When I reached Jonathan Gruber on Thursday, he was working his way, page by laborious page, through the mammoth health care bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had unveiled just a few hours earlier. Gruber is a leading health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is consulted by politicians in both parties. He was one of almost two dozen top economists who sent President Obama a letter earlier this month insisting that reform won't succeed unless it "bends the curve" in the long-term growth of health care costs. And, on that front, Gruber likes what he sees in the Reid proposal. Actually he likes it a lot.
"I'm sort of a known skeptic on this stuff," Gruber told me. "My summary is it's really hard to figure out how to bend the cost curve, but I can't think of a thing to try that they didn't try. They really make the best effort anyone has ever made. Everything is in here....I can't think of anything I'd do that they are not doing in the bill. You couldn't have done better than they are doing."
Gruber may be especially effusive. But the Senate blueprint, which faces its first votes tonight, also is winning praise from other leading health reformers like Mark McClellan, the former director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services under George W. Bush and Len Nichols, health policy director at the centrist New America Foundation. "The bottom line," Nichols says, "is the legislation is sending a signal that business as usual [in the medical system] is going to end."
Both the Senate bill's priority on controlling long-term health care costs, and its strategy for doing so, represents a validation for Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT). When Baucus released his health reform proposal last September, after finally terminating months of fruitless negotiations with committee Republicans, Democratic liberals excoriated his plan as a dead end. And on several important fronts--such as subsidies for the uninsured, the role of a public competitor to private insurance companies, and the contribution required from employers who don't insure their workers--Reid moved his product away from Baucus toward approaches preferred by liberals.
But the Reid bill's fiscal strategy, and its vision of how to "bend the curve," almost completely follows Baucus' path from September. Baucus' bill was the first to establish the principle that Congress could expand coverage while reducing the federal deficit; now that's the standard not only for the Senate but also the House reform legislation. And, perhaps even more importantly, the Reid bill maintains virtually all of Baucus ideas' for shifting the medical payment system away from today's fee-for-service model toward an approach that more closely links compensation for providers to results for patients. In the Reid bill, there is some backtracking from Baucus' most aggressive reform proposals, but not much.
Almost everything Baucus proposed to control long-term costs have survived into the final bill. And, with only a few exceptions, that's just about all the systemic reforms analysts from the center to the left have identified as the most promising strategies for changing the economic incentives in the medical system. (The public competitor to private insurance companies championed by the Left would affect who writes the checks in the medical system, but not what the checks are written to pay for.) Most of the other big ideas for controlling costs (such as medical malpractice reform) tend to draw support primarily among Republicans. And since virtually, if not literally, none of them plan to support the final health care bill under any circumstances, the package isn't likely to reflect much of their thinking.
In their November 17 letter to Obama, the group of economists led by Dr. Alan Garber of Stanford University, identified four pillars of fiscally-responsible health care reform. They maintained that the bill needed to include a tax on high-end "Cadillac" insurance plans; to pursue "aggressive" tests of payment reforms that will "provide incentives for physicians and hospitals to focus on quality" and provide "care that is better coordinated"; and establish an independent Medicare commission that can continuously develop and implement "new efforts to improve quality and contain costs." Finally, they said the Congressional Budget Office "must project the bill to be at least deficit neutral over the 10-year budget window and deficit reducing thereafter."
As OMB Director Peter Orszag noted in an interview, the Reid bill met all those tests. The CBO projected that the bill would reduce the federal deficit by $130 billion over its first decade and by as much as $650 billion in its second. (Conservatives, of course, consider those projections unrealistic, but CBO is the only umpire in the game, and Republicans have been happy to trumpet its analyses critical of the Democratic plans.) "Let's use the metric of that letter," said Orszag, who helped shape the health reform debate for years from his earlier posts at CBO and the Brookings Institution. "Deficit neutral; got that. Deficit-reducing second decade, got that. Excise tax: That was retained. Third is the Medicare commission: has that. Fourth is delivery system reforms, bundling payments, hospital acquired infections, readmission rates. It has that. If you go down the checklist of what they said was necessary for a fiscally responsible bill that will move us towards the health care system of the future, this passes the bar."
McClellan, the former Bush official and current director of the Engleberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution, was one of the economists who signed the November letter. McClellan has some very practical ideas for improving the Reid bill (more on those below), but generally he echoes Orszag's assessment of it. "It has got all four of those elements in it," McClellan said in an interview. "They kept a lot of the key elements of the Finance bill that I like. It would be good if more could be done, but this is the right direction to go."
Reid gave ground on one Baucus proposal that the economists identified as a priority-taxing high-end insurance plans. Like many health reformers, the economists who wrote Obama argue that such a tax "will help curtail the growth of private health insurance premiums by creating incentives to limit the costs of plans to a tax-free amount." Amid intense opposition from unions, Reid raised the thresholds at which family plans would face that excise tax from $21,000 to $23,000. But given all the pressure from labor, the more striking thing may have been that Reid didn't increase the thresholds even more; the CBO calculated the proposal, which the House excluded from its bill, would still raise $35 billion annually by 2019. "They held pretty strong," said one administration health care expert. "It's not like unions haven't been making the case that it shouldn't have been a much higher number."
On delivery reform, Reid stayed even closer to the Baucus blueprint. The Finance bill laid out a series of measures to change the way providers are paid for delivering care to Medicare recipients; the hope was that once Medicare instituted these reforms, private insurers would also adopt many of them. "The goal here is that the things we do in Medicare will translate over into the private sector, and there is quite a bit of historical precedence for that," said one Democratic aide involved in drafting the package.