The complete spinelessness of Congress is now a fairly entrenched trend. Going back to Social Security reform; the Medicare prescription drug plan; etc.--it's very hard to write sweeping legislative changes these days. Every President going back to at least Reagan came to Washington and at the very least was forced to substantially roll back their agenda. Past Presidents may have left a broader impact in other countries, through their foreign policy, than domestically through their legislative agenda. Obama's majorities, his legislative background, and legislative staff may make a difference. But it seems very unlikely that any of their major bills--on healthcare, climate, or what have you--will be seen as very worthwhile on the merits.
For months, the president and his team argued that stepped-up investments in health information technology, comparative effectiveness research, and prevention and wellness programs could “bend the cost-curve,” thus making an expansion of coverage affordable for taxpayers. But the Congressional Budget Office, along with a chorus of independent skeptics, said those steps would never be up to the task of reliable cost control without more fundamental changes in the financial incentives facing consumers and providers of services.
Unfazed, the administration argued that it had other ways to control costs waiting in the wings. The conversation turned to “delivery system reform,” with the administration and its allies in Congress suggesting that new ways of paying health-care providers in Medicare could spur a wholesale shift in how doctors and hospitals cared for patients. As White House Budget Director Peter Orszag put it, “Medicare and Medicaid are big enough to change the way medicine is practiced.” The implication was that the new team was working on ways to painlessly root out wasteful spending by compensating providers for their services differently than they are paid today.
But no such proposals were ever forthcoming (except for relatively minor adjustments related to payments for hospitals with high readmission rates, and some baby steps toward more “bundling” of payments for a full episode of care). What the White House did eventually propose was a commission that would have the authority to change the way Medicare pays for services without further approval by Congress. So instead of offering a serious plan to “bend the cost-curve,” the administration offered a commission that would come up with a serious plan to “bend the cost-curve.” Quite predictably, many in Congress have not been so keen on this idea, as it would hand off to an unelected commission the power to rewrite Medicare’s provider-payment regulations. The administration’s commission idea is not in the House-passed bill.
Not to worry! The administration has another favorite cost-cutting tool. The idea is to tax so-called “Cadillac” health insurance plans, thus forcing both the insurers and the plan enrollees to find ways to economize to avoid the tax. But there’s a little problem with this idea too. President Obama was against it before he was for it. Recall that Republican presidential candidate John McCain proposed to convert today’s preferential tax treatment of employer-paid insurance premiums into a refundable credit. In October 2008, the Obama-Biden campaign excoriated this idea in scores of ads because it would tax health benefits “for the first time ever.” Now, the president wants to do just that — but, again not surprisingly, the populist revolt he stoked against it in 2008 was still smoldering when he endorsed it in 2009. It turns out that taxing high-cost insurance plans will actually hit many middle-class households, especially those with union members enrolled in collectively-bargained plans. House Democrats wouldn’t go near the idea, and reports indicate that the version of the high-cost insurance tax in the Senate Finance Committee bill is getting watered down by the day. If some version of it survives at all, it is highly unlikely to pinch enough to generate meaningful cost control.
Reviewing this legislative landscape, it’s suddenly dawning on all concerned that the bills moving in Congress won’t come close to “bending the curve” after all. That’s the thrust of a piece today in the New York Times, as well as one from last week in the Washington Post. Of course, even as House members and Senators shy away from tough decisions, they are not nearly as reticent about extending new health entitlement commitments. Thus, it is now abundantly clear that if anything is produced by this legislative process, it will be a bill that piles more unaffordable entitlement commitments on top of the unreformed ones already on the books.
And then you have Jonathan Gruber's logic, in which health care reform is a Pascal's wager; and increased coverage will make cost-cutting possible. This is a little like saying "Sure, eat another cheescake; there will be far greater pressure for you to diet once you're heavier, so there's no way you can get morbidly obese." Aside from the on-face absurdity, this does not match the experience of state governments testing variants of reforms under consideration, nor of any other countries as far as I can tell. Yet the idea that Congress will spontaneously grow a conscience before health costs engulf the economy is the best hope any of us have.