Republicans in Congress made a big deal of the fact that the health care reform legislation was more than 1,000 pages long. A large portion of those pages spelled out initiatives aimed at controlling health care costs.
Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has a simpler way of cutting federal health care spending. Just stop paying for the health care people need.
His just-released Fiscal Year 2012 budget resolution, The Pathway to Prosperity, would make two radical changes in our health care system.
It would convert Medicare from a health insurance program for seniors and severely disabled people to subsidies that would partially cover the costs of health insurance they purchase on the private market.
Ryan claims that his plan will unleash competition by letting patients choose the plan that delivers high-quality services for the lowest cost.
But, of course, that’s how a vast number of people get their health insurance now — not only the members of Congress Ryan mentions, but others who get their health insurance through their employers or purchase it on their own. Yet health care costs are spiraling.
So how will the Ryan plan save money? Pathway to Prosperity makes the conventional references to waste and abuse, but is otherwise judiciously vague.
But Ryan’s earlier Roadmap for America’s Future certainly wasn’t. Nor was the similar plan he developed in partnership with Alice Rivlin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget.
Ryan would reduce federal Medicare spending by adjusting the value of the subsidies according to an inflation index that doesn’t reflect rising health care costs. This produces an even bigger crunch than Ryan-Rivlin.
So, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, seniors and other beneficiaries would have to shoulder more and more of their health insurance costs or switch to plans that provide significantly less protection.
Ryan would also convert Medicaid from a genuine federal-state partnership into a block grant — a different type of cost shift, but with similar results.
The federal government now covers a certain percentage of states’ Medicaid costs — somewhere between half and three-quarters, depending on a state’s average per person income.
Under Ryan’s plan, states would get a fixed amount of money — the same in good times and bad, somewhat more over time, but considerably less than would be needed to accommodate rising health care costs and the aging of the population.
States would get enormous “flexibility” (favorite Republican word). They’d no longer have to enroll everyone whose income was low enough to fall below a standard threshold — or indeed, any threshold at all. Nor would they have to provide a specified minimum package of essential services.
Ryan claims that the block grant would eliminate incentives that have led states to expand coverage to people who aren’t “truly in need” — as if people who now qualify for Medicaid aren’t.
States would also, he says, gain freedom from unspecified restrictions that keep them from making their programs “smart” and “efficient.”
We’ve already seen what happens when states face budget pressures due to a combination of lower revenues and rising safety net costs. They look for savings in Medicaid, which accounts for a large percentage of those costs.
And they exercise what’s actually considerable flexibility to eliminate benefits federal rules don’t require — home care that keeps frail elderly people out of nursing homes, hearing aids and eyeglasses, preventive dental care, even life-saving organ transplants.
They make further cuts in reimbursement rates, effectively denying Medicaid participants health care because doctors won’t treat them.
They seek permission to drop people from the program — something they wouldn’t have to do under Ryan’s plan because it would repeal most of the health care reform act, which bars states from rolling back Medicaid coverage.
And recall, this is all happening under the current funding formula.
Ryan says that his plan for Medicaid would save $1 trillion over 10 years. Only one way that could happen. Less federal funding than under the current system — probably progressively less relative to need as time goes on.
States could in theory pick up the difference. But it’s more likely that most would ramp up the kinds of cost-cutting measures we’re seeing now — and go in for others we’re not seeing, thanks only to federal rules.
The Ryan plan may be a pathway to prosperity for the wealthiest, who would enjoy a further 10% cut in their income tax rate. But it’s a pathway to unnecessary pain, suffering and economic insecurity for the rest of us.
UPDATE: The Ryan plan is more generous to the very wealthy than I realized. The Wall Street Journal reports that it would not only cut the top income tax bracket, but eliminate the recently-enacted surtax on high earners’ investment income.