May 18, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus economy could make a Medicare buy-in more popular

Illustration of the United States with a bandaid with a dollar bill overlay on it
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic could help create a much stronger push to let some older Americans buy into Medicare.

By the numbers: 2.4 million adults between the ages of 55 and 64 lost their jobs just since March, bringing the unemployment rate in this group to 12.5% — up from 3.4% in March.

Between the lines: Many of these people will struggle to find affordable coverage, and a slow recovery will leave many without job-based health coverage for a long time.

  • Medicaid will cover many of the newly uninsured, though not in states that haven’t expanded the program. The Affordable Care Act will help many others maintain coverage, but those plans often come with high deductibles. COBRA is available to people who lost jobs that offered insurance, but it’s often prohibitively expensive.

Millions of uninsured 55-65 year-olds could add new urgency to calls for a Medicare buy-in if Democrats control the White House and Congress in 2021.

  • Narrower options consistently poll better than more sweeping expansions of public coverage, and older adults are a politically powerful group.

Where it stands: The leading Medicare buy-in plan in Congress would allow people who are older than 50 to purchase Medicare coverage, with a subsidy for low-income enrollees similar to the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden has proposed a different twist: He would simply lower Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 60, without a buy-in.

Yes, but: All the old fault lines would still be at play if such an effort got serious consideration.

  • Some Democrats prefer Medicare for All. Republicans and hospitals have typically opposed all Medicare expansions.

The bottom line: The more dire the economic and health insurance circumstances of 55-64 year olds turns out to be, the greater the urgency for an early -in to Medicare is likely to become.

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