicly defended the provision—which she said reflected the state’s circumstances after Hurricane Katrina—and it remained in law for several years, but was eventually phased out in legislation enacted February 2012.

While these three provisions captivated the public’s attention, other earmarks and pork provisions abounded inside Obamacare too—a Medicaid funding provision that helped Massachusetts; exemptions from the insurer tax for two Blue Cross carriers; a $100 million earmark for a Connecticut hospital, and health benefits for miners in Libby, Montana, courtesy of then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

Not only did senators try to keep these corrupt deals in the legislation—notwithstanding the public outrage they engendered—but Reid defended both the earmarks and the horse-trading process that led to their inclusion:

I don’t know if there’s a senator who doesn’t have something in this bill that’s important to them. And if they don’t have something in it that’s important to them, then it doesn’t speak well for them.

It was a far cry from Barack Obama’s 2008 (broken) campaign promise to have all his health care negotiations televised on C-SPAN, “so we will know who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.” And it looked like Democrats didn’t really believe in the merits of the underlying legislation, but instead voted to restructure nearly one-fifth of the American economy because they got some comparatively minor pork project for their district back home.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 elections, and political scientists have attributed much of the loss to the impact of the Obamacare vote. One study found that Obamacare cost Democrats 6 percentage points of support in the 2010 midterm elections, and at least 13 seats in Congress.

But did the rebuke Democrats received for their behavior prompt them to change their ways? Only to the extent that, when they want to ram through a massive piece of legislation no one has bothered to read, they include Republicans in the taxpayer-funded largesse.

Consider last week’s $1.4 trillion spending package: Two bills totaling more than 2,300 pages, which lawmakers introduced on Monday and voted on in the House 24 hours later. Democrats wanted to repeal one set of Obamacare taxes—and in exchange, they agreed to repeal another set of taxes that Republicans (and their K Street lobbying friends) wanted gone. The Obamacare taxes went away, but the Obamacare spending remained, thus increasing the deficit by nearly $400 billion.

And both sides agreed to increase spending in defense and non-defense categories alike. Therein lies the true definition of bipartisanship in Washington: An agreement in which both sides get what they want—courtesy of taxpayers in the next generation, who get stuck with the bill.

It remains a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the nation’s capital that the Obamacare debacle remains an anomaly—the one time when the glare of the spotlight so seared Members seeking pork projects that they dared consider forsaking their ill-gotten gains. To paraphrase the axiom about casinos, in Washington, The Swamp (almost) always wins.

“Cadillac Tax” Repeal “Deal” Is What’s Wrong with Washington

News articles over the weekend reported that Congress later this week may repeal would Obamacare taxes—the “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans, and the medical device tax—as part of a larger spending bill. In reality, however, Democrats eventually agreed to repeal not one but two Obamacare industry taxes—the health insurer tax, which costs approximately $150 billion over a decade, along with the medical device tax—in exchange for repeal of the Cadillac tax, which labor unions want because of their cushy health insurance offerings.

According to The Hill:

On a separate front on ObamaCare, the spending deal repeals three major taxes that had helped fund the law’s coverage expansion. The deal will repeal a 40 percent tax on generous “Cadillac” health plans, the 2.3 percent medical device tax and the health insurance tax.

Those are major wins for the health insurance and medical device industries, which had long lobbied to lift those taxes. The Cadillac tax, in addition to providing about $200 billion in funding over 10 years, had been intended to help lower health care spending by incentivizing employers to lower costs to avoid hitting the tax.

On its face, the news sounds like a win for conservatives. Far from it. The way Congress has addressed these issues illustrates all the problems with politics, both procedural and substantive, in the nation’s capital.

Problem 1: Awful Process

Obvious considerations first: Congressional leaders in both parties want to enact the annual spending bills—which run thousands of pages, and spend trillions of dollars—before breaking for the Christmas holidays at week’s end. But congressional leaders only released text of the two bills publicly on Monday night, so there’s no way American citizens, let alone rank-and-file lawmakers, can digest it before Congress decides. As one lawmaker famously said:

The spending bills are 1,773 pages and 540 pages, respectively. (The health care provisions are in the larger of the two bills.) According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the repeal of the three health care taxes will cost the federal government $387 billion over ten years.

