Obamacare Is At War With Itself Over Future Costs

Right now, Obamacare is at war with itself. Political efforts to buy off Big Pharma, private insurers, and the AMA are all pushing up long-term costs — one reason why Douglas Elmendorf, head of the Congressional Budget Office, told Congress late last week that “the cost curve is being raised.” But this is setting off alarms among Blue Dog Democrats worried about future deficits — and their votes are critical.

Big Pharma, for example, is in line to get just what it wants. The Senate health panel’s bill protects biotech companies from generic competition for 12 years after their drugs go to market, which is guaranteed to keep prices sky high. Meanwhile, legislation expected from the Senate Finance committee won’t allow cheaper drugs to be imported from Canada and won’t give the federal government the right to negotiate Medicare drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies. Last month Big Pharma agreed to what the White House touted as $80 billion in givebacks to help pay for expanded health insurance, but so far there’s been no mechanism to force the industry to keep its promise. No wonder Big Pharma is now running “Harry and Louise” ads — the same couple who fifteen years ago scared Americans into thinking the Clinton plan would take away their choice of doctor — now supportive of Obamacare.

Private insurers, for their part, have become convinced they’ll make more money with a universal mandate accompanied by generous subsidies for families with earnings up to 400 percent of poverty (in excess of $80,000 of income) than they might stand to lose. Although still strongly opposed to a public option, the insurance industry is lining up behind much of the legislation. The biggest surprise is the AMA, which has also now come out in favor — but only after being assurred that Medicare reimbursements won’t be cut nearly as much as doctors first feared.

But all these industry giveaways are obviously causing the healthcare tab to grow. And as these long-term costs rise, the locus of opposition to universal health care is shifting away from industry and toward Blue Dog and moderate Democrats who are increasingly worried about future deficits. My sources on the Hill tell me there aren’t enough votes in the House to get either major bill through, even with a provision that would pay for it with a surcharge on the richest 1 percent of taxpayers. House members don’t want to vote for a tax increase before their Senate counterparts commit to one. Yet the Senate continues to be in suspended animation because Max Baucus and his Senate Finance Committee still haven’t come up with a credible way of paying for health care. In his testimony last week, Elmendorf favored limiting tax-free employer-provided health benefits, but organized labor remains strongly opposed.

Obama has less than three weeks before August recess. Chances are dimming that he can get some form of universal health care passed in both Houses before the clock runs out. The Democratic National Committee is running ads favoring passage in Blue Dog states and districts, but that won’t be enough. Now is the time for the President to begin twisting arms and knocking heads. To control long-term costs, he’ll also have to take away some of the goodies that have been promised to the health-industrial complex, and maybe even cross Big Labor. He also needs to come out clearly and forcefully in favor of a way to pay for the whole thing — ideally, in my view, a surtax on the top.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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