Senate Democrats

Can Seniors Trust Republicans to Protect Medicare?

Senate Republicans assert that changes to Medicare in health insurance reform are damaging to seniors, but Republicans don’t have a very convincing track record of supporting Medicare.  They voted against Medicare at its inception in 1965, consistently tried to privatize both Medicare and Social Security, and spent the past forty years working to scale back or eliminate.  As the AARP has noted, Republicans recent statements about Medicare are simply not true – health insurance reform will curb Medicare waste, fraud and abuse and refocus Medicare on seniors’ health, not insurance companies’ wealth.

Republicans’ Sudden Change of Heart on Medicare

After opposing Medicare since its creation, as detailed below, Republicans have had a sudden change of heart, and now seek to cast themselves as defenders of Medicare.  A recent press report pointed out that, “In an odd sort of role reversal, Republicans who traditionally have railed against out-of-control entitlement spending and sought to scale back Medicare are positioning themselves as champions of the program.” [The Hill, 9/23/2009]  The Washington Post found that, “After years of trying to cut Medicare spending, Republican lawmakers have emerged as champions of the program, accusing Democrats of trying to steal from the elderly to cover the cost of health reform.” [Washington Post, 9/28/2009]  In a recent op-ed, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele erroneously asserted, “under the Democrats’ plan, senior citizens will pay a steeper price and will have their treatment options reduced or rationed.” [Washington Post, 8/24/2009]  In a weak attempt to demonstrate Republicans’ new-found commitment to Medicare, Steele proposed a “Seniors’ Health Care Bill of Rights” to, in his words, “ensure that our greatest generation will receive access to quality health care.”

Given their long-standing opposition to Medicare, why should Americans trust that the Republican Party has changed its ways?  Republicans were wrong when they opposed the creation of Medicare, they were wrong when they tried to cut the program and allow it to ‘wither on the vine,’ and they are wrong now to assert that health insurance reform will harm Medicare.

Republicans’ Real Record on Seniors Issues: Wrong Then, Wrong Now

Republicans opposed the creation of Medicare.  When the Medicare legislation passed in July 1965, the majority of Republican Senators voted against both Senate passage of Medicare and the final conference report. [Congressional Record, 7/9/1965; Social Security Administration, accessed 9/16/2009]

GOP called Medicare “brazen socialism.”  During the 1965 Medicare debate, Republican Senator Curtis of Nebraska voiced GOP opposition to the program and said Medicare “is not needed.  It is socialism.  It moves the country in a direction which is not good for anyone, whether they be young or old.  It charts a course from which there will be no turning back….It is not only socialism – it is brazen socialism.” [Congressional Record, 7/8/1965] 

·         GOP insisted Medicare would not rely on doctors to “make the program work.”  Senator Curtis also warned that Medicare would result in the program “not relying on the advice of the medical association or doctors collectively to make the program work,” insisting that “the insurance industry has a remarkable record” and that Medicare “is not public welfare.  It is not charity.  It is not kindness.  It is socialism.   Socialism is not the answer to anything.” [Congressional Record, 7/8/1965] 

·         GOP predicted patients would suffer under Medicare.  On the House floor, Representative Hall (R-MO) stated “…we cannot stand idly by now, as the Nation is urged to embark on an ill-conceived adventure in government medicine, the end of which no one can see, and from which the patient is certain to be the ultimate sufferer.” [Congressional Record,  4/8/1965]

Reagan Administration focused on cutting Medicare benefits.  In his book The Politics of Medicare, Thomas Marmor outlines the pillars of President Reagan’s health policies, including “…cutting benefits, in particular through increased cost-sharing for Medicare and Medicaid recipients…” [Marmor, 2000, p. 108] 

·         GOP said Medicare stood out “like a sore thumb.”  In discussing the federal budget, Senator Dole acknowledged that Congress was unlikely to include substantial funding cuts, but seemed to encourage President Reagan to propose them.  Of cuts included in the federal budget, Senator Dole said, “Maybe some, but not much.  That doesn’t mean the president may not suggest cuts because our big problem in government is non-defense entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and we’re going to have to address them.  Medicare stands out like a sore thumb.”  [UnitedPressInternational, 12/12/82]

·         GOP argued Medicare cuts would not hurt elderly.  Republican Senator Gramm argued that significant cuts to Medicare would not affect beneficiaries, saying, “People are confused because when you say ‘Medicare’ you think of mama…  Don’t think of mama, think of doctors and hospitals.” [United Press International, 11/5/85]

