The Perpetual Republican War On Medicare

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Even as Republicans wage their new war against the latest efforts at health care reform, they are still fighting the last one. 44 years after the passage of Medicare, Republicans leaders like Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) are attacking Democratic proposals by blasting the popular health system for America's elderly. Sadly for the GOP, Medicare's proven success in reducing poverty among the elderly and its strong support from beneficiaries belies Price's claim that "nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government's intrusion into medicine through Medicare."

As ThinkProgress noted, Republican demagoguery on Medicare has a long and sordid past. While George H.W. Bush in 1964 used the now-eternal sound bite to describe it simply as "socialized medicine," Ronald Reagan warned three years earlier that failure to stop Medicare meant " you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free."

On Thursday, orthopedic surgeon turned Georgia Congressman Tom Price picked up the baton of GOP fear-mongering on Medicare. In a Politico op-ed which unsurprisingly omitted any estimates of the cost and coverage of the Republicans' latest supposed health care reform plan, Price slammed Medicare as the poster child for everything that's wrong about proposals backed by the Obama White House:

Going down the path of more government will only compound the problem. While the stated goal remains noble, as a physician, I can attest that nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government's intrusion into medicine through Medicare. Because of Washington's one-size-fits-all approach, its flawed coverage rules and broken financing mechanisms, seniors are increasingly having care rationed while federal health spending spirals out of control.

And though newly eligible Medicare patients struggle even to find a doctor who can accept them, the president appears immovable in his belief that what is needed to fix health care is more government involvement. His proposal can only be described as a government takeover of health care.

From a government-run plan that will eviscerate private insurance to prescriptive coverage regulations that require all plans to meet a government definition of care to bureaucratic boards that will decide which treatments are appropriate and who is eligible, the proposal before the House would hand over to Washington nearly every decision that should be made by patients and their physicians.

Predictably, Price regurgitated virtually all of Frank Luntz' GOP talking points, each of them demonstrably false. And just as predictably, Price neglected to mention Medicare's track record of success.

Medicare doesn't merely provide health insurance to 46 million Americans for a fraction of the administrative costs associated with providers in the private market. Since its inception in 1965, the number of American senior living in poverty dropped from one in three to just 14% today. A study by the journal Health Affairs found that "life expectancy at age 65 increased from 14.3 years in 1960 to 17.8 years in 1998 and the chronically disabled elderly population declined from 24.9 percent in 1982 to 21.3 percent in 1994." Before 1965, one-half of the elderly had no health insurance at all.

Which is why, as ThinkProgress detailed, Medicare remains extremely popular among the American people:

A recent survey from the Commonwealth Fund, found that "elderly Medicare beneficiaries reported greater overall satisfaction with their health coverage, better access to care, and fewer problems paying medical bills than people covered by employer-sponsored plans." In fact, Medicare is so popular that most Americans support expanding Medicare coverage to Americans aged 55 to 64. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, "over half of Americans (53 percent) "strongly" support such a proposal and an additional 26 percent say they support it somewhat, totaling 79 percent backing."

Of course, none of the above is to suggest that Medicare is without its troubles. The combination of skyrocketing medical costs and the aging of the baby boomers have produced mushrooming costs for the program. In May, its trustees reported that barring changes the program would reach insolvency in 2017. It's no wonder President Obama called the current path an "unsustainable" scenario which will "swamp our federal and state budgets." For her part, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius warned the report "is a wake-up call for everyone who is concerned about Medicare and the health of our economy," adding, "And it's yet another sign that we can't wait for real, comprehensive reform."

For Republicans, the problem with the government-run plan for seniors is not primarily its growing cost, but precisely that is government-run. Roy Blunt (R-MO), chairman of the GOP Health Solutions Group which includes Price, recently concluded:

"[Y]ou could certainly argue that government should have never have gotten in the health care business...Government did get into the health care business in a big way in 1965 with Medicare, and later with Medicaid, and government already distorts the marketplace."

For his part, Indiana Republican Mike Pence slammed the proposed public option, noting that Medicare ultimately far exceeded the original actuarial estimates in 1965. (Since 1970, private insurance premiums have actually risen faster [9.9% annually] than Medicare's costs per beneficiary [8.8%].) But perhaps cognizant of Newt Gingrich's calamitous 1990's effort to butcher Medicare by 14%, Pence backed off when challenged by MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell:

MITCHELL: I don't know if you want to go back to Indiana and campaign against Medicare.

PENCE: Oh no, I support Medicare...

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)

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