Republican plan to raise Medicare’s eligibility age would be a step in the wrong direction

October 27, 2022 6:30 am

The House Republican Study Committee’s fiscal 2023 budget model calls for raising the Medicare eligibility age. (Image by Carlos Lincoln from Pixabay)

If Nevada Republicans April Becker, Sam Peters and/or Mark Robertson win their races for the U.S. House, they will find that House Republicans have already made a commitment to the following policy:

“To address the increased demands on Medicare, the RSC Budget proposes aligning Medicare’s eligibility age with the normal retirement age for Social Security and then indexing this age to life expectancy.”

“Indexing this age” means raising it. 

Eliminating, weakening, replacing, gutting or otherwise cutting the Social Security and Medicare earned benefits programs – or “entitlements,” as Republicans like to call them because that makes it sound like welfare and socialism or whatever – has been a holy grail on the American right since the programs were established.

The Nevada incumbent House Democrats running against Becker, Peters and Robertson – Susie Lee, Steven Horsford and Dina Titus, respectively – got together last week to warn voters about the Republicans’ latest assault on earned benefits. Peters didn’t respond to requests for comment. Robertson and Becker (the latter through a campaign apparatchik) both reacted to the prospect of sweet innocent them getting involved in anything as nefarious as cutting Social Security or Medicare as if it were simply out of the question.

But it’s not out of the question. It’s in the Republican fiscal 2023 model budget, quoted above and developed by the Republican Study Committee, a group of dozens of potential colleagues of Becker, Peters and Robertson, who design and craft policy to be pursued by House Republicans. 

If Republicans, as expected, regain control of the House, putative House Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy has all but promised they will use their newfound power to force Joe Biden and whoever controls the Senate to accept cuts to Social Security and Medicare, or the House won’t pass necessary budget resolutions and the government will shut down.

There is more than one Social Security eligibility age. People can start taking their benefits from between 62 and 70 – the longer you can afford to hold out, the bigger the monthly benefit – and the current “full retirement age” is 67. Raising that age “doesn’t change when you retire. It just reduces how much money you get” for retirees of all ages, says Matt Breunig of the People’s Policy Project.

Raising the eligibility age of Medicare, however, poses a fundamentally different problem: The Medicare age shouldn’t be raised. But nor should it stay the same. It should be lowered.

Some Democrats have been trying to do just that.

Remember the Build Back Better agenda that Republicans loved to hate so much and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema squelched because … they could?

In one iteration of that, many Democrats who were not Manchin and Sinema, including Horsford, Titus and Lee, pushed to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices for a lot more drugs than the few that were included in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Most House Democrats also supported expanding Medicare by having it cover dental, vision and hearing. 

And Horsford and Titus, along with 158 other Democrats, also supported a provision to lower the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 (covering an additional 23 million people), or better yet, 55 (covering an additional 40 million people).

Lowering the Medicare eligibility age would provide millions of people (and, by extension, their families) relief from poor or spotty but usually expensive coverage on offer from an all-too-often predatory yet infuriating, inefficient and cumbersome for-profit insurance industry.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated lowering the Medicare age to 60 would cost the federal government $155 billion over five years. Goodness, that’s almost as much as the U.S. spends on the military in three months.

(To be fair, House Republicans, as instructed by their leaders Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, are also signaling that if they win the midterms they will use their leverage over the budget process to slash military spending, or at least the part that provides aid to Ukraine in its fight against Putin’s war of aggression.)

Along with millions of people and their families, there is another group who would benefit by a lower Medicare eligibility age. According to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation, “lowering the age of Medicare eligibility to 60 could reduce costs for employer health plans by as much as 15 percent … The savings in employer plans would come from employers covering fewer older adults, who tend to have higher health care spending than younger enrollees.”

Becker, Peters and Robertson should be intrigued by that. Republicans are always saying how deeply they care for the well-being of employers.

But maybe their support of business is as shallow as their vague promise to protect “entitlements.” 

Some people (raises hand) would prefer to see the age of Medicare eligibility reduced to zero. Alas, inauguration of a Sanders-Ocasio Cortez administration coupled with filibuster-proof Democratic control of both houses of Congress following the 2024 elections seems unlikely.

Nevada Republican House candidates vow to protect “entitlements” and hope for victory so they can go to Washington and make nice with the likes of McCarthy and Marjorie Taylor Green. House Democrats have something very altogether different when it comes to Medicare: A record of trying to expand it to cover more services and more people – a record of not going the wrong way.

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.