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.
Before too many days go by, we want to give a shout-out to Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, who covers health policy for the AP. As House Republicans were learning that the plan to privatize Medicare crafted by Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan was none too popular among their constituents, Zaldivar asked the right question: Why were seniors so upset? After all, Republican politicos kept repeating that their plan, which would transform Medicare from social insurance into a voucher arrangement, would not affect anyone over age fifty-five. “When I explain that people over 55 are not affected, there is almost a sigh of relief,” Pennsylvania congressman Lou Barletta told The New York Times. Ryan told Zaldivar the same thing: “Seniors, as soon as they realize this doesn’t affect them, they are not so opposed.”
By framing the question differently and moving beyond the obvious political story—that Republicans encountered protestors at local town halls—Zaldivar tapped into real concern among Medicare beneficiaries. He talked to seventy-two-year-old Walter Dotson, a life-long Democrat, who remembered “the days when we had poor farms and elderly people on welfare, before we had Social Security and Medicare for seniors, and I’m afraid it will lead right back to that situation.” Dotson owned a machine shop in rural Virginia before he retired. He is raising a grandson and added: “I’d certainly hate to see him without the benefits that I’ve got.”
Zaldivar also reported what sixty-eight-year old Sharon Bergeson had to say. Bergeson, a Republican from Colorado, wasn’t too keen on privatization either:
What worries me is if something not as good as what I have was to come along for my children or grandchildren. I don’t want to put the future generation into a situation changing their program when it’s something that’s working for me at this time.
Zaldivar reported that some seniors might also be worried about what would happen to them. What’s to stop Congress from making changes down the road that could affect them, too? On his blog GoozNews, Merrill Goozner points out a potential concern, noting that if Ryan’s plan were operative in 2023, about sixteen million seniors will be in the new voucher plan, receiving lower benefits and paying more out of pocket. Meanwhile, millions will still be in the traditional plan. They will be older and sicker, using most of Medicare’s funds.
Goozner argues that young people in the new plan will come to resent the seniors stuck in the old version of Medicare, which will be more financially attractive. But that’s not all. Without a good mix of younger healthier people coming into Medicare’s risk pool, those remaining could find themselves in an insurance death spiral paying more and more for their care. Ironically, that’s the kind of thing health reform is supposed to prevent.
Zaldivar added a political dimension to his story, turning to Harvard pollster Robert Blendon for interpretation. Blendon said that in last year’s election nearly three out of five people over age sixty voted Republican, fearing the cuts to Medicare the Dems had made in order to help pay for subsidies for the uninsured. As Blendon has often told me, elections do matter. All this uproar, said Blendon, is a way for Democrats to reclaim the health care issue. Only time will tell if that will happen, but at least the AP, where millions of Americans still get their news, has begun to hear—and report—what they have to say.