Nearly ten years after a Democratic-controlled Senate passed the massive Obamacare statute on Christmas Eve—laden with pork-barrel provisions like the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” and the “Gator Aid”—a Senate run by Republicans wants to pass a similarly pork-laden spending bill. It brings to mind the old adage attributed to former House Speaker Sam Rayburn: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.”

President Trump has likewise confronted the problem of Congress passing huge spending bills on short notice before. When presented with a similarly massive—and pork-laden—omnibus bill in March 2018, he famously proclaimed “I will never sign another bill like this again.” Time will tell if he follows through on his promise, but Congress sure isn’t acting like they think he will.

Problem 2: Raising Health Care Costs

The “Cadillac tax” in particular represents one way to address the problem of ever-increasing health costs. Current law allows employers to offer tax-free health benefits to their workers without limit. This dynamic encourages firms to provide overly generous benefits to their employees, leading to the over-consumption of health care.

By encouraging employers and employees to consume health insurance, and thus health care, more wisely, the “Cadillac tax,” despite its flaws, should work to moderate the growth in health care costs. That is, if Congress ever allows it to take effect as scheduled.

As I noted earlier this year, the left has an easy “solution” to the problem of rising health care costs: Regulations and price controls designed to bring down costs through government fiat. These price controls will lead to consequences for our health system, of course—rationing of care most notably—but they do “work,” insofar as they will arbitrarily reduce health spending.

Conservatives who oppose government price controls should embrace solutions like the “Cadillac tax” (or something like it) as one way to slow the growth in health care spending—not least because Democrats enacted the tax as part of Obamacare. Instead, many conservative lawmakers appear poised to endorse its repeal, without an alternative strategy to control health costs instead, because they find it easier to pursue the path of least resistance.

Problem 3: Lack of Discipline

The Congressional Budget Office previously estimated that repealing the “Cadillac tax” would cost the government nearly $200 billion in revenue over a decade, and larger sums in the decades after that. How does Congress propose to replace that revenue? By repealing the medical device and health insurer taxes, of course!

Therein lies the problem in Congress: The current definition of a bipartisan “deal” occurs when both sides get what they want—at the expense of taxpayers, or more specifically future generations. One article notes that “in general medical device tax repeal is more of a priority of Republicans and ‘Cadillac tax’ repeal for Democrats.” That makes this agreement combining repeal of both taxes like an episode of “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” where everyone wins a car.

Except for one minor detail: Our country already faces $23 trillion in debt, and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. The “deal” on these two taxes alone will increase that debt by another quarter-trillion dollars (give or take). That number doesn’t include the increased spending arising from Congress’ agreement to bust its spending caps, or all the other ancillary provisions (like a bailout for coal miners) hitching a ride on the “Christmas tree” omnibus.

At some point soon, Congress’ lack of discipline—its inability to say no to spending pledges our country cannot afford—will harm our economic growth and fiscal stability. At that point, the American people will realize that, by constantly trying to play Santa Claus, lawmakers have left a multi-trillion-dollar lump of coal to the next generation, in the form of our rapidly skyrocketing debt.

UPDATE: This post was edited after publication to reflect late-breaking developments concerning the omnibus spending bills.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Four Most Dangerous Words in Washington

More than three decades ago, Ronald Reagan rightly characterized the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” In Washington, a quartet of four words rank close behind Reagan’s nine in their ability to terrify: What are you for?

Countless people in official Washington, from leadership staff to reporters to liberals to lobbyists, use these four words, or some variation thereof, to try to get conservatives to endorse bad policy. Their words carry with them an implicit argument: You have to be for something, rather than just opposing bad policy.

Reagan would find that reasoning nonsensical. Why do you have to be for something when all the available options undermine conservative principles—because you’re from the government and you’re here to help? It’s a lazy straw-man argument, which might explain why so many people in Washington use it, but it’s a premise that conservatives should reject.

