Biden and Trump Try To Wish Away the Looming Entitlement Crisis

“Contrary to what Trump and Biden imply, it is impossible to “protect” Social Security and Medicare by doing nothing. Inaction will guarantee automatic benefit cuts in less than a decade.
In 2033, according to the latest projections, Social Security’s trust fund “will become depleted,” and “continuing program income will be sufficient to pay 77 percent of scheduled benefits.” Two years before then, Medicare’s hospital insurance trust fund “will be sufficient to pay 89 percent of total scheduled benefits.””

Biden Says He’ll Make the Wealthy Pay More To Fix Social Security. Here’s Why That Won’t Work.

“Under current law, the payroll tax that funds Social Security is capped so that, for this year, only the first $168,600 in earnings are subject to it.
Raising that cap—or eliminating it—is frequently discussed as one possible solution to Social Security’s approaching insolvency. That seems to be the idea that Biden was gesturing towards in his speech.

On its face, this isn’t necessarily the worst idea. The cap is completely arbitrary, so there’s no principled reason why all earnings shouldn’t be treated equally. And there’s no doubt that raising the cap would generate more revenue to help keep Social Security afloat. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that applying payroll taxes to higher income levels could raise $1 trillion in revenues over a 10-year period (though the amount of revenue would depend on how the cap was altered, and whether benefits increased as well).”

“raising or eliminating the payroll tax gap doesn’t come close to solving the long-term Social Security shortfall. It might generate $1 trillion over 10 years, which is a lot of money, but it doesn’t come close to the $2.8 trillion deficit the program is expected to run over the next decade.

“Eliminating the tax cap would either raise benefits as well (reducing the proposals’ savings), or—if the accompanying benefits are canceled—turn Social Security into a true welfare program by delinking contributions and benefits,” writes Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and former Senate budget staffer, in a recent piece debunking some common myths about Social Security reform. “Moreover, eliminating the cap would not bring permanent solvency or avert the need for benefit changes….The system would return to deficits by 2029. Lawmakers would still need to reform benefit levels and the eligibility age.””

Trump just opened the door to Social Security cuts. Take him seriously.

“During his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslim immigration to the United States, the targeted assassination of terrorists’ family members, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and enormous corporate tax cuts.
And voters considered him the most “moderate” Republican candidate in more than four decades.

To the extent this perception had any basis in reality, it reflected Trump’s genuine moderation on one highly salient issue: Unlike many of his GOP predecessors, the mogul emphatically opposed any cuts to Medicare and Social Security. This likely made it a bit easier for ideologically conflicted older Rust Belt voters to pull the lever for a Republican.

As president, Trump never pursued large cuts to Medicare or Social Security benefits and implored his party to avoid them during the debt ceiling fight last year.

Since the days of FDR, Democrats have profited from their reputation as the more stalwart guardians of entitlement benefits. Trump’s triangulation threatens to nullify that critical source of partisan advantage. President Joe Biden has therefore sought to portray Trump’s avowed support for Social Security and Medicare as fraudulent. And on Monday, the presumptive GOP nominee bolstered the president’s case.

In an interview with CNBC, Trump said that he was open to cutting entitlement spending. Then, his campaign said that he wasn’t.

Trump’s reflections on public policy tend to bear only a loose resemblance to coherent thoughts. And his remarks about entitlements on CNBC Monday were no exception. In that exchange, anchor Joe Kernen told Trump that “something has to be done” about entitlement costs, then asked if the former president had changed his mind about cutting “Social Security, Medicare, [and] Medicaid” in light of the rising national debt.

Trump replied:

So first of all, there is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting, and in terms of, also, the theft and the bad management of entitlements — tremendous bad management of entitlements. There’s tremendous amounts of things and numbers of things you can do. So I don’t necessarily agree with the statement.

Biden pounced on Trump’s words, posting a clip of the Republican’s answer and vowing that no cuts to entitlements would be allowed “on my watch.” The Trump campaign replied, “If you losers didn’t cut his answer short, you would know President Trump was talking about cutting waste.”

This rebuttal is disingenuous. Trump plainly stated that there was a lot that the government could do “in terms of cutting” entitlements and “also” in terms of combating “theft and bad management of entitlements.” What precisely the former president is referring to when he alleges that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are rife with theft, bad management, and waste is unclear. And neither he nor his campaign has produced any actual evidence of such improprieties.

This said, it’s also true that, by the end of his answer, Trump was evincing disagreement with Kernen’s statement that entitlements needed to be cut. So, one could reasonably argue that, as with so many of Trump’s statements, his musings on entitlement reform were too suffused with internal contradictions and baseless demagogy to have any concrete meaning.

