Posts Tagged ‘Representative Paul Ryan’

GOP VP Candidate Paul Ryan Advocates “Medicare Premium Support”

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Now that Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been selected by former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) as his vice presidential running mate, the debate is focusing on the Wisconsin representative’s plan to reform Medicare.  Known as Medicare Premium Support, it “refers to a system under which Medicare enrollees would pick from a menu of competing plans with a fixed government payment to help defray premium costs.  Enrollees would be on the hook for any charges above the government contribution.  But they could save money by selecting a plan with a premium below the federal subsidy.”

Ryan says that under his plan, the government’s contribution toward premiums will equal the cost of the second least expensive plan in any market — or traditional Medicare — whichever costs less.  Ryan believes that his plan is politically feasible because it doesn’t begin until 2022 with the result that it retains traditional Medicare for Americans who were 55 and older in 2011 — meaning that baby boomers are exempt from the changes.  Democrats who oppose the plan contend that Ryan’s Medicare overhaul would subject seniors to the vagaries of the private market, leaving them with little protection against rising premiums and negligible benefits.

So what is the difference between the Democratic and Republican cuts to Medicare?  The ACA stresses government control and central planning. The law creates a panel of 15 unelected government officials, called the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) to direct changes that will shrink spending by cutting physician and hospital reimbursement.  The Wyden-Ryan plan preserves the ACA’s targets for future Medicare spending, but uses competitive bidding.  Seniors would have the same benefits that they do now, and would have the option of choosing from several government-approved private insurance plans.

The Republican budget targets Medicare growth of GDP plus 0.5 percent, just as the 2013 Obama budget does. The difference lies in the fact that the GOP budget repeals the ACA, while maintaining that law’s Medicare cuts.  The Democratic budget leaves the ACA in place.

Writing in the Washington Post, Ezra Klein puts the difference in a nutshell:  “The difference between the two campaigns is not in how much they cut Medicare, but in how they cut Medicare.”

In an exclusive interview with Modern Healthcare magazine, Ryan says that “This is an idea whose time has come.  And it’s a bipartisan idea.  What Representative Ron Wyden (D-OR) and I tried to do was to plant the seeds of a bipartisan consensus.  We knew we weren’t going to pass it because of the politics.  We did this together to get the consensus-building started.”  Ryan believes that the plan’s chances for approval will greatly improve in 2013 — especially if the Romney/Ryan team wins the November 6 presidential election.  “I’m actually pretty optimistic,” he said, noting that the United States should reform healthcare on its own terms and “fix this on our terms” instead of borrowing European ideas.  “We believe there are far superior ways to get back to a patient-centered healthcare system, the nucleus of which is the patient and doctor — and not the government,” Ryan said.  “We believe consumer-driven, market-based reforms do more to alter the cost curve of healthcare inflation.”

If Ryan’s plan is enacted into law, people 55 and younger would see a change from one in which everyone gets the same set of government-paid benefits to one in which the government gives all senior citizens a fixed amount of money.  They could use this to purchase private insurance or pay a portion of the cost of enrolling in traditional Medicare.  Ryan has not said how much the premium support payment would be.  But he would limit the annual growth rate to no more than one-half percent more than the economy’s overall growth rate, even though healthcare costs are rising at a significantly faster pace.  Ryan’s plan would also raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 from 65 by 2034.

Not so fast,” Democrats warn as partisans from both parties accuse the other side of throwing senior citizens under the bus.  “Make no mistake about it — these Republicans don’t believe in Medicare,” Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod said.  “They want to turn it into a voucher program.  And slowly, all the burden is going to shift to seniors themselves.  And that is not an answer to entitlement reform.”

Republicans counter that $716 billion in cuts to Medicare are already a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  An online video created by the Republican National Committee features Ryan saying that Democrats “have refused to make difficult decision because they are more worried about their next election than they are about the next generation.”  According to Ryan, “We won’t duck the tough issues; we will lead.”

Uwe Reinhardt, a healthcare economist at Princeton University disagrees, saying that rather than motivating insurers to control their costs, the Ryan plan will not benefit seniors.  “You’re essentially shoving these guys out on a boat, saying, ‘We’ll give you a push, but if the waves are rough, you’re on your own,” he said.  “It would really worry me if I were a middle-class American.”

Medicare Times Are a Changing

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Baby boomers may not like it — and whoever wins the White House this year — but the Medicare that our parents knew and love is destined to change. And it’ll be like it or lump it.

