Nov 3, 2022 - Health

GOP floats Medicare changes while ducking details

Illustration of an elephant's feet climbing stacks of pennies

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Some House Republicans aren't waiting for the election to think about overhauling Medicare. But it's hard to tell if there are specifics behind the talking point.

Why it matters: Past GOP attempts to cut Medicare landed with a thud, and Democrats in recent weeks have been hammering on the message that Republicans are intent on gutting the program.

  • The critical moment could be next year's talks on the debt ceiling, if Republicans flip one or both houses of Congress.

What they're saying: "If we're going raise the debt ceiling, we can't just raise it without focusing on some way to address the debt and the deficit," Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), a member of the House GOP's health care task force, told Axios, adding Medicare should be made "sustainable over time."

  • "We're going to have a lot of hearings on this," Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), the current top Republican on the Budget Committee who wants to move up to chairman of Ways and Means, told Axios. "I'm not going to get into the inner details."
  • "Everything is on the table, we haven't really nailed down any specific policies one way or the other," Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), who is running to chair the House Budget panel. "I think it could be wrapped up with that [debt ceiling talks], that’s shaping up to be pretty dynamic."

Yes, but: Not all Republicans are eager to kick off their time in the majority with another grinding health care fight against a Democratic president. Health policy experts are also skeptical of how realistic Medicare reform may be, recalling failed GOP agendas from the pre-Trump years.

  • Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier this year rebuked a plan from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would sunset all federal legislation every five years — including entitlement programs. McConnell told reporters a plan that "sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years ... will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda."
  • House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) raised eyebrows when he told Punchbowl News last month that he wouldn't "predetermine" if Medicare and Social Security would be involved in talks on raising the debt ceiling. McCarthy later tried to clarify in a CNBC interview that "I never mentioned Social Security or Medicare."
  • Joseph Antos, a senior fellow and health care scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, puts the odds of Medicare reform as "pretty unlikely," adding, "I don't see any major changes happening over the next two years, and I think Republicans might wait to see what Medicare policies the Republican presidential candidate will push."

The big picture: While a GOP Medicare push is not certain, Democrats are seizing on the possibility.

  • "They're coming after your Social Security and Medicare in a big way," President Biden said Tuesday in a speech in Florida, saying Republicans would create "chaos" by risking government default over demands to raise the debt limit next year.

Between the lines: Republicans are not being specific about the changes they would push. But there's a limited universe of possibilities.

  • The proposed budget of the Republican Study Committee, an influential group of House Republicans, includes proposals like raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 to align with Social Security, and converting Medicare to a "premium support" system where seniors received a subsidy they could use on private plans competing against traditional Medicare.
  • Tricia Neuman, a Medicare expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said such a policy would have "uneven" results, where "some could save money but others might have to pay a whole lot more."
  • Other GOP-backed Medicare changes are less partisan, like "site neutral" reforms to pay hospital outpatient departments the same rates as doctors' offices, though hospitals oppose those measures.
  • The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, recently issued a fiscal blueprint to reduce the budget deficit, which included reforms such as changing Medicare provider payments, benefit design and payroll taxes, but included nothing about changing eligibility requirements.

The bottom line: Republicans point to the Medicare trust fund's projected insolvency date in 2028 to argue change is needed to make the program sustainable. But any change is hard, and cuts that hit beneficiaries are not the only way to seek savings.

  • "McCarthy won't shoot down talk of addressing debt because it matters to him and his caucus, and you can't do debt without entitlement reform, but he knows at this point there's no interest from Democrats, and any entitlement reform will require serious political capital from Ds and Rs," said a former GOP leadership aide. "The last time those conversations happened in a meaningful way was in 2011."

Caitlin Owens contributed to this report.

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