It has become something of an unintentional tradition in Congress to allow key votes to wait until days or hours before a pressing deadline, regardless of which party holds power.
More than once during my 10 years as a member of Congress, I spent much of the holiday season in Washington alongside my colleagues on an essential piece of legislation. In late 2012, for example, action was needed to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” — a perfect storm created by a series of automatic tax increases and indiscriminate spending cuts set to take effect on New Year’s Day 2013.
We delivered a reasonable, bipartisan solution that was signed into law in the nick of time. I was pleased with the outcome and relieved, but many of us lamented the process that allowed for such eleventh-hour drama.
Washington again finds itself up against a deadline. This time, lawmakers must act before Dec. 31 to keep the government running and to extend critical tax provisions that individuals and businesses are counting on. One such provision is to delay the looming Health Insurance Tax (HIT), an annual fee placed on 142 million Americans’ health coverage. The tax is levied on health insurers based on their market share, and the Congressional Budget Office found that it would be passed along to consumers in the form of higher premiums.
This tax will affect everyone with health insurance. But it has especially harsh consequences for the 24 million seniors who receive their coverage through Medicare Advantage. A 2018 study found that the Health Insurance Tax could equate to a premium increase per Medicare Advantage beneficiary of $3,052 over the next decade.
Like many of the challenges previously faced by Congress, the HIT is not a fight over party politics — 80% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans oppose allowing this tax to go into effect. It is instead about the will to act.
Lawmakers across the political spectrum have called for a vote to, at a minimum, suspend the HIT before year’s end. Bicameral, bipartisan bills to do exactly that have attracted co-sponsors from roughly one-third of members in both chambers of Congress and stakeholders ranging from Meals on Wheels to the National Medical Association and have lined up in support.
Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) warned that the HIT “has huge implications for affordability” and that “significant [cost] increase would be passed along to small business.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said that delaying the HIT “should be among the easiest votes that any Senator takes.”
We now need our leaders to heed these words and translate the bipartisan support and goodwill that already exists around this issue into a vote — and fast.
The federal government’s actuaries have told us the price of inaction. A new report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that the HIT was a driving force behind a spike in national health expenditures in 2018, when U.S. health care spending rose to $3.6 trillion after the tax was allowed to briefly take effect following a moratorium in 2017. Reinstatement of the HIT would ignore that hard lesson and exacerbate a potentially perilous trend.
The organization I lead, Better Medicare Alliance, is urging policymakers to act on the HIT to protect their constituents from higher health care costs. Today, 7 in 10 Americans are struggling financially. Medicare Advantage beneficiaries enjoy lower cost burden than others in Medicare, but nearly half of those in Medicare Advantage live on household incomes of $24,000 a year or less. The HIT would amount to a cost increase that these Americans simply cannot afford.
Although the clock is ticking on a vote to prevent this upheaval to Americans’ health care coverage, count me as optimistic.
Congress has stared down such deadlines before and done the right thing. I was there and saw it happen time and again. This holiday season, seniors — and indeed all Americans — deserve to see such cooperation win the day again with a vote to stop the HIT before it’s too late.
Allyson Y. Schwartz is the president and CEO of the Better Medicare Alliance. She represented Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from 2005 to 2015.