Healthcare coverage for millions in U.S. will turn on a debate emerging in Washington
After being eclipsed by immigration, crime and other issues in recent years, healthcare is moving back toward center stage in American politics.
It’s a shift that has divided Republicans, leaving them open to a surprisingly effective drive by President Biden to position himself as the defender of Americans’ health coverage.
Republicans have backed away from talk of cutting Medicare. But even as they do, they’re facing new divisions over the government’s other huge healthcare program, Medicaid. Conservative Republicans in Washington have proposed deep cuts in the safety-net health insurance program. But in one state after another, Republican voters have backed expanding Medicaid.
The resurgence of healthcare as a prime issue has big implications, both for this summer’s expected fight over the federal debt ceiling as well as next year’s presidential election.
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Biden made defense of Medicare a central element of last month’s State of the Union speech, helped along by Republicans who stampeded into a rhetorical trap. He followed up Thursday with the release of his budget, which proposes to secure Medicare’s long-term finances by raising taxes on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year and launching a more aggressive government effort to hold down the cost of prescription drugs.
Biden’s plan will “ask the wealthiest to pay a little more to ensure that this program is around for at least 25 more years for our seniors who need it,” White House budget director Shalanda Young told reporters in unveiling the spending plan Thursday morning.
Those proposals won’t be adopted this year or next: The Republican-controlled House isn’t about to approve a tax increase. But that’s beside the point. Biden has teed up an issue he clearly plans to run on in 2024. If he wins, look for this week’s Medicare plan to form a main element of his agenda for a second term.
Republicans tied in knots
A few key facts: Medicare covers close to 65 million Americans, most of them retired, and in 2021 covered about $900 billion of medical bills.
Medicaid, the safety net program for low-income Americans, spends somewhat less — about $734 billion in 2021— but covers a larger group, almost 95 million people, including about 40% of the nation’s children, 16% of working-age adults and 60% of long-term residents of nursing homes.
Together, the two programs account for about $1 of every $4 the federal government spends. Costs have risen in recent years, especially for Medicare; spending for it is expected to climb sharply in the next decade as the baby boomers move into retirement.
Part A of Medicare — the portion that covers hospital bills — is financed by a payroll tax, which goes into a trust fund. In recent years, the program has usually paid out more than it has taken in. Unless that changes, the trust fund will be broke by 2028, the final year of the next presidential term, according to the most recent report from Medicare’s trustees. If that happened, Medicare wouldn’t be able to fully cover the people it insures.
Preventing insolvency — and putting Medicare on a stable path — will be a major task for whoever is elected president next year.
Expect to see Biden repeatedly push his Medicare plan in the coming campaign.
In 2020, healthcare divided Democrats as presidential hopefuls to Biden’s left debated ambitious government-funded universal health plans, none of which had the political support to advance once the election was over.
In 2024, Biden has a good shot at uniting Democrats around a simpler, politically safer proposition: defending the status quo by raising taxes on the most affluent Americans.
This time, it’s Republicans who face serious divisions on the issue.
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During President Obama‘s tenure, Republicans in the House coalesced behind a plan written by then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), which would have turned Medicare into a voucher program for future retirees, shifting a share of the cost off the federal budget and onto individuals and families. Ryan’s plan also would have made deep cuts in Medicaid.
The proposal, although backed by many conservatives, proved unpopular with the wider electorate and was eventually defeated by a bipartisan vote in the Senate. But the Ryan plan remained the dominant Republican position until 2016 and the rise of Donald Trump.
“Trump really scrambled the equation for a lot of Republicans” by opposing any cuts to Medicare or Social Security, said Dean Rosen, a Republican healthcare policy expert and former top Senate healthcare aide. That’s led to “a bit of an identity crisis that Republicans are having now” about whether the party continues to stand for restraint on public spending.
