How Robert Francis O’Rourke Sabotaged Obamacare

On Monday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that former U.S. representative Robert Francis O’Rourke had underpaid his taxes for 2013 and 2014. When O’Rourke released his tax returns Monday night, the Journal contacted an accountant, who noticed the error:

O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, appear to have underpaid their 2013 and 2014 taxes by more than $4,000 combined because of an error in the way they reported their medical expenses, according to tax returns the couple released Monday evening.

They took deductions for those costs without regard to the limit that only allowed that break for medical and dental expenses above 10% of income for people their age. Had they not taken the nearly $16,000 in medical deductions, their taxable income would have been higher.

But why did they over-report their medical expense deduction? If you’re curious, go and fetch a copy of the Consolidated Print of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Why, lookie what we have here:

SEC. 9013. MODIFICATION OF ITEMIZED DEDUCTION FOR MEDICAL EXPENSES.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Subsection (a) of section 213 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended by striking ‘7.5 percent’ and inserting ‘10 percent’.

(b) TEMPORARY WAIVER OF INCREASE FOR CERTAIN SENIORS.— Section 213 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended by adding at the end the following new subsection:

‘(f) SPECIAL RULE FOR 2013, 2014, 2015, AND 2016.—In the case of any taxable year beginning after December 31, 2012, and ending before January 1, 2017, subsection (a) shall be applied with respect to a taxpayer by substituting ‘7.5 percent’ for ‘10 percent’ if such taxpayer or such taxpayer’s spouse has attained age 65 be- fore the close of such taxable year.’

However, seniors could report at the lower 7.5 percent level for 2013 through 2016. In 2013 and 2014, Robert Francis reported at the lower 7.5 percent level, even though he and his wife aren’t seniors. Oops.

Several things come to mind upon reading this news, the first being one word: SABOTAGE. Democrats frequently like to claim that the Trump administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare. But by failing to pay an Obamacare-related tax increase, Robert Francis quite literally did just that—he sabotaged the law, failing to fund its entitlements by failing to pay his newly increased tax bill.

Second, did Robert Francis ever bother to READ Obamacare? Sure, he wasn’t a congressman when the bill passed, because he wasn’t a congressman for long, but one would think a member of Congress would bother to educate himself about such an important, and visible, piece of legislation. I talked several times with my mother, a senior who uses the medical expense deduction, about the import of this provision on her taxes. But then again, I actually bothered to read the bill.

More to the point, this episode once again reveals how Democrats want to bequeath to the nation laws that they do not understand. Recall that Max Baucus (D-MT), then the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a main author of Obamacare, said he didn’t need to bother reading the bill because he hired “experts” to do it for him. Except that one of those supposed “experts” admitted four years later that, on the law’s employer mandate, “we didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing that provision would be at that time.” A government too big to manage—that’s liberals’ greatest legacy.

As James Madison reminded us in Federalist 51, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Maybe Robert Francis should think about that the next time he’s out on the campaign trail—or writing that check for back taxes to the IRS.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare, The Constitution, and “Sabotage”

Donald Trump:           Nancy, Chuck, so good to see you. I wanted to bring you some good news: We’re starting construction on the border wall tomorrow.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer:             What? Congress hasn’t appropriated money for the wall. And Congress has the “power of the purse,” not you. How can you say you’ll build the wall when we haven’t signed off on the funding?

Trump:            Because Barack Obama did it for years. What about his actions on Obamacare?

Pelosi:              What do you mean, what about Obamacare? It’s the law of the land—and you should stop sabotaging it!

Trump:            By “sabotaging Obamacare,” you mean failing to spend money on the cost-sharing subsidies to lower deductibles and co-payments…

Pelosi and Schumer: Right!

Trump:            …even though the text of Obamacare itself nowhere includes an appropriation for those subsidies…?

Pelosi and Schumer: Ummm…

Trump:            Let me get this straight: You’re accusing ME of sabotage, because YOU “forgot” to include an appropriation in Obamacare for more than $10 billion per year in spending?

