Sen. Harkin: ‘Take Medicare off the table’ in debt-ceiling debate

Congressional Republicans need to “take Medicare off the table” and deal directly with the nation’s debt-ceiling, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Friday.

The attempts by national Republicans to connect discussions on raising the nation’s debt-ceiling and reforming Medicare is “absolutely responsible,” added U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (R-RI).

The two Democrats spoke to reporters on a conference call one day following a warning from Moody’s Investors Service that the nation’s credit rating is in jeopardy unless Congress acts soon to avert a default. Harkin and Reed indicated that productive discussions were being jeopardized by key Republicans who want to include “the GOP’s plan to dismantle Medicare.”

The GOP Medicare reform plan was approved in the Republican-controlled U.S. House as part of the budget developed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). Both Ryan, who serves as House budget chairman, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have insisted that the House-approved overhaul should be a part of ongoing negotiations concerning the debt-ceiling.

“Our message is simply: Take Medicare off the table,” said Harkin. “Let’s solve the default crisis, and let’s talk about fixing the system so that our middle class has a little bit better shape.”

Medicare is, he added, a “complicated, complex topic” that deserves its own discussion.

In essence, the GOP plan would replace Medicare with vouchers or subsidies that could be used to purchase private insurance. According to the Congressional Budget Office, “a private health insurance plan covering the standardized benefit would, CBO estimates, be more expensive currently than traditional Medicare.” The CBO estimates that by 2022 the cost of a Medicare-equivalent health insurance plan purchased from a private company for a 65-year-old would be $20,500. The same plan via Medicare would cost $14,500. Privatizing the system through the voucher system that Congressional Republicans have proposed would require seniors to pay an additional $6,000 per year in health care coverage costs (above the $6,500 out-of-pocket payments already required).

In the wake of widespread criticism for this and other aspects of Ryan’s budget plan — not to mention a resounding special election defeat in New York where the Republican budget served as a discussion centerpiece — Congressional Republicans have charged that they are at least trying to reduce entitlement expenses and that Congressional Democrats have no ideas or desire to address the issue.

No so, Harkin fired back Friday. Drug price negotiations, moving low-income Medicare recipients to the Medicaid program, and allowing time for recently passed health care reforms related to health care structure and prevention programs to kick in would all be cost reduction items that Democrats would find largely non-controversial, he said.

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