HELENA — Montana’s U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg on Thursday told the congressional supercommittee how it can take a big step toward meeting its goal of shrinking the federal deficit: Eliminate two major new federal health reform programs to expand coverage for low- and moderate-income earners.
Rehberg, a Republican who chairs the House budget subcommittee in charge of health care programs, wrote a letter to the deficit-reduction panel outlining his idea, calling these new “entitlement” programs unaffordable.
“Congress should not proceed to implement new, incredibly expensive entitlement programs at a time when ... we are trying to save entitlement programs already in place,” he wrote.
The initiatives Rehberg proposed to stop are expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal program that pays medical bills for the poor, and new federal subsidies to help low- and moderate-income earners buy private health insurance. Both programs are set to begin in 2014.
Rehberg’s letter was sent to the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which has until Nov. 23 to come up with a plan to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a member of the supercommittee, said through a spokeswoman that he doesn’t support Rehberg’s proposal.
Baucus, a chief architect of the health reform law, believes there are better ways to target the deficit than undercutting future health care programs, said his spokeswoman, Kate Downen.
“Max’s first choice is to cut bloated Pentagon spending and ask Wall Street to chip in before targeting Montana families who need to take their kids to the doctor,” she said.
The Montana Democratic Party also blasted Rehberg’s idea Thursday, saying he’s out of touch with the health care needs of many Montanans.
“If Congressman Rehberg were truly serious about tackling the debt, he would end tax loopholes for millionaires,” said party Executive Director Ted Dick. “Unfortunately, Congressman Rehberg would rather protect his fellow millionaires than do what’s right for Montana families.”
Rehberg said Congress needs to “put partisanship aside and work together to find honest, thoughtful solutions to the serious challenges facing our country.”
Rehberg, who’s challenging U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in 2012, has been a consistent and vocal critic of the health reform law passed in 2010 and opposed by most Republicans.
He estimated the Medicaid expansion and the health insurance subsidies would cost nearly $1.4 trillion in the 10-year period starting next year.
Eliminating the programs is the “quickest, clearest and most common-sense path to meeting the committee’s goals” because it doesn’t take away any current benefits from anyone, and would, in a single step, nearly meet the panel’s entire deficit-reduction goal, he said.
“These are new obligations that the federal government simply cannot afford to take on in its current fiscal condition,” Rehberg wrote. “This is neither the way nor the time to try to take on such an enormous new expense.”
Medicaid currently covers about 100,000 people in Montana — most of them elderly people in nursing homes, pregnant women, the disabled and children. Under federal health care reform, Medicaid in 2014 would cover all people earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or $19,500 for a family of two.
State health officials have said the expansion could nearly double the Medicaid rolls in the state.
The health insurance subsidies under federal reform would go to people earning up to 400 percent of the poverty level, to offset their cost of buying private health insurance, starting in 2014. For a family of two, 400 percent of the poverty level is $58,840.
Rehberg said the threat of “ballooning, unsustainable government debt” has stagnated private-sector job creation, and that the only way to improve the economy is by “unleashing the power of the private sector.”
U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics from last month said that government employment is actually trending downward, while private-sector jobs increased only slightly.