Published February 28, 2011
Those who conducted the campaign to force Obamacare through Congress in 2009 and 2010 made a whole series of fraudulent arguments: “You can keep the plan you have today if you like it.” “Premiums will go down, not up — by $2,500 per year for those with existing coverage.” “We can cover 32 million people with heavily subsidized and expansive third-party insurance, and it won’t cost the American people anything.” “The only people who will pay the $800 billion of Obamacare’s new taxes over the next decade are the rich.”
All of that is plainly false, of course, and most Americans know it, which is one reason the November 2010 election turned out the way it did.
But of all the deceptive arguments and tactics Obamacare’s apologists employed to jam their government takeover of health care through Congress, none was more egregious than the CLASS Act fraud.
CLASS — for Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act — was one of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s pet projects. It was sold as a miraculous twofer: The new program would provide both a self-financing, voluntary, long-term-care insurance program for those needing continuous assistance with daily living, and it would reduce the deficit to boot! What’s not to like?
Indeed, of the supposed $210 billion in deficit reduction over ten years that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assigns to Obamacare, $86 billion is expected to come from CLASS Act operations.
But it’s all a dangerous and cynical game. CLASS is expected by CBO to produce deficit reduction over the next ten years only because the program’s rules require participants to pay premiums for five years before they become eligible for benefits. So, at startup, there is the illusion of a surplus as participants begin paying premiums but very few of them qualify for any benefits. But, very quickly, those excess premiums will be needed to liquidate the entitlement obligations that participants will be earning. It’s another example of Obamacare’s shameless double-counting.
What’s worse, the CLASS Act is a ticking entitlement time bomb. Every expert who has looked at it — see here — reaches the same conclusion: It’s a poorly designed and ill-advised program that will suffer from severe adverse selection. Because it is voluntary, it will attract mainly enrollees who are at a higher risk of actually needing the benefit. Consequently, the premiums will need to be set very high, which will only make it even less attractive to healthy workers, who generally aren’t that interested in long-term-care insurance anyway.
Very quickly after the first decade, CLASS’s finances will become untenable. The premiums, though very high, will still be insufficient to cover all of the entitlement benefits earned and expected by participants. As the program rushes toward insolvency, the only options will be to cut promised benefits, raise premiums even more, or — surprise! — bail the program out with taxpayer subsidies. So, far from being a program that eases budgetary pressure, CLASS is actually a perfect example of all that is wrong in federal budgeting. It was sold under false pretenses as short-term deficit reduction when, in reality, it puts American taxpayers at great risk of another expensive bailout.
Stunningly, the Obama administration, after spending months defending CLASS’s virtues, now says it agrees with the program’s critics. How convenient. Now that CLASS has served its main purpose, which was to create the false impression of deficit reduction from Obamacare, the administration is willing to “pivot” — in that all-too-familiar Washington way — and pretend that they have just now discovered the program’s flaws.
This is absurd. The Obama administration and its congressional allies knew all along that CLASS was an ill-advised risk to taxpayers. But they defended it every step of the way during legislative consideration in Congress because of the convenient and deceptive “score” it produced from CBO.
Now, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says she has the administrative flexibility to essentially rewrite the program herself from scratch, with no input or changes necessary from lawmakers. This too is absurd. Her lawyers no doubt have an expansive view of her discretion. But they are between a rock and hard place here. The only way CLASS works is if millions of healthy workers sign up for a program (though it will almost surely be a bad deal for them) even as sick workers who are likely to benefit are screened and kept out.
In one more sign of their shamelessness, the administration wants funding to conduct an “education campaign” to browbeat reluctant workers into signing up for a voluntary program that should never get off the ground.
The most serious threat to the nation’s long-term prosperity is runaway federal entitlement spending, and the CLASS Act is the perfect example of how not to go about starting and running a federal entitlement program. And yet the Obama administration is doing whatever it can to salvage it. It’s yet another example of the president’s complete detachment from budgetary reality.
James C. Capretta is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004.