Wednesday, November 11, 2009

David Leonhardt tries to do Obama's job for him, part II

David Leonhardt continues to do yeoman's work explaining the stakes and outlining the means of health care cost control. Today he compares cost control measures in the House bill, which he finds wanting, with those in the Senate Finance Committee bill, which are stronger. His main theme: that the true test of the Obama Administration's leadership comes now, in the endgame, in the skill and force with which they push for the most promising cost control measures.

Perhaps the single most telling flashpoint, according to Leonhardt, will be the fate of the so-called "MedPAC on Steroids," a commission empowered to make a yearly package of Medicare cost control recommendations to Congress, which Congress would have to vote up or down as a package. Leonhardt calls a commission thus empowered a "Fed for Health" to emphasize the need for political insulation. "Whether one ends up in the final bill," he writes, "will be a good test of Mr. Obama's endgame leadership."

Obama would seem to agree with Leonhardt. Back in July, he highlighted the commission as a a potential guiding light for cost control over the course of years and decades, telling Fred Hiatt:
At this point, I am confident that both the House and the Senate bills will contain what we've been calling MedPAC on steroids, the idea that you continually present new ideas to change incentives, change the delivery system, understanding that because this is such a complex system we're not always going to get it exactly right the first time, and that there have to be a series of modifications over the course of a series of years, and we have to take that out of politics and make sure that an independent board of medical experts and health economists are providing packages that are continually improving the system. So I think there's general consensus that that is one of two very powerful levers to bend the cost curve.
As for the second "lever":

Now, the second idea, which is the one that got more attention, even though Elmendorf, I think, has emphasized the benefits of a MedPAC board, as well, was the elimination of the tax exclusion [on employer-provided health insurance]. And I've been very clear on my position that I think to add additional costs to families right now when they're already seeing their premiums doubled is not the kind of health reform that I'd like to see, but I believe that there may be ways of getting at the same principle.

For example, you could conceivably set up an index of some sort that makes sure that health care inflation -- or to make sure that the exclusion only accommodates a certain amount of health care inflation -- as opposed to 8 percent or 9 percent, or what have you -- without burdening current plans, but over time assuming -- if we're assuming that health care inflation is going to continue to be a problem, that you could get at the problem in that way.

Hiatt: A kind of cap, but one that doesn't hurt anybody --

Obama: Currently.

Hiatt: -- at the current level?

Obama: Exactly. You're also seeing, I think, some interesting discussions in the Senate Finance Committee about a variation that goes after the insurance companies, as opposed to directly taxing the benefits.

That "variation that goes after insurance companies" is in the Senate Finance Committee bill, in the form of a surtax on plans that cost more than $21k per family and $8k per individual. "Along with the Medicare commission," according to Leonhardt, "this tax is the biggest single difference between the Senate and House versions. "

So Leonhardt has highlighted the degree to which the White House is in sync with Senate Finance on cost control, and the key cost control omissions in the House bill.

On the other side of the ledger, the House bill provides more generous coverage than the Senate Finance bill. Many who embrace the basic architecture of the Democrats' health reform efforts dream of a bill that combines House coverage with Senate cost control. Deep pessimism about the way Congress works in this era leads many to supsect that we'll get the opposite. I would bet on a mixed scorecard - maybe 1-for-2 on the excise tax and MedPAC, or both surviving in weakened form, and somewhat more generous subsidies with a stiffer coverage mandate than the Finance bill provides.

If a bill passess at all. The abortion pound of flesh extracted in the House, the weak majority with which the bill passed, Lieberman's grandstanding on the public option...all have made me wonder.

See also: David Leonhardt tries to do Obama's job for him
(Part I)

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