Akron Beacon Journal: Age appropriate on Medicare

First Posted: 11/17/2011

With their deadline one week away, and the prospects for consensus bleak, the members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction do agree on one component for achieving fiscal discipline: The country must curb Medicare spending. Projections show the health-care program for seniors certain to be an increasing financial burden, overwhelming other priorities in the decades ahead.A measure of the agreement can been seen in Democratic members of the supercommittee putting forward proposed reductions in Medicare spending that exceed the ideas of the Bowles-Simpson commission and the Senate's Gang of Six. President Barack Obama has embraced the concept of needing to do something big. He appeared warm to the notion of raising the eligibility age for Medicare from the current 65 to 67.Without question, again, Medicare costs must be constrained. That will require tough choices about means-testing, asking wealthier seniors to cover a larger share of their health care, and changing the way medicine is practiced, a driving notion behind the Affordable Care Act, including the controversial yet worthy Independent Payment Advisory Board. A most promising and more ambitious idea would link Medicare recipients with high-quality, lower-cost nonprofit health-care systems in regions across the country.What shouldn't be pursued is raising the eligibility age. It would save the federal government a limited amount of money. It would do so merely by shifting costs onto others, including states, employers and individual retirees. More, it would do little to slow the increase in overall health costs.One argument for the eligibility change is that the program should reflect rising life expectancy. That sounds logical and fair -- until experts note that for half of the population, mostly lower-income Americans, life expectancy largely has been unchanged during the past four decades.The Kaiser Family Foundation looked at the likely fallout from raising eligibility to age 67. The key element involves what would happen to those 65 and 66 years old. They would face higher out-of-pocket health costs, an average of $2,200 per year. That would leave many unable to afford health insurance and thus without coverage, the rest of us indirectly picking up the expense.Many would opt for Medicaid coverage, the health-care program for the poor and indigent elderly, adding to the cost for states, which cover roughly 40 percent of the bill. Those employers still offering health insurance to retirees would see fewer moving into Medicare. All Medicare beneficiaries would pay higher premiums, reflecting the absence of 65- and 66-year-olds, who represent the healthier part of the program's population.Any change to Medicare must take aim at the twin objectives of reducing the number of people without health insurance and curbing the overall expense of health care. The trouble with raising the eligibility age for the program is that the move falls short on both counts.

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