Medicare is running out of money. According to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, the program’s Part A hospital insurance trust fund is projected to be insolvent in 2024. At that point, there won’t be enough tax revenue coming in to cover the claims costs of the program’s beneficiaries.
Naturally, congressional Democrats want to make Medicare even more generous — and spend even more money in the process. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are leading a legislative effort to add dental, vision, and hearing coverage to the program.
Doing so would use scarce public funds to lavish new benefits on a group of patients who are, by and large, fairly well-off. This makes it one of the most wasteful, ineffective healthcare proposals the left has advanced in recent years. And that’s saying something.
For three years running, the entitlement’s trustees have warned that Medicare is relying too heavily on general revenues to makes ends meet. Those pleas are supposed to be met by prompt legislative action aimed at tightening the program’s belt.
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the program is expected to see faster spending growth in the coming years than any other major healthcare payer. The last thing Medicare can handle is an expansion that would further drive up its costs.
The plan Sanders and Schumer are floating would give seniors comprehensive dental coverage: cleanings, fillings, root canals, X-rays, and the like. It would also provide vision coverage for contacts and eyeglasses and hearing coverage, including hearing aids.
The senators have neglected to mention what their plan will cost. A similar reform that passed the House in 2019 but died in the Senate carried a 10-year price tag of $360 billion. Where Sanders and Schumer will come up with that kind of money this time around is anyone’s guess.
Schumer has characterized his glasses-and-fillings giveaway as a matter of life and death. As he put it recently, “Now is our chance to fix a giant Medicare health care hole for seniors that inevitably costs lives.”
Such hyperbole distracts from an ugly truth about the proposal — it would largely benefit a relatively well-off segment of the population.
Older Americans already receive considerable financial support from working-age taxpayers in the form of the existing Medicare program and Social Security. The notion that the federal government is somehow short-changing seniors is preposterous.
To be sure, there are plenty of older Americans who are struggling financially and could use better dental, vision, or hearing coverage. But to make the budgetary math work, the plan Sanders and Schumer have in mind will almost certainly require beneficiaries to cover some share of the cost of their dental, vision, and hearing care out of pocket.
Indeed, the House’s benefit expansion from 2019 covered only 50% of costs for major dental services. Under such a rubric, less wealthy seniors would almost surely forego procedures and treatments.
Wealthier seniors, meanwhile, would be glad to have taxpayers pick up 50% of the cost of their visits to the dentist, optometrist, or audiologist.
Promising new health benefits to American seniors might be a tried-and-true political strategy. But on the policy merits, the Medicare expansion backed by Sanders and Schumer represents a gross misuse of taxpayer funds that will add to Medicare’s financial woes while doing little to help America’s truly needy patients.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is “False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All,” (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.