Health care costs and
policy issues are among
the new administration's
top priorities

President Obama Makes Health Care Reform a Top Priority

March 03, 2009
by Lynn Shapiro, Writer
The Senate is pitched for battle, having heard the details of President Obama's plans for health care reform, laid out in the speech he delivered to Americans last week.

It is a certainty that every vested interest will lobby against it, especially pharmaceutical companies, which stand to lose huge sums of money now that the Obama administration plans to spend $1.1 billion for new reviews of generic drugs. The move is based on several recent studies showing that generics sometimes work as well or better than newer, more expensive medicines. The budget also calls for negotiations with drug makers to lower their prices, as Canada and Western European countries now do.

This initiative is a radical departure from President George W. Bush's Prescription Drug Plan of 2003 for Medicare beneficiaries (Medicare Part D), which refused to require drug makers to negotiate their prices downward.

Unlike Bush, Obama appears unafraid of impinging on the fortunes of industry. Neither is he averse to taxing Americans in the highest income bracket. The President said that most workers are unduly constrained by health care costs and that to ease this burden, he would derive $318 billion by raising the taxes on the top 20 percent of tax filers who earn more than $250,000 a year. These individuals would pay 90 percent of all taxes.

Obama's proposal would also eliminate subsidies now given to the private plans that provide care to more than 10 million of the 44 million Medicare beneficiaries. By forcing these plans, known as Medicare Advantage, into a competitive bidding process, the administration says it can save $175 billion over the next 10 years

The President is counting on the economy to be thriving by 2011. Then, his plan for hiking taxes on high-income payers would make it possible for him to keep his promise to halve the deficit by 2013.

Deficits of almost $1.8 trillion in 2009 and $1.2 trillion in 2010 are frightening. But while Obama wants to extend tax cuts for the middle class, much of the health care package is intended to save the economy and create jobs. So, the massive amount of red ink Americans face should be temporary, the budget assumes.

Deciding when to go from stimulus spending to deficit reduction is the trickiest part of the equation, but doing it is essential, analysts say.

Other Provisions

Another avenue for health care savings would come from slashing Medicare's home health care programs, said to be excessive. What's more, ending rebates from drug companies for medicines sold to Medicaid patients would save the U.S. healthcare system almost $20 billion.

The budget also includes more than $1 billion to help the FDA fortify its food safety program because of the salmonella outcry; $6 billion for cancer research and a program to send nurses to new mothers' homes to check on babies. Another $76.8 billion would go to the Health and Human Services Department to fund electronic medical records to end costly duplication of diagnostic tests and allow doctors to share patient histories. This provision is not only cost-effective but potentially beneficial to the patient, experts say. Obama promises to preserve patients' privacy, even while doctors share patients' records.

White House budget director Peter Orszag projected in commentary over the weekend that the proposed spending would save $1.8 billion in 2010, $16.2 billion in 2011 and increasing amounts annually to create a $633.8 billion fund to pay for health care reform by 2018. Congress has already provided $25 billion to help laid-off workers pay for COBRA.

What's more, Obama says that spending to get coverage for more of America's 46 million uninsured will save money, if preventive care helps patients avoid expensive and chronic diseases.

Money will be also be saved, Obama said, by finding and eliminating overpayments in Medicare. "The Government Accountability Office has labeled Medicare as 'high-risk' due to billions of dollars lost to overpayments and fraud each year," the budget reads.

Better Care, Not More

In conclusion, the budget says "about $26 billion can be saved over 10 years by using a combination of incentives and penalties to prevent avoidable expensive readmission when patients go back into the hospital within a month after treatment. Reforming the way doctors are paid will also reduce costs, by paying them to provide better care rather than more expensive care, such as imaging scans and surgery that may not be necessary." For example, since Obama took office, Medicare has announced it does not plan to cover virtual colonoscopies, deciding they're too expensive.

None of this will be easy but one thing is for sure. President Obama has made health care reform a top priority.