What is medicare 'double counting,' and why are budget experts fighting over it?
A new study of the Affordable Care Act finds peculiar Medicare budgeting practices, including counting spending cuts and revenue increases twice. It's causing a stir among budget experts.
The recent double-counting dispute isn’t just about politics; it also reveals a flaw in budgeting for Medicare Part A.Skip to next paragraph
Donald B. Marron is director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. He previously served as a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers and as acting director of the Congressional Budget Office.
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Budget experts are waging a spirited battle over the Medicare changes that helped pay for 2010’s health reform. In April, Chuck Blahous, one of two public trustees of the program, released a study arguing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would increase the deficit by at least $340 billion by 2021, a sharp contrast from the $210 billion in deficit reduction estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Chuck bases his estimates on several factors, but the item that has garnered the most attention is his charge that the ACA’s spending cuts and revenue increases in Medicare Part A are being double counted: once to help pay for the ACA’s coverage expansion and a second time to improve the finances of the Part A trust fund, whose predicted exhaustion was delayed by several years.
Chuck notes that those resources can be used only once: They can either offset some costs of health reform or strengthen Medicare, but not both. He believes those resources will ultimately finance additional Medicare spending and thus can’t offset any health reform costs. For that reason, he concludes that the ACA would increase deficits, rather than reduce them.
That argument inspired a host of commentary from leading budget experts, ranging from denunciation to affirmation. See, for example, Jeffrey Brown, Howard Gleckman, Peter Orszag, Robert Reischauer (as quoted by Jonathan Chait), and Paul Van de Water, and a follow up by Chuck and Jim Capretta.
Why does this dispute exist? It can’t just be politics. If it were, we’d have double-counting disputes about every program. But we don’t. We thus need an explanation for why this debate has erupted around Medicare Part A, which provides hospital insurance, but not around other programs. Part A is not unique in controlling spending by a “belt and suspenders” combination of regular program rules (the “belt”) and an overall limit (the “suspenders”). Such budgeting also applies to Social Security, Medicare Parts B and D (which cover physician visits and prescription drugs), and the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal debt limit acts as “suspenders” for the entire budget. But none of those give rise to double-counting disputes.
That suggests that there is something unusual—perhaps flawed—about budgeting for Medicare Part A. To see what that is, it helps to boil the dispute down to two basic questions about programs subject to “belt and suspenders” budgeting.
First, can spending reductions or revenue increases in the program offset spending increases or revenue reductions in other programs? In short, can budget savings pay for other programs? Or must they stay within the program itself?
Second, would hitting the overall budget limit affect program operations? In other words, do budget savings extend the period during which the program can operate at full capacity? Or is the limit operationally toothless?
As shown above, policymakers have answered these questions differently for different programs (for further details, see the appendix).
This comparison reveals the unique feature of Medicare Part A: It is the only one of these programs that allows budget savings to pay for other programs and has a trust fund with real operational teeth. It alone answers Yes to both questions. That is why Medicare Part A is the only program that creates the possibility of double counting and suffers from the reality of a double-counting dispute.
Double counting isn’t possible in Social Security or the NFIP because budget rules require that savings stay in the program. It isn’t possible for the budget as a whole since there are, by definition, no other programs to fund. And double counting isn’t possible in Medicare Parts B and D because its trust fund does nothing to limit operations.
But double counting is possible in Medicare Part A. That happens whenever someone claims that the health reform legislation both reduces deficits and provides additional resources to Medicare Part A. I will leave it to others to adjudicate whether any health reform proponents committed that error. I will note, however, that every budget expert, including Chuck Blahous, agrees that CBO didn’t do so (its baseline ignores the trust fund, so savings reduce deficits and have no effect on program operations).
Bottom line: The peculiar budget rules for Medicare Part A make it possible for analysts, pundits, and policymakers—whether willfully or inadvertently—to double count budget savings in Medicare Part A. That needless confusion is a significant flaw. To correct it, Congress could adopt the budget practices it uses in Social Security, Medicare B & D, or the NFIP. In a follow-up post, I will examine the pros and cons of these alternatives.
Appendix: How “Belt and Suspenders” Budgeting Works
In Medicare Part A, spending is determined by rules about benefit eligibility and provider payment rates. If the Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund balance falls to zero, however, spending faces a separate, hard limit: payments can’t exceed receipts. Program operations would thus be disrupted if the trust fund became exhausted. Congressional budget rules ignore the trust fund and assume that spending will continue at scheduled levels regardless of its balance. Under that approach, any spending reductions or revenue increases in Medicare Part A generate new budget resources that can be used to pay for changes in other programs.
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