Econ. prof. is signatory on health care reform letter to Obama

by JOY CHEN | 11/18/09 11:00pm

Dartmouth economics professor Jonathan Skinner joined 22 other economists in sending a letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday lauding several provisions included in the Senate Finance Committee's version of the health care bill that they said could "lower health care costs and help reduce deficits over the long term." Obama referenced the letter in a statement on Wednesday.

The economists aimed to "encourage the Senate to keep some of the cost control of the bill in place," Harvard University School of Public Health professor Meredith Rosenthal, one of the signatories on the letter, said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

In the letter, the economists recommended a tax on high-cost insurance plans and the creation of an independent Medicare commission. The tax would encourage private health care providers to keep costs low enough to remain tax free, while the commission would allow medical experts to make recommendations to improve the quality of care, the economists wrote.

The letter also suggested improving the U.S. health care delivery system and making the plan deficit neutral.

The proposal did not mention, however, the controversial public option.

"It is not clear what [a public option] would do to encourage cost control," Rosenthal told The Dartmouth. "Just having a public plan is not a guarantee of cost control."

Rosenthal called the public option a "vehicle," saying that policy makers must "put things in it in order to make it achieve cost control."

Skinner, who said that he does not have a strong opinion about the public option, explained that the public option was not mentioned in the letter because of the polarizing debate surrounding the issue.

"I think there was a concern that public option is becoming such a political litmus test that it is more likely to divide the more conservative and the more liberal economists than to determine who can do a better job at providing health care," Skinner said. "[The elements brought up in the letter] were not as divisive as the public option."

Rosenthal said she is optimistic about the effects the bill will have on the health care system.

"I think there is a high possibility that the bill will be passed, and we would like to see it passed with enough pieces of cost control built into it so that the Congress doesn't need to go back in a year from now due to extraneous cost concerns," she said. "We would like to see it passed in a way that is sustainable, at least in the short run.

The letter began as an initiative by Alan Garber, a Stanford University professor of medicine and economics. Originally, rough drafts of the letter were circulated via e-mail among Garber's colleagues in the field, Skinner said.

"It's coordinated by one person, but many people outside of Washington, D.C., feel like this was a good time for the academic field to act and express our opinions," Skinner said.