Founding Co-Director, Social Security Works
New Year’s is a time for resolutions. Consistent with this tradition, powerful Republicans have made clear that they are resolving, in the New Year, to dismantle Medicare, ending it as we know it.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said that destroying Medicare is part of the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare, another Republican resolution for 2017. And Representative Tom Price, powerful chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan ally, and likely next Secretary of Health and Human Services, has explained that the Republicans will enact Medicare legislation in the first six to eight months of 2017, since it is probably too big a task to include it in the planned January repeal of Obamacare.
These Republicans are people who carry through on their New Year’s resolutions. In discussing the goal of destroying Medicare in the New Year, Ryan explained, “With a unified Republican government, we can actually get things done.”
These Republicans never say, straightforwardly, that their plan is the repeal and replacement of Medicare. Because of Medicare’s overwhelming popularity, Republicans hide their true intentions behind euphemisms about “saving” it. But no one should be fooled. Their idea of saving Medicare is to destroy it, just as, during the Vietnam war, a U.S. military officer explained, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
The truth is that Medicare doesn’t need saving. There is no question that, as the wealthiest nation in the world at the wealthiest moment in our history, the United States can afford not just today’s Medicare, but a greatly expanded Medicare. In 1965, when Medicare was enacted, the nation’s Gross Domestic Product was, in real terms, a quarter of what it is today ($4.1 trillion in 1965 versus $16.7 trillion today.) Moreover, Medicare covers the most expensive part of the population – seniors and people with disabilities. Covering the rest of us is easier and cheaper.
Indeed, other industrialized countries spend a small fraction of what the United States spends on health care with better outcomes, despite older populations. Japan, for example, has a much older population than we do, and theirs is aging more rapidly than ours. In 2010, seniors represented 23 percent of the Japanese population, but just 13 percent of the U.S. population. In 2050, American seniors will compose just under 21 percent of the population ― less than Japan’s percentage of seniors today! Yet, the United States today spends three times more per capita than Japan on health care. Despite the additional spending, our health outcomes are worse. Indeed, Japan’s average life expectancy is more than four years longer than that of Americans!
The Republican plan to destroy Medicare will make American costs and health outcomes worse. Despite Medicare covering the most expensive part of the population, it is much more efficient than the rest of the American health care system. Japan and other industrialized countries have what amounts to Medicare for all. No other nation has the crazy patchwork system we have, which includes employer-sponsored private insurance, means-tested insurance, and individual private insurance, in addition to government-run Medicare.
Ryan proposes to make the patchwork system even more of a hodgepodge, with less coverage and higher costs. He wants to end Medicare as we know it and, instead, simply give seniors and people with disabilities fixed cash stipends to fend for themselves, unprotected, on the private market. But before the enactment of Medicare, many seniors and people with disabilities couldn’t get health insurance at any price. And those that managed to find an insurance company willing to cover them paid much higher prices than other Americans.
So why do the Republicans want to destroy Medicare and make our health care system less efficient and more expensive, with less coverage and poorer outcomes? Ideology, pure and simple. Republicans believe that the private sector is always superior to the government. But there are some things the government does better than the private sector. And Medicare is one of them.
Insurance is most inexpensive when everyone is covered under the same plan as the result of mandatory coverage. Only the federal government has the power and the ability to cover everyone, spreading the risk and responsibility as broadly as possible. Indeed, we should be expanding Medicare, not destroying it.
But, driven by ideology, Ryan and his fellow Republicans want to end Medicare as we know it. Ryan proposes to raise the initial age of eligibility for Medicare from its current age 65 to age 67, and to simply give everyone now under the age of 55 cash to buy insurance on their own, eliminating the efficiency of a single, large risk pool.
While those now on Medicare may think that they will be spared, they are wrong. Republicans always say, about their efforts to end Social Security and Medicare, that those aged 55 and over will not be affected, because those politicians recognize that seniors are most concerned about the programs and they vote. This assurance, of course, is insulting, because it assumes seniors are only concerned about themselves and not their children and grandchildren.
Moreover, the blatant assurance is not even true. Many Republican Social Security proposals cut current beneficiaries’ cost of living proposals. And, in the case of Medicare, the impact on current beneficiaries is likely to be even more substantial. If Ryan and his fellow Republicans have their way, Medicare will become increasingly expensive per enrollee, covering an aging and shrinking group, with high medical costs. As the group shrinks, they will have less and less political clout. Everyone not on traditional Medicare, will, by that time, be forced to fend for themselves with private insurance companies. It is extremely foreseeable that at some point, someone will propose treating this very old, small, and expensive population like everyone else. And then their Medicare will be gone, as well.
If we want a health care system in this country that provides everyone with access to the best medical care possible at the lowest possible cost, the way to achieve that is not to end Medicare, but to expand it. That, indeed, was the idea of the program’s founders. They saw Medicare as simply a first step, to be followed soon after by expanding it to include all children, and then more and more of the population, until the United States had Medicare for All.
We should follow that wise plan. As a next step, we should lower the initial age of Medicare eligibility, when people can first claim Social Security retirement benefits, from age 65 to 62. We certainly should not raise the age to 67 and then end the program as we know it, as the Republicans resolve to do. Unfortunately, they are now in control of all branches of government, and so have the political power to do what they want.
To stop them, I urge everyone who is old or hopes to be old someday to make your own Medicare resolution for 2017. Tell your elected leaders: Hands off Medicare except to expand it. And ask your friends to join you. Mobilize and make your voices heard. Then, as a resolution for 2018, we can all resolve to elect leaders who listen to us and have the good sense to expand, not destroy, Medicare.