Pipe Dreams

There Germans have a wonderful way of capturing a complex thought in a single word. One of my favorites is that classical human failing, “schadenfreude.” It is defined as “the pleasure experienced when witnessing the misfortune of others.” It’s such a basic human trait, we have a whole TV show dedicated to it that’s been running for a couple of decades. (“America’s Funniest Home Videos.”)

I, like nearly every other human being, feels it on occasion. But I try to restrain my enjoyment of it. I only revel in it when two criteria are met: 1) the victim really, really has it coming, and B) I stop my enjoyment of it as soon as they get past their denial and admit they have a problem.

This morning, I am greatly enjoying the travails of the state of Masachusetts.

That’s nothing new, you say, and you’re right. But specifically, I’m laughing at their attempts to manage health insurance.

Universal health care coverage is one of the Democrats’ big agenda items. They’ve been pushing for it for a very, very long time; Hillary Clinton did NOT invent the concept back in 1993. But now their longe efforts may be coming to fruition. They’ve managed to pull it off in one state — Massachusetts.

By any criteria, Massachusetts ought to be the perfect political laboratory for the Democrats. A fairly small state with a fairly stable population (they are so far behind the population trend, they are expected to lose at least one and possibly two Congressional seats after the next census), and Democrats holding a near-monopoly on political power. They have both US Senate seats, all ten US House seats, the governorship and every other state-wide elective office, and over 85% of each House of the state legislature. The only place where their influence might appear checked is in the Judiciary, where most judges were appointed by the Republican governors who held office from 1991 to 2007, but even there they had a “say” — all those Republican appointees had to be approved by the always-overwhelmingly-Democratic legislature.

So, Massachusetts concocted a plan to guarantee all its residents health insurance.

No, that’s not quite fair. The residents were not “guaranteed” access to health insurance, they were REQUIRED to get it — under penalty of fines that will, in a couple of years, vastly outstrip the cost of the cheapest coverage. Everyone who did not get insurance from their employer or the government as a form of welfare would have to buy it on their own, with some state subsidies if they qualified. The legislature whipped up this magic plan, Governor Mitt Romney read the writing on the wall (it WAS going to be passed, and he could either get behind it and try to get rid of some of the worst aspects or get steamrollered) and threw his support for it, and it passed.

And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Whoops. I forgot this wasn’t a fairy tale. (And in the state that gave the nation Gerry Studds, Barney Frank, and gay marriage, one isn’t allowed to use the term “fairy tale,” lest ye be charged with “hate speech.”) This is the real world.

So, Massachusetts is well on its way towards bringing health insurance to everyone. How’s that working out?

Well, newspaper people are finding a fringe benefit no one expected. They have a new standing headline they can use — “Costs of universal health care plan higher than predicted.”

Of course, with the digital age, changing a headline nowadays is only a matter of a few keystrokes. No one has to mes around with lead blocks engraved with letters any more. Thus they can be considerably more specific in their headlines.

Here’s how the Commonwealth messed up, and how they plan to fix it:

State projections obtained by the Globe show the program reaching 342,000 people and $1.35 billion in annual expenses by June 2011. Those figures would far outstrip the original plans for the Commonwealth Care program, largely because state officials underestimated the number of uninsured residents.

The state has asked the federal government to shoulder roughly half of the program’s cost from 2009 through 2011, but there is no guarantee of that funding. Commonwealth Care provides free or subsidized insurance for low- and moderate-income residents.

The solution most favored by Massachusetts thus far is to seek more federal money. They originally asked the federal government to pick up half the projected tab for the state-subsidized “entry level” health plan, and the federal government agreed. But the state negotiated a flat fee, not a percentage of actual costs, so the federal government’s initial contribution of $300 million has dwindled as a percentage as the actual costs come in. So they want more federal money.

Let me translate that for you in clearer terms: in order for Massachusetts to make certain all its residents have health insurance, they need the other 49 states to pay, too.

What no one wants to point out is that this instantly makes the Massachusetts model utterly untenable on a national level. In order for it to work, they want an outside body — the federal government — to pick up roughly half the tab. They can do this because there is a federal government above Massachusetts that they can appeal to.

That is a luxury the federal government itself lacks. It has no higher authority it can tap for extra money. And remember this: the federal government has no money of its own, only that it collects from us. So if it needs money, it has only one way of getting it: that’s from you and me.

So Massachusetts is suffering right now, and still in a frantic state of denial. Like a junkie in withdrawal, they are turning to their standard fix: more money from Washington. It was their solution to the skyrocketing costs of the incredibly-ineptly-managed Big Dig program, and now it’s their cure to their mandated health insurance program. In both cases, they had big ideas and grandiose schemes that they needed the people of the other 49 states to pay for. In both cases, they are managing the programs in the absolutely worst, most inept, most incompetent fashion. And in both cases, they want the suckers of the other 49 to pay for Massachusetts’ folly, a folly that will never benefit anyone outside of Massachusetts. (And, considering how those follies are being run, it’s questionable whether they will actually benefit anyone inside Massachusetts, either.)

I have a simple solution: Massachusetts, drop dead.

OK, that’s a bit harsh. (Although deserved.) Let’s tone it down a smidgen, and say rather: “Massachusetts, you asked for a specific amount of money, and you got it. Now you say you screwed up and need another 3.4 metric assloads of money, or your whole pipe dream (literally, in reference to the Big Dig) will go down the toilet. Sorry to hear that. Tell us where to send the flowers.”

Up yours
Well qualified