WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama formally acknowledged on Friday that he would support a plan to means-test Medicare as a part of a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
“I have said that means-testing on Medicare, meaning people like myself — I’m going to be turning 50 in a week, so I’m starting to think a little bit more about Medicare eligibility — but you can envision a situation for somebody in my position, me having to pay a little bit more on premiums or co-pays would be appropriate. And again, that would make a difference,” the president said at a press conference. “What we are not willing to do is restructure the program in the ways we have seen coming out of the House in recent months.”
The comment was the first public acknowledgment from the White House that the president would support changing the payment structure of the entitlement program. Prior to Obama’s remarks, multiple sources in both parties told The Huffington Post that the administration was making it clear to debt ceiling negotiators that such a structural change to Medicare was on the table.
The proposal is not entirely controversial among health care economists. But it will rankle a good chunk of the president’s own party, which has sought to keep Medicare’s structure as a basic insurance program. Medicare premiums for doctors and for prescription drugs are already means tested. Making top earners pay even more — while potentially sound policy — opens the program to politically potent charge that it is health care welfare for lower income Americans.
The Obama administration’s embrace of the idea came during talks between lawmakers and Vice President Joseph Biden. The exact contours of what was proposed are not entirely clear. But a version that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) proposed in later discussions would have saved the government an estimated $38 billion by charging those high-income beneficiaries 10 percent more for the cost of hospital stays and prescription drugs.
Obama’s nominal support for means-testing Medicare, however, does fit into the larger outlines of his plan for the debt ceiling debate. In an effort to both win the support of Republicans and tackle as many deficit-contributing issues as possible, the administration has placed entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare (“sacred cows” for the Democratic Party) squarely on the table. The president also lent his support to a plan to raise the eligibility age of Medicare from 65 to 67, over the course of roughly 25 years. His team has, additionally, discussed various changes to the way in which Social Security benefits are measured and paid.