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Washington Stuck Fighting Wrong Health-Care Battle

Author: Peter R. Orszag, Adjunct Senior Fellow
April 17, 2012
Bloomberg.com

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While Washington wonks continue to bicker over health policy, positive change is occurring outside the Beltway.

Last week, the Altarum Institute, a research organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reported that the moderation in the growth of health-care costs we have seen over the past few years is continuing: Total health spending rose by less than 4 percent from February 2011 to February 2012. And it's encouraging to see the progress that doctors, hospitals and other providers are making to improve the value of care -- by cutting back on unnecessary procedures, for example, expanding their use of information technology, and switching from fee-for- service to compensation schemes aimed at maximizing the quality of treatment.

Instead of examining these changes and finding ways to encourage them, the Washington policy discussion continues to demonstrate its ability to, well, it's not clear exactly what it does. The most senseless bloviating recently came from Charles Blahous, a senior research fellow at George Mason University, in Arlington, Virginia, and a former official in the George W. Bush White House. He claims to have shown that the 2010 health-care reform act will substantially increase the budget deficit, despite official estimates to the contrary. The Washington Post decided this warranted prominent coverage.

What Blahous actually did was play a trick. His analysis begins with the observation that Medicare Part A, which covers hospital inpatient care, is prohibited from making benefit payments in excess of incoming revenue once its trust fund is exhausted. He therefore argues that the health reform act is best compared to a world in which any benefit costs above incoming revenue are simply cut off after the trust-fund exhaustion date. Then, he argues that since the health-care reform act extends the life of the trust fund, it allows more Medicare benefits to be paid in the future. Presto, the law increases the deficit by raising Medicare benefits.

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