Pelosi:              But “everyone understood” the law provided an appropriation…

Trump:            Even though you couldn’t be bothered to write it down?

Pelosi and Schumer: Ummm…

Trump:            Did either one of you—or for that matter, any Democrat—actually read the bill before voting for it?

Schumer:         I meant to, I swear! But Max Baucus said he hired the best experts, so we didn’t think we needed to.

Trump:            Didn’t those experts read the bill?

Schumer:         They spent all their time cutting deals to get the bill passed. Those Cornhusker Kickbacks don’t write themselves, y’know!

Trump:            Well, your loss is my gain. I’ve read some of the documents in the lawsuit over the cost-sharing subsidies. Do you know that the Obama Administration argued that the structure of the bill implied an appropriation, even though one doesn’t exist…?

Pelosi and Schumer: Yes…

Trump:            And Nancy, you remember the amicus brief you filed in the case right before my election, which said that the courts are “certainly not” the venue for litigating cases when the executive invents an appropriation, as it did with the cost-sharing subsidies…?

Pelosi:              But…but…but…

Trump:            That means I can argue that there’s an appropriation behind any law Congress has passed—like the bill you voted for, Chuck, authorizing construction of the border fence…

Schumer:         What?

Trump:            …And you can’t go to court to stop me!

Pelosi and Schumer: But you requested funding from Congress—and we refused to grant it!

Trump:            You mean, like Congress refused to appropriate funds for the Obamacare cost-sharing reductions, after President Obama requested them…?

Pelosi and Schumer: Ummm…

Trump:            The Obama Administration testified before Congress that it had the authority to spend money on the cost-sharing reductions because Congress didn’t explicitly stop them from spending it, correct?

Schumer:         Yes…

Trump:            And Nancy, your brief said the same thing: That unless Congress explicitly prohibits a President from spending money, the President has free rein to do so…

Pelosi:              But I was trying to protect Obamacare from sabotage!

Trump:            Did you take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, or to support and defend Obamacare?

Pelosi and Schumer: There’s a difference?

Trump:            Yes—and here it is. Thanks to President Obama’s precedent, I can make up whatever appropriations I want—and by your own admission, you can’t go to court to stop me. You could in theory enact a bill prohibiting me from spending money on these phantom appropriations. But because I have a veto pen, you’ll need a 2/3rds majority in each chamber to override me. You don’t have a 2/3rds majority, do you?

Pelosi and Schumer: No, Mr. President.

Trump:            Didn’t think so. So I’ll get my funding for the border wall—and increased defense funding to boot. And maybe I’ll find some other appropriations too. I think the structure of Michelle Obama’s school lunch program implies an appropriation for a new chef at Mar-A-Lago…

Pelosi:              You know, Mr. President, maybe we need to re-think our position on these phantom appropriations. I signed that legal brief the week before the election, not knowing who the next President would be. I thought that power would be safe in her hands…

Trump:            WRONG!

Pelosi:              But executive power has its limits—and Congress should jealously guard its “power of the purse,” regardless of which party holds power at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Otherwise, we could see all sorts of unintended consequences from legislation…

Trump:            You mean, we had to pass the bill so that you could find out what is in it…?

Pelosi:              Well played, Mr. President.

Hillarycare Redux? A Review of “The System”

A young president promising hope and change takes over the White House. Immediately embarking upon a major health-care initiative, he becomes trapped amidst warring factions in his party in Congress, bickering interest groups, and an angry public, all laying the groundwork for a resounding electoral defeat.

Barack Obama, circa 2009-10? Most definitely. But the same story also applies to Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, a period marked by a health-care debate in 1993-94 that paved the way for the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress.

In their seminal work “The System,” Haynes Johnson and David Broder recount the events of 1993-94 in detail—explaining not just how the Clinton health initiative failed, but also why. Anyone following the debate on Obamacare repeal should take time over the holidays to read “The System” to better understand what may await Congress and Washington next year. After all, why spend time arguing with your in-laws at the holiday table when you can read about people arguing in Congress two decades ago?

