Rep. Roskam Op-Ed: Dim Prospects for Debt

In these uncertain economic times, many Americans are asking important questions about the nation’s finances. Why were taxpayers asked to finance a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street – with up to $750 billion more on the way, according to the president?

Is it appropriate for the government to own portions of our biggest banks? And what happens if all this “stimulus” spending doesn’t improve the economy? Even beneath these important questions, there’s another, more fundamental issue that also needs to be addressed: Who will bail out the institution that has been trying desperately to bail out the economy – the federal government?

Let me explain. The Troubled Asset Relief Program bill; various bailouts to financial institutions, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and passage of the $792 billion “stimulus” bill designed to improve the economy will lead to a federal deficit for the current fiscal year of nearly $1.8 trillion – more than triple the previous record.

Think that math is daunting? The long-term math is much worse, as the federal government’s impending entitlement obligations will far outstrip the losses of any subprime lender. Medicare faces 75-year obligations of $36 trillion, according to the trustees’ latest report. Add in Social Security, and the total rises to $56 trillion. That amounts to $746 billion – more than the size of the original TARP bill – per year, every year, for three generations.

Of course, these deficits have meaning only if someone is willing to finance them – and in the future, investors may not be inclined to do so. With the global economy in turmoil, investors in recent months have turned to Treasury bonds to guarantee the safety of their investments. Five, 10 or 20 years from now, businesses in a stronger China and India or an aggressive Russia may not want to finance Americans’ pension and health care costs and might choose instead to diversify their portfolios elsewhere.

The results of a loss of confidence in the dollar could be catastrophic. A rapid fall in the dollar would raise the price of imports, sparking inflation fears. Rising interest rates would increase the federal government’s borrowing costs at a time of fiscal stress. Also, higher financing costs for homeowners could depress the nation’s real estate market once again. If you think the mortgage crisis of the past two years was bad, America’s fiscal crisis, left unchecked, could unleash a real estate crash of even greater proportions.

The mortgage crisis has laid bare one truth, unpleasant for politicians to state but accurate nonetheless: Over the past several decades, we as a nation have spent more than we could afford. Doubtless there were abuses within the mortgage industry, and some people likely were misled. But the fact remains that some Americans bought too much house, too much car, too many clothes or supplies for their budgets.

Changing those habits will require collective sacrifice, self-discipline – and yes, no small share of pain – but it is essential for the long-term health and stability of our economy and our nation.

Similarly, the federal government needs to reform its spending obligations to make sure our promises to America’s seniors align with our future economic resources. These actions should look to slow the growth of health care costs and tackle the difficult choices head-on.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s proposed budget actually would increase heath care spending – a poor way to control the explosion in health costs. Moreover, the explosion of federal debt in the budget plan – $3.2 trillion in the next two years alone – will hinder the federal government’s ability to take swift and decisive action reforming entitlement spending.

Some are convinced the best way to slow growth in costs and save Medicare is for the government to spend yet more money and create new health care entitlements. The logic of this reasoning escapes me: After all, who would try to lose weight by eating more? Instead, we should focus first on saving Medicare for seniors and using Medicare as a model to slow the growth of health costs nationwide rather than enacting new budget-busting programs – only for the government to impose controls on patient care a few years from now, when exploding entitlement costs bring the federal budget to its knees.

For good and for ill, the last Congress passed in record time a $700 billion bailout for financial institutions in an attempt to stanch the current economic crisis. I only hope the current Congress will act half as quickly to stop the bleeding on America’s entitlement crisis so future generations won’t end up wondering why we didn’t act when we could.

This post was originally published at The Washington Times.

Weekly Newsletter: July 21, 2008

Resolution Would Block SCHIP Funds from Being Targeted to Poor Children

Last week, a group of Senators introduced a Resolution of Disapproval (S. J. Res. 44) designed to nullify guidance put forward by the Administration regarding state efforts to expand government-funded health insurance coverage to higher-income children. The guidance, issued last August and revised this May, provides a list of steps states must take in order to expand coverage to children in families making over 250% of the federal poverty level (approximately $50,000 for a family of four), and to ensure that states do not encourage families to drop private insurance coverage in order to obtain coverage through a government program.

Many conservatives may be surprised and disappointed by this resolution, which if successful would effectively give states a disincentive to reach out and enroll poorer-income children if children from wealthier families can be more easily found and enrolled in government-funded coverage. Particularly as the Administration has issued clarifying guidance noting that no child need be dropped off the SCHIP rolls while states implement this new policy, some conservatives may question why Democrats would prefer to extend government-funded health insurance to families making $80,000 or more, while neglecting to ensure that poorer children receive first preference for SCHIP enrollment.

An RSC Policy Brief on the Administration’s SCHIP Guidance can be found here.

