The Wall Street Journal
Dec. 21, 2009
And tidings of comfort and joy from Harry Reid too. The Senate Majority Leader has decided that the last few days before Christmas are the opportune moment for a narrow majority of Democrats to stuff ObamaCare through the Senate to meet an arbitrary White House deadline. Barring some extraordinary reversal, it now seems as if they have the 60 votes they need to jump off this cliff, with one-seventh of the economy in tow.
Mr. Obama promised a new era of transparent good government, yet on Saturday morning Mr. Reid threw out the 2,100-page bill that the world’s greatest deliberative body spent just 17 days debating and replaced it with a new “manager’s amendment” that was stapled together in covert partisan negotiations. Democrats are barely even bothering to pretend to care what’s in it, not that any Senator had the chance to digest it in the 38 hours before the first cloture vote at 1 a.m. this morning. After procedural motions that allow for no amendments, the final vote could come at 9 p.m. on December 24.
Even in World War I there was a Christmas truce.
The rushed, secretive way that a bill this destructive and unpopular is being forced on the country shows that “reform” has devolved into the raw exercise of political power for the single purpose of permanently expanding the American entitlement state. An increasing roll of leaders in health care and business are looking on aghast at a bill that is so large and convoluted that no one can truly understand it, as Finance Chairman Max Baucus admitted on the floor last week. The only goal is to ram it into law while the political window is still open, and clean up the mess later.
• Health costs. From the outset, the White House’s core claim was that reform would reduce health costs for individuals and businesses, and they’re sticking to that story. “Anyone who says otherwise simply hasn’t read the bills,” Mr. Obama said over the weekend. This is so utterly disingenuous that we doubt the President really believes it.
The best and most rigorous cost analysis was recently released by the insurer WellPoint, which mined its actuarial data in various regional markets to model the Senate bill. WellPoint found that a healthy 25-year-old in Milwaukee buying coverage on the individual market will see his costs rise by 178%. A small business based in Richmond with eight employees in average health will see a 23% increase. Insurance costs for a 40-year-old family with two kids living in Indianapolis will pay 106% more. And on and on.
These increases are solely the result of ObamaCare—above and far beyond the status quo—because its strict restrictions on underwriting and risk-pooling would distort insurance markets. All but a handful of states have rejected regulations like “community rating” because they encourage younger and healthier buyers to wait until they need expensive care, increasing costs for everyone. Benefits and pricing will now be determined by politics.
As for the White House’s line about cutting costs by eliminating supposed “waste,” even Victor Fuchs, an eminent economist generally supportive of ObamaCare, warned last week that these political theories are overly simplistic. “The oft-heard promise ‘we will find out what works and what does not’ scarcely does justice to the complexity of medical practice,” the Stanford professor wrote.
• Steep declines in choice and quality. This is all of a piece with the hubris of an Administration that thinks it can substitute government planning for market forces in determining where the $33 trillion the U.S. will spend on medicine over the next decade should go.
This centralized system means above all fewer choices; what works for the political class must work for everyone. With formerly private insurers converted into public utilities, for instance, they’ll inevitably be banned from selling products like health savings accounts that encourage more cost-conscious decisions.
Unnoticed by the press corps, the Congressional Budget Office argued recently that the Senate bill would so “substantially reduce flexibility in terms of the types, prices, and number of private sellers of health insurance” that companies like WellPoint might need to “be considered part of the federal budget.”
With so large a chunk of the economy and medical practice itself in Washington’s hands, quality will decline. Ultimately, “our capacity to innovate and develop new therapies would suffer most of all,” as Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier recently wrote in our pages. Take the $2 billion annual tax—rising to $3 billion in 2018—that will be leveled against medical device makers, among the most innovative U.S. industries. Democrats believe that more advanced health technologies like MRI machines and drug-coated stents are driving costs too high, though patients and their physicians might disagree.
“The Senate isn’t hearing those of us who are closest to the patient and work in the system every day,” Brent Eastman, the chairman of the American College of Surgeons, said in a statement for his organization and 18 other speciality societies opposing ObamaCare. For no other reason than ideological animus, doctor-owned hospitals will face harsh new limits on their growth and who they’re allowed to treat. Physician Hospitals of America says that ObamaCare will “destroy over 200 of America’s best and safest hospitals.”
• Blowing up the federal fisc. Even though Medicare’s unfunded liabilities are already about 2.6 times larger than the entire U.S. economy in 2008, Democrats are crowing that ObamaCare will cost “only” $871 billion over the next decade while fantastically reducing the deficit by $132 billion, according to CBO.
