How Lawmakers Will Shape the Future of Medicare

By Jason Hargraves

Medicare reform has been a topic on Capitol Hill for years. Senate and House members clash − mostly along party lines − as to what the the government-run health care program should look like in the near future.

Medicare was established in 1965 to provide affordable health care to people over the age of 65, but participation has nearly tripled to 55 million people since then, and the program now eats up a large chunk of the federal budget. Hence the conflicts as to how to continue to fund the massive program.

Most agree, however, that it's not going away.

"I think that Medicare will be an increasingly large component of how health care benefits are delivered in the future," says Robert Hartwig, past president of the Insurance Information Institute. "It's not going anywhere."

That said, Hartwig points on that changes must be made.

"If not, [Medicare] will eventually grow broke with the crushing impact of retiring baby boomers enrolled in the plan," he says, adding that it "will cause a strain on federal expenditures and so it will be under a lot of scrutiny."

Medicare doesn't even cover all the health care expenses of seniors. Most need supplemental Medicare insurance gaps to fill in the gaps where the federal program leaves off.

So, with all of its problems, what will Washington do to fix Medicare?

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In a nutshell, the GOP would like to privatize Medicare, while the Democratic Party is calling to expand the health care program to include people who are under the age of 65. The direction of Medicare will be shaped not only by the next president, but also by the outcome of the congressional races in November.

Let's take a closer look at each party's Medicare proposals.

Republican Party plans for Medicare

The GOP platform paints a doomsday scenario of Medicare, suggesting that it is “headed for a train wreck.” 

“Medicare’s long-term debt is in the trillions, and it is funded by a workforce that is shrinking relative to the size of future beneficiaries,” the GOP says.

“To preserve Medicare and Medicaid, the financing of these important programs must be brought under control before they consume most of the federal budget, including national defense,” the party says. “The good news is that it can be done, and it can be done without endangering the elderly and the needy who depend on those programs. “

The GOP’s plan calls for a hybrid privatization of Medicare that Republicans refer to as a “premium-support model,” which is intended to give senior citizens more health care choices.

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Republicans believe the only way to rein in Medicare’s rising costs is to turn it over to the free market. The party would provide vouchers that Medicare recipients could either use to purchase traditional Medicare plans or private plans. The aim is to eliminate healthcare fraud.

These changes would only apply to people who are currently under the age of 55, who have more time to adjust.

The GOP platform also suggests lawmakers “set a more realistic age for eligibility in light of today’s longer life span.” While the party’s official platform does offer anymore specifics on this issue, some Republicans leaders have previously suggested raising the eligibility age to 67.

Republicans argue their Medicare plan will “improve health care, not just manage its costs.” They blame Obamacare for lowering Medicare payments to doctors, which in turn, has caused many to stop participating in the program and reduced access to doctors for elderly Americans.

“We reject the Democrats’ approach of rationing inherent in Obamacare,” the GOP platform says. “We will not accept that or any other approach which denies care — or lowers its quality — for America’s elderly." 

Democratic Party plans for Medicare

The Democratic Party, by contrast, would lower the age of Medicare eligibility to 55-years-old, helping older Americans receive affordable healthcare coverage a decade sooner. 

Democrats adamantly reject any notion of privatizing Medicare.

“Democrats will fight any attempts by Republicans in Congress to privatize, voucherize, or ‘phase out’ Medicare as we know it,” according to the party’s platform.

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On this point, the court of public opinion agrees with the Democrats. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, seven out of 10 Americans are opposed to the privatization of Medicare and believe the government should continue to provide health care for the elderly. That includes 64 percent of Republicans.

It seems Medicare privatization brings uncertainty to senior citizens who have spent decades paying into the healthcare system.

“We are proud to be the party that passed Medicare,” the party’s platform says. “Democrats believe that health care is a right, not a privilege, and our health care system should put people before profits.”

Given all the attention on the soaring cost of prescription drugs, Democrats are also demanding that Medicare be allowed to negotiate more affordable drug prices for beneficiaries.