GOP Proposes Putting Seniors on Congressional Healthcare Plan

In a highly controversial move, Republicans critical of Medicare have proposed opening up the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) to Medicare patients.  “We are going to offer a plan that would give all senior citizens in the country the same congressional healthcare plan that we have,” said Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).  “We are not willing to wait until after the next election to fix the entitlements.”

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) warned that the plan could shake the federal program, while asking seniors to pay more for healthcare.  “This is a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone kind of proposal that would both bring down Medicare as we know it and threaten the stability of the FEHBP,” Joseph A. Beaudoin, NARFE president, said.  Beaudoin said seniors should examine the proposal closely, because it throws open the doors of a stable healthcare program to millions of seniors currently enrolled in Medicare.  “Given the current environment of budget attacks on federal employees, retirees and Medicare, the federal workforce and all Americans should be wary of plans like the one proposed today,” he said.

Called the Congressional Health Care for Seniors Act (CHCSA), the plan’s supporters claim that it would save taxpayers $1 trillion in the first 10 years as well as provide enhanced healthcare benefits, choice, quality and outcomes by moving seniors into the FEHBP.

How would it work?  Federal employees can now choose from approximately 250 plans participating in FEHBP, including 20 nationwide plans.  The large selection provides access to better doctors, better quality healthcare, and the ability to pick plans that best suit the person’s individual needs.  The rationale also is that because Congress uses the plan, it must be the best in the country.  Additionally, the legislation would set up a “high risk pool” for the costliest patients within the FEHBP.  The federal government will directly reimburse healthcare plans for enrolling the most expensive five percent of patients, which keeps premiums low while allowing high-risk patients to get the same quality healthcare as every other enrollee – federal employees and seniors alike.  If the legislation is passed, seniors could enroll in FEHBP starting in 2014.

There is some bipartisan support for this proposal.  In 2004, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) proposed allowing uninsured people, not seniors, to enroll in FEHBP.  “Entitlements are broken,” said Paul.  “It’s not Republicans’ fault; it’s not Democrats fault.  I tell people, ‘It’s your grandparents’ fault for having too many kids and then your fault for not having enough kids.’  It’s a demographic problem.”

Paul said the plan “means-tests the benefits and gradually allows the age of eligibility to go up.”  Currently, Medicare eligibility age is 65; Paul’s plan would gradually increase it to 70 by 2034.  “There is means-testing in this — and the reason you have to do that is: we’re spending more on Medicare than is coming in.”  According to Senator Lindsey Graham, (R-SC), “What I would tell the person near retirement is don’t fear change, embrace it, because you’ll have more doctors available to treat you and your family.  “Think about not just what happens to you…think about where we’ll be as a nation if something doesn’t change pretty quickly with these big programs.”

Virtually everyone in Washington agrees that the federal government must control its deficits and rising debt by finding a way to reduce entitlement spending.  President Bill Clinton’s former budget director, Leon Panetta, now defense secretary, who reproached the Senate Budget Committee: “You can’t meet the challenge that you’re facing in this country” by only cutting discretionary spending, which is less than a third of all spending.  “If you’re not dealing with the two-thirds that is entitlement spending, if you’re not dealing with revenues, and you keep going back to the same place, frankly you’re not going to make it, and you’re going to hurt this country’s security.”

Paul acknowledges that adding seniors to the federal program would drive costs up for its current 8.5 million enrollees by approximately 24 percent.  “Federal employees are the one group of people who may have a legitimate argument with the Congressional Health Care Plan for Seniors,” according to Paul’s synopsis.  “Asking them to share their healthcare with the elderly will cause their premiums to increase.”  Not surprisingly, as soon as the legislation was announced, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association expressed concerns that the bill would destabilize the federal workers’ program.

Beaudoin notes that “As for the senators’ notion that America’s seniors should be in the same healthcare system as America’s elected officials, they seem to have forgotten that starting in 2014, members of Congress will no longer be covered by the FEHBP but will be in state-based healthcare exchanges.”

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