·         GOP targeted Medicare for cuts.  When asked what programs he would consider cutting, Senator Domenici, who at that time served as the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said, “You have to go to programs like farm support, like Medicare, and many of the other programs that have grown rather broadly.” [ChicagoTribune, 11/2/87]

George H. W. Bush Administration proposed increased cost-sharing, reduced reimbursement.  In 1992, the Bush Administration introduced a plan calling for “increases in the premiums and copayments for which the elderly were financially responsible…increases in private insurance premiums for supplementary Medicare policies (Medigap), such changes, the Congressional Budget Office estimated, would have increased the elderly’s spending on health care from 7 percent of their incomes to nearly 12 percent by 1997.” [Marmor, 2000, p. 125]

Republican Presidential candidate Dole bragged about his vote against Medicare.  In 1995, after Medicare had successfully lifted millions of seniors out of poverty and assured them access to affordable health care, then-Senate Majority Leader Dole continued his party’s opposition to Medicare.  In a 1995 speech to the American Conservative Union while campaigning for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Dole boasted, “I was there, fighting the fight, voting against Medicare…because we knew it wouldn’t work in 1965.” [Washington Post, 10/26/1995]

Newt Gingrich wanted Medicare to “wither on the vine.”  Then-Speaker of the House Gingrich, in remarks to a Blue Cross Blue Shield conference on October 24, 1995, said of Medicare, “Now, we don’t get rid of it in round one because we don’t think that that’s politically smart, and we don’t think that’s the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it’s going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it — voluntarily.” [New York Times, 7/20/1996]

Dick Armey wanted to “wean” seniors from Medicare.  In a 1995 meeting with reporters, then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey said, “We need to wean our old people away from Medicare.”  [Newsday, 12/09/2006]

Republicans Work to Put Their Wrongheaded Ideas into Action

Republicans have voted against protecting, strengthening Medicare nearly 60 times in the past ten years.  In the past decade, Congress has taken serious steps to improve and strengthen Medicare for America’s seniors and Senate Republicans have stood in the way.  In the past decade alone, Senate Republicans refused to support protecting, strengthening and enhancing Medicare for America’s seniors, voting against measures that achieved those goals at least fifty-nine times. [Senate Roll Call Votes, Congressional Record, 2008: S.V. 169, S.V. 160, S.V. 149; 2007: S.V. 132;  2006: S.V. 71, S.V. 50, S.V. 49, S.V. 5;  2005: S.V. 342, S.V. 302, S.V. 297, S.V. 294, S.V. 287, S.V. 60;  2003: S.V. 259, S.V. 258, S.V. 257, S.V. 254, S.V. 253, S.V. 251, S.V. 250, S.V. 249, S.V. 246, S.V. 245, S.V. 244, S.V. 242, S.V. 241, S.V. 240, S.V. 239, S.V. 236, S.V. 234, S.V. 233, S.V. 232, S.V. 230, S.V. 229, S.V. 227, S.V. 173, S.V. 82, S.V. 63, S.V. 21;  2002: S.V. 199, S.V. 186;  2001: S.V. 137, S.V. 122, S.V. 117, S.V. 66;  2000: S.V. 206, S.V. 195, S.V. 186, S.V. 162, S.V. 144, S.V. 65, S.V. 53;  1999: S.V. 229, S.V. 79, S.V. 76, S.V. 66, S.V. 59]

·         Only Republican Senators voted to sustain Bush’s veto of the Medicare Improvement Act.  Just last year, the Senate overrode former President Bush’s veto of the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act of 2008.  All the senators voting to support Bush and his veto of the bill were Republican. [S.V. 177, 7/15/2008]

·         Only Republican Senators voted against even considering Medicare Improvement Act.  All senators voting against cloture on the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act of 2008 were Republicans, with the exception of the Leader for procedural reasons.  They voted against cloture three times. [S.V. 169, 7/9/2008]; S.V. 160, 6/26/2008 and S.V. 149, 6/12/2008 – Leader voted against cloture as required by the Senate rules]

·         Only Republican Senators voted against strengthening Social Security and Medicare.  During debate on the 2001 Consolidated Appropriations Act, only Republicans voted against an amendment offered by Senator Conrad to establish a Social Security and Medicare lock box to protect both Social Security and Medicare surpluses from being raided to pay for other programs or tax breaks. [S.V. 162, 6/29/2000; Senate Budget Committee, accessed S.3690summary.pdf" target="_blank">9/25/2009]

