George Graham

Why Don’t Obama and His Allies Just Open up Medicare?

President Obama’s “optimism” notwithstanding, the convoluted health care legislation passed by the House and Senate is obviously destined for the wastebasket. It has little popular support, the Republicans are never going to change their stubborn opposition to it, and the Democrats don’t have the votes to block a filibuster in the Senate.

health careMeanwhile, the health insurance crisis grows more alarming every day. Anthem Blue Cross recently informed many of the approximately 800,000 Californians who buy its individual policies that premiums will rise sharply March 1. And insurance brokers say they’re already seeing increases of up to 39 percent. That’s on top of even larger rate hikes last year.

Anthem’s official explanation for the hikes is that rapid increases in the cost of treatments and greater demand for healthcare services are driving up expenses at an “unprecedented” rate. It also claims that the recession has prompted many healthy people to give up their insurance, leaving fewer policyholders to cover the cost of caring for a sicklier group.

But I suspect the real explanation is that Anthem is raising its rates because it can. That’s the way the “free market” works. Companies are obliged to charge whatever the market will bear or answer to their shareholders. I have no doubt that if Anthem gets away with this smash-and-grab heist, the other health insurers will follow suit.

Surely, this latest manifestation of rapaciousness by the health insurance industry will create a climate in which the American public will welcome – or at least accept – drastic reform. With so many people losing their jobs and their job-provided health insurance, the crisis has reached tragic proportions.

So why don’t President Obama and his allies in Congress abandon those unwieldy health care reform bills and simply expand Medicare to let anyone of any age buy into it?

There has to be some way of doing it without worrying about a Republican filibuster.

My understanding is that budget changes are not subject to a filibuster, for example. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

Budget bills are governed under special rules called “reconciliation” which do not allow filibusters. Reconciliation once only applied to bills that would reduce the budget deficit, but since 1996 it has been used for all matters related to budget issues. The sharp break with past practice took place in 2001, when the republican-led Congress used reconciliation to enact a large tax cut that greatly increased federal deficits and debt.

So I wonder why the Democrats don’t pass a budget provision to open up Medicare. They could call it an emergency response to the rate increases being imposed by private insurers.

The proposed bills now stalled in Congress are far too finicky. They try to address every little detail of the health care industry’s abuses and then make it up to the insurers by forcing everyone to buy a policy. Like most compromises, the bills please neither side.

As everyone keeps saying – including Republicans – the answer lies not in government mandates but in competition. And that’s what the insurers would get if customers could tell them to get lost and take their business to Medicare instead.

They would have to pay a premium, of course. And I’m sure it would be more than we old folks currently pay. But with the massive bargaining power of a nationwide Medicare program, the rates could be a lot lower than those offered by private insurers – and without swelling the government’s massive debt.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for