Yet some 98% of the total cost comes after 2014—remind us why there must absolutely be a vote this week—and most of the taxes start in 2010. That includes the payroll tax increase for individuals earning more than $200,000 that rose to 0.9 from 0.5 percentage points in Mr. Reid’s final machinations. Job creation, here we come.
Other deceptions include a new entitlement for long-term care that starts collecting premiums tomorrow but doesn’t start paying benefits until late in the decade. But the worst is not accounting for a formula that automatically slashes Medicare payments to doctors by 21.5% next year and deeper after that. Everyone knows the payment cuts won’t happen but they remain in the bill to make the cost look lower. The American Medical Association’s priority was eliminating this “sustainable growth rate” but all they got in return for their year of ObamaCare cheerleading was a two-month patch snuck into the defense bill that passed over the weekend.
The truth is that no one really knows how much ObamaCare will cost because its assumptions on paper are so unrealistic. To hide the cost increases created by other parts of the bill and transfer them onto the federal balance sheet, the Senate sets up government-run “exchanges” that will subsidize insurance for those earning up to 400% of the poverty level, or $96,000 for a family of four in 2016. Supposedly they would only be offered to those whose employers don’t provide insurance or work for small businesses.
As Eugene Steuerle of the left-leaning Urban Institute points out, this system would treat two workers with the same total compensation—whatever the mix of cash wages and benefits—very differently. Under the Senate bill, someone who earned $42,000 would get $5,749 from the current tax exclusion for employer-sponsored coverage but $12,750 in the exchange. A worker making $60,000 would get $8,310 in the exchanges but only $3,758 in the current system.
For this reason Mr. Steuerle concludes that the Senate bill is not just a new health system but also “a new welfare and tax system” that will warp the labor market. Given the incentives of these two-tier subsidies, employers with large numbers of lower-wage workers like Wal-Mart may well convert them into “contractors” or do more outsourcing. As more and more people flood into “free” health care, taxpayer costs will explode.
• Political intimidation. The experts who have pointed out such complications have been ignored or dismissed as “ideologues” by the White House. Those parts of the health-care industry that couldn’t be bribed outright, like Big Pharma, were coerced into acceding to this agenda. The White House was able to, er, persuade the likes of the AMA and the hospital lobbies because the federal government will control 55% of total U.S. health spending under ObamaCare, according to the Administration’s own Medicare actuaries.
Associated PressSen. Ben Nelson
Others got hush money, namely Nebraska’s Ben Nelson. Even liberal Governors have been howling for months about ObamaCare’s unfunded spending mandates: Other budget priorities like education will be crowded out when about 21% of the U.S. population is on Medicaid, the joint state-federal program intended for the poor. Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman calculates that ObamaCare will result in $2.5 billion in new costs for his state that “will be passed on to citizens through direct or indirect taxes and fees,” as he put it in a letter to his state’s junior Senator.
So in addition to abortion restrictions, Mr. Nelson won the concession that Congress will pay for 100% of Nebraska Medicaid expansions into perpetuity. His capitulation ought to cost him his political career, but more to the point, what about the other states that don’t have a Senator who’s the 60th vote for ObamaCare?
“After a nearly century-long struggle we are on the cusp of making health-care reform a reality in the United States of America,” Mr. Obama said on Saturday. He’s forced to claim the mandate of “history” because he can’t claim the mandate of voters. Some 51% of the public is now opposed, according to National Journal’s composite of all health polling. The more people know about ObamaCare, the more unpopular it becomes.
The tragedy is that Mr. Obama inherited a consensus that the health-care status quo needs serious reform, and a popular President might have crafted a durable compromise that blended the best ideas from both parties. A more honest and more thoughtful approach might have even done some good. But as Mr. Obama suggested, the Democratic old guard sees this plan as the culmination of 20th-century liberalism.
So instead we have this vast expansion of federal control. Never in our memory has so unpopular a bill been on the verge of passing Congress, never has social and economic legislation of this magnitude been forced through on a purely partisan vote, and never has a party exhibited more sheer political willfulness that is reckless even for Washington or had more warning about the consequences of its actions.
These 60 Democrats are creating a future of epic increases in spending, taxes and command-and-control regulation, in which bureaucracy trumps innovation and transfer payments are more important than private investment and individual decisions. In short, the Obama Democrats have chosen change nobody believes in—outside of themselves—and when it passes America will be paying for it for decades to come.