Echoes of History

For those following events of the past few years, the Clinton health debate as profiled in “The System” provides interesting echoes between past and present. Here is Karen Ignani of the AFL-CIO, viewed as a single-payer supporter and complaining that insurance companies could still “game the system” under some proposed reforms. Ironic sentiments indeed, as Ignani went on to chair the health insurance industry’s trade association during the Obamacare debate.

There are references to health care becoming a president’s Waterloo—Johnson and Broder attribute that quote to Grover Norquist, years before Sen. Jim DeMint uttered it in 2009. Max Baucus makes an appearance—he opposed in 1994 the employer mandate he included in Obamacare in 2009—as do raucous rallies in the summer of 1994, presaging the Obamacare town halls 15 years later.

Then there are the bigger lessons and themes that helped define the larger debate:

“Events, Dear Boy, Events:” The axiom attributed to Harold Macmillan about leaders being cast adrift by crises out of their control applied to the Clintons’ health-care debate. Foreign crises in Somalia (see “Black Hawk Down”) and Haiti sapped time on the presidential calendar and press attention, and distracted messaging. During the second half of 2009, Obama spent most of his time and energy focused on health care, leading some to conclude he had turned away from solving the economic crisis.

Old Bulls and Power Centers: “The System” spends much more time profiling the chairs of the respective congressional committees—including Dan Rostenkowski at House Ways and Means, John Dingell at House Energy and Commerce, and Patrick Moynihan at Senate Finance—than would have been warranted in 2009-10. While committee chairs held great power in the early 1990s, 15 years later House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called most of the legislative shots from their leadership offices.

Whereas the House marked up three very different versions of health-care legislation in 1993-94, all three committees started from the same chairman’s mark in 2009. With Speaker Paul Ryan, like John Boehner before him, running a much more diffuse leadership operation than Pelosi’s tightly controlled ship, it remains to be seen whether congressional leaders can drive consensus on both policy strategy and legislative tactics.

The Filibuster: At the beginning of the legislative debate in 1993, Robert Byrd—a guardian of Senate rules and procedures—pleaded for Democrats not to try and enact their health agenda using budget reconciliation procedures to avoid a filibuster. Democrats (begrudgingly) followed his advice in 1993, only to ignore his pleadings 16 years later, using reconciliation to ram through changes to Obamacare. Likewise, what and how Republicans use reconciliation, and Democrats use the filibuster, on health care will doubtless define next year’s Senate debate.

Many Obama White House operatives such as Rahm Emanuel, having lived through the Clinton debate, followed the exact opposite playbook to pass Obamacare.

They used the time between 1993 and 2009 to narrow their policy differences as a party. Rather than debating between a single-payer system and managed competition, most of the political wrangling focused on the narrower issue of a government-run “public option.” Rather than writing a massive, 1,300-page bill and dropping it on Capitol Hill’s lap, they deferred to congressional leaders early on. Rather than bashing special interest groups publicly, they cut “rock-solid deals” behind closed doors to win industry support. While their strategy ultimately led to legislative success, the electoral consequences proved eerily similar.

Lack of Institutional Knowledge

The example of Team Obama aside, Washington and Washingtonians sometimes have short memories. Recently a reporter e-mailed asking me if I knew of someone who used to work on health care issues for Vice President-elect Mike Pence. (Um, have you read my bio…?) Likewise, reporters consider “longtime advisers” those who have worked the issue since the last presidential election. While there is no substitute for experience itself, a robust knowledge of history would come in a close second.

Those who underestimate the task facing congressional Republicans would do well to read “The System.” Having read it for the first time the week of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, I was less surprised by how that year played out on Capitol Hill than I was surprised by the eerie similarities.

George Santayana’s saying that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” bears more than a grain of truth. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does run in cycles. Those who read “The System” now will better understand the cycle about to unfold before us in the year ahead.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

When CMS Director’s Post Opens–Again–Will Obama Step Up?

When Marilyn Tavenner steps down as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this month, one of the federal government’s most powerful positions will once again come open. History and President Barack Obama’s actions toward the post suggest that finding a replacement might prove difficult.

