Of his many plans to expand insurance coverage, President-elect Joe Biden’s simplest strategy is lowering the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60.
But the plan is sure to face long odds, even if the Democrats can snag control of the Senate in January by winning two runoff elections in Georgia.
Republicans, who fought the creation of Medicare in the 1960s and typically oppose expanding government entitlement programs, are not the biggest obstacle. Instead, the nation’s hospitals, a powerful political force, are poised to derail any effort. Hospitals fear that adding millions of people to Medicare will cost them billions of dollars in revenue.
“Hospitals certainly are not going to be happy with it,” said Jonathan Oberlander, professor of health policy and management at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Medicare reimbursement rates for patients admitted to hospitals average half what commercial or employer-sponsored insurance plans pay.
“It will be a huge lift [in Congress] as the realities of lower Medicare reimbursement rates will activate some powerful interests against this,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow with the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability.
Biden, who will turn 78 this month, said his plan would help Americans who retire early and those who are unemployed or can’t find jobs with health benefits.
“It reflects the reality that, even after the current crisis ends, older Americans are likely to find it difficult to secure jobs,” Biden wrote in April.
Lowering the Medicare eligibility age is popular. About 85% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans favor allowing those as young as 50 to buy into Medicare, according to a KFF tracking poll from January 2019.
Although opposition from the hospital industry is expected to be fierce, that is not the only obstacle to Biden’s plan.
Critics, especially Republicans on Capitol Hill, will point to the nation’s $3 trillion budget deficit, as well as the dim outlook for the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund. That fund is on track to reach insolvency in 2024. That means there won’t be enough money to fully pay hospitals and nursing homes for inpatient care for Medicare beneficiaries.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether expanding Medicare will fit on the Democrats' crowded health agenda, which also includes dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly rescuing the Affordable Care Act, expanding Obamacare subsidies, and lowering drug costs.
Biden’s proposal is a nod to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which has advocated for Sen. Bernie Sanders' government-run “Medicare for All” health system that would provide universal coverage. Biden opposed the effort by the Vermont Independent legislator, saying the nation could not afford it. He wanted to retain the private health insurance system, which covers 180 million people.
In addition to the Medicare eligibility change, Biden wants Congress to approve a government-run health plan that people could buy into instead of purchasing coverage from insurance companies on their own or through the Obamacare marketplaces. Insurers helped beat back this “public option” initiative in 2009 during the congressional debate over the ACA.
The appeal of lowering Medicare eligibility to help those without insurance lies with leveraging a popular government program that has low administrative costs.
“It is hard to find a reform idea that is more popular than opening up Medicare” to people as young as 60, Oberlander said. He said early retirees would like the concept, as would employers, who could save on their health costs as workers gravitate to Medicare.
The eligibility age has been set at 65 since Medicare was created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reform package. It was designed to coincide with the age when people at that time qualified for Social Security. Today, people generally qualify for early, reduced Social Security benefits at age 62, though they have to wait until age 66 for full benefits.
While people can qualify on the basis of other criteria, such as having a disability or end-stage renal disease, 85% of the 57 million Medicare enrollees are in the program simply because they’re old enough.
Lowering the age to 60 could add as many as 23 million people to Medicare, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Avalere Health. It’s unclear, however, whether everyone who would be eligible would sign up or whether Biden would limit the expansion to the 1.7 million people in that age range who are uninsured and the 3.2 million who buy coverage on their own.
While the 60-to-65 group has the lowest uninsured rate (8%) among adults, it has the highest health costs and pays the highest rates for individual coverage, said Cristina Boccuti, director of health policy at West Health, a nonpartisan research group.
About 13 million of those between 60 and 65 have coverage through their employer, according to Avalere. While they would not have to drop coverage to join Medicare, they could possibly opt to also pay to join the federal program and use it as a wraparound for their existing coverage. Medicare might then pick up costs for some services that the consumers would have to shoulder out-of-pocket.
About four million people between 60 and 65 are enrolled in Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people. Shifting them to Medicare would make that their primary health insurer, a move that would save states money because they split Medicaid costs with the federal government.
Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.