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Not infrequently, I run across young workers, on their blogs, complaining about the 1.45 percent payroll deduction for Medicare. The complaints generally run to something like, “Why should I have to pay for those old farts’ healthcare.”
With global resources shrinking and the beginning of a recession that probably won’t end any time soon, there is already the prospect of a generational divide. Now, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, who oversees Medicare, is fanning the flames.
“’I suspect that’s one of the things that worries me most about the Medicare situation, which is that it is destined to divide our nation along generational lines. Right now, there are four earners for every Medicare beneficiary. I think it’s 2028 when there are only two,’ he said…
“And I’ve had this conversation with my sons, and of course at their age, they say, ‘Well, we ought to reduce the benefits. They don’t need unlimited care. They ought to be sharing part of the burden,’ he continued.
“But if you are 65, what you say is, ‘Well, look, I paid for it. I did my time, now they need to do theirs.’ So you’ve got this generational conflict happening,’ he continued.
- The Washington Times, 25 April 2008
Before I get to what I came here to say today, I want to point out the head of HHS, who is responsible for the government’s role in the health of all Americans, correctly states that Medicare faces huge fiscal problems. But he then signals that the Medicare deduction is unfair to young people. Nowhere in the report of this interview with the secretary is there a mention that he might have an idea about a solution to the looming Medicare deficit. We can only assume he doesn’t have one.
In response to Secretary Leavitt’s points:
Elders Sharing the Cost
Medicare was established in 1965, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency to provide older Americans with comprehensive healthcare at a reasonable cost, something that previously had not existed, leading to what was generally agreed to be a healthcare crisis among older Americans.
That first year, the premium for Part B (outpatient medical care), which beneficiaries pay, was set at $3.00 per month. In 2000, it was $45.40. This year, it is $96.40. In addition, most elders purchase supplemental policies to help cover the gaps in Medicare. And many also buy prescription drug coverage – Part D. Premiums for Parts B and Part D vary wildly depending on deductibles and other choices from the private insurers which offer it.
With careful investigation into the varieties of coverage, I’ve kept my monthly cost for healthcare premiums to $265.10. Other elders may pay more, but I doubt many pay less, and with average, monthly, Social Security benefits currently at $989.80, that’s is undoubtedly a hardship for some elders. But we do share the burden of the cost. Medicare is not free.
The Cost to the Young
Every elder who benefits from Medicare today spent decades paying their 1.45 percent salary deduction. It was and is not a savings account. Nor an insurance premium. The money goes into the Medicare pool to benefit current elders and, by the way, the disabled of all ages.
What I find shocking about the young people’s blogs I read and Secretary Leavitt’s apparent agreement with his sons is how stingy they are. In all the years, decades, I’ve spent discussing the high cost of goods with friends along with our complaints of how much the government took from of our paychecks (“I’d rather have the government’s portion of my salary,” we used to say, exaggerating only slightly), no one ever, not once, begrudged the deduction for Medicare.
If we thought about it at all, I think we believed it was for the common good, that it is everyone’s responsibility to help where it is needed and the Medicare deduction was small enough for the great good it accomplishes. For if there were no Medicare, only wealthy elders could afford any healthcare at all because there is no affordable insurance after about age 60.
The Medicare Crisis
Secretary Leavitt is correct and I would state it even more emphatically: Medicare is a looming catastrophe thanks to all those damned baby boomers who have the effrontery to get old and didn’t have the foresight to have enough children to pay for Medicare. Shame on them.
Actually, the Department of Health and Human Services, through many administrations and secretaries, knew this demographic shift was coming. It has been warned of and discussed by actuarial experts for decades, but was irresponsibly ignored by our representatives in Washington. Now there is a real crisis.
But there is a solution – for you, me, the baby boomers and the kids who resent that paycheck Medicare deduction: universal healthcare, single-payer system, national health, whatever you want to call it. Nitpickers will tell you there are differences among those names, but the idea in each is to make healthcare available to everyone.
Medicare should be folded into it, everyone pays into the system and everyone takes out as needed. It works in Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany and every western democracy except ours, and there is no reason it cannot work here.
But it must be universal to succeed. Neither Democratic presidential candidate has a true universal healthcare proposal and Senator McCain's plan, released yesterday, will cost families even more than they pay now. All the plans continue the grab bag of private and government coverage that continues giving private insurers huge profits and still doesn’t cover everyone - undoubtedly because the giant pharmaceutical companies and the healthcare industry donate big bucks to their campaigns.
Healthcare is not optional; it is a human right. It is disgraceful that the United States leaves millions of people without access to care and allows millions more to be under-insured.
We must demand from this year’s candidates for Congress that universal coverage be among their top two or three priorities when they take office in January. Without it, not just Medicare, but the entire healthcare system is in danger of collapse. There is much public discussion that should be had regarding healthcare and the Secretary of Health and Human Services should be leading it - not supporting divisions among age groups. [See also Universal Healthcare and the 2008 Election.]
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, a message.]