Before Ms. Tavenner was confirmed in May 2013, CMS had gone without a permanent, Senate-confirmed administrator for nearly seven years—since Mark McClellan left the agency in the fall of 2006. The Bush administration nominated Kerry Weems, a career civil servant, to replace Mr. McClellan; Mr. Weems received a polite hearing from the Senate Finance Committee in July 2007, but a CMS policy memo issued shortly afterward regarding the Children’s Health Insurance Program angered Senate Democrats. The committee’s chairman, Max Baucus (D., Mont.), refused to bring the nomination to a vote, and Mr. Weems served as acting administrator for the rest of the Bush administration.

Upon taking office, President Obama waited nearly 15 months—until his health-care legislation was passed—to nominate Don Berwick to run the agency that would oversee much of the law’s implementation. Mr. Berwick’s history of writings proved so inflammatory that Democrats, despite having an overwhelming Senate majority, refused to advance his nomination. Mr. Berwick received a controversial recess appointment from President Obama in July 2010 but was forced to leave CMS in December 2011 when his temporary appointment expired because the Senate had not voted on his confirmation.

While serving in the Senate in 2007-08, Mr. Obama stood by as Sen. Baucus and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) put Mr. Weems’s confirmation on ice. And as president, Mr. Obama failed to demand a vote from his fellow Democrats when they decided not to advance Mr. Berwick’s nomination, likely seeking to spare vulnerable incumbents from taking a position on a nominee with a controversial record. Given the president’s history of remaining quiet about a Democratic Senate not confirming CMS nominees, he has little standing to complain should the Republican-controlled Senate choose not to advance his choice to succeed Ms. Tavenner.

Even before Obamacare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had a budget larger than that of the Pentagon; since the law passed, its subsidies, regulations, or both affect the insurance of basically every American with health coverage. The CMS administrator’s job is critical. But President Obama’s actions have contributed to a lack of permanent leadership in CMS for most of the past eight years. We’ll see whether that pattern persists after Ms. Tavenner departs.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Obamacare and the Pitfalls of Congressional Legislating

Weeks before Congress embarked on its final push to put Obamacare on the statute books, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously stated that Congress had to pass the bill “so that you can find out what’s in it.” But last week, a staffer at the heart of drafting the legislation admitted that Congress itself failed to comprehend the implications of the provisions it imposed upon the American people.

On Friday, a Capitol Hill newspaper published a story outlining the history of Obamacare’s employer mandate and whether the administration might delay its implementation still further. In the article, Yvette Fontenot—a lobbyist who helped write the bill for then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and later worked on implementing the legislation at the White House—admitted that when Mr. Baucus’s staff drafted the employer mandate, “we didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing the provision would be at that time.”

Indeed, the employer mandate has proved difficult to implement. Defining who counts as a full-time employee across a variety of industries and creating databases to track employees’ hours have taxed regulators and companies alike. While the administration has cited these difficulties in twice delaying the mandate’s implementation, the law’s critics take a different view—believing the administration postponed the mandate to avoid potential stories about job losses prior to the 2014 elections.

Likewise, the import of Ms. Fontenot’s admission. Liberals and supporters of a strong executive might argue that her comments highlight the need for agency rulemaking, rather than placing final authority in the hands of inexpert legislators and overtaxed congressional staff—essentially saving Congress from itself. House Speaker John Boehner obviously disagrees. The Ohio Republican views the impending House vote exploring legal action against the administration as one way for the legislature to regain its authority.

But more broadly, conservatives would argue that Ms. Fontenot’s comments highlight the need for a more deliberative—and more humble—Congress, one quicker to acknowledge its own flaws, and change its processes accordingly. Recall that Max Baucus—the prime congressional author of Obamacare—said four years ago that he didn’t want to “waste my time” reading the legislation, because “we hire experts.” But one of those “experts” now says she didn’t understand how one of the major portions of the bill would work. It makes a very compelling argument that Congress, rather than relying on agency employees to resolve its self-imposed problems, should instead revert to the Hippocratic oath, and focus first and foremost on doing no legislative harm.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Flush with Cash, Obamacare Supporters Spending Money on…Porta-Potties

Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye/Newscom

Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye/Newscom

Even among the law’s supporters, Obamacare is in the toilet. Quite literally.

