Democrats shifting single-payer focus to Medicare ‘buy-in’

Medicare
Momentum is building among House Democrats for a more moderate alternative to single-payer health-care legislation.

The legislation, which would allow people aged 50 to 65 to buy Medicare, is being championed by Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), who supported House Minority Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Speaker in exchange for a commitment to work on his bill when Democrats take control of the House early next year.

“We agreed in principle to get this done,” Higgins said.

Higgins said he wasn’t promised a vote on the legislation, just a commitment that he will be the point person of the effort to shepherd it through the legislative process.

“It’s got to be scored, go through committee. It’s got to do a lot of things,” Higgins said. “We fell short of a vote in committee [with Republicans in control]. So now that changes.”

Under Higgins’s plan, anyone aged 50 to 64 who buys insurance through the health-care exchanges would be eligible to buy in to Medicare.

It would also apply to people with employer-sponsored insurance and allow employers to pay Medicare premiums on their behalf — a feature that could expand the number of older working individuals who select the buy-in option.

Hillary Clinton offered a similar proposal when she ran for president in 2016. Former President Bill Clinton also proposed expanding Medicare in 1998 by allowing certain workers between the ages of 55 and 65 to buy Medicare. Those workers had to either lack insurance or be retired or laid-off.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the likely chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee next year, said he thinks a Medicare buy-in should be on the agenda next year.

“We certainly would consider a Medicare buy-in,” Pallone told The Hill. “I think we’ve got to wait and see what the caucus wants to do and what the committee wants to do, but I’ll just say it’s certainly something we should consider.”

“Medicare for all” supporters are energized after sweeping Democratic victories in the midterm elections, however, and see the Medicare buy-in bill as too small a step.

“We are dead set against any buy-in or public option,” said Kenneth Zinn, political director of National Nurses United. “Our goal as RNs is to ensure a universal system of guaranteed health care for everyone and this does not accomplish that. I would urge Congress to reject it.”

Zinn said private insurance shouldn’t have any role in health coverage moving forward. A single-payer plan covers everyone, regardless of income, and eliminates copays, deductibles and premiums. It also eliminates private insurance.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who is co-chair of the Medicare for All Caucus in the House, told The Hill said she has spoken with Higgins and expressed her concerns about his bill.

“We have to be careful not to perpetuate the system we have,” Jayapal said.  “I would prefer to have a reduction of the age of Medicare so that more people could qualify but not a buy-in, because that continues the problems that we have right now.”

Jayapal added that lowering the eligibility age “would be an appropriate way to go where we’re taking a step forward towards a system that will ultimately cover everybody.”

Still, she said with Democrats in control of the House, there will be more of an “exchange of ideas” than there has been previously.

Higgins said a Medicare buy-in is quicker and cheaper to implement than single-payer. It can also be a bridge to Medicare for all, he said.

“I support the exploration of Medicare for all, but you have to be well balanced and practical about this. Establishing a brand-new health insurance program is going to take time,” Higgins said.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said he supports giving everyone the option to buy in to Medicare, but thinks the legislation from Higgins can be the “new floor” in the debate.

“It’s ironic that it took a conservative Democrat to jumpstart the momentum for Medicare buy-in but now that it’s there, there will be a huge push for Medicare option for all,” Green said.

“It’s jumpstarting the concept of a buy-in in 2019 and will lead to momentum of a buy-in for every family and small business.”

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