Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin and why is he saying such terrible things about health reform?

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing entitled: Unaffordable: Impact of Obamacare on Americans’ Health Insurance.  (Always nice to know that our elected representatives are keeping an open mind.)

Prominent on the list of witnesses: “Douglas Holtz-Eakin.” Even before reading his testimony, I knew what Holtz-Eakin would say: young, health Americans should brace for “sticker shock.”  Conservatives like Holtz-Eakin tend to stay on script. However stale the rhetoric, they firmly believe that if you repeat a sound-bite often enough, people will believe it.                                     

                                        Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin?

If you recognize the name, it’s probably because Holtz-Eakin has become a familiar figure in the mainstream media, quoted in the New York Times, writing Op-eds for Reuters and Politico.com, and appearing, not only on Fox Business News, but on CNN and the PBS’ Newshour.

Alternatively, “Holtz-Eakin” may ring a bell because he served as a member of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and as Director of Bush’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO.)

In a remarkably candid 2011 interview, Holtz Eakin recalled his tour in the Bush administration:

“Going into the summer of 2001, things were getting worse. . . When we first went in and talked to the President, Glenn [Hubbard] and Larry Lindsey said, ‘Mr. President . . . We’re probably not going to run a surplus on budget.  We’re going to run a deficit.”

Bush’s reply: “We’re not going to run a deficit. If you come in here with a deficit, you’re both fired. Go fix it.’”

We ended up running a budget surplus of one billion dollars,” Holtz-Eakin confided, “driven by gimmicks of remarkable proportions.”
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More Stories from “Pulse—voices from the heart of medicine”

Every Friday, thousands of readers smile when they see an e-mail from Pulse: voices from the heart of medicine in their in-box. Pulse is a free, online magazine  that publishes riveting, often moving, sometimes controversial, and occasionally hilarious first-person stories and poems about medicine.  (Click on “hilarious” for a story that will astound you, and, if you share my sense of humor, make you laugh. )

All of these tales are true, and the authenticity of the writers’ voices helps explain their power.  Written by patients and doctors, nurses, caregivers, and students, these unblinkingly honest stories and poems bear witness to the suffering that patients endure, and to the compassion of caregivers — as well as their doubts.  

                                        Some of My Favorites

Long-time readers may remember poems and stories from Pulse that I have cross-posted in the past. 

 —  “Useless (But Needed), A Doctor’s Constant Companion”  — one of my favorites

 — “First Do No Harm,”  a story about how we train doctors that drew thoughtful and provocative comments from both doctors and nurses; 

— “Broken”– a controversial story about what happens when a trauma surgeon overrules an obstetrical resident. The question:  should they have tried to save the baby or the mother? Could either be saved?                                       

                A Stairwell Conversation, And a Unique Magazine is Born

Pulse founder Paul Gross, practices family medicine at Montefiore hospital in the Bronx, New York.  He recalls how Pulse was conceived:

 “What would it be like, I wondered, if there were a magazine that told about health care the way it really is? What if patients and health professionals alike got to tell their stories? 

“Around the same time, I had a stairwell conversation with a hospital director of nursing. It stopped me short. ‘For the first time in my long career,’ she said, ‘I’m ashamed to be in this business.’

“To me, this sounded like a cry for help; it sounded like a system in crisis,” Gross adds. “And yet, for the most part, popular magazines and medical journals seemed oblivious.

“It occurred to me that if we found a way to share our stories—the difficult moments along with the glorious ones—perhaps we could jump-start a national conversation about health care. Maybe this exchange could lead us toward a better health system.”
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Why Is It That the Truth Never Goes Viral?–A Campaign of Misinformation Unites Conservative Activists and Insurers

The Post below originally appeared on Healthinsurance.org (mm)

Wild rumors, such as the one claiming Obamacare premiums will start at $20,000 a year for a family of five, are much jucier than the truth.

About a week ago, Investor Daily’s website published a “Fact-Check” post that illustrates how misinformation spreads.

In the post, Jed Graham explains that when the IRS published a final rule about penalties under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it included a few hypotheticals. For example, the IRS wrote, “The annual national average bronze plan premium for a family of 5 (2 adults, 3 children) is $20,000′ in 2016.”

The $20,000 figure was just an example, Graham explains. “The IRS always uses hypothetical numerical examples in its regulations to illustrate how the rules will work in practice and this was no different.”

Nevertheless, before long, the “conservative news site CNSNews.com began to blare out this shocking headline: ‘IRS: Cheapest Obama Care Plan Will Be $20,000 Per Family.’”

