As Democrats and Republicans jockey for political position on the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations, I can’t help but wonder how many of our elected representatives truly care about moving the American economy and the federal budget forward in a sensible manner, and how many others are just measuring the political outcome of whatever deal is made vs. falling off the figurative fiscal cliff. From my vantage point, most members of Congress are simply calculating political outcomes rather than examining what is truly best for the vast majority of Americans going forward.
One example of how politics seems to override common sense is the debate over whether the age for Medicare eligibility should be raised. One thing I have learned in conducting effective systems change advocacy for over 27 years is that partisan rancor rarely gets resolved by creating sound policy. Building consensus amongst those who differ has a much better chance of creating sound fiscal and social policy. Indeed, I started my career doing elder advocacy, including writing a popular handbook, Your REAL Medicare Handbook.
As of the moment, some Republicans have suggested that one way to secure Medicare’s viability in the future is to raise the eligibility age to 67. Most Democrats have viewed such suggestions as an attack on the social contract of Medicare.
As a strict non-partisan working on effective Systems Change, I invite readers to look at the facts:
- When Medicare was established by the Social Security Amendments of 1965, men’s life expectancy was approximately 67 years and women’s life expectancy was approximately 73 years.
- Current estimated life expectancy for men is about 76 years for men, and 81 years for women.
- In 2011, the oldest baby boomers—Americans born between 1946 and 1964 started turn 65. Today, over 40 million people in the United States are ages 65 and older, but this number is projected to more than double to 89 million by 2050. Although the “oldest old”—those ages 85 and older—represent somewhat over 15 percent of the population ages 65 and older today, their numbers are projected to rise rapidly over the next 40 years. By 2050, the oldest old will number 19 million, over one-fifth of the total population ages 65 and older.
- By 2025, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that there will be almost 50 million persons over 65 and not in the labor force—about twice the number in 1995.
- The US Labor Force grew rapidly from the 1950s through the 1970s and has steadily declined since then. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not anticipate a rise in the US Labor force until the 2030s and then only returning to the levels of 2010.
So, even without discussing the problem of controlling health care inflation, it is clear that a shrinking workforce cannot continue to support the booming Medicare population through Medicare payroll taxes. It is worth noting that Congress resolved this problem for Social Security by slowly raising the retirement age. There simply is no sound reason not to duplicate this gradual rise in the Social Security retirement age, in the Medicare eligibility age. This will avoid any retirees suddenly having retirement and anticipated Medicare coverage change without reasonable time to plan. I suggest raising the age to 67 over 4 years (i.e., 6 months/year). Other time tables could certainly be adopted.
While this may appear to be a Republican idea, Democrats can brag that raising the Medicare eligibility age is made possible by Obamacare as those caught in the rising age group will have health insurance available to them under the Affordable Care Act. Moreover, it is worth noting that way back in 1999, the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare concurred with this recommendation, calling for linking the Social Security retirement age with the Medicare eligibility age. Sadly, politics has gotten in the way of sound policy ever since. It is time for brave politicians to figure out how to declare a win-win for the American people and stop playing win-lose politics with our future.