With more than 1.5 million baby boomers enrolling in Medicare every year, the program’s future is one of the most crucial economic issues for anyone who currently is 50 or older. Healthcare costs are the most erratic part of retirement expenses, and Medicare remains a great deal for retirees, who often get benefits worth significantly more than the payroll taxes they paid while working.  “People would like to have what they used to have.  What they don’t seem to understand is that it’s already changed,” said Gail Wilensky, a former Medicare administrator. “Medicare as we have known it is not part of our future.”

Consider these numbers.  Medicare’s giant trust fund for inpatient care is expected to run out of money in 2024.  When that happens, the program will collect only enough payroll taxes to pay 90 percent of benefits.  Additionally, researchers estimate that as much as one-fifth and even two-thirds of the more than $500 billion that Medicare now spends every year is spent on treatments and procedures of little or no benefit to patients.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Finance Committee, is leading the charge on changing Medicare.  Ryan’s current proposals will not impact people now 55 or older would not have to make any changes.  But how would it work?  Would it save taxpayers’ dollars?  Would it shift costs to retirees, who are least able to afford it?   Will Congress ultimately end traditional Medicare?  These questions are still waiting for answers.  “I’m not sure anybody has come up with a formula on this that makes people comfortable,” said health economist Marilyn Moon, who formerly served as a trustee overseeing Medicare finances.

The White House’s preference is to keep the existing structure of Medicare while “twisting the dials” to control spending, said Medicare trustee, economist Robert Reischauer of the Urban Institute think tank.

Ryan’s original approach would have put 100 percent of future retirees into private insurance.  His most recent plan, written with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), would keep traditional Medicare as an option, competing with private plans.

Writing for AARP, Ricardo Alonzo Zaldiver says that, “This could mean more Medicare recipients joining private insurance plans (currently, only about 25 percent of Medicare recipients are in private ‘Medicare Advantage” plans, while the other three-quarters participate in the traditional, government-run Medicare program).  A new voucher-for-private-Medicare plan would be available to anyone currently under 55.

“It could also mean keeping the existing Medicare structure but making certain tweaks to control spending.  Under President Obama’s healthcare overhaul, the Independent Payment Advisory Board could force Medicare cuts to service providers if costs rise above certain levels and Congress fails to act.  Obama has said he’ll veto any plan to cut Medicare benefits without raising taxes on the wealthy.  During failed budget negotiations last summer, he indicated a willingness to gradually raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67, revamp co-payments and deductibles in ways that would raise costs for retirees, and cut payments to drug makers.  ‘For the 76 million baby boomers signing up over the next couple of decades, it will pay to be watching.’”  President Obama has promised that he will veto any plan to cut Medicare benefits without raising taxes on the wealthy.

The Chicago Sun-Times offers this sage advice: “Fix Medicare, ignore scare talk.”  According to writer Steve Huntley, “I’ve contributed to Medicare every year of its existence. Yet, it’s a myth that seniors have paid the costs of their Medicare services, as demonstrated by the research of economists Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane of the Urban Institute think tank.  Their study showed that a two-income couple earning $89,000 a year would pay $114,000 in Medicare taxes during their careers but could expect to receive $355,000 in medical care in retirement. They could get prescriptions, doctor visits and hospital services valued at three times their contribution to Medicare.

“Medicare combined with Medicaid and Social Security add up to an entitlement time bomb —  they’ll consume all tax revenues by 2052, according to a Heritage Foundation analysis —  for the people who’ll be stuck with the bill: working Americans.  In 1950, there were 16 taxpaying workers for each retiree; by the time the baby boomers all retire, there will be two workers for each retiree. Entitlement reform has to happen.”

Medicare Changes Would Hit Lower-Income Seniors Hard

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

At a time when concern about federal deficits and the national debt are growing,  few quarrel with the need to reform Medicare.  The health insurance program for seniors and people with certain disabilities accounts for 15 percent of the federal budget – in third place behind Social Security and defense spending.  That share is rising as healthcare costs continue to rise and more baby boomers retire, threatening the program’s long-term solvency.

