By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
For President Barack Obama, the news just keeps getting worse.
The tri-committee reform package released in the U.S. House of Representatives went over like a lead balloon. And things aren't going much better in the Senate, where Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., is taking his own sweet time moving the bill along. The versions of healthcare restructuring moving through both chambers give credence to the idea that any piece of legislation offered up by this Congress will be, in the words of Conservatives for Patients' Rights Kerri Houston Toloczko, "Too big to read and too expensive to pass."
The latter idea, that it is too expensive, got a considerable boost when Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, told the Senate Budget Committee Thursday that his office did not see "the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount. On the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility."
In plain English, the plans under discussion in Congress and backed by the Obama White House don't control costs and would only make things worse.
At the same time, a group of U.S. governors who should be Obama's friends on the issue voted thumbs down to the approach being contemplated. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, called the House bill "the mother of all unfunded mandates." New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whom Obama had originally wanted in his cabinet, said he was "personally very concerned about the cost issue, particularly the $1 trillion figures being batted around."
Even worse for Obama, it is not at all certain the votes are there in the House for the tri-committee plan, the main vehicle for moving the issue forward. Over the weekend, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, indicated the bill hit the ground with such an explosive thud that it was back to the drawing board, even as the majority continued to go ahead.
Hoyer and other members of the House leadership will also have to find ways to mollify a group of Democrats representing conservative districts, and who are less liberal than the majority of their colleagues, who have expressed concern about the cost and about the possibility that any Obama-backed plan would include taxpayer funding for abortions here in the United States.
If all that were not bad enough, a new report from the private-sector Lewin Group says the bill introduced last week in the House would lead more than 83 million Americans to be shifted from private healthcare coverage to the government-run public option. The report, commissioned by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, estimates that nearly half would lose their private coverage and that the government plan would have 103.4 million members once implemented, according to the Lewin analysis.
The reason for the dramatic shift, says the American Spectator's Phillip Klein, "is that the Lewin Group has anticipated that with government setting lower reimbursement rates for doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, the government plan will offer lower premiums than private plans. However, the flip side is that the Congressional Budget Office estimates providers will lose $361.9 billion in revenue over the next decade if the House bill is passed. That will mean lower quality of care, shortages in doctors and hospitals, and/or increased shifting of costs on to those with private health care. Should further cost-shifting occur, it will then in turn erode private health care coverage even more dramatically."
The more information that's out there, the less enchanted the American electorate is with Obama's vision of healthcare reform. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that the country is almost evenly divided on this issue: 49 percent of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling healthcare, 44 percent disapprove.
President Obama has been trying to sell the American people on healthcare reform for three months, but the people aren't buying. Those who now strongly disapprove of his handling of healthcare outnumber those who strongly approve 28 percent to 22 percent. Hoyer is right. For the White House to have any hope of victory on one of its two signature issues, it is going to have to put on the brakes, turn around, and go back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, that seems to be the last thing on Obama's mind.