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Tag: Jeff Goldsmith

The Fallen Souffle Economy


It is increasingly clear that the United States’ economic troubles are far from over.

The stock market plunge that began in earnest last week reflects the market’s belief that we’re not going to recover fully from the recession that began in 2007. As a Wall Street Journal commentator said mid-Monday’s plunge:  “The market is pricing in a double dip recession”. In reality, the 2007 recession (caused initially by $150 a barrel oil) never really ended.

Past remedies for recession basically involved nearly free money and Keynesian pump priming to stimulate demand with either borrowed or freshly printed money. The most recent (bipartisan) stimulus effort, nearly a trillion worth of extended Bush tax cuts, unemployment extensions, payroll tax cuts, etc. which Congress and the Obama Administration negotiated in December, seems to have disappeared into thin air, producing a whopping 0.8% economic growth in the first half of 2011 and a July unemployment rate of 9.2%. This Economist analysis argues that the political system has exhausted its remedies for our economic problems.

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Letting Go Of Employer-Based Health Insurance

Other than the egg-laying exercise surrounding the ACO regulations, 2011 was a quiet year among Washington health policy experts until June 6 when McKinsey released the results ofa survey of employer plans under the Affordable Care Act. The McKinsey study found that roughly 30 percent of employers were considering dropping their employee insurance coverage and encouraging their employees to receive federally subsidized health insurance through the Exchanges created in the Affordable Care Act. This compared to low- to mid-single digit estimated drop rates based upon economic modeling by the Urban InstituteLewin and, importantly, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

To judge by the storm of angry political reaction, you would have thought that McKinsey had advocated mass psychedelic drug use. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) sent McKinsey a letter demanding that the firm disclose its methods and questioning its motives. There followed a flurry of hostile press coverage of the study, echoed in the progressive blogosphere. Horrified, McKinsey released its study methodology, survey instrument, and tabulations of responses.

Why such a sharp reaction? If McKinsey turns out to be right about employer intentions, the cost estimates of the federal subsidies for individuals to purchase coverage through the Exchanges (roughly $777 billion from 2012 to 2021 according to CBO’s March, 2011 analysis) are far too low, making the program even more vulnerable to Republican efforts to cancel it. And if a third of employers drop coverage, President Obama’s pledge that “if you like your health insurance coverage, you can keep it” won’t look so great either.

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The Unbridgeable Gap between Left and Right on Health Reform

Though thoroughly smothered under 2900 pages of well meaning but poorly focused, expert-driven “good works”, the core of the Affordable Care Act was providing 30 million people subsidized health insurance coverage. As the country continues to decide how it feels about this monumental legislation, a major ideological divide persists over whether the aggressive coverage expansion in health reform was really needed or not.

Far from “selling itself,” as a overconfident White House aide suggested it would back on March 23, 2010,  health reform remains strikingly unpopular. Only 37% of the public thinks the country will be better off as a result of health reform, and only 28% think their families will be better off, according to the May Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll.  There is a stark partisan divide over health reform.  While 72% of Democrats have a favorable opinion of health reform, a substantial minority believes the bill could have done more (covered more people, provided a public option or path to single payer).  Alternatively, 74% of Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of health reform; the same percentage favors repeal.  Independents tend to break toward the Republican view of the bill (49% unfavorable vs. 35% favorable).  Those opposed feel more intensely about health reform than those in favor.

The Ryan House Budget for 2012 zeroes out all new spending for health reform (while keeping ACA’s Medicare cuts, devoting them to deficit reduction!).  The conservative narrative is that the problem of the uninsured was liberal mythology, not meriting major new spending.  In the blogosphere, an analysis surfaced suggesting that the real uninsured problem is only about 4 million people. This apparently originated in a Heritage Foundation blog posting from late August, 2009.  Other conservative analysts charitably suggest there may be as many as ten to twelve million uninsured worthy of federal help.   To take care of this smaller number, you do not need a major coverage expansion, but merely to apply the familiar market oriented remedies: selling insurance across state lines, high deductible health plans, malpractice reform, high risk pools, etc.

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Last Helicopter Out of Saigon!