Several of the most prominent solutions under discussion largely derive their savings by shifting a greater share of the cost onto beneficiaries.  The plan sponsored by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and passed by the House of Representatives would significantly cut Medicare spending by capping the government’s contribution to the program and transforming it into a system of “premium supports” given to seniors to help subsidize their purchase of private insurance plans, with seniors paying additional costs.  This would double out-of-pocket spending by the average senior to $12,500 each year, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The ability of a majority of seniors to shoulder that burden appears dubious.  Just five percent of Medicare beneficiaries make $80,000 or more, a figure that includes any income from a spouse. For the 47 percent of seniors who are at or close to poverty, on average they are already spending nearly 25 percent of their budgets on healthcare, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“There’s this impression that there’s a great deal of wealth among the Medicare population, this image of wealthy seniors playing golf and enjoying their retirement years,” said Tricia Neuman, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Medicare Policy Project.“But while some are lucky to do so, many are living on a fixed income, struggling to make ends meet…with really limited capacity to absorb rising costs.”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report, raising Medicare’s eligibility to 67 in 2014 would generate an estimated $5.7 billion in net savings to the federal government, but also result in an estimated net increase of $3.7 billion in out-of-pocket costs for 65- and 66-year-olds, and $4.5 billion in employer retiree healthcare costs.  In addition, the study projects that the change would raise premiums by about three percent both for those who remain on Medicare and for those who obtain coverage through health reform’s new insurance exchanges.  The study assumes both full implementation of the health reform law and the higher eligibility age in 2014 in order to estimate the full effect of both the law and the policy proposal.  In the absence of the health reform law, raising Medicare’s age of eligibility would result in an increase in the uninsured, according to other studies, as many older Americans would have difficulty finding affordable coverage in the individual market in the absence of Medicare.  With health reform, virtually all 65- and 66-year-olds would be expected to obtain alternative sources of coverage.”

Healthcare remains a major focus of budget talks on Capitol Hill,Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) recently told the American College of Surgeons (ACS).  Every group that relies on federal funding should expect a 10 to 20 percent drop in that funding.  When Dr. L.D. Britt, president of the ACS, warned that such cuts could send some healthcare providers into a “tailspin,” Kirk responded that “the tailspin is the U.S. economy.  There is a new audience at play,” Kirk said, referring to U.S. creditors.  “The judgments they render, they are swift and severe.”  Kirk is optimistic that a solution to the country’s debt-ceiling dilemma “will have a way of concluding itself one day before the August 2 deadline.”

Was the NY 26th District Upset A Turning Point in the Medicare Debate?

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Was Kathy Hochul’s upset victory in a special election in New York’s 26th Congressional district a game changer in attempts to eliminate Medicare for Americans currently under the age of 55?  Medicare proved to be the decisive issue in the New York election, giving the Democrats a crucial campaign theme for the 2012 presidential election.  The party slammed Republican nominee Jane Corwin for her support of Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) controversial budget plan and its proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher-like system.  Corwin lost to Hochul (D-NY) by four points in a Republican-leaning district. 

Almost immediately after Hochul was declared the winner, Democrats issued statements crediting her win to opposition to the plan “to end Medicare.”  Polling appears to support the Democrats’ approach.  A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll determined that 58 percent of the public opposes the plan to change Medicare to a voucher program, while just 35 percent support it.  “Our message is simply: Take Medicare off the table,” Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) said.

There is still disagreement across the aisle.  According to a senior Republican aide, “Everyone knows that the surest way to destroy Medicare is to pretend like it doesn’t need to be fixed, which is why nearly every Democrat that matters has made clear that Medicare is on the table.  But Democrats are in a tough spot.  And they’re trying to use Medicare to provide a temporary solution to a much larger political problem they’re facing.”  Republicans get “huffy” when you call Ryan’s Medicare plan a voucher scheme, according to the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who points out that they are trying to replace Medicare with “an entirely different program — call it ‘Vouchercare’.  According to Krugman, it isn’t “demagoguery, it’s just pointing out the truth.”

Senate Democrats warned after Hochul’s victory that they’d take their Medicare message to the stump in other contentious races, and that is what they’re doing with locally focused ads targeting Nevada, Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, and Virginia.  The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee plans to “mobilize thousands of online activists,” through ads on Google, Facebook, and other websites, to “stand up for Medicare” by calling on their Republican senators to withdraw their support for changes to Medicare.

Writing in the Columbia Missourian, Joseph Sparks explains the dilemma that turning Medicare into a voucher problem can create for people caught in the middle. “Proponents of Representative Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal have said that people older than 55 would not be affected by his proposal to change Medicare into a voucher system.  They forgot about the Medisplit Effect.  My wife and I represent the perfect paradigm for this effect.  I will be 55 before the end of the year, but my wife is younger.  So, while I will get Medicare, my wife, under Ryan’s plan, will get a voucher to buy private insurance, and it will cost my family an extra $6,400 to $7,000 per year after 2022.  This Medisplit Effect, depending on the age of someone’s spouse, could still drastically affect people 55 and older.  It is disingenuous for Ryan or anybody else to suggest otherwise.  After the initial $6,400 hit, the plan’s severe impact on the economic health of future seniors, such as my spouse, just gets worse.  Based on a report from the Congressional Budget Office, theCenter for Economic and Policy Research calculated that in 2022, Ryan’s proposal would require that seniors pay 35 percent of their projected median income for health insurance.  Since the proposal does not require the government to increase the subsidy enough to match inflation, the percentage of median income required per senior increases to 44 and 68 percent in 2030 and 2050, respectively.  Medicare would be ‘saved’ at the expense of seniors being unable to afford it.”

