That All-Important CBO Score
The CBO score for the newest version of the Senate Finance Committee bill is in, and the word incrementalism comes to mind.
According to CBO and JCT’s assessment, enacting the Chairman’s mark, as amended, would result in a net reduction in federal budget deficits of $81 billion over the 2010–2019 period (see Table 1). The estimate includes a projected net cost of $518 billion over 10 years for the proposed expansions in insurance coverage. That net cost itself reflects a gross total of $829 billion in credits and subsidies provided through the exchanges, increased net outlays for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and tax credits for small employers; those costs are partly offset by $201 billion in revenues from the excise tax on high-premium insurance plans and $110 billion in net savings from other sources. The net cost of the coverage expansions would be more than offset by the combination of other spending changes that CBO estimates would save $404 billion over the 10 years and other provisions that JCT and CBO estimate would increase federal revenues by $196 billion over the same period [...]
By 2019, CBO and JCT estimate, the number of nonelderly people who are uninsured would be reduced by about 29 million, leaving about 25 million nonelderly residents uninsured (about one-third of whom would be unauthorized immigrants). Under the proposal, the share of legal nonelderly residents with insurance coverage would rise from about 83 percent currently to about 94 percent.
We have an $829 billion dollar paid-for bill that lowers the deficit over time, but leaves 25 million residents uninsured, 2/3 of them American citizens. The bill doesn't cover as many people because Senate amendments reduced the penalties for non-compliance with the mandate and increased the hardship exemption. Without a public option, I actually agree with that, but it narrows the risk pool, and insurance companies don't want that because they'll be forced to cover a higher ratio of sick people, in their opinion. They could all handle this by increasing the subsidies, but Obama basically put a cap on the bill at $900 billion, and the more conservative Finance Committee went even lower than that. There's also a "trigger" of sorts that will reduce subsidies to people by a fairly large amount:
In the aggregate, the Senate finance bill reduces the deficit. But there are a couple individual years when it increases it. The CBO thus estimates that "the failsafe provisions would require a reduction in exchange subsidies averaging about 15 percent during the years 2015 through 2018." That's a very bad thing, particularly in the first years of the plan. It means that, with no warning, subsidies will be cut by 15 percent, and insurance that families were able to afford the year before will become totally unaffordable. That needs to be changed.
That's not the only problem with the exchanges. An amendment in the Finance Committee basically eliminated all policy benefits to them:
In the bills that passed three House committees and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, the exchange would be a "prudent purchaser." In other words, it would have a staff that bargained with insurers to bring down premiums--and that made sure all plans lived up to strict guidelines for coverage and customer service. In effect, any insurer that wants to offer coverage through the exchanges has to get the equivalent of a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" from the administrators. This is precisely how it works in Massachusetts.
By contrast, the Senate Finance bill envisions much weaker exchanges. Instead of choosing which plans to make available, the exchange administrators would, by law, have to accept any plan that meets a relatively minimal set of standards.
Jon Kingsdale, who runs the Massachusetts exchange, calls that a recipe for "policy disaster," as consumers faced a dizzying array of more expensive, less regulated choices. "It would be like telling your grocery store they have to offer every single kind of bread baked by every single bakery. ... The exchanges would be nothing more than an automated Yellow Pages."
Cappy McGarr, who ran an exchange that failed in Texas, says that the exchanges will fail if they don't attract a considerable market share. Making them user-unfriendly like this is a sure way to have people just run in the other direction. And firewalling them from employees of bigger businesses is another. Insurers outside the exchanges will only need to use good marketing to entice consumers into their web, especially if the exchanges are not designed well.
If Congress now creates new exchanges, as seems increasingly likely, it must prevent this phenomenon by setting two national rules: Insurers have to accept everyone and have to charge everyone the same rates regardless of health status.
Such rules would force insurers to spread risk. But enforcement would also be difficult. Every aspect of health insurance — from the rules for underwriting and setting premiums to the marketing of policies — would need to be monitored stringently to prevent companies from steering all bad risks to the exchanges.
It would be smarter for Congress to revisit the idea of creating a public plan that could provide an attractive choice for consumers and real competition for private insurers, to give them the incentive to offer good coverage at affordable prices.
Max Baucus trashed Ron Wyden's effort to design the exchanges better (there's now documented proof of this), significantly weakening them.
Igor Volsky has more. To me, it's no wonder that Republicans are starting to concede on this health care bill. Aside from the fact that they can't stop it, they know that Baucus-care isn't all that likely to work, which will help them in the long run.
...is this a good starting place? Maybe. I'm worried about its survivability. We've seen a lot of exchanges die off over the years, and while there will be some default position toward making this viable in the short-term, if for example Obama loses in 2012 I could easily see a repeal, given that the exchanges wouldn't even be in place by then.