Health-care reform cuts the deficit. Not!

Health-care reform raises federal spending over the next 10 years. But because the law also raises taxes, it trims the deficit.

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    House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia (center) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 19, 2011, to discuss the upcoming vote to repeal the health-care reform bill. From left are GOP Reps Nan Hayworth of New York, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Mr. Cantor, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, and Jeb Hensarling of Texas.
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Greg Mankiw set off a vigorous discussion in the blogosphere (see, e.g., Ezra Klein, Clive Crook, and the Austin Frakt) with a provocative analogy about health care reform:

I have a plan to reduce the budget deficit. The essence of the plan is the federal government writing me a check for $1 billion. The plan will be financed by $3 billion of tax increases. According to my back-of-the envelope calculations, giving me that $1 billion will reduce the budget deficit by $2 billion.

Now, you may be tempted to say that giving me that $1 billion will not really reduce the budget deficit. Rather, you might say, it is the tax increases, which have nothing to do with my handout, that are reducing the budget deficit. But if you are tempted by that kind of sloppy thinking, you have not been following the debate over healthcare reform.

I read Greg as raising an important rhetorical / pedagogic question which, judging by some responses, may have been overshadowed by his satire.

That simple question is “what is health care reform?”

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The policy community and commentariat often equate health care reform with the legislation (actually two pieces of legislation) that President Obama signed into law last year. As everyone knows, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that those two laws would, if fully implemented, reduce the federal budget deficit by $143 billion from 2010-2019. That’s the basis for the claim that “health care reform would reduce the deficit over the next ten years.” (CBO also discussed what would happen in later years, where the law, if allowed to execute fully, would have a bigger effect, but let’s leave that to the side right now.)

The complication, which Greg’s post partly addresses, is that the health care reform legislation included many provisions. Greg notes, for example, that some expanded health insurance, while others raised taxes. In his view, only the first part constitutes health care reform — an effort that by itself would widen the deficit — while the tax increases are what made the legislation deficit-reducing.

In fact, it’s more complicated than that. By my count, the two pieces of health care reform legislation combined seven different sets of provisions:

1. Expanding health insurance coverage (e.g., by creating exchanges and subsidies and expanding Medicaid)

2. Expanding federal payments for and provision of health care services (e.g., reducing the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare drug benefit)

3. Cuts to federal payments for and provision of health care services (e.g., cuts to Medicare Advantage and some Medicare payment rates)

4. Tax increases related to insurance coverage (e.g., the excise tax on “Cadillac” health plans)

5. Tax increases not related to insurance coverage (e.g., the new tax on investment income)

6. The CLASS Act, which created an insurance program for long-term care

7. Reform of federal subsidies for student loans

(The House Republicans’ effort to repeal health care reform would overturn 1-6, but leave the student loan changes in place.)

To capture these complexities, I occasionally refer to the legislation as the health care / tax / student loan / long-term care legislation. But whenever I write that for publication, my editors take it out. Although my lengthy description is accurate, it doesn’t work for friendly conversation. So the law (which again, was really two laws) gets called the health care reform law.

Greg’s point, I think, is that this rhetorical convention creates confusion when talking about the law’s budget impacts. To say “the health care reform law reduces the deficit over the next ten years according to CBO” is absolutely true. But it often gets elided to “health care reform reduces the deficit over the next ten years” which isn’t true if, like Greg, you think the revenue raisers, student loan changes, and CLASS Act aren’t really health care reform.

I think Greg is right to worry about this distinction. Because of the information loss as the details of CBO scores get transmitted through various layers of speakers and media (including this blog), some people are indeed under the mistaken impression that health care reform, by itself, reduces the budget deficit over the next ten years. It doesn’t.

However, Greg’s analogy has a flaw: it presumes that none of the tax increases count as health reform. I disagree.

Our current tax system provides enormous ($200 billion per year) subsidies for employer-provided health insurance. They should be viewed as part of the government’s existing intervention in the health marketplace. And rolling back those subsidies strikes me as essential to future health care reform. I would count any revenues raised from doing so as part of health care reform.

That didn’t happen, but the legislation did include a tax on “Cadillac” health plans as a partial substitute. That will clearly affect health insurance markets, and it offset a portion of existing tax subsidies. For both those reasons, it should be viewed as part of health care reform.

The key thing is not the difference between spending and revenues, but between provisions that fundamentally change the health care system and those that do not.

Happily, I am not alone in this view. Indeed, it has been endorsed by none other than the Congressional Budget Office. CBO grappled with this issue during the health care debate. And after much thought, it came up with a useful measure of the health care reform part of the legislation: the “Federal Government’s Budgetary Commitment to Health Care“. This measure combines the spending and tax subsidies that the government provides for health care.

Taking all the health care provisions into account, CBO concluded that the health care reform legislation would increase the federal government’s budgetary commitment to health care. But not as much as many critics suggest. Adding together items (1) through (4) on my list, CBO concluded that the health care reform parts of the legislation would increase the deficit by about $400 billion over ten years. That would then be more than offset by the other provisions — primarily taxes but also the student loan provisions and the CLASS Act. (In later years, by the way, CBO projects that the legislation would actually reduce the federal commitment to health care.)

Bottom line: Health care reform increases the federal deficit over the next ten years, but the health care reform legislation reduces the deficit. What could be simpler?

P.S. I hope it goes without saying–but will say it anyway–that one should not evaluate the health care reform legislation on its fiscal impacts alone … or even predominantly. The legislation has a wide range of benefits (e.g., 32 million more people with health insurance) and costs. The key question is how they net out.

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