Taking an opposite viewpoint is the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin.  In her “Right Turn” column, Rubin says that “Mediscare isn’t working on everyone.  Republicans should take heart: There are non-conservatives who are persuadable by reason and specifics.  It would be best if they found someone entirely familiar with the facts, calm in his delivery and earnest in his approach to lead their party on this monumentally important issue.  Gosh, do we know anyone who fits that bill?”

Jonathan Chait, writing in The New Republic disagrees.  According to Chait:

“How are Republicans responding to the unpopularity of the Medicare plan in their budget?  Phase one is for anybody not already committed to the plan to slowly, slowly edge toward the door:  (Republican presidential candidate Tim) Pawlenty congratulated himself on Tuesday for speaking bold truths. ‘I promised to level with the American people,’ he said.  ‘To look them in the eye.  And tell them the truth.’  Here’s a truth: The biggest fiscal threat to the country is the exploding growth of healthcare costs, especially through Medicare.  Pawlenty’s speech did not mention the word ‘Medicare’ a single time.  It will be interesting to see if Republicans let this stand.  Pawlenty’s plan involves staggeringly high tax cuts — will that be enough to get him off the hook for leaving healthcare untouched?  Phase two is for everybody already committed to Vouchercare to try to get to the left of the Democrats.”

Polls: Most Americans Oppose Changes to Medicare

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Americans have mixed feelings about what changes should be made to the popular Medicare program. Although 53 percent say the program needs fundamental changes, 58 percent say it is working fine the way it is.  Americans were asked to decide which of three statements is closest to their viewpoints: “Medicare works pretty well and only minor changes are necessary to make it work better”; “There are some good things about Medicare, but fundamental changes are needed”; or “Medicare has so much wrong with it that we need to completely rebuild it.”

Twenty-seven percent – including 36 percent of Democrats – believe that only minor changes are needed.  Another 13 percent said the program needs to be completely rebuilt.  Fully 53 percent said Medicare needs fundamental changes — even though the program has many good points.  People who want basic changes include a majority of Republicans and independents, though just 43 percent of Democrats support the plan.  A majority of Americans between ages 18 and 64 want significant changes.  Just 37 percent of those 65 and older agree.

Additionally, respondents were asked if they wanted to see Medicare “continue the way it is set up now, as a program that pays the doctors and hospitals that treat senior citizens” or “if they think it should be transformed into “a program that gives senior citizens payments towards the purchase of private insurance.”  Democrats want to retain Medicare in its present form; Republicans want to transform it into a voucher system in which seniors choose their coverage and are given money to cover their insurance premiums.

So strongly does the Senate Democratic leadership feel,  they have reaffirmed that Medicare cuts should not be on the table during the debt ceiling discussions.  “Seniors can’t afford it,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said.  “The vast majority of the American people, including most Republicans, do not support changing Medicare as we know it, as articulated in that piece of legislation that came from the House.  That” piece of legislation is the Paul Ryan (R-WI) plan, “The Path to Prosperity”, which slashes the budget deficit by about $5 trillion over the next decade.

Ryan’s plan would overturn the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) and proposes major reforms to Medicaid and Medicare.  Medicaid would become a block grant system; the federal government would allocate money to states, giving them greater flexibility to shape their healthcare programs that serve the poor.  Currently, the government matches every dollar that states spend on Medicaid; the formula varies from state to state.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said Democrats will not accept a “mini” Ryan plan.  “The Ryan plan to end Medicare as we know it must be taken off the table, but Republicans should know that we will not support any mini version plan of ‘Ryan’ either,” Schumer said.  “We want to make our position on Medicare perfectly clear.  No matter what we do in these debt-limit talks, we must preserve the program in its current form, and we will not allow cuts to seniors’ benefits.“

Slashing Medicare will be a major issue in the 2012 election. According to Harvard political scientist and pollster Robert Blendon, “Older Americans tend to vote at much higher rates than other voters,” he said.  “They are the group that most care about healthcare as a voting issue.”