Yet Trump’s gaffe is not the only reason for voters to fear that a Republican victory in November could lead to leaner Social Security benefits.

For one thing, Trump spent his entire presidency trying to cut Medicaid, an entitlement program that provides not only health insurance for low-income Americans, but also long-term care for older voters. And he has tried to cut Social Security benefits for disabled and low-income people.

For another, the GOP’s avowed fiscal commitments cannot be reconciled with preserving Medicare and Social Security in their present forms. Congressional Republicans are committed to enacting trillions of dollars worth of new tax cuts, perennially increasing defense spending, and balancing the federal budget. There is no politically tenable way to do this without cutting Social Security or Medicare.”

20 Percent of Welfare Spending Goes to the Households Taxed To Fund It

“About one in every five dollars that passes through the federal welfare system ends up right back where it started, according to a new report.
It’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s more like “robbing Peter to pay Peter,” wrote the report’s author, Judge Glock, director of research at the Manhattan Institute.

As the federal welfare state has grown to a point where many middle-class and even some upper-income households receive benefits, it has become more common for the same households to both pay federal taxes and collect federal transfer payments. Glock’s paper shows how significant that overlap is: About 20 percent of the annual funds in the federal welfare system are simply returned to households that paid that amount in federal taxes.”

“Dollars returned in the form of welfare transfers are often restricted—food stamps can only be used for certain purchases, for example—in ways that dollars never taxed away from someone’s paycheck aren’t. Or the funds might only be available at certain times of the year, as is the case with welfare delivered via refundable tax credits. There’s also the cost of cycling that money through the system: paying for the IRS to collect it and various bureaucrats in other places to oversee its return.”

Georgia offered Medicaid with a work requirement. Few have signed up.

“A GOP experiment forcing low-income people to work to qualify for public health insurance benefits is stumbling in Georgia.

The state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, expected 31,000 Georgians to sign up in the first year of the program, which started in July. Through four months, only 1,800 people enrolled — and critics blame the paltry expansion on an overly complex program with too many hurdles for people to clear.”

The subtle privatization of Medicare

“If you’re signing up for Medicare benefits this open enrollment, odds are you aren’t actually enrolling in the traditional government program that people may envision. More than half of Medicare beneficiaries are now choosing an alternative version of the program administered by private companies.
Medicare, the paragon of America’s welfare state, is undergoing a subtle but fundamental transformation from government program to public benefit provided by private companies, a shift with major implications for both patients and taxpayers. This alternative version of Medicare, known as Medicare Advantage, now covers more than half of the program’s 60 million enrollees, or about 31 million Americans — nearly double its share 10 years ago.”

“Medicare Advantage allows private insurers to offer their own plans that provide Medicare benefits, as well as some additional perks not available in the original program. The secret to the program’s success is simplicity. Traditional Medicare is a fragmented program: Part A covers hospital care, and Part B covers outpatient services. Patients must enroll in a separate Part D plan for prescription drug coverage that is administered by private insurers. Most people also purchase supplemental coverage, extra insurance that helps reduce their out-of-pocket costs.

Medicare Advantage, also known as Part C, combines those benefits into one insurance plan that also includes an annual limit on out-of-pocket costs, something that does not technically exist in regular Medicare.

But the benefits to patients seem to come at a cost to taxpayers. Though the health insurance industry disputes these findings, MedPAC, the independent committee tasked with overseeing Medicare on Congress’s behalf, found Medicare Advantage plans cost the federal government more money per patient than the original program would have if those same people had stuck with the traditional benefits.

Private companies are also making healthy margins on their Medicare business.”

“Patients have clearly found something to like in what Medicare Advantage offers. The program was established in 1997 to give people a streamlined alternative, a private option less overt than more recent GOP voucher proposals.

But scholarly research and media investigations have revealed notable downsides in turning over a program that covers America’s seniors, the people who need and use the most health care, to private companies. Medicare Advantage enrollees are more likely to report trouble affording health care than people on traditional Medicare. Some of the behavior by Medicare Advantage plans, such as using AI to decide when to stop covering services for their enrollees, may be becoming more common in the private sector but is still unheard of for public programs.

The trade-off the United States seems to be making is accepting more administrative bloat and more stringent provision of benefits in exchange for a more navigable Medicare plan. The trade-off is one other countries have made as they designed universal health care programs. (A similar trend is underway in Medicaid.)

But as concern grows about Medicare facing a potential financial cliff, and evidence mounts about the costs of Medicare Advantage, the risks of the trade-off are becoming clearer. Medicare is no longer what it used to be: Once the epitome of government-run health insurance, its benefits are on the verge of being primarily funneled through private companies. Any attempts to change the program will have to wrestle with that reality.”

