GOP seizes on CBO criticism of health bills

Republicans pounced on remarks made Thursday by Congress’s chief budget officer that two Democratic bills would actually increase long-term federal spending on healthcare.

Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf told the Senate Budget Committee that the House bill and a measure approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee would lead to greater federal spending in future years.

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Such spending would increase the deficit, unless it is offset by budget cuts or additional tax increases in the future.

“In the legislation that has been reported, we do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount and, on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for healthcare costs,” Elmendorf said, according to a report by ABC News.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) acted surprised by Elmendorf's statement.

"Did he say that?" Pelosi said during her morning news conference in response to a question about Elmendorf's comments. "It's the same person who said we're not giving any credit for prevention or renegotiating for lower costs for pharmaceutical drugs ... I disagree that they don't score in a positive way prevention, wellness, negotiating for lower pharmaceutical drugs."

Congressional Republicans and centrist House Democrats have been complaining for weeks that the House bill, which is being marked up by three separate committees, does too little to address long-term healthcare spending.

“The director of the Congressional Budget Office today confirmed that the Democrats’ government-run plan will make healthcare more costly than ever, making clear that one of the Democrats’ chief talking points is pure fiction,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

“Dr. Elmendorf today gave a sobering perspective on the implications of the majority’s healthcare reform plan,” said Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) in a statement. “He indicated that the present plans contain no significant changes to reduce federal costs relative to reimbursement and the overall healthcare structure."

Unless the House Democratic leadership makes changes to the bill before it hits the floor in two weeks — as centrist Democrats have already demanded — Boehner’s comments are likely to be the first in an increasingly loud chorus of criticism aimed at the legislation.

The Obama administration indicated last week that it had similar concerns about the House bill. White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, Elmendorf’s predecessor at the Congressional Budget Office, sent a letter to House Democratic committee chairmen urging them to “maintain and strengthen” provisions in their bill that would have long-term benefits.

“Adopting a deficit-neutral health reform that expands coverage, however, is not enough because it would perpetuate a system in which best practices are far from universal and costs are too high,” Orszag wrote last Wednesday, when he also addressed the House Democratic Caucus.

President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have repeatedly promised that healthcare reform legislation would not increase the federal budget deficit over the next 10 years, a standard they appear to have met.

The House bill is fully offset over the first decade via Medicare and Medicaid cuts and more than $500 billion in new taxes on the wealthy.

But Obama and his aides, along with congressional Democrats, have also emphasized that “bending the cost curve down” in terms of the future rate of increase in national healthcare spending is crucial to true reform that would benefit the federal budget, businesses, individuals and the economy at large.

If Elmendorf’s view on the House bill is accurate, those larger promises would not be kept.

In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who posed the question to Elmendorf, is part of a core bipartisan group of Finance Committee members working on legislation that would be combined with the HELP Committee’s bill.

Speaking to reporters, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) vowed that his panel's package, which could be announced as soon as Thursday, would emphasize long-term cost-containment. Baucus’s panel has greater jurisdiction over cost-cutting measures than the HELP Committee.

Jared Allen contributed to this article.

This article was updated at 2:53 p.m.

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