Why Congress Shouldn’t Repeal Medicare Spending Caps Without Reforming Entitlements

Why Congress Shouldn’t Repeal Medicare Spending Caps Without Reforming Entitlements

The House of Representatives will vote Thursday on whether to eliminate Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). I come not to praise IPAB, but not to bury it, either—at least, not yet.

Yes, Obamacare empowers this federal board to make binding recommendations to Congress about enforcing per capita spending caps within Medicare. Yes, that board undermines congressional sovereignty by empowering unelected bureaucrats, in what its own advocates transparently described as an attempt to minimize democracy. And yes, federal bureaucrats have no business interfering still further with physicians’ practice of medicine. But for multiple reasons, Congress should not repeal IPAB without first enacting a suitable replacement.

We Can’t Afford Medicare As It Is

First, conservatives should recognize that IPAB’s repeal would undermine future attempts to make Medicare fiscally sustainable. While Senate Democrats claim repealing IPAB would “ensure that it cannot be used to undermine the Medicare entitlement,” the pressures of 10,000 new baby boom retirees every day already jeopardize Medicare for future generations.

The Medicare Trust Fund suffered $132.2 billion in deficits during the Great Recession, and faces insolvency in just more than a decade. Medicare needs fundamental reform now, but repealing IPAB without simultaneously enacting other reforms will only encourage partisan attacks when Congress finally must act. Witness the liberal ads throwing granny over a cliff in response to congressional Medicare reform proposals that would save both seniors and taxpayers billions of dollars annually.

Second, repealing IPAB would also undermine the case for reforming Medicaid. Liberals’ hue-and-cry over proposals to reform Medicaid earlier this year demonstrated an opportunistic hypocrisy, as the same groups that attacked Republican efforts to impose per capita caps on Medicaid supported per capita spending caps on Medicare when created by a Democratic president. Conservative support for IPAB repeal would reinforce this ideological incoherence, demonstrating Republicans as favoring per capita caps in Medicaid, but not Medicare, and weakening the case for reforms to either entitlement.

Third, opportunities to control spending do not come often, or easily, which should make conservatives inherently reluctant to repeal any of them. In 1985, Congress enacted the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act, designed to force lawmakers to live within statutory spending targets. But Congress weakened Gramm-Rudman’s statutory fiscal discipline within five years, and abandoned it altogether by 2002. It took the debt limit fight of 2011 to restore fiscal discipline through the Budget Control Act’s sequestration caps—conservatives’ major policy victory of the Obama era, and one that congressional spendthrifts have consistently worked to undermine since.

It’s Clumsy, But Better than Nothing

As someone who has criticized Obamacare’s overly regulatory structure since its enactment seven years ago, I recognize—and entirely agree with—objections to the way IPAB undermines congressional authority, and intrudes still further into the practice of medicine. But conservatives would do well to avoid conflating IPAB’s highly flawed means with its entirely proper ends.

The board imposes real caps on Medicare spending, however clumsy, and like the budget sequester mechanism represents a genuine, albeit flawed, attempt to reduce federal spending. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office estimates the board’s repeal would increase Medicare spending, and thus the budget deficit, by $17.5 billion over the coming decade and more after that.

Most health-care interest groups want an outright IPAB repeal immediately, which is one major reason the House will vote on its repeal this week. But conservatives should not take that bait, and should instead work to replace IPAB with constructive reforms that modernize Medicare and make the program more fiscally sustainable for future generations.

As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.” Conservatives may not wish to see spending rise on an already unsustainable entitlement. But if they follow the efforts of K Street lobbyists and repeal IPAB without an effective substitute, that’s exactly what they would end up getting.

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