“Why the movement? In a 2021 analysis published in Health Affairs, Ken Terry and David Muhlestein observed that “we’re witnessing the rapid privatization of Medicare” and offered an explanation: Medicare Advantage plans “offer beneficiaries a better deal than traditional Medicare.”

The premiums people pay for a Medicare Advantage plan can be significantly lower than the combined cost of supplemental coverage and a Part D plan — less than $50 compared to more than $200 on average, per Terry and Muhlestein — with the added benefit of having only a single insurance card. According to a 2022 Commonwealth Fund survey, the additional benefits offered by Medicare Advantage plans (such as dental or vision) and the limits on out-of-pocket costs were the most common reasons seniors gave for choosing the alternative over the original program.

In general, patients with traditional Medicare and people with Medicare Advantage say they have similar satisfaction with their benefits. On some metrics, the latter group excels; people with a Medicare Advantage plan are more likely to have a regular doctor and to say they have received preventive health care services. With a few exceptions for particular medicines, Medicare Advantage customers report fewer problems accessing their prescription drugs, too.

But people enrolled in Medicare Advantage also experience a unique set of problems compared to people who choose the original program.”

“A higher percentage of Medicare Advantage enrollees report having problems affording care (about 19 percent, per a 2021 KFF analysis) than those on traditional Medicare (15 percent), though people on the original program without supplemental coverage had the most problems with affordability (30 percent). (Most people on Medicare do purchase this coverage.) Black Americans and people with lower incomes were more likely to report having trouble paying for health care while enrolled in Medicare Advantage.

Other findings appear worrisome, too. Medicare Advantage patients are less likely to receive medical care at the highest-rated facilities for their particular needs, compared to people with traditional Medicare, a reflection of more restrictive provider networks. Families also reported more satisfaction with end-of-life care when using traditional Medicare.

Specific business practices by Medicare Advantage plans, and their consequences for patients, have also been called into question by investigative reporting and government inquiries over the past few years, practices that seem to run counter to Medicare’s function as an entitlement program for Americans over 65 and those with long-term disabilities.

Earlier this year, STAT reported on the increasing use of AI algorithms by these plans to determine when to cut off benefits for a customer. The lead example of their reporting was an 85-year-old woman with a broken left shoulder, whose insurer followed an algorithm that said she should be ready to leave a nursing facility and return home within 17 days.

On the 17th day of her stay, the insurer said it would no longer cover the bills for her stay, even though her doctors and nurses observed that the woman was still in extreme pain and incapable of doing basic activities, such as dressing herself or going to the bathroom. It took more than a year, and a federal judge’s order, for the patient to receive payments for the three additional weeks she needed to stay in the nursing facility. Doctors shared other stories of patients who saw benefits withdrawn at the end of their life, leaving their families to fight over the leftover bills for years after their loved one had died.

A report from federal investigators published in April 2022 found that tens of thousands of Medicare Advantage customers were denied coverage for services they should have been entitled to. A significant number of prior authorization denials (13 percent) and payment denials (19 percent) reviewed by the investigators were for services that should have been covered by the program but were not.

“Denied requests that meet Medicare coverage rules may prevent or delay beneficiaries from receiving medically necessary care and can burden providers,” they wrote. “Even when denials are reversed, avoidable delays and extra steps create friction in the program.”

In addition, as the New York Times reported last October, most of the largest Medicare Advantage insurers have been the subject of federal audits that found they improperly billed the program and of litigation that accused them of fraud. Taken together, the plans overbilled Medicare by between $12 billion and $25 billion in 2020, depending on the estimate.

Though Medicare Advantage was first established as a tool for reining in spending, these private plans instead seem to be perpetuating the program’s solvency crisis.

According to MedPac, since 2004, Medicare has always paid more to Medicare Advantage insurers for the cost of covering their customers than the program would have spent if the same beneficiaries had instead been enrolled in traditional Medicare. Some years, the private plans were receiving a nearly 20 percent markup compared to the original benefit structure.”

“The growth of Medicare Advantage is contributing to the financial crunch. Those plans receive funding based on the type of service provided to their customer, which means money for hospital care comes from Part A. Annual Part A payments to Medicare Advantage plans are expected to increase from about $176 billion in 2022 to $336 billion by 2030.

With revived concerns over Medicare’s solvency and evidence of excess spending in Medicare Advantage, policymakers are starting to look at making changes to the program. But that won’t be easy.”

“Health insurers are going to fiercely defend their Medicare Advantage business against any proposed cuts”

“It is difficult, at this point, to imagine the Medicare program without Medicare Advantage. The question is whether policymakers can make it more cost-effective and crack down on insurer behavior that runs counter to the program’s objectives. Recent events suggest that if they try, they will have a fight on their hands.”