As The Washington Post reports, states implementing Obamacare’s exchanges are considering all kinds of methods to promote Obamacare. Reporter Sarah Kliff spoke with Michael Marchand, the head of Washington State’s exchange:

Marchand has been thinking up all sorts of ways to make sure young people hear about the new health program. Perhaps in music-heavy Washington state, it’s no surprise that his thoughts have gravitated toward outreach at concerts and music festivals.

“We’ve talked about everything we could use, even whether we could do some branding on porta-potties,” he said. “I want to sponsor charging stations, too. Talk about a captive audience. They’re standing there, charging their iPhones.”

Kliff reports on other states’ plans to “educate” their citizens about Obamacare, all using federal dollars provided through exchange grants. For instance, “Oregon may reel in hipsters with branded coffee cups for their lattes.” And Connecticut’s exchange “plans to head to the beach this summer” to promote Obamacare:

Officials will hand out sunscreen customized with a “get covered” slogan and hire an airplane to fly over beaches with a banner that advertises the new agency.

No word yet on whether Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) has suggested state exchanges partner with Amtrak, given his recent comments about the state of Obamacare implementation.

Jokes aside, the gusher of federal spending on exchange grants and related promotional activities demonstrates the problem with Obamacare. At a time when our nation’s debt is approaching $17 trillion, using taxpayer funds to buy latte cups, sunscreen, and portable toilets represents a massive amount of waste. It’s yet another reason why Congress should act to defund Obamacare and refuse to spend a single dime on such frivolous expenditures.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

Weekly Newsletter: February 23, 2009

Orszag, Liberal Groups Support Health Care Rationing

Today President Obama will host a “fiscal responsibility summit” at the White House, followed later this week by a submission to Congress of his outline for the federal budget in Fiscal Year 2010 and beyond.  Press reports indicate that health issues will predominate both events, as entitlement spending in Medicare and Medicaid will serve as a focus of the fiscal summit, and health initiatives will be given a prominent place in the President’s budget proposals.

However, some Members may take a skeptical view of comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and others that health care can be reformed—and the entitlement crisis resolved—primarily through government rationing of health care goods and services.  While head of the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag prepared a report on comparative effectiveness research that advocated rationing’s beneficial effects—while alluding to its potential downsides for patients.  The December 2007 report asserted that such research “could …yield lower health care spending without having adverse effects on health.”  However, the report also admits that “patients who might benefit from more-expensive treatments might be made worse off” as a result of changes in reimbursement patterns.

Orszag’s view of health reform is shared by the left-leaning Commonwealth Fund, which last week released its own report outlining ways to generate savings within the health sector.  The largest chunk of proposed savings—$634 billion over ten years—would come from comparative effectiveness research and subsequent rationing of care.  The report asserts that “merely making information available” about the relative merits of treatments “is unlikely to produce” outcomes yielding sufficient savings—and therefore recommends that the new comparative effectiveness center help “to create financial incentives for patients and physicians to avoid high-cost treatments.”  The Fund proposes that the comparative effectiveness center—similar to the Council established in economic “stimulus” legislation signed into law last week—“make benefit and pricing recommendations to public insurance plans, including Medicare.”

While supporting the need to slow the growth of health spending, and entitlement spending in particular, some Members may be concerned by the implications of these recommendations, which would place government bureaucrats between doctors and patients, leading to denials of critical care.  Some Members may instead support alternatives that would slow the growth of health care costs through additional competition (both inside and outside Medicare), while preserving and enhancing a culture where patients and doctors—not insurance companies or government bureaucrats—determine the appropriate course of medical care.  Some Members may also support means testing for the Medicare Part D benefit—requiring Warren Buffett and George Soros to pay more for their prescription drugs—as an additional way to bring our entitlement obligations in line with projected future revenues.