·         Only Republicans believed that tax cuts for the rich were more important than Medicare.  During debate on the Fiscal Year 2000 Budget Resolution, only Republicans voted against an amendment offered by Senator Kennedy to reduce tax breaks for the rich and use those funds for Medicare. [S.V. 66, 3/25/1999]

Republicans seek to privatize Medicare and Social Security.  Republicans have consistently wanted to move seniors into the private markets.  Earlier this year, House Republicans offered a budget that “would eventually end the Medicare programs as it is presently known.” [AP, 4/1/2009]  Twenty years ago, while leading the GOP’s successful push to repeal the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act, which provided Medicare beneficiaries with an outpatient prescription drug benefit, limits on their out-of-pocket costs, and expanded hospital and nursing home benefits, Republican Representative Harris Fawell said, “The programs that have been changed, I believe, private enterprise could have handled.” [ChicagoTribune, 1/6/89]    

Seniors Recognize Medicare Improves their Health and Well-being

Medicare has improved seniors’ health, helped seniors get the health care they need.  In 1965, only about one half of the nation’s seniors had health insurance, and most coverage was only for inpatient hospital costs. [Congressional Research Service, 3/10/2009]  Today, virtually all seniors have health insurance through Medicare which covers far more than just hospital costs. [Kaiser Family Foundation, 1/2009]

·         In 1960, life expectancy for American 65-year-olds was 14.3 years; in 1998, life expectancy at age 65 had rise to 17.8 years. [Health Affairs, 3/2001

·         In 1966, 28.5 percent of Americans aged 65 and older lived in poverty; last year, 9.7 percent of elderly Americans lived in poverty. [U.S. Census Bureau, Table 3, 9/10/2009]

Seniors like their Medicare coverage.  Medicare beneficiaries are highly satisfied with their health coverage.  In a recent survey, 91 percent of elderly Medicare beneficiaries rated their health insurance as “excellent,” “very good,” or “good,” compared with just 58 percent of those who purchase health insurance in the individual market. [Health Affairs, 2009]  Just 8 percent of Medicare beneficiaries rated their insurance as “fair” or “poor,” compared with 35 percent of those who purchased insurance in the individual market, and 18 percent of those with employer-sponsored insurance. 

Seniors’ Organizations Know Where Republicans Stand

Alliance of Retired Americans lifetime scores on supporting seniors issues – Republicans far below Democrats.  The Alliance of Retired Americans gives Republican Senators abysmal lifetime scores on their support of issues that seniors care about. [Alliance of Retired Americans, Congressional Voting Record, 5/4/2009]  The lowest score a Republican received was one percent.  The highest lifetime score a Republican senator received was 53 percent – that’s a shameful 20 percent below the lowest Democratic Senator score of 73 percent.  Twelve members of the Senate Democratic Caucus received a lifetime score of 100 percent. 

AARP finds Republican statements about Medicare misleading.  In response to recent mischaracterizations of the affect of health reform on Medicare by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Executive Vice President John Rother issued a statement saying, “Nothing in the bills that have been proposed would bring about the scenarios the RNC is concerned about.” [AARP, 8/24/2009]  Mr. Rother went out to say, “As we have analyzed the various bills, the proposed Medicare savings do not limit benefits, they do not impose rationing and they do not put the government between patients and their doctors.” [Wall Street Journal, 8/25/2009]  

Republicans’ True Record Shines Through

Republicans still don’t think seniors should have Medicare coverage.  As Congress considers landmark health insurance reform, Republicans, in a weak attempt to improve their record on Medicare, continue to mislead seniors about the effect of reform on Medicare.  And yet, some Republicans, even Chairman Steele, have allowed seniors a glimpse of their true disdain for this critically important program.

  • In July, Representative Roy Blunt (R-MO) said in a radio interview, “You could certainly argue that government should have never gotten into the health care business.” [Radio interview with The Eagle 93.9, accessed 9/20/2009]
  • The following month, RNC Chairman Steele said, “The reality of it is that, you know, this single payer program known as Medicare is a very good example of what we should not have happen with all of our health care.” [Newsweek, 8/25/2009]

Who Can Seniors Trust?

America’s seniors should ask themselves who they can trust on Medicare issues.  Republicans, who have opposed Medicare since its creation, but who want seniors to believe they’ve had a recent change of heart?  Or Democrats, who fought to create Medicare, supported the program and worked to improve it for more than four decades, and who continue to focus on the health care needs of America’s seniors.