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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: The Health Care Sausage Factory

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Health Care Sausage Factory

Despite very good economic advisors, the Obama administration seems enmeshed in 1960's economics that assumes that markets fail and the a benevolent government is needed to act in the public interest to set things straight. This system of beliefs cannot be based on an empirical investigation. Much of what critics claim as a market failure, increasing cost of medical care, can be attributed to government tax policy, and as always passing new legislation includeds a grabbag of favors. An article titled, "ObamaCare's Longshoremen Rules," in the Wall Street Journal's Review and Outlook section describes a few of the concessions made to special interest groups.
President Obama praised the Senate yesterday for clearing a 60-40 procedural vote on his health plan in the dead of night and "standing up to the special interests who've prevented reform for decades and who are furiously lobbying against it now." They're furiously lobbying all right—not against ObamaCare but for the sundry preferences in the Senate bill.

Start with the special tax carve-outs included in the "manager's amendment" that Harry Reid dropped Saturday morning. White House budget director Peter Orszag has claimed that the bill's 40% excise tax on high-cost insurance plans is key to reducing health costs. Yet the Senate Majority Leader's new version specifically exempts "individuals whose primary work is longshore work." That would be the longshoremen's union, which has negotiated very costly insurance benefits. The well-connected dock workers join other union interests such as miners, electrical linemen, EMTs, construction workers, some farmers, fishermen, foresters, early retirees and others who are absolved from this tax...
The Reid bill also gives a pass on the excise tax to the 17 states with the highest health costs. This provision applied to only 10 states in a prior version, but other Senators made a fuss. So controlling health costs is enormously important, except in the places where health costs need the most control.

Naturally, the Secretary of Health and Human Services will decide how to measure "costs" and therefore which 17 states qualify. (Prediction: Swing states that voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 or have powerful Democratic Senators.)

These 11th-hour indulgences make a hash of Mr. Orszag's cost-control theories and Mr. Obama's cost-control claims. Their spin has been that wise men would convene and make benevolent decisions about everyone's health care based only on evidence and the public good. But as the Reid bill shows, politics will always dominate when Washington is directing a U.S. health industry that is larger than the economy of France...

The press corps is passing this favoritism off as sausage-making necessary to "make history," but that's an insult to sausages. What this special-interest discrimination illustrates in how all health-care choices will soon be made as Washington expands its political control over one-seventh of the U.S. economy.

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