SCHIPing Away at Seniors' Medicare Benefits

Few issues before Congress are more important than increasing access to quality healthcare for all Americans.  Unfortunately, this past week’s House consideration of H.R. 3162, (a bill to reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP) proves that the Democrat Leadership is more interested in a dramatic expansion of the welfare state and less interested in providing quality free market access to health care for our nation’s uninsured children.

H.R. 3162 is built on a flawed framework that eviscerates a successful block-grant supplemental program and creates a permanent entitlement along the lines of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.  In so doing, the legislation creates another federal program that runs on auto-pilot without Congressional approval and eats up a larger share of your tax dollars every year.

Under the Democrat plan, states set their own eligibility requirements and can expand coverage for increasingly well-off beneficiaries if they choose.  And they would have an incentive to do so, since their Federal funding allotment would automatically increase!

According to the Heritage Foundation, nine states have already expanded coverage to people whose incomes exceed 300% of the poverty level.  With this new proposal to loosen rules even further, it’s not hard to imagine some states increasing eligibility to include those above 400% of poverty — creating a new, tax-payer subsidized and bureaucrat-run healthcare benefit for a family making $82,600.

I saw this first-hand as a former member of the Tennessee Senate, when TennCare expanded insurance coverage to provide practically anyone — rich, poor, and out-of-state residents — access to free government healthcare during the 1990’s.  Yet, combined state and federal funding could not sustain TennCare’s rising costs, and the program effectively lowered the quality of health care in Tennessee.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, H.R. 3162 repeats this mistake by expanding SCHIP over $50 billion, bringing the total cost to $128.9 billion over ten years.  This legislation also cuts $193 billion from Medicare over the next ten years, including $157 billion from the Medicare Advantage program.  Over eight million seniors are enrolled in the Medicare Advantage program, including 9,000 beneficiaries in the seventh district of Tennessee.

This scenario could result in seniors losing their current health care provider or being subjected to increased costs and decreased services.  After all, fifty-seven percent of seniors currently enrolled in Medicare Advantage are in the lowest income range — from $10,000 to $30,000, and many of the services provided to these beneficiaries are not provided to seniors through the traditional fee-for service Medicare.

Additionally, the reductions to Medicare Advantage will severely impact seniors living in rural areas.  Current law encourages private plans to provide coverage in rural communities where costs are typically higher.  So by eliminating this incentive, H.R. 3162 would significantly decrease access to private coverage in rural areas, forcing seniors back into traditional Medicare.  

Furthermore, H.R. 3162 includes a provision that allows Congress to walk away from its responsibility for the long-term health of the Medicare program.  Current law requires Congress to address the sustainability of the Medicare program when general revenues will fund more than 45% of Medicare spending for two consecutive years in the upcoming 7 years.  That trigger was met in 2006 and 2007.  Yet H.R. 3162 eliminates the 45% trigger that requires Congress to address the financial challenges of Medicare in a timely way.
I offered an amendment to repeal this reckless spending provision, but the Democrats rejected the amendment to prevent their Members from taking any action to ensure the future solvency of Medicare.  This is not only irresponsible, it is also one of the most egregious abdications of responsibility I have seen during my time in Congress.

The bill cynically chops out the income limit for eligibility, and expands the eligibility pool to include “children” up to the age of 21.  Do 21 year old young men and women deserve government-funded healthcare benefits at the expense of elderly Medicare beneficiaries?  It also institutes a substantial tobacco tax increase (above and beyond the .42 cent increase levied by the State Government this year).  In addition, it enacts a tax on every private insurance policy.

And the cuts do not stop there.  In perhaps the most outrageous blow to common sense healthcare policy, H.R. 3162 repeals current law that requires proof of citizenship when enrolling in the Medicaid program.  So while illegal immigrants enjoy access to government-funded health benefits, seniors are left holding the bag.

The liberal leadership in Congress knows that it does not have the support of the American public to construct a full-blown socialized healthcare system. Instead, they’re pretending that this radical change in policy is a simple update to a popular, long-established program — a tactic that the Wall Street Journal termed “slow-motion socialism.”

Experience has taught us that the best way to ensure quality coverage for all is to encourage individual choice and let the free market work, but H.R. 3162 ignores this record.  That is why I voted against this bill, and encourage the President to veto the legislation should it ever reach his desk.