20100318 pelosi health 18
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks at an event highlighting health care reform at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. - 


Kai Ryssdal: Other than the actual voting, I think Congress cleared the last big hurdle in the health care debate today. We got the official scorecard on it this morning. It's going to cost the government $940 billion over 10 years. Over 20 years, though, the bill is supposed to shave more than a trillion dollars off the budget deficit.

Those are big numbers to wrap your brain around. But really, at this point in a long, long debate -- do they even matter? We asked Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer to figure it out.

NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER: The numbers come from the Congressional Budget Office. It said today the final version of the Democrat's health care overhaul would cut the deficit by $138 billion over 10 years.

PAUL LIGHT: I don't take the number too seriously.

That's Paul Light. He's a professor of public service at New York University. He says the health care overhaul now appears inevitable.

LIGHT: Now it is a done deal, more or less. I don't think anybody is going to be swayed one direction of the other. Ultimately the number is going to fade from memory rather quickly.

And, ultimately, the deficit reduction number might turn out to be wrong. These predictions are really hard to make.

Vivian Ho is a health care economist at Rice University.

VIVIAN HO: What's important whenever you're doing these predictions, is to predict how people will respond in terms of what type of health insurance policy they're going to buy, and whether they're even going to buy health insurance or not.

The polite term for this uncertainty among economists is elasticities.

HO: And so sometimes they get the elasticities wrong.

Economist Paul Van de Water did cost estimates for Congress for 18 years at the CBO. He says, elastic as the health care numbers are, they could help sway undecided members of Congress.

PAUL VAN DE WATER: There were some members that wanted to be absolutely sure that the proposal they're going to vote on will be fiscally responsible -- that it won't add to the deficit. And now they have confirmation.

And if the numbers are wrong, they can blame the CBO.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.