Monday, February 27, 2012

FY 2013 Budget for HHS/Health and Retirement Security Spending

Comments for the Record
The President’s Fiscal Year 2013 for HHS/
Health and Retirement Security Spending
By Michael G. Bindner
Center for Fiscal Equity

Chairmen Ryan, Conrad, Camp and Baucus and Ranking Members Van Hollen, Sessions, Levin and Hatch, thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments for the record to the House and Senate Budget Committees, the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. The beginning of the budget debate for a new year brings with it the opportunity to rethink proposals. The Center for Fiscal Equity is using this opportunity to change our proposed fix for Social Security and Health Care. As always, our proposals are in the context of our basic proposals for tax and budget reform, which are as follows:
  • A Value Added Tax (VAT) to fund domestic military spending and domestic discretionary spending with a rate between 10% and 13%, which makes sure very American pays something.
  • Personal income surtaxes on joint and widowed filers with net annual incomes of $100,000 and single filers earning $50,000 per year.
  • Employee contributions to Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) with a lower income cap, which allows for lower payment levels to wealthier retirees without making bend points more progressive.
  • A VAT-like Net Business Receipts Tax (NBRT), which is essentially a subtraction VAT with additional tax expenditures for family support, health care and the private delivery of governmental services, to fund entitlement spending and replace income tax filing for most people (including people who file without paying), the corporate income tax, business tax filing through individual income taxes and the employer contribution to OASI, all payroll taxes for hospital insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance and survivors under age 60.

Discretionary activities of the Department of Health and Human Services would be funded by the VAT. While some of our VAT proposals call for regional breakdowns of taxing and spending, they do not for this department. While some activities, such as the Centers for Disease Control, exist outside the Washington, DC metro area, even these are site specific rather than spread out on a nation-wide basis to serve the public at large. While some government activities benefit from national and regional distribution, health research will not.

The one reform that might eventually be considered in this area is to more explicitly link government funded research with ownership of the results, so that the Department might fund some of their operations with license agreements for some of the resulting research, enabling an expanded research agenda without demanding a higher budget allocation.

Of course, regionalization is possible if the Uniformed Public Health Service is put into the role of seeing more patients, particularly elderly patients and lower income patients who are less than well served by cost containment strategies limiting doctor fees. Medicaid is notoriously bad because so few doctors accept these patients due to the lower compensation levels, although we are encouraged the health care reform is attempting to reduce that trend. Medicare will head down that road shortly if something is not done about the Doc Fix. It may become inevitable that we expand the UPHS in order to treat patients who may no longer be able to find any other medical care. If that were to happen, such care could be organized regionally and funded with regionally based taxes, such as a VAT.

The other possible area of cost savings has to do with care, now provided for free, on the NIH campus. While patients without insurance should be able to continue to receive free care, patients with insurance likely could be required to make some type of payment for care and hospitalization, thus allowing an expansion of care, greater assistance to patients who still face financial hardship in association with their illnesses and a restoration of some care that has been discontinued due to budget cuts to NIH.

The bulk of our comments have to do with health and retirement security.

One of the most oft-cited reforms for dealing with the long term deficit in Social Security is increasing the income cap to cover more income while increasing bend points in the calculation of benefits, the taxability of Social Security benefits or even means testing all benefits, in order to actually increase revenue rather than simply making the program more generous to higher income earners. Lowering the income cap on employee contributions, while eliminating it from employer contributions and crediting the employer contribution equally removes the need for any kind of bend points at all, while the increased floor for filing the income surtax effectively removes this income from taxation. Means testing all payments is not advisable given the movement of retirement income to defined contribution programs, which may collapse with the stock market – making some basic benefit essential to everyone.

Moving the majority of Old Age and Survivors Tax collection to a consumption tax, such as the NBRT, effectively expands the tax base to collect both wage and non-wage income while removing the cap from that income. This allows for a lower tax rate than would otherwise be possible while also increasing the basic benefit so that Medicare Part B and Part D premiums may also be increased without decreasing the income to beneficiaries. Increasing these premiums essentially solves their long term financial problems while allowing repeal of the Doc Fix.

If personal accounts are added to the system, a higher rate could be collected, however recent economic history shows that such investments are better made in insured employer voting stock rather than in unaccountable index funds, which give the Wall Street Quants too much power over the economy while further insulating ownership from management. Too much separation gives CEOs a free hand to divert income from shareholders to their own compensation through cronyism in compensation committees, as well as giving them an incentive to cut labor costs more than the economy can sustain for consumption in order to realize even greater bonuses.

Employee-ownership ends the incentive to enact job-killing tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, which leads to an unsustainable demand for credit and money supply growth and eventually to economic collapse similar to the one most recently experienced.

The NBRT base is similar to a Value Added Tax (VAT), but not identical. Unlike a VAT, an NBRT would not be visible on receipts and should not be zero rated at the border – nor should it be applied to imports. While both collect from consumers, the unit of analysis for the NBRT should be the business rather than the transaction. As such, its application should be universal – covering both public companies who currently file business income taxes and private companies who currently file their business expenses on individual returns.

A key provision of our proposal is consolidation of existing child and household benefits, including the Mortgage Interest and Property Tax Deductions, into a single refundable Child Tax Credit of at least $500 per month, per child, payable with wages and credited against the NBRT rather than individual taxes. Assistance at this level, especially if matched by state governments may very well trigger another baby boom, especially since adding children will add the additional income now added by buying a bigger house. Such a baby boom is the only real long term solution to the demographic problems facing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which are more demographic than fiscal. Fixing that problem in the right way definitely adds value to tax reform.

The NBRT should fund services to families, including education at all levels, mental health care, disability benefits, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, Medicare and Medicaid. Such a shift would radically reduce the budget needs of HHS, while improving services to vulnerable populations.

The NBRT could also be used to shift governmental spending from public agencies to private providers without any involvement by the government – especially if the several states adopted an identical tax structure. Either employers as donors or workers as recipients could designate that revenues that would otherwise be collected for public schools would instead fund the public or private school of their choice. Private mental health providers could be preferred on the same basis over public mental health institutions. This is a feature that is impossible with the FairTax or a VAT alone.

To extract cost savings under the NBRT, allow companies to offer services privately to both employees and retirees in exchange for a substantial tax benefit, provided that services are at least as generous as the current programs. Employers who fund catastrophic care would get an even higher benefit, with the proviso that any care so provided be superior to the care available through Medicaid. Making employers responsible for most costs and for all cost savings allows them to use some market power to get lower rates, but not so much that the free market is destroyed. Increasing Part B and Part D premiums also makes it more likely that an employer-based system will be supported by retirees.

Enacting the NBRT is probably the most promising way to decrease health care costs from their current upward spiral – as employers who would be financially responsible for this care through taxes would have a real incentive to limit spending in a way that individual taxpayers simply do not have the means or incentive to exercise. While not all employers would participate, those who do would dramatically alter the market. In addition, a kind of beneficiary exchange could be established so that participating employers might trade credits for the funding of former employees who retired elsewhere, so that no one must pay unduly for the medical costs of workers who spent the majority of their careers in the service of other employers.

Conceivably, NBRT offsets could exceed revenue. In this case, employers would receive a VAT credit.

The Center calculates an NBRT rate of 27% before offsets for the Child Tax Credit and Health Insurance Exclusion, or 33% after the exclusions are included. This is a “balanced budget” rate. It could be set lower if the spending categories funded receive a supplement from income taxes. These calculations are, of course, subject to change based on better models.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the committee. We are, of course, available for direct testimony or to answer questions by members and staff.


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