Forty-five years ago today, when the Medicare program was launched, only 51% of Americans 65 and older had health coverage and nearly 30% of seniors lived below the poverty line despite the fact that social security had been in existence for thirty years. Today, the situation is vastly improved, thanks to the overwhelming success of Medicare. Virtually all Americans aged 65 and over have health care coverage, only 7.5% of seniors live below the poverty line and life expectancy has risen significantly.
Despite the success and popularity of the program, Republicans have never liked Medicare. They spent 13 years blocking the passage of legislation to create it. When it was finally adopted in 1965, one representative stated: "We cannot stand idly by now, as the nation is urged to embark on an ill-conceived adventure in government medicine." Ever since then, it has served as a punching bag for Republicans determined to destroy it. When he was Speaker, Newt Gingrich boasted that Republicans "didn't get rid of [Medicare] in round one because we don't think that's politically smart...But we believe it's going to wither on the vine." Republicans in Congress are now pushing to end Medicare as we know it, reduce benefits and raise health care costs for seniors.
In April, House Republicans adopted a budget that would replace Medicare with a voucher system that would cover only a fraction of the cost of private insurance. Under this plan, seniors would face reduced benefits and crippling out-of-pocket increases. The Republican bill would:
• Increase health care costs for the typical senior by more than $6,000 per year.
• Require seniors by 2030 to pay 68% of their health care costs, with the voucher covering only 32%.
• Eliminate provisions of the Affordable Care Act that closed the Medicare prescription drug plan's donut hole - forcing seniors with high prescription drug costs to continue to pay out-of-pocket a significant portion of their costs.
• Make no guarantee that seniors would have the same level of benefits or choice of doctor that they currently enjoy under Medicare.
It is hard to understand why Republicans are rushing to force the oldest and most vulnerable among us to pay much higher costs for health care, but refuse to close tax loopholes that benefit Big Oil or corporate jet owners. And it is even harder to understand why Republicans would want to destroy a program that has substantially improved the quality of life of millions of seniors and people with disabilities. Republicans are seeking to place far too much of the burden on the backs of seniors, children and the disadvantaged. This is just not the way to resolve Medicare's problems.
Medicare has been amended numerous times over the last 45 years to strengthen the program and insure its solvency. Most recently, changes adopted under the Affordable Care Act extended the program's solvency for an additional eight years. And there is no reason that we cannot enact other changes to keep it solvent for many years to come.
Today as we celebrate the success of Medicare, we should pledge to take all steps necessary to preserve it. Rather than replace Medicare, as some Republicans urge, we should work together to make sure that Medicare will be there for future generations.