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Schumer and Pelosi

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on June 14, 2021. (Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Unions Demand Pelosi and Schumer Include Lower Medicare Age, Drug Pricing Reform in Infrastructure Plan

"Now is the time for action to lower drug prices and improve access to care for millions."

Brett Wilkins

Echoing earlier demands from progressive groups and lawmakers, over 100 labor unions and their allies on Wednesday called on the Biden administration and Democratic congressional leaders to include expanded Medicare eligibility and prescription drug pricing reform in the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, part of President Joe Biden's three-part Build Back Better economic and infrastructure proposal.

"The Biden administration and Congress have a chance to deliver important progress at a crucial time."
—Dan Bauer, CWA

In a letter (pdf) to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 103 labor, faith, healthcare, racial justice, and other allied groups urged Biden and Congress "to include robust Medicare drug price negotiation in the American Families Plan package and to reinvest significant savings from negotiations [in] the Medicare program, alongside other critical investments in health equity, coverage, and affordability."

"By using the savings to improve dental, vision, and hearing services, capping out-of-pocket costs, lowering the Medicare eligibility age, and taking other bold steps to improve our nation's health, the Biden administration and Congress would be delivering on key promises and improving the lives of millions," the letter states. Currently, Americans are eligible for Medicare benefits at age 65.

"The American Families Plan must center the needs and priorities of BIPOC communities and expanding Medicare would help to increase coverage and access to care for communities of color who are disproportionately uninsured or under-insured," it says.

The letter continues:

The United States spends far more than any other country for prescription pharmaceuticals, and the largest purchaser in the world is the Medicare Part D program. High U.S. drug spending is driven by excessive prices charged by prescription drug corporations, which lead to treatment rationing and preventable negative health outcomes, including death. Enacting a robust system of direct government drug price negotiation and price spike protections that provides relief to patients regardless of medical condition, insurance provider, or status will save lives and prevent suffering and financial hardship for families across the nation.

"Bold drug pricing reform will support building a healthier America, as well as produce hundreds of billions of dollars in savings to reinvest in bolstering coverage," the letter asserts. "With these significant estimated savings, upwards of $450 billion over 10 years, it is a crucial time to address other needs of Medicare enrollees."

"In addition, by expanding access to Medicare to Americans 50 and older, the Biden administration and Congress could deliver crucial progress on expanding healthcare," the letter continues.

The signers explain:

Medicare has achieved universal coverage for Americans 65 and older, while the uninsured rate for adults 50–64 is 10.5%. Americans approaching retirement age have faced significant job loss as a result of the recession brought on by the pandemic and are at a particular disadvantage in states that have refused to expand Medicaid, leaving low-income Americans in those states particularly at risk of going without coverage and needed care. And given that most people experience increased medical needs as they age, lacking insurance at such a crucial time can mean financial ruin.

"Far too many Americans continue to struggle to get the care and medicine they need when they need it. Establishing government drug price negotiations and price spike protections will provide countless Americans with relief and put an end to treatment rationing," the letter says.

"Bold drug pricing reform will support building a healthier America, as well as produce hundreds of billions of dollars in savings to reinvest in bolstering coverage."
—Letter from 103 groups

"Expanding Medicare to those 50 and older would mean giving the peace of mind that Medicare enrollees already have to 63 million additional Americans, while expanding it to only adults 60 and older would expand eligibility for Medicare to an additional 20 million Americans," it concludes. "Now is the time for action to lower drug prices and improve access to care for millions."

The groups' demand follows similar calls from 17 Democratic senators in an April letter that argued Medicare, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, is "one of the most successful and popular federal programs in our nation's history."

"The time is long overdue for us to expand and improve this program so that millions of older Americans can receive the healthcare they need, including eyeglasses, hearing aids, and dental care," the senators asserted.

The lawmakers also said that lowering the Medicare eligibility age to as young as 50 would be a way to expand coverage, save lives, and implement a popular reform to a program that is already favored by a majority of the American people across the political spectrum.

Indeed, an April 2021 Data for Progress survey found that 86% of Americans—including 82% of Republicans—support adding dental, hearing, and vision benefits to Medicare.Three-quarters of Democrats, a majority of Independents, and nearly half of Republicans also favor lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55.

"We have a unique opportunity to finally address the exploding cost of prescription drugs," said Dan Bauer, director of government affairs at the Communication Workers of America (CWA), in an statement Wednesday. "These rising costs have put necessary and lifesaving treatments out of reach for working families and retirees and bold action is needed."

"Pursuing bold reform will also create substantial savings that can be used to expand Medicare to more seniors and cover important treatments for seniors like vision, hearing, and dental care," Bauer added. "These are important steps to ensure affordable care for working families and retirees throughout the country."

Eagan Kemp, health policy advocate for Public Citizen, added that "lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50, capping out-of-pocket costs, and expanding benefits to include dental, hearing, and vision would improve access to care for millions of Americans."

"Far too many Americans have lost their insurance or put off needed care due to the Covid-19 crisis," said Kemp. "The Biden administration and Congress have a chance to deliver important progress at a crucial time."

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