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4 Terrible Arguments for Raising the Medicare Age and Why They're Wrong

Why liberals should not even consider raising the Medicare age to 67 as part of a budget compromise.

A man holds a sign that reads "Hands Off Social Security and Medicare" during a news conference at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, in 2011. Republicans laid out a plan for closing the huge US deficit that raises half the income proposed by Pr



It’s tempting to read these pieces by  Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Chait and decide that, all things considered, liberals should at least consider raising the Medicare age to 67 as part of a budget compromise.

They shouldn’t.

“This seems like a useful time for liberals to sort out the difference between budget ideas we don’t like and budget ideas we can’t or shouldn’t accept,” Chait writes. I couldn’t agree more. Put this one in the “can’t accept” column.

Here are four arguments for compromising on the Medicare age – and why they’re wrong.

Bad Reason #1: As a bone to throw to the right.

“When the question comes to what concessions the Democrats are going to have to accept,” Chait writes, ” … raising the Medicare age seems like a sensible bone to throw the right.” That’s the first bad reason to compromise. Raising the Medicare age would increase the number of uninsured Americans, and would do so for people who need substantially more care than the average person.

It would also cost more money than it saves. The Kaiser Family Foundation  estimated that its $5.7 billion in projected Federal savings would lead to an additional $11.4 billion in health spending elsewhere in the economy.

More uninsured Americans? Higher healthcare costs? That’s not bone. It’s meat.

Bad Reason #2: To protect the Affordable Care Act.

“Raising the Medicare retirement age would help strengthen the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act,” Chait writes. He argues that “a side effect of raising the Medicare retirement age would be that a large cohort of 65- and 66-year-olds would suddenly find themselves needing the Affordable Care Act to buy their health insurance.”

There’s something seriously wrong about the cost/benefit logic in Chait’s position, and the moral logic too. Do we really want to put a segment of our population in distress in order to provide artificial political support for a health reform law that needs substantial strengthening?

Yes, says Chait, because “Republicans attacking the Affordable Care Act would no longer be attacking the usual band of very poor or desperate people they can afford to ignore but a significant chunk of middle-class voters who have grown accustomed to the assumption that they will be able to afford health care.”

That’s a little like saying Democrats should cheerfully accept natural disasters because they build support for FEMA.

Bad Reason #3: Because Medicare has symbolic value.

Medicare “has weirdly disproportionate symbolic power,” Chait writes, “both among Republicans in Congress and establishmentarian fiscal scolds.”

Yes, it does – and conservatives have consistently been more effective than liberals in reframing both the terms of debate and the public’s perception of the economy.  Here we go again: By cutting Medicare, Democrats would be “acknowledging” – falsely – that it’s a burden on society, an ineffective program, and a drain on economic growth.

Medicare’s “symbolic power” is an argument for strengthening it, not cutting it.

Chait goes on to say that “Mitch McConnell and Erskine Bowles alike would regard raising the retirement age as a sign of serious belt-tightening and the ‘structural reforms’ conservatives say they need.”

Yes, and so would our sadly misinformed mainstream media. We have to change that perception, not reinforce it. Yet a deal this kind would reinforce their misleading narrative, further undermining public support for the social contract we need to defend.

Bad Reason #4: The Affordable Care Act will protect most of the 65 and 66 year olds affected by the change.

“Strengthening the political coalition for universal coverage seems like a helpful side benefit” to a Medicare age deal, says Chait. What universal coverage?

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