How Much Does Health Reform Reduce the Budget Deficit?

It figures that CBO would release its much-awaited score just as I was boarding a plane to go to a conference. So apologies for being slow to the party.

The headlines are reporting that CBO scored the health reform effort as costing $940 billion over the next ten years. Readers of this blog know that isn’t correct. The $940 billion figure refers only to the coverage expansions in the legislative package. There are also many other health reform initiatives–e.g., filling the “doughnut hole” in Medicare’s prescription drug benefit and increasing funding for community health centers and prevention efforts–in the legislation. Add it all up and the ten-year cost of health reform is about $1,072 billion.

Bonus question: How much does health reform reduce the budget deficit?

The headline claim is that CBO says the health reform package will reduce the deficit by $138 billion over the next ten years. That’s not right either. First of all, the health reform has now been stapled together with student loan reform in order to deal with some of the specifics of reconciliation. The student loan package accounts for $19 billion of the ten-year savings. So at best health reform should get credit for $119 billion in deficit reduction. But then there’s the CLASS Act gimmick. Lop that off and health reform really should be credited with $49 billion in deficit reduction. And even then it isn’t really health reform that’s creating those reductions. The health policy changes are actually expanding the deficit over the next ten years; other, non-health tax increases offset those increases and provide some deficit reduction.

Lest I be viewed as relentlessly beating on the package, let me offer a second bonus question:

Does the package generate budget savings only because it’s using ten years of taxes to pay for six years of benefits?

This appears to be a common refrain among opponents of the package. But it doesn’t hold up either. It is true that the new health benefits don’t start in earnest until 2014; that helps keep the ten-year sticker price down. But those six years of costs are offset by a combination of spending cuts and tax increases during those years, even if you strip out the CLASS Act gimmick. And in the second decade, CBO tells us that the bill reduces the deficit significantly more if–and this is a huge if–it executes as written.

About Donald Marron 294 Articles

Donald Marron is an economist in the Washington, DC area. He currently speaks, writes, and consults about economic, budget, and financial issues.

From 2002 to early 2009, he served in various senior positions in the White House and Congress including: * Member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) * Acting Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) * Executive Director of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee (JEC)

Before his government service, Donald had a varied career as a professor, consultant, and entrepreneur. In the mid-1990s, he taught economics and finance at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He then spent about a year-and-a-half managing large antitrust cases (e.g., Pepsi vs. Coke) at Charles River Associates in Washington, DC. After that, he took the plunge into the world of new ventures, serving as Chief Financial Officer of a health care software start-up in Austin, TX. After that fascinating experience, he started his career in public service.

Donald received his Ph.D. in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his B.A. in Mathematics a couple miles down the road at Harvard.

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