That issue already has emerged as a dividing line in the Republican presidential primary: Trump has attacked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over his support for Ryan’s plan, accusing him of having voted as a member of Congress to “radically cut Medicare.” He’s made a similar attack against former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has proposed raising the retirement age and making other changes to Medicare and Social Security for future retirees.
Many of Trump’s core supporters — who tend to be older, blue-collar and rural voters — rely on Medicare and Social Security and don’t share the ideological opposition to government spending that animates more traditional conservatives.
Squeezed by both Trump and Biden, House Republicans have mostly abandoned Ryan-style reductions in Medicare costs. At the same time, however, they’ve pledged to come up with a plan to balance the federal budget without raising taxes and have threatened to block an increase in the federal debt limit this summer to force Democrats to accept spending cuts.
To meet their goal without touching Medicare, conservatives have been looking at deep cuts in Medicaid.
From the Republican perspective, “it’s important to have this discussion” about how to restrain public spending on healthcare, Rosen said. “Unlimited spending is irresponsible.” Politically, however, “the president has a very strong hand” because he’s defending existing spending, while Republicans are proposing taking something away, he noted.
“That’s more difficult to sell politically.”
One Republican proposal would save billions of dollars by eliminating the part of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s healthcare reform law, that allowed states to expand Medicaid to cover the working poor, with Washington picking up 90% of the cost.
But Republicans may find that road blocked as well. In 2017, the popularity of Medicaid was one of the factors that doomed the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Since then, eight more states have expanded Medicaid, including solidly conservative places such as Idaho, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
This month, Republican legislators in North Carolina, after years of debate, dropped their opposition to Medicaid expansion, a big victory for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has pushed for the move. If the plan passes in the summer, as expected, North Carolina will become the 40th state to expand Medicaid, providing coverage to 600,000 residents, including many blue-collar, rural Republicans.
As “the symbolism of Obamacare has faded,” it’s become much harder for Republicans to reject Medicaid expansion under the healthcare law, said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for healthcare policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has tracked the expansion debate. That’s become especially true as rural hospitals have struggled to survive in states that have not adopted expansion, a problem for Republicans, who have increasingly become the party of rural America.
“Medicaid covers more people than Medicare or Social Security,” Levitt noted. “It’s now part of the same third rail of American politics.”
“It seems Republicans have backed themselves into quite a corner.”
Fox News defamation case
Fox News anchor Maria Bartiromo is front and center in Dominion’s defamation suit
How do you solve a problem like Maria Bartiromo? Fox News executives may be asking themselves that question as she emerges as a central figure in Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6-billion defamation suit against the conservative news network. In released court documents and deposition testimony connected to the case, Bartiromo is cited throughout for allowing Trump’s false claims about 2020 election fraud to air on the network in an effort to stop angry viewers from abandoning the network, Stephen Battaglio reports.
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The latest from the campaign trail
Are Californians fleeing ‘woke’ policies and moving to Florida, as DeSantis claims?
DeSantis delivered a well-rehearsed blast at California this week, calling it too left, too woke, too expensive. And as proof, he declared, Californians and residents of other liberal states were leaving in droves for Florida. Is what DeSantis said true? As the saying goes, “It’s complicated,” Don Lee reports. Among other facts: For every six Californians who left for Florida last year, five moved into the state from Florida, according to data from Moody’s Analytics and the credit firm Equifax.
Column: Forget decency. In today’s politics it’s all about nastiness and party loyalty
In his column, Mark Barabak contrasted the Texas Republican party’s censure of Rep. Tony Gonzales, a two-term congressman from San Antonio, for backing a gun safety law with its conspicuous lack of response to Rep. Ronny Jackson‘s recent snide remarks about Biden’s minor surgery for skin cancer. Together, he writes, the events — though unrelated — say a good deal about the state of our politics and, especially, the nature of the Trumpified GOP. Forget basic human decency. What counts is pugnacity, acting out and blind, unswerving allegiance to the party line.
