The government lockdowns due to COVID-19 over the past several months have devastated American families. And that means Medicare is in trouble.
According to the recent jobs report, the unemployment rate fell to 10.2%, almost triple the unemployment rate in February before the lockdowns began.
In July, the number of insured unemployment was 16.2 million and the four-week moving average was 17.5 million. For comparison, in 2019, the four-week moving average of insured unemployment was about 1.7 million, about one-tenth of the level today.
These tough economic times will put an even heavier burden on the Medicare that’s already facing a dire situation.
The Medicare Trustee’s report released in April (which didn’t account for the effects of the novel coronavirus) estimated that the trust fund that covers Medicare Part A—which is the insurance to cover hospital visits and inpatient care—will be depleted in 2026.
With many people unemployed and not paying payroll taxes that fund Medicare, the trust fund will face more problems as more people go on the program. Congress should act now to improve the financial stability of the Medicare trust fund for the long term.
One such reform would be to gradually raise the age of Medicare eligibility.
When Medicare was created in 1965 for those 65 years old and older, the average life expectancy of an American was 70 years, so the average American could be expected to be enrolled in Medicare for 5 years. Today, life expectancy is about 79 years, so we can anticipate the average American will be enrolled for up to 14 years, a 180% increase in the number of Medicare-eligible years since the program started.
With an aging population, we will continue to have a more people enrolled in Medicare relative to the workforce. In 1980, there were about four workers per every Medicare enrollee. Today, there are about three, and in 2030 it is expected to be two and a half.
Unless something drastic changes, we will continue to have fewer workers paying payroll taxes to support the people already enrolled in Medicare. We must remind ourselves that this is a pay-as-you-go program, whereby the tax dollars paid today go to current beneficiaries.
Gradually raising the age of eligibility will help to sustain this safety net for those without the means to pay for health care in retirement. It will also reduce the number of years people are enrolled in Medicare along with encouraging healthy workers to stay in the workforce longer, thereby improving the budget and economic picture.
Another option to reform Medicare would be to introduce more cost-sharing. By requiring Medicare enrollees to have more skin in the game regarding their health care decisions, enrollees will be incentivized to make better decisions regarding their care.
Other reforms such as increasing price transparency for prescription drugs and health services, eliminating wasteful spending on bureaucracy, and increasing competition among providers would improve Medicare for those on it and put it on a better financial trajectory.
Alternatively, former Vice President and current Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden is promising to lower the Medicare age to 60 from 65, which would only exacerbate Medicare’s problems while hurting Americans by drastically raising taxes.
This would make at least 20 million more Americans eligible for Medicare. Not only would this add millions of more people to Medicare, but this would also incentivize people to retire earlier, which would mean fewer workers paying into the Medicare trust fund.
Essentially, he is trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
While there are many things on Congress’ plate right now, reforming Medicare should be a priority so it’s solvent without raising taxes or cutting benefits for current retirees. Doing so will help put seniors and all Americans on a path to leaving a legacy for their kids and grandkids.