Example 1: Drug Price Legislation

On Monday, House Republican leaders released their alternative to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s prescription drug legislation. Their very first bullet in the summary of the legislation said that the bill includes “350 pages” of provisions. (Technically, the bill has 352 pages of content, while by contrast, the Rules Committee print of Democrats’ prescription drug legislation weighs in at 275 pages.)

Republicans quite rightly criticized Pelosi almost a decade ago for the awful process she used to enact Obamacare. Remember the speaker’s infamous quote about the legislation in March 2010, which House Republicans still have on their YouTube page:

Yet including the bill’s size as the first bullet point in their summary suggests Republican leadership considers it a feature, not a bug: “Look at how substantive we are—our bill is 350 pages long!” Granted, the House Republican package consists of a grab-bag of provisions related to drug pricing, most of which existed well before this week. Some of them doubtless contain good ideas, and ideas I have previously endorsed.

But think about what went into creating this “new,” 350-page bill. A bunch of leadership staffers sat around a big desk in the Capitol, decided what bills and provisions to include in the package—and, by extension, which bills to exclude from it. I know, because I’ve sat in those types of meetings. They released the legislation on Monday, and Congress likely will vote on it late Wednesday night (early Thursday at the latest).

Republican Members of Congress won’t have time to read all 352 pages of the House Republican bill. Some of them may not have time to read even the four-page summary of the bill. And their staff, who are currently overwhelmed by the litany of issues on Congress’ December agenda, from impeachment to a massive defense policy bill to another massive spending bill to the prescription drug debate, have neither the time nor the bandwidth to provide thoughtful advice and counsel.

But most if not all Republican members of Congress will vote for this drug price alternative they have not read and many do not fully understand. Why? Because most think they need to “be for something.” Because they believe that (false) premise, they will have effectively handed their voting card to unelected leadership staffers—who may or may not actually know what they are doing—to define what Republicans are “for.” It’s no way to run a railroad, let alone the country.

Example 2: Entitlements

My article last week about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s proposed long-term care entitlement prompted an e-mail from a colleague. The e-mail asked a polite variation of the question noted above: If you don’t like Buttigieg’s approach to long-term care, what would you do instead?

My response in a nutshell: Nope. As I pointed out in the original post, our country faces $23 trillion—that’s $23,000,000,000,000—in debt—and rising. We can’t afford the entitlements and government programs we have now. To even talk about creating new programs (which would face their own solvency and sustainability concerns) only gives lawmakers and the American public a permission structure to avoid the hard decisions Congress should have made years ago to right-size our entitlements.

Example 3: ‘Surprise Billing’ Legislation

On Sunday, several members of key committees announced an agreement in principle on federal legislation regarding “surprise billing,” which arises when physicians and medical providers seek to recover charges when patients obtain care out-of-network during emergencies, or when patients inadvertently see an out-of-network physician (e.g., an anesthesiologist) at an in-network hospital.

(Disclosure: I have consulted with various firms about the potential outcomes and implications of this legislation. However, these firms have not asked me for my personal policy positions on the legislation, nor have they asked me to advocate for a position on it—as my positions, as always, are mine alone.)

I wrote back in July that this issue largely represented a solution in search of a problem, for multiple reasons. First, a relatively small number of hospitals and providers impose most of the “surprise” bills. Second, states have the power to fix this issue on their own by regulating providers, even if federal law makes it difficult for states to regulate all the insurers in their state.

So why do Republicans feel the need to sign off on federal legislation addressing a problem that states can decide to fix (or not to fix) themselves? Again, because lawmakers feel the need to “be for something.” That again brings to mind Reagan’s axiom about the nine most terrifying words, and the proposition that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” often leads to unintended consequences.

No, Don’t Just ‘Do Something’

Perhaps by this point, some observers might have come up with an obvious question: How can you win elections if you don’t try to “do something?” The question has two simple answers.

