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Medicare in lame duck Congress's cross-hairs

By Sharon Johnson   |   Nov. 14, 2012 at 5:07 PM   |   Comments

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{WOMENSENEWS}-- When the lame duck Congress meets today, Nov. 14, Medicare--the old age public health program upon which women disproportionately depend--is expected to be in the cross-hairs.

"Medicare will be front and center in the debate," predicted Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick. "House Republicans don't view the Democrats' victories as a reason to retreat from their long-term position that any debt deal includes steep savings drawn from reforming all entitlements, including Medicare."

Three female members of the House, all Democrats, are leaping to defend Medicare during the lame duck session.

Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Gwen Moore of Wisconsin and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut will meet Nov. 15 with the Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

The committee, which helped stop the George W. Bush administration's attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005, will present more than 100,000 letters from national committee members and supporters opposing cutting Medicare and Social Security to reduce the deficit.

Congress is under pressure to find a solution to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and $1.2 trillion of automatic budget cuts, including a 2 percent decrease to Medicare providers, which will occur Jan. 2.

"Because the Romney-Ryan ticket lost, it is unlikely that [Paul] Ryan's plan to fundamentally restructure Medicare by transforming it into a voucher plan will be enacted," Carroll said. "But there will be many battles over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which the Democrats claim will slow Medicare spending."

Aging Population Pressures

Because of the aging of baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964), Medicare spending is projected to increase from $590 billion in 2012 to $1 trillion in 2021, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The budget office projects that the trust fund that pays hospital bills will run out of money in 2024.

"As chair of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Ryan will present a variety of proposals on Medicare in the coming weeks that will not only decrease the deficit but ensure the long-term solvency of Medicare," Smythe Anderson, Ryan's press secretary, recently told Women's eNews.

Ryan's budget plan, which passed the Republican-controlled House twice in different versions, called for gradually lifting the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 by 2034 from 65. During the 2011 debt hearings, President Barack Obama said he was open to raising Medicare eligibility and making broad cuts in exchange for Republican support for tax increases on the wealthy.

"Raising the eligibility age would defeat the Affordable Care Act's goal of extending insurance coverage to vulnerable people, such as low-income women who can't afford policies," said Edwin Park, vice president for health policy of the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priories, a nonprofit organization that analyzes federal budgets' effects on low-income Americans. "In 2012, 12.5 percent of 64-year-olds had no insurance."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, may also reintroduce his proposals to increase Medicare co-pays on laboratory tests, reduce home health payments and decrease preventive services under the Affordable Care Act.

Disastrous Potential

These cuts would be disastrous for women, said Karen Davenport, director of health policy of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that uses the courts to challenge gender bias.

"The majority of Medicare recipients are women--56 percent in 2009," Davenport said. "Women live longer and are poorer than men. In 2009, 43 percent of female Medicare recipients were living in or near poverty compared to 32 percent of men. Forty-nine percent of women had three or more chronic conditions compared to 32 percent of men."

Fifty-five percent of women, but only 45 percent of men, voted for Obama, according to an analysis of exit poll data by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

Although the poor economy was the main issue in the campaign, 67 percent of women and 62 percent of men said Medicare was very important in making their electoral decisions, according to a Pew Research poll in September.

Studies have also indicated that female elected officials are more likely than men to prioritize issues that disproportionately affect women. Twenty women will serve in the 100-member Senate and at least 81 women in the 435-member House.

"Having so many women in the 113th Congress that begins in January will help keep the financial realities of older Americans at the forefront of policymaking," said Carroll of Rutgers. "Female legislators realize that preserving Medicare is an issue that not only affects older women who receive benefits, but younger women who care for the elderly and are concerned about their own retirement."

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