From there, “the ‘fact’ got picked up by countless media outlets and pundits” Graham reports, “most of them on the right,” including:

 •Betsy McCaughey writing for the New York Post;

Rush Limbaugh;

•Breitbart

•On the left, even Naked Capitalism (a well-researched blog,) reported the news bulletin from CNSNews.com.

This is the problem: Once a faux-fact gets out there, even reporters who have no axe to grind continue to repeat it. If you see the number often enough, you assume it must be true.

How could a reporter tell that $20,000 wasn’t an IRS estimate?

It should have been clear that this was a hypothetical, Graham points out, if you just looked at other hypotheticals in the IRS ruling. “For example: ‘the annual national average bronze plan premium for a family of 4 (1 adult, 3 children) is $18,000.’

“Both examples can’t be true,” he observes, “unless an adult’s premium is $2,000 and a child’s is $5,333.”
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Ignore the Hype: Why Health Insurance Premiums Won’t Skyrocket in 2014

Health reform’s critics are sounding the alarm: in 2014, they say, health insurance premiums will climb, both for small businesses and for individuals who purchase their own coverage. “Hold onto your hat,” writes  Bob Laszewski, editor of Health Care Policy and Market Place Review. “There Will Be Sticker Shock!” 

Laszweski’s piece has been cross-posted on popular blogs, and his forecasts have been popping up in mainstream newspapers, including  USA Today Such wide circulation makes Laszewski’s warnings worthy of attention, and compels me to ask an important, if impertinent, question: Is what he says true?

Cherry-picking a CBO report

The Congressional Budget Office expects  that the ACA will have a “negligible” effect on the premiums that large employers pay for insurance, and most experts agree. But in the individual market, Laszewski claims that CBO projections show “10% to 13% premium increases.”

Here is what the CBO actually said:

About 57 percent of people buying [their own] insurance would receive subsidies  via the new insurance exchanges, and those subsidies, on average, would cover nearly two-thirds of the total premium.

“Thus, the amount that subsidized enrollees would pay would be roughly 56 percent to 59 percent lower, on average, than the premiums charged under current law.”

Wait a minute: “56 to 59 percent lower?” Where does Laszweski get “10 percent to 13 percent higher?

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U.S. Media Loves “Fiscal Cliff” Metaphor; The Economist Recognizes that It’s An Imaginary Line in the Sand

In the U.S., pundits cannot resist the fiscal cliff metaphor: it’s colorful, punchy and easy to understand. It’s just two words long. What’s not to like?

It’s not true.

The metaphor assumes that if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach an agreement on the budget by the end of the year, the U.S. economy falls over a cliff,  crashes, and burns.  The “cliff “metaphor complements the equally imaginative “iceberg metaphor” that some fear-mongers use to portray the deficit. (Think Titanic) 

It’s all a bit more complicated than the metaphors suggest.

What few conservatives mention is that the deficit has already begun to dissolve:  since 2009 the deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP to 7% in the fiscal year that ended on September 30th.  By historic standards this is still enormous, and must be addressed. But  the numbers demonstrate that, over time, we can reduce the deficit without renting the nation’s safety nets.

As for the cliff, there is no precipice—just an imaginary line, drawn in the sand, as Republicans and Democrats play “chicken.”

The Economist understands all of this. The lead story in the most recent issue focuses on the “cliff” and points out that “worries” about what will happen if we go over that precipice are “understandable”  but “overblown.” The “risk of economic catastrophe is minimal.” Any damage would be short-term. 

I don’t always agree with the Economist: the UK publication has its own sometimes eccentric slant on things. But on the whole, it is a thoughtful publication—well-researched and fact-checked.  Moreover, in this case, distance may give the Economist a perspective on the problem that some in the U.S. lack.

                                   Exaggerating the Threat to the Middle-Class      

Yesterday’s New York Times suggests that if we cross that line in the sand, an already beleaguered the middle-class will suffer great hardship, and this “Complicates Democrats’ Stance in Talks.” 

The analysis suggests that Democrats don’t dare just stand back and let Bush’s tax cuts expire– as they will if party leaders don’t reach a settlement by year-end: “Only a small handful of policy voices on the left are making the case for the tax cuts to fully expire. In part, that is because the economy is still growing slowly, and tax increases have the potential to weaken it.” But it is also because “If the two parties fail to come to a deal by Jan. 1, taxes on the average middle-income family would rise about $2,000 over the next year. That would follow a 12-year period in which median inflation-adjusted income dropped 8.9 percent, from $54,932 in 1999 to $50,054 in 2011.”

