Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lockboxes, Medicare reform, and the myth of "free stuff"

Not long after the 2012 elections, I had an interesting conversation with my dad about the policy debates involving the Medicare program. Since he, along with my mother, is one of the two most important Medicare beneficiaries in my life, hearing his perspective was immensely valuable. Essentially, my dad said that what upset him when politicians described Medicare was the use of the term "entitlement," which implied that people like my parents who paid Medicare taxes for several decades don't deserve to reap the full benefits of that investment.

I pointed out that the reason Medicare is running out of money is that the dollar value of health benefits that seniors use today far exceeds the amount they paid in to the system thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago, since Medicare only began to pay for prescription drugs in 2006 and annual increases in the cost of health care have far exceeded inflation. He countered that it was totally appropriate for retirees to get back more than they put in, since all good investors expect their money to grow over time. He's right. The problem with this argument isn't his fault: the federal government doesn't put revenue from Medicare payroll taxes into the stock market, a savings account, or even the "lockbox" that Al Gore made famous during the 2000 presidential campaign. It spends those dollars, immediately, often on programs that have nothing to do with health care for seniors.

As a nation, we can and should debate the best ways to keep Medicare solvent for my generation and my children's generation. The President and Congress could, for example, turn the program into one with fixed costs but not necessarily fixed benefits. They could agree to large increases in the payroll tax that funds the program, rather than continuing the temporary payroll tax holiday put in to place to cushion families from the worst of the recession. They could cut Medicare payments to doctors by 30 percent, cross their fingers, and hope that at least a few of us would continue to see Medicare patients anyway. They could do some or all of these things at the same time.

What we citizens cannot do is allow them to continue to point fingers at each other and, for purely political reasons, dodge the question of what to do. Which brings me to one of my pet peeves about health reform in general, and the Affordable Care Act in particular: the selling of reforms as good because they provide people who already have health insurance with more "free stuff." Thanks to the ACA / Congressional Democrats / President Obama, a typical political ad will say, women can now get free mammograms, Pap smears, cholesterol tests, and birth control pills! Isn't that great? This kind of ad is misleading because none of the preventive health services defined by the bill suddenly became free. In fact, some cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Instead, the costs of these services have just been shifted - into higher insurance premiums, higher deductibles for non-preventive services, to employers, or to the federal government (and therefore the individual taxpayer or an international investor that holds some portion of the U.S.'s $18 trillion national debt).

The above discussion notwithstanding, Medicine and Social Justice blogger Josh Freeman made the very good point that health should generally not be considered a commodity, but a social good. I supported most provisions of the Affordable Care Act because its implementation will eventually allow millions more Americans to more reliably access health care, especially primary care, when they need it. As a family physician, I do not believe that any group of people "deserves" health care any more than others. My dad and mom deserve their health care. But so do I, so do my wife and kids, and so do you and your loved ones. And our country will never have an honest debate about health reform as a social good and a shared sacrifice if we let politicians of both parties, only concerned about the next election, portray it as a false choice between rationing and free stuff.


This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on November 11, 2012.

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