“Medicare for us is a pillar of health and economic security for our seniors,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who is the House Minority Leader.  “It’s an ethic, it’s a value…and we intend to fight for it.  Pelosi is well aware that there is a problem with Medicare and acknowledges that the program is not financially sound enough to support the retirement of 78 million baby boomers who are joining the program.  Additionally, she knows that Medicare costs strongly impact the nation’s debt and deficit problem.  Additionally, she says that she prefers not to use Medicare as a weapon against Republicans.  “Would you rather have success with the issue, or would you rather have a fight in the election?  Of course you’d rather have success,” she said.  “That’s what you came here to do.  That’s what’s important to the well-being of the American people.”

Another recent poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center found that older Americans do not have a favorable opinion about privatizing Medicare.  Fifty-one percent of people aged 50 and over oppose the plan, while just 29 percent support it.  Even among Republicans, more respondents oppose the plan than support it.  The changes are designed to save the program’s finances by trimming government benefits for all Americans under the age of 55.  Medicare says it will run out of funds to pay full benefits by 2024.  One person polled is Michael A. Smith, a 54-year-old lifelong Republican who is currently unemployed and lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.  “A community like this, they want jobs and no changes in the funds they’ve paid into all their lives,” Smith said.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has stated that Ryan’s plan would not allow insurers to charge sick people more than healthy ones. Insurance companies would set premiums at the same level for everyone of the same age.  Although Ryan’s plan would leave Medicare intact for anyone now 55 or older, Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, CA, said older voters have a hard time believing that.  “Anytime you say, `But this doesn’t affect current senior citizens,’ they think it’s going to affect them,” he said.  “Seniors are very, very sophisticated when it comes to these programs.  They figure any change could have a loophole or an exception or a provision that could end up hurting them after all.  They’re very zealous about safeguarding the programs from which they benefit.”

What’s at Stake? Medicaid, Not Medicare

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Seventy percent of Americans oppose cuts to Medicare and 57 percent are against cutting Medicaid, even when they are aware that the programs constitute an outsized weight in the federal deficit.  Of the two wildly popular programs, Medicaid is the most vulnerable.

Writing in the Washington Post about a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation about the health of Medicare and Medicaid, Ezra Klein says “It doesn’t matter whether Eric Cantor says he’s bargaining for the Ryan budget or not.  The GOP cannot privatize and voucherize Medicare.  They can’t even get close.  It’s too easy an issue for Democrats, too dangerous an issue with seniors, and too slipshod a policy even for Michele Bachmann.  The attack on Medicaid, however, is another story.  That one might actually work.  And if it does, it’ll actually be worse.  ‘in-the-know political circles,’ says Chris Jennings, who ran President Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform efforts, ‘it’s just assumed Medicaid is going to be hit.  No one is going to want to touch Medicare.  Medicare is where the political juice is.  But we’re going to need savings.  So that leads to Medicaid.’  There are two reasons Medicaid is more vulnerable than Medicare.  The first is who it serves.  Medicaid goes to two groups of people: the poor and the disabled. Most of the program’s enrollees are kids from poor families, though most of the program’s money is spent on the small fraction of beneficiaries who are disabled and/or elderly.  These groups have one thing in common: They’re politically powerless.”

It’s a little-known fact that Medicaid covers more people than Medicare. In 2010, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, Medicaid covered 53.9 million people, compared with Medicare’s 47.3 million.  Additionally, Medicaid patients are also among society’s most vulnerable.  “Kids (and) pregnant women are the vast majority,” according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “But then older seniors, many of whom are in nursing homes…and very disabled individuals” are also covered by Medicaid.

Although states and the federal government share the cost of Medicaid, what grates on some governors is the rules that come with the money.  “Governors just want flexibility to run our states,” said Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at the annual National Governors Association meeting in February. “We don’t want to pay 50 percent of the cost of Medicaid and have zero percent of the authority.  And I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to be asking for.”  Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi agrees.  “If I could get total flexibility, I would take a two percent cap in a heartbeat,” he said.  Barbour’s preference is to receive a lump sum – what it gets now from the federal government, plus two percent to fund Medicaid.

Dr. Donald Berwick, administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, (CMS) said “There’s a right way to reform Medicare and a wrong way,”  Berwick believes that the direction he is taking — modeled on his successful patient safety campaigns at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement – will bring about needed healthcare change.  The Obama administration’s efforts to improve patient safety are more or less bipartisan.  There is little cause to dispute CMS’ data: the agency spent $4.4 billion in 2009 caring for patients harmed in hospitals and an additional $26 billion on patients who were readmitted within 30 days.  The Partnership for Patients, funded through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), seeks to reduce preventable injuries by 40 percent and cut hospital readmissions by 20 percent in just two years.  According to CMS, achieving the Partnership’s goals will result in 1.8 million fewer patient injuries, allow more than 1.6 million patients to recover complication-free and save up to $35 billion in health costs.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius described contentious portions of the ACA as the inaugural steps toward entitlement reform.  Sebelius criticized proposals to transform federal Medicaid funding into block grants for states.  When some lawmakers asked her to speak about the Obama administration’s alternative proposal to rein in entitlement spending, Sebelius pointed to two provisions of the new law.  The ACA created a new board of independent experts that will recommend Medicare payment cuts.  Its recommendations will take effect automatically unless Congress blocks them — and proposes equivalent savings.  According to Sebelius, the panel represents “a big step in terms of entitlement reform that actually doesn’t potentially cause harm to our seniors.”  She also pointed to an HHS effort to create new methods of dealing with people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid because those patients represent a lopsided share of the programs’ costs.

