After weeks of anticipation and speculation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has unveiled the legislation that will bring health reform to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.
While waiting for the details of the bill to come out Wednesday, we created a little office pool, called the Price is Right for Health Reform. In an office-wide email, we asked our peers to guess the CBO's estimates of the gross costs of the bill. Showcase Showdown rules (closest without going over) applied. We were intentionally vague in our question because estimating the true costs of the bill is inherently a difficult process.
The number we were looking for was $848 billion. The CBO's estimate of the gross cost of the bill is essentially the total cost of coverage provisions over the next 10-years. This is the number most frequently reported in the media as the "cost" of the various health reform bills being discussed. But is this really the best indicator of the true costs of health reform? Maybe not. First, timing matters: $848 billion over ten years is a lot different than a $787 stimulus bill where 90 percent of the money is spent within the first 3 years. So do deficits. How much does a bill cost if it's fully paid for and in fact reduces the deficit as is the case for both the House ($109 billion) and Senate ($130 billion) bills?
We received plenty of calls from our co-workers asking just these questions. We tried to stay quiet, because we were interested in what the educated, non-health policy wonks think about the cost of reform. True to our think tank's "post-partisan roots" we got a range of answers from "too little" to "$600 trillion, Obama lies." We got a couple of "$1" which we assume was a reference to the bill's deficit neutrality, and $90 billion which seems like a reasonable estimate of yearly costs. But the majority of the answers clustered within the $800-$900 billion range, surprisingly close to the final answer. Few people seemed willing to go above $900 billion, suggesting the power of the official price tag President Obama put on reform during his September address to a Joint Session of Congress. So who won? The answer after this non-commercial break: