DON BRUNELL: Lump of coal in Christmas stocking

Senate Democrats describe their health-reform bill as a Christmas present for the American people. In reality, it is a lump of coal for U.S. taxpayers.

Senate Democrats describe their health-reform bill as a Christmas present for the American people. In reality, it is a lump of coal for U.S. taxpayers.

Fortunately, there is still time to exchange this “gift” for health reform that doesn’t increase the deficit, expand the bureaucracy, increase premium costs and reduce our quality of care.

Rather than President Obama’s vision during the campaign of health-care negotiations broadcast on C-SPAN for all to see, the Senate bill was crafted in almost total secrecy — even most Democrats didn’t know what was in it.

When it was finally exposed to sunlight, opposition was so fierce that the effort to secure the 60 Democrat votes needed for passage turned into a tawdry episode of “The Price is Right” with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid handing out billions of taxpayer dollars — money that will come out of your pocket.

Because the Senate bill greatly expands Medicaid, creating a massive unfunded mandate for cash-strapped states, Senate holdouts wrung hefty concessions from Sen. Reid, paid for with your money.

The first such deal is becoming known as The Second Louisiana Purchase. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) got $300 million in additional Medicaid funds for her home state in exchange for her vote to move the bill out of the Democrats’ Caucus.

That $300 million is 20 times the price of the original Louisiana Purchase.

Then, in what opponents are dubbing the “Cornhusker Kickback,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), got an agreement from Sen. Majority Leader Reid to have the American taxpayers completely fund all Medicaid costs in Nebraska in perpetuity.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won a promise of $10 billion in taxpayer money to fund community health centers in his home state, he voted for a bill he had vehemently opposed just days earlier.

All of these senators deny the payments bought their support for the bill.

That’s not all. While the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says the Senate bill would reduce the deficit by $130 billion from 2010-2019, there’s more than a little budget gimmickry in the Senate package:

• While the taxes to fund the program would start immediately, most of the benefits won’t begin until 2014. That’s like making car payments for four years without getting the car. The lag in payouts disguises the program’s true costs.

• While the measure predicts $200 billion in savings from the so-called “doctor fix” (cutting Medicare reimbursements to doctors when costs rise too quickly), those cuts have never been made — and again this year, Congress voted not to cut reimbursements out of fear it would drive doctors to drop their Medicare patients.

A Gannett News analysis reports that when all the dubious accounting measures are eliminated, the Senate bill will increase the federal deficit by more than $150 billion. Despite this, the measure will still leave 24 million Americans uninsured.

So, what’s the good news?

There’s still time to stop this train wreck. In fact, the hard work is just beginning. The Senate measure must now be reconciled with the House version.

Some members of Congress have vowed they will never vote for provisions in the other chamber’s bill while others say they will never support it if those provisions are removed.

This gives us time to slow down the process — perhaps even stop it before it drives our entire health-care system off a cliff. There are better ways to expand access to health care, such as allowing people to purchase health insurance across state lines, lawsuit reform and making insurance premiums tax deductible.

Not one of these safe, affordable, risk-free solutions is in the House or Senate bill. Contact your members of Congress and ask them why.

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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