Obama to Boehner: “John, I’m Getting Tired of Hearing You Say That”

This was President Obama’s reply, during fiscal cliff negotiations, when House Speaker John Boehner declared, for the umpteenth time, that “ The U.S. has a spending problem.” 

I can understand the president’s irritation. How could anyone believe that we have a “spending problem?’

Look around. Consider the state of our bridges, our roads and our crumbling inner city public schools. Are we spending too much on the nation’s infrastructure?

Next, think about unemployment. During this recovery we have lost 750,000 public sector jobs.  Republicans are intent on “starving the beast” (of government) and as a result Washington has not given states the financial support they need continue delivering public services. Across the nation, public school teachers have been laid off in droves, while class sizes increase at unprecedented rates.  Does this sound like government spending run amuck?

One in five American children now lives in poverty. Seventeen million children find themselves in homes where they can’t be sure of getting enough to eat.  (a.k.a. “food-insecure households.”)  At the end of the month, many kids go to bed hungry because the government Food Stamps program (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP)  gives families less than $1.50 per person per meal. Are we being overly generous?

During the past two wars, we sent millions of American men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan –many went back for repeated tours. In some cases, their bodies were not  broken–but their minds were.  Now 1.3 million Vets seeking mental health services are told they must wait of 50 days before getting treatment.   A recent government report suggests that 22 Vets die by suicide every day – about 20 percent of all Americans who kill themselves. Are we spending too much on healthcare for Veterans?

Let me suggest that we don’t have a spending problem. We have a revenue problem. Current federal revenue levels are at their lowest levels since the 1950s. 

                      How Anti-Tax Pledges Have Weakened the Nation

In a recent post, Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nailed it: “The tax system doesn’t raise enough revenue.  And that’s not just the recession; it’s also tax policy and anti-tax pledges  . . . The system has become less progressive, with the largest declines in effective tax rates at the top of the income scale.

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Obama’s Proposals For Medicare — Do They Go Far Enough? Will They Become Law?

Not long ago, I wrote about the Center for American Progress’ (CAP’s) “Senior Protection Plan” —a report that aims to rein in Medicare “by $385 billion over ten years without harming beneficiaries.” In that post, I suggested that CAP’s proposals might well give us a preview of the “modest adjustments” that President Obama had said he would be willing to make to Medicare.  At the time, I highlighted three of CAP’s recommendations:

– increase premiums for the wealthiest 10% of Medicare beneficiaries (raising $25 billion);

– insist that drug-makers extend Medicaid rebates to low-income Medicare beneficiaries (saving $137.4 billion);

– prohibit “pay for delay” agreements that let “brand-name drug manufacturers pay generic drug manufacturers to keep generics off the market” (saving $5 billion).

Last week, in his State of the Union address, President Obama embraced the first two:  “Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs,” he noted. “The reforms I’m proposing go even further. We’ll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors.”  (In time, I suspect that the administration also will call for a ban on those decidedly seamy “pay for delay” deals.)

“On Medicare,” he added, “I’m prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.” The commission called for reducing Medicare spending by roughly $350 billion over 10 years–  a sum that is not far from CAP’s $385 billion target.

Are These “Adjustments” Too Modest ?

These may seem like small numbers. But keep in mind that this is on top of the $950 billion that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) saves by squeezing waste out of health care spending, while simultaneously raising new revenues. Of that $950 billion, some $350 billion comes in the form of Medicare savings achieved by:

–  Pruning over-payments to private sector Medicare Advantage insurers– $132 billion  

–  Containing Medicare inflation by shaving annual “updates” in  payments to hospitals and other large facilities by 1% a year for ten years, beginning in 2014– $196 billion

– Cutting disproportionate share hospital payments to hospitals that care for a disproportionate share of poor and uninsured patients over 10 years beginning in 2014 – $22 billion.

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Join the debate on “Reining in Medicare Costs without Hurting Seniors”

The January 26 post below (“How to Rein in Medicare costs without Hurting Seniors“) has drawn some 43 comments (including mine, as I responded to readers). I thought of turning a couple of my replies into posts, but then decided it might be more interesting for you to read them in the context of what other readers said.

I would love to see more readers participate in this thread. Comments are still open.

It’s a lively thread that takes on a number of third-rail issues: Does Medicare spend too much on pricey cancer drugs, end-of-life care and brand name hospitals?

 Should we try to spend less on end-of life care? Many say “Yes,” but Zeke Emanuel (a medical ethicist and oncologist who was part of the Obama team during the president’s first term), says “No.” I link to a column where he notes that “It is conventional wisdom that end-of-life care is an increasingly huge proportion of health care spending. . . Wrong. Here are the real numbers: end-of-life care (not just for the elderly, but for all Americans) accounts for just 10% to 12% of  total health care spending. This figure has not changed significantly in decades.”

