House Budget Committee Plan Calls for Privatization of Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 23, 2017

Over four months ago President Trump released his draconian FY 2018 Budget, now Congress begins to hammer out its budgetary spending plan. Last Wednesday, the House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), sent the Republican drafted budget plan to the House floor for consideration. After a 12-hour markup held in Room 1334 Longworth HOB, the budgetary blueprint passed by a vote of 22 to 14, along party line. Rep. Black’s GOP controlled panel defeated 28 amendments offered by Democrats.

Once the House and Senate pass their budget resolutions, the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees “markup” appropriations bills. The House and Senate vote on appropriations bills and reconcile differences.

Rep. Black says that the GOP FY 2018 Budget Resolution, “Building a Better America,” passed on July 19, will balance the federal budget within 10 years by cutting spending, reforming government and growing the economy. According to the House Budget chair, the recently released budget achieves $ 6.5 trillion in total reduction over 10 years. It sets overall discretionary spending for the fiscal budget at $1.132 trillion ($621.5 billion in defense discretionary spending and $511 billion in non-defense discretionary spending).

The House budget plan is the first step that Republicans must take to begin their efforts to overhaul the nation’s tax code to grow the economy. It also provides increased funding for defense and the building of Trump’s border wall. It also requires food stamp recipients to work for their benefits.

Although the Social Security program is spared, it bars recipients from receiving Social Security Disability Income recipients from also receiving unemployment benefits. But, most worrisome to aging group advocates, the passed House Budget Committee budget makes major cuts to Medicaid, turning the Medicare program into a voucher program. But, Medicare is targeted for major changes.

In the Eyes of the Political Beholder

Upon passage, the House Budget Chair, Rep. Black, said in a statement, “I am proud of the work done by the members of the committee. We’ve spent months reviewing all aspects of the federal government and have put together a plan that will balance the budget, promote economic growth, strengthen our national defense, and make Washington more accountable to taxpayers. Our budget also takes the crucial first step in the reconciliation process to fix our broken tax code and make long overdue mandatory spending cuts and reforms.”

But, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, in a statement expressed a vastly different opinion as to the impact of the panel’s passed budget resolution. “Republicans on the House Budget Committee just approved a budget that the American people do not want and do not deserve from their government. Their budget adopts the worst extremes of the Trump proposal by cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires at the expense of everyone else. It cuts at least $1.5 trillion from Medicare and Medicaid, and puts at risk investments in nearly every national priority, from education and veteran services, to transportation, environmental protections, and medical research. Democrats believe we should be investing in the American people, our economy, and greater opportunity for all, and we will continue to fight against this irresponsible budget when—or if—it is brought to the House floor,” he said.

House Budget Plan Calls for Substantial Changes to Medicare

Medicare takes a huge hit, $ 487 billion over a ten-year period, in the House Budget Committee’s passed FY 2018 Budget, says Paul N. Van De Water, in a blog post on the website of Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The Senior Fellow serving as CBPP’s Director, Policy Futures, says that the budget plan’s changes to Medicare include higher income-related premiums for those making $85,000 and over (twice the amount for couples), limits on malpractice awards, raising Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 67, also increasing cost sharing of beneficiaries.

In his posting, Van De Water details the substantial changes made to Medicare, one of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, in the House Budget Committee’s passed budget. He notes, it would “replace Medicare’s guarantee of health coverage with a flat premium support payment or voucher, [starting in 2024] that beneficiaries would use to help buy either private health insurance or a form of traditional Medicare.” Although there are no details in the House Budget Committee’s plan to determine its impact on beneficiaries, he says that most people enrolled in traditional Medicare would pay more with the new changes than under the current law, according to a previous Congressional Budget Office analysis.

NCPSSM Sounds the Alarm About Privatization of Medicare

As the House Budget Committee began its markup of the FY 2018 budget, Max Richtman, President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warned in a statement that the GOP-controlled panel “is targeting the health and financial well-being of America’s seniors by making another attempt to privatize Medicare.”

“Recent polling indicates that large majorities of Americans across party lines prefer that Medicare be kept the way it is, not to mention that President Trump repeatedly promised to protect the program during the 2016 campaign,” says Richtman.

Richtman says that converting Medicare into a voucher program is an existential threat to the program itself. “Over time, giving seniors vouchers to purchase health insurance would dramatically increase their out of pocket costs since the fixed amount of the voucher is unlikely to keep up with the rising costs of health care,” he says. “And, as healthier seniors choose less costly private plans, sicker and poorer seniors would remain in traditional Medicare, leading to untenable costs, diminished coverage, and an eventual demise of traditional Medicare, plain and simple. Of course, raising the eligibility age to 67 – as the House spending plan also proposes – is a drastic benefit cut.”

Undermining Medicare has been a long-held dream of fiscal conservatives. Their “premium support” proposal is a thinly veiled scheme to allow traditional Medicare to “wither on the vine,” as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once put it,” adds Richtman.

Privatization is being sold as “improving customer choice,” but based on the way current Medicare Advantage plans work, private insurance will continue to offer fewer choices of doctors than traditional Medicare does. If traditional Medicare is allowed to shrink and collapse, true choice will disappear, too, says Richtman.

Stay tuned….

Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Defining Brendan Doherty: Romney Republican or Moderate

 Published September 28, 2012, Pawtucket Times

            With the upcoming November election just six weeks away, Republican Candidate Brendan Doherty held a news conference last Tuesday at Memorial, attempting to distance himself from House GOP leadership and from Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s anointed Presidential candidate.