First, citizens quite obviously do not vote solely based on a candidate’s ability to “do something,” such as expand the regulatory state, the welfare state, and government in general. If conservatives want to run campaigns based on giving voters “free stuff,” but just slightly less “free stuff” than Democrats, guess how many elections the conservative would win?

Second, as noted above, the “What are you for?” question has an obvious four-word response: “We can’t afford it.” That retort sadly has the feature of truth about it, as our country cannot sustain its current levels of government spending.

Any responsible parent knows that, no matter how often his child asks, letting that child eat ice cream three times a day does not represent good parenting. Congress long since should have imposed some of that sense of discipline on itself, and the American people.

Given our current fiscal situation, many policy proposals, no matter how popular, are not fiscally sustainable. The “What are you for?” question cleverly tries to elide that debate, in ways that will only undermine conservative principles, and our country’s solvency.

I’ll end by noting my strong support for the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law.” (What, you thought it contains some other words too?) If Congress spent the majority of its time stopping bad laws and policies—particularly policies considered only slightly less bad than the original proposals—maybe our country wouldn’t face the prospect of paying off a growing mountain of debt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Pete Buttigieg’s Plan to Tax the Middle Class

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg claimed last month that “everything that we have proposed has been paid for, and we have proposed no tax increase on the middle class.” The South Bend, Indiana mayor is incorrect on both counts: He hasn’t said how he’d pay for all his proposed spending. He has endorsed one explicit tax increase on the middle class, and his recent retirement plan provides an outline for another. Add it up, and middle-class workers could face a trillion dollars in new taxes.

To support family caregivers, Mr. Buttigieg’s retirement plan restated his prior commitment to enact “an enhanced version of the Family Act,” which would provide 12 weeks of subsidized family leave. The candidate has yet to specify how exactly he would “enhance” the Family Act. But that legislation, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), pays for its new benefit by raising payroll taxes by 0.2% of income.

Mr. Buttigieg’s retirement plan also contains several new spending proposals, including a long-term care entitlement. He says the program would make benefits available to people over 65 and would “kick in after an income-related waiting period.” His plan cites two white papers as examples of “similar programs” proposed by scholars.

Mr. Buttigieg fails to note how both white papers propose to pay for the new benefits. In the first paper, the Long-Term Care Financing Collaborative envisions a program “fully financed by a dedicated revenue source,” including a payroll tax, “an explicit income tax surcharge, or other dedicated tax.”

The second paper, written by researchers affiliated with the Urban Institute, contains several policy details Mr. Buttigieg adopted, including waiting periods for wealthier people to qualify. That paper also proposes a specific funding source: “an additional tax of about 1.0 percent of earned Medicare-covered income.” In other words, an increase in the payroll tax—a tax increase on the middle class.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last December that a one percentage point increase in the Medicare tax rate would raise $898.3 billion over a decade. If Mr. Buttigieg intends to fund his new long-term care program via the payroll tax, that tax increase, coupled with the 0.2% payroll tax hike in the Family Act he has already endorsed, would bring total payroll-tax increases to more than $1 trillion.

If Mr. Buttigieg doesn’t want to fund his long-term-care entitlement with the payroll-tax increase proposed in a paper his campaign cited, he should explain where that money will come from. His own claims notwithstanding, Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy has lacked fiscal candor. His campaign told the Indianapolis Star last month that it had proposed $5.7 trillion in spending to that point, but cited a total of only $5.1 trillion in tax increases and savings.

Mr. Buttigieg’s retirement-security plan has since added other spending proposals with no mention of a funding source. There’s his plan to make those receiving Social Security disability benefits immediately eligible for Medicare, which will likely cost more than $100 billion. There’s his new requirement for state Medicaid programs to cover community-based services as a mandatory benefit, along with mandates on nursing homes—including a $15 minimum wage and higher staffing ratios—which will raise Medicaid spending.