Capitol Hill Kabuki

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Five Senators want to take the House-passed Medicare plan off the table in bipartisan deficit reduction talks, claiming that the plan effectively dismantles the program.  According to the Senators, the Medicare plan, which passed as part of a budget proposal in April, would jeopardize senior citizens’ current benefits and double out-of-pocket costs.  The five are Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD); Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH); Senator Bill Nelson, (D-FL); Senator Claire McCaskill, (D-MO); and Senator Jon Tester, (D-MT).

In a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, the senators wrote:  “We are aware the administration has rejected this proposal since its passage by the House, and we applaud your efforts to educate the American people about its serious implications.  We encourage you to remain unwavering in opposition to this scheme.  For the good of the nation’s seniors, it must remain off the table.”

According to the letter,“This proposal would never pass Congress on its own, and it does not belong in a larger deal either.  It would be devastating for America’s seniors, who would see their out-of-pocket costs for healthcare double and the benefits they currently enjoy jeopardized.  Under this risky proposal, insurance company bureaucrats would decide what seniors get.”  Biden is leading talks to raise the debt ceiling and negotiating with lawmakers regarding ways to reduce the deficit as a trade-off to raise the debt ceiling.

The deficit and debt limit – whose ceiling the nation is rapidly approaching – are part of the conversation on Capitol Hill.  “I’m willing.  I’m ready. It is time to have the conversation” about deficit cuts and the debt limit, said House Speaker John Boehner

(R-OH), urging President Barack Obama to involve himself personally.  “It is time to play large ball, not small ball.”  House Democratic leader Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, “I could never support any arrangement that reduced benefits for Medicare.  Absolutely not,” she said,” emphasizing a position she and other Democrats had laid out at their own meeting with the president.   Given Medicare’s size — nearly $500 billion a year — any deal on cutting future deficits is likely to include savings from the program, and may include the benefit cuts that most Democrats oppose.

The Obama administration has come out against the Medicare reforms in the House plan –  authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).  The Senators insist that this is a non starter, and stressed that they must not be a point of negotiation during the ongoing debt ceiling talks.  Despite the Democrats’ opposition, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insists that the Medicare reform plan will be “on the table” in negotiations.  “We are going to discuss what ought to be done,” McConnell said.  “I can assure you that to get my vote to raise the debt ceiling, for whatever that is worth…Medicare will be a part of it.”

Some Republicans are backing away from Ryan’s proposal.  For example, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich had egg on his face after suggesting that the plan is “radical… right-wing social engineering,” Gingrich’s explanations proved too little, too late for many conservatives, who continue to hammer the former House speaker for his gaffe.

In an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Sentinel,  Chrystia Freeland writes that “The political theater in the United States this week has been all about the ‘debt ceiling’:  Congress voting not to increase it; President Barack Obama and the House Republicans are meeting to discuss it; and the Treasury warning that failure to raise it will bring economic apocalypse for the United States and the world.  Elites like to accuse ordinary Americans of a lack of political sophistication, but everyone from Main Street to Wall Street is savvy enough to understand that so far, the fighting over the ceiling is pure Kabuki.  As with the budget deal earlier this year, the real negotiating is unlikely to happen until the very last minute.  But everyone also understands that this summer game of brinkmanship matters because it is a proxy war being fought over a very real problem:  the growing national debt and deficit.  At just under 60 percent of gross domestic product, the U.S. national debt is lower than that of France, Germany and Britain.  And the rest of the world still seems delighted to lend the United States money on historically generous terms.”

Trading Medicare for the National Debt

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Slashing the soaring national debt will require some hard choices, but our representatives in Washington, D.C., need to do the right thing.  Writing in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki says that “Multitrillion-dollar piles of debt have a way of making people nervous, so it’s not really surprising that Washington is now in the throes of budget-cutting hysteria.  Republicans risked a government shutdown over a few billion dollars in spending cuts, and are now threatening to refuse to raise the government’s debt ceiling.  The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s lowered its outlook on U.S. debt because of concerns about the long-term budget.