The Outlook Ahead

The President’s address to Congress Tuesday night, coupled with his submission of a budget outline on Thursday, will commence a six-week period leading up to Congress’ Easter recess where health issues will remain prominent.  As indicated above, the budget may include additional provisions regarding comparative effectiveness research and rationing of health care, as well as proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage plans that have proved popular with seniors—particularly those with low incomes—in recent years.  At this time it remains unclear whether the President will use the budget submission to fulfill his statutory obligation to present Congress with Medicare funding reform legislation, as required by the “trigger” provisions inserted into the Medicare Modernization Act at the behest of House Republicans.

Hearings and other legislative activity are also likely to continue regarding comprehensive health reform; Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced his comprehensive bill on February 5, and Senate Finance Chairman Baucus—who pledged to introduce legislation early in the 111th Congress—may follow suit in short order.  The House may also consider legislation related to food and drug safety, as well as a bill (H.R. 1108 in the 110th Congress) giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products, funded by “user fees” on tobacco companies.  Particularly as many Democrats have harshly criticized the FDA for lax enforcement related to food safety matters, some Members may believe now is precisely the wrong time to distract the FDA from its current mission in order to have the agency regulate the tobacco industry—and the wrong time to burden working families with the second tobacco tax increase this year, on the heels of the 62 cent tax increase used to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expansion.

Weekly Newsletter: December 8, 2008

Obama Proposes Massive Government Spending on Health IT

This weekend, President-elect Obama proposed as one of the five components of an economic “stimulus” package new government spending to promote a health information technology infrastructure nationwide. While Saturday’s speech contained no specific dollar amounts or proposals related to health IT, his campaign platform previously committed to spending $50 billion over five years “to move the U.S. health care system to broad adoption of standards-based electronic health information systems.”

While supporting the more widespread adoption of health IT as one way better to manage care and control cost growth, some conservatives may be concerned by both the scale and timing of the Obama proposals. Conservatives may note that the federal government did not need to spend money to develop a nationwide network of ATM machines, for example, and question the need for the significant federal expenditure on health it—particularly if it comes with additional “strings attached” that would result in further federal intervention in the practice of medicine. Instead, some conservatives may support efforts to provide regulatory relief to physicians—including medical liability reform and changes to the “Stark” laws on physician self-referral—that would empower physicians in the private sector to finance their own health IT purchases without the need for more federal spending.

Some conservatives may also be concerned by the implications of the process outlined by the President-elect. Congress has spent many years considering health IT legislation without finding consensus on a way forward, but the timeline envisioned by the incoming Administration would see the years-long impasse brought to a conclusion within a matter of weeks. Conservatives may be concerned that such a rushed process may include provisions advanced by various liberal interest groups—including onerous privacy restrictions that impede efforts to coordinate care, a private right of action related to security breaches likely to breed costly lawsuits, and a patchwork of state and federal laws creating regulatory uncertainty for providers—that may only serve to raise costs and inhibit health IT adoption.

The RSC has released a Policy Brief outlining issues related to health IT implementation, which can be found here.

Baucus Wouldn’t Pay for Health Reform Until After Medicare’s Bankruptcy

Just before Thanksgiving, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) spoke with reporters about the comprehensive health reform white paper he released earlier in November. Discussing the possibility floated by some Democrat leaders that Congress should waive pay-as-you-go
requirements for any comprehensive health care overhaul advanced in the 111th Congress, Baucus noted his expectation that such legislation would not be fully paid for in the short-term, but that after a decade “the bulk of the up-front investments will be offset by cost savings and reductions.”

Some conservatives may note an inconvenient truth associated with this statement: In one decade from now—by the time Sen. Baucus envisions actual cost savings from comprehensive reform—the Medicare Part A Trust Fund will be exhausted. The latest Medicare trustees’ report predicted an insolvency date for the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund of 2019—and that date could be moved forward if the current economic slowdown results in an expected decline in payroll tax receipts. If the cost savings from any comprehensive reform legislation will not materialize for a decade, as Sen. Baucus predicted, millions of seniors may face difficult health care choices when Medicare becomes insolvent.