He goes on to suggest that while we probably can’t make end-of-life “cheaper,” we can make it “better . . .  Here are four things the health care system should do to try to improve care for the dying, even if they won’t save money.”

A number of readers comment on what is driving Medicare spending. Is it “patient expectations,”  “doctors’ fear of litigation,”  “regulations that dictate nurse-staffing ratios,” “practice patterns that doctors learned long ago,” or is the biggest problem “promotional efforts by manufacturers?”

Other questions come up: Does anyone really have any idea how much Medicare will cost in 2022?  By then will Medicare have begun negotiating with drug-makers and device-makers for discounts on drugs (the way the VA does now, saving 40%)?  How far will Medicare go in using medical evidence to decide what to cover?

One doctor/reader points out that in his field Medicare has begun to refuse to pay for procedures when research shows that they are not effective. He and another reader agree that in this way Medicare can provide “political cover” for private sector insurers who will follow Medicare’s lead.

We also discuss the deficit, and whether we should be trying to address the deficit now — or wait until the recession ends and unemployment falls. Also, is the deficit already dissolving as CAP suggests? 

And is the deficit our biggest problem? On this question, you will find links to Paul Krugman, Peter Orszag (who analyzes the slow-down in health care spending over the past three years as a “structural change, not just the result of the recession) and Ezra Klein,

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How to Rein in Medicare Spending Without Hurting Seniors

In his Inaugural speech, President Obama renewed his commitment to safety nets:  ”Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security–these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.

Yet last week, he signaled that he is “open to making modest adjustments to programs like Medicare.” Should seniors brace for bad news?

No. There are many ways to cut Medicare spending without drawing blood. It’s a matter of using a scalpel, not an axe, to trim the fat.

Not long ago, the Center for American Progress (CAP) unveiled a Senior Protection Plan that would do just that, revealing how we could reduce Medicare spending by $385 billion without harming beneficiaries.”

The administration pays attention to CAP. Recently Bloomberg News described CAP as “the intellectual wellspring for Democratic policy proposals, including many that are shaping the agenda of the Obama administration.” This suggests that the report’s proposals may offer a preview of “adjustments to Medicare spending” that the president would consider.

How would CAP save $358 billion without rationing benefits or shifting costs to middle-class seniors? The report focuses on squeezing waste out of the system. Waste doesn’t help beneficiaries.

During recent fiscal cliff negotiations, Democrats and Republicans agreed to adopt four of CAP’s proposals, and I suspect that, over time, we will see more of its recommendations become part of the reality of health care reform.

Recently, I interviewed CAP president NeeraTanden and Topher Spiro, CAP’s managing director for health policy. I was impressed by how their practical approach differs from conservative strategies for slicing “entitlements.”
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As We Approach the Fiscal Cliff: What is the GOP’s Primary Goal?

In theory, the GOP’s main concern is the deficit. We must reduce it they say—and we must do it now–or face a financial Armageddon. But somehow or other, “cutting the deficit” always turns out to mean “reducing entitlement programs.”

Let me suggest that cutting those entitlements programs is the GOP’s primary goal.

Why would I say this?

Earlier this week , wh en Republican House speaker John Boehner presented his party’s counter-proposal for solving the budget deadlock, he once again put lifting the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 near the top of his list. Yet, it you take a hard look at the numbers, it becomes clear that this proposal would not save money–or strengthen the economy. Moreover, entitlement programs did not create the current deficit.

Begin with forcing seniors to wait until they are 67 before they can apply for Medicare. As I explain in the post above, this proposal simply shifts costs to employers, the states, everyone buying insurance in the Exchanges, other Medicare beneficiaries, and 65 and 66-year-olds themselves. It does not lower the nation’s total healthcare bill. Indeed, the GOP’s remedy would wind up costing us twice as much as we now spend providing Medicare benefits for people who are 65 and 66. (See graph in the post above).

I am not  the first person to make this argument. The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities  offer  eye-opening numbers that prove the point.  One would think that, if the GOP’s main goal were to save the economy, Republicans would be interested in these numbers.

One would be wrong.  They ignore them (and seem to have persuaded the mainstream media to follow suit.) Why would conservatives close their eyes to the financial facts? The GOP has an agenda, and it’s not about the deficit. The party’s main fear is “creeping socialism.”

Conservatives use the deficit as an excuse for slicing benefits that they acknowledge will inflict pain on the people who most depend on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—the elderly and the poor.

