Former Vice President Joe Biden plans on radically changing America’s Medicare program by lowering the eligibility to 60 years old. Biden, who turns 78 this month, said that his reasoning for this is to aid Americans who retire early and those who are unemployed or can’t find jobs with health benefits. Due to this unforeseen public health crisis, the coronavirus, many seniors, in particular, are not only at high risk of infection but also are more likely to lose their jobs and be unable to get another one.
“It reflects the reality that, even after the current crisis ends, older Americans are likely to find it difficult to secure jobs,” said Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, the nation’s hospitals are another sector that has felt the financial blow from the pandemic and argues that it is for their best interest that Medicare’s eligibility remains the same (age 65). “Hospitals certainly are not going to be happy with it,” said Jonathan Oberlander, professor of health policy and management at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Medicare at 60
Biden’s plan to lower the Medicare eligibility age has become popular amongst Americans. Around 85 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans favor allowing those as young as 50 to buy into Medicare, according to a KFF tracking poll from January 2019.
Not only is Biden attempting to lower Medicare’s eligibility age, but he is also leading the Democratic Party in quite a few healthcare matters such as dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly rescuing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) if the Supreme Court strikes down part or all of the law in a current case, expanding Obamacare subsidies and lowering drug costs.
Medicare reimbursement rates for patients admitted to hospitals average half what commercial or employer-sponsored insurance plans pay.
Critics will point to the nation’s $3 trillion budget deficit as well as the grim outlook for the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund. The fund is predicted, much like Social Security, to reach insolvency in 2024. That means there will not be enough money to fully pay hospitals and nursing homes for inpatient care for Medicare beneficiaries.
“While the 60-to-65 group has the lowest uninsured rate (8 percent) among adults, it has the highest health costs and pays the highest rates for individual coverage,” said Cristina Boccuti, director of health policy at West Health, a nonpartisan research group.
About 13 million of those between 60 and 65 have coverage through their employer, according to the consulting firm Avalere Health. While they would not have to drop coverage to join Medicare, they could possibly opt to also pay to join the federal program and use it as a wraparound for their existing coverage. Medicare might then pick up costs for some services that the consumers would have to shoulder out-of-pocket.
Some 4 million people between 60 and 65 are enrolled in Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people. Shifting them to Medicare would make that their primary health insurer, a move that would save states money since they split Medicaid costs with the federal government.
What’s next for Medicare?
It remains unclear whether expanding Medicare will fit on Biden’s health agenda. In order to expand coverage, Biden has proposed two major initiatives. In addition to the Medicare eligibility change, he wants Congress to approve a government-run health plan that people could buy into instead of purchasing coverage from insurance companies on their own or through the Obamacare marketplaces. Insurers helped beat back this “public option” initiative in 2009 during the congressional debate over the ACA.
Lowering the age to 60 could add as many as 23 million people to Medicare, according to an analysis from Avalere. That is an incredible increase. It’s unclear, however, if everyone who would be eligible would sign up or if Biden would limit the expansion to the 1.7 million people in that age range who are uninsured and the 3.2 million who buy coverage on their own.