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Bookmark this chart: what sequestration looks like

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Lost in the shuffle of credit downgrades and market collapses, the Bipartisan Policy Center put out an incredibly helpful chart a couple of weeks ago on how the debt deal sequester option would work. It shows what cuts each government program would face if the supercommittee can’t find $1.5 trillion in savings and the across-the-board $1.2 trillion cuts go into effect. Take a look (a larger version is available here):

One notable point: Entitlements and health programs come out on relatively stable ground. Cost-sharing subsidies from the Affordable Care Act -- meant to help lower-income Americans pay for out-of-pocket health costs - get pared by by $1 billion. Medicare, which was limited to a 2 percent budget cut, takes a $12 billion hit.

No, this is not pocket change. But in the context of the two programs’ budgets--and, perhaps more important, of what the supercommittee alternative might do — it looks like a relatively small amount.

Jonathan Cohn gets at this point in his Kaiser Health News column on Thursday. Folks around Washington, he says, are coming to a “tentative” consensus on what the trigger cuts would mean for Medicare. Those reductions are expected to be “be relatively modest and, most likely, less severe than whatever that supercommittee would devise as an alternative.”

As Nina Owcharenko, director of health policy studies for the Heritage Foundation pointed out recently, the supercommittee can consider all sorts of programs that the trigger cannot touch.

“People keep saying Medicaid is off the table,” Owcharenko said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not off the table at all. It’s definitely on the table when we look at the supercommittee and what they can do.”

She’s right: There will be significant pressure on the 12-member panel to take up those entitlements. There also may be some space, albeit limited, for bipartisan agreement. The Obama administration has signaled an openness to rejiggering how the federal government finances Medicaid. The panel could make deeper cuts to Medicare provider rates or Medigap policies. And if they’re looking at changes like these, the $12 billion yearly cut to Medicare will look like a drop in the bucket for a committee searching for $1.5 trillion in savings.

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