 

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Health Care Reform: Stage Two

Last week, my editorsat  the Health Insurance Resource Center (Healthinsurance.org) challenged me to write a letter to President Obama and suggest what he should do next to advance reform. They were looking for a “new, big idea.”

After thinking about it, I concluded that we don’t need another big idea.  The Affordable Care Act (ACA) contains a great many ideas. Now we need to implement them.

Critics of Obamacare have suggested that as we approach 2014, Washington needs to turn its attention to containing healthcare costs. In particular, they suggest that Medicare is too expensive.

But the fact is that if you read the legislation (and I have, more than once) , you’ll find that it already cuts Medicare spending by some $716 billion. And it does this without cutting medical benefits and without slashing Medicare’s reimbursements to doctors.

In addition, the ACA includes many carrots and sticks designed to encourage hospitals and doctors to provide more efficient, less costly, safer care. In the future they won’t be paid for doing More;  they’ll be paid for doing it Better–for Less. Only health care providers have the power to truly reform our wasteful health care system. Already we’ve seen some evidence that they are responding to the incentives: Medicare spending has slowed.

Finally, and most importantly, President Obama should reject any attempts to re-negotiate the ACA during budget talks. The ACA is not on the table. It is now the law of the land. The American people do not want to listen to politicians continue to debate healthcare. (They want their elected leaders to focus their attention on just one Big Idea: Jobs)

The election gave the president the green light to go ahead with reform.. Now, the administration needs to implement the legislation to so that we can see what works and what doesn’t. This will take time–but only then will we be in a position to revise, refine and improve on reform legislation. .

I hope you’ll read the entire post--and come back here to comment.

 

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Paul Ryan’s Plan for Medicare: A Disaster for Seniors (Why Doctors Might Stop Taking Medicare)

“Robin Hood in reverse, on steroids”–that’s how Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities (CBPP),  has described vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s blueprint for the 2013 budget: It could likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history.”

I quoted Greenstein in April, in a post that originally appeared on HealthInsurance.org. There, I explained that Ryan’s budget would shift Medicare costs to seniors  and slash Medicaid, while simultaneously offering tax breaks for Americans perched on the top of a our income ladder.

Under the newest version of the Ryan plan, Washington would give seniors a voucher equal to the cost of the second-cheapest private-sector Medicare plan in their region. In theory, this gives seniors “choice” — the opportunity to pick a Medicare policy that best suits their needs, and their pocketbook.

If they don’t want to buy a plan from a for-profit insurer, they could, if they wish, use the voucher to buy traditional government-sponsored Medicare–though if it costs more than that second-cheapest private plan in their area, they will have to make up the difference.

Romney and Ryan are convinced that the private sector is always more efficient than government. Thus, for-profit insurers will be bound to offer better care at a lower price. Their faith is remarkable, given that past attempts to privatize Medicare (Medicare + Choice and Medicare Advantage) have largely failed on both counts.

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Medicare, Medicaid, Global Warming and Gun Control– Can Liberals and Conservatives Find Middle Ground? Should They? Part 1

 In a nation divided, “compromise” has become an extraordinarily appealing idea. Weary of the acrimony and endless wrangling, more and more Americans are asking: Why can’t conservative and liberal politicians come together and forge bipartisan solutions to the problems this nation faces?

Keep in mind that it is not only our elected representatives who are having trouble finding common ground. The Pew Research Center’s latest survey of “American Values” reveals that as voters head to the polls this November, their basic beliefs are more polarized than at any point in the past 25 years. In particular, when it comes to the question of government regulation and involvement in our lives, the average Republican has gravitated to the right. In 1987, 62% of Republicans agreed that “the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” Now just 40% support this proposition. Democrats haven’t changed their views on this issue: most continue to believe “there, but for fortune . . .”

In Congress, where polarization has led to paralysis, some argue that Republican leaders are responsible for creating gridlock by insisting on “party discipline.” But liberals in Washington also are accused of “dividing the nation.” Even President Obama, who set out to unite the country, has been described as “the most polarizing president ever.” During his third year in office, Gallup reports, “an average of 80 percent of Democrats approved of the job he was doing, as compared to 12 percent of Republicans who felt the same way. That’s a 68-point partisan gap, the highest for any president’s third year”–though this may say more about the temper of the times than the man himself. Nevertheless, many commentators believe that progressives, like conservatives, need to cede ground. The debate has become too contentious, too “political,” they say. I disagree. There are times when we cannot “split the difference.” Too much is at stake. We must weigh what would be won against what would be lost.

But reporters who have been taught that they must be “fair” and “balanced” often write as if all points of view are equally true. After all, they don’t want to be accused of “bias.” Thus they fall into the trap of what veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse calls “he said, she said” journalism. To them, the “middle ground” seems a safe place– a fair place– to position a story.

