Democrats’ Medicare expansion trick won’t be a treat

Democrats’ Medicare expansion trick won’t be a treat

Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, indicated that one provision of Congress’s massive spending bill was “not negotiable.” Namely, expanding Medicare to include hearing, dental, and vision benefits.

It’s an odd place to draw the line. Many seniors already have those benefits, so the proposal is largely unnecessary. And despite the plan’s exorbitant costs, the expansion would still fail to deliver much of the care it promises.

Nearly half of the Medicare population, more than 26 million seniors , is already enrolled in a privately administered Medicare Advantage plan, and 94% of Medicare Advantage plans offer dental coverage, while 97% offer hearing coverage and 99% offer vision coverage. Many of them have little to no cost-sharing.

That’s what makes the plans so attractive to seniors with lower incomes. More than 45% of Medicare Advantage enrollees make less than $20,000 per year, as compared to roughly 37% of traditional Medicare enrollees.

People hoping that new dental, vision, and hearing benefits in traditional Medicare will be better than those offered on Medicare Advantage plans are likely to be disappointed. The expansion would cover only half the cost of major dental procedures. According to reporting from Politico, some benefits, such as over-the-counter hearing aids, wouldn’t be covered at all under the Democrats’ existing proposal.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, has expressed concerns that his party’s plan will give low-income seniors “false hope.” And in a letter to committee leaders last week, Rep. Jared Golden, a Maine Democrat, called the plan an “empty promise.” He lamented that wealthy Medicare enrollees would benefit more from the expansion than low-income seniors.

And yet, this half-baked expansion of benefits will be expensive — $350 billion over the next decade, to be exact. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has suggested means-testing as a way to ensure those dollars flow toward the neediest seniors. Manchin’s on to something. With Medicare’s long-term finances in disarray, why not just means-test the entire program?

Instead, Democrats are doing everything they can to put yet more of our healthcare system under government control — and accelerate their stepping-stone approach to liberals’ longtime goal of “Medicare for All.”

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All  (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

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