After a campaign in which Republicans attempted to pillory Barack Obama for finding $716 billion in savings from Medicare (via cuts in payments to insurance companies and providers but not cuts to benefits), those same Republicans now seem to be demanding that Obama agree to cuts in Medicare benefits as the price of saving the country from the Austerity Trap, a.k.a. fiscal cliff. Oh, the irony! You'd almost think that they weren't really the stalwart defenders of Medicare they pretended to be.
And there are some hints that the Obama administration is seriously considering agreeing to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as part of this deal. It's a dreadful idea, and as we discuss this possibility, there's one really important thing to keep in mind: Medicare is the least expensive way to insure these people. Or anybody, for that matter. In all this talk of the bloated entitlement system, you'd be forgiven for thinking Medicare was some kind of inefficient, overpriced big government program. But the opposite is true, and that's why raising the eligibility age is such a dreadful idea.
Raising the eligibility age saves very little money, on the order of a few billion dollars a year. That's because the 65 and 66-year-olds will have to get insurance somewhere, and many of them are going to get it with the help of the federal government, either through Medicaid or through the insurance exchanges, where they'll be eligible for subsidies. However, since many Republican-run states are refusing to expand Medicaid in accordance with the Affordable Care Act, lots of seniors who live in those states will just end up uninsured, which will end up leading to plenty of financial misery and more than a few premature deaths. Put this all together, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that while the federal government would save $5.7 billion a year from raising the eligibility age, costs would increase by more than twice in other parts of the system—for the seniors themselves, employers, other enrollees in exchanges who would pay higher premiums, and state governments.
What we'd be doing is taking people off Medicare, the most efficient and inexpensive option for them to have insurance, and putting them into the individual market, which works less well and costs more. When we start talking about this in more detail, that's what Republicans should really be forced to address.
If you want more details on the implications of raising the eligibility age, you should be reading Jonathan Cohn and Sarah Kliff. But it's important that we keep the big picture in view as the Austerity Trap deal takes shape. If anything, we should be putting more people on Medicare—that would save money and improve health in the system overall (you may recall that when the ACA was being debated one of the proposals was to allow people over 50 to buy in to Medicare, an idea we should bring back). There's an argument being made that raising the eligibility age may not be a good idea, but the administration has to give Republicans something, and it's not that big a deal. If that's the case that wins the day, we should be clear about exactly what it means: a more expensive health care system, exactly the opposite of what everybody says they want.