This may help explain why so many bloggers and newspaper reporters are calling for “bi-partisan consensus” as they comment on some of the most important issues of the day.

Global Warming

Writing about global warming, Huffington Post senior writer Tom Zeller Jr. recently declared: “Compromise is the necessary first step to tackling the problem. What ordinary Americans really want is for honest brokers on all sides to detoxify and depoliticize the global warming conversation, and then get on with the business of addressing it. That business will necessarily recognize that we all bring different values and interests to the table; that we perceive risks and rewards, costs and benefits differently; and it will identify solutions through thoughtful discussion and that crazy thing called compromise.” [ my emphasis] (Hat tip to David Roberts (Twitter’s “Dr. Grist”) for calling my attention to this post.)

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Breaking the Curve of Health Care Inflation

The evidence is building:  As we move toward making the Affordable Care Act a reality,  Medicare spending in slowing, and even in the private sector, for the first time in more than a decade, insurers are focusing on reining in health care costs .  

The passage of reform legislation two years ago prompted a change in how both health care providers and payers think about care.  The ACA told insurers that they would no longer be able to shun the sick by refusing to cover those suffering from pre-existing conditions. They also won’t be allowed to cap how much ithey will pay out to an desperately ill patient over the course of a year –or a lifetime.  Perhaps most importantly,  going forward, insurance companies selling policies to individuals and small companies will have to reimburse for all of the “essential benefits” outlined in the ACA–benefits  that are not now covered by most policies.  This means that, if they hope to stay in business, they will have to find a way to ”manage” the cost of care–but they won’t be able to do it by denying needed care.

As for providers, they, too, will be under pressure. A growing number will no longer be paid “fee for service” that rewards them for “volume”–i.e. “doing more.” Bonuses will depend on better outcomes, and keeping patients out of the hospital–which means doing a better job of managing chronic illnesses.  Meanwhile, Medicare will be shaving 1% a year from annual increases in payments to hospitals. If medical centers want to stay in the black, they, too, will have to provide greater “value” for health care dollars– better outcomes at a lower cost.

This summer the Supreme Court’s decision sealed the deal. The ACA is constitutional. Health care reform is here to stay.

(Granted, if Mitt Romney wins the White House in November, all bets are off. But the Five Thirty Eight f’orecast, which has an impressive track record, suggests that Obama has a 70 percent chance of winning.  That said, liberals  should not be smug. The economy remains the greatest threat to President Obama’s re-election.)

Medicare Spending

The Obama administration should be broadcasting the news: Medicare spending is no longer growing at an unsustainable rate. Wednesday, Bloomberg columnist Peter Orszag commented on the “sharp deceleration” in Medicare’s outlays. A common way to evaluate the growth in spending for Medicare is to compare the increase per beneficiary to income per capita,” the former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) wrote.  “Over the past 30 years, this excess cost growth for Medicare has averaged about 2 percent a year. The goal of many policy proposals, including provisions in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, is to reduce the future excess cost growth to about 1 percent annually.”

What is astonishing is that Medicare is now exceeding that goal. Over the past year, “excess cost growth has been much less than the target of 1 percent,” Orszag reports. “According to the most recent figures from the Congressional Budget Office, total Medicare spending this year through June rose 4 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of Medicare beneficiaries rose by almost 4 percent, too, and income per capita rose by about 3 percent. So excess cost growth has been significantly below zero let alone below the target of 1 percent a year.” 

This suggests that the nation’s Medicare bill does not have to pose a threat to the economy, even as the  number of Americans on Medicare’s rolls grows. Widely accepted reserach reveals that at least one-third of Medicare dollars are wasted on over-priced products and unnecessary reatments. Cut that fat, and we can accommodate an aging population.

Sweden faced the problem of a greying population years ago, and has managed to avoid what many who would like to slash “entitlement programs”  insist is an “inevitable” explosion in medical spending as a nation grows older. Healh care spending in Sweden has remained remarkably stable since the 1980s, costing roughly 9% of GDP, and when it comes to quality of care–and patient satisfaction– Sweden’s health care system is rated as one of the best in the developed world. Continue reading

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“Essential Benefits” that Insurers Must Offer Under Health Care Reform

Will Universal Coverage Mean “Medicaid for All”?

Often, I refer to the health care reform bill that President Obama signed into law in March of 2010 as “the Affordable Care Act” or ACA.  Friday,  as I read the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) report on the “Essential Health Benefits” (EHB) that private insurers will be required to cover under reform, I resolved never to make that mistake again.

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