Medicaid Bailout for States Receives Committee Hearing

This week the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a Subcommittee hearing on legislation (H.R. 5268) designed to provide a temporary increase in the Medicaid matching rate provided to states. News reports suggest that the Democrat leadership may attempt to attach similar provisions to a second “stimulus” package being considered by the Congressional majority.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this legislation—which was proposed, and rejected, during negotiations over the first “stimulus” bill passed in January—would not provide any “stimulus” at all, instead substituting federal Medicaid spending for state dollars, at a significant cost to the federal budget deficit. Given an Urban Institute study suggesting that lost revenue—and not increases in Medicaid enrollment—generates a measurably larger impact on state budgets during economic downturns, some conservatives may view H.R. 5268 as providing a bailout to states, which did not engage in proper budgetary planning, that will only encourage “moral hazard” among states with flawed revenue projection models.

The legislation being considered also includes provisions designed to disregard “extraordinary pension contributions” for purposes of calculating each state’s Medicaid match rate. Because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has noted that Michigan—home to full Committee Chairman John Dingell—is the only state that would benefit from such a change, some conservatives may consider this provision an authorizing earmark and object to its inclusion.

An RSC Policy Brief on Medicaid matching formulae can be found here.

Documents of Note: Democrats Defend Entitlement Spending on the Wealthy

Last Wednesday, RSC Chairman Hensarling submitted an op-ed to the Washington Times discussing Medicare legislation recently enacted over the President’s veto. The article noted that the Democrat-constructed bill pits groups of low-income seniors against each other—by adding subsidies for some, while taking away access to Medicare Advantage for millions—all the while doing nothing to make billionaires like Warren Buffett and George Soros pay $2 per day more for prescription drug coverage.

Read the op-ed here.

And as Congress once again may consider SCHIP-related legislation, some conservatives may find the colloquy between Rep. Mike Burgess (R-TX) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Dingell from last October enlightening. In it, Chairman Dingell admitted that states can choose to disregard tens of thousands of dollars of income from families applying for SCHIP—thus making families with six-figure incomes potentially subject to government-funded health insurance for “poor” children.

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.

Weekly Newsletter: February 25, 2008

Mental Health Parity Bill Headed for Floor

With the House scheduled to return from its President’s Day recess today, the period between now and the Easter recess may include action on a mental health bill (H.R. 1424) sponsored by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). Among other provisions, the bill would impose a federal mandate that group health insurance plans offered by employers provide insurance coverage for a broad array of mental and substance abuse disorders, impose a federal scope of benefits for mental health coverage, and permit states to enact laws with more stringent consumer protections, potentially creating a patchwork of regulations to which large employers will be forced to comply.

Some conservatives may have strong concerns about both the principle behind the legislation—a costly federal mandate that will raise the health insurance premiums and increase the number of uninsured Americans—as well as the way in which the expansive House language would mandate coverage for “mental disorders” such as caffeine addiction and jet leg. The RSC will be monitoring this legislation as it makes its way to the House floor, and will be weighing in during the process to express conservatives’ concerns.

SCHIP Hearing Scheduled

Tomorrow the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a hearing around the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). This hearing will center around the guidance letter the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued in August 2007 requiring states to take steps that ensure that SCHIP funds are targeted toward low-income children before states spend money to expand coverage to wealthier populations.

Most conservatives support enrollment and funding of the SCHIP program for the populations for whom the SCHIP program was created. That is why in December the House passed, by a 411—3 vote, legislation reauthorizing and extending the SCHIP program through March 2009. That legislation included an additional $800 million in funding for states to ensure that all currently eligible children will continue to have access to state-based SCHIP coverage. However, many conservatives also express strong reservations about further expansions of government-funded health insurance, particularly when those expansions would displace private insurance coverage held by wealthier families and children.

Interestingly enough, the Subcommittee hearing comes just over a week after full Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) called the President’s Medicare trigger proposal “little more than a scare tactic.” With the size of America’s unfunded obligations rising by $2 trillion every year that Congress takes no action to reform entitlement spending, some conservatives might argue that the better way to help America’s children is to reform Medicare and Medicaid so that future generations will not be saddled with trillions of dollars of debt, not work to expand public programs for wealthier children.

Chairman Hensarling Op-Ed on Medicare Trigger Legislation

Last Friday, RSC Chairman Jeb Hensarling placed an op-ed article in The Washington Times discussing President Bush’s submissions to Congress regarding the state of Medicare—both the package of reimbursement adjustments proposed in the Fiscal Year 2009 budget, and the additional reforms proposed as part of the White House’s response to the “trigger” issued as a result of the Medicare trustees’ funding warning.

Chairman Hensarling’s article reflects the views of many conservatives that the “trigger” represents a critical opportunity to enact fundamental reform of the Medicare program that should ensure the program’s long-term sustainability and reduce its cost growth. In the coming months, RSC members will explore and advocate for market-based approaches intended to alleviate the fiscal crisis that will loom large in the absence of comprehensive entitlement reform.

Read the article here. To learn more about the Medicare trigger, read the RSC policy briefs on this issue.

