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Alarms Go Off as Obama Plays Footsie with Raising Medicare Age

Progressives from all quarters warn against unnecessary cuts to key social programs

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Partly because he's done it before, partly because he specifically left it on the table in a not-yet aired interview with ABC's Barbara Walters this week, but mainly because it's a terrible policy idea, progressives are saying loudly that if President Obama agrees to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 he'll have, as one notable critic put it, "hell to pay."

Protestors call for an increase of taxes on the wealthy and voice opposition to cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid during a demonstration in the Federal Building Plaza on December 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) As secret offers and counter-offers have been exchanged between the White House and the GOP leadership in the House over the last several days, speculation has peaked about whether or not Obama will relinquish his strong negotiating position by giving in to demands that he do something—no matter how ineffective—that would simultaneously please Republicans while proving he's willing to ignore the desires of his political base.

Proving that history may in some ways repeat itself, it seems that Republican unwillingness to take a deal or accept concessions offered by the President—as happened in last year's debate over the debt ceiling—could ultimately save Obama from himself. Relating to the offer made by Boehner to Obama on Tuesday, the Huffington Post reports:

House Republicans proposed permanently extending all of the Bush-era income tax rates for the wealthy in their "fiscal cliff" offer made to the White House on Tuesday, according to a CNN report and confirmed by the Huffington Post.

House Speaker John Boehner and his Republican negotiating partners have said they don't believe the White House has made them a serious offer and that President Barack Obama has refused to budge on spending cuts. Tuesday's suggestion that all the Bush tax cuts be extended permanently was a sharp signal to the White House that Republicans don't feel the president is being reasonable. [...]

Permanently extending the current rates is thus a nonstarter with the White House.

But, when asked about the possibility of including the age increase for Medicare by Barbara Walters in an interview scheduled to air Friday, Obama reportedly answered:

When you look at the evidence, it’s not clear that it actually saves a lot of money. But what I’ve said is let’s look at every avenue, because what is true is we need to strengthen Social Security, we need to strengthen Medicare for future generations, the current path is not sustainable because we’ve got an aging population and health care costs are shooting up so quickly.

Ironically, as shown by a series of recent polls, even most self-identified conservative voters reject the idea that cutting social programs like Medicare and Social Security is a good idea.

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House scolded the idea of raising Medicare's eligibility on Wednesday.

“Raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 would create a new health care donut hole. This would leave thousands of seniors with no health care coverage and jeopardize the future of affordable health care for all Americans," said CPC co-chairs Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).

“Increasing the Medicare eligibility age is bad policy because it hurts seniors who worked hard all their lives, but it’s especially harmful during a fragile recovery," the pair said. "If we really want to bring down costs, we should root out waste, fraud, and abuse – as the Affordable Care Act is already doing – and allow Medicare Part D to negotiate drug prices. Medicare operates more efficiently than private insurers, and it should be protected. We will not accept any measures that would take away health care coverage from our grandparents.”

As a report released on Tuesday by the Center for American Progress (CAP) confirms, raising the eligibility age would harm seniors dramatically and could leave as many as 435,000 people uninsured if implemented.

The reports says that such a move would pose the greatest threat to low-income seniors "now that the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the law rendered the Medicaid expansion optional for states."

According to CAP, "tens of thousands of low-income 65- and 66-year-olds, who would be cut off from Medicare—particularly the most vulnerable seniors living below the federal poverty level—will have nowhere to turn for coverage if their states reject the Medicaid expansion."

Conservative politicians, however, have pinned their entire strategic aims surrounding the ongoing fiscal talks in Washington on cuts to social programs. Leading GOP Senator Mitch McConnell specifically called for the Medicare age increase all last week and on weekend news shows.

As Greg Sargent writes at the Plum Line:

Obama has repeatedly indicated he expects to make some kind of sacrifice he and Democrats won’t like in the quest for a fiscal deal, since he sees compromise as a preferable outcome for the country. And it does seem very clear that conservatives will dismiss any entitlement reform that doesn’t harm beneficiaries as insufficient — making it a prerequisite to any deal.

But as Ezra Klein, wonk-in-chief at The Washington Post, explains:

Raising the Medicare eligibility age makes no sense. It cuts federal health-care spending but raises national health spending, which is what really matters. It doesn’t modernize the system or bend the cost curve. It doesn’t connect to any coherent theory of health reform, like increasing Medicare’s bargaining power, increasing competition in Medicare, ending fee-for-service medicine, or learning which treatments work and which don’t.

Paul Krugman called even the suggestion of such a deal as "crazy," writing:

It looks like a deal that makes no sense either substantively or in terms of the actual bargaining strength of the parties. And if it does happen, the disillusionment on the Democratic side would be huge. All that effort to reelect Obama, and the first thing he does is give away two years of Medicare? How’s that going to play in future attempts to get out the vote?

If anyone in the White House is seriously thinking along these lines, please stop it right now.

And Len Nichols, director of the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics at George Mason University, told MSNBC that the idea to raise the Medicare age epitomizes a policy recommendation pushed by wealthy elites with no consideration of the impact it will have on poorer Americans and blue collar workers.

“Raising the age of eligibility, the legal retirement age, sounds like a good idea if what you do for a living is talk and write, mostly while sitting in comfortable chairs in climate-controlled buildings,” Nichols observed. “But if what you do for a living is pick up and move heavy things, or spend eight to ten hours a day on your feet without interruption bringing food and clearing tables, or waiting on retail customers, or doing one physical thing over and over on an assembly line, then being required to do that for two or five or 10 more years before you can join Medicare is fairly cruel.”

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