Senate Democrats: Raising Medicare Eligibility Age Is ‘Absolutely Unacceptable’

Sen. Jeff Merkley (R-OR)

Raising the age at which Americans qualify for Medicare from 65 to 67 has gained more and more prominence as one option to cut spending in a fiscal cliff deal. Although top Democratic leaders have ruled out the notion, the White House itself has not.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) informed the Washington Post’s Greg Sergeant that he and other liberal Senators roundly condemned the idea at a recent private caucus among Senate Democrats. “The overwhelming sense was that this would be absolutely unacceptable,” he told The Post, adding that he “can’t imagine” President Obama is seriously considering the policy.

According to Merkley, Congress should actually consider lowering the eligibility age for the program:

“I do a lot of town halls,” Merkley said. “I can’t tell you how many times someone will come up to me and say, ‘Here’s the thing. I’m 61, and I have these major health problems. I don’t have insurance. I’m praying I make it to 65.’ The idea that we’re going to take all these folks with diseases setting in as they get older, and move them two years later? Absolutely unacceptable.”

“We should be lowering the age, not raising it,” Merkley said. Speaking of the president, Merkley added: “I hope he hears long and loud from us who are connected to the real lives of working people.”

Just as Merkley points out, increasing Medicare’s eligibility age by two years would come with a human cost. In states that don’t participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, over 160,000 seniors would be left out in the cold — too rich to qualify for their state’s Medicaid program, but too poor to purchase decent coverage on their own. And as the oldest Americans looking for coverage outside of Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare, those seniors would face particularly high premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Altogether, about 435,000 seniors would be at risk of having no insurance coverage whatsoever in 2021 if the eligibility age went up.

Making seniors wait longer to qualify for Medicare would also force many to stay longer in their jobs in order to keep their employer-based health insurance. But lower-income seniors’ jobs are more likely to be unpleasant and physically damaging — and they’re also the same seniors least likely to have benefited from the gains in life expectancy that have accrued mainly to the more well-off.

The policy would also increase costs throughout the rest of the health care system. Since the seniors who are no longer eligible would be shifted into other coverage pools — where they would be older and sicker in comparison to other enrollees — the Center for American Progress estimated that Americans would actually wind up spending $2 in the health care system as a whole for every $1 that raising the eligibility age would save in federal spending.