Column: Ending Medicare as we know it under GOP plan


Recent actions by Republicans in Congress painfully highlight that President Donald Trump’s pledge to not cut Medicare is becoming yet another broken promise to the American people.

Last week House Republicans passed in committee a budget proposal that would replace the guarantee of future Medicare benefits with a voucher, and that would cut Medicare funding by $487 billion over the next decade. This attack on benefits for senior citizens is particularly misguided in a budget designed to pave the way for enormous tax breaks for the wealthy and for large corporations.

Converting Medicare to a “premium support” system, as the Republican budget proposes, would replace the program’s guarantee of health coverage with a flat payment that beneficiaries would use to purchase coverage. In effect, it would turn Medicare into a voucher system that would erode the basic value of its benefits and leave seniors facing higher medical expenses.

Republicans claim that current seniors would be exempt from this change, but once the basic guarantee of Medicare is eliminated for some, it will be at immediate risk for all. Furthermore, a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation points out that premiums would likely rise for people on Medicare who are “grandfathered” if younger, lower-cost beneficiaries are enrolled in a new voucher program. An analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that a voucher plan could in fact raise premiums for those left in traditional Medicare by as much as 94 percent — almost doubling what they currently pay.

The harm that would be caused by the Republican voucher plan is not lost on the American people. A 2015 poll found that 70 percent of people support keeping Medicare as it is today, with only one-quarter supporting a shift to premium support. This opposition to replacing Medicare with a voucher was true for Democrats, Republicans and Independents. And yet Republicans in Congress have proven how out of sync they are with the American public by including such a Medicare voucher proposal in their budget plans for several years.

Our focus should be on supporting and strengthening Medicare, not undermining a program that 57 million Americans depend on — including nearly 2 million in Michigan. Toward this goal, I recently introduced legislation to improve Medicare coverage by adding comprehensive coverage for vision, dental and hearing services. There are proven links between systemic health problems and poor dental care, untreated hearing loss and deteriorating vision, particularly for older Americans.

My bill would, for the first time in the program’s history, expand Medicare to include these benefits and thereby improve the lives of seniors, as well as prevent other health problems. For example, vision loss is the third leading chronic condition among older adults and is closely associated with clinical depression, injuries due to falls, and loss of cognitive function. The focus of this bill, and what I hope Congress will focus more generally on, is helping people address their health care needs.

Regrettably, the Republican vision for health care consistently focuses on cutting assistance for the American people — whether it’s turning Medicare into a voucher, repealing the Affordable Care Act, or block granting Medicaid (which pays for over half of all long-term care services in America). All of these would mean higher premiums and more out-of-pocket expenses for senior citizens, for Americans with disabilities, and for families. No matter your ideology, that’s surely the wrong prescription for America.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, represents Michigan’s 9th district and is ranking member on the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee.