September 18, 2014

CBO: The Health Reform Slopes Don’t Add Up

The Congressional Budget Office once again validates some intuition many of us had about health care reform: when you have health costs rising much faster than the economy is growing, a package that expands coverage but is unwilling to tax health benefits to pay for it is not likely to add up to a deficit-neutral plan over the longer term. The basic problem is that the cost of coverage expansion will continue to increase at the same rate as health care costs, but the tax increase offsets will only grow (at best) at the rate of economic growth. Then you have an additional problem that many of the offsets might be one-time cuts or cuts whose value does not even keep up with economic growth or inflation. 

Quoting from pages 12-13 of the report (a letter to Congressman Dave Camp (R-MI) on the House tri-committee proposal), emphasis added:

Looking ahead to the decade beyond 2019, CBO tries to evaluate the rate at which the budgetary impact of each of those broad categories would be likely to change over time. The net cost of the coverage provisions would be growing at a rate of more than 8 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; we would anticipate a similar trend in the subsequent decade. The reductions in direct spending would also be larger in the second decade than in the first, and they would represent an increasing share of spending on Medicare over that period; however, they would be much smaller at the end of the 10-year budget window than the cost of the coverage provisions, so they would not be likely to keep pace in dollar terms with the rising cost of the coverage expansion. Revenue from the surcharge on high-income individuals would be growing at about 5 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; that component would continue to grow at a slower rate than the cost of the coverage expansion in the following decade. In sum, relative to current law, the proposal would probably generate substantial increases in federal budget deficits during the decade beyond the current 10-year budget window.

Under any proposal that provided new federal subsidies for the purchase of health insurance, the rate of growth in federal spending would depend importantly on how the subsidies were indexed over time. As long as overall spending for health care continued to expand as a share of the economy, people’s share of insurance costs would continue to rise faster than their income, or the government’s subsidy costs would continue to rise faster than the tax base, or both. The proposal limits the share of income that eligible people would have to pay when they purchased coverage in the insurance exchanges, and that share of income would not change over time. In addition, insurance plans offered through the exchanges would be required to pay a specified share of costs for covered services (on average), and that share also would not change over time. Combining those provisions, increases in health care spending in excess of the rate of growth in income would be borne entirely by the federal government in the form of higher subsidy payments—because those payments would have to cover the entire difference between the total premium for insurance coverage and the capped amount that enrollees would pay. Those factors help explain why the costs of the coverage provisions would continue to grow rapidly in the decade after 2019.