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Peter Orsag: Health Care Reform More Urgent than Ever

Peter Orszag:

Director’s Blog: The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences announced its new members this morning. I’m quite honored to be included in this group — along with Jose Escarce, who is on CBO’s Panel of Health Advisers. I view my inclusion as testimony to what the outstanding CBO health staff has taught me about health care and health policy, and look forward to continuing to learn from them and other innovators in the field.

While I’m on the topic of health care, I’d like to make a point related to the current turmoil in financial markets. Many observers have noted that addressing the problems in financial markets and the risks to the economy may displace health care reform on the policy agenda — and that may well be the case for some period of time. (As a small example, I know that over the past few months I have been spending less time on health care because the turmoil in financial markets and associated issues have consumed much more of our time and attention at CBO. This displacement is a matter of finite time and energy, not budgetary resources.)

Although it may not seem immediately relevant given our current difficulties, it will be crucial to address the nation’s looming fiscal gap — which is driven primarily by rising health care costs — as the economy eventually recovers from this current downturn. Indeed, our ability to address our current economic difficulties (through both financial market interventions and potential additional fiscal stimulus) would be severely impaired if investors were not so willing to invest substantial sums in Treasury securities without charging much higher interest rates. That willingness reflects the (currently accurate) view among investors that Treasury securities are extremely safe investments.

If we fail to put the nation on a sounder fiscal course over the next few decades, though, we will ultimately reach a point where investors would lose confidence and no longer be as willing to purchase Treasury debt at anything but exorbitant interest rates. If that were to occur, we would lack the kind of maneuvering room that we currently enjoy to address problems in the financial markets and the economy. So if you think the current economic crisis is serious, and it is, imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have the ability to undertake aggressive and innovative policy interventions because creditors were effectively unwilling to lend substantial additional sums to the Federal government…

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