By Nancy J. Altman
The Huffington Post, Feb. 7, 2017
No one voted to destroy Medicare. Yet, the first battle in the war over Medicare has arrived.
Why would anyone want to destroy Medicare? It has stood the test of time. The smart policy is to expand it to everyone. Medicare shows government at its best.
Government at its best! There’s the rub: Given Medicare’s proven success — its low administrative costs, its efficient coverage of those with the greatest medical needs and costs, and its enormous popularity — it is no wonder that anti-government zealots hate the program.
Medicare demonstrates that there are some services that the federal government provides better than the private sector. The mere existence of Medicare (and Social Security) puts the lie to the claim that everything should be privatized. For that reason, today’s Republicans, who hate government and want to privatize everything, are determined to end Medicare as we know it.
One of those anti-government zealots, Representative Tom Price (R-GA), has been nominated by Donald Trump to be the fox in the Medicare hen house — Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Department responsible for the administration of Medicare. He has made his antagonism to Medicare clear.
Against all evidence, Price claims that “nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government’s intrusion into medicine through Medicare.” Of course, the exact opposite is true. Medicare saves lives. It allows seniors and people with disabilities, those with the greatest health needs, to obtain life-saving health care.
With true radical zeal, Price has said “we will not rest until we make certain that government-run health care [e.g., Medicare] is ended.” If confirmed by the Senate, Price will be in a powerful position to carry out his threat to end Medicare.
There are two ways to destroy Medicare. One is legislatively. The other is administratively. If Representative Tom Price is confirmed to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services, he will be in a position to destroy it both ways, and along with it, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and so many other programs vital to the health and well-being of all of us.
Let’s start with destruction by legislation. Right after the election, Speaker Paul Ryan made clear his plan to end Medicare legislatively. He falsely announced that repealing Obamacare requires “reforming” Medicare. His reform? Send seniors and people with disabilities into the private insurance market armed with nothing but an inadequate amount of cash. Anyone who knew the world before Medicare knows that seniors and people with disabilities were often unable to buy insurance at any price. Those who could were forced to pay exorbitant prices.
That is the world to which the aptly named Price wants to return us. Price, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and Ryan co-conspirator, reinforced Ryan’s Medicare threat by revealing that the Republicans planned to enact Medicare privatization in the first six to eight months of the Trump administration.
As Secretary of Health and Human Services , Price would be in an even more powerful position to work to end Medicare. Rather than one of 435 members of the House of Representatives, he would, if confirmed, be the Trump administration’s chief Medicare spokesman.
And, as the top Medicare person, he could do even more destruction than pushing legislation that ends Medicare. As Secretary, he could revoke regulations that protect Medicare beneficiaries and could issue regulations that harm them. Moreover, policymakers, researchers and others rely on the Department of Health and Human Services for accurate, reliable data. In this world of alternative “facts,” could anyone trust the data put forward by a Department Secretary who is determined to end Medicare?
Senate Democrats recognize the threat. To deprive Price of all this power over Medicare, they boycotted the Committee vote on his nomination, since the rules require the presence of at least one member of the opposition party. So, what did their Republican counterparts do? They ignored the rules and unanimously voted him out of Committee with no Democrats present.
With the Muslim ban appropriately dominating the national news and with Senate votes coming up on so many nominees who want to undermine the very missions of the agencies they will control, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Anti-public schools advocate Betsy DeVos was just confirmed as Secretary of Education after an unprecedented tie vote . Racist Senator Jeff Sessions may, in the next few days, be confirmed as Attorney General, and therefore be in charge of our civil rights.
But here is the oddly good news. Sessions’ confirmation vote is scheduled to come before the vote on Price. Outrageous as it will be, if Sessions is confirmed, it will mean that other Cabinet nominees, including Price, can be blocked with just two Republican Senators voting with the Democrats.
I am deeply suspicious that Senators Susan Collins’s and Lisa Murkowski’s votes against Betsy DeVos were not courageous and principled. Rather, I believe that they may have been just the opposite – cowardly and cynical. After all, if they really wanted to block DeVos they could have done it in committee. McConnell may have granted Collins and Murkowski permission to vote against DeVos, knowing their votes were not needed and recognizing that their constituents were strenuously opposed to DeVos’s confirmation.
Collins and Murkowski can prove me wrong by voting against putting Tom Price in charge of Medicare, a program that he himself has proclaimed he wants to end. After all, bad as DeVos is, education is still largely a state and local matter. Not true for Medicare, which is a completely federal program.
If Price is confirmed by all (or all but one) Republican Senator voting for confirmation, it will be clear that Collins and Murkowski acted cynically in voting for DeVos. It will also be clear that the Republican Party wants to destroy Medicare.
Those of us working to expand, not cut Medicare will do everything we can to assure that the American people understand that a vote for Price is a vote to destroy Medicare. We will do all we can to assure that the electorate never forgets who voted for Price, and, in so doing, voted to destroy Medicare.
That may feel like a threat. I prefer to think of it as a promise.
Nancy J. Altman is founding co-director of Social Security Works. Email your Senators today and tell them to oppose Tom Price’s confirmation as Secretary of Health and Human Services.