| I continue to see people screaming bloody murder over the health care legislation moving through Congress. I don't have the numbers handy, but a poll (CNN, I think) recently found a narrow plurality opposing the House legislation, with a notable portion of those opposing it for being too conservative (worth noting, of course, most opposition was actually from the right or was self-described non-ideological).
The Senate bill, by most accounts, is a more conservative bill. It is financed primarily not by an explicitly progressive tax, but by an excise tax on health plans that will hit Goldman Sachs executives for sure, but will also hit a lot of working class union members who have negotiated health benefits for years.
The subsidies for purchasing coverage in the Senate bill are lower than I would like, meaning near-term affordability isn't what I would hope (of course, it also means less of a public transfer to private insurance companies, which I suppose is OK).
With all that in mind, people have been asking me a lot lately why I'm still supportive of the bill. For me, it really cuts to a few things:
The Senate bill isn't just deficit neutral. Over the next twenty years, by CBO's (rough) estimates, it will reduce the deficit by three-quarters of a trillion dollars. That, as they say, is real money. It does that by long-term holding federal spending on healthcare steady even as massively expanding federal assistance to help low-income and middle-class Americans purchase insurance.
- The underlying structure of the bill -- subsidies, insurance exchanges, insurance market regulations, etc. -- are the right underlying reforms to make a public/private system work. They also may take us a bit closer to single-payer and certainly do not move us further away (e.g. single-payer supporters may not get what they want in this bill, but it does not foreclose victory down the road, which is important).
- There are some very smart political incentives built in. For example, members of Congress get thrown into the exchanges with a lot of the rest of us, helping guarantee that the incentive down the line is for them to maintain high quality and affordability (relatively speaking on the affordability, a lot of members of Congress happen to be very rich and all are higher income than the majority of Americans).
- The biggest point of all is that the Senate bill is extremely serious about costs over the long-term. What should worry just about everyone in the healthcare debate is how completely unsustainable the current system is. It isn't just that it is expensive or that administrative costs run too high. Those administrative costs don't even begin to explain the wild inflation that occurs in America's healthcare sector. You simply cannot have costs in 17% of your economy rise at rates 5-10% faster than the economy as a whole in perpetuity.
My friend Jay Stevens wrote a while ago that his problem with the excise tax was that it penalized spending on healthcare and that we should be happy to encourage people to spend more on healthcare. If healthcare actually improved health, I'd be inclined to agree that it is worth subsidizing. But the correlations are relatively weak (and the odds that hospitalization can hurt or kill you are unfortunately high). Under these circumstances, reducing healthcare spending and allowing ourselves to spend more money on other things (perhaps sporting equipment or healthy local food, both of which can be expensive but would do more in general to improve health than more heart surgeons) would be a good thing.
Does the Senate bill do this? We don't know. But it does everything it can to "bend the curve." Is that good for progressives? Depends on what you mean by progressive, but anyone concerned that health insurance is too expensive for low-income people and tthe middle class should hope that the low- and middle-income people of 20 years in the future have better choices. That requires bending the curve. And by all accounts, the Senate bill works harder to bend the curve than the House bill.
Even better news: CBO has at times been known for being woefully pessimistic. They overestimated the cost and underestimated the impact of tradeable permits for reducing SO2 pollution (which helped clean the air in my (and Dennis Rehberg's) hometown of Billings -- maybe "cap and trade" ain't such a bad idea, Mr. Rehberg). They overestimated the cost of Medicare's prescription drug benefit. And they routinely admit that they can't "score" the cost of key provisions of health care bills that may further reduce spending because these are experiments and folks like CBO approach experiments conservatively.
A couple months ago, a "meme" flew around Facebook as millions of social networkers changed their status to read "No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick." Both the Senate and the House legislation accomplish these goals. If we want to establish additional corollaries, such as "No insurance executive should make money" or "No brain surgeon should make more than $250,000 per year," we could have done that. But those goals aren't really as important, either policy-wise or politically.
Soon, we'll pass a bill that should effectively end medical bankruptcy in America and guarantee baseline health care access for all citizens (too low a bar, I agree, for a variety of reasons). Over the long-term, this bill will likely ensure that we need not ever turn back on that promise and that we may even expand on it, just as we did over time with the promises of the civil rights acts and Social Security.
For me, that's a victory.