Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Morning After: Obama and the Dems Win Big--What It Means For Health Care

258 House and 57 Senate Democrats make it almost certain that major health reform will be passed. Right?

Actually, that was the number of Democrats Bill Clinton started off with in 1993 and we know what happened to health care reform in that Congress.

With similar Democratic majorities, I do not expect a major health care reform bill like the one President-Elect Barack Obama called for during the campaign--in 2009 or 2010.

I do expect a number of important health bills including the renewal of the State Children's Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP) and a major Medicare bill.

Here are the reasons why we could have a big health care reform bill in 2009:
  1. Obama and the Democrats called for health reform during the campaign and many voters expect them to follow through.
  2. Senator Kennedy has already begun a significant bipartisan effort and many in the Congress want to see the Senator succeed in what could well be his last effort toward a career-long goal.
  3. The health care system continues at unsustainable cost levels--the average family cost of employer-provided health insurance reached $12,800 this year.
  4. There are 45 million uninsured.
Here are the reasons why, in spite of all of our health care problems, I don't believe we will have a big comprehensive health care reform bill in 2009 or 2010:
  1. There is no consensus in the Congress or the country on what a comprehensive health care bill would look like.
  2. Our people don't want health reform badly enough to force the Congress to stand up to the powerful stakeholders and make them do it.
  3. We don't have the money.
There is no consensus.
Barack Obama did win a big victory. He did promise health care reform. But he won with slightly more than 50% of the vote and John McCain's voters gave him close to 50% of the vote. The country remains split over the degree to which government should be involved in our health care system and that is reflected in the Congress--even after the Democratic victory yesterday.

In the House, the Democrats will enjoy a big majority. However, last session we had 49 "Blue Dog" Democrats and will have at least that many this time. Without "Blue Dog" support, the Democrats will not have a majority on any health care bill. No big health care reform can pass without the support of these fiscally conservative Democrats who are pledged to a pay-as-you-go policy--you can't spend the money unless you either raise taxes or cut spending someplace else.

In the Senate, it appears the Democrats should have 57 or 58 seats in January. But Republicans can stop a big Democratic health care bill with only 41 votes and they will likely have 42 or 43. Forty-three is exactly the number of seats Bob Dole had when he stopped the Clinton Health Plan in 1994.

Any big health care bill will have lots of reasons for any number of powerful special interests to try to stop it. Or, a big bill's authors could do what they did in Massachusetts--pay everyone off. The problem is if you give insurers, doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and all the others what they want to get them onside, you will create an enormously expensive bill and create opposition on that front alone. That's why the California effort crashed earlier this year when that bill's total costs became clear.

We are simply not at a place where any of us can outline a health care bill that clearly has consensus support and you don't do something this big unless you have a clear consensus.

Our people don't want it badly enough.
We really do have a democracy. For all the things you hear about the "special interests controlling Washington," the fact is that if there is a huge outcry from voters the Congress will respond. But there is no huge outcry from voters over health care.

The big issue in this election leading to Obama's big victory was the financial meltdown and the economy--not health care.

Support for health care reform among voters is soft. Health care had consistently been the number three issue (behind Iraq and the economy) in the Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll until gas prices spiked this summer. It then fell to fourth behind the price at the pump. In August, 22% of those polled thought paying for health care was a serious problem for them--but 36% said paying for gas was a serious problem. After the financial meltdown, in October only 12% thought paying for health care was a serious problem.

Health care costs $12,800 a year for a good family plan and when gas went to $4, the cost of gas was more important!

Health care is a chronic issue for the voter but support for big change is not deep-seated.
It is not deep-seated because most people have very good health insurance that is largely paid for by someone else. Lake Research reports that 92% of those who voted last year had health insurance--82% had everyone covered in their household. For the vast majority, health insurance comes from the workplace where someone else pays for it.

For all the issues of the uninsured and health insurance costs, the vast majority of voters have really good health insurance and their employer still pays for the largest share of it. So, it's no surprise when $4 gas is a bigger issue than $12,800 health insurance. It should also be no surprise when next year voter pressure for the Congress to do anything big and controversial will be tepid.

As long as the employer community is willing to subsidize our incredibly high health care costs for those who vote don't look for anyone to be marching on Washington to fix our health care system.

We don't have the money.
Passing an Obama-like health care reform plan will easily cost $100 billion a year to implement.

Two years ago the budget deficit was $162 billion. Last year it was $455 billion. In this fiscal year, it will be at least $1 trillion! The deficit was going to be $550 billion before it became necessary to book $250 billion of the bailout this year. It is expected the economic deterioration will create an additional $100 billion in deficit, and the Congress is getting ready to pass another stimulus bill costing at least $100 billion. That totals $1 trillion. Add to that the cost of the Iraq war, a bigger stimulus bill, any more deterioration, and $1 trillion is going to look good.

Add to that Obama's preeminent campaign promise--he will cut taxes for all families making less than $200,000 a year. He can't avoid this one. He intends to raise taxes for those making over $250,000 but just keeping the Bush tax cuts (which expire in 2010) for those making less than $250,000 a year and then cutting taxes further for those under $200,000 will have a big cost. Keeping that promise at a time there are already huge deficits will trump other spending--like health care.

With 43 Senate Republicans and at least 49 "Blue Dog" fiscally conservative House Democrats and pay-as-you-go health care reform looks pretty unrealistic.

And watch Massachusetts. That health reform plan was passed by giving all the players what they wanted--hospitals, docs, insurers. It was passed with virtually no cost containment. Coming up on its third year this summer, just as any federal health care legislation would be on the table, those chickens are going to come home to roost.

What will happen in 2009?
I expect the new President and Congress to keep their health care promise by starting incrementally to insure more Americans. They can't afford, or would be able, to do it all so they will make a down payment.

There are a number of unavoidable health care issues for the next Congress:
  • The reauthorization of SCHIP, which must be done by April. Last year the Congress approved a $35 billion expansion that would have increased the number of kids covered from 6 million to 10 million. President Bush vetoed the bipartisan expansion twice. Obama will sign it and it could well involve a big cigarette tax to meet pay-as-you-go demands.
  • Physicians are scheduled to get an automatic 21% Medicare fee cut on January 1, 2010. The Congress has fixed this Sustainable Growth Rate problem seven times before. The last time was in July when they fixed it for just 18 months. While we desperately need physician payment reform, we won't likely have the votes to do more than another temporary fix because the doctors don't agree among themselves how to reform the payment system.
  • With pay-as-you-go so important an issue there is one place, other than a cigarette tax, where the Congress can find the money for health care--private Medicare. Pit the kids health program and the big Medicare fee cut against the cigarette companies and Medicare HMOs and, in the new Congress and White House, there is no competition--tobacco gets taxed more and the HMOs get cut.
  • But even the extra HMO payments and a cigarette tax aren't large enough to both expand SCHIP to 10 million kids, fix the doctor payment problem, and pay for Medicare as it is. There will have to be more Medicare cuts--hospitals, nursing homes, durable medical equipment...Look for a big provider food fight over who gets what.
There are also a number of things the Congress can do that won't cost the government much or any money--health information technology standards and requirements, transparency in provider pricing, health outcomes research, and others.

If there is any money left, there have been bipartisan efforts to help small business owners provide health insurance. This is the one area where we are seeing significant coverage erosion.

Expanding SCHIP, dealing with Medicare payments, adding on things like health information technology, and maybe doing something for small business would give the new President and the Democratic Congress bragging rights on health care if not comprehensive reform.

In the end, Obama and the Democrats can accomplish a fairly substantial health package without doing a big comprehensive Obama health plan and that is what I expect.
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