Rep. Upton urges bipartisanship on entitlements

Both political parties must work together to produce savings in entitlement programs, which is necessary to balance the federal budget, the chairman of a key congressional committee told an Atlanta audience Monday.

Entitlement programs Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are “the big elephant in the room,’’ Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a health care forum sponsored by the law firm King & Spalding.

He noted that the budget plan released last week by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) did not include savings from entitlement programs.

It’s a tough issue politically, said Upton, a 14-term congressman. Because of that, he added, “If we’re going to get this done, it’s going to have to be on a bipartisan basis.’’

“This has got to happen,’’ Upton said. “You can’t ever get to a balanced budget’’ without entitlement reform.

Among proposals Upton mentioned on Medicare savings are raising the age of eligibility from 65 to 67, which he said would save hundreds of billions of dollars, and charging higher premiums for wealthy seniors, also known as “means testing.”

Last week, President Obama, in a meeting with House Republicans, reiterated his support for key changes to entitlement programs.

Lawmakers said the president’s support for changing entitlements included possibly means testing for Medicare and adjusting the way inflation is measured, which would have the result of reducing Social Security benefits over time, the Washington Post reported.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) asked whether Republicans could go ahead and move forward with entitlement changes with which Obama agrees, but the president made clear he would take those moves only in exchange for additional tax revenues, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told the Post.

Upton also told the Atlanta forum that tort reform — an effort to reduce litigation and damages — may return as a bill in Congress. Malpractice litigation is a controversial issue in the debate over health care costs.

Last year, a bill that would have put caps on noneconomic damages in malpractice cases passed the House, but “didn’t get anywhere in the Senate,’’ Upton said.

Tort reform could produce $50 billion in savings, Upton said. He noted that U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), who’s also a physician, is a big supporter of tort reform. “We may try it again,’’ Upton said.

“Even the president said he supported tort reform,’’ Upton added.

Upton said the Affordable Care Act, the federal health reform law passed in 2010, has sparked regulatory burdens, IT challenges and high costs. The law is due to be fully implemented in January, but Upton voiced doubts that it will be “ready for prime time.’’  (Here’s a GHN article about the potential for a rocky implementation in January.)

The sequester federal budget cuts that kicked in March 1 have had a noticeable effect on spending, Upton said.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, for example, has not filled staff jobs, has eliminated printing costs and is reducing travel expenses, Upton said.