- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reached out to the mother of all government-run options in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save President Obama’s health care bill, no matter what the cost.

But Mr. Reid’s Medicare expansion proposal was doomed from the start, a victim of his party’s division over a public option and fear of bankrupting one of the most politically sacrosanct and financially threatened programs in the government.

The idea of enlarging Medicare by opening it up to “buy-ins” among Americans 55 or older, and possibly younger than that, had been kicking around for months in House and Senate bill-drafting sessions, only to be discarded as a budget-buster that would drive an insolvent program ever more deeply into bankruptcy.

By any comparison, America’s private medical care system is a whole lot healthier than Medicare will be. The idea of adding Mr. Obama’s $2.5 trillion health care plan on top of a mountain of unfunded Medicare liabilities, the very program from which Democrats want to rob $400 billion to bankroll their health care scheme, makes no sense at all.

But liberal lawmakers, gleeful at the prospect of a historic expansion of the government’s biggest health care program, were ecstatic at the idea, although some no doubt didn’t think Mr. Reid went far enough. Why not put the entire country under it? But, of course, that’s the ultimate goal.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, called Mr. Reid’s proposal “the mother of all public options… . Expanding Medicare is an unvarnished, complete victory for people like me who support a single-payer system. Never mind the camel’s nose - we got his head and neck in the tent.”

But at least two Senate Democratic Caucus members - enough to kill Mr. Reid’s effort - signaled that they could not support such a plan.

“I certainly would have a hard time voting for it because it has some of the same infirmities that the public option did,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, also criticized Mr. Reid’s Medicare substitute for the public option as “the forerunner of single-payer, the ultimate single-payer plan, maybe even more directly than the public option” that would further compete with private insurance plans.

Much of the news media spun Mr. Reid’s initiative as a major breakthrough in the Senate impasse, ignoring Medicare’s monster debts and Democrats who vowed to vote no on any government-run option.

The Washington Post, usually liberal, shot off a stinging editorial against the idea, titled “Medicare Sausage.” “The only thing more unsettling than watching legislative sausage being made is watching it being made on the fly. … The irony of this late-breaking Medicare proposal is that it could be a bigger step toward a single-payer system than the milquetoast public option plans rejected by Senate moderates as too disruptive of the private market.”

But something equally irresponsible is going on here. Mr. Reid’s ad hoc legislative gamesmanship is based solely on getting to 60 votes by substituting half-baked, back-burner ideas solely to win support from a tiny band of doubting Democrats to pass the bill, no matter what its unintended consequences.

Working with a small cadre of staff in closed-door backrooms, no one is looking at the larger picture of the harm that this legislative monstrosity will inflict on people, business, and the quality of health care innovation and delivery systems.

The Wall Street Journal said, “It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of the panic and recklessness stringing ObamaCare along in the Senate than the putative deal that Harry Reid announced in the Senate.”

One by one, the power centers of the health care industry have been sending out warnings to the American public, although few if any of their fire bell alarms have been reported on the evening news.

Health care analyst Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute put it best when she said Mr. Reid’s last-ditch Medicare buy-in ploy “has all the same problems that a public plan does, especially below-cost payments rates.” Those lower reimbursement rates will further squeeze costly hospital health services and pressure doctors to take fewer Medicare patients.

The Mayo Clinic, the finest example of health care at its best, said the plan’s price controls would lead to “reduced access, compromised quality and increasing costs anyway.”

The Federation of American Hospitals said the Medicare buy-in “would crowd out older workers with private coverage who may choose early retirement as a result.” The American Medical Association warned the plan would put “people into a government program that is going broke” and curtail timely physician availability for the elderly.

News reports that the Congressional Budget Office gave its budgetary seal of approval to the Democrats’ Senate bill did not tell the whole story.

CBO said health insurance premiums will continue rising and could climb even faster. An analysis from the Health and Human Services Department last week said overall health care costs would rise more quickly under the Reid plan and its $400 billion in Medicare spending cuts would not cover the bill’s true costs.

Mr. Reid is focused on one goal: passing any bill by Christmas. The American people are focused on reducing health care costs, which this bill will not do.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent of The Washington Times.

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