This commentary was originally featured in USA Today on July 18, 2017
The Senate health care bill is dead, and that’s at least in part due to overheated rhetoric from the left about Medicaid. Many of the over-the-top claims lacked important facts or context, and seemed primarily designed to scare people rather than prompt civil debate.
For instance, liberals claimed that Republican plans to reduce the growth of Medicaid spending by nearly $800 billion in the next decade would “unravel” the program, as Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich put it. Yet Obamacare did nearly the exact same thing to Medicare. Obamacare reduced Medicare spending by $716 billion, according to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office estimate. And it did so not to improve Medicare’s ability to pay for care for the next generation of seniors, but instead to fund new Obamacare entitlements.
The liberals who claimed this year’s Republican health bills would “cut” Medicaid are the same ones who endorsed Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending. Just look at AARP’s framing of the issue: When Democrats reduce Medicare spending by hundreds of billions of dollars, the organization calls it “taking steps to reduce waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency.” But when Republicans reduce Medicaid spending by roughly equivalent amounts, AARP decries “unsustainable cuts” to the program.
Likewise the issue of caps on spending. A group of health care advocacy organizations sent a letter to Capitol Hill last month expressing “grave concern about potential changes to the fundamental structure and purpose of Medicaid,” saying they “vehemently oppose converting Medicaid’s funding into a capped financing structure.”
But this objection to capped payments also seems ironic at best, and disingenuous at worst. Section 3403 of Obamacare imposed per capita caps on Medicare spending, to be enforced by the Independent Payment Advisory Board — a group of unelected bureaucrats. So why did many of the same organizations who claim they “vehemently oppose” capped funding for Medicaid, endorse a health care bill that created the same funding structure for Medicare? Is it because a Democratic president proposed the former change, and a Republican Congress is debating the latter?
Then there’s the alarm raised by Andy Slavitt, a former head of Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration. He recently claimed that Republicans had a secret plan “not just to cut Medicaid, but to allow states to eliminate it.” He said a “new waiver process” in the Senate bill — really a modification of an existing Obamacare waiver — would allow states to transfer Medicaid beneficiaries to private coverage, thereby allowing them to “eliminate” Medicaid.
Yet the Obamacare waiver process explicitly prohibits changes to Medicaid — and the Senate bill would not have changed that. In addition, states have always had the ability to “eliminate” Medicaid; the federal government can’t force states to participate in the program. That's why Arizona didn’t join until 1982, nearly two decades after Medicaid’s creation. States have remained in Medicaid because the federal government provides significant funding to them for their programs — and that funding would continue to rise, albeit more slowly, under both the House and Senate bills.
To be sure, both sides have exhibited their share of political opportunism. Republicans shouldn’t have attacked Obamacare’s Medicare savings as “cuts” — a reduction in projected growth rates should never be considered a “cut” in government spending. And conservatives were guaranteed to reap the political whirlwind sooner or later.
But the left’s hyperbolic rhetoric, coupled with some pretty apparent hypocrisy, not only helped kill the Senate health bill. It did the American people a disservice by detracting from the debate on health care that our country deserves.
Chris Jacobs is Founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington, and a Senior Healthcare Policy Analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Follow him on Twitter:@chrisjacobsHC