Conservatives may therefore believe that, before even considering whether to expand government programs like the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) or create new health care entitlements, Congress should first work to preserve America’s current entitlements. Failure to do so could unleash a fiscal catastrophe that dwarfs the current economic turmoil, and jeopardize the health care of millions of seniors—not to mention America’s financial security.

Weekly Newsletter: November 17, 2008

  • Baucus’ Plan Exposes Democrat Hypocrisy…

    Last Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) issued a 98-page report outlining his proposals for reforming the health care system. Although his introduction stated that the platform “is not intended to be a legislative proposal,” Baucus did state his hope that the ideas raised would become a starting point for discussions on comprehensive health care reform during the 111th Congress.

    In reviewing the report’s contents, some conservatives may note several glaring contradictions present within its pages:

  • The Baucus plan proposes tens of billions in unfunded mandates on states—requiring Medicaid programs to cover 7.1 million new low-income individuals, and further requiring 33 states to expand their State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) eligibility levels—at a time when Baucus and other Congressional Democrats allege that states’ “fiscal crises” require Congress to bail them out of their current obligations.
  • While expressing his support for cutting payments to private Medicare Advantage (MA), Baucus proposes to repeal a planned premium support project within Medicare, because he wants to bring payments to private insurers in line with traditional Medicare costs while opposing a link between Part B premiums and “how much [private] insurers’ costs differ from traditional Medicare.”
  • Senator Baucus, who at a health reform conference in June questioned Congress’ role in overseeing Medicare payments—“How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”—proposes numerous attempts to tie reimbursement to various actions by physicians (IT adoption, etc.) in the hope that these will achieve purportedly desirable health outcomes.

    …While Proposing More New Spending, Little Cost Control

    Many conservatives may also be concerned by the substance of the Baucus plan’s broader proposals. Similar in many respects to the less-detailed plan offered by President-elect Obama, the platform would expand the role of government in health care in significant, and historic, ways:

  • Expansion of Medicaid and SCHIP to millions of new individuals, as referenced above;
  • Health insurance subsidies for a family of four making $85,000 per year;
  • Repeal of the current five-year waiting period for legal aliens to become eligible for government benefits, increasing government spending on non-citizens;
  • Two new “temporary” entitlement programs, including a buy-in to the Medicare program for those aged 55-64, that many conservatives may be concerned will be anything but “temporary;”
  • A new publicly-run insurance option available to all citizens, whose low reimbursement rates would likely encourage providers to raise rates for private insurers, potentially leading to a “death spiral” of privately-provided coverage options;
  • A health insurance exchange representing another layer of regulation on the health insurance industry;
  • An individual mandate to purchase insurance, requiring the government to pass judgment on the adequacy of individuals’ coverage; and
  • Tax increases on businesses through a “pay-or-play” mandate that could in future years become an easy way for the government to pass off the cost of rising health care on the private sector.

    Just as worrisome to many conservatives are the lack of true cost-containment measures present in the Baucus proposal. Two of the plan’s prime savings targets—an expansion of the Medicaid drug rebate and one-sided cuts to Medicare Advantage plans—constitute little more than government-imposed price controls, which some conservatives may believe both ineffective and detrimental to new innovation.

    Some conservatives may believe that the true answer to reforming health care and slowing the growth of costs lies in harnessing innovation and competition. Implementing, rather than repealing, the Medicare premium support program would allow insurers to compete directly with Medicare to treat seniors in the most cost-effective manner. Additional means-testing for current entitlements would ensure that scarce government resources will go to those most in need of assistance—meaning that Warren Buffett and George Soros should not pay the same prescription drug premium as a senior making $20,000 per year. These efforts, coupled with initiatives to streamline costly state benefit mandates and other regulations, would expand coverage by slowing the growth of health costs, helping to ensure the future viability of our current entitlement programs.