“And Barack Obama has been speaking of the need to eliminate two trillion dollars in federal spending in the next ten years.  Yet, strange as it may sound, the federal government does not have a spending problem per se.  What it has is a healthcare problem.  The cost of most budget items typically rises at a reasonable rate, if at all, but the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance has been rising much faster than everything else: in the past forty years, Medicare costs increased 8.3 per cent annually.  If they’re not controlled, Medicare and Medicaid will eventually be by far our biggest expense.  Preventing that is the key to getting our fiscal house in order.”

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) has proposed replacing the popular Medicare program by giving seniors less money to cover their healthcare needs.  Ryan wants to replace Medicare with a voucher plan that they would use to purchase private insurance.  This plan saves money because the value of the vouchers would rise at a much slower pace than healthcare costs; the government’s payments to seniors’ healthcare spending would get smaller.  As a result, seniors would have to spend more of their incomes on private insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, or go without.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that Ryan’s plan would significantly increase how much Americans spend on healthcare, since private insurers don’t curb costs as effectively as Medicare.  The upside to the national debt is that taxpayers would foot less of the bill.

According to Surowiecki, “The healthcare bill that Congress passed last spring represents a different approach.  It trims more than four hundred billion dollars from Medicare spending, and contains a host of initiatives designed to make the healthcare system more efficient and effective. In line with that, it creates a body called the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which determines how much Medicare will spend annually.  The American healthcare system is riddled with waste and unnecessary and ineffective procedures.  Relative to every other industrialized nation, we spend more and our health outcomes are no better (and often worse).  In American medicine, supply often creates its own demand, and paying doctors on a fee-for-service basis encourages more high-cost procedures.  The IPAB, in conjunction with other cost-cutting provisions in the bill, would look to fix the skewed incentives that lead to overtreatment, bargain for better prices, and insure that we’re spending our money more effectively.  The Affordable Care Act is far from a perfect law, but the CBO estimates that, if implemented as planned, it could cut the long-term deficit by more than a trillion dollars.”

A Wonkbook poll reported in the Washington Post found that 84 percent of Americans oppose the Ryan plan.

The prospect of replacing Medicare with a voucher plan to bring down the nation debt makes a lot of people uneasy.  Americans generally like and trust their doctors and hospitals.  Additionally they like the ability to choose their own doctors, and don’t want them to stop treating Medicare patients because the fees are too low.  Surowiecki concludes that “This is the fundamental dilemma: we’re unhappy about the rising cost of healthcare, but we’re also unhappy about what we would have to do to curb it.  The ideal system, for most voters, would guarantee all seniors reasonable healthcare, stop the debt from getting out of control, and keep paying healthcare providers as before.  The problem is that you can only do two of those things at once.  The debate between Ryan and Obama is a debate over which of the three we’re willing to give up.”

Medicare Likely Safe From GOP Budget Cutters

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

America’s senior citizens can breathe a sigh of relief.  Even as the majority Republicans in the House of Representatives wield a surgeon’s scalpel to slash spending from the federal budget, they are unlikely to succeed at making significant changes to the extremely popular Medicare program. The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected serious cuts in the proposed legislation, which also included an attempt to block implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration pointed out that the Republican budget measure’s block on implementation funding would endanger short-term funding for Medicare.

The legislation would create “significant disruptions in services” to Medicare recipients, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote to Senator Max Baucus (D-MT).  The payment delays, Sebelius wrote, would halt the need to undertake a lengthy process to issue new regulations governing Medicare Advantage payment rates since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) put in place its own set of payment rate rules.  The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) analysis questioned that claim because it believes that the Republican bill will reduce spending by $1.6 billion through the rest of 2011.  Democrats maintain that the CBO’s review of Medicare spending is a separate issue from HHS’s lawful authority to fund the program.

Despite the Senate Democrats’ united front, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) is “ready to take on health programs” as legislators on both sides of the aisle struggle with long-term spending concerns.  Lawmakers continue talks regarding the current year spending measure still under consideration.  A new continuing resolution that would fund government operations until April 8 has emerged.  Though it includes deeper spending cuts, it is free of controversial riders such as language to restrict ACA implementation funds.  Meanwhile, the CBO issued a report that legislation designed to further the defunding goal would add $5.7 billion to the deficit.

