Obama care costs, talking points can confound

Friday , July 06, 2012 - 5:38 PM

Dan K. Thomasson

STOCKHOLM — Terry O’Neill, whose family has owned a Seattle plumbing business for nearly 100 years and employs a number of specialists, was trying to tell a new acquaintance from Australia about "Obamacare." Terry is one of millions of Americans still uncertain about the consequences of the Affordable Care Act’s giant health care reform package, including its impact on his business. The Supreme Court had just declared the centerpiece of the giant law — a mandate that says everyone has to buy insurance — as constitutional under the congressional taxing authority. Terry, the Aussie and I were having drinks and chewing over the pros and cons of what had been handed down.

The first question from our new friend Bill, a one-time professional cricketer, could be expected: "When all is said and done, how much is this going to cost?" His next question was obvious. "Is it going to increase the cost of health care?" There’s nothing like an old "bowler" to pitch the hard one. Terry looked at me as if to say, "Hey, you’re from Washington, so you must know more about this than I do."

I pondered his unspoken question for a few moments, furrowing my brow slightly for dramatic effect, and simply said, "How the hell does anyone know?" Then I noted that the same answer could be delivered in response to questions about the complexities of the 2,700-page law that alters how we manage almost 19 percent of the nation’s economy. It was doubtful, I said, that even those who voted for it understood it thoroughly.

When it comes to the ultimate price tag of such a monstrous effort, I explained, I could only think of the 1965 debate during the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. The ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee — Delaware’s John Williams, a master of homespun analysis — warned the optimists that "figures might not lie, but liars certainly figure," a common practice to make an expensive proposal easier to sell. Williams couldn’t have been more correct.

The ultimate gap between what was estimated and what ultimately came about was as different as lightning and the lightning bug, as Mark Twain once noted. So a good guess might be that Democratic sponsors underestimated Obamacare’s cost by a trillion dollars, when all is said and done.

"Well, maybe if it is now considered a tax instead of a penalty or something," Bill from Melbourne said, "it gives the opposition a chance to win the day in November. You Yanks don’t like taxes much."

Terry and I nodded — I more sagely than he, for, after all, Seattle is a long way from the hallowed halls of government knowledge. Then we ordered another round while the women trundled off to the ladies room, coming back to order us to talk about something else. I thought of Bill’s prediction when, back in Washington, I found that Republican conservatives were gearing up to tar the Democrats with imposing a new levy on Americans, many of whom are in the lower-income levels.

Many Republicans were motivated by what they regard as traitorous behavior by Chief Justice John Roberts in joining the court’s four liberal members to certify the constitutionality of the mandate/tax by one vote. But in this increasingly strident campaign, nothing seems to go quite as planned. No sooner had the official GOP line been established than the party’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, declared it not a tax but a penalty, no matter what Roberts said. After giving his party’s leaders heart palpitations, however, Romney thought it over and declared it is a tax after all, if the Supreme Court said so, just to get everyone back on the same page.

The former governor of Massachusetts faced the same sort of dilemma for having promoted that state’s health care law, which became the blueprint for the national law. He considered the mandate a penalty then and for a time seemed to be fairly consistent — for once.

A few more gaffes like that and Romney may be looking for a new Olympics to manage.

Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.

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