House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi vowed on Monday to lead the fight to defeat any GOP effort to overhaul and cut Medicare. The veteran California lawmaker warned that President-elect Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan would be seriously overpaying their hands if they try to tamper with the nation’s premier health care programs for seniors.
Although Trump repeatedly promised during the campaign that he wouldn’t cut Social Security or Medicare as a means of controlling the long term debt, Ryan (R-WI) made no such promise. He and House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price of Georgia signaled last week that the House would take up Ryan’s latest proposal for transforming Medicare into a private voucher system sometime after Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act early next year.
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Pelosi, eager to rally her dispirited Democratic troops after their party took a shellacking at the hands of the Republicans in the Nov. 8 election, said in an interview with Greg Sargent of The Washington Post that Ryan and Trump would be badly misreading their mandate from the voters if they tried to forge ahead with a measure to alter the fundamental Medicare program.
She argued that if Trump decides to join forces with Ryan and congressional Republicans to ram through the proposed Medicare reforms next year, he would be repeating the mistake of former GOP president George W. Bush who waged a failed effort to partially privatize Social Security after his 2004 reelection.
Pelosi said that Democratic unity was critical in thwarting Bush’s highly controversial Social Security plan – an ill-advised proposal that some analysts believe subsequently hurt the GOP president’s public standing. She said that the Democrats would show that same unity in fighting the latest iteration of Ryan’s so-called “premium support” plan.
“At that time, we committed to each other that we would be unified and disciplined,” Pelosi told The Post. “Bush had just been elected. He gave us an opportunity by saying he would partially privatize Social Security. Everybody stuck together. The opportunity that we have now is the equivalent of the opportunity we had in ’05.”
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Price, who appears in the running to become the next secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters last week that Republicans would likely move “within the first six to eight months” of Trump’s administration to begin implementing their Medicare plan. Key elements include raising the age of eligibility from 65 to 67 and gradually privatizing the system with government-issued vouchers or “premium supports” to defray the cost of insurance policies purchased on the open market.
Seniors already in the system or fast approaching retirement would have the choice of sticking with traditional Medicare coverage or switching to the new approach designed to save the government billions of dollars in the coming years. But millennials and middle aged workers who are years away from retirement would be pressured or steered into the new voucher system.
Medicare privatization has long been a central feature of Ryan’s highly controversial budget proposals that received substantial GOP backing in the House but never made it past the Senate. Pelosi has been a vehement opponent of Ryan’s Medicare plans dating back to 2011, when she told liberal bloggers that Ryan’s approach “has to be snuffed out” immediately.
Now, however, Ryan and other Republican House leaders believe that the election results are a mandate to push a bold agenda including Medicare reform – much to the horror of advocates of the program. Medicare, created in the mid-1960s during the Great Society era, provides health care and subsidized drugs to 57 million older Americans.
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While portions of the Medicare program are facing long term financial challenges as more and more baby boomers retire and fewer workers pay into the program, Medicare has a vast political constituency – making it a high risk venture for either party to seek major cuts or changes.
“They would be tinkering with the holiest of holies of American politics,” Ross Baker, a political scientist and congressional expert with Rutgers University, said in an interview yesterday. “I think that Pelosi is right that the beneficiaries of Medicare are intensely protective of it in its present form, and would resist pretty strongly any effort to modify it.”
Pelosi, 76, the first woman to have ever served as speaker of the House, is feeling some pressure from rank and file Democrats because of their party’s losses in the election. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), a veteran lawmaker from the Rust Belt, is challenging her for the post of Minority Leader.
Galvanizing rank and file Democrats to combat the Ryan Medicare plan isn’t a bad way for her to solidify her hold on her caucus.