Wednesday, November 17, 2010

qotd: Jan Schakowsky and Rivlin/Domenici on the deficit

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky
November 16, 2010
Schakowsky Alternative to Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan

Today Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a member of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, offered a comprehensive proposal to reduce the federal deficit without making middle class Americans foot the bill.  Schakowsky's plan is an alternative to the Simpson-Bowles plan and would reduce the deficit by $427.75 billion in 2015, surpassing President Obama's $250 billion target. Critically, the Schakowsky plan accomplishes deficit reduction without making cuts to essential federal expenditures that benefit the middle class.


Bipartisan Policy Center
November 2010
Reviving the Economy, Cutting Spending and Debt, and Creating a Simple, Pro-Growth Tax System
By The Debt Reduction Task Force, Senator Pete Domenici and Dr. Alice Rivlin, Co-Chairs

Strengthen Medicare for the Long Term: Transition to a Premium Support Option

Like today, Medicare enrollees will be in the traditional fee-for-service program unless they choose a private plan. However, if federal spending per enrollee for the benefits specified in legislation rises faster than GDP growth plus one percent, beneficiaries will have to pay an additional premium to cover the difference. They can avoid that additional premium, however, and potentially get higher quality health care, if they choose a private health plan offered on a new Medicare Exchange. The expectation is that increased competition among plans fostered by the Medicare Exchange, and increased beneficiary interest in these plans, will keep costs from rising rapidly and result in higher quality, more cost-effective health care.

This proposal will limit growth in federal support for Medicare per beneficiary to one percentage point per year higher than a five-year moving average of GDP growth. If Medicare spending per enrollee for the benefits specified in legislation rises at a faster rate, enrollees will have the option of paying an additional premium to cover the difference and remaining in the traditional Medicare program, or selecting a private insurance plan from the Medicare Exchange.

While the proposed premium support option resembles the current structure of Medicare Advantage, there are differences. Competition among plans will be enhanced by creating a federal Medicare Exchange, which will facilitate beneficiary choice and enrollment and increase the competitiveness of the market, leading to lower premiums.

This proposal will provide incentives for Medicare Exchange plans to develop products that will save beneficiaries money. Today, if a Medicare Advantage plan has very low costs, it cannot pay a rebate to enrollees; instead, it must increase benefits. Under this proposal, Medicare Exchange plans can offer beneficiaries relief from rising Medicare premiums. The Task Force plan might also increase political support – by Medicare beneficiaries, their children, and those approaching Medicare eligibility – for federal policies that promote cost containment in health care.

Asking beneficiaries to pay more for their Medicare coverage (or shift to a lower-cost plan) mirrors what has happened in private insurance over the past decade, with increases in patient cost-sharing to keep premium growth from exceeding income growth by too large a margin. Employers have generally opted to increase patient cost-sharing rather than increase the percentage of the premium that employees contribute. The former keeps employees enrolled in the plan and encourages more judicious use of health services.

Comment:  The co-chairmen of President Ombama's deficit commission advanced a proposal that disappointed those of us who believe that the government has an important role in promoting a healthy and secure future for all of us. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson recommend reducing the deficit by cutting back on important social programs such as Medicare and Social Security, while failing to recommend tapping obvious potential revenue sources in our upside-down economy. Two members of their committee, Jan Schakowsky and Alice Rivlin, have now released alternative proposals.

Alice Rivlin is also co-chair, along with Pete Dominici, of The Debt Reduction Task Force from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), an organization founded by Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell. Frankly, their report is also disappointing for basically the same reasons. It is very heavy on program reductions (though some are appropriate) and very light on seeking new revenues.

Discussed here is only one feature of the BPC recommendation: converting Medicare to a premium support program. This had been mentioned only cryptically in the Bowles/Simpson report, but more details are provided in the Rivlin/Domenici report (excepts above).

Premium support was a proposal advanced a dozen years ago by John Breaux, Bill Thomas, Bill Frist, and Bobby Jindal that barely failed to receive a super-majority vote in their Bipartisan Medicare Commission, and is now being trotted out again. It is a proposal to convert Medicare from a defined benefit to a defined contribution.

Premium support places a limit on the amount that the government contributes toward the Medicare beneficiaries' premiums, exposing individuals to the increasing costs of health care. It then uses the leverage of higher individual premiums to encourage "voluntary" purchase of less expensive private plans in the marketplace.

Since private plans have much higher administrative costs, they can achieve lower premiums only by reducing benefits or increasing out-of-pocket costs for the beneficiaries, making coverage worse than under the traditional Medicare program. Instead of overpaying private plans as with the current Medicare Advantage program, the premium support underpays the private plans but allows them to obtain the balance from the Medicare beneficiaries. It is a plan to privatize Medicare that can have only disastrous consequences for Medicare beneficiaries.

In sharp contrast is the proposal of Jan Schakowsky. She would balance revenues and expenditures with the goal of reducing the deficit, as opposed to the unstated goals of Bowles/Simpson and Rivlin/Domenici to reduce government. Her recommended reductions in spending are carefully targeted to programs that many in America believe should be reduced anyway. Her proposed increased revenues not only would help wipe out the deficit, but they also would provide corrections to the current massive income transfer from middle-income workers to the very wealthy - one of the greatest social injustices in modern history.

Other than improving the way we would purchase pharmaceuticals, she has little to say about Medicare. Her position is that of protecting what we do have. We can go her one better on that. We can improve Medicare and then provide it for everyone. That frankly won't reduce the deficit much, but it would provide us with much greater value for our health care taxes.

What more could we ask for out of our government than sustainable budgets that provide us with real value?

ACTION ALERT:  The heavy hitters are out in force, and they intend to dismantle as much of government as they can, in the name of "fiscally responsible hard choices." It is imperative that President Obama and members of the Senate receive our clear and unrelenting message that we must both protect and improve our public programs dedicated to social justice. The House alone cannot take those away from us if we have the President and the Senate on our side.

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