Myths about Medicare, the Deficit, and Consumer Choice

Before Medicare began in 1965, many American senior citizens – and their children – struggled to pay for their doctor bills. Ever since, Medicare’s been an American success story. Why, then, do so many Beltway pundits and members of Congress – including Mitt Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan,  – go after it?

Some of its critics claim that slashing Medicare is the only way to control the deficit. Like most attacks on Medicare, this assertion is based on ideology, not evidence. Medicare’s critics often claim that rising federal health care spending is America’s biggest fiscal challenge. In fact, the federal deficit is bloated today primarily due to the Bush administration’s irresponsible tax cuts, economic mismanagement, costly wars, and increased defense spending.

Of course large numbers of retiring boomers mean Medicare will need more revenue. But Medicare costs won’t need to spiral out of control. The Affordable Care Act includes steps to limit per person health care price hikes. It’s already saving Medicare money. Yet Romney and Ryan promise they would work to repeal it.

What’s their alternative? The Ryan budget plan calls for extremely deep cuts to Medicare, while promising more and longer-lasting tax cuts for a few very wealthy Americans. Most House Republicans have already voted for that. It would end Medicare as we know it and instead force seniors to buy private insurance with vouchers that would cover less of their healthcare costs each year.

These vouchers would reduce seniors’ choices, not their costs. Why? Republican voucher plans assume that if government ends Medicare, private insurance companies will start to deliver cheaper, more efficient plans. But what’s their evidence?

When the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzed vouchers, it found that even a slight dip in future federal spending on health care for older Americans would drive costs up. Vouchers with slowly rising buying power would simply leave seniors and their loved ones to pay more out of pocket for bigger medical bills.

In fact, Uncle Sam’s already lost money on Medicare contracts with competing private health insurance plans. Although they spent more per patient, those private plans didn’t improve coverage or quality of care. Meanwhile, Medicare has shown that it bargains more effectively for better prices than most private insurers say that they can afford to do.

How are frail older people – one in three with cognitive impairments – supposed to wade through pages of fine print to understand new, complicated and often confusing “choices”? Is that what seniors really want? Surveys show most people care much more about being free to choose their doctors than to do complex comparison shopping among insurance companies.

Consumer choice, it turns out, is just a fig leaf that Medicare’s critics use to try to hide what would truly be in store for seniors if Medicare were to be gutted over time: fewer benefits, higher costs, and the loss of Medicare’s guarantee of access to a wide range of doctors and hospitals. What’s more, its supporters aim to mask their true aim by grandfathering in those over 55, keeping them from having to face a transformed Medicare program.

The Ryan budget plan wouldn’t really control Medicare’s costs. It would simply shift them to future senior citizens and make Medicare less efficient.

Virtually every other industrialized nation provides universal health insurance without vouchers or expensive copays and deductibles, and does so at strikingly lower per-capita costs than the United States. And the two nations that have expanded the scope of insurance coverage through regulated competition in the last two decades – Switzerland and the Netherlands – have seen sharp increases in medical and insurance costs.

There’s no good reason to weaken and eventually dump a program that’s met the needs of America’s seniors and disabled citizens so well for decades. Instead of wasting time and money pushing snake oil schemes to replace Medicare, let’s tackle the real problem of rising health care costs with sensible cost controls, paid for by taxing – not cutting taxes for – those who can best afford it. That way, Medicare can survive and succeed for a long time to come.

Theodore R. Marmor, 73, is professor emeritus of public policy and political science at Yale University and has testified before Congress about Medicare reform. He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network, a new national organization that brings together many of America’s leading scholars to address pressing public challenges at the national, state and local levels.





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