Mr. Buttigieg called Elizabeth Warren “extremely evasive” for her answers on single-payer health care, saying, “I think that if you are proud of your plan and it’s the right plan, you should defend it in straightforward terms. And I think it’s puzzling that when everybody knows the answer to that question of whether her plan . . . will raise middle class taxes is ‘Yes.’ Why wouldn’t you just say so, and then explain why you think that’s the better way forward?” He should follow his own advice.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

Warren’s Prescription the Wrong One

In an October analysis the Urban Institute concluded that a single-payer plan, similar to Sen. Warren’s, which eliminates virtually all patient cost-sharing, would raise national health spending by more than 20%, or $719.7 billion a year. In the researchers’ view, the additional demand stimulated by making health care “free” to consumers would overwhelm any potential savings from paying doctors and hospitals government-dictated rates. This higher demand would also raise the cost of single-payer well beyond Sen. Warren’s estimates, meaning middle-class families would face massive tax increases to pay for this spending.

That Prof. Johnson would cite the Urban Institute to argue that Sen. Warren’s plan would lower health-care costs, while ignoring the fact that the institute itself reached the opposite conclusion, speaks to the cherry-picked nature of the proposal, which has drawn derision from liberals and conservatives alike.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal.

“Ponzi Pete” Buttigieg Proposes More Unsustainable Entitlements

On the campaign trail for the Democratic presidential nomination, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg tries to portray himself as a moderate politician. By running ads against implementing a single-payer health system, Buttigieg would have voters believe he rejects the radical leftism of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Don’t you believe it. Buttigieg recently released an aging and retirement plan that proposed massive amounts of new entitlement spending, with very little in the way of specifics to pay for all his ideas. It’s but the latest example of Democrats’ government giveaway train run amok.

CLASS Act ‘Ponzi Scheme’

The first part of Buttigieg’s paper talks about an “historic” new program, Long-Term Care America. The mayor claims this plan would provide aid to seniors “who require assistance with two or more activities of daily living….Benefits would be worth $90 per day for as long as [seniors] need care, and kick in after an income-related waiting period.”

But Title VIII of Obamacare contained language establishing the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program. Moderate Democrats attacked the proposal as unsustainable. Prior to Obamacare’s enactment, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), then the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, called CLASS a “Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” Those concerns ultimately proved correct, as the Obama administration had to shelve the program as unworkable before it ever collected a dime in premiums.

As a Senate staffer conducting oversight on CLASS, and later as a member of the Commission on Long-Term Care tasked with examining possible replacements, I examined the program’s failure in minute detail. But at bottom, the program suffered from the same problem facing the Obamacare exchanges: Too many sick people signing up for benefits, driving up premiums, and therefore driving away healthy individuals.

Obamacare required individuals to pay into the CLASS program for only five years to qualify for benefits. Actuaries believed that people would sign up, pay a few thousand dollars in premiums over five years, and then collect benefits totaling tens of thousands of dollars or more. Just as Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions have priced millions of people out of coverage—because individuals can sign up for “insurance” after they develop a pre-existing condition—so too would CLASS have attracted people already suffering from disabilities, who by definition don’t need insurance so much as they need care.

The exchanges have remained somewhat sustainable only because of massive amounts of federal spending on subsidies and bailouts. However, Obamacare forced CLASS to become self-sustaining, without relying on federally subsidized premiums or a bailout. The Obama administration in October 2011 conceded that it could not meet these statutory requirements, and therefore shelved the program. (Congress later repealed CLASS outright in the “fiscal cliff” deal in January 2013.)

Buttigieg’s plan acknowledges none of this history, and makes no mention of solvency or sustainability when talking about his proposed new program. Perhaps limiting it to only those over age 65, and imposing a waiting period for people to receive benefits, as his proposal outlines, will make it more financially sustainable (or less unsustainable). But Buttigieg also proposes a $90 daily benefit, 80 percent richer than the CLASS Act’s $50 per day benefit, exacerbating solvency concerns.