Democratic leaders insisted that some form of compromise by the House GOP members is now needed. “We’re looking for some give on the Republican side,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).  Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), he said, “needs something to bring his freshmen into the real world.”  Boehner, referencing the Democrats and the White House, said “I hope the talks are going to continue, but we are not going to get very far if they don’t get serious about doing what the American people expect of us.  “This is not going to be easy.  Our goal, as I’ve said many times, is to cut spending and keep the government open.”

Will Proposed Medicare Reform Leave Seniors Out in the Cold?

Monday, April 11th, 2011

A Congressional proposal to reform Medicare will transfer a significant share of the cost to the nation’s senior citizens – a constituency that is known for high voter turnout in elections.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) added fodder for critics, concluding that the majority of future retirees would pay considerably more for healthcare under the “Path to Prosperity” approach — which turns Medicare into a voucher-like plan for Americans who are currently 54 and younger.  Representative Paul Ryan

(R-WI), who introduced the plan, said “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls people to lives of complacencies and dependencies, into a permanent condition where they never get on their feet.”  Instead of coverage for a set of prescribed benefits, Americans in their mid-50s and younger would receive a federal payment to purchase private insurance from a choice of government-regulated plans.  If the proposal becomes law, beginning in 2022, Americans would have a vastly different experience when they became eligible for Medicare.  The age for eligibility would rise from 65 to 67, according to the CBO.

Ryan’s proposal slashes $1.4 trillion from Medicaid over the next decade.  He proposes to cut $630 billion off the budget by more or less repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s provisions that extend coverage to include anyone living on less than 133 percent of the poverty rate — just under $30,000 for a family of four.  Additionally, Ryan’s plan eliminates subsidies for private insurance premiums for those just above the poverty line.  According to CBO estimates, nearly 17 million people without insurance would have been covered by the Medicaid expansion.

Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the ranking Budget Committee Democrat, said Republicans are protecting tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy to the detriment of the middle class and the poor.  “It doesn’t reform Medicare, it deforms and dismantles it,” Van Hollen said.  As for Medicaid, Ryan’s proposal “rips apart the safety net” for poor and older people.  “A typical beneficiary would spend more for healthcare under the proposal,” according to the CBO analysis.  “Although the uncertainty in future federal spending on healthcare would decrease under the proposal, that uncertainty would be transferred to future beneficiaries,” the CBO analysis said.  “If the volume, complexity, and costs of medical services turned out to be greater than expected, future beneficiaries would pay higher premiums and cost-sharing amount than are currently projected.”

Ryan’s budget resolution would improve the nation’s overall fiscal health, cutting projected deficits in President Obama‘s budget and moving the federal government towards a surplus by 2040, according to the non-partisan CBO.  Ryan believes that the cuts are necessary to save the programs.  “This is not a budget.  This is a cause,” he said.  “The social safety net is fraying at the seams.”  Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, said that Ryan’s proposal would “result in the loss of health coverage for millions of low-income Americans, reduce critical benefits for others, and make it more difficult for hospitals, clinicians and other healthcare providers to deliver the care so many need.”  Other critics maintain that Ryan’s approach will shift the higher costs to individuals, much as the change from defined-benefit pensions to 401(k) plans has increased retirement risk.  Senior citizens, the disabled and the poor likely will pay more for healthcare, even as Washington pays less.  Additionally, Ryan’s plan would permanently extend George W. Bush’s tax cuts.

“The idealized notion that older consumers would be making these annual choices may have some merit as an idea, but it doesn’t seem to be taking place in practice,” said Patricia Neuman, director of the Medicare Policy Project at the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation.  Picking the right health plan could become even more critical if premiums outpace federal subsidies.  In 2010, 50 percent of the nation’s Medicare recipients reported incomes of less than $21,000 a year, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

In an opinion piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the “Monday Morning Economist” Stephen Herrington writes “The tax cut proposal is not getting the attention it deserves.  If it shapes up to be anything like was described in Ryan’s Road Map, it will create massive dislocations and disruptions in the economy.  Ryan’s plan was/is to cut the top tax bracket from 35 percent to 25 percent with the promise/expectation that this would not impact revenues.  In a departure from the standard ‘trickle down’ excuse for tax cuts, Ryan meant/means to offset the admitted loss in revenues by eliminating all manner of deductions.  The deductions in our current tax code, such as medical, mortgage and state income tax expense are there for a purpose.  Eliminating them will introduce wild distortions in markets and effectively push the tax cuts for the rich onto the other 98 percent of us.  Elimination of the medical expense deduction will intensify the impact of the Medicare/Medicaid part of the plan.  It is as if Ryan thinks the magic of the free market can absorb any shock in real time.  No more mortgage deduction?  No problem, I just won’t buy a house at all until the lack of the mortgage deduction causes prices to fall by half.”