Carson tries to regain momentum with health care plan

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Ypsilanti — Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson proposed Wednesday gradually raising the Medicare eligibility age to 70 and giving each American a tax-free health savings account at birth to pay for life-long medical expenses.

The plan is aimed at repealing President Barack Obama’s health care law, reducing health costs, giving consumers more choices in their insurance coverage and ending “two-tier” medical care, Carson said.

The cornerstone of his plan is the creation of “Health Empowerment Accounts,” which would be paired with high-deductible major medical insurance plans to cover basic health care needs.

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In an interview with The Detroit News, Carson acknowledged his proposal would likely face pushback from the health insurance industry, which has enrolled millions of new customers under Obama’s law.

“The health insurance industry will still be involved with the catastrophic health care,” Carson said. “Most of them say that it costs them a lot of money to cover all the things that people want covered. They won’t have to worry about that anymore. We’ll find out whether it’s true or not.”

Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon and Detroit native, used a speech here at Eastern Michigan University to propose his alternative plan to “Obamacare” as his standing in the Republican candidate field has declined in recent weeks.

Health care policy is what propelled Carson into the national political spotlight in 2013 when he criticized Obama’s health care program at a National Prayer breakfast with the president sitting just a few feet away.

“The diagnosis is that the government has gotten involved and consequently the doctor-patient relationship just doesn’t exist the way it did before,” Carson said Wednesday during his speech to 400 supporters in the EMU convocation center.

To keep pace with Americans living longer, the plan for Medicare calls for increasing the current eligibility age of 65 by two months annually until it reaches70. Carson told The News that the increased Medicare age would only apply to individuals under age 50.

Carson’s age 70 Medicare eligibility rule would take 30 years to accomplish, meaning an American born in 1980 would have to wait an extra five years to become Medicare eligible.

“My plan allows Medicare beneficiaries themselves to choose the health insurance options that are best suited to their individual needs,” Carson wrote in a 10-page policy paper. “Instead of a rigid, restrictive menu of services from Washington, my plan will ensure a defined, fixed contribution to the private health plan of a Medicare enrollee’s choice.”

Carson also proposes a voucher-like system for Medicare, allowing recipients to purchase the level of insurance that they want.

Medicare recipients would get a “fixed contribution” to purchase private insurance. If the plan’s premiums are less than the “fixed contribution,” the difference would be deposited into their Health Empowerment Account, according to the proposal.

The proposed Medicare voucher system would be optional, allowing seniors to keep their existing coverage, Carson said.

“People get very nervous when you talk about changing Medicare because it’s become a way of life,” Carson said. “I don’t want to disturb their comfort level. I don’t want to give them a heart attack.”

Joy Clayman, 45, of Bronson, attended Carson’s town hall event and said raising the Medicare eligibility raise for people in her generation makes sense because Americans are living longer than ever.

“I think it would help everyone in the long run,” Clayman said.

Carson said his plan would give recipients of Medicaid health care for the poor access to the same physicians and medical facilities that individuals with private plans have.

Medicaid pays doctors a fraction of the rate of private insurance plans, creating what Carson calls a “two-tiered” system of access to medical care. Some doctors don’t take Medicaid patients.

The two-tiered system, Carson said, “is one of the things that bothers me a lot, having seen it obviously in my own life growing up but also having seen it as a practicing physician that this patient is worth more than this patient.”

“I think that leads to a lot of disparities that we see in medicine today,” he told The News.

Before the EMU speech, Carson toured the University of Michigan Medical School, where he earned his medical degree in 1977. He also held a $250-a-plate lunchtime fundraiser at the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Marriott hotel. Carson is headed to Chicago Thursday for a roundtable meeting with a group of pastors before holding an afternoon campaign rally in Fort Wayne, Ind.

The 64-year-old Carson is running fourth behind Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in an average of national polls, according to Real Clear Politics.

Carson said Wednesday a full economic analysis has not been conducted on his health care plan, but he predicted it would save between $2 trillion and $4 trillion over a decade.

“But the actual numbers are going to be very hard to come up with because a lot of people, other people, have to be involved in this,” Carson told reporters after the EMU speech. “You can’t, like a monarchy, just declare. You’re going to have to work with Congress. You’re going to have to work with a lot of people with a lot of different opinions.

“But the concept is what is important.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com

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Twitter.com/ChadLivengood