Jeff goldsmith In popular psychiatry, a classic passive aggressive gambit is “malicious compliance”- intentionally inflicting harm on someone by strictly following a directive, even though the person knows that they are damaging someone by doing so. In Washington, the most skilled practitioner of this dark art is Speaker Nancy Pelosi If health reform craters, Pelosi will disingenuously claim that she did precisely what the President asked of her, and blame the Senate and the President for its failure.

In reality, Pelosi’s “leadership” almost fatally wounded health reform last summer. If the process does collapse, the blame should fall squarely on her shoulders. Her poor political judgment led directly not only to squandering a nearly 80 vote majority, but also exposed embarrassing and ill-timed disunity among Democrats on a signature domestic policy issue. It won’t be the Republicans that killed health reform, but incompetent Democratic Congressional leadership.

Last July 14, Speaker Pelosi unveiled the opening bid in the health reform process- HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. This bill was drafted largely without input from their Republican colleagues or from important Democratic moderates. It also put into legislative language virtually exactly what the President promised in his campaign, without considering seriously the political implications for the actual passage of the legislation- a political form of malicious compliance. Democratic moderates felt their input had been ignored and they were immediately trapped on the wrong side of this issue.

HR3200 had an immediate polarizing effect on the health reform debate, and the damage control process was on. In a sense, health reform has never recovered. Pelosi’s bill summoned the right wing talk radio demons (and the inimitable Betsy McCaughey) out of their caves, reviving long dormant rhetoric about a “government takeover of the health system”. This label has clung stubbornly to all subsequent versions of the legislation.

Unfortunately, the critics weren’t too far wrong. HR 3200 effectively federalized the employer health benefit. It mandated that employers offer a “one size fits everyone” health benefit to their workers, the benefit precisely defined by federal statute. It imposed an 8% payroll tax on employers who did not provide the benefit, pushing their federal payroll tax to 23% if you include Social Security and Medicare. It also moved the top tax rate for federal income taxes for businesses filing as “subchapter S” to 46%, a level not seen since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

Given unemployment was climbing toward 10% at the time, HR3200 would have simultaneously diminished corporate cash flow and increased the cost of hiring new workers for firms that did not presently offer health coverage- a recipe for no recovery.

HR 3200 created new health insurance premium subsidy for workers covering and estimated 20 million new people, but without any meaningful brake on future federal subsidies. To enroll these new folk, however, health insurers would have to comply with provisions of a new federal health insurance exchange, whose rules would have effectively ended medical underwriting.

The health coverage gated through the exchange was no longer be “insurance”, but a federally defined health care entitlement financed largely by employers. The bill also created a public health insurance option, which had the effect simultaneously of competing with and financially undermining private health insurers. All of this was to be overseen by a politically appointed Health Choices Commissioner, in effect, a commissar for the health insurance system. This nominally private-sector approach had a distinctly Soviet flavor.

Almost immediately upon HR3200’s release and for the following seven months, the Democrats have been playing defense on health reform and losing. Democrats elected from Red or Purple states ran from the bill as fast as their legs would carry them. They rebelled against the “public option”, the employer mandates, as well as the tax increases required to fund the premium subsidies.

Moderate Democrats also objected to subsidizing private coverage of abortions and to any enrollment of people in the US illegally (roughly 7-8 million of the uninsured). It might have been possible to address these concerns “privately”, e.g. in the initial drafting process, but by the time HR 3200 was released, many After almost four months of contentious negotiations, a revised version of the House bill passed by only five votes, one of which came from a stray Republican.

By the time Democratic moderate concerns had been clumsily and publicly accommodated (in the late fall), the resulting House bill had gravely offended three core constituencies of the Democratic party- women, Hispanics and the single-payer advocates, without materially addressing the critics of a huge expansion of federal power (and spending). The Democratic base lost enthusiasm for the bill while Democratic moderates continued to struggle with the “government takeover” label. By late fall, the legislation had acquired the odor and toxic sheen of a rotten side of tuna.

In the court of public opinion, the ensuing seven months (with a brief blip after Labor Day after a well- crafted Obama defense of health reform), were all down hill for health reform. Opposition to the process, as much as the substance, of health reform hardened, aided materially by a flurry of dealing making around the Senate bill (Medicare or Medicaid carve outs for Florida, Louisiana and Nebraska most visibly).

