Key members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee announced on Thursday what they claimed were dramatically improved cost and coverage estimates for the latest version of their health care reform bill.
Headed by Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, HELP members (in a Muzak-marred conference call with reporters) stated that the revised bill would cost only $611 billion over ten years, a figure apparently computed by the CBO, and that with a further expansion of Medicaid would provide coverage for 97 percent of Americans.
Key features of the bill provided during the conference call included a public plan option, subsidies for lower-income individuals buying insurance through an exchange mechanism, and a play-or-pay employer mandate.
Sounds good? We’ll have to wait for details, but two big problems are already apparent.
The first BIG problem is that the ten-year cost estimate of $611 billion excludes the cost of Medicaid expansion. With Senator Dodd’s admission that the HELP Committee expects this to provide coverage for 7 percent of Americans (the difference between the 97 percent coverage with Medicaid expansion and 90 percent without it), the total cost balloons to far more than a trillion dollars. A rough calculation of Medicaid costs for 20 million Americans at present funding levels gives a total of $80 billion a year – or $800 billion just for Medicaid expansion, presumably to be shared with state governments already on the verge of bankruptcy.
Even assuming that Senator Dodd misspoke, and the at he intended his percentages to apply only to under-65 Americans, the ten-year estimate for Medicaid expansion is still over $700 billion—with no provision for medical inflation. And, given the financial condition of most states, most of this cost would have to be borne by the federal government.
The second BIG problem is the absurdly modest levy—$750 for businesses with more than 25 workers and $375 for businesses with fewer than 25—to be imposed on employers not providing employee coverage. It’s hard to believe, in the middle of a deepening recession, that many employers will not choose to pay the $375 or $750 levy rather than buy insurance at $3,000 or more (just for the employee, with no family coverage), with additional government subsidies needed to bridge the funding gap.
The CBO has apparently assumed in its estimates that there will not be a big change in the extent of employer-sponsored coverage over the ten-year period, but this seems unrealistic. While we have not seen a “rush to the exits” in Massachusetts so far, the longer-term experience of Hawaii may be more meaningful. Immediately after Hawaii passed its mandated coverage law, the uninsured rate was below 5 percent, but as a series of recessions hit Hawaii’s economy, the rate increased to 8 percent in 1998, and close to 10 percent today. Only the truly naïve can believe that numerous US employers won’t either choose the far cheaper levy option or—as in Hawaii—find other ways of ducking the employer mandate.
Roger Collier was formerly CEO of a national health care consulting firm. His experience includes the design and implementation of innovative health care programs for HMOs, health insurers, and state and federal agencies. He is editor of Health Care REFORM UPDATE [reformupdate.blogspot.com].