Costly Promises

Buttigieg’s promise of a long-term care benefit says nothing about whether this new federal spending would increase the deficit, your taxes, or both. In that respect, it represents but one of the many costly promises in his retirement plan, including:

  • An end to the two-year waiting period currently required for individuals receiving Social Security disability benefits to qualify for Medicare coverage;
  • An increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and new staffing requirements for nursing homes, all of which will raise costs to the Medicaid program; and
  • An expansion of Social Security benefits—including a new minimum benefit and credit for caregivers—funded entirely by higher taxes on “the rich.”

At present, our federal government faces $23 trillion in debt, and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. To put it bluntly, we can’t pay for the government we have now, let alone the new programs Buttigieg and his fellow presidential candidates have proposed.

Buttigieg can try to hide himself in the cloak of the “moderate” mantra all he likes. But his laundry lists of new and unsustainable entitlements represent nothing more than big-government liberalism.

UPDATE: This post was edited after publication, to clarify the nature of Buttigieg’s proposal as compared to Obamacare’s CLASS Act.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Costs of “Free” Health Care

Libertarian columnist P.J. O’Rourke once famously claimed that “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.” A left-of-center think-tank recently confirmed O’Rourke’s assertion. In analyzing several health care proposals, the Urban Institute demonstrated how eliminating patient cost-sharing from a single-payer system would raise total health care spending by nearly $1 trillion per year.

Those estimates have particular resonance given the recent release of a health care “plan” (such as it is) by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Warren’s policy proposals contain myriad gimmicks and rosy scenarios, all designed to hide the obvious fact that one cannot impose a $30 trillion-plus program on the federal government without asking middle-class families to paya lot—for its cost.

The Urban Institute estimates show that a single-payer plan maintaining some forms of patient cost-sharing (i.e., deductibles, co-payments, etc.) seems far more feasible—or less unfeasible—than the approach of Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who promise unlimited “free” health care for everyone. Mind you, I would still oppose such a plan—for its limits on patient choice, economically damaging tax increases, and likelihood of government rationing—but at least it would have the advantage of being mathematically possible. Not so with Sanders’ and Warren’s current approach.

Option 1: An Obamacare-Like Single-Payer Plan

In the October policy paper, several Urban researchers examined the financial effects of various health coverage proposals, including two hypothetical single-payer systems. The first single-payer system would cover all individuals legally present in the United States. Urban modeled this system to cover all benefits required under Obamacare, and fund 80 percent of Americans’ expected health costs per year, equivalent to a Gold plan on the Obamacare exchanges. Americans would still pay the other 20 percent of health spending out-of-pocket.

This proposed “lite” single-payer system would still require massive tax increases—from $1.4-$1.5 trillion per year. But it would actually reduce total health spending by an estimated $209.5 billion compared to the status quo.

This single-payer system generates calculated savings because Urban assumed the plan would pay doctors current rates under the Medicare program, and pay hospitals 115 percent of current Medicare rates. Because Medicare pays medical providers less than private insurers, moving all patients to these lower rates would reduce doctors’ and hospitals’ pay—which could lead to pay and job cuts for health professionals. But in the Urban researchers’ estimates, it would lower health spending overall.

Option 2: ‘Free’ Health Care Costs a Lot of Money

Compare these outcomes to a proposal closely modeled on the single-payer legislation supported by Sanders and Warren. Unlike the first proposal, this “enhanced” single-payer system would cover “all medically necessary care,” with “no premiums or cost-sharing requirements.” It would also enroll all U.S. residents, including an estimated 10.8 million illegally present foreign citizens.

The Urban researchers found that the single-payer plan with no cost-sharing would raise total health spending by $719.7 billion compared to the status quo. Compared to the “single-payer lite” plan, which provides benefits roughly equivalent to Obamacare, eliminating cost-sharing and covering foreign citizens would raise total health spending by $929.2 billion. Moreover, the plan with no cost-sharing requires a tax increase nearly double that of the “single-payer lite” plan—a whopping $2.7-$2.8 trillion per year.

The Urban Institute estimates confirm that making all health care “free,” as Sanders and Warren propose, would cause an enormous increase in the demand for care. This would overwhelm any potential savings from lower payments to doctors and hospitals, meaning the health sector would face a double-whammy, of getting paid less to do more work. These estimates also could underestimate the growth in health spending, because Urban’s researchers did not assume a rise in medical tourism or immigration when calculating the increase in demand for “free” health care.