The late January loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat to an insurgent “Tea Party” Republican, Scott Brown, was an unmistakable warning sign that even formerly unassailable Blue State Democrats were now at risk. Political pundit Charlie Cook, who follows the Congressional races at a microscopic level, wrote recently that the Democrats have been in free fall since August. They lost gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, county executive races in solidly Democratic Fairfax County (VA) and Westchester and Nassau Counties (NY). A surge of inconvenient scandals- David Paterson, Charles Rangel and Eric Massa- all in New York- have further tarnished Democratic credibility. Cook placed the odds on the Democrats losing the House this November at 50-50 and sliding.

On the eve of the Presidential health reform “summit”, a Newsweek poll revealed that independent voters, crucial to re-election of Democratic moderates, opposed passage of health reform by a stunning 62-29% margin. Despite the White House’s feeling that the President could paint the Republicans into a corner and blame them for halting health reform, a Politico.com reader poll after the summit suggested the Republicans decisively outpointed the President (52%-19%) by stressing the fiscal and economic risks of the bill. There aren’t a lot of undecided voters left on the health reform issue- and strongly “anti-” sentiment outruns strongly “pro-” sentiment by almost two to one.

Now the White House and Democratic leaders are in the final scramble to find votes to send the President something he can sign and declare this endless and divisive process over. Speaker Pelosi suggested last week that, regardless of the damage they may suffer at the polls in November, House Democrats owe her and the President a reaffirmation of their support. Pelosi basically ordered her troops to swallow their reservations about this bill and fall on their swords.

Gloria Borger of CNN reported late last week that a “senior White House aide” characterized the coming vote on health reform as “the last helicopter out of Saigon”, the most unfortunate political metaphor of the Obama era thusfar. (For younger people, that helicopter was ferrying South Vietnamese collaborators with the United States off the roof of the CIA compound before the North Vietnamese Army flooded into Saigon). What did the “senior White House aide” mean? That the Communists are coming and congressional Democrats need to save themselves and run for the hills? It sure doesn’t sound like a clarion call to do the right legislative thing.

It isn’t the Communists that are coming. It’s a lynch mob. And the angry horde is going to discriminate between “progressives” and moderates. They are simply going to find and hang as many public officials as they can get their hands on – incumbent Congresspeople, Senators, Governors, state legislators, county executives. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the majority of those incumbents are Democrats. I’ve not seen such a toxic electoral atmosphere in my lifetime.

If she cannot find the votes to pass health reform, Speaker Pelosi will be deflecting blame and knifing her White House colleagues in the back all the way to the guillotine. If it passes, it will be in spite of, rather than because of, her advocacy. By maliciously complying with the President’s mandate, Speaker Pelosi and her arrogant, tone-deaf management of the legislative process badly damaged the prospect for lasting health reform. She should scramble for a seat on that last helicopter herself.

Panicky People Make Bad Decisions : Salvaging Health Reform after Scott Brown

Jeff goldsmith

The shocking surrender of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to an insurgent Republican state legislator, Scott Brown, has imperiled President Obama’s health reform initiative. The Massachusetts “massacre” has unleashed a tidal wave of second guessing from Democratic pundits. Obama, the left argues angrily, got what he deserved for trying to find a bipartisan solution to health reform, for abandoning the beloved “public option” and snuggling up to the corporations they wanted to punish. If only he’d remained pure to their ideals, Martha Coakley would be a Senator and he’d have a bill on his desk by the end of the week. General Custer could not have gotten worse advice.

It’s possible that the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat might end up saving both health reform and the Obama Presidency. The President seems to understand what happened in Massachusetts better than his more ideological brethren. Disarmingly, he argued the day after Brown’s victory that it was produced by the same popular anger as his own election, though it’s worth noting an important qualitative difference. The 2008 election coincided with a full blown market panic, which the President’s calm and policies helped quell; What he is now facing is much closer to voter despair, as the domestic economy digests a huge overhang of debt, and unemployment lingers above the toxic 10% level.

