A Missing Medicare Link from The New York Times

Covering Medicare, Part II

Perhaps no other health issue is as important to so many Americans now and in the future as Medicare. In this new series, “Covering Medicare,” we will follow the reportage and offer Medicare beat memos from time to time.

Medicare was big news on the political circuit yesterday, with Florida congressman Allen B. West getting, shall we say, pushback from local town hall attendees who are not keen on the Medicare cuts his party has proposed. The ruckus made page one of The New York Times. People in other parts of the country aren’t too pleased, either, as Republican members of Congress are finding in their chats with constituents. In New Hampshire last week, Republican congressman Charles Bass heard loud and clear that some folks in his district don’t like what the GOP is up to. The Los Angeles Times reported that a group of gray-haired constituents, mostly Democrats, “quickly pushed him (Bass) back on his heels. He struggled to defend the GOP plan vigorously, once mischaracterizing a key element.” In our own CJR Town Hall in Philadelphia, we found no support for Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposal, which would privatize Medicare and turn it into a voucher program.

To review, Ryan’s plan will transform Medicare from a social insurance program into a privatized system, making it more like private insurance coverage for people under age 65. If the amount of the voucher is insufficient to buy policies in the private market, Medicare beneficiaries will have to dig into their pockets to come up with the rest of the money to pay the premiums. For some, that will mean digging very deep, if the voucher does not keep pace with increases in the cost of health care. Seniors currently on Medicare are already paying large out-of-pocket amounts for health care, a point older people know well but perhaps not recognized by the pols and others.

And here’s where the New York Times story went astray, omitting a crucial point made by no less a neutral arbiter than the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO estimates that twenty years from now a typical sixty-five year-old would have to pay 68 percent of the total cost of his or her health coverage (premiums, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs), compared to about 39 percent today. The CBO said that those out-of-pocket costs—on average now $6150 a year—would more than double in 2022, to $12,513. The Times is not alone in leaving out the CBO numbers. A few weeks ago, Campaign Desk reported that a NewsHour segment did, too.

The Times story was as “garden variety, political, he said/she said” as you can get. Here’s a taste:

Under the Republican proposal, Medicare would be converted into a program that would subsidize health coverage for retirees rather than provide coverage directly, a change that many Democrats say would risk leaving the elderly with inadequate health care as costs rise over the long run.

Why are people angry? We don’t know if the reporters asked that question. But certainly their story didn’t provide much of an answer. People currently on Medicare, and those who will be there someday in the near future, know in their guts that the program is super important to their survival, and fear any changes—especially if Social Security benefits are reduced. They know that will mean less money to pay for the increased costs of health care.

Republican pols—and the Times, by virtue of the framing it chose—seemed to dismiss those fears. The Times ends with a quote from Republican congressman Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania who said his “town halls are being disrupted by Democrats. When I explain that people over 55 are not affected, there is almost a sigh of relief.” But many under fifty-five do worry, and that brings up The New York Times again. When Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, Max Frankel, who was a then a Times Washington correspondent, approached LBJ and told the president: “My mother thanks you.”

“No,” Johnson replied. “It’s you who should be thanking me.” LBJ knew what Medicare would mean to future generations. That is the missing link.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , , ,