It was, to borrow from Arthur Conan Doyle, the dog that didn’t bark. In releasing the annual report on its finances, Medicare’s actuary last month found that the program would not trigger requirements related to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) this year—or for several years to come. Although the Senate and House health-care bills avoided altering Medicare, the IPAB development—or non-development, as it were—should inject some important perspective into the legislative debate.
Many liberal critics of the Republican bills have attacked proposals to impose per capita caps on state Medicaid programs, while conveniently forgetting that Obamacare imposed similar spending caps on Medicare. In fact, Section 3403 of the law empowers IPAB—a board of unelected bureaucrats—to make binding recommendations to Congress reducing program spending if Medicare will exceed statutory limits for spending per beneficiary.
The IPAB non-event should therefore put the harsh rhetoric surrounding Medicaid caps in perspective. After all, how damaging can per capita caps be if spending remains sufficiently low not to trigger them? And why do liberals who claim that health-care delivery reforms implemented by Obamacare can slow Medicare spending not believe that, given sufficient flexibility, states could similarly reform their Medicaid programs to lower costs—as states like Rhode Island already have done?
We Care More About Politics than Policy
Some Obamacare supporters claim that statutory restrictions on IPAB—in enforcing Medicare spending caps, the board may not change Medicare benefits or “ration health care”—will protect Medicare beneficiaries in a way that the current bills do not protect Medicaid recipients. But IPAB’s supposed “protections” have their own flaws. The statute does not define “rationing,” and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius testified in 2011 that HHS would need to draft regulations to do so. But the Obama administration never even proposed rules “protecting” Medicare beneficiaries from rationing under the IPAB per capita caps—so how meaningful can those protections actually be?
When push comes to shove, few liberals can justify their support for per capita caps on Medicare, but opposition to similar caps in Medicaid. One day on Twitter, I posed a simple question to Topher Spiro, of the Center for American Progress (CAP): If the Republican proposals for per capita caps in Medicaid included the same beneficiary “protections” as IPAB creates for Medicare recipients, would he support them? I never received a substantive answer.
Therein lies the problem: Many critics of the Republican Medicaid proposals seem to prioritize political partisanship over policy consistency. Five years ago, CAP made very clear it supports IPAB’s per capita caps on Medicare spending, denouncing a 2012 legislative effort to repeal the board. But earlier this year, the organization denounced as “devastating” Republican proposals for per capita caps on Medicaid. So why exactly does this purportedly non-partisan organization support per capita caps when a Democratic Congress enacts them, but oppose similar caps proposed by a Republican Congress?
It’s Okay, It’s Just Hypocrisy
Likewise, the disability community has raised concerns about the proposed changes to Medicaid, attacking per capita caps as causing “massive cuts in Medicaid services.” But when issuing comments on the bill that became Obamacare in January 2010, the major coalition representing disability groups proposed 73 different recommendations in a document exceeding 5,500 words yet included not a sentence on the Medicare per capita caps ultimately included in the law.
Democratic senators appearing with disability advocates at events to denounce spending caps for Medicaid fail to recognize that they voted for similar caps in Medicare, which provides health coverage to 9 million Americans with disabilities. Moreover, despite being in place for several years, the Medicare caps have yet to be breached. So how damaging is a policy that hasn’t affected Medicare beneficiaries in the slightest, and which Democratic lawmakers themselves have voted for?
In his Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” Doyle wrote of the guard dog that didn’t bark because it was friendly with an intruder. Likewise, many liberal advocates and Democratic lawmakers are quite friendly with per capita entitlement caps, already having imposed such caps for Medicare. Particularly given the non-factor of such caps in the Medicare program in recent years, they should perhaps “bark” less in opposing similar caps in Medicaid. Both beneficiaries and taxpayers deserve better than opportunistic—and politically inconsistent—scaremongering.