This assumes that once we miss the January 1 deadline, tax hikes for the middle-class would become permanent—which, of course, is not true. Talk about how much more a family would pay over the course of 2013 falls somewhere between hyperbole and hysteria, ignoring what everyone knows:

If the Bush tax cuts expire, Democrats will presumably simply propose to restore them in January for those [families] earning less than $250,000,” the Economist observes, “daring Republicans to block them.” 
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Subsidies: Will You Receive a Tax Credit to Help You Buy Insurance in 2014? How Much?

Beginning in 2014, millions of Americans will discover that they qualify for subsidies designed to help them purchase their own health insurance. The aid will come in the form of tax credits, and many will be surprised by how generous they are.

Not only low-income, but moderate-income families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – currently $44,680 for a single person and $92,200 for a family of four – will make the cut.

Yesterday, I posted about subsidies on healthinsurance.org. The post includes a calculator which tells you whether you would be eligible, and how much you would receive. Even if your employer offers health benefits, you might qualify for a tax credit  if the plan too expensive, or too skimpy. (I explain how the government defines those terms.) I also explain how the government calculates subsidies, and what happens if you live a place where healthcare is particularly expensive.

Click here for the full post   If you like, come back here to comment.

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The Affordable Care Act’s “Penalty”: If You Don’t Buy Health Insurance in 2014, How Much Will You Pay?

Note to readers; a longer version of this post originally appeared on HealthInsurance.org, along with a penallty calculator.

Despite the hullabaloo about the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that nearly everyone puchase heath insurance in 2014–or pay a penalty–the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 1.4 percent of Americans will wind up paying the tax.

That is because the vast majority of us either have health insurance, or are exempted from the mandate for any one of a number of reasons.  For example, at the end of 2014 you will owe no tax if:

  • your income is low enough that your share of premiums (after federal subsidies and employer contributions) would total more than 8 percent of your income;
  • your income is below the income tax filing threshold, and so you’re not required to file taxes;
  • you were uninsured for less than three months of the year (If over three, the penalty is pro-rated);

As a result the Urban Institute estimates that just 6  percent of the population (roughly 18 million Americans) will even have to consider the question: “Should I purchase health insurance, or pay a tax?” That’s right: a whopping 94 percent of the population will have no reason to worry about paying a penalty.

And 11 million of that 18 million will be low-income or middle-income Americans who are eligible for a government subsidy to help cover the cost of their premiums. Chances are, most of them will take the government up on its offer.
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Today, the Supremes sang.

Today, the Supremes sang.

To the surprise of many, they upheld the individual mandate requiring that most Americans buy insurance–or face a modest penalty. The vote was 5-4 with Chief Justice Roberts joining the majority.  The court overturned just one small part of the legislation. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government is offering states funding to expand their Medicaid programs. Washington had threatened to withhold all Medicaid funding if a state refused to participate in the expansion. The Court ruled that the federal government cannot penalize the states in that way.

I was not entirely surprised by the Court’s decision. Indeed,  on March 26, the day that the Supreme Court began to hear oral arguments, I wrote:

“For months, the media has been feasting on the story, calling it “The Case That Could Change Health Care Forever.”

“Yesterday, the Baltimore Sun declared that ‘The most important six hours of recent American history will start to unfold on Monday.’

“No question, the story is sizzling. And I hate to be a wet blanket. But let me suggest that the hullaballoo is totally unwarranted.

Why the law won’t be overturned

“I cannot believe for a minute that this Court wants to go down in history as the Gang of Nine that quashed the most important piece of legislation that Congress has passed in 47 years. If it did, we could find ourselves on the brink of a constitutional crisis. It is simply not up to the Supreme Court to rewrite legislation passed by Congress.”

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What if the Court rules that insurers don’t have to cover people suffering from pre-existing conditions?

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

In March, Ethan Fidler, a 10-year-old from England who had just had a tumor removed from his brain flew to Florida where doctors at the University of Florida used proton therapy to blast lingering cancer cells. (While proton therapy is widely available in Western Europe, the UK government has only recently approved funding the technology. Ethan couldn’t wait.)

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The facts behind the controversy over breast feeding

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

First, a purposefully salacious TIME cover featuring a mother nursing her three-year-old stirred controversy. Then a photo of Air Force moms breastfeeding while in uniform sparked outrage.

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