Rep. Hensarling Op-Ed: Democrat Medicare Bill Shortchanges Minorities

Over the last several weeks, I have heard from physicians rightly concerned that lawmakers had yet to pass legislation repealing a scheduled 10.6 percent reduction in their Medicare reimbursement rates. No doubt Congress should and will act soon, to preserve seniors’ access to physician care. This is critical for doctors, specifically primary care physicians, whom already face tremendously difficult challenges. But behind the scenes of the physician reimbursement debate lies an interesting paradox in the way Congressional Democrats protect wealthy seniors, while exposing large numbers of low-income beneficiaries whom the legislation purports to protect.

Nestled into the sprawling 278-page bill the House passed with limited debate are provisions that would expand eligibility for subsidy programs that aid low-income beneficiaries with Part B premium payments, deductibles, and co-insurance. Coupled with several proposals designed to increase outreach to low-income populations, the changes would cost hardworking Americans $7 billion over the next ten years.

Of course, budgetary rules require Congressional Democrats to pay for this expansion of the Medicare benefit. By listening to Senator Obama, you might assume that the likeliest culprit would be yet another tax on the wealthy. But that is far from it. The expanded subsidies for low-income individuals – as well as the physician reimbursement provisions and other related Medicare provisions – are paid for by cuts to Medicare Advantage plans that provide coverage to millions of seniors.

The paradox arrives in the discovery that Medicare Advantage plans disproportionately serve low-income and minority populations. Nearly half of all Medicare Advantage beneficiaries had incomes under $20,000; for Hispanic and African-American populations, that number rises to 70 percent. While policy-makers argue about “overpayments” to Medicare Advantage plans, many low-income seniors have come to appreciate – and rely on – the lower costs and increased benefits that these plans have provided. But as a result of the House-passed legislation, over 2 million seniors, including 1.8 million in private fee-for-service plans popular in rural areas with limited physician access, will lose their Medicare Advantage coverage.

To sum up: Congressional Democrats are cutting benefits for some low-income seniors – in order to extend benefits to other low-income seniors. All the while, proposals to increase Part D premiums for the wealthiest Medicare beneficiaries -think George Soros and Warren Buffett – languish in legislative purgatory.

There is a Machiavellian logic to Democrats’ apparent lack of appetite for Medicare means testing. If wealthier individuals become less dependent on the welfare state for their health benefits in retirement, political support for the popular program may wane. But when President Bush proposed to extend current means-testing of Part B premiums to the prescription drug plan as one way to alleviate Medicare’s funding woes, the New York Times considered this element of the President’s plan a “reasonable” proposal. If President Bush and the editorial board of the New York Times can both see the merits of this concept, there is little reason why Congress, in its infinite wisdom, should not see fit to include it in the Medicare bill.

Instead, the legislative product being considered constitutes, at best, an attempt at behavioral modification – forcing low-income beneficiaries away from plans run by “greedy” insurance companies – and at worst a perverse experiment in social Darwinism, pitting one group of vulnerable seniors against another in a competition for Medicare dollars. All this so Warren Buffett can avoid having his estimated $60 billion fortune decimated by paying an extra $2 per day for prescription drug coverage.

In March, the Medicare trustees issued their annual report, which noted that Medicare faces $86 trillion – yes, trillion – in unfunded obligations. The two best ways to stem this looming tide of debt are increased competition among private Medicare Advantage plans and proposals utilizing means-testing to dedicate scarce health care resources to the seniors who need them most. Yet the House bill undermines the former, while ignoring the latter.

While introducing Medicare legislation very similar to the bill the House passed, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus decried efforts to “protect private insurance plans” that would “leave low-income beneficiaries behind,” arguing that his “balanced legislation” will prevent the latter while discouraging the former. I agree with Senator Baucus that his legislation is indeed balanced – it would ensure that a senior with $20,000 in income will continue to pay as much for prescription drugs as Ross Perot (or Senator Baucus himself). But in their ideological quest to undermine private insurance plans, Congressional Democrats are indeed leaving millions of beneficiaries on Medicare Advantage plans, many of them low-income, behind. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats – Cutting coverage for beneficiaries while protecting billionaires.

This post was originally published at The Washington Times.