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The latest from Washington
What you need to know about President Biden’s new budget
Biden unveiled a $6.8-trillion budget blueprint Thursday that included new spending on child care, education and healthcare and $5.5 trillion in proposed tax increases on wealthy Americans and corporations over the next decade. Courtney Subramanian looks at the highlights of the plan.
Administration seeks billions to stop a killer: hepatitis C
As part of its budget, the Biden administration is seeking billions of dollars for a new push to wipe out hepatitis C, a virus that has continued to kill thousands of people annually in the U.S. despite the existence of extremely effective medications that can cure the infection within months. The five-year program has been estimated to have a net cost of $5 billion over a decade, said Dr. Francis Collins, advisor to the president for special projects, Emily Alpert Reyes reports.
Are the feds ignoring Trump allies’ multi-state effort to access election systems? Experts raise alarms for 2024
After the 2020 election, Trump’s supporters organized to access federally protected election machines and copied sensitive information and software. Now, as the 2024 presidential primaries approach, it remains unclear whether any federal agency has plans for a comprehensive investigation of the effort, Sarah D. Wire reports. Election and law enforcement experts are concerned that the stolen information might be used to interfere with future elections and that the FBI and Justice Department may be sending the wrong signal to those responsible if agencies don’t investigate.
Biden to spotlight gun control in Monterey Park and meet U.K., Australia leaders in San Diego
Biden will travel to California on Monday for a multiday visit that will include a stop in Monterey Park, the site of one of three mass shootings that rocked the state in January, Subramanian reports. Before visiting Monterey Park, Biden will meet Monday in San Diego with Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak of Britain and Anthony Albanese of Australia to highlight the security alliance known as AUKUS.
Senate tees up vote on Garcetti’s nomination
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Wednesday to advance former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination to be ambassador to India. Garcetti’s nomination will now go to the full Senate. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday started that process, making a floor vote likely next week, Nolan D. McCaskill and Jennifer Haberkorn write.
Schiff’s bid to bolster his progressive credentials for Senate run hits some resistance
Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s effort to bolster his progressive credentials in preparation for his statewide bid for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat has hit some resistance on Capitol Hill. On Monday, the Burbank Democrat withdrew from consideration to join a coalition of progressives in Congress after his application became divisive among the group’s members, Jennifer Haberkorn reports.
Americans are traveling abroad again, and passport wait times are skyrocketing
Attention world travelers! Check your passports, now. The State Department is taking longer than usual to issue new U.S. passports, and to renew existing passports, because record numbers of Americans are going overseas, Tracy Wilkinson reports.
The latest from California
California sues Huntington Beach over ban on housing projects
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announced Thursday that the state has filed a lawsuit against Huntington Beach, alleging that the city’s ban on approving applications for certain types of housing projects is a violation of California law, Taryn Luna and Hannah Wiley report. “California is facing an existential housing crisis, one we should all be acting in unison to solve,” Bonta said at a news conference. “Instead, the Huntington Beach City Council has chosen to stifle affordable housing projects, infringe on the rights of property owners and knowingly violate state housing law.”
Newsom tests positive for COVID-19, his second infection since pandemic began
The governor tested positive Wednesday for COVID-19 after exhibiting mild symptoms, according to his spokesman Alex Stack. Newsom will work remotely and self-isolate for at least five days, Stack wrote in a text message to reporters. He added that Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, has tested negative, Laurel Rosenhall reported.
After COVID-19 school chaos, California lawmakers debate role of superintendent
When California children were stuck at home in distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and schools reopened unevenly across the state, raising equity concerns, frustrated parents demanded action from Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. But unlike other states, where superintendents were leading the charge, it was Newsom who steered the pandemic response in California, negotiating with teachers unions and setting guidelines for schools. Thurmond was criticized for a lack of action. Now, two years after the governor and legislative leaders devised a multibillion-dollar plan to safely reopen schools, lingering COVID-19 frustrations could add momentum to a decades-long debate about the role of California’s superintendent of public instruction, Mackenzie Mays writes.
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