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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Ignore the Hype: Why Health Insurance Premiums Won’t Skyrocket in 2014

Health reform’s critics are sounding the alarm: in 2014, they say, health insurance premiums will climb, both for small businesses and for individuals who purchase their own coverage. “Hold onto your hat,” writes  Bob Laszewski, editor of Health Care Policy and Market Place Review. “There Will Be Sticker Shock!” 

Laszweski’s piece has been cross-posted on popular blogs, and his forecasts have been popping up in mainstream newspapers, including  USA Today Such wide circulation makes Laszewski’s warnings worthy of attention, and compels me to ask an important, if impertinent, question: Is what he says true?

Cherry-picking a CBO report

The Congressional Budget Office expects  that the ACA will have a “negligible” effect on the premiums that large employers pay for insurance, and most experts agree. But in the individual market, Laszewski claims that CBO projections show “10% to 13% premium increases.”

Here is what the CBO actually said:

About 57 percent of people buying [their own] insurance would receive subsidies  via the new insurance exchanges, and those subsidies, on average, would cover nearly two-thirds of the total premium.

“Thus, the amount that subsidized enrollees would pay would be roughly 56 percent to 59 percent lower, on average, than the premiums charged under current law.”

Wait a minute: “56 to 59 percent lower?” Where does Laszweski get “10 percent to 13 percent higher?

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U.S. Media Loves “Fiscal Cliff” Metaphor; The Economist Recognizes that It’s An Imaginary Line in the Sand

In the U.S., pundits cannot resist the fiscal cliff metaphor: it’s colorful, punchy and easy to understand. It’s just two words long. What’s not to like?

It’s not true.

The metaphor assumes that if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach an agreement on the budget by the end of the year, the U.S. economy falls over a cliff,  crashes, and burns.  The “cliff “metaphor complements the equally imaginative “iceberg metaphor” that some fear-mongers use to portray the deficit. (Think Titanic) 

It’s all a bit more complicated than the metaphors suggest.

What few conservatives mention is that the deficit has already begun to dissolve:  since 2009 the deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP to 7% in the fiscal year that ended on September 30th.  By historic standards this is still enormous, and must be addressed. But  the numbers demonstrate that, over time, we can reduce the deficit without renting the nation’s safety nets.

As for the cliff, there is no precipice—just an imaginary line, drawn in the sand, as Republicans and Democrats play “chicken.”

The Economist understands all of this. The lead story in the most recent issue focuses on the “cliff” and points out that “worries” about what will happen if we go over that precipice are “understandable”  but “overblown.” The “risk of economic catastrophe is minimal.” Any damage would be short-term. 

I don’t always agree with the Economist: the UK publication has its own sometimes eccentric slant on things. But on the whole, it is a thoughtful publication—well-researched and fact-checked.  Moreover, in this case, distance may give the Economist a perspective on the problem that some in the U.S. lack.

                                   Exaggerating the Threat to the Middle-Class      

Yesterday’s New York Times suggests that if we cross that line in the sand, an already beleaguered the middle-class will suffer great hardship, and this “Complicates Democrats’ Stance in Talks.” 

The analysis suggests that Democrats don’t dare just stand back and let Bush’s tax cuts expire– as they will if party leaders don’t reach a settlement by year-end: “Only a small handful of policy voices on the left are making the case for the tax cuts to fully expire. In part, that is because the economy is still growing slowly, and tax increases have the potential to weaken it.” But it is also because “If the two parties fail to come to a deal by Jan. 1, taxes on the average middle-income family would rise about $2,000 over the next year. That would follow a 12-year period in which median inflation-adjusted income dropped 8.9 percent, from $54,932 in 1999 to $50,054 in 2011.”

This assumes that once we miss the January 1 deadline, tax hikes for the middle-class would become permanent—which, of course, is not true. Talk about how much more a family would pay over the course of 2013 falls somewhere between hyperbole and hysteria, ignoring what everyone knows:

If the Bush tax cuts expire, Democrats will presumably simply propose to restore them in January for those [families] earning less than $250,000,” the Economist observes, “daring Republicans to block them.” 
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Why Market Competition Will Not Lower the Cost of Health Insurance

 “Competition drives improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, offering consumers higher quality goods and services at lower cost. It can have the same effect in the health care system, if given the chance to work.”– Mitt Romney

Creating “robust competition” is at the core of Mitt Romney’s approach to Health Care Reform. He would be right–if health care were commodity like any other.  In many industries when more sellers compete for customers, prices come down. Think of thin-screen TVs.  But the healthcare market is not like other markets, as a great many health care economists have explained.

When it comes to medical care, the consumer does not have the leverage that he enjoys in other markets because there is too much uncertainty about a) what he needs, and b) the value of what is, in the end, a very complicated product.

First, consider his needs: Should he purchase an expensive, comprehensive policy with no caps on annual or lifetime payouts? If he has a big family, he knows he needs a big car. But he has no way of knowing whether he, his spouse or one of his children will develop cancer, MS., Alzheimer’s or be in an accident that leaves one of them paralyzed for life. So there is no way that a savvy consumer can bring down insurance prices by shopping for the “least expensive policy that fits his needs.”

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What Will the Supreme Court’s Decision Mean for the November Election?

Thursday, when Chief Justice Roberts explained that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is constitutional because the “penalty” that some Americans will have to pay is, for all practical purposes, a “tax,” you could hear tea cups shattering from Billings to Boca Raton. In conservative and libertarian circles, the initial reaction was shock, but it didn’t take long for President Obama’s opponents to rally.

The word “tax” might as well have been a pistol shot at a horse race. In the blink of an eye, Obama’s opponents were off and running, megaphones in hand, blasting the president for lying to the American people while hiking taxes under the guise of healthcare reform. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign then began providing regular Twitter updates on the campaign contributions it was raking in following the decision. Friday, it announced that it had collected $5.5 million.

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How Health Care Reform Can Create Jobs — and Cut Costs

The following post originally appeared on the TIME Moneyland blog.

Nobody would be surprised to hear that spending more on healthcare will result in new jobs. But a new program announced by the Obama administration last week seeks to create new healthcare jobs and at the same time reduce healthcare costs. Is such a trick possible?

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