Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin and why is he saying such terrible things about health reform?

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing entitled: Unaffordable: Impact of Obamacare on Americans’ Health Insurance.  (Always nice to know that our elected representatives are keeping an open mind.)

Prominent on the list of witnesses: “Douglas Holtz-Eakin.” Even before reading his testimony, I knew what Holtz-Eakin would say: young, health Americans should brace for “sticker shock.”  Conservatives like Holtz-Eakin tend to stay on script. However stale the rhetoric, they firmly believe that if you repeat a sound-bite often enough, people will believe it.                                     

                                        Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin?

If you recognize the name, it’s probably because Holtz-Eakin has become a familiar figure in the mainstream media, quoted in the New York Times, writing Op-eds for Reuters and Politico.com, and appearing, not only on Fox Business News, but on CNN and the PBS’ Newshour.

Alternatively, “Holtz-Eakin” may ring a bell because he served as a member of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and as Director of Bush’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO.)

In a remarkably candid 2011 interview, Holtz Eakin recalled his tour in the Bush administration:

“Going into the summer of 2001, things were getting worse. . . When we first went in and talked to the President, Glenn [Hubbard] and Larry Lindsey said, ‘Mr. President . . . We’re probably not going to run a surplus on budget.  We’re going to run a deficit.”

Bush’s reply: “We’re not going to run a deficit. If you come in here with a deficit, you’re both fired. Go fix it.’”

We ended up running a budget surplus of one billion dollars,” Holtz-Eakin confided, “driven by gimmicks of remarkable proportions.”
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Gun Control: No Room For Compromise

When it comes to guns, the United States is exceptional. We have the highest civilian gun ownership rate in the world, with 89 guns per 100 people, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. 

The U.S. gun lobby sometimes cites Switzerland as an example of a country that has many privately owned guns and little violent crime. (Their  argument seems to be guns don’t kill people; only lunatic Americans kill people.)

In fact, ammunition kills people. It is true that  Switzerland, like the United States, has a strong gun culture with many shooting clubs — but it also has a mass citizen militia. Members of the part-time militia, in which most men serve, are allowed to keep their weapons at home, and the country of less than 8 million people owns at least 2.3 million weapons, many stashed under beds and in cupboards. But while Swiss homes contain guns, ammunition is largely kept under lock and key at local military depots.

                                       American “Exceptionalism”

 Someone once described Canada as “a country in North America where everyone has health insurance.” The same pundit defined the U.S. as “a country in North America where everyone has a gun.”

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How Much Will We Save If We Raise the Age When Seniors Can Apply for Medicare to 67? Less than Zero

The budget deadlock continues.

President Obama is clear: if we want to strengthen the economy, we can no longer afford President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of all Americans. At the same time,  he is equally firm that he will continue tax relief for the other 98%.

House Speaker John Boehner has responded by characterizing Obama’s proposal as coming from “La-la land.”  Once again, Boehner has insisted that his party will not agree to let marginal tax rates for Americans earning over $200,000 ($250,000 for couples ) rise back to where they were in the 1990s.

Instead, Boehner proposes slicing social safety net programs. As part of the package, he continues to insist that we raise the age when Americans can apply for Medicare from 65 to 67. If we did this, the Congressional Budget  Office says, Medicare spending would decline by about 5 percent. 

                                     “We Are Not Living Longer”

On the face of it, lifting the eligibility age for Medicare might sound like a reasonable idea. After all, longevity has increased. Can’t we wait a couple of years before we ask the government to cover our health benefits?

First, “We” are not living longer. “Some of us” are living longer. But low-income and median-income Americans (who most need these benefits) die sooner than the  politicians who propose that we raise the age requirement for Medicare.

Research from the Social Security administration shows that increases in life expectancy have not been shared.  In 1977, life expectancy at age 65 for a man who was in the bottom half of earners during his peak earning years was 79.8 years; a 65 year-old male who was in the top half of earners at the same point in his career, could assume that he would live roughly 10 years longer,  to 80.5

Over the past 30 years, the gap has widened, During those three decades life expectancy  grew dramatically for the top half of earners, while remaining nearly flat for the bottom half

Education serves as another marker for life expectancy: According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC) between 1996-2006, the difference in life expectancy at age 25 between those with less than a high school education and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 1.9 years for men and 2.8 years for women.  On average in 2006, 25-year-old men without a high school diploma had a life expectancy 9.3 years less than those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.  Women without a high school diploma had a life expectancy 8.6 years less than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Race also plays a role. For example, a white male born in 2009 can expect to live to be 76.3 while an African-American male born that year is likely to  die shortly after he turns 70.  Lift the age when he becomes eligible for Medicare to 67, and he may be  be suffering though the final stage of a chronic disease before he qualifies. Yet, he, like every other working American, will have contributed to Medicare for decades.

