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Senate Dems May Open Up Medicare To Pacify Progressives

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Senate Democrats are discussing the idea of expanding Medicare by lowering the age limit for the government-run insurance program, Democratic sources on the Hill tell the Huffington Post.

The proposal would lower the age of eligibility for Medicare by ten years. Those over 55 and under 65 (the current eligibility age) would be allowed to "buy-in" to the system. They would have to pay a premium for the coverage, which would alleviate the cost burden on the federal government, but would then receive the same benefits as other Medicare patients.

Crucial details -- such as what that premium would be and the timing of the implementation -- were not provided due to the sensitivity and ongoing nature of the deliberations. A high-ranking Democratic source off the Hill confirmed that such discussions are taking place.

"On its own, it's a good idea," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Monday afternoon. He added that Democrats are also looking at expanding Medicaid. "We're looking at both ends," he said.

A Medicare buy-in program, one of several compromises being considered, would not be a full replacement for a government-run insurance plan open to people of all ages, a high-ranking Democrat stressed. But it would serve as a complement to an option that has been watered down beyond what progressive senators are willing to accept.

Senate Democrats also held discussions this past weekend about replacing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's version of a public plan with one that would be non-profit-based. The alternative proposal would be offered in state exchanges, run by private insurers but monitored by the Office of Personnel Management.

"The Office Personal Management proposal that has been out there for the past couple days is one of the leading ideas to represent the public option in a modified bill. But there are a series of things that progressives are negotiating in exchange for dropping the [public option] opt-out," said the source.

Expanding Medicare would likely be a tempting olive branch to progressives in the Senate. Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, in addition to championing such a proposal during the 2004 presidential campaign, has long discussed framing the public plan as an extension of Medicare, one of the most popular government-run programs in the country. Al Gore ran on a similar platform in 2000. And, if structured correctly, a Medicare buy-in program could cover more people (at a similar cost) than the public option in either the Senate or House of Representative's legislation.

But there are potential complications. Medicare already is on an increasingly expensive financial track. Meanwhile, efforts to cut some of the budgetary waste from the system have met with forceful pushback from moderates and Republicans in the Senate, and the Senate bill weakens a proposed Medicare Commission, which would have been granted autonomy to suggest or pursue money-saving proposals.

"Moderates have made a whole campaign about how Medicare bankrupts hospitals and doctors," said one Democratic health care strategist. "So I doubt they'd go for it. And for progressives, well, it's not much of an olive branch" - because, the strategist said, it doesn't solve the problem of reforming the private insurance industry.

With Contributing Reporting By Ryan Grim

UPDATE: This piece was updated from its original version to include additional reporting.

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