Two Republican senators are pushing a new Medicare plan that they say would cut spending on the seniors’ health program by $300 billion to $1 trillion over the next decade.
The move is either an example of incredibly tone-deaf, election-year politics, a courageous political stand, or perhaps a little bit of both.
Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Richard Burr of North Carolina are the primary backers of the plan, which would introduce private plans to compete against traditional Medicare, raise the age of Medicare eligibility to 67 and increase premiums for middle-class and upper-income retirees.
The new plan is similar to what’s known as the Ryan-Wyden proposal, which also would introduce private competition to Medicare, except the new GOP plan would do it sooner — in 2016 instead of 2022.
“All of us in Congress are running around fixing everything except our biggest problem,” Coburn told the Associated Press. “If you don’t start fixing Medicare now, you can’t save it.”
There shouldn’t be any debate that healthcare spending in America needs to be controlled, and Medicare is certainly a huge part of that. But Coburn and Burr’s GOP colleagues might wish that the senators had held their tongues on this one until after Nov. 6.
There’s a precedent for GOP fears about the politicization of Medicare cuts.
In a special election for a New York House seat in a conservative district last year, Democrats often credit their emphasis on Medicare as the key issue that led to victory. In that election, the Democrat winner repeatedly hammered her Republican counterpart for embracing Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to privatize Medicare.
So, any politicians facing reelection have reason to fear being linked to Medicare cuts and/or privatization.
At Talking Points Memo, Sahil Kaptur says the new plan represents GOP realization that Ryan’s call for full privatization was too radical to win voters. He called the new plan a “tactful” means of achieving at least part of that goal of privatization.
But even the Wyden-Ryan or Coburn-Burr renditions of “premium support” would represent a drastic departure from traditional Medicare, partially privatizing the program and setting the stage to phase out the single-payer plan. That’s what this is ultimately about — finding a way to get Dems on board for that goal.
Nonetheless, the new Coburn-Burr proposal has its fans. Writing at Forbes, Avik Roy proclaimed the plan “the best Medicare proposal yet,” praising the senators for not ducking the hard choices on Medicare reform. Thanks to the new Medicare plan, “the impossible seems within reach: the triumph of sound policy over interest-group politics,” Roy said.
Over at the Huffington Post, Richard Eskow wasn’t quite so impressed, as he points out 10 “deceptions” contained in the plan. “The record’s already in, and it ain’t pretty: Private health insurers offer less and charge more every year, and the profit motive is driving the U.S. health system’s costs through the roof,” he said.
Sen. Burr, for his part, knows the timing of his Medicare-cutting plan won’t win him a lot of friends in the GOP caucus, but says now is nonetheless the time. “If we did everything based on the political landscape, we would do less than we do today, which is not much,” he told the Washington Post. “The truth is we’ve got to take on some tough political issues and have a resolution to them.”
[Photo from flickr user Fifth World Art]