Surrounded by a backdrop of the 294 bed CommunityHospital in Pawtucket’s East Riverview Neighborhood, Doherty, the GOP challenger to Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, came before seniors and supporters to do political damage control, with an agenda to set the public record straight about his positions on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Keeping Social Security, Medicare off the Chopping Block

Charging that Cicilline was misleading to voters on his positions on the nation’s most popular domestic programs, the Republican Candidate pledged his opposition to “privatization” of the nation’s Social Security Program, calling for Congress to keep the Social Security and Medicare programs off the budgetary chopping block.  The former state police superintendent, looking to become Rhode Island’s newest Congressman for the First Congressional District, also supported increased benefits for seniors already enrolled in the Social Security Program.

At the morning news conference, Doherty warned that he has no “secret plan” to cut Social Security and Medicare, as Cicilline charges.  He chastised the Freshman Congressman and his Democratic political operatives for using scare tactics and misleading political rhetoric to fuel a misinformation campaign to link him to Republican Presidential Candidate, Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan’s support for a Medicare voucher program.  Doherty stated that a voucher system would shift healthier Americans to private insurance plans and leave the sickest and frailest American’s in a weakened version of traditional Medicare.

Putting the Spot Light on Fraud and Waste

Doherty, calling himself an “independent thinker” a “centrist” who pledged to reach across the aisle to House Democrats, to pass legislation that would root out fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid.  He noted that a new RAND Corporation study showed that fraud and waste in these two programs may be as high as $98 billion.

“While Congressman Cicilline often speaks of his commitment to protect Medicare from any possibility of budget cuts, he failed to take this common sense action to address the fraud, waste and abuse that accounts for at least $48 billion being diverted every year from the Medicare program and taken away from our seniors who depend on the Medicare program,” commented Doherty.

Doherty, however, looks to push for the Medicare and Medicaid Fighting Fraud and Abuse to Save Taxpayers’ Dollars Act or the Medicare Fast Act (H.R. 3399), as types of legislative proposals he could support if he were elected to Congress.

Cicilline did not mince his words after Doherty’s news conference by continuing to tie his Republican challenger to the Radical Republicans who control the House.  He charged that “My Republican opponent supports raising the retirement age for Social Security and if he got to Congress, would vote to keep the Republicans in control of the House where they would continue to push an extreme agenda that would end the guarantee of Medicare and turn it into a voucher system.”

According to the Democratic Congressman, the Preserving Our Promise to Seniors Act, whish he is a cosponsor, is the best way to extend the life of Social Security Program along with improving the Cost of Living Adjustment formula to give beneficiaries an adjustment based on the cost of goods and services that they regularly purchased.  The Democratic Congressman also opposed the raising the Social Security eligibility age or any effort to privatize the system, these changes supported by many GOP lawmakers.

Responding to the news conference, the Rhode Island Democratic Party issued a release calling Doherty’s pledge to preserve Social Security and Medicare “an empty one,” given the Republican House Leaderships efforts to slash funding for these programs for years.

Countering Doherty’s attempt to label himself a moderate, Bill Fischer, spokesperson for the RI Democratic Party called Cicilline’s Republican opponent a “Romney Republican who has clearly stated he would repeal the Affordable Care Act; raise the eligibility age on Social Security; and will vote for Republican control in Congress.”

“If Doherty were serious about protecting seniors, he wouldn’t be calling for the repeal of our historic healthcare reform,” Fischer said. “Maybe he doesn’t understand the enormous benefits Rhode Island seniors have already received since its passage. Thanks to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, 128,390 people on Medicare in Rhode Island have access to preventative health care services, such as colonoscopies and mammograms.

In Rhode Island’s First Congressional District alone, 7,300 seniors have saved over $4 million on prescription drugs because the Affordable Care Act closed the donut hole.”

TV Spot Ties Doherty to Radical Republicans

             With Doherty’s effort to distance himself from the Washington Republican agenda, Cicilline’s campaign released a new television spot, entitled “Fantastic,” to more firmly politically tie his Republican challenger to the Romney-Ryan agenda in Washington.

“At the end of the day, Brendan Doherty wants Republicans in control of Congress and Mitt Romney setting the agenda in the White House. In fact, he thinks Romney would “be fantastic for Rhode Island,’” said Cicilline campaign manager Eric Hyers, detailing the spot..

“Rhode Islanders will have a clear choice this November between re-electing President Obama and Congressman Cicilline so we can get our state back on the right track, or voting for Mitt Romney, Brendan Doherty, and the Washington Republicans who got us into this mess to begin with.”

In the 30 second spot, Doherty emphasizes his support for Romney at a March 3, 2012 candidate forum, saying, “I think he’d be fantastic for Rhode Island.”

In January 2012, Doherty formally endorsed Romney for President, describing him as a “proven leader.”  In the same month, Doherty traveled to New Hampshire to campaign for Romney and was later introduced to the Republican presidential nominee by former Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri.

The political spot also outlines areas where Romney and Doherty agree on policy – including their support for repealing President Obama’s historic health care reform law, as well as their mutual opposition to reproductive freedoms for women and the Buffett Rule that would require millionaires to pay at least the same tax rate as the middle class.

As the Dust Settles…

Here are questions that voters in Congressional District 1 must ask themselves before they enter the polls in the November election:

Can Doherty successfully repackage himself as a moderate Republican?  If so, with a Republican-controlled House, captured by a radical Tea Party who philosophically opposes political compromise, as a moderate Republican will he vote for  Democratic initiatives that the majority of his Democratic constituents support.  Or can he stand the “heat in the kitchen” and vote against his House Republican leadership.

Can the voters forgive the former Providence Mayor, now their Congressman, for his statements made about the fiscal health of his City as he left office?  If so, they must determine if it is more important to keep this seat Democratic, in hopes of bringing the political party back to power in that Chamber.

With the November election looming, the Cicilline-Doherty political battle, truly becomes the classic “He said, She said,” debate, with the voters ultimately finding out the truth in the New Congress.

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.