Raising taxes on the rich alone won't close the deficit or erase the national debt, as Republicans superciliously inform us over and over again. But in their negotiations with the White House to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, congressional Republicans seem obsessed with a change in Medicare eligibility whose budgetary impact (when compared with ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy) is truly negligible — but whose human toll would be immense.
That Republican imperative is to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.
Why do Speaker John Boehner and the Republican majority in the House so badly want to put Medicare out of reach of elders younger than 67? It will be costly to their most loyal voting constituency among older whites. And it won't save much money, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation's latest study — which shows that the estimated $148 billion in savings over 10 years is largely offset by increased insurance costs, lost premiums, and higher subsidies that will be paid as a consequence. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offers an even more stringent analysis, which shows that raising the eligibility age in fact will result in total costs higher than the putative federal savings — which amount to around $50 billion over 10 years. Contrast that with the savings achieved by ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which amounts to well over $1 trillion during the same period — and it becomes clear which party wants to reduce deficits.
Assuming that the savings are mostly mythical, the only sensible assumption is that Republican politicians and financiers simply hate Medicare, a highly successful and popular federal program that the right has been trying to destroy, with one tactic or another, ever since its establishment in 1965.
They don't really care whether their alleged solutions save money or improve efficiency. They want a privately funded medical system that preserves profits, rather than a system that improves and expands health care, as Medicare has done for almost half a century.
What the Republicans evidently desire most in their "reform" crusade is to exacerbate inequality among the elderly — because that is the only assured outcome of their plans.
The impact of raising the Medicare eligibility age by two years will fall most heavily upon older African-American and other minorities, as they are still known. The projected damage is summarized clearly in a chart posted by Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post's Wonkblog. The number of uninsured among the elderly will be increased for all groups, but the greatest increase will be among minorities, who will also become more likely to postpone medical care because they lack coverage. The net effect of those changes, to project from what we already know about people who lack of insurance and postpone care, will be earlier deaths and much suffering.
Even more broadly, delaying eligibility is a direct assault on the standard of living of working-class Americans, especially those who have earned their way through physical labor. By age 65, people who have spent decades engaged in hard physical work — such as firefighters, nurses, or other first responders, to consider the most obvious examples — are ready to stop working. Medicare is a critical element of their ability to retire, but Washington elites, especially on the right, are obtusely unsympathetic to their conditions.
It is up to the Democrats in Washington, especially President Obama, to protect Americans from such policy proposals, which are economically idiotic and socially inhumane. For there is one objective that the Republicans would certainly achieve if they induce the president to accept, or worse, propose, any such plan: They will discredit his second term before it has begun.
Joe Conason writes for Creators Syndicate.