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There Be Dragons: The Fiscal Risk Of Premium Subsidies In Health Reform

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office weighed in on the biggest economic imponderable in the health care debate: how private health insurance premiums will behave under health reform. Building on its December 2008 CBO health insurance market analysis, CBO forecast largely benign effects from health reform’s private market reforms and subsidies on the vast majority of the presently insured (e.g. voting public).

According to CBO, only 17% of Americans in the so-called non-group market–largely individuals–would see premium increases in 2016 (the CBO reference year), because they would be required to purchase fatter benefits with less economic risk. CBO believes that the other 83% of the presently insured will see little or no change.

Analysis of how the health insurance market will behave under health reform has become ferociously politicized. After the infamous PriceWaterhouseCoopers study sponsored by health insurers suggested possible large premium increases, the CBO report might provide cover for members of Congress who are contemplating irreversibly tying the federal budget to a volatile “private” insurance market. I think the fiscal risks of a partially federalized private health benefit are significantly greater than CBO has suggested.

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The Leaning Tower of Jello: Why No-one Believes Health Reform will be Deficit Neutral

President Obama has promised not to sign any health reform legislation that increases the federal deficit. This promise recognized rising public concern about an Argentinean fiscal trend that, unchecked, could leave us with $19 trillion in federal debt in a decade.

Without that pledge, given the current economic climate, health reform would be one dead mackerel.

Some clarifications are essential here. I’m a Democrat and fervent Obama supporter. I voted for him twice (and that was just in the Virginia primary). I’m proud of our President. He has first class economic and healthcare teams. He deserves credit for not postponing health reform. He’s right: it’s simply not tolerable, morally or economically, for a wealthy nation to continue having close to 50 million uninsured people.

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Why McAllen Should Have Mattered in the Health Reform Debate

Jeff GoldsmithBack in June, Atul Gawande, a Harvard trained surgeon, published a riveting article in the New Yorker   about the physician community in McAllen Texas. If ever an article was strategically timed to influence the nation’s health policy debate, this was the one. His story was accompanied by a graphic showing a patient as an ATM machine.  President Obama read it and put it on his staff’s reading list.  Yet, it’s depressing how little impact Atul’s article has had on health reform.

Atul’s purpose was to explain a major policy conundrum: why some communities manage to spend as much as triple on Medicare services as other communities. McAllen’s physicians practice some of the most expensive medicine in the United States, second only to Miami, and spend seven thousand dollars per Medicare beneficiary more than the national average. Peter Orszag has said that eliminating this type of variation could cut Medicare expenses nationally by as much as 30% and actually improve the quality of care.

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Hiding In Plain Sight: Using Medicare To Solve The ‘Public Option’ Conundrum

Barack Obama_addresses_joint_session_of_congress_2-24-09As Senate and House Committee versions of health reform move toward unified legislation and floor votes, the most complex political challenge is how to resolve the “public option” controversy. While one would have thought weightier issues such as the shape of Medicare reform, the taxation required to support coverage subsidies, or the presence or absence of mandates would have been pivotal in this debate, the seemingly peripheral issue of a Medicare-like “public option” might be the hill on which health reform dies.

The reasons are almost completely political. The Democratic base wants to end private health insurance. Single payer advocates view the public option as a down payment on an entirely public health financing system. Public option advocates believe that the plan’s bargaining power will drive private insurers out of business. (I’ve argued in a previous blog posting that, without fully understanding what they are doing, these single payer advocates are probably right.)Continue reading…

Capitol Shortage: Can the Two Democratic Parties Get It Together on Health Reform?

Hcan-june25crowd+dome3 As an exceptionally grumpy American summer grinds to a conclusion, it is apparent that only a bipartisan solution will enable Congress and the Obama Administration to complete health reform.  No, we’re not talking about co-operating with the Republicans. Other than a handful of contrarian Republican moderates on the Senate Finance Committee, at least one of whose votes might be needed for eventual passage, the Republicans are irrelevant to the final outcome.

No, the bipartisan solution we’re talking about is co-operation between the two Democratic parties represented in Congress:  the “Safe-Seat” Democrats- the Pacific Heights/Beverly Hills/Berkeley Hills/Upper West Side/Harlem Democrats and the “Running Scared” Democrats from the western, southern and border states, who actually require independent and some moderate Republican support to get elected.  These parties have very little in common other than the Capital D after their names.  

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