Finally, occupation helps determine how long you live. Low-income workers are more likely to be engaged in work that is physically grueling. By age 65, the body is wearing out. At that point, a person needs Medicare.

As David A. Smith, Director, Public Policy Department, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) testified at a 1998 hearing on the Future of Social Security before the House Ways and Means Sub Committee on Social Security:  “It is clear that people who spend their work lives scrubbing floors in a nursing home, moving 5 liter engine blocks around a factory floor, pouring steel into a Bessemer mill, or hauling bricks around a construction site can count on a shorter life span and a shorter work life. They are more likely to experience work place injuries and to lack the continued physical endurance necessary to perform their jobs very far into their 60’s.”

As a simple matter of fairness, asking those who have worked harder to wait another  two years before receiving Medicare seems cruel.

                                       The Bogus Financial Argument 

Admittedly Republicans might not acknowledge the “fairness” argument. If you believe that a person’s health is a matter of “personal responsibility,” you might say that if the poor are aging faster than the rest of us, it is because they smoke, eat too many carbs, and generally “don’t take care of themselves.”                                           

But, fairness aside, when you look at the numbers, it turns out that the claim that we can save billions by requiring that everyone wait until 67 before applying for Medicare is bogus.
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Can U.S. Businesses Afford Obamacare?

No doubt you have heard that the Olive Garden, Denny’s and Papa John’s Pizza all are slapping an “Obamacare surcharge” on the price of their products.  They claim they have no choice.

But the news that Americans might pay 50 cents more for a mediocre $10 meal at the Olive Garden is not what bothers me most. Since President Obama was re-elected each of these restaurant chains have announced that they also plan to cut many full-time workers’ hours back to less than 30 hours a week in order to duck the cost of providing health care benefits.. This means that employees who are now working 40 hours a week will have to look for a second job—or find a way to support themselves on less than three-quarters of their current salary.

Michael Tanner, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute, argues that companies outside the restaurant business also will be forced to down-size. Just a few days ago, Tanner wrote: “While restaurants are especially vulnerable to the cost of Obamcare other business are being hit too. For example, Boston Scientific has announced that it will now lay off up to 1,400 workers and shift some jobs to China. And Dana Holdings, an auto-parts manufacturer with more than 25,000 employees, says it too is exploring ObamaCare-related layoffs.”

Obamacare will  “keep unemployment high,” Tanner claims, because under reform legislation, businesses that have at least 50 employees working over 30 hours a week are expected to offer their workers affordable health insurance. If they choose not to, and more than 30 of their employees qualify for government subsidies to help them purchase their own coverage, the employer must pay a penalty of $3,000 for each worker who receives a subsidy— up to a maximum of $2,000 times the number of the company’s full-time employee minus 30. (The Kaiser Family Foundation offers an excellent graphic explaining the rule.) 

By paying the fine, the employer is, in effect, paying a share of a tax credit that would cost the government anywhere from roughly $1,700 for a single young worker  to over $12,000 to help the average 35-year-old worker who has a spouse, two children, and reports $35,000 in total household income.

Conservatives like Tanner argue that that is unfair, and that small businesses– “the engine of job growth”– will be hit hardest.  

What they  don’t do is look at the math:

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Breakfast with Atul Gawande

Sunday, Boston Surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande spoke at the New Yorker Festival about the importance of a hospital being able to “Rescue Success from Profound Failure.”   (Long-time Health Beat readers will recognize Gawande as the author of Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect ScienceThe Checklist Manifesto  and a number of brilliant New Yorker articles that I have written about in the past, including: “Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When it Can’t Save Your Life?”,  “It Will Take Ambition It Will Take Humility,” and  “The Fight for the Soul of American Medicine”  (Hat-tip to the New Yorker for publishing so many stellar articles illuminating an extraordinarily complicated subject: healthcare and healthcare reform.)

Before Gawande’s talk began, IBM, the event’s sponsor, hosted a small breakfast where Gawande spoke informally to a group of doctors, health plan executives, hospital administrators and people from IBM who are in the vanguard of healthcare reform. The New Yorker was kind enough to invite me to attend the breakfast and blog about the conversation.

                              Less Expensive Medical Care Can Mean Better Care   

At Sunday’s breakfast Gawande began by observing that “in just the past four or five years we have seen a huge shift in the national conservation about health care.” Since 2007 or 2008 many have come to realize that when it comes to medical care in the U.S., “there is no direct relationship between the amount of money spent and positive results.”  In other words, although we spend twice as much as many other developed countries on health care, medical care in the U.S. is not twice as good. In some ways it is worse.

Yet this epiphany is not as discouraging at it sounds. As Gawande pointed out, “Recognizing that expensive care does not necessarily equal top-quality care has enabled a decoupling of the two issues in the public mind, and opened up the possibility for real beneficial change in the system. The Affordable Care Act’s goal” of securing high quality care for everyone is, in fact, affordable. “We don’t have to ration care.”
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