Top Democrats, up to and including President Obama, have for years entertained the idea of slowly raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as part of a broader bipartisan deficit reduction package.
But a lot has changed since the summer of 2011, when a weakened Obama nearly traded that regressive measure (and a whole lot more) for only modest new tax revenues in debt limit negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). And though Republicans are still gunning to increase the Medicare age, high-ranking Democrats are telling them to look elsewhere. At least for now.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) took to the Senate floor Wednesday morning to close the door on raising the Medicare eligibility age anytime soon. “The notion about extending the eligibility age for Medicare is one we ought to think about long and hard,” Durbin said.
During his floor speech, Durbin staked out the position that Congress shouldn’t seriously consider raising Medicare eligibility until its clear that the Affordable Care Act is operating well, so that seniors between 65 and 67 can fall back into a different (though less generous) public system.
“To think that a person would retire at the age of 64 or 65 and not have Medicare coverage until 67 raises the obvious question: These people in their mid-60s, probably with a health history, will find it difficult to buy health insurance on the open market or afford whatever is available,” Durbin said. “I want to make sure there are no gaps in coverage for those who need it the most: retired Americans who have a health history and can’t find affordable health insurance. So … let us make certain that there are insurance exchanges, good competition, and affordable health care available for those seniors.”
Durbin has participated in a number of bipartisan budget negotiations, and in the Senate serves as an ambassador of sorts to progressive members who will be reluctant to support any legislation that cuts safety net benefits.
Outgoing Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), who participated in many of those negotiations with Durbin, had a similar take in an interview with the Washington Post.
“Given that we now have exchanges to purchase insurance because of the president’s health-care reform law, it makes it much more acceptable, much more reasonable, over a long period of time to gradually increase the age,” he said.
Plenty of more progressive rank and file Democrats oppose benefit cuts like these altogether — even if they provide a path toward detente with the GOP over the ACA. They note, correctly, that raising the eligibility age provides only minor savings to the federal government, and not by cutting health care costs but by shifting more health care costs on to seniors. Still, there’s support for the idea in principle elsewhere in the caucus — just not quite yet.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.