Article of Note: “Lone Star Showdown”

With the Presidential primary campaign moving to the key states of Texas and Ohio, the Hudson Institute’s Betsy McCaughey examines the way in which the Democratic candidates’ proposals might affect the Lone Star State. Her op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal posed questions to Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) that illustrated the logistical and philosophical objections many conservatives find with their health platforms:

  • Would illegal immigrants receive federal subsidies for health insurance?
  • How would a mandate for all individuals to have health insurance—or, in the case of Sen. Obama’s plan, requiring all parents to buy coverage for their children—be enforced?
  • How are guaranteed issue and community rating policies—which prohibit insurance carriers from varying premiums based on age or health status—fair to the younger workers who will pay more to subsidize older and less healthy—but presumably richer—individuals?
  • How are dozens of costly state benefit mandates consistent with “affordable” health insurance coverage?
  • Will promises that individuals will be able to keep coverage they like extend to persons with high-deductible health plans and/or Health Savings Accounts, or will they be forced to convert to more expensive coverage they may not want?
  • Is attempting to regulate the profits of insurance companies a wise role for government to be playing in health care—or in any industry, for that matter?McCaughey’s article uses examples derived from Texas, but the concerns she raises could be cited by conservatives in all states as they weigh the import of the proposals put forward by the Presidential contenders.

Read the article here: The Wall Street Journal: “Health Questions for the Candidates” (subscription required)

Rep. Hensarling Op-Ed: Medicare and Entitlements

It’s become an annual ritual — almost as much a herald of springtime in Washington as the cherry blossoms along the Potomac: President Bush advances a plan for entitlement reform, and Democrats in Congress proclaim it “dead on arrival.” It happened with Social Security reform three years ago, it happened with the president’s proposed savings from Medicare last year, and now it’s about to happen again with the new and enhanced Medicare proposals that the White House has delivered to Capitol Hill. But things are a bit different this time — for better and for worse.

The worsening news comes from the Medicare trustees themselves, whose latest report details the precarious financial situation of the trust funds that finance Medicare expenditures. The trustees warn that Medicare faces collective unfunded obligations of more than $74 trillion — more than six times the current size of the American economy. And those obligations are not getting smaller; they keep increasing. The Government Accountability Office estimates that for each year that Medicare and Social Security entitlements go unreformed, their projected shortfall grows by an additional $2 trillion.

The implications of these warnings from the trustees could not be more stark to the 200 million Americans under age 54 — who, according to the latest trustees’ report, will not be able to retire with full Medicare benefits. The Medicare Part A trust fund is scheduled to be “exhausted” — in plain English, flat broke — in 2019. This means that tens of millions of Baby Boomers face an uncertain retirement rife with questions about the future of health care.

If there is a silver lining to be found amid the darkening fiscal clouds, it lies in statutory provisions that ensure that proposals to curb Medicare spending will live to see the light of a fair vote in Congress. Fortunately, my Republican Study Committee colleagues and I added a little-known provision into the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 — the overarching law that added prescription drug benefits to Medicare — that requires the independent Medicare trustees to issue a funding warning if Medicare expenditures are projected to grow to levels that will take away from other important national priorities. The president has now responded to that warning by submitting proposals that will help save the Medicare system by slowing its growth and empowering concerned Americans to demand comprehensive entitlement reform.

The president’s budget constituted a good first step toward Medicare reform, proposing to slow the growth of Medicare by nearly $178 billion over the next five years. Contrary to the mythical rhetoric of congressional Democratic leaders, the president’s budget proposal would not “cut” Medicare. Instead, his proposal allows Medicare to grow by 5 percent, instead of the 7.2 percent currently projected. Since most providers would continue to receive increased reimbursements from the federal government, the level, number and intensity of services provided would still continue to grow. And therein lies one of the keys to true Medicare reform: ensuring that budgetary savings derive from wise choices by patients and doctors about the most cost-effective treatment options.

In addition to the White House budget proposals, there are additional, more comprehensive solutions that have the potential to yield greater savings and slow the growth of the health costs that threaten to cripple our future. Solutions that would restructure Medicare cost-sharing and increase means-testing for wealthy beneficiaries would ensure the program’s sustainability by making beneficiaries more cost-conscious. Solutions like medical liability reform that would reduce providers’ costs associated with legal claims, saving money for Medicare and the general public. Solutions that would transform Medicare into a health care system similar to that which members of Congress have so that all seniors receive better care at a lower cost.

The president’s proposals have advanced the discussion of Medicare reform, and the trigger mechanism which we instituted five years ago provides Congress with a golden opportunity to conduct a thorough, stem-to-stern review of the way seniors receive health care and ensure that we can maintain our promises to baby boomers and future retirees alike.

The current race for the White House is teaching us many things about the American people. They are clamoring for change and yearn for leaders who will not only speak the truth about the problems facing our nation but work to provide solutions to them. Congress has an opportunity to do just that without waiting for a new president.

We have 2 trillion — that’s 2,000,000,000,000 — reasons to act on comprehensive entitlement reform, and to act this year. The American people expect no less.

This post was originally published in The Washington Times.