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Last week the news leaked out from the Patrick administration that public spending for the health reform plan in the coming fiscal year will be about $400 million over the original projections. This follows a $146 million cost overrun in the current year.

Why are such miscalculations the norm? Are the costs of health reform unknowable? Or did politicians (and the media) listen only to the “experts” who told them what they wanted to hear?

As I wrote here several months ago, the Census Bureau has been saying for years that there were far more uninsured in Massachusetts than state leaders cared to admit. But politicians and the economists who advised them stuck to their guns. It turns out the Census Bureau was right. The result is that many more people are eligible for the subsidized coverage than the legislature or governor planned for. And, by the way, the demand for free care from safety-net hospitals and clinics is not dropping as fast as projected, again a result of undercounting the uninsured and ignoring the large number of immigrants who are mostly ineligible for insurance under the reform.

Of course, the economic advisors also underestimated the impact of rising medical costs, taken in by claims that that the “Quality and Cost Control Council” would rein in costs, and that the computerized health records and improved prevention touted in the bill would save money. I laughed those off last May in this space.

(By the way, the same health economist who advised the legislature as it was drawing up the original budget, recently told a real whopper in the letters section of the Boston Globe – claiming that a single payer reform “would cost many multiples of the current Massachusetts reform effort.” He chose to ignore the reams of evidence that single payer would save vast sums on bureaucracy and profits. Indeed, the CBO, the GAO, and even the Lewin Group, a consulting firm which is owned by a health insurer, have all projected that single payer would cover everyone without any increase in total costs).

Unfortunately, any reasonable forecast sees more fiscal trouble ahead for Massachusetts’ health reform. The $400 million overrun estimated for the coming year doesn’t account for the recession that looks to be headed our way. If we’re lucky, it’ll be no worse than the fairly mild downturn in 2001-2003. Back then, the number of working age people who didn’t have jobs climbed by 167,000, and the number of uninsured rose by 168,000 – presumably including many of those who lost jobs, as well as some of their dependents. So a modest downturn is likely to swell the ranks of the low-income uninsured by about 165,000 – adding perhaps $400 to $600 million to the bill for public subsidies.

So as we plan for the next year or two, let’s factor in the real costs that lie ahead, not the fantasy projections politicians would like to believe. If those realistic cost estimates look unsustainable, then lets get ready to talk about a reform that we can afford – like a single payer program.

David Himmelstein is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program

This program aired on February 7, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.