Socialists’ ‘Solution’: Hold Costs Down by Rationing

Socialist supporters of Sanders’ plan attacked these estimates, claiming that the Urban Institute failed to consider that a single-payer system would ration access to “free” health care. The People’s Policy Project called Urban’s estimates of increased demand “ridiculous,” in part because “there is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors and only so many facilities.”

Its position echoes that of the socialist magazine Jacobin, which in response to a single-payer study by the Mercatus Center last year admitted that “aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit.”

An increase in health spending of nearly $1 trillion per year, and increased waiting times and rationed access to care: either or both of those scenarios represent the costs of “free” health care, based on the words of leftists themselves. The prospect of either scenario should make Americans reject this socialist approach.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Warren Advisor Admits Her Health Plan Raises Middle Class Taxes

That didn’t last long. Five days after Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a health plan (chock full of gimmicks) that she claimed would not raise taxes on the middle class, one of the authors of that plan contradicted her claims.

In an interview with Axios published on Wednesday, but which took place before the plan’s release, Warren advisor and former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Donald Berwick said the following:

Q: Many people may not know their employers cover 70% or more of their entire premium — money that otherwise would go to their pay. Is this the main problem when talking about reforms?

DB: The basics are not that complicated. Every single dollar — every nickel spent on health care in this country — is coming from workers. There’s no other source. [Emphasis mine.]

Compare that phraseology to what Joe Biden’s campaign spokesperson said on Friday about Warren’s plan and its effects:

For months, Elizabeth Warren has refused to say if her health care plan would raise taxes on the middle class, and now we know why: Because it does….Senator Warren would place a new tax of nearly $9 trillion that will fall on American workers. [Emphasis mine.]

In response to the Biden campaign’s criticism, Warren said last Friday that her health plan’s projections “were authenticated by President Obama’s head of Medicare”—meaning Berwick. Unfortunately for Warren, Berwick, by virtue of his comments in his interview with Axios, also “authenticated” Biden’s attack that her required employer contribution will hit workers, and thus middle-class families.

Warren also tried to defend her plan on Friday by claiming that “the employer contribution is already part of” Obamacare. Obamacare does include an employer contribution requirement, but that requirement:

  • Is capped at no more than $3,000 per worker, far less than the average employer contribution for workers’ health coverage—$14,561 for family coverage as of 2019— which will form the initial basis of Warren’s required employer contribution;
  • Does not apply to employers at all if the firm offers “affordable” coverage—an option not available under Warren’s plan, which would make private insurance coverage “unlawful;” and
  • Will raise an estimated $74 billion in the coming decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office—less than 1 percent of the $8.8 trillion Warren claims her required employer contribution would raise.

While Obamacare and Warrencare both have employer contributions, the similarities pretty much end there. Calling the two equal would equate a log cabin to Buckingham Palace. Sure, they’re both houses, but differ greatly in size. Warren’s “contribution”—which Berwick, her advisor, admits will fall on middle-class workers—stands orders of magnitude greater than anything in Obamacare.

Public Accountability?

In the same Axios interview, Berwick highlighted what he termed a tradeoff “between public accountability and private accountability.” He continued: “By not having a publicly accountable system, we are paying an enormous price in lack of transparency.”

His comments echo prior justification of his infamous “rationing with our eyes open” quote in a 2009 interview. As he explained to The New York Times as he departed CMS in late 2011, “Someone, like your health insurance company, is going to limit what you can get….The government, unlike many private health insurance plans, is working in the daylight. That’s a strength.”

Except that Berwick, as CMS administrator, went to absurd lengths to hide from public scrutiny after his series of remarks. He would gladly meet with health-care lobbyists behind closed doors, but refused to answer questions from reporters, going so far as to duck behind curtains and request security escorts to avoid doing so.

