Challenging Newt’s Medicare Walkback

Choice is the least of Medicare's problems

Poor Newt Gingrich! What a beating he’s taken since he said on Meet the Press Sunday that Paul Ryan’s scheme to privatize Medicare was “too big a jump” for Americans, just like Obama’s health care law is. The former House speaker compared Ryan’s proposal to Obamacare, which he said he opposed because it imposed radical change, and he “would be against a conservative imposing radical change.”

“I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” he said. “I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors.”

A thunderstorm struck! Republicans were furious—their scorn tainting Newt as damaged goods for a presidential run. So what did Newt do? Instead of sticking to his belief that maybe sending future Medicare beneficiaries into the private market to buy health insurance wasn’t such a hot idea, he apologized to Ryan for making such out-of-bounds remarks.

It’s worth digressing here for a moment. Obama’s health law does much the same thing as Ryan’s plan. At its core, the law sends millions of uninsured folks into the private insurance market to buy coverage. The health reform law gives them government subsidies to buy insurance; Ryan’s plan gives seniors government vouchers to buy similar insurance. What’s the difference? Ryan’s plan could destroy Medicare as a social insurance program. Obama’s law was never social insurance to begin with.

The real problem with Gingrich’s remarks, though, was his call for more Medicare choices. Was Meet the Press interrogator David Gregory clueless about how Medicare currently works and all the engineering that Congress did a few years ago to give seniors more choices? Were the rest of the media that passed along that remark equally clueless? Medicare offers consumers so many choices now; most have no idea how to make them. This is something I have personal experience with. Having just signed up for Medicare, I needed to wade through ninety-six different private market options for covering the gaps in Medicare’s benefits. Oh, actually, it’s ninety-seven when I consider my retiree plan from a former employer. How many choices are enough? One hundred twenty-five? Two hundred? Two hundred twenty-five?

Good question to ask Gingrich the next time.

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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: , , , , ,