Warren apparently has taken a lesson in opacity from Berwick’s time as CMS administrator. At first, she avoided releasing a specific health care proposal at all, only to follow up by issuing a “plan” containing so many absurd assumptions as to render it irrelevant as a serious blueprint for legislating.

Unfortunately for her, however, Berwick committed the unforgivable sin of speaking an inconvenient truth about the effects of her proposal. Eight years after leaving office as CMS administrator, Berwick, however belated and however unwittingly, delivered some much-needed public accountability for Warren’s health plan.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Analyzing the Gimmicks in Warren’s Health Care Plan

Six weeks ago, this publication published “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan…For Avoiding Your Health Care Questions.” That plan came to fruition last Friday, when Warren released a paper (and two accompanying analyses) claiming that she can fund her single-payer health care program without raising taxes on the middle class.

Both her opponents in the Democratic presidential primary and conservative commentators immediately criticized Warren’s plan for the gimmicks and assumptions used to arrive at her estimate. Her paper claims she can reduce the 10-year cost of single payer—the amount of new federal revenues needed to fund the program, over and above the dollars already spent on health care (e.g., existing federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)—from $34 trillion in an October Urban Institute estimate to only $20.5 trillion. On top of this 40 percent reduction in the cost of single payer, Warren claims she can raise the $20.5 trillion without a middle-class tax increase.

Warren Asks What the Country Can Do for You

Elizabeth Warren’s release Friday of a more specific health-care platform only raised more questions about Medicare for All and its effects on the middle class. Conservatives as well as Ms. Warren’s Democratic opponents questioned the assumptions behind her claim that she can enact a single-payer plan without raising taxes on the middle class. Yet the harshest critic may be Ms. Warren herself. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy, who once held Ms. Warren’s Senate seat, urged. She refuses to ask the middle class to pay a dime for her costly proposal.

Take Ms. Warren’s assumptions at face value, even if doing so requires a knowing suspension of disbelief. Assume she can reduce the 10-year cost of a single-payer system from the $34 trillion in new federal spending estimated by the liberal Urban Institute to a mere $20.5 trillion. Assume her program would reduce administrative costs without encouraging fraud. Assume also that her proposed wealth tax won’t generate massive tax evasion—she claims a Warren administration would generate $2.3 trillion in new revenue by cracking down on tax avoidance—and that not a penny of her $9 trillion in assessments on employers will end up being paid by workers.

Ms. Warren envisions a $20 trillion expansion of government—the largest in American history—paid for by a fraction of the population. She foresees unlimited “free” health care for millions of families, without so much as a $100 copayment, premium, assessment, tax or other fee.

Sure, the earned entitlement always had an element of fiction. Social Security and Medicare pay benefits based on current cash flows, with their respective trust funds containing little more than promises to pay future benefits. Urban Institute estimates show that even wealthy seniors will receive more in Social Security and Medicare benefits than they paid in taxes. But Ms. Warren’s plan would dispense with the pretense of social insurance, instead creating a crass form of political plunder that uses federal largess to buy votes.

In turning government programs into a version of “Oprah’s Favorite Things”—everyone gets a free car, paid for by somebody else—Ms. Warren follows the example of President Obama. He talked of social solidarity, saying “we’re all in this together,” but shied away from asking anyone other than “the rich” to pay for his new government programs. In 2008 candidate Obama made a “firm pledge” not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year, “not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital-gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”

The “firm pledge” lasted two weeks. In February 2009 Mr. Obama raised tobacco taxes to fund an expansion of children’s health insurance. Then, after ObamaCare took effect in 2013, the law led at least 4.7 million Americans to receive insurance-cancellation notices. In the years since, the health-insurance market has shrunk by four million people, because those who don’t qualify for subsidies can’t afford coverage—what Bill Clinton called “the craziest thing in the world.” Working families ended up bearing the burden of Mr. Obama’s new programs.

Therein lies the true lesson for the American people. Elizabeth Warren may not ask the middle class to fund Medicare for All—at least not until she’s safely in office—but one